Book Review: ‘The Labyrinth’

I am utterly speechless and surprised. Not only in this book but in myself. Literature is not often my forte, nor do I usually find pleasure and addictiveness in reading literary language, plots and character conversations – yet THIS! WOW! I am blown away and can 100% see why ‘The Labyrinth’ by Amanda Lohrey won the Miles Franklin Literary Award for 2021.

Where to start …

‘The Labyrinth’ begins with the introduction of Erica, our main character. She is reflecting on her time as a child where she has just witnessed her mother abandoning Erica and her brother, Axel. They are left in the care of their father, who raises the children on the ground of a psychiatric facility where he also works as the head psychiatric doctor. This environment sets a feeling and acknowledgement of intense mental health and psychotic episodes throughout the novel. This theme reoccurs when Erica is comparing the life and work of her father, to her son Daniel.

Daniel is an incredibly interesting character in this story as we meet him whilst in goal. Erica bought and moved into a small coastal beach shack to be closer to him. We know that he is in goal after obsessing over a person, mostly through painting and drawing this person over and over. It is implied that this obsession then took a bad turn. Daniel connects to the world through his art, and there is an amazingly dark scene where Erica visits Daniel in goal after she has written multiple times to the goal administration to allow Daniel oil pastels. Daniel receives these but at the visitation with Erica, he breaks one in half, sits half on the table for her and proceeds to place the other half in his mouth, chew it and smirk as Erica. It’s twisted and dark and psychotic. You’re left thinking as the reader, what does this mean?! All the while, Erica continues to visit him due to this feeling of responsibility for him being the way he is and self-sabotage.

The idea of building a labyrinth comes to Erica in a dream and she feels this overwhelming urge to create one. The process of designing, developing, finding the right stonemason, obtaining material and the emotional support along the way, is all part of the core plot. The story is quite simple, yet it isn’t. Majority of my book club really enjoyed this novel and felt that Erica’s journey really did represented a Labyrinth. The circling relationship with Daniel, the moving past different characters and not overly investing time in or with them, or getting to know them. Erica’s dreams and final scenes in the novel were incredibly raw and moving.

I love that the Literature Book Club I’m leading is really pushing me out of my comfort zone. The discussions are AWE-some and really switching on this appetite for more Australian literature. If you’re looking for a novel to ponder over long after it’s finished – read this one!

Author Talks with ‘Katrina Nannestad’

Katrina Nannestad is an Australian Children’s Author who spent a number of years of her childhood in Wagga. She is a multi-award winning writer and is pictured here with her beautiful pup.
📸 by Rebecca Rock

Hello Katrina and a warm welcome to melreviewsherbooks! It is an absolute pleasure to have such a talented and articulate children’s writer such as yourself featuring on my ‘Author Talks’. Katrina is the author of over 10 published children’s novels and we will be talking about two of her recent historical releases in this interview, those being ‘We Are Wolves’ and ‘Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief’.

Katrina, congratulations to begin with on having your novel, We Are Wolves, awarded the winner of ARA’s Historical Children and Young Adult Novel of 2021, winner of the Book Links Award for Children’s Historical Fiction 2021, and winner of the ABDA’s Best Designed Children’s Fiction Book of 2021. Wow – when writing We Are Wolves, did you know you were onto something big?
I really enjoyed writing We Are Wolves. I found the research fascinating and fell in love with my characters as I wrote their story. But I wasn’t quite sure whether or not I’d created something worthwhile until my agent and publisher had read it. Their response and that of the early readers was encouraging. But still, I was most anxious to learn what young readers thought of the story. Once I got the thumbs up from my target audience, I was able to relax and get excited about writing further historical fiction.

Did you follow the same planning, research and writing process for Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief as you did with We Are Wolves? If not, how was it different?
Yes, it was a similar process. I began by doing some reading around the topic before deciding what form my story might take. I spent some time developing my main characters, then took them with me – holding their imaginary hands – as I continued my research. Their presence helped bring the facts, the details and the big historic events alive, and helped me to decide what was relevant to their journey. Finally, I refined my plan and got writing.
But of course, the process is not quite so linear as that. There’s a lot of scrambling back and forth between all the steps, and extra research takes place right through to the very end.

World War II is known as such a dark, emotive and traumatic time in our world history. What has inspired you to write two novels set in this time period?
I stumbled across the story of the Wolfskinder (We Are Wolves) by accident. I hadn’t planned to write a war story, but what I read about these children amazed me – that they survived on their own in a hostile environment, sometimes for years after the war. I was also surprised that I’d never heard of these children before. I thought perhaps others were unaware of the Wolfskinder, too, in which case it would be meaningful story to tell.
I really enjoyed the challenge of writing We Are Wolves, and the response of readers was positive, so I was keen to attempt a second war novel. Again, with Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief, I have tried to share a lesser-known aspect of the Second World War.
I think it’s really important that young people are aware of the events that have shaped our world, and many are keen to explore big issues. Historical fiction allows them to discover these stories in a format that is accessible – interesting and age-appropriate.

In Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief, Sasha is a 6-year-old boy thrown into a war-torn and violent journey that will shape him forever. How do you ‘get into character’ per-say and write from the perspective of a young male child?
I always try to live in the story with my main character, whether I’m writing comedy, mystery, adventure or history. It’s the way I work, and I don’t really know any other way to do it. I can’t dip in and out. I need to be emotionally involved, to feel like the characters and setting and events are real.
I had to do a lot of research for Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief, because I knew so little of the war from the Soviet point of view. My head became filled with details about Russian village life, the sufferings of the Soviet people, the Red Army, the Battle of Stalingrad, and the westward advance all the way to Berlin. But the thing that was most helpful in gaining an understanding of how a child might experience these events, was Svetlana Alexievich’s book, Last Witnesses: Unchildlike Stories. This book records Soviet people’s personal accounts of what they experienced as children during the Great Patriotic War (the Second World War). I have never been so affected by a book in my life.

My goodness Katrina, I have to admit, the last line of this novel broke me! Did you always know how Sasha’s story would end at the beginning of your writing process?
I had a fair idea of how it would end but played a lot with those last lines so they’d have maximum impact.
As I got towards the end of the story, I did consider a different conclusion. I actually wrote two endings, but my original idea won out!

From the bottom of my heart, thank you Katrina for joining me on ‘Author Talks’! It has been an absolute pleasure 💐 What’s next for you?

I am currently writing my third historical novel. It’s also set during the Second World War and tells the story of a little Polish girl. More will be revealed later!
At the same time, I am writing a lighter adventure series for younger readers (7-10-year-olds) called The Travelling Bookshop. Book 1 is out now and I’ve written the next two. You can take a peek at books 1 and 2 at www.harpercollins.com.au/cr-110017/katrina-nannestad/ 📚
This year has been very quiet, of course, but I have some lovely bookish adventures penned into my 2022 diary already – writers’ festivals and school visits. I can’t wait to be out and about once again, sharing the delights of reading and writing and daydreaming with fellow enthusiasts.

You can find a number of Katrina’s books at Collins Booksellers Wagga Wagga online or in person.

For more information on Katrina and her books, you can visit her website, Facebook and Instagram 📚

Book Review: ‘Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief’

If I was not in public right now writing this, I’d be crying. I’m not a crier when it comes to novels but, just wow, this book moved me! Regardless of age demographic and whomever this book is targeted towards, I strongly encourage all ages to read this – no restrictions. Now let me tell you why:

This Russian inspired story is like nothing I’ve ever read before. Reading and hearing from the perspective of a young 6 year old boy by the name of Sasha, we learn what living through the trauma of World War II was really like. This novel is fresh, current and important. The title ‘Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief’ is so critical to the story.

Rabbit. As a child before the thick of war, Sasha was know a ‘Little Rabbit’ to his Mama. I believe this represents his time of innocence and pure joy as a 6 year old living life in a small loving village. His Papa has been lost in the war effort thus far, but this is the extent of his loss and tarnished childhood. His Russian community works together on their collective farm, known as a kolkhoz. This was his sense of normality. His life at this point was surrounded by love, flowers and games.

Soldier. Soon Sasha is thrown into a life he’s forced to live – a war-torn orphan who is taken in by soldiers of the Red Army. This new journey of his story is a violent push into the reality and consequence of war times and what will now define his life. The Russian people turned soldiers (as many of them were because they genuinely just wanted to protect their ‘Motherland’) become his new family. The way Sasha identifies and describes them in the novel is very child-like, which allows us as the reader to see this environment through his eyes. The regiment included Papa Scruff (a father figure to Sasha who had a dark unmanageable mop of hair), Grumpy Boris (constantly grumpy and not interested in childish antics), Invincible Ivan (get’s injured in every German encounter but survives every time), Windy Rustkov (who’s stomach really cannot handle cooks food and limited ingredients of potatoes and cabbage) and many more. This time as a solider was very crucial to the next part of his journey.

Angel. The Angel of Stalingrad. Sasha’s regiment takes in a frightened and lone newspaper reporter for a short time. During his stay, Sasha shares his story thus far with whisps of humour, storytelling, song and dance. Again, this is the child-like element of the story and showing the reader how different experiences, significant events and conversations can be altered through a younger perspective. This reporter named Sasha ‘The Angel of Stalingrad’ for his his ability to boost moral through song, story, affection, personal care and cuddles in the Red Army. Papa Scruff played a huge role in who he became through this time on his journey.

Thief. This is where we are currently, in the present with Sasha. He is in a war hospital healing from incredible trauma and he refuses to speak. He instead is collecting and thieving from other war patients, doctors and nurses around him. They know he is doing this but they allow him to take the items anyway because as they believe it will help him relive and recover his story. Spoons, feathers, watches, flowers, eight buttons, a shovel and a pair of clean underpants are just some of the items he takes. We live through these items with Sasha and learn his story along the way. A clever, clever plot structure.

All in all, I look forward to seeing how this novel is received in the book world. Katrina Nannestad‘s novel ‘We Are Wolves’ was selected for the 2021 Children’s Book of the Year Awards Shortlist. I have no doubt this novel will be a strong contender for the 2022 CBCA winner. Her writing is literary, emotive and honest but appropriate for a younger audience. Perfect for younger readers who like to delve into historical fictions and wonderful for adult readers looking for a little escapism.

Book Review: ‘Wild Place’

I want to start with saying, don’t read this Christian White book first. Oww Mel – harsh!! But true.

I strongly encourage you to pick up and read ‘The Nowhere Child’ and ‘The Wife and the Widow’ prior to reading this book. I say this because sadly, I do not think this new novel is Christian’s best creative work.

Christian’s White can do no wrong in my eyes and I still really enjoyed this novel! I was gripped, I finished it in four sittings and stayed up late needing to know the who, why and how of Tracie going missing. It was a good, quick and … pleasant read. Naturally, it is incredibly hard NOT to compare an authors’ books to one another, especially when the other two are in your top 10 crime fiction reads. Therefore, when I felt a little “Hmm well okay” by the ending and climatic plot twist, I was left a little deflated.

In Christian’s previous books, the climatic twists and character turns are so left hand that you really do not see them coming. This one was a little predictable and dramatic for my liking. In saying that, this is just my opinion and I know others will feel the total opposite to me!

‘Wild Place’ is about a young adult, Tracie who goes missing. We never really hear from the perspective of Tracie which I think I would have enjoyed. Usually, this creates more connection for me to the character and what their inner monologue was at the time of their disappearance. We mostly observe the whole novel from high school teacher Tom. He taught Tracie and feels an overwhelming sense of responsibility to help find her and/or discover when remains of her. But Tom has secrets – Tom’s whole family has secrets actually. Suspicious characters are set up well and there is a theme of devil worshipping/ a witchy cult type lead but all of this seemed, well … a little odd. I guess what I mean is that, reflecting on the story, I wanted something MORE clever, more gritting and more *gasp*esk. I’m a smigin disappointed. HOWEVER, I will continue to read anything Christian White creates as I do believe the good aspects of his writing outweigh the bad.

Wow, I think this is my first negativish book review! Happy Friday folks! 🤣📚

Book Review: ‘Love & Virtue’

Where do I start with this one … I really feel like many more reviews will do this book justice and be able to articulate the pleasurable feeling and satisfaction of fine literature this book provides. I will say that my perspective is one from the outside.

I have not lived a life of luxury, much like Michaela.

I have not lived a life of dominant feminist perspective or political projections thrust in my face like many characters within this novel.

I have not lived a city, elite and/or privileged life. Don’t get me wrong, I am fully aware of how privileged I am for living where I do, experiences and opportunities in my life yet in comparison to some expressions and environments in this novel – they truely baffle me (maybe that’s the small town girl in me). What is more baffling, is that these places, events and types of personalities exist within the world. Basing this book in Sydney had a large impact on my perspective of elite social classes and their impact on society.

‘Love & Virtue’ by Diana Reid is an Australian debut novel. One of many stella novels to come from the new kids on the block, Ultimo Press. They are picking up and supporting bold, fresh and impactful Australian writers and they truely knew what they were doing with this one.

The focal themes in this novel are power, privilege, consent and well, love. We love who we love, even when their actions seek to destroy our sense of being. Michaela and Eve have an instant female friendship at university living across from one another in their dorms. This is their commonality yet their lives are completely parallel. Eve is transfixed, shines as the centre of attention and seeks to make an impact in this world – she wants change, particularly in the space of sexual consent and public recognition in their Sydney girls college. Eve believes that her writing and influential abilities on campus deem her the most appropriate person to share Michaela’s sexual experiences in her drunken O-Week. One experience that Michaela was still uncertain of her own standpoint, which in my eyes represented the misinformation of sexual consent and sexual behaviour within the realms of alcohol consumption and college/university behaviour. This, I believe was written well.

The voice of Michaela is so strong in this novel that I found it incredibly hard to remove myself from her talking and thinking. From listening to her navigate both friendship and intimate relationships, succumbing to the opinion of others and attempting to take a step back and view her world from an outside perspective when you’re stuck in this whirlwind/secluded world of privilege. Her character was so unique yet so perfectly placed for juxtaposition that you couldn’t not understand her point of view in comparison to Eve – subtile yet so clear. Social media and the power of technology is also evident and clever within the structure of this book – I liked the contemporary use of texting and Instagramming as dialogue.

I am temporarily leading our Literary Lovers Book Club and I had chosen this for our October read. I think it has challenged me and opened for a wide variety of conversational topics at our meeting. Some questions thus far will be:

  1. Did you connect with the primary voice of Michaela?
  2. What impact do you think the novel would have had being told from Eve’s perspective?
  3. Was there a scene that stood out to you the most? (I won’t tell you mine because it’s a spoiler***!)
  4. Do you think connecting sexual consent to a campus setting was a good move? Why?
  5. What are some of the ways Diana Reid represented elite privilege in characters, events and environments?

All in all, I really REALLY enjoyed this book and if I didn’t have so many books on my TBR, I’d safely say I’d go back and re-read this novel. I’m looking forward to discussing these questions and more at my book club meeting. Oh, and a HUGE congratulations to Diana Reid and Ultimo Press – what an epic way to burst onto the Australian book scene and get Australian society talking about timely topics that need serious attention!

Book Review: ‘100 Remarkable Feats of Xander Maze’

Oh Xander Maze, what a special and long-lasting place in my heart you’ve got. ‘100 Remarkable Feats of Xander Maze’ by Clayton Zane Comber has flown up there on my top 3 list of Australian Young Adult novels. I finished this book in four sittings as it’s amount of dialogue, perfectly paced character experiences/developments, as well as its heart-warming plot really pulled me in – and QUICK!

Xander Mazes’ Nanna is his #1 person he trusts in his life. His curated ‘Memory List’ includes numerous happy, warm and safe memories with her. But Nanna is terminally ill and has recently moved into end of life care. Xander recognised this new environment of Nanna’s because it has less beep and whir noises than the regular hospital. Xander notes that he will have to make a new mental map of this hospital layout while Nanna is a patient.

Nanna suggests Xander make a list of ‘100 Remarkable Feats’ and ticks them off in the wish it can help his Nanna feel better, yet Xander interprets this as a way he can help save his Nanna’s life and prevent loosing her forever. This list soon goes viral (thanks to the help of his clever Nanna) and Xander’s world is about to change.

Making a best friend, having a ‘yes’ day, asking out Ally (#1 prettiest girl ever), driving a car for the first time, learn to surf, go to a party, befriend weird neighbour Mr. Abramowitz, make Nanna proud – are just a few of the 100 feats. Xander’s development and journey is hard to draw your reading eyes away from. His innocence in the beginning really helps mould his character and maturity throughout the novel. I kind of felt like a proud Mum reading this book. I’m proud of what Xander achieved with his list and how it allowed him to bloom in this new world he created with the help of new friends and family.

I look forward to the day that I can visit Clayton Zane Comber’s book store/cafe ‘Bouqiniste’ in Kiama, NSW! I also look forward to reading more of his work. Okay now that’s me signing off to read ‘The Gilded Cage’ by Lynette Noni 👋🏼

Author Talks with ‘Sandie Docker’

Sandie Docker is Australian Contemporary Women’s Author. She is the author of four novels with Penguin Books Australia and has two more on the way. Her latest novel ‘The Wattle Island Book Club’ was released on the 31st of August 2021.

Sandie Docker is Australian Contemporary Women’s Author signed and published with Penguin Books Australia. She grew up in Coffs Harbour and now resides in Sydney with her family. Her debut novel, ‘The Kookaburra Creek Cafe’ was published in 2018 with great success. Her second and third novels closely followed, those being ‘The Cottage at Rosella Cove’ in 2019 and ‘The Banksia Bay Beach Shack’ in 2020. We now celebrate ‘The Wattle Island Book Club’ as it was published and released on the 31st of August 2021.

Hi Sandie! Thank you so much for joining me and taking the time to answer my questions during your busy virtual book touring for ‘The Wattle Island Book Club’. Congratulations and welcome!

Sandie – look at you! A successful Australian Author published four times with Penguin Australia! Tell me, where did your initial love and development for reading, storytelling and writing come from?

Whodda thunk, right? Four books in and more coming. I feel so lucky. I was a bit slow to reading/writing game, unlike most authors who seem to either have written their first book when they were 7, or emerged from the womb reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace. As a child, I hated reading. Yep. It’s true. I couldn’t think of anything more boring to do with my time. But my dad was an avid reader across many genres and when I was in my late teens, he put a fantasy novel in my hands, Pawn of Prophecy, by David Eddings, and said, ‘just give it a go.’ Wanting to please my dad, I did give it a go and I was hooked. Why hadn’t anyone told me before that, that book could transport you to another world and the characters within the pages could feel like friends? From then on I read every fantasy novel I could get my hands on, and then when I was doing the HSC I was introduced to Jane Austen and my love of women’s fiction was born. But it wasn’t until I was at uni that I even thought about becoming a writer. My Mandarin lecturer suggested I had a knack for writing, and I sat with that advice for a long time before I tried to write my first manuscript. That first manuscript, which was an abject disaster, was when I fell in love with writing. And it was twelve years later before my first novel was published

What inspired you to write about all things book clubs, reading lists, art and islands in your latest book, The Wattle Island Book Club?

I was on tour with my first novel, The Kookaburra Creek Café, when I was chatting after an event with the librarian at Port Macquarie library, Leanne, and she mentioned sending over book club sets to Lord Howe Island on the supply boat, and I was like, an island book club – there’s something in that. So that was the spark of the idea. And as I wrote the story – because I don’t plan anything – the story and characters told me where to take them and the bucket lists and art themes came out then.

Your novels always feel like a warm and familiar hug to me. What are your favourite character qualities, experiences or perspectives to write?

Awww, thank you. That means a lot to me. Hmmm, I’m not sure if there are specifics here, more just anything or anyone with heart. I hope my characters aren’t too perfect, because none of us are, so a flawed character is relatable, and you don’t have to look very far to find heart-wrenching experiences to draw on for your characters’ lives. Again, experiences that are relatable – something you or someone you know could have been through. And as for perspective, whether I write female or male POV (point of view), young or old, or even through letters (Ivy in The Cottage At Rosella Cove), it’s the story telling me how it wants to be written that dictates this. Though I’ll always have predominantly female POV, as I write women’s fiction.

I have loved all four of your novels (and dream of more and more to come!). I have happily followed online and instore as each has been released and absorbed by the world of Aussie readers. Have your writing, drafting, publishing and touring experiences been different for all four of your books?

Thank you. You’ll be pleased to know that I have another 2 book contracted! The short answer is yes, vastly different each time! The Kookaburra Creek Café and The Cottage At Rosella Cove were both finished manuscripts before I signed a publishing contract, so they took forever to write (5 and 3 years respectively). Then I was contracted and with that comes deadlines. So The Banksia Bay Beach Shack and The Wattle Island Book Club were written (first draft before the editing process) in about 5 months.

Publishing with Penguin has been a dream, but I have worked with different editors and that brings a different dynamic each time. And as for touring – my first tour was definitely nerve-wracking, my second was bigger, my third got scuttled by COVID and everything moved online, and I’m waiting to see what happens this year with my tour and COVID. Through it all though, the joy of readers finding your work and connecting with you is just the most wonderful experience.

I’ve got a tricky and fun question for you! We are set to see The Wattle Island Book Club hit shelves on the 31st of August this year. If you were a bookseller, how would you recommend, suggest and sell your book to readers?

Is it bad for me to admit that I actually did this once? I was in a store, saw someone pick up my book and read the blurb, and leaned over and said ‘Oh, I can highly recommend that one.’ I did end up telling her I was the author, so it was full disclosure in the end. And she did buy it!

If I was legitimately recommending it in a book store, I would say something like, if you want a read that’s going to rip your heart out and then put it back together, with a wonderful cast of fun , warm characters, all set on an island with a book club theme, then this is the book for you.

Thank you so much for your time Sandie! It’s been an absolute pleasure and such a fangirl moment conversing with you 😍 All four of Sandie’s novels are available and linked to purchase at your convenience from my local bookshop 📚

Book Review: ‘The Wattle Island Book Club’

August 2021

Sandie Docker’s novels always feel like a warm, comfortable and familiar hug to me. I am immersed in them within the first 3 chapters and next thing you know, I’ve been reading for an hour and have myself totally invested in the characters, their challenges and their experiences to come.

The Wattle Island Book Club is a dual perspective story following the wonderful Grace and Anne (with an e, just like Anne of Green Gables 😊). We’re initially introduced to Grace and she is strapped in to bungie jump off a cliff! Writing and curating ‘Bucket Lists’ has always been a tradition for her and she believes that life is full of unexpected curve balls and challenges, therefore it is time to start ticking off some of these adventures. Grace is a librarian and prides herself in the founding and organising of library bookclubs. She gives regular recommendations, offers support and lives to help her members. One day she receives a call from Anne in need of her immediate assistance.

Anne’s character is multi-dimensional as we follow her life in present time, as she works to resurrect her Wattle Island Book Club, and in the past through the period of the 1940-50’s Australia. Anne is made an orphan from a young age and is shipped off to Wattle Island to live with her Aunt. The small, quiet and isolated island prompts her love for reading to grow. Anne’s life has been full of love, loss and trauma as we learn throughout the book and I really resonated with her character – she was so strong and still so kind!

The elements of book clubs, reading lists, book shop and art were so well woven into The Wattle Island Book Club, that I wouldn’t have asked for a better lockdown read. Sandie’s writing takes me away and puts my mind at ease. I always find myself finishing her novels too soon (this one before it is even published!!) and desperately craving more!

Sandies other books are:

The Kookaburra Creek Cafe

The Cottage at Rosella Cove

The Banksia Bay Beach Shack

All of which I have throughly enjoyed and would highly recommend 📚