Between Us, by Clare Atkins

In my pre and early teens I was already reading adult books, both fiction and non-fiction, as well those actually targeted towards my age group. But those books, both adult and children’s, were very tame compared to some things published today for a teen readership.

Between Us is an example of that contrast, with occasional coarse language and references to drug use and sexual desire. Is this change in publishing an acknowledgement of changing lived realities? Or is it merely reflecting realties that were also present in my own teen years (as they were), but within a society that preferred not to acknowledge it?

In this novel, Clare Atkins can’t afford to shy away from realities that, like it or not, do reflect a commonly lived teen experience; because the book deals with some issues far darker than potentially offensive language or teen drug use. Sanitising the depiction of common experience could potentially lessen the authenticity of those darker aspects of the story.

Even in normal circumstances teenage relationships have difficulties, complicated by the uncertainties and insecurities associated with pubescent change. Ana and Jono have the additional complications of significant cultural differences, widely different personal experience, as well as being on opposite sides of Government policy.

Ana is a teenage refugee imprisoned in an Australian “detention centre”, after escaping with her family from persecution in their homeland of Iran. Her only regular time away from the prison camp is to attend the local High School. On her first day she meets Jono, the son of one of the camp’s guards, Kenny, a man of Vietnamese heritage, and once a refugee himself. But that was during very different times when the Government didn’t whip up suspicion and fear of those seeking asylum, or use them as political pawns.

Jono’s aunt, Kenny’s sister, describes her own arrival in Australian waters on a refugee boat:

“The boat come into Darwin. Near Nightcliff beach. It early morning. Foggy. All white. Then we see a small boat. It come towards us, two men dressed in singlet and shorts. White stripes here”. She touches the bridge of her nose. “Zinc, you know? Sun hat too. And they stand up with beer in their hand and wave. And they come up close, very close and fast to our boat. And one of them hold up his beer and say, ‘G’day, mate! Welcome to Australia'”

It was a very different welcome to that given to Ana, her mother and small brother. After arriving as “illegals” by boat, they are transferred from one detention centre to another, from Christmas Island to Nauru, until Ana’s mum’s pregnancy develops problems and they are moved to a mainland camp in Darwin. They are separated from Ana’s mum’s  boyfriend Abdul, the father of Ana’s brother and the expected baby. He is left behind on Nauru*.

 

…the Nauruan immigration officials asking us question after question.

It goes for hours, until we’re so tired we can barely see.

Maman tells them we’ve already been through this twice on Christmas Island, but they insist on hearing everything again. She tells them about the whipping, and they request to see my back. I lift my T-shirt to show them the scars.

The Farsi interpreter seems to struggle to translate, as Maman explains about the morality police and the government and our constant fear ever since Baba was killed and left by the side of the road.

They ask how long Maman has been with Abdul.

Abdul says, “Many years. Our son is already three”

But the officials aren’t convinced. Maman and Abdul aren’t married…

 

… Abdul argues and justifies and rants, until he loses his temper and slams his fist into the wall. The impact of it is so strong that it leaves a hole in the plaster. Abdul backs away, saying “Sorry…sorry…” But it’s as if no-one hears.

Security rushes to restrain him, as Maman screams in protest…

Each chapter of the book is told from a different character’s perspective, alternating between the points of view of Ana, Jono and Kenny.

Each has their fears and hopes, but the ratio of each differs depending on the character’s situation.

Nightmares and nightmarish memories converge in Ana’s daily reality as an inmate within the detention centre. Fear of being returned to Nauru and the lack of hope for eventual freedom. Inmates are treated as criminals with regular room searches, denied basic dignities, always fearful of retribution for minor perceived misdemeanours. Treated as less than human, little better than they were by the repressive and violent regime they tried to flee.

Jono struggles to understand Ana’s situation and what she has been through. And he is unknowingly caught up in the conflict between his growing feelings for Ana and his dad’s suspicions, fears and regrets.

Kenny’s fears for his son; wanting to provide for Jono and yet seeing the gap between them widen.  Led to believe camp inmates will manipulate and take advantage of the vulnerable he takes a dark view of Jono’s friendship with Ana. His experience shows how the camps dehumanize the staff as well as the inmates.

At a time when the mandatory detention of refugees continues, the book couldn’t lead up to a traditional happy ending, however it doesn’t leave the reader in despair, but culminates with the hope of new beginnings…

 

[And then comes the author’s postscript in which she tells of the Australian government withdrawing support from asylum seekers allowed to live in the community (up to August 2017 ) so they would be required to return to camps in Nauru or Manus Island, or have six months to return to the countries from which they had fled.]

 

The author’s personal web site is here : http://clareatkins.com.au/

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Another book covering similar ground is The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon, briefly mentioned here:
https://outshadows.wordpress.com/2017/01/27/opposite-ends-of-the-reading-spectrum/

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*https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/girl-at-extreme-risk-flown-to-australia-from-nauru-detention-centre-20180209-h0vv9t.html

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Noah’s Law, by Randa Abdel-Fattah

PAGE TURNER ALERT!!!

This book has been a “breath of fresh air” on my recent reading list.

I needed something like this – the kind of book I was very reluctant to put down, and could have read in one sitting had real life not interrupted from time to time, but as a compromise, I had to spread the reading over two days.

Sixteen year old Noah is an imaginative prankster whose originality is matched by the punishments his Lawyer dad devises.

After being caught altering the grades of classmates’ assignments when left alone in a teacher’s office, a dining room court hearing is convened and Noah’s dad sentences Noah to spend the six week  summer holidays working at his Aunt’s law firm.

The tedium of days spent copying legal documents change when Noah starts to suspect something fishy about a client’s pursuit of financial compensation from storage good franchise.

Noah’s talent for mischief turns out to be a helpful attribute, as he gains his first real-life experience of the legal system and finds how difficult it can be for justice to prevail.

I’ve just realised this is now the third Randa Abdel-Fattah book I’ve read. Only a week or two ago I finished Where The Streets Had a Name, and it was only a few minutes ago as I was typing up this “review” that I realised she is also the author of When Michael Met Mina, a book that I enjoyed last year. ( When Michael Met Mina. At the end of that post I included a link to the author’s personal website, but when I tried to access it a few minutes ago, the site didn’t seem to have any content, apart from the page title.)

 

Publisher’s page for the author.

https://www.panmacmillan.com.au/author/randa-abdel-fattah/

 

 

The Silent invasion by James Bradley

Silent InvasionThe Silent Invasion is the first part of “The Change Trilogy”, set in the near future after the earth has been infected by extra-terrestrial spores that initiate changes in the metabolism of plant and animal life.

Infection leads to both physiological and personality changes, radically altering a victim’s identity and their relationship with others. Attempting to hold back the spread of the change, the infected are taken away from their families and society, by a government Quarantine department, never to be seen again by their families.

When sixteen year old Callie finds that Gracie, her young sister has started to change, she defies her family and community law, and attempts to escape to the Zone, a wild exclusion area in the north of Australia where “the change” has become established.

The story has some similarities to Jack Finney’s 1950s story Invasion of the Body Snatchers (probably better known through film adaptations) in which people on earth are replaced by emotionless duplicates after coming into contact with plant spores (or pods) originating from space. While Finney’s story portrays the unaffected as potential victims trying to escape those dehumanised by the “pods”, Bradley’s book turns things around and those affected by the change become the potential victims, trying to escape from a fearful “unchanged” society.

It was the page-turner I needed to read after tackling a few heavy going (though rewarding books) in the preceding two months. I read it in one day, barely putting it down. Fortunately, before I started I knew it was only the first part of a trilogy so was prepared for a mostly unresolved ending to set the reader up for the next instalment

Opposite Ends of the Reading Spectrum

These are two very different books that I read at the beginning of my Christmas/New Year break.

The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon

9781510101548

Subhi is a refugee who has never known life outside of the detention centre where he was born. His only experience of anything beyond the fences is in the stories he’s heard and the hope they give of the return of the father he’s never known. Until Jimmie, a young local girl living nearby finds a way into the camp and befriends him, bringing new stories and a glimpse of life outside.

Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow is fiction, but based on true reports of Australian refugee detention centres. It doesn’t hide the despair and brutality, but unlike the ongoing experience of those currently interred in the camps, Fraillon’s story maintains the potential of hope while avoiding the glibness of an unlikely happy ending.

 

How UFOs Conquered the World by David Clark

9781781313039I was once a sucker for some of the worst, most manipulative writings on the subject of flying saucers and other “unexplained” phenomena. Now I find the majority of that kind of thing unreadable.

David Clark’s work is one of the few exceptions in UFO publications. Avoiding unfounded sensationalism, Clarke addresses the topic with rationality, not as a  believer in alien visitation or as  a debunker resorting to snide quips to ridicule those who do believe,  but as a genuine sceptic interested in what the facts actually reveal.

His interest in UFOs began in childhood (as did mine) and he started out with a naively undiscerning sense of wonder (as did I) that put beyond doubt the fact that earth was being regularly visited by visitors from space.

 

Clarke now sees UFOs as part of a modern day folklore that is heavily influence by the media, and his argument and the evidence presented are far more convincing than most of the alternatives others have promoted.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. After the reading.

MissPeregrineMiss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children fulfilled the expectations built up by Gloria’s recommendation.

I started reading it on Friday evening after work and finished it mid-Sunday afternoon. I now have to wait who knows how long for Gloria to finish reading the second book of the series.

big fishAt the beginning of the book I couldn’t help think of the Tim Burton film, Big Fish, the story of a boy turned man who had grown to realise that the stories his father had told him throughout his life were at best exaggerated and more likely complete fantasies. The father’s continued insistence of the truth of his tall tales caused a rift in the relationship.

Miss Peregrine’s starts with the relationship between the Jacob and his grandfather Abe, and like the father in Big Fish, Abe seems to be a teller of tall tales with amazing stories of his early life.

As he enters his teens, Jacob begins to doubt the stories of the “peculiar children” that Abe grew up with in an idyllic house “protected by a wise old bird”; a refuge and safe haven from the monsters he’d escaped from in Europe.

Jacob begins to understand that Abe’s stories about his past are covering dark, very real experiences of a Jewish boy escaping from the Nazis and their east European death camps. But when Jacob himself seems to come face to face with one of his grandfather’s monsters, that understanding, as well as the safe but boring life planned out for him suddenly collapses. Plagued by nightmares he is referred to a psychiatrist to try to bring rationality back to his life.

As part of his road to recovery, he is taken to a small island off the coast of Wales, the location of Abe’s childhood refuge, to find the truth behind the fantasies, and hopefully restore his own sense of reality.

PeregrineThroughout, the book is illustrated with slightly weird historical photos that play a part in Jacob’s discovery of the truth, not only about his grandfather’s past, but also about his own life.

The author used genuine historical photos as inspiration for the book’s characters, especially the “peculiar children” of the title. In a short interview at the end of the book he tells us how he’d wondered who the people in the photos were “- but the photos were old and anonymous and there was no way to know. So I thought: If I can’t know the real stories, I’ll make them up.”

He cleverly spins these imaginative biographies into a compelling, intriguing story with elements of history, fantasy, horror and adventure that are grounded in a familiar, everyday world. He takes us beyond the edge of the familiar and recognisable and shines light onto things overlooked and ignored; those things we push away to maintain the security we find in predictable rationality.

After starting this book I found that the memories it stirred of a Tim Burton film had a degree of spookiness (insert brief excerpt of Twilight Zone theme). The cover of the book announces it is “SOON TO BE A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE”, what it doesn’t say is that Tim Burton is behind that project.

That doesn’t surprise me.

Miss_Peregrine_Film_Poster

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. (prelude)

MissPeregrineCoverIt seems like I’ll be starting this book over the weekend. I bought it a couple of weeks ago but haven’t been able to read it yet because Gloria took possession of it and wouldn’t put it down. She has now called me at work to say she’s reached the end and she’s impatient for me to read it so she can talk to me about it.

The fact that Gloria feels that way about a book is significant. In the years I’ve known her, the books she’s read could probably be counted on the fingers of one and a half hands. The books she’s REALLY been enthusiastic about would make up the half hand.

I’m not sure why I bought it. I’d never heard of the book before seeing it in a local shop.
Maybe I was falling for the warned about trap of judging it by the cover – or it might have been the compelling collection of old, unusual photos scattered throughout its pages – or maybe the general appearance of the binding and the book’s physical weight made it seem more impressive than the majority of books on the shelf…

More than an impressive cover, I can be seduced by a weighty book and tend to think a book’s weight can reflect the quality of its content. No matter how many times that’s been proven wrong, the idea remains unshakeable.

So this weekend it seems like I’ll be putting aside my current non-fiction diet to make a start on the book Gloria found so compelling.

When Michael Met Mina, by Randa Abdel-Fattah

xwhen-michael-met-mina_jpg_pagespeed_ic_zjJ5EpJVBN

Humour, poignancy, foreboding, joy.

Just a few relevant words that come to mind to describe this book.

I could also add complex, but I wouldn’t want to give the wrong impression that its a difficult, confusing reading experience. The complexity relates to the issues explored, where face-value judgements are never helpful and people don’t always live up to stereotypes.

It is highly entertaining but is much more than mere entertainment; hopefully testing the reader’s preconceptions and biases.

There is a tiny hint of Romeo and Juliet in the story of Michael and Mina. They come from opposite sides of a political/racial divide. One is an Afghan refugee, a “boat person”; the other is the son of politically active parents who established the Aussie Values party devoted to “stopping the boats” and keeping Australia free of the taint of multiculturalism.

Michael first sees Mina on the opposing side during a confrontation between “Aussie Values” and an anti-racist group at a protest gathering. The kind of protest that is becoming increasingly familiar on Australian news programs. There’s no way he can realise how that brief glimpse of a Muslim girl will change his life.

Chapters alternate between the viewpoints of the title characters, starting with Michael, then moving on to Mina. Each chapter helps build up their stories to show us what has shaped their lives and current situations, and also how their developing relationship brings change.

I found the book very relevant in an Australia obsessed with “border control” where election results can be turned upon glib, three word slogans of exclusion. It has relevance when fear and racism can win votes.

It was one of those un-put-downable novels that  was a pleasure to read.

 

Author’s website: http://www.randaabdelfattah.com/

Publisher’s website: http://www.panmacmillan.com.au/9781743534977