Review: ‘Becoming Kirrali Lewis’ by Jane Harrison

kirrali lewis*This review is part of a series of reviews #weneeddiversebooksAU

**Teachers notes for this title are available here.

Here I was: Kirrali Lewis. Through a pair of ornate wrought-iron gates was one of the oldest universities in the country. Our paths had just intersected. It was the 10th of March 1985 and I, little black duck, was about to step through those gates to embark on a law degree.

It’s 1985 and Kirrali Lewis, little black duck from a white adoptive family, is just starting university. She’s worked hard to get to where she is, and she doesn’t want any handouts – particularly not those given to her because she’s Aboriginal. From day one, Kirrali shuns the Aboriginal cooperative, draws a line between herself and race politics and anything that could be seen as a handout. Kirrali’s attitude is that it’s hard work and and determination that are responsible for success, not privilege (or lack thereof). But uni is an eye-opening experience for Kirrali, in more ways than one.

This excellent first novel tackles some complex themes. Kirrali’s position in the politics of her race and generation (whether she likes it or not), makes for a fascinating narrative perspective. Alongside the obvious challenges that Kirrali faces – developing her sense of identity, discovering her culture and her place in it, tracing her ancestry – the book also looks at issues facing single mothers, mixed race relationships and the different ways privilege manifests itself.

Kirrali is the kind of character who protects herself with a mask of cool detachment. Despite having been the subject of racist bullying – an interaction with a girl in high school who confidently tells her that ‘black people come from Africa. And they should go back there.’ leaves Kirrali ashamed of her own truth – Kirrali can’t see how her ancestry should define her. Her self-imposed isolation at the beginning of the novel works well to put some distance between the reader and the narrative. Instead of being unable to see beyond the character’s emotions, Kirrali’s emotional detachment gives the reader space to consider the complicated politics surrounding her. Of course, as the narrative continues, Kirrali’s perspectives shift and she becomes more emotionally open, and the reader is right there with her.

This book challenges stereotypes and preconceived notions on all levels, because Jane Harrison has written fantastic characters who push the boundaries. Kirrali’s adoptive parents are frequently mentioned as having tried to encourage Kirrali to connect with her history. The dreadlocked guy from the Aboriginal Coop becomes Kirk, a fierce political supporter, but also an emotionally complex friend who supports Kirrali from the get go, despite her initial attitudes towards him. Kirrali’s best friend Martina could have been a happy-go-lucky airhead, but in fact offers strong counterpoints to Kirrali’s fears and judgements. Kirrali’s mother too, who in fact takes half the narrative, is unexpected in a number of ways.

Despite being a book that is very aware of the politics surrounding it – as Kirk says to Kirrali the first time they meet ‘Looked in the mirror lately, girl? You gotta be interested in politics.’ – Becoming Kirrali Lewis isn’t self conscious, and it doesn’t pander to existing political narratives. Instead the politics exist within the story, which is deeply personal. Kirrali’s flaws, her insecurities, fears, ignorances and desires are so familiar, so there is never any danger of her being reduced to a stereotyped representation of the Aboriginal experience (as if, as Ambelin Kwaymullina writes in this piece there were only one experience). Books shouldn’t be added to collections purely to increase diversity, but excellent titles that are also diverse and challenging should be sought out and displayed prominently. Becoming Kirrali Lewis is certainly one of these.

Blog Tour! Free books! “Bird” by Crystal Chan

Chan_BirdBird (John) was five when he flew off the top of the cliff. Flew all the way to the bottom. The day he died his Grandpa stopped talking. The day he died, Jewel was born.

Jewel has grown up in the shadow of her brother’s death. Each birthday is thick with his absence. Until her twelfth birthday, when Jewel meets another boy called John. He talks about planets and space and makes her feel like she can tell him secrets that she’s only ever shared with her rocks. But her Grandpa thinks that John is a duppy and spits at his feet, and even Jewel knows that there’s something that John isn’t telling her, she just isn’t sure what it is.

I feel very lucky to have been asked to review this book as a part of Crystal Chan‘s blog tour. It’s a very special first book, and is fitting that author Martine Murray has given the cover quote, as she has a similar frankness to her characters, a similar wisdom.

This is a book that finds the perfect balance of heaviness and light. It is rich with culture and colour and longing. Jewel longs to be noticed, her mother longs for her son and Grandpa longs to make up for being responsible for the death of his beloved Bird. It’s a book about wanting something more, wanting to eek more from life than just surviving. Jewel wants to be a geologist, but her mother wants her to be something more, something safer, something normal. The overprotectiveness of a mother who has lost one child is understandable, even to Jewel, but just once she wants to be heard not from behind the veil of tragedy that hangs over her family. Jewel’s father is overprotective too, but as a Jamaican, his protection comes in the form of plants, rituals and totems designed to keep the evil spirits, the duppies away from his family.

This exploration of not fitting in because of colour or culture is mirrored in John, the dark skinned boy of a white, rich family. He resents them because they’re a daily reminder that he’s got no links to his birth family who gave him up. In Jewel he finds someone who understands him. She understands what it’s like to be different, and to have people take one look at you and assume that you don’t belong. She understands his obsession with space, and can match his facts about planets with her own about the rocks and the earth. They are companion stars, moving in each others’ atmosphere.

But while I love the relationship that develops between Jewel and John, my favourite character, and my favourite development in the book is Grandpa and his relationship with Jewel. Grandpa starts as a two dimensional angry old man, silenced by his grief and superstitions. But Jewel knows that there was more to him once. Before Bird flew. ‘Pooba’, who gave his grandson a nickname that encouraged him to fly. A smiling Grandpa, with his arm around Granny. Little by little Grandpa becomes more than his silence and rage. Discovering him is one of the many lovely character mysteries to this book and there are some beautiful moments as he starts to become more than a name or a silent, angry figure to Jewel and starts becoming a person with history and joy and music and pain. It’s extraordinary watching Jewel

Chan2 I(Stacy Jaffe)uncover the mysteries of her family within this old man, and watching her find a place where her soul feels at home.

Words are what we use to tell a story, but it’s the silences that make it special. Crystal Chan uses both to perfection. Her story is one that is captivating to read- it’s rich, colourful, tragically happy and wonderful and the words that she uses to tell it are clean and precise. They are punctuated with perfect silences, lifting this story beyond the everyday and making it fly.

 

Thanks to Text Publishing I have a copy of “Bird” to giveaway to an Australian reader. Just tell me in the comments why you’d like to read it and I’ll announce the winner in the next couple of weeks.

You can read the rest of Crystal’s journey through the blogosphere at the sites below

Extract on Gobblefunked

Review & Guest Post at VeganYANerds

Review at whY.A.not?

12 Curly Questions on Kids’ Book Review

Review at Diva Booknerd

Review at YA Midnight Reads

Review at inkcrush

Review & Q&A at ALPHAReader

Review – My Life as an Alphabet – Barry Jonsberg

my-life-as-an-alphabetThere’s a chapter in this book about the death of a child because of Cot Death. As a new mum, had I known that before I started reading it, I probably wouldn’t have. Which would have been a real shame, because this is an absolutely wonderful book, and the joy I got from reading it by far outweighed that sick/new mum feeling that I get whenever someone mentions SIDS.

Candice Phee is one of the strangest characters I’ve encountered in a while. But she’s strange in a good way (particularly if you’re a reader). She’s got a lot of friends (if you ask her, but not so many if you ask everyone else). She has a fish called Earth-Pig Fish (whose name would have just been Earth-Pig but she didn’t want to be responsible for the resulting identity crisis). She has a friend (who reciprocates the friendship) who is Douglas Benson From Another Dimension (that one’s pretty self explanatory really). She makes people laugh without having any idea how she’s doing it. And this is the story of her life, told through the 26 letters of the alphabet.

My Life as an Alphabet is everything that you want a book to be, and I do mean everything. It’s funny – like, laugh out loud and read-the-funny-bits-to-the-person-next-to-you funny, strange, clever, sad, thoughtful, whimsical, and mature. Friendships are formed. Lives are saved. Letters are written.

This is one of those books in that genre that is squeezing it’s way out between junior fiction and young adult. Think Angel Creek and When You Reach Me. It’s the genre that deals with characters just at the peak of adolescence, but with just enough leftover naivety that they believe that magic can happen. And sometimes by believing it, perhaps it can.

I love this genre, because as an older reader it becomes less of a story about every day events and more of a fable – a reminder of unflinchingly looking to the future and knowing that it would all work out. There’s so much hope in books for this age. Even the sad chapters (such as the one mentioned at the beginning of this review) are taken in the matter-of-factual stride that 10-12-year-olds seem to possess.

I finished My Life as an Alphabet and I wanted to read it all over again. Barry Jonsberg is a gem.

Shadowboxing by Tony Birch

shadowboxing

You might all remember me raving about Tony Birch’s 2012 book Blood as soon as I read it last year. There’s something raw and just so good about his writing.

I’ve been meaning to read Shadowboxing forever. Hearing Tony speak at the launch of the Australian special of McSweeney’s last year reminded me and I took it home the following day. It’s been sitting on my ‘to read’ pile ever since.

Over the holidays, I tend to shy away from books that I think are going to be ‘too serious’. It’s the time I read crime, or comedy, or don’t read at all, getting totally absorbed in mediocre daytime TV. As much as I loved Blood, I couldn’t forget the stormy undertones. Without knowing a lot about Shadowboxing, I’d assumed that it would be an even darker predecessor, raw and shocking. I felt like I’d need my thinking cap on. So it sat on the pile, along with all of my good intentions, until the day I finally left the house with nothing but my bag and the book.

What I had forgotten, about Blood and about Birch as a writer is his matter-of-factness, the fresh tone that makes even cruel subject matter immensely readable. His writing is authentic and clean, steering clear from overt drama, instead trusting the reader to find the drama in each piece for themselves.

In Shadowboxing, the life of a son is chronicled through ten short stories. Picking through his memories, we follow Michael from childhood through to becoming a father himself.  Suburban Melbourne is the living backdrop of the pieces, and the changing scenery is as important as the evolution of the characters themselves.

Whether you’ve lived in Melbourne a day, a lifetime, or never stepped foot on Smith St in your life, you’ll feel grounded in the pages of Shadowboxing. The spaces are as real in history as for the reader. When the Red House is demolished the loss is personal. Each insult, each punch, each silence is felt beyond the pages. I moved to Melbourne nearly ten years ago. I didn’t see the Smith St of Shadowboxing, and yet it seems as though I’ve walked it myself, that I know both the street and its characters intimately as their lives spill out of rented houses and onto the now familiar pavement.

Short stories aren’t for everyone, despite how wonderful they can be (if you’re not convinced, I highly recommend the short stories of Roald Dahl). Shadowboxing though, will appeal to both lovers of short stories, and to those who prefer the experience of a whole novel. Really, the ten connected pieces in this book are less like short stories, and more like a style choice – ten cohesive chapters with shared characters and lives, all told by the same narrator. The difference though, is that the narrator is almost given the choice of the memories he chooses to share, so they can be close to home, or recalling a random incident, from childhood or adulthood. Overall this means that each piece could easily be read (in any order) alone, or as a part of the greater package.

I’ve still to read Father’s Day, but have no doubt that it will live up to my (now high) expectations. Like Scot Gardner, Tony Birch’s writing is perfectly Australian (an Australia that will have truth for the people who have ever lived here, not the camped up Australia so often seen on film). There’s no dwelling on the many gum trees that surround us, or particular native birds, and yet Australia is instantly recognisable as the setting.

Like BloodShadowboxing is a brilliant book – personal, captivating and immediate.

Review – Burning Eddy by Scot Gardner

As a child/teenager growing up in the hills of Adelaide with chickens, veggies, strangling, delicious blackberry plants and paddocks full of cows (with the occasional kangaroo hopping through) I dreamt of the concrete jungle depicted in books like Looking for Alibrandi. When I moved to Melbourne ten years ago, I felt like I was finally home.

Burning Eddy felt like a different kind of home to me as I was reading it, that home of my childhood. Scot Gardner has a way of describing things that are so familiar that I’m catapulted straight back to the moment I first mistook an angry koala for a wild boar, my countless run ins with hairy huntsmen and forgotten tin sheds surrounded by brushland and shrub.

I read this while researching an article I’m writing for VATE – recommending complementary texts to the Australian Curriculum. It’s an excellent text to tie in with the sustainability topic, as it encourages a deep understanding of Australian growth and development, of industry and mining vs the sustainability of our natural habitat, and the natural spread of plant and animal life as well as the symbiotic relationship between the two.

As always, Scot Gardner’s writing is exquisitely stripped back. There’s a raw honesty to his writing that is compelling as a reader. And underlying the quirky characters of Eddy, the sweetness of Dan’s younger brother Toby, the teen angst of his sister Kat, and the pureness of Dan himself, there is the shadow of hurt and cruelty in other characters, and always the unpredictability of the bush.

Burning Eddy isn’t as long as some of SG’s more recent books, but contains a far larger story than the size indicates. Every character has weight, and every name is memorable. Although this isn’t a new book, it’s one I highly recommend readers revisit.

Breaking up all this is the wonderful Dutch woman -Eddy. She’s the kind of unexpected character that those familiar with Scot’s work will love. A breath of colour and surprise, she cuts through the dust and

Review – Disharmony: The Telling

by Leah Giarratano.

When I finished this book I hopped onto Goodreads, thinking that there would be a stack of reviews up from people who had loved this as much as I did. But instead I found mostly average reviews, complaining about the pace (and a couple lamenting the fact that as a YA this was clearly never going to be as good as an adult book – don’t even get me started).

I’m disappointed. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and if it initially took a while to get going, it was because the complex set up was required to match the intricacies of the characters. Frankly I think people will enjoy this book much more than some other reviews might suggest.

At the outset of the story we’re introduced to the psychopath, the empath, the genius and The Telling – an ancient prophecy predicting the safety of the world, or the destruction. The prophecy is directly linked to the three siblings – mothered by a witch determined to bring the prophecy into reality and bend it to her own will. Bur the siblings are scattered around the world, knowing nothing of their destiny or of each other.

The chapters have alternating perspectives, following in this story, the psychopath and the empath as their destiny finds them, and they set out on a quest to find each other. I often find this way of writing frustrating, not because it suggests a poor quality, but because I’m always just catching the flow of one section, when I’m closed out and shifted to another. This method certainly keeps the momentum going, as it means a cliffhanger every few chapters – and I once heard one of my favourite authors say that they wanted every page to leave readers wanting to read the next. Disharmony certainly does that.

My only complaint are the chapters that open and close the book, and appear very occasionally in between. User:Intellicide is an unknown character to us, leading us through the story, and the tone in these chapters seems patronising, especially in contrast to the complex cleverness in the rest of the book. I’m hoping that in future books in the series we’ll find out more about this character and there will be a particular reason for the tone.

Overall though, I loved this after so many same-same fantasies I’ve read recently. It’s an original idea with the potential to turn into something intricately clever and fascinating to read.

Review – Other Brother

by Simon French

Simon French has written a stack of books and won as many awards for his writing. so I’m ashamed to say that Other Brother is the first of his titles that I’ve read. From page one I was hooked. I was coming down from a foray into fantasy and so the books I’d picked up prior to this one hadn’t grabbed my attention. I was definitely suffering from a book hangover. But French’s light touch and subject matter had me from page one and I found myself counting minutes until lunch breaks or times when I could stop whatever else I was doing and get back to the story.

In chapter one we’re introduced to Keiran – your fairly standard young boy. He’s not a mean kid, but from the first time he meets his cousin Bon things don’t go well. As Keiran’s mother snaps a photo of the two boys Bon leans close and smiles, saying “we’re brothers, we are”. Keiran tenses, hating this stranger’s intrusion into his life and his family. His animosity towards Bon grows after the boy leaves and Keiran discovers that two of his toys are missing. Bon drops out of Keiran’s life for two years, dragged back to his vagabond life on the road with his mother. And then he comes back. This time for good.

Bon’s reappearance isn’t welcomed by Keiran, who hasn’t let go of his grudge from two years earlier. Bon has grown into a weird kid, with a girlish plait and a ratty rainbow beanie. Bon can’t do anything right – when he starts attending Keiran’s school, Kerian stands by, pretending not to know him as he’s teased and bullied. He hates Bon for not even trying to stand up for himself. Everyone in Keiran’s family sees Bon as the victim, but for Keiran, he’s the fly in his soup. And to make matters worse, Bon has managed to befriend the other new kid Julia, who frowns at Keiran for his attitude towards his family.

It’s hard as an outsider to empathise with Keiran, who comes across as so sulky and unfair that you want to shake some sense into him. I haven’t found myself so invested in a story like this for some time – watching everyone try to explain Bon’s situation to Keiran, and then seeing him turn his back again and again is heartbreaking. If I could have helped Bon myself, I would have. It was this passion that dragged me through the book. I devoured page after page, desperate to know what it would take for Keiran to man up and shift his perspective outside his own self-centred desires.

At it’s heart (and I say that deliberately, as Other Brother has heart in spades), this is a book about family. At the periphery there’s the story of an outsider trying to fit in at school (and the side story of Julia, who’s mysterious background acts as the catalyst for the climax of the book), but the story focuses much more on family dynamics than anything else. French could have chosen to write about Bon as the central character, describing his difficulties fitting in via conflicts with school bullies. While those conflicts are there, it is Keiran’s behaviour that is heartbreaking, much more so than the schoolyard bullies. His attitude towards Bon and the dynamics within their extended family provide the gripping emotional background to the book and forces readers to invest themselves thoroughly in every page.