What We’re Reading: February

Each month the NSW Writers’ Centre staff share what we’ve been reading. On our bookshelves this month are Bren MacDibble’s How to Bee, A Writing Life – Helen Garner & Her Work by Bernadette Brennan, the Brisbane-based journal Hot Chicks with Big Brains, Libby Jackson’s collection of stories about women in space, A Galaxy of Her Own, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and Moshi Moshi, written in Japanese by Banana Yoshimoto and translated into English by Asa Yoneda.

Jane McCredie, Executive Director

Bren MacDibble’s How to Bee is an intelligent, thought-provoking children’s novel about a future world where natural and social ecosystems are in crisis. Nine-year-old Peony lives on a fruit farm with her grandfather and little sister. Both children work in the orchards collecting pests from around the base of the trees, but Peony aspires to be a ‘bee’, one of the children dressed in striped vests who climb the trees to manually pollinate the flowers now that wild bees are extinct. When she is abducted by her mother and taken to the city to work in the home of a wealthy family, Peony tries to escape and find her way back to the farm. This is a book about family breakdown and violence, set against a backdrop of wider environmental and social collapse. The city portrayed in the book is a dangerous place where extremes of wealth and poverty live side-by-side and there is no safety net to protect those at the bottom of the social heap. The book does, however, offer hope to its young readers through the kindness and human connection that can be found in unexpected places. Given the threats currently faced by our planet, including to the survival of bee populations, this is a timely and important book for young readers.

Julia Tsalis, Program Manager

A Writing Life – Helen Garner & Her Work by Bernadette Brennan. I’m not usually that keen on reading biographies but the concept for this book, and the fact that I love Garner’s writing, captured me. The book charts Garner’s life through the lens of her books, this works as so much of Garner’s self is in her books, both fiction and non-fiction, and it is fascinating to find out more about what shaped her writing. Garner’s presence in this book is very strong. In fact, I sometimes found myself thinking that I was reading a book by Garner. This is partly because there is a lot of her writing in the book – extracts from diaries, letters, her books, but it is also a credit to Brennan that she is able to embody Garner’s clarity of writing and her sharp-eyed but empathetic approach.


Ashley Kalagian Blunt, Program Officer

I’m getting into several new literary journals and publications, and my current favourite is Hot Chicks with Big Brains. I read all of issue #4 from cover to cover, except when I excitedly skipped ahead for Fiona Wright’s contribution, ‘Much as that Dog Goes’, a memoir piece about how getting her first dog has helped her to think about and manage her chronic illness. ‘A sniffing imagination and an intended haphazardness – these are things I want for myself and they are things that come so easily to my silly, lovely dog,’ she concludes. The issue is synergistic inspiration, all centred on, as HCwBB’s tagline specifies, women who work. Many of the articles are Q&A style, so you feel like you’re getting to sit down and talk to these very cool women. They include artists, farmers, musicians, politicians, soldiers and chefs, each facing their own challenges and overcoming them in creative ways. It makes you feel like maybe you can too, with a little sniffing imagination and intended haphazardness of your own.

Cassie Watson, Administration Officer

Ask any non-fiction writer for the best books on the writing craft and there’s a good chance they’ll mention William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. He addresses the basics of grammar in an engaging way—though helpfully points readers to The Elements of Style (Strunk & White) for a detailed treatment, so his own prose isn’t bogged down by clauses and split infinitives. I particularly loved how practical this book was. After reading the chapter on unity, I looked over a piece I’d recently written and immediately noticed the main idea didn’t flow clearly through the whole article. I’m confident taking writing advice from Zinsser as he managed to make the sports writing chapter fascinating to someone who doesn’t even care for the Olympics. He’s a qualified guide, so I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in writing non-fiction.


Sherry Landow, Membership and Development Officer

I’ve been reading A Galaxy of Her Own: amazing stories of women in space by Libby Jackson. This book profiles fifty female astronauts, scientists, and contributors to space exploration. Illustrated by students and graduates from London College of Communication, the book is a delight to both read and gaze adoringly at. So what if it was from the children’s section of the bookstore? Accessible for all ages, it makes a perfect gift for anyone interested in space exploration and pioneers.

Catherine Bouris, Programs Intern

I devoured The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas in one sitting, and absolutely relished the experience. It’s one of the best YA books I’ve ever read, partly because it treats the reader as a compassionate, well-informed young adult, and its main character, Starr, is definitely portrayed as such. It balances issues like police brutality alongside familial problems and best-friend and boyfriend drama, painting a complete picture of Starr’s world in a relatively short amount of time. It’s the perfect novel for the tumultuous and politically-charged time we’re living in, and is particularly poignant considering the protests around the United States against gun violence that are being led and organised by teenagers just like Starr.

Annie Zhang, Communications Intern

I have recently finished reading the short novel Moshi Moshi, written in Japanese by Banana Yoshimoto and translated into English by Asa Yoneda. A young woman and her widowed mother move to the suburb of Shimokitazawa after her father commits suicide with a mysterious woman. We follow the quiet lives of Yoshie and her mother as they navigate new connections and unexpected reminders of the past. Yoshie spends her days working at a French-style bistro and becoming entranced by the way people eat. At night, she dreams of her father searching for his phone and trying desperately to reach her. Although ghosts and grief do intrude on the life of the protagonist, this is not a heavy novel at all. There is little in the way of plot, with Yoshimoto showcasing the quiet beauty of life in all its ordinariness, even after a great tragedy. The story is a very hopeful one which highlights the importance of family, as well as the restorative power of food (especially barley salad). Moshi Moshi is a lovely, quick read — only about 200 pages long — and Yoneda’s translation is clear, smooth and accessible.

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