Finn’s Feather by Rachel Noble and Illustrated by Zoey Abbott

What do you do when a book reaches into your soul and squeezes it so hard you’re left breathless and filled with a wondrous ache and yet the marvel of hope and the beauty of sorrow? You dry your eyes, still your weeping and read it all over again – this time, more slowly, taking in the deceptively simple and heart-warming prose and the gentle joy of the illustrations.

So it was when I had the amazing experience of reading Rachel Noble’s utterly lovely book for children, Finn’s Feather. This is a stark, moving and gorgeous tale about a boy named Finn who, when he finds a perfect white feather on his doorstep one day, believes it is a gift from his dead brother Hamish. I know… right?

The story is about how Finn, thrilled with his brother’s gift, can’t understand his mother’s or teacher’s reaction. His mother hugs him and sighs, his teacher takes a deep breath and smiles (and God, how I hurt when I read their reactions – it was a visceral response). It’s left to his best friend, Lucas to find, with Finn, the pleasure in his brother’s gift and the message it sends: to continue to laugh, love and never forget.

This exquisitely rendered tale of grief and loss, is told very much through a child’s eyes and how they process sorrow so differently. It is so sensitively rendered, so positive in its scope and the message and, believe it or not, happiness it offers (as well as the unbelievably touching acknowledgment of loss) that it should be read widely by everyone who has a child or who has experienced the death of a beloved.

I have been so touched by this story, but also rightly impressed with how it has been told – the care and love that has gone into a difficult and yet important tale in a society that generally doesn’t handle discussions of death at all well. Rachel Noble is to be commended and, indeed, praised for this elegant, poignant work – and for the ways in which she’s used her own experiences to give it such veracity and depth.

Let me give you a bit of background. In October 20102, Rachel lost her son Hamish in a terrible accident at home. As a way of trying to make sense of what happened, of Hamish’s death, as a professional writer, she turned to her craft: she wrote – and wrote and wrote. Knowing she wanted to write a picture book to honour Hamish and everything he means to her and her family, it wasn’t until she came home one-day and found a feather on her doorstep that Finn’s Feather took shape.

Snapped up by a US publisher – the phenomenal Enchanted Lion books, a family owned enterprise, it comes out June this year, including in Australia.

This is such an important book, such a lovely addition to any child’s and family’s library, I cannot recommend it enough. In sharing her emotions, her family’s story in such an accessible and meaningful way, Rachel has given voice to what is so hard to express and, along with Zoey Abbott, given death and loss a tender garment  for us all to don and cherish.

I loved Finn’s Feather and all the complex emotions it stirred, and the big, aching heart at its beautiful centre.

Thank you.

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Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

19486412I don’t know why I resisted reading this book even though I continued to hear good, no, great things about it. Interestingly, much of what I did hear was understated. Rather than claims of ‘it’s fabulous/wonderful/moving/erudite/beautifully written’ (and believe me, this novel is all those things and more), the phrase I heard the most was ‘just read it.’ I also noted that people whose judgment I value rated it their best book of last year.

Finally, early into 2015, I picked up Big Little Lies and the silly notion I’d developed that it was somehow a comic novel rapidly disappeared as I was drawn into the world Moriarty has created and the lives of its fully realized and complicated characters. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are some genuinely laugh out loud moments as there would be in a novel centered around three women whose common ground is the school their children attend and the small beachside neighborhood they live in. Anyone with children in primary school forced to interact with other parents knows playground and parental/family politics can be a source of great amusement but also, as a Big Little Lies intricately and accurately maps, painful angst.

Told from multiple points of view, the novel follows part of a school year and three mums whose children are newly enrolled in kindergarten. There is pragmatic ‘I call a spade a spade’ Madeline with her love of bling, glitter and her fierce sense of loyalty and social justice. Then there is her close friend, the extremely beautiful, slightly ethereal and distracted Celeste, mother to rambunctious twin boys with a perfect husband, house and wealth to spare. Finally, there is single-mother, Jane and her beloved young son, new to the area and carrying a great secret.

The narrative unfolds retrospectively, the pivotal moment (*minor spoiler* – it is revealed in the blurb but don’t read on if you don’t want to know) in which time starts to wind back is a murder. Taking us back to the point at which the three women meet, we follow the first tentative steps of friendship as Madeline and Celeste, who are already good friends, take Jane under their wing. This fledgling threesome’s friendship’s bonds are immediately tested and tightened when Jane’s son is accused of something terrible at school (no, not the murder).

Thus the stage is set and what unfolds as the school year progresses and we start to race towards what we already know is going to happen is both the normality and impossibility of the daily life and grind of ordinary people. Moriarty plunges the reader into these women’s lives and the secrets, lies – big and small – and truths of their existence, and that of their children, partners and families, as well as those of the many other characters that pepper and influence their lives. Other voices are given a brief platform from which to speak, serving to draw the reader into the mystery underpinning the entire story: who was killed? Where and why and by whom?

Masterful, evocative and haunting, the novel captures so many of the complexities of relationships: the joy, despair, frustration and fury that can co-exist under one roof between partners, parents and children, as well as those we call friends or acquaintances. It reveals what lies beneath the surface, exposes the facades we powerfully erect and work hard to maintain and why we do this as well. It explores the ways in which and reasons behind certain behaviours, even when we know they’re wrong or wonder what we’re protecting by acting that way – usually, ourselves.

This is a wonderful, chewy novel (by chewy, I mean you find yourself considering so much of what happens and what is said, turning it over and over in your head, thinking scenarios through, in many ways, testing their veracity and asking yourself, would I (or anyone I know) have said/done that) that lingers for ages in the head and heart. It is so believable, the characters so three dimensional and real you want to either slap them, interrupt an argument and add your two bits worth or invite them to a party and get drunk with them.

Absolutely marvelous prose by a brilliant writer whose work I cannot wait to sink my teeth into again and mull over some more. Might be an early call, but could be my best read for 2015…

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Book Review: The Fictional Woman by Tara Moss

One of the most thoughtful and erudite books on the female experience I have read in a long time. Rather than being exclusive or looking to apportion blame, Moss tackles the sometimes divisive subject of feminism and females through inclusivity and such a depth of understanding of culture, society and the various forces that shape us all.22309219

Part memoir, part treatise on the way women are labelled and stereotyped and then read accordingly (and men as well), Moss patiently and cleverly deconstructs a range of assumptions, using a mixture of theory, excellent research, personal experience and anecdotes.

Commencing with herself as subject, she then goes on to explain her objectification – as model, a body, a survivor and even as a writer. Having entered the fashion industry at an early age, her desire to be a professional writer was delayed but when she finally did have her first novel published, she found that the “tag” of model and the negative (and at times crushing) social and cultural assumptions of this profession haunted her aspirations. Not one to let this deter her, Moss unpacks her slow acceptance by the literary scene with humour and stoicism, and uses it as a case study through which to examine the ways in which women are constructed in mainstream culture and why this happens and, more importantly, why it’s essential to critically examine these reductive representations and understand the limitations they impose on subjectivity and female agency.

Lucid, entertaining and always engaging, Moss briefly considers the female experience through history, thus providing a context before discussing topics such as “gender wars”, male and female beauty, the notion of the invisible and visible woman (the latter through marketing and advertising) as well as how the social and cultural roles of mother and father, among many others, impact, define and either elevate or reduce us.

Moss gently but very persuasively argues that while we have a tendency in society to target individual women (and sometimes men) for harsh criticism and worse, we’re actually failing to identify and thus change the greater forces that work to uphold and restrict women’s agency. Complicit in patriarchal culture we might be, but that doesn’t mean we cannot step outside its constraints or work to change it. Her message is strong and beautifully and succinctly delivered. Her chapter on “The Feminist” had me cheering.

Moss also tackles why we need to deconstruct and critically think about the images that bombard us, the labels that we so readily bestow. She discusses the value we assign to women’s appearances and how these are also connected to morality, redundancy, conformity and a great many other emotional and psychological hurdles and burdens. Citing statistics and a great many studies, she demonstrates the lack of female representation (and diversity) in everything from parliament, politics generally, Hollywood, workplaces, education, role-models, to the dearth of meaningful representation of women of all ages, shapes, sizes and talents, in culture generally. Women are still rendered as object (often domesticated) and the power of our bodies lies mostly in their ability to arouse desire or open wallets – in other words, female bodies are most often used to sell – even the idea of competition to each other. But what Moss also investigates are the ideas our bodies both sell and perpetuate in the limited representations available and what the labels thus assigned do to our standing and understanding or ourselves and others – at the individual, family, relationship, social and political level.

The tropes of maiden, mother and crone as well as “Madonna” and “Whore” enjoy a great deal of scrutiny throughout the book, and the power they have had historically, socially and culturally to shape an understanding of women – through popular culture and beyond – is explored.

A powerful book but without being preachy, I could not put this down. If I was still lecturing at university, I would place it on my courses. As it is, I can only recommend that people of all ages, both sexes, read it. It’s an enriching, thought-provoking experience that I for one am so glad I had and will do so again.

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Book Review: Why My Third Husband Will Be a Dog

 

Why My Third Husband Will Be a Dog: The Amazing Adventures of an Ordinary Woman

This book is a collection of columns that Lisa Scottoline, an American novelist, wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer and, as the title indicates, they are humorous, reflective, self-deprecating and frankly, really heart-warming. They might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but this rich glimpse into a thrice-married writer, with one daughter, a feisty aging mother, a gay brother and loads of dogs, is delightful.

From braless emergency room moments, to her mother insisting on wearing a lab coat at home and into public space, to her daughter’s graduation(her daughter also has a voice in a couple of the columns: ie. she writes them, and they’re lovely too), to a road trip for book signings and many other things in-between, Scottoline shares them all. I laughed out loud, cried, empathised, and appreciated her frankness. I would often read columns to my partner who enjoyed hearing them.
I don’t normally seek out these kinds of books – a collection of previously published works, but I make an exception for this one. It’s great to read chronologically or to do dip in and out. Described as chick-wit, I think it has a broader appeal than that for what it covers is what effects us all, relationships, family, work, tradespeople, decisions, pets… admittedly, all these are coloured with Scottoline’s specific slant, but once you understand where she’s coming from, she’s hard to put down.

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