• Books and reading,  Children's & Young Adult Books,  Life: bits and pieces

    2020: A Bumper Year of Books

    Image courtesy of Evie Schaffer

    When I searched for an image to use for this ‘2020 retrospective’ post I was amazed (and amused) by the number of pictures of vaccination syringes, masks, and other Covid-19 references. I did not want this post to be about Covid-19 – or at least, not the devastating effects of the pandemic, with which we are all too familiar.

    What I wanted to write about was the silver lining in the Covid cloud, for me anyway (and I suspect, many others around the world.) 2020 turned out to be a bumper year of reading!

    I have read at least 74 books this year. This includes hard copy, e-book and audiobook formats, adults and children’s books, fiction and non-fiction. I had signed up to three reading challenges, all of which I completed with ease: Aussie Author Challenge, Non-Fiction Challenge, and Australian Women Writers Challenge.

    I read books from my local library (in e-book format while lockdown restrictions were in place); books gifted to me; books I reviewed for publishers; and books chosen for the book group I belong to.

    Just some of the many wonderful books I’ve enjoyed in 2020

    My standout reads for the year?
    There are quite a few. Here are some:

    A Room of Leaves by Kate Grenville
    Benevolence by Julie Janson
    Your Own Kind of Girl by Clare Bowditch
    Tell Me Why by Archie Roach
    SongSpirals by the Gay’wu Group of Women
    The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
    The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams
    The Yield by Tara June Winch
    The Love that Remains by Susan Francis
    The People of the River by Grace Karskens
    Searching for Charlotte by Kate Forsyth & Belinda Murrell
    and for a picture book…Aunty’s Wedding by Miranda Tapsell

    My congratulations and thanks to the wonderful, talented authors, editors, publishers, illustrators, book designers, and booksellers who managed to keep the writing and reading show on the road during a tumultuous year. All of which brought great joy and solace to readers such as myself.

    Let’s all look forward to more fabulous literary treats (and I hope, I better year in every respect) in 2021.

  • Books and reading,  Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    An absolute delight: ‘Searching for Charlotte’ by Kate Forsyth & Belinda Murrell

    It was fitting that my final book review in 2020 is for a book whose publication I’ve anticipated for over a year, since I heard Kate Forsyth speak about her 4x Great-Grandmother Charlotte at a women’s literary festival in 2019. A little later, I was lucky enough to see a copy of Charlotte’s book at a Rare Book Week event at the State Library of NSW.

    I was so keen I pre-ordered a copy and it was sitting on my shelf for a bit, while I got through some other books on my to-be-read pile.

    The story of Charlotte Waring Atkinson had attracted me for several reasons. Firstly, there was a literary mystery: who was the author of the very first children’s book published in Australia? – until 1981 when Charlotte was identified as the author.

    Secondly, and perhaps more importantly to me personally, I related to the story of this woman who arrived in New South Wales in the 1820’s, and to the search by the authors (sisters Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell) for information about her origins and her life.

    Her arrival in Australia occurred at around the same time as that of several of my ancestors, some of whom I have been researching and writing about. Charlotte’s first husband originally hailed from the English county of Kent, from where my great-grandfather (many times over) originated.

    Later in life, Charlotte and her daughter lived for a time at Kurrajong, very close to where I grew up in the tiny hamlet of Bilpin, just a few kilometres along the Bells Line of Road in the Blue Mountains.

    Also, Charlotte lived so many of the experiences of women in the nineteenth century: an extraordinary and dangerous journey across the seas to an unknown land; pregnancy and childbirth at a time when both of these meant death for so many women; violence at the hands of men; great love and happiness, at least for a time; love for and dedication to her children; horrifying inequities under the law including in financial and family matters.

    In tracing Charlotte’s story, the authors bring to life these aspects of women’s lives – some of which have, thankfully, changed; while others appear remarkably similar today.

    This book is more than a biography of an accomplished colonial writer, artist, naturalist. It is also a memoir of the authors’ own journeys of discovery – about themselves, their families, their connections to the past. Here is a beautiful quote which perfectly expresses how I feel about the links between the past and present:

    On her wrist, my mother wears the charm bracelet that has been handed down to the women of my family for six generations. The golden links of its chain, hung with tiny tinkling charms, seems to me like a metaphor for the miraculous spiral of our DNA, the coiling ladder that connects us all, both to our far-distant ancestors and to our unborn descendants.

    Searching for Charlotte p274

    I appreciated that the authors did not shrink from acknowledging some of the more difficult aspects of their ancestors’ lives, including the fact that by settling on NSW land, they participated in the dispossession of the First Nations peoples who lived there. I, too, have to accept that about my own ancestors, many of whom were recipients of ‘land grants’ made to them by a colonial system that had no right to do so.

    Charlotte Waring Atkinson was an extraordinary woman, although she was probably not regarded as such by her contemporaries. And here again I resonate with her story, because my exploration of my forebears comes from the impulse to uncover the extraordinary aspects of ordinary lives:

    Charlotte Waring Atkinson was just an ordinary woman. She loved a man and gave birth to children, then tried her best to raise them and care for them, even though she was ground down by grief and harmed in both body and spirit by cruelty and violence. She fought for her children, she found her voice, and she stood up and spoke out at a time when many women were kept mute.

    Searching for Charlotte p275

    This is a delightful book, proof indeed that the descendents of one of Australia’s first female authors have ‘writing in their blood.’ If you are interested in colonial Australian history, women’s history, literary, legal, scientific and educational history….get your hands on a copy! I promise you will not be disappointed.

    Searching for Charlotte was published by NLA Publishing in 2020

  • Books and reading,  Children's & Young Adult Books

    Fun with words: ‘Poo! And Other Words that Make Me Laugh’ by Felice Arena & Tom Jellett

    It is a truth universally acknowledged… that children of a certain age love so-called ‘toilet humour’: jokes, books and almost anything else to do with bodily functions involving the toilet and loud noises. Poo! And Other Words That Make Me Laugh incorporates plenty of these words that are irresistibly funny to youngsters, but (and here I say, thank goodness) offers up plenty of other words that are somehow innately humorous to chuckle over.

    This genre of children’s book is not my favourite but I do acknowledge that young readers love to giggle over the absurdities of life, and there are plenty of words in the English language that when said aloud, do sound ridiculous, so this is a good book for adults to share with children. Words such as brouhaha, bumfuzzle, caboodle, collywobbles, persnickety, and scuttlebutt all get a look-in.

    There is a glossary in the back so children can learn the meaning of the words, once they have stopped their giggles, that is.

    Once you step past the toilet humour, this could be a good introduction to some of the more amusing words in English, and for younger readers to enjoy the shapes and sounds of words. The illustrations by Tom Jellett are simple with bold primary colours and there is a playfulness in the book design, too.

    Poo! And Other Words That Make Me Laugh will be published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in January 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  Children's & Young Adult Books

    For budding speculative /sci-fi fans: ‘Future Friend’ by David Baddiel

    Future Friend, a chapter book for middle grade readers, will be a sure-fire spark to ignite interest in stories that, like the best sci-fi and speculative fiction, asks readers to consider ‘What if…?’

    Pip is a girl from the year 3020, who accidentally enters a time-travel portal and lands in the home of Rahul, a thousand and one years earlier, in the year 2019.

    Once over their shock, the two marvel at the amazing differences between their world, while trying to figure out how to get Pip back to her own time. Pip’s future world certainly has some very cool technology – sentient robots, gravity defying boots, MindLink, animals and birds that can talk. (If you grew up in the 1960’s or thereabouts, you might remember the mix of amazement and envy at the futuristic world of the early Star Trek series or even cartoons like The Jetsons.

    But the world of 3020 has its definite downsides and Pip wishes that she could be like Rahul and play outside, go to school with other children, and eat real (not lab-created) food. These are all impossible for her because of Earth’s extreme temperatures, rampant viruses and frequent floods.

    There is a gentle, and timely, dig at conspiracy theorists and people who refuse to listen to science and instead choose to believe whatever disinformation they are fed by others.

    Future Friend deals with some big themes, with an emphasis on friendship, humour and working together to take care of the future planet. It’s a perfect way for youngsters to embark on some enjoyable and accessible sci-fi reading.

    Future Friend is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books on 18 November 2020.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  Children's & Young Adult Books,  Uncategorized

    Flight of nonsensical fancy: ‘Code Name Bananas’ by David Walliams

    David Walliams, best-selling UK based children’s author, has written another action packed story for readers seven years and older. Full of nonsensical moments and humour, Code Name Bananas takes place during World War II, at the height of The Blitz.

    Eric is an 11 year old orphan who is teased by other kids at school because of his sticky-out ears and glasses. Eric’s favourite place in the world is the London Zoo, where his Great Uncle Sid works, and Eric’s favourite animal there is Gertrude the gorilla. Gertrude and Eric share a special connection, so when he learns that Gertrude is no longer safe at the zoo, Eric and Uncle Sid hatch a wild plan to rescue her.

    The adventure leads them to uncover a Nazi plot and they must do everything they can to escape the clutches of elderly spies, twin sisters Helene and Bertha Braun, and raise the alarm. In between, they float over the River Thames under a barrage balloon, evade capture by London police, survive a Luftwaffe bombing attack, disguise Gertrude as a bride, and are imprisoned in a German U-boat.

    The main characters are endearing; I especially liked that Eric is a kind boy, and his Uncle Sid equally so – his tiny house stuffed with injured animals he has ‘adopted’ from the Zoo is testament to that.

    Amongst all the mayhem, younger readers will be gently introduced to some of the features of the war that impacted the most on Britain – the bombing raids, loss and destruction that could strike at any time, the uncertainty of life during wartime. Of course, Code Name Bananas is first and foremost an action packed and fun read and youngsters will be sure to welcome it.

    Code Name Bananas was published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in November 2020.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    A new world of magic: ‘A Clock of Stars: The Shadow Moth’ by Francesca Gibbons

    Lately I have noticed a whole crop of new children’s authors writing terrific fantasy stories for younger and middle grade readers; many with young female protagonists who drive the action. Francesca Gibbons is one such author. The Shadow Moth is her debut, the first in A Clock of Stars trilogy.

    Imogen and her younger sister Marie argue and bicker like most siblings, and Imogen has a temper (and a tendency towards impulsive action which can sometimes get her into trouble.) When the two girls follow a strange moth through a door in a tree, they fall into a magical world where adventures – and dangers – await.

    They meet strange creatures, fierce monsters, a lonely prince with a soon-to-be wicked stepmother, a giant, forest people and a king. Finding their way back home is harder than they think and they must rescue the prince and confront the monster king at the top of the mountain before they can return.

    There is the Clock of Stars which shows the future at every hour, and a mountain and forests that are sick and dying because the mountain has lost its heart – the fabled Sertze Hora stone:

    ‘The Sertza Hora is a living thing: the mountain’s beating heart. It puts leaves on the trees and clean water in the rivers. And, since you humans decided to rip the heart from the body, we’ve all been bleeding to death.’

    The Shadow Moth p358

    The gentle environmental theme is accompanied by a poke at other concerns: Imogen’s ‘worry creatures’ that keep her awake at night; Prince Miro’s loneliness in a castle without friends; learning to accept difference in others. None of this is didactic and it’s all wrapped up in a roller coaster ride through a world full of magic, danger and, for Imogen and Marie, a chance to learn to appreciate the home, Mum and Grandma they left behind.

    The black and white illustrations by Chris Riddell help the amazing characters come to life.

    Youngsters who enjoy books like the Nevermoor series, Havoc! or Starfell will love the fast paced magic of this new offering for kids.

    A Clock of Stars: The Shadow Moth was published by HarperCollins Children’s Books on 7 October 2020.

    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Recovery & resilience: ‘The Fire Wombat’ by Jackie French

    The wonderful Jackie French is back with another picture book, this one illustrated by Danny Snell.

    The Fire Wombat takes the trauma and devastation of the 2019/2020 summer bushfires across eastern Australia and crafts a gentle fable about how even the smallest of beings can survive with the support of others.

    Jackie lives in the Araluen Valley near Braidwood in southeastern NSW, an area that experienced those appalling fires during that summer. She is passionate and vocal about the wildlife that shares her land, and has published many books about these animals, including her well loved Wombat series.

    In The Fire Wombat, the terrifying fires drive many animals from their homes, some to shelter in a wombat burrow deep in the earth. When the fires have passed, they face starvation and thirst. That is, until human intervention delivers life saving food and water to the devastated fire grounds. And gradually, the land begins to heal:

    Others flourished, though trees drooped:
    Goannas feasted, eagles swooped.
    Grass trees blossomed, feeding bees.
    Native mice carried seeds.
    Kookaburras, currawongs…
    Slowly, the bush regained its songs.

    The Fire Wombat

    The little wombat at the heart of the story survives.

    The author’s note at the end of the book urges people to donate to a wildlife charity if they wish to help after disasters, or get training in how to care for wild animals.

    This lovely picture book is perfect in the way it encompasses its environmental theme and deals with a very dark and traumatic experience for so many Australian children, while also offering hope for the future.

    The Fire Wombat is published by Angus & Robertson, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books, on 29 October 2020.

    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

    #AussieAuthor20
    #AWW2020

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    A celebration of difference: ‘The Odds’ by Matt Stanton

    Meet the Odds…because fitting in is overrated.

    The Odds by Matt Stanton

    Kip lives in a noisy city with her dad, who makes graphic novels. She’s quiet and has a hard time fitting in at school, where other kids often laugh at her difference.

    One day ten characters, all decidedly odd beings, appear in her bedroom. It takes Kip a while to recognise them from the world of dreams, imagination and stories that she sometimes prefers to real life.

    That’s the start of a mad-cap adventure as Pip and her dad try to figure out how to get the uncooperative Odds back to their own worlds of comic strip, picture book, TV show, video game and dream.

    In the process, Kip learns that it’s easier to tackle hard things with someone you love, and that it’s possible to accept ourselves – and others – for who we are.

    Dad: Hard things are just hard, Kippo. You can’t escape them, but you know what does help?
    Kip: What?
    Dad: You. Even the hardest things are made easier if you have someone to share them with.

    The Odds p104

    The Odds delivers its message with a light touch and lots of humour, deftly pointing out the oddities in everyone:

    Kip: But after all, isn’t odd just another word for special? I’m odd. We’re all odd. And that’s… normal.

    The Odds p139

    It’s a perfect little book for early readers who like stories that make them laugh and invite them to think a bit, too.

    The Odds is published by Harper Collins Children’s Books on 29 October 2020.

    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

    #AussieAuthor20

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    The richness of imagination: ‘The Unwilling Twin’ by Freya Blackwood

    Several years ago I was lucky enough to see an exhibition of Freya Blackwood’s award winning work at a NSW regional gallery. She is such a talent, one of the many wonderful picture book creators and illustrators in Australia.

    The Unwilling Twin is her latest picture book. It’s a quirky take on the rich imaginative world of young children.

    It features Jules and her ‘identical twin’ George. They do everything together as twins often do: get dressed, eat breakfast, play, read books, and go to the beach.

    It’s on the beach that their difference emerges. Jules loves to build sand castles while George loves to sleep on (or in) the warm sand. Each is an unwilling participant in the other’s preferred activity. Occasionally they argue but always make up over ice creams.

    Oh, and George is… a pig!

    Freya Blackwood’s pencil and pastel illustrations add a gentle humour to the narrative. I especially enjoyed the framed ‘photograph’ of Jules and George in their matching ballet tutus, and the picture of them doing their daily yoga together.

    The Unwilling Twin is a humorous homage to early childhood, families, and imagination.

    It is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books on 29 October 2020.

    My thanks to the publisher for a copy to review.

    #AussieAuthor20
    #AWW2020

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Empathy through fiction: ‘We Are Wolves’ by Katrina Hannestad

    There is a theory that people who read a lot of fiction can develop empathy through their reading. Fiction (and some non fiction too) invites us to inhabit other worlds – the characters’ times, places, and situations – and also allows us to see our own world and circumstances through different eyes. This is one way that our empathy ‘muscles’ develop and grow.

    This process begins from the earliest exposure to books and, I believe, continues right through our reading life.

    So it was with interest that I approached We Are Wolves, an historical fiction work by award winning Australian author Katrina Nannestad. Pitched at middle grade readers (approx 10 years and over) it is the story of the Wolf children: Liesl, Otto and baby Mia, who become separated from their mother and grandparents as the family flees from the oncoming Russian army towards the end of WWII.

    The thing is, the family are German, living in East Prussia. They have the requisite photo of Hitler above their dining table. Their father has just been pressed into army service for the Reich as German defeat looms.

    As a child, The Diary of Anne Frank was the only text I knew of that was written from a German-born child’s point of view. I remember my sense of dawning horror as I read about the dreadful things that befell other Jewish children and their families under the Nazis. The Wolf family are not Jewish, nor are they Nazi supporters. They are just an ordinary family trying to get by, to survive the war. They are very fearful of the Red Army troops so when Papa is reported missing in action and the Russians approach their village, they must leave.

    Liesl promised her mother that she will keep her siblings together and protect them. When they find themselves alone, in a bitterly cold winter and the middle of a war zone, with no food or shelter, she and Otto must use all their wits to survive. Sometimes they must break the rules: stealing food, ransacking abandoned luggage for warm clothes or a blanket, killing birds or animals to eat. They live like wild things, like wolves; facing danger, cold and constant hunger.

    The narrative is all from Liesl’s point of view, that of a child who gradually realises that war turns everything on its head:

    All I know is that war does not make sense. The things that people do in a war are not the things they would do if they were at home with their families.

    We Are Wolves p126

    This is how we develop empathy: by living, for a while, in the world of German children whose world has collapsed around them due to a war not of their making. The narrative takes readers far enough into the experience of the Wolf children to be able to recognise their hardships and dilemmas. Darker events and actions are alluded to but not inappropriately so for younger readers.

    There are lighter moments also: acts of kindness from some German and Russian soldiers and citizens, unlikely friendships with other Wolfskinder (wolf children) they encounter, and the playfulness of children, especially little Mia.

    There are lovely illustrations by Martina Heiduczek, which capture the landscape and circumstances of the Wolf family as the story progresses.

    The novel also touches on the importance of identity and language for well- being and sense of self, as at one stage the children must pretend to be Lithuanian so as to avoid Russian retribution.

    ‘German words feel right in my mouth,’ {Otto} says.
    ‘Yes, ‘ I agree.
    “And in my heart.’
    I wrap my arms around him. ‘Yes!’… But from now on,’ I whisper at last, ‘you and I must speak Lithuanian. Always…Even with each other in the middle of the night. Even in our heads and in our hearts…it is the only way we will ever be truly safe…’

    We Are Wolves p290

    If we can transfer our understanding of this to situations closer to home, perhaps we can better appreciate the pain experienced by Australia’s First Nations peoples, so long denied their language, culture and identity?

    We Are Wolves is a beautiful, heartfelt, engrossing read that can contribute to the development of empathy in all who read it.

    It is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books on 29 October 2020. My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

    #AussieAuthor20
    #AWW2020