{Guest Post} The 'coming of age' narrative in YA fantasy by Helen Scheuerer

Saturday, 8 June 2019

Readers are probably familiar with the 'coming of age' themes that tend to come up in YA contemporary novels. But the ideas around growing up and all the changes and challenges with come with it are also explored in other genres. To discuss more about how it comes up in the realm of fantasy I've brought in an expert! Author Helen Scheuerer has stopped by on the blog today to talk about how this idea features in her series The Oremere Chronicles...

On the ‘Coming of Age’ Narrative In YA Fantasy 

When Eugenia and I first discussed the concept of this guest post, I was eager to write about ‘coming of age’ as a theme in fantasy novels. I felt that my trilogy The Oremere Chronicles explored this idea in depth. However, as I sat down to draft this post, I realised just how difficult it is to sum up the importance of such a theme.

Exploring this type of narrative got me thinking of numerous ‘coming of age’ classics in fantasy, as well as my own books. Why do these novels matter to us? How can we relate to the journeys of characters in non-existent, magical lands? Below is my attempt at delving into those questions...

Despite the fact that YA fantasy narratives take place in fantastical, magic-oriented worlds, now more than ever, they reflect the experiences of our young people today. The genre lends itself well to ‘coming of age’ theme, because just like in contemporary times, characters in these books challenge political systems, power hierarchies and social constructs, as well as the more ordinary aspects of life: navigating relationships, families and changing friendship dynamics.

The most powerful of these novels always depict the inner journey of a character, rife with turmoil, as he or she grows up, which is why ‘coming of age’ is such a prominent theme throughout the fantasy genre.

In fact, the fantasy genre as a whole suits the ‘coming of age’ narrative; with characters often embarking on a large-scale physical adventures that trigger their inner journey (think: Frodo from Lord of the Rings, Celaena from Throne of Glass and Lira from To Kill A Kingdom). As a young adult author myself, it’s a theme that has certainly woven its way into my books. I find it’s something that’s come quite naturally rather than as a result of a conscious decision on my part as creator.

For example, the 19-year-old protagonist in my series, The Oremere Chronicles, Bleak, is a great example of this… In her hometown, Angove, she’s in a bit of a rut. Self-medicating with alcohol to overcome grief, she rarely thinks of anyone but herself. However, a journey is forced upon her and it’s over the course of this quest that she’s made to look inward at who she is, and define her place in the world. It’s a classic ‘coming of age’ scenario.

Most YA fantasy books focus on a character similar age to their target reader (17-19 usually) and there’s a good reason for this. It’s the age where we tend to question ourselves and our surroundings the most, which leads to numerous types of inner conflict.

But being a young adult is also a test of how you interact with the broader world around you. Often it’s these external things that can trigger a ‘coming of age’ journey. Tragedy, loss, meeting new people, experiencing a new place and perhaps generally learning about the cruelty of the world, can all lead to the inner growth of a person/character.

The fantasy genre offers up these instances by the truckload. In my books in particular (Heart of Mist, Reign of Mist and the upcoming War of Mist), we journey with Bleak as she learns how to deal with figures of authority and systems of power, questions her heritage, as well as the difference between right and wrong. All notions that further the development of any character. It just so happens, she’s growing up at the same time.

I also made sure not to limit my characters to a certain age bracket, because as we know, the world isn’t made up of just young adults. But it’s how our young adult characters interact with those older and younger around them that provide our protagonists with room to grow, as well as offer our readers a reflection of their own real life experiences.

Regardless of the target readers or the theme itself, coming of age stories aren’t just for young adults. This is shown in the wide-reach of YA books - they transcend our years, with adult readers ranging from mid-twenties right up into their eighties. In fact, I’ve had an email from a 76 year old saying how much she related to my books.

Perhaps we ‘come of age’ numerous times in our lives, which is another reason why the theme is so popular across all genres of literature.

I’d love to know what your favourite fantasy ‘coming of age’ stories are. Feel free to share them in the comments below!

WAR OF MIST, the epic conclusion to Helen Scheuerer’s The Oremere Chronicles is slated for release July 25. You can add it on Goodreads here 

The Oremere Chronicles

About the author

You can learn more about Helen on her website

Helen Scheuerer is a YA fantasy author from Sydney, Australia. Her debut novel, Heart of Mist, was the bestselling first instalment in her trilogy, The Oremere Chronicles.

After writing literary fiction for a number of years, she was inspired to return to her childhood love of fantasy by reading the work of Sabaa Tahir, V.E. Schwab and Sarah J. Maas.

Helen holds a Bachelor of Creative Arts, majoring in Creative Writing, and a Master of Publishing. She is also the Founding Editor of Writer’s Edit (www.writersedit.com), one of the world’s largest online learning platforms for emerging writers.

She is now a full-time author living amidst the mountains in New Zealand.

Review & Author Interview: Allegra in Three Parts by Suzanne Daniel - A 5-star Australian coming-of-age novel

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Allegra in Three Parts by Suzanne Daniel
Released: 28th May 2019
Published by: Pan Macmillan
Genre: Contemporary fiction/coming-of-age
Source: Publisher
Pages: 301
My Rating: 5 of 5 stars
I can split myself in two... something I have to do because of Joy and Matilde. They are my grandmothers and I love them both and they totally love me but they can't stand each other. 

Eleven-year-old Allegra shuttles between her grandmothers who live next door to one another but couldn't be more different. Matilde works all hours and instils discipline, duty and restraint. She insists that Allegra focus on her studies to become a doctor. Meanwhile free-spirited Joy is full of colour, possibility and emotion, storing all her tears in little glass bottles.

She is riding the second wave of the women's movement in the company of her penny tortoise, Simone de Beauvoir, encouraging Ally to explore broad horizons and live her 'true essence'. And then there's Rick who lives in a flat out the back and finds distraction in gambling and solace in surfing.

He's trying to be a good father to Al Pal, while grieving the woman who links them all but whose absence tears them apart. Allegra is left to orbit these three worlds wishing they loved her a little less and liked each other a lot more. Until one day the unspoken tragedy that's created this division explodes within the person they all cherish most.
I've always thought that the best books are ones where you can turn the last page and think "this moved me" or "I really learnt something from reading this". Suzanne Daniel's outstanding debut did both for me. It's a triumph for not only bringing such heart to a story which captures the complex links in familial ties, but one girl's coming-of-age as she seeks to reconcile where she fits into it all. Written from Allegra's distinct voice, there's a good balance here of both childhood innocence with some heavier themes of dealing with the absence of a parent, the state of women's liberation in Australia in the 1970s, women who are victims of violence and a glimpse into the migrant experience at that time.

'It's a funny thing, Allegra', say Sister, offering me another Shortbread Cream. People think respect comes from success, fame or fortune, when in fact the most admired quality at the end of the day is kindness. Because kindness, dear - kindness - is the best indicator of a person's wellbeing. Yes, indeed, kind people are those who truly take pleasure in their time on earth.'

Both of Allegra's grandmothers love her immensely, and her father too, though all of these adults in her life have been affected by the turmoil of her mother not being there with them. Joy and Matilde with their contrasting personalities and approaches to life made this a colourful read, with Rick becoming a more steady force as the story goes on. Though there's definitely a theme of female empowerment, and not just in an overtly feminist tone, there was also a look into positive male role models and how men grieve too when hit by life's tragedies.

'Can you smell the air coming in off the salt water?' says Rick, inhaling slowly. I follow his lead and breathe in the air. 'You know what I reckon, Al...the cure for everything is salt water. Yep, think about it: sweat, tears, and the sea. They're all made up of salt water. The first two can pump out your pain and the last one - the sea - well, it washes it away,'

In all it's the idea that self-knowledge is a continuous process which made this book really stand out for me, and it's definitely become a firm favourite on my shelves. This is an altogether impressive debut from Suzanne Daniel, she is definitely a local author to watch!

For more insights about Allegra in Three Parts, read on for my interview with Suzanne Daniel!

Thank you so much for stopping by on the blog Suzanne. and congratulations on releasing your first novel! What were some of the biggest challenges and best moments in your journey to having Allegra in Three Parts published?

Thank you for having me!

For a number of years writing my novel was a private thing, something of a hobby I was fitting around work and family. This gave me creative freedom but it also meant I wasn’t accountable to anyone else, or to a time frame. And without either of these, there was always something more pressing to do. I had to work hard to improve my self discipline, make myself go to the desk and spend time on something that was never urgent. If the writing was flowing well, I became totally absorbed and it took on a momentum of it’s own. I was loathed to stop and couldn’t wait to get back to it. When it wasn’t, I’d wander off to make another cup of tea, end up cleaning a cupboard or making a phone call. After a while I made myself push through the less inspired writing episodes by setting a daily word count and I wouldn’t allow myself to rise form the desk until I hit it. This became my magic formula.

I started to write the book in the third person but that wasn’t capturing Allegra on every level. I wanted her story to be visceral but I’d been told that trying to write in the first person was too ambitious for a first time novelist. I fiddled, tested and tweaked, and finally I found Allegra’s voice. Once I did, she kind of led me and we were away.

A quote from Simone de Beauvoir "Self knowledge is no guarantee of happiness, but it is on the side of happiness and can supply the courage to fight for it", opens this novel beautifully and sets the tone for the rest of the story. How did the state of feminism in Australia in the 1970s first come into the picture for the socio-cultural setting of Allegra in Three Parts?

I'm fascinated by this period in history and what was happening for women during the second wave of the women’s movement. Not just the street marches and the mobilising actions of the ‘sisterhood’, but for women out in the suburbs, some staying in marriages they were disillusioned with, others leaving them to carve out a new identity. Many women ended up leading double lives: feminist uni student by day, then a second shift as homemaker, wife and mother. Conversations were starting to change among women and between women and men. 

Women were opening up to one another in a new way, starting to understand through sharing their private thoughts, responses and feelings, that it wasn’t ‘just me’ but that what they were experiencing was almost universal. The personal did become political. And of course you have to fully understand yourself before you know what will make you content in the long term. Hence I chose the Simone de Beauvoir quote to open the novel. I also liked it because it sets the scene for Allegra’s ultimate coming of age. 

'Adult fiction' written from a child's perspective as the main character has made for some interesting reads. How did you find the experience of writing about some confronting issues such as domestic violence, racism and the absence of a parent through eleven-year-old Allegra's eyes?

I remember myself and know from raising three children, that a child’s development and understanding isn’t linear. An eleven-year-old can swing from almost adult insight, to breathtaking naivety many times in one day. Once I placed Allegra in the various confronting situations dealing with domestic violence, racism and an absent mother, I dug deep to put myself inside her head and her heart. I did a lot of research on the effects of conflict on a child as well as ‘cred testing’ Allegra’s responses with my youngest daughter, Francesca (who was about 14 when I started writing the novel) and my cousin’s daughter, Molly when she was actually eleven.
The complexities of finding true friendships and navigating how the 'social hierarchy' works as a young adolescent also seemed to underscore Allegra's development in the story. Do you think much has changed around these issues in today's age compared to when the book is set?

Thankfully I think things have improved somewhat in that adults and educators are now much more aware of the damaging effects that bullying has on a young person. In the 1970s, when this book is set, sadly bullying was often seen as just ‘kids being kids’ and so many children suffered dreadfully at the hands of bullies. And of course scratch beneath the surface and the bullies were usually suffering in some way themselves too. I know from being on the Board of a large senior school that a lot of effort and resources are now dedicated to combating bullying and creative strategies are put into place. Even so, humans are still programmed similarly and navigating the 'social hierarchy’ remains a challenge for children and adolescents today. And of course they are dealing with things that weren’t around in the 1970s like social media.
A key strength of this book and what makes it so memorable for me is how well-developed all the characters are, especially Allegra's grandmothers Matilde and Joy. What did you find significant about having these two women feature in the story?

I wanted to show love delivered in different ways to a child within one family so Matilde and Joy, being neighbours but so polarised, gave me a great opportunity to do that. They have very different backgrounds, aspirations and world views but both love Allegra wholeheartedly. I wanted my readers to see these grandmothers in all their humanity, magnificent one minute, flawed the next. And even though readers' allegiances might swing back and forth between Matilde and Joy, ultimately I hoped by the end of the novel they would at least understand both of them and certainly care about them too. To me a well-developed character is someone I care about and I really worked hard to make that happen, so thank you for finding my characters this way.

Without giving too much away, is there a favourite moment or quote that struck a chord with you wen writing this book?

So not to spoil things for those yet to read Allegra In Three Parts I’ll nominate the strudel making scene, the I AM WOMAN scene, the glass house scene, the tent scenes and the final pages. I could go on…

About the author

Suzanne Daniel is a journalist and communications consultant who has also worked for ABC TV, the Sydney Morning Herald, the United Nations, BBC (London) and in crisis management and social services. For the past twenty years she has served on community, philanthropic and public company boards. Suzanne lives in Sydney with her husband and family. Allegra in Three Parts is her first novel.

Review & Author Interview: One by Jennifer L. Cahill - Contemporary fiction with a loving dose of reality

Friday, 31 May 2019

One? by Jennifer L. Cahill
Released: 21st June 2018
Published by: Clink Street Publishing
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Source: Author
Pages: 356
My Rating: 4 of 5 stars
One? is the first book in a contemporary fiction trilogy, looking at finding 'the one' in the modern world and how relationship models are shifting in the most innovative period in living history.

The story starts in 2005, and spans ten years following the characters from the challenges of their twenties into their thirties. It's London in the mid-noughties before Facebook, iPhones and ubiquitous wifi. Zara has just moved to London for her first real job and struggles to find her feet in a big city with no instruction manual. Penelope works night and day in an investment bank with little or no time for love.

At twenty-eight she is positively ancient as far as her mother is concerned and the pressure is on for her to settle down as the big 3-0 is looming. Charlie spends night and day with his band who are constantly teetering on the verge of greatness. Richard has relocated to London from his castle in Scotland in search of the one, and Alyx is barely in one place long enough to hold down a relationship let alone think about the future.

One? follows the highs and lows of a group of twenty-somethings living in leafy SW4.
 Jennifer L. Cahill has written a story which could resonate with any twenty-something as they navigate this important decade where we seem to be told that 'everything in life is supposed to come together'; from finding your feet in a full-time job to entering a serious relationship. Though at first glance 'One?' sounds like a romance novel, I was so glad to find that it was so much more. It's refreshing to find a contemporary read which is both fun and real enough to be able to see some of yourself in the characters - whether it is high-flying Penelope with more to her than meets the eye, or Zara who is facing the challenges of moving to a new city and making long-lasting friendships. Though set predominately in London, I was intrigued by the hint of some Australian influence later on in the book (though we'll see how that comes along in the next one!).

Jennifer has kindly stopped by on the blog to answer some of my questions about the book and her writing process...

One is set in the early 2000s, a time where Facebook messenger was non-existent and Tinder still years away. What made you decide to set the story at that time?

I wrote the story at that time, with a view to capturing the essence of the place and time, and the technological changes. Little did I know that our lives were about to be taken over by all of these apps etc. It would be challenging to write the same story now, based back then. Even re-reading it I was surprised at how life has changed so much in just over ten years. I guess I could sense the changes happening at the time, but obviously I had no idea how big they were going to be. Nobody could have predicted how huge Facebook, Twitter etc. were going to be, and of course how the iPhone has changed the way we connect. My day job is very technology/innovation/future focused, so I think that point of view or mindset permeates everything that I do. I also think there is tremendous value in looking back and tracking the journey from less technology, to a more technological existence. We are so busy dealing with constant change, that we don’t take the time to look at the broader themes/effects on relationships/careers/daily life. I’m particularly looking at how the role of women has shifted because technology is levelling the playing field and more women are working than ever before, and the impact that this is having on relationship models in the modern world.

It was great to see the characters in the book go into more than just their love lives, but also what life is like after university and navigating career changes, alongside moving out of home. What do you think some of the biggest questions young people are asking themselves in their early twenties?

I think that people in their twenties must be asking themselves questions around what their career might be. New careers and University courses keep popping up all over the place, so I think the choice is probably a bit ovrwhelming. I think that people in their early twenties now have only ever lived in a world of constant change, and I think that makes them well prepared for the road ahead. There is tremendous pressure on them to succeed, but there are also more opportunities and less limits than ever before. If you are good at what you do, you can really succeed particularly as a developer, or a YouTuber/Influencer. In the past nobody would have given you your own channel to potentially reach millions for free.

From a relationship point of view, I’m looking at how the relationship models are shifting and changing to fit into the modern world. So I’m wondering if this is something that twenty somethings are thinking about. I also think the constant ’selfie pressure’ is an absolute nightmare for people at that age. Navigating relationships is hard enough without the constant pressure to look amazing for selfies, and the fact that these can be posted online. I also think this kind of thing does put a lot of pressure on finding ’the one’, surely we don’t all have to look like super models 24/7 to find love do we? Dating apps can sometimes add a transactional flavour to dating. I’m hoping that people in their twenties are questioning this, rather than just accepting that this is the way it is, and that this is the way it will always be.

The environment and sustainability are front and centre at the moment, so I definitely think that this is something that people in their twenties now are justifiably concerned about, and questioning the impact the way we live is having on their future.

Without giving too much away, is there a favourite moment or quote from the book which you'd like to share?

This is my favourite quote that doesn’t give anything away. I think this little nugget distils the story into one sentence. ‘I always think, that if I’m going to meet him, I’m definitely going to meet him in London. It’s one of the most exciting cities in the world..’ ‘One?’ p.40. Here Penelope is musing about finding ’the one’.
As a debut novelist, what were some of the biggest challenges and exciting milestones when writing One?

One of the most exciting things about writing ‘One?' was the ‘aha moment’ when I realised that I’m a writer. I know that sounds ridiculous, but I have a career as a change specialist and I wish someone had told me sooner that I was a writer. We don’t have any writers in the family, if we had, they definitely would have spotted it sooner. It was the moment that I finally knew what I was supposed to be when I grew up. The minute I started writing life turned into an adventure, all of a sudden everything around me became potential inspiration, and that is a very exciting way to live.

The main challenges are finding the time to do it, you need to take a good chunk of time off work to get the book into production. That is something that writers need to budget for both in terms of time and money. Another challenge is managing your sensitivity, or ‘walking the sensitivity tightrope’ as I call it (see the video below), so that you don’t get blocked. On one hand you need to be sensitive to be a writer, it’s part of the job, but then you also need to have the courage to be able to deal with the media, critics, and you have to put yourself out there on Twitter, YouTube, live Radio etc.

I loved the vivid settings across London (and even Paris in some parts!) which captured the bustle of city living and all the chance meetings which come with it. Were any of the places the characters visited or experiences they had inspired by your own life?

As a contemporary fiction writer I try to capture the essence of a place and time in my books. London, and Clapham in particular, were definitely my main inspiration to write. I just thought that London, although a challenging city, is ultimately one of the most amazing cities in the world. I also couldn’t believe that when I arrived in Clapham I was surrounded by like-minded people, from all over the world, all in their first or second jobs, and pretty much everyone was in their twenties. It’s also particularly amazing in the summer with lots of festivals, open air cinemas and events on Clapham Common. There seems to be no need to leave Clapham at the weekends if you live there. I do feel that London is as much a character in the books as the actual characters. It’s a key catalyst for the changes that they go through, and it’s a key connector as the most amazing people are drawn to live and work in London. It was also important for me to include Paris and New York, as these places are so easily accessible from London. I have personal experience of all of the places that I write about. It’s usually the place, and actually the house that starts the book off, and the story takes off from there.

What's the best piece of advice you'd pass on to other twenty-somethings who, like the characters in One, are in that in-between phase of embracing the independence and opportunities which adulthood bring?

I have three main pieces of advice for people who are in that in-between phase:

I would tell them to have faith in their own abilities and to ‘run their own race’. We live in a world where people are constantly comparing themselves to each other, selfies, instagram, facebook etc. and these online versions are not always telling the whole story. You are better off owning and celebrating your uniqueness as you only have one life to live.

I also think that self awareness is really important. There are personality tests like Myers Briggs that can be very insightful, and can put you on the right career path. Some of the most interesting people don’t fit into a regular mould, and as the world is changing, new careers are popping up all over the place. They need to be open to these possibilities, and the concept that maybe their career hasn’t been invented yet.

I would also advise people at that age to see every relationship as a learning experience, rather than ask themselves ‘is this the one?’. In that in-between phase, it’s better to ask yourself ‘What is this person teaching me?' Or ‘What am I learning about myself?’. When ’the one’ comes along, they’ll know all about it, so I would advise them not to worry about it too much at that age.

Since One was released, could you give us a glimpse into any other writing projects you're currently working on?

Absolutely. ’Two?’is almost finished. Thankfully I wrote that at the time (mid to late 2000s) so I don’t have to travel back in time too much. That will be coming out in early 2020. I’m also working on ’Three’ simultaneously, but my priority is to get ’Two’ finished. I have another couple of projects going, but my main focus is completing the trilogy, as I don’t want people to have to wait too long to find out what happens.

About the author

I write contemporary fiction and try to capture the essence of a place and time in my books. Above all, my aim is to make you laugh, and hopefully learn a little, as you recognise yourself, your friends and your exes in my books. I love hearing from my readers, and you can contact me via my website, or @JLCAuthor on Twitter.

Waiting on Wednesday: This is How We Change the Ending

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly prompt hosted by Breaking the Spine where the participants tell their readers about an upcoming release they are looking forward to. This week I've picked This is How We Change the Ending, the latest YA novel released by prolific Aussie author Vikki Wakefield.

I have questions I’ve never asked. Worries I’ve never shared. Thoughts that circle and collide and die screaming because they never make it outside my head. Stuff like that, if you let it go—it’s a survival risk.

Sixteen-year-old Nate McKee is doing his best to be invisible. He’s worried about a lot of things—how his dad treats Nance and his twin half-brothers; the hydro crop in his bedroom; his reckless friend, Merrick. Nate hangs out at the local youth centre and fills his notebooks with things he can’t say.

But when some of his pages are stolen, and his words are graffitied at the centre, Nate realises he has allies. He might be able to make a difference, change his life, and claim his future. Or can he?

This is How We Change the Ending is raw and real, funny and heartbreaking—a story about what it takes to fight back when you’re not a hero.

New books on the #LoveOzYA scene are always an exciting addition to my shelves, and Vikki Wakefield's novels always speak straight to the themes of family, belonging and class relationships.

Releasing 3rd September 2019 by Text Publishing

Waiting on Wednesday: Expectation

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly prompt hosted by Breaking the Spine where the participants tell their readers about an upcoming release they are looking forward to. This week I've picked Expectation by Anna Hope, a coming-of-age novel about female friendship and managing the highs and lows which come with the shift into adulthood. 

Hannah, Cate and Lissa are young, vibrant and inseparable.

Living on the edge of a common in East London, their shared world is ablaze with art and activism, romance and revelry – and the promise of everything to come.

They are electric.
They are the best of friends.
Ten years on, they are not where they hoped to be.

Amidst flailing careers and faltering marriages, each hungers for what the others have.

And each wrestles with the same question: what does it take to lead a meaningful life?

I've seen this one described as something similar to a Sally Rooney novel (another author on my must-read list!), but what really has grabbed me with Expectation is the focus on the time in our lives where the future is at its brightest and the only thing left to do is see whether it retains the glow as the years go on. Stay tuned for a review on this book after its release!

Releasing July 2019 from Doubleday

Review: Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee - "A memoir about standing up, speaking out and fighting back"

Monday, 25 March 2019

Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee
Released: 1st June 2018
Published by: Allen and Unein
Genre: Memoir
Source: Borrowed
Pages: 368
My Rating: 5 of 5 stars
EGGSHELL SKULL: A well-established legal doctrine that a defendant must 'take their victim as they find them'. If a single punch kills someone because of their thin skull, that victim's weakness cannot mitigate the seriousness of the crime.

But what if it also works the other way? What if a defendant on trial for sexual crimes has to accept his 'victim' as she comes: a strong, determined accuser who knows the legal system, who will not back down until justice is done? Bri Lee began her first day of work at the Queensland District Court as a bright-eyed judge's associate. Two years later she was back as the complainant in her own case. This is the story of Bri's journey through the Australian legal system; first as the daughter of a policeman, then as a law student, and finally as a judge's associate in both metropolitan and regional Queensland-where justice can look very different, especially for women.

The injustice Bri witnessed, mourned and raged over every day finally forced her to confront her own personal history, one she'd vowed never to tell. And this is how, after years of struggle, she found herself on the other side of the courtroom, telling her story. Bri Lee has written a fierce and eloquent memoir that addresses both her own reckoning with the past as well as with the stories around her, to speak the truth with wit, empathy and unflinching courage. Eggshell Skull is a haunting appraisal of modern Australia from a new and essential voice.
This review also appears in Vertigo 2019: Disrupt

In an ideal word, the legal system would be the ultimate beacon of hope – a place where justice is swift and society’s moral compass is upheld. Looking at Australia’s current climate, does the reality hit the mark? Bri Lee’s evocative memoir takes readers through her own experiences with the law: being the daughter of a policeman, her job as a judge’s associate and finally the protagonist in her own case. Eggshell Skull is a book that explores one woman’s journey in understanding how others have contested the wrongs against them, the difference between what seems ‘fair’ and ‘just’, and the emotional toll to fight – even when you have the law on your side.

You don’t need to have a legal background to appreciate the depth of Lee’s story. While the intricacies of court cases and what she witnessed while working with a judge are included, the real focus is on people relying on the system to bring them a reprieve. Confronting and yet written with a quiet assuredness, it’s harrowing to realise the mountain of procedural requirements victims of sexual assault must get through to have their case heard. Even the most sickening crimes could be treated with apparent leniency because of a gap in evidence or a complainant who is too ‘sensitive’, too ‘unreliable’ to be believed. The worries of ‘wasting a court’s time’ with what seemed ‘minor’ in comparison to the horrific cases she’d heard were overcome by an unwavering determination to hold the person who hurt her accountable. In reading this you’re confronted with the double-edged sword in the pursuit of justice, where one must decide if bringing back the onslaught of painful memories is worth a trial which could span years.

It's a realisation most of us have at some point in our young adult lives, that there's no guidebook for the important stuff. When you most want to stride out from under the wings of your parents, you will simultaneously long for their guidance and reassurance like never before. In the worst moments of those nights I thought of my mum, and how I could burn down everything around me and that she would still come help me if I just picked up the phone. Like most of my female friends, I rarely fought with my father and often fought with my mother, but we all knew that when the chips were down our mums would be the first to run into the blaze after us.

Interestingly, it could be said that men paradoxically play the role of either perpetrator or protector when it comes to the issue of a woman’s safety. On the one hand, you may feel safer with a man by your side when catching the train home alone at night, but on the other it’s an unfortunate reality that we even think this way in the first place. Though her personal account illustrated the insidious nature of the apparent ‘nice guy’ who just happened to slip-up at that point in time, Lee did have positive male influences in her life. Her father and partner were resolute in their capacity to show compassion and be there when she needed them most. While an extra level of caution and heightened awareness in situations where a woman could be perceived as vulnerable is inevitable, Lee’s story is testimony to the existence of genuinely good men whose intentions would go beyond the role of a ‘protector’; being actively opposed to violence against women in general.

It's so easy for them to say that 'her word alone' wasn't enough to overcome their reasonable doubts. The alternative is a little terrifying - that if one in five women were assaulted, one in five men might be the assaulters.

What makes Eggshell Skull a particularly emotional read is how Lee described the feelings of shame and intense self-loathing throughout her pursuit for justice. Part of it could be attributed to having witnessed first-hand the moral quandary of the legal system, so firmly built on rationale and logic, when faced with sexual assault victims. To complicate matters further, when the alleged incident may have happened decades before it is increasingly difficult to adduce the kind of clearly incriminating evidence a jury would expect. How accurately can the pain and suffering inflicted on another person be measured? How do you make peace with a ‘not guilty’ verdict that appears to contravene community standards? These are questions raised which are likely to be a source of further debate in time.

But if there is criticism of the legal system to be found in this book, it is moderated nonetheless by an understanding of those who work within its confines, and are often under-resourced. It was fascinating to see how Lee’s professional relationship with the judge she worked for developed; though he was not directly involved in her own case, their bond was built on a respect for what it takes to hear from the darkest sides of human nature on a daily basis and the ability to separate that from your personal life. The lessons from her female peers also struck a chord, from the revelations of hidden insecurities to the unexpected sense of camaraderie which followed a glimpse into each other’s vulnerabilities. In this way, Eggshell Skull acts as both a memoir and call-to-action – perhaps not so overtly as a feminist manifesto, but an inspiring tale that recognises the relief in sharing a grievance and finding other women who could relate and say ‘me too’.


In all, Eggshell Skull is eye-opening and courageously told. A story about coming through the legal system, working both within it and then from a place of retribution, this is a must-read from a bold voice we can learn so much from.

Review: If Blood Should Stain the Wattle by Jackie French

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

If Blood Should Stain the Wattle by Jackie French
Series: Matilda Saga #6
Released: 21st November 2016
Published by: HarperCollins Australia
Genre: Historical Fiction
Source: Bought
Pages: 544
My Rating: 5 of 5 stars
It's 1972 in Gibber's Creek, and across the nation, the catchcry is, 'It's time'. As political ideals drift from disaster to the dismissal, it's also time for Jed Kelly to choose between past love, Nicholas, the local Labor member, and Sam from the Halfway to Eternity commune.

It's time too for Matilda Thompson to face her ghosts and the life that took a young girl from the slums of Grinder's Alley to being the formidable matriarch of Gibber's Creek. During this period of extraordinary social change and idealism, modern Australia would be born. And although the nation would dream of a better world, it would continue to struggle with opposing ideas of exactly what that better world might be.

Jackie French, author of the bestselling To Love a Sunburnt Country, has woven her own experience of that time into an unforgettable story of a small rural community and a nation swept into the social and political tumult of the early 1970s. A time that would bear witness to some of the most controversial events in Australian history; and for Matilda, a time that would see her vision made real, without blood spilled upon the wattle.
There's something inherently comforting about coming back to a series you've been following for years. In the Matilda Saga, the characters are familiar, and so is the sense of place as Jackie French so deftly captures the Australian landscape. As time has gone by, in the almost ten years its been since I first picked up A Waltz for Matilda, I've found new ways to relate to the series and appreciate just how beautifully the stories have been woven. We've been brought from the early days of Federation when this series began, through to the 1970's in If Blood Should Stain the Wattle. In the decades that have passed for the families whose stories are covered in this saga, there's been a fair balance of heartache, resilience love for both people and the land which has bound generations to its soil.

As she grew older, she realised that loving this small portion of the landscape, home of so many of her ancestors, meant also loving each bit that was joined to it, and each that was joined to that, till finally it took in the whole world. 

What I've always loved about this sweeping saga is how it portrays the strength people find in their hardest times, the complexities of human relationships and what it takes to forge your own path in life. Matilda as the backbone of the series may have aged by this stage, but seeing her character develop has been a joy. A brilliant role model for younger readers just starting out with these books, it was fascinating to discover how she came to fulfill the roles of wife, mother, factory owner and community advocate. As new faces were introduced in each book and the focus shifted to their stories to share, Jackie French excelled in making sure that the connections between her characters were both meaningful and written with such heart. 

The political landscape takes a sharper focus in this novel, with the Gough Whitlam campaign influencing the small town of Gibber's Creek. If there's anyone who can make Australian history come to life on the page, it's Jackie French , and here it's clear that she's done her research, while even using some of her own experiences as inspiration. As the nation heads in a new direction, there is still an exploration of the scars left by war and the people left behind, with decisions to be made by Jed and others about what path in life will offer more than simply 'good enough'; a road to long-term fulfillment of one's potential.


The Matilda Saga will always hold a special place on both my shelves, and in my best memories of being a reader. It's wide range of issues explored means that it can be read by people of any age - there's sure to be a lesson or two in there we can put towards life beyond the pages.

My Bookish Top 20 Releasing in 2019 (Jan - June)

Thursday, 3 January 2019

2018 was the year I branched out and read a whole lot more non-fiction, discovering some gems along the way which changed the way I look at life - and isn't that what the joy of reading is all about? This year I've got a heap of new books from my Christmas haul written by some of my favourites (think more Alain de Botton, Brene Brown and good old 'books about books'), but there's always more fiction to be discovered in this next chapter with the start of the new year!


Sally Hepworth has been compared to the likes of Liane Moriarty, and it's great to see Australian women making a hit with their novels. I really enjoyed The Family Next Door so it'll be interesting to see what domestic drama she's concocted in The Mother-in-Law.  I'm all for a moving contemporary, and The Truths and Triumphs of Grace Atherton, centred around a woman who owns a violin shop and faces changes in her relationships while learning some hard truths, seems sure to deliver a compelling read. Can a real relationship develop through text messages? In Emergency Contact, that's the question, and I'm keen to see how it plays out since this book has already created some hype in the YA blogging sphere. I've mentioned it before, and I'll say it again - The Dreamers is a top pick of mine this year! Karen Thompson Walker's writing style captivated me in The Age of Miracles, so I'm ready to see how this latest release compares - it's already been placed in the same category as Station Eleven, Never Let Me Go, and I'd even say some of Cat Patrick's works too. 


Heart of the Grass Tree by debut Australian author Molly Murn is a historical novel about mothers, daughters and the bonds between people and the land they've grown up on. A YA historical novel set at the cusp on the French Revolution, Gita Trelease's first novel Enchantée sounds like a vibrant exploration of Paris at the time.


Lauren James was a success thanks to her 'The Next Together' duology, and The Quiet at the end of the World promises another love story with a sci-fi twist. It's amazing to see more upcoming #LoveOzYA novels hitting the shelves this year, and as a fan of short story collections I'm so excited to read Underdog! Dig by A.S. King, whose books have been described as involving 'imitable surrealism and insight into teenage experience', seems to offer a somewhat twisted yet intriguing family saga about generational divides and the ideas which define them. 


I was fortunate enough to receive an advance reader copy of The Van Apfel Girls are Gone from the 2018 HarperCollins Christmas Roadshow event, and the 'part mystery, part coming-of-age' elements give this book the potential to be super addictive. The cover of The Psychology of Time Travel originally drew me in, but it's the premise of stretching reality and altering it beyond recognition which makes it something I'll definitely have to pick up. Katie Lowe is coming out with The Furiesexploring the deep unsettling undertones of life at an elite girls' school, and has an unexplained death as the backdrop to a thriller reminiscent of Girls on Fire. Suzanne Young, author of The Program series, is returning once again to the YA scene - Girls With Sharp Sticks has been compared to 'The Stepford Wives' for teens with a hint of 'The Handmaid's Tale' - a combination like that makes it hard to miss! 


I actually haven't read anything by Cecelia Ahern before, but a witty short story collection is always a good place to start so Roar has made this list! After loving the heartwarming and quirky novel that is Happiness for Humans last year, I was interested to find a book with a similar take on whether a piece of equipment can predict what's best for us - The Happiness Machine. A suspenseful read complete with obsession, twists and lies, The Cliff House will hopefully deliver on an atmospheric page-turner. Not to be out-done, Aussie author Wendy James is back with another thriller in The Accusation, right off the back of her acclaim with The Golden Child


The rich-girl-clique trope could be given new life in Bunny, a searing novel about social acceptance within the ranks of an elite university. A change of pace, Confession with Blue Horses offers a glimpse into the end of Communism in East Berlin, complete with hidden family secrets waiting to be uncovered. Finally, an endearing meet-cute story never gets old, and Our Stop looks to be the perfect mix of funny, cute and romantic. 

Over to you - what books are you most looking forward to in 2019?