The Shape of Us, by Lisa Ireland

This time it would work. She would lose the weight in tome for her birthday. And maybe she’d say yes yo that holiday in Thailand Sean was always nagging her about. Tomorrow she would start on the readiness tasks she was supposed to do before Monday when the program kicked off. But tonight she may as well finish off the rest of these chocolates. After all, the first task was to rid the house of any tempting foods.

Four women who have never met in person connect through an online forum. They are all very different: one is a young mother, with a rocky relationship and no family support. Another is happily married and a successful businesswoman, but longs for a child. A third has it all – career, children and a happy marriage. The fourth has moved backwards in her career to be closer to her lover. What connects these very different women is that they are all very overweight, and have joined the forum in a desperate attempt to lose weight. At first online and, later, in person, they  become friends and support each other through times much harder any of them could have imagined.

The Shape of Us is a story  about friendship. Though weight loss (or the desire to lose weight) is what brings the friends together, they connect and support each other in many different ways, and weight becomes almost a background issue.  The use of a blend of third person narrative and blog entries from the perspectives of all four women is an unusual and effective means of getting inside each character’s lives and emotions.

Although weight loss ceases to be the overriding issue of the book, the differing weight loss experiences of the characters, as well as their experiences surrounding being overweight, is an intriguing premise for a book. Issues of family support, body image, infertility, surgical intervention and more are explored.

At heart, though, this is about the bonds which bring women together and the ways they support each other.

The Shape of Us, by Lisa Ireland
Macmillan, 2017
ISBN 9781760550875

The Fabulous Flying Mrs Miller, by Carol Baxter

Mrs Keith Miller, internationally known aviatrix, was taken to the county jail here today and held for investigation by State Attorney’s investigators. Jail attendants said they understood she was held in connection with the shooting of an airline pilot.

Jessie Miller, known to those who loved her as Chubbie, has a thirst for adventure. Married far too young, and very unhappy, she holidays in England where she soon manages to sign up for an almost unfathomable quest – as a passenger flying from London to Australia for the first time. Although she and her pilot partner Bill Lancaster are beaten by another plane, Chubbie becomes famous as the first woman to complete the journey. Unable to settle back down to life in suburban Australia, she and Bill travel to America where her various flying feats included flying in the first air race for women with Amelia Earhart. But along with the many highs of a career as a pilot, CHubbie also finds herself facing terrible lows – crash landing in the Flroida Straits, being accused of faking her disappearance for publicity, and finding herself at the centre of a murder trial.

The Fabulous Flying Mrs Miller is an absorbing tale filled with twists and turns. As fiction it would seem almost implausible – but this is a true story, set in England, Australia and the United States in the 1920s and ’30s, the golden age of aviation, where adventurous flyers – and the manufacturers and fledgling airlines behind them – pushed themselves to do what no one else ever had. History buffs, aviation enthusiastis will find this story of a remarkable woman fascinating.

The Fabulous Flying Mrs Miller, by Carol Baxter
Allen & Unwin, 2017
ISBN 9781760290771

Looking for Rose Patterson by Jennifer Gall

Who was Rose Paterson?
Most readers will be introduced to Rose Paterson by reading the poems and stories written by her son, Barty, better known to the world as Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson. But so subtle are the references that readers may not realise they have made her acquaintance. She is there in Banjo’s turn of phrase, his sense of humour, his resilient spirit and in some rare direct references to her as she was in his childhood. But Rose Paterson, in a series of little-known letters written to her younger sister, Nora, provided her own account of her life.

Meet Rose Paterson, mother of A B ‘Banjo’ Paterson. ‘Looking for Rose Paterson’ chronicles Rose’s life as daughter, sister, wife and mother. It also examines the life of a farmer’s wife in a time very different to now. Rose’s letters to her younger sister reveal a world of challenge, from the regular and protracted absences of her husband, to the isolation and inadequacies of her home. Yet she managed to retain a sense of humour, raise and educate her children. She also kept in touch with her family and friends, even when poverty dictated that she cross-write her letters. ‘Looking for Rose Paterson’ includes photos, letters, posters and extracts from Paterson’s poetry.

Looking for Rose Paterson’ is much more than a story of an individual life, though it is that too. It’s a rich portrait of a colonial world, with a focus on the often invisible women who helped shape it. In addition, it chronicles the world that nurtured Banjo Paterson and set the foundations for his writing. Rose’s letters offer an intimate peek into matters personal and domestic, while other elements reflect on childbirth, education, women’s rights and more. ‘Looking for Rose Paterson’ is a fascinating read, a chocolate box of delights for anyone interested in Rose herself and in learning about the lives of colonial women. Highly recommended.

Looking for Rose Paterson, Jennifer Gall
NLA Publishing 2017
ISBN: 9780642278920

review by Claire Saxby, Children’s author and bookseller

The Love of a Bad Man, by Laura Elizabeth Woollett

I’ve always had small hands. The rest of me isn’t very big, either, but my hands are almost as small as a kid’s, with spindly white fingers and nails like broken seashells. David likes this about me. That there’s something about me that hasn’t changed for all these years.

Ever since Cathy and David met as troubled teens, they’ve belonged together, even though Cathy has married another man and had a bunch of kids. When David comes back into her life, she abandons her family,and spends her days trying to make David happy. David loves her, but he also has fantasies about other women, and Cathy finds herself helping him to kidnap and murder them.

Based on the life of Catherine Birney. ‘Cathy’ is one of twelve short stories which make up The Love of a Bad Man. Each story imagines the life and motivations of the women who have loved famous ‘bad men’, from Serial killer David Birney, to Hitler, to Jim Jones of Jonestown infamy. The voices are brutally honest, sometimes bewildered, occasionally naive but always compelling, as readers are offered insight into the lives and motivations of the women who supported, enabled and endured the men in different measure.

Not hopeful reading, but satisfyingly compelling.

The Love of a Bad Man, by Laura Elizabeth Woollett
Scribe, 2016
ISBN 9781925321555

Speaking Out: A 21st Century Handbook for Women and Girls

If you want to participate in your community and be heard, you will need to speak out in some way. While this is important for all members of the community, to date, the approximately one-half of the population identified as female has been significantly often less heard than the half that is identified as male.

With less than a quarter of media presenters being female, and men outnumbering women in parliaments worldwide by three to one, women’s voices are not being heard on an equal basis. To dismiss this as women not being interested is simplistic and inaccurate. In other domains, too, women are either underrepresented, or not catered for. In audiences, in education, in sport broadcasts, in managerial positions, the list is almost endless. And from childhood, girls are presented with gendered roles which suggest that cuteness and submissiveness are more desirable in a girl than ‘masculine’ traits such as independence and strength.

Speaking Out: A 21st-Century Handbook for Women and Girls aims to help women and girls to be heard – on the stage, online, and in day to day life. From demonstrating how it is that women are both underrepresented and actively discouraged from changing this, to giving practical advice on how to speak in a variety of forums, how to research and write content and how to deal with criticism, this book is a valuable tool for women of all ages and should be essential reading in secondary schools.

Tara Moss is an author, feminist and advocate for women with mover 20 years experience in the public eye. Her words are both practical and passionate, with examples and accessible explanations.

A handbook for every woman.

Speaking Out: A 21st-Century Handbook for Women and Girls, by Tara Moss
Harper Collins, 2016
ISBN 9781460751336

You'll Be Sorry! by Ann Howard

From the appointment of the Controller, Colonel Sybil Irving, on 29 September 1941, until the cessation of hostilities in August 1945, over 24,000 girls and women enlisted as volunteers in the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS).
From different places, from different backgrounds, by varied routes, they were now together, the members of the Australian Women’s Army service. As the first raw recruits were marshaled onto a bus for Killara, talking non-stop about what lay ahead, they heard cries of ‘You’ll be sorry!’ but they never were.

In Word War 2, as men serviced in Europe and Asia, the homefront faced struggles, too, not the least of which was the shortage of staff. Australian women, who wanted to contribute, campaigned hard to be allowed to enlist and, finally in September 1941 the Women’s Army Service was formed. Between then and the end of the war, thousands of women volunteered and served in a wide variety of roles including driving, logistics, administration, communications and more. Giving their all for the service and ‘doing their bit’, these women later found themselves at a loss when the war ended and the expectation was that they would return to home life as quickly as possible.

You’ll be Sorry: How World War II Changed Women’s Lives traces the stories of these women through the war years and after, using testimony and recount from the women who served and from family members. Easy to read, the book provides an in depth insight into the types of women who served, their roles and lives within the service, and the challenges of life afterwards.

A vivid, intriguing account.

You’ll be Sorry: How World War II Changed Women’s Lives, by Ann Howard
Big Sky Publishing, 2016
ISBN 9781925275841

The Natural Way of Things, by Charlotte Wood

9781760111236.jpgShe hears her own thick voice deep inside her ears when she says, ‘I need to know where I am.’ The man stands there, tall and narrow, hand still on the doorknob, surprised. He says, almost in sympathy, ‘Oh, sweetie. You need to know what you are.’

Verla and Yolanda are among ten young women who wake up from a drugged sleep not knowing where they are or why they are there. But as the day unfolds, so too does their terrible situation become clearer. They are in a prison unlike no other: in abandoned buildings on an unknown remote piece of land, surrounded by electrified fences. There is no escape, and their jailers are two men with no compassion and not much idea what they are doing. Their heads shaved, their clothes taken away and replaced with ugly, itchy uniforms, the women are to perform hard labour in a regime which is supposedly intended to reform them. Their crime? Each woman has been part of a sexual scandal with a powerful man – though these relationships were, for the most, not consensual.

The Natural Way of Things is an uncomfortable book, dealing with often shocking events playing out as part of a terrible, unfathomable injustice. But it is this discomfort which makes the book so brilliant. The readers is taken on an emotional journey through a raft of emotions including despair, denial, anger, hope and more. The characters, particularly Verla and Yolanda, are intriguing, and their developing relationships fascinating.

Exploring misogyny, corporate control, this dystopian novel is a must read for women and for men.

The Natural Way of Things
Allen & Unwin, 2015
ISBN 9781760111236

Edith Cowan: A Quiet Woman of Note by Hazel Edwards ill Angela Grzegrzolka

Imagine having your face on every Australian fifty-dollar banknote. It doesn’t mean that you own all that money, but it does mean that you have done something important. There’s even a saying: a person of note or a notable person.

Have a close look at the fifty-dollar note. Most people don’t notice anything except the fact that it will buy fifty dollars’ worth of something. But the design includes a picture of Western Australia’s original Parliament House, and an illustration of a mother and children. And a picture of a woman standing up and speaking in public. These are notable clues.

Imagine having your face on every Australian fifty-dollar banknote. It doesn’t mean that you own all that money, but it does mean that you have done something important. There’s even a saying: a person of note or a notable person.

Have a close look at the fifty-dollar note. Most people don’t notice anything except the fact that it will buy fifty dollars’ worth of something. But the design includes a picture of Western Australia’s original Parliament House, and an illustration of a mother and children. And a picture of a woman standing up and speaking in public. These are notable clues.

Edith Cowan was born on a pastoral property in Western Australia before moving to Perth to boarding school. Her mother died when she was seven and when she was a teenager her father was convicted of murder and hanged. But rather than let tragedy define her, Edith developed a quiet determination to live well and to help others, particularly women and children to live well too. She married and raised her own family, but realised that many other women and children were suffering because of poverty, mischance and lack of education. She was active in fighting for the vote for women and became Australia’s first female parliamentarian. Text is interspersed with colour illustrations and there is a timeline in the final pages.

Edith Cowan: A Quiet Woman of Note explores the life of one of Australia’s quiet achievers. Although her achievements are recorded in books and biographies, there are few books that are designed to introduce this pioneering woman to young readers. The ‘Aussie Heroes’ series aims to rectify that by presenting the stories of notable Australians in a format that is accessible to young readers. Readers can discover not just why Edith is remembered, but about the childhood and early life that helped to shape her. Information is presented in a conversational style, with history of the time providing context to her decisions and endeavours. Recommended for mid-primary readers.

Edith Cowan: A Quiet Woman of Note;, Hazel Edwards ill Angela Grzegrzolka New Frontier Publishing 2014 ISBN: 9781925059021

review by Claire Saxby, Children’s author and bookseller

In the Company of Strangers, by Liz Byrski

Ruby stares at the letter and wonders why she isn’t crying, why the threat of that first sob has dissipated, why not a single tear is sliding down her cheek. It contains too much, she thinks, too much of her past, too many complex and conflicting emotions; it’s an ending which both robs and liberates.

When Ruby hears that her lifelong friend Cat has died and left her a controlling interest in a lavender farm in Australia, her emotions are mixed. Her relationship with Cat stretches back sixty years when they travelled together as orphans unwillingly sent to Australia. Together they survived the difficult years that followed, but in adulthood they became estranged. Now Ruby knows she has left it too late to visit Cat one more time.

Declan, too, has not spent as much time with Cat as he should have. Her nephew by marriage, he has spent much of his life drifting, but his share of Benson’s Reach brings him back to the place he loved as a child. His friend Alice also needs refuge, so Declan invites her to the farm, too.

Declan and Ruby are just two of the group of relative strangers who find themselves forming a kind of family as they work together to revitalise Benson’s Reach and follow Cat’s dreams. Each has ghosts to confront and must struggle to find peace, but perhaps they have more chance of doing so together than individually.

In the Company of Strangers is a moving tale of friendship old and new, exploring issues of forgiveness and self discovery. Set on a fictional tourist development int he South West of Western Australia, the novel focuses on characters from diverse backgrounds, allowing the reader to get to know each intimately. There are also mysteries and an exploration of the history and impact of the Child Migrant Scheme between the UK and Australia during World War II.

One of Byrski’s strength is in her ability create well rounded and interesting mature female characters, which she does here as well as previously, but the male characters also shine, and every character has layers which are gradually unwrapped as the tale progresses, keeping the reader surprised.

A satisfying tale.

In the Company of Strangers

In the Company of Strangers, by Liz Byrski
ISBN 9781742611297

Available from good bookstores or online.

The Mother's Group, by Fiona Higgins

All those things no one ever tells you about motherhood. It’s like secret mothers’ business. Lots of my friends had babies before me, but not one of them ever told me it would this hard…It’s like a code of silence.

Six very different women are brought together by one thing – they are all new mothers. Each comes from a different background and has a different experience of birth and the early months of a first child, but they meet through a mother’s group and determine to meet regularly and support each other through this new stage of their lives.

Over the course of the year the six become friends, but they also fight and disagree. Their circumstances are so different – from bringing up a child alone, to having a new baby plus a step child to care for, to struggling to adapt to a new culture. But what they have in common is their first child, and the tumultuous experience of the first year of motherhood.

The Mothers’ Group is a book which anyone who has ever navigated the highs and lows of motherhood will connect with. The varied cast means most readers will either see themselves in one or more of the characters, or will at least recognise someone  they know. But it’s not just about sleepless nights and nappy changing – characters are faced with a range of big issues alongside the seemingly small ones (though anyone who has ever navigated the sleepless nights knows it is not a small issue).

The Mothers’ Group is a moving, heart-wrenching read.

The Mothers' Group

The Mothers’ Group, by Fiona Higgins
Allen & Unwin, 2012
ISBN 9781742379869

Available from good bookstores and online.