Cloudwish by Fiona Wood

First published 2015 by Macmillan Australia


I did not enjoy this book at all at first. So I was mystified to see that 9 out of 10 people gave it five stars on Goodreads, and for a while I felt like Elaine from Seinfeld when she went with her boss to see The English Patient.

Cloudwish is about a Vietnamese Australian named Vân Uớc (excuse me if I don’t have the right letters, but anyway it’s Vietnamese for ‘Cloudwish’), who wishes that a certain boy, Billy Gardiner, would find her fascinating. Immediately he does. The rest of the book is what happens as she deals with unexpected attention of Billy, as well as the jealous reactions of the cool girls. Meanwhile at home her mother is dealing with some mental health issues, but they don’t seem to intrude on the Billy storyline, or even have anything to do with it.

Admittedly I had just finished a book by Tim Winton and before that one by Vikki Wakefield, and in comparison found Cloudwish rather ordinary. In addition I thought it was too politically correct, too didactical, and contained too much information of the boring variety. For some reason Wood felt some obligation to include all these ‘diverse’ characters such as Jess, the Vietnamese Lesbian-in-waiting. While they may be winning her a few awards, to me it seemed like she was trying a little bit too hard to be inclusive of minority groups.

I also prefer not to be force-fed chunks of feminist theory or any other sociological blah blah – for  example in chapter 11, we are introduced briefly to a Dr Fraser, a teacher with short orange hair…”and right now she was telling the class, incandescent, evangelistic, about how the allocation of space in department stores was just one more manifestation of the pressures put on women to conform to external social constructs.” Please! Why can’t a novel just be a novel? Like Jane Eyre. Tiddas by Anita Heiss was another shocker. Write me an essay, don’t hector me in fiction.

I did however enjoy the rich versus poor content, and always have been interested in social class in Australia, given that we lie to ourselves about not having any, so I thought the subtleties relating to class were presented rather well in Cloudwish.

And as for Cloudwish herself, what a sweetheart! Pity I still don’t know how to pronounce her name. Is it Van you-OCK or Van oo-OCK? We were told only that it is not Van-ock. Maybe Fiona Wood doesn’t know how to pronounce it either!

About 80 pages in I put the book down to read something else (Awful Auntie by David Walliams) and when I went back to the book, it had grown wings. From then on, it stuck to the story, and I was into it at last. I did not even mind the ending.


Inbetween Days by Vikki Wakefield

First published 2015 by The Text Publishing Company

Inbetween days.jpg

I’d heard great things about this Vikki Wakefield over the past couple of years, so when I came across her three YA novels at the Jamestown Library I thought, you bewdy!
The writing is so good that all professional envy is wiped away, and all that is left is awe and respect.

My favourite is the first one, All I Ever Wanted, which while not overly complex (which suits me fine BTW) is brimming with hope and contrasting lives. These people had their troubles but things were only going to get better by the end. And just before the end you find out some startling piece of information that makes you want to start the book over, with new info in hand.

Friday Brown was a completely different kettle of fish. I was at odds with the street kids from the start, and being out of a familiar environment, I was wanting Friday to be gone from them, but I did not get my wish. Altogether it was a bit too Lord of the Flies for me; I still haven’t recovered from reading that almost 30 years ago.

Inbetween Days for me was an in between novel. I liked the slower pace of it, and with such a title any other pace would have been wrong. It is set in a small town and the main character Jacklin is living with her older sister Trudy, and working at a roadhouse. Each Sunday she meets with a guy named Luke from the next town; Inbetween Days not only refers to the days she spends waiting for Sunday to come, but to this time she spends waiting for her ‘real life’ to start. And as the story unfolds this day to day life gradually goes to shit and she is unable to do anything about it. She feels rejected by her family and friends and ends up spending time with Jeremiah, the boy next door who is home from uni for the summer, Jeremiah’s friend Roly, Pope who is camped in the nearby ‘suicide forest’ and Mr Broadbent, her boss’s father who has dementia. Rather than risk giving out any spoilers I’ll just add that the novel did had a hopeful ending, a good one, in fact. Jacklin manages to find herself and make peace with pretty much everyone.

This novel is different to the other two in that the main character has a father around. Neither Mim from All I Ever Wanted or Friday Brown knew their fathers at all, nor had they much interest in having anything to do with them. Friday loses interest in her father all too quickly, which made me wonder about Wakefield herself and what father-related baggage she carries around (but I’d be too scared to ask such a personal question).

The town the novel is set in is named Mobius, and is a dying town people might be able to leave occasionally, but somehow they end up back where they started. I love the line, ‘people drove in by accident and left on purpose’. Another sentence that stood out was ‘Mrs Gates had a big mouth and reserved seating at the bar’. The book is also full of clever little insights such as when Jeremiah says, “Your problem is you still insist on mapping your own position relative to everybody else’s. It’s no wonder you’ve lost all sense of direction…you’re always checking who’s behind you and who’s in front. I just keep my head down and read my own compass.”

When it comes to settings, a novelist can be vague or they can be specific and use one of those map pinpoint things. Wakefield has opted to be vague. While All I ever wanted seemed to be set squarely in the northern suburbs of Adelaide, down the hill from where I grew up (Modbury), the city in Friday Brown could have been any of our big cities with a river, although I was imagining something south of the Murray in Victoria for the country setting. As for Inbetween Days, I spent most of the book ranging the mountains with a pinpoint in my head, trying to work out where exactly in the Great Dividing Range it could be. It’s humid but Jacklin thinks she can smell snow at one point. I think I settled on somewhere in NSW in the end. But am not sure which real life town Mobius might be near.

She has not stated when the novel is set either, and I can only guess by the landline and phone boxes, as well as the drive-in being closed but still able to function, that it is somewhere in the 80s, when Wakefield was Jacklin’s age. But I like the timelessness of Wakefield’s novels, and that they are not bogged down with social media which will make them seem dated very quickly. The beginning of Dirt Music by Tim Winton is spoiled somewhat by the main character’s surfing the internet pre web 2.0. For me it warns against a reliance on current technology in novels, yet such things are so integral to our lives now that it is a tricky thing to avoid. So hats off to Wakefield for succeeding in her novels.

The downside to reading Vikki Wakefield is the effect on whatever book I read next – the writing seems pedestrian; she ruins it for so many other authors! And for me too, I mean what is the point in trying to write…?

The Messenger Bird by Rosanne Hawke

First published 2012 by UQP.

messenger bird

As I will be taking Writing Young Adult Fiction with this author in the new year through Tabor Adelaide’s Creative Writing program, I borrowed a few of her books of hers to read over the holidays. This is one I loved from the start.

It has everything I want in a novel: history, mystery, a crumbling old house with a secret garden, and a little romance. And all set in a South Australian landscape.

There is a girl who needs saving and some men who would like to save her – if only she would let them. The girl is Tamar, a musically inclined wearer of floaty dresses who has lost her brother Trystan in a car accident the previous year. She and her father are struggling along at home while the mother is away for a few weeks. She is lost and withdrawn while her father is keeping himself busy renovating the place. He also wants to restore some basement rooms which have been closed up for over a century. And in an old fireplace, they find a photo of a young man and some sheets of handwritten music.

Tamar hasn’t played any music since her brother died, but she has a go at this piece, The Maiden’s Prayer by Tekla Bądarzeweska-Baranowska, and something unexpected happens. The young man from the photo turns up, straight out of 1887. He too, has had a recent tragedy in the family, and Tamar and her time travelling visitor (Nathaniel) lean on each other as the book progresses until both are ready to face the griefs that they had been hiding from.

Not all the chapters are written from Tamar’s perspective – many are told from the point of view of Gavin, a new arrival to the area (north of Kapunda) whose family lost their farm near Orroroo. He made a nice hero, a good sensible farm boy who is only interested in Tamar and barely looks at other girls. The world could do with a few more Gavins. Nathaniel, being from the past, is slightly more interesting, and he is also a gentleman. There are also a couple of chapters from 1886 included.

Other characters are the old olive tree and Henry the cat, who clues us in on the fact that Nathaniel is not a ghost, but a messenger bird. The title refers to the willie wagtail, which Aboriginal people said brought news of death. We’ve had one appear unexpectedly in the garden on the morning of an impending death.

I’ve always loved a good grief book, and even before I went through any myself, as a teen I loved Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume. A death is not a bad way to start a book. And I love it when a main character rises from the bottom of the pit and begins to restore their life.

From the moment I opened the book I was captivated, and was back in an earlier place in time, that being when I really started loving books around age 10. I still re-read some of the books I loved then, just to recapture the joy I felt disappearing into another world. Over the years I have picked up a few books for young people, hoping to feel that same feeling again. Most of them were let downs. Even the Harry Potter books. While the second book was really good, somewhere in the fourth book the story headed to places too dark and disturbing for my liking.

So to read The Messenger Bird was wonderful – it not only revived my appetite for reading fiction (I mainly read memoir these days), but it has made me excited about writing it again. I am now itching to finish the novel I started a couple of years ago, and can’t wait to get studying next year.

Some years ago I wanted to write for young people but was hesitant, mainly as I had not yet ever sent a text at that time. Roseanne’s work shows me that I don’t need to get hung up on whether I can do social media or use a smart phone, as none of this stuff is present. Just the house, the vets and the past. And the creek, the secret garden and the old olive tree groaning in the wind.

As for the music itself, when I looked up The Maiden’s Prayer on YouTube, I wondered what there was to like about it. I had hoped to find it more moving, so that was a bit of a letdown. But there must be other people out there who love it, as this obscure piece of music is still around.

Eyrie by Tim Winton

First published 2013 by Penguin Group (Australia)


I read Tim Winton for the first time when I was fifteen, the book was An Open Swimmer, and shortly before reading Eyrie, I had another read to see if I could make head or tail of it this time round. But I am not sure that I did. There have always been parts of Winton’s books where I’m not really sure what is going on or what has happened, but I will continue to read him because I love his broken protagonists and his rich imagery and am as soothed by the sea and the bush as his characters are.

In Eyrie there is less of the bush than some of the other books I’ve read (Minimum of Two, Cloudstreet, Land’s Edge and Dirt Music) as the story is set in central Freemantle. The main character Tom Keely has separated from his wife, lost his job and is clinging to his sanity, while hiding from the world in a crummy flat on the top floor of a crummy high rise.

Enter Gemma Buck, a waif from his childhood who with her sister used to stay with the Keelys when the domestic violence at home got too bad. She is now living a couple doors down with her grandson Kai. Kai is a strange kid who’s seen too much and this is probably why he’s drawn to Keely.

No sooner is Kai on the scene when the tension moves up a notch, and the reader spends the rest of the book wondering whether this child will fall from the tenth floor or not. In the meantime Keely finds himself sucked into Gemma’s crap, but through trying to help her he finds enough goodness in himself to hang onto the shred of sanity he has. It is a gripping tale which keeps you turning pages, but suddenly it ends.

Now Winton has never been the kind of writer who wraps up everything neatly, but he gives us enough to figure out where the characters are heading when we close the book. At the end of Eyrie, we do find out the answer to the main question of whether Kai survives and what makes Gemma tick. However I thought Winton left a few too many questions unanswered this time. We are told what went wrong with the marriage but only get hints about what went wrong at work. We never find out how the wet patch got on the floor at the very start, and I was also wondering if it was just the pills fucking him up or was there something more sinister going on neurologically. Honestly, it reminded me of The Dark Half by Stephen King! And for goodness sake, does he ever wash his towel or what?



A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin

First published 1996 by Bantam Spectra/Voyager.

a game of thrones

When I look back over my book list, which I have kept since I was 12 – 31 years ago, in any of those years the reading has been pretty girly. So this summer, after finishing AWW 2014, I have been reading books by blokes. I have read books by Alexander McCall Smith, George RR Martin, Monty Don, Graeme Simsion, and have some Tim Winton and Cormac McCarthy lined up.

I also tend to read mainly memoir with a little general fiction on the side, so to tackle something like A Game of Thrones was to take a giant leap out of my reading rut. This book sat on my e reader for six months after my son downloaded it, and there was something about the cover which made me feel excited and happy just looking at it. After all, this man has created a world loved by millions, which then became a TV series. Isn’t that every writer’s dream?

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Maya’s Notebook by Isabel Allende

First published 2013 by HarperCollins

maya's notebook

Here was a book with both my daughters’ names on the front cover so I had to read it. And Isabel partly got her name from Ms Allende.

I first heard of her when I was in Cuzco Peru almost 20 years ago, when a fellow traveller passed on one of her books to me – Eva Luna. And through that book I made a new friend Arturo, when he spotted me with it in the main square and struck up a conversation. Over the years I have read quite a few of her books (12 when I counted), some in Spanish, others translated over to English, but I had not done so for several years.

One thing I like about some of the Latin American writers is the way they are a law unto themselves. We westerners are so bound by rules such as “show don’t tell”, but Allende threw it away years ago and has so far managed to get away with it. Another rule we have is “stick to a genre”; Latin Americans say bugger that and go and invent their own!

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Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

First published 2013 by Picador.

burial rites

We humans are so fascinated with murder and murderers. Some of us devour every jot and tittle written by salivating journalists of real murder cases; others love their crime shows, be it Underbelly or NCIS or The Doctor Blake Mysteries. The masses buy the Chopper Read books, but even people who consider themselves higher minded than that are drawn to things like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or whatever Helen Garner has spent years researching. Some of us think that life is so tough we only wish for light reading, and sit up late with Hamish Macbeth or Miss Fisher or some old Agatha Christie mystery. As someone sagely put it, “happiness does not sell books; murders do”.

Based on true events, Burial Rites is about a woman convicted for her role in the murder of two men; awhile ago my stepson was put away for the murder of two women. In the year and a bit since this happened I’ve pondered the subject a lot, and have passed very few days in which I did not think about it, and I think I’ve come up with an answer to why we are so interested in it. What we want to know, in a nutshell is, “what drives people to murder?” and “am I capable of doing the same if I were in their shoes?” Sub-questions I imagine Hannah Kent to have asked are “what drives a woman to murder?” and “what drives a woman to two murders?”

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