All The Books I Can Read

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Review: Staying by Jessie Cole

Staying: A Memoir
Jessie Cole
Text Publishing
2018, 257p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

As children, Jessie Cole and her brother Jake ran wild, free to roam their rainforest home as they pleased. They had each other, parents who adored them, and two mysterious, beautiful, clever half-sisters, Billie and Zoe, who came to visit every holidays. But when Jessie was on the cusp of adolescence, tragedy struck, and her happy, loving family fell apart. This beautifully written, heartbreaking memoir asks what happens to those who are left behind when someone takes their own life. It’s about the importance of home, family and forgiveness—and finding peace in a place where we’ve suffered pain.

It feels like a very long time since I was introduced to Jessie Cole’s work and in some ways, it is. I first read something by her in 2012 and was blown away by the imagery in her writing. Her first two books, Darkness On The Edge of Town and Deeper Water are incredible but it’s been a little while so I was very pleased when I read that there was something new coming. Different to her other books, Staying is a memoir of her childhood.

Jessie and her younger brother Jake had quite a free-range upbringing on her parent’s property in northern New South Wales which was basically part rainforest. That forest was their playground and they spent their days exploring it, playing in the river and observing the range of wildlife that populated it. Clothing was optional and Jessie has fond memories of the social gatherings that went long into the night. During the school holidays, her father’s daughters from his first marriage would come to stay. They were older, more glamorous it seemed from their Sydney lives and the family of four would become a family of six.

This book reads somewhat like a fictional story, two children in this beautiful, ideal, hippy-ish sort of setting, running wild in the sunshine. If it wasn’t for that first few pages, which ominously warns the reader of the darkness to come, I’d imagine no one would suspect the turn this story would take.

This is a stunningly written piece of work. It’s such a vivid picture that it wasn’t hard for me to imagine the sort of property that Jessie and her family lived on. I grew up in an area just a little south of where Jessie did, with a similar landscape (although mine was less rural). But because of that, I can connect to this setting, I know the types of trees, the wildlife. The weather and the lack of any real winters but still with those crisp mornings where the grass crunches under your feet. And the beach is always never too far away, white sand and an unpredictable Pacific Ocean. The rain – at times, the seemingly endless rain. And even though quite frankly there are parts of the wildlife that scare me silly (mostly spiders, cockroaches, etc) you can’t help but want this sort of life. At least, the idyllic picture of it.

But this story is about much more than those early years. It’s about those that are left behind after a tragedy – a tragedy that had no warning, no reason, that was impossible to understand. It affected the entire Cole family deeply, in a myriad of ways that changed the entire dynamics of their family. This is an emotional story (I keep using story, but that’s not exactly the right word because this is actual true, this is all something that happened to someone in real life), it cannot help but be an emotional story because it’s about grief and loss and loneliness, heartwrenching events. But even though there is so much of that sadness, it doesn’t take over the book to the point where it becomes saturated or overwhelming. It is honest, open and raw and yes, there is great sadness. But it’s somewhat balanced out by love, strength, a quest for understanding. It’s a whole picture, ugliness, lack of answers and all. Nothing is sugar coated, not the grief, not the portrayal of what it does to some family members, not the examining by others of their own actions. I found one part really interesting after the second of the two tragic events – several of the characters have conversations with each other where they talk about interactions or moments just before or leading up to that second tragedy and each of them remember it differently, their own contributions dominating and not really having any memory of what others have contributed. It seems that guilt is a powerful force, raising its head and having them each pondering blame or contribution – their own, not that of others. We all think we could probably do something to prevent such tragedies in the aftermath. But the reality is different.

This is a powerful, beautiful story about life in all it’s ups and downs. The writing is so phenomenal – I’ve always struggled to describe Jessie Cole’s fictional writing in a way that does it justice and it seems that I’m having the same issue with the writing in her memoir. It has such depth and character, sympathy and reflection as well as capturing the highs of an innocent childhood and the grief of both suddenly and slowly losing people who mean the most. I feel like I ran the gauntlet of emotions just reading this but I was never not thinking about what it must have been like to experience it first hand. It’s so incredible that Jessie Cole has been able to write about this. It’s so sensitively handled, very personal of course but without judgement.


Book #89 of 2018

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August Reading Wrap Up

Total Books Read: 19
Fiction: 19
Non-Fiction: 0
Library Books: 0
Books On My TBR List: 3
Books in a Series: 11
Authors I’d Never Read Before: 7
Male/Female Authors: 3/16
Kindle Books: 12
Books I Owned or Bought: 7
Favourite Book(s): Deeper Water, by Jessie Cole and Moonlight Plains, by Barbara Hannay
Least Favourite Book(s):  Lead, by Kylie Scott
Books That Qualify For Challenges: 8

August was nearly a write-off in terms of reading. I was congratulating myself to my husband at the beginning of the month, for having made it through almost the entirety of winter without getting sick. Well, obviously I tempted fate because halfway through the month I came down with an epic bout of the flu that lasted over two weeks (I’m still feeling the effects of it). I didn’t even pick up a single book for at least 12 days. I did no blogging during that time, in fact for probably the longest time ever, my laptop was switched off, ignored and neglected in a corner gathering dust. Normally I can read easily when I’m sick but I spent huge amounts of time in bed and when I wasn’t in bed, I was on the couch watching inane television. It was all I had the mental capacity for.

Then on Friday night I started a freebie book I got from Amazon called Spying in High Heels by Gemma Halliday and ended up really liking it. They’re not very long and they’re a bit of fun, the sort of stuff you don’t take seriously. They actually kind of remind me a bit of the Stephanie Plum series before it started to suck. I ended up buying the next 5 from Amazon and binge reading them all over the weekend so in the end, August’s total books read is a fairly respectable 19.

Despite being sick, I did manage to attend some Melbourne Writers Festival sessions, although not as many as I would’ve liked. I had to forego a few sessions (including ones I’d already booked for) because I just wasn’t up to going which was super disappointing because MWF is one of my favourite times of year and I was super excited about a lot of the sessions I planned to attend. I did end up attending 4-5 sessions and I do have recaps to write up and post at some stage. I also got to meet some lovely publishing people at MWF, people who have been on the other end of emails for the last year or two, which was super nice. Putting faces to names is always good! I attended some really enjoyable sessions and got to meet and get a photo with one of my all-time favourite authors as well. So look out for some of those recaps later this week.


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Review: Deeper Water – Jessie Cole

Deeper WaterDeeper Water
Jessie Cole
Harper Collins AUS
2014, 337p
Copy courtesy of the author

Mema lives a sheltered life, at home with her mother in a remote cottage deep in bushland. Homeschooled, Mema has rarely ventured beyond the farm, making only brief journeys to the small town nearby and the markets where she and her mother sell their pots.

During heavy summer floods Mema is out tending to a cow who is about to give birth when she sees a car washed off a bridge and into the creek. Thinking quickly, she is able to encourage the driver to smash the window and she helps him get to shore by extending a large branch for him to hold onto. Mema takes him home as there is no where else for him to go. Hamish, an environmental consultant from the city is a fish out of water in the small cottage which loses power in heavy storms, that doesn’t have a computer or the internet.

Hamish has to stay at the cottage with Mema and her mother until the waters recede and he can get to the nearby town. Mema shows him what her life involves – bodyboarding down the swollen creek, exploring the local bush and running in the rain. Sheltered as she has been, Mema has never really spent much time with a man before and he opens up a whole new world of feeling and intrigue for her.

In the last four years, I’ve reviewed a lot of books. Sometimes the words come easy, sometimes I have to coax them. The reasons for the writers block can be varied but I honestly think this is probably the first time I haven’t really known what to write because the book is so beautifully written and I’m not sure how to convey that accurately. It’s now almost two weeks since I read this book, having come down with the flu the day after I finished it. I normally like to write the review as close to finishing the book as possible, so everything is fresh in my mind. However perhaps with this book, time to reflect on it and mull it over in my mind is a bonus, rather than a disadvantage.

Mema is a truly unique character, sheltered from the outside world in many ways. She spends most of her time at her family’s isolated cabin where there’s no television and no computer. Mema’s mother earns just enough money for them to survive by selling the clay pots she makes and Mema contributes too, making mugs and smaller items to sell at markets. There’s an innocence to Mema that’s so utterly charming, she has a really interesting way of looking at nature and the environment. Her surroundings are precious to her and she has love for everything that makes up nature, even the ugly parts that no one else cares for, such as cane toads which are known pests. Seeing the world through Mema’s eyes was somewhat of a revelation as she takes the time to really see and experience what is happening around her. She takes pleasure from the simplest things – running as fast as she can manage in the rain, body boarding down the creek swollen in the floods. Her childlike enthusiasm and wonder is infectious and city boy Hamish finds himself rather swayed by her even as he doesn’t really understand her.

If this book was a romance, Hamish would turn his back on his city life and live happily ever after in the bush with Mema, building them a cabin or something. But that isn’t the way this story unfolds – there’s much more realism in this story. Hamish is trapped with Mema’s family and he is intrigued by her but at the same time it is quite obvious that Mema is innocent in so many ways, not used to men at all. Mema, although aware of her own ability to self-pleasure, has never connected this to another person before and the arrival of Hamish triggers her sexual awakening and feelings involving other people, wanting to be with another person in a way that she hasn’t before. Mema isn’t unaware of sex and she’s certainly aware of her own mother’s reputation surrounding it, but it’s not something that she seems to have ever been interested in for herself, before Hamish.

It’s hard to accurately describe how vivid the writing is in this novel. Every nuance of the bush is so easy to picture – I experienced running in the rain, the bodyboarding down the creek, even Mema pulling Hamish to safety and then searching for the cow had calved, like I was there myself. Mema’s small cabin that she shares with her mother and occasionally her sister and her sister’s two children is wonderfully depicted, right down the the occupants that occasionally invade the shower and freak Hamish out so much. Mema’s friendship with the troubled Anja is full of an unexpected depth and intrigue. I felt a real connection to Mema and her observations about life – she has older brothers who have all left home, some of which they no longer even hear from anymore and yet Mema remains, not quite ready to leave the nest. The world beyond doesn’t seem to interest her as much as her own surroundings do. Hamish shakes her comfortable existence, offers new experiences and feelings and paves the way toward a new future.

I read Jessie Cole’s first novel, Darkness On The Edge Of Town and was impressed by it but this novel showcases her evolution and advancement as a writer. It’s the sort of book that you wish went a bit longer, just so you could keep reading it and experiencing it.


Book #163 of 2014


Deeper Water is book #61 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

Check out the book trailer for Deeper Water here:



Darkness On The Edge Of Town – Jessie Cole and Author Q&A

Darkness On The Edge Of Town
Jessie Cole
4th Estate
2012, 325p
Copy courtesy Harper Collins AU

Vincent collects broken things. Living up on a remote hill with his teenage stepdaughter Gemma, he trawls tips for furniture and appliances for his house, collecting far more than he could ever need, cluttering up the small house. They don’t have much, but together they get by.

Vince doesn’t just collect broken things, he seems drawn to broken people as well. Wherever he goes, drama tends to follow and he doesn’t know quite how he ended up in these situations. He married Gemma’s mother when she was just 2 and when she took off years later, Gemma stayed with Vince. Since then Vince has drifted in and out of relationships with broken women.

He arrives home one night and finds Rachel on his property, distressed and cradling a baby. She has crashed her car on a dangerous bend in the road just near his house and she’s in a state. He looks after her, patching her up best he can, calling the ambulance for the baby. When they arrive and take them both away, Vince thinks that’s probably the last of it. He’s done his good deed.

But then Rachel turns up at his house, having escaped from the hospital and walked all the way out there. She’s brittle and grieving and for some reason she seems to have chosen Vince as a shelter, a place where she feels safe. Gently, Vince is able to tease Rachel’s story out in small increments, a tragic tale that stirs within him a protectiveness. Despite his best efforts of getting Rachel the treatment she needs for her injuries, getting her the help she needs for her situation, Rachel always seems to find her way back to Vince.

Darkness On The Edge Of Town starts with a bang, Vincent, an almost-40 country sort of bloke arriving home and finding a car has gone off the road and crashed near his isolated property. He finds Rachel, cradling her 9wk old baby and it’s clear to Vincent from first glance that things aren’t at all okay with the baby. Rachel is in a state of shock but it isn’t until later that it becomes apparent that Rachel is in shock from much more than just her accident and subsequent loss.

I was hooked on this story from the first few words – the narrative is split between Vince and his young stepdaughter (who is really more than that), a 16yo girl wise and mature beyond her years. Vince is the only father she has ever known and she chose to stay with him when he and her mother split up and the two of them have a close and somewhat unusual relationship. Gemma accepts her father’s ways of finding and trying to fix broken things, perhaps she even shares it. But she knows that Rachel, when she reappears in their lives, is going to change things. You can see her apprehension, her hesitance. She’s torn between feeling sorry for Rachel, wanting to help her, wanting to help fix her as well, and perhaps trying to protect herself and her father from what Rachel will bring into their lives, a type of chaos from which there will be consequences.

This is a book strongly driven by character and relationships. Vince is rough around the edges but also gentle. I couldn’t help but sympathise with him because he had such good intentions but he was really quite ill equipped emotionally to care for Rachel after what she had been through. That’s no slight on Vince – as Rachel’s tragic story unfolds, it’s clear that she’s quite scarred and damaged by where her life has led her and Vince’s best attempts are not going to be enough to help her. As a mother I also felt deeply for Rachel, the way in which she had this child did not change the depth of her grief for him when he was then lost to her and some of the scenes where Rachel finally has to accept that little Frankie is gone are utterly heartbreaking in their honest simplicity.

The character of Gemma is so beautifully written – a 16yo girl living only with her father. Her mother has very little to do with her now and you can tell from her brief appearance in this book that even though Gemma has come to realise exactly what her mother is, her visits cause her pain because they force her to re-confront this every single time. She’s at a stage where she probably desperately needs a mother to talk to about the things she’s going with at school, with boys, but all she has is Vince and although the two of them do have a lovely bond, it’s not the same. I felt for Gemma so much, she seemed very lost at times in this novel and at others she was such an amazing tower of strength.

Darkness On The Edge Of Town is a very promising debut from a truly talented young Australian woman writer and I very much look forward to what Jessie Cole has in store for readers.


Book #190 of 2012

Darkness On The Edge Of Town is the 62nd book read and reviewed by an Australian female writer for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012

Jessie was also kind enough to answer some questions for me about herself and her writing.

1). Hi Jessie and welcome to my blog! Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions for me. To start us off could you maybe tell us how the story of Vince, Rachel and Gemma came to you.

Hi Bree, it’s very nice to be here!

The story of how Vince, Rachel and Gemma came to be is a strange one. From talking to other writers I have gathered that many stories evolve – characters and scenes appearing slowly and in their own time – but with these particular characters it wasn’t like that at all. Their voices were so strong for me from the outset, as though the whole thing was fully formed already inside me, and it hit me with quite a bang. All in one go. I felt in some ways – overtaken.

In terms of who the characters are and why I would write their stories – I suppose in some ways they’re simply a reflection of the place and time and people I have known throughout my life. They feel real to me, and I still feel very close to them, even though I wrote the book more than four years ago.

2). The road to publication can be a long and difficult one. How did you get from getting these ideas down on paper to holding a finished copy of your novel in your hands?

Yes, for me it seemed a very long process.

I had written an MS before Darkness on the Edge of Town, a kind of fictionalised autobiography, finished in about 2006. I won a HarperCollins Varuna Award for Manuscript Development for this first MS in 2009, but by that time I had already moved on and completed Darkness too.

Part of this award entails going to Varuna in the Blue Mountains to work with an editor from HarperCollins for ten days. Then HarperCollins consider the polished manuscript for publication. With mine, they decided against the first manuscript, but asked to have a look at Darkness on the Edge of Town. But it wasn’t until half way through 2010 that I signed a contract with them for
Darkness, and then for a number of reasons I ended up with a two year pre-publication period. So, it was a long road.

Having said this, the long build up undoubtedly gave me some extra time to become acclimatised to having a book published, which is actually quite a daunting process.

Aspiring writers get told so often that they will never be published, that the odds are so low, that they shouldn’t get their hopes up … and for me, the belief that it would never happen gave me a kind of privacy in the way I wrote. I truly believed – no-one will ever read it so what does it matter? So adjusting to the idea of publication was trickier than you might expect.

But when I opened that first box of author copies in my local post office and held my book in my hands it truly was like holding a baby for the first time. I could barely believe my eyes.

3). Do you write whenever the mood takes you and the story is flowing or do you try and write each day to a routine? Is there anywhere in particular you like to write, such as a study, local coffee shop, maybe outside? Do you need anything to keep you going such as a certain drink or snack?

Hmmm … I write when the mood takes me, but I would like to be more disciplined. I suppose it is taking that step from writing as a secret hobby or personal passion to writing as a career. All I can say is – I’m trying.

I like to write in total privacy, so definitely not in a café. My bedroom is upstairs in amongst the canopy (I live in a kind of rainforest) and I have taken lately to writing in bed on my laptop. I guess I need to feel immersed, and it is easier to feel like that if I can keep the real world at bay.

I drink lots of tea, and I like to have quite frequent breaks and wander around a little. I think movement is important; that it stimulates ideas. I have had times where I wander from spot to spot daydreaming, clearly seeming to anyone who might be watching like I was doing nothing at all, but it is all part of it.

I read a quote by Martin Amis that said something along the lines of – ‘It is hard to explain to your wife that you are working when she comes in and finds you asleep on the couch.’ And I had to laugh. So much of ‘the work’ that goes into writing is actually a kind of dreaming.

4). What do you like to do during your downtime when you’re not writing?

I read a lot. Listen to music. I go on long walks with the dog. I hang out with old friends. I do silly things with my boys. Basically, I live a fairly quiet life.

5). Who/what are some of your favourite authors/books?

I live in the home my parents built and it is still filled with their books. Bookshelves lining many of the walls, overflowing onto all the surfaces. Everywhere. Sometimes in this environment I find it a bit difficult to work out what it is I actually love, separate from the chronic-book-chaos that surrounds me.

But I’m thinking … I love Jeanette Winterson, Tim Winton, Jane Austen, Michael Ondaatje, Tara June Winch. I read Elliot Perlman’s Three Dollars the other day and was pretty blown away. I also read quite a bit of YA fiction because I have teenage boys. I really loved Patrick Ness’s trilogy Chaos Walking and one of my all time favourites is Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Story of a Part-
Time Indian. It’s a gem.

6). Lastly, what’s next for you?

I’m working on a new novel at the moment and it is always so exciting to be in the midst of that (extended) moment of creation. I am really close to the end of the first draft and I’ve started to stall a bit because I know from experience that there is stretch of deep loneliness when a project comes to an end. Like the end of a relationship, in a way. So I’m prolonging the moment! But hopefully I’ll be finished soon.

Thank you so much Jessie!