Classic Books

Book Review: Peeling the Onion by Wendy Orr (Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014)

This year I am reading and rereading children and young adult ‘classics’ written by Australian women. Read more here.

peeling the onion

Peeling the Onion by Wendy Orr
(1997, Holiday House)

Own copy

Peeling the Onion is the story of Anna in the aftermath of a horrific car accident. We first meet Anna in the hospital where no one really seems to know how badly injured she is, and we follow her as she – and the people around her – come to terms with her injuries, their effect on her preferred future and the circumstances of the accident itself.

The title of the book refers to a poem Anna writes and rewrites throughout the story, but it could easily refer to the story itself. As the book progresses, you peel off layer after layer, revealing more of Anna’s life, her feelings about the accident and her resulting injuries and her relationships with the people around her.

This is a really lovely book and one which deserves to be better known than it is. Young people may not go through the horrific event Anna goes through (hopefully), but it would be easy to relate to her changing world and her growing acceptance that things are not going to work out the way she once planned them. I would thoroughly recommend this book to teenaged readers – but also to adult readers. I really hope that its availability in digital form (I bought it on Kindle) means that young people will continue to enjoy it into the future.


Book Review: Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta (Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014)

This year I am reading and rereading children and young adult ‘classics’ written by Australian women. Read more here.


Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta
(2003, Viking Childrens Press)

Own copy

This was another reread for me. While I don’t have the same fondness for Saving Francesca as Looking for Alibrandi (there’s always something special about the books you love as a teenager) I always find myself engrossed in Francesca – and staying up to all hours to finish it.

Francesca is starting her second term as one of thirty Year eleven girls at a formally all-boys school. That’s hard enough, but on top of that her formerly energetic and passionate mother can’t get out of bed. Suddenly Francesca is tackling adult tasks in order to protect her mother and dealing with the complete change in her family, all while trying to work out who she is and where her place in the world is supposed to be.

There was an eleven year gap between Alibrandi and Francesca, and you can see the growth of the author in both the quality of the writing and the subtleties of the story. Francesca is a sympathetic narrator and it’s easy to like her. Supporting characters are a real strength of Marchetta’s and you can see that here – from the giggly ‘big-boy’ worship of Francesca’s little brother Luca, to the brisk, but sympathetic supervisor at her mother’s university, to the other students and teachers at her new school.

There are still lots of misconceptions and prejudices around mental illness, and we see a lot of them discussed or put forward here. These misconceptions often makes it harder for Francesca to comprehend her mother’s illness – especially when she doesn’t feel like she’s getting the full story and her father – relentlessly positive – keeps reiterating that everything will be fine – even when it’s clearly not.

Unlike Alibrandi, which now has a lot of outdated references, Francesca is pretty low key with just some references to game shows (which no longer exist) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This means you’re very rarely pulled out of the story, and it’s still very readable and relevant now. It would probably make an excellent substitute for schools and teachers who are tired of teaching Alibrandi. It might be a quieter and less applauded book from Marchetta (who went on to write other incredibly popular books after Francesca was published) but I think it’s one worthy of our recognition.

Book Review: Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get a Life by Maureen McCarthy (Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014)

This year I am reading and rereading children and young adult ‘classics’ written by Australian women. Read more here.

(I couldn't find a good image of the cover I have, so I decided to go with this most recent one instead)

(I couldn’t find a good image of the cover I have, so I decided to go with this most recent one instead)

Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get a Life by Maureen McCarthy
(1995, Penguin)

Own copy

(Note: Totally coincidentally, my wonderful friend Liz also read and reviewed this book at the same time. And then I twisted her arm to join the AWW Challenge 🙂 )

This was another one of my favourite books as a teenager and I’ve read it a number of times since. It’s the story of three different girls from a small country town thrown together into a share house in Melbourne for their first year out of school. Carmel is the shy farm-girl, known around the small town for her amazing voice. Jude is the radical, juggling medical studies with protests while being haunted by the violent death of her father. Katrina is from a privileged and well known family, renowned for her beauty and her snottiness. Told from the three different perspectives we follow them up close and through each other’s eyes as they navigate the world after school.

There’s a lot to tackle in this book, and it’s definitely bigger than a lot of similar books. To me, Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude has always had an almost epic feel – like a fantasy novel without the fantasy. Maybe because of the different journeys we follow over the course of the book – as Carmel becomes more comfortable with who she is; as Jude confronts what her parents went through in Chile; as Kat gets over her head with a ‘fast crowd’ – the reader is pulled along, from one story to another, one place to another.

This time, when I read it, I was struck by how sad Kat was, especially at the beginning of the book. She seemed almost disconnected from herself and from other people, separate from any kind of human emotion. She didn’t want to have anything to do with a school-mate who had lost her father, she broke her mother’s favourite vase because she didn’t feel she was getting her way. She knew how to ‘act’ in social situations – after all, that training would come with being from the eminent family in a small town – but she seemed deeply uncomfortable and unable to deal with human emotion, and humans in general. I think Kat’s story wouldn’t have worked anywhere but at the end of the book, where we’ve been exposed to glimpses of who she is underneath the act – it would have been terribly tiring to read her performances earlier in the book.

Despite the mid-nineties publication of this book, it mostly works as a read for a modern audience, especially (I suspect) a modern audience living outside of Melbourne. (There are a number of settings which have apparently changed significantly in the time, but an outsider reader wouldn’t necessarily know that). The themes themselves are timeless – trying to please parents while forging an identity away from them, learning to live in a bigger world than your school world, finding a voice in a world that often tries to shut people up. The characters, including the supporting characters, are well developed and memorable, and you can often ‘see’ them as you read. And although there are a lot of ‘issues’ explored (especially in Kat’s story) it doesn’t read like an ‘issues’ book.  I’d definitely recommend it to high school students today, and I suspect a lot of them would enjoy it.

Book Review: Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park (Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014)

This year I am reading and rereading children and young adult ‘classics’ written by Australian women. Read more here.

Adventures of a Subversive Reader: Playing Beatie Bow

Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park
(1980, Penguin Classics – originally published by Thomas Nelson)

Own copy

Despite being a massive book worm as a child, I never read Playing Beatie Bow. I think it probably had something to do with the cover – the ones which were most common when I was little were seriously creepy, and looked very very different from the kinds of books I usually read. But so many people I know have read and loved it, so I knew it needed to be part of my ‘Children Classics’ Australian Women Writer’s challenge.

I actually read Playing Beatie Bow twice before writing this review. It’s such an adored book, that I wanted to make sure I really ‘had’ it before I wrote about it. In a way, I’m terribly sad that I didn’t read this as a child. There have been other books written since Playing Beatie Bow which explore some of the same ideas and themes, and I read them as a child – so Playing Beatie Bow felt at times like it was going over old ground – even though it was written first.

This is the story of Abigail, a 14 year old girl who lives in the modern (well, late 1970s/1980) version of the Rocks in Sydney. She’s carefully built a wall around herself in the four years since her father left her and her mother, but now he’s back in her mother’s life and she wants them to move overseas with him. Meanwhile, Natalie, Abigail’s young neighbour has become overly interested in the scary game – Beatie Bow –  the local children are playing – and the small ‘furry girl’ who comes to watch.

After a fight with her mother, Abigail finds herself chasing the furry girl – Beatie Bow, when suddenly she finds herself in the 1870s version of the Rocks – and after a run in with the girl’s father (injured in the Crimean War and still mourning for his wife) finds herself a guest of the Bow/Talisker family. Here she discovers she is the Stranger, bought to their time to help the family preserve the family gift.

I can definitely understand why this is such a beloved book. It mixes time travel and fantasy and historical fiction and romance in an almost effortless fashion, allowing it to appeal to a wide range of readers. The romance is gentle and sweet, perfect for slightly younger readers. The characters are quite vivid –  quarrelsome but intelligent Beatie,  wise Grandmother, kind Dovey, warm hearted Judah, wounded father and annoying Gibbie. The historical parts are interesting, while challenging the idea that one era is necessarily better than those that come before or after. And the writing is wonderful.

The real key to this is the coming-of-age of Abigail. In building up the wall to protect herself, she’s really shielded herself from other people around her and the things which hurt or affect them. Spending time away from her own problems helps open her eyes up to other people – and the very real things which shape their stories. I’m not sure this book would ever be published today – it’s too inbetween middle-grade and young adult and it crosses too many genres to be neatly catagorised the way so many of our modern books are. However, it’s aged remarkably well, considering that it’s more than 30 years old – I think it would be appealing to a lot of modern young readers (though with better covers – the classics one is aimed more at the nostalgia crowd and the Penguin classics is boring.)

If I learn nothing else, or complete no other books this Australian Women Writer’s challenge, this year will already be a big win for me. Finally reading this particular Australian classic has made me very happy, and if you have also not read it, I thoroughly recommend it.

If the book had a cover like this, I think I probably would have read it!

If the book had a cover like this, I think I probably would have read it!

Book Review: The Min Min by Mavis Thorpe Clarke (Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014)

This year I am reading and rereading children and young adult ‘classics’ written by Australian women. Read more here.

The Min Min: Adventures of a Subversive Reader

The Min Min by Mavis Thorpe Clark
(1966, Lansdowne Press)

Own copy

The Min Min has a special place in my family. When I was a child, it was a treasured book of my parents (my father, I think) and it was regarded as both an excellent book and a possession to look after. Obviously, there was no chance of taking off with this one, so when I saw it in an op shop, years later, I grabbed a copy for myself. But I don’t think I read it then – in fact I can’t remember reading it since I was a child.

The Min Min is – on the surface – the story of Sylvie Edwards, the slightly awkward, eldest daughter of an often drunk and abusive railway fettler and his wife – who we rarely see through the course of the book. But before you get far in the book, you realise it’s a bigger story than that – it’s the story of Reg, Sylvie’s troublesome eleven year old brother, of the young and eager schoolteacher determined to ‘make a difference’, of Sylvie and Reg’s father, and of all the people who either chose or are forced through circumstance to live in an incredibly isolated part of Australia.

After Reg and the other children of the siding (a collection of 10 houses and a school where the fettler’s families live) destroy the school, (including the teacher’s personal belongings), Sylvie and Reg are filled with fear. Reg is scared that he’ll be sent away to reform school, after having many warnings about previous misdeeds. Sylvie is scared of a future, with a teacher who refuses to teach her any longer, and a father who has asserted his right to hit her as long as she lives in his house. The pair sneak away from their home, following first the railway tracks, and then a bush track to the sympathetic Tucker family – a family who live a life completely foreign to the pair. The Tuckers give Sylvie and Reg a glimpse of something different and the possibility of a future, something which has always been untouchable and out of reach – like the mysterious min min lights which they see from time to time.

At the beginning, this book is just bleak. The landscape around the siding is smooth and unchanging, with the houses the only shapes in their landscape. The families of the siding have developed a gang like community, where the men are the ‘bosses’, women are supposed to be mothers (or are treated with suspicion) and the boys are relied on to cause mischief – to ‘stick it’ to authority and bring some excitement to the town. No one is particularly interested in education or learning, the men have come to the siding  ” . . . because life was sour or dangerous, and it was as good a place as any.” Clive Scott, the young teacher who requested the position, doesn’t belong there – it’s a place for people who feel they have no where else to go.

Things begin to change when Sylvie and Reg turn up at the Tuckers’ place. The Tuckers chose to live in an isolated place (in fact, they live within the borders of Woomera, in a house complete with an air raid shelter), but insist on maintaining aspects of their previous city life – education for the children, reading at night, a set of strict rules and guidelines. Mrs Tucker – who had previously been kind to Sylvie – shows her a world beyond the siding, a world where she can create things with her own hands. (Mr Scott had already started this process of showing her a different world, but his world seemed unattainable to her, while Mrs Tucker’s was very possible)

Meanwhile Mr Tucker and their three sons show a completely different definition of masculinity to Reg. At the siding masculinity is defined by mischief and beer. The Tucker boys shoot, fix things and ride horses – but they do it under the rules and guidelines set out by their parents. The boys wash and wipe dishes, are expected to work hard at their school work and respect learning, and spend their evenings reading. Although he scoffs at them at first, Reg finds himself admiring them more and more.

There’s so many themes I could discuss further with this book – the love of land, the importance of rain and water, the irony of the ‘safe’ family living in an unsafe area, how our families and experiences shape who we are  – it’s remarkably deep, although very few things actually happen. The roles of men and women are quite structured, as expected for a book written in the 1960s, but both men and women are written as people, even if their roles are more ‘defined’. There’s definitely some casual racism, though there’s also a sense that the author respects the Indigenous people she met on her journeys through the area, and the Aboriginal characters are much better written than some other books from the same era.

I’m really glad I read this book again as an adult – a well written book like this often has different sympathies as you grow older. The teacher was a much more vivid character to me this time, as were some of the other adults in the book. This probably wouldn’t be a ‘jump off the shelf book’ for young people today – it’s much quieter than many of the books aimed at the 10-14 year old readers of today – but I could definitely see it making an impact on certain children. It’s a wonderful book, which probably deserves a bit more recognition as an Australian classic than it currently gets.


  • The Mavis Thorpe Clarke website has lots of extra information about the author, her books and her inspirations.
  • The Children’s Book Council of Australia awarded The Min Min the best book award in 1967. Here’s a list with other winners and commended books of the decade