Foreign Soil – Maxine Beneba Clarke

Foreign Soil. Ah-mazing! Maxine Beneba Clarke is such a strong writer that god help me if she ever writes a novel. She has such an uncanny ability to develop such whole characters even in such short stories that the reader finds themselves wholly immersed in the experience. Foreign Soil is a collection of short stories that tell the often untold tales of minorities. The ostracised, the forgotten and the persecuted. These stories span decades of our recent history and stretch as far wide as Africa to the US, England to Australia. Don’t be fooled into thinking these are stories that designed to invoke your sympathy towards the cultural minorities that are often preyed on. These stories are so much more than that. They merely tell these untold stories, acutely honest and in no means stereotypical painting all white people as bad guys or all people of colour as heroes, tell these stories that need to be told.


Beneba Clarke’s writing is so evocative, so honest, so unaffected. There are no airs, no graces and these stories re certainly not overwritten, appealing for sympathy. None of these stories are fairytales, they are the harsh realities of life and, yet, with pockets of beauty. I could not put this collection down and in fact read it from cover to cover in less than 24 hours (which included a full nights sleep and a usual day’s work). Different stories n this collection will stand out to different people. In particular I enjoyed their stories David, Hope, Foreign Soil, Shu Yi, Gaps in the Hickory, The Stilt Fisherman of Kathaluwa and the new addition Aviation.


Beneba Clarke is such an important author – her books should be read by everyone, in particular the privileged middle-class. I hope to see this book taught in high schools around the country if only to give our youths a little perspective, helping to guide them in making their own informed opinions rather than parroting what they hear at home or from friends. If you haven’t read this collection I would highly urge you to pick it up, I feel there is much to be gained from these stories for everyone and I dare anyone to walk away and not be touched by at least one of these stories. I give Foreign Soil five bicycles from the first story in this collection , one of my favourites.


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A Conjuring of Light – V. E. Schwab

Finally! The last instalment of my favourite fantasy series of 2016 is here. This was a highly anticipated read of mine and it certainly did not disappoint. A Conjuring of Light tells the third part of the story of Kell, Lila and the three Londons. I won’t go in to much detail describing the plot, assuming if you are bothering to read this you will have already read A Darker Shade of Magic and A Gathering Of Shadows. One thing I will recommend is if you have not read either of the first two books in a while you should definitely brush up on characters and events at the end of the second book before starting this one. I did not and I spend a good fifty pages trying to get my head back in this world and figure out what was going on.


I loved every minute of this last book. The book starts are a rather important cliff hanger and the plot doesn’t slow down from there. In fact looking at where the plot begins and seeing just how thick this book it you wonder how much can happen as it feels like you are near the end of this battle as the story begins. However, Schwab just keeps on giving and so much happens in this last instalment. The ending is quite satisfying and although these are adult novels (some very adult moments in the book that may leave you blushing if you read them in public) the ending still has a YA feel to it, essentially good does trump evil, everything you want to happen does indeed happen and while I won’t say that it is predictable, it is along the lines of what you might have expected. I certainly don’t mean this as a criticism. This is what I love about fantasy. Fantasy is my happy place and seriously, these books are my comforting, happy place.


What truly makes these novels my happy place are the characters. Nell, Lila, Rhy, Alucard, even Holland I find myself rooting for and loving in their own separate ways. Yes, Holland too because as much as he was always the bad guy, you always knew there was more to him, hoping he had something more to give. My favourite relationships are found in this series. You root for Kell and Lila long before they knew how they felt about it each other and the fact that it doesn’t happen right away adds to the built up tension. Another this I love about this novel is the relationship that existed between Rhy and Alucard, two males. These characters have such tension, which I loved from the beginning and even more so because it felt natural and not just something that Schwab added for diversity sake. Their romance is beautiful and fragile and makes your heart burst.


Basically I love everything about this books and know I will relive this series again and again in the future. Do yourself a favour and experience them yourself, particularly if you are a fan of fantasy. I give A Conjuring of Light five of Lila’s knives, ever deadly.


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Big Little Lies – Liane Moriaty

Seeing as this book is everywhere these days due to the TV series, can I just say that it is most deserving of the hype surrounding it. Trivia night at Pirriwee Public as ended in shocking tragedy with a parent dead, physical altercations and several others in hospital. How did it end up here? Was this tragedy murder or a horrible accident? Who is to blame? It all began four months before trivia night with one little story.


I had little knowledge of the plot before I jumped into this book. I has been sitting on my shelf for months and thanks to the hype of the TV show I figured it was time to see what all the fuss was about (and to make sure I didn’t witness any spoilers). What I found was a novel with the perfect balance of light and dark. This novel deals with serious themes of violence, both domestic and sexual and yet it maintains a light parody of playground politics. Seriously, if you are a school mum or dad or a teacher pick this up if only for the acute stereotypes found within pretty much every school around.


Moriaty, in my opinion, writes an important portrayal of domestic violence. She reiterates that it can happen to anyone, it can go both ways, that you can still love the person doing it to you. If the depiction within Big Little Lies makes just one person reconsider what domestic violence is and how it can escalate and changes their actions, stands up for themselves, it is worth its weight in gold.


This novel has the perfect balance with a biting satire of parenting and schoolyard dramas. The friendships, politics, stereotypes, guilt and jealousy and, yet, it still retains a lightness and playfulness in this mocking. The format was another highlight, with the witness statements sprinkled throughout the novel doing much to inject the lightness, stopping this novel from becoming too dark. The pacing and mystery was perfect keeping me on my toes throughout the novel. I couldn’t put this down and given the opportunity  I would have likely devoured this in a single sitting.


The characters narrating the novel were all likeable and very relatable. My absolute favourite from the beginning was Madeline. She loved and cared too much, jumped to her friend’s defence whenever necessary and was full of pettiness of the kind we are all guilty of but probably never voice. She was completely relatable and always meant the best and I loved her form beginning to end. Celeste and Jane were great characters too along with the many supporting roles within the book. Moriaty slides in the Aussie cliches perfectly without making the novel confusing or inaccessible for readers of other backgrounds and I found myself giggling at these little Aussie-isms sprinkled across the pages.


I could not predict the outcome and at one point even had to physically put the book down after one (of the many) revelations. The writing was masterful and I look forward to reading more of Moriaty’s work in the future, oh, and watching the TV adaptation too. I give Big Little Lies five dangerously strong cocktails that turn Trivia Night upside down.


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On The Jellicoe Road – Melina Marchetta

After meeting this incredible woman at the (semi) recent Adelaide Writers Week I felt compelled to re-read my favourite book of hers, On The Jellicoe Road. A trusty old favourite I found when I returned to my copy the edges of the pages have yellowed showing just how long I have had this book, I can only imagine how many times I have read these pages over time and now want to share my love for this novel with you all. On The Jellicoe Road tells the story of Taylor. Taylor’s mother abandoned her at the 7-Eleven on the Jellicoe Road and here she is head of the boarders at the Jellicoe School  in the annual territory wars with the townies and the cadets. Just when this responsibility falls to her shoulders, Hannah, who found her on the Jellicoe Road disappears leaving Taylor her manuscript. A manuscript about a group of five kids in the eighties, living in Jellicoe. The manuscript is disordered, unfinished, and yet the stories stir a nostalgia in Taylor that she has no right to own. These stories, the disappearance of Hannah and the reappearance of the cadet lead Taylor down a path. A path that she hopes leads to some answers.


It does not matter how many times I read this novel, this story, the characters, the nostalgia stirs something in me and I always end the book ugly crying at the beauty and tragedy of it. Marchetta is a true story teller and in this novel she creates such a compelling tale of friends, family, love, abandonment set in the rugged and beautiful Australian bush. The characters are all memorable and unique. You fall in love with the abrupt, prickly Taylor who acts as though she doesn’t need anyone, and who can blame her. The character development, the unfurling of this character as she realises that life is better when you let people in, when you demand the attention and love you deserve will melt your heart. Along with Taylor you will also fall in love with the eighties mob, larrikin Fitz, hopeful, idealistic Webb, intense Tate, the unfathomable Narnie and Jude, who just wants to belong to them all. Full of references to Australian eighties pop culture this book made me fall in love with the famous Cold Chisel song Flame Trees. Although everytime I hear the haunting Sarah Blasko version I can’t help but think of this book. Seriously if you have read or plan to read this book, when you finish sit down and listen to this version of the song and soak up the melancholy.


This book has a bit of everything that a good YA book should have: there are teenage dramas, a bit of love and romance, a lot of pent up feelings, friendships that have no limits that only the young can have, tragedy, laughs and the most colourful characters you will ever find. This is more than just another YA novel, it is a snapshot into growing up in Australia. I’m not sure if I have done this book justice with this review, it is suprisingly difficult to write about a book you are familiar with like the back of your hand. A book that you cant fathom anyone not loving as much as you. All I can say is please read this book. A five star read for me without a doubt that I would recommend time and time again.


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Where The Trees Were – Inga Simpson

Sometimes you just know you are going to fall in love with a book. After hearing Simpson talk about this novel at Adelaide Writers Week I rushed over to buy my own copy. I have an affinity for the Australian book and the descriptions of the scenery had me entranced from just the small excerpt read by Simpson. Where The Trees Were follows the story of Jay across two time points. As children playing on her farm in the 80s Jay and her friends come across an amazing discovery of a group of carved trees. They know these trees are something special and decide to keep them a secret to protect them. Later we meet Jay as an adult, working at a museum still seeking to protect these precious artefacts.


One element of this novel I found particularly striking was the lack of physical descriptions that Simpson gives. Rather than providing the reader with a car picture of what her characters look like, the reader is left to create their own images of Jay and her friends. I find this highly unusual, yet a very under-rated technique. Physical traits are only described or mentioned when they had relevance to the story she was weaving, for example Kieran’s physical size was used to explain his dominance and Ian’s heritage was only mentioned as it became necessary in the plot. This is quite important as it makes the statement that heritage, physical features etc. don’t change the character and the reader has no problem creating their own image with out these pieces o information.


I highly enjoyed the format of the two time points, past and present, spliced together throughout the novel. This coupled with the short chapters kept the pace of the novel moving, keeping the reader constantly engaged. In fact, I read this novel in one day as I just could not put it down. In fact I already look forward to acquainting myself with more of her work in the future. The characters were another highlight. Jay is a great narrator, honest, innocent and relatable. The reader is able to put themselves in her shoes as she navigates both the past and present. Friendship is an important theme within the novel and in particular the ever-changing nature of childhood relationships that grow into adult lives are expired with Jay and her circle of friends.


This book also got me thinking about just how much Aboriginal heritage and identity has suffered at the hands of those governing Australia, both past and present. While very familiar with the Mabo case from high school legal studies, I had never even considered the destruction that would have occurred. Scared land-holders just trying to protect their property would have done the unthinkable to protect their families and homes but at the expense of our indigenous culture and identity. So many important artefacts destroyed it is quite devastating to think about. It also highlights the fact that our government is yet to acknowledge the true custodians of this land in the Constitution. Something that still needs to be fixed, something that is the least we can do.


Overall this is an exquisite example of Australian fiction. A book that captivated me and spoke to my soul. How glad I am that I had the opportunity to hear Simpson speak and open me up to this experience. Where The Trees Were is a true gem of a novel and I suggest you go out and get yourself a copy. I give this novel five glasses of wine that Jay so enjoys, something I can relate to myself.


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The Museum of Modern Love -Heather Rose

The Museum of Modern Love was a great change of pace for me. This book was a little lighter, a little more playful than some of my more recent reads. It does however contain a fascinating concept that drew me in form the very beginning. This book follows the performance by artist Marina Abramovic called The Artist is Present and some of the people drawn in by this stunning and fascinating performance, most closely Arky, a film composer who is unwillingly separated from his wife and struggling to continue with life. This novel has been nominated for the Stella Prize and certainly lives up to the hype attached.


The performance of Marina involves her, the artist, sitting without movement in a wooden chair, six days a week, seven and a half hours a day for three months. There she sits making eye contact with whom ever chooses to take the chair opposite her for as long as they can stand. This topic fascinates me in large part due to the changing nature of society where by these days we tend to avoid eye contact. Think to sitting on the train, walking down the street people more and more avert their eyes from each other as they pass by, hiding behind their headphone and mobile devices.  The idea of extended eye contact, particularly with a stranger, is intimidating and uncomfortably personable. Just imagine how draining and emotional it would be to do so with person after person. In fact, I would recommend looking up clips from this performance on YouTube. I found myself with tears in my eyes from the raw emotion of it.


It took me an embarrassingly long time to realise that Marina and The Artist is Present was based in truth and that this actually look place at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Rose  demonstrates a strong knowledge and understanding of Marina and gives the reader a comprehensive history of her performances. Slipping this information into the plot so naturally that it doesn’t feel forced or rote. This novel is devoid of pretentiousness, a talent considering the plot revolves around performance art and a controversial artist. Marina’s work is stunning, fascinating and provides a true insight into a number of fascinating themes that occur within human nature. Rose does this in a way that is accessible to a reader with no background in art or art history.


The characters in this novel are superb. From the beginning I had a special love for Jane, even more so by the end of the story when we learn how her story concludes. Aspects of this character resonate with me as I see parts of myself in her. Her easy open manner. Jane is friendly, steadfast and unashamedly herself. Healayas was another highlight, she is very much the cool, confident goddess that all women aspire to be. Intelligent, charismatic and holding her own in a field dominant with men. her character stuck in my mind. Arky, the focus of the novel was fascinating. I enjoyed his journey across the novel as you watch his character develop as he slowly opens up, learning and gaining enlightenment. The reader cheers as he finally has his moment with Marina. I love that there are flashes of reality in other characters of the book, Brittika and her final actions, the man who sat for Marina twenty-one times and children sitting on the floor mimicking the actions of the artist.


I can see how the true performance attracted such numbers and attention and touches the lives of so many. There is a certainly vulnerability in this extended eye contact and you can only imagine the emotional toll it took on the artist, let along the physical consequences. Rose captures the feeling of what it is to sit for Marina and describes how it can manifest in different people in an eloquent and exquisite manner. Despite how intense the performance was and how difficult the lives are for the characters in it, Rose manages a certain lightness, a playfulness in the tone of the novel and instead it grows in retrospect after you finish reading. A great concept that provokes deeper thought The Museum of Modern Love quietly and stealthily blew my mind. I give this book five of Arky’s piano keys.


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Between a Wolf and a Dog – Georgia Blain

Between a Wolf and a Dog is another nomination for the Stella Prize and was written by the celebrated Georgia Blain. This novel follows four connected characters, Ester, her ex-husband Laurence, her sister April and her mother Hilary. Most of the novel is set on one rainy day in Sydney with some flashbacks to the past. This is by no means a particularly special story and the characters are not particularly special people, some in my opinion are not even all that likeable. Although all these elements do come together to produce an extraordinary piece of work. This year’s winner perhaps?


Blain takes the mundane days-to-day life of these characters and turns it into an exceptional piece of fiction. Her descriptions of nature, people, the weather, within the book is powerfully evocative. The reader feels they are there themselves. Blain’s grasp of each of the four very different characters mindsets is masterful and demonstrates a complete understanding of human nature. The beautiful, the heart-breaking and the ugly. The voice of each character is honest and rings true. Each of the four are flawed and raw, although some more than others. In fact I actively disliked several of the characters and yet I still found myself understanding their thoughts and actions despite how I disagreed with them because their actions were true to the personas that Blain created. She truly took something ordinary and crafted it into something extraordinary showing how incredibly her talent as a writer was.


The character of Hilary begs the consideration that Blain entered an autobiographical element to this character and I found myself pondering if some of the beliefs and ideas of this character were her own. If this character was able to vice some of her desires, some of her fears. This book has it all, themes of regret, anger, boredom within your life, unfulfilled potentials, all the aspects that we as human deal with in our daily life. The writing was so powerful I was left in the final pages with my eyes full of tears. This book describe the harsh realties of life. People do make mistakes. You cannot always forgive people. There is not always a happy ending. You might find yourself dissatisfied in your life. The story ends without the closure that some might want. The plot is somewhat up in the air but this, again, reflects the honesty of real life. I found myself feeling melancholic and reflective for the rest of the day after finishing, the concepts and themes running through my mine. A sign of an exceptional piece of work.


Overall, Between a Wolf and a Dog is a masterful piece of fiction showing the reader both the tragedy and beauty of life. In my opinion this is an exceptional read and well worth picking up. I give Between a Wolf and a Dog five aromatic oranges.


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