The Book That Helps Nurture Australian Native Bees

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Revisiting RBG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Eggshell Skull

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

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

Let me back up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Tattooist of Auschwitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Under the Lights and in the Dark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond The Backyards – Nature Non-Fiction Picture Books

Picture books enable children to escape and experience worlds quite unlike their own. Non-fiction narrative picture books enhance those journeys even further. The following collection entices young readers to gaze skyward, creep through leaf litter and explore worlds in and beyond their backyards.

Backyard by Ananda Braxton-Smith & Lizzy Newcomb

Backyard is as it says; a whimsical exploration of a normal suburban backyard, that on closer inspection is anything but normal. ‘Sweet-tooth bats’ flit about the dusky evening sky, tawny frogmouths sit ‘as still as wood’. There is tiny movement everywhere and for one ‘sleep-moony child and star-eyed dog watching’, the world comes alive despite their close proximity to the city.

Visually sumptuous and satisfying, this picture book encourages mindfulness and evokes calm and imaginative thought. Captivating language coupled with sensory illustrations on every page will have youngsters revisiting this celebration of creatures great and small again and again.

Black Dog Books August 2018

Continue reading Beyond The Backyards – Nature Non-Fiction Picture Books

CBCA 2018 Shortlisted EVE POWNALL Information Books #2

I’ve already blogged about the CBCA shortlisted Younger and Older Reader books.

In two parts, I’ll now look at the Eve Pownall Information Books.

Amazing Australians and their Flying Machines by Prue and Kerry Mason, illustrated by Tom Jellett (Walker Books)

This book is structured chronologically with a focus on inventors and aviators we’ve heard of including Lawrence Hargrave, Nancy Bird, Charles Kingsford Smith, Rev John Flynn of the Flying Dr Service; and those we may not have heard of such as Dr William Bland (who appeared before Hargrave) in the 1850s.

The structure and writing styles provide variety: words in the aviators’ voices; 3 Amazing Facts about most aviators; and ‘Did You Know?’ columns. The book acknowledges difficulties for women in the past who wished to fly.

Some interesting information from the book:

George Taylor In 1909 he flew a glider from Narrabeen, NSW. His wife Florence also flew, tucking her long skirts into her bloomers. At age ten Taylor wrote an essay, ‘The Future of Flying Machines in Australia’. He was a cartoonist and suffered from epilepsy.

Bert Hinkler In 1921 he flew the nine hours from Sydney to Bundaberg wearing a suit and tie. His RAF flying instructor was Cpt W.E. Johns, who wrote the Biggles books.

Like Lawrence Hargrave, children could make box kites. The ‘e-how’ website could be helpful. It suggests using dowel, bendy straws and a plastic/vinyl tablecloth. https://www.ehow.com/how_4882168_make-box-kites.html Alternatively they could make gliders or paper planes.

M is for Mutiny! History by Alphabet by John Dickson, illustrated by Bern Emmerichs (Berbay Publishing)

Structured as an alphabet book, this book is set during British colonisation of Australia but also explores ongoing preoccupations such as L is for land rights.

The M is for Mutiny section could be linked with another book in this series, William Bligh: a stormy story of tempestuous times. Children could discuss why this letter has been selected for the book’s title and suggest alternatives from the book. 

I is for Island could lead to reading the graphic novel, The Mostly True Story of Matthew and Trim by Cassandra Golds and Stephen Axelson.

Decorative Patterning is used for sections such as J is for Jail and N is for Nurture. Children could select an alternative description for one of the letters e.g. C is for Convicts (instead of Cook) and create decorative patterning in Bern Emmerichs’ style.

Left & Right by Lorna Hendry (Wild Dog Books)

Like last year’s shortlisted book by this author, Gigantic Book of Genes, this is a glossy science publication with high quality photos. It includes seamless explanations of left and right with clear examples for children to understand.

It includes a clever idea where children hold their hands out in front and touch their thumbs. Their left hand forms an L shape (helping them remember which hand is left).

The author recognises that it is easy to mix up left and right and looks at situations where right may connote good and left signify weak or bad. For example, in Albania it has been a crime to be left-handed.

It features symmetry, spirals, clockwise and anticlockwise, and the compass.

The author includes incredible information, such as ‘Nearly all kangaroos are left-handed… Parrots use their left feet to pick up food.’ ‘Female cats tend to be right-handed, and male cats … left’. And when driving, island nations tend to drive on the left-hand side of the road.

 

 

CBCA 2018 Shortlisted EVE POWNALL Information Books

I’ve already blogged about the CBCA shortlisted Younger and Older Reader books. In two parts, I’ll now look at the Eve Pownall Information Books.

Do Not Lick This Book by Idan Ben-Barak, illustrated by Julian Frost (Allen & Unwin)

Min is a microbe. She is small. Very small. In fact, so small that you’d need to look through a microscope to see her.

I know from comments by a young family that this tactile, interactive book about microbiology has great appeal. The title is provocative – tempting and almost urging children to lick the book. Min the microbe guides the reader through the informative content, which is well designed with bright comic style illustrations and high-quality photographs. The information is clever, irreverent and quirky. It probably reflects the creators – a team consisting of writer Idan (quiet loud thoughts), Julian (who likes comics and toast) and Linnea, the scientist.

Children could consider, ‘Where will you take Min tomorrow?’ Like the book, they could take Min on a journey using a mix of photographic backgrounds, cartoon characters and written text.

Hygiene is taught and encouraged using reverse psychology. Teachers and parents may use the book to reinforce good hygiene (without losing the text’s inherent appeal).

Koala by Claire Saxby, illustrated by Julie Vivas (Walker Books)

Koala is most appropriate for the very young. It traces the experiences of a young koala achieving independence.

The writing is both literary and factual: providing parallel texts which are particularly useful for children who prefer one style over the other and to expose readers to both forms. The illustrations are distinctive for their rounded lines and shapes.

Children could make finger puppets using the following free template http://www.makefilmplay.com/kids-crafts/how-to-make-this-koala-finger-puppet-with-a-free-template/ or cut rounded shapes from felt (and sew and stuff) to make a koala. They could use these to re-enact the koala’s movements.

Koala is part of Walker Books’ excellent ‘Nature Storybooks’ series. Others include Claire Saxby’s Big Red Kangaroo, Emu and Dingo; and Sue Whiting’s Platypus. This could also be a good opportunity to introduce the classic Blinky Bill by Dorothy Wall.

The Big Book of Antarctica by Charles Hope (Wild Dog Books)

This is another big, glossy production from Wild Dog Books. The photos are exceptional. There is minimal written text and key words are shown in large coloured font.

Antarctica is studied in the Australian curriculum and this book covers explorers, scientists, transport, ice, plants (moss, algae, plankton), and much about animals and birds, e.g. giant petrels who vomit on anything they think is a threat (page 37). Climate change and global warming also feature (page 60)

Ice is looked at on page 22. There are many experiments about ice in other books and online to extend this subject.

Children may also be interested in looking at Antarctica in real time via web cams http://www.antarctica.gov.au/webcams

Incredible Journeys – Picture Books That Show Us The Way

Picture books have an incredible ability to not only reflect life but also reveal new and previously unknown aspects of it. For children, nearly everything they are experiencing is new and unknown, which is why these next few picture books are so incredibly useful for showing them the way. This selection features incredible journeys made by humans, animals, spirit and much more. Venture into a journey of enlightenment with them.

Migration: Incredible Animal Journeys by Mike Unwin and Jenni Desmond

This superbly presented hardback picture book features 48 pages of astonishing animal journeys. Complete with easy to use contents page and a world map that depicts the actual trips each animal makes, this stunning collection is a must have on any classroom shelf.

Unwin prompts readers to imagine themselves as a baby swallow who, after just leaving its nest in England now must contemplate a flight over 10 000 kilometres away to Africa. Awarded travel and wildlife writer, Unwin then describes the migratory long-distance journeys of 20 different animals; why they make the effort and how they survive the trek. Some you’ll recognise like the monarch butterfly or the magnificent wandering albatross but did you know that the globe skimmer dragonfly performs a round-the-world trip of over 10 000 kms, as well?

Sumptuously illustrated by Jenni Desmond, Migration takes us across the planet, through its skies and over its oceans in the footsteps, wings and fins of some of the world’s truly greatest travellers. This is one literacy odyssey you and anyone five years and above must experience.

Bloomsbury Children June 2018

Waves by Donna Rawlins Heather Potter and Mark Jackson

Waves is another visually arresting, historical picture book that presents in similar ways to Rawlins’ well-loved picture book with Nadia Wheatley, My Place. Following a time line commencing some 50 000 years before to the present day, Rawlins takes us across the seas with various children and their families as they embark on journeys of emigration, redemption, hope and escape. Each child shares a brief snapshot of their on board experience through captivating vignettes of narrative, allowing their stories to come alive. Their situations are not always pleasant indeed most are laced with tragedy and hardship, but for those who survive their trip across the waves, the destination is often a kind of salvation.

Rawlins includes descriptions at the end of the book about each of the fictional characters, their cultural origins and suggested reasons for setting off into the unknown in the first place. She points out that if you are not an Indigenous Australian, then members of your family must have made a journey across the waves to arrive at this island called Australia at some point in time. This really does give one pause for thought and invites energetic discussion between young people and their family members about heritage and ancestry, not to mention the issues of immigration and asylum seekers.

Thoughtfully illustrated by Potter and Jackson, Waves acknowledges the journeys of those who come across the sea in search of a better existence in a supremely considered and engaging way. Recommended for readers five years and over.

Black Dog Books imprint of Walker Books June 2018

Let’s Go ABC! Things That Go, From A to Z by Rhonda Gowler Greene and Daniel Kirk

For those who prefer their travel infused with a bit more levity, cast your eyes on this fanciful non-fiction title. This contemporary A B C picture book dedicates a page to each letter along with accompanying verse and the most eye-stunning illustrations. Transportation has never been portrayed with such enthusiasm or detail. Animals from around the world ride, skate, vroom, sail, drag and float their way through the alphabet with non-stop vigour. I never even knew there were 26 modes of transport. Greene carries us across water, air, through ice and snow, by track and wheels with ease and planeloads of interest.  Kirk cleverly includes a zoo-full of animals whose names share the same letter as the letter featured in each popping illustration. Kids from the age of two and above will no doubt have hours of fun hunting these down and matching them up – as I did! Top marks.

Bloomsbury Children June 2018

Spirit by Cherri Ryan and Christina Booth

Sometimes not every journey takes us where we expect. Things happen, plans change. How do you cope when that happens? This is something very small children often struggle to accept. How they acknowledge these mental explorations of change and resignation is crucial in determining how they develop tolerance and empathy.

Spirit by debut author, Cherri Ryan, imbues a sense of determination within readers through the actions of a small child. This girl constructs a toy ship she names, Spirit and launches her in her backyard pond. Spirit’s maiden voyage is successful and the girl rejoices, dreaming of expeditions further afield or seas, as it were. Before each journey, the girl lovingly tends Spirit, oiling her decks; carefully trimming her sails, certain of her abilities to triumph every watery endeavour, each more challenging than the last, until one day, Spirit encounters rough seas, loses her way and capsizes.

This book tenderly captures the essence of childhood hope and the expectations built around it. It explores the notions of anticipating outcomes beyond our control, but remaining stalwart enough in spirit to find ways around life’s obstacles. The delicate correlative objective between the girl’s boat and her own will to succeed gently pulls readers along an emotional journey of exultation, despair, and finally celebration.  Booth’s sensitive depiction of Spirit’s creator is both timely and thought-provoking. Her heart-warming illustrations add another dimension of lucidity and movement to this tale, which nurtures the notion of never giving up and remaining true to your spirit. Symbolic sublimity for 4 – 8 year olds.

Black Dog Books imprint of Walker Books July 2018

Visiting You: A Journey of Love by Rebecka Sharpe Shelberg and Andrea Edmonds

No life itinerary would be complete without a journey of love. I reviewed this one earlier this year and recommend it as a rich way of exploring feelings, perceptions and relationships. Here’s a snippet of my former review. You can read the full review, here.

This story, celebrating the immense power of love, possesses an enigmatic quality that hums throughout the book from beginning to end.

Shelberg’s thoughtful poetic narrative balances beautifully with Edmonds’ poignant watercolour vignettes and spreads. The gentle balance of colour and emotion reveal memories and the child’s growing understanding that he need not fear strangers who appear gruff and scruffy, different and intimidating. That beneath the obvious differences of a person, there often dwells a story worth sharing and a reason to love. This is a mighty concept to grasp in our modern day world of stranger danger and our first world tendency to look the other way for fear of becoming too involved. The commendable thing about this tale is that it does not encourage reckless, unchecked interaction with strangers – the child is always within his mother’s supervision – but rather it promotes a phenomenal sense of humanity, of not judging a book by its cover and … of caring.

As Ian MacLaren once said, “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be Kind. Always.”

I love the message of … connecting with ourselves through others. Of cultivating empathy; a mindset we should all aspire. Visiting You encapsulates this mindset exceptionally well. Full marks.

EK Books March 2018

 

 

 

 

 

Be Brave – Picture Books that Celebrate Overcoming Doubts

Being brave, is less about being courageous and more about ignoring your fear because you simply cannot afford to waste any more time on it. Overcoming doubts and anxieties is something children face every day. Picture books like these encourage a heightened awareness of one’s own feelings and capabilities and in doing so banish fears and promote determination.

Where’s Bear? by Sarah Elliott Smyth and Nicky Johnston

Sophie represents a whole playground of children who spiral into anguish after they lose a precious toy, or in their eyes, a stalwart playmate. When Bear goes missing, Sophie embarks on an apprehension-filled journey in search of him that will have little ones perched on the edge of their seats. Thankfully, the cute ending reunites and delights. Johnston’s winsome illustrations elevate this heart-warming story of facing your fears and tenacity to the next level. Utterly endearing, this story will warm the cockles of your heart and encourage very young children to ‘never stop hoping’.

Empowering Resources February 2018

Continue reading Be Brave – Picture Books that Celebrate Overcoming Doubts

The Adversary

Trigger warning: The book this blog features is contains distressing subject matter, so may not be suitable for all readers.

About two years ago, I had the misfortune to be very, very peripherally affected by the real-life playing out of a most bat-insane story—one that involved a guy I vaguely knew having spent 15 years pretending to study medicine and practise as a doctor.

Without going into details—in part because the story’s so bizarre that I could not do it justice and in part because I don’t think it’s my story to tell—what I will say is that I and everyone else who knows the story has spent the better part of the past two years grappling with the ins and outs of it and basically going: What the hell?

So I was online and ordering The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception quick sticks after a friend recommended it. The story, which is of a man who spent 18 years pretending to study medicine and practise as a doctor before murdering his wife, their two children, and his parents, as well as attempting to murder his mistress, was notorious in France but largely passed me by in Australia. Until now.

While I don’t for a moment suggest the two tales have much in common other than faking medical careers, I was keen to see if someone else had been able to resolve the questions that remain unresolved (or even unanswered) in my own life: What prompts someone to fake doctory? And how on earth do they manage the logistics?

The how and the why clearly drive the book, as author Emmanuel Carrere parallels aspects of his own life with Jean-Claude Romand’s, at least in part to try to compare and contrast and ultimately understand Romand’s actions. For instance, the book’s opening paragraph reads startlingly matter-of-factly:

On the Saturday morning of January 9, 1993, while Jean-Claude Romand was killing his wife and children, I was with mine in a parent–teacher meeting at the school attended by Gabriel, our eldest son. Then we went to have lunch with my parents, as Jean-Claude Romand did with his, whom he killed after their meal …

Reading this book was more than a little eerie, as what may seem like an objectively interesting tale felt for me like deja vous as Carrere steps readers through the reaction to finding out that nothing about Romand was as it appeared:

Everyone was wondering: How could we have lived beside this man for so long without suspecting a thing? Everyone tried to remember a moment when some suspicion, some moment that might have led to some suspicion, had almost crossed their minds.

Romand’s life was ultimately a house of cards, but it seems no one had had their suspicions raised sufficiently to warrant investigating: Romand claimed he worked at the World Health Organization, but a simple phone call after the murders revealed there was no such person employed there. Romand wasn’t listed on the global list of physicians and had never graduated medical school, and so on, and so on—the details, once finally investigated, didn’t hold up.

While I was hooked enough to look forward to reading snippets of The Adversary before going to bed, I felt rising sadness as I approached its end. Carrere’s short tale is undeniably absorbing—so much so it was named a New York Times ‘Notable Book’)—but ultimately reflects my own frustrating findings: No one can truly know anyone else, and the kind of person who will fake being a doctor for decades is arguably not someone of whom you can make sense.

So while I was disappointed that the book wasn’t able to provide the answers I was after, I did really appreciate that it gave us some. At the very least, I got a sense of the logistics of maintaining and funding such a lie for so long. And I got a fuller sense of a man who could too easily be painted as two-dimensionally evil.

Whether you were or weren’t familiar with the 1993 murders, The Adversary is a fascinating read. At a mere 191 pages of easy-to-digest writing, it’s the kind of book you can quickly finish but that will remain front of mind for some time.

Understory: A Life with Trees by Inga Simpson

I was fortunate to facilitate a session with Inga Simpson and Tony Birch at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in 2016. I had been following their literary careers by reading their writing as published and have continued to be absorbed by their exemplary work.

Inga Simpson sees the world through trees and hopes to learn the ‘language of trees’. Understory: A Life with Trees (Hachette Australia) is nature writing in the form of a sensory memoir. It traces her life in ten acres of forest in the Sunshine Coast hinterland alone and with N and her two children.

The book is beautifully and aptly structured as parts of the forest. ‘Canopy’ includes chapters on the Cedar, Grey Gum, Rose Gum and Ironbark; ‘Middlestorey’ features Trunk, Limb, She-oak and Wattle; and ‘Understorey’ focuses on Sticks and leaves, Seedlings and Bunya, amongst other natural elements.

Inga Simpson lived in the forest for ten years. As ‘tree women’ and ‘word women’, she and N wanted a ‘writing life’. They referred to themselves as ‘entwives’, a term from Tolkien, and named the writing retreat they established, ‘Olvar Wood’, from Tolkien’s The Simarillion. The retreat was an oasis for writers but, along with financial and other problems, its demise is foreshadowed throughout the memoir. We celebrate and agonise with the author through the refurbishment of her lovely cottage despite ongoing leaks and mould; the acceptance of her debut novel Mr Wigg, the completion of Nest and the winning of the prestigious Eric Rolls prize.

Readers are welcomed into the forest through the author’s words: ‘these small acts of tending … [tell her] story of this place’. Also memorable are the author‘s acts of tending the forest: clearing weeds, cutting timber and replanting. She recognises and absorbs ‘Indigenous concepts of country [which] include a responsibility to care for the land’.

Once her eye becomes attuned, she discovers flame tree seedlings and young cedars that were already in plain view. She learns to take time to look for the ‘details and patterns and signs just waiting for my eye to become sufficiently attuned’. As part of this process the author develops ‘nature sight’, where living creatures such as sea turtles and sea eagles, reveal themselves to her.

Inga Simpson concedes that she may not have achieved her desire to become ‘fluent’ in ‘the language of the forest’ but she has become ‘literate’ and literate enough to share her knowledge and understanding through lyrical, unforgettable words.

Inga Simpson’s website

My review of Tony Birch’s Common People (currently shortlisted for the 2018 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards) is here.

Cheers for Women on International Women’s Day – Picture Book Reviews

International Women’s Day is celebrated annually on March 8th to commemorate the women’s right movement. Surrounded by much controversy over the years, global marches still signify and stand for a shift in gender equality and mistreatment. So, with a strengthening power in facilitating strong girls and women, and equally credible boys and men, let’s celebrate this significant day with a couple of influential and empowering picture books for children in the early years.

Inspired by one of the largest political demonstrations in history, the Women’s March in January 2017, The Pink Hat by Andrew Joyner is a jubilant celebration of women’s rights in a subtle and playful tone. This is not a book that shoves political issues at children, but rather a quiet sentiment of coming together as a community with a sound common ground and purpose. The entirety of the book culminates with the focus on the pink hat, the symbolic object uniting the town – the women, the children, the mixture of cultures and races, and ages, and even some men. All of Joyner’s superlative illustrations present in shaded black and white line drawings, except for the pop of the fuchsia pink beanie and some pink rosy cheeks.

The hat begins with a grandma, a beautiful representation of a dignified, and very tech-savvy, woman who loves to knit. The cosy knit is then transported on its progressive journey as it is passed from the paws of her playful cat, to a ‘hard-to-reach’ place, acts as a comforter for a baby to the snatching jaws of a runaway dog, and into the hands of a young girl who enjoys its many uses. And one day the girl discovers that her beloved pink hat has begun a movement of its own, with a rally of pink hat-wearing people gesturing placards with “Women’s Rights are Human Rights”, “Girl Power”, “The Future is Feminist”, plus more.

The Pink Hat is a story that promotes awareness and discussion of the events of the social campaign, without being didactic or heavy-handed. It is rather an engaging and enlightening read that sparks the thought for cause and effect, in more ways than one.

Random House Australia, January 2018.

Now here’s a book that celebrates women! With over 70 inspirational women in history, it’s Three Cheers for Women! by Marcia Williams. This large face non-fiction title is jam-packed with fascinating information, vivacious cartoons and fun commentary by supporting characters. It is a terrific resource for the primary classroom or bookshelf at home, with so much to pore over and discover.

Beginning back in Ancient Egyptian times, the first female to feature is Cleopatra VII, Queen of Egypt c. 69 BC – 30 BC. In comic-style, illustrated text boxes and speech bubbles we learn about how Cleopatra came to rule at eighteen years old, to be overpowered by her younger brother and then regained the throne by raising a winning army until her death at age 39.

To follow in the same page formatting are fearless fighters like Boudicca; Warrior Queen of the Iceni, and Joan of Arc; the Teenage Warrior. As eras progress we meet queens such as Elizabeth 1, legendary authors like Jane Austen, pioneers in health including Florence Nightingale and Marie Curie. There are the Human Rights Activists, Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), and Malala Yousafzai (1997- ) who became champions in helping underprivileged people and standing up for equal rights. Our own Cathy Freeman features, too, as Olympic hero for uniting a nation and fighting for the rights of Indigenous Australians.

The book concludes with pages identical to the classifieds section of the paper, listing more amazing women in leadership, sports, creative, pioneering and scientific roles. And a final note from the author leaves a task for the reader; many women had to be left out of the book, but who will you add to your list of inspirational women and girls?

Three Cheers for Women! is absolutely fascinating, written with a mixture of factual interest and candid anecdotes to keep readers engaged at their own pace. Never discounting the achievements or abilities of boys, this one really empowers girls with the power to do something world changing.

Walker Books U.K., November 2017.

Happy International Women’s Day!

Review: The Trauma Cleaner

The Christmas–New Year break contains but two priorities for me: to rest and to read books.

Strangely, given its slightly heavier subject matter, Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner: One woman’s extraordinary life in death, decay & disaster was one of the books I was most keen to read at this time.

In truth, I was attracted by both the concept and the cover art. The former is that the book is the biography of Sandra, whose work concentrates on cleaning premises that range from sites of hoarding to crime scenes. The latter is the simple but sharp contrast between a white background and slightly wrung bright orange plastic glove. On a semi-gloss cover that could, arguably, be wiped down with a wet cloth if needed.

While trauma cleaning is in and of itself a macabrely fascinating concept (Krasnostein quickly explains that it is a little-known but necessary business for crime scenes and the like—police and other emergency services aren’t there to clean up), Sandra’s story is even more so. Before she was a trauma cleaner, Sandra was, as the blurb explains, ‘a husband and father, drag queen, sex reassignment patient, sex worker, businesswoman, trophy wife …’

So yeah, there’s a lot to this tale.

The book’s first lines are actually the lines on Sandra’s business card, stating that ‘excellence is no accident’ before listing the types of services she offers. These include hoarding, methamphetamine lab, and death-scene clean-up, as well as odour control.

All the endlessly fascinating things that happen in the shadows and that provide insights into humanity. If this book shows us anything, it’s that these situations are but the extreme manifestations of the issues of loneliness, depression, anxiety, and more that we all grapple with at one time or another. Sandra included.

As Krasnostein writes: ‘Sandra knows her clients as well as they know themselves; she airs out their smells, throws out their weird porn, their photos, their letters, the last traces of their DNA entombed in soaps and toothbrushes. She does not, however, erase these people. She couldn’t. She has experienced the same sorrows.’

Adopted and then abused by her adoptive parents and trying to come to terms with being transgender at a time when it was even less accepted than it is now (if it even is now), what Sandra has gone through is soul-searchingly sad.

Seriously, the book’s opening chapters made me wonder how she survived much less triumphed over her childhood, and I can only imagine how confusing and difficult and stressful it would have been facing a lack of acceptance as well as medical scrutiny when trying to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Not to mention the fact that Sandra underwent all of this around the time of HIV’s arrival. It’s also heart-swellingly impressive just how much she’s managed to make of her life, rebuilding it time and again.

Krasnostein notes that Sandra is immaculately dressed at all times. And that she’s also accompanied by an oxygen tank to help her manage a respiratory condition that is exacerbated by the kinds of dusty, fume- and mould-laden environments in which she works. Trauma cleaning is brutally physical work: ‘See, people think “cleaning” and that you need a bucket of water and a cloth … We need crowbars, spades, rakes, a sledgehammer …’ Sandra explains.

At 260 pages, this book is of average length, but is so accessible and I read it so quickly that those 260 pages felt short. I still have questions. For instance, Krasnostein writes that she first encountered Sandra at a forensic support services conference. I wondered immediately what prompted Krasnostein to attend one. And I wanted to know more detail about Sandra in general—she so utterly fascinated me.

But I’m similarly conscious that there were many rabbit warrens Krasnostein could have gone down. Each life within Sandra’s life just about warrants a book of its own, so it would have been an unimaginably herculean task for Krasnostein to contain the tales to one book. Which she did well, giving mostly equal airtime to key times in Sandra’s life: her childhood, moving out of home and marrying, grappling with her gender and sexuality, careers she’s had, violence she’s endured, loves she’s lost, and how she’s had to repeatedly rebuild her life and finances multiple times.

My only criticisms of the book are that there is too much of the author in it and the text suffers a little from overwriting and thesaurus syndrome. While I’m sure Krasnostein felt a strong personal connection to Sandra’s story, Sandra’s story alone was so rich and compelling that it really needed to stand alone. Likewise, there were times when it felt like prose was over-explained. The story itself was so strong it could have been told matter-of-factly. Likewise, Sandra’s memory loss and subsequent unreliable narration were referenced too often. They just needed to be mentioned once at the beginning and left at that.

But these are small quibbles about what is ultimately an ambitious and refreshingly different book. Sandra’s is a little-told story that warrants greater attention and respect. I hope to read some follow-up articles or books about her—I get the sense she has many more incredible lives to lead and many more stories to share.

Review: Songs of a War Boy

I knew the gist of Deng Thiak Adut’s story via media grabs, but I didn’t until a few days know he’d written a book: Songs of a War Boy.

(For anyone unfamiliar with Deng’s story, he was, at just seven years old, forcefully conscripted from his family and his remote village in South Sudan to fight a civil war about which he had little to no understanding. Deng subsequently spent years undergoing cruel training compounded by malnutrition, disease, very little medical treatment, and no formal education.

Some fortunate circumstances saw him rescued from his dire situation by one of his older brothers. Together they sought refuge in a Kenyan refugee camp before Australia eventually offered them a home. Through his brother’s encouragement and through Deng’s own fierce determination, Deng has gone from a child soldier who knew no English to an accomplished lawyer with his own law practice in Western Sydney. He is also, no biggie, an Archibald Prize featuree (that’s a technical term).)

In the Songs of a War Boy’s foreword, Journalist Hugh Riminton writes that ‘it is impossible, on meeting Deng now, not to be in awe of him. And that is before you know where he has been. This book tells that story […] It would be unbelievable, were it not true.’

Those unbelievable elements include how much trauma Deng has experienced in his short life and how many near misses he has had with death. Seriously, there are so many moments it’s almost incomprehensible how he survived any much less all of them. But as he outlines, that trauma haunts him—mostly at night while he’s trying to sleep.

Co-written with Ben McKelvey, Songs of a War Boy is accessible and inspiring. The way Deng describes his experiences so eloquently and so matter-of-factly is startling. And far from gratuitous or graphic—I’m squeamish as all get-up and I coped. In fact, it’s arguably the most human description I’ve yet read of what it was like to be a child soldier.

Songs are hugely important to the Dinka people from which he comes, Deng explains in the book’s opening pages. Songs are, as Deng describes them, their ‘avatars’, ‘biographies’, and how Dinka morality, culture, and laws are passed on.

But Deng doesn’t have any songs—they’re reserved for those who have undergone manhood initiation ceremonies. Ceremonies Deng missed out on because he was taken to be a boy soldier. He observes: ‘It is a strange fact, though, that war could make one less of a man.’

This book is, as the title suggests, Deng’s song (or songs). It also shows his life beyond being what could have been an all-defining role as a conscripted child soldier. As a byproduct, both the book and the speaking engagements Deng now regularly completes also go some way to changing peoples’ perceptions of refugees.

As Deng writes of his speeches: ‘I knew that people came to hear about war and sadness and a past that was so unusual for them, but I also knew that they left thinking about how normal my present was—and how much I was like them … If you can relate to me—a reformed child soldier coming from one of the most isolated and disadvantaged nations on earth—then there are few refugees in Australia that you can’t relate to.’

Without getting overtly political, at a time when it seems as though the Australian government is doing all it can to ensure we don’t relate to people seeking asylum, it’s arguably more important than ever to read books like Deng’s. And Songs of a War Child makes this far from a chore. I read it in three sittings and I finished it wanting more. My hope is that Deng writes a follow-up.

Review: Watching Brief: Reflections on Justice and Injustice

The opening of Julian Burnside’s book Watching Out: reflections on justice and injustice reads: ‘This book does not set out to equip the lay reader to mount his or her own litigation. Neither is it designed to help law students pass their exams …’

Which made me chuckle. Clearly Burnside, barrister and QC, spends a lot of time fielding questions about both. (And I’ll not deny that, having recently returned to study Law, I wasn’t looking for exam answers but I was looking for some sort of inspiration and guidance.)

Probably most recognisable to Australians as a leading voice on and advocate for human rights—particularly in relation to refugees—Burnside is an experienced lawyer whose insights into the justice system are worth taking note of. Unbeknownst to me until I read this was that he was actually one of the barristers who acted in the infamous Tampa case in 2001. He was also involved in the equally well known Maritime Union of Australia v Patricks Stevedores case.

A friend of his pointed out that Australia doesn’t have a justice system, but rather a legal system. That sentiment, expressed on page one, sets the book’s tone. As Burnside writes, he’s interested in justice rather than law.

What follows are chapters that likely first lived as standalone essays or columns and that discuss little known and puzzling aspects of Australia’s legal system. For example, that the people who judge whether people seeking asylum will be granted refugee status are not lawyers and are more likely to be reappointed if their decisions align with the government’s stance (read: they reject applications).

In these chapters Burnside also explains how, unlike courts, which have checks and balances designed to catch biases and errors, there are no such checks and balances in place for these asylum-seeking tribunals. As in the aforementioned tribunals overseen by people in whose interest it is to bias results toward rejection. Frighteningly, until 2001 it was impossible for a court to overturn a decision because of an error of law.

Burnside also outlines some abominable details of the facilities in which Australia locks people seeking asylum. Facilities that stem from the Labor- and Liberal-alike position that Burnside terms as: ‘We are so worried about you drowning, we will punish you if you don’t drown. That will persuade others to stay at home and face persecution.’

That punishment includes being detained indefinitely in places like Woomera—bearing in mind that that facility now seems luxurious when compared with the more recent Manus and Nauru—which held 1500 people, which was three times its designed maximum, had just three toilets for that population, and at which women had to make written applications for sanity napkins.

Then there’s the legislation that made it illegal for medical professionals to report human rights abuses (such as child sexual abuse) they witnessed in detention centres—something that is normally unquestionably fundamental to their jobs. But in addition to outlining the facts and faults of the justice system, Burnside also outlines his thoughts on its opportunities and solutions. So it’s not all reading in outrage. It’s reading to learn about the facts rather than the fear-mongering, and to encounter some heart-swelling inspiration from someone who’s working to right the legal wrongs.

Burnside also explains some fascinating legal aspects, such as the poorly understood Cab Rank Rule. That is, that barristers don’t pick and choose who they represent. Rather, if they are offered a brief commensurate with a fee and legal matter related to their experience, they are obliged to accept the brief. At least, they are barring something like a conflict of interest such as that they are Jewish and are being asked to represent a neo-Nazi. So next time someone says something like ‘How can they represent such as such who’s been accused of such and such hideous crimes?’, people like me can knowledgeably (but not know-it-all-ingly) refer to the Cab Rank Rule.

Watching Out also provides insight into Burnside’s human side and, arguably, the abuse he’s copped throughout his human rights-advocating career. It seems he regularly receives hate mail. About which he has a brilliant sense of humour: ‘The people who write actual letters are a very forgetful bunch; they never remember to put their name and address on the letter, so it was not possible to reply to them’.

But Burnside does reply to people who write him emails—even entirely abusive ones. What he has found is that replying politely to even the rudest of emails often triggers a quite polite response. Burnside estimates that some people change their minds and others at least get to the point where they don’t agree, but are civil about it, better informed, and appreciate him taking the time to discuss the issues with them.

All of which is to say that there’s a bunch of interesting, if eclectic, information contained within this book. If I had one criticism to make, it would be that there could have been some smoothing out of the chapters. There is often unnecessary repetition and re-explaining of concepts. This likely relates to the fact that I suspect they were, as I mentioned before, published as separate essays or columns and simply collated.

Also, if I’m honest, I bought Watching Out thinking I was buying Watching Brief: reflections on human rights, law, and justice. Although I get the sense that Watching Out is a continuation of the Watching Brief subject matter and themes, and I would have ended up reading it too, so no matter. In the meantime, I recommend reading Watching Out. I’ll report back once I’ve read Watching Brief.

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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Check out my DVD blog, Viewing Clutter.

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

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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

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