Love & Autism by Kay Kerr

‘Autism is an invisible disability with a long and complex history.’

We all know someone (or are someone) who is neurodivergent. And, regardless of our own relationship with neurodivergence, most of us struggle to make sense of the different ways in which others relate to and manage the world. I think that this is a book for everyone to read and learn from.

The author, Kay Kerr, is autistic. In addition to her own personal story of love and autism, she introduces us to five other autistic people: Chloë, Jess, Michael, Noor, and Tim who share some of their own experiences of being neurodivergent in a neurotypical world. While reading each chapter, I felt like I was part of a conversation and was reminded (yet again) how unique individual characteristics can often be viewed within society as negative.

I was particularly interested in Tim’s story. Tim is non-speaking and has not always been afforded easy access to alternative methods of communication. I was also struck by the impact of labels, discussed by Ms Kerr and Jess, and how easy it can become to focus on the label rather than the person to whom it has been affixed. An added complication is that labels (such as ‘autism’) can have different definitions which impact on perceptions.

Growing up, surviving adolescence, and trying to fit in are all aspects of life that each of us navigates as we grow to adulthood. Imagine how much harder this is for someone who is seen as different, whose behaviours and expressions may not fit neatly within the ‘accepted’ standards. Imagine trying to navigate around the world when the compass you use is calibrated differently from most others.

And what about love? Yes, romantic love is one aspect. But far more important is love of life, love of others and love of self.

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Book 22 in my 2023 Nonfiction Reader Challenge. I’ve entered as a ‘Nonfiction Grazer’ and this book should be included under the heading of ‘Health’.

Dinner with the Schnabels (The Schnabel Family #1) by Toni Jordan

‘Dinner with the Schnabels. It could be the title of a horror movie.’

I was fortunate enough to read an ARC of the second book in this series (‘Prettier if She Smiled More’), loved it, and knew that I had to read the first.

So, I picked this book up already knowing a bit about the Schnabels (especially Kylie and Gloria) but not much about Simon, husband of Kylie’s sister Tansy. As the novel opens, things are not looking good for Simon. When his business failed after the pandemic, his family lost their home. He and Tansy and their two children are living in a two-bedroom flat. Everyone has advice for Simon, and to try to keep them off his back he has agreed to landscape a friend’s backyard for an important Schnabel family event. He has one week.

Straightforward? Well, it might be, except an unexpected house guest arrives. And then a few things go wrong, making Simon doubt himself even more. Simon is conscious that he is letting his family down, and what about Tansy? How will it end? Will Simon manage to complete the landscaping, how will Gloria, the formidable Schnabel family matriarch, react to news of Simon and Tansy’s house guest?

While there is plenty of humour in this novel, and more than a few laugh out loud moments, aspects of it will be uncomfortably true for many who found their lives turned upside down during the pandemic.

I do hope that there will be (at least) a third instalment.

‘She was right. It was, however, a truth universally acknowledged that two working parents unexpectedly in possession of a child for the day must be in want of a non-working relative.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Marshmallow by Victoria Hannan

‘For that one moment, the world was still. The world was quiet.

A tragedy a year earlier has changed the lives of five friends. Each of them is struggling with guilt and sorrow, each of them is struggling to believe what has happened. Every one of them is going through the motions of life, frozen by what has happened, unable to find a path forward. Each is paralysed by their own ‘what if?’

The story unfolds over a two-day period as each of the five, going through the motions of daily existence, relives their own role in what happened. And while each adult grieves, a child compiles a book of memories to share. A reminder of life.

‘Annie walked over and hugged him and hugged Claire. Ev threw her arms around Annie from behind, one hand on Al and Claire, then Nathan joined in, until they were a mess of tears.’

A heartbreaking story.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

I’ll Leave You With This by Kylie Ladd

‘At first he thinks it’s fireworks, a quiet popping in the distance.’

Ms Ladd’s novel deals with some complex issues including family relationships and organ donation.  There were five children in the O’Shea family: Allison, Bridie, Clare, Daniel, and Emma. Both of their parents are dead. Allison is a busy obstetrician, trying to balance work with the demands of her young family. Bridie, a prizewinning film director, is looking for her next directing opportunity. Clare is devasted when her wife leaves her after their latest IVF failure, while Emma finds that her church fills the loneliness in her life. And Daniel? His life was tragically cut short.

After Daniel is killed, the sisters drift apart. Over lunch on the third anniversary of Daniel’s death, Clare suggests tracing the recipients of the organs harvested after Daniel’s death. While such contact is not encouraged, it is possible.

Allison is not in favour of the idea and Bridie is, initially at least, indifferent. That is until she considers its potential as a documentary. Emma is happy to support Clare, but only Daniel’s former lover, Joel, is enthusiastic.

As the story unfolds from the different perspectives of the sisters, we learn more about each of them, their relationships with each other and the issues they face. We also learn about Daniel’s beloved dachshund John Thomas. Poor John Thomas. He’s been looked after by different sisters since Daniel’s death, but he’s not really become part of anyone’s family.

This is a terrific, thought-provoking novel. We meet some of the recipients of Daniel’s organs and learn how their lives have changed. I particularly enjoyed the way that Ms Ladd made each of her characters real and individual.

‘It’s possible up to twenty individuals have had their lives changed by Daniel’s generosity’.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Fire and the Rose by Robyn Cadwallader

‘Eleanor has no parchment, but she does have three quills and a pot of ink.’

If you have read Ms Cadwallader’s novel, The Anchoress (2015), you have already met Eleanor, then a child who was taught to read and write by Sarah, the Anchoress. Twenty years later, in 1276, Eleanor has moved to Lincoln where she works as a housemaid for a wool merchant. Eleanor is independent and stubborn, and well aware that her prospects are blighted by the port-wine birthmark on her face. Eleanor dreams of working as a scribe, a profession that is not open to women.

Thirteenth century Lincoln is a dangerous place, divided by religious prejudice. The Jews, forced to wear a yellow badge, are frequently subjected to violence. They are accused of the kidnapping and torture of a boy called Hugh.  Now known as Little Hugh the Martyr, his tomb in the cathedral is visited by crowds of pilgrims, resulting in huge profits for the church.

While Eleanor initially shares antisemitic prejudices, her need to buy spices for the house where she works results in frequent visits to Asher, a widowed Jewish spicer. Asher and Eleanor share a love of books and words, and Eleanor becomes interested in learning the Hebrew script.  A covert relationship follows, a relationship forbidden both by religion and law, resulting in pregnancy. Eleanor is dismissed by her employer, leaving her both homeless and penniless. The friendship of other women, especially of Marchota a Jewish businesswoman, enables Eleanor to survive.

‘Some stories must be told.’

This novel is both a love story and a witness to the antisemitism that led to the expulsion of the Jews from England by King Edward I in 1290. Part of the witnessing comes in the form of verse in which the stones of the wall around Lincoln lament the horrors of the persecution unfolding within.

Both Asher and Eleanor are caught within the restrictions of their own religions: Eleanor is publicly shamed by the Church as an unmarried mother, while Asher is under pressure to marry within his community. Both are made ‘other’ by religious difference, by societal expectations that prevent either following their hearts (and in Eleanor’s case at least, her dreams).

I opened this novel and stepped into thirteenth century Lincoln, to the sights, sounds and smells of medieval England, to prejudices which still exist, unfortunately.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and HarperCollins Publishers Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Rita’s Revenge (A Clue for Clara, #2) by Lian Tanner

I read this delightful novel when it was published last year, and was pleased to learn that it won the Humour Writing for Young People Award ($5,000), part of the Russell Prize for Humour Writing 2023.

What is particularly great about this award is that it is chosen by young judges.

Five youth judges from schools across NSW have selected renowned children’s author Lian Tanner as the 2023 winner for Rita’s Revenge – an hilarious mystery story about Rita a poet, outcast and duck who is out for revenge against a scruffy chicken called Clara. 

Presented by the State Library of NSW, the Russell Prize was established thanks to the late Peter Wentworth Russell.

‘It’s going to be amazing.’

Have you read ‘A Clue for Clara’? If you haven’t, I strongly suggest reading ‘A Clue for Clara’ first because you will meet several of the important characters, and it is a terrific story.
Rita is one of the ducks of Little Dismal, and she has a problem. She learned, after reciting a poem at Talent Night, that poetry is not on the approved list of duck activities. How can Rita redeem herself? It happens that the ducks want revenge: they believe that a scruffy little chook called Clara has been telling lies about them. If Rita seeks revenge against Clara, will this be enough to redeem her reputation? Rita hopes so. And, referring to the teachings of General Ya, whose advice starts with:

‘1. Let your plans be as dark and mysterious as the inside of a cow.’

Rita develops a plan. Well, Rita tries to develop a plan, but she is not as familiar with humans as Clara is and has a steep (and at times hilarious) learning curve ahead. Not only does she need to recruit her own human army, but she also needs a way to communicate and a way to keep track of time.

‘How can I tell the days apart, if it is always today?’

‘The day after Thirstday will be Frightday, because Clara’s going to get such a fight when I take revenge on her.’

Rita does recruit her own army, but I don’t want to spoil the story by telling you ‘who’ and ‘how’. And Rita’s plan to seek revenge becomes caught up in other issues. There are some dodgy things happening around Little Dismal and Rita will face some extreme challenges.

‘It was a brilliant plan. Why does she have to spoil it by needing evidence?’

This is a terrific story about belonging, friendship and learning and is told with humour. Yes, it is junior fiction aimed at children aged 8 and above, and this elderly child enjoyed it immensely.

Highly Recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Wintering by Krissy Kneen

‘We’ve found a car, miss, but there’s no sign of a driver.’

Jessica lives in southern Tasmania with her boyfriend Matthew. She works as a tour guide at a cave complex and is just finishing a PhD on glow worms. Despite living in this small community for some years, Jessica does not know many of the people there. Matthew does.  And then Matthew disappears. His car is found abandoned; there is a mysterious image on his ‘phone.

What happened to Matthew? Distraught, Jessica tries to find answers. There are some in the community who believe that a Tasmanian Tiger might be involved. Jessica meets a group of women each of whom saw an animal like a Tasmanian Tiger about the time that their own partners when missing.

As I read, I wondered what Jessica saw in Matthew, and wondered whether each of the other missing men was of a similar impulsive and controlling nature. While trying to find Matthew, Jessica learns more about him from those in the community who seemingly knew him better. But it’s the group (coven) of mysterious women who almost had me throwing the book away unfinished. I struggle when suspense slips into supernatural.

I kept reading because Krissy Kneen’s writing held me in the setting even as I rejected aspects of the journey. If you believe in just deserts, and don’t mind suspending disbelief and a hint of the supernatural, you may find this story more satisfying than I did. I want to visit the Hastings Cave, but I won’t be looking for Tasmanian Tigers.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Bookbinder of Jericho by Pip Williams

‘Scraps. That’s all I got. Fragments that made no sense without the words before or the words after.’

Oxford, 1914. Twin sisters Peggy and Maude Jones work in the bindery at Oxford University Press in Jericho.  Peggy, using the bonefolder that once belonged to her late mother Helen to fold pages, dreams of studying the books she is binding at Oxford University. Peggy considers this dream impossible: she needs to look after her sister Maude and, in any case, the divide between ‘Gown’ and ‘Town’ is too wide for Peggy to cross.

‘Your job is to bind the books, not read them…’

But the advent of the Great War brings change, together with heartbreak and (for some) opportunity. The reality of the war is brought home to both sisters when refugees from Belgium arrive in the community. And Peggy starts to realise that Maude is not as dependent on her as she thinks.

This novel, described as a companion to ‘The Dictionary of Lost Words’ takes the reader into the world where books are made. A world in which the efforts of the women who assembled the books is passed over, or forgotten in history, much like the word ‘bondmaid’ in ‘The Dictionary of Lost Words’.

‘There is satisfaction in sewing the parts of a book together. Binding one idea to the next, one word to another, reuniting sentences with their beginnings and ends.’

In their home, the narrowboat Calliope, Peggy and Maude are surrounded by books and manuscripts. While many of them are damaged and unfit for sale, they provide Peggy with a view into a world she would love to occupy. The Great War, suffragism and the ‘Spanish Flu’ epidemic each have an impact on Peggy and Maude’s world. Can Peggy cross the bridge between ‘Town’ and ‘Gown’?  And what of her relationship with wounded Belgian soldier, Bastiaan?

Ms Williams has peopled her novel with wonderful characters. Prickly, ambitious Peggy and her quieter, observant sister Maude are accompanied by Tilda, by Belgian refugees Lotte and Bastiaan. There are others who provide opportunity and support. And, as Ms Williams brings the world of book binding to life, there’s a reminder that we only learn the history of those who are deemed important enough to write about.

Yes: I loved this book.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Royals by Tegan Bennett Daylight

‘I noticed it but I didn’t think about it.’

Shannon was supposed to meet her twin brother Liam at the local shopping mall in Western Sydney. They were going to buy their parents birthday gifts. But somehow, as Shannon is scrolling through her Instagram feed, something changes. The next thing she knows the time on her ‘phone is frozen at 5:17 pm and the mall seems empty. And Shannon can neither attract the attention of anyone outside (although she can see them) nor open the doors to get out. Gulp.

Shannon finds there are five other teenagers in the same situation: Jordan, James, Grace, Tiannah and Akira. And a baby girl. She is too young to talk, and they name her Juno.

There’s plenty of food in the mall, and all of the shops seem to be open. But there is no internet, no wi-fi and all the clocks are stuck on 5:17 pm. There are no adults and no rules to follow.

‘There was everything to do and so there was nothing to do.’

Here we are, in a modern version of the island in William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’. How will these six very different teenagers manage? How long will they be captive?  And how will they manage the responsibility of a baby?

As the story unfolds, we learn more about each of the teenagers. The longer they spend together the more they open up about their lives before the mall. While the food supply is never ending, there is still rubbish to deal with. There are plenty of beds as well as an endless supply of clothing for all and nappies for Juno.

As the novel unfolded, we learn more about each of the teenagers, their aspirations, and their challenges. They are trapped in a disconnected world, totally foreign to them with no adult guidance. And as they talk to each other and share responsibility for Juno’s care, we see a group of responsible young people making the best of a challenging situation.

Once I accepted the situation the teenagers were in (and stopped wondering about ‘why’ and ‘how’) I really enjoyed this novel. I am much, much older than the target audience for this YA novel but Tegan Bennett Daylight brought these teenagers to life in a way I could understand and empathise with.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster (Australia) for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Estella by Kathy George

‘I am not aware of how old I was when I was taken from my mother.’

Have you ever wondered, reader of ‘Great Expectations’, about Estella’s story? About where she came from and what happened to her? In ‘Estella’ Ms George retells ‘Great Expectations’ from Estella’s perspective. Imagine: a child formed into womanhood by a vengeful Miss Havisham, shaped to capture the hearts of men, and to break them. Pip is provided by Miss Havisham as playmate and test. After being schooled in France, Estella returns to London where she meets Pip again. But Pip is not part of Miss Havisham’s life plan for Estella. While Estella seems to have little choice but to follow Miss Havisham’s wishes, she does make some friends of her own. But encouraged by Ms Havisham, she shuns Pip and then makes a disastrous marriage which further isolates her. Can Estella break free from Miss Havisham’s control and conditioning to find her own place in life?

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, revisiting some of the characters from one of my favourite Charles Dickens novels. I can imagine Estella, now, much as Ms George portrays her: a woman of contradictions. Estella is both caring and cold. She is enigmatic, feisty and guarded. Highly recommended.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Harlequin Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith