Amazing books for ANZAC Day – Picturebook reviews

Occasionally a thing that you witness, a song that you hear or a line that your read manifests itself indelibly within you, seemingly forever. Sometimes, not always, you remember the exact time and place and occasion that these erasable impressions mark your memory for the first time. Often this phenomenon occurs when you are still young in years and free in thinking. Memorable moments can be fortifying but also confronting and Along the Road to Gundagai shocking, which is why books like these, Along the Road to Gundagai and Gallipoli, constitute essential reading for young people.

Perhaps, had I been exposed to more picture books like these that introduced history and invited discussion and explanation, I may have been less shocked by the brutality of humans at war. Who knows? It was all in the past…

As ANZAC Day approaches urging us to remember the past, it’s difficult to know what to reach for when trying to share the meaning of these particular commemorations with your children. Unless they observe or participate in ceremonies or have relatives that do so, school is often the first place youngsters encounter terms like ANZAC Cove, the Great War, and diggers.

War is messy and cruel. It is horrid and scary but it is also about bravery, ingenuity, mateship, and perseverance. Along the Road to Gundagai and Gallipoli are picture books that capture the bitter essence of war in a way that is non-threatening but hauntingly real.

Jack O'HaganPenned by Australian musician, Jack O’Hagan in 1922 Along the Road to Gundagai has an almost anthem quality to it. It is not the first time a well-known song or verse has been purposely presented as a picture book but like others before it, the coupling of well-known lyrics with evocative images serves to anchor our appreciation and deepen our understanding of the story behind the words.

It is essentially a lament by the young men of the Great Wars; of their yearning to return to their youth which was so irrevocably spoilt by war.

Award winning Aussie illustrator, Andrew McLean, ironically ventured into the world of digital art to portray this poignant piece of history. The recollections of our narrating lad’s ‘old bush home and friends’ are all succinctly framed; captured moments matching the lyrical text, soft yet glowing.

Along the Gundagai Horses illoConversely, scenes from the scarred battle fields imbue entire pages with dark, sombre, desolation. Particularly arresting for me was the contrast of sunny skies over the Murrumbidgee and the gas-filled atmosphere of battle where even the horses wear gasmasks; the whites of their eyes betraying their confusion and terror.

All of us have a road to Gundagai we’d like to revisit. This powerful picture book rendition of an Aussie classic allows readers young and old to do just that.

GallipoliPicture books about the ANZACs of WWI abound. Many succeed thanks to the legendary intensity of the subject matter, the sensitive translation of emotions through illustrations and the poetic rendering of a brutal period of modern day history. Gallipoli by Kerry Greenwood and Annie White delivers all these and more.

It is simply the story of Gallipoli. It is Dusty and Bluey’s story told through the eyes of Bluey’s great grandson. But before you say, not another ANZAC tale, look again; at the sepia-coloured end pages depicting wartime and post war snap shots of our two mates. Be swept along on their adventure, across vast oceans and scorching deserts and No Man’s Land. Feel the hunger, the terror and the relief shared by these two young men whose unbreakable friendship withstands time and war.

Kerry GreenwoodGreenwood leaves no stone unturned in the retelling of this infamously failed military campaign, however 7 year olds and above could easily master and enjoy this account themselves because it reads as fluidly as fiction. There are few dates to stumble over and enough storyline to accommodate a myriad of historical revelations including; the futile charges, trench survival, Simpson and his donkey(s), and the Roses of No Man’s Land.

White never belittles the enormity of Bluey and Dust’s situation. Her illustrations show mortar attacks and bleeding wounds in full colour yet are neither cheerless nor grim. Subdued sepia photographs are ‘stuck’ on every page like an old well-loved album guiding the reader from the past to present day remembrance.

Stirring, significant and worth sharing, especially with school-aged children.

War is certainly not joyful but it was special to sit and read these with my 8 year old and by some strange twist of intent, it was she who helped me through the more emotional bits.

Along the Road to Gundagai

Omnibus Books February 2014


Scholastic Press March 2014





Phryne Fisher’s high flying mystery

In March I wrote about Kerry Greenwood’s first Phryne Fisher novel, Cocaine Blues (see “Phryne’s cocaine blues”), originally published back in 1989. I enjoyed it a great deal and wanted to read a second novel before I started watching the television series. And so here I am, to tell you about Flying Too High.

Originally published in 1990, Flying Too High is the second novel to feature the sassy Lady Detective, Phryne Fisher. Ridiculously wealthy, but from a background of poverty, Miss Fisher wanders the streets and society circles of 1920s Melbourne, solving crime — and bedding the occasional eligible young man. As with the first novel, Greenwood follows the same formula of multiple cases that become intertwined. This time around it is the kidnapping of a young girl for ransom, and the murder of a much-detested patriarch.

As with the first book, I found the mystery and crime elements in this one to be interesting but unremarkable, with nothing particularly surprising. In fact, I thought the kidnapping case to be occasionally unconvincing.

It is the characters and locales that set this book apart from other crime novels. Phryne is such a deliciously mischievous and over-the-top character. Not only does she solve crime, bed handsome men and drive a fast sports car, but in this book we find out that she can fly a plane — not to mention the fact that she is quite nonchalant about walking along the wings of a Tiger Moth while in flight. This woman has nerves of steel!

The regular supporting characters are all fascinating and endearing in their own ways, particularly Bert and Cec, the communist cabbies with hearts of gold. This book also introduces the character of flying ace ‘Bunji’ Ross, an old friend of Phryne’s. She’s a great character, who I hope will show up in the other books.

Of course, there are also fabulous clothes, wonderful food and alcohol, and society aplenty.

My favourite moment in the book is when Phryne and ‘Bunji’ are dining out at the Windsor. Although Phryne is in her element, ‘Bunji’ is a fish out of water, dismayed by the menu choices…

… she sat down in the Windsor’s plush dining room and stared hopelessly at the menu. ‘I say, old girl, I don’t really go for all this stuff, you know. I suppose steak and chips is out of the question?’

‘Steak and chips you shall have, Bunji, old bean,’ agreed Phyrne, turning to the waiter. ‘Filet mignon and pommes frites for Madam, and bring me lobster mayonnaise. Champagne,’ she added to the hovering wine waiter. ‘The Widow ’23.’

Anyone who orders a vintage Veuve Clicquot by asking for ‘The Widow’, gets the thumbs up from me. 🙂

I enjoyed this book just as much as the first, and I would certainly be happy to read some more. But I’m taking a break from Phryne’s literary adventures to watch the television series, which I will review soon over at my other blog, Viewing Clutter.

BTW, if there are any Miss Fisher fans out there who would like to WIN a Blu-ray copy of the television series, I’m currently running a giveaway on Viewing Clutter. But be quick, entries close this Friday.

Catch ya later,  George

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Phryne’s cocaine blues

Phryne Fisher — socialite, aristocrat, flapper… and amateur detective. She’s a character is a series of mystery novels written by Melbourne author Kerry Greenwood. Years ago, I read Greenwood’s YA novels. I loved them, and so bought the first two of her famed Phryne Fisher mystery novels. Nine years later, I’ve finally gotten around to reading the first of them. 🙂

The first two books in the series are Cocaine Blues and Flying Too High. I’ve got the two-in-one volume published by Pulp Fiction Press in 2003. I bought it when it was released with the best of intentions, certain that I would read it fairly soon. But, as these things happen, the book got mislaid and I forgot about it. I found it again a year or so ago and placed it in my must-read-soon pile, where it inevitably had a couple of dozen other books placed on top of it. When I heard that a television series was being made, I put the book a little closer to the top of the pile. The next thing you know, the ABC is screening Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. So I extracted the book from its place in the stack and began to read.

In Cocain Blues Miss Fisher arrives in Melbourne at the behest of an aristocratic family, to investigate what is happening with their daughter, who they fear may be the victim of slow poisoning by her husband. It’s not long before Phryne is also caught up with investigations into cocaine smuggling and illegal abortions. Along the way, she teams up with two socialist taxi drivers and a Scottish female doctor, and hires a maid/investigative assistant. I assume that this team will continue to assist her through further adventures.

The mystery plot is interesting enough, though in the end, unremarkable. What really hooked me into this book and kept me reading were the characters and the setting — particularly Phryne Fisher herself. She is a fabulously fun character, with her penchant for good-looking men, fast cars and designer dresses. Intriguing and likeable, I couldn’t help but want her to succeed.

And then there’s all the wonderful period detail. Set in Melbourne (my home city) in the 1920s, I really enjoyed all the descriptions of familiar landmarks as they had been in the past — like the wonderful Block Arcade and the Windsor Hotel in the CBD. Phryne swans through the streets of Melbourne with the same delicious ease and nonchalance that she does through her many social engagements in upper crust society. It’s all rather a joy to read.

The edition I read did seem a little plagued by typos. Hopefully, these will have been fixed up for the new tv show tie-in editions from Allen & Unwin.

I’ve taken a break to read a couple of other books, but I will soon be returning to Miss Fisher’s 1920s Melbourne to read Flying Too High. I’m determined to read at least one or two more before settling down to watch the series, as I want to create a firm picture of the main characters in my mind before seeing what the respective actors have done with them.

By the way, if you’re interested in Phryne’s literary adventures, check out her website.

Catch ya later,  George

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