My book group read The Stars at Oktober Bend by Glenda Millard (Allen & Unwin, 2016) this month. A couple of months ago I saw the cover on twitter (thanks Fiona Wood) and fell in love. After reading Alice’s unique take on life, I fell even harder (a yellow dog called Bear helped with this).

“then bear beguilded me. waved her feathered tail and smiled and led me down sunlit paths. through our paradise garden. i tried to write about the things i saw. simple things.”

I finished reading half an hour before book group, I’m organised like that. Apart from the tears wrung from my stricken heart by that ending, I arrived at book group bouyed up with wonderment at Glenda Millard’s sumptuous words. Other book groupers were as captivated as me, but a couple had dissenting views. eg. the molassas sticky pace meant one never finished reading and her copy’s going on the give-away pile. I was shocked, until I remembered a niggling at my enjoyment when I started The Stars at Oktober Bend. I can’t remember exactly, but it was something about torturous pacing. I assure you, if you’re thinking the same, keep reading! Although the patience of teenagers might not follow this advice. I was one of those weirdo bookworm teenagers who refused to never not finish a book (do those double negatives even make sense?) so yeah.

Enough of us old YA readers, onto Alice and Manny’s romantic meanderings. Manny is a boy with no yesterdays, Alice a girl with no tomorrows, together they might find enough todays.

“a dictionary is like a map made of words. who knows where these might have led me?”

Alice’s poetic words are all she has left after a traumatic event when she was twelve. She has an aquired brain injury which affects her speech, but not her thinking. She’s learnt in the three years since, that writing in her Book of Flying lets her marshall and make sense of her thoughts. She posts her poems around town, in hopes of communicating with others outside her family. No one notices and townsfolk continue to think of her as “retarded,” happy to share their patronizing opinions to her face.

Manny arrives in Bridgewater, a refugee from war-torn Sierra Leone. He runs at night to chase away the horrific memories and finds a poem at the railway station. Manny wants to know who wrote such poetic beauty.

“all that his hands held, on that shining day, were her words.”

Alice and Manny meet at her dance class, but Alice is horrified when she wakes from a seizure to Manny offering her his handkerchief. She wants to see him again, but how can she when he’s seen her at her most embarassingly vulnerable? To Alice’s surprise, they do meet again and Manny wants to listen to all she has to say and become friends.

This is only the start of difficult times for both of them. Alice’s brother Joey is spending too much time with star dancer Tilda, even buying tights and joining the beginner’s class!? He’s forsaking Alice for his girlfriend’s company. Gram’s health is deteriorating in the winter damp and can no longer climb the stairs, let alone leave their house. The local bullies are closing in and have Manny in their sights. And Manny has a terrible secret from his past that no one can ever know.

back cover

The cover and internal design but Ruth Grüner is exquisite. Her books are always works of art.

internal design by Ruth Grüner

The birds Alice sees before she has a seizure, fly across the cover and first few pages. I love the chapter headings, taken from the chapter contents, but some are slightly obscure. I had no idea what “the traffic on tullamarine freeway” was doing in the middle of a small town flood. It makes perfect sense by the end of the chapter.

title lettering by Joe Simmonds

The title lettering by Joe Simmonds could have come from Alice’s writing book. Alice’s and Manny’s chapter headings have different fonts so they’re easily distinguishable, I thought. A book grouper said she got confused about chapter POV because she ignores chapter titles. Let this be a lesson if you’re easily confused, or just notice the different text font between Alice and Manny. (I understand some readers don’t even notice this – the things they miss out on!) and Alice doesn’t use capitals, another thing that grated with some readers. not me, i think we could all do with more lower case in our lives.

I see awards in this book’s future, but Glenda Millard may be another author contractually obliged to win awards. Ah the joys of possessing talent.