Utopia for Realists: Revisiting Ideas of Universal Basic Income

I dare say that few of us truly understand why our work and welfare systems are the way they are, and that many of us have thought, in at least in passing, that things seem a little back to front.

Dutchman Rutger Bregman has done more than think about the this-system-seems-broken concept. He’s researched and penned a case for universal basic income (UBI)—a foundational amount of no-strings-attached money for everyone—and other similarly counterintuitive concepts such as opening up international borders. (The latter warrants a post all of its own.) In the pragmatic, evidence-based Utopia for Realists, Bregman shows how these things could be not far-fetched idealism but economically viable realities.

‘The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones’ is one of economist John Maynard Keynes’ famed quotes, which Bregman employs to emphasise his point. (Forewarning: Bregman quotes quite a few economists in this book.) And while many of the theories discussed in the Utopia for Realists have in truth been around for donkeys’ years, Bregman reintroduces us to them via fresh, illustrative case studies and wider historical contexts. Iconic popular culture cartoon The Jetsons even rates a mention.

A historian by trade, Bregman conveys traditionally fairly dense, dry subject matter in an accessible, engaging, storytelling- and context-based manner. That is, I actually kind of understood some of these concepts and their potential once Bregman had parsed their data. (Bregman’s Conversations with Richard Fidler interview also provides an audio overview of the book’s theories, and is fantastic to listen to to boot. I highly recommend queuing it up in your podcast rotation, stat.) Take the case studies for addressing poverty and, by happy proxy, a host of other issues.

One London-based 2009 study involved providing 13 men who had been sleeping rough long term with a modest, no-strings-attached sum of money. These were men who had spent decades on the streets and on whom the government inadvertently spent swathes of money through things like policing.

It turns out that, instead of frittering away the money as anticipated, the men were incredibly frugal and thoughtful in the way they spent it. Some even had some cash left over at the experiment’s close. This free-money experiment also saved the government a bunch of money as the need for policing and its ilk decreased.

Similar case studies, such as ones where entire poverty-wracked towns in Kenya, Uganda, and Namibia were provided a UBI, demonstrate equivalent results: people spent the money not on frivolous items but on things such as repairing homes and starting businesses. Although in the case of a Canadian experiment from decades ago, it’s only recently that they determined these results.

That’s because of a change in political climate mid-trial and a resultant nervousness about spending money analysing a ‘mincome’ (minimum income) experiment to give an entire town a UBI. It was one thing to have given away free money in the past, the powers that be surmised. It would be another to continue throwing money after it. So the analysis was shelved. Until recently.

It’s a sliding-doors moment because things might have been very different today if those decision-makers had had the courage to see the analysis through. It turns out the UBI was a resounding success and, rather than making people lazy, it improved life and society on a range of fronts. Truancy and teen pregnancy rates decreased, students stayed in school longer, and mental health issues and domestic violence rates improved too.

Similarly, a study of American First Peoples who benefited from the opening of a casino, of all things, reported similarly positive results. Bregman included this study to demonstrate that being poor affects your IQ and something as simple as having access to money improves it. Bregman cites economist Charles Kenny’s wise, if slightly circular, observation: ‘The big reason people are poor is because they don’t have enough money.’ He also cites, what is possibly my favourite quote of the book, which is from economist Joseph Hanlon: ‘Poverty is fundamentally about a lack of cash. It’s not about stupidity. You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you have no boots.’

To reinforce these quotes, Bregman points to findings consistent across these studies that giving money to people is more effective in addressing poverty than creating complicated bureaucratic and punitive-in-nature systems for them to navigate. Especially when their decision-making abilities are crippled by what’s termed a poverty-induced ‘scarcity mentality’.

Bregman cites George Orwell’s quote that poverty ‘annihilates the future’. It’s a statement Orwell was qualified to make having experienced poverty firsthand. UBI is, Bregman argues, an idea whose time has come, and I’m inclined to whole-heartedly agree.

Does Utopia for Realists contain all the answers to all the world’s problems? Obviously not. But it’s commendably at least trying to spark a rethink of how we’re rather unsuccessfully approaching wicked problems. The question is whether the people who have the power to introduce UBI and other similarly innovative concepts—to un-annihilate the future, if you’d like—are paying attention.

Leveraging Laws Levers for Environmental Good

‘A man cannot despair if he can imagine a better life, and if he can enact something of its possibility.’

ClientEarth’s* epigraph (above) is, fittingly, American novelist, poet, and environmental activist Wendell Berry’s famous quote. I say fittingly because environmental lawyer James Thornton’s career and, by proxy, non-fiction book ClientEarth embodies that sentiment.

An American lawyer currently living in London, Thornton has practised environmental law, which is a relatively new concept, since its early days. He’s been instrumental in shaping and shifting the law to better protect the environment. This includes helping remove some of the onerous costs that prevent people suing companies running roughshod over environmental protections.

Thornton cut his teeth doing things like suing a businessman negligently running a pig factory farm. The businessman had nothing but contempt for complying with legislation designed to prevent environmental degradation resulting from the farm’s waste. That contempt and cockiness cost him a substantial amount of money.

With litigation like this, Thornton developed a reputation for cleverly using the law as a stick when necessary, but more readily as a tool for tackling injustice and as an antidote to despair. ‘Irresponsible businesses and governments need to be faced by two realities,’ Thornton writes: ‘that people object to them so strongly that they stop buying their projects or voting for them; that the law makes life so difficult for them that they have to change their behaviour.’ The pig farmer experienced the latter.

‘ClientEarth’ is two things. It’s the name of the environmental law organisation Thornton founded and still runs. It’s also the name of the book he and his partner of 25 years, writer and academic Martin Goodman, have penned to document the tale of the ground-breaking legal organisation that leverages legal mechanisms to change or enforce environmental law. (As Paul Steinberg says in the book: ‘If you want to change the world, change the rules. A rule is just an idea with an anchor attached to it.’)

As the primary storyteller in this book, Goodman explores the tale from a biographer’s perspective. Thornton’s thoughts intersperse Goodman’s chapters. Although less sophisticated in storytelling capacity, Thornton’s chapters give voice to his thinking around particular issues or key moments.

ClientEarth is an important book for a variety of reasons, not least because with climate change accelerating and few world leaders even attempting to apply the handbrake through good environmental policy and outcomes (I’m looking at you, Malcolm Turnbull and Donald Trump), people are looking for information about what non-politician-led mechanisms might be available. (Illustrating the hopelessness and incredulity people currently feel, ClientEarth points to the Tom Toro cartoon with a family sitting around a campfire. ‘Yes,’ the father says, ‘the planet got destroyed. But for a beautiful moment in time we created a lot of value for shareholders.’)

Environmental law is fewer than 50 years old, so its parameters and power are still being determined. Regardless, it is, according to Thornton, the answer to the what-can-we-possibly-do question with which people are grappling. But Thornton alone cannot create or enforce all the environmental laws we need, which is why a book outlining and analysing how he’s achieved what he has, what hasn’t worked, and what environmental law’s potential might be, is crucial.

One issue that’s plagued action is, he notes, that the environmental lawyers who tend to help NGOs—and I realise I’m making sweeping generalisations here—are young, activist lawyers with lots of enthusiasm but, due to their relative inexperience, little heft.

Another observation is that there’s room for a range of activist approaches, and ClientEarth’s approach is designed to complement rather than compete with approaches like that of Greenpeace. The thinking is, as it’s put more memorably, that: ‘Each superhero has their superhero skill, but you need a bunch of them.’

ClientEarth is well told—an experienced writer at the tiller draws out the key stories and keeps it the right side of being dry textbook-y. That said, it’s a book that’s more gripping in some chapters than others, and its niche audience is undoubtedly one that has an interest in the law and its levers.

Which I do. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve headed back to uni to study Law with the express purpose of incorporating environmental law into my existing career. But I’ve since recommended ClientEarth to—read: thrust the book at—various friends and family who haven’t got legal backgrounds, all of whom have been able to take away plenty of invaluable information from it.

ClientEarth is comprehensively researched, with chapter-by-chapter endnotes for further reading or fact checking if you have the energy for it. And even if you don’t, ClientEarth’s chapter content alone imparts a hope-imbued sense of what’s possible if we can strategically shift society’s legal levers in the environment’s favour.

*Yes, it is one word. Yes, it’s troubling me and I am itching to uncouple the two words logically.

Dim’s Christmas Crackers Lists – Bag the Best Kids’ Books

If you are like me, knowing there are only 41 days left until Christmas fills you with silent terror. You know it’s not about the presents. You know you’ll want (have) to give some, anyway. You’ve heard books tick all the enduring, educational, entertaining boxes as far as kids’ gifts go, but how do you choose without going crackers? During the next 41 days, I’ll share a cluster of the best kids’ books of 2017. Hunt them down for your Christmas stockings.  Hold on tight though, we’ll be going faster than a turbo-charged reindeer over black ice.

List # 1 Non-fiction Picture Books

At the Beach I See by Kamsani Bin Salleh

Striking board book series featuring elegant artwork and lyrical text. This one is useful for forging connections between our beautiful seashores and new creatures. Ideal for 2+ year-olds.

Magabala Books August 2017

Amazing Australians in their Flying Machines by Prue & Kerry Mason and Tom Jellet

Jellett’s character-filled illustrations bring this fascinating assortment of historic aviators to spectacular life. From Lawrence Hargrave to John Flynn, ‘Smithy’ to Nancy Bird, numerous significant figures in the history of flight and aviation in Australia are described using first person narrative and fact-based prose. Amazing facts are included along with modern day updates. Perfect for aeroplane enthusiasts from 8 years upwards.

Read Romi’s full review, here.

Walker Books Australia 2017

Fierce Fighters Predators by Paul Beck and Lee Martin

If you love Deadly 60, you’ll be mad for this beefy full-colour collection of some of the world’s most formidable predators. Ridiculously fearsome and astounding photographs accompany an incredible list of hunters from apex predators such as lions and sharks to the less ubiquitous platypus. Scientific facts and stats provide just enough information without obscuring the teeth baring drama and are paired in side-by-side showdowns – anglerfish vs. pelican eel, for example. An awesome addition (with stickers and poster!) for the would-be marine biologists and nature lovers aged 6 – 14.

Becker & Mayer! Kids July 2017

All Aboard the Discovery Express by Emily Hawkins, Tom Adams and Tom Clohoshy-Cole

Move over Orient Express, the Discovery Express has arrived, platform one. This is a glorious pop-up, pull, and flap creation allowing readers to embark on a thrilling journey back in time with Nancy Delaney, geographer, explorer and all-round adventurer. Choco-block with puzzles and fascinating facts, Nancy escorts you from Paris to England, the US and beyond on a spellbinding journey of discovery about trains, planes and yes, automobiles. Even submarines are included in this book, which is more of a code-busting adventure romp through history. Highly recommended and ideal for sleuths and transport spotters from 10 years+.

Quarto Group September 2017

Continue reading Dim’s Christmas Crackers Lists – Bag the Best Kids’ Books

Kids Will be Rapt to Find these Wrapped this Christmas – Part 1

It’s time to get organised for the festive season so I’ll be beginning with Part 1 of my Christmas gift suggestions today! These selections are for the busy, hands-on builders in your life. For worldly explorers, air travellers, and magical realm inquisitors, there’s an interactive gift here for you.

The Discovery Globe Build-Your-Own Globe Kit is the perfect choice for an action adventure into exploring the world. Kitted up in a neat fold-out box with World Explorer’s Guide on the left and spinning globe pieces packaged on the right, you can study the world to your heart’s content…and even make your own!

The Guide consists of easy-to-follow instructions on building your globe, which then acts as the prop for all the amazing facts, natural wonders, famous faces and topics that you’ll be finding out about. Each piece fits together to represent an Earth consisting of different types of land (ie. oceans, freshwater, tropical rainforest, etc), and icons of the animal world and human life. The completed construction measures 47cm tall, and actually spins like any other globe!

Leon Gray and Sarah Edmonds cleverly designed the book with content divided into manageable parts and informative, colourful illustrations representing graphics, keys, diagrams and maps. Sections include The Earth in Space, the Sun, Land and Water, Biomes, Natural Wonders, Endangered Animals, Travelling the World, people, arts, food, plus more.

With fascinating information, glossary, interactive questions and things to find on your spinning model, The Discovery Globe is a marvellous cultural, scientific and geographical package that will have young curious minds enthralled for hours. For ages six and up.

Quarto Children’s Books and Walker Books, October 2017.

Next to fly into your Christmas stockings is the Busy Builders Airport kit. Build your own 92cm airport play set with punch-out models to put together, and fold out runways and puzzle pieces. You can construct everything from a jumbo jet to propellor plane, helicopter and ground controllers, the terminal, baggage truck and control towers. What fun!

The Awesome Airport Action guide, written by Timothy Knapman, includes everything you need to know about life around aeroplanes. It is a child-friendly introduction to airports and what to expect when travelling. The text is energetic and engaging, but also informative enough to provide children from age five a clear concept of the different facets of air travel. The booklet begins with checking in to the terminal and handling baggage and security, moving through to planes, vehicles, their parts and preparation, the roles of ground crew, take off and the in-flight adventure, and finally landing. Cute cartoon characters with their little speech bubbles and solid graphics with the various details to peruse give the feel of a fun advertisement that entices your interest.

Gorgeously packaged with a velcro tab, Busy Builders Airport encourages young pilot enthusiasts and world travelling wannabes, or even those yet to embark on any flying adventure, with plenty of knowledge and role play action that will have them soaring to great heights.

Walker Books Australia, October 2017.

Build the Dragon is a very cool gift to give a 7+ year-old fanatical about fantasy, myths and legends. Eye-catching from any bookstore shelf, this book and model kit will certainly spark a flame amongst dragon lovers.

Dugald Steer, fanatic himself on the subject of myths and legends with numerous books in his ‘Ology’ series, presents this spectacular world into dragons. In fourteen parts over 32 pages, learn about these beasts’ anatomy, their history, their worlds and their supernatural powers. A suitably archaic-type text is interwoven between the captivating multi-media illustrations by Jonathan Woodward and Douglas Carrel. This unique combination of artists brings this book to life with their mix of exotic drawings and realistic images.

And to add even more sensation to this already captivating non-fiction/fantasy resource is the 46-piece, 3D moving model of a Western dragon that you can build yourself! Kids will fall head over heels for this magnificent addition that includes 40cm of dragon goodness with its motorised flapping wings and gnashing jaws.

Build the Dragon is a highly appealing, interactive guide to living out one’s dragon obsessions. Primary school children will surely be able to show off their expertise in all things magical realms, and engagement with their miniature dragon replica will certainly enliven their imaginations even further.

Quarto Children’s Books and Walker Books Australia, November 2017.

Stay tuned for more Christmas gift ideas! 🙂

Picture Books Steeped in History

From sea to air and up into space. A substantial ship voyage. Amazing aeroplane feats. And a rousing rover exploring the red planet. Three different modes of transport literally transport us back in time with their historical significance, teaching us so much about how we got to where we are today. All inspiring, all empowering. Here are a few prodigious picture book stories steeped in history.

Ten Pound Pom, Carole Wilkinson (author), Liz Anelli (illus.), Walker Books, October 2017.

The true story of an almost thirteen-year-old Carole Wilkinson, Ten Pound Pom tells of the auspicious journey of a young girl and her family immigrating from England to Australia in the early 1960s.

Post World War II, under The White Australia Policy, a scheme called The United Kingdom-Australia Free and Assisted Passage Agreement promised emigrating British sunshine, plentiful food, higher wages and space to live. Ex-servicemen and children could travel for free, and other adults paid only £10, dubbing these migrants as ‘Ten Pound Poms’. The inclusion of facts explaining The £10 Migration Scheme, glossary, and the ship Arcadia, in which Carole’s family travelled, gives the book a depth and validity that is so neatly etched into this fascinating and personal story.

With a few packed boxes of furniture and precious belongings, and a small amount of knowledge about this foreign land, the dream of a new life for the Wilkinsons in Australia was to become a reality. A whole season and 11,397 miles sailed on the SS Arcadia later, the family had ventured into uncharted waters across the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal, along the Red Sea, through the Indian Ocean and the roughs of the Great Australian Bight to their Adelaide destination. All the while, a young Carole learns of different cultures, experiences new sights and even makes a new friend.

Wilkinson re-lives her time on the “huge floating hotel” in her own childlike voice, and her impressions of life as a new resident in Australia clearly come from a place of fond memories. The illustrations by Liz Anelli superbly capture the elements of the era and the snippets of Carole’s diverse experiences. The pictorial features add energy and information, including maps, scenery and items of interest, breaking up the text to allow readers to absorb each part in manageable chunks.

As a part of the ‘Our Stories’ series, Ten Pound Pom is a valuable, appealing non-fiction/narrative resource for studying history and sharing migration stories. Capturing the hearts and minds of readers in middle to upper primary, and beyond, this book is perfect to pore over for the purposes of research and for pleasure.

Amazing Australians in their Flying Machines, Prue & Kerry Mason (authors), Tom Jellett (illus.), Walker Books, April 2017.

This time we travel by air as we explore the fascinating history of the development of aviation in Australia. In Amazing Australians in their Flying Machines, we are indulged with the stories of ten brave pilots beginning in 1851 through to 1935.

Ex-convict Dr William Bland patented an idea in the 1850s for an Atmotic Ship to journey from England to Australia in a mere few days, as opposed to the norm of the exhausting three month sea voyage. The balloon flight was dubbed as dangerous, and so literally never took off.

We then discover the invention of the cellular box kites that Lawrence Hargrave believed could give the stability needed for flight in 1894. Following that came the glider of George Taylor in 1909, the first heavier-than-air flying machine successfully airborne over Narrabeen Beach. The narrated and factual absorbing text and images continue to delight us with stories from the brilliant air skills of Commanding Officer of the Australian Flying Corps, Richard Williams in 1917, Ross Macpherson Smith’s winning success in the 1919 Great Race from London to Darwin, plus more inspiring heroes including Nancy Bird, the youngest woman pilot in Australia to gain her commercial pilot’s licence at the age of nineteen.

Each double page spread is littered with interesting historical aviation information, speculative personal recounts, and amazing pilot and general knowledge facts. Tom Jellett’s retro-style cartoons interwoven throughout the army-themed coloured pages add the elements of character, humour and verve to support the material and collection of photos.

The authors, Prue and Kerry Mason, inspired to research Australian aviation history after purchasing their own vintage aeroplane, have provided a sterling non-fiction volume of interest for aeroplane enthusiasts and keen history buffs. Amazing Australians in their Flying Machines carries its weight in gold (or air) as an empowering and uplifting primary school vehicle.

Curiosity: The Story of a Mars Rover, Markus Motum (author, illus.), Walker Books, October 2017.

This is the story of Curiosity; a Mars rover sent to far-off places, and I mean far-off places, to discover whether there has been, or ever will be, life on Mars. Here is another out-worldly experience steeped in history that will not only fascinate, but enrich our imaginations and ‘curiosity’ with many unanswered mysteries of the universe.

With its illustriously large landscape orientation, varied text sizes and pictorial layouts, Curiosity certainly lives up to its space-themed nature. The spreads are generously ‘spread out’, leaving plenty of ‘space’ to digest and conceptualise the given information and images. Markus Motum’s diagrammatical, clean and aerodynamic style of graphics suitably provide the book its authenticity, effectiveness and allure.

So why the desire to explore The Red Planet? Scientists believed there was once life on Mars, but for humans to travel in a rocket would take 350,000,000 miles, and the possibility of not returning. That’s where the Mars Rover comes in. With NASA’s ongoing trials and tribulations of previous missions, a more advanced rover was designed and developed in California – the process of equipment and technology inventions are explained in the book. Curiosity, as she was named, was transported across the U.S to the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, where she was launched into space in November 2011. 253 days later the rover carefully landed with precision. “Touchdown confirmed. We’re safe on Mars!”

With the well-considered inclusion of a timeline of Mars missions from 1964-5 to present to complete the book, the study into climate and geology and the preparation of human exploration shows there is hope still of answering those curious questions of microbial life. Motum’s celebratory book of Curiosity’s fifth year of exploration on Mars is targeted towards kids and adults alike, using a first-person voice from the rover’s perspective. The inclusion of facts is so comprehensive and never compromised, making this a valuable resource to study and treasure.

Feeling Good – Books to Increase Awareness

Getting to know oneself and understanding the world that shapes us is one of the first steps to feeling good about oneself and the world in which we live. This handful of books addresses the art of awesomeness and why it’s important to live it.

It’s OK To Feel The Way You Do by Josh Langley

Langley’s little books of BIG messages about self-help and self-esteem are house favourites. Neither overtly moralistic nor sermonic, they present beautiful messages of love, understanding and hope, accompanied with novel, cartoon-esque illustrations.

Continue reading Feeling Good – Books to Increase Awareness

In the Shadow of Man (AKA Jane Goodall’s Remarkable Influence)

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love or feel like Jane Goodall influenced their lives, so I don’t pretend to be a bigger Goodall fan than the next person. ‘At least one person at every book signing tells me that In the Shadow of Man [hereafter referred to as Shadow] was instrumental in their deciding on a career with animals,’ Goodall writes in the book’s preface. ‘Usually there are several people in the same line who want to thank me for influencing their lives in some way or other.’

Her work had, for instance, an undoubtable impact on, and was a precursor to, one of my favourite books, The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary. That award-winning book concentrates on Canadian primatologist turned writer Andrew Westoll’s time working in a sanctuary for chimps rescued and retired from medical research.

Like the people who queue up at Goodall’s book signings, I too would like to say that I’m ever so grateful that she has done what she’s done in this world. Because for me, as for so many others, Goodall’s been a particularly powerful role model. That is, one who did what no one thought could be done and most thought was outright crazy. I’m particularly impressed that she wasn’t contained by the traditions of the time that expected her as a woman to focus not on obtaining knowledge and sharing it, but on settling down in suburbia and raising a family.

As someone who has spent their entire life feeling round-peg-square-hole about their desire to have an animals- and environment-focused career, there are few women to I’ve been able to look up to and—in my own feeble way—attempt to learn from or emulate.

It seems I’m not alone after all, as Goodall notes this a few pars later in her preface: ‘Shadow, I think, has been especially significant for women. Hundreds—perhaps thousands—have been inspired to attempt things that they had only dreamed about.’

Shadow, which documents Goodall’s first and ground-breaking forays into chimpanzee observations, has been around for quite a while. I hadn’t read it for complex reasons even I don’t entirely understand: I doubted it could tell me much more about Goodall that wider popular culture and articles, which highlighted key elements, already had. I simultaneously worried that the book wouldn’t live up to my altogether-too-high expectations.

I’m glad I did finally get round to reading it. It’s given me a more holistic understanding of Goodall and her successes, as well as her stumblings on the way to them. Those include that the chimps were terrified and wary of her for months and months and months, and that she contracted malaria and did not have any medication to treat it because a doctor had misadvised her that there was no malaria in the region. Then there are the wrenching moments, such as when the chimps contracted polio. That’s not something I’ve heard a lot of pop culture discussion about.

The book also helped me marvel at the intelligence of the chimps, not least at Figan cunningly leading other chimps away from food so he could double back and score himself an unshared feast. Or how a juvenile chimp kidnapping a younger sibling was an ingenious way of getting their mother to leave a termites nest at which they had otherwise decided to stay.

Goodall quotes her then husband Hugo as describing observing chimps in remote wilderness in Africa as ‘…like being spectators of life in some village. Endless fascination, endless enjoyment, endless work.’ For me, it sums up perfectly what a career involved in studying and caring for animals entails. But I’m sure most other people knew that. I just wish I’d stumped up and read Shadow earlier. Suffice to say, I’ll be delving into Goodall’s subsequent books soon.

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Review: This Is Going To Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor

I have a terrible habit of carefully selecting a new book—often one that’s been sitting on my bedside table for some time—to read on longhaul flights, only to be distracted by a shiny new book at the airport while waiting to board. I invariably end up rather guiltily but compulsively buying said distracting book and squishing it into my backpack.

Adam Kay’s This Is Going To Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor was one such impulse airport purchase. I was loitering in a bookshop in Heathrow airport waiting for the airline to announce from which gate the first of my interminably long flights to get back to Australia would depart. (Why they couldn’t announce it more than 30 minutes before the plane left, I don’t know. Surely they knew where an A380 was going park. But I digress.)

I get to call myself a doctor these days, but I’m of the non-medical variety because my family is genetically, pathologically squeamish. That doesn’t stop me gravitating toward books that are about not so much gruesome medical details as the experience of what it’s like to work a medical doctor’s job.

This Is Going To Hurt features, as the subtitle suggests, excerpts from diaries Kay kept during his years navigating the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) junior and slightly more senior doctor positions. (He’s long departed the medical world to be a writer and comedian—presumably much more fun jobs that still manage to leverage all that hard-learnt knowledge.)

And it is, to be concise: achingly insightful and funny. I read the book non-stop during my flights, foregoing sleep and new-release movies for it, closing it up only briefly to ingest airline food, and only then because space and awkwardness temporarily prevented me wielding both a book and cutlery. The book is ab-clenchingly hilarious, although the best bits—of which there are many—are probably not entirely suitable to discuss on this family friendly blog, or simply require a little more context than I can provide.

Essentially, the book provides a glimpse into the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed junior doctor experience. Specifically, how nothing could quite prepare (Adam) Kay for the NHS’ bureaucratic efficiency slash inefficiency: ‘Day one. H [his then-girlfriend whose identity has been protected] has made me a packed lunch. I have a new stethoscope, a new shirt, and a new email address: [email protected]. It’s good to know that no matter what happens today, nobody could accuse me of being the most incompetent person in the hospital,’ Kay writes. ‘And even if I am, I can blame it on Atom.’

But his email address is trumped by that of his friend Amanda Saunders-Vest, whose hyphen they spelt out: [email protected].

This Is Going To Hurt also outlines the kinds of truth-is-stranger than fiction moments Kay frequently experienced, such as receiving an all-staff email about ensuring all samples were sent to the lab, stat. What prompted the broadcast was a psych patient who had been transferred to the respiratory ward with pneumonia. He’d been discovered scavenging and ingesting sputum samples the previous day.

There are some slightly more serious undertones to the book too.

The book blurb says: ‘Welcome to 97-hour weeks. Welcome to life-and-death decisions. Welcome to a constant tsunami of bodily fluids. Welcome to earning less than the hospital parking meter. Wave goodbye to your friends and relationships…’

This Is Going To Hurt shows the slow unravelling of Kay’s relationship and documents myriad missed family or generally fun occasions through unending work commitments and last-minute emergencies. Also, I learnt from this book that (in the UK, at least) all junior doctors change hospitals on precisely the same day every six or 12 months—on what is known as ‘Black Wednesday’. I *think* this happens in Australia every January. ‘You might think it would be a terrible idea to exchange all your Scrabble tiles in one go and expect the hospital to run exactly as it did the day before,’ Kay writes. ‘And you’d be quite right.’

One review I read of This Is Going To Hurt (or rather Kay’s related show, which draws on much of the same material), mentions that the reviewer spent the first 40 minutes laughing and the next 10 crying. That’s an accurate summation of what I experienced.

Kay’s penned an open letter (in what could possibly be considered a rethink of the equivalent of an epilogue) to the Secretary of State for Health at the book’s end. Its opening sentence discusses how a Harvard Law professor once suggested we should seal the nuclear codes in a live human’s heart. The thinking was that if the president wanted to wipe out a bunch of people from a distance, he first had to cut open and likely kill one person up close and personal. Likewise, Kay argues, the Secretary of State for Health should truly comprehend what junior doctors are subjected to in terms of punishingly gruelling hours, comparably low pay, and terrifyingly enormous responsibility.

Apart from wondering how Kay found the time or energy to keep these diaries along the way, but eternally grateful that he did, I wholly recommend reading This Is Going To Hurt. It’s relevant even to those of us based outside the UK because the experience—and the pressures—is undoubtedly transferable.

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Shakespeare Saving Lives

I’m more than slightly hesitant to admit that I’ve never really liked Shakespeare. Mostly for the same reasons I don’t really like poetry—there is greater depth and elaboration that requires the brains and requisite patience I don’t possess in order to unpack the prose.

So it unsurprisingly took having Shakespeare Saved My Life recommended to me a few times before I finally picked up a copy. What finally sold me on reading the book was that it was about an academic’s life-changing in-prison teaching program. That’s something I’m definitely interested in.

I’ll preface this blog with the spoiler that even after reading this book—good though it was—I still don’t really like Shakespeare. But I do have a vastly greater appreciate of his—or her, depending on which ‘who actually was Shakespeare?’ theory you adhere to—prowess.

I also have an appreciation for—or rather despair of—prison systems around the world. Rehabilitation and educational opportunities are crucial, but unpopular with taxpayers, so programs like Laura Bates’ are few, far between, and constantly up against the wall.

Apart from having to navigate massive university teaching loads as a junior academic not yet able to secure tenure, Bates had to navigate prison bureaucracy and puzzlement. The Shakespeare-teaching program was actually the first of its kind, so Bates had to undergo standard prison guard training to learn to handle situations lest she find herself smack bang in the middle of a riot. If she wanted in, she was essentially told, she could have in, but the prison guards were unlikely to be able to or even have time to get to her if or when things went south.

And, as she wrote: ‘I quickly learned that it wasn’t the noisy ranges but the quiet ones—eerily quiet—that I needed to worry about.’

‘Female on the range!’ was the primary catcall in her initial visits. Over time, though, that changed to the more accepting ‘Shakespeare on the range!’

That’s not to say things went entirely smoothly. The term ‘gunned down’ referred to bullets of liquid-y products like urine, semen, and faeces. And there was plenty of bureaucratic farce, not least relating to the bulletproof vests the guards and Bates were instructed to wear to ‘protect’ them. As one guard said: ‘If we fall over in them things, we’re like a turtle on his back. [Freaking] dumbasses in Central Office!’

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Shakespeare Saved My Life centres around Bates, a newbie academic who stumbles across the power of teaching Shakespeare to prisoners. On the prisoners’ part they, despite the apparent chasm of time and life experience between them and Shakespeare’s tales, are able to relate to and learn from the texts.

They’re also able to translate the texts into terms even I can digest. Take, for example, this foreword to Hamlet: ‘Tell me if this has ever happened to you: Your uncle kills your father and marries your mother as he steals your inheritance. Your good friends try to trick you into your grave, but you trick them into theirs instead…When it’s all said and done, you kill your crazy girl’s brother and he kills you—but not before you finally kill your uncle. It was a rough month, to say the least.’

The star pupil and inmate is Newton, who is as intelligent as his moniker suggests. He’s also apparently the rotten-est of rotten eggs. When Bates met him, Newton had spent a record 10 years in ‘the SHU’ (read: isolation). But upon reading his thoughtful text interpretations, Bates quickly went from ‘I can’t work with this one’ to ‘there’s something incredible about him’.

‘It seems like you can spend time on just about each passage and come up with three different conclusions,’ Newton says at one stage. Hear hear. Although in my case, it’s more likely that I struggle to come up with a single interpretation of any given passage.

His insights into Shakespeare are simultaneously greater than any I’ve ever previously encountered and also more linked to real-life. He also absolutely adores Shakespeare: ‘When it comes to literature, Shakespeare is the equivalent to 2-Pac in the rap industry, Led Zeppelin in the rock industry, Michael Jordan in the world of basketball, or Muhammad Ali in the world of boxing. He is the man!’

I can’t say I’ll ever feel smart enough to like Shakespeare, but I heard myself going ‘huh’ a few times while reading Newton’s insights into them. If that’s the closest I’ll get to accessing, understanding, and actually enjoying Shakespeare, then it’s A-Ok with me. And if Shakespeare is helping people who are incarcerated, and therefore helping rehabilitate them ready for release into the community, then it’s doubly A-Ok so.

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Fantastic Camouflages and Where to Find Them – Picture Books

Fascinating creatures and hidden characters reside in every nook and cranny in this wonderful world. You have the chance to discover their exact locations, even when cleverly camouflaged from plain view. Explore beautiful and exotic landscapes while you search through these delightful picture books.

Can You Find Me?, Gordon Winch (author), Patrick Shirvington (illus.), New Frontier Publishing, September 2017.

Widely acclaimed author Gordon Winch, together with the charismatic artwork of Patrick Shirvington, present this Australiana vision of beauty in our natural scenery.

From long, grassy tufts, to trees on the shore and nestled in amongst green leaves and winding branches are a secret collection of furry, feathered, scaly and ‘sticky’ animals just waiting to be uncovered. Whether it’s a grasshopper in the long grass, a king parrot within leaves and fruit, a leaf moth atop a pile of dead leaves, a gecko scampering on the muddy forest floor, a stick insect in sticks, or a seahorse weaving through the seaweed, the camouflage premise is the same. And Winch’s words hail clearly and repetitively; “I live in… I look like… That is why I am hard to see. Can you find me?” With their own distinction, the watercolour smoothness of fluidity and unifying tones cleverly mask each animal within its surrounding, however visible enough for young readers to play the game.

Can You Find Me? is an enchanting book for inquisitive early years children who will no doubt forever be on the lookout for hidden creatures wherever they may go.

Gecko, Raymond Huber (author), Brian Lovelock (illus.), Walker Books, October 2017. 🦎

As a part of the Nature Storybook sets, like Claire Saxby’s Koala, Emu and Big Red Kangaroo, author Raymond Huber and illustrator Brian Lovelock present this narrative non-fiction beauty, Gecko, that sleekly combines story and fact to create a most captivating read.

A scurrying gecko juts between sunning and guarding himself in the brightness of the day, but as the sun begins to set, food is on his mind. His food is also on his entire body as he peels and consumes his own skin! Apparently they shed their outer skin several times a year. Gecko also has clever ways to protect himself from predators as he alters his skin’s inflections, colours and folds to camouflage and hide his shadows. But Gecko becomes the target of a ferocious leaping rat, stealthily escaping the prying jaws by dropping his tail. And with one final defence of his territory, Gecko is safe and self-sufficient.

The illustrations are remarkable with their textured and vivacious watercolour and acrylic background speckles and splashes, beautifully replicating the gecko’s appearance and natural characteristics. Equipped with page numbers, information on geckos and an index, Gecko acts as a practical reinforcement for primary students to study different text types and the fascinating world of the lizard species. 🦎

Where’s Wally? Destination: Everywhere!, Martin Handford (author, illus.), Walker Books UK, October 2017.

“Have you found Wally yet?” If you haven’t had the chance to find the famous wanderer and his intrepid travellers, or if you just can’t get enough and want to share the experience with your young ones, now’s your time! I’m fully stocked up on Where’s Wally? books (see my post, Wally Turns 30!), but now with Destination: Everywhere, the magical search continues.

This beautiful, large square hardcover with embossed linen spine is a Wally-fan’s delight. It includes twelve of the classic scenes with brand new twists, turns and playful meanders across the globe. In The Great Portrait Exhibition, Wally-Spotters are asked to scrutinise over the individual paintings, and even spot something that can “go and come back again”. A new collection of fantastical creatures and phenomenal people are clustered together in a gazillion frames – your job to match a given set with those in the main scene. More scenes follow with identifying localised portraits in amongst the larger picture, such as particular dinosaurs in the Jurassic Games, finding the corresponding Wally silhouettes in The Land of Wallies, and conducting a one-eyed Jolly Roger flag spotting search in Pirate Panorama. There are other games like manovering through mazes and sorting shapes and symbols, to keep your eyes peeled and fingers dancing all through the book.

Once again, Where’s Wally? contains a pint of quirkiness and an ocean of vibrant colours and life. Destination: Everywhere! will transport its audience to the vastest of places only to get lost in the most minuscule of details. Still a classic!

Our Mob: Aboriginal Art

Aboriginal literature and other art forms are transforming Australian culture at the moment. The recent Melbourne and Brisbane Writers’ Festivals were both opened by Aboriginal speakers, including dual Miles Franklin winning author, Kim Scott. Leah Purcell’s play script, The Drover’s Wife, won overall Book of the Year in both the NSW and Victorian Premier’s Literary awards. Other Aboriginal authors are also winning major awards with Bruce Pascoe and Ellen Van Neerven recent stand-outs. The ten-year anniversary of Alexis Wright’s Miles Franklin award win for Carpentaria was celebrated at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival this month.

The new sumptuous coffee table book art book, Our Mob, God’s Story also showcases Indigenous Australians through portrayal of their religious beliefs using their traditional form of story-telling through pictures. It is edited by award-winning Christobel Mattingley, known for championing and sharing Aboriginal stories in Maralinga, the Anangu Story and Maralinga’s Long Shadow: Yvonne’s Story and other books and by Louise Sherman. It is endorsed by Noel Pearson and Boori Monty Pryor, who was the inaugural Children’s Laureate and winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary award (children’s fiction) for Shake a Leg.

The editors spent over four years collecting the artwork, striving to include works from as many language groups as possible. 115 paintings were eventually selected, including two by Yvonne Edwards whose story is told in Maralinga’s Long Shadow.

A glowing range of colours and styles create dynamism throughout the book. The genesis of each artwork is explained and often a brief description of the form and media is included. Some of the Biblical text is also written in language and there is a glossary of symbols.

Creation by Glendora Naden

Creation stories proliferate. They range from Glendora Naden’s earthy, symbolic Creation to Bronwyn Coleman-Sleep’s vibrant Sunflowers (Garden of Eden). Traditional stories from the Old Testament include Kristy Naden’s patterned Noah’s Flood, Rupert Jack’s stunning dot-painting, Abraham (featured image at top), and Gail Naden’s sand and ochre Weilwan Waters II.

Born for You by Julie Dowling

Julie Dowling magnificently uses both Aboriginal iconography and European Renaissance-style portraiture in Born for You and Grace Kumbi employs flowing lines and dot work in Three Hunters.

The aerial perspective of Central Australian artwork is demonstrated in Imiyari Adamson’s Tjulpun Tjulpunpa (Desert Wildflowers)

Tjulpun Tjulpunya (Desert Wildflowers) by Imiyari Adamson

and sinuous symbols show The Greatest Love of All (Bronwyn Coleman-Sleep).

Tree of Life by Amata women

A group of Amata women created the rich, well composed Tree of Life.

As the introduction to the book outlines: “Some narrow-minded missionaries did not seek to understand the culture… Others with a wider vision, sought to learn the heart languages of the people among whom they lived…In this book 66 artists from over 40 First Nations of Australia share their vision of Christ, human and divine.”

Our Mob, God’s Story is a beautiful and significant art book. It is an affirmation and celebration of Australia’s first peoples and those who hold Christian beliefs.

Three Hunters by Grace Kumbi

Hopefully it will also help to achieve its aim of reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.

Amazing Creatures of the World – Stunning Non-Fiction Books for Kids

When non-fiction texts are presented in the most visually and perceptively- arousing ways that leave the mundane behind and turn into a curious adventure of the wild variety. That’s what these following graphic information books about nature’s amazing creatures do to nurture and sharpen our hearts and minds.

A is for Australian Animals, Frané Lessac (author, illus.), Walker Books, August 2017.

Internationally renown for her striking illustrations is USA-born, Frané Lessac, artist to books including Pattan’s Pumpkin (by Chitra Soundar), Simpson and his Donkey, Ned Kelly and the Green Sash, and Midnight (all by Mark Greenwood). Her remarkable A is for Australia (review) precedes this stunning addition; the factastic tour, A is for Australian Animals.

A necessary introduction neatly begins the book at ‘A’; a map of Australia surrounded by general facts about the unique qualities of our native fauna. What’s to follow is a detailed alphabetic collection of fascinating facts and characteristics all the way through to ‘Z’. With one or two animals featured on each double page spread, this resource is a compendium of colour and life. Each page is divided with large, bold headers and accompanied by smaller font paragraphs interwoven between the pictures. Beautiful, vibrant earthy tones in a production of silky gouache and etched naive-style paintings capture the eclectic mix of wildlife characters in their surroundings.

Equipped with animal distribution maps in the index and enough mind-blowing information to forge the most knowledgable animal experts, A is for Australian Animals is a highly valuable and engaging learning tool for students in primary school. I am now a fan of the long-necked, mosquito-devouring oblong turtle!

Koala, Claire Saxby (author), Julie Vivas (illus.), Walker Books, August 2017.

One particular favourite is the native Aussie fluffball- the koala. With other best-selling Australian animal themed books by award-winning non-fiction author Claire Saxby, including Emu and Big Red Kangaroo (review), here is a gripping exploration of the symbolic Koala.

Written in both a story tale and informative format, and masterfully illustrated by the legendary Julie Vivas (Possum Magic), Koala’s journey begins high in a tree fork with his nurturing mother. But he is old enough to look after himself now, and being challenged by another male sees little Koala lost in search for another home. Factually, males fight in their need for a mate between late spring and the end of summer. Navigating his way around the bushland and avoiding dangers like predators and human deforestation, Koala eventually finds his own tree where he is safe and independently sufficient.

Here is a book that is so beautifully descriptive, with sensational watercolour scenes you could hang on your wall. Koala enforces enough compassion to reinforce proactive pledges for wildlife sustainability, but is also simply a pleasurable and captivating read for its primary school aged readers.

Rock Pool Secrets, Narelle Oliver (author, illus.), Walker Books, April 2017.

With her final contribution to the children’s literature world, the superlative Narelle Oliver leaves a lasting testament of her undeniable passion for the creatures of our world and her abundance of talent. Oliver has blessed us with numerous award-winning treasures, like Baby Bilby, where do you sleep?, The Best Beak in Boonaroo Bay, Sand Swimmers, and this last one; Rock Pool Secrets.

A scrupulously crafted linocut print, etch and watercolour portfolio of art make up this glorious exploration into the shallows of the pools. Each spread contains secrets nestled in and amongst the exhibition of line, shape, colour and texture. Cleverly integrated lift-the-flaps intersect between what is hiding and its unveiling. Whether it’s bubble-coloured shrimp tangled in seaweed, rock-fronting, ‘bumpy’ starfish, octopuses in ink clouds, or turban sea snails sealed in their shells with ‘lids called cat’s eyes’, there’s plenty to peruse and discover in this satisfyingly magical, concealed realm of the rock pool.

Beautifully descriptive turns and phrases add more depth and interest to the stunning visuals that facilitate factual knowledge about this richly diverse world of sea organisms. Huge amounts of detail to be learned about some of the smallest and most fascinating creatures! Children from four will absolutely delight in the Rock Pool Secrets search, but it will be no secret how much they love it!

Wild Animals of the South, Dieter Braun (author, illus.), Walker Books, June 2017. First edition by Flying Eye Books, London.

German author-illustrator, Dieter Braun, presents a spectacular array of animals from the southern hemisphere in this delectably gorgeous encyclopaedia-style graphic volume. Wild Animals of the South is the sequel to Wild Animals of the North.

A powerfully persuasive introduction leads the opening with a dedication to the wonderfully colourful, diverse, rich and rare wildlife that lives within these pages. Unfortunately, many will, and have already disappeared. What would the world be like without the power and beauty of these creatures in the animal kingdom? Despite their unique differences, their individual ways of living, it is with such importance that we take cognisance; “their will to live and their freedom” is what ties them together.

The book is divided into five regions; Africa, South America, Asia, Australia and Antarctica. Fun, fascinating and witty facts of various animals are explained in short paragraphs (just the right amount to prevent brain-overload!), along with its common and more scientific name, and striking, crisp and textured prints that fill the large-face pages. Meet majestic lions, impressive giraffes and even the unceremonious mantis in Africa, the glowing toucan and lazy sloths in South America, and zesty crocs, powerful kangaroos and our cuddly wombats in Australia, plus so much more!

There are 140 pages, including a pictorial index of each animal in their region, of breathtaking images and banks of useful, modest and age-appropriate information to add to your brain trust. Wild Animals of the South is a must-have resource for any home or school bookshelf.

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Natalie Haynes, Randa Abdel-Fattah & Yassmin Abdel-Magied at the SWF

As part of this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival Student Sessions, I was fortunate to host a couple of sessions with British stand-up comedian Natalie Haynes and facilitate one with Randa Abdel-Fattah and Yassmin Abdel-Magied.

Natalie Haynes

Natalie became one of the most popular presenters at the festival. She’s probably better described as a performer, though, because she brings ancient history and the ancient mythic world alive and into the present for her audiences.

She reworks stories for her own purposes, drawing on her expertise in the ancient world and on making it relevant today. She stands out because she can share her knowledge on stage, screen and in her books in a rivetting way.

Natalie is a classicist and a comedian, an unusual combination. She used to be a stand-up comic, but retired when she realised she preferred tragedy to comedy. Her quick wit and incredible knowledge enabled her to effortlessly command the stage.

Natalie’s new novel The Children of Jocasta was published in May. It’s a re-telling of the Oedipus/Jocasta/Antigone tale and will make you fascinated by mythic history (if you’re not already). An earlier book, The Ancient Guide to Modern Life explores philosophers such as Plato, Ovid and Agrippina the Younger.

Natalie Haynes

Randa Abdel-Fattah & Yassmin Abdel-Magied

In our session about ‘Mono or Multi-cultured’ at the Wharf, Randa Abdel-Fattah, who examines issue of racism, multiculturalism and human rights in Australia through her novels and essays, explored what contemporary multiculturalism and racism look like in Australia today with activist and author Yassmin Abdel-Magied.

Randa has written Does My Head Look Big in This?, When Michael Met Mina and other novels, particularly for young adults, as well as essays. When Michael Met Mina is an important story because it gives both Michael’s view – a popular guy coming from a racist family – and Mina’s – an intelligent young woman whose family was killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, forcing her and her mother to flee by boat. The novel airs many issues and opinions – true and false – such as people saying that ‘potential terrorists are hiding among boat people’ and people who want to be able to say, ‘Merry Christmas’ without offending anyone; to some darker-skinned girls feeling they have to use skin-whitening creams and others being intimidated and vilified. The novel gives diverse viewpoints. It’s great to read because we are exposed to different perspectives and then make up our own minds. It shows the power of literature to create understanding and empathy.

Randa has also been a lawyer and has a PhD in Islamophobia in Australia.

Yassmin is well known through her media appearances and I’ve learned from reading her memoir, Yassmin’s Story (which she wrote recently while in her 20s) that she loved reading Enid Blyton and her favourite character was, as you might expect, George; she deliberately created slang at school; she channels Beyonce in time of need; she loves sharing stories on stage and she learned in debating that she can argue any side of an argument!

Yassmin also won Young Queenslander of the Year in 2015; as a teenager co-founded Youth Without Borders; is an engineer; worked on a rig and loves cars.

I cannot do these intelligent and articulate authors justice in their explanation of structural racism and other issues here. I do suggest reading their books and online articles to gain a greater understanding of, particularly, racism in Australia.Image may contain: 3 people, people smiling, people sitting

 

Book Week: the CBCA Eve Pownall Books, Part 2

Fabish: the horse that braved a bushfire

By Neridah McMullin, illustrated by Andrew McLean   Allen & Unwin

Another amazing animal in the Eve Pownall shortlisted books is the horse, Fabish. He was an old horse who rescued the yearlings from the terrible Black Saturday bushfire. The trainer rescued the finest race horses but couldn’t look after them all so he set Fabish free with the yearlings. He discovered every single one safe after the decimating fire but didn’t know where Fabian had taken them.

Picture book form is an apt medium for this true story. Important Australian illustrator, Andrew McLean, is an expert in painting our countryside and animals and Neridah McMullin has crystallised the events into a riveting tale.

Primary-age children could no doubt imagine where the horses may have found safety. They could write and draw their possible experiences.

These creators have published other very worthwhile books, such as McLean’s A Year on Our Farm and Bob the Railway Dog and McMullin’s Kick it to Me and KnockAbout Cricket.

William Bligh: a stormy story of tempestuous time

By Michael Sedunary, illustrated by Bern Emmerichs Berbay Publishing

This tale begins in 1808, 20 years after the First Fleet, when soldiers arrest Governor Bligh. It then retrospectively tells the account of the Mutiny on the Bounty before returning to Bligh’s attempts to quell both the Rum Rebellion and John Macarthur.

Michael Sedunary’s writing is picturesque and colourful; personalising Bligh’s life and endeavours.

Bern Emmerichs’ illustrations are intricate and patterned.

Surprisingly, blogging and social media appear in this book. Bligh’s log (now kept in Sydney’s Mitchell Library) relates blogging to the gossip, printed pamphlets and handbills of the period. Macarthur’s ‘tweets’ against Bligh are viewed as the social media of the time.

The first Australian political cartoon (adapted here) shows Bligh dragged from under his bed by Major Johnston’s men. Propaganda is explained and readers are asked to think about how ‘simple slogans and labels are meant to stop us thinking any further about things.’

More surprises appear when readers are asked to consider who is the hero or villain – Cook or Bligh? (Cook ordered many more floggings than Bligh.)

Other books in the series are What’s Your Story? and The Unlikely Story of Bennelong and Phillip.

 Enormous congratulations to Berbay Publishing for its Bologna Award.

 The Gigantic Book of Genes

By Lorna Hendry   Wild Dog Books

This is a glossy science publication with high quality photos. It includes seamless explanations of genes and genetics with apt examples for children to understand.

It has incredible information, such as ‘If you took all the DNA in your body, unwound it and stretched it out into a single strand, it would reach all the way to Pluto and back.’

Readers are asked: which has more genes: a grape or a human? (the answer is on page 32)

We are reminded that tongue-rolling and widow’s peaks are genetic.

No doubt every reader will be amazed when they clasp their hands to see if their left or right thumb is on top. (page 59) Try it!

And genetically all humans have 99.9% of identical DNA. We are almost exactly the same.

Book Week: the CBCA Eve Pownall Books, Part 1

The Eve Pownall Information Books this year span the ABC, animals and history.

They highlight several small, independent publishers, who should be congratulated on their excellent publications.

Spellbound: Making Pictures with the ABC

By Maree Coote    Melbournestyle Books

Spellbound also won a 2017 Bologna Ragazzi Award. It’s a large, sumptuous hardcover in three parts: architecture, animals and people, and features typography (letter art) where images are created from letters that spell their names.

Young children could find the letters in the illustrations. Older readers could appreciate the typographic poetry (shape poetry) where the meaning of the text is enhanced visually.

I spoke to the creator, Maree, on the day before she flew to Bologna to receive her award, who explained that she has restricted herself to using existing fonts.

There are three levels of difficulty within the book’s examples: 1. any letters that inspire a picture can be used 2. only use letters of the correct spelling of the subject’s name 3. only use correct spelling and only 1 font per letter (see page 3).

This book helps understanding of Visual Literacy. (See page 3 for line and shape, and page 63 for patterns.)

Children could use Macs, or equivalent, to create their own letter art.

There is even a mini tutorial on how to create animals using only letters.

 A-Z of Endangered Animals

Words and Illustrations by Jennifer Cossins       Red Parka Press

The Introduction explains how the high animal extinction rate is due largely to humans, and also introduced species such as rabbits and foxes, in Australia.

Everyone can help by reusing and recycling, keeping beaches clean and not wasting water.

The book is well-designed; it’s clean and clear.

It is structured with one animal representing each letter of the alphabet.

Information on the left-hand page includes conservation (e.g. endangered or vulnerable) status; current population; description of the animal and where it lives; and an interesting fact such as no two tigers have the same striped pattern, and eastern gorillas use basic tools to gather food.

Each animal is illustrated on the opposite page.

Primary-aged children could focus on Australian endangered animals and present information using the same format, possibly to make a class book.

Amazing Animals of Australia’s National Parks

By Gina M. Newton    National Library of Australia

Like A-Z Endangered Animals, Amazing Animals of Australia’s National Parks shows which species are endangered, vulnerable or threatened (their conservation status).

Every state and territory is included, so readers may be able to visit one.

The structure is organised by environments and habitats such as woodlands and grasslands (the Bush), wetlands and waterways, arid zones and coast, oceans and islands.

Each habitat has a double page, followed by one page each for selected animals.

Read this book to discover more about our wildlife and how to care for the environment

There are high-quality photos, interesting ‘fast facts’ and a glossary.

I will write about the 3 other Eve Pownall shortlisted books in another post.

I Don’t Believe it’s a Picture Book! Astonishing reads for all ages Part 1

Picture books are a unique marriage of art and words. Occasionally, not even the words are needed. A picture book can evoke emotions so intense, you’ll wonder how so few images and words managed to resonate such an immense amount of feeling in such a short space of time. This is what I find so utterly attractive and astonishing in well-written picture books. Today, we reveal a few that not only take my breath away, but also astound me with their cleverness, humanity and sheer depth. Enjoy. Continue reading I Don’t Believe it’s a Picture Book! Astonishing reads for all ages Part 1

2016 – The year that was

2016! What a year! Many people view it as one of the worst in recent history, with the death of numerous influential celebrities and some worldwide political craziness. And in a lot of ways, it certainly was. But, personally, on the book front, it was a pretty awesome year for me. I read some damn fine novels. And I had a few books published. So here is my literary take on the year that was.

READING

It was a good year of reading for me. I read lots of stuff for research, lots of stuff to my daughters and lots of stuff for my own pleasure. So here is my list of favourite 2016 reads…

Favourite children’s book

Wormwood Mire by Judith Rossell (read my review in Words and Pictures)

The second of the Victorian-set Stella Montgomery Intrigues, it follows on from Withering-by-Sea (2014). I loved the first book, but I like this one even better. I can only hope there will be more in this series.

9780733333002 9780733333019

Favourite Young Adult book

Gemina by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff.

This is the second book in the epic, game-changing Illuminae Files series. Using a dossier of documents, rather than the traditional novel narrative, these books are mind-blowingly amazing. Loved the first book (read my review in 2 Awesome YA Books). Dare I say it… I loved this one even more. It maintains the approach of the first, but extends it, adding extracts from an illustrated journal into the mix. There is a whole bunch of new characters, as well as some returning from the first book. There’s not much more I can say, except… Wow! Just… WOW!

9781101916629 9781780749815

Favourite Grown-up Book

Okay, I’ll be honest here… I hardly read any grown-up books in 2016. I mostly read stuff for kids and teens. But there are two books that really stood out.

Not Just a Piece of Cake: Being an Author by Hazel Edwards

This one was actually published in 2015 (I was just a little late in getting around to it). This is a memoir rather than an autobiography, by one of Australia’s best loved and most respected children’s authors. It’s an excellent read for anyone interested in the behind-the-scenes of a writing career. It’s also wonderfully personal and engaging. Loved it!

And then there was this book from 2009 (okay, so I was a lot late with this one)…

Patient Zero by Jonathan Maberry

A hard-edged, fast-paced techno-thriller with terrorists, bio-weapons, zombies and a special ops government agency called The Department of Military Sciences. It’s the first book in a series, which follows the adventures of Joe Ledger – a cop who goes to work for The Department of Military Sciences. I’ll definitely be reading the rest of the series.

I have mini-review of both these books here.

thumb_cover_not_just_a_piece_of_cake_jpg 9780575086937

9781742378527Favourite comic/graphic novel

Yet another book from 2015 that I didn’t get around to reading until 2016…

KidGlovz, written by Julie Hunt, illustrated by Dale Newman

A clear winner for me. An extraordinary graphic novel about a musical prodigy on a journey of self-discovery. (read my review in Words and Pictures)

sparkFavourite picture book

Another very clear winner…

Spark, written by Adam Wallace, illustrated by Andrew Plant.

A perfect harmony of words and pictures. [Read my review: This picture book is on FIRE!]

Favourite media tie-in book

Spoilt for choice this year. I simply could not make a decision. Go read my post about media tie-in book instead.

Overall Favourite Book

[insert drum roll]

Gemina by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff.

WRITING

2016 was great year for me as a writer. Books 11 and 12 in the YOU CHOOSE series were published – Extreme Machine Challenge and In the Realm of Dragons. There was also a new four-book series about the Royal Flying Doctor Service. And my first picture book ­ Meet… the Flying Doctors. I had stories in several anthologies (which you can read about here), including Dog Stories, Cat Stories and A Toy Christmas. Topping it all off was my fan-boy highlight… a story in THE X-FILES: Secret Agendas.

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Hand in hand with the writing, was speaking about writing – school visits, library talks and festival appearances. I had a total of 116 sessions over the course of 35 school visits, 7 festivals/seminars/conferences and 2 promo tours. You can read about some of my favourite experiences in these blog posts:

Oh, and I won an Honour Award at the KOALAs for You Choose: Alien Invaders From Beyond the Stars. 🙂 Here’s my schlocky alien invasion acceptance vid…

2017 is already shaping up to be an extraordinary year. More reading! More writing! More speaking! I’ll be sure to blog about some of it. Onwards and upwards!

Catch ya later, George

PS. Follow me on Twitter

Check out my DVD blog, Viewing Clutter.

thedeepLatest Post: DVD Review  — The Deep: Monsters & Myths

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That’s the Spirit – Aussie books that inform and thrill

With only a week to go before you sling a few more lamb chops onto the barbie, here is swag of ‘must read’ Aussie kids’ titles to put on your reading list, (not the barbie).

theres-a-magpie-in-my-soupThere’s a Magpie in my Soup Sean Farrar & Pat Kan

It’s that time of year when raucous baby magpies scream night and day for food. Seems they are no different when submersed in soup. Sean Farrar takes pre-schoolers on a merry epicurean romp through a menu of Australian critters as they pop up in the most extraordinary of places, (the only one that failed to make the endemic Aussie grade was the porcupine whom I felt could have been replaced by the Echidna). Snakes slither from cakes, cockatoos appear in loos. Possums get stuck in pies and blue tongues pop in for lunch. Kan’s chipper illustrations jockey this ditty merrily along  as rhyme and fauna are introduced to young readers in a fun, relatable way. A jolly little bedtime read.

Big Sky Publishing April 2016

stripes-in-the-forestStripes in the Forest – The Story of the Last Wild Thylacine Aleesah Darlison & Shane McGrath

Demonstrative illustrator, Shane McGrath teams with accomplished author, Aleesah Darlison in this picture book for mid primary readers about the last Tasmanian Tiger. Portrayed in a sweeping epic narrative from a female tiger’s viewpoint, Stripes in the Forest escorts readers through Tasmania’s pre-settlement days to present day, as she recalls a life of cyclical and human influenced changes. Gradually numbers of her kind reduce to the point of assumed extinction however, Stripes ends on a positive note of supposition; what if she is not the last of her kind?

Stripes in the Forest is alluring for its historical references, detailed Thylacine Facts and nod towards the need for environmental awareness and understanding. Full marks for this picture book for making a difference.

Big Sky Publishing July 2016

this-is-banjo-patersonThis is Banjo Paterson Tania McCartney & Christina Booth

Two leather clad gold embossed volumes of verse sit reverently upon my bookshelves: The Singer of the Bush and The Song of the Bush – the collected works of A B Banjo Paterson. Now another, smaller, more modest but equally as treasured title will accompany them; This is Banjo Paterson.

This inspired new picture book by the notable partnership of McCartney and Booth is as entertaining as it is beautiful. It begins in the middle of the Australian bush, at least Andrew Barton ‘Barty’s’ story does but do not be misled by the smooth  informative narrative of McCartney’s for Booth’s illustrations tell another story. Readers are invited into Barty’s urban backyard where they are introduced to his inclinations, desires, friends, and favourite pastimes. He has a hankering for horses and rhyming words but ‘is also a fine sportsman’.

Barty harbours a secret desire to write in verse as he grows and one day one of his anonymously submitted pieces is published. From then on end there is no stopping ‘Banjo’ as his name becomes synonymous with the classic bush inspired, character driven poetry and stories many of us know to this day.

Quiet and unassuming in its delivery, This is Banjo Paterson is visually rich and emotionally satisfying to read.  Many aspects of Banjo’s accomplished life are covered in a way that is both revealing and appreciable for young readers.  McCartney’s knack for conveying facts in a beguiling spirited fashion is put to good use in this picture book that broadens minds and warms hearts. The inspired broadsheet replication at the book’s conclusion includes sepia coloured photographs of Paterson and a more detailed chronological description of his life plus extracts from several of his most well-known poems. Highly recommended for early learners and primary aged readers, This is Banjo Paterson is a marvellous introduction to one of Australia’s literary heroes.

National Library of Australia Publishing (NLA) February 2017

lennie-the-legendLennie the Legend:  Solo to Sydney by Pony Stephanie Owen Reeder

Once upon a time, a nine-year-old boy named Lennie Gwyther took his pony, Ginger Mick for a ride. It was a very long ride, from country Victoria to Sydney, over 1,000 kilometres in fact but in the days of the Great Depression back in the early 1930s, people were accustomed to making such long arduous journeys.

Lennie’s mission was to be at the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and his tenacity and determination were recognised and admired by the entire nation. Lennie’s story is adeptly told by Reeder with animated narrative and is interspersed with complementing historical snippets. Occasionally, comparisons are made between present day and last century living. Stunning photographs of this slice of Australia’s past are included along with fascinating statistics and notable people. The result is a feature-rich read, well endowed with fact and good story telling. Ideally suited for primary aged readers and those who love legends.

NLA February 2015

the-dreaming-treeThe Dreaming Tree Jo Oliver

Whilst suffused with the essence of the Australian landscape and renowned poets, let’s take a moment to appreciate the free verse poetic stylings of Jo Oliver whose, The Dreaming Tree reflects the ‘joy and freedom of being a child in Australia’.  Oliver’s poems, many of which are centred on the fierce and dramatic beauty of the Australian countryside, flow and ebb with all the finesse and passion of a verse novel. They are both uplifting and enlightening, and an extreme joy to read. This collection is presented in a picture book format accompanied by Oliver’s own dreamlike illustrations.  Her note at the end stresses that ‘poetry is fun’ and simply ‘feeling and thought playing together in words’. Oliver’s feelings and thought play magnificently together in The Dreaming Tree, for which I can list no favourites for I relished them all.

Highly recommended for primary and lower secondary school students as an excellent illustrative tool for capturing the essence of feeling in verse and injecting an appreciation for the enjoyment of poetry into the young.

New Frontier Publishing February 2016

HAPPY AUSTRALIA DAY!

#byAustralianBuyAustralian

 

 

 

 

Mini-reviews

As the end of the year approaches and I desperately attempt to catch up on telling you about what I’ve been reading, may I present another bunch of mini-reviews…

Grimsdon (2010) and New City (2014) by Deborah Abila
9780857983220   9781742758558
Is it possible for a book to be both a dystopian sci-fi and a charming kids’ story? These two tales certainly manage it. Plus they throw in some environmental messages. A captivating read about kids in a flooded city after an environmental disaster, and their subsequent move to a new city as refugees.
thriveThrive (2015) by Mary Borsellino

An intriguing YA dystopian novel. Interesting characters and world, but the story is a bit disjointed and oddly paced. I enjoyed it, but it didn’t quite gel for me. It’s one of those books that I really wanted to love more than I actually did.

9781760154035300 Minutes of Danger (2015) by Jack Heath

Ten linked short stories that are fast-paced and EXCITING! Suspense, danger and action are the driving forces here. I love the concept of linked story collections like this. You get the immediacy of short fiction with the bigger picture of longer fiction, all in one book.

9780575086937Patient Zero (2009) by Jonathan Maberry

This is the first book in the popular Joe Ledger series, about a cop who goes to work for a special ops government agency, The Department of Military Sciences. This is a hard-edged, fast-paced techno-thriller about terrorists using a bio-weapon that turns people into zombies. Ledger is a wonderfully engaging character and Maberry is a master of this genre. The rest of the series is lined up on my to-be-read pile.

51gqzolrwll-_sx354_bo1204203200_Just Plain Cat (1981) by Nancy K Robinson

A nice story about a young boy and his newly acquired pet cat. Below this surface story are family relationships and the experiences of starting at a new school. All handled with quite a lovely old fashioned touch.

9780994469335Zombie Inspiration (2016) by Adam Wallace, illustrated by James Hart

Mad, bonkers fun! During a zombie apocalypse, with much brain-eating, Adam, James and Stacey run, hide, dispatch zombies and learn a little about themselves. A unique and innovative idea, this book is linked to an online course about using zombies as inspiration to be all you can be. Check it out!

9781741663099The Laws of Magic: Moment of Truth (2010) by Michael Pryor

This is the second-last book in Pryor’s wonderful, magical, engaging and totally awesome series set in an alternative history Edwardian period, where magic and science co-exist. I love then so much, I’ve been reading one book a year in order to try and make them last. I’ll read the final one next year.

thumb_cover_not_just_a_piece_of_cake_jpgNot Just a Piece of Cake: Being an Author (2015) by Hazel Edwards

Hazel Edwards, author of the famed picture book, There’s A Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake, has dipped into her own life story for this engaging memoir. It has a lovely conversational tone that makes you feel like you’re privy to a private chat rather than reading a book. Edwards doesn’t shy away from difficult topics, presenting a warts and all story. Loved it!

9780994358356Hijabi Girl (2016) by Hazel Edwards and Ozge Alkan, illustrated by Serena Geddes

Fiction, especially children’s fiction, can do extraordinary things. It can often achieve outcomes that no amount of lecturing or shouting from rooftops can. It can be enlightening while also being entertaining. It can promote understanding while also telling a good story. And this is what Hijabi Girl does. It’s a good story about kids in a school. Like all kids they have their friendships and difficulties; they deal with teachers and teasing; they have their likes and dislikes. They are ordinary kids doing ordinary things. But one of them happens to be Vietnamese. And another is a Muslim girl who wears a hijab. The cultural differences among these kids are simply part of everyday life, along with all the other little differences between them. One character likes soccer, another likes drawing; one character is into princesses, another likes Aussie Rules footy; one character eats rice paper rolls, another eats only halal food; one character has a pet rat, the others don’t; one character wears a hijab, the others don’t. In the end, difference is not only accepted, but celebrated. As it should be in real life. More kids books like this please!

Catch ya later, George

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The Best Books of 2016

best-books

The 18 books you need to read this year, as selected by the well-read staff at Boomerang Books (and our 11 year-old reviewer!)

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commonwealth

BEST FICTION

COMMONWEALTH BY ANN PATCHETT

Ann Patchett is fast becoming one of my all-time favourite authors, and Commonwealth takes her talent to a new level, totally engrossing you in the lives of two families who themselves get tangled up over the years due to a few choices of fate.

The novel opens in 1964 at a seemingly innocuous christening party. An uninvited guest arrives bearing a bottle of gin and a chain of events gets set in motion. Patchett jumps around with her timeline and doesn’t immediately follow the most sympathetic characters choosing instead to flesh out the least as you piece together how two completely separate families join together and how a tragic event begins to unwind them apart again.

Ann Patchett has written a novel of immense beauty, charm, sadness and tragedy. She will have you laughing out loud as you read one minute and wiping a tear away the next. This is a book I could have, and still want, to read forever. I did not want it to end so lost I became, not just in the story and the characters Ann Patchett so vividly brings to life, but also in the words and way she tells her story. This book is quite simply marvellous. This is an American Classic in the making.

— Jon Page

dryuBEST CRIME FICTION

THE DRY BY JANE HARPER

A small farming community in the grip of drought is rocked by the murder-suicide of a young local family. Farms are failing, tensions are high and almost no one is surprised that the stress has finally gotten to Luke Hadler. It is his final actions which have filled the town with horror.

Aaron Falk returns to farewell his childhood friend but he’s not welcome. His family were run out of town when Aaron and Luke were just kids and he’s never been back. Questions surrounding a 20 year old suicide and Falk’s part in it are reignited and an already tense situation becomes a tinderbox. The community is split and those who wish Faulk gone are not shy in making their opinions felt. All he wants is the truth and in finding that to maybe bring comfort to Luke’s grieving parents… and to himself. Yet finding the truth among so many secrets and lies is never an easy thing.

Jane Harper vividly portrays the harshness and beauty of the Australian landscape and the small-town prejudices and petty grievances which escalate under the unrelenting Australian sun. The twists and turns will leave you in turns gasping from surprise and then in anticipation as each time you think you have it all worked out and you realise you don’t. This is a page-turner in the truest sense of the word. You will not be able to put this book down.

A single spark is all it will take to ignite a whole town. A single page is all it will take to have you hooked!

— Kate Page

everyone-braveBEST HISTORICAL FICTION

EVERYONE BRAVE IS FORGIVEN BY CHRIS CLEAVE

This is a truly wonderful novel that captures the outbreak of the Second World War in London. We follow Mary North, who from the war’s outset, is determined to use this tumultuous time to change the status quo. Mary is from a well to do family and rather than rest on her family name she wants to get involved in the war effort. She signs up immediately with dreams of becoming a spy or being involved in the newly forming war machine. Instead she is assigned as a school teacher and sent off to prepare the school children of London for evacuation. Mary takes this all in her stride and is even more determined to throw herself wholeheartedly into her new vocation.

Through Mary we meet Tom whose job it is to organise the schooling of those not evacuated. We also meet Tom’s roommate Alistair, an art restorer at the Tate, who also signs up immediately and is sent to France. Through Tom and Alistair we explore another side of the war; the guilt of those who stay behind and the transformation of those from civilian to soldier. After surviving the disaster at Dunkirk Alistair is transferred to Malta, where like those in London, he must survive the endless siege from the air of the Germans.

Cleave expertly captures the early days of the war with everybody disbelieving it can possibly be as bad as the government is trying to prepare them for. When the blitz does begin, much to everyone’s shock and sincere disappointment, he skillfully portrays the change of mood and stiff upper lip attitude employed by Londoners to get by. He contrasts all this with Alistair’s experience of the war showing that despite the contrasts between the Homefront and the frontlines there are also many similarities. Survival and sanity the key ones in both. As the war progresses Cleave conveys the steadfastness of this demeanour, both in London and in Malta, despite everything that happens to the contrary.

This is a truly amazing novel that left me shattered at many different moments. I haven’t read such an original take on the Second World War like this since Life After Life and A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson, and those were both streets ahead of any other novel of the last ten to fifteen years. Cleave captures the spirit of a people so subtly and honestly and how that spirit is harnessed in order to survive. The sense of humour in the book is pitch perfect; dark, sardonic, self-deprecating, infused with camaraderie. At the same time Cleave also shows the darker side of human behaviour.

— Jon Page

 secret-recBEST ROMANCE

THE SECRET RECIPE FOR SECOND CHANCES BY J.D. BARRETT

Lucy’s husband is a liar, a cheat and a recipe stealer so she is leaving him and their popular Sydney restaurant. The only problem is she has no money and no idea what comes next! When she stumbles across the dilapidated remains of the once famous Woolloomoloo restaurant, Fortune, it feels like fate. Except there is a catch – and he’s moody and handsome with a penchant for women. Which is exactly what she doesn’t need. With a lovable, quirky cast of characters JD Barrett’s debut is a little bit Mostly Martha and a little bit Ratatouille!

— Kate Page

dark-matterBEST SCIENCE FICTION

DARK MATTER BY BLAKE CROUCH

Dark Matter is an unabashed science fiction thriller. If the thought of multi-dimension travel – of our protagonist traversing alternate worlds – is too much of a leap from the grounded reality in which you prefer your fiction, okay, fair enough, perhaps this one’s not for you. But for everybody else, willing and able to suspend their disbelief, and accept the parameters of Crouch’s fiction, Dark Matter is a relentless and thrilling ride. What glues it together – what makes this novel work – is its heart. Dark Matter is a love story – punctuated with action and science fiction elements, certainly – but its romantic core, one man’s desire to reunite with his wife and son, is what makes the novel tick along.

Dark Matter is about the roads not taken. It’s about the choices we make – those large, momentous decisions we identify as important, and the smaller ones we barely recognise. Jason Dessen chose his family over his career as a physicist; so too his wife Daniela, who gave up her dream of being an artist. It’s not a decision they regret – they’re a content family unit, blessed with a teenage son – but inevitably there are moments when they wonder what might have been. And thanks to the Jason Dessen from an alternate reality – a world in which he focused on his career in science rather than his family, and created a multidimensional travel device – our Jason is about to discover what might’ve been.

Crouch sends Dessen to a range of close-but-not quite realities as he attempts to find his journey home, to his wife, to his son. In putting Dessen through such an emotional rollercoaster we bear witness to some truly gut-wrenching and poignant scenes. And just when you think the novel’s demonstrated all it’s got to offer – that Crouch is leading readers down a thrilling, but somewhat routine path as Dessen attempts to return to his world – he throws a curveball; an unforeseen plot twist that raises the states even higher, and propels the narrative through to its fitting climax.

Plenty of fiction has explored the idea of multidimensional travel, but rather than focus on the science, Dark Matterkeeps the reader riveted because of its heart. How far is one man willing to go to reunite with his family? How much can he witness before he loses himself? You’ll tear through Dark Matter in one sitting to find out. Truly, it’s one of the best thrillers I’ve read in years.

— Simon McDonald

fireman-joe-hillBEST HORROR

THE FIREMAN BY JOE HILL

Cormac McCarthy’s literary masterpiece The Road presents a hopeless, post-apocalyptic world navigated by an adult and a child. The specifics of the extinction event are not clarified. It doesn’t matter why society crumbled, just that it has, because all that matters for its populace now is survival. The Road is a novel about the repercussions of the unspecified catastrophe that decimated society; decidedly post-crisis. Joe Hill’s The Fireman takes a different route, set at the very beginning of society’s decline, as the Dragonscale pandemic seizes hold, drawing patterns on people’s skin and eventually literally igniting them, causing them to spontaneously combust. Whereas the characters in The Road are surrounded by nothing but absolute despair, in The Fireman trappings of pre-pandemic lives still exist; tangible reminders of what once was. Both worlds are perpetually dangerous and unpredictable. And both novels are hallmarks of the narrative malleability of the post-apocalyptic concept.

Though operatic in scope, The Fireman is centred firmly around Harper Grayson, a school nurse who becomes a volunteer at her local hospital when society starts to decay, and school becomes a thing of the past. When Harper discovers she, too, is infected by Dragonscale — and pregnant! — she vows to bring her baby safely into the world. Her husband Jakob has other ideas, disgusted by the mere thought of bringing another human into a world such as this, and attacks Harper, determined to abort her life and their child’s. During her escape she encounters John Rockwood — the near-mythical figure known as The Fireman — who welcomes her into a secluded camp of infected survivors, who have learned to control their infection. Jakob, meanwhile, joins the Cremation Crews; marauders who kill the infected on sight. Thus, the board is set, the terrain unknown. Husband and wife are destined to meet again; the question is, in what circumstances?

Survival in a Dragonscale-infected world is unglamorous, and Joe Hill doesn’t pull any punches as he exposes readers to the bleak reality of a world beginning its rapid spiral. He showcases a warped evangelical religion based on ‘the bright’ – an aftereffect of the Dragonscale infection – and demonstrates, as these types of stories so often do, that man’s greatest threat to its own survival is itself rather than the wider crisis. The characters that populate these pages are diverse and vibrant, with distinct follies and histories. Harper is an empathetic heroine, far stronger than we (and she) first realise; desperately clinging onto survival against all odds, as everything she’s ever known degenerates. The Fireman is a mammoth tome: to work, it needs a superior protagonist, and Hill has granted his readers a supremely memorable one.

The Fireman is Joe Hill’s most ambitious novel yet, and will inevitably be compared to his father’s seminal work. The thing is, these comparisons are warranted. Hill’s latest novel is indeed reminiscent of Stephen King’s greatest work – but never derivative. Like King, Hill is a master storyteller – it’s in his blood, clearly – and this novel elevates him into a new literary stratosphere. It has been a long, long time since I was last able to lose myself in an epic like this.

— Simon McDonald

mothersBEST DEBUT

THE MOTHERS BY BRIT BENNETT

The Mothers is an outstanding debut novel: an engaging, poignant, and thought-provoking read about the importance of motherhood, and the hardships faced by girls who don’t have a female figure in their lives to help guide them. Bennett’s novel explores friendship, the impact of secrets, and the consequences of disloyalty, as three teenagers grow into young adults. Most importantly, it bestows insight into the lives of middle-class people of colour; a viewpoint I’ve rarely seen explored in all my years reading fiction, which is possibly my own fault — I don’t go looking for such stories, when I really should — but equally, such stories don’t seem to be published, which says a lot about the state of the industry, sure, but also about readers’ willingness to read such tales. As author Angela Flournoy put it in a New York Times article: “Writing about ordinary black people is actually extraordinary. It’s absolutely its own form of advocacy.” That’s the point, I think: teenagers Nadia, Luke and Aubrey could easily be characters of any race. Their coming-of-age story — their interwoven destinies — has nothing to do with their race.

Few novels are as poetically searing as Brit Bennett’s The Mothers. Few books are able to say so much with so little. These three teens are united by the hardships they’ve already been exposed to: Nadia’s mother committed suicide, leaving no note, no explanation; Luke’s promising football career was ended by a freak injury; and Aubrey was forced away from home because of her abusive stepfather. When Nadia learns she’s carrying Luke’s baby, she decides not to keep it; Luke reluctantly scrounges the money for the abortion. It becomes their secret, which endures, leakily, for decades; it brings them together and tears them apart, time and time again, trailing them into adulthood. Even though I sensed where the story was headed, and the heartbreak that awaited, I couldn’t put the book down. I was crushed, repeatedly, by the ill-fated decisions made by the trio; but I continued reading, hoping for the best.

The eponymous “mothers” of the Upper Room church community serve as the novel’s narrator — their introspection frames Bennett’s novel — but if I’m honest, the conceit feels a little forced and unnecessary. There’s no need for the meta narrative, and it can be a tad intrusive at times; but in no way does it detract from the brilliance of Bennett’s debut.

Truly one of my favourite books of the year.

— Simon McDonald

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homo-deusBEST NON-FICTION

HOMO DEUS BY YUVAL NOAH HARARI

The author of Sapiens — also a must-read — returns with another enthralling work of potent brain fuel. Seriously, whatever Yuval Noah Harari writes, I will read. And I’m not a guy who reads a ton of non-fiction.

This time, Harari explains humanity’s rise and ponders our future. He poses that humanism is the dominant ideology of the modern age, but warns it carries the seeds of its own destruction.  Homo Deus is less of a prophecy and more of a conversation: what sort of future do we want? Human nature will be transformed in the 21st century — into what? 

Whether or not you agree with Harari’s assertions and proclamations, his latest work is highly captivating.  Will his outlandish visions come to pass? Well, who knows? But the very idea of it’s possibility — that it might happen — is chilling.

— Simon McDonald

paul-ham-paschBEST HISTORY

PASSCHENDAELE BY PAUL HAM

Paul Ham reaffirms his status as one of the best current Australian historians writing today, taking his astute eye to the devastating battle of Passchendaele. This is not a history book solely about Australia’s involvement in the Flanders campaign of 1917. This is an all-encompassing look at the events and the situation that led to the battle and the wholesale slaughter of over half a million men. Ham combs through the histories and memoirs of those involved on both sides and all ranks, wading through the lies and falsehoods, myths and legends, excuses and justifications that have festered over the decades to put together a picture of a battle that somehow exceeded the horrors of The Somme and Verdun only a year before.

Paul Ham primarily explores how a toxic relationship between Prime Minister Lloyd George and Field Marshall Douglas Haig allowed an offensive to go ahead whose only true goal was absolute attrition. He shows how the lessons learned during the butchery of The Somme about tactics (tactics that could preserve men’s lives and actually gain ground;  the creeping barrage, bite and hold) were not employed due to the weather and in some cases battles went ahead with no artillery support at all. Ham demonstrates that the immense casualties on both sides were not some catastrophe or blunder of leadership but planned for, expected and deemed necessary and shows how those in a position to stop the carnage did nothing, putting personal grievances ahead of the lives of over 500,000 men.

This is a book not only for all Australians to read but New Zealanders, Britons, French and Germans as well. Paul Ham puts this battle and consequently The First World War in its context of the time, not some revisionist context in light of subsequent events and conflicts. This a cutting, insightful and moving look at one of the bloodiest and most futile battles of the First World War.

— Jon Page

hate-raceBEST MEMOIR

THE HATE RACE BY MAXINE BENEBA CLARKE

I don’t read short story collections and I certainly never read biographies or memoirs. Maxine has now blown me away writing both. She has been described as “a powerful new voice in Australian literature”. I’d like to make a few adjustments to that quote. Maxine Beneba Clarke is the powerful voice of Australian literature. Reading Foreign Soil was like being introduced to a raw power. Like most short story collections there were stories that burst out of the book and others that slowly simmered but in every story Maxine’s power as a writer was apparent and you came away from the collection knowing that when she turned her attention to one subject, one narrative for a whole book, it was going to be something to behold. And that is exactly what she had done with The Hate Race turning her attention on herself and her childhood growing up in Western Sydney.

Maxine recounts the story of her parent’s emigration to Australia from England in the early days after The White Australia policy was dismantled by The Whitlam Government of the 1970s. She tells her story growing up in Western Sydney as one of the few families of colour and the systemic, casual, overt and unrelenting racism she had to deal with from kindergarten through to high school; from teachers, parents and classmates alike. She shows how that affected her, how that changed her, how that made her who she is and how it unmade who she is. At times it is painful to read and at other times infuriating. Anger that is tempered by your own shame when you remember similar incidents from your own childhood growing up where you looked the other way, did or said nothing or maybe even contributed in one way or another through your own ignorance of what was going on around you and the pain it was causing. Maxine recounts all this with humour, humility and honesty.

For anyone who thinks Australia isn’t a racist country, read this book. For anyone who thinks casual racism isn’t hurtful, read this book. For anyone who thinks Australia has changed a lot in the last 30 years, read this book. For anyone that has ignored a racist comment because they haven’t wanted to get involved, read this book. For anyone who wants to know what Australia is really like, read this book.

There are books that are often described as important. It is a phrase that can get thrown about a bit too much and it’s true meaning gets lost or is diminished. But every now and then a book comes along that makes you sit up. A book that quite literally takes your breath away. Sucks it out of you and it is not until you stop reading that you truly notice what the book has done. A book that opens your eyes to something you knew was there but have failed to really acknowledge. A book that confronts you with its honesty and raw emotion. A book you wish everybody around you would read so that they too can have the same realization. A book like that is important. Maxine Beneba Clarke has written a very important book. An extraordinary book. A truly remarkable and powerful book. A book I hope as many people as possible will read.

— Jon Page

cooks-tableBEST COOKBOOK

THE COOK’S TABLE BY STEPHANIE ALEXANDER

In this milestone book, The Cook’s Table, Stephanie Alexander shares some of her favourite menus, most precious memories, and decades of experience in the kitchen, to make any dinner party you are planning a special occasion.

Featuring 25 menus ranging from far and wide to close at hand, Stephanie begins each menu with an introduction, sharing the particular moments from her life that inspired each one. From trips to Peru, Italy and Istanbul to memories such as creating a ground breaking Valentine’s Day menu at Stephanie’s Restaurant and remembering Elizabeth David.

Each menu provides a meticulous timetable for the cook, starting days leading up to your dinner party, to the morning of, right up to minutes before your guests arrive. The essence of Stephanie’s planning is to be away from the table as little as possible, so as not to miss out on those valuable moments and stories shared with friends and family.

Every dish in this book can be successfully made by a careful home cook. They are seasonally minded and cater to modern palates while respecting traditional methods and flavours. The vibrant photography from acclaimed photographer Mark Chew bring Stephanie’s wonderful menus to life.

The Cook’s Table will sit alongside all your other Stephanie Alexander favourites to be read, shared, cooked from and enjoyed for years to come.

patienceBEST GRAPHIC NOVEL

PATIENCE BY DANIEL CLOWES

In Daniel Clowes’s Patience, things go terribly awry when Jack Barlow attempts to travel through time to circumvent his wife’s murder.

In 2012, mere days after discovering he is going to be a father, Jack returns home from his dead-end job and finds Patience sprawled out on their living room floor. Immediately the police’s number one suspect, when Jack is eventually cleared of the crime, he makes it his life’s mission to avenge his wife’s death. Patience was the one good thing in life. Without her, he has nothing.

But things don’t quite go as Jack planned. When the book smash-cuts to 2029 we find a much harder, far more jaded – and older, obviously – Jack Barlow sitting in a futuristic bar, relaying his crapped out life to a barman. He never avenged Patience – though he tried, the crime remains unsolved – and the passing of time has only further sullied his soul. A chance encounter with a hooker leads to his discovery of a time machine, and the concoction of a new plan: why take vengeance when he can eradicate the entire event from the timeline?

Like everything else Jack touches though, he ends up making more of a mess of things. As he bears witness to key events in Patience’s teenage years – learning about the multiple hardships and abusers she encountered – his incessant interventions start affecting the timeline. And veteran science fiction readers, and those schooled on time travel will know: it’s not a good idea to mess with what’s come before, because there’s no telling where the new chips might fall.

Part science fiction epic, part love story, Patience brims with heart and soul. Clowes’s focus on the emotions of his characters rather than the physics of time travel elevates the book above stories of a similar ilk. While Jack’s quest to change the timeline is the book’s driving force, it’s the insights into Patience’s youth that proves the most captivating aspect. Truly a stunning graphic novel, and a worthy addition to Daniel Clowes’s collection of stunning masterworks. This sits proudly alongside Adrian Tomine’s Killing and Dying as one of the best graphic novels of the year.

— Simon McDonald

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deep-blueBEST YOUNG ADULT BOOK

WORDS IN DEEP BLUE BY CATH CROWLEY

This is a beautiful book about love, loss, literature and growing up.

After moving away and losing touch with her friends, Rachel Sweetie returns to town. She is working at Howling Books, grieving for her brother Cal, and trying not to be in love with Henry Jones.

— Talie Gottlieb



fennBEST BOOK FOR YOUNG READERS

FENN HALFIN AND THE FEARZERO BY FRANCESCA ARMOUR-CHELU

One of my passions as a bookseller is reading fantastic kids books. I have always felt that some children’s books are have better storylines than adult books. Fenn Halflin and the Fearzero is one of those titles.

Fenn Halflin has spent his life hidden away in the swamplands with his Grandfather. He longs for the freedom to live in the world outside – to have a bit of excitement in his life. The world however is not safe and he is in danger if anyone finds out about him.

Water levels are rising and land is becoming scarce. The land dwellers have built a wall and without a permit no Seafarer is allowed to live on land. Life is tough. Resources are dwindling and the dreaded Terra Firma, under the control of their leader Chilstone, patrol the waterways destroying boats always searching for something (or someone). The Resistance was crushed years ago but there is a rumour of a baby that escaped Chilstone’s clutches. They say this baby might save them all.

Francesca Armour-Chelu has created a world at once recognisable, yet not. Fenns world could be a very real future for us all if we continue to ignore the environmental damage we are creating. I am not normally a fan of kids books that deal with “Issues” however, Francesca explores the themes of migration, refugees, the uneven distribution of the world’s resources and global warming with subtlety. Kids will read Fenn Halflin and the Fearzero purely as a great adventure story but hopefully subconsciously they might take away some ideas about how we need to look after our planet and the people on it in equal measures.

Fenn Halflin and the Fearzero is a rollicking adventure story which had me completely hooked from the very first chapter! Resistance fighters, bad guys, kids using their wits to outsmart evil adults, friendship, sacrifice, and fulfilling ones destiny – Fenn Halflin and the Fearzero is at times part Mad Max, part Oliver Twist and part Waterworld. I absolutely cannot wait for part two to find out the conclusion of this thrill-ride of a book.

— Kate Page


OUR ELEVEN-YEAR-OLD BOOK REVIEWER RECOMMENDS….

turners-1THE TURNERS BY MICK ELLIOTT

On his thirteenth birthday, Leo grows a tail and turns into a Komodo Dragon in the middle of the library! He finds out that he is a Turner, and can turn into any animal he thinks of, but must keep it a secret! He must fight Vipermen, hairless hamsters and flesh eating pigs! I enjoyed this so much and it was very funny, too! I couldn’t put it down!

turners-2THE TURNERS: CAMP FREAKOUT BY MICK ELLIOTT

Leo has finally persuaded Vernon and Abbie to go to school camp, but he soon finds out that it’s a big mistake! Disgusting camp foods (which might be poisonous), turnimals (animals that can turn!), a strange shy boy and nasty bullies. Will Leo survive the horrors of school camp?

The Turners are in danger! An evil mastermind has made a monster race and Leo is the secret ingredient to finish these horrible monsters! Will he stop the fiendish plot? Find out in the 2nd book in this awesome series!

I loved this book even more than the first one! The Turners Camp Freakout is such a funny adventure and I couldn’t put it down! It has a surprise twist at the end AND a cliffhanger til book 3! This series is truly amazing! The turnimals are a very creative idea and it came at the perfect time – just before most schools go for camp! I can’t wait for book 3 to find out what happens next to Leo, Abbie and the rest of the turners whose secret lives are at stake!

— Molly (age 11)


rabbit-and-bearBEST BOOK FOR EARLY READERS

RABBIT AND BEAR BY JULIAN GOUGH AND JIM FIELD

They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but it’s hard not to when you see this fabulously illustrated book!

It’s my favourite children’s book of the year because of the laugh-out-loud, fun, tale of friendship, not to forget a little bit of poo. Young children will delight in this new series (the second book is out in January 2017) brimming with humour and adventure, with a wild fox chase, snow men and avalanches.

— Jan Ekins

ada-twistBEST PICTURE BOOK

ADA TWIST, SCIENTIST BY ANDREA BEATTY

It only takes a few seconds to fall in love with this curious little girl. Inspired by scientists, Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie, Ada Marie Twist starts exploring the world around her as soon as she turns three. Ada’s constant questions and curiosity teaches children that the most effective way to know the world is through exploration and asking questions. Similar to Iggy Peck, Architect and Rosie Revere, Engineer, Ada inspires children to follow their intuition and be creative. Ada Twist, Scientist is among the few examples of picture books that wisely depicts a powerful passionate girl who wants to learn more about science.

— Mahsa Salamati


WHAT WERE YOUR FAVOURITE BOOKS OF THE YEAR?

Under the Christmas Tree – Part 2

It’s important to keep the little ones pleased and preoccupied at Christmas time. Getting this mix right, ultimately frees up more ‘adult time’. In keeping with our non-fiction gift ideas theme, here are a few more picture books to soothe those savage beasts…ironically, all about savage beasts!

gigantosaurusGigantosaurus by Jonny Duddle

Gigantosaurus is more of a fun romp through the Late Cretaceous Period than a dry non-fictional expose about dinosaurs. Duddle’s full page colour extravaganzas and infectious story line introduces readers (and four tiny baby dinosaurs) to a clutch of stomping, crunching, munching giants in way that’ll have them perched at the end of their seats. An engaging and light-hearted cautionary tale well suited to pre-schoolers and amateur palaeontologists.

Koala Books Scholastic February 2014

big-book-of-aussie-dinosaursBig Book of Aussie Dinosaurs by Kel Richards and Glen Singleton

Slightly older lovers of those terrible lizards will appreciate this alphabeticalised collection of dinosaurs specifically focusing on those unique to prehistoric Australia. Most of them are represented from biggest to smallest, slowest to fastest and oldest and to youngest; some well know like Allosaurus and Muttaburrasaurus, others less so (meet Minmi – Minmi paravertebral for example!) You’ll find them all in the excellent Aussie Dinosaur Gallery at the end of the book, after becoming better acquainted with Richard’s interesting fun facts and Singleton’s vibrant, comical stylisations of Winston, Matilda, and Kakuru. This big robust book of Aussie Dinosaurs is engaging, informative and a welcome addition to any palaeontologist’s bookshelf because of its antipodean appeal. Highly recommended for 5-year-olds and above.

Scholastic Australia June 2014

discovering-dinosaursDiscovering Dinosaurs by Simon Chapman, illustrated by Rudolf Farkus and Mike Love

For prehistoric enthusiasts who fancy themselves as a bit of an Indiana Jones, you can’t go past Simon Chapman’s Discovering Dinosaurs. Impeccably presented with thick glossy pages that mimic an adventurer’s journal and feature dozens of statistics, diagrams, fold out maps and pop up surprises, this is the penultimate compendium for any dino addict. Chapman journeys with us from where it all began at the start of the Triassic Period across the supercontinent, through polar forests and swampy valleys, then into the lives of ‘real life’ explorers and even the internal workings of a dinosaur itself. Utterly captivating and in equal parts entertaining and thrilling, Discovering Dinosaurs delivers everything it promises on the front cover and would be a wicked gift for 8-olds and above.

Bloomsbury Children’s November 2016

animasaurusAnimasaurus by Tracey Turner and Harriet Russell

Animasaurus Incredible Animals that Roamed the Earth is a big beast of a book that reveals a host of prehistoric creatures that once roamed, swam and hunted across this planet. It unearths facts and figures about the plant eaters, sea creatures, predators and the smaller creep-crawlies who were precursors to their modern day relatives. Past and present species are depicted through illustration (the prehistoric versions) and real photographs (their modern day equivalents) across colourful full-page spreads. Each animal’s description allows for their backstory, specifications, and pinpoints where they lived on the planet millions of years ago. Once you accustom yourself to the layout of the information, it is a breeze to assimilate and provides a strong reference source for upper primary and secondary students to draw from. Happily, every corner of the earth is covered including Australia, which makes Animasaurus comprehensive and well-conceived.  Incredibly useful, informative, and highly recommended for 10-year-olds, plus.

Bloomsbury Children’s December 2016

a-miscellany-of-magical-beastsA Miscellany of Magical Beasts by Simon Holland

If creatures long extinct don’t tickle your archaeological interests, what about fantastically beautiful birds, fearsome giants, vengeful spirits, or mystical unicorns? These are just a few of the magical beasts and beauties featured in Holland’s astounding collection of mythological creatures from around the world. Resplendent in detail and richly presented, Magical Beasts invites readers to discover the legends and facts behind a menagerie of strange and wonderful creatures ranging from trolls, harpies, mermaids and winged wonders. Discover how to outwit a werewolf, what makes the claws of a Griffin so magical, and learn the differences between unicorns. This is a fantasy lover’s dream guide to all that is spectral and spirited. Magical Beasts would make a glorious keepsake to treasure and refer to whenever evil elves come knocking at your door. Superb for 12-year-olds and anyone who has ever believed in the power of the Phoenix.

Bloomsbury Children’s November 2016

Learn morekids-reading-guide-2016-2017 each title or purchase any of them by clicking on the title link.

Find more reads that are fascinating for kids this Christmas here.

 

Review: Roger Rogerson By Duncan McNab

9780733634505If you have read any books about Australian crime in the 1970s and 1980s, the name Roger Rogerson most likely will not be a stranger to you. He was certainly no stranger to the news media, having actively courted them for years. More recently, people like myself made a point of reading the Sydney newspapers to see what was happening in the trial of Rogerson and his accomplice Glen McNamara for murder.

Duncan McNab has previously written about Rogerson, in his 2006 title, The Dodger: Inside the World of Roger Rogerson. Once Rogerson was back on trial again, McNab obviously also followed it quite closely to produce an updated version of The Dodger, including the murder trial.

There is a quote on the book’s rear cover: “a poisoned, evil little man.” And that seems a pretty fitting description of Rogerson. He openly boasted about the men he killed in the line of duty, despite one of those being pretty much a murder that he got away with. Anyone who got in his way on the job seemed to find themselves shoved on the outer. He was a blatant criminal in his drug dealers and apparent involvement in the murder of others getting in the way. Overall there is a sense of astounding arrogance that comes through in the depiction of Rogerson. Despite earlier prison time and being thrown off the force, he still seems to have had an attitude of ‘can’t touch me.’ But by the end, then aged 73, he wasn’t as sharp as he used to be or thought he was. It seems to have never occurred to him that a self-storage facility would have security cameras around the place. Or that driving your own vehicle to a drug-deal-cum-murder was not the brightest of stunts. Or that hiring a block and tackle to lift a body into a boat for disposal might get traced back to them.

McNab is a former police detective, private investigator and investigative journalist as well as being personally acquainted with Rogerson on the job, which gave him a possibly unique outlook in being able to write this and the earlier work. It covers a lot of ground about both Rogerson and McNamara, making it a fascinating account. If you have any interest in true crime, corruption and seeing a truly bad bloke getting his come-uppance, then this is definitely the book for you.

The only negatives for me were the lack of an index or bibliography to help with further reading if interested. But that is all too often the way in publishing of non-fiction titles these days.

Recommended.

Buy the book here…

Under the Christmas Tree – Part 1

Okay, with just over a month and a half to go, it’s time to get serious about Christmas. For the next 42 days or so,  I’ll attempt to fill your Christmas lists with some nifty literary ideas for kids to go under the Christmas tree this year. Today we look at some terrific non-fiction titles guaranteed to raise a few oohs and aahs on Christmas Day.

cheeky-animalsCheeky Animals – Shane Morgan

The classic 20-year-old picture book, Look & See, inspired Shane Morgan’s hard cover board book, Cheeky Animals. Clean, smile-inducing text compliments simple yet strong illustrations of some of our most cheeky cherished Aussie animals.  A great stocking stuffer for 2 + year olds.

Magabala Books October 2016

funny-facesFunny Faces – Dr Mark Norman

Just as funny but using expressive real life images of a variety of animals and their amazing anatomy to accompany concise, information-laden narrative is Dr Mark Norman’s, Funny Faces. This soft cover version is a close up, informative, extraordinary (did you know a Dragonfish has teeth on its tongue!)  look at the funny face bits of a planet of animals, birds, invertebrates and reptiles. The fact file and images are sure to keep budding biologists absorbed for years. Super handy and an easy to reference guide book for early primary project makers. Check out other titles in this funny series, here.

Black Dog Books June 2014

animaliumAnimalium – Katie Scott and Jenny Broom

Curated by Katie Scott and Jenny Broom, Animalium is a cloth bound, pocket-sized gem of a book that invites fledging Attenboroughs to enter a literary museum of the animal kingdom. I felt as though I was wondering through the astonishing exhibits of the London Natural History Museum, exploring the world of mammals, invertebrates, fish and more. This is a biologist’s nirvana: insightful, knowledgeable text, and clear, detailed illustrated plates. Excellent go to book that is a work of art unto itself for mid to upper primary.

The Five Mile Press October 2016

amazing-animals-of-australian-national-parksAmazing Animals of Australian’s National Parks – Gina M. Newton

Gina M. Newton’s Amazing Animals is an environmental triumph. This large, soft cover book leaves no leaf or stone unturned as Newton guides inquisitive minds through a plethora of our national parks and their fascinating individual habitats. From the Tropical Rainforests in the north to the Mallee Woodlands of the arid south, Amazing Animals focuses on the species that inhabit these places with detailed Q & A, fast facts, and a ‘did you know’ kind of narrative. Diagrams and close up photos completes this brilliant compendium of who what and where along with a comprehensive ‘how to use this book’ guide that even includes a Conservation Status indicator. Young readers may be familiar with some of the species highlighted; they may have even spotted a few of them in their own neighbourhoods. What is nifty about this guidebook is that they can now actively get out and explore more of the native parklands in their locale and become more wildlife aware by doing so. Superb. Highly recommended for classroom to bedroom bookshelves of primary and above readers.

NLA Publishing October 2016

awesome-animals-horse-fun-factsAwesome Animals – Horses Fun Facts and Amazing Stories – Dianne Bates and Sophie Scahill

I was your typical horsey-obsessed little girl. That kind of passion never real dissipates, merely dims with neglect. Dianne Bates and Sophie Scahill have produced a handy, bookshelf friendly series of Awesome Animal books that present eager young readers with a mindboggling array of facts, figures, trivia, and fun stories for a menagerie of animals. This one, about Horses is incredible. Layered with more information about horses than I have ever encountered, Horse Fun Facts is comprehensive, breezy, easy to navigate and utterly captivating. I guarantee readers will learn something new each time they delve into these books. Horses is an awesome mix of entertainment and information that will fuel those pony club passions forever more. A brilliant, value-laden gift idea if ever there was one.

Big Sky Publishing September 2016

fantastically-great-women-who-changed-the-worldFantastically Great Women Who Changed the World – Kate Pankhurst

History, whilst fascinating can be a tiresome thing to wade through at times. Not so anymore thanks to Kate Pankhurst’s illustrated explorative journey with some of our planets most noted, daring, and incredible women. Great Women Who Changed the World covers such heroines as Jane Austen, Coco Chanel, Marie Curie, and Anne Frank. Others like, Sacagawea and Amelia Earhart are also featured, each with their own two-page spread festooned with detailed trivia type tip bits all gorgeously illustrated to create a visual wonderland of facts and figures. By the time young readers have swam the English Channel with Gertrude Ederle or uncovered the first Pterosaur skeleton with Mary Anning, they will be hundreds of years wiser and no wiser for it! This awesome picture book ends on a note of great inspiration, namely for young misses but the message is universal: never give up, believe in yourself, back yourself, and dare to be different! Truly fantastic and a must have in your Christmas stockings!

Bloomsbury Children’s Publishing October 2016

For more great gift ideas, visit The Kids’ Reading Guide – Information Titles and stay tuned for my next instalment of Under the Christmas Tree.

kids-reading-guide-2016-2017

 

Doodles and Drafts – In conversation with Tania McCartney over tea!

Tania McCartney March 2016 cropTania McCartney is no stranger to the world of Kids’ Literature. Her knowledge and ability to produce entertaining, endearing and enduring picture books is nothing short of remarkable and now sitting comfortably in her enviable arsenal of accreditations, is a re-discovered gift – illustration.

Sumptuously rich in detail and stuffed with enough iconic charm to make both Banjo Paterson and Con the Fruiterer feel at home, her first self-illustrated picture book, Australia: Illustrated delivers a (very satisfying) slice of all things Aussie to an audience who might still remember what a frog cake is as well as those young enough to regard the Wheel of Brisbane as their first Ferris wheel ride.

Australia IllustratedIt is a magnificent compendium of facts, landmarks, foods, cultures, flora, fauna, natural wonders, celebrities and attractions playfully illustrated in Tania’s unique, considered hand. Her drawings do more than just tell a story and describe a caption. They fill my visual soul. New South Wales’s Snowy Mountain region is resplendent with wild silver Brumbies (skiiing, horse riding and snowboarding as it were!) for example, revealing Tania’s cheeky take on life and no doubt, her own personal reflections of a land she clearly adores.

Her affection is contagious. From the divinely cloth-bound cover and very first end pages, clean and devoid of the congestion of civilization (a nod to the pre-settlement days of Australia perhaps), to each State and Territories’ four to five page expose of their specific peculiarities, Australia: Illustrated draws the reader in and, sublimely, educates and entertains along the way. The final end pages, a testament to the diversity and wonder that fills this wide brown land (with green bits, girt by sapphire seas) we call, home.

Today, we leave the draft table for a pair of comfy armchairs, a delicious cup of tea and a few precious moments with the gifted creator behind EK Book’s newest non-fiction picture book release, Australia: Illustrated.

Welcome, Tania. It’s great to finally spend some ‘virtual’ time with you.

So lovely to visit, Dim!

Your very first self-illustrated picture book, Australia Illustrated, is out any moment. Has this been a dream come true?

In a word: yes!

Have you been suffering heart palpitations? I know I’d be more anxious that than

Yes. How did you know??

I could hear them all the way up here in Brisbane.

I’m not surprised. They’re pretty thunderous.

Has this book been a bucket-list kind of thing?

Yes and no. It was more of a meant-to-be than a bucket-list-thing, though now it’s been ticked off my bucket-list, I’m happy it got onto that list!

It has actually just been a long-buried seed of an idea but it may not have even grown if the circumstances hadn’t been right. There was a grant I wanted to apply for, I needed a contract to do so, my publisher just happened to think the idea was fabulous at the time (this changes, as you know!) and I got a contract the next day.

You’re kidding?!

I know! If only all contracts were like that! This was a little scary, though, because the idea was quite ethereal at the time. I mean, I knew it would unfold okay… and it did. But I did it all the wrong way.

What do you mean?

I basically winged it. I had an outline, of course, but the content was pretty much an organic process. I was SO lucky to have this kind of opportunity. And I did the cover first. I mean, who does the cover first?

I don’t much about the illustrative process, but that does sound a little dotty.

SO dotty. But it worked because that cover was one of my favourite things to create, and it set the scene for the style and layout of the entire book. I highly recommend up-ending processes!

Are you proud of thi047 qld daintrees book?

I am for the fact that I finished it. It took a year and contains over 1000 hand-drawn images over 96 pages. Half of the finished pages are digitally illustrated, too, so it was a lot of work and I was also in learning mode at the time (re-learning my illustration skills and also learning digital skills—I basically learned as I went).

I’m also proud of it because it’s my first self-illustrated book and I think first self-illustrated books take a lot of courage. Like, a lot. It’s scary because I’ve had years to get used to writing criticism, but illustration criticism is a whole other colour on the palette.

So, my nerves are on standby, for sure—and I have to consistently tell myself I created this book for me, no one else—and that if kids and adults happen to take pleasure in it, that will please me very, very much. In fact, ALL creators should create books for themselves first and foremost. If we created them for other people, we’d never enjoy it as much or do our best work. And once our books are published, they become someone else’s anyway, so it’s nice to hang onto ownership during production!

Oh gosh, Dim, this tea is so good.

Thanks! Isn’t it divine? You’ve written several books about Australia. Will there be more?

Probably not. I do have ideas for books about Australian people (biographic), plants and animals but they won’t be Australia-centric, if that makes sense.

I don’t know why I’ve written so many books on Australia. It’s not a conscious decision. Perhaps it’s because the world is full of so much negativity right now—I fully realise and accept that our country (any country) is far from perfect, but it just feels so nice to celebrate what’s good here sometimes. And there’s so much that’s good. Australia Illustrated is a celebration of w007 au beautifulhat’s good.

Hear hear! What brought you the greatest pleasure when creating Australia Illustrated?

So much. The creative freedom. The ability to play and allow things to unfold. I know it’s not realistic, but it would be incredible if all books could be created in this way! It’s just so much fun. I loved relearning skills and meeting my characters and learning so much about this country that I never knew.

I loved the digital illustration and the layout and design. I also loved doing the finishing art in Photoshop. Creating the fonts was fun.

How did you do that?

With an app called iFontMaker. It’s fabulous. You can get so creative. You can even create fonts for your kids, using their handwriting.

Sounds fascinating, I’d love to give it a go.

You must. I also loved pulling the pages together. It’s so satisfying.

So, hang on, you did quite a bit for this book. Not just writing and illustrating?

027 nsw sydney ferriesI did heaps. I researched, wrote, fact-checked, drew, painted, did digital illustration and mono-printing, scanning, touching up, photography, fonts, layout, design, typography, cover layout and design—all to print-ready PDF. I LOVE doing all this. It’s so satisfying and skills-building. Then I had the wonderful Mark Thacker from Big Cat Design take all the PDFs and whack them in InDesign for the printer.

And my gorgeous publisher Anouska Jones was my editor and second eyes and ears, and I had a group of other eyes and ears, too, and then there was the team at Exisle and our printing coordinator Carol and publicist Alison and all the fabulous book reps and all the wonderful friends and colleagues who helped me authenticate things and help me out with research.

I have an entire page dedicated to thank yous! I also had the backing of the ACT Government—artsACT—for their grant to help produce this book.

So while I did a lot, I certainly didn’t do it alone. No one ever does it alone.

Gosh, we have an amazing bunch of people in this industry.

We do. I feel privileged to be part of it. This really is great tea, Dim.

Of course it is, it’s from Queensland! What’s next for you, Tania?

Well, I’ve just come out of a long rest! I took a lot of winter off, other than ongoing obligations and a little bit of production on some upcoming titles.

 Oooh – can you share them with us?

COVER FINAL smilecryfullcover-smallWell, one is a sequel to Smile Cry with Jess Racklyeft. The other is a follow-up to This is Captain Cook with Christina Booth—and we’re also in the middle of another picture book for the National Library. Tina Snerling and I have been working on books 6 and 7 for the A Kids’ Year series.

I’ve been planning my illustration style for my first illustration commission with the National Library and I’ve been working on a non-fiction pitch for them, too, which I’ll illustrate. And I’ve been finalising a junior fiction manuscript after talks with a gorgeous publisher. Oh—and just like you would, I have several thousand other little bits and ideas floating around.

Yes, something I can relate 100% to! But would you have it any other way?

No! Well, yes—I really needed that time out after Australia Illustrated. It was an enormous amount of work. 96 pages!! So happy to have my energy and mojo back now, though.

Mojo back is good! Tania, thanks so much for stopping by today. I’ve really enjoyed the chat.

Me, too, Dim! And thanks for the tea!

The kettle is always on…

This is more than a picture book, more than a resource; Australia Illustrated is a meaningful, beautiful, thoughtful, piece of art.

Order Tania’s, Australia: Illustrated, here.

Australia Illustrated Launch PosterFollow all the excitement of her Virtual Launch this week with reveals, sneak peeks, more interviews and giveaways, here.

EK Books November 2016

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

 

 

Review: Passchendaele: Requiem for Doomed Youth by Paul Ham

9781864711448Paul Ham reaffirms his status as one of the best current Australian historians writing today, taking his astute eye to the devastating battle of Passchendaele. This is not a history book solely about Australia’s involvement in the Flanders campaign of 1917. This is an all-encompassing look at the events and the situation that led to the battle and the wholesale slaughter of over half a million men. Ham combs through the histories and memoirs of those involved on both sides and all ranks, wading through the lies and falsehoods, myths and legends, excuses and justifications that have festered over the decades to put together a picture of a battle that somehow exceeded the horrors of The Somme and Verdun only a year before.

Paul Ham primarily explores how a toxic relationship between Prime Minister Lloyd George and Field Marshall Douglas Haig allowed an offensive to go ahead whose only true goal was absolute attrition. He shows how the lessons learned during the butchery of The Somme about tactics (tactics that could preserve men’s lives and actually gain ground;  the creeping barrage, bite and hold) were not employed due to the weather and in some cases battles went ahead with no artillery support at all. Ham demonstrates that the immense casualties on both sides were not some catastrophe or blunder of leadership but planned for, expected and deemed necessary and shows how those in a position to stop the carnage did nothing, putting personal grievances ahead of the lives of over 500,000 men.

This is a book not only for all Australians to read but New Zealanders, Britons, French and Germans as well. Paul Ham puts this battle and consequently The First World War in its context of the time, not some revisionist context in light of subsequent events and conflicts. This a cutting, insightful and moving look at one of the bloodiest and most futile battles of the First World War.

Buy the book here…

Tim Winton, the Boy Behind the Curtain

CurtainIt has been an enlightening experience to read these essays about Tim Winton’s life in The Boy Behind the Curtain (Penguin, Hamish Hamilton). They fill some of the gaps in and between his books, as well as enhancing the books themselves and perhaps even allow us to vicariously experience some of Winton’s own life and passions.

Perhaps we now take the saving of Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia for granted. It was both fascinating and empowering to read the chapter, ‘The Battle for Ningaloo Reef’. This significant chapter is one of a couple that has particularly lingered after finishing the book. Powerful forces often barrage anyone who tries to stand up to moneymaking schemes. The struggle to save Ningaloo is documented by Winton so that we see the powerlessness of the underdog trying to fight determined developers. The protestors are often voiceless, even a prominent figure such as Winton. It seems only when persistence and a groundswell of people join the campaign that environmental icons such as Ningaloo can be saved.

BluebackTim Winton describes dead zones, areas where marine life can’t live, in ‘Sea Change’. He wrote the popular fable Blueback in 1997 and wonders if this unconsciously preempted his role as environmental advocate.

His love of the sea’s creatures extends to sharks. In ‘The Demon Shark’, Winton protests against the killing of sharks and compares them with bees, which actually kill more Australians each year. Removing shark fins from live sharks is unconscionable.

Poet Les Murray is referred to twice in the book. In ‘Holy and Silent: On Peter Matthiessen’s Blue Meridian’, Murray is quoted as describing ‘a sense of space’ as “the quality of sprawl”. Winton’s youth spent inhabiting the freedom of the coast, particularly by fishing and surfing, has continued throughout most of his life and is also outlined in ‘The Wait and the Flow’.

His childhood is memorably described in ‘The Boy Behind the Curtain’, where he stood, concealed, aiming a gun at those who passed by. Transformative experiences occurred when his father was hit by a car. A Christian man cared for him and Winton learned that strangers ‘could wreck your life and do you harm [but also be] capable of mysterious kindness’. This led to Winton and his parents becoming Christians.

Winton later refers to the question asked by Jesus in ‘Stones for Bread’, “If a child asks you for bread, will you give him a stone?” as pertinent to Australia’s treatment of children in detention centres. This is an issue about which he is seething.

RidersWe also learn about some of his writing influences: Elizabeth Jolley as an unconventional mentor; the novel he dumped with enormous angst in ‘Lighting Out’; and the Irish cottage he lived in for a time in ‘Letter From a Strong Place’, with its strong echoes of The Riders.

Review: Louis Theroux Live

Louis TherouxThe breathless anticipation with which I awaited Louis Theroux’s first-time-in-Australia gig was rivalled only by the Ira Glass equivalent. Both are lions in the televisual and radio storytelling domains, and both have in recent years come to Australia to speak about their trades.

Glass, of course, is famous for the game-changing podcasts This American Life and Serial, while son of travel writer Paul Theroux Louis has broken the TV and book moulds with his awkward but endlessly fascinating ventures into subcultures that include survivalists, neo-Nazis, scientologists, brothel workers, and religious fanatics such as the Westboro Church.

Brisbane’s QPAC theatre foyer was packed on Saturday night with Theroux fans who politely queued up to purchase tote bags and mugs adorned with Theroux’s endearingly geeky moniker. And then we all eagerly filed in to the theatre itself to witness Theroux part present and part be interviewed across a two-hour format with interval.

It wasn’t until I was minutes away from the event’s start that I realised I had no idea what to expect. For the most part I was pleasantly surprised, barring a terrifying few minutes where Theroux stalked the aisles to select unwilling interviewees.

For example, the normally dead pre-show and interval times were filled with snippets of segments from Theroux’s shows over the years, which was an excellent touch and one I wish more shows featured. And the show itself opened with a spotlit Theroux telling a story about his beginnings before being joined on stage by Julia Zemiro, whom we know from, among other things, her hosting role of RocKwiz.

What was striking about Theroux in person, although probably shouldn’t have been, was how utterly unintimidating he was. I mean that in a heartening way. In a conversation that ranged from how he got his break, how he navigates the topics he investigates, and how—despite what his wife says—there’s only one way to stack a dishwasher, he showed us an unassuming guy who finished uni and didn’t know what to do with his life. Studying history, as many of us have discovered, doesn’t exactly qualify you for lots of jobs.

Via a brief stint working in a glass factory in the US, Theroux chanced upon Michael Moore needing a British correspondent for TV Nation.
‘What Michael (Moore) saw in me—as much as I’d like to see a suave, kind of interrogating intelligence, it was the opposite of that,’ Theroux said. ‘He saw my gangliness and my slight awkwardness as an asset…just being myself, but being sent out into these rather weird and wild fringes of American society where I was very out of place.’

Either way, what transpired was an apprenticeship of sorts that led to Theroux developing his own style and being offered his own show.

I could bandy around terms like ‘gangly’ and ‘unassuming’ and ‘relatable’, but what I really want to say is that although Theroux is undeniably talented and charming, what struck me during the show was how he is the quintessential example of a creative who carves out his own niche, making the kind of TV and writing the kind books he himself desired. And that in and of itself is probably invaluable inspiration for creatives the world round.

I’m not a big TV watcher, but I came to Theroux via his documentaries. They’re the kind that are so fascinatingly watchable that they find their way even to non-TV-watchers like me. Many of the documentaries have etched a permanent pop culture mark, not least the Jimmy Saville iteration, which Theroux has apparently just revisited in the form of visiting survivors of Saville’s sexual assaults.

While Theroux never claims to be objective in his approach, he does try to understand or at least unpack his subjects’ thoughts and motivations. As he accurately puts it: ‘There is always a little bit of a logic—sometimes it’s a crazy logic—but (the survivalists) feel they didn’t sign up at birth to taxes, federal government, drivers’ licences.’

But while I think I’ve seen all of Theroux’s documentaries barring the game-hunting one (I’m vegan and no matter how sensitively he portrays the topic, it’s guaranteed to distress me), what I haven’t embarked on is reading his books. Which is, frankly, a bit ass about for my overarching book-first, TV-second philosophy.

I’ve bought one—Call of the Weird—but it’s high time I get around to reading it. I will, presumably, have Theroux’s voice and mannerisms in my head as I plough through it just as I do with Jon Ronson’s books. Either way, it was a privilege to see Theroux in the country and I can only hope he’ll return soon to cast his TV show-making and book-writing eye to some of Australia’s subcultures and social issues.Save

Review: People Who Eat Darkness

People Who Eat DarknessI normally fast forward through any and all recommendations slash advertorials on podcasts, but on the few occasions I haven’t skipped ahead I’ve heard a number of podcasters recommending English-born, Japan-based journalist Richard Lloyd Parry’s People Who Eat Darkness.

The book is a deep dive into a case that gripped people across two countries and spans all manner of language barriers and cultural misunderstandings. At its centre is the mysterious 2000 disappearance of Lucie Blackman, a 21-year-old former British Airways air hostess working illegally as a hostess for quick cash in Tokyo.

Blackman had gone there short term with a friend and was hoping to work under the table to pay off some debt. But she vanished during an outside-hours meeting an unidentified client outside the club in a practice called dohan.

Common misconceptions (mostly among westerners) are that hostesses are prostitutes. The reality is more nuanced than that, with most flirting with lonely businessmen and trying to increase the bars’ business and intake. Yet even within Japan, there are myriad variations on the ‘hostess’ role, with the subtleties largely lost on us lumbering westerners.

Fairly common, dohans offer hostesses a chance to earn extra money and mostly involve going to dinner with clients outside of the usual bar setting. In fact, dohans are a bit like add-on sales. Failure to obtain them is considered underperforming and can result in hostess’ dismissal.

In Blackman’s case, the particular dohan during which she disappeared apparently involved being promised an additional gift of a trip to the beach a mobile phone. The two seem fairly silly things to go out alone with a stranger for, but it was 2000, when mobile phones were prohibitively expensive, and Blackman was from the UK, which isn’t known for its spectacular beaches.

Either way, Blackman’s disappearance focused the spotlight on hostessing practices little discussed and even less understood. And it captured international imagination and touched on some concerning stereotypes. Blackman being young, pretty, blonde, and British no doubt helped with garnering some of the media coverage.

People Who Eat Darkness is divided roughly into two parts. The first part tackles Black’s messy, mostly pre-Japan personal life. The second spans her disappearance and endeavours to contextualise and unpack some of the post-disappearance actions, particularly those of her father, who didn’t behave as he ‘should’.

It’s a fascinating tale, albeit one that is at times challenging to comprehend.

What I struggled with most with this book, which is no fault of the writer’s and which seems to be what most people struggled with while the case was active, is that the family—particularly the parents—are not at all likeable or sympathetic.

Of course, you can be fascinated by people who aren’t endearing and you can’t choose who tragedy happens to, but the parents individually and together seem quite toxic and, frankly, foolish.

There is mother Jane’s vehemently embittered hate for her ex-husband, which puts their children in a difficult position of choosing one over the other at various times and prevents the couple from presenting a united front in the effort to find out what happened to their daughter.

There is also the recklessness and ridiculous—almost partying-like—approach the father took with little thought to what effects his actions might have or, simply, how they might look. Case in point: first, taking money from the accused murderer and second, spending money on a new boat.

I wholly recognise that it’s easy to be an armchair critic and that the machinations of such an experience can only truly be understood from the inside. I also concede that there were some pretty unconscionable psychics and other cranks preying on the emotionally vulnerable family.

Either way, I spent the bulk of this book marvelling that a family could wilfully be so utterly, incomprehensibly and seemingly deliberately messy. More than once, I recalled Leo Tolstoy’s famed Anna Karenina quote that all happy families are alike and unhappy families are unhappy in unique ways.

To be fair, maybe I am, as Lloyd Parry suggests, simply like most people who have encountered this crime:

People are afraid of stories like Lucie’s, stories about meaningless, brutal premature death; but most of them cannot own up to their fear. So they take comfort in the certainty of moral judgements, which they brandish like burning branches waved in the night to keep off the wolves.

Judgement aside, it perhaps explains why I found the second half of the book far more compelling than the first—I ploughed through the first half only to sate my fascination with both Japan and the murder mystery and not the minutiae of the family’s self-inflicted drama.

Because it’s in the second half of the book that we encounter the murderer and learn both how the crime unfolded and how the police and legal system tried to bring him to justice. Without giving away too much, this character and everything that surrounds him is utterly, truth-is-stranger-than-fiction bizarre.

What becomes clear is that this is not just a story about a young and naïve British woman, but one that envelopes people from Japan, Britain, Korea, and even Australia.

Lloyd Parry himself notes that he set out to get inside the murderer’s head, but soon realised that was impossible. Irrespective, employing his understanding of both British and Japanese cultures, he crafts an insightful, culturally sensitive story that gives us the best insight we’re likely to get about this tragic situation.

Which is to say that the Blackmans might test your credulity and patience, but Blackman’s is a crime worth documenting if nothing else but for the sake of other travellers’ awareness and crime prevention.

Review: Just Mercy

Just MercyThere are some books that just keep popping up in your book-awareness periphery. Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption is one prime example.

I first heard Stevenson when he was interviewed on a bunch of different podcasts I listen to. And I kept hearing the name of his book and the premise of his work in passing book-recommendation conversations.

Last weekend, with thesis submitted and fun book-reading time finally here, I cracked open Just Mercy. And I was so gripped I cancelled my other plans and didn’t leave the house.

Stevenson is the co-founder and executive director of the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, a not-for-profit organisation that represents people on death row who cannot otherwise afford lawyers and who are frighteningly often on death row through no fault of their own.

Depressingly but unsurprisingly, most of these inmates are poor, black, and/or mentally ill. And they’re most often and rather than or.

The US has the world’s highest incarceration rate—one that’s skyrocketed in recent decades, fuelled by slogan-driven policies such as ‘three strikes and you’re out’. From 300,000 in the 70s to 2.3 million today, one in every 15 people born in the US is expected to go to jail—that number increases to one in three for black males.

Of those currently incarcerated, 50 per cent have been diagnosed with a mental illness. And there are three times as many people who are mentally ill in prison, where they are policed by people ill-equipped to handle issues, as are in hospital.

The US is also the only country that condemns children to life in prison without parole.

‘My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth,’ Stevenson writes. ‘The opposite of poverty is justice.’

Then: ‘…I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavoured, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.’

His is a lifelong quest to understand and address ‘how and why people are judged unfairly’.

To Kill A MockingbirdNow a Macarthur Genius Grant recipient and enormously respected human rights lawyer, Stevenson himself came from a poor, racially segregated background—he could just as easily have been one of the people on death row.

In fact, the book includes some anecdotes of Stevenson being racially profiled by police as a burglar when he was simply sitting in his car enjoying a favourite song. He has also been mistaken for being the defendant rather than the lawyer on a multiple occasions.

But at the book’s opening, we meet him as a very green 23-year-old Harvard law student feeling out of his depth. That’s both in terms of the law—he felt adrift and wasn’t sure he wanted to be a lawyer because he couldn’t fathom the applicability of the law in its abstract and white-collar settings—and in Georgia.

He was as an intern on a project that required him to visit a death-row prisoner at a maximum-security prison and he knew he wasn’t qualified to advise this man much less understand the direness of his situation.

I would have liked to have found out what happened to that man, but it appears it’s the entry point to the story and not a case he got to see through to its conclusion, whatever that may have been. Regardless, working with inmates on death row was where it all came together and Stevenson found the application of the law that both made sense and that he felt fitted him.

Stevenson set up his legal practice in Montgomery, a name familiar to many of us as it’s the setting for Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s also the place where Rosa Parks refused to give us her seat on the bus. The region is reaping related tourism dollars rewards.

Just Mercy examines a range of Stevenson’s cases. But it particularly follows a black death-row inmate called Walter McMillian who, coincidentally, lived in the region but hadn’t heard of To Kill A Mockingbird. And as Stevenson flags, despite its fame and boon for the local tourism industry, To Kill A Mockingbird’s core messages failed to cut through in the county or change legal outcomes for people of colour. The tale we so fondly remember isn’t actually one of triumph—the innocent black defendant isn’t, as most people mis-remember, found innocent. He’s convicted and later dies while trying to escape prison.

McMillian’s case is similarly tragic. A black man who dared have an affair with a white woman, he was framed for the murder of a woman despite the fact that there were some 20-odd witnesses to him being at a church function at his home at the time of the crime. It’s the kind of case that beggars belief but that is also far from isolated or unique.

Stevenson’s storytelling is unadorned but gripping and I raced through the book all the while knowing it was too-soon going to come to an end. Just Mercy is his memoir, which kind of implies there won’t be a follow-up. I mean, how many people do you know have released more than one memoir? I—and I assume others too, judging from the fact the book is a bestseller—sincerely hope there is more. Much more.Save

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Review: Bee Friendly Garden

Bee Friendly GardenSelf-described ‘beevangelist’ and urban beekeeper Doug Purdie espoused the benefits of beekeeping in his first book, Backyard Bees. That book highlighted what people are increasingly cottoning on to: pollinators, on which we rely for as much as 75% of our food supply, are in danger worldwide.

His just-released follow-up book, Bee Friendly Garden, concentrates on helping those who aren’t keen or aren’t able to beekeep through various circumstances, but who still want to contribute. Of which there are myriad ways. Case in point: planting a variety of shrubs, flowers, and trees on which bees can forage.

Naff as it sounds, Purdie asks readers to ‘think like a bee’. He has a point. Reconsidering our gardens is crucial to transforming monoculture or, worse, desert-like landscapes to ‘bee highways’ in which bees have a fighting chance.

That arguably means letting go of the highly manicured, architecturally rigid, pesticide-laden gardens and embracing, well, nature. As Purdie writes, ‘landscaping flair, while pleasing to the human eye, is fairly irrelevant to the bee’.

While we’re at it, we need to reign in our obsession with McMansions—Australia holds the unenviable record for the largest houses in the world, which means ground square footage is taken up by bricks and concrete and not forage-able landscape to support bees.

Among other things, Purdie identifies three habitat-related issues directly affecting bees. There’s habitat loss, i.e. we keep cutting trees down and concreting over what was once garden. There’s habitat degradation, i.e. what land is left is not healthy. And there’s habitat fragmentation, i.e. habitat is cut by highways, roads, and buildings, so it’s insanely difficult and dangerous for bees to obtain food.

Backyard BeesWhile European honey bees travel between five and 10 kilometres to find food, native bees only forage a few hundred metres from their front doors. So if there is no nearby habitat on which to forage, they literally starve to death. Lack of diversity through such things as monoculture crops is another complication in terms of the forage available.

It’s not just bee species affected by this either. Among others, butterflies are too. By killing off butterflies’ food through herbicide, we are steadily killing off butterfly populations. Throw in poorly understood and even more poorly reported factors such as illegal logging…it’s all a rather bleak and interminable list of things we are doing to harm bees and butterflies and all manner of species.

But Purdie’s book is about providing solutions, and particularly solutions accessible to those of use living in small plots in the inner city or suburbia. The book spans the benefits green roofs, details a range of plants suitable for different environments, and offers suggestions for natural stink bug and weed removal (with a vacuum cleaner and boiling water, respectively) as well as companion planting to discourage pests sans chemicals.

The book also contains some useful titbits of trivia worth stashing away. For example, bees have five eyes and use ultraviolet vision to seek out nectar and pollen. It also advocates creating pollinator highways, or corridors equivalent to ‘re-charging stations for electric cars’ that bees, who can only carry so much food with them on their travels, can stop in at to refuel.

Being a Murdoch publication, Bee Friendly Garden contains cut-above-quality images and layout. Richly coloured and with content chunked in digestible, aesthetically appealing design, it’s the kind of book you can hand to bee aficionados and fandom newbies alike. It’s definitely one for consideration as personal purchase or a giveaway gift. Me? I’m keeping my copy and adding it to the list of books I’ll buy others for Christmas.

Review: The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke

9780733632280I don’t read short story collections and I certainly never read biographies or memoirs. Maxine has now blown me away writing both. She has been described as “a powerful new voice in Australian literature”. I’d like to make a few adjustments to that quote. Maxine Beneba Clarke is the powerful voice of Australian literature. Reading Foreign Soil was like being introduced to a raw power. Like most short story collections there were stories that burst out of the book and others that slowly simmered but in every story Maxine’s power as a writer was apparent and you came away from the collection knowing that when she turned her attention to one subject, one narrative for a whole book, it was going to be something to behold. And that is exactly what she had done with The Hate Race turning her attention on herself and her childhood growing up in Western Sydney.

Maxine recounts the story of her parent’s emigration to Australia from England in the early days after The White Australia policy was dismantled by The Whitlam Government of the 1970s. She tells her story growing up in Western Sydney as one of the few families of colour and the systemic, casual, overt and unrelenting racism she had to deal with from kindergarten through to high school; from teachers, parents and classmates alike. She shows how that affected her, how that changed her, how that made her who she is and how it unmade who she is. At times it is painful to read and at other times infuriating. Anger that is tempered by your own shame when you remember similar incidents from your own childhood growing up where you looked the other way, did or said nothing or maybe even contributed in one way or another through your own ignorance of what was going on around you and the pain it was causing. Maxine recounts all this with humour, humility and honesty.

For anyone who thinks Australia isn’t a racist country, read this book. For anyone who thinks casual racism isn’t hurtful, read this book. For anyone who thinks Australia has changed a lot in the last 30 years, read this book. For anyone that has ignored a racist comment because they haven’t wanted to get involved, read this book. For anyone who wants to know what Australia is really like, read this book.

There are books that are often described as important. It is a phrase that can get thrown about a bit too much and it’s true meaning gets lost or is diminished. But every now and then a book comes along that makes you sit up. A book that quite literally takes your breath away. Sucks it out of you and it is not until you stop reading that you truly notice what the book has done. A book that opens your eyes to something you knew was there but have failed to really acknowledge. A book that confronts you with its honesty and raw emotion. A book you wish everybody around you would read so that they too can have the same realization. A book like that is important. Maxine Beneba Clarke has written a very important book. An extraordinary book. A truly remarkable and powerful book. A book I hope as many people as possible will read.

Buy the book here…

Being You is Best – Picture book reviews about Self

Teddy illo spreadIt is sheer coincidence that the following picture books lie on my desk at a time when the tenets of tolerance, acceptance and being yourself are being so brutally questioned again, (when are they not). However, it is heartening to know that equally powerful positive messages are available and as accessible as picking up one of these books and sharing it with the next generation. The message is clear and simple: being you best.  It’s ok. It’s empowering. It’s beautiful. And it is not wrong. Here are some awesome new publications, which emphasis this conviction.

Being You is Enough Being You is Enough and other important stuff by Josh Langley

Josh Langley produces a number of inspirational, aphorism-infused illustrated books but I especially warmed to this recent release aimed fair and square at primary aged readers. It contains ‘all the important stuff a kid should know…’ conveniently listed from 1 to 11. Loud, bold, and just a little bit irreverent, Langley encourages youngsters to recognise and listen to their own superpower, the voice in their heads.  This voice can mislead you but also be your best friend and guide you to other awesome thoughts.  He goes on to reveal ways to combat angry feelings, bad thoughts, and many other internal conflicts common to young kids.

There is no sugar coating the message here, the advice is simply described and plainly delivered. This honest and straightforward approach will appeal to under 10-year-olds and frankly anyone else who is suffering from a touch of self-doubt. Langley’s line illustrations are the perfect accompaniment to his affirmations, quirky and kid-like, again bursting with appeal.

Being You is Enough is a terrific green light of a book to strengthen kids’ self-awareness, acknowledge their need to ride unicorns and reinforce the understanding that they are loved and never alone. A must read, wonderful bunch of little miracles between two covers.

Big Sky Publishing February 2016

Introducing TeddyIntroducing Teddy A Story about being yourself by Jessica Walton Illustrated by Dougal MacPherson

I could not wait to read this one. Errol and his teddy, Thomas are the best of friends. They do everything together but increasingly, Thomas feels less and less like playing. Something disturbs him so deeply that he is terrified it will destroy his friendship with Errol. A mighty conflict of self is raging within Thomas who eventually reveals to Errol that he wishes his name were Tilly, not Thomas.

Walton’s sensitive narrative escorts young readers through the tricky landscape of gender awareness and acceptance. It is a watershed picture book for it not only exposes children to different family models, equality, and tolerance of others, it gently challenges the paradigms of society whilst highlighting its diversity.  MacPherson’s charm-laden illustrations ably reinforce Thomas aka Tilly’s growing discord and eventual surrender to being herself.

Full of relevance and grace, Introducing Teddy is tastefully rendered and should be on every classroom bookshelf.  Suitable for early to mid-primary readers and anyone fearful of questioning their own sexuality.

Bloomsbury Publishing May 2016

The Mozzie with the Sharp SnozzieThe Mozzie with a Sharp Snozzie by Irina Goundortseva

Resonating the delightful tones of the Ugly Duckling, The Mozzie with the Sharp Snozzie is a delightful visitation of one little mozzie’s sense of self. Our chipper little protagonist lives by the pond in perpetual awe of the beautiful butterflies who flutter about being beautiful all day long. She yearns to join them, to be as beautiful as them but they shun her because of her ugly and boring appearance. Disheartened, Mozzie retreats then embarks on a plan to elevate her popularity by disguising her true self. The shallow butterflies are enamoured by their beautiful new friend until disaster strikes and ‘things go from bad to worse’. Will Mozzie abandon her newfound friends and self-appreciation to save the day?

Vibrant illustrations accompany a lively text and storyline that will have little ones enthusiastically page turning to the very end.  Mozzie… is an invigorating tale about the benefits of being proactive, being yourself, and loving who you are. In addition, it does wonders for the esteem and profile of mozzies everywhere, which I think is reason enough to hunt it down to enjoy.

Big Sky Publishing August 2016

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

 

 

Review: Sherpa

Into Thin AirI’ve never ever even remotely been able to comprehend westerners’ fascination with ‘conquering’ Mt Everest. In fact, I’ve found the concept of ‘conquering’ it fairly ridiculously offensive. And I’ve often wondered about the people who get those westerners to the summit: the Sherpas.

Because with the exception of the yaks forced to carry loads of gear up and down the treacherous landscape, Sherpas seem to get the rawest deal. They don’t get paid well, yet they take the lion’s share of the load and risk.

The inequity and moral vacuum fuelled by aspiration surrounding summiting Everest was cemented for me years back when I read Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, which documented the then worst accident on Everest.

The book was startling in what it captured: greed and ambition combined to see people pushing themselves way past their limits; one experienced guide died on the mountain through altitude-induced kind of magical thinking as his wife tried to cajole him down via a satellite phone; a climber left for dead—twice—who somehow eventually got themselves up and walking back into Base Camp…

And yet the Sherpas who were working furiously behind the scenes to aid these expeditions were only briefly discussed. I wanted to know more.

One of the first things I learnt from Jen Peedom’s Sherpa documentary, which I was fortunate enough to preview this week, is that the term Sherpa has been popularised as someone who climbs mountains—more specifically, someone who helps entitled westerners ascend Everest. But Sherpas are actually a distinct ethnic group with a long, rich history.

The most famous of all Sherpas is, of course, Tenzing Norgay, the amendable man who steered New Zealander Edmund Hillary to the peak in 1953 and then wasn’t entirely recognised for his work (he received a secondary honour to Edmund’s adulation).

Fast forward to 2013 and fisticuffs on the mountain, and the stereotypical smiling, subservient Sherpa is nowhere to be seen. Peedom and her crew set out to discover what had changed and to explore Everest ascents from the Sherpas’ perspectives.

But they didn’t end up producing quite the documentary they had planned—and it shows because the film’s narrative isn’t, through no fault of the documentary makers, on as sure footing as you’d hope. Instead, they captured the moment and aftermath of an avalanche that killed 16 Sherpas.

The incident has arguably changed Everest expeditioning forever. It was the straw that broke the metaphorical camel’s back, with the Sherpas demanding better pay, better recognition, and better compensation for the danger they face every day.

That’s because they risk their lives a whole lot more than the climbers, particularly by carrying gear back and forth over an especially unstable section known as the Ice Fall, but which is the only access point. The climbers themselves traverse the Ice Fall perhaps twice. The Sherpas more like 30 times. Disturbingly, the Sherpas actually draw straws to determine who will carry what across this part.

The government won’t allow anything to be flown up the mountain, so everything must be carried up. And westerners these days expect comfort, so the Sherpas are literally carrying things like TVs. Yes, TVs. And so, with a mountain further destabilised by climate change, the Sherpas’ lives are ruled by prayer, superstition, and luck. As one interviewee asks halfway through the film: ‘What is the moral justification for this?’

Phurba Tashi is the main Sherpa the documentary follows. Had he ascended Everest in 2014, it would be his 22nd summit and a new world record. His family was less than enthused about it. ‘I’m often scared,’ his wife told the documentary makers. ‘He loves the mountain more than his family.’ His mother said: ‘How many times can he climb? I’m over this.’

Sherpa isn’t the most successful documentary ever created—the sudden but necessary switch in subject matter kind of put paid to that. But it is solid. It warrants watching, whether you’re a cynic like me who finds the whole mountain-scaling circus unethical and depressing or an avid mountaineer thinking of setting crampon on this peak.

Review: The Naked Vegan

The Naked VeganIf the cover for Maz Valcorza’s The Naked Vegan doesn’t make you pluck the book from the shelf and cook something, nothing will. That and the knowledge that the author grew from being a child who ate Spam out of the can to someone who eats vegan wholefoods. Even with a detour of being a nursing-qualified pharmaceutical rep who lived a hard-drinking, hard-smoking party lifestyle.

Valcorza’s shift toward veganism and generally healthy living kicked off after a chance encounter with yoga based on the idea it might improve her co-ordination and tone her butt. She so fell in love with yoga that she studied to become a yoga teacher, during which she was particularly struck by the yogic principle of ahimsa, which advocates non-violence or non-harm. Obvs that philosophy extended to animals.

Having gone vegan but being starved of choice by the then limited vegan offerings available, Valcorza was buying up the vegan junk food versions of the foods she knew. She figuring there must be better ways to live vegan. And that she might be the one to help find some of them.

She heard about raw food and started experimenting, posting recipes on her blog. Her foray into the area was so successful she went on to found Sadhana Kitchen, Sydney’s first organic, raw-food café. Pronounced sah-da-nah, the name translates ‘one’s conscious practice’, and it essentially relates to your daily ritual. The idea is that you do good in this daily ritual stuff by consciously making ethical decisions, which includes ethical eating decisions.

By extension for Valcorza, conscious practice also involved leaving behind a job with a pharmaceutical company advocating throwing drugs at health issues that could probably be first addressed through healthy food. The irony is that since going vegan, she’s been so healthy she hasn’t so far needed any kind of the kind of medicine she used to peddle.

The takeaway of The Naked Vegan specifically and Valcorza’s story as a whole is if she can completely change her life and manage this vegan stuff, anyone can. Especially when you consider her Filipino heritage is one that was based heavily on meat. (The veganised roast pig incident in her introduction is, though thoughtful and well-meaning, nonetheless quite confounding.) Still, the book’s cover makes a good start on the anyone-can approach because it’s decadent and aesthetically appealing enough to lure even the most cynical eater in.

The book (which handily also falls into the #ByAustralianBuyAustralian category—that is, it’s buy an Australian and you can buy it from your local Australian bookstore) contains a glossary to explain the terms and—surprising to me, at least—it’s up front. I’m not going to lie. Vegan cookbooks that require glossaries make me nervous and invariably go in the too-hard pile. I’m a terrible cook, I live on my own and so have no one to prompt me to prepare food, and I lead an insanely busy lifestyle. When I see ingredients that I have to google or scale some distant mountain to locate a herb grown only in the kind of conditions that support a hardy but benevolent goat, I’m out.

But then I flipped from the glossary to the sesame and nori crackers. And then the bagels. And the zucchini crackers and the felafel plate with beetroot dip and zucchini hummus. And later the spaghetti and beet balls, and the mushroom, spinach, and caramelised onion quiche. And then the strawberry donuts, the bananarama cupcakes, the orange and poppyseed cake, the apple and strawberry crumble pie with rhubarb and ginger coulis. Oh, and the choc-raspberry cheesecake featured on the cover. You get the point.

So while I’ll qualify this review with saying I’d probably be a little more likely to visit Sadhana Kitchen and purchase the kind of incredible treats this recipe book features (I will and I do), I will say the recipes and accompanying images appear delicious. It’s also high time I stopped relying I’m my limited range of vegan recipes and branched out to try something new. With 140 recipes, The Naked Vegan would definitely be an excellent resource for doing that.

Many thanks to Murdoch Books for sending me the review copy.

Second Half First by Drusilla Modjeska

Second Half FirstDrusilla Modjeska’s memoir Second Half First (Random House Australia) reads as excellent literary fiction. I had to keep reminding myself that I was reading fact rather than absorbing fiction. The author moves in exalted literary circles; making friends at university who have gone on to become lecturers, and socialising and travelling with literary friends of the ilk of Helen Garner, Robyn Davidson, Hazel Rowley, Gail Jones, Lynne Segal and author/illustrator and former Children’s Laureate, Alison Lester.

Man who loved chn

 

Modjeska tells us how she interviewed the seminal author, Christina Stead but, after an interview at the 2009 SWF with her friend Robert Dessaix she doesn’t believe went well, she hasn’t conducted another public interview. 2009 wasn’t a good year for her, though.

Modjeska structures her story by writing about the second half first, beginning with the breakup with her husband on the night before she turned forty. She writes using images of veils and mirrors from visual art, a field she knows well. She was inspired by artist Janet Laurence’s thoughts about, “A way of looking within the world rather than at it… What do we see when a veil falls?” to write, “What do we see if the layers open and we step between the veils into the hidden, or partly hidden places … veils …  occlusions and opacities”. Her traumatic breakup precipitated a new life and vision.

MountainBecause Modjeska is writing about real life, she ponders what is fair to reveal about people she knows and what the repercussions might be. Some of her settings are also indelible. The Sydney Enmore house that she shared with friends, including Helen Garner, and which was the setting for generous, informal gatherings and inspired writing; and the times and travel in Papua New Guinea, which readers of her remarkable novel The Mountain, would have already shared, are seared into my memory. The collection of cloth from a remote mountain village in PNG also raised questions about integrity. Should the cloth be taken and sold overseas to provide money for the Omie people or could the exposure this caused create more problems? Modjeska also comments on Manus Island and the co-existence of Christianity and traditional practices.

Issues such as how different cultures raise boys into men; feminism, spilling into how males and females may be treated differently – including the reception to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “hundreds of pages on the frustrations of not getting to the books he would be writing if he weren’t in the supermarket aisle with a stroller” and the skewed response by a journalist writing about “childlessness by choice” who only interviewed females and ignored suggestions of males such as David Malouf and David Marr.

OrchardDrusilla Modjeska’s other books include Poppy, The Orchard and Stravinsky’s Lunch, which I have long wanted to read.

Finding the Love within – Part 1 – Elephant Man

Elephant Man cover 2The old proverb ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’ is a mantra often touted but sadly, sometimes forgotten in our instantaneous summarising of a person’s character based on their outward appearance. In spite of our best efforts to ignore the extraordinary and bypass the bizarre, unusual can equate to different which can persuade us to believe it as being wrong which means we are liable to overlook the true beauty of a thing or personality of a person. Here (across two reviews) are two picture books that I believe will help young children see beyond the ‘covers’ of difference and discover a deeper greater understanding of what dwells within.

Elephant Man

Written Mariangela Di Fiore (translated by Rosie Hedger) Illustrated by Hilde Hodnefjeld

I first learned of Joseph Merrick aka the Elephant Man in my early teens thanks to the 1980 movie release dramatizing this man’s short life during the late 1800s. I remember with indelible clarity the poignant ending and cruel indignities portrayed so effectively in black and white, but confess I never sought out written information about the man behind the mask. Life moved on as it does, till now.

Elephant Man illo spreadThe picture book, Elephant Man is the first time Merrick’s story has been told with children in mind. Firstly, it blows current 400-words-or-less picture book constraints out of the water. Di Fiore is deliberately unrushed and methodical in her telling of Merrick’s story from the time of his birth, when he looked ‘like any other baby’ to his rapid physical corruption, possibly caused from Proteus syndrome and the disease called neurofibromatosis type 1.

Mid-primary readers will easily handle this account thanks to the inclusion of beseeching dialogue and Merrick’s fictionalised internal thought. There is a satisfying balance of story interwoven with fact and intimate events. By the final ‘reveal’, we have endured the pain and humiliation as Joseph did as well as being heartened by his tremendous sense of self-regard despite his dispiriting existence.

Mariangela Di FioreDi Fiore’s compassionate narrative aligns effortlessly with Hodnejeld’s mesmerising illustrations, describing Joseph’s devastating loss of his mother as a wee lad, his alienating deformities, his surrender to life as a spectacle and his eventual salvation by the kind doctor, Frederick Treves.

Hodnefjeld’s artwork is heart stopping. Combining illustration, and photographic montage it gives readers tantalising glimpses into real Victorian London, including the London Hospital where Joseph resided until his death.Hilde Hodnefjeld

This is a true story both confronting and liberating. It is moving and memorable. It bares the worst and best of humanity without sacrificing dignity. Above all, it demonstrates the strength of will, that once uncovered can make love accessible to anyone, no matter whom or what they are – or what they look like.

I read this to my 10 year-old who insisted I complete it in one sitting. I could see the profound effect it had on her from the look on her face as she assimilated something almost unimaginable. She commented repeatedly afterwards on Joseph’s plight, trying to come to grips with the way he was treated, the way he looked and most touchingly, how he must have felt. ‘That poor man…’

Gather round – prepare to be amaze! You simply won’t believe it’. Elephant Man is neither gruesome nor frightening, rather simply beautiful and so very very relevant. I entreat you to share it.

Allen & Unwin Children’s January 2016

Stick around for Part 2 of Finding the Love within when we go a little crazy with, Annabel’s Dance.

 

 

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.

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: Suffragette

SuffragettesCurrent cultural debates around feminism revolve around:

  • whether it’s a dirty word
  • shifting perceptions of and reclaiming it (thanks to the help of some universally liked women like Emma Watson) as something positive.

Which makes the release of Suffragette, the historical fiction-based film about the suffragette movement, incredibly prescient and timely. The term used then might have been suffragette instead of feminism, but this is a debate that is long-running and perennially important.

As someone who’s always identified as a feminist (I successfully petitioned to get female bin girls and female altar servers back in my local municipality), there was no question I would review this film. And while I don’t know what I expected of Suffragette, but I have to admit it wasn’t the realisation that I don’t know my suffragette history as well as you’d think I would.

It’s London, 1912, and the suffragette movement is gathering momentum. The voiceover contains excerpts of politicians and other powerful men debating the pros and cons of giving women the vote. Protagonist Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a 24-year-old laundry worker, is largely oblivious to this.

She was born in the laundry and was strapped to her mother’s back as an infant. Her poorly paid, poorly educated mother was forced to return to work as quickly as possible. Maud started working for the laundry part time when she was seven years old and full time when she was 12. Repeating the little-opportunity cycle, she now has a child of her own.

Maud doesn’t identify as a suffragette—in fact, she denies it multiple times throughout the film. But trapped and dreaming of a better life, she gradually she finds herself drawn in, and eventually contributing, to the movement out of necessity.

Suffragette is the story of one group of women’s experiences of the suffragette movement. Emmeline Pankhurst (played by Meryl Streep) looms large in the psyche, making brief cameos at key moments, but this film drills down to the personal. Maud, with her blistered hands, poor pay, exhausting hours, and lecherous boss is an everywoman with which we can identify.

She’s supported and encouraged by a cast of incredible actors, including Helena Bonham Carter, who plays a chemist who was never allowed to become a doctor. One police officer describes her character as ‘educated with scruples’, which makes her particularly dangerous.

‘It’s deeds, not words, that’ll get us the vote’ is one of many memorable phrases this film contains. ‘You want me to respect the law, then make the law respectable’ and ‘They don’t want to be lawbreakers, they want to be lawmakers’ are other phrases bandied about as the women participate in national campaign of civil disobedience.

My StoryI spent a vast portion of this film wondering what I would have done had I been alive during this time—I’m the beneficiary of these women’s courage, but I wonder how courageous I would have been. I came away with a whole new level of respect for their bravery. And an appreciation for the filmmakers who saw this film as warranting being told, which all too rarely happens with ‘women’s stories’.

There was much impromptu and impassioned murmuring as the film credits rolled. Or, more specifically, a list detailing when and where women’s rights began to be recognised.

For example, after years of suffragette action, women over 30 and of a certain character in the UK were finally allowed to vote as of 1918. It took until 1928 for the rest of the women in the UK to be allowed to. And it took until 1925 for the UK to recognise a mother’s right to her child.

Australia was comparatively forward: women received the vote in 1902.

We sat right until the end of the credits, marvelling, talking, maybe even shedding a surreptitious tear or two. It was during this time that my co-reviewer noticed two women leaving the cinema wearing suffragette hats. Something tells me they contributed to the original suffragette movement and the film held special significance for them.

In light of this, and in light of the fact I’ve realised I don’t know as much about suffragette history and homage as I probably should, I’ve decided my Christmas present to me is going to be suffragette-themed books. I’ll be starting with The Suffragettes: The Fight for Votes for Women and the simply titled Suffragette. If you can recommend any others—particularly seminal texts—I’m all ears.

Review: The Program

It's Not About The BikeThere are few stories more abjectly fascinating than those surrounding Lance Armstrong’s triumph over a cancer he was given infinitesimally small chance of surviving and his subsequent seven Tour de France (AKA Tour de Lance) victories.

Consequently, there are few stories more assumptions-shattering than the revelation that Armstrong had, in fact, been using drugs to aid his wins all along.

The Program, so named to describe the doping program Armstrong (played convincingly by Ben Foster) and his teammates followed, answers the questions we’ve been wondering for years: How did he do it? And how did he manage to get away with it for so long?

The film’s opening scene features a solitary cyclist climbing a mountain. The only sounds we hear are the wind, the rider’s breath, and the sound of a helicopter hovering overhead. It is, presumably, Armstrong out in front of the peloton in the Tour de France. Or it’s simply an arresting visual of a rider alone with their thoughts, battling the elements as they work to ascend a mountain.

The Tour de France features 180 riders, 20 stages, and just one—highly prized—yellow jersey. Armstrong won the event a record seven times, and he did so after overcoming a debilitating cancer no one should have overcome. It’s unsurprising his wins took on mythic proportions in our minds.

Armstrong would likely have remained a legendary figure had it not been for sports writer David Walsh (played by Chris O’Dowd). He was the only journalist who doubted Armstrong’s triumphant physical makeover (Armstrong was built for one-day cycling events, not three-week tours that involved mountainous range) and the only person to doggedly work to uncover the doping truth.

‘He’s a man transformed,’ Walsh says at one point. ‘He recovered from cancer and turned into bloody Superman.’

And: ‘I have no interest in going up a mountain to watch chemists compete.’

To be fair, Armstrong decided to dope because everyone else was already doing it. I know, I know, that doesn’t make it even remotely alright. And yes, the ‘if everyone jumped off a cliff, would you?’ example springs to mind. Armstrong wasn’t and isn’t a sheep. He’s a ruthless competitor who knew what he was doing.

But as one friend and avid cyclist said to me when the news of Armstrong’s doping finally broke, he might have been taking performance-enhancing drugs, but he still consistently beat a field of guys who were likely also doping. Was he simply levelling the playing field?

I don’t know. With Armstrong’s story, we’re knee deep in murky ethics. And consciences weighing heavy.

‘I just told them what they wanted to hear,’ he tells his future wife after he delivers an inspiring speech about beating cancer. Which is arguably true. We wanted to believe in Armstrong’s story just as much as he wanted us to believe it.

And there were arguably some benefits to his profile and success, however false. He raised millions of dollars for cancer research. He inspired people experiencing cancer to fight to live.

I’m not condoning what Armstrong did. Like everyone else, I got teary when he stood up on the podium time and again. And I felt foolish and frustrated I’d been duped.

I’d even read and loved his two ghost-written memoirs, It’s Not About The Bike: My Journey Back to Life and Every Second Counts, rabbiting on about how incredible it was he’d beat the odds and how hard he’d worked for his victories.

So I was particularly annoyed they turned out to be if not entirely false, then at least playing loose with facts. It’s well-documented—and slightly bemusing—that people shifted those titles from the non-fiction to fiction sections in bookshops.

Even though Armstrong’s actions were wholly wrong, The Program gives us the most insightful and nuanced examination of Armstrong and his motivations to date.

That’s not to say the film’s perfect. Plenty is skimmed over, not least Armstrong’s battle with cancer and his marriages and relationships. Seriously, the audience kind of chuckled in surprise at how the film cut from Armstrong asking a woman in a hallway if she liked Italian food to—literally—them emerging from a church married. We never saw her again and at one stage his three children, who had not been mentioned or appeared prior to that, joined him on the podium.

But that’s also a sign the film stayed true to its intent: depicting the doping program Armstrong and his teammates underwent in order to win.

Based on detailed legal documents and reports surrounding his exposure and the stripping of his titles, The Program is the closest thing we’ve got to date about how the doping was carried out. It’s fictional and Armstrong obviously hasn’t condoned it, but I’d like to think the film offers the rest of us some insight into the hows and the whys. It’s certainly closer to the truth than Armstrong’s two books. For those reasons, I’d recommend we watch it.