Growing Up Disabled in Australia

Non-fiction anthology of essays and memoir by people who grew up disabled in Australia

Note: in this review I used the terms disabled person and person with a disability interchangeably to reflect that some people prefer person-first language and some people prefer identity-first language

Content warning: bullying

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher. I was really excited to receive a copy of this book because I had read another book in the excellent “Growing Up” series. I also read the editor’s memoir and was very confident that this was going to be a well-curated collection.

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Image is of a digital book cover of “Growing Up Disabled in Australia” edited by Carly Findlay. The cover is white text on a background of blocky paint strokes in pink, yellow and turquoise.

“Growing Up Disabled in Australia” edited by Carly Findlay is an anthology of short autobiographies by 47 disabled people. The contributors, who come from an incredibly diverse range of backgrounds and cultures, have a very diverse range of disabilities and perspectives. There are some well-known people including Senator Jordan Steele-John, and plenty of people who are not so well known but whose stories are just as important.

This is a really well-rounded collection that showcases the myriad of experiences people with disability have in this country. Disabilities can affect mobility, senses, learning, mental health, chronic health and cognitive ability. They can be caused by genetics, illnesses or injuries. Something that I think a lot of people don’t consider is that people may have more than one disability, and I thought that Dion Beasley’s piece To Lake Nash and Back about growing up Aboriginal, Deaf and with muscular dystrophy in the Northern Territory surrounded by love, family and dogs particularly captured this intersectional experience and the importance of accessibility and community. C. B. Mako uses free verse poetry in December Three to succinctly how a person with two disabilities who is also a carer, a parent and a member of the migrant community can be excluded from all of those identities.

This book is full of exceptional creativity and I really enjoyed the variety of styles each piece was presented in. Kerry-ann Messengers two poems ‘Life Goes On’ and ‘The Blue Rose’ explored the depth of emotional reaction, positive and negative, that people have towards her as a person with Down Syndrome. Tim Slade’s poem A Body’s Civil War explores the sense of destabilisation living with auto-immune conditions where your body attacks itself. I really loved Sarah Firth’s comic Drawing My Way which gave a practical example of alternative ways information can be presented to assist people with learning disabilities like dyslexia.

Although there each contributor’s experience is unique, nuanced and impacted by other factors such as race, gender, class and cultural background, there were common themes that wove their way through the book. I was surprised at how many contributors wrote about the significance of animals, particularly dogs, in staving off feelings of isolation and loneliness (though I particularly enjoyed Iman Shaanu’s subversive piece Blurred Lines where she writes “For the record, I hate dogs and would prefer a guide cat if that was a thing”). Hippotherapy by Alistair Baldwin was a particularly wry piece about the ubiquitous experience of horse-riding as an activity for disabled kids. At a time when everyone is talking about vaccinations, it was really poignant to read about two contributors, Gayle Kennedy and Fran Henke, who each wrote about the lasting impact of contracting polio, a disease that has been eradicated in Australia through vaccination programs but that continues to affect people of older generations.

However two of the common themes that were the hardest to read about were bullying and lack of accessibility. Jessica Newman-Marshall’s piece Dressing to Survive describes the cruel judgment and bullying she received as a person with a disability that affects not just mobility but causes her to have a very low BMI in a world that constantly scrutinises women for their weight. Kath Duncan, writes in Born Special about the prejudice and bullying she experienced growing up with missing limbs and reclaiming the word ‘Freak’ for herself.

However not everyone with a disability is bullied. Belinda Downes, in writing about her facial difference and disability in Having a Voice, reflects on how it is not her appearance that has made things most difficult for her, but rather people in her life deciding on her behalf what is best for her in terms of corrective surgery and accessibility needs. In Forever Fixing, El Gibbs writes about living with the chronic skin condition psoriasis and how learning about the social model of disability helped her to find a community and see barriers to access, rather than herself, as the problem.

There are a multitude of other things that I could write about this book, but I will finish off to say that this is an incredibly important work that highlights the fact that there is no single disabled experience and that the biggest barriers for people with disabilities are systemic.

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Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters

Post-gender biopunk science fiction novel

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.

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Image is of a digital book cover of “Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters” by Aimee Ogden. The cover is of a silhouette of a person standing underwater on the launch-pad of a vehicle.

“Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters” by Aimee Ogden is a science fiction novella about a woman called Atuale whose village has been overwhelmed by a disease. Having undergone gene-editing to live with her husband and his technology-resistant people on land, Atuale must return to the sea to seek a favour from the one they call the World Witch. However, the World Witch is one of many Sea-Clan people Atuale left behind and even though they have a new form, their history remains unchanged. It soon becomes clear that the only way to find a cure is to leave the planet. Faced with an intimate journey through space with the World Witch to seek assistance from other, more technologically advanced human races, Atuale must decide which betrayals she can live with.

I absolutely love this genre, and Ogden’s style and themes reminds me a lot of one of my favourite authors, Vonda N. McIntyre. Ogden hints at a huge post-human diaspora of which we see only the smallest glimpse through Atuale’s limited gaze. Atuale is a fascinating character who discards the limits of one civilisation for those of another. What she lacks in education and understanding of the broader galaxy, she makes up for in courage and determination. The World Witch is also a great character, and I enjoyed the exploration of alternative biology and the genetic ability to change one’s gender.

This is a quick book, and one that I think could have used a slightly slower pace. I felt that the tension between Atuale and the World Witch, particularly their past history, was a little rushed and I would have liked to be strung along a little more. While I liked that we see the world (and the universe) through Atuale’s naïve perspective, I also felt like the worldbuilding could have been a little more comprehensive. This is not to say that I wanted every single detail about altered human lives in the far reaches of the galaxy, but I wanted the sense that that detail did exist – even if we couldn’t see it.

A very easy and enjoyable read that needed just a bit more suspense.

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Echidnas Can’t Cuddle

Illustrated children’s book about echidnas and showing affection

On the second night of my Tasmania hike, my friend and hiking buddy insisted that I read this book she had found in the library because it was so cute. I didn’t quite get around to it on the second night, but on the third night we were staying in one of the trimanya huts, which means echidna in Palawa language, and I luckily found a copy in the library there. I also saw three different echidnas on my Tasmania trip, and they are so fluffy down there!

Image is of “Echidnas Can’t Cuddle” by Nieta Manser and illustrated by Lauren Merrick. The cover is of an echidna’s face surrounded by watercolour, collaged spikes. The book is placed in front of a veranda and Australian bushland, with a sign on a wooden post that says trimanya that has a dotted echidna footprint below it.

“Echidnas Can’t Cuddle” by Nieta Manser and illustrated by Lauren Merrick is a children’s book about an echidna called Erik who longs to be able to experience cuddles like other animals do. The problem is, every time Erik tries to cuddle someone, he inadvertently hurts them with his spikes. Despondent, Erik runs away. However, when predators try to attack him, Erik learns what his spikes are really for.

Image is of a very fluffy chocolate brown echidna

This was a very sweet book with a lovely message about accepting the bodies we have and celebrating their functions. The text rhymes and is very accessible for children. I also thought that it was a nice comment on intimacy and that when hugs might not be appropriate, there are other ways to show affection. Additionally, it is important to respect what other people are comfortable with. I really enjoyed the illustrations, and Merrick used some interesting techniques to produce an almost three dimensional effect by collaging watercolour illustrations.

Image is of a light brown, almost blonde, echidna searching for ants

A lovely little book that would be great for young children.

Image is of a reddish brown echidna behind some native plants

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One Small Island

Illustrated children’s book about Macquarie Island

I mentioned in my previous book review that I recently went on a hike in Tasmania. There were lots of fantastic things about this hike, but there were two things in particular I really enjoyed: the collection of books at each hut and the lovely and enthusiastic ranger on our first night who told us about this book.

Image is of “One Small Island” by Alison Lester and Coral Tulloch. The cover is of an island in the distance with an ocean below and the aurora australis above. The book is resting on a handrail with bushland, ocean, coastline and mist in the background.

“One Small Island” by Alison Lester and Coral Tulloch is an illustrated children’s book about the history and biodiversity of Macquarie Island. In particular, the book explores the impact of humans on the island’s delicate ecosystem and the battle to undo the damage done by invading species.

This is a beautifully and intricately illustrated book that captures the dramatic landscape and fragile wildlife with its vivid language. Not only is this a story about a critical environmental issue, the destruction of native flora and fauna due to introduced species, it is also a story with a beginning, a disaster, a challenge and a resolution.

An excellent book for children and adults alike with a keen interest in natural history.

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Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

Memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail

Content warning: drug use, mental health, sexual harassment

I first really heard about this book when I heard Reese Witherspoon’s”excellent speech (transcript here) about her film production company that produced an adaptation of this book. I have read quite a few books now that have been adapted by Witherspoon’s company (“Gone Girl“, “Big Little Lies” and “Little Fires Everywhere“), and this one has been on my list for a while. My friend lent me her copy quite some time ago, and for a while I though I had accidentally Marie-Kondoed it. When another friend invited me to go on a three night trek in Tasmania recently, I felt like it was the perfect opportunity to finally read this book. I had a better look and found it tucked away in my non-fiction bookshelf.

Image is of “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed. The cover has a single hiking boot on a white background. The book is placed between two grey and mint coloured hiking boots, in front of a large blue backpack in front of scrub in the Tasmanian wilderness.

“Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” by Cheryl Strayed is a memoir about Cheryl, a woman in her early 20s who is spiralling. In the wake of her mother’s death, a broken marriage and a heroin addiction, Cheryl realises that something needs to change. After spotting an innocuous guidebook about the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl is galvanised by the goal to hike it alone. With an overweight pack, little experience and only the hope that her pre-packed supplies arrive at post offices along the way, Cheryl is pushed to her absolute limit. Completely alone for a significant part of the journey, she must reckon with her life so far and how she can keep putting one foot in front of the other in the direction she needs to go.

If you ever find yourself on a hiking trip, this is the perfect book to pack. Strayed is an honest and raw writer whose vulnerability and determination make for a compelling mix. While I frequently talk about how I struggle with memoir on this blog, this is the kind of memoir I really enjoy. It reminded me a lot of “H is for Hawk“, blending trauma with literature and a very narrow yet fascinating topic. Although a lot of the book is spent hiking by herself, it is the characters Cheryl meets along the way who really make this book. There is a particular section in the book where Cheryl has overestimated her access to water and is then approached by two terrifying men which was chilling.

When I was on my last day of my hike in Tasmania, I had developed some pretty impressive blisters on the soles of my feet and in between my toes. Although wearing two pairs of socks, taking some anti-inflammatories and applying band-aids liberally had helped, walking was quite painful. Reading about Cheryl’s (much worse) ordeal with feet rubbed raw by ill-fitting boots and her resilience helped me realise that I could get through it too and complete every last kilometre of the walk.

A great companion for hiking that, unlike Cheryl, I declined to burn once finished.

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Monsters of Men

Young adult science fiction novel about fascism, colonialism, sexism and war

Content warning: fascism, colonialism, slavery, violence and sexism

I started reading this series a couple of years ago and spaced out the first and second books like I often do with a series. It hadn’t quite been a year since I read the second book, and I probably would have waited a little longer, but then a film adaptation of the first book in the series was released earlier this year, and I thought I had better wrap up the series before I saw the film.

Image is of “Monsters of Men” by Patrick Ness. The cover is orange text and circles against a black background, and the book is superimposed against a background from the Mars Perseverance Photo Booth, which was released around the same time to promote the current NASA mission to Mars.

“Monsters of Men” by Patrick Ness is the final book in the “Chaos Walking” series. The story picks up immediately after the events of the preceding book where a scout ship from another wave of settlers has landed near the fraught city of New Prentisstown. A three-way war is afoot between Mayor Prentiss’ men, the secret organisation the Answer and the native species of the planet known as the Spackle. Todd and Viola find themselves separated again: Todd trying to persuade the Mayor into negotiating peace and Viola trying to warn the new settlers of the unrest that awaits them if they land.

This is a challenging finale to a compelling series. Ness distinguishes this book from the other two by finally giving voice to one of the Spackle, previously only referred to by the number 1017. Renamed The Return in this book, he struggles with his own hatred towards the humans who enslaved and tortured his people which makes it difficult to truly return to the fold and ways of his people. I really enjoyed The Return’s chapters, and felt that through his perspective, the book’s commentary on colonisation became much more well-rounded. A key theme in this book is redemption, and the extent to which we can overwrite past decisions with new ones. I felt that Viola’s worsening health and her difficulty in meeting with Todd created a sense of tension that really helped to propel the book along. I also really liked how Ness tackled the issue of literacy, and despite being denied an education, Todd’s feelings of personal inadequacy.

Having read this book as a finale to the “Chaos Walking” series, I do think I need to comment briefly on the film adaptation. Despite how much I enjoyed the series, the film was pretty lacklustre. It suffered from having so many writers involved, and sacrificed depth for awkward moments and rushed storytelling interspersed with prolonged chased scenes.

If by chance you went to see the film, I can assure you that the series is much better.

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The Love Virus

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the author.

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Image is of a digital book cover of “The Love Virus” by Eleni Cay. The cover is pink text against a pink and beige background of vertical computer code.

“The Love Virus” by Eleni Cay is a verse novel about a young woman called Katie whose life is turned upside down when she is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). Casting aside her studies at Oxford University and her fiancé, Katie struggles to adjust to her loss of mobility and requiring significant personal care while in hospital. However, in some chapters, Katie is on a retreat in a country called Andratalia. With two bickering travellers accompanying her, Katie tours this hot land and meets some of the curious locals. As the book progresses, the two realities converge and Katie must find her own path forward.

This is an original book, told in long form poetry, with some science fiction themes. Cay draws on her own experiences of MS and the strongest parts of the book are the visceral scenes of Katie having to relinquish control over her body to those caring for her. Katie’s friends, family and fiancé all respond in different ways to her diagnosis, and there are some really important messages in this book about consent and inspiration porn. Cay explores what an alternative variant of MS could mean, amplifying the uncertainty, fear and hope around experimental treatments for chronic conditions. I found the poetic style very readable, and the story had a dreamy flow to it.

I think that the part I struggled the most with were the scenes in Andratalia. The majority of the text in these chapters is the dialogue between Katie’s two travel companions bickering over their competing philosophies. While the purpose of this journey becomes clear later in the story, I was a little disappointed to see Cay falling back on old stereotypes to describe the local people of Andratalia. Given the book hints at themes such as global conspiracy, genetic engineering and experimental medication, I felt that perhaps Andratalia would have been more interesting as a futuristic tech haven rather than a tropical paradise.

This is a really creative book in both theme and in form that blends lived experience with fiction to consider life and love with MS.

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Heart of Darkness

Novella about colonisation in the Congo

I was in the market for a new audiobook, and had made a shortlist of books that were both not too long and that I hadn’t read before. It was plum season, and I wanted something to listen to while I was outside picking plums. Audible had made a bit of a song and dance about the narrator of this book, and of course I had heard of it before, so I thought I would give it a go.

Image is of a digital book cover of “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad, performed by Kenneth Branagh. The cover is simply some palm fronds against a black background.

“Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad and narrated by Kenneth Branagh is a novella about a young man called Charles Marlow who manages to wangle his way into a job captaining a steamboat for an ivory trading company in Africa. On his journey to the station where the steamboat is moored, Marlow finds that he is following in the footsteps of a man called Mr Kurtz whose increasing success in the ivory trade and other pursuits appears to be accompanied by a deteriorating attitude towards the local African tribes. After significant setbacks, Marlow arrives at Kurtz’ station and is confronted by the full extent of Kurtz’ actions.

I think that the most significant and important thing about this book is that it is a critique and frank depiction of the horrors of colonisation in Africa. Given that it was published over 120 years ago, I was impressed at Conrad’s acknowledgement of (at least some of) the harm caused by colonisation and the theft of resources by Europeans in Africa.

However, I have to admit, I was just not that engaged in this book and even though it was only a few hours long, I frequently found myself tuning out and missed large swathes of the book. Branagh’s narration was maybe a little too soothing or something. I think that it’s also really important to note that while Conrad was clearly ahead of his time, this book describes significant violence against African people and does include some condescending attitudes towards African people. I don’t think that I can say it better than Kittitian-Brittish novelist Caryl Phillips who wrote, following an interview with Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe:

…to the African reader the price of Conrad’s eloquent denunciation of colonisation is the recycling of racist notions of the “dark” continent and her people. Those of us who are not from Africa may be prepared to pay this price, but this price is far too high for Achebe. However lofty Conrad’s mission, he has, in keeping with times past and present, compromised African humanity in order to examine the European psyche.

An important and certainly well-studied piece of literature that serves as a reminder of how important it is to centre Africian voices.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Book Reviews, Classics, General Fiction, Novella

Welcome to Night Vale

Novel set in fictional podcast’s paranormal town

A particular genre of podcast that I enjoy is fictional podcasts, and one of the very first fictional podcasts I started listening to was “Welcome to Night Vale“. If you’ve never listened, the podcast is in the format of a show on a community radio station run by the mysterious and charismatic Cecil. Each episode includes updates about the town’s unusual happenings and immerses the listener deeper and deeper into the unusual and ominous culture of Night Vale as well as regular segments known as Weather and Traffic. Some years ago, the creators of the podcast released a novel set in the town and I jumped out and bought a copy. Although my partner read it at the time, it has waited on my bookshelf, watching me judgmentally with its crescent moon eye symbol. Finally, I relented.

Image is of “Welcome to Night Vale” by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor. The purple book is on a table in front of baskets of fake fruit and a plastic flamingo. It appears to be nighttime in the background.

“Welcome to Night Vale” by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor is a novel set in the eponymous town where all manner of strange, paranormal things happen. The story is about two women: Jackie, who runs a pawn shop and has been 19 years old for more years than she can remember, and Diane, a single mother struggling to raise her teenage son who is going through puberty and who also changes shape constantly. When even more strange things than usual begin happening in Night Vale, unlikely pair Jackie and Diane must work together to solve the mystery of the man nobody seems to remember and find their way to King City.

This is a contemplative book with a mildly threatening aura that takes the reader on a journey through lesser known parts of Night Vale. In addition to some of our favourite characters from the podcast such as Cecil and his boyfriend Carlos, we meet new characters and explore some new and particularly dangerous areas of the town such as the Library. The book weaves together several threads and themes to explore broader issues of identity, family, adolescence and parenthood. Although a difficult character in some ways, Diane’s challenges in relating to her son as he grows up were both relatable and poignant. I enjoyed the transcripts of radio show episodes as interludes, with Cecil reporting with alarming accuracy on Jackie and Diane’s activities and whereabouts. The scenes with Jackie’s mother were particularly unsettling and really set the menacing and absurdist tone we have come to know and love from the podcast.

While there were a lot of aspects of this book that were well done, I did find it a little slow to get started. The characters spend a considerable time musing on their own circumstances, and it is some time before the action kicks off. I think that perhaps now wasn’t the best time for me to read this book. We are currently living through a time of significant uncertainty, with things like borders opening and closing and changes in rules about where, how and with whom we associate happening suddenly and without much warning. This is a book that really leans into the unexpected and decisions made by authorities (known and unknown) are often arbitrary and inexplicable, and reading this book made me realise that I do have a bit of fatigue around these things and probably impacted how much I enjoyed it.

Nevertheless, a valuable contribution to the Night Vale universe in a complementary format to the podcast, definitely a book for fans.

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Knee Deep

Young adult novel about Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and voodoo

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publicist.

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Image is of a city street flooded with a girl floating in a small dinghy on top

“Knee Deep” by Karol Hoeffner is a young adult novel about a 16 year old white girl called Camille who lives a slightly off-beat life as the daughter of owners of a bar in New Orleans. Exposed to a very diverse range of people in the French Quarter, Camille’s first love is for her handsome next door neighbour, an 18 year old young black man called Antwone. Already facing the not inconsequential obstacles of an interracial romance and Antwone’s current girlfriend, Camille’s crush is truly put to the test by Hurricane Katrina. When Antwone goes missing, Camille turns to voodoo magic to return her love to her. However, her dogged pursuit in a city of chaos puts more than just her dreams of a relationship at risk.

This is a readable and creative novel that resonates as a historical and cultural touchstone. Although of course in Australia we all saw the reports of Hurricane Katrina on the news, and have watched TV shows that reference the struggles to rebuild, it is hard to imagine what it was really like being there during such a challenging and tumultuous time. Hoeffner has a compelling writing style that reminded me a bit of Daniel Woodrell in his book “Kiss Kiss”. Camille is a really interesting character who makes a number of ethically suspect and selfish decisions, and Hoeffner fosters a strong sense of dramatic irony around her crush and exactly how requited it actually is.

I think the only part of this book that got under my skin was that Hoeffner did take some creative liberties with elements of the story. For example, although the hurricane happened in 2005, Hoeffner describes her characters posting on Facebook several times even though the social media service wasn’t open to public access until late 2006.

A unique and historically relevant book that showcases New Orleans culture and challenges the reader with ethical questions.

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