What happens when a group of avid readers come together to share their views about fabulous books? The Stella Book Club is what happens!

In 2018 Melbourne Girls Grammar School (MGGS) partnered with Stella to encourage young Australian readers to engage with Australian women writers.

Throughout the year, interested MGGS students from years 10 and 11 read the twelve texts from the 2018 Stella Prize longlist, creating the MGGS-Stella Book Club. Along the way they met and interviewed Heather Rose, Cate Kennedy, Maxine Beneba Clarke.

The MGGS-Stella Book Club reading year culminated in a wonderful fundraising effort, with a daytime book sale, baked goods stall and sausage sizzle, and an evening event which featured 2018 longlisted Stella Prize writer Sofie Laguna. The MGGS girls spoke movingly about the books they’d read and, in a lively and engaging conversation, quizzed Sophie about writing, reading, characters and story. All the funds raised on the day were generously donated to The Stella Prize.

As well as discussing the books, over the course of the year the MGGS-Stella Book Club members wrote insightful and thoughtful reviews. We hope you enjoy them as much as we did.

Anaesthesia by Kate Cole-Adams

Reviewed by Indi

If you have ever had an operation, you can probably recall what happened before your operation and what happened afterwards. You know how it is when you go under the jab, and when you awake afterward. But what happens in between is a mystery. This is all because of the miracle of anaesthesia. When patients go under the knife not many of them question anaesthesia, how it works, what it does. I mean why would they, if it does the job why does it matter? Many anaesthetists don’t even know the answer themselves. But Kate Cole-Adams was driven by her intense curiosity and from her multiple encounters with anaesthesia to find out more.

Kate Cole-Adams is an Australian journalist and novelist well known for her novel Walking to the Moon. Her newest book, Anaesthesia, takes you on her journey discovering more about the little-known topic. Anaesthesia is about what happens to a patient when they go under anaesthesia. It is an extremely gripping work which explores some large topics of unconsciousness and the body.

The book does its best to uncover the big questions surrounding anaesthesia: can we hear what’s going on around us? Is pain still pain if we are not awake to feel it? And what happens to those rare patients who wake up under the knife? These intricate questions are uncovered by Kate’s extensive knowledge and her many accounts of first hand experiences.

I thought this book was as insightful as it was interesting. It’s a mix of science and Kate’s personal experiences that creates a book which is not only gripping but informative. It not only taught me the fascinating origins of anaesthesia but presented little-known sides to the drug, such as patient awareness during operations and the mind’s unconsciousness and cognitive skills.

Anaesthesia is a science book which I actually enjoyed reading. Its deep knowledge on the obscure topic, embedded with the author’s artistic flair created a hauntingly lyrical book. Kate was able to skilfully explore the subject, as she had a clear passion for the topic. This was shown through her sophisticated writing and lexical use. I highly recommend this book, science fanatic or not, it is a tremendous read which will have you chomping at the bit for more.

The Fish Girl by Mirandi Riwoe

Reviewed by Kira

Mirandi Riwoe was born in Brisbane and has expanded her writing all over Australia. She has been shortlisted for many prizes including the Josephine Ulrick Short Story Prize and Overland‘s Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize. She has written two amazing works of fiction, She be Damned and The Fish Girl, which was shortlisted for the Stella Prize.

The Fish Girl is a short novel, based on Mina, an Indonesian girl, as we follow her journey when her life is changed when she moves to a Dutchman’s house to become his slave. This short novel was inspired by W. Somerset Maugham’s story ‘The Four Dutchmen’. The decision for Mina to move was made by her father as he needed the money to produce spices and tobacco. When Mina finds out the news of leaving her mother and father, she is crushed and thinks that this arrangement is a punishment. She leaves her family and begins working for the Dutchman. Her life is changed by the people she meets and the choices she has to make.

Throughout, the story builds plenty of suspense with twists and turns on every couple of pages. The way that Mirandi had described the food and spices in the village transports you inside the book, you could almost smell the spices and taste the food on each page! Mina’s feelings and fears that she faces every day are so lifelike and vivid, which makes the novel more intriguing. It is an outstanding book. The mood is so powerful and it will stay with you until the very end. This novel was the perfect length and can be completed in one sitting, whether you are on a train or relaxing at the beach. The ending was absolutely heartbreaking and left me feeling blank inside. But overall, I absolutely loved this book; it is a must read for everyone.

Terra Nullius by Claire G. Coleman

Reviewed by Charli & Elita

As Claire G. Coleman’s first published novel, Terra Nullius has been a triumph, having won the Norma K Hemming Award and a black&Write! Writing Fellowship, as well as being shortlisted for the Stella Prize. Claire is a Noongar woman whose family belongs to the south coast of Western Australia. She wrote this book whilst travelling around Australia in her caravan and her book is now being published in North America.

Coleman’s Terra Nullius is a beautifully crafted book that plays to fears that we didn’t even know we had. Terra Nullius has multiple layers, which were carefully combined to paint a story that gives voice to issues that are still contentious within our society.

Coleman comments on colonisation, teaching lessons about learning from the mistakes made in the past. The piece has ties to the British colonising Australia, the treatment of the Indigenous people and the Stolen Generations which ensued. Although these complex and sensitive issues are discussed through a fictional storyline, the events are painfully truthful. Coleman brings these to light through the different character perspectives from both sides of the situation, providing greater insight into the reasons behind the actions taken and demonstrating how even pure intentions can have disastrous consequences. The post-colonial story exemplifies the notion of the ‘other’, between the colonisers and the natives with science-fiction elements.

The book follows multiple characters on their journey through the harsh terrain of Australia searching for their truth but discovering pain and monstrosities hidden under the mere facade of a new and prospering country. The opening of the book reads:

Jacky was running. There was no thought in his head, only an intense drive to run. There was no sense he was getting anywhere, no plan, no destination, no future. All he had was a sense of what was behind, what he was running from. Jacky was running.

The storyline was confusing at first; however when I realised that my original assumption of the setting was incorrect, it made the story even more enjoyable as I pieced together the clues. Looking back, I can identify the breadcrumbs, but in my superficial reading, it was unclear as to what the plot was. The unpredictable nature of the storyline and the varying perspectives kept me on my toes and impatient for the next chapters. I became extremely invested in all the characters and while the ending was devastating, it was unquestionably necessary in providing an accurate and holistic perspective on the issue.

Reviewed by Allegra

Claire G.Coleman’s debut novel, Terra Nullius, is a reflection on our horrific Australian history and, at the same time, a warning for the future. She seamlessly merges the two together and pulls the reader into a compelling story that incites fear and regret. Coleman’s vivid descriptions of the Australian outback landscapes enable the reader to move along with her as she recreates our past and takes on a unique perspective.

The Choke by Sofie Laguna

Reviewed by Jessica Barrow

When I finished reading Sofie Laguna’s The Choke, I was practically in tears. Not because the book was sad or depressing, though it tells a story of harrowing beauty, but simply from the raw humanity on display. My tears were an instinctive reaction to the traumatic cruelty suffered by the protagonist: the combination of Justine’s world against the beauty of her viewpoint.  There is an engaging quality to the story of Justine Lee, a young girl who is raised primarily by her grandfather, Bob, a PTSD World War II veteran who was a Japanese Prisoner. Unable to connect with humanity, Bob finds solace and comfort in his chickens, and masks his memories of the Burma Railway with beer, to help him sleep.

Set in the early 1970s along a section of the Murray river, the story uses a backdrop of societal values of the day. Justine’s aunt Rita, a successful nurse, is in a stable relationship with another woman. Considering her bent and wrong, Bob struggles to confront his daughter’s sexuality and instead takes an easier path, driving her from his life. It is evident that Rita and Bob have a great love each other, but cannot breach the divide of her sexuality

Domestic violence, and the inability to speak about it, is a thread that runs strongly through this book. When Justine’s father Ray is imprisoned for committing an act of violence, many see it as ‘she was just asking for it’. As a learned activity, the book implies that Ray observed Bob beating his wife, which resulted in her untimely death. Sadly, domestic violence is still within our society today, and it is only through books like this one that we can confront, discuss and drive this crime from our lives.

It is with some irony that the one family that is filled with love is centred around a child, Michael, who suffers a severe disability rendering him to the dunce desk in class and taunted by the other children in class. It is only when Justine, who has dyslexia, is also sent to the dunce desk that she gets to know the intelligent, gentle and caring young man trapped inside a failing body. Together, Justine and Michael provide each other true friendship and love.

The narrative is beautiful and fluid with short sentences that get to the point yet leave you wondering what more is to come as it only reveals small pieces of information before becoming clearer. The way Sofie Laguna writes The Choke is exceptionally beautiful and haunting, it tugs on the heartstrings and captivates the readers as it exposes them to the beauty of one life with all of its suffering. The writing style is crisp and confident. The author has not wasted a word in her sentence construction, which results in a pithy display of tight writing. The experiences of Justine haunt the audience after reading it, leaving them with a sense of relation to her experiences and how many hardships she underwent.

Reviewed by Scarlett

Sofie Laguna’s The Choke is her third novel for adults, following The Eye of the Sheep, which won the 2015 Miles Franklin Literary Award. The Choke was longlisted for the 2018 Stella Prize. The story centres around the life of a ten-year-old girl named Justine who lives on the banks of the Murray River with her grandfather and sometimes her two half-brothers, Kirk and Steve. Justine struggles to cope with her challenging life. Her father is a criminal, who visits her occasionally; these visits are a source of both excitement and fear for her and her brothers. Her grandfather grapples with PTSD following the Vietnam war and doesn’t care for her, and her dyslexia goes unnoticed.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the story for me was Justine’s friendship with Michael, a physically disabled but very smart boy in her class. Their bond is beautiful and raw, and seems to be the only positive aspect of Justine’s life. The story is told through the eyes of Justine, and it’s really interesting to be able to understand her perspective and the way that she sees the world.  Some things like smoking, swearing and drugs are completely normalised for her, but other normal aspects of childhood life are very foreign to her.

Overall, it is a very intense and confronting story, and very different from my normal reading, but definitely very enjoyable!

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar

Reviewed by Athena

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is a bewitching and evocative story, filled with both sorrow, heartbreak and enlightenment. This story is interlaced with magic realism, alongside stories of horror and devastation. This is what makes The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree so unique.

The author, Shokoofeh Azar, who was born only seven years before the Islamic Revolution, has a firsthand experience of the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution. Shokoofeh was imprisoned three times, as a result of the crackdown on independent journalism in Iran, leaving her no choice but to flee. She arrived on Christmas island and was ultimately accepted as a political refugee by the Australian government. She is now settled in Geelong, where she continues her writing and is also flourishing as an artist, with several successful exhibitions.

The story is told from perspective of the ghost of a thirteen-year-old girl named Bahar, who was burned to death in a house fire during the Iranian revolution. She tells the story of how her family gets swept into the midst of the chaos of the religious regime.

Shokoofeh’s story takes us directly to the horrific reality of the Iranian religious revolutionary regime. The reader is taken through descriptions of public executions, and people burning to death, side by side with beautiful illustrations of magic and the supernatural. Azar’s expressive and playful writing style makes the story enduring and adds a layer of humanity.

Shokoofeh is influenced by the style of Persian storytelling, and this is evident in The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree. Classical Persian storytelling is akin to magical realism, which is realistic but not believable. Azar’s book explores the mythological spiritual realm.

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is by far the most confusing and intellectually engaging book I’ve ever read. I personally really enjoyed this book as it uncovered the importance of family and the devastating experiences of children during the Islamic Revolution. I recommend The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree to anyone who isn’t afraid to read the revealing stories of the regime, but also to someone who wants to read something a little outside of their comfort zone.

Reviewed by Beatrix

An entrancing and beautiful read that is worth your time.

The melodic and lyrical writing of Shokoofeh Azar sweeps the reader away on a journey of ‘enlightenment’ and mythological experience in this 2017 novel that details life after the Islamic Revolution. The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree intertwines in the lives of an Iranian family and engages in concepts such as the afterlife and elucidates many elements of Iranian culture affected by the Islamic Revolution.

Shokoofeh Azar was born in Iran in 1972 (before the Islamic Revolution) and her father was an Iranian intellectual who sparked her interest in literature from a young age.

Azar’s novel is symbolic of the freedom she has gained to be able to write uncensored in Australia, where she now lives with her daughter. In her native country, Iran, this would not have been a liberty she would be allowed.

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree’s provides an insight to those uninformed about the happenings of the Islamic Revolution and its aftermath. I enjoyed its ability to include the reader in tales of cultural traditions and events they have never experienced.

The Green Bell by Paula Keogh

Reviewed by Freya & Katie

Paula Keogh is a writer and the author of The Green Bell: a memoir of love, madness and poetry. She currently lives in Melbourne, although she has in the past made a home in various places in the country, including the Yarra Ranges in Victoria, and she has lived in cities such as Toronto, Canberra and Adelaide. An apprentice poet, Paula Keogh is also a lover of the wilderness, music and stories. She has travelled widely through Asia, North America, Europe, and Australia.

After working in a range of areas – as a winery assistant, a fruit picker, personal carer and gardener – Paula turned her mind to creative and academic dreams and became a teacher. One of her early experiences was as a teacher of vocational English to workers in an aged-care facility. For the past ten years, she has taught professional and academic writing at RMIT University, and has delivered courses to staff on approaches to tertiary teaching. All this experience in caring for others possibly influenced her writing of The Green Bell, as it takes place in a mental hospital.

Paula has a PhD in creative writing and is currently working on a novel. In 2015 she received the inaugural Affirm Press Mentorship Award for the development of The Green Bell at Varuna, the National Writers House. In 2018, The Green Bell was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for Nonfiction, and longlisted for the Stella Prize.

The Green Bell is a truly insightful and raw memoir following the life of Keogh as she struggles with mental illness.  Based upon her own life story, Keogh writes about the pain she experienced through her life, which was amplified by her repressed mental illness.  The novel follows the life of Keogh as she experiences heartache, death, and new opportunities.  Set in Australia in the 1970s, the novel begins with Paula dealing with the death of her best friend, who much like her, also suffered from a mental illness, and the repercussions she felt because of it.  This loss, and her difficulty in living her life without her friend, led Paula to have several breakdowns, resulting in her being sent to the psychiatric ward of the Canberra Hospital.  It is here that she meets Michael, a fellow patient, who was recovering from drug addiction.  After Paula and Michael uncover a deep connection, they fall in love, planning to create a life together once they leave the hospital; to get married and start a family.  Through this love she shares with Michael, and her mental health journey, Paula rediscovers who she really is, and although she deals with much more pain and heartache, she doesn’t let it hold her down and learns how to move forward with it.

The Green Bell, was what I believe to be an accurate representation of what the real world can hold, both dark and riveting. Keogh’s complex love story of the past keeps the pages turning along with her insightful writing. The fact that it is a memoir of her life, having been so traumatic and thrilling, adds to the relationship between reader and writer. My favourite character, I must say, is quite generic, as it is Paula herself. I love her strength and willingness to keep on moving through her life after the horrific and challenging experiences she endures. It is truly inspiring to read and think about coming to life. This book is a must-read that I would recommend to anyone!

The Green Bell is very different to the type of books that I usually read, particularly since I have never read a memoir before, but I was very pleasantly surprised as I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I loved being able to see how Keogh grew over time and how her relationships with those around her developed and consolidated.  Keogh’s writing is both beautiful and raw, enriching the exposing take on her life.  It was also amazing to read such an exposing work, particularly that involving mental illness, as I have never read a book so focused upon it.  This insight on mental illnesses and living life with them has opened my eyes.  I would highly recommend this book to everyone, even those who do not usually read memoirs, as it is a beautiful and enriching story that can change a person’s outlook on life.

The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser

Reviewed by Helena

The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser was a moving and gripping read unlike any book I’d read before. It didn’t have a particularly set storyline, rather it was separated into 5 different chapters with different characters, which meant that the minute you settled into the story and became attuned with the characters, the story picked up again somewhere else; its constant sophistication being a cost for an easy read. It explores many different aspects of life and human nature, such as culture, ambition, love and human connection. De Krester writes cleverly and is more about exploring the inner processes of her characters and subtleties of relationships than telling a story, which makes for quite an intense read. Her writing is delightful to read and full of fresh metaphors and biting observations of life.

Unlike other books I had read before, when reading this book I found that I didn’t particularly connect with any of the characters – most of them were essentially miserable and searching for something more – but that’s what made them particularly realistic and original. On the other hand, I really loved the way the book explored culture and its critique of Australian society: one character claims that the nation’s colonial past has made Australians into “visionaries, adept at denial”, giving an insight into the clockwork of Australian culture.

Overall, this book strayed from the usual arced storyline that I tend to read, and I was pleasantly surprised by the beautiful writing and messages in this book. I would 100% recommend if looking for something a little different or fresh.

Review by Arabella

In her remarkable new novel The Life to Come, Michelle de Kretser explores the complexity of human psychology and our world. It is an amazing, witty and honest piece filled with suspense that elucidates modern life. The characters and places are illustrated with incredible detail and depth whilst developing a captivating narrative.