Guest Post Review: The Dam





Anastasia Gonis has been reviewing books for over twenty years. Her reviews and interviews have appeared in Bookseller & Publisher, Good Reading magazine, Australian Book Review, The Age, The Herald Sun, AllWrite, and many other publications. Anastasia currently writes both articles and reviews and is a revered reviewer for Kids’ Book Review. She loves all books, in particular children’s books which for her, contain beauty and joy between the covers. Today, I’m beyond thrilled to welcome her as a guest reviewer of, The Dam by David Almond and Levi Pinfold.

The Dam is at once haunting, heart breaking, exhilarating and exquisitely simple, portraying so much emotion, you’ll want to weep with the beauty of it all. Here’s, Anastasia’s review:

I am filled with awe each time I view any of Levi Pinfold’s illustrations. There is a haunting beauty about them that makes you catch your breath at his ability to create such magnificent work that can easily be taken for an exhibition of canvases in an art gallery. And that’s what you see when you turn the second page, a series of images; canvases on display.

You sigh at the sight of various sized birds – a few flying, others squatting in grass; tall wild grass, a tiny flower in the palm of a weathered hand, an eagle in flight, some blossomed wildflowers, a fox looking into the wilderness, two sheep with one grazing the other looking away, a man with a girl carrying a fiddle, a close-up of the girl’s face side-on, and one of the man’s in the same position.

They are looking at what is and what will be washed away. Because the dam is almost finished. Turn the page and more canvases are on display. They are accompanied by the memories they are connected to that the man and girl recall; of the things that were but will be no more.
Here is where you will break down from sadness as the girl plays her fiddle and farewells the building that conjures up the memories, while the father, tall and stoic, stands beneath the door frame. Their memories like ghosts, dance around them.

They go from house to empty house, filling them with music, fiddling their memories, and watching them turn into mists that float away. When they have finished, out of the valley they walked.
The dam is complete. Everything is covered with water. Within the water the music stays. It is in everything and in them. Permanent. It makes them sing and dance. That can never be washed away.

David Almond is one of the most versatile and talented writers of our generation. His body of work and writing style is most impressive. It claws at you and makes you feel things deeply. Themes address what progress steals from people, and how they cope with loss and change. These flow through the book like the dam that carried it all away.

This is a work of art both textually and visually. I doubt that anyone picking up this book will leave without it, and clutched to their heart.

 Title: The Dam

Author: David Almond

Illustrator: Levi Pinfold

Publisher: Walker Books

Publication Date: September 2018 $24.99

Format: Hardcover

 ISBN: 9781406304879

For ages: 5+

Type: Children’s Picture book

Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis


Double Dipping – Two ‘Small but Special’ Reviews

This month’s double whammy review is courtesy of UQP. From their impressive collection for younger readers comes two new titles certain to cause a stir for primary aged girls in particular; Smooch and Rose by Queensland author Samantha Wheeler and Chook Chook Little and Lo in the City by Wai Chim.

Smooch and RoseA rose by any other name would smell as sweet as…strawberries.

Like many other SE Queenslanders, I live in a fairly koala sensitive area. Over the last decade or so, the bushland the koalas call home has been more and more frequently indiscriminately removed to accommodate our urban sprawl; a subject you can’t help but be a part of. We all desire to live in this beautiful part of the world as much as they, the koalas, need to.

Smooch and Rose is the tale of one girl’s courageous and staunch attempt to stand up to the big guns of development in hope of keeping at least part of the koalas’ habitat intact.

Orphaned school girl, Rose, may be awkward and less than dazzling at school but in the presence of animals, she shines. Being a wildlife carer is her greatest desire and after rescuing a baby koala and accepting the guidance of wildlife carer, Carol, Rose inches one step closer to her dream.

KoalaSmooch, the baby koala so named because he loves to snuggle, soon invades everyone’s affections. Even after he is released back into the bushland fringing Rose and her Gran’s strawberry farm, he continues to supply Rose with friendship and happiness.

However her contentment is shattered by the news from her real estate uncle, Malcolm, that she and Gran must sell their beloved farm. Sadly, no amount of delays and setbacks can stem the tide of progress and Rose is devastated to hear that it’s not only her home at stake but Smooch’s as well.

The bulldozers soon move in heightening Rose’s desperation and resolve. It becomes a tense fight against time and the developers for Rose but she perseveres in her pursuit to save everything she loves.

Samantha Wheeler Samantha Wheeler has a natural, fluid narrative style, used effectively to weave a tale rich in inspiration, hope, drama and, strawberries. Animal lovers, conservationists and plucky eight year olds alike will adore this feel good, do good story with its gentle but firm undercurrents about the virtues of tenacity especially in matters concerning the future of our environments. Generously endorsed by Deborah Tabart OAM, CEO Australian Koala Foundation and including thoughtful guidelines and useful websites for helping koalas and native animals, Smooch and Rose should be compulsory reading for 7 + year olds and featured on all classroom bookshelves.

Chook alert!

Chook Chook Little and Lo in the CityAddressing the same age group but set in a vastly different land and culture is the second instalment to Chook Chook Mei’s Secret Pets, Chook Chook Little and Lo in the City. This time Mei’s two beloved chooks, sweet hen, Little and larrikin cockerel, Lo, accompany young Mei to the city of Guangzhou, China, in the wake of her older brother, Guo’s departure from their village farm.

Mei’s sense of stability is challenged when her widowed mother decides to marry the one-eyed butcher. The reality of a new Dad, brother and their accompanying menagerie of pets is too much for Mei, who flees with her chooks in search of Guo.

Mei’s unfamiliarity with the big city soon sours her plans of independence and reunion. By chance, she teams up with a young runaway named Cap. Together they navigate their way around Guangzhou’s questionable characters and complicated metro system until finally, Guo is located in the University at which he studies.

Wai ChimBut travelling with chooks and someone you hardly know is not as easy as Mei imagined. Can Mei salvage Guo’s grades, Cap’s sense of security and her own diminishing inner peace from this tumultuous experience? Fortunately, Wai Chim manages to find a miracle for Mei and her feathered friends. Chim’s astute use of cultural authenticities, drawn from her own Chinese-American background, gives the Chook Chook books a pleasing depth and sincerity. Heart strings are genuinely pulled when Mei struggles against mounting odds and with her brother’s love. Funny bones are seriously tickled by the incredulous antics of Little and Lo.

I love chooks and am very partial to noodle soup with barbequed pork, so it was not hard for me to enjoy Chook Chook. Feed your curiosity and enjoy it too.

Both books ideal for confident 7 + year old readers.

Available for purchase here – Rose / Chook

UQP out now.


Review – The Windy Farm

I’m not big on wind. Of all the meteorological marvels on offer, it’s the least appealing to me, perhaps because I endured a few too many tropical cyclones and missing roofs as a child.

Windy Farm 2So when The Windy Farm blew onto my shelves, I instinctively hunched my shoulders and wondered what on earth could be so appealing about the latest offering by well-liked picture book team, Doug MacLeod and Craig Smith. Turns out a whole Beaufort Scales worth.

Our plucky young narrator lives with her family on the windiest farm on Windy Hill because it’s all they can afford. Their home is buffeted and bullied by incessant katabatic winds. The kind of wind that permanently bends trees into weird angles; the kind powerful enough to blow away young pigs and little girls. No one is safe from its force, no one except Grandpa who, as the illustrations subtly suggest, is so immense and heavy that he will never budge just like his favourite pig, Big Betty.

The family survive undeterred and, as is often the case, necessity becomes the mother of invention. And indeed this is the case; Mum cannily invents heavy metal shoes to anchor them all to the ground. However, in spite of their best efforts, one day they lose half their home to nature’s tempest.

Rich Uncle Jeff is no help, pointedly refusing to lend them any of his oil-amassed fortune to help fix the house. They resort to good old fashioned ingenuity and Grandpa’s power tools instead but the ensuing crippling power bill plunges them into despair (who hasn’t felt like this after receiving their electricity bill?)Windy Hill generators

Not easily defeated, Mum comes up with a wily plan; to convert the farm into a sustainable wind farm. Pretty soon things are on the up and up. The farm road is paved in tarmac and truckloads of money from all the electricity they’ve enterprisingly ‘farmed’. Big Betty, the prized pig, returns to a wind-proof sty (she was sold to pay the electricity bills) and although the need to wear heavy metal boots remains, their money worries have been swept away, just like Uncle Jeff who ‘became poor’ after the ill winds of fate blew his way. ‘Never mind,’ Grandpa sanguinely observes; no one really liked him anyway.

Doug MacLeod’s contemporary message about the power of wind and its significance in environmental sustainability drifts delightfully zephyr-like throughout this picture book. Told in a concise, witty style, The Windy Farm exposes young readers to a range of fascinating topics including the harnessing of energy, inventions, problem-solving, sustainability and endurance.Doug MacLeod

No stranger to children’s book illustrating, Craig Smith’s flamboyant, comic-book style pictures and characters are hysterical; from the very top of Windy Hill all the way down to the chooks’ little metal boots. He uses heavier gauche paint to create a deeply detailed yet fluid almost dreamy visual effect that sweeps from page to page. Movement (of the omnipresent wind), is represented magnificently with the use of acrylics. One can see and feel the air swirling through each scene. I found it astounding even though I’m not that big on wind.

Craig SmithSmith and MacLeod include lots of witty references to the use of nuclear power and the need to adopt a clean energy philosophy if we are to enjoy a longer, better existence than poor old Uncle Jeff.

The Windy Farm is not however a heavy prescriptive lesson in world conservation. Rather, it is a light-hearted, fanciful look at ingenuity and tenacity in their purest and funniest forms. My Miss 7 just thinks it’s very cool. Well it would be with all that wind about wouldn’t it?

Breezy, good fun, imaginative with plenty of room for thought. Plus 5s will love it even if they are not big on wind (but most are).

Available now.

Working Title Press February 2013

The Elephant Whisperer

The Elephant WhispererI was pretty unhappy about starting Lawrence Anthony’s The Elephant Whisperer (cowritten, as with his other two books, by Graham Spence), not because I didn’t think it was going to be good, but because I knew it was. I knew too that it would mean I quickly smashed my way through reading it and would then be all out of Anthony books.

The Elephant Whisperer is Anthony’s third non-fiction work about his animal rescue exploits, although I don’t think it was written third and I certainly don’t think it’ll be his last. He’s a South African Steve Irwin, but with a little more (forgive me for saying this—because I’m not dissing Irwin, honest) intellect and storytelling smarts.

This book outlines Anthony’s life-changing decision to take on a wild, aggressive, troublesome herd of elephants known for jailbreaking any and all enclosures trying to contain them. With no amount of electrified fence voltage stopping the giant creatures, the authorities are anxious to shoot them dead. Anthony can’t stomach that ‘resolution’ and, despite having no experience with elephants, agrees to re-home them on his reserve, Thula Thula.

Of course, the elephants immediately bust out of Anthony’s holding pen too, making a beeline for their home with villages and humans in their paths. What follows is an intensely anxious search to find and recapture them before awfulness, which Anthony himself dubs ‘conservation’s Chernobyl’, unfolds.

The book’s title gives the impression that Anthony is something of an elephant expert, but he himself states on page one that this isn’t the case. He instead writes of how unexpected and profoundly accepting the elephants changed his life—for the better:

In 1999, I was asked to accept a herd of troubled wild elephants on my game reserve. I had no inkling of the escapades and adventures I was about to embark upon. I had no idea how challenging it would be or how much my life would be enriched […] Make no mistake, the title of this book is not about me for I make no claim to any special abilities. It is about the elephants—it is they who whispered to me and taught me how to listen.

Babylon's ArkThat listening gives insight into elephants few have ever experienced, which Anthony conveys with his characteristic storytelling wit and panache.

Some of his stories are uncanny, such as how news of the removal of guards who’d actually be secretly poaching animals seemed to spread through the animal world and previously unseen animals emerged. Or how the elephants knew when Anthony was away and went into deep bush, emerging only to greet him on his return.

Some of them are how-about-that clever and fun. One of my favourite is about when Anthony dropped his new Nokia on the ground in his haste to get out of the elephants’ way. It started to ring. After investigating it thoroughly with her trunk and both unsure of what it was and why it wouldn’t stop squeaking, the herd’s enforcer, Frankie, definitively stomped on (and silenced) the phone. Incredibly, Anthony found that the phone still worked (once the elephants lost interest and shuffled off and he ventured out to prise it from the ground):

I later phoned Nokia and told them about the incident, congratulating them on the ruggedness of the phone. After a long silence the manager thanked me and hung up. I reckon even they didn’t believe their products could withstand being stomped on by a wild elephant.

Then there’s the one-liner about how one ranger leaves because he’s fallen in love with a guest. ‘I know guests sometimes steal a towel or soap,’ Francoise, Anthony’s partner says, ‘but this one stole our ranger.’

The Last RhinosAs with Anthony’s other two books, there were moments that almost broke me. One included when they discovered why an orphaned elephant wasn’t trumpeting as she should have been:

And for the first time she was trumpeting for all her worth. But instead of a clear, clean call she was honking like a strangled goose. David and I looked at each other. Now we knew why she had been silent. The poor creature had destroyed her vocal cords, screaming herself hoarse for help, calling for her mother and aunts, lost and pitifully alone in the wilderness while lions circled.

The Last Rhinos touches on some of the same themes as The Elephant Whisperer, with some sections of the book recognisable in each, but even when there’s overlap, the stories take on new relevance and significance in the latter. Truthfully, though, I’d read and re-read anything Anthony wrote. His passion, his humour, his compassion, and his wise, pragmatic outlook on life make his books un-put-down-able. Let me know when his fourth book is out, ok?

Finding (Rhinos and) Kony

The Last RhinosHad you written a book detailing how you were negotiating with wanted military leader Joseph Kony to rescue endangered rhinos prior to a few months ago, most of the developed world would have asked, ‘Joseph who?’

But thanks to Invisible Children’s awareness-raising campaign that went so gangbusters that the term ‘viral’ doesn’t do it justice, a book combining rhino rescue and Kony had me whipping out my credit card before you could say, ‘what a topical and timely read’.

I thought The Last Rhinos was a standalone first book by South African conservationist Lawrence Anthony. Turns out it’s one of many he’s written (or rather co-written with ghost writer Graham Spence), each one a bestselling work of equal parts heart and humour.

The Last Rhinos launches us straight into action (and outrage) as Anthony and his team discover some rhinos in their care had been viciously killed for their horns and set about tracking the poachers. It sets the tone for the frustrating fight conservationists face daily to keep these incredible, thick-skinned, but soft-hearted creatures safe from one of the most ridiculous, wasteful, and cruel human obsessions ever.

As Anthony writes:

It’s difficult to remain calm when you see a rhino brutally slaughtered for a horn that consists of little more than keratin, the same fibrous structural protein you find in hair and fingernails. In fact, it’s impossible. You’re more likely to be consumed by raging fury, but that won’t do any good.

Anthony has channeled his rage by dedicating his life to combating this issue in any and every way he can. Enter Kony, the man Invisible Children implored us to find (the doing deals with, not so much).

The difference I can anecdotally identify, and that makes me (and I’m guessing many others) warm to him, is Anthony’s pragmatism. For example, he writes that:

… the demonising of commerce and industry that defined the green movement in the past has to end. People have to live on the planet. Both sides must develop a better understanding of the use and value of the natural world. If an animal-rights group bluntly opposed mining, then I would expect all their members to stop using metal and glass in their own lives.

Fair point. And one that likely contributes to his ongoing success in finding a satisfactory middle ground. By gosh Anthony is also funny. I laughed more than I’d ever expected to reading a book about such dire stories, but his ability to find the humour in even the darkest moments was uncanny.

He referred to a stray they’d adopted as a ‘pavement special’: ‘She slept on our bed and spent the night purposely angling to get her butt right in my face as a wake-up present’.

Then there’s George the galago, AKA a too-cute-for-words bushbaby who won hearts and stole food and water right from under guests hands and forks with equal measure: ‘Unfortunately George used to join us sometimes for dinner. I say unfortunately because George had the table manners of a goat.’

Elephants also feature in this book, and yield some of the most incredible and touching moments, such as how they look after their matriarch who’s starting to go blind in one eye, or how the herd came to the rescue of wildebeest Anthony and his team had rounded up to move: they lifted the latch on the pen and stood back to let the wildebeest bound out. It’s definitely made me want to read The Elephant Whisperer.

Most surprising was Anthony’s take on Kony and his LRA army, with whom he did a deal to try to protect and rescue the 15-remaining white rhino of their kind in the world (and no, ‘15’ is not a typo).

He did this only after exhausting all other available rhino-protecting bureaucratic channels that were so frustrating they made me, experiencing it only second hand, want to punch someone on the nose.

Anthony painted Kony and his army as less the heartless, child-seizing thugs as which they’ve long been portrayed and more a misunderstood bunch maligned by those in power whose PR interests it’s in to cast them as the bad guys.

The Elephant WhispererI think the issue’s a bit more complex than that and that Kony is a little less innocent than Anthony considers him to be. But I do think he’s also a little less bad than he’s been painted, and Anthony’s insights into Kony’s camp were money-can’t-buy fascinating.

Anthony himself put the issue a little more cleverly and succinctly: ‘Someone once told me that the only difference between a rat and a hamster is PR.’

Without giving too much away, this book didn’t go exactly in the direction I’d expected. The result of that external issue (and through no fault of Anthony’s) made me despair. Especially as he went on to outline the escalation that’s currently occurring as the ill-informed demand for rhino horns skyrockets.

That is that poachers are poisoning waterholes and allowing rhinos (not to mention other animals) to die slow, painful deaths before pouncing to saw off their toenail-like horns. Horns that, despite the myths, hold no real medicinal value. Don’t get me started on how some poachers are even leaving grenades in the rhino carcasses to take out rangers who will pursue and arrest them. Gah.

But I don’t want to finish on a downer. Anthony’s book was an inspiring page-turner larger than its potentially depressing issues. The rhino might be in trouble, but I’ve never felt more reassured that they’re in good hands than with the likes of Anthony and his team going all-out to protect them—with or without Kony’s help.