• Books and reading,  History

    Sorrowful truths: ‘Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray’ by Anita Heiss

    The first thing I love about this new novel by Wiradjuri author Anita Heiss is the title. Translating to ‘River of Dreams’ in English, it is in the Wiradjuri language, which is also sprinkled liberally throughout the narrative. What a privilege, to be given an opportunity to understand and experience words and phrases in the language of First Nations people.

    The story starts with the drama and tragedy of the devastating 1852 Great Flood of the Marrambidya (Murrumbidgee River) in Gundagai, NSW. There are shocking losses of human and lives, property and livestock despite the heroic efforts of several men from the Aboriginal camp near the river, including Yarri, the father of the main character, Wagadhaany. She works for the Bailey family, a local White family. Yarri rescues his daughter and the two Bailey men who survived the flood, from their precarious perch on the roof of the house.

    The river is a central theme of the novel, a presence both benevolent and destructive. It gives life and just as easily takes it away. The flood is important, as a real historical event that highlights the skill and courage of the Aboriginal rescuers, and also as a metaphor:

    …as the canoe floats with effort to the shore, Yarri thinks about the two men there together; a naked White man and a barely clothed Black man are nothing but two men stuck in the middle of a devastating flood… A life is a life, he says over and over in his mind, knowing that the weather, the rain, the river don’t care what colour anyone is right now, and that in this moment they are equal. Yarri takes a deep breath and works his arms harder than he ever has, willing them both to bring both men to shore, and wishing they were both equals every day.

    Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray p33

    Louisa is the other main character: a young Quaker woman who has been recently widowed in the flood, she meets and marries James, the eldest of the two surviving Baileys. Her Quaker beliefs lead her to wish for an equal relationship with the original people of the land, and she endeavours to achieve this with Wagadhaany.

    So much gets in the way of a genuine friendship. Louisa is a good example of how well intentioned White people can still end up using relationships with First Nations people for their own purposes, while still desiring to act in a benevolent manner. The most obvious way that Louisa does this is to insist that Wagadhaany accompany the Baileys when they move to Wagga Wagga. Wagadhaany is devastated to lose connection with her mayagan, her family and the Country on which she was born and raised.

    This allows the reader to try to understand something of the grief and loss experienced by First Nations people since colonisation:

    How can she explain to Louisa, whose family chose to live on other people’s land, that she feels her sense of identity has been robbed, that everything that makes her Wagadhaany, the dancer, has been taken from her?

    Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray p162

    Louisa is in many ways a sympathetic character, and in making her so, the author goes beyond the stomach-turning racism and cruelty perpetrated by Whites against First Nations people in this country, to explore some of the other ways in which racism manifests: the more subtle, systemic and insidious ways in which unequal power and racist assumptions play out.

    Wagadhaany is an intelligent young woman, trying to assert her self and make sense of a world which has changed irrevocably for her people.

    The irony is that, despite all her advantages and relative wealth, by the end of the novel Louisa is not necessarily the happier of the two women. Both characters face profound grief and loss. Wagadhaany’s connection to Country and kin help her to travel through these difficult events and by the end of the novel, there is space for hope.

    Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray is a novel that uses real historic events to paint a picture of a colonial world which many Australians would prefer to either forget or romanticise. It’s a novel that made me think – always a good thing.

    Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray was published by Simon & Schuster in 2021.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Magnificent (and flawed) men (and women) in their flying machines

    ‘Sundowner of the Skies’ : The Story of Oscar Garden, The Forgotten Aviator by Mary Garden

    In the early morning of 16 October 1930, Oscar Garden set out from Croydon Aerodrome in South London in a second-hand, open-cockpit Gipsy Moth. On his feet he wore carpet slippers, and he had half a dozen sandwiches on his lap. His plan was to fly to Australia. He was 27 years old and had just learnt to fly, with a mere 39 flying hours under his belt.

    Sundowner of the Skies p11

    This astonishing opening of Mary Garden’s biography and family memoir gives plenty of hints as to the story to come. The unlikely and dramatic adventure undertaken by her father when a young man, remains one of the great feats of early aviation, and Oscar Garden was also unusual in that he was one of the few early aviators who lived into old age.

    Equally astonishing is the admission that he was more or less forgotten in the history of aviation, until quite recently, when his daughter Mary Garden wrote articles and then, this book about her father’s career and their troubled, unsettled family life.

    The book, short-listed for the 2020 NSW Premier’s History Awards, gives readers insights into the romance and danger of those early years in aviation. We are now so accustomed to the criss-crossing of the skies by international and domestic airlines (at least until the Covid pandemic hit) that we can forget what a risky and uncomfortable business powered flight was in its early years. The exploits of those young aviators who broke records, took passengers up on joyflights, and piloted planes for the first commercial airlines, raised the public’s interest in flying and spurred the industry along.

    Oscar Garden was one such, along with more famous names such as Charles Kingsford Smith, Amy Johnson, Bert Hinkler and Charles Lindbergh. There is now a portrait of Oscar in New Zealand’s Tauranga Airport, which was installed there in 2019. Before that, few would have known of Oscar Garden or his achievement.

    According to his daughter, this was partly because, after a stint as a pilot for the forerunner of Air New Zealand, Oscar retired from the aviation industry and never flew a plane again, preferring to grow tomatoes in his adopted country, New Zealand.

    There is much of interest in this book: the descriptions of the amazing exploits of early aviators (including a delightful reference to one woman who completed a long-haul solo flight in a skirt and pearls); the forced landings in dangerous circumstances; the fact that Oscar told no-one of his flight plan because he didn’t want to be talked out of it, and completed the whole thing on a shoe-string budget; the fact that early flights were navigated by a simple compass and what was known as ‘dead reckoning’. Amazing stuff.

    For me, though, the most engrossing aspect of the story is the family history behind it. Oscar came from a wealthy Scottish merchant family, but family disputes and factions resulted in a troubled, restless, loner of a man who ended up suffering from mental ill-health and was unable to find any happiness in life. Mary’s recollections of her father and his relationships with others left her wondering ‘Who is this Oscar Garden?’ as she learnt more about his younger years.

    It’s a poignant story of an emotionally frozen parent and a young adult trying to emerge from beneath his influence. The two Oscars – the adventurous youngster and the depressive older man and father – are woven together throughout the book, allowing the reader to experience some of the author’s confusion and ambiguity about the man who happened to be her father.

    Sundowner of the Skies was published by New Holland Publishers in 2019.
    My thanks to the author for a 2021 edition to read and review.

  • Books and reading

    Memory lane: ‘The Boys’ by Ron Howard and Clint Howard

    If you were a child of the 50’s, 60’s or 70’s, chances are you watched some or all of these TV shows and movies: The Andy Griffith Show, Gentle Ben, Happy Days, American Graffiti, Star Trek, Lassie, MASH, Flipper, Daniel Boone, The Mod Squad, The Music Man… If so, you will have seen either Ron Howard’s or his younger brother, Clint’s, on-screen performances.

    Reading this book uncovered many forgotten TV and movie memories for me. The brothers describe their memoir as ‘an acknowledgement of our love and appreciation for our parents’, but it is also an engrossing ramble down memory lane, taking in their parents’ love story, their own childhood and adolescence on film sets in Hollywood studios, and the ups and downs of a career in the entertainment industry.

    It’s such a personal account, with a chatty conversational style, and their alternating viewpoints result in the sense of being on the sofa with the Howards, as they tell the stories of their lives. They discuss their own personal impressions of key people and events in their lives, including the challenges and the highs.

    They don’t shy away from difficulties, including Clint’s struggle with addiction, and Ron’s efforts to leave Opie, his childhood alter-ego from The Andy Griffiths Show, behind him as he moves into adolescence and tries to forge a career as a film director.

    The theme running throughout is the crucial role their parents played in the success of their acting and directing careers, but also in their development as human beings. The Howard family lived a modest lifestyle relative to many of their contemporaries in the Hollywood scene. Ron comments that:

    As possibly the most ethical talent managers in the history of show business, they were significantly underbilling their clients, Clint and me… Dad felt that most of what he and Mom did fell under the rubric of parental responsibility rather than professional management. They found the idea of taking anything more than 5 percent to be immoral, though Clint and I would not have objected in the least.
    Mom and Dad were concerned about the damage it might do us boys if we were taught to think of ourselves as the family breadwinners. And they simply didn’t hunger for a flashy life or a Beverly Hills address. They were sophisticated hicks. They had all that they wanted.

    The Boys p 167

    Ron’s insights into the joys and challenges of film directing are of great interest, as are the behind-the-scenes glimpses the brothers give of their various experiences from a child’s, teenager’s and adult’s perspectives.

    The Boys is a trip down memory lane, certainly; but also offers a lovely tribute to the key people in the Howard family’s successes – most especially, ‘Dad and Mom’, or Rance and Jean Howard.

    The Boys is published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in October 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Fabulous world-building: ‘Fireborn: Twelve and the Frozen Forest’ by Aisling Fowler

    Opening this book, I was plunged headfirst into the frozen fantasy world of Ember. It’s a land a little reminiscent of Game of Thrones (but much more suitable for younger readers!)

    Twelve, the main protagonist, is a ‘Huntling’ – she has taken the Pledge to defend the land and all its Clans against dark creatures and is training at the Lodge, under the watchful eyes of the Elders.

    Twelve is a feisty, bright and skilled young heroine who keeps to herself as much as possible because she harbours a secret that, if known, will end her dreams of becoming a fully-fledged Hunter. That doesn’t stop her from getting into altercations with other Huntlings – in this, the trainees are typical of your average human teens.

    When another young Huntling is kidnapped by goblins, everything changes for Twelve, as she sets out on a quest to rescue Seven. Soon, she discovers she is not alone, but has been joined by two others, with their own reasons for being on the quest. The three must challenge their long-held assumptions and beliefs, before they can work together to defeat the dark creatures.

    The world-building in this, a debut novel for British author Aisling Fowler, is terrific. Some of the creatures the Huntlings must contend with are familiar from classic fantasy stories such as the Lord of the Rings or the Narnia series (goblins, witches, ogres and wolves). But the cast includes ones created by the author, such as Grims, Moxies, Heart Trees, Cliffcrawlers, Snagglefeet and Firesprites: all brought to life with distinctive motivations, personalities and dangers.

    The character development of the Huntlings is just as skillfully done. I found myself absorbed in the adventure, hoping that the three Huntlings and their guardian being, Dog, will succeed.

    This is a promising beginning to a new fantasy series aimed at middle-grade readers. I’ll be watching out for book number two.

    Fireborn: Twelve and the Frozen Forest was published by Harper Collins in September 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    A Jackie French lovely: ‘Christmas Always Comes’

    In her historical fiction books for kids, Australian author Jackie French creates enthralling tales that subtly weave important themes of our history into the narrative – history at its best, all about people and their stories. Christmas Always Comes is no exception.

    In this picture book, beautifully illustrated by the talented Bruce Whatley, we meet Joey, Ellie and their parents, droving cattle in drought-and-Depression time, on the ‘Long Paddock’. This was the name given to the stock routes where farmers sent their cattle to graze during times of sparse feed for their animals.

    It’s Christmas Eve and the family have nothing except their milking cow, Blossom, some clothes, a billy and their horse and dray. They are travelling the dusty roads between fast-drying waterholes in search of food and water for the cattle. The hard times brought about by the combination of the Great Depression of the 1930’s and drought, is referenced in a way that children will understand: Joey wonders if there will be Christmas tree and presents this year?

    His parents are worried and Ellie doesn’t expect that Christmas will happen for them. Joey has faith in the magic of Christmas, though:

    It was dark when they finished watering all the cattle.
    The stars shone like Christmas candles.

    ‘Christmas pudding tomorrow!’ said Joey,
    eating his cold meat and damper. ‘And presents!’

    ‘Shhh! Don’t let Mum or Dad hear,’ whispered Ellie.
    ‘There’s no shops or money to buy presents or
    sultanas for a pudding.’

    ‘Silly. There are always presents at Christmas!’ said Joey.
    He had already hung up his and Ellie’s stockings for Santa to fill.

    Christmas Always Comes

    Joey’s belief is not misplaced, thanks to a chance meeting with a local farmer, an apricot tree and the kindness of strangers.

    The story also serves as a gentle hint that sometimes, kids can be happy with the smallest of gifts and the most rudimentary of Christmas trees.

    Christmas Always Comes is an ode to the magic of Christmas, the value of families, and the way Australians have weathered hard times.

    It is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in October 2021, making it a perfect Christmas gift for the little ones in your life.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Silliness kids will love: ‘When Pigs Fly’ by Rob Harrell

    The first in a new graphic novel series by Rob Harrell, When Pigs Fly features Gary, a normal pig whose best friends are Carl (a fish) and Brooklyn (a bat).

    Silliness prevails when Gary discovers new powers as a flying superhero, out to save the world from baddies.

    It’s the kind of silliness that kids will love, with sly references to all the usual tropes of superhero comics: capes, evil-doers, secret identities, and citizens in thrall with the mystery of the new saviour on the scene.

    Laced with tongue-in-cheek jokes (does a spandex costume really suit Gary? Why didn’t the toilet paper cross the road?), the irrepressible trio do save the day in the end, but not before they have plenty of close shaves along the way.

    A fun graphic read that middle grade and early readers will enjoy.

    BatPig: When Pigs Fly is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in November 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Tenacious women: ‘Elizabeth and Elizabeth’ by Sue Williams

    Sue Williams takes the real-life women of her title, Elizabeth Macarthur and Elizabeth Macquarie, and places them in the centre of this novel about the early colonial years of Sydney and Parramatta. Told through the point of view of each woman, we meet the various characters that stride larger than life through Australian history books: ex-Governor William Bligh, Governor Lachlan Macquarie, Reverend Samuel Marsden, John Macarthur, and many other names that are familiar to us today as place names: Nepean, Evan, Bathurst, Hunter, Huskisson, for example.

    At first reading, this novel has a very different take on these women than some other works. Kate Grenville’s A Room of Leaves, for example, portrays the relationship between Elizabeth Macarthur and her husband John in a very unflattering way, with Elizabeth as the publicly supportive but privately despairing woman tied to the erratic and self-serving John.

    Reading Elizabeth and Elizabeth further, I could see that whatever Elizabeth’s true feelings about her husband, her circumstances did not allow her to do anything but be a supportive wife. Through the lens of modern understanding of mental ill-health, we might have some sympathy for John, subject to what would now likely be described as bipolar disorder or other serious mental illness.

    That does not excuse his corrupt behaviour. Nor does it excuse the many petty personal jealousies and grievances of those in authority in the fledgling colony, and the way personal ambitions undermined the just and efficient administration of affairs in NSW. Sue Williams gives a graphic portrayal of how these factors played out.

    We might also have sympathy for Elizabeth Macquarie, a new bride accompanying her husband to his post as Governor of a far flung colonial outpost of Britain. Nothing is as she expects. She and her husband face political opposition from those who see the colony as a way to make money or to rise up the ladder of their ambition. They also have to contend with apathy from the British Government, and their own personal misfortunes and ill-health.

    In the end, Elizabeth and Elizabeth is a story about the tenacity of two women who never give up on what they see as the right thing to do, and put all their considerable skills to use in support of their husband, the family, and what they regard as the colony’s best interests. It’s a very readable novel and will be enjoyed by anyone interested in colonial Australian history.

    Elizabeth and Elizabeth was published by Allen & Unwin in January 2021.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    The joy of being yourself: ‘Rosie the Rhinoceros’ by Jimmy Barnes

    Most Australians will know Jimmy Barnes as the lead singer of the rock band Cold Chisel, belting out songs in his powerful voice. Perhaps you have read one or both of his best-selling memoirs, Working Class Boy or Working Class Man. You might be surprised, as I was, to discover that this Aussie legend has now turned his story-telling skills to writing a children’s picture book.

    The author’s note (in the form of a pink postcard) tells us that the idea for this book came from his granddaughter, Rosie, a big, strong girl for two and a half years old. In her mind, Rosie was a unicorn, delicate and colourful, and nothing could change her mind on this.

    So Rosie’s granddad wrote a story about a rhinoceros called Rosie, who believed she was a unicorn, with a pretty horn and dainty hooves. Rosie could never understand why everyone else thought she was a rhinoceros, so one day she decides to make an announcement to all her animal friends and neighbours that she was a unicorn.

    Now, don’t get me wrong,’ Rosie continued. ‘Rhinoceroses are some of the nicest animals in the savannah, but I am clearly a unicorn.’
    ‘If you don’t believe me, look at my beautiful horn and my delicate hooves, which allow me to walk so quietly.’
    The animals all looked and smiled.

    Rosie the Rhinoceros

    Luckily for Rosie, the other animals allow her to believe in being a unicorn and Rosie continues to live happily, waking up each day eager to explore the marvels of her world. Imagine if they had insisted that she was not a unicorn or, worse, made fun of her belief?

    This lovely story is about self-belief and also about acceptance of difference by others. It is beautifully illustrated by Matt Shanks, and the pink theme throughout will appeal to many younger readers, especially those who love all things pink and sparkly.

    Rosie the Rhinoceros is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in October 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Living treasures: ‘Living Planet: The Web of Life’ by David Attenborough

    In my view naturalist, author and broadcaster David Attenborough is a living treasure. For decades he has brought the astonishing stories of our natural world to living rooms across the globe through his beautifully produced television documentaries. Now there is a narrative version in his trilogy of books Life. Living Planet: The Web of Life is the second in the series.

    I admit that I am usually more drawn to stories about people in my non-fiction reading. However, Attenborough’s fascinating insights into the ways in which organisms, insects, plants, animals, reptiles and birds adapt to the many different environments on our planet drew me in. There is plenty of drama, humour and mystery, told in the author’s infectiously enthusiastic style.

    The book answers intriguing questions such as:

    Why do elephant seals stop their battles with each other once a year, while they grow new hair?

    How do seagulls perch on icebergs without their featherless feet and legs freezing?

    How do giant worms with no mouths or gut, survive in jets of hot water, deep on the ocean floor?

    Why are holes in trees of the northern forests fought over like Sydney houses at an auction?

    Why are ants like dairy farmers?

    Why is a sparrow’s heart twice the size of a mouse’s?

    How can a female cichlid fish be likened to a pastry cook icing a cake?

    The text is supported by sections of stunning photographs in the style we have come to associate with Attenborough’s work.

    Attenborough’s deep concern for the future of our planet and its amazing biodiversity underlies the narrative and his final statement sums it up:

    As far as we can tell, our planet is the only place in all the black immensities of the universe where life exists. We are alone in space. And the continued existence of life now rests in our hands.

    Living Planet: The Web of Life p292

    Living Planet: The Web of Life is published by William Collins, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, in October 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    We’re not scared: ‘There’s a Ghost in this House’ by Oliver Jeffers

    Oliver Jeffers’ new picture book, like an earlier one of his I reviewed on this blog (What We’ll Build), is an ode to the rich creative and imaginative world of childhood. It takes what could be a bit scary for some youngsters (the idea of ghosts) and turns it into a fun hide-and-seek game where kids play ‘spot the ghost’ as pages are turned.

    Each double page spread is a scene from a grand old house. We go with the heroine, a small girl, as she wanders from room to room, upstairs and down, seeking out the ghost she is sure inhabits the place – it’s just that she has never seen it! Over each page fits another, translucent one, on which the ghost (and friends) can be seen, playing their own hide-and-seek with our little girl.

    Children will quickly be in on the joke as they spot the ghosts, behaving in mischievous ways – but not at all scary. The ghosts are portrayed in the stereotypical ‘white sheet’ variety which adds to the humour.

    The book is gorgeously presented – a tall hardback cover with the old house on the front. Jeffers has used sepia photography of the house and added his own signature quirky characters. Simple text makes it an accessible story for very young readers, while others can enjoy the pictures which invite engagement and fun.

    There’s a Ghost in this House is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in October 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.