Review: The Lady’s Guide To Petticoats And Piracy by Mackenzie Lee

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The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzie Lee contains such a delightful mixture of feminist rage and pastry appreciation. It’s the compantion novel to The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue (which has to be one of my all time favourite books!) and I’m so glad we get a spin-off focused entirely on Monty’s little sister: Felicity Montague. She is a ferocious and determined want-to-be-doctor and will knock down the doors of the men-centric 1700s to get the chance to study medicine. It features fantastic female friendships, a wild and scattered romp over land and sea, and a good deal of pirates. As one should hope.

The story takes off with Felicity awkwardly bolting from a marriage proposal because what she wants to do is study medicine. She’s so beaten down trying to convince hospitals to train her, though, so when she gets the opportunity to meet her very favourite doctor hero, Alexander Platt, she snatches the opportunity and travels across Europe to hopefully be hired after his wedding. But it just so happens that he’s marrying her old childhood friend, Joanna…and this creates some awkwardness because they had a massive falling out years ago. But Felicity is so desperate for this dream that she teams up with a slightly sketchy girl named Sim (who possibly is a thief?! who can know) and as things turn out to be not what she expected, she gets tossed into a whirlwind journey and adventure of pirates and dragons, heroes and villains, naturalists and famous doctors, thievery and saving.

My very favourite thing was our trio of fantastic leading women. Felicity is all ornery and focused: get to be a doctor. She literally cares about nothing else, and her drive is admirable as well as sad sometimes, because she misses out on a lot of things. Like friendships. Then we have Sim! She’s Muslim and brown skinned and Felicity isn’t quite sure if she’s a thief or not, but the two get bundled together to go on this adventure to find Alexander Platt…which is where Joanna Hoffman comes in! She’s loves parties and lace and frills…and she’s also a naturalist. The dynamics of the trio were thrilling and diverse and complex. Every character felt so incredibly well written, I loved every second getting to know them.

I also liked how it tackled the you’re not like the other girls” trope. Felicity herself was the one perpetuating it, and seeing her called out on it and forced to think about why she scorned women who liked feminine things was so refreshing to read. Felicity thinks being sensible and intelligent means being as far from “girly” as possible and this so isn’t true. I love how she grew and her character arc was amazing.

It has a very travel-centric plot! They romp over a lot of Europe and then end up on the high seas (ooh pirates!). It also focuses a bit on naturalists too…and mapping and exploring. I so could handle a book from Mackenzie Lee about women explorers in history too!

The feministic rants were very therapeutic to read. At times it did feel a bit repetitious and I wanted Felicity to think and feel about more than her single-minded focus to be trained as a doctor and how the arrogant men of the world were blocking her way. It consumed her, which made sense, but it also veered into preachy territory sometimes. But these things were so so topical to talk about, especially today, when women still face horrible sexism as they try to forge new paths and fight for the right to be held equal to men.

Also all the scenes where Monty and Percy came in were perfection. This is the part where we get to crack up and fall into the old banter of Monty and Felicity who love each other…aaand fight all the time.  It was also amazing to have a bit of a “what’s happening to them now” peek at Monty and Percy’s lives. Also their conclusion? So so good.

In fact the book, on the whole, had just such a stunningly winning ending, that I feel very warm and satisfied! Which is a perfect way to finish off reading a fantastic duology about the Montague siblings. The friendships and discussions on being asexual and the pirate adventures and cleverness and huger to learn all made this book an exceptional treat to read.

Meet the Frugalwoods

I set to reading Meet the Frugalwoods: Achieving Financial Independence Through Simple Living for three not-entirely-deep reasons:

  • The title seemed intriguing. I mean, what’s a frugalwood?
  • I’d just finished reading The Barefoot Investor and figured a book about frugality was a good way to continue refining my financial plans and processes.
  • The book was in demand at the library, which is the book-reading equivalent of seeing a long nightclub queue and figuring it that club is the place to be.

So, despite not having known anything about the Meet the Frugalwoods or its author, I was sufficiently intrigued.

While Meet the Frugalwoods didn’t explicitly impart financial advice in the same manner as The Barefoot Investor, it did chart the story of how a couple of 20-somethings had scrimped and saved enough to pay cash for their dream home and be financially independent by their early 30s.

And that’s without hyperbole but with plenty of mistakes. ‘I’m astounded at how many ways there are to waste money, and at how many of them I’ve personally fallen victim to,’ author Elizabeth Willard Thames writes, which is heartening. She wasn’t, like the kinds of people I tend to find write these kinds of books, born impossibly good with money and had been saving since she was seven.

Instead, Willard Thames kicks off the book with explaining that she found herself finishing uni with good grades but little to no experience and struggled to find anyone who would hire her. She eventually landed herself a job in New York that paid just US $10,000 per year and found herself having to live in a pretty dire Brooklyn neighbourhood and develop some extremely good money-conserving skills on the fly just to survive.

It seems like that forcibly lean year set her on the path to ensuring she never had to feel so financially stressed again. As she writes: ‘While I’m pretty sure the phrase “extreme frugality” sounds like penance, it’s actually the exact opposite. It’s deliverance … Frugality opened up my mind to what I can do with my life, as opposed to what I can buy.’

She makes some salient points throughout the book, not least: ‘It’s not about how much you like or dislike your job. It’s about how dependent upon it you are for your paycheck.’ Also: ‘Buying clothes didn’t automatically make me more confident or more beautiful; it just automatically meant I had less money.’

Meet the Frugalwoods centres around the premise that Willard Thames and her husband aimed to have enough money saved up so they could work if they chose (which they do choose), but that they don’t need to work to survive. It’s an aim almost everyone could relate to.

Spoiler alert: The couple achieved that and more, saving more money than I just about thought possible. Willard Thames even went so far as to give up make-up, a crutch she’d used to bolster her self-esteem since she was 14, and the couple used YouTube to teach themselves how to do their own haircuts.

All of which is probably a little extreme for most of us, but which illustrates what’s doable if you’re motivated enough.

But saving money isn’t the only boon. A byproduct of frugality, Willard Thames writes, is that it’s good for the environment because it involves ample use of second-hand items: ‘I’m of the belief that you can’t buy your way green because consumption, by its very action, usually has a negative impact on the environment.’

Not having known what a frugalwood is or what the book was going to be like other than the fact than it seemed to be in demand worked out ok for me. Meet the Frugalwoods was a pleasantly interesting, thought-provoking, and ultimately useful foray into frugalism and a no-nonsense look at achieving financial independence.

While I probably wouldn’t give up haircuts (and frankly couldn’t be trusted to cut my own hair—not now, not ever), there are plenty of other areas where I’m saving money and others this book has inspired me to try.

YA Thrillers: ‘Found’ & ‘After the Lights Go Out’

Fleur Ferris has endorsed Lili Wilkinson’s latest novel After the Lights Go Out (Allen & Unwin) with the words, “A terrifying yet hope-filled story of disaster, deceit, love, sacrifice and survival.” These words could also apply to her new book Found (Penguin Random House Australia). Both Australian YA novels have intriguing titles and are classy examples of thrillers set outside country towns in hidden bunkers. They complement, and could be read alongside, each other.

After the Lights Go Out begins with an absolutely riveting scene where homeschooled Pru and her younger twin sisters Grace and Blythe have to escape from their house on an isolated property on the edge of the desert to a hidden underground bunker. Their father, a mining engineer, built it in secret and named it the Paddock after Winston Churchill’s WWII bunker. We learn quickly that he is paranoid, anticipates secret government conspiracies and that he is a doomsday prepper. This is a training drill.

Later, when the lights go out, the girls know that this is The Big One and they execute their exhaustive training and protocols such as Eat perishables and Exchange worthless currency for supplies. Tension ratchets because Pru is anaphylactic, there has been an explosion at the zinc mine and her father is missing, and the girls aren’t sure whether they should share their supplies with the townspeople of Jubilee.

Bear, Elizabeth’s father in Found is also highly protective and intimidating. He wouldn’t be happy about her kiss with Jonah but he doesn’t witness it – he’s been taken by unknown people in a white van. When her mother realises what has happened she whisks Beth out of town and through a cross-country route along channels across the paddocks to a bunker under a dry dam on their farm. This bunker is made from shipping containers and is as well-equipped as Pru’s. Their flight is also just as original and exciting.

The reason for Beth’s family’s dangerous plight is quickly revealed and the story then steams ahead with help from Jonah (who shares the narration) and Trent, a bad boy who may be trying to reform. The stakes are raised even higher when Beth’s mother is shot.

Both Fleur and Lili describe their very Australian rural settings with authenticity and care. Lili’s diverse characters range from a British Asian church minister to warm-skinned love interest Mateo who has two mums. Found is action-packed and heartbreaking and will be relished by all high school readers who love a fast-paced, filmic read.

Other highly recommended books by these authors include:

Fleur Ferris Risk, Black, Wreck

Lili Wilkinson Green Valentine, The Boundless Sublime, A Pocketful of Eyes

Leaf Stone Beetle

Leaf Stone Beetle is written by Ursula Dubosarsky and illustrated by Gaye Chapman. Its publisher Dirt Lane Press is a ground-breaking new publishing company based in Orange, NSW. They believe in creating quality literature and are publishing books by some of Australia’s best, including Matt Ottley, Ursula Dubosarsky and Gaye Chapman.

http://www.dirtlanepress.com/

 

Leaf Stone Beetle is a deeply-considered, poignant tale telling the interlinked stories of leaf, stone and beetle. The book’s physical small, almost square shape is ideal for small hands and, along with its understated cover and ink and woodcut style illustrations, signals that it belongs outside the usual. Thoughtful, perceptive readers of all ages will find Leaf Stone Beetle resonant.

Little leaf is the smallest and greenest leaf on the tree. When the other leaves change colour and are tussled away by the wind, it stays behind until swept by a gentle breeze to a stream. A stone lies on the bottom of the water and notices the changes in tree, weather and stars without expecting any transformation itself. When a storm moves the stone near the gnarled roots of the tree, it is terrified.

Beetle is different from the other beetles. Without haste she absorbs the minutiae of her world. “She looked at the tiny purple flowers. She looked at a slip of golden pollen that fluttered by in the wind”. The other beetles realise that a storm is coming and scurry away. Beetle then has no one to follow home.

The stories intersect when Beetle is kept safe by leaf and stone in completely natural ways. They are all accepting of their transient safety, recognising their ultimate role in nature’s cycle. With interest and without angst, readers glean that change is an inevitable part of life.

Leaf Stone Beetle is a unique construct of narrative science and story in words and illustrations. It is simple, yet philosophical and profound.

Teacher Notes are available at https://static1.squarespace.com/static/50e75d6de4b0955e45fd2583/t/5b5e56b62b6a28400347ea34/1532909255781/Leaf+Stone+Beetle+Teachers+notes_01.pdf

Other books illustrated by Gaye Chapman include Little Blue, Incredibilia, Precious Little and In the Evening. 

Some books, amongst many, written by Ursula Dubosarsky include Brindabella, The Blue Cat, The Golden Day, The Red Shoe, The Word Spy and The Return of the Word Spy.

Other books published by Dirt Lane Press include The Sorry Tale of Fox & Bear by Margrete Lamond, illustrated by Heather Valence. This wily, nuanced tale was shortlisted for the 2018 NSW Premier’s Literary awards. The Dream Peddler by Irena Kobald and Christopher Nielsen is published this month.

Peace, Love, and Goats of Anarchy

I’ve written before about rescue goat animal sanctuary Goats of Anarchy (GoA), founded by event planner turned goat rescuer Leanne Lauricella. GoA cares for goats in need of a home, which often includes special-needs goats (AKA ‘robogoats’) who require prosthetics and/or carts to help them get about.

Lauricella has previously released children’s picture books about some of GoA’s residents, including Polly and her Duck Costume (a blind goat with a neurological disorder who is becalmed when she is swaddled in a duck onesie) and Angel and her Wonderful Wheels (a tiny black and white fainting goat who’d lost the tips of her ears and toes to frostbite and who’d survived some unnecessary amputation surgery and now gets about with the help of a custom-built cart).

Peace, Love, and Goats of Anarchy: How my Little Goats Taught Me Huge Lessons About Life is Lauricella’s latest book, but this time aimed more as a gift book for adults. Hardcover and petite-sized, the book features stunning images of many of the farm’s residents, including through a collage and some full-page portraits in the book’s initial pages over which I pored for minutes before eventually turning the page to start the book’s text. Also, its cover image is stellar.

Peace, Love, and Goats of Anarchy tells a little more about how Lauricella started rescuing the goats and what she’s learnt from them along the way. The super-short chapters are organised by themes of change, finding purpose, unconditional love, strength, confidence, patience, grief and courage, fight like a goat, and hope.

As with Lauricella’s previous books, the 120-page book’s writing is simple, spare, functional. It’ll never win prizes for the prose, and the advice-giving summaries at the end are a little rah rah and redundant, but it definitely gets the job done.

Especially in the latter sections, which recount some fairly difficult times around some of the goats we fell in love with, not least Lawson and Mellie, who both had terminal heart conditions. Having witnessed their stories via GoA’s Instagram, I cried some ugly tears reliving their stories via this book.

And really, if you do nothing other than skim the chapters and enjoy the images before bouncing off to social media to follow GoA, then Peace, Love, and Goats of Anarchy has done its job.

My three wishes for any future books Lauricella releases is, first, I’d like to put in a request for an Ansell the Destroyer book. AKA a book about an incredibly intelligent, curious, accidentally mischievous, and often misunderstood goat named Ansell who survived a horror of a start to life and has an unrivalled gentleness and zest for life. No hints, or anything.

Second, that Lauricella engages a professional writer to write above book and also to really uncover and convey the deeper stories we know exist about GoA. For example, just how hard it is to do the job she’s doing. The current books are a little superficial when we know there are some significant and significantly compelling stories that warrant telling.

Third, that she discusses how she can manage the farm financially. GoA is a registered charity, yes, but that can’t be the whole story. As someone who adopts ex-battery hens, I know only too well how expensive their medical care can be and really, really want to know how Lauricella is making it all work—is the charity pumping along or is she getting by by the skin of her teeth?

Regardless of these last two quibbles, Peace, Love, and Goats of Anarchy would make a good present for someone interested in animals and animal rescue, and would make an adult companion to the children’s book range Lauricella has published. At the rate she’s going with book releases, her books could comprise the entire range of Christmas presents I’ll be getting for the different people in my family.

Trace Times Two

I wasn’t familiar with Maria James or her 38-year-old murder cold case. The single mother from Thornbury, Melbourne, was stabbed 68 times in her bedroom one weekday morning by a person or persons never definitively identified. Coincidentally or otherwise, she was killed the morning she was going to confront the local priest about molesting her young, disabled son Adam.

What I refer to as ‘Trace times two’ are the astonishingly good podcast and book by the same name about James’ unsolved murder and the people tangentially affected by it—first, and foremost, her patient, polite, generous, trusting sons.

Brought to us by the team at the ABC, led by ABC journalist Rachael Brown, Trace features Ron Iddles—whose name literally condenses to ‘Riddles’—the kind of detective you’d definitely want investigating your or your loved ones’ untimely deaths, should they occur. James’ murder is the first case Iddles encountered as a fresh-faced 25-year-old homicide squad inductee and it’s the one case he hasn’t yet successfully solved.

For Iddles and the many people affected by James’ death and the events that occurred around the time of her death, re-opening investigations into the case is painful and an enormous responsibility—something Brown struggles with: ‘… we’ve been lost down countless rabbit holes. We’ve asked people to relive their nightmares and brought on tears, many of them our own.’ She also writes: ‘… interviewees unwittingly place a great amount faith in us, complete strangers, in handing over their story. It’s like a blind date with potentially far more damaging consequences.’

It’s also a blind date that almost came to nought, with Brown having first to fight to get the podcast picked up and second to ensure it got to see the light of day: ‘This is a story that’s crawled under my skin, stayed there, and is screaming to be told,’ she wrote to her bosses. ‘I set out to find if a priest murdered Maria. If one did, it’ll be a first for Australia’s modern history. Given the current climate of the Royal Commission, it’s a question that must be asked.’

Indeed, the tale is incredibly timely.

While it would be easy to dismiss the podcast and book as just another dip into the true crime wave (there are, admittedly, a lot of true crime podcasts finding their way to iTunes), this one is top-tier quality. Apart from stellar investigative journalism and storytelling, Trace times two breaks new ground of the ilk that Serial and Dirty John have before them, leveraging all available skills and platforms and giving a sense of what could be possible. As Brown writes:

‘It’s an odd synergy, this podcast’s reliance on old-school journalism techniques (federal roll checks, microfiche searches, handwritten letters), alongside the innovative element of interactivity, but that’s where I think its beauty lies …’

Trace the book is a handy companion piece to the podcast (and also works as a standalone text). I’d highly recommend reading it alongside or after listening to the podcast to enrich the podcast-listening experience. Here’s hoping Brown is able to help James’ sons and dogged detective Iddles find the answers they’ve been searching for for almost four decades.

World Mental Health Day | YA Book Book Recs

With World Mental Health Day having come and gone on the 10th of October, I thought this would make a great opportunity to give some mental health YA reading recommendations! Books are both excellent sources of knowledge and can help you be more empathetic to circumstances you might not be familiar with. If there are two things we all need, they are definitely empathy and knowledge.


TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN by John Green — featuring OCD and anxiety

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Of course John Green is an extremely common YA name and well deserved! His latest book features Aza Holmes, who struggles with severe OCD (although it’s not labelled on the page, but John Green has confirmed he based Aza’s experiences off his own OCD journey). It’s so incredibly and poignantly well written, and of course features a dash of Green-esque humour and heartbreak.

WORDS ON BATHROOM WALLS by Julia Walton — featuring schizophrenia

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This is a journal from the view of Adam as he starts a trial of new medication to manage his schizophrenia and not only is it absolutely well written, you can’t help but be so caught up in Adam’s world as he fights to have a life he’s proud of and also not be terrified of his own illness. It also features a delicious amount of baking.

STARFISH by Akemi Dawn Bowman — featuring social anxiety

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Hands down, this is one of the best social anxiety books I’ve read! Anxiety is such a complex beast and it’s amazing to find a book that both captures this and also tells a heartwrenching tale of a biracial girl with an abusive mother. Kiko will absolutely break your heart (and mend it a little) as she uses art to escape her terrible home life.

THE GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE by Mackenzie Lee — featuring depression and PTSD

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This is a historical fiction romp and a half! It is downright hysterically hilarious and you will fall in love with Monty as he tours the continent in the 1700s and breaks his heart over loving a boy his forbidden to have. The themes of depression and PTSD are so well woven through the tale it will do it’s best to reduce you to tears on several occasions. One of my all time favourite books!

THE WICKER KING by K. Ancrum — featuring depression and hallucination disorder

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Ohh if this isn’t a stunningly told story that uses mixed-media to completely captivate your imagination. It’s the story of two boys whose lives are intricately woven together in a co-dependant relationship that is part friendship, part love, as they fall deeper into the dark spirals of a hallucination disorder. Jack is losing himself and August will do anything to hide it so no one takes Jack away.

ANGER IS A GIFT by Mark Oshiro — featuring anxiety

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Just in case you wanted to have your heart punched out of your chest…definitely try this one! It’s a story of a boy with intense anxiety (so well written) who is also battling to be heard in a world that wants him silent…or not existing at all. It’s such a powerful #BlackLivesMatter story from an #ownvoices author and gives a detailed look into what black kids go through in schools who’ve decided they’ll never achieve anything. Perfect book is utterly perfect.

YA Books About Magical Creatures

One thing we bookworms get quite enthusiastic about when it comes to fantasy stories must definitely be: magical creatures. Oh we have our cats in real life, but what could be better than a little pocket dragon or a suitcase full of weird and wonderful monsters? (Looking at you, Newt, from Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find them.)

So! If you are secretly mourning the lack of magical creatures in your life, do allow me to show you a list of books where you can vicariously live your dreams of having a pet who is possibly a shapeshifting kraken. Obviously what everyone wants.


GRIM LOVELIES by Megan Shepherd

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Not only is this a brand new shiny release…it features beasts turned human! You know the old Disney stories where the fairy godmother turns the mice into coachmen? Here we have it! Except the witches are evil and the beasties are her slaves and very very desperate not to turn back into their animals skins. It’s also set in Paris and features Anouk, a demure and quiet servant for her witch overlord…until the witch is murdered and suddenly she has 3 days to figure out how not to turn back into an animal.

 

SHIVER by Maggie Stiefvater

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Might as well thrown in a good oldie too…because werewolves are kind of adorable. Once you look past the part where they might eat you. but if you want a story about THE most sweet and soft werewolves in existence, please meet Grace and Sam. Grace is obsessed with the wolves that live in the woods and then she discovers one is a golden-eyed boy in the summer time. Come winter? He goes back into his wolf skin, but it’s getting hard and harder for him to shift. It is the worst luck that they just met when Sam is running out of time — and their sweet desperate romance drives them to look for a cure. Seriously, you have never read about a wolf who is sweeter than Sam Roth (he folds origami, I mean).

 

TEETH by Hannah Moskowitz

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This is set on a rainy miserable island where Rudy is trapped while his family try to get his little brother cured with the apparently “magical healing fish”. It appears to be doing zlich and Rudy is miserable and lonely…until he meets a boy in the water who is absolutely not just human. He appears to be part fish himself. He’s a tortured and nasty little biting thing, but Rudy can’t help being drawn to him. At night he listens to the fish boy’s screams. In the morning? He plans how to save him. All I’m saying is that if you can’t fall in love with a werewolf, the next option is a cute fish.

 

TESS OF THE ROAD by Rachael Hartman

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Look now we get to the real winner of the day: DRAGONS. If you’re going to take a fantasy roadtrip, you’re doing it wrong if you don’t bring your pet dragon. (Although if you want to be technical, this book features a quigutl, which is a sub-species of dragon and rather small and prone to too many opinions. However it is the best dragon companion. And Tess is a character you so easily feel for, after she escapes an abusive and oppressive life and dresses as a boy and heads off to find her fate on her own. It also deals with the oppression of women and the everyday abuse they suffer making it a very topical book, even with a setting of shapeshifting dragons and swords and very sharp cheese.

Review: The Barefoot Investor

The Barefoot Investor book isn’t new, but it’s one I’ve simultaneously been intrigued by and slightly dismissive of. I thought: Surely it’s a bit gimmicky? But I figured it’s unfair to write off a book before even reading it, so I recently dug in.

Reader, I’ve been wary of it for no good reason.

While Scott Pape’s The Barefoot Investor isn’t the best written book I’ve ever encountered, and I at times found its text and analogies a little cheesy and hyperbolic, I’ll also heartily acknowledge that that’s not its need or design. Rather, the book is functionally and accessibly written serves its purpose well.

That purpose is to make confusing and overwhelming financial issues interesting and understandable to lay readers. And also to offer an alternative to budgeting, which is akin to dieting and destined to fail.

Providing the advice in three parts with the umbrella themes of ‘plant’, ‘grow’, ‘harvest’, under which sit chapters that include information about scheduling a monthly date night to eat good food and make tackling financial talk fun, ‘domino-ing’ (i.e. lining up and knock over in planned succession) your debts, buying your own home, and maximising your super. None of which sound particularly exciting, but each of which are peppered with gems of achievable information that neither require a finance degree nor a tonne of time, and that together provide a cohesive approach to well and truly sorting yourself financially.

For example, I ended up downloading a useful spending tracking app and slightly tweaking my mortgage and superannuation set-ups based on some of the takeaways. I’ll be contacting my bank to renegotiate my mortgage interest rate once they’re open on Monday. (Pape handily even provides a script for such renegotiations.)

Through reading this book, I finally started to understand how not to budget, which has always seemed boring and inflexibly strict, but how to split money among buckets that then ensure there’s always money available at short notice for unexpected expenses while simultaneously building compound interest. For the first ever time in my life, I actually found myself enjoying reading about and figuring out how to finesse my finances. If that isn’t a resounding sign of the success of a book, I don’t know what is.

Hearteningly, Pape’s advice is about long-term financial control and comfort rather than getting rich quick. It’s solid, measured advice that he revisits and revises annually to ensure its information and pop culture references are still current.

So I happily write that I stand reminded that books become bestsellers for a reason. The Barefoot Investor conveys crucial information in ways that suit lay people like me. Which is to say it cuts through the guff few of us understand. It’s definitely worth at least a flick through if not a proper sit-down read.

Review: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, the book about a serial rapist and killer whose crimes terrorised Californian communities and have long stumped authorities, popped up on my radar the same way it did for many people: because of the tragic story behind it.

Writer Michelle McNamara died unexpectedly in her sleep while partway through writing the book. Her bereaved husband, actor, and fellow writer Patton Oswalt stepped in and, along with McNamara’s researcher and an award-winning author, finalised and published the book. Oswalt also recruited Gillian Flynn, AKA she of Gone Girl writing fame, to write a foreword.

All of which is heart-warming, but that hints that the book might be a bit patchy or uneven. So I’ll be honest that I didn’t know what to expect when I cracked its spine, and that at best my expectations were low.

But McNamara’s astonishingly good writing and storytelling that gets layers down deeper than traditional true crime tales is absolutely gripping. And, as with all quality writing, seems effortlessly so. Oswalt and co. have used editor’s notes to flag where they’ve assembled chapters or segments based on McNamara’s notes. The transparency is to be applauded, but in truth almost not needed—the book hangs together fairly seamlessly.

Essentially, the book documents McNamara’s efforts to uncover the identity of a prolific and bolshy rapist and serial killer variously termed the East Area Rapist, the Original Night Stalker, the Ransacker, and later, by McNamara, as the Golden State Killer (GSK) whose crime spree is as bizarre as it has been seemingly unsolvable. Well, until recently. But more about that later.

While I originally thought the book’s title might have been a reference to McNamara’s death during sleep, but it’s actually a reference to the GSK’s ominous threats to his victims, which took the form of words like: ‘Make one move and you’ll be silent forever and I’ll be gone in the dark.’

Some 50 women were bound, gagged, and brutally raped in their homes during his crime wave, and while it started out being women alone, couples were later targeted, with the men tied up in another room and the GSK taking odd keepsakes from his victims’ homes. Around 10 people were killed, with authorities still attributing other unsolved crimes to the GSK as DNA analysis and cross-jurisdictional co-operation improves.

In fact, as McNamara outlines, it was the lack of sharing of information between police forces that in some ways allowed the GSK to operate as he did. As one rape victim who lived in a southern suburb not thought to be frequented by the GSK told the police when they eventually arrived to rescue her: ‘Well, I guess the East Area Rapist is the South Area Rapist now.’

McNamara wrote: ‘A forensic match between the cases didn’t exist, but a feeling did, a sense that a single mind was at work, someone who didn’t leave many clues or talk or show his face, someone who strolled undetected in the middle-class swarm, an ordinary man with a resting-pulse derangement.’

The GSK disappeared just as suddenly as he appeared, with people postulating theories about what ended his efforts as that he was either incarcerated for another crime or dead. That didn’t stop people working together and individually for decades to solve the mystery, and McNamara features cops and crime scene forensic specialists and Reddit-hosted enthusiasts alike as she tries to identify the GSK.

Without wanting to ruin the ending, there have been some significant developments in the GSK case since the book was published. Which in no way diminishes it. I’d just recommend trying to resist googling the case until you’ve finished McNamara’s book.

Oswalt has written an afterword that talks about the daughter now growing up without McNamara, who asks: ‘“Daddy, why do you and Santa Claus have the same handwriting?” Michelle Eileen McNamara is gone. But she left behind a little detective. And a mystery.’

Posthumously publishing McNamara’s book is perhaps the greatest tribute he could have made. Meanwhile McNamara’s tireless work arguably at least partially contributed to authorities solving the GSK case. Make sure you allow some time after reading I’ll Be Gone in the Dark for some serious GSK googling.

Forever Inspiring; Elizabeth Mary Cummings on The Forever Kid

Children’s author and poet, with a background in education and psychology, Elizabeth Mary Cummings is known for her sensitive attention to difficult topics including mental health and anti-bullying issues. Following titles, such as The Disappearing Sister and Dinner on the Doorstep, Elizabeth has recently released her picture book on grief, The Forever Kid. She has paid careful consideration as to celebrate the life of a family’s son and brother in a joyous way, rather than treat this story as a sorrowful tragedy. Johnny, their forever kid, is beautifully and authentically remembered on his birthday – an event they honour every year, despite his absence. Vince, narrator and younger brother, portrays a host of emotions, including sadness, guilt and joy as the family look both back and forward on life with and without their Johnny. A narrative genuinely thought-through via the child’s perspective. Equally, the illustrations by Cheri Hughes add an extra layer of depth with their angelic, water-wash qualities to represent the softness and tenderness of the emotion and the family’s  tradition of telling ‘cloud stories’, as well as the vivacity that reflects their strong memories of their loved one. The Forever Kid is undoubtedly a book that children from age four will strongly remember and gain solace in knowing there are positive ways to cope in difficult situations.

Big Sky Publishing, October 2018.

Elizabeth is here today to talk with us at Boomerang Books!

Congratulations on the release of your heartfelt picture book.

A powerful and beautiful story such as The Forever Kid would grip the hearts of any audience coping with grief or change. What was your motivation for writing it, and what do you hope is gained by readers?

The story came to me one night when my parents were visiting, I woke at about 2a.m. and the story was there and I wrote it down immediately before I lost it. The trigger was probably talking through family times as well as having at that time just lost a dear friend to cancer. The idea of grief was right at the surface of my emotions I guess and being with my parents had made my mind turn to the story of my father losing his younger brother who was a teenager at the time of his death.

What have you found to be effective strategies in dealing with grief? How does your book show the processing of such sadness and mourning in a positive way?

In dealing with grief there is more of an understanding that this is complex and that does not go away once time passes. For those who have suffered loss and grieving, it is a process but it is also a state in which they live after the initial loss.

In The Forever Kid, Vince and his family celebrate and remember Johnny on the day of his birthday. On talking to many families who have suffered the loss of a child I have found that this is common practice. Although sadness is certainly present this can be the day where there is a reflection on the life of the loved one. This celebration of life in itself becomes the positive coming together and of that opportunity to talk about that loved one.

For children it is vital that they have access to the truth as well as have a chance to be involved in the grieving process both around the time of death and after. It is important that [children] have a safe adult or older sibling or child to talk to about how they feel.

What is your involvement in the community regarding help with family and mental health situations?

I have no official role. I obviously write on the topic and am a great believer in narrative therapy.

Your previous titles (the Verityville and Elephant in the Room series) were all published independently. This time you have gone down the trade publishing route with Big Sky Publishing. How have your experiences differed in terms of support and marketing opportunities?

Well, when publishing independently one has all the control and all of the responsibility. It is a double-edged sword. Traditional publishers have bigger budgets, more control and wider reach. The decision as to how to publish (independently or trade) and who to publish (publisher selection) much be made in the light of what one is writing about and what one’s intention is for the story. As I have been working on my own marketing for almost four years now I understood the publisher’s considerations better than a first time author might. Publishing is no easy task and it takes a team to develop a book all the way through. Even when working independently I am working with others – designers, beta readers, editors and other professional services I may need to contract in to help produce a book as best possible.

Anything else of excitement you’d like to add? News? Upcoming projects? TBR pile?

Some of my new projects include: two poetry collections, a new picture book called The Green Striped Hoodie about bullying and resilience, finding a publisher for a project I have been working on to do with trauma and recovery as well as a couple of environmental projects and some more Verityville stories!

That’s all very exciting! Thanks so much, Elizabeth! It’s been a pleasure!

Elizabeth can be found at her website, and on blog tour here.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Review: The Boneless Mercies by April Genevieve Tucholke

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The Boneless Mercies by April Genevieve Tcholke is an exquisitely atmospheric fantasy tale that’s part Beowulf and part witchy glory. It’s the kind of book that you soak in because the world is so large and sprawls well beyond the page. Everything seemed so carefully crafted, from the delicious food descriptions to the scenery and the culture. It’s about girls who kill out of mercy, and sometimes out of vengeance, and it’s about monsters and witches and gentle magic and saving those who can’t save themselves.

I’d only read Wink Poppy Midnight by this author before (which is a treacherous and enthralling magical realism story) and I was so excited to see what she’d do with epic fantasy!

The story follows four girls who are known as Boneless Mercies: Frey, Ovie, Juniper and Runa. Their trade is death: they do mercy killings for those who are dying or sick, and sometimes they kill to save a vulnerable girl trapped in an abusive situation. But that’s rarer. The girls stick to their code and care their dark, dark burden that men won’t even touch. Frey narrates and as the story begins she’s so tired of this life, of being surrounded and permeated with death. So when there’s news of a monster that no one can kill and whoever conquers it will receive an immeasurable reward? She wants in. But she’ll have to travel through witch clans and dark magic to get there…and she’ll have to convince her close Mercies friends to help her. Because she can’t do it alone. Or will she have to?

The setting is very Norse-inspired and I loved this! There are jarls and snowy viking villages, all mixed with the magic of this new created world. We have witch clans and cut-queens and marshes and far off seas. I could feel the snow and the chill seeping from the pages. It’s easy to get absorbed in the setting, harsh and beautiful as it was.

The concept of Mercy Killers was so interesting too. They literally get hired to do this by people who just can’t keep going on. It’s really sad and very dark, and they often cut throats too, so it’s bloody and messy work. But the girls don’t revel in it. And they might be good at it, but they want another life too. Frey in particularly hates the idea of her life not being big enough.

We also get to meet this tight-knit group of five and travel the snowy worlds iwth them. I usually get a bit nervous by big casts and it took them a while to feel fully like individuals, but I loved them all by the end! Frey is our narrator, and a total selfless girl who wants to save all the things and wants to leap into danger. Then there’s Runa, who’s the feisty snarly one, and dreams of running through the forests with the Quicks (who felt like Robin Hood’s merry men!). Ovie is the solid and quiet one, the backbone of the group. Juniper is the actual sweetest of ever. She’s small and does the prayers and cares for the earth and is also a witch. And lastly we have the groups tagalong: Trigve. He’s the sole boy, who they basically scooped off the side of the road before he died. He follows them around loyally although he can never truly be one of them.

The story feels like a peek through a window into a world you only catch the corners of! It makes you desperate for more books, more sequels, to follow what happens next. And I love it when worlds do that. It also weaves in plenty of very apt storylines about women being dismissed and oppressed and how they’re not going to sit back and take it. It’s an empowering story about girls who save people that don’t even trust them. The Boneless Mercies is a heartfelt and strong and deeply magical tale.

Review: Lost Connections

Sometimes someone writes a book that simultaneously highlights an obvious truth and reveals previously unknown issues. That’s the case with journalist Johann Hari’s Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression and the Unexpected Solutions, a book that both exposes how many of the things we’ve been told about the causes and cures of depression are not scientifically accurate—and have even been disproven.

My entry to Lost Connections was actually listening to a podcast of Hari speaking on a panel at the Byron Bay Writers Festival. He was so passionate and so knowledgeable and entertaining a speaker, and his subject matter so startling and yet confirming of a nagging feeling I’d had for a while, that I bumped reading his book to the top of my list.

Combining an anthropological look at depression and conveying it in accessible feature article-style chapters, Hari steps the reader through his own decades-long experiences with depression and quest to figure out what what causing it and how on earth he could cure it. Like many others, he had found that despite being told that depression was caused by a dearth of serotonin in the brain that could be rectified by an antidepressant tablet, he was still depressed.

Employing his social research training, he started investigating the subject and met with experts. His book documents the startling but also common sense answers to what’s causing depression. For starters, it’s not a chemical imbalance in the brain or a lack of serotonin, as we’ve long been told. That was a hypothesis put forward by scientists way back that was quickly disproven, but that the pharmaceutical manufacturers picked up and continue to run with.

Frightening and depressing, much?

But while this rigorously researched book (seriously, I can’t quite get over how much peer-reviewed academic research Hari has found and how many experts he interviewed) did cause me moments of despair as it tipped everything I thought I knew about depression on its head, it ultimately comforted me.

Converting dense, dry scientific material into a gripping tale catering to a wide, non-scientific audience along the lines of authors Rutger Bregman and Malcolm Gladwell, Hari finally makes depression make sense. He also continues beyond identifying the issues, documenting the solutions.

Those solutions are perhaps the most interesting part of the book and range from a diverse community coming together to protest social housing evictions to prescribing socially and environmentally meaningful gardening.

I read Lost Connections in short snatches while waiting for meetings or queuing up for public transport, which allowed me to cogitate over its topics and meaning. Suffice to say, I’d recommend the book as both an absorbing read but also a thought-provoker or conversation starter. As Hari notes, with depression rates climbing, current depression treatments clearly aren’t working. Lost Connections does, as a minimum, prompt a rethink.

Review: Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

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It’s hard to find the words to describe how exquisitely special and gorgeous Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor truly is. It’s so so well written that a mere review doesn’t seem even nearly able to capture the pure beauty of this tale! The marvellously detailed storytelling and the incredible world building will totally entrance you. It’s all gods and monsters and librarians and the most lush and gorgeous dreamscapes. I got to this point reading it and was just like “I never want this book to end thanks.”

The story begins by following Lazlo Strange, a foundling from an orphanage with no name and no future…until he finds himself working for an incredible library and falling in love with the mystical legends of a lost city named: Weep. Lazlo’s life is dedicated to serving, but also to uncovering the mysteries of this city. And when strangers cross the desert to bring news of not only the city’s true existence, but of a magical problem they need solving to save them — Lazlo would do anything to be picked for the journey. But the “problem” is like nothing he could’ve imagined. It turns out the legends of the gods and monsters aren’t fairy tales. They’re real and, even though they’re slain now, they’ve left behind the terror of their past-reign and something unforgivable: their blue skinned children with powers that could ruin the world. Or save it.

Lazlo is such a sweet and pure narrator that you can’t help but love him from page one. I love how his nose got broken by a fairy tale book and that he’ll walk into a wall because he’s reading so much and how his whole life is about fantastical lost cities and how he dreams the most beautiful and gorgeous dreams the world has ever known. He is the perfect embodiment of a bookworm! The world doesn’t deserve the wholesome preciousness of Lazlo Strange.

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It’s also dual-narrated by Sarai, a blue-skinned goddess from the fallen tyrantical gods who used to rule Weep. She’s hiding from the world that wants her dead because of her horrifically cruel goddess mother. But she is so sweet and pure too. I just want to give her a cake. She hasn’t had a cake in years and wow, after all she’s been through? She deserves that. She’s also surrounded by 4 other godspawn: Feral, Ruby, Sparrow, and the vicious Minya. They’re so amazing and I loved them all, even Minya who is permanently trapped as a 6 year old and so caught up on wanting vengeance for the massacres that she’s bitter and cruel.  But all she wants is to protect her family!

What really caught me is the writing. The flowery prose is absolutely breathtaking. It swallows you and totally tosses you into the story so all you know is Weep and magic and fairytales and impossible dreams. I just couldn’t stop thinking “I want to live in this book.” Every word was so perfectly chosen that I was devoured by the story. I’ve never seen a city so clearly as I see Weep.

This is all about magic and gods and monsters which is utterly my kind of story. Also there is: death and destruction and psychotic little girls who catch ghosts and legends inside legends and great monsters and beasts and cruel pasts and terrified warriors and god slayers and quiet librarian boys and falling girls with flowers in their hair and blue skin and despair.

It’s truly the kind of story that you don’t just read, but you fully experience. I want to read more books with sweet boys and nightmare girls. This is the story tha twill melt your soul with the most fantastically marvellous writing in the world. Strange the Dreamer is a book that inspires you to dream.

Review: Blackbird of the Gallows by Meg Kassel

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Blackbird of the Gallows by Meg Kassel is a riveting and entrancing story about harbingers, beekeepers, DJing and the kind of romance that’s forbidden because one half might possibly be a mystical monster. This was just addictive, entrancing, and utterly beautifully written, which is all I ask for in a book! The characters manage to win your heart while the folklore of these shapeshifting crow harbingers is as fascinating as it is different. Move over typical paranormal vampires and werewolves…we gotcha death predictors and your heroines who are very anxious and also into EDM.

Angie Dovage is a pretty anxious and quiet kind of girl, just getting through highschool and keeping to herself since her mother died…except her new neighbours might also be harbingers of death who appear just before a monumental tragedy is about to occur in a town. This is bad news because: hello, catastrophe. But also Angie is developing feelings for Reece, who not only won’t be staying after the catastrophe, but who is definitely part monster. And as much as he tries not to be drawn to her…it doesn’t work. But he’s surrounded by chaos, including beekeepers who bring havoc with a single sting and could destroy Angie and her friends’ lives, and not to mention whatever is brewing is going to take out a lot of people. But who’s going to listen to Angie when she tries to warn them? And trusting Reece might be the best thing she can do or the absolute worst and she could doom them all.

I was instantly swept into this world of harbingers in a modern highschool setting. Of course it has a ton of the old paranormal tropes: hot mystery guy arrives in town, has a bit of a weird family, is probably immortal, shapeshifts into something feathery, has otherworldly eyes…etc. etc. But this just took them all from a new angle. Reece was respectful and kind of adorable and he feels the burden of his curse. He’s always tired, always carrying the weight of what horrors he’s seen. His harbinger family is dogged by beekeepers who quite literally sew madness and it’s so hard for him to meet people and not have them end up dead. Reece managed to be a sweetie and mysterious which was a combination I quite enjoyed. Not to mention say goodbye to any whingey paperdoll heroines. We have one who’s not only distrustful of random guys, but totally her own unique person.

Hello Angie Dovage! She was so relatable and just the kind of character you can enjoy spending a few hundred pages with. She doesn’t immediately fall into instalust with Reece (although she knows he’s hot; ok she ain’t blind) and she keeps her friends close. I love her epic friendships and how they were totally involved in the plot! Also Angie is a secret DJ and revels in her “other life” where people respect her and her music, while at school she’s the shy and quiet overlooked girl with a dubious past (her mother is dead but also was an addict) and pretty average in most opinions. Also Angie’s relationship with her dad?! SO nice! It’s great to see really wholesome and loving parent-kid relationships in YA and we sorely need more.

Also having the book feature harbingers and murders of crows was not only new to me, it was really interesting! I loved the lore and backstory of Reece’s family and got totally lost in this reshaped myth. The harbingers are immortal beings who turn into crows and follow around death and destruction. They arrive in town —> a tragedy goes down —> they feed off the energy. It’s a curse though and they hate it.

The book also features plenty of tragedy and catastrophe, grief and loss. It has so much heart with dealing with these topics and also paints its “villains” as more morally grey people. Sometimes they’re just propelled by their curse, other times it’s a choice to choose right vs wrong.

Should you read Blackbird of the Gallows?! ABSOLUTELY. Even if you’re tired of paranormal, this one will freshen up your world. And the heartfelt messages and relatable characters made it such a winning story. Not to mention that sidedish of utter death and destruction. What can I say?! This book has it all.

Review: Release by Patrick Ness

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Release by Patrick Ness is a masterpiece and also a gut-wrenching tale that spreads over just one day. It only takes one day to change your life that’s for sure: for the reader and for our protagonist, Adam Thorn. I’m such a fan of Patrick Ness’ works…everything from The Knife Of Never Letting Go, to The Rest Of Us Just Live Here, and his latest book And The Ocean Was Our Sky. His books are always diverse and so unique and varied. Although I have such a soft spot for Release as it has more of a contemporary setting, which is my favourite!

The story is about Adam Thorn’s single Saturday in summer…and how his world just starts crumbling with one massive piece of life changing news after the next. He’s tired of living in this tiny town with an overbearing preacher father, of hiding the fact that he’s gay (this would not be accepted in his house) to the going-away party tonight for his ex-boyfriend (who horribly broken his heart). Everything awful seems to happen in the middle until Adam has no idea where to turn, what he believes, and if he can ever truly be worthy of being loved.

The writing and storyline are truly addictive. And since it’s set over such a short period of time (plus it’s under 300 pages) you kind of just want to keep reading! The characters leapt off the page and I felt for Adam so much.

I was a little confused with the magical realism aspect. There’s a girl who was murdered and her storyline is just a few paragraphs between Adam’s chapters — and it all ties together at the end, but I was never quite sure what was going on for hers. There are fauns and wildness and ghosts in those segments. Definitely didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story though.

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Adam is TRULY having the worst day. This poor guy. He needs to just go to bed (human version of “let’s just turn it off and then on again”) and start over.

Adam is very lost and he feels like he isn’t loved. Worse: he feels like he doesn’t deserve to be loved. Your heart will definitely break for him. And, no, he doesn’t have the worst life ever, but his religious family won’t truly accept him and they believe he’s inherently sinning from just existing. It’s exhausting trying to please them and also being himself. Add onto that heartbreak with the boy, Enzo, who he always loved the most, Adam is just cracking around the edges even though he keeps trying to deal with it alone.

It does explore religion a bit, and it goes from the angle of how oftentimes the church can be exclusive and hypocritical. I read an author’s note that says he based this story off his own life and strict religious family upbringing while also being gay. You can feel the authenticity of Adam’s emotions because of this.

There’s also an epic friendship between Adam and Angela! And a really adorable newly blossoming romance between Adam and his new boyfriend, Linus. I like how it developed the secondary characters and really truly left us with the message of: you can choose your own family too.

Release is one to make you think and also draw you in with its amazing writing. It’s a raw book and full of vulnerable moments, of relationships breaking and also mending and building. With a message of “yes you deserved to be loved” this book will catch your heart.

Dimity Powell Takes Us on a Trip Down Holyrood Lane

 Dimity Powell, author of evocatively and beautifully written (and illustrated by Nicky Johnston) titles including The Fix-It Man (my review and interview) and At the End of Holyrood Lane (my review) is here to discuss the creation of the latter in an insightful interview. Dimity is a well-established presenter in Australia and overseas and a strong advocate for literacy as a workshop leader and Books in Homes Role Model. As you would be aware from her Boomerang Books reviews, Dimity has a flair for exquisite language, and her picture books are conveyed no differently. I’m grateful for this opportunity to talk with you, Dim!

Congratulations, Dim, on your newest, very special picture book, once again collaborating with the gorgeous Nicky Johnston!

Thank you, Romi!

Following your successful partnership on The Fix-It Man, was this second joint venture something you always planned or just a lucky coincidence?

It is something we both secretly always wished for – we adore working together – but was definitely more of a case of fate than design. When EK Books accepted Holyrood Lane, the first person publisher, Anouska Jones and I thought of to illustrate this story was Nicky. Her style was just right for projecting the type of feeling this work required.

Your story deals with a delicate topic on domestic violence and emotional safety through the metaphorical torment of a thunderstorm. We know Nicky has the knack for capturing the deep and true essence of a story. How do you feel she portrayed your intention? Was there much collaboration throughout the process?

She portrayed every intention brilliantly! Nicky has a phenomenal initiative grasp of the story behind my stories. It’s as if she has direct access into my head and is able to see exactly how I’d love the characters and their emotions be displayed. This occurs with little to no consultation at all, which stuns me. I can only paint with words. Nicky’s illustrations do all the rest of the work.

What I really enjoyed about working with her on this project was when I happened to be in Melbourne last year (for the Victorian launch of The Fix-It Man) and was invited into her work studio. Oh, what a sublime experience that was. She had a query about a certain spread of Holyrood Lane and invited me to offer solutions. Together we nutted through the various ways of portraying the message. It was a turning point in the story for the main character, Flick and for me. I have never experienced such joy working so closely with such a divinely talented creator as Nicky. I know this is not everyone’s experience so I feel very blessed.

As mentioned, At the End of Holyrood Lane is an intensely moving and powerful tale that prevalently and superbly brings an awareness to its readers. What was your motivation in writing this story and what do you hope your audience gains from reading it?

I hope first and foremost readers engage with Flick’s story in a way that is meaningful for them and leave it feeling more hopeful and reflective. I was prompted to write this book after a meeting with a prominent children’s charity founder, who proclaimed more mainstream, accessible picture books addressing this subject matter were needed. I rose to the challenge. But in doing so, had to clear tall hurdles. Most mainstream publishers felt this type of story was ‘too hot to handle’. Fortunately, for me, EK Books had the foresight and determination to take it on with me.

Did the story go through many re-writes? How did you perfect the language and level of emotional impact for an audience that may be as young as three or four?

Oh, yes! After several knock backs, I set about restructuring Flick’s story into a more metaphoric one, one that would appeal to children worldwide regardless of their situation and whether or not they were victims of abuse. If it wasn’t for the initial reactions and the feedback received from those publishers, I would not have had the impetus to fight on so determinedly nor explore my story from a different perspective. Reasons to be grateful for rejections!

Each rewrite brought me closer to that sweet spot, where words and emotions sing in perfect harmony. To ensure that the words matched the emotional maturity of my audience I sought the help of my erstwhile writing critique buddy, Candice Lemon-Scott. Normally when we assess each other’s work, it only takes one or two feedback sessions to understand the strengths and weaknesses of a particular manuscript. Working on this one was like slogging it through the finals of a tennis match; there was much back and forwarding, but finally after about six rewrites and months of massaging, I knew I had a winner.

What is the significance of the title? Is there a hidden meaning behind it?

Yes and no. I love the term Holyrood, having noticed it on my travels and always thought I’d love to incorporate it into one of my books one day. After rewriting Holyrood Lane a few times under the old working title of Holding On, I realised I needed something better, stronger and more meaningful. Holyrood has various religious connections, appropriated to be an ancient Christian relic of the true cross and was the subject of veneration and pilgrimage in the middle ages. It is also the placename of several notable locations throughout Europe. I liked the subtle spiritual connotations and the sense of venturing away from the norm into a potentially better unknown that this title evokes.

The excitement of your book launch in Brisbane is imminent! What do you have planned for the big day?

The launch is taking place at the Brisbane Square Library, which is smack bang in the middle of Brisbane on the 23 September – a Sunday – so hopefully young and old will be able to make it. In addition to the usual cupcake consumption (they’ll look and taste gorgeous I can assure you!), there’ll be kids’ activities, special guest speakers from various domestic violence organisations, book readings, signings and a raffle with over $1,040 worth of terrific book prizes to be won. Kids’ Lit guru, Susanne Gervay is also travelling up from Sydney to launch this book with me for which I’m eternally grateful. This industry thrives on the support from people like her so I look forward to celebrating this with everyone at the launch.

You are hugely active in the literary community with workshops, festivals, school visits and the like. What other kinds of events and presentations have you been involved in recently? What value do you see for authors presenting to children?

I’ve been facilitating and conducting a few school holiday kids’ writing camps this year in addition to bookshop appearances and workshops. I really love these camps because on a personal level they consolidate what it means to write and how to do it well. They are also heaps of fun and put me in touch with tomorrow’s writers in a very real and exciting way. I’m not really teaching them to write; it feels more like a privileged position of mentoring; guiding and nurturing young raw talent is unspeakably satisfying.

One of the camps I facilitate is the Write Like An Author Camps designed by Brian Falkner. The immense value of having published active authors presenting to kids is that validation they gain from linking facts, tips, tricks and methods with real world experience. We (authors) are the living proof of what we do and say!

Anything else of excitement you’d like to add? News? Upcoming projects? TBR pile?

My TBR pile is tall enough to crush an elephant should it ever topple which it has, toppled that is, not killed any elephants, yet. My Christmas wish would be for more time to read AND write. I’m bubbling with new picture book ideas but have been writing in snatches since entering pre-publication mode for Holyrood Lane. There are a couple more publications on the horizon for 2019 and 2020 though, which makes me happier than a bear with a tub of honey ice cream.

Things are also ramping up on the SCBWI front as we prepare for the next Sydney-based Conference taking place in February 2019. Bookings for this immensely popular conference have just opened and are filling fast. I have the enviable task of coordinating a dynamic team of Roving Reporters again next year whose job is to cover every inch of the conference and it share with the world. It’s another time gobbling occupation but a thrilling one nonetheless.

Thanks so much for chatting with me, Dimity! And congratulations again on such a special book! 🙂

It was my absolute pleasure, Romi!

Purchase At the End of Holyrood Lane

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Review: Heretics Anonymous by Katie Henry

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I had a suspicion I’d love Heretics Anonymous by Katie Henry before I even started and…I was not wrong. It’s such an excellent story, equal parts funny and heartwarming and also a deep exploration of a lot of the double-standards of religious schools. It also features enough gruesome facts about Catholic Saints to remind me of my childhood days reading all the Horrible History books. Good times. What a throwback

The story starts with Michael, a definite atheist, being sent to a Catholic school and woah does he think he’s in for a terrible time. He’s already mad at his parents for constantly moving (his dad keeps taking work promotions and is never home anyway) and Michael is sick of trying to make new friends and go to new schools. A devout Catholic school might be the worst yet…until he meets Lucy, the girl who wants to be a priest, and her tight-knit friend group of religious misfits like Avi who is Jewish and gay and Eden, a Wiccan. Turns out they run a secret club called Heretics Anonymous where they mostly complain about the injustices of the school, the ridiculous uniform regulations, the unfair sexism, and how acceptance should be spread more freely. But what if they didn’t just complain? What if they acted subtly and anonymously on their outrage? It starts small but the Heretics Anonymous club is here to shake up the school. Unless they take it too far…

The book is definitely heavily religious. It’s set in a Catholic school and talks a lot about what Catholics believe, but I didn’t feel it ever went preachy or dry. The book isn’t trying to convert anyone to anything (not Catholicism or atheistic beliefs). It’s simply showing a vast variety of beliefs and calling for acceptance. I liked how this one pointed out hypocrisy within the church rules, but it never condemned or showed any side as being “in the wrong”. The balance was great. I loved all these perspectives.

The characters were a definite highlight too! Even though I picked up the book because the plot sounded good, it was the characters that totally won my heart over. Michael is an easily relatable and wining character. He makes several very bad decisions, but you still understand where he’s coming from. His dad is overly hard and dismissive to him, Michael’s sick of being lonely, and being uprooted and taken all over the country isn’t easy on anyone.

The secondary characters all felt dynamic and complex within just a few chapters! I adored getting to know Lucy, Avi, Eden and Max. The diversity levels were on point and so respectfully done with Lucy being Colombian, Avi being Jewish, and I suspect Max may have been autistic although it’s not stated on the page. Lucy is such an intense Catholic, but not blind to their failings, and it really pains her that she can never really help her church because she’s not allowed to as a girl. Her relationship with Michael is definitely slowburn and adorable. And the friend-group’s banter and loyalty (and also betrayals) were so addictive to read!

It does get intense when it goes into talking about theology a few times, and we get loaded up on religious facts. But I felt I also learned a lot about what people believe.

Overall? Heretics Anonymous excellent story you don’t want to miss out on. It’s full of funny and endearing characters, lines that had me snorting, and a super cute romance that didn’t take over the plot. All the hot-headed moments that ended in dubious decisions had me unable to put the book down, desperate to know what would happen. For like, um, 2hrs. You just have to keep reading!

The Storm Keeper’s Island by Catherine Doyle

The Storm Keeper’s Island draws on wild, Celtic-inspired magic and antagonism between the light and dark to create a dense, darkly atmospheric tale for middle grade.

Eleven-year-old Fionn and his thirteen-year-old sister Tara are sent by their unwell mother to stay with their grandfather on the island of Arranmore. Fionn never met his father, who had strong ties with the island and died in the sea surrounding it. Fionn resembles him physically and wonders if his mother may be rejecting him because of this. He believes that he lacks courage and is afraid of the sea but wants to be his own person.

When they arrive Tara joins her boyfriend, Bartley, and his friendlier sister Shelby in excluding Fionn while they search for the Sea Cave. The Cave is dangerous and is reputed to grant a wish to the one who can enter. Bartley desires to be the next Storm Keeper, the one who controls the elements using the island’s power.

Island lore explains that ancient sorcerers, Dagda and Morrigan, fought for supremacy. After defeating Morrigan, Dagda left magic gifts behind to protect Arranmore: the Sea Cave; the Whispering Tree; the Merrows and Aonbharr, the Winged Horse.

Fionn and Tara’s aging grandfather is the current Storm Keeper and his cottage is crowded with candles. These contain memories of past times and, in an unexpected form of timeslip, can take those who light a candle back to the storms and times enclosed within it. He and Fionn travel into memories together where his grandfather is a strong, powerful man but he often returns aged and forgetful, signalling his descent into Alzheimer’s disease.

Arranmore reveals whispers of magic. The island holds secrets and is restless with layers of ancient, elemental magic peeking through. It behaves differently for Fionn and he wonders if he is meant to inherit the role of Storm Keeper despite his reluctance and fear. He learns that often the most difficult journeys are inside ourselves.

When Fionn is fainthearted his grandfather advises him to “live a life of breathless wonder, so that when it begins to fade from you, you will feel the shadow of its happiness still inside you and the blissful sense that you laughed the loudest, loved the deepest, and lived fearlessly”.

This mystical, original high fantasy is atmospherically reminiscent of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence. It is both enticing and reflective.

The Storm Keeper’s Island is published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books. The sequel will be published in July 2019.

The Goat by Anne Fleming

The Goat will appeal to both thoughtful children and young adults, as well as adults looking for an uplifting read. It could be a great read-aloud across age-groups.

The premise of a mountain goat living on a New York skyscraper near Central Park suggests that this is a fabulist tale, but all is revealed in satisfying mode and time.

Characters living in and near the building span the titular goat as well as a cast of two children and a range of adults. Kid and her parents have arrived from Toronto to look after a dog named Cat. Her mother has written and is about to perform in an Off-Broadway show: Hockey Mom: The Musical. Lisa is a quirky character, with funny ways of showing both her nerves and her love towards her family. Kid is shy and avoids looking at people‘s faces but soon strikes a rapport with Will, who can’t bear windows since his parents were killed in the exploding Twin Towers. His grandmother, retired chemist and writer Dr Lomp, home-schools him and keeps a close eye on him. The two children love exploring museums and there is some thoughtful discussion between them and others about the Towers and Ground Zero.

Doris is an elderly woman who cares for her husband, Jonathan, who has suffered a stroke but doesn’t want his wife to know that he can do more than he shows. He enjoys watching the goat eat Doris’s wheatgrass without her knowing why it doesn’t grow.

The goat traverses the building looking for food but is reluctant to cross the “clangy black cliff … the noisy tree-ish creatures that roamed the ledge … the river of giant moving clumps” to where he can see abundant food. He loves to gambol even though he never feels completely safe.

Kenneth P. Gill is an enigmatic character who leaves hay outside his window. Joff Vanderlinden is a blind skateboarder and famous young writer. He also loves playing chess in Washington Square Park and longs for another encounter with the woman who beat him, called him “buckaroo” and hasn’t returned.

All these strands begin to intersect when Kid and Will knock on every door in search of someone who could confirm that a goat lives on Kid’s building. Backstories about both the goat and human characters are revealed with poignancy and tenderness, leading to an intertwined, heart-lifting finale.

The Goat by Anne Fleming is published by Pushkin Children’s (Faber Factory Plus) Allen & Unwin

Review: At the End of Holyrood Lane by Dimity Powell and Nicky Johnston

If there ever was a story that so finely balances a highly delicate topic with exquisitely gentle language and a resolution that makes your heart swell, it’s At the End of Holyrood Lane written by Dimity Powell and illustrated by Nicky Johnston. So brilliantly does this book combine the rawness of agonising fear and anxiety in a case of domestic and emotional violence with a ray of uplifting hope and courage, depicted amongst the darkness of the metaphorical thunderstorm that causes such torment.

Through Powell’s powerful narrative and Johnston’s visually arresting illustrations, we experience the juxtaposition of a normally vibrant young Flick with this little girl troubled by the daunting uncertainty of her safety. Where a home should be a consistently sheltered environment, Flick has to weather the wrath of fierce storms that “smother sunshine and ransack fun.” They “make Flick feel smaller than she really is.” The rising intensity of the fuming rage accented with looming, dark faceless shadows brings the arc to a screeching crescendo, until the call for help allows the sunshine to glow and spill over a vibrant young Flick once again.

RizeUp Australia and Act for Kids are proud supporting organisations of this book and of families experiencing domestic violence in the home. At the End of Holyrood Lane, in essence, raises a gentle touch to readers in empowering them the ability to seek help in times of suffering.

Highly evocative and dramatically moving, the value of this book to homes and schools is unquestionable. Flick and her toy unicorn are a symbol of hope and sunshine that early years children will quite quickly warm to.

EK Books, September 2018.

Dimity Powell will be joining us in an insightful interview, coming shortly!

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Review: Sweet Adversity

Assimilating history into a palatable, meaningful tale for today’s children is no easy thing. Get it wrong and you risk children shunning not only a potentially great read, but learning about periods of our past that explain the character of our future as a people and a nation. A situation of unquestionable adversity, yet adversity has many advantages – ‘sweet are the uses of adversity’ after all. Get it right, and children will embrace history with gusto and every ounce of the here and now vigour that defines childhood.

Sheryl Gwyther’s ability to immerse young readers into worlds of yesteryear with such a clear strong presence of today is exemplary. Her narrative slides along as alluringly as a sweet mountain brook, mesmerizing readers with plenty of action and emotion. Sweet Adversity is exactly the type of book my 12-year-old-self would have lapped up with unbridled zeal, especially as it acquaints children with the wondrous words of Shakespeare, some of which adult readers will connect with of course, but which provide a beautiful rich new seam of learning for tweens.

Continue reading Review: Sweet Adversity

The Book That Helps Nurture Australian Native Bees

September in Australia means many things to many people, but it means all action stations for those of us who care for bees as bee colonies ramp up their warm-weather activity. In northern hemispheres, the bees come out of hibernation, but in temperate tropics like Queensland they simply double their pollen-collecting efforts. Meanwhile beekeepers like me set about splitting healthy colonies to create new safe homes and double the number of bees to help protect the environment.

I’ve written previously about the vegan beekeeping I do for European honeybees—that is, beekeeping that focuses on ensuring bee and hive health rather than producing honey. But I’ve written little about the equivalent native beekeeping I do. And the book that helps me do it.

There are thousands of Australian native stingless bees, and I have four hives of tetragonula carbonaria, one of the more common social bees (where social means they live together in a hive rather than pottering about solitarily). More the size of fruit flies and foraging not more than 500 metres from their home, these bees are often overshadowed by their European cousins, who are much more visible to the naked eye and who travel between five and 10 kilometres to gather food.

University of Queensland entomologist Tim Heard has been studying native bees for decades—you could say he was interested in them before they were cool. But with no sting (technically, they can nip when they’re really unhappy with you), being super low maintenance, and taking up so little room they could live on a balcony, native bees provide invaluable pollination services to their local environment. Which explains why their popularity has surged in recent years.

For those of us who now give native bees homes, Heard’s book is basically gospel. Written based on thorough scientific understanding, but in lay terms accessible to those of us who are not entomologists, The Australian Native Bee Book includes in-depth information about how native bees operate, as well as crucial step-by-step information for constructing and locating hives to the precise specifications that allow native bees to thrive.

It’s also packed with photographs that illustrate points and show what’s possible in terms up set-ups and support. Combined, and despite its not entirely attractive cover*, this book is a goldmine of information and images every person caring for native bees should access and learn.

 

*I get the brown might match some of the colours of the hives’ inner workings, but it’s still a terrible cover choice. And reprint or revised editions should rectify this.

Review: Sadie by Courtney Summers

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SADIE by Courtney Summers is a book that will leave you feeling utterly shaken. It’s intense and really dark and the ending kind of had me like, “mY KINDLE IS BROKEN I NEED ANOTHER CHAPTER.” Which I both love and hate. (Curse you, book.) Seriously though, it’s the kind of book you end up forgetting how to breathe while you read it and it is so so well written.

It feels weird saying “I enjoyed this!” because it’s NOT an enjoyable story. It’s raw and emotional and shows such a darkly vicious side of the world. It’s addictive because you want to unravel this mystery of a missing girl and her murdered sister, but you also, as you keep reading, get this absolute sick feeling about what’s really going on.

I do believe it’s best to go in knowing only a little about it! It’s a mystery and like those are best served without too many details up front. But basically it’s half told as a podcast series by a middle-age man — and also half told in a really raw and aching 1st person narrative by Sadie herself. You get to see this podcaster unravelling the mystery of who Sadie talked to as she went searching for this man named “Darren”. And you get to flip over and see Sadie following her journey towards to take down darkness with a switchblade.

It is a really heavy story (upper YA for sure) and reminded me of Girl in Pieces too. Also it’s very much about being poor, about people risking everything, about this intensely tight love for your sister, about neglect and abuse and trauma. It’s a really important story too. You wish it was fiction, but it’s a story you could also hear on the news. Missing girls and murdered girls and someone who isn’t willing to let it just lie at that.

Sadie was an exceptional heroine, who was hard and sharp around the edges, but also makes you absolutely feel for her and root for her immediately. You don’t know right up front why she’s hunting Darren. She buys a car and goes on this long trail of following up leads and talking to people, all to find this man who used to be her mum’s boyfriend. Sadie is also so so deeply loyal and loving to her little sister, Mattie. She basically raises her and even though Mattie sees Sadie as an annoying overbearing “parent figure”…I LOVE that Sadie never once gave up on her and just kept loving her. The story starts with Mattie’s murder and we see how deeply it’s unravelled Sadie. It’s heartbreaking. She’s a character who’s well crafted and super complex and she draws you into the story instantly with her incredible voice.

Basically? READ THIS. I still feel thrown by all the things Sadie uncovered on her dark and lonely roadtrip to find justice for her little sister. This book is intense and heartbreaking and leaves you with so many furiously buzzing questions at the end. It’s a story you’re not going to stop thinking about for a while.

Review: The Astonishing Colour of After by Emily X. R. Pan

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The Astonishing Colour of After by Emily X. R. Pan is an emotional and gorgeously written story of grief and healing. I’m still reeling at just how beautiful the writing was! It’s a visual feast and it uses colours to complete paint the story and world around you. It’s also really important to have narratives like this from authors who’ve put part of their own journeys onto the page. This book is a privilege to read as we get to see the life of a biracial Taiwanese girl who is discovering who she is, what she needs, and how to heal in the wake of her mother’s suicide.

Leigh is sixteen when she discovers her mother’s suicide and her life is completely dismantled. She feels lost and alone and with no way to process this…and then she starts seeing a red bird that’s leaving her messages and nudges: go find your estranged Taiwanese grandparents. Leigh believes the bird is her mum and she has to go find answers. Like why her mum cut ties with her grandparents in the first place.

Leigh is an artist so the story is told with vivid and colourful descriptions. It’s like you’re reading a painting at times. The writing draws you in immediately and you just have to savour it too. I’d definitely pick up more by this author in an instant just on the strength of her prose!

The story is also told with plenty of flash backs to Leigh’s childhood. Including her best friend (and boy she has a total crush on) Axel. He was super sweet and watching them grow up together and then clash was heartbreaking and also buoying as the story progressed.

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It’s also very much about being biracial, connecting with your roots, and discussing mental illness. Emotion bleeds on every page and after reading the author’s note and knowing she wrote this to process a suicide within her relations? I’m so thankful she shared this story. It is SO SAD. It also doesn’t demonise or romanticise mental illness, but chooses to discuss it bluntly but with hope too. It is obviously a very dark portrayal and Leigh blames her mother, not the illness, a bit. But overall it talks about how mental illness isn’t a choice and it deserves to be recognised and treated seriously.

I also appreciated that the story was about healing too. For Leigh and her father, but also for her grandparents and even Axel. It will probably make you cry, but it will also give you light.

It’s partially set in Taiwan too, and the descriptions are vivid and gorgeous, so it’s like getting to travel just by reading! There’s the hint of magical realism with Leigh being convinced her mother has changed into a bird, but has she really? I love how the book doesn’t really say.

I definitely recommend THE ASTONISHING COLOUR OF AFTER and will rave forever about how beautiful and important the story is. It’s emotional and poignant and deserves all the hype.

Make Some Noise for Debut Author Sonia Bestulic

Crashing onto the scene is first time picture book author, Sonia Bestulic. Her whimsical tale is all about NOISE! It’s a triumphant take on the joys of music making, and the joys of motherhood in an exuberantly loud household. Sonia’s background in Speech Pathology serves her well in this rollicking rhyming story focused on the development of oral language, speech and instrumental exploration. Sonia is speaking with us as a part of her Reece Give Me Some Peace! book blog tour. Thanks, Sonia! 🎷🎻🥁

Congratulations on the release of your debut picture book, Reece Give Me Some Peace! Please tell us a bit about your background and how you came to be a writer.

Books and writing have always been an integral part of my life since early childhood, I loved the experience of new worlds books immersed me into, as well as the joys of sharing a book that was read to me. From childhood I have relished in writing in its various formats, and always had a particular passion for rhyming and the creative fun you could have with language.

My love of language and drive to help others succeed led me to a career as a Speech Pathologist. My work has predominately been with children who have difficulties with their speech, oral language and literacy. Within my work as a Speech Pathologist I heavily incorporate books as a tool to build and foster oral language development, and getting children ready to read, spell and write.
Working so dynamically with books and with children, I have been privileged to experience time and time again the wonders that a book can create in young people, and so honing my writing within the children’s picture book genre seemed a natural pathway of evolution.

What is your personal experience or relationship with music? How does this come together with your background in Speech Pathology?

I have always had a love of a wide variety of musical genres. Music has been an accompaniment in my life’s journey; listening to it, singing with it, dancing to it, and making it too! I started learning the violin when I was 7 years old, and continued it through to my late teens, before periodically entwining it during adulthood. Music generally is such an integral part of so many aspects of our lives.
The writing of Reece Give Me Some Peace! has brought together my musical background and professional Speech Pathology background, as the text is intentionally very stimulating at an auditory level, and features rich oral language and pre-literacy aspects such as rhyming, alliteration, repetition and rhythm, whilst introducing children to a new vocabulary of orchestral instruments and the sounds they make.

As a Speech Pathologist I often train carers and educators on strategies to develop and enhance oral language and pre-literacy skills; and being able to share in a book such as Reece Give Me Some Peace!, that invites an interactive experience certainly parallels to the interactive experience we can have with music.

How did you find the publishing process with Big Sky Publishing? What has been the most rewarding and the most challenging aspects of your journey so far?

Big Sky Publishing have been such a lovely team to work with; facilitating a smooth and engaging publishing process.
Most rewarding has been the opportunity to be involved in the various stages of the publishing process – it is pretty amazing being a part of it all and experiencing the evolution of the book from ‘conception to birth’. I certainly got a little teary at the first sight of the initial illustrations, such a personally moving, emotional moment.

In terms of challenging aspects, as this is my debut picture book, I’d say it’s been getting a better understanding of the industry, it’s workings and learning the marketing ‘where to’ once published.

Nancy Bevington has brilliantly captured the movement, energy and charisma of Reece Give Me Some Peace! What do you love the most about the way she has portrayed your lively story and boisterous main character?

I love that Reece is portrayed as such a relatable young boy, just doing his own thing, in his own space with such cheekiness and curiosity; the way in which his manner of play is illustrated, so perfectly aligns with so many children.

Nancy has also beautifully captured the strong auditory component of the story and I love the visual build-up of instruments as the noise crescendos.

I have to make mention of the clever portrayal of one of my favourite characters, and that is Reece’s cat; who appears throughout the story and adds such a wonderful element of endearing humour!

What kinds of teaching and learning experiences would you suggest for parents and educators reading Reece to their children?

• Overall the teaching and learning experience can be themed on music and musical instruments, and reinforcing auditory/ listening skills
• The book builds anticipation, as the sounds are heard before the instruments are revealed; so really get children engaged in joining in with the sounds and guessing what the instrument may be that is making the sound
• Discuss the various instruments;
> what they are
> how they are played
> what category they belong to e.g. flute is a wind instrument, drums are a percussion instrument, violin is a string instrument etc.
​Extension activities can include;
• Drawing feelings of how different pieces of music evoke different emotions
• Listen to and watch the actual instruments being played on YouTube to extend the experience
• Listen to an orchestral piece of music and play ‘spot the instrument’ naming various instruments as they are heard
• Grab some instruments you may have at home or create some (upside down empty bucket and sticks make for an easy to assemble drum!)

Anything else you’d like to add? Your upcoming projects? News? Reading pile?

I have another Picture Book due for release in 2019 with Big Sky Publishing; and the talented Nancy Bevington as illustrator. It is coming together beautifully!

A recent news item is the launch of my podcast Chatabout Children with Sonia Bestulic! I launched at the end of August, and I am really enjoying the creative process so far and the new skills I have picked up along the way. It is all about empowering parents/ carers and professionals to grow with the children in their life; through education, enlightenment and entertainment. I am also looking at this avenue as an opportunity to periodically chat to Children’s Authors and discover all the wonderful things they have been up to in the world of Children’s Books!

That sounds brilliant! Thanks so much for speaking with Boomerang Books, Sonia! 😊

Sonia can be found at her website, and on blog tour here.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Revisiting RBG

I’ve written previously about both the RBG book and documentary, but having just turned the last page of the book, I’ve been reminded that the book alone warrants special attention. Because the New York Times bestseller RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dedicated to ‘the women on whose shoulders we stand’, is phenomenal.

Tracing the life and career of US Supreme Court judge and human rights advocate Ruth Bader Ginsburg (AKA ‘RBG’), RBG is written by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik. They are, respectively, a then law student who started the Notorious RBG Tumblr ‘digital tribute’ and a journalist who interviewed Knizhnik and was captivated by the RBG story. It’s a stellar combination, seeing the book balance feature writing-style compelling narrative further informed by solid legal depth and detail.

And its diverse but cohesive 195-odd pages contain something for absolutely everyone. The book chapters are, for example, named after Notorious BIG’s song lyrics. An artist who runs a women’s graffiti collective illustrated each chapter title. The pages are punctuated with memes and artworks, as well as photographs—some seen before, some not—of RBG at work, at the opera, or spending time with her family.

There are annotated versions of RBG’s judgments that highlight the poise, finesse, laser-like sharpness, and subtlety with which she weaves together her judgments. And there are summaries of her dissenting judgments and reasoning, which sounds dry but is actually a brilliantly succinct way to appreciate both RBG’s intellect and just how vast her contribution has been to shaping legal and cultural history. (Seriously, her dissenting Voting Rights Act judgment is iconic: ‘… Killing the Voting Rights Act because it had worked too well … was like “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”’)

Not hired because she was a woman, despite finishing top of her class, fired because she was pregnant, and paid less because she was a woman and her husband earnt a decent wage, RBG has encountered and overcome more discrimination in her lifetime than many of us could imagine. Better still, she’s not just overcome it, but made it easier for other women to at best avoid and at worst overcome it too.

‘RBG has been extraordinary all her life, but she never wanted to be a solo performer. She is committed to bringing up other women and under-represented people, and to working together with her colleagues even when it seems impossible,’ we read. Meanwhile the ever humble RBG says: ‘I just try to do the good job that I have to the best of my ability, and I really don’t think about whether I’m inspirational. I just do the best I can.’

A ‘firebrand’ concealed in an apparently conservative casing, RBG belies Gloria Steinem’s adage: ‘Women lose power with age, and men gain it.’ RBG’s tale is one that should be read and appreciated by women and men alike because she makes you not only see the world and inner workings differently, but she inspires you to imagine what we can, without raising our voices and by bringing others along with us, possibly achieve.

Review: White Rabbit by Caleb Roehrig

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White Rabbit by Caleb Roehrig was such an intensely stressful story that I felt myself tensing up while reading! Which is exactly what I want from a YA thriller, ok?! It scores all the points. It’s a twisty story of complicated families, messy broken hearts, drug gangs, arson, and (of course) murder. It’s definitely one you need to carve out a block of time to just go ahead and read and read because it’s fast paced and every time you think there’s an answer? BOOM. It takes you on another twist.

The story follows Rufus Holt who receives a strange call for help from his half-sister. He goes, wary of a prank…but instead he finds his sister drugged, covered in blood, holding a knife, and next to her is her murdered boyfriend. So that’s not how Rufus thought his night would go. Between panicking and soliciting begrudging help from his ex-boyfriend (who absolutely broke his heart) he gets pulled into trying to solve the mystery. His sister swears she didn’t do it, but the evidence is grim. They know they can’t put off calling the cops forever, but they have one night and 6 suspects and surely they can piece together this mess. Except it’s complicated by hallucinogenic drugs (called White Rabbits) and kids with guns and no one is telling the full truth….and Sebastian, Rufus’ ex, needs to tell him something important. This night couldn’t get any more intense.

The whole story is set over just ONE NIGHT. Which makes it absolutely super intense and face-paced! There was such a lot to pack in but I thought the pacing caught it all perfectly. And we get to learn so so much about Rufus, our narrator, and his ex-boyfriend Sebastian even in such a short time period. I was very impressed! The secondary-characters are a little more hazy but that’s to be expected, and I think we were left purposefully with gaps to fill in their character sand personalities so we wouldn’t solve the mystery too fast!

Rufus Holt was a complex and heartbroken angry boy. He’s unintentionally good at puzzles, which is why his half-sister begs for his help. But he has a bad record himself, and he’s super scared of getting mixed up in this grisly scene full of drugs, lies and murder. He also has an anger disorder which he takes medication and has therapy for, and I thought it was great the book discussed this! Anger, for some people, can be inevitable, but it’s never and excuse or something that can’t be dealt with. It’s such a good contrast with how Rufus manages his anger issues vs how so many of the other “rich spoiled brat” teens in the book display theirs with super unhealthy behaviours. And look where it’s got them.

Of course, Rufus is also dealing with heartbreak from his ex-boyfriend, Sebastian. They both end up trying to solve this mystery together but Rufus is convinced he will NEVER forgive Sebastian. But maybe there’s more to what happened between them than Rufus is willing to admit? I loved how they unpacked so many heartfelt moments and I honestly was torn between being furious at Sebastian and feeling really really bad for him. He and Rufus had a lot of chemistry, anger, hurt, and intense feelings still. It showed so so well.

White Rabbit is a murder mystery of lies, passion and shames. And it keeps you glued to the page and guessing the WHOLE way through. I devoured it in just one day and couldn’t stop till I had answers. I also am a fan of the author’s debut, Last Seen Leaving, so be sure to check that out too!

Daddy’s Day Delights – Picture Books to Share with Dad

The thing about dads is, they’re just big kids in slightly longer pants. No matter whether your dad, or grandpa, is the bouncy, flouncy type, the serious, steady kind or the biggest kid in the house, this little collection of picture books pay homage to them all and are perfect to share with your dad on Daddy’s Day this year. Enjoy!

I Love You Dino-Daddy by Mark Sperring and Sam Lloyd

This winning picture book team have done it again with a perfectly rhyming, boldly colourful, dino-deluxed romp around the house and park with Dad.  Dino-Daddy packs plenty of playful punch and is a hilarious gallery of the unending personas the average daddy undergoes on a daily basis.  Builder Dad, Sleeping Beauty Dad, Party Dad, Monster Dad, each scenario mirrors the all the rip-snorting, sometimes unexpected qualities of fatherhood that come with the job and cement father child relationships. Ideal for sharing quietly or not so quietly with children from two years and up.

Bloomsbury for Children June 2018

The Daddy Shop by Aleesah Darlison and Kelly O’Gara

Unlike mummies, some daddies can’t be there every minute of every day (she says with tongue in cheek for this story works equally well if the roles were reversed). Unfortunately, little Tai’s daddy is one of those daddies whose work sometimes prevents him from spending time with his son. This makes Tai cross and recalcitrant enough to take matters into his own hands when he learns daddy is unable to make it to the Father and Son Picnic Day.

Continue reading Daddy’s Day Delights – Picture Books to Share with Dad

Review: The Emerald Sea

Needing some escapism after being smashed with a combination of work and uni deadlines, and having come off the back of reading—and still mulling over—Eggshell Skull, I turned to my favourite guilty-pleasure author: Richelle Mead.

Mead has thankfully recently released the third and final book in the Glittering Court trilogy.

In The Emerald Sea, we follow the third of three friends attending what is essentially a live-in intensive deportment school prepping them for travelling to the colonies where they hope to secure themselves rich husbands. Which sounds superficial until you discover the three are actually each harbouring huge secrets and kickass skillsets and courage.

Tamsin, the protagonist of this latest tale, was actually my least favourite character in the previous books. My impression of her was that she was two-dimensional, her hyper-competitiveness and Type A personality overplayed to the point of being unbelievable.

So I had admittedly hesitated to order and then dive into this book in quite the same way as I had the previous two. It turns out it was a rookie mistake because, while I believe Mead could have provided Tamsin with a bit more depth overall, in this book we gain insight into why she’s so uptight. And it’s kind of worth the wait.

With Tamsin’s tale diverging from the other two’s by way of a storm that shipwrecks the boat she’s traveling on, she’s alone, equipped with only her ingenuity to tackle crisis after crisis. It’s here thar Tamsin really comes into her own.

It also provides a fresh take on the overlapping tales, with so much of Tamsin’s story taking place far away from the Glittering Court, instead in a bizarrely religious small colony and in the company of a swag of interesting characters that include a dashing party boy turned trainee priest, a sour spinster, a charismatic but not-so-dashing trader, and a strong lady leader of the local Icori.

Featuring many of Mead’s trademark wit and one-liners, The Emerald Sea is eminently readable and a surprisingly fitting and solid conclusion to the trilogy. Perhaps my greatest marvel of it and its predecessors The Glittering Court and Midnight Jewel is that Mead has managed to write three entirely independent yet interwoven narratives that converge fairly seamlessly. For this reason, I’d definitely recommend reading it and its companions.

Fatherhood in Picture Books

What does fatherhood mean to you? Is it about the shared moments that make you laugh? Or the ones that incite your curiosity about the world? Is it teaching them a new skill? Or bestowing some secrets about life that you learned along the way? Is it simply being present to watch them grow and succeed? Whatever your definition, there is no doubt that gorgeous picture books can draw out and encourage special bonds in a way that is meaningful to you. Here are a few that do just that…

From Him, To Me, To You. This beautiful book is a lyrical dedication to our littlest loved ones. A book to be shared across the generations. And one that will bring a tear to your eye. Things My Pa Told Me is written with a wise and astute hand by Anthony Bertini, told in a gentle and pertinent manner. Illustrator Jonathan Bentley comes in with an interpretation of his own, brilliantly re-imagining the text to another level of wonder, warmth and adventure. His amazing sketch work creates this extraordinary atmosphere of movement, light and shade, colour and energy that perfectly reflects the perspective of a small child in a big world.

The message imparted is one of strength, support, security and love. Of a father reinforcing his little girl’s journey through childhood – all the growth, fears and challenges and power she is to face. The possibilities that await and the wisdom needed to set her own path. But most importantly, to “enjoy this brief time, just you and me.” One day she will be able to reach, and he (father) will remain in her heart, watching along the way.

Things My Pa Told Me accomplishes a profound and timeless tale of embrace and hope in a way that leaves the reader to their own interpretation and meaning. A stunning book for children from age four to share with their own Pa.

Little Hare Books, August 2018.

The title says it all – bonding with Grandpa, adventure, and the wildest of imaginations. Read on and you’ll find plenty of action, fun and play (including a brilliant play with words!). Grandpa’s Space Adventure is created by such a masterful duo following their Grandpa’s Big Adventure; Paul Newman and Tom Jellett hilariously bring this star-filled adventure rocketing into life.

Grandpa tells his grandson about the time he and dog Rover flew to the moon. He took his ‘launch box’, had ‘high tea’… ‘very high tea’ every day, and even split his side on laughing gas instead of oxygen. He played ‘fetch-the-stick’ with Rover, but it never came back. Joke upon space-themed joke float across the pages paired with Jellett’s characteristically comical cartoons that will literally have your own sides splitting with giggles. Grandpa makes the young narrator feel totally safe in the dark. Now, here’s to another ‘wild’ adventure…

Extremely clever, playful and absolutely cracking with humour, Grandpa’s Space Adventure will leave no space for fear of the dark when you’re sharing this planet-tastic book with your loved ones. For space-travellers aged three and up.

Penguin Random House, July 2018.

The oblivious dad. The one that thinks he knows it all. You know the one! What a glorious day out for Sally and Max in Sara Acton’s Dinosaur Day Out. Dad thinks he’s taking his children on a peaceful day trip to the museum, only to find the dinosaur exhibition is closed. Little does he know that, despite his efforts to treat them instead to a day in the park and a spot of ice cream, Sally and Max in fact encounter all the species of dinosaur listed in Dad’s book. How extraordinary! He’s got his head so engrossed in his ‘Did you know’ facts that he misses every trick, glimpse and illusion that only the children, and us readers, so astutely notice.

The little comical elements in the illustrative details give the text even more irony and humour. And Acton’s softly textured paintings and simple colour palette ensure a gentle and playful feel as opposed to some of those slightly scary dinosaur facts that Dad apprises.

Dinosaur lovers everywhere will adore this whimsical and informative story with all its comedy and adventure. Dinosaur Day Out is the ideal book for preschoolers to share with their ‘know-it-all-not-so-know-it-all’ dads.

Walker Books, September 2018.

This is the perfect guide for new arrivals. If you’ve just landed on this earth, you’ll need this handy manual to ensure you have the best stay possible. Totally brilliant – Welcome; A Guide for New Arrivals by Mo Willems – narrated by parents with wit, verve and unconditional love.

The guide begins with a mirror and a fact sheet on how YOU came into being: a unique combination of LOVE + TIME + LUCK. Filled with a range of enlarged headings, diagrams in the form of signposts, and bright, bold colours, the book humorously outlines a myriad of life’s pleasures and complications. For example, a few upcoming highlights include: Music. “Here is an example of a song” (insert printed music). Cats. “We are pleased to inform you there will be cats… And not just cats. There are Mountains + Friends + Bagels + Infinite Remarkable Things.” Stories. “There are True Stories + Made-Up Stories + Silly Stories.” Each identified by an amusing symbol, and completing the page with ‘while we read this book together.’ There is a guide on ‘We Regret to Inform You’, followed by ‘Rest Assured’. But there is a note for parents to absorb, too. And that is to simply ‘stop’ and ‘be’, because we all know this precious time in our little ones’ lives doesn’t last too long, so enjoy it.

Welcome is a must-have book for every first-time father. Thank you for joining us.

Walker Books UK, July 2018.

Happy Father’s Day!

For more amazing Father’s Day Books for kids check back to read Dimity‘s reviews.

Review: Eggshell Skull

I should preface this post with a warning that it is about a book about sex crimes, which might be confronting for some readers.

But Eggshell Skull wouldn’t be effective if it wasn’t evoking discomfort.

Let me back up.

Eggshell Skull is the tale of a daughter of a cop, law graduate, and District Court judge’s associate Bri Lee (AKA she of Hot Chicks with Big Brains) who is, by way of the juxtaposition of these three elements, uniquely positioned to discuss the Australian justice system’s handling of sex crimes. She went from helping facilitate sex crime trials in her role as an associate to being a complainant navigating the system as she sought justice for sex crimes that were committed on her by her older brother’s friend when she was just in primary school.

Her own life and work experience should have prepared her adequately for what was to come. But that’s the point of the book: the system is so difficult, so imperfect, and so arguably segmented and broken that even with her background and a strong support network, making a complaint, then seeing it all the way through to its trial conclusion, was inordinately grim. ‘The more I learned of the huge, “blind” justice system,’ she writes, ‘the more I learned that it was just as human and fallible as everything and everyone that created and preceded it.’

Also, she notes: ‘Nobody tells you that if you want to press charges against the man who molested you, you still have to go to work, get jobs done, and interact with people as though you’re a normal human being … You’ll still drop the roast you just made, and miss your bus, and run out of toilet paper.’

There are so many parts of the book that both shocked and resonated with me (and, going by the number of people who have bought the book and flocked to panels Lee has been on, many others). These include the parts about the number of women who excuse themselves from sex crime trials because they themselves have been victims of sex crimes and cannot bring themselves to sit through (much less do so impartially) a trial about that very subject.

These also include the number of defence barristers who go out of their way to strike women from the jury—with eight free-pass ejections available to the defence, it’s highly possible to stack, or at least strongly influence, Australian juries. (Interestingly, as Lee has herself flagged in subsequent interviews and panels I’ve seen, the British legal system from which we adopted this practice no longer allows eight strikes because it’s widely recognised just how much it can skew outcomes.)

These include too that sex crimes are less often committed by paedophiles and more often by opportunists—who are frequently very ordinary, suburban men. A 2011 report found that most offending occurred in the home, without the use of a weapon or violence, and the offenders are known to the victim. This runs counter to the violent-attack-by-a-stranger narrative. Lee notes unsurprisingly, but sadly, sex crime trials that feature weapons and non-white defendants have higher conviction rates.

Meanwhile the female complainants seem to simultaneously need to show that they are both desirable enough to have been raped, but that they did not consent to it. As Lee outlines, the perfect complainant is a cute little girl who you can’t ask which contraception she is on or how short her skirt was or how many drinks she’d had. It’s not, as in one case that played out before her, a woman who had been drinking with the guy, who was on the pill, who was combative when questioned, and/or who was medicated for anxiety and depression.

‘The case felt like a David and Goliath battle,’ Lee writes. ‘”There’s no evidence apart from the complainants story,” they kept saying, but what evidence what evidence was she supposed to bring? So many of them were terrified, submitting to intercourse to avoid the punches or cuts that, ironically, would have helped them secure a conviction. So many took months or years to come forward—then, despite showing monumental strength in making a report, they were cross-examined about their “inexplicable” delay.’

The ‘eggshell skull’ legal principle that lends the book its title is, as Lee explains: ‘The premise is that if Person A were to have a skull as thin as an eggshell, and Person B struck them on the head, intending only to punch them, but in fact killed them, Person B is responsible for the damage they cause … a defendant must “take their victims as they find them”’. That is, you can’t absolve yourself of some responsibility because someone had a weakness or pre-existing condition. You are responsible for the full extent of their injuries.

Lee flips that premise, considering what it might involve if that person is educated, articulate, feminist, and prepared to stand up, speak out, and fight back. That, combined with the juxtaposition of Lee’s insight as a police officer’s daughter turned complainant forewarned and forearmed with a law degree and experience working in the courts but no longer interested in pursuing a career in law, is perhaps what is most powerful about Eggshell Skull. Lee sits both inside and outside the system enough to be able to articulate its problems and its potential solutions.

For example, Lee skewers arguments that you can’t shift the presumption of innocence for sex crime defendants. As she notes, we do in fact already have equivalents: If you car is found to have been speeding or drugs are found in your house, as the car and house owner you are presumed to be responsible and have to prove otherwise.

Which is a hint of what I suspect will be Eggshell Skull’s legacy. Apart from being a gripping read most people will cancel plans for and inhale in a few short sittings, the book’s legal and social justice issues will continue to resonate. More than a misery memoir, Eggshell Skull has real potential to help shift how we handle sex crimes from initial complaint to final trial outcome.

Side note: I learnt from this book that the mural I ride past on my daily work and uni commute is actually by the fantastic Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Apparently it’s entitled Eyes are Singing Out. At Law school, I’ve heard them reference it as the eyes looking up at the judiciary and warning them that they’re being watched and their behaviour must be exemplary. Which surprised me. I’ve always considered it a rather intimidating mural denoting that defendants are being watched and judged by a jury of peers. Who knows. Maybe it’s meant to mean both ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

YA Books That Feature Birds And Feathers On The Covers

It’s time for another round of delightfully admitting that we secretly love to analyse covers. And why not talk about our feathery adorations this time? Birds are both symbolic and also often a huge part of YA novels and I find they feature on the covers quite a lot! Ravens and crows usually do represent dark omens, while soft feathers often signify a story of heartbreak and sorrow. Not to mention that covers with birds on them are usually just do well designed, we can’t help but fall in love and “accidentally” “read” “and buy” “all of them”. Whoops.

You can also catch my other posts in his series: Covers Featuring Crowns and Covers Featuring Swords!


THE RAVEN BOYS BY MAGGIE STIEFVATER

BUY HERE

Possibly the most famous YA book centring around birds?! And definitely well deserved. This has got to be one of my all-time favourite books and features a motley friendship squad of rich boarding-school boys out to find a missing dead Welsh King and collect a wish…and a sense of purpose. They collide with Blue, the psychic’s daughter, who is tragically unmagical herself but she’s been lumped with a pretty heavy prophecy — if she kisses her true love, she’ll kill him. And suddenly she’s met a boy she can’t stop thinking about and his daring and magical quest.

AN ENCHANTMENT OF RAVENS BY MARGARET ROGERSON

BUY HERE

This features an artist set in an ancient world named Isobel…her job? To paint faerie portraitist since they’re forbidden to do artistry or craft themselves. But she makes the mistake of painting a human emotion on the face of the Autumn Prince, Rook, and in a rage he kidnaps her to take her to his court and stand trial. Except exactly nothing goes as it should and his rage at her lasts barely a few minutes because he’s really just scared of being human. He can shapeshift into a bird, too, hence his name of Rook and the gorgeously stunning cover in all its earthy shades.

THE WEIGHT OF FEATHERS BY ANNA MARIE MCLEMORE

BUY HERE

This one is just exquisite because it’s a soft and mellow magical realism book with a Romeo and Juliet sort of vibe. It’s about two alternating circus performer families who are absolutely worst enemies…but a girl falls in love with a boy and will they destroy their families in order to stay together? Cluck has feathers in his hair and Lace has scales. Maybe they can never truly be compatible. Or maybe they could be everything together.

 

DELICATE MONSTERS BY STEPHANIE KEUHN

BUY HERE

This is a bit of a change of pace from the last ones, because here we have a thriller-contemporary. It’s about three teens whose lives are inexplicably woven together — Sadie, an incorrigible and snarling mess who’s been thrown out of countless schools. Emerson, her childhood friend and they know more of each other’s dark secrets than they should. And Miles, Emerson’s little brother, who’s always sick and troubled and has terrifying dark visions. The book unwinds their past hauntingly and you can’t look away as you spiral down into the darkness with these teens and their secrets.

Keeping the Faith – Junior Novel to YA reviews

Believing in yourself when all else around you is in a state of upset and confusion is an emotion children are more than capable of recognising. Keeping the faith when adrift in turbulent seas is not only testing and difficult at times, it also determines your future perspectives on life. These next few books that touch on the importance of keeping the faith in dire times provide intense and touching lifelines to children (and adults) of all ages.

Leave Taking by Lorraine Marwood

Marwood is more than adept at distilling emotions into moving verse novels. Attaching emotion and memories to physical things is something humans are adept at, as well. This story deftly portrays a young boy’s heart-felt attempt to retain and simultaneously farewell everything he holds dear in his life as he and his family prepare to sell up and leave their family farm.

Continue reading Keeping the Faith – Junior Novel to YA reviews

Review: Bright We Burn (Conqueror’s Saga #3) by Keirsten White

BUY HERE

Bright We Burn by Keirsten White is the finale of the Conqueror’s Saga and it was was brutal and bloody and so perfectly and epically satisfying. I completely fell in love with this series when we’re introduced to the vicious Lada and soft Radu in the first book, And I Darken. And then we watch them grow into schemers and warriors in Now I Rise. There’s a lot of weight on a finale to both honour the first books and also raise the stakes and develop the characters magnificently and I’m so glad it was handled with such care and cleverness! Definitely a finale not to be missed!

As always the story is told by both siblings, Lada and Radu. They’re still worlds away from each other, with Radu being back at Mehmed’s side (although his childhood unrequited crush has withered now that he’s seen the bitter darkness of Mehmed) and he’s terrified that his fake wife and the boy he secretly is in love with are gone forever. And Lada is back in Wallachia, finally living her dream of ruling her people. Her rule is iron-fisted and terrifying, but she stops at nothing to keep her people safe. But ruling? That’s not going so well for her. It’s possible she’s picking bigger fights than she needs to, scorning help, and pushing herself slowly into a bloody pool of darkness that not even her closest friends can help her with. But Mehmed still loves her…so would he go to battle with her now?

It’s a story of rulers, really, and of what the people in power will do and sacrifice to get where they want to go. It’s such a bloody and vicious look at war, what it does and what it costs and I love that it didn’t shy away from how dark it is. There’s no sugar-coating here, so it felt realistic and terrifying the whole way through. Lada is using her famous impaling and Mehmed would sacrifice thousands of men without a blink. Radu is the only one who seems to realise that this war has to stop before they all destroy themselves.

The battles are grim, the aftermaths are horrifying. It’s very well written and portrayed and it makes you, as the reader, feel both horror and admiration for all the main characters.

BUY HERE

The pacing and plot were were definitely superb. I liked that it was a bit shorter than the first books, because it keep the speed so tight and that’s needed for such a high-action ending! There are wars and betrayals, kidnapping plots and horror, and there are the softest quietest moments that just make my heart so so full. And it balances it with some really quiet and soft chapters, which honestly were some of my favourites.

The characters continue to develop and flourish in this book. Radu definitely has the most incredible and well written arc. He’s gone from whimpering little boy, to strong and capable and loving 18-year-old man and he’s also stopped spending all his time crying over Mehmed. It was such a relief to see him move on and realise he should fall for someone who loves him and not just uses him and his feelings, like Mehmed constantly did. Lada is also just as terrifying and ruthless as ever. But you also get to see her softer side, how often she’s unsure of what she’s doing. She makes some horrible mistakes and people suffer for it, but she also doesn’t let her people be beaten down by the enemy. Lada also bites people still, so like…she’s matured a lot since she was 3 but some things remain the same. I also just love how the author writes Lada being a harsh women, and that’s fine. And Radu being a soft boy, and that’s acceptable. It’s such a love letter at times to the fact that not everyone fits in a gender-stereotyped box.

It balanced the action vs the sweet moments vs the heart shredding moments so well! It’s a different writing style to a typical YA novel, but I just found that refreshing. The story is also set over quite a long period of time, but it keeps the pacing taunt.

And as a series finale?! YES it was both satisfying, gut-punching, twisty and intense. Everything I could possibly have hoped for!

Bright We Burn is a bloody, brutal, and clever end to this epic trilogy! It’s different and it’s full of heart and soul…and also wars and history!

Animals at Work – Picture Book Reviews

Kids are all too quick to grow up these days, but yet to realise the complexities and oftentimes, inequalities, that go with grown-up responsibilities. Sure, life in the playground can be tough, too. No doubt there will be times they feel under-valued, misunderstood or lonely. Whilst these references may seem quite grim, the following ‘adult-work-life’ picture books paint these dark hues to meet a bright and hopeful light at the end of the tunnel.

Ok. It will be called… Next award-winning picture book of the year. Phenomenal artist. Phenomenal storyteller. Shaun Tan wins over the masses with his latest picture book, Cicada. Considering its haunting themes, this book has a definite star-quality appeal that is sure to set a glow in every reader’s heart.

You heard it… ‘Tok Tok Tok!’. Time marches on for hard-working cicada. Seventeen years. Stuck behind his computer desk hidden amongst a concrete jungle of office carrels – hardly noticed, immensely unappreciated. Treated as sub-human, despite the fact he is not human at all. But honestly, his pay is docked for being forced to use the bathroom twelve blocks away! Work life for cicada is dire with no thanks, no living support (he lives in an office wallspace), colleague abuse and eventually a retrenchment with a figurative kick in the butt.

Seventeen years imprisoned in this grey, lifeless cell of despair. There’s nothing left… but to transform. And all you can do is laugh! Tok Tok Tok!

Cicada breathes intense concepts and colourless imagery that is far from dull, mixed together with sharp language spoken in a broken English. However, it embodies a fiery life within that speaks universally to humans about the power of self-worth, about courage and respect. An impressive, evocative picture book for older readers (5-9 years).

Lothian Children’s Books, June 2018.

Work life at Baggage Handlers United is pretty fun for Marvin. He loves the routine of putting things on and taking things off. He has friends that work there, too. But what happens when his ‘friends’ start laughing at his expense? Missing Marvin is a meaningful and sensitive story about the hurtful effects practical jokes can have when taken too far.

Sue deGennaro beautifully captures the heart and soul of this story through her gentle, multi-faceted illustrations and leading language that carefully directs readers to ponder the emotions being explored. When Barry, Shelly and Ivan set up what they think are amusing shenanigans, it is upon closer inspection that we see the heartrenching damage done to Marvin. “… he wonders if a joke is only a joke when everyone is laughing.” All too often, people (at work or at school) go about their day ‘pretending’ they are okay. And all too often, ‘the signs’ go unnoticed. Learning strategies to avoid emotional and physical isolation are nicely handled here when Marvin decides to come out of hiding (after succumbing to his bed) and open up to his friends about his feelings.

All it takes is a conversation. Missing Marvin brings about a light-hearted simplicity on the cusp of complex issues related to bullying and depression. Presented in a sweet and satisfying way, this book will help preschool-aged children find compassion, sensitivity and courage when needed most.

Scholastic, April 2018.

With a gorgeous setting based on the Greek islands of Andros and Mykonos, who wouldn’t love to live and work there? Originally from Greece, author illustrator Elena Topouzoglou paints a charming picture of friendship emerging out of loneliness.

In Mr Pegg’s Post, a little girl, Anna, longs for interaction from the outside world beyond her lighthouse home. The only visitor is Mr Pegg – the pelican postman. One stormy night, from the darkness Mr Pegg comes thumping into her life, serendipitously changing the world as she knows it. The ability to work effectively can be difficult when faced with a crippling injury. However, Anna’s eagerness to help deliver letters by boat serves them well in his recovery and her social connections. Anna receives more than just letters now. She has friendships, and a job!

The soothing blue wash of the water represents a beautiful link between the isolation of the lighthouse and the community spirit of the mainland. Mr Pegg’s Posts delivers a message of support, appreciation and value to the hearts of children from age three.

New Frontier Publishing, July 2018.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Review: The Tattooist of Auschwitz

The first words on the first page of The Tattooist of Auschwitz read that the book ‘has the quality of a dark fairytale’. Indeed, it does. Journalist and foreign correspondent Hugh Riminton’s quote continues: ‘[The Tattooist] is both simple and epic, shot through with compassion and love, but inescapably under the shadow of the most devouring monsters our civilisation has known.’

Not much more needs to be said about the book, other than that it should be read, for Riminton’s statements both sum up my sentiments and do so more eloquently than I ever could. And while I inhaled the eminently readable The Tattooist in one three-hour sitting when it first came out, it’s taken me some time to get round to writing this blog post about it—the subject matter was so stellar and so moving I needed some time to gather my thoughts.

For anyone who is still unfamiliar with the book, which has been a bestseller since its launch and which has undergone multiple reprints, it is a fictionalised account of a non-fiction story: that of concentration camp prisoners Lale (pronounced ‘Lah-lay’) and Gita (Ghee-ta) Sokolov.

The prologue begins with Slovakian Jewish prisoner Lale tattooing the number 34902 on Gita, the woman who was to become the love of his life, in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1942. Conflicted about his role in inflicting pain on his fellow prisoners, but also aware that he must do whatever he can to survive, Lale finds that his tattooist role provides him safe passage around the concentration camps and extra rations, both of which he leverages to help himself and others. Deftly woven throughout, and offsetting the horror, is Lale and Gita’s love story.

‘To save one is to save the world’ is a phrase uttered in, and that aptly captures the tales contained within, The Tattooist. The book was originally conceived as a screenplay, with author Heather Morris capturing Lale’s story through interviews and penning drafts that eventually became a novel. Morris spoke wonderfully eloquently about the book and the interviewing and writing process on Conversations with Richard Fidler. I highly recommend listening to that interview in tandem with reading the book.

The Tattooist is invaluable because we have little true insight into what it was like to actually live—well, exist—inside those concentration camps. And there are moments that continue to haunt me. For instance, Lale regularly encountered the infamous doctor Josef Mengele, who prowled the tattooing line, looking for victims, and who has since been revealed to have committed all manner of heinous medical research on prisoners.

Likewise, the prisoners were forced to play out a macabre game of football against the guards, while ash from the perpetually running crematoria rained down on them. Lale later had to walk into the crematorium to identify a prisoner by their tattoo, only to be cruelly jibed by the SS officer in charge of him: ‘I bet you’re the only Jew who ever walked into an oven and then walked back out of it.’

‘Are you sure you’re not a cat?’ the same SS officer asks Lale at one time because he survived so many moments that would otherwise mean certain death. It’s a thought that had crossed my mind too, because although the tale is incredibly compelling, just occasionally I couldn’t quite fathom how Lale had survived when so many others hadn’t. Undoubtedly, his ability to speak multiple languages and his charisma were contributing factors.

Still, some questions remain for me: What happened to the tattooist who preceded Lale and who gave him his chance? And Aron, who saved him from Typhus? And was Lale not terrified having the SS know Gita was his girlfriend? Surely they’d have used that to torture him? Perhaps one day, with others having read the book and recognised overlaps with their own or their relatives’ stories, those questions will be answered.

Side note: While I would unhesitatingly recommend The Tattooist to anyone and everyone and stump up a case for why it should be on school and university reading lists, my one wish is that the book was non-fiction rather than fiction. Hazarding a guess, I’d say the author and publisher elected to couch it as fiction to cover themselves for any facts they couldn’t definitively verify—of which there were likely many given that so few people who could attest to their veracity are still alive. But still: The Tattooist is essentially a retelling of one man’s recollection of actual events, however surreal they may seem, and it jars slightly for me to have the tale fictionalised.

Regardless, my hope is that The Tattooist not only succeeds as a novel, but also as the film Morris and Lale originally envisaged it to be: with Brad Pitt playing Lale and Natalie Portman playing Gita.

Review: What If It’s Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera

PREORDER HERE

What If It’s Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera is basically the ultimate contemporary collaboration I’ve been waiting for! Being a huge fan of both these author’s previous books meant I absolutely couldn’t wait to read their combined project. Albertalli’s Simon Vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda and Leah On The Offbeat are hilarious and super cute, while Silvera’s History Is All You Left Me and They Both Die At The End were meaningful and emotional. So what would What If It’s Us bring!? I’m definitely pleased to say that it was full of hope and laughter, devastation and awkwardness, and the kind of banter that has you smiling for days.

The story is about Arthur and Ben who have an unlikely meeting in a post office and…probably will never see each other again, right? They connected, but they’re in New York, so it’s not exactly a place you’ll run into a stranger twice. But they both can’t stop thinking about the interaction and it leads them to seek each other out. After a ton of near-misses while balancing their own hectic lives (Ben is suffering through a lonely summer school after his ex cheated on him and somehow managed to get all their combined friends. While Arthur is doing an internship while thinking his parents might split up). And then — they connect again thanks to a coffee shop, a sign, and a lot of desperate hope. Their dates are super cute and super awkward and nothing about their relationship is going smoothly at all…so does this mean they’re not meant to be? Or are they going to be each other’s everything?

One thing I quite enjoyed was how it explored New York from a touristy perspective because I, as an Aussie, was really interested in “seeing” the sites! Arthur was an adorable tourist and I loved how excited he was about being in this city for the summer.

The boys were definitely the highlight of the book! They both take turns narrating (and if you know the authors, it’s pretty easy to guess who is writing which character). They contrasted in so many ways: Arthur being rich and headed for a fancy college vs Ben being poor and failing school. Arthur being outgoing and bubbly vs Ben being reserved and cautious. Arthur being nervous about his first romance vs Ben being skeptical after just having his heart broken. The combination of them was so fantastic and heartwarming, seeing them open up for each other and learn to love the other’s differences.

It is a bit of a quirky “find a needle in a haystack” story as they meet briefly in a postoffice and then have to refind each other again. I loved all the “near misses” because, as a reader, we’re screaming for them to no no! Wait! Two more seconds and you would’ve met again! It’s definitely a book that keeps you glued to the pages wondering if this is going to work between them.

I also loved the levels of diversity in the story! Obviously it’s a gay teen romance, but also Ben is Puerto Rican and Arthur has ADHD. Ben’s discussions about his family and what it truly means to be Puerto Rican were great and very important.

There are plenty of amazing things to be said about friendship too. About how friendships change and grow over the years and how hard that is. It’s absolutely devastating to lose friends, and I think it’s something that needs to be addressed in YA because most teens go through this!

It’s also so funny! I loved the subtle references from the authors to their older books, and I snorted over the quick-fire banter and the ridiculous dorkiness. The writing is also super addictive and easy to devour. I found myself completely unable to put it down.

WHAT IF IT’S US is such a cute and fun book! It’s the perfect summery read, full of awkward moments and absolutely golden magical moments while two boys fall in love through endless mishaps, mistakes, and messy moments. It’s the kind of story you can’t help but root for and turn every page desperate to find out what happens to Ben and Arthur and their summer in New York.

Under the Lights and in the Dark

In Under the Lights and in the Dark, sports writer Gwendolyn Oxenham notes how women’s sport is the antithesis of American sportwriter Gary Smith’s answer to the ‘if you could trade places with any athlete’ question. ‘I probably wouldn’t,’ he famously said. ‘For the most part, they’ve had to whittle down their lives so much to excel at something that their possibility for personal growth is compromised.’

Female footballers (soccer players), however, have to work, study, and generally juggle many, many, many commitments outside football. If anything, their personal growth accelerates.

Under the Lights spotlights some of the challenges women have had—and continue to have—to overcome in order to play football. As she notes in the book’s opening pages: ‘Dozens of players across the world shared their stories and their time. Whether from Liverpool or Lagos, Tokyo or Kabul, Kingston or Paris, here’s one thing that was always true: at an early age, they found the game and held on, driven neither by money nor fame—only the desire to be great. Here are their stories.’

Featuring a mix of well known and periphery players, and grouping tales under some key themes such as low or even non-existent salary, homelessness, and motherhood, Oxenham exposes some of the issues women face simply to play the sport they love.

One of the most striking is the bizarre and terrifyingly powerless experience of playing in Russia, where the team may or may not be run by, and acting as a money-laundering cover for, the mafia. Under these dubious conditions, the players are beholden to a coach and manager who forces them to take ‘vitamins’, both orally and via injections, that one player, on returning to the US and undergoing medical tests, determines to be anabolic steroids.

Another obstacle Oxenham exposes is the decades-long consequences of women’s football being banned in Brazil from 1941 until 1979 courtesy of a law that stated that ‘women will not be allowed to practi[s]e sports [that] are incompatible to their feminine nature.’

Women can now in theory legally play football in Brazil, Oxenham notes, but they’re being prevented from playing by other means. Santos, for example, was until a few years ago the best women’s football team. Was, because the club cut the entire team in 2012 in order to stump up cash to keep male footballer Neymar (AKA he of the ridiculous rolling that inspired countless 2018 World Cup mockery and memes) by paying him one million reals (US$558,000) a month. He was later sold overseas anyway. How Neymar can live with himself allowing the women’s team to be cut for him, I cannot conceive.

Motherhood is another theme Oxenham explores—specifically, how, just as in office-based workplaces, pregnancy and motherhood hampers or more often ends women’s football careers. Of the 24 teams and 552 women who competed at the 2015 Women’s World Cup, Oxenham writes, only 11 players were known to be mothers. Most of the national teams have no mothers, due to cost, commitment, the absence of maternity policies, and an all-round lack of support.

But Oxenham also highlights some of women’s football’s triumphs. Portland and its women’s team the Thorns, for example, are the town and the team that shows the rest of the world how women’s football and women’s football support should be. One of the iconic banners its avid supporters have painted is a quote from The Little Prince: ‘It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important’. Where ‘wasted’ can be read as ‘done it for the love of the game’.

About women’s football, but also about much more pervasive issues that affect women in society more widely, Under the Lights and in the Dark is yet another invaluable documentation of the issues women face and the progress they are making. With any luck and a lot of hard work, in the future female footballers will soon just be under the lights.

2018 CBCA Shortlisted Early Childhood Books #2: Boy, I’m Australian Too & Rodney Loses It

Since the CBCA shortlist was announced I have been blogging about the 2018 shortlisted books and am now concluding with the Early Childhood books (in two parts). You may find some of the ideas across the posts helpful for Book Week this month.

Boy by Phil Cummings, illustrated by Shane Devries (Scholastic Australia)

Boy is a morality tale about conflict and misunderstanding; understanding & communicating. It covers issues of deforestation, fighting and living in harmony and peace.

The trees on the mountain are destroyed by a powerful dragon, which illustratively evolves from threatening to cute during the tale.

People are blaming others and fighting. Boy can’t hear the fighting but perhaps he can understand the situation better than anyone because of his hearing loss.

Might the boy be unnamed because the book is aimed at all boys or for all children?

The digital illustrations are an unusual colour palette of mauve, brown and blue tones.

The endpapers could be copied and used for the card game ‘Happy Families’.

The cover is tactile, with the word ‘BOY’ written in sand. Boy communicates by drawing pictures in sand. Children could write an important question in the sand (sandpit or sandtray) e.g. ‘Why are you fighting?’ alongside a picture.

Children could further develop awareness and affirmation of the hearing impaired. This could include learning some Auslan and also saying ‘Thank you’ ‘with dancing hands’ like Boy does.

I’m Australian Too by Mem Fox, illustrated by Ronojoy Ghosh (Scholastic)

Children could look at the endpapers to see how the children at the start become adults by the end. They could draw themselves as a child and then as an adult, imagining a possible future.

Onset and rime in the rhyming text include ‘day/stay’ ‘small/all’ ‘yet/vet’ ‘far/star’ and ‘strife/life’ (others are more difficult for very young children).

Many countries are represented in the book e.g. Syria, China, Afghanistan and Italy.

The refrain, ‘How about you?’ could be answered by readers and they could also suggest which countries are not represented; which Australian capital cities and other places are mentioned and what are some missing Australian places?

Children could show or make flags for countries represented by students in the class or school.

The story settles into a rhythmic security to precede a chilling page:

Sadly, I’m a refugee –

I’m not Australian yet.

But if your country lets me in,

I’d love to be a vet.

Australia’s refugee situation is political, and far more complex that this, but I’m Australian Too will no doubt influence children’s attitudes towards refugees.

 Rodney Loses It! by Michael Gerard Bauer, illustrated by Chrissie Krebs (Omnibus Books)

The title has a double meaning and the book is humorous in words and pictures.

It’s unusual that readers are able to see the missing pen and other objects, a mark of slapstick. Rodney Loses It! is slapstick in book form.

The illustrative style is cartoon-like; lively, bright and shows active body language.

The writing shows good word choice and maintains a successful rhythm.

Children could compare the endpapers, which are different.

Rodney loves drawing but loses his favourite pen, Penny.

The illustrations show the pen and other missing items.

The message or moral is that we can love doing things but not get around to them because of distractions.

In the story, Rodney could have used other colours but he was fixated on one pen and one colour so he missed out on doing what he loved.

 Children could draw pictures like Rodney’s or make Rodney using play dough and LED lights for his eyes or pen.

ABC Science: The Surfing Scientist

http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2012/05/30/3513709.htm