Thursday 29 December 2022

Books I Enjoyed This Year

Book lists are ubiquitous but mine aren't lists of best-sellers - although one or two may feature. They aren't prize winning lists, although maybe a couple of titles are on those lists too. They aren't only books published this year, although some may be.  

This year I've read 77 books, most of which I've enjoyed. I select books not necessarily because I consider them to be the best written but because they're the ones I have most enjoyed reading. Those that have given me food for thought, pleasure, education and, in several cases, the delight of something refreshingly different. 

The books I've read this year have taken me to a number of different locations in the UK, USA and Australia plus Ireland, Sweden, Mustique, Guyana, Spain, Botswana, Zimbabwe, India, Crete, Hungary, Germany and New Zealand. I've been back and forward in time!

I couldn't decide on a Top Ten so it's a Top Twelve in no particular order.

Femlandia - Christina Dalcher. The author's third dystopian novel.  Like all in this genre, it is not so far-fetched as we might initially think. Thought provoking to say the least.

Still Life - Sarah Winman. I found this book of unlikely friendships compelling and delightful. It's also a love letter to the city of Florence.

Remember Me - Charity Norman. The story of a daughter and father and learning the truth of a twenty-five year old mystery. Sad and beautiful to read.

The Secrets of Elephants - Vasundra Tailor. A story of three generations of a family spanning two continents with courage at the story's heart. 

Dinner With the Schnabels - Toni Jordan. Funny but examining difficult issues with a few twists along the way.
Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray - Anita Heiss. An historical novel on displacement and the clash of cultures between Wiradjuri people and white settlers. 

Small Pleasures - Clare Chambers. Capturing the 50s beautifully, as well as the character of Jean who feel life has passed her by, the story revolves round a real article about parthenogenesis and a woman's belief that she had a virgin birth. 

The Crimson Thread - Kate Forsyth. A wartime novel focusing on bravery of locals and hidden soldiers during Nazi occupation of Crete.

The Giver of Stars - Jojo Moyes. Women of the packhorse library on East Kentucky in late 30s. Female friendship and resilience. 

The Dressmakers of Yarrandarrah Prison - Meredith Jaffe. Quirky and feelgood. 

Once Upon A Camino - Matthew S Wilson. Tom's pilgrimage on the Camino Santiago takes the reader on an adventure as surprising as Tom's.

After Story - Larissa Behrendt. After grief and trauma comes healing and understanding. Plus a literary tour of the UK and stories of one of the oldest story-telling cultures of the world.

Sunday 2 October 2022

Books by Friends

At the book chatters group at my local library, where we talk about and discuss books we have liked, or sometimes not liked, I mentioned that I'd recently enjoyed two books written by friends.

Then it struck me that I hadn't met either of them in person but only via the Internet. But writers groups are generally friendly places and are supportive of each other, enjoying each others' success so it feels as if members are, indeed, friends. 

The important things though are the books in question. The first was Matthew S. Wilson's Once Upon A Camino.

During the many Melbourne lockdowns during the first two years of Covid-19, writers came to together via Zoom courtesy of Writers Victoria and its host Noè Harsel twice a week. Participants wrote for 25 minutes. Some used Noè's prompts, others did their own thing. We didn't listen or critique each other's work but several of us would chat for a few minutes afterwards. 

Matthew joined on as many Tuesdays and Fridays as he could to complete his novel and get it published. 

I read it soon after it was published. I knew the protagonist, Tom, walked the Camino de Santiago, as Matthew had done some years before, and was doing it to prove his love for his girlfriend to her grandfather. I knew Tom lost his luggage at the beginning of the journey. What I didn't know was that my journey as a reader would be as unexpected as Tom found his walking adventure. I rate books by their un-put-down-ability and this was one I raced through to keep up with its narrative pace. Well worth the  read!

The second book wasn't entirely new to me as I had been a beta reader for Vasundra Tailor, a member of my former North London writing Group Greenacre Writers, although Vasundra joined after I had left. When I heard she was seeking readers for her manuscript set in India and Zimbabwe I couldn't resist as I love books set in different countries to my native UK.  

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the manuscript and felt she definitely had a novel worthy of publication. But we all know the path to that doesn't always run smoothly so I was delighted when she announced she had a publishing contract and later, Vasundra kindly sent me a copy. 

Reading The Secret of Elephants felt like meeting up with old friends. A family story spanning three generations and two countries, I enjoyed the re-read of this story of uncovering family secrets and finding courage. I'm thinking of suggesting a sequel!

Thank you writerly friends for giving me two highly enjoyable reads.

Follow the authors on Twitter:

Matthew S. Wilson @Matthew_SWilson  Once Upon A Camino

Vasundra Tailor @vasundrajay The Secret of Elephants

Thursday 23 June 2022

Mentone Public Library - the Story of a Tiny Library in Mentone

Tucked away in the Melbourne suburb of Mentone is a library.

When I arrived in Australia to live, my first priority was to buy a home and the second to join my nearest library. The previous year when staying with my daughter, I'd seen a sign to Mentone Library but couldn't locate it! I searched on the Kingston website and found plenty of libraries including those at nearby Cheltenham and Parkdale but no mention of Mentone. I guessed it had been closed like so many of the libraries in my native UK. My then local library in North London had been drastically reduced in size and hundreds of others in UK closed in spite of over-whelming public protest. 

But once settled (and now a holder of a Kingston Libraries card) a little more investigation found I was wrong. Mentone Library was alive and well, albeit by now sleeping during Covid lockdowns.

You won’t find it on the Kingston library website because it’s an independent public library.

On 14th May 2022 it celebrated its 97th birthday. In its newly painted interior, a number of us gathered around its brand-new tables amidst the bookshelves lining the walls and read aloud short pieces of our writing. Some were published authors, others still dabbling and some yet to commit to calling themselves a writer; all were made welcome. 

Established in 1925­ – making it the longest surviving community library in Melbourne’s City of Kingston – Mentone Library has always been staffed entirely by volunteers. Not only lending books, the library’s mission is to encourage literary discussion, promote local authors and community events. Current plans include establishing a writers’ centre.

I learned about its history from the City of Kingston’s Local History website in an article by Grahame J Whitehead. Mentone had a library in 1890 consisting of three room in the Skating Rink with a selection of 300 books and newspapers. Later, the books transferred to an estate agency as the rink’s room closed in winter. Lack of council funding and support led the people of Mentone to set about raising funds to establish their own library building. To raise money, they held a garden fete to be opened by the governor of Victoria, Sir John Fuller. He spoke of the importance of education and reading but, he warned, there were also many books, the trashy shilling shockers, which if read, left the reader worse for having read them. He hoped the good people of Mentone would avoid such nonsense. In spite of their endeavours the library closed down in 1924. Perhaps because those good people read too many shilling shockers.

A few months later a group of twenty-five people met with the aim of establishing a new library and on May 6th 1925 a temporary library opened in the rooms of the Rifle Range in Brindisi Street. It boasted 120 subscribers who could borrow any of their 550 books.

After the first ten years 175,000 books had been exchanged, with the stock now numbering 4,500.

The library moved home to a room in the council chambers in 1955, a time when the establishment of a new free municipal public library was under discussion eventually resulting in the library at Parkdale. The Mentone library was struggling and once again moved home, this time to a large container in the recreation ground. Another couple of moves found the library eventually settling into a room to the rear of the Citizen’s Advice Bureau in Florence Street in 1997 which is still its home today and where I made my first visit.

Today the shelves are packed with around 3,500 books bought with library funds and grants from Kingston City council, a great supporter of the library, and donations from members and other benefactors. From its inception as the only library in the area almost a hundred years ago Mentone Library is now sandwiched between well-stocked free public libraries so this little library needed to rethink its position. The committee is repurposing it as a writers’ centre and in keeping with that aim, its library stock will focus on books about the locale, whether histories, memoirs or fiction as well as books by local authors.

The volunteers kept events going during pandemic lockdowns by transferring to Zoom and they took advantage of the library’s closure to smarten it up but it remains a delightful combination of old and new.

The volunteers continue to be its life support as it is they who enable the library to open to the public. Currently this is for a two-hour slot from Monday to Friday10.00am-12.00 noon. More volunteers are needed to help expand the opening hours.

You may join as a member for $10 a year simply by applying at the library or emailing and bank transfer. If you’d like to receive the newsletter, email your request.

The committee is planning further events including open mic events and the library space will be available for hire for writerly endeavours, whether a short course or for a writing group’s regular meeting.

For more information and upcoming events see:


MPL is to be found at the rear of the Information Bureau, 36 Florence Street, Mentone, Vic 3194. Plenty of parking in the Coles carpark adjacent. Walkable from Mentone Station.


Friday 22 April 2022

Examining the Past and Challenging the Future.

Perhaps the reason one of my A' Levels was a grade too low was because I went out dancing the night before. Or maybe I'd not revised enough. Whatever, it meant I wouldn't get my place on the prestigious librarianship course unless I re-did the A level or worked in a library for a year. I duly applied to the central library in Bristol and was granted an interview just after my 18th birthday in October. I was offered the post and asked when I could start. 'Could it be January?' I asked. The chief librarian looked horrified so I quickly explained that I was currently working in a children's home and really wanted to be there for Christmas.  'I think you are not very serious about this position,' replied the librarian frostily to which I agreed that no, perhaps I wasn't. And there ended my potential career. 

Instead I went on to qualify as a Residential Child Care Officer which later led me to becoming a speech and language therapist. My choice on that day was something I've never regretted. And Christmas at the children's home was wonderful. I still have the card that 6 year-old Fred drew for me. A bright pink panther (Fred's favourite cartoon) with a speech bubble announcing 'Happy Chrismas from the Pink Panter' [sic] 

Since those far off days there has been a huge re-examining of children's homes in the recent past, many of which were full of abuse and did little or nothing to protect the children in their care. I trust none of those I worked in were guilty (I certainly never witnessed nor suspected any such behaviour.) I've always believed that abusing a position of trust is one of the worst crimes we can commit against fellow humans. I have happy memories of the children who were in my care but I've often wondered whether their memories are as positive. I hope some of their recollections are but making stable relationships with carers was always going to be hard as they were subjected to a series of people, however good, passing through their lives. And did we address all the needs and the concerns of the children on the matter of their identities? And how well prepared were those entering their adult years? Years on, with greater wisdom, I see there may well have been failures.

Like many people I've noticed how often the killer, especially serial killers, in books or TV programmes and films are orphans. (In reality relatively few children in care are orphans.) I'd assumed this wasn't so much that the writers believed orphans are evil, but that they couldn't be bothered to think up suitable reasons for why a child turns into an adult killer. If there is no family, parents or siblings, no-one needs to be held accountable for perhaps contributing in some way to those crimes. No backstory needs to be written - just some unnamed children's home. But much as I was aware of the unfairness of these portrayals, I didn't consider what that was like for people who are care-experienced. Josie Pearse writes a much more carefully considered article here.

When Rosie Canning - fellow founder of Greenacre Writers and The Finchley Literary Festival - began working on an examination of representations of care-experienced people in literature, partly to address  and challenge this issue, I suspect she didn't then realise how this theme would blossom into a number of other projects such as the UK/Australian Care Experience and Culture with Dr Dee Michell. 

Their recent online book club featuring representations of care in literature includes memoir and novels.

Sarah Hilary joined the first discussion with her book Fragile, a modern gothic novel telling the stories of two young people who were in the care system and their foster mother. 

The second event's speakers were Susan Francis from Australia and Anne Harrison from UK. I was already following Susan on Twitter but hadn't, at that point, read her book The Love That Remains. Anne Harrison and her memoir, Call Me Auntie, was at the time unknown to me. 

Both spoke so eloquently about their memoirs and the search for their birth parents, I knew I wanted to read them both. I had been lucky enough to win a copy of Call Me Auntie from the book club which was winging its way towards me, and I quickly ordered a copy of The Love That Remains which I dived into immediately I received it. 

The books are very different but have a great deal in common. At the core of each is the writer's need to know their identity. The 'Where did I come from?' Both authors, one adopted, and one initially fostered and then living in children's homes, set out to search for their roots. They search for their birth mothers to learn about their identity and in the hope of forging a relationship of some sort. Both find answers to some of their questions but many are left unanswered.

Both books are well written and enable to reader to follow the narratives easily. Anne Harrison's Call Me Auntie is a factual account; much of her early history is related using documents from her care file which was made available to her quite recently. This is not a 'misery lit' account by any means but some was hard to read. The treatment of the children in one care home was emotionally and physically abusive which made me feel very angry and the scenes with her birth mother filled me with sadness and dismay. 

Susan Francis's The Love That Remains tells of her need to discover the truth about her parents. Even though she was happily adopted, her unknown roots left her with insecurities. Here too, many scenes make for emotional reading. But Susan's need to search for the truth about the past doesn't stop with her birth parents. She discovers another awful secret which needs verification, and to be understood and accepted.

Ultimately, both books are journeys of courage and discovery and yet more courage. 

To follow these authors on Twitter:

Susan Francis @susanfranciswr1 

Anne Harrison @anne4harrison

Tuesday 22 February 2022

A Competition for Competitions.

I've written about entering competitions before, whether to keep submitting a story or give up on it after a number of rejections or failing to hit a longlist. 

A blogpost from Lisa Kenway interested me and I had a few thoughts of my own on the subject. I've studied details of loads of competitions to see if I am eligible or have a possible entry. I've entered 28 competitions since the beginning of last year with a spectacular lack of success. I was longlisted in one of Australian Writing Centre's Furious Fictions but got nowhere in the other seven I entered. 

Six of the competitions are yet to be announced but apart from that longlisting the rest resulted in zilch. 

My gripe isn't my lack of success (much as I wish for it) but that some of the competitions did not give a set date when results would be announced and in the event did not let non-winning competitors (ie: me) know they had been announced. Some did not have long lists and in one case no shortlist - just three winners. Some gave an announcement date but failed to deliver any results by that date. 

The AWC Furious Fiction winners are announced on the day they say they will announce it. There is only one cash winner but there is a shortlist with stories published and a named longlist. They deliver what they promise. As do Lorraine Mace's Flash 500 competitions where all entrants are emailed to say the results are in.

I imagine the big well-known competitions also deliver long and short-lists and winners on time (I wouldn't know not having entered them) but some comps don't do well in this respect. No acknowledgement of entries and no announcements made well after the date advertised doesn't bode well. Has my entry and fee disappeared in to the ether? 

Having co-run three competitions for Greenacre Writers we did both in a timely fashion! Of course there can be delays for any amount of reasons, but let your entrants know! Because of delayed announcements, I've sometimes missed a deadline for a second competition in which I've intended to enter a story if it got nowhere in a previous comp. 

I've seen several competitions that didn't advertise who the judge will be. That may not be important to some but after something that happened in a Zoom creative writing event last year I decided not to enter a particular story in a competition I was considering because, unless all the other entries were all utterly dreadful, I knew it wouldn't be placed let alone win. 

This story had been shortlisted by readers in another competition the year before and passed to the judge. It wasn't placed. Fair enough. The Zoom writing event was conducted by the writer who had been the judge. After doing some writing exercises she talked about what wins competitions. She mentioned the usual suspects and then mentioned the comp I had entered and was very rude about the non-winning short-listed stories. 

She made a very negative comment about one entry that could well have been my story so when I learned she was to be the judge in this forthcoming competition there was no way I was going to pay a fee for it to be dismissed again. Had she made constructive comments, who knows, maybe I would have tweaked my story and entered. I disliked her dismissive attitude to the work put in by those shortlisted writers. We may not have been up to her standard but there was no need to be so rude. I'll be avoiding her from now on!

So I think it's time we had a competition for competitions. Which would be in your top three?