Australian Women Writing Challenge – Book Review 1

This year, I’m taking time off work to write. My novel, with the working title ‘Woven’, has morphed into a teen/coming-of-age story after discussions with my mentor, Aleesah Darlison from Greenleaf. This has led me to read a number of young adult fiction which is somewhat amusing: not teaching in 2020, I find myself immersed in the world of high school readers.

The first two books are by Belinda Murrell who was suggested by Aleesah as my original idea was for a dual timeline with characters of very different ages. The younger character has a very clear voice, so that’s who will be the focus.

The Ruby Talisman (2010) and The River Charm (2013) are time-slip narratives, in that the protagonist travels back to a specific historical period – the French Revolution and mid 19th century Australia respectively – by means of a personal item as indicated in the titles, yet returns to their own world by the end of the book. These novels are fast paced with cleverly plotted cliffhangers at the end of each chapter. Descriptive language abounds and the characters, who are briefly introduced, are revealed through their actions.

I found Somewhere Around the Corner (1994) to be more engaging in terms of language use: onomatopoeia, metaphors, and similes are used to bring the past to life. In this novel, the present day protagonist travels back to the Depression era and lives in a ‘susso’ camp. The dialogue is effective in supporting the world created by Jackie French and the characters are well rounded. Having taught Jackie’s novels at school, I know them to be engaging for students. The 1930s is also more in line with my novel’s time period, which reminded me of another historical book for young adults that I have previously reviewed for mETAphor (Issue 1, 2018), journal of the English Teachers Association of NSW: Flying Through Clouds (2017).

A rollicking boys’ own adventure, with enough femininity to keep all Stage 4 students interested, Flying through Clouds, published in 2017 and available in both paperback and ebook formats, is the second novel for retired History teacher and playwright Michelle Morgan. Written in first person, we follow teenage Joe’s life in 1930s Glebe and his passion for flying. Inspired by his hero Charles Kingsford-Smith, Joe sets about earning money for flying lessons, after witnessing a fly-by at the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Depression era living is authentically represented through family and school life, depicting employment possibilities such as being a paperboy, bookie’s runner or seamstress. There is also mention of gambling dens and brothels, noting the desperation of those eking out a living. Appropriate idioms are referenced in descriptive passages, such as the dreary school activities for Empire Day followed by the excitement of Cracker Night which is ‘better than Easter but not as good as Christmas’.

Chapters are manageable for reluctant readers, with each chapter structured to reveal different aspects of Joe, his brother Kit, best friend Pete and sister Noni. Mum keeps a tight ship while dad stops at the pub on his way home from a brutal debt-collecting job. When Joe attends a Scout Camp on Seven Mile Beach near Gerroa on the NSW South Coast, he meets Smithy who lands there before a flight to New Zealand. There is a sense of challenging authority as we would expect in a coming of age novel.

There are dark moments, with the death of Joe’s friend from tuberculosis, and harsh corporal punishment at school. The suspense of a long distance flight to Queensland in an open cockpit plane almost ends in disaster, providing an engaging climax.

Flying Through Clouds is a compelling mix of humour and drama, with a resilient and likeable protagonist. This novel examines life in simpler, pre-personal technology times that some might consider to be more dangerous than our contemporary lifestyle. It would be interesting to hear how students might debate these ideas. This book is full of many interesting writing prompts and would be an asset for wide reading. It could be a useful text for crosscurricular study too. Teaching notes are available on the author’s website.

 

Images from Dymocks, Penguin Books, Harper Collins, South Coast Writers Centre and Echo Publishing.

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