Review: Bro by Helen Chebatte

I picked up Bro by Helen Chebatte particularly because it promised a) diversity, b) a fight club (!!) and c) an Australian setting. And I love Aussie books, I truly do! And I particularly love ones that acknowledge what a diverse and multi-cultural country we are. And Bro totally rules this.


About The Book:

What happens when you mix teenage boys, a fight club and ethnic rivalries? You get war. Romeo Makhlouf knows the rules. Stick with your own kind. Don’t dob on your mates or even on your enemies. Respect the family. But even unwritten rules are made for breaking. Fight clubs, first loves and family ties are pushed to the limit in Helen Chebatte’s explosive debut novel.


But despite Bro ticking a lot of “this book should be awesome” boxes…it ultimately wasn’t my kind of book. (Teenage boys, peoples, they’re just…such stinky, alien creatures.) But that doesn’t mean it’s not a good book! And I think it will definitely appeal to teens, particularly boys, and it definitely was a fast and interesting read.

Basically Romeo (yes that’s his name!) is Lebanese and falls into a lot of default rivalries at school. When the book starts, he walks you through all the “cliques”, from the Asians to the Lebanese to the Aussies to the Islanders. It’s all pretty “stick-with-the-bros-of-your-own-culture”, which I found pretty sad. But I guess not unrealistic. And the boys’ cliques were definitely like family! All the Lebanese boys absolutely stood up for each other and took exactly no hasselling from anyone else before they were out for revenge. So obviously you know where this is heading right?

Someone gets offended. FIGHTS START.

I was a bit annoyed that the big “offence” was basically over a girl. Again, realistic….But it seemed shallow to read about.

Oh and yes, and it’s very Australia. It’s absolutely stuffed with Aussie slang. I actually struggled with some of it, despite being an Aussie myself, because I’d never heard some of the phrases. But I was quite surprised it had next to no swearing in it. I felt that was the only unrealistic liberty it took…but it does make the book appropriate for any age audience, so kudos to it there.

I found the ethnic rivalries very interesting…because they seemed in place BEFORE the boys even had issues with each other. Like it’s Romeo vs Palmer. Lebanese vs Australian. The book also really talks about what it’s like to be from a different ethnicity but raised in Australia. Like are you an Aussie if you’re born in Australia, but live entirely with Lebanese culture?

Bro is definite grimy, punchy, Australian contemporary that younger teens will totally enjoy! The characters aren’t the most dimensional things I’ve ever encountered, but they do ask some BIG questions and get you thinking. Also you get to know THE BRO CODE, which — if you’re a completely deluded person like I who lives in a fantasy book — is really interesting. Also there’s Lebanese food involved. And brawls. Punchy, punchy, bro.

[purchase here]

Review: Your Heart Is A Muscle The Size Of A Fist by Sunil Yapa

9781408707401This fantastic novel bursts out of the blocks and doesn’t let go until you have finished. Sunil Yapa announces himself not just as a writer to watch but a writer to read right now. This is a powerful story, not just of protest, but finding your place in the world even after you discover what the world really is.

The backdrop to the novel is the World Trade Organization protests and subsequent riots in Seattle in 1999. The story follows a cast of characters over the course of a day; a homeless teenager, the chief of police, a Sri Lankan trade delegate, a protest organiser and two of the police on the frontlines. Each character’s story is entwined in a way with another and this changes throughout the day. Yapa keeps all these stories in perfect balance even as events spiral out of control, expertly capturing the mood and atmosphere of each vantage point he unfurls.

This is a coming of age novel not of a teen into adulthood (which is part of the story) but also adults into a new millennium and of nations into a new century. Yapa captures both the broken system but also the unrelenting tide of change that is hovering on the horizon. Change that is inevitable but not without a fight both from within the system as well as from without and how the lines between the two are not as clear as we think.

Sunil Yapa has written an incredible debut that will stop and make you think while you are swept along in the maelstrom and passion that is life.

Buy the book here…

Caroline Magerl – A Journey of the Heart

imageI am so honoured to have had the opportunity to learn more about the talented illustrator and author, Caroline Magerl, and to be able to share her rich and fascinating past, and present, with our readers. We also focus on her latest book, ‘Hasel and Rose’, also known as ‘Rose and the Wish Thing’; a story of hope, adventure, connection, magic, depth, and of love – these all intricately weaved into an exquisite story with powerful images that perfectly sums up some of Caroline’s most significant earlier years.

You’ve had such an interesting and rich history in terms of your upbringing and how you ventured into the illustrative and writing world. Can you tell us a bit about your journey from your beginnings to now?

As a young child, my family were migrants to Australia. My parents had come from the broken world of post war Germany. They arrived with an overbearing sense of grief, on many different levels. These impressions became a permanent presence that was not openly discussed. The old world had come along with us, baggage, as it were.

imageOur new home was in the dry fringes of suburban Sydney and it was fair to say we were not keyed into the new culture. My aunt tried to raise geraniums on the shady side of the house, despite the redback spiders. My father planted a pine tree dead centre in the front yard; as homage to our homeland. My parents began building a 45 foot steel yacht in the back yard which did little to aid our integration into the neighborhood; the escape pod…we were strangers and this was to be our new home. It was ironic to come to a new country just to find a way to float at a distance from its shores.

imageOccasionally packages would arrive in brown boxes, sent by my grandmother from behind the Iron Curtain. Oddly these packages (the tired brown box in the story of Rose) contained marvelous East German picture books, the pages of which showed a very different side of Germany. They were enchanting and saturated with an atmosphere and colour that I loved at first sight. It was incongruous to me that something so beautiful could originate from a land my imagination held as bleak. Importantly, they provided a different view of the culture we had come from. Here was a direct example of the impact books can have. At some level, I was asking questions.

Books eventually provided a vehicle for me to understand my past and explore my future. Around the age of seven, I began reading the works of Australian authors. I had lived in the country long enough to recognize their great love of the landscape in the words, the engagement with indigenous stories, the personality of the bush. When Patricia Wrightson wrote of small creatures up in the eucalypts stirring and rustling the leaves as if it were the wind, throwing down sticks on unsuspecting heads, I knew in my bones this was all true. Or that there would be a trickster in froglike shape who watches children from limpid green ponds, speaking with them when it chose to, or tricking them as the mood took. It was no odder than the actual wildlife and wilderness of Australia. What I was reading really clicked with my experience of places like Kuring-Gai Chase. Australian authors invited me into the place I lived, enriched my experience and led me further into relating to my new home and the people around me. Nothing could have prepared us for Australia, but these books were a path to relating to this place.

Looking back, I now understand that these works taught me how effectively and elegantly picture books communicate a world of ideas and emotions. This was something that could be made, built with paper and paint and was tremendously appealing. I remember observing this in practice when I saw the faith my daughter had in the structural qualities of sticky tape. Sticky tape and sheer will, could do all. My youth was spent living aboard my family yacht sailing up and down the east coast. This lifestyle afforded little space for possessions but books were my constant companions. There were literally weeks of nothing more than the three of us aboard. No TV, sometimes very few people or none at all as we travelled. The East coast was a lonelier place then. Reading gave me somewhere else to be.

I spoke about the two impressions of where my family had come from. The grey and grief stricken realities of my parent’s world were real, it was something I felt. I was also impelled to re-imagine my world and picture books showed me this could be done. Art and storytelling teach us to know that there are other ways to see things and if that is so, it encourages us to see for ourselves. That sustains like nothing I know.

What learning experiences and/or feedback have really helped you to practice and improve your craft?

imageI had wanted to illustrate picture books from those early days. Initially my interest lay in being a picture book illustrator and I must admit that I was not immediately successful in this endeavour. Even though, I had worked as a cartoonist and feature’s illustrator for magazines, newspapers, educational publishers, and had even started to sell my art through galleries, none of this seemed to sway the picture book publishers.

All this occurred at a very different time when emails and internet were new, personal approach was still best. I was a long distance from the centers of publishing so I began sending sample art in lightly fragranced envelopes to every publisher in Australia and waited, and waited, wondering why I was not immediately embraced into the fold. Thinking I was suited to the job was not nearly enough.

imageIt was many years before I got my first break. An editor, who I had met years earlier, paired my watercolour style with a text by Libby Hathorn to re illustrate and publish in Australia. As I floated down the corridor with my first brief in hand, another editor stuck his head round the door and beckoned me into his office. So after years of frustration, I landed my first two jobs in one day.

The first book won me the Crichton award for best new picture book illustrator. Immediately after this I told myself that I was done with scented envelopes. I got on the phone to a highly respected Melbourne publishing house and boldly asked to speak with the art editor. I announced myself as Caroline Magerl, the artist who had just won the Crichton Award, and waited in expectation of a sharp intake of breath. Listening intently, I overheard the secretary announce me as ‘a Mrs Crichton on the line’, to the editor. I was getting used to how things were going to go. I now realize those years of working as an illustrator in other fields helped me to hone my work. There is no substitute for practice. Determination is also important. For most, success it is a long time coming and you have to just keep going.

Most of your books have been published as a joint collaboration between you, as the illustrator, and a fellow author. How does this process compare with that of a project you have written and illustrated alone, such as ‘Hasel and Rose’? Is one way more challenging than the other?

The working life of an illustrator differs from that of a writer. Unlike authors, I was not tied to any particular publishing house, and my useful life extended only as far as the timeframe of each particular illustration job. I could float from one publisher to another, and back again. Even though I provided what I considered to be a vital part of a book, its pictures, the prime mover was the author. All the wrangling was already done by the time I received a text to illustrate.

Again and again, I noted the marked difference between the operating styles of the producers of imagery, who tended to be quiet, poor self promoters living in hollowed out trees, as opposed to the far more vocal and able negotiators, the authors, not to mention the publishers themselves. That was how I perceived it as I contemplated never owning a hollowed out log of my own.

A number of years ago, I happened to be on a small yacht on a charming waterway near Sydney. On board was an author, a publisher and myself. The wind was blowing directly against us, from the direction of an island that we were heading for. I was at the helm, tacking toward the island as the wind was directly against us. Bear in mind, I had lived on yachts for 25 years had some ten thousand plus sea miles behind me. After some general banter about how illustrators are at the very tail end in the production of picture books, the publisher turned to me, irritated at my lack of direct progress toward the target, then pointed firmly at the island and announced, “That way!”  Irritating as this day sail was for me, with its abundant metaphors….what I took from this was that ‘the me’ who paints was not a great negotiator or business person. I could do worse than learn from the others on the boat that day.

How did the story of ‘Hasel and Rose’ unfold? What was your process in bringing this book to life?

imageMy creative method as an illustrator is to lie down. My best work is done that way. The text literally lives under my pillow for weeks with sketches completed at all hours. If I have to leave the hollowed log, the text goes with me. In a sense, my life is grafted onto and channeled into the story at hand.  A good example of this was when I was illustrating a book titled Castles for the aforementioned author and publisher.  I had decided to feature a sandcastle on the cover and had gone to the beach to build one, and then draw the result. As I beavered away, I had drawn the compassionate attention of an elder gentleman who offered to help me build my sandcastle. I scowled at his intrusion, did he not recognize a professional going about her business? He did not … and went away confirmed in his view that there are some very odd people about. This is perhaps why some creative people may seem a little unplugged from the here and now. It is down to your energy being diverted into Narnia, or wherever. Bear with us, we’ll be back with you shortly.

image‘Hasel and Rose’ had rumbled along beside me for ten years, beginning with two sentences I had written in a journal. I wrote these quite spontaneously, and after reading them back to myself, I realized I had stumbled onto something that mattered deeply to me. I was stuck. Initially I approached an editor of a major publisher, and presented a journal in which the story was drawn in images, a storyboard if you like.  The editor showed great interest at the first meeting and offered a contract on the spot. Before I had left that office she had begun to suggest changes, and sadly I must admit that I wasn’t confident enough of my writing to defend my work, it was too personal … I was at a fork in the road. If I accepted the offer of help, the contract and the book would have come out much sooner. Obviously, I did not follow that path and it cost me ten years. However what I learnt over those ten years was not so much how to write, but how I write and ‘Hasel and Rose’ is the end result.

As an illustrator my starting point was to draw, however all the pictures in the world could not bring me the right words. Trust I drew a boxful of pictures. It was excruciating as my brain noticed my frustration and immediately fell back to my default, ‘Oh, you have a problem, draw a picture’. Doing something else, anything else, can be the only way forward at a time like this. I joined a Ju-Jitsu dojo. You won’t believe how much throwing grown men over your shoulders can provide creative solutions. When I was ready, I was grateful that my editor at Penguin, Michelle Madden paid out a lot of rope as I painfully inched toward something like a narrative. Her patience was invaluable.

imageAt one point I tried writing in German, my native language, in an effort to find my voice. I noticed I expressed myself differently in German, and that told me to keep digging, it was there … somewhere. I had many pictures and many fragments of poetic text, the story was written twice. It was there but it took the form of a collage. I had a story in pictures, a wish thing endlessly travelling toward Rose. At the same time, I had also written a little tale on the side, about a lost toy which was quirky and had some humour, and better still a structure. Michelle put one and one together; here were the parallel stories. I almost heard the cry of ‘This Way!’ It made perfect sense. The experience of writing the story and the story itself became one and the same, and the stalemate was over.

May I also add that Michelle did this over her Christmas break. I often hear of people in the publishing business going above and beyond, so I would especially like to thank Michelle and Lisa Riley (Publisher) for their help and guidance with Hasel and Rose.

Read more of Caroline‘s intriguing insights into how ‘Hasel and Rose’ progressed from here in A Journey of the Heart Part 2.

You can visit Caroline Magerl at her website and facebook page.

Two True Blue Tales – Australian Picture Book Reviews

Two enchanting books in a series written by Aboriginal elder, Aunty Ruth Hegarty and playfully illustrated by Sandi Harrold are about Aussie animals on Aussie adventures. The Creatures of Dryden Gully’ and ‘Pip and Pim’ take their readers on journeys of self exploration and discovery, with the tendency to veer off track slightly as young children often do. But their delightful characters and moralistic storylines remind us all of which path to follow.

imageThe Creatures of Dryden Gully is a special story of a mother’s protection and unconditional love as a young Kangaroo Joey discovers what it means to be unique and proud. Author and storyteller Aunty Ruth Hegarty, a child of the Gunggari Nation and the Stolen Generation, tells a heartwarming tale of Joey who is eager to grow up. When the Royal visitors, the deer, arrive to their land, the Natives are nothing but intrigued by their beautiful characteristics and abilities. In a bid to stretch his legs and explore his surroundings, Joey secretly follows the Royals to a clearing. But when poachers make a sudden, alarming appearance, Joey is confused and frightened. Luckily the young roo remembers his mother’s earlier lesson in survival and the pair are lovingly reunited.

With earthy-coloured oils on canvas, the illustrations are endearing and reflective of the pureness of the story. The Creatures of Dryden Gully reminds us of the importance of listening to our elders and recognising our own special qualities. It also reinforces awareness of folklore and concepts native to Australia. For children from age four.

imageWritten and illustrated by the same collaborative pair, Pip and Pim comparably appeals to its audience with a similar important message, sweet demeanor and playful images. It’s virtuous storyline is told tenderly yet colourfully, with dedicated text pages that oppose the illustrations.

Eager little possums, Pip and Pim, can’t wait to explore the forest floor for the first time. The liveliness of the bush under the bright moonlight, the call of the cicadas and the song of the night bird all add to the excitement of their first out-of-tree adventure. But despite their parents’ warnings to be careful, the young ringtails pay no attention. Initially they find other creatures such as echidnas and bandicoots busily foraging in the darkness. Then, upon stumbling into a plover bird’s nest, the screeching father frightens them and they quickly scamper off to find their awaiting parents.

With Harrold‘s spirited, bold illustrations showing off the glowing flora and fauna amongst the authentic nighttime hues, Pip and Pim is a delightful and charming book to share with your loved ones. A story of trust, listening to elders and a bit of mischief, it is an effective way for preschoolers to learn important life lessons about parental guidance and ‘stranger danger’ with an Australiana flavour.

Scholastic Australia, 2015.

Review: Life in Outer Space by Melissa Keil

9781742973951Oh where do I even start to sum up my love for Life in Outer Space by Melissa Keil?! The awesomeness of this book is mind-blowing. I’m shouting its praises far and wide and adding it to my “favourite of ever” shelf. It ticks all the boxes: good writing, excellent characters, adorable romance. OH and did I mention this is an Australian book?! Let us just skyrocket to the moon in the awesomeness category.

Contrary to suspicions aroused by the title, this is not a sci-fi novel. It’s an adorably realistic Aussie contemporary. The narrator is 16-year-old Sam (not Sammy, don’t even think about it), who goes to a dodgy high school and wishes he could fast-forward his life…about 20 years, or so. He’s obsessed with films (old horrors particularly) and he writes screenplays. His current project is Killer Cats from the Third Moon of Jupiter (it’s a working title). Sam thinks it sucks, like every other part of his life.

I really like Sam. He felt very realistic (down to the “grunting over holding a conversation”…and anyone with a brother will know what that’s like) and I honestly feel like he’s a character you could meet in real life.

The secondary characters are equally marvellous and well written. Everyone just leaped off the page and they were all dimensional an complex. Firstly there’s Mike, Sam’s best friend — he’s gay and quiet and has “one expression” and only Sam can tell he has other emotions. They’re like DUDE BEST BUDS. And I love a book about friendship like this. Then there’s Adrian…who feels like “that friend you have” but sometimes wish you didn’t? He’s described as a troll. How nice. Then there’s Allison, who is, unfortunately, the weakest part of the team because I honestly forget what even her point is since it’s been a while since I read the book.

And Camilla…ah, Camilla. She’s the “love interest” and I ADORED HER FROM DAY DOT. She’s an epic combination of geek, smartness, music and mischievous. Camilla is perfect, but yet not stuck up or snobbish. JUST PERFECT FOR READING ABOUT.

As for the actual story? Well obviously I’m an enormously enthuastic fan. I MEAN COME ON. You saw that coming! It didn’t drag, although it’s not speedy-paced story. And the writing is utterly fantastic. It’s witty and awkward, and wins for the dialogue. Absolutely wins.

As for the romance? Okay, Sam is like 90% clueless. SO. That’s a little annoying to read, but I won’t say it’s not realistic. Ahem. And I think Sam and Camilla’s relationship is slow building and sweet and AWKWARD. But sweet.

And endless shrieking happiness that the book is Australian! I read a lot of American literature? So this is like a refreshing returning-home…with all the slang and the culture and mannerisms. I understood these references!

This book made my day.

“I think, because…well, I like the idea of coming up with a story that never existed before, but I don’t really want to be in charge. I don’t want to be famous. I guess I like the idea of sitting in the dark and knowing that I created the thing on screen, that it’s my story, but, like, no-one else has to know it was me. Does that make sense?”



Review – New Year Surprise!

New Year SurpriseYou’ve finally found a spot for all those new toys. You’ve organised your post-Christmas reading pile. You’ve dutifully noted your New Year’s resolutions. Time to relax. Well, SURPRISE! There’s more. It’s New Year’s all over again; a time to celebrate, rejoice and welcome new beginnings, this time with the flair of Asia.

Stunning new picture book, New Year Surprise! by award-winning author, Christopher Cheng and fine artist, Di Wu joins the informative raft of entertaining and insightful children’s books depicting the Asian cultural tradition (namely Chinese) of celebrating the Spring Festival.

The Race for the Chinese ZodiacI have many favourites on this topic, which bring back fantastic childhood memories of feasting, lion dancing and of course, receiving those coveted ‘ tau hongbau’ red money packets. Titles like Long Long’s New Year by Catherine Gower, Sally Rippin’s Fang Fang’s Chinese New Year, Gabrielle Wang’s, exquisite The Race for the Chinese Zodiac, and to a less celebratory degree, The Magic Brush by Kat Yeh introduce young readers to a celebration steeped in tradition and spellbinding superstition.

New Year Surprise! focuses less on the legend of Nian – the original monster who used to terrorise Chinese villagers annually until they learned ways to thwart his evilness and scare him away (with red paper and irritating fireworks). This charming picture book takes place in a traditional rural northern Chinese village where life still follows an ancient and simple route and festivals such as Chinese New Year shape and colour family and community life.

New Year Surprise Illo spread # 2The prospect of the imminent festival excites Little Brother and he craves to be involved with the preparations. His brothers, father, and friends tell him he is too small to be of any use though; he is not strong enough to hold a dragon pole, he cannot reach to hang the lanterns, he has already helped serve tea and light the firecrackers. So what could the ‘special job’ be that his father promises he can do?

New Year Surprise illo spread # 1Over the week, Little Brother’s relatives arrive and celebrate with sumptuous feasts and Grandfather’s timeless stories. The atmosphere is rich with colour, joy, and positive expectations for a prosperous and lucky year ahead. Yet Little Brother remains at a loss as to his particular role in the festivities. It is not until the climax of the festival, the mesmerising dance of the serpentine dragon, that Father finally reveals Little Brother’s most significant role.

Christopher ChengCheng’s first person narrative places readers firmly within the snug folds of Little Brother’s padded jacket so that rather than feel the chill of his snow-covered home, we sympathise with his frustrated longing to contribute. Cheng infuses just the right amount of Chinese heritage and terminology to establish authenticity without swamping little minds with too much unfamiliar culture, although I wager most people will instantly recognise the Gong Xi Fa Cai! New Year salutation without too much difficulty.

Di WuAs evocative as the scent of incense wafting on a breeze, Di Wu’s illustrations are painted using traditional Chinese brushes on rice paper and are exquisitely faithful to the traditional colours and textures of Chinese paintings. New Year Surprise! is a merger of art, words, and culture that works as well as dumplings and tea.

As with many National Library publications, the joy of the reading experience extends after the story has ended with explanatory notes on this and on other festivals in China, some familiar, others an exotic new revelation. A marvellous way to embrace and honour a fascinating culture for early primary schoolers and above.

To experience a taste of one of the most significant festivals on the Chinese calendar (normally occurring in February or March) grab yourself a copy of New Year Surprise!, here. This Chinese New Year will be the Year of the Monkey and officially is celebrated on the 8th of February with festivities spanning from the 7th to the 22nd February.

Gong Xi Fa Cai!Year of the Monkey

National Library Australia February 2016



Review: The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

9780316213073Oh sweet fairy bread and sprinkles…this book was beyond fantastic. The Darkest Part of the Forest is probably my favourite Holly Black book. And I’ve read quite a few!! The Tithe series being my least favourite, but The Coldest Girl in Coldtown and the Curseworker Trilogy coming in a tight second. I think Holly Black is a genius wizard. Her skills are basically AHHHH!

The Darkest Part of the Forest is beautiful and powerful and darkly fantastical and bloody — and basically completely perfect.

It’s a magical story about Hazel and her brother, Ben, and their love for a horned boy cursed to sleep in a glass coffin. Words do not convey how awesome this is. They live in Fairfold, which is absolutely embroiled in fairies. It’s a tourist attraction but the locals know the fairies are real. There’s mischief. There’s unexplainable phenomenons (like the horned boy). People die. Kids are kidnapped by the supernatural. Just your average day in Fairfold.

“So, just another dull night in Fairfold, where everyone’s a lunatic or an elf.”

I absolutely adored Hazel. She’s brave and has zero concept of defeat. She seemed like Peter Pan at times…growing up, but still clinging to her magical childhood. She slew monsters with her brother (who has a magical curse/gift for music) and was a warrior. Ben was equally wonderful and shared the narration. He was older, quiet, always trodden on. He and Hazel used to be thick as thieves but…bad stuff goes down. I shall not say. READ THE BOOK.

I also have to mention Jack and Carter. Jack is a changeling. Because every family, when their child gets kidnapped by fairies, will demand their real child back AND keep the changeling. They are a fantastic “brother” duo and I loved them!
The mystery of the horned boy in his glass coffin in the forest is just DELICIOUS. I have to admit, though, I liked him better when he was unconscious. When he woke, I thought he’d have a stronger personality? But that’s literally my only complaint.

He was every bit as monstrously beautiful as he’d been. You could drown in beauty like that.

If the characters aren’t entrancing enough…the writing is beautiful. I loved reading those adorable little letters on the page SO MUCH I couldn’t put the book down. I was absolutely caught up in the magic and creamy description and murderous plot twists.

It has a bit of a bittersweet ending and I’m sorry it’s a standalone. I wanted more and more of this world and these characters! I shall have to just reread it a million and a half times while I want for Holly Black’s 2017 series to come out. But Fairfold and Hazel, Ben and Jack made the book a magical, unforgettable adventure. I can’t recommend this one enough!

There’s a monster in our wood
She’ll get you if you’re not good
Drag you under leaves and sticks
Punish you for all your tricks
A nest of hair and gnawed bone
You are never, ever coming…home.



Best Books of 2015

Okay, maybe a slightly misleading title. But hey, it got your attention, didn’t it! 🙂 A more accurate title would be “My very late 2015 wrap-up post, including a list of my favourite books from that year”. A bit cumbersome as far as titles go, which is why I went with the punchier, albeit less informative one. But enough about the naming of blog posts (who really cares), let’s look back on the year that was…

2015 was an incredibly busy year for me. Four new books in the You Choose series were published — Night of the Creepy Carnival, Alien Invaders from Beyond the Stars, Super Sports Spectacular and Trapped in the Games Grid. And while these were being published, I began work on my new series of books, The Royal Flying Doctor Service Adventures. The first two books in that series, Remote Rescue and Emergency Echo, get released in February this year. On the speaking front, there were lots of school and library visits, along with appearances at literary festivals and conventions. The highlights were The Somerset Celebration of Literature, Sugar City Con and Voices on the Coast.

And then there was the Young Australians Best Book Award (YABBA). You Choose: The Treasure of Dead Man’s Cove won a YABBA in the “Fiction for Younger Readers” category. That was pretty AWESOME!
[I blogged about it on my site.]

Despite the busyness of the year, I managed to do a fair bit of reading. Unfortunately I didn’t do all that much reviewing. Rather than trying to do one long review per blog post, I ended up doing posts with multiple shorter reviews so that I could cover more books. And I still didn’t manage to tell you about all the ones I read. My first couple of posts for this year will try to catch up on some of my favourites from 2015.

Which brings me to my list of favourites. Drum roll please!

Favourite children’s book

This time around it’s not a single book… it’s six books! The Warlock’s Child is a wonderful fantasy series co-written by Paul Collins and Sean McMullen. They are: The Burning Sea, Dragonfall Mountain, The Iron Claw, Trial by Dragons, Voyage to Morticas and The Guardians. Great adventure books with interesting characters and AWESOME dragons.

Read my review of the first three books here.
The final three are reviewed as part of this “Mini Reviews” post.

wc01  wc02  wc03
wc04  wc05  wc06

Favourite Young Adult book

Tough choice this year as I read some pretty amazing books. Honourable mention goes to Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. Epic, sweeping space opera with a healthy dose of romance that is extraordinary in the telling. (I will be reviewing it properly soon.) But top honours goes to The Rest of Us Just Life Here by Patrick Ness. This book is PERFECT! Perfect in plot, character and telling. (I’ll also review this one soon.)

Illuminae Live Here

Favourite Grown-up Book

Okay, this book was actually published in 2014, although I read it in 2015. But it was just too good not to include. Perfections by Kirstyn McDermott. I confess that I don’t read many grown-up books these days because, frankly, most of them end up boring me. But this one was brilliant!

Read my review in the “Mini Reviews” post.


Favourite comic/graphic novel

Another tough category this year, as I read so many great titles. But my favourite would have to be Afterlife with Archie, in which the zombie apocalypse begins in Riverdale. Dramatic, sometimes funny, often brutal and surprisingly poignant. I promise to review this properly soon, along with all the other Archie titles it prompted me to go out and read.

Afterlife with Archie

Favourite Non-fiction book

I read LOTS of non-fiction for research, so I don’t pick up all that many as part of my down-time reading. But when one of my all-time favourite authors writes a non-fic book, how could I possibly pass it up? Atmospheric: The Burning Story of Climate Change by Carole Wilkinson is superb reading.

Read about the Story Behind Atmospheric.


Favourite older book

During 2015 I read A LOT of older books. Honourable mention goes to Watership Down by Richard Adams, THE undisputed classic of the anthropomorphised animals genre. But I am a Sherlock Holmes fanboy, so I’m afraid I just can’t go past Sir Arther Conan Doyle’s The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.

Read reviews of both these books in “Three Reviews”.

Watership Down Holmes


Without a doubt it is The Rest of Us Just Life Here by Patrick Ness. I love this book SO MUCH! Everyone, go out and read it RIGHT NOW! I mean it… RIGHT NOW! Waste no more time with delay… RIGHT NOW! Look… here’s a link so you can purchase it. Am I being too pushy? You know what? I don’t care! GO READ IT!

So there you go — 2015 in a nutshell. ‘Twas a great year for me in terms of reading and writing. And 2016 is already off to a grand start. I look forward to reviewing it in twelve months time… or maybe a bit longer if I’m slack. 😉

Catch ya later, George

Zombie Books For The Deadly YA Reader

There is something decidedly fantastically creeptastic about zombie books. I’m basically the lone zombie enthusiast in my family, but they’re all missing out — and you might be too. Which is why I’ve graciously collected a list of zombie novels you should definitely try. Maybe with the lights on, though.

Caution: Brains and dead things ahead.


Y A     Z O M B I E     N O V E L S 


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  • THE END GAMES: Not only is this one of my all time favourite books, it is an incredible zombie apocalypse tale. It’s about two brothers who are trying to survive (obviously) while dead things want to eat them (obviously). The special twist is the older brother has convinced his 5 year old brother that it’s just a “video game”. It’s mildly heartbreaking and extremely well written.
  • REBOOT: What if being a zombie was a semi-regular occurrence? This one is set in a world were zombies are soldiers and the longer you “were dead” before “rebooting”…the more not-human you are. And besides breaking bones and guns and screaming — there is quite a cute romance between a very emotionally dead zombie girl and a barely zombie adorable boy. This book calls to you, I just know it.
  • SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY: But how about a zombie tale set in the 1800s? Eleanor Fitt is a Proper Lady, and also investigating her brother’s disappearance. She’s cautiously worried about the dead rising and necromancers too — AS IS LOGICAL. It’s a very proper book with tea and scones and the undead.


(Apparently zombie covers are either black and red or yellow and black? I’m not complaining! It’s awesome.)

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  • EAT BRAINS LOVE: The title is a parody off “Eat, Pray, Love” and the book is just as ridiculous as the title promises. It’s funny and lighthearted and seriously gross. Basically there’s a zombie outbreak in the high school cafeteria. Jake and an unattainable-beautiful-wonderful-girl are stuck on the run together. It’s hilarious and mildly silly!
  • CONTAMINATED: It is always awkward if your mother is a zombie. This one is set in a world were the zombie outbreak has been “stabilised” and zombies are being returned home to their families. Their brains have basically been zapped and they’re little more than vegetables…leaving devastated families trying to patch their lives back together and look after disabled loved ones. It takes a more serious look at the moral side of being a zombie. And it’s VERY family focused, which is an insta-win for me!
  • THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS: Okay, this is cheating. This is an adult book, not a YA one, but it’s partially narrated by a 10-year-old zombie, so I’m sneaking it onto this list anyway. This is one of my top zombie reads. It’s all about the apocalypse and the fighting — so cue guns blazing and zombies screaming. It’s also very science-y (I confess to getting lost there) and the author does not spare the characters. It’s basically the most EPIC book of them all and then ending had me howling. Go read it.


Review: The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien

9780571316298This book is described as Edna O’Brien’s masterpiece on the cover, which is a complete understatement.

Set in the small Irish country town of Cloonoila the opening of the novel focuses on a new arrival to the town. A man claiming to be a healer has recently arrived and is causing a stir. The book flits between various townspeople and their different reactions and interactions with this new arrival. The small town is intrigued by the new figure and the medicines and healing philosophy he has brought with him. None more so that Fidelma who becomes infatuated with the man. When the man’s past finally catches up with him it has devastating consequences on all those who have come in contact with him. Especially Fidelma.

Edna O’Brien’s class as a writer shines through every word. The opening stories of the novel are reminiscent of Olive Kitteridge in the way their chronology and connection is at first not easily determined. The innocence of the townspeople leaches through to the reader and when the grim reality of who the stranger is revealed the repercussions are all the more shocking. The second half of the novel changes tack ever so skillfully and focuses on Fidelma and the fallout she must try to live with and live through.

This is a novel of love and evil; fairy tale and stark reality. It is confronting and challenging yet intensely readable and thoughtful. This is writing truly at its best, full of confidence and subtly that not only sucks you in as a reader but sets you up brilliantly for some expertly done changes of pace and tone. The perfect start to my 2016 reading.

Buy the book here…

Review: Love Quinoa

Love QuinoaThere’s an internet meme that does the rounds every so often showing Joaquin (pronounced Wah-keen) Phoenix and quinoa (pronounced keen-wah). It says something along the lines of how they’re both tricky to pronounce, but are awesome and also vegan.

I thought of that meme as soon as I saw Love Quinoa was available for review. Obviously, I put my hand up to roadtest it straight away. (As a side note, it appears to be part of a series—there is, for example, a Love Kale book by the same authors available too.)

Although quinoa’s superfood status has been well and truly heralded, I’ll include some details of its apparent properties here. It contains calcium, magnesium, manganese, vitamins B and E, amino acids, and old favourite fibre. It’s known as a complete protein source—something fairly good and properly exciting for vegans such as me.

Suffice to say, a cookbook about this grain was always going to intrigue me. Containing more than 100 recipes, Love Quinoa isn’t entirely vegan, but it contains enough recipes to make it worth vegans’ while (and, truthfully, most of the recipes could easily be veganised).

It’s another quality Murdoch publication, which of course means it’s the kind of book Murdoch produces incredibly well. The images are salivation-inducing and the book design stellar. A colour-coded key that demonstrates which recipes are vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, etc. makes discerning as easy as a quick glance.

The book also includes details of quinoa’s history and why it’s good for you (read: me). Think as a more ideal and versatile option than rice, that it makes hearty fillers for soups and stews, and that it helps with muscle recovery after sport.

Love KaleThe book actually has five authors—I can’t remember the last book I read that had so many, or at least not one that wasn’t an academic journal.

Lead author Karen S Burns-Booth is a writer and food stylist who lives between the UK and France. She’s joined by London-based recipe writer Jassy Davis, food blogger Carolyn Cope, and two vegan writers, Kristina Sloggett and Jackie Sobon.

So the book contains a range of recipes that reflect the authors’ diverse experience and interests, along with variations to mix up the core recipes to suit specific tastes.

There are sweet breakfast recipes: Toasted Coconut and Quinoa Breakfast Pudding; Vanilla Cardamom Quinoa Granola; and Quinoa Waffles. There are savoury main meal ones: Vegetable Paella-Style Quinoa; Risotto-Style Quinoa with Caramelized Onions and Mushrooms; Quinoa Couscous with Blood Oranges and Burrata; and Roasted Winter Vegetable, Quinoa, and Wild Rice Salad.

Then there are desserts such as: Apple Crumble with Quinoa Topping; and Iced Orange, Semolina, and Quinoa Layer Cake. Suffice to say, the latter in particular went straight to the top of my must-try list.

I would have loved Love Quinoa to be a wholly vegan publication, but that’s a personal preference and I understand Murdoch and the authors were going for the widest, investment-recouping audience. Regardless, I’d recommend Love Quinoa be an addition to the recipe book collections of vegans and others alike.

Aussies – We salute! Reads to enjoy around the barbie

As the mercury level rises and your pool swells with screaming kids, it might be time to reach out for a reason to remember why you love summer, and kids, and Australia! Here is a real mixed swag of reads full of the flavour of Australia Day.

Australians Let Us B B Q!Australian’s Let Us Barbecue! I featured this one just before Christmas but it’s still worth popping on the bonus CD by Colin Buchanan and Greg Champion for that extra dollop of Oz. Along with the iconic illustrations of, Glen Singleton, every bit of Aussie swank and summer backyard tradition have been merged into the tune of our Australian National Anthem. Throw your thongs in the air and enjoy the rousing recital and sing-along. It’s not just all about burnt black snags on the barbie. The lads take us over rugged mountain ranges, across scorching desert plains, around the Rock, through the Whitsundays and back again. I am on that sailboat and in that Kombi thanks to Singleton’s dynamite depictions. An exemplary example of an Aussie summertime that must be experienced by everyone. Quintessentially, unashamedly Aussie.

Scholastic Australia November 2015

The Little Book of Australian Big ThingsNow that everyone’s levels of Aussie-rama are peaking higher than the midday sun, grab The Little Book of Australia’s Big Things by Samone Bos and Alice Oehr. This nifty little hard back features an amazing assortment of Australia’s BIG things from bananas, lobsters and trout to guitars and bushrangers. Fun, informative, and loaded with cheek and colour, this guided-tour-around-Australia-collection has a charming retro feel with dozens of activities, recipes, and pop-out pages for little ones to Big thingscraft their own big things. The dust jacket forms part of the fun too, folding out into a big Australian panoramic scene. Too true! It’s enough to make me want to jump in the Kombi again and track these all down for the heck of it. Highly recommended.

Chirpy Bird imprint of Hardie Grant Egmont 2015

Speaking Bad Nedof bushrangers, check out a really bad story by Dean Lahn. Actually, his picture book, Bad Ned isn’t all that bad – that’s just the subtitle. The bad face, explosively bold text and cartoon-esque styled illustrations are comically quirky and a pleasing parody of a little boy’s imaginative day. Bad boy Ned models himself on the notorious bushranger, Ned Kelly but at the end of the day, his naughtiness becomes unstuck, literally. More entertaining than expected however the sudden ending may require explanation for young readers not familiar with our bush-rangering lore.

Omnibus Books imprint of Scholastic May 2015

ABC DreamingIndigenous author, Warren Brim hails from Far North Queensland, as do I, so it was a marvellous treat experiencing ABC Dreaming. Unlike some learn-the-alphabet books, ABC Dreaming depicts a unique array of Aussie (rainforest) characters, fruits, and flora. The stunning x-ray line, dot artwork paints each subject against a vibrant background that best accentuates its unique features. From Red-eyed green tree frogs, mozzies and nutmeg pigeons to yabbies and xanthorrhoeas (blackboys or grasstrees), this is a beautiful and stimulating way for little Aussies to learn their ABCs.

Magabala Books November 2015

An English Year front cover (800x770)But of course, little Aussies take on all shapes and forms. If you’d like to spend Aussie day appreciating your family’s diversity and background or the culture of others who make up our great society, cast an eye over Tania McCartney’s and Tina Snerling’s latest additions to their Twelve Months in the Life of Kids series. An English Year and A Scottish Year are as good as actually being there. I encourage you to visit this awesome series of picture books that allows Aussie kids better beautiful contact with kids outside their ‘norm’ of experience. Lavishly illustrated, meticulously thought out and superbly accurate, An English Year invites you to experience the English isle, its inhabitants, and rituals without the need of a passport. Better than a bacon buttie. Exploring the highlands and lowlands of Scotland is just as fun as well. You’ll be visiting this one time and time again if nothing more than to practice pronouncing the Celtic mouthfuls of place names, traditional fare and annual events.

A Scottish Year front cover (800x770)Fun and informative. Breezy yet substantial. I have to say, I’m a little bit in love with this series. Potentially so useful in the classroom and home. Of course, if it’s Aussie flavour you’re after, An Aussie Year is the non-fiction picture book choice.

EK Books imprint of Exisle Publishing September 2015

The Big Book of Australian History 2I embrace the digital dexterity of our young generation however confess that I sometimes get a lot more joy from thumbing over pages of facts and images rather than endlessly scrolling and clicking. There’s something so organically satisfying and enriching reading an old tome style encyclopaedia. Renowned history and science writer, Peter Macinnis has created a sensational collection of historic events for primary and high school students in, The Big Book of Australian History that I am delighted to thumb through.

From the time Gondwana broke up to when strangers arrived in the 1600s to our present day milestone-makers, this is a truly superlative treasure trove of highlights, did-you-knows, ancient discoveries and of course stunning images, photographs and maps. As stated by the National Library of Australia, The Big Book of Australian History (shortly to be followed by The Big Book of Indigenous History) ‘is a book to dip into and savour’, an ‘enthusiastic retelling of Australia’s story that is infectious’. Informative text is presented in a non-over whelming way and broken up into logical chapter chunks flowing chronologically from the Dreamtime to modern day, finally entreating readers with the proposition that they are tomorrow’s history makers. Bloody marvellous, if you’ll pardon my Aussie vernacular. But then of course, it is time to salute our Aussieness!

National Library Australia May 2015

Enjoy and Happy Australia Day!









Review: Carol

CarolWith Cate Blanchett playing the lead character that gives the film its name, Carol needs no introduction. The film realisation of The Price of Salt (or Carol), it charts the tale of two women who fall in love in 1950s New York.

One of the women, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), is in the process of divorcing her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), who loves her deeply but is wounded his love is not returned.

The other, Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), is young and politely deflecting the advances of would-be suitors as she tries to find her way out of a dead-end job working in a department store doll department and into her dream photography job.

The opening credits are set against the pattern of a street grate—it looks not dissimilar to a gilded cage. It then cuts to an interrupted date between the two women to which we eventually return as the film comes almost full circle and then slightly beyond.

I liked this film but I didn’t love it, but for reasons that are difficult to explain. Blanchett is, as ever, exquisitely effective in her role. Mara is brilliant too, although I found myself fairly frustrated with her character—she’s rather two-dimensional and I needed more from her to truly invest in the tale. What a strange girl you are, flung from outer space, Carol tells Therese at one stage, and I found myself agreeing, albeit perhaps for not quite the same complimentary manner.

Not helping that was the fact that I have an enormous soft spot for Chandler. Known for being the actor everyone adores but whose name no one quite remembers. (My friend and co-reviewer Lise tipped me off that she was sold on coming along because of the actor even before the film started. I said ‘who?’ and she said I’d know once he appeared on screen. The moment he did, I knew who and what she was talking about.)

Chandler was exceptional as Coach Eric Taylor in Friday Night Lights and, as I found out from Wikipedia, even in such roles I loved as the head bomb guy in Grey’s Anatomy. You know, the one who helps Meredith out when she puts her hand on live ammunition in a body and, well, I won’t tell you how it ends, but suffice to say I love Chandler all the more now realising he was that guy.

All of which is a rather long way of saying it was rather difficult to root for Carol’s and Therese’s love to triumph when Chandler was the guy who would ultimately lose out.

The film is fairly chaste, but shoulder touches take on significance, and there are an incredible lot of cars scenes and wistful looks out windows, which, once you notice, you can’t unnotice.

But, like Suffragette and The Danish Girl, Carol is an important film. Though imperfect, it is an important tale to be telling and forms part of a larger movement and conversation we need to have.

Review: The Jaguar’s Children by John Vaillant

9780544315495John Vaillant’s debut novel follows in the steps of two exceptional non fiction books. The Tiger still resonates with me. Not only was he able to recreate the events of a series of tiger attacks in south-eastern Russia with suspense and fear permeating off the page but he also weaved together a history of the region and all the myths that surround tigers in various cultures. Vaillant takes the same skills to his first foray into fiction and the result is remarkable.

The best way I can sum this book up is to say it is a cross between The Kite Runner and The Tiger’s Wife. Vaillant tells a story that is both suspenseful and deeply moving. The clock is literally ticking but at the same time we get a rich tapestry of characters, cultures and issues that resonate throughout the world today.

The novel is told from Hector’s point of view. Hector is trapped inside an empty water tanker somewhere in the American desert. He and his fellow passengers have been abandoned by the coyotes who have smuggled them across the border from Mexico. Their water and supplies are slowly running out. Hector’s only hope is his friend Cesar’s mobile phone and the only American contact he can find on it.

As the battery dwindles Hector recounts to the unknown “AnniMac” his story of growing up in Oaxaca, a state in south-west Mexico. Hector reflects on his father and grandfather’s stories and how the region and Mexico as a whole has changed over the generations. Through these stories we get a portrait of a people’s hopes and dreams, their myths and legends and the importance of their land. We also begin to see their desperation for something better in the face of western exploitation than has become less visible but even more critical to their way of life.

John Vaillant has written a brilliant novel that will grip you to the final words of the epilogue.  Like The Kite Runnerthis a beautiful portrait of a father and son that shines a light on a country that we normally read about for all the wrong reasons. And like The Tiger’s Wife it demonstrates the power of story in culture and memory. All told from the claustrophobic inside of a water tanker, stuck in the heat of the desert, in pitch darkness with power, water, food and time running out.

Buy the book here…

Review: Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

9781447299318Carry On by Rainbow Rowell is definitely one of my new favourite bookish creations. I was mildly nervous because I’d heard it had a very strong Harry Potter influence and I’m loyal to the original Potter stories. But, after an initial Harry Potter-ish bginning…Carry On stood on it’s own so easily as an original and equisitely written magical book!

It’s basically about Simon Snow (the Chosen One) and his “evil” roommate, Baz, and how they put aside their lifelong hatred of each other to defeat evil…and perhaps accidentally fall in love in the process.

It’s also a sort of “companion novel” to Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl. In Fangirl, the protagonist (Cath) writes fanfiction of Simon Snow. And in Carry On, Rowell actually writes the Simon Snow book! So it’s like a book within a book. COOL, RIGHT?! You don’t need to have read Fangirl first, however. Carry On stands fine on its own!

I was also very impressed at how well and easily Rainbow Rowell made this book sound British! I just read another book by an American author trying to incorporate British culture and — ugh. It failed. But Carry On?! It had slang and culture down pat and felt QUITE British please and thank you.

The characters are definitely the heartbeat of the story though. I. have. so. many. feels. They were original and unique and totally dimensional in just a few chapters. I fell entirely in love with Simon’s gaunt stammers and quiet mannerisms — and also Baz’s suave, snappy, fiery temper and hidden feelings about Simon. The characters leapt off the page with their realness and relatabilty.

Plus Baz’s real name is Tyrannus Basilton Grimm-Pitch and that is about the best thing I’ve ever heard.

And I definitely rooted for Simon and Baz to get together! Their relationship is slow and adorable and fiery and complex. They hate each other sure, but that’s just to cover up that they love each other. I didn’t find it too angsty or irritating at all. Bonus!

The writing was really addictive and just gorgeous. The first 30% mark felt a bit thick and had a lot of info-dumps…but after that I did not want to ever stop read it. 

“You have to pretend you get an endgame. You have to carry on like you will; otherwise, you can’t carry on at all.”

After all my initial hesitations and grumpiness, I have to admit I’m surprised at how much I adored it. BUT NO REGRETS. I could hug this book forever, basically. It’s original (!!) and clever and complex and had just the right amount of terror and happiness to make it a satisfying but engaging read. I want to just fall into the pages and become friends with these amazing characters on their magical adventures. Also there were so many food descriptions. The scones and butter and jam and cream were basically leaping off the page. (Warning: prepare snacks before reading this book.)


“You were the sun, and I was crashing into you. I’d wake up every morning and think, ‘This will end in flames.”



Winning Pets – Picture Books of Animals

From egotistical and obnoxious, to intelligent and in desperate need of affection (and food), our furry pals have differing needs and talents but we just love them no matter what! The following picture books are bound to surprise and delight your little ones with their humorous, sweet and heart-warming antics that only our beloved animals can offer.

imageRemarkably Rexy, Craig Smith (author, illus.), Allen & Unwin, 2015.

Rex is the proudest, most majestic and self-absorbed cat in town. For years he’s owned the streets – well, Serengeti Street. His incessantly groomed appearance, captivating dance steps and poses have been the biggest attraction amongst the kids passing by. That is, until Pretty Pamela steals his thunder with her elegant prancing. What follows for Rex is just like a series of unfortunate events that leaves him looking a bit less than perfect. Has he come to the realisation that maybe the fuss isn’t worth all the effort?

Craig Smith‘s watercolour and pen illustrations are characteristically warm and hilariously energetic. And in his debut as an author, he also successfully brings us a charming and skittish story. There’s something very visceral and real about this vain yet likeable cat, and the other irritable animals, that makes this book so relatable.

‘Remarkably Rexy’ is a fun, delightfully comical and engaging story that preschoolers will be giving prominence to over and over again.

imageOur Dog Knows Words, Peter Gouldthorpe (author), Lucy Gouldthorpe (illus.), Lothian Children’s Books, 2015.

Some pets are brilliant and shine in their own way. From cats to dogs, in ‘Our Dog Knows Words’ this clever family pet can definitely impress. From simple commands like ‘sit’, ‘shake hands’, ‘stay’ and ‘come’, to more complex tricks like ‘roll over’ and ‘scratch’, this playpul pup always obeys. Well, maybe not always! I love how this dog is such a loved and integral part of this household. From bed jumping to car rides, cat chasing and beach time frolics, this pup is having a ball.

This is a beautifully simple, and ‘waggish’ story of a word- and fun-loving canine companion. The equally endearing and uncomplicated line drawings and coloured patterns make ‘Our Dog Knows Words’ a clear, light-hearted book. It’s also terrific for encouraging young children to value and appreciate our faithful furry friends.

imageWombat Wins, Jackie French (author), Bruce Whatley (illus.), Angus&Robertson, 2015.

Speaking of champions, two in the children’s literature field are the superlative Jackie French and the prolific illustrator, Bruce Whatley. They have teamed up again for the next winning wombat book in the series; it’s ‘Wombat Wins’.

While Mothball is up to her usual cheeky capers of wanting (and demanding) carrots, she also happens to be competing with a group of small, athletic humans to be the first to reach her prize. This determined, robust character takes us through an energetic, fast-paced and amusing romp. I love how she speeds across the uncluttered landscape pages in her characteristically melodramatic style. The simple, punchy language is the perfect match for this fiesty but adorable creature.

Preschool aged children will no doubt be racing to savour ‘Wombat Wins’ as much as humanely (or wombately) possible. It really is a winner!

imageI Need a Hug, Aaron Blabey (author, illus.), Scholastic Australia, 2015.

From winning wombats to winning hearts, Aaron Blabey once again seduces us with his charming story and its theatrical satire. Although not your common type of pet, this sweet little hedgehog starving for a cuddle is certainly irresistible. Unfortunately, this is not true for Lou the rabbit, Ken the moose and Moe the bear who don’t fair kindly to this poor, prickly creature. But when hedgehog feels all hope is lost, the story closes in a satisfying way…with a bit of a twist!

Blabey presents this story with his typically expressive rhyming couplets, farcical scenes, tongue-in-cheek humour and intense-looking characters. Always a winning combination throughout his books.

‘I Need a Hug’ oozes tenderness and kindness. It shows us literally (check the endpapers) that negative feelings can be turned into positive ones by perhaps taking a risk and offering a gesture of peace. Even towards the most unlikely of friends. It’s an adorable book of learning compassion and receptiveness in a cute and funny way, as well as being the perfect bedtime story when you can steal a few extra hugs and kisses!

And for more reviews on amazing animals check out Dimity‘s recent line up of picture books here.

It’s a Zoo out there! – Animal inspired picture book reviews

I’ve just returned from a farm-animal infested camping holiday, which wasn’t as reprehensible as the smell of the boar’s pen suggested. In fact, it made me re-realise just how important and beneficial interaction with all critters great and small is.

Whether the focus is on an animal for all its prickly, cuddly, bizarre glory or relaying the story from an anthropological point of view, animals in picture books continue to be a massive draw card. Here are some of my standouts from recent times.

Must have Mammals

Adelaide's Secret WorldThe ethereal quality and charm of Elise Hurst’s fine art and narrative are undeniable. She suffuses both once again into Adelaide’s Secret World, an anthropologic tale featuring a rabbit named Adelaide and her foray through fear, loneliness, and introspective alteration. This picture book is an imaginative and beautifully presented convolution of two characters for whom friendship would normally be isolated and foreign but through twists of fate and circumstance, a connection is found and a musical friendship forged. Marvellous for nudging little ones with quiet voices out of the shadows. Read Romi Sharp’s detailed review and interview with the author illustrator, here.

Allen & Unwin October 2015

Clementine's BathNot many dogs or kids leap at the mention of bath time with relish. Clementine is no exception. Following her long walk, Clementine steadfastly refuses to take a cleansing plunge after rolling in some pretty offensive odours. Annie White’s Clementine’s Bath is the second picture book to feature the shaggy loveable mutt, Clementine. With lots of robust bouncy-dog small people appeal, Clementine leads her family on a right merry chase until she finally succumbs to the suds. Perky, poetic, frolicsome fun and perfect for pre-schoolers to early primary doggy devotees.

New Frontier Publishing October 2015

Something Fishy

Blue Whale BluesLooking for a picture book swimming with leviathan humour and meaning that swells the heart. Look no further than Blue Whale Blues by Peter Carnavas. Whale is one seriously doleful dude who is feeling very blue given he is swamped with bike trouble. His chipper little mate, Penguin is there to lend a flipper, however repeatedly pulling Whale back from the doldrums. It isn’t until Turtle forces a frank and funny realisation that Whale is finally able to forget about his ‘blue whale blues’. This is one of Carnavas’s best offerings for pre and primary schoolers I’ve encountered. His skill in creating just the right amount of turn-the-page suspense and hilarity is quietly sublime. Nothing about a Carnavas picture book is forced, yet everything is rich and meaningful. His first illustrative crack at collage is winning, as well. Whopping good fun teaching kids not to take themselves or life too seriously.

New Frontier Publishing September 2015

Piranhas don't eat BananasThe Pi-ra-nha by definition is a freshwater fish of South America known for its razor sharp teeth and voracious appetite for meat including guinea pigs, puppies, naughty children, and professional tennis players, so Aaron Blabey informs us. Sadly, Brian, a piranha sporting a generous jaw of said teeth, loves bananas which immediately blackballs him from his piranha buddies. Piranhas Don’t Eat Bananas is a priceless look at one individual’s attempt to persuade the masses. Blabey is at his uproarious rhyming best as Brian assumes every ounce of his inner Carmen Miranda in a gallant effort to convert his meat loving mates to fruit. Alas, not everyone is as vegan-minded as Brian. This snappy read-aloud story has Eric Carle Hungry Caterpillar appeal for younger readers with plenty of slapstick, tongue in cheek humour for the older ones (and some suggestive comedy for us adults!). Ideal for busting stereotypical ideals and encouraging small minds to try new things. Highly recommended.

Scholastic Press September 2015

Avian wonder

SeagullSome picture books offer more than just entertainment between two covers. Seagull, written and illustrated by Danny Snell, exemplifies how story and art can elevate meaning to levels that make you giddy with wonderment. Seagull represents her often-maligned species as she scavenges on a windswept beach (that reminds me intensely of the Coorong region in SA). She becomes entangled in thoughtlessly abandoned fishing line and tries repeatedly to free herself with no success so that readers feel a growing compassion and distress not usually associated with birds of her creed. As it sometimes occurs in life, help comes from an expected source and eventually, Seagull is free to soar the wide blue skies again. Snell’s shrewd use of collage and acrylic paintings beautifully capture Seagull’s demise, fading hope, and then singing spirit. The message behind Seagull’s near destruction is powerful and clear unlocking early primary discussion on topics concerning conservation, wildlife preservation and community outreach. Visit Romi’s review on Seagull, here.

Working Title Press September 2015

Robin''s Winter SongI was quite taken by Suzanne Barton’s, The Dawn Chorus so was delighted to hear Robin sing again in Robin’s Winter Song. The fact that Robin is experiencing a more Northern Hemisphere climate as he attempts to grasp the idea of ‘winter’ creates a refreshing reading stimulus for us enduring our typical southern summers. Robin’s first encounter with winter snows is unforgettable, replicating the magic many young and old alike experience when discovering something new and wondrous for the first time. Whilst not as moving for me as the award-winning Dawn Chorus, Barton’s sweet multi-media illustrations fill ones heart with warmth and joy.

Bloomsbury Children’s November 2015

‘Bearly’ there

Where's JessieBertie is a bear who has been there and done that…at least in the Australian outback. Janeen Brian’s fictional reminiscing of a real life character, Bertie, in Where’s Jessie? is a tale of separation, courage, fear, loss and reunion, rendered in the most spellbinding way by illustrator Anne Spudvilas. As Bertie’s family move townships across the desert, the outback cameleers or removalists of the day are enlisted to transport their belongings including their daughter, Jessie’s teddy bear. He is dislodged from the trek along the way, lost and abandoned in a desert that is less desolate than it first appears until by kind chance and good fortune he is finally reunited with his Jessie. Brian’s practical use of evocative and lively vocabulary paint as strong a narrative picture as Spudvilas’s breathtaking outback spreads. Possessing more than a fair share of animals and absorbing historical drama, Where’s Jessie? is a happy-ending adventure worth experiencing.

National Library Australia November 2015

Being AgathaAgatha was born ‘just as the leaves were falling. She had her mother’s ears and her father’s nose’, which I can relate to in many ways. Quite simply, Agatha is unique and very special however, it doesn’t feel like that to her, especially at family gatherings. By the time Agatha hits kindergarten, her sense of self are put to the test for it becomes plain to her that she is different to everyone else. She begins to lose sight of what makes her special so creeps away to hide much to the distress of her classmates. With a little patience and persuasion, Agatha’s friends help her realise that being herself is the best part of being Agatha. I love how small children naturally look past superficial differences and are able to find true value and worth in another’s personality and actions. I wish more adults could retain this quality. Being Agatha by Anna Pignataro, is a book that reminds us all to look for the good within others and ourselves at all times. Bravo! A solid story about the specialness of difference sure to elicit smiles of acceptance and understanding in pre and early primary schoolers.

The Five Mile Press September 2015



Review: The Danish Girl

The Danish GirlLike many others, I have mixed feelings about The Danish Girl. On the one hand, I am heartened that such an important but overlooked tale is finally being represented thoughtfully on film. On the other, I am troubled by both the cis gender casting and the film’s execution that doesn’t quite fulfil ambition.

Lili Elbe (whose surname was derived from the river and who is played by Eddie Redmayne) was a Danish transgender woman and one of the first to undergo gender-confirming surgery.

She transitioned from landscape painter Einar from Veijle (pronounced Vi-la), the latter being a Danish town that is reportedly incredibly beautiful.

Elbe’s autobiography Man to Woman was published in 1933 and that, along with David Ebershoff’s fictionalised account of Elbe’s life, The Danish Girl, forms the basis for this film of the latter’s same name.

Coincidentally, Ebershoff is an author I keep stumbling across but never quite managing to read. His third novel, The 19th Wife, which is about polygamy and 19th wife Ann Eliza Young, who exposed the truth of it.

Bizarrely, I couldn’t remember the number of the wife of the title and the ‘the’ and the ‘th’ of the number make it difficult to search in bookstores’ databases. It took me an age to find the book after hearing about it and being, by the time I went to search for it, rather sketchy on the details.

As a side note, the internets tell me Ebershoff also worked at Random House for 20 years, including being its vice president and executive editor. So he’s, you know, reasonably experienced and respected in the industry and that’s even more reason why I need to get round to reading some of his books.

But I digress enormously.

The Danish Girl tells the story of Elbe and his wife, Gerda Gottlieb.

The couple met at Copenhagen’s Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, where they were studying to be painters.

The film portrays Gottlieb as a dedicated wife deeply in love with her husband. Other versions say she was a lesbian and suggest hers and Einar’s marriage was one of convenience, even if it also involved a great deal of care.

Regardless, Alicia Vikander, who plays her, puts in an absolutely steller performance. I knew I would come away from the film with a healthy respect for Redmayne performance, but it was Vikander’s that truly impressed me.

Either way, as the story goes, Elbe started wearing women’s clothes after posing for Gottlieb when one of her models cancelled. It unlocked what had always been repressed: outwardly Einar appeared a man, but inwardly he—she—was a woman. Elbe is introduced throughout the film as Einar’s sister.

What follows is a rocky path to gender confirmation that incorporates experimental surgeries and that spans locationsThe 19th Wife in Copenhagen, Paris, and Dresden.

The Danish Girl is exquisite to look at it, as if the film itself is a painting, but I felt it lacked depth beyond its pretty façade. We never seem to the heart of what it means to be a transgender person and to grapple with not just your own emotions but societal expectations.

The film seems to get stuck on portraying what we already know or think we know, fetishising clothing and feminine eye fluttering and hand gestures instead.

Coincidentally, I saw The Danish Girl with a Danish friend, so it was fascinating to hear her perspective. For starters, the locations puzzled her somewhat. Apparently Veijle wasn’t Veijle, which isn’t hilly but flat. For reasons we can’t fathom, the film’s scenes looked like they were shot more in a place akin to Norway.

Also slightly disconcerting was that the film wasn’t subtitled. Instead, the characters were English-speaking and English-accented. Not what you’d expect of a film about Danes. Still, the accent would have been admittedly difficult to master and distracting if it were even slightly off, so understandable to not be.

It’s hard to know whether to recommend The Danish Girl as a film (and as noted above, I’ve yet to read Ebershoff’s book version of it or even Elbe’s own). I enjoyed it enough to warrant saying yes. As in, it’s enjoyable and fascinating and thought-provoking if you’re new to the topic and don’t want to think too hard about it.

But I also know the film doesn’t go far enough to show true understanding of the issues with which transgender people grapple and it is, when you even slightly scratch its surface, rather lacking.

So instead I’ll hedge and say it’s an important first step. There’ll come a time when, hopefully soon, we won’t rely on casting a cis gender person in a transgender role in order to get audiences in. And there’ll come a time, hopefully sooner, that we’ll start to tell some more robust stories about and for people who are transgender.

Review: The Minnow by Diana Sweeney

9781922182012There is no question about the fact that The Minnow by Diana Sweeney is a GORGEOUS book. For starters, just look at that cover. Behold the intricately designed glory. Ahhh! I admit that’s the first thing that lured me in, closely followed by the facts of A) it’s written by an Australian author, and, B) it has an intriguing blurb, and C) it won the 2013 Text Publishing prize. I basically knew I was in for a delicious treat.

So what’s it about? Basically a girl, Tom, who’s survived a massive flood and lost everything she loves and is pregnant and doesn’t know what she’s doing. It’s written in this entirely whimsical way that blurs lines of reality and greatly features gorgeous writing. It’s like a literary masterpiece. And, how cute is this: Tom refers to her unborn baby as “The Minnow”. SO CUTE.

And in case we haven’t covered this already: the writing is incredible. It can be bewildering at first, so you really have to just get into the hang of the style. It’s artistic and soft and dreamy and whimsical. This is not a black-and-white story with lots of action. It’s about growing up and tragedy. The pace also doesn’t rocket forward, so it’s not a stressful read.

I’m also glad the story smashed cliches! It seemed big on diverting from the “typical” story path. Like, for instance, it features grandparents and strong friendships and natural disasters. That’s not a combination I’ve read…like ever.

Tom is only 14 when she gets pregnant with Bill’s baby. She is like a baby herself oh my gosh…and it’s really scary and emotional and Tom acts so realistically. I’m not exactly sure how old Bill is, but at one point I think the book indicated that he was fairly old. Freaky. Also the police are after Bill. I still don’t understand exactly what for. Go away, Bill.

There are lots of “dead” people in this book. I got confused at first, but once I understood what the writing was doing…I loved it. It’s not a “ghost story”, per se, it’s just that Tom is surrounded by ghosts of her past and she talks and chats and looks to them for guidance. It’s really beautiful, because she still has her “family” it’s just….they’re dead. I think the book touches on PTSD and mental illness too.

I have to admit there were a few things I wasn’t such a fan of though. There’s not a lot of dialogue! Which saddens me because I’m a big dialogue fan. But if you just love beautiful writing, then it shouldn’t be a problem for you. I also got confused a lot trying to figure out what was real and what wasn’t. In retrospect: THAT’S THE POINT. But not knowing that’s how the story would be told, it initially sent me into a flap of “Huh? Wut? HUHHHH?”

The ending is very open! It doesn’t close off and woah, I have some theories. I cannot share (spoilers!) but I love how the book allows you to basically “finish it yourself”. Needless to say I AM A FAN OF THIS INCREDIBLE BOOK. And I’m impatiently waiting for the author to write more.