The Hospital By The River

The Hospital By The River‘The fistula patients will break your heart’ were the prescient words a doctor spoke to Drs Reg and Catherine Hamlin soon after they arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Another later said: ‘Nothing can equal the gratitude of the woman who, wearied by constant pain and desperate with the realisation that her very presence is an offence to others, find suddenly that life has been given anew and that she has again become a citizen of the world.’

Both are strikingly true.

The Hamlins, husband-and-wife obstetricians, answered an advertisement for a three-year contract to set up a midwifery school for nurses in Addis Ababa. That was decades ago, with the couple stumbling into what turned out to be their lives’ work.

Struck by the desperate need of so many women suffering from fistulas—that is, roughly speaking, holes in bladders obtained through protracted labour and little medical help—they set up the Hamlin Fistula Hospital and dedicated their lives to helping as many fistula sufferers as possible.

Fistulas are almost unheard of in developed nations, where women are not often married at too young an age, and where they receive good antenatal care and have access to doctors and hospitals during labour.

But they’re wrenchingly common in such places as Ethiopia. Having one has devastating repercussions, with the stench of a woman constantly leaking urine invariably seeing her abandoned by her husband and shunned by the community.

The Hospital By The River is Catherine Hamlin’s memoir (Reg Hamlin passed away around a decade ago). It charts the couple’s and their son Richard’s story as well as the stories of the many staff and fistula sufferers who’ve come entered their lives along the way.

Of which there are many.

The Hamlins came to call these women ‘fistula pilgrims’, with many travelling enormous distances to receive help. The stories both defy description and sound, as you read so many of them throughout the book, depressingly the same.

These women—sometimes girls—are young. They don’t receive antenatal care, and receive little to no help during labour. Complications extend their labour for up to five or six days, after which time the baby is no longer alive. Many eventually deliver a stillborn child and sustain perforations to their bladder and sometimes rectum or uterus. Then, as if the pain of such a labour and of losing a child isn’t enough, they lose their husbands and community standing.

Fistula pilgrims are desperately poor, often having to beg for years to scrounge together the bus fare to get to the hospital or being carried to the hospital by a brother or father. They can’t afford the hospital fees and the Hamlins in the early days found themselves regularly covering costs out of their own salaries.

Many of the women have atrophied limbs from lying curled up on an often foetal position long term. By not moving, they logically try to reduce the leakage and hope it goes away.

All are stoic, proud, and grateful—enduring far more and with more dignity than I can imagine most first world-raised women could. Rarely are they aware the fistula is not their fault and they can for the most part be repaired. One woman suffered a fistula in exile for 40 years before the Hamlins cured her.

A woman from another region who didn’t speak Amharic, the language spoken in Addis Ababa, arrived wearing a sign around her neck in Amharic asking for directions to the hospital. I can’t explain why, but this particular story—and the accompanying image—left me reeling even more than the other tear-inducing stories. I think it was something to do with the humbling, desperate sadness of the sign combined with the ingenuity of it.

Meanwhile one girl endured an eternally long journey to get to the hospital, only to arrive too late one night to be admitted. She tried to hang herself just outside the gates, but was fortunately rescued before she succeeded. She was accepted the next day and her fistula repaired.

‘You’re not leaving are you, doctor?’ a staff member asks Reg at one stage as he readies to depart on a desperately needed holiday.

‘No,’ Replied Reg, ‘but if I don’t have a holiday, I will die.’

‘If you don’t come back, many will die,’ was the staff member’s reply.

At the time the book was written, it cost $300 to cure a fistula patient, a pithy amount I’m ashamed those of us in first-world nations aren’t doing more about.

The Hospital By The River contains more about the Hamlins’ social lives than I had expected. It interested me less than the fistula patients and medical and cultural approaches themselves, but that’s likely my personal preference than any real criticism of the book. Conversational, personal, and anecdote-driven, it’s ultimately easy to read. And the story is, needless to say, endlessly fascinating.

The book was significantly more positive than I’d thought possible too, with Hamlin focusing on the live-changing benefits of the operations and the incredible people who have touched her life rather than the poor education and poverty and stigma invariably surrounding fistulas.

And there are some fantastic fundraising efforts, not least a cheeky letter Reg wrote to the British Petroleum chairman: ‘While you have been drilling holes in the Middle East and making a profit, we have been mending holes in the Horn of Africa and making a loss.’ The chairman subsequently wrote him a personal cheque for around 500 pounds.

My one gripe—and it’s a personal pet hate but a big one—is that Hamlin inserts her religious beliefs into the story a tad too much. Or rather into the fistula patients’ lives. I have no issue with people having faith; I have huge issue with them imposing it on others and especially others who are vulnerable and not in a position to fairly decide whether or not they wish to take the religion on. It reeks, frankly, of whites-in-shining-armour ignorance.

For example, the hospital includes a schoolroom at which patients can receive some education: ‘Some learn to read and write quickly, and how proud they are,’ Hamlin writes. So far so fine. ‘A group of friends and some churches in Australia have devoted money for this work and for buying Bibles that we distribute to all who can read.’ Suddenly not fine. They need to provide books—a variety of books, not books with a convert-you-to-their-religion agenda.

But I digress. If you can stomach the at-times-too-much religious references—which I could, barely—then The Hospital By The River is a worthy read. As Hamlin writes, you can’t help but come to understand that: ‘These girls and women had suffered more than any woman should be called upon to endure. To meet only one was to be profoundly moved and called forth the utmost compassion that the human heart was capable of feeling.’

Learning about the fistula pilgrims, it’s impossible not to be tremendously moved and want to help (the hospital has long been on my list of must-visit places when I eventually make it to Africa).

Hamlin is in her 80s now, still operating weekly and with no plans to retire. But the organisation is clearly aware that they need to plan for a future where Hamlin and her husband’s legacy continue, whether or not she is around. ‘Now I have come to the end of this story of the fistula pilgrims,’ Hamlin writes, ‘a story that I leave others to continue and finish.’

We’ve seen a giant boost in the hospital’s social media and fundraising efforts in the past year or so as they try to transition to this new era, but these chapters aren’t covered in the book, which was written close to the beginning of the noughties.

I’d be interested to see if reprints of the book contain any update (this book has been sitting on my to-be-read pile for years, so it’s possible there’s a more current version out). Or to see Hamlin or the Fistula Hospital write a sequel in the next few years. It’s a book I’d dearly love to read. Either way, the Hamlins’ legacy is profound.

12 Years A Slave

12 Years A Slave‘Whoa,’ I wrote on Facebook. ‘I think films that make you do the ugly cry should come with added lights-down time at the end to regroup and cucumber slices to reduce your eye puff. Just previewed 12 Years A Slave. It’s exceptional and must-see, but is unapologetically unrelenting.’

12 Years A Slave is a film based on a true story based on a book by the same name by Solomon Northup (handily it’s a budget-priced Penguin Classic these days). He’s a musician and family man in New York in 1841 who is tricked and kidnapped by hustlers posing as employers. They sell him into slavery in the south.

The film shines a light into a dark corner of American history about which we don’t know nearly enough. Northup’s is a not-uncommon story. What’s uncommon is that he was highly educated, was one of the few to eventually escape his imprisonment, and that he wrote a book documenting the harrowing experience. He also dedicated his remaining days to campaigning against the slavery and helping smuggle people out.

Just a few minutes into the film, Northup awakes shackled and is referred to by his captors as ‘boy’. He tries to explain that he is a free man, to which they demand that he produces his papers. Stripped of all of his belongings, he can’t, of course, and they tell him he’s nothing but a ‘Georgian runaway’.

So begins the first of many, many brutal beatings to fill his subsequent years. He’s shipped south where he spends 12 years forced into backbreaking hard labour and lashings of abuse and beatings on cane and cotton farms.

Northup is forced to answer to the name ‘Platt’, despite it not being his, and to pretend he doesn’t know how to read or write. He’s told to keep his head down and say nothing in order to survive. ‘I don’t want to survive,’ he says. ‘I want to live.’ It is his rollercoaster of hope and despair and the sustaining drive to get home to his family that unfold over the next few hours.

DF_06165.CR2It’s a brutal few hours. Director Steve McQueen is known for forcing us to look when we’d rather look away—you’ll recall his 2008 film Hunger, which featured the 1981 Irish republican prisoners’ hunger strike. 12 Years A Slave continues in this unflinching fashion.

For example, Northup and those also enslaved are treated as animals, stripped naked and inspected as if livestock. A plantation owner’s wife downplays the enormity and horror of the wrenching situation when she tells a sobbing enslaved woman separated from her children, ‘Your children will soon be forgotten.’

There are two harrowing scenes that revolve around lynching that I won’t discuss any more but that I will say will stay with me forever. White men reclining and lazily fanning themselves while overseeing slaves sweating through hard labour made me—as the film intended—bile-raisingly angry. And throughout, even the people who consider themselves to be good are misguided and bad. The violence the film contains is brutal and realistic without being gratuitous.

There are some vast themes in the film of hope and despair, and justice and injustice for a start. There are big questions about what you must do to survive, what you must compromise, and how much it costs you. It raises uncomfortable questions about what you would do if you found yourself in such a situation. And there are instances returned to from various angles. Some of the film’s most powerful moments come when Northup carries out the same actions he’s earlier criticised when he was on their receiving end.

12 Years A Slave contains a who’s-who cast, with Chiwetel Ejiofor conveying Northup with haunting strength and nuance, and Michael Fassbender (a stalwart of McQueen’s films) and Benedict Cumberbatch and inhabiting their plantation owner roles with integrity that will likely earn them and Ejiofor award nominations. The film is produced by Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B, and Pitt himself makes a cameo late in the film.

TWELVE YEARS A SLAVEI have to say it’s the film’s weakest moment. We surface from a suffocatingly compelling story to suddenly remember it is—as my friend and co-reviewer said in discussions over coffee afterwards—a Hollywood film. Pitt should have stayed behind the camera. His entrance is a distraction and the character he plays—a two-dimensional, white-in-shining-armour man without a backstory who doesn’t believe in slavery and who ultimately saves the day—could have been played by anyone.

Nor can I shake the feeling the character is how Pitt sees himself off camera—a modern-day do-gooder adopting children from impoverished backgrounds, marrying a woman who’s a UN ambassador, building houses in Hurricane Katrina-floored New Orleans. I’d have been more impressed if he muddied his hands playing one of the imperfect plantation owners to whom Northup is enslaved.

The film runs over two hours long and covers much of Northup’s enslavement experience in depth. Frustratingly, though, it omitted the two things I really, really wanted to know: What were the circumstances that led to Northup being an educated, well-respected man in the north? And how accurate is the portrayal of his acceptance in that time?

I can’t help but think that it was too idyllic and he was probably more tolerated by other New Yorkers than beloved. Sure, the south was rampantly racist, but I don’t think the north can be quite so easily absolved of such awfulness. Admittedly, this backstory may well be in the book, which I intend to now read over the Christmas break.

The greatest criticism I can level at 12 Years A Slave is that it’s too long. About 30 minutes too long. Each time Northup got traded to a new plantation, a part of me sighed internally. I knew the film had just set the reset button on the experience and we would see it lay all the unjust groundwork again. It was absolutely important to show it, but as my co-reviewer noted, there were a lot of cotton-picking scenes we could have done without.

Still, when a Hollywood actor’s cameo, running time, and ugly cry-induced eye puffiness are the biggest issues you can find with a film, it’s clear the film is worth seeing. 12 Years A Slave is a truly important one for better understanding (and hopefully learning from) this sordid, sullied history. I’d just recommend taking a wad-full of tissues (the measly one tissue I took really didn’t suffice).

Preview tickets and two film images thanks to Think Tank Communications.

Five Faves for the Festive Season


It’s that time of the year when making wise gift choices can be as bewildering as wiring up your home with fairy lights. Nearly every title I review for kids is deserving of a place on the book shelf. Here are some extras worth stocking up on (pardon the pun).

How to make small things with VMFirst off the rank – a personal favourite because it does what it sets out to do – inspire, educate and entertain, How to Make small things with Violet Mackerel, Walker Books Australia. You might be familiar with a young girl named Violet Mackerel. She is the delectable creation of Anna Branford and Sarah Davis and an ardent lover of small things. Complementing the

Violet Mackerals small things by Gypsee Powell Dec 2013 (5)

heavenly Violet Mackerel series, How to make small things includes some of Violet’s favourite and most adorable small things with step-by-easy-step instructions, photographs and more of Davis’s gorgeous illustrations. Overflowing with exquisite detail and categorised into small things to wear, use and to give, young missies in particular will simply adore these crafty projects. As proof they really are doable, my Miss 8 recently road-tested a few projects for herself and her friends with triumphant success. I especially love the ‘thinking outside the square’ notations which encourage wonderful, unlimited creativity.

Clementine's Walk Clementine’s Walk by Annie White, one of two recent releases from New Frontier Publishing, October 2013.This is a fun, free-following story in verse about a dog named Clementine who is desperate to go on a walk with someone. But her family are too busy to pay her any attention, a common demise for 3 – 6 year olds. Beguiling pictures and a big-hearted storyline will make you smile.

Matilda saves Santa Claus Matilda Saves Santa Claus by Alex Field and Sophie Norsa, New Frontier Publishing, November 2013. It wouldn’t be Christmas without some sort of Christmas mystery and dilemma (insert wink). Matilda Saves Santa Claus awakens the magic of the season with endearing water colour illustrations and a warm tale about Matilda mouse who faces a lonely, treeless Christmas until she meets Rudolf who has caught himself in a spot of bother. With Matilda’s help, Santa is able to push through and deliver Matilda, her Christmas wish. Charming for the very young and lovers of Santa, like me.

 Fortunately, the milk…by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell, Bloomsbury Books, September 2013. What happens when Mum’s away, Dad’s in charge and there’s no milk left for breakfast? Sounds like a potentially perilous adventure waiting to happen. And that’s exactly what takes place when Dad ventures out to replenish supplies. This page turning, illustrated chapter book will have 6 – 10 year olds laughing all the way to the corner shop and back. But will Dad ever make it back home with the milk? Slightly ridiculous. Instantly likeable.

Australia's Greatest People and their Achievements Australia’s Greatest People and their Achievements, by Linsay Knight, Random House Australia Children’s November 2013. Ever wonder about the people who make our nation great? Who they are? Or what have they achieved and why it is so important? Author Linsay Knight says, ‘Greatness…is about achievements and success, but it’s also about characters, perseverance and uniqueness.’ Knight offers us an enticing, colourful compilation of Aussie greats. Aimed for primary aged readers, this comprehensive collection of notable Australians covers a multitude of fields including science, sport, business, art, literature and social justice. Most are people you’ll recognise. Some will be vague names and memories come to new life. Even Phar Lap is mentioned. The clear, concise, colour-coded layout promotes ease of use and is packed with interesting facts and figures making it a reference book the whole family can visit repeatedly, because ‘every country needs its heroes and we must follow them.’ – Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop.

Dear Father ChristmasMore Christmas sparkle for 4 – 8 year olds from Walker Books UK in a neat picture book package is Dear Father Christmas by Alan Derant and Vanessa Cabban. This epistolary styled story reveals Holly’s pre-Christmas conversation with Father Christmas or someone she believes to be him and is best cherished with younger children through shared reading. Swimming in charm, it tackles all the big questions about Father Christmas including; what the elves actually do; how FC gets down chimneys with a stomach that size, and what Erol the Lead Elf really looks like. Festive fun with pop-up letters from Santa , and a special little keepsake surprise that is sure to generate glitter smiles.

So whether it’s fact or fiction you’re after this Christmas, big kids or little kids you are trying to please, look no further than between the pages of a good book like these to satisfy. I just wish I had time to list more and bigger stockings to stuff them in.

Apple sauce imagesBefore I depart on a short silly season sabbatical I suddenly realise that it’s been almost a year since I began banging on about books here at Boomerang. And what a year it’s been! Hope you all made it through somehow and had more moments to treasure than despise. I think I did. I am thus reminded of one of the first reviews I posted. Here it is again. If you haven’t read this Christmas picture book, Applesauce and the Christmas Miracle before, delay no longer. For the love of Christmas – Enjoy!


Perfect reading for this time of year.

Book Review – The Gods of Guilt

9781743317532I can distinctly remember reading John Grisham as a teenager and really getting into the legal thriller but as his books began to resemble movie pitches rather than novels and as I began to discover more authors and other books I drifted away. When I got back into crime fiction I wasn’t after clearly defined genre and I gravitated to the darker side of crime where right and wrong are hard to define. The legal thriller generally is all about right and wrong. It is either about someone innocent trying to clear their name or a guilty person being brought to justice. They can often throw up some interesting moral dilemmas but at the end of the day the law manges to right all wrongs. Which as we all know is total bs.

I started ready the Mickey Haller series because I wanted to try Michael Connelly but didn’t want to commit to his extensive backlist. So when he began this series a few years back with The Lincoln Lawyer I found my way in. While the series isn’t as black as I usually take my crime it is nice and grey. Mickey Haller is one leg up from ambulance chaser. He’s a defence attorney who works out of his town car. He knows the law isn’t perfect and uses that to his advantage whenever he can. He also knows he’s an asshole and isn’t shy about who he defends. He gets manipulated about as much as his manipulates others and you can debate if justice was actually served at the end of each book.

What I love most about the books is the tactics of a trial. The to and fro between the defence and the prosecutor plus the permutations thrown up by an individual judge. Haller must navigate a minefield while on a tightrope and it makes for compelling reading. In the last book Connelly even switches things around by having Haller work for the District  Attorney.

The other thing I like about the books is Haller himself. He is not self-righteous (although he is extremely cocky) and his personal life is a complete disaster.

In the latest book Haller must defend a pimp accused of killing one of his escorts. Haller has a stale in the case as he knew the victim and knows there is more to this case than the police allege. Haller soon enters a high stakes game involving a Mexican drug cartel and corruption. As Haller’s case comes to head you are right in the thick of it and I found myself cursing and admonishing Haller for some of his decisions.

Perfect reading for this time of year.

Buy the book here…

Typography Games To Procrastinate By

I have the Slate Culture Gabfest podcast to thank for this blog post. And to blame for helping me procrastinate well beyond the point of it being ok. Without it, I wouldn’t have discovered that Mashable has scoured the interwebs to collate the best typography slash font games around.

Yep, typography slash font games. As someone wholly, utterly, unequivocally obsessed with typography, 18 games about it is enough to see me lose days if not weeks devoted to going through them.

There’s a reason why the headline reads ’18 of the most insanely addictive typography games’, because the games defy logic to suck you in wholly and solely.

The Font Game, for example, asks you to identify fonts from 34 samples. You select from one of four multiple-choice answers for each sample. It is both addictive and infuriating. Mostly infuriating.

TypeWar is along the same lines, offering you a simpler two options each time. With a 50/50 chance of selecting the correct answer, I did much better.

I love Type Connection, which involves pairing up compatible fonts (something I attempt to do in my work daily, but struggle surprisingly with—designers make this stuff look so easy!). You learn lots about the fonts’ compatibility and can—don’t laugh—actually send them on a date.

I lost hours to Kern Type (which I call Kem Type—a nod to the issue of when someone gets a bit heavy-handed with the kerning). You move letters around to get the best spacing. It’s seriously addictive for the OCD among us. And frustrating. I can never seem to get the kerning—kemming—just right.

I’ve blogged previously about I Shot The Serif, which requires you to shoot the serif fonts that appear on screen and the spare san-serif ones—a typography version of a shooting gallery (and it’s trickier than it sounds). It’s fun the second time round and transports you back to old-school fairs while offering a modern-era twist.

Kill Comic Sans is the game every designer and editor worth their salt plays in real life every day. Like I Shot The Serif, it’s essentially a first-person shooter game where you are racing the clock to shoot the Comic Sans that keep popping up on your screen. Extremely cathartic stuff, especially after you’ve just had a client suggest you should incorporate the font into their project.

In Helvetica vs Arial you get to be Helvetica and hop on Arial, the go-to font by the non-design-inclined, to squish it out. As a distinct Arial non-fan, I found this game strangely satisfying.

The Fontastic Quiz contains such question gems as:

  • The fallback font for lazy movie marketers?
  • I hate ____. It is so blah.
  • ____ has spread like a virus through the typographic landscape and illustrates the pervasiveness of Microsoft’s influence in the world.
  • ____ is like professional wrestling. You used to like it, but will only admit that around certain people.

Memory used to be one of my favourite games as a kid, and The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over The Lazy Dog and Fontspotting are typography versions of it. Having seen images of them on screen only, I suspect they’ll be harder than they look. Suffice to say, they’re on my list for Christmas and will transport me back to those halcyon Memory-occupied childhood days.

In fact, all of these games will be, and I’m looking forward to that quiet week between Christmas and New Year’s when I can hunker down and devote hours I couldn’t otherwise afford to them.

If you are growing weary with The Walking Dead this is the boost you need.

Book Review – World War Z

9780715643099After watching the film, and being pleasantly surprised, despite all the production/screenplay problems it was rumoured to have had, I thought I should check out the original.

The movie was a welcome change from the slow (slow) burn of The Walking Dead and even though the book’s zombies were back to the more traditional shambling zombies the scope of the book was also refreshing from the, bordering on tedious, Walking Dead.

The book is told as an oral history, very similar to many of the military history books I love. The “author” has been writing a report for the UN on the Zombie War but hasn’t been able to included many of the personal stories he encountered while researching his official report. The book is therefore the “history book” of the war.

The ‘author’ interviews people from all around the world and who have all had various experiences during the war. We hear from soldiers, doctors, divers, politicians, civilians. We learn how the zombie plague spread and how the world reacted to it. Brooks brings some really interesting ideas to the zombie genre. I especially loved the military reaction. Conventional weapons and tactics proved ineffectual and had to change. The big one being it was impossible to instill fear against a brainless, undead horde. The way Brooks demonstrates all the different worldwide reactions is fascinating and makes for compelling reading.

9780804165730I highly recommend the audio version which is done with an all-star cast including Max Brooks himself as the narrator.

If you are growing weary with The Walking Dead this is the boost you need.

Buy the book here…

Buy the audio here…

A Couple of Pages Podcast Episode 2 – Hunger Games, The Light Between Oceans and The Gods of Guilt

Episode 2 – Hunger Games, The Light Between Oceans and The Gods of Guilt

Podcast Logo0.00 Intro Music – Hello It’s Me by Todd Rundgren

0.11 Hello and Welcome

0.22 All Things Hunger Games

0.46 Gregor The Overlander (  buy here )

0.55 When Charlie McButton Lost Power ( buy here )

Hunger Games (  buy here )

Catching Fire (  buy here )

Mockingjay (  buy here  )

8:10 When should kids start reading The Hunger Games?

9:50 Mockingjay, two films, really?

11:36 Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman ( buy here )

16:52 The Gods of Guilt by Michael Connelly (  buy book here |  buy audio here )

21:56 Outro Music – Bookends Theme by Simon & Garfunkel

Listen Now:

Five Faves from Afar

Summer has nudged spring well and truly out of the garden but there’s still time to sit back, cool off and relax with this month’s Fave Five. Five sweet, syrupy offerings to help you remember the mellifluous moments of last season before we dive head first into the next silly one…

Wake up Do Lydia LouWake Up Do, Lydia Lou!Julia Donaldson and Karen George. 2013 Macmillan Children’s Books UK. From the creators of Freddie and the Fairy, comes this utterly divine, not so scary story about a ghost who is bent on trying to give Lydia Lou a fright. He tries everything in his ethereal powers, enlisting in the vocal stylings of mooing cows and booing babies, but nothing can stir Lydia Lou from slumber. What does happen when she finally wakes to a roomful of noise makers? Children as young as three will hang on every word of this amusing collection of alliterative and repeating verse. It’s a fun and innovative way of introducing sound and word associations with just a smidge of spook thrown in. Too good to wait for next Halloween to share.

Clara Button and the Wedding Day SurpriseClara Button and the Wedding Day SurpriseAmy De La Haye and Emily Sutton. V & A Publishing 2013 (in corporation with London’s Victoria and Albert Museum). When in London, a visit to the V & A museum is imperative. If an overseas sojourn to Europe with your little ones seems a long way off, whet their appetites and infuse their senses with culture with this gorgeous picture book, the very first published by the museum. Amy De La Hayes’ Clara Button is an innovative, creative type who is all in a dither over a friend’s upcoming wedding. She loses herself in a dream of what to wear and how to personalise her outfit. When things go horribly wrong, Clara’s lateral thinking turns disaster into something fantastic which ironically suits the wedding theme to a tee. Wedding Day Surprise is oozing with more intricate detail and fascination than the Portobello Road haberdashery itself. Captivating for 4 – 7 year olds.

Amelia and Nanette Sparkly Shoes“Amelia and Nanette: Sparkly Shoes and Picnic Parties Sophie Tilley. 2013 Bloomsbury Publishing UK. Still very much in the slightly convoluted manner of English orientated picture books, is this spring time release by Sophie Tilley. In spite of an over-flowery narrative, the look and feel of this book is sumptuous and sublime. I love the Bloomsbury penchant for clothbound hard covers. It’s a winsome look at two best friends who revel in each other’s shared dreams, loves and delights. Even when Amelia’s ‘large and really rather naughty dog’, Pilou, attempts to sabotage the girls’ perfect picnic day, their friendship endures, strengthened by hugs and supportive mothers. Younger school aged girls in particular will find this picture book as delicious as drinking a strawberry smoothie.

Dragon Loves PenguinDragon Loves PenguinDebi Gliori 2013 Bloomsbury Publishing UK. Another English author illustrator who should need no introduction is Debi Gliori. Her latest picture book is a gorgeous, read again and again tale of ‘need’ finding the perfect fit with ‘want’ and develops into an enchantment about the power of love, and being brave and unique. Two unlikely characters, a dragon and a penguin, are magically brought together with Gliori’s loose charcoal line and watercolour illustrations, a fusion which melts the iciest floes. Sensitive storyline and sublime art for 0 – 5 year olds, although my 8 year old can’t get enough of this one.

Penguin in LovePenguin in LoveSalina Yoon. 2013 Bloomsbury Publishing Australia, 1st published in the US 2013. Sticking with the Antarctic theme and rival for top pick over Dragon Loves Penguin, is Penguin in Love. Author illustrator, Salina Yoon, weaves a tender-hearted tale of looking for love and friendship and finally finding it under a mountain of woollen beak cosies. “Love is a big adventure” especially if you are small and alone but worth the risk of seeking out as Penguin discovers. Told with big bold beautiful illustrations, this picture book is certain to warm the very cockles of your heart not to mention those of 3 – 5 year olds.

Stay tuned for more exciting stocking filling ideas in my next post.



The Little Veggie Patch Co.

The Little Veggie Patch Co.My career choices of ‘writer’ and ‘editor’ hint that I’m rather text-driven. So book design has to be pretty spectacular to warrant any or all of my attention.

Suffice to say, The Little Veggie Patch Co.: How to grow food in small spaces is pretty spectacular. As in gorgeous, award-winning-worthy, I-want-to-eat-it, I’m-in-awe beautiful.

But in a complementary sense, because rather than dwarfing the text or making up for poor content as design elements are sometimes wont to do, this book’s design wholly supports and enhances the text.

The Little Veggie Patch Co. has been out for some time, but it’s been sitting on my ever-expanding to-be-read pile for almost as long. I bought it because I’ve always desperately wanted to have a wickedly lush garden filled with flowers and vegetables, with chickens gambolling about. The Little Veggie Patch Co. looked like just the inspiration-meets-instructional text I’d need to achieve it.

Veggie Patch FundamentalsAs of October, I’ve got the chickens—two former battery hens now named Randall and Coo I’ve adopted under what I’ve codenamed Operation Chooken (you can follow just about their every adorkable move via my Instagram account, @girlcalledfred, or by searching #OperationChooken).

I’ve been convinced I’m on my way to a burstingly good veggie patch and have madly been fantasising about raised garden beds overlaid with straw and fertile chicken poop and pallets doubling as containers. I’ve been sketching out designs for where everything can live (including the bee hive I’m hoping to add to the mix after I’ve completed a beekeeping course next week).

So I laughed more than a little when I read the book’s opening lines, having dug it out to help with my research and design:

The prospect of creating an edible garden can be so all-consuming, it’s quite easy to get over-excited. Spurred on by the overwhelming urge to become self-sufficient, you find yourself staying up past midnight, a glass of red wine in one hand and a blunted pencil in the other, feverishly mapping the layout of your new veggie garden.

Over-excited, moi? If my chooken Instagrams are anything to go by, you could say when I love something, I get a little obsessed. The book continues:

You are certain your family will share your enthusiasm and that trips to the supermarket will soon be a thing of the past. It all seems relatively straightforward. From what you can deduce, the hardest thing will be telling your partner their tool shed is now the chicken coop, and explaining to the kids that their cricket pitch will soon be an amazing new fruit orchard.

The Little Veggie Patch Co.I’ll not deny that I was hoping I’d be self-sufficient, except that I’ve quickly learnt I’m far less the green thumb than I ever imagined. Who knew gardening was so tough?

The smartest decision you can make is to start on a small scale and focus your attention on making your veggie patch as productive as possible. Don’t launch yourself into subsidising your current food needs, let alone becoming self-sufficient.

Huh. This book seems to be eerily written about and for me. So I’ve found myself inhaling its contents—figuratively and, because of the high production values, literally too.

The tasks outlined in The Little Veggie Patch Co. are practical, humour-filled, and achievable. I haven’t been disheartened by the difficulty of them as I was with those in Indira Naidoo’s book, which was incredibly well researched, but intense and beyond my extremely low skill level.

The Little Veggie Patch Co. doesn’t dumb the processes down by any stretch, but it doesn’t try to overwhelm you with information. I get the sense these guys—the owners of the business on which the book is based and the co-authors of the book—are very much familiar with explaining the how-tos of gardening in accessible, memorable ways.

For example, they’ve introduced me to the concept of compost ‘lasagne’, which for the first time made me understand how to organise layers in compost (and the importance of doing so).

The Little Veggie Patch Co.They made me realise I could manage a worm farm. And they have inspired me to attempt no-dig gardening, which is apparently both the lazy person’s garden and the smart person’s one.

They’ve shown it’s possible—optimal even—to have raised garden beds. Better yet, apple orchard boxes that offer a rustic aesthetic and ergonomic goodness in one.

They’ve also provided vegetable-by-vegetable breakdowns of what to plant, when, and how to nurture it. Then they’ve added in some scrummy recipes to boot.

All of this is accompanied by exquisite images with simple, step-by-step accompanying instructions (please forgive my dodgy Instagram pics of them, but you get the idea).

Suffice to say I’m still staying up late into the night sketching out my plans for vegetable- and chooken-led self-sufficiency, but I’m doing so better informed and with a better plan. Oh, and with a beautifully designed book to inspire.

For a debut this book is just astonishing

9781847081391Book Review – The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton

After reading The Luminaries there was no way I wasn’t going to go back and read Eleanor Catton’s first novel. Book covers are often filled with blurbs (some more than others) and there is often a lot of hyperbole flying around. However after reading this book there are no exaggerations with the blurbs on the front and back of The Rehearsal.

For a debut this book is just astonishing. This is a book that challenges you as a reader and Catton has taken a number of risks. Risks I think many accomplished authors would be hesitant to take. And risks that pay off in spades.

Central to the novel is a sex scandal at a high school between a male music teacher and a female student. But it is the way Catton tells this story which will truly amaze you. The story is not told in a linear fashion. Catton jumps around a number of different perspectives as well as different points in time. While this can be confusing and requires a bit more concentration it has a profound effect on the story. Like any scandal, especially one in a school, the story is spread my many different people, in many different ways and the truth of what really happened gets blurred, discarded and picked up by others. Catton demonstrates this by exploring the story in the way she does.

The two main perspectives of the book alternate between girls’ lessons with a saxophone teacher and a first year student at a local drama college. The student characters of the novel are all in a state of rehearsal. Recital rehearsal, drama rehearsal, life rehearsal. But Catton shows a number of other rehearsals that continue to go one. The other clever device she uses is never to name the adults of the novel. The teacher involved in the sex scandal is named but the other teachers are always referred to by their teaching subjects never by name. This contributes to the sense of rehearsal, the roles of teachers are interchangeable, a part to be played.

Eleanor Catton is a writer like no other. She has the courage and skill to not only challenge you as a reader but also intrigue you and compel you to read more. Like with The Luminaries Catton doesn’t give you all the answers at the end of the book. It is up to you to digest what you have read, absorb it and make up your own mind which only some of the great books and authors ever pull off. And Eleanor Catton must surely be counted as a great writer even though her career is only really beginning.

Buy the book here…

Review – Eric Vale Epic Fail – Stocking stuffer suggestion

Kids aren’t always especially nice to each other. From the most tender of ages they are on the lookout for ways to demoralise, break-down and lord it over each other. It’s all part of your basic survival of the fittest mentality and the procurement of stupid nicknames is one small but powerful weapon in this on-going battle for supremacy.

Now, I’m of Asian descent with a skin type that deepens to ‘kalamata olive’ with repetitive sun exposure. My name is Dimity, habitually shortened to Dim. Put all three together as some enterprising class mates of mine did and you’ve got yourself a ‘burnt Dim Sim’. That little gem must have completely depleted their collective mental arsenal.

Eric Vale Epic FailMichael Gerard Bauer’s comic romp, Eric Vale Epic Fail, illustrates one kid’s classic demise, the misappropriation of a really stupid (but undeniably funny) nickname and his subsequent attempts to rid himself of it. This book did unintentionally throw me back amongst the dim sims but in a sinfully hilarious way.

Eric Vale is your normal Year Five kid who in spite of drifting off in class whenever his ‘brain goes on a hike’ which is quite a bit, manages to distil most of his creativity and genius into his action adventure stories.

He has an overactive imagination, a best mate whose idea of a bad day simply doesn’t exist, and a nemesis in the shape of one Martin Fassenbender; perfect components for a knock-me-down, tie-me-up and rescue-me-before-the-train-hits adventure. The kind of adventure in fact, that Secret Agent Derek ‘Danger’ Dale encounters on an hourly basis.

Michael G Bauer Bauer deftly manoeuvres Eric through a series of epic fails with hilarious alacrity and style. Unlike the poetically funny tomato sauce incident, readers are not slathered with a thick morass of morals. Ethnicity, individualism, fitting in and good old fashioned mateship are all treated with a robust finesse but told with that in-your-face jocularity that midgrade readers find so addictive.

I really feel for Eric Fail – er Vale. Who wouldn’t? He’s the dreamer, the schemer and ultimately tenacious enough to score on many levels. And he represents at least fifty per cent of kids in the school yard with ludericous labels, like Dim Sim. But I love his best mate Chewy more. You could practically drown in Chewy’s irrepressible buoyancy. His glass is never just half full, it’s overflowing.

Joe Bauer illoIt took me a few pages to adjust to the relaxed layout and jaunty comic book style of Eric Vale Epic Fail, but Joe Bauer’s zany illustrations eased my transition into the graphic style chapter book (Grapter if you like) superbly. Outrageously daring and 100% reflective of his father’s humour, Joe’s talent is as delightfully deadly as a Big Bob head squeeze.

‘If you think you can, you WILL’ enjoy this epic read. Any 10 year olds undoubtedly will. And the best bit: Eric Vale lives on in two more books in this series, Eric Vale Super Male released April 2013 and Eric Vale Off the Rails released August 2013.Eric Vale OtR Eric Vale SM

And if that wasn’t enough, stay tuned for the spin off series featuring your favourite secret agent Derek ‘Danger’ Dale. Destined to be another epic win.

Scholastic Australia November 2012

Stock up for Christmas with all of Michael Gerard Bauer’s books here.



Ann Patchett has been my big discovery this year

9781408844540Book Review – This Is The Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett has been my big discovery this year. For some reason I had never read her before but after her championing of independent bookselling and her blurbs popping up on a number of books I also loved I finally picked up one of her books and fell in love.

Her latest book is a collection of her non fiction writing. But this isn’t ‘a best’ of collection. The stories, articles, speeches and essays collected here are put together in a way that forms the story of Ann’s life. We get a unique insight into her life and career as a writer as well as her family, her childhood, her hometown, her friendships and her marriages.

Each piece is written with Ann’s unique honesty and clarity. I especially loved her insights into how she became a writer and her writing process. The title piece is quite simply beautiful and is a must read for anyone who doesn’t understand why marriage and marriage equality is important. I am flicking through the book now trying to choose my other favourite pieces and I really can’t separate them. And putting them together as a whole is really something special.

I am not a reader of biographies, autobiographies or memoirs but the way this book has been put together I think makes this book a much more intimate and honest portrait of a writer; her art, her craft and her life all mixed together. And I’ve already got her other non fiction book Truth And Beauty in my pile ready to go.

Buy the book here…