The Power of Suffering, by David Roland, reviewed by Leonie Callaway

The Power of Suffering is a beautiful book. Exquisite storytelling, and a   book that could only be written by someone with the unique causes and conditions of David Roland – a personal journey through suffering, a psychologist’s eye and the capacity to weave his own story and observations with the stories of others. For me, the reflections on the suffering of “moral injury” were especially pertinent, and David’s explorations of spirituality and suffering are nuanced, generous and encouraging. This book was launched as our world launched into the unprecedented changes of a global pandemic, and perhaps there has never been a time when a book about suffering has been more relevant?

You can learn more about David Roland and his books at his website  here: www.davidroland.com.au

 

Guest Blogger Elaine Forrestal: The Story Behind Goldfields Girl

It’s my pleasure to welcome Elaine Forrestal here to Aussiereviews  to share the story behind her newest book, Goldfields Girl. Over to you Elaine. 

On the 9th December 1892 the first case of typhoid in Coolgardie was registered. The area around Bayley’s Reward Reef had just been declared a town and there were some 6000 men living in tents or camped under the stars. Food and water were still extremely scarce and there was no water to spare for maintaining good hygiene. To make matters worse, men from similar parts of the world tended to pitch their tents together in clusters. For example men from Western Australia could be found at the Sandgroper’s Camp, men from the USA at Montana. While this worked well in terms of company and security it was often disastrous for their health. If one man came down with typhoid or dysentery it quickly spread throughout the camp. And the nearest medical help of any sort was at least three days journey away. An early visitor to Coolgardie wrote to his friend in England: 

‘One half of Coolgardie is busy burying the other half. Bad water, harsh conditions and lack of proper attention causes deaths to occur daily.’

Sound familiar?

Like today, though, life was not all doom and gloom. Australians are known for their wry humour and the hardy prospectors were no exception. Evenings were spent in the pub where the bush ballads of Dryblower Murphy were recited, often by the author himself, who lived in the town. Then one of the men would strike up a tune on their mouthorgan or squeezebox and everyone would join in the singing of well known folk songs – some sad, some funny and some adapted, on the spot, into outrageous parodies. Peels of laughter rang out and lasting friendships developed. Naturally, after the long backbreaking days of digging in 40 degree heat, a lot of alcohol was consumed. ‘I’m doin’ yous all a favour. Savin’ on the drinkin’ water!’ would be the loud protest if the publican had to step in and evict someone. With water only arriving about once a week and costing 2/6d a gallon it, really was cheaper to drink Champagne.

Goldfields Girl by Elaine Forrestal, tells the story or 14yr old Clara Saunders who arrived in Coolgardie with the first gold rush and survived to tell the tale.

In bookshops now and available from Fremantle Press.

 

Thanks for dropping by Elaine!

Fauna, by Donna Mazza, reviewed by Aksel Dadswell

This review first appeared on Larval Forms  and is reprinted here with permission

Full disclosure: I personally know Donna Mazza and consider her a friend and mentor. As much as this is an honest review, I’m so glad to be able to promote this book and I wish Donna the best success with Fauna – the biggest royalty cheque and the most glowing reviews. Speaking of which, pick up a copy here.

Over the last few years, as the climate change “debate” has raged on and the effects of our environmental destruction/pollution have irrevocably altered the world’s ecosystems and climate, we’ve seen a flood of fiction that falls under the moniker of “cli-fi” or climate fiction; essentially, fiction – more often than not science fiction – which addresses and extrapolates on the horrors of climate change, and humanity’s evolving relationship and treatment of the world’s flora and fauna.

Fauna, set in the so-near-it-could-be-now future, could certainly fall under this sub-genre of speculative fiction, but in Mazza’s novel a world ravaged by climate change is more background noise than narrative skeleton. If you pay attention to such demarcations, Fauna is more literary than genre, leaning into the more contemplative and character-driven tone of a Margaret Atwood or Ian McEwan. Fauna explores a truly original and thought-provoking conceit through the troubled but quotidian lives of its characters.

In the wake of de-extinction programs that have successfully resurrected species like the Thylacine, passenger pigeon, dodo and woolly mammoth, the next species on the checklist is something far closer to human: the Neanderthal. Protagonist Stacey has a husband (Isak) and two young children (Emmy and Jake), but after the loss of a third, unborn child, she signs up for a kind of IVF treatment with LifeBLOOD®, a company at the cutting edge of de-extinction technology. LifeBLOOD® provides the family with much needed financial support to carry and raise a child that is biologically Stacey and Isak’s, but genetically altered with Neanderthal DNA. As Stacey explains it, “the cells … some of them are mine and Isak’s, but others were snipped and sliced and fused into our baby. There is not just us in there. Her whole genome was recovered and reissued: a new work using old materials. Somewhere in prehistory … she is the child deposited in a tooth found under layers of sediment in a deep cave. Only accessible via a narrow tunnel, amid a ring of stalagmites, an ancient campfire. The fossilised remains of a woolly rhinoceros, butchered mammoths and red deer… From there she has come back. Back to us. I have excavated her.”

The novel’s pace is slow and dreamlike, a story told through the growth of Neanderthal child Asta, from genetically altered embryo into little girl, and the ebb and flow of her family around her, about her. In many ways it’s quite a claustrophobic story, narrated in first person from Stacey’s point of view. With its small cast of characters and its introverted, introspective tone, Fauna unfolds at its own pace, largely untethered from the weight of plot or external conflict.

The economy of Mazza’s prose belies the narrative’s – or more particularly its characters’ – icebergian depth. Every word feels carefully chosen and painstakingly placed, every page a blistering rainfall of ideas and imagery made up of individual drops all falling towards the same purpose, narrative- and gravity-driven wonder. This is a beautifully written book, and the language flows in a consistent and engaging tone.

Stacey is a character very much in her own head, but Mazza is canny enough to constantly engage and relate her protagonist to aspects of the world around her, the human often juxtaposed with the environment. Animals and wildlife are always close by, playing a significant role in the characters’ lives and contributing to the novel’s thematic core. Little details add weight to the story’s mood and accentuate Mazza’s crystalline imagery. In one scene, tension “hangs in a silent wake that seems to hiss”, which is evocative by itself, until “a languid fly crawls across a convex mango skin scraped clean by small teeth.” Fauna’s world feels lived-in and tactile, constantly responding to and being shaped by its characters. Stacey’s point of view is cleverly taken advantage of, and there’s a sly disparity between her dialogue and her inner thoughts, in the spaces between people, what’s spoken and unspoken. Mazza teases out this dichotomy with the glacial weight of all the complicated emotions and tensions and knots that lie between two people in a long-term relationship, their words often inadequate at articulating the vastness and complexity of their emotions.

Despite its grounded narrative, there is no escaping the strangeness of raising a Neanderthal child. During Stacey’s pregnancy, Mazza briefly lights upon the abject body horror of pregnancy, the baby that grows inside her “forming and assembling, stretching me into its own shape”. From this point, Stacey and her daughter Asta are tightly bound, often to the detriment of her husband and other children.

As a character in whose head we spend the entirety of the story, Stacey can be a difficult protagonist to empathise with. At one point, Isak tells her, “You’re very self-absorbed when you’re pregnant”, but she seems self-absorbed for most of the book. Her mindset is a deliberate choice on the writer’s part, and the primary source of conflict in the novel. This plays out very well in several ways, from Stacey’s anxiety during the pregnancy, to her reclusiveness when Asta grows up, her reluctance and embarrassment around other people and how she assumes they will react to her decidedly strange-looking daughter (whose true origins and nature she is forced to lie about). Unfortunately, however, Stacey doesn’t really seem to learn very much from her mistakes; she’ll alienate her husband or children in some way, acknowledge her actions and their negative affects to herself, the reader, and eventually in teary apology to whoever she’s shut out, but instead of growing or changing as a result of her self-awareness, she often circles back to reclusive and damaging behaviour.

As a result of this, Stacey doesn’t exactly have a dramatic character arc, and while at first I felt like this hampered Fauna’s momentum, I came to realise that the novel isn’t so much about a propulsive narrative as it is the mundane drudgery of everyday life, with its high and low points, the anxieties and arguments, the hopeful glimmers and moments of joy and love. Its innovative conceit aside, Mazza’s novel is far more about family dynamics, and in this Fauna is masterfully crafted and achingly evoked, unfolding more in the vein of real life than a constructed story.

Normally I feel like this kind of book would be written about a middle-class mother undergoing an existential crisis but it’s refreshing to see a family from a lower socio-economic bracket represented here, along with the dynamics their circumstances precipitate and cultivate.

The argument that Asta is human, “just not the same kind of human as everyone else”, dominates Fauna’s thematic arc and is the basis for much of Stacey’s conflict. LifeBLOOD® enforces a veil of secrecy around their research project, forcing Stacey and Isak to explain Asta’s anatomical anomalies as a rare genetic disorder, and other parents and children often assume Asta has a disability of some description. This touches on some engaging and deftly handled issues about the way society treats children with disabilities or differences. More often than not, however, characters in Fauna are refreshingly inclusive towards the little Neanderthal girl. It’s predominantly Stacey’s preconceptions about people that are negative or wary.

I mentioned before that Fauna doesn’t focus on the wider global issues like climate change in which the story’s context nestles. Mazza works this reasoning into the novel in a very effective way. By all but excluding greater global events from the story, it feels as though Mazza is commenting on people’s proclivity for ignoring large-scale events they’re not directly affected by, which is exemplified to a tee in Stacey’s insular attitude. She watches on television as “a record-breaking fire tears through the Canadian wilderness and a coal-seem gas plant has exploded. Dead geese are heaped with a bulldozer.” With barely a thought, she changes the channel to a cooking show.

With these aspects relegated to the sidelines, Mazza has plenty of room to sculpt a convincing portrait of family life, Stacey and Isak often reduced to exhaustion and irritability with the efforts of maintaining a family and raising a baby: “we bundle ourselves into human shapes and collect the kids from school.” These are hurdles enough on their own without the pressure of LifeBLOOD® looking over their shoulder and constantly checking in on their living property, enforcing specific dietary requirements and taking measurements and blood samples from Asta.

Scientific experiments aside, the family’s dynamic will be familiar to most people, with or without kids; Mazza’s world in Fauna is no different from today’s endless grind, where capitalism is causing – has caused – the collapse of the ecosystem and the zombification of the working class. Those enduring pressures mount as the novel progresses towards its melancholy and ambiguous climax, as Stacey’s brittle balance of sanity cracks. Reader and character alike sit taut, nauseous with the feeling that at any moment she might slip off the edge and shatter.

But Fauna isn’t all struggle and angst. It’s a joy to watch Asta grow, and her family along with her, and Mazza’s skill at portraying this is wonderful. Stacey notes that her daughter “understands more all the time but her vocabulary is still so small, growing incrementally though her body shoots like spring.”

Fauna isn’t what I’d call a feel-good book, but it is a beautifully written one that examines challenging ideas through the eyes of its equally challenging characters. Its premise is original and refreshing, and Mazza balances angst and anxiety with a sense of hope, and an appreciation of the natural world rendered in crisp, poetic prose. It’s a story that lingers in the mind long after the last page is turned, and holding the book in your hand, you can feel more than the mere physicality of it, heavy as it is with the weight of life, and history, and humanity.

 You can visit the reviewer’s blog here
Fauna is available online  or, even better, from your local bookstore, who could really use your support right now.

Guest Blogger Teena Raffa-Mulligan: A long and winding path

I am really please to welcome my friend and amazing author Teena Raffa-Mulligan here to Aussiereviews to blog about her latest book. Over to you Teena.

The path to publication is rarely smooth for my titles. Usually it’s a long and winding road from idea to book release and my new YA novel, Monelli & Me, released on March 31, was no exception.

I wrote the original version as a play for my then teenage daughter and her cousin who had joined the junior section of the local theatre group. That would have been about 33 years ago. It even makes me blink so I’m sure writers dreaming of holding that first book baby in their eager hands would baulk at the thought of any manuscript taking that long to reach readers. If anyone had told me I’d be releasing Kate’s story when I had teenage and young adult grandchildren, I wouldn’t have believed them.

I began writing and submitting to publishers nearly 50 years ago, writing my stories on a portable typewriter on my bedroom dressing table in between being Mum to three small children. From the start I took my author role seriously and recorded every submission in a postage book and on individual file cards for each title. I continued to maintain these records throughout the years as a backup, even as the way I worked and submitted changed radically, so it’s easy for me to track the progress of Monelli & Me.

The play version was called Half Truths and Consequences and it’s the story of a teenage girl who learns her mother has been keeping secrets. Kate has a biological father she didn’t know about and now he’s coming to Perth and wants to take her back to Brisbane to get to know her grandmother who is terminally ill with cancer. There was lots of scope for drama and I loved acting out all the parts as I wrote the play. Before offering it to the theatre group for production, I entered it into a major competition and received some invaluable feedback from the judges.

They highlighted my lack of stagecraft knowledge and noted that my characters didn’t respond strongly enough to emotional events. On a positive note, one judge said, “You have a definite writing talent and should keep honing it. Write something every day.” The other suggested the content “could make it a worthwhile contribution to discussion and personal reflection on human relationships, self-esteem etc for a secondary school aged audience.”

I filed the play away and went back to writing picture books, short stories, poems and chapter books for younger readers. It remained forgotten in my filing cabinet for many years until I joined a critique group run by best-selling novelist Anna Jacobs and decided to rework it as YA fiction. The round of submissions began once more but while I received some lovely comments, no one offered me a contract and the manuscript was put to rest again.

Changes in the publishing industry have led me to rethink the way I share my stories with readers and during the past 18 months I’ve become a ‘hybrid’ author. I continue to be traditionally published while also releasing some titles through my self-publishing imprint Sea Song Publications.

Following another rewrite and some positive feedback before I hit the ‘publish’ button, Monelli & Me has joined my growing list of indie titles. It’s been quite a process sharing Kate’s story…I will have to make sure Tali, one of the minor characters in the book, gets to tell her story much sooner.

Briefly:

Who do you trust when those you love most let you down?

Kate has been living a happy family fantasy. Her mum has been keeping secrets. Now the father Kate didn’t know about is coming to Perth. He wants to take Kate to Brisbane to meet her terminally ill grandmother. Kate is on an emotional roller coast. She has to find out who she is and where she belongs. Only then can she find out if her friendship with newcomer Joshua Perrin can be something more.

 

Buy links:

Ebook

Paperback

 

Brief Bio:

Teena writes quirky, whimsical books for children and her publications include picture books, junior fiction and MG novels. Her short stories and poetry for children and adults have appeared in magazines and anthologies and she has also worked as a journalist and editor on a diverse range of publications. Monelli & Me is Teena’s first novel for YA readers.

You can visit Teena’s website here.

Thank you so much for dropping by Teena. I can’t wait to read your book. 

My Storee, by Raul Russell & Aśka

Just because you can’t spell doesn’t mean you can’t write.

With a head full of fabulous story ideas, the young hero of this story loves to write and create – but only at home. At school, his writing efforts come back covered in corrections – his teachers tell him his spelling is wrong, and they can’t understand his work. Then a new teacher arrives at school, and sees past the spelling to the creativity beneath. Mr Watson tells the boy – and the whole class – that ideas an creativity come first, and spelling can be fixed later.

My Storee is a delightful look at the importance of creativity, and the problems faced by many writers around spelling and grammar.  the message is not that spelling never matters, but that creativity is needed too – and should be valued by creator and teacher alike. While being a good message for youngsters about taking risks, it is also a good reminder for teachers and parents that putting technical correctness ahead of creativity can stifle the latter and thus lead to students not writing at all.

As with the title, the text is riddled with ‘misspellings’, presented in a different font, so that readers can identify them, yet see that the meaning of the story remains clear. There are lots of learning opportunities here for students to practice editing, though it would be a shame to see the message of the story overshadowed by this.  Illustrations are filled with whimsy, with words and story snippets scattered throughout.

My Storee, by Paul Russell & Aśka
EK Books, 2018
ISBN 9781925335774

Duck! by Meg McKinlay & Nathaniel Eckstrom

It was a quiet afternoon on the farm, when suddenly…
DUCK!

The animals of the farm are doing what animals do – the horse swishing his tail, the cow chewing her cud, the pig wallowing and sheep sheeping. So, when duck starts yelling ‘Duck!’ and interrupting the peace, the other animals are not impressed. They don’t understand why Duck keeps yelling her name. Rather than listening to the warning, they chastise Duck – until Duck realises, a little too late, that ‘Run!’ might have been a better warning.

Duck! is a humorous picture book story about word play and confusing messages. Young readers will love the silliness of Duck’s dilemma – and the other animals’ inability to heed the warning as a tornado bears down on them. Picture clues will let readers in on what is happening, and the digital and acrylic illustration are filled with enough humour to make the characters endearing and the situation amusing.

Lots of fun in a story that will be requested again and again.

Duck!, by Meg McKinlay & Nathaniel Eckstrom
Walker Books, 2018
ISBN 9781925381535

 

The Choke, by Sofie Laguna

I was eating Weet-Bix at the kids’ table not long after I moved to Pop’s, when I heard Pop and Dad talking.
You should have been more careful, Ray.
Accidents happen.
Yeah, and now I’m stuck with your bloody accident.
The table was so low it kept me at the height of their knees. If they didn’t look down they forgot I was there.

Since her mother abandoned her as a toddler, Justine has been raised by her Pop, a troubled survivor of the Burma railway. Her dad comes and goes, away for months at time. Her half brothers visit regularly and are sometimes allies, but their different mothers, and the manipulations of their father mean that their relationship is uneasy. School is also difficult for Justine. Not only does she lack the home environment of her classmates, but she also struggles to read, and is seen by teachers as lazy and disruptive.

Amongst so much neglect, Justine must make do. She finds solace in her Pop’s chickens, who she feeds and talks to, and in the Choke, a narrow opening in the Murray River at the back of their house. Brief glimpses of kindness from fellow humans are rare, but somehow Justine manages to survive again and again.

The Choke is a haunting story of poverty and neglect. Justine, as the youngest member of a broken family, has a life which readers will see is cruel and unfair, but which is portrayed with a frightening, heartbreaking realism.

A troubling, powerful read.

The Choke, by Sofie Laguna
Allen & Unwin, 2017
ISBN 9781760297244

The Way Back, by Kylie Ladd

Terry swallowed. ‘You need to call Matt, get him back here. I hope I’m wrong, but when the dogs are onto something and then it suddenly vanishes it usually means the person has got into a car, or been picked up and carried. If Charlie was still anywhere near where we found her helmet we’d have her by now, but she’s not.’ He put his hand on her arm. ‘This changes things, Rachael. I don’t think she’s just missing anymore. We’re dealing with a potential abduction.’

Charlie Johnson is part of a loving family. She has an amazing best friend, and is kind of into Liam, a cute guy from school. But, most of all, she loves horseriding, especially riding Tic-Tac, who she’s finally convinced her parents to lease for her. But one day Charlie and Tic-Tac go out riding, and only Tic-Tac comes back.

For four months, Charlie’s friends and family searched desperately, not knowing if she is dead or alive. For four months, Charlie survives – barely. Finally, she is found wandering and injured, miles from where she was lost. Of course being reunited is wonderful, but can Charlie and her family really heal from what she – and they – have all been through?

The Way Back is a moving story of separation, fear and determination. Ladd explores the emotional complexity of the situation from a number of perspectives, showing that there is no one way that such events can impact on victims, or of dealing with the aftermath of such. Ladd’s empathy and insight take the reader inside a difficult situation in a way which seems real, yet prevents the experience from being overwhelming.

Gripping.

The Way Back, by Kylie Ladd
Allen & Unwin, 2017
ISBN 9781760297138

Blossom, by Tamsin Janu

The little girl was silent, and just stared.
So Lottie asked questions. ‘What’re you up to? Are you lost?’
Silence. The little girl hadn’t blinked once.
‘Where’re your parents?’
Silence.
‘Don’t worry if you haven’t got any parents. I don’t. I live with my Uncle Bobby, who’s kind enough.’

Lottie lives with just her Uncle Bobby, and has always longed for a sister, so when a lost girl turns up on her doorstep, she’s excited. But the girl – who Lottie names Blossom – isn’t like other children. Not only doesn’t she speak, but she only eats plants, makes funny sounds, and has green liquid instead of blood. Lottie navigates the difficulties of having such an odd sister presents, until Blossom gets sick, and suddenly becomes the center of scientific interest. Only Lottie and her friends can rescue her.

Blossom is a beautiful tale of an unexpected friendship, with an equally unexpected outcome. It soon becomes apparent that Blossom may be from another world, but just how different this place is is only slowly revealed. In the meantime, Lottie draws on her own strengths as well as the help of those around her.

A beautiful, whimsy-filled story.

Blossom, by Tamsin Janu
Scholastic, 2017
ISBN 9781742991641

Boy, by Phil Cummings & Shane Devries

Boy couldn’t hear the battle cries, but he had seen the fear in his mother’s eyes and felt it in his father’s hands when he held him close.
The battles were loud and long…
but no-one ever won.

Boy lives in silence. Unable to hear, he talks with his hands, though only his parents take the time to understand him. In spite of this, boy is happy. Unfortunately, the rest of the villagers are not. They live near a forest where a fearsome dragon and fierce king have been battling. Every body is in danger, but nobody know why. It takes the wisdom – and peace – of Boy to solve the problem.

Boy is a heartwarming picture book about an unlikely hero who proves his bravery and wisdom. Boy is deaf, and it is this difference which sees him not only have a different view of the world, but also inadvertently put himself in danger. However, instead of running, he tackles the two fighting sides, and finds a way to ask them why they are fighting. The message, of peace and communication, is not over stated, it just is.

Illustrations, rendered digitally with a feel of watercolour, particularly in the landscapes feature expressive human characters, and a whimsical purple dragon. with lots of humorous touches and a pastel colour pallete, with lots of sepia tones, lending a medieval feel.

Delightful.

Boy , by Phil Cummings and SHane Devries
Scholastic Press, 2017
ISBN 9781760277055