Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A lesson from an eel

I shared this on the Christian Writers Downunder blog, and thought I'd change a couple of things and share it here too. 

I have recently returned from a beautiful visit to far north Queensland, where we saw many great attractions. At Paronella Park the kids were given food to feed the fish on the property as part of the entry fee. The water turned out to be teeming with big, eager fish, crowding over each other to get closer to the front. Several of them had to flip onto their sides when it got too shallow to keep swimming. Then suddenly, there was a great, healthy eel in the race, slithering her way through and waiting for the next throw, just like all the fish. She even slipped right across my toes. At that moment, I changed the idea I'd always had about eels. Without much evidence, I'd imagined them to be brainless, slimy creatures which some people like to eat. This one was more like a cute little girl begging, 'Choose me, choose me!' (Our tour guide told us that all the eels on the property are female, and the males can be found further out to sea.) Her skin was sleek and glossy and her reflexes were finely tuned.

As a race, we humans make judgments and stereotypes so automatically. It's not our fault, but partly how the human brain is wired. I remember learning in Psychology that we make sense of the world by mentally storing things in boxes, even when the things we think we believe aren't necessarily true. For example, I neatly tucked eels away in the same category as the creepy, slime-dripping jellyfish I used to strike when swimming. This tendency can be useful, especially during our early years when we're making sense of the world. However, it has the potential to severely limit us if we let it keep going unchecked for the rest of our lives. It can be bad for the people, places and things we're unconsciously judging, as there's nothing more frustrating than trying to change minds which are set like concrete. It's also really sad for us to live in the narrow, rigid parameters we set for ourselves.

I believe we can open up new vistas of thought for ourselves, when we make a point of remembering that it's not an entirely predictable world, but one in which people and critters have the potential to surprise us all the time. That's where good writing may play its part. The type of books I enjoy reading are those which are fresh enough to challenge the opinions we've already made. The pens of the authors also turn out to be tools which help us hammer and chisel cracks into our discrimination, prejudice and automatic assumptions.

The people of first century Jerusalem had their fixed notions challenged. They believed that everyone who had his life shortened by the sentence of crucifixion was a no-good menace whose name would sink into obscurity, never to be heard of again. Were they wrong!

I've come across people who have told me, 'I never read fiction, because it's a waste of time, when you can be reading so much better material which is actually true.' They don't realise they've adopted the mindset that fiction cannot possibly hold its own sort of truth. Then they deprive themselves of a whole wealth of literature which might have the potential to move them deeply.

The man who built Paronella Park was a visionary who ignored stereotypes himself. Jose Paronella was a Spanish migrant and baker by trade, who fulfilled his childhood dream of building a fairytale castle on his property. His pragmatic neighbours told him, 'It's just weird to do something like that here in Australia,' but he didn't listen to them. I'm glad those fish and eels are finding it such a fertile place to live so many years after his death.

I want to keep training myself to watch out for extreme reactions which cause an emotional response to rise in me, and ask myself, 'Have I really got the facts right this time, or is it another eel?'

Have you noticed any eel reactions over the years, in yourselves or others?

Friday, May 27, 2016

'Summer of Dreams' by Elizabeth Camden


Genre: Historical, Christian, Romance
The daughter of a powerful army general, Evelyn White vows she will never marry a man in uniform. Which is why Clyde Brixton, a West Point cadet on the verge of graduation, presents a problem. Their attraction is instantaneous, but it threatens Evelyn's lifelong dream of going to college.

Clyde's brilliance in the new field of electrical power has him poised for a promising career in the Army's Corps of Engineers. The one thing he never anticipated was Evelyn White, a woman whose soaring ambition matches his own.

As they fall in love over the course of one magical summer, they believe dreams are enough to weather any challenge. But when they are tested by forces neither saw coming, will the fragile bonds forged during those dream-filled summer days be strong enough to survive the storm?

It seems to be the fashion for free or very cheap kindle novellas to lure us into a series, and it works for me. 

This one is all about three turn-of-the-century buddies having a good time using their talents to pursue their passions. Evelyn is a rich girl with a bent for engineering but no way to pursue it, since she lives in a male-dominated society with a bossy, patriarchal father. Clyde is a poor boy with a load of demerit points to work off before he can graduate from West Point Academy. Romulus is Evelyn's cousin, a good-looking and flamboyant Harvard student studying natural science. Together, they build a magnificent greenhouse with an artificial environment capable of sustaining nesting hummingbirds and a variety of delicate butterflies, fish and plants.

It's fun when modern authors, like Elizabeth Camden, get a chance to let their experience of contemporary times embellish their historical fiction. For example, Clyde's poor father crashed and burned while he was working on a project which might have turned out to be the predecessor of the kitchen fridge. There's no way the characters could have known that he might have been onto something, but we readers do. There's also a good sense that what goes around comes around. While I sensed Clyde's excitement as he talked about the fascinating technological changes which seemed to be accelerating before his eyes, I couldn't help but think of several young men his age I know personally, who get similarly excited over advances in computer technology.

One main theme is that sometimes limits just can't be pushed through, but that shouldn't stop anyone channeling their passion elsewhere. When we can't pursue our ultimate dreams, we just do what we can. Evelyn finds it impossible to push through society's expectations and her father's resistance to pursue a tertiary degree, but she can pour all her enthusiasm and knowledge into creating the dream greenhouse in her backyard. She admits that her self-taught knowledge is full of gaps, but won't let that stop her.

The trio never work from a bitter, 'Let's show them,' sort of attitude, but it's just what they do. If the world doesn't want your offerings, don't let them push you down just the same. Well, maybe there is a bit of cockiness from Romulus, who says, 'This greenhouse is mankind's war against mediocrity and acquiescence.' Even though nobody else would see or enjoy it, it was still true for them. And of course there's a strong romance thread, which many ladies will enjoy.

This book leads on to 'From this Moment', which I'll review very soon.

4 stars

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Noteworthy literary trees

There is something special and sacred about trees that really appeals to me. They simply stand strong, upright and silent. They don't boast about how important they are, yet their role is vital to our continued health on this planet. They purify our air and offer delicious treats in the form of fruit. I've enjoyed their welcome shade and shelter many times. Some birds and animals make their homes within their boughs. And even when trees pass away they are still useful, as they give us fuel and paper. Even their name imparts a sort of calmness. Try whispering 'tree, tree, tree,' and it sounds a bit like the rustling of breeze through pine needles. 

I totally understand why so many authors and artists have immortalised trees in their creative work. They have a lot of beauty, patience and character. Most of all, I love it that trees are a blessing we can easily enjoy in our own lives, as well as in stories, folklore and history. Before I launch into my lists of literary and biblical trees, I'm going to mention some I've come across in my own travels.

1) The Herbig Tree

It stands in Springton, South Australia, not far from where I live. In the mid 1800s, some distant ancestors of my family lived inside its hollow trunk during a rough stage of their pioneering life. They later managed to build a house for their growing family, but the tree helped tide them over when they needed it.

2) The Yungaburra Curtain Fig Tree

We visited this impressive tree in tropical north Queensland just recently. These fig trees may be the living counterparts of some of the vicious literary trees I've listed below. They wrap their tendrils around host trees until they suck the life out of them and take over. In some, you can still see the withered husks of the original trees within, and this one is a doozy.

3) The old gum tree around the corner

I walk past this one whenever I choose to have a stroll down the road to our local wetlands. It's so enormous, gnarled and old, I can't wondering about all the history it's seen.

4) This Cedar of Lebanon

I was delighted to come across this during a trip across to Victoria, in the Bendigo Botanic Gardens (or was it Ballarat?), because they had such a grandiose reputation, I always wondered what they were like. No wonder they were treated with such awe and respect in biblical times.

1) The Whomping Willow from Harry Potter
This is one aggressive tree when people violate its comfort zone. Harry and Ron accidentally collide with it in Mr Weasley's flying car, and it strikes out at them in response. Later, it's discovered that this tree has a crucial role in the mystery surrounding the eerie shrieking shack.

2) Enid Blyton's Magic Faraway Tree
I grew up on these stories. Small magic people build their homes up in its branches, and each week a different land appears in the clouds at its very top. It often grows several different types of fruit at once, which tend to change over time. It's vulnerable to sabotage though, when nasty goblins decide to delve underground and hack its roots, so rescuing this tree is an act of environmental altruism.

3) Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy
He's a heroic and sacrificial tree who is prepared to lay his own life on the line to shield and protect his friends. The special, rejuvenating quality of trees becomes evident at the end of the movie when he gets another chance at life in a very natural way.

4) Grandmother Willow from Pocohontas
Since she's lived to a ripe old age and has seen many changes, it's no wonder she makes such a wise and kind mentor for the spirited and impressionable young heroine.

5) Old Man Willow from Lord of the Rings
He's not as nice as Grandmother Willow above. The sneaky old tree uses his hypnotic powers and strength to lull the hapless hobbits to sleep, then traps two of them tight in the cracks of his trunk. The suspicion of Sam wins the day. Merry, Pippin and Frodo might have all been goners otherwise.

6) Treebeard and the Ents from Lord of the Rings
They are a race of talking tree-like beings, and Treebeard is the eldest of them all. His claim to be the oldest creature in Middle-earth could be quite true.

7) The Great Deku Tree from The Legend of Zelda
Recurring continuously in the series, his age and wisdom qualifies him to be guardian of the forest. 

1) The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil
It is this which proved to be the undoing of Adam and Eve, plunging the human race into the inherited darkness of sin. They had been forbidden by God to eat the fruit from this tree, but when the serpent tempted Eve and caused her to question God's motive for this command, she weakened and caused her husband to succumb too.

2) The Tree of Life
It stood in the centre of the Garden of Eden, symbolising that God is the source of eternal life and blessing.

3) The Cursed Fig Tree
When I was a kid, this used to perplex me a lot. Why would Jesus get all petulant and curse a poor, innocent tree to death, just because there were no figs on it for him to eat? It seemed a gross over-reaction, entirely out of character. I got it later on, when someone suggested that he cursed the tree because of what it symbolised. Being full of verdant green leaves, there was no reason why there shouldn't have been any fruit for hungry passers-by. Jesus' action was more to do with his opinion about pretentious people and things which proudly display all the signs of fruit, but lack actual fruit!

And while I'm on a roll, here are a couple of other very nice tree photos I've taken.
This camphor tree at the Adelaide Botanic Gardens.

These gracious palm trees at Palm Cove, Cairns

These mangroves trees

And this granddaddy it would be impossible to hug.

The Bible is also chock full of analogies which compare good men and women to trees, including this one from Psalm 1. 'He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water that brings forth its fruit in its season. His leaf shall not wither and whatever he does shall prosper.'

And now I'd love to invite anybody with any favourite trees of your own to share your stories or photos in the comments. Or just tell us about your favourite trees.

Friday, May 20, 2016

'On the Edge' by Theresa Santy


Genre: Contemporary, Christian fiction
For as long as she can remember, Kristen Craemer has been running from something. In high school and college, she ran competitively, until her Olympic dreams were shattered. Now, she runs to escape—from her past, from intimacy, from reality, and from the cold, black mist that haunts her nights.

Desperate to stop running, she turns to therapy, alcohol, and pills—anything to dull the fear—but her struggle intensifies with every passing night. Gradually, the nightmares encroach on her days, until everything she holds dear slips further away.

Kristen’s fears increase when she meets Ethan, a bronze-eyed Jesus freak. The claims he makes about God are too unbelievable to be true, and to Kristen they are more terrifying than her recurring dreams. She can’t open her heart to Ethan, and she won’t open her heart to his faith. Instead, Kristen keeps running, and every time she runs she finds herself standing at the shore of the Pacific Ocean, glaring into the crashing waves and fighting the urge to submerge herself beneath the turbulent water forever.

On the Edge is the powerful story of a “girl next door” who struggled to make it out of childhood alive, only to drown daily in shame and fear . . . until she finally dives over the edge and into redemption.

Sometimes you just know a book will be a hit because the main character is so good, and this is one of those. Kristen Craemer won me over with her wry observations and kind heart. In the very first paragraph she throws a challenge to the ocean. 'Go ahead, twinkle until you evaporate, you massive body of water. And keep dreaming, because you'll not lure me in.' Straight away, I knew my journey with this girl would be interesting. 

Kristen is an anxious interior designer who presents a sassy, cheerful front to others, but feels herself to be a mess on the inside. We learn quite a few things about her from the first five chapters. She's been devastated by a wealthy boyfriend who left her, and she's also mourning the sudden deaths of two close friends. She was raised by a drunken mother and drinks herself, mostly to keep away her dreaded nightmares about being pursued by some menace to the brink of the ocean. Kristen battles a strange compulsion to dash into the ocean and never come out again. She also has an inexplicable terror that her dream is blending into reality.

The pace moves steadily, and there is always a feeling that something more is soon to be revealed. Perhaps that's why this novel was the Faithwriters Page Turner winner. As Kristen reacts to unexpected bombshells and confrontations, it becomes evident that she had a rough start in life and is even more courageous and resilient than we first give her credit for.

Her romantic interest, Ethan, has also had a rough upbringing. He is the sort of Christian many of us may have come across. He spouts phrases and religious jargon he's evidently picked up from other Christians to the extent that it's second nature to him and he doesn't realise he's doing it. (Some people call this 'Christianese' but perhaps that word itself fits into the definition.) His talk is incomprehensible to Kristen, who often calls him up on it. For example, when he refers to his 'identity in God', she rightfully replies that she doesn't know what that means. It may be a good wake-up call for Christian readers who tend to do the same, especially since Ethan is clearly sincere in his desire to get to know her better, with no agenda to evangelise.

One thing I really appreciate is the fact that there is no swearing or crude language, and clearly no need for it. People have said there's a place for it in good characterisation, but this novel seems to be proof that a story will always work without resorting to coarse language. Several of Theresa Santy's characters are desperate or despicable people who would surely swear in real life situations, yet you don't miss it when they don't. I wouldn't have even noticed if I hadn't been thinking about it, and then looking out for it.

Altogether, it's an original, uplifting story which I'm glad I read.

5 stars 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

'Clancy of the Undertow' by Christopher Currie

In a dead-end town like Barwen a girl has only got to be a little different to feel like a freak. And Clancy, a typical sixteen-year-old misfit with a moderately dysfunctional family, a genuine interest in Nature Club and a major crush on the local hot girl, is packing a capital F.

As the summer begins, Clancy’s dad is involved in a road smash that kills two local teenagers. While the family is dealing with the reaction of a hostile town, Clancy meets someone who could possibly—at last—become a friend. Not only that, the unattainable Sasha starts to show what may be a romantic interest.

In short, this is the summer when Clancy has to figure out who the hell she is.

Genre: YA contemporary, Australian fiction 

This YA novel tackles some really sensitive themes and issues in an Australian small town setting. Clancy Underhill is a 15-year-old girl who quietly deals with feelings of being an outcast. Not only is she a member of the nature club, a fringe group regarded as nerds by more popular students, but she has secret homosexual leanings. Clancy has a crush on Sasha, the pretty girlfriend of Buggs, the town bully. Her problems are compounded when her father, a road worker who assists with traffic flow, finds himself on the scene of an horrific smash which kills two teenagers. Although Mr Underhill claims they were driving recklessly, many locals accuse him of negligence, making him responsible for their deaths. Now Clancy’s whole family, including her mother and two brothers, become targets of angry townsfolk bent on vengeance.

The highlight of this book is the strong characters. Clancy’s family is revealed as slightly dysfunctional, but strong and supportive enough of each other to weather storms. Her parents make excellent role models in standing by each other. Although Clancy gets irritated by her older brother Angus and younger brother Titch, it’s obvious that they are all bound by deep affection for each other.

Angus comes across as an interesting young man with a rebellious streak. He’s decided to leave university and set himself the eccentric task of tracking down the legendary Beast of Barwen, which may or may not exist. Another character who tugs readers’ heartstrings is Nancy DeRosa, the new girl in town who makes friendly overtures to Clancy. The plot reveals a heartbreaking history of bullying in Nancy’s past, forcing her and mother to want to make a fresh new start where nobody has heard of them. Nancy’s part of the story shows the deep scars bullying may leave on a person, no matter how far they run. 

Possible plot spoilers.

I thought there were some inconclusive story lines. We don’t find out whether Nancy and her mother manage to assimilate into Barwen and become accepted by locals. Neither do we see Angus reconcile his differences with his father or begin to find his place in the world. Clancy never really reveals her sexual orientation to her parents, even though a few characters closer to her own age find out. Readers are also left to wonder what Sasha will do, now that she’s found out how Clancy feels about her. That’s a few too many loose ends. And since the matter of who was at fault in the crash is quickly cleared up once autopsies are carried out, that main plot thread seems to fizzle out.  

But having said that, if there was ever to be a sequel I'd be happy to read it, to find out what happens to some of the characters. I'd be particularly interested to follow the paths of Clancy's brothers, and Nancy. Maybe I should mention that there's also quite a bit of strong language.

3.5 stars

Friday, May 6, 2016

Five wonderful historical mothers

With Mother's Day upon us, I'm thinking about the impact we have on our children, lingering in the form of fond memories. I'm afraid that if my kids were asked, they'd remember an incident which happened many years ago when they were small. At the end of a long day when everything seemed to have gone wrong, I pulled some taco shells from the oven where they were supposed to be getting warm and crisp, only to find them burned and have them slip onto the floor and smash. It was the last straw. So I did my block and started kicking the fragments of the shells against the wall and stamping the rest into splinters, hoping the destruction would ease my temper. Suddenly my two eldest kids were there, laughing until they were practically doubled over and clutching their sides. Even now, they'll ask each other, 'Do you remember Mum's taco stomp?' or tell their youngest brother, 'You should have seen it!' It's not a very dignified memory, but they love retelling it. 

Some other ladies have more illustrious things to be remembered for. This Mother's Day, instead of honouring fictional mothers, I'll share some tales I've heard about real life mothers from history. 

1) Saint Monica
She was Saint Augustine's mother, and also a saint in her own right. I once owned a little old book of saints which told her story. For years, her son was a party-goer who loved getting wasted and never spared a thought for either the people he might be hurting, or his own eternal destiny. Monica never gave up praying for Augustine, even when such a lot of time passed that other mothers might have given up. It seems praying for her son was one of her main claims to fame.

2) Susannah Wesley
Many of us have probably heard tales about this remarkable lady who bore almost 20 children and raised them in a tiny house with an absentee husband (although he must have been around for long enough to father 19 children). The story goes that whenever the children saw her sitting at the kitchen table with her apron raised over her head, they knew not to bother her. It was her quiet time in which she reflected and prayed. Usually I've heard this anecdote told to convince us that it's never strictly true that we can't get a moment to ourselves. Just spare a thought for Susannah and plug on.

Wikipedia tells us that even though she never wrote a book, preached a sermon or founded a church, she's still known as the mother of Methodism. This is because two of her sons, John and Charles, became famous. One was a great evangelist and the other a renowned hymn writer. We all like to think our good influence rubs off on our kids.

3) Nancy Matthews Elliot
She was Thomas Edison's mother. You might have seen this gem floating around on Facebook. The story goes that young Thomas brought a sealed note home from his teacher. When his mother read it, she teared up and told him they'd decided he was such a genius, they'd run out of resources to teach him. She homeschooled him instead, and years after her death, the famous inventor found the note among her old papers. It really said that he was so addled in the head, they refused to let him attend school anymore.

Other sources claim that the truth was tampered with. In reality, Tom was well aware of their low opinion of him. His mother was a champion on his behalf, making a crusade into school to claim rightfully that he was not a dunce. Rather than being expelled, she pulled him out of school, since she saw that he'd never thrive among their limited and judgmental attitudes. In my opinion, this makes her just as much of a hero as the first tale.

Edison claimed that his mother was the making of him, and her steady confidence in him made him always want to live up to it. What a terrific tribute from a son.

4) Henrietta Seuss Geisel
I read somewhere that this lovely lady used to hold down a part time job at a bakery when her children were small. Because she was expected to memorise all the specialty pies to rattle off to customers, she used to practise in front of young Theodor, making up wacky tunes that made him laugh. She also encouraged his juvenile artistic efforts, giving him permission to practice drawing animals on his plaster bedroom walls. Of course, young Ted grew up to be the beloved Dr Seuss. If my kids would remember me for this sort of quirky help and encouragement, I'd be more than happy. Especially if my own weirdness helped them to tap into their own specific skills.

5) Hannah
Her story is told in the Biblical book of 1Samuel. Struggling with infertility and being taunted by her husband's other wife, she promised God that if ever she bore a son by some miracle, she'd make sure he grew up to be a godly man, and what's more, she'd dedicate him for temple service as a babe. That's exactly what happened, and each year when she made the pilgrimage to the temple with her family, she'd bring Samuel a handmade robe, a size larger each visit. And her son grew to be one of the illustrious Old Testament prophets, instrumental in crowning Israel's first two kings.

I wish all fellow mothers, potential mothers, mentors, and any lady who has ever cared deeply for children, a very happy Mother's Day on Sunday. It's not always an easy role, and our purpose may seem to be the butt of jokes as often as it is offering wisdom. I'd like a dollar for every time I've heard something like, 'Hey Logan, guess what Mum just said. She's so out of touch.' But it's all part of the job description, and proves that we need a sense of humour. 

As always, I'm interested to throw the comments open. If you can think of any other historical mothers (or hysterical in my case) who deserve recognition, please let us know. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

'The Confessions of X' by Suzanne M Wolfe


Genre: Christian fiction, historical and biographical fiction
Before he became the sainted church father of Christianity, Augustine of Hippo began a love affair with a young woman whose name has been lost to history. They were together for over thirteen years, and she bore him a son. This is her story.

She met Augustine in Carthage when she was just seventeen years old. She was the daughter of a tile-layer. He was a student and the heir to a fortune. They fell in love, despite her lower station and Augustine’s dreams of greatness. Their passion was strong, but the only position in his life that was available to her was as his concubine. When Augustine’s ambition and family compelled him to disown his relationship with the her, X was thrust into a devastating reality as she was torn from her son and sent away to her native Africa.

A reflection of what it means to love and lose, this novel paints a gripping and raw portrait of ancient culture, appealing to historical fiction fans while deftly exploring one woman’s search for identity and happiness within very limited circumstances

This novel made me do the 'ugly cry.' When your tears are streaming, your face gets all blotchy and your nasal passages get all congested. As a general rule, I try to avoid books which have this effect on me because they're so sad, but this one somehow slipped through. I was waking up in the night thinking about what happened and feeling a bit sick as a result. As I prefer books which take me to a happy, optimistic place, that's the main reason for my lowish ranking. If you're the type of reader who thinks a good ugly cry is cathartic and therapeutic, you might even give it 5 stars.

The narrator of this story is the concubine of St Augustine. Since her name was never mentioned in the annals of history, she manages not to divulge it here either. Other characters sometimes use nicknames they're coined for her, such as 'Naiad' or 'Little Bird.' She begins the story as an elderly crone, and looks back on her life, from the time she was a little girl going around with her father, who was a mosaic maker. It includes bonding with the two males she loved most, Augustine and their son, Adeodatus, both of whom she lost. (This is not a plot spoiler. She lays that out at the start, so perhaps it's my own fault that I wasn't prepared!)

I was hoping the interesting snippets about how Augustine grew to become a celebrated saint might make the heart-rending quality worth it. I found them to be fairly sparse. There were a few passages in the form of discussions about the meaning of life over the table with friends, but for the most part, it was a domestic story about life in the time of gladiators and plagues. I have to say, she and Augustine made a decision which seemed inevitable to them, but I just couldn't see it their way. To me, they simply elevated social standing and personal ambition over the precious family life they shared. Bad, bad decision, surely even in the Roman Empire. Although Augustine came across as a loving partner and father, this didn't make me inclined to be a fan of his.

Thanks to Thomas Nelson and NetGalley for my review copy

2.5 stars

Monday, May 2, 2016

'The Smell of Other People's Houses' by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock

Genre: YA, general market.

In Alaska, 1970, being a teenager here isn’t like being a teenager anywhere else. Ruth has a secret that she can’t hide forever. Dora wonders if she can ever truly escape where she comes from, even when good luck strikes. Alyce is trying to reconcile her desire to dance, with the life she’s always known on her family’s fishing boat. Hank and his brothers decide it’s safer to run away than to stay home—until one of them ends up in terrible danger.

Four very different lives are about to become entangled.


This Young Adult novel is a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, which we don't realise we've completed until the end. The four teenage narrators aren't close friends. Some don't even know each other, and those who do don't necessarily like each other. In addition, there are other characters who could also be considered main protagonists. By the end, the significance of every seemingly random person and event is revealed. It's fun for a reader to be able to say, 'Oh, so that's where he fits.'

Ruth and her younger sister live with their restrictive and distantly remote grandmother. When Ruth accidentally falls into some unexpected trouble, she doesn't know where to turn.

Dora has grown up with a violent, drunken father and learned not to trust people until they prove themselves worthy, even if they look OK. Winning a huge windfall changes her life, but not necessarily in ways she expects.

Alyce feels like a split person, as she lives distinct lives with each of her divorced parents at different times of the year. She's a talented ballet student who can't pursue her passion during the summer months while she lives with her father on his fishing boat.

Hank and his younger brothers, Sam and Jack, have stowed away on a ship to escape from their mother's aggressive boyfriend.

Overall, perhaps it's too short a novel with too many characters and changing points of view to delve really deeply with any of them. It covers a short chunk of time in which several astonishing things happen. Some coincidences and emotional ties are stretched almost beyond credibility at times, but not quite. For example, Hank and Ruth manage to make a deep impression on each other after a chance encounter when they don't even exchange words. However, other things are well left out. We don't get to actually see how badly the boys were treated by their mother's boyfriend, but since all three brothers are unanimous in their desire to escape, we don't need much detail. As it's written to be a hope-building, optimistic novel, I'm glad the details were sketchy.

Dora's habit of pessimism is an interesting theme. It's so deeply rooted, she finds it hard to stop thinking of herself as a person who attracts bad luck, even when she wins the Ice Classic raffle. As it turns out, there are negative aspects to her stroke of good fortune, which she naturally highlights in her own mind. It's good to read the ways in which Dora realises that she needs to live with a more optimistic outlook for her own sake.

The novel provides a great insight into the lifestyles of Alaskan teenagers, which is guaranteed authentic because it's based strongly on the author's own past. Readers learn a lot about the fishing industry, with its beauty and superstition. And it's interesting to find out why not everybody was overjoyed when Alaska was included as one of America's 50 states.

I was pleased to see some really praiseworthy fathers. Dora's hostile, destructive dad is outnumbered by the loving, considerate fathers of Dumpling and Alyce, and the fond memory of Ruth's. It's great to come across a Young Adult novel with so many positive male role models.

What possibly draws many readers to this novel is the title, which does have some significance. In the very first chapter, Ruth reflects that you can guess a lot about other people by the different smells of their houses. The smell motif recurs often for all four narrators, emphasising the fact that everyone has their unique stories. It's handy for bringing descriptive passages to life too. And there's a wider application for the way we choose to spend our lives. Even when we grow so used to the smells of our own houses that we no longer notice them, it may be wise to remember that they are fresh impressions for the people we meet.

3.5 stars