• Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    Mystery & history for kids: ‘The Vanishing at the Very Small Castle’ by Jackie French

    Is Jackie French among Australia’s most productive – perhaps I should say prolific – author? From her busy mind and creative genius pour picture books, fiction and non fiction for older children and adults, and book series to please all ages and tastes. The Vanishing at the Very Small Castle is book two in the Butter O’Bryan Mystery series for middle-grade readers.

    Set in the 1930’s during the Depression, the series follows the adventures of Butter who lives with his friends Gil, Olive and Tish, their dog Woofer, and three Aunts with unusual nicknames – Elephant, Cake and Peculiar. The Very Small Castle is just what it’s name suggests – a mini castle built on the shore of Howler’s Beach, and it is complete with battlements and a dungeon as all good castles should be.

    A ‘talking movie’ is being filmed on the beach and the children are asked to join the action, when the beautiful star Delilah Divine vanishes without leaving a trace. Has she been been kidnapped? Lost to the sea? Butter is determined to solve the mystery.

    Ms French incorporates a great many historical references in these books, from the ‘Susso camp’ nearby (a shanty town of the kind found outside many Australian towns during the Depression) to Australia’s early film industry. The Sydney Harbour Bridge is about to be opened, characters speak using early 20th century Australianisms, and food on the menu ranges from the then very new fad of pavlova, to ‘bread and dripping’.

    There’s a wonderful section in the back of the book which explains many of these aspects of Australian history, and includes recipes for traditional treats like Victoria Sponge, Bubble and Squeak and Boiled Fruit Cake. There’s also instructions on how to play games like Knucklebones or Blue Murder (which I knew as ‘Murder in the Dark’ when I was a kid.)

    All of the history is embedded naturally in a rollicking tale of a disappearing actress, a circus performer and a monster, and a crime to be solved.

    Most of all, the story is about friendship, sharing, and embracing difference:

    His family. Not a normal family, maybe. But normal was much less fun…Butter grinned. There were many ways to make a family.

    The Vanishing at the Very Small Castle p233

    The Vanishing at the Very Small Castle and the Butter O’Bryan series will be enjoyed by middle-grade readers who like mystery and history together in a story.

    The Vanishing at the Very Small Castle is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in April 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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

    What can be put right? ‘Heroes of the Secret Underground’ by Susanne Gervay

    This new historical fantasy / timeslip novel by Australian author Susanne Gervay is aimed at middle grade or younger ‘young adult'(YA) readers. I do love a good timeslip story – I still remember the pleasure I had reading Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow and the way it brought Sydney’s past to life. This one moves between 2000 in Sydney, to the winter of 1944 in Budapest, Hungary- perhaps Hungary’s darkest period during WWII. The novel is inspired by the author’s own family’s experiences in Budapest during the Holocaust and I particularly love that Ms Gervay honours her family story in this way.

    I think it it always hard, when deciding how much and what to tell youngsters about such awful events, to find that balance between honesty, not minimising the horrors, and respect for the sensitivities of younger readers. In my view this novel strikes the right note, visiting some of the crimes and atrocities committed by Nazis without becoming gratuitous. As always when I read historical fiction that includes events or people about whom I previously knew little, I looked for information on Hungary during WWII, and sure enough found references to the youth underground, the children’s houses in Budapest, the fascist Arrow Cross regime and the war crimes that took place along the banks of the river Danube. There is a terrific section at the back of the book that gives the historical facts of events and people included, in bite sized offerings just right for younger readers.

    I found the present tense narrative style, and short, almost staccato sentences, didn’t work for me, but that is just a matter of taste. The main characters (Louie, Bert, Teddy, Grandma and Pa) are believable and likeable and the fantasy elements flow well. I loved the motifs throughout: music, shoes and magnolias connect the past to the present in a natural and evocative way.

    The theme of the novel is perhaps summed up well in this quote:

    ‘Terrible secrets.’ Louie catches her breath.
    “Terrible secrets,’ Naomi repeats quietly. ‘We have to know the past, otherwise everything’s just a maze. We’re buried in lies and dead ends. It’s hard to find the way out then.’

    Heroes of the Secret Underground p137

    The three children at the centre of the story travel unwillingly back to a time when terrible deeds were done that became terrible secrets. They find that many things can’t be put right, but that there are some things that can.

    Heroes of the Secret Underground will suit middle grade and younger YA readers who enjoy fantasy elements in historical stories that explore some darker moments in history, but also show how unity, friendship and courage can help restore a balance.

    Heroes of the Secret Underground is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in April 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Gorgeous homage to grandmas everywhere: ‘What Do You Call Your Grandma?’ by Ashleigh Barton & Martina Heiduczek

    The companion to What Do You Call Your Grandpa? is a celebration in words and pictures of the special relationship between kids and their grandmothers.

    Featuring the words for ‘grandma’ in languages such as Spanish, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Warlpiri, Greek, Icelandic and Maori, among others, the simple four-line texts on each double page spread invites readers to try out the various words, while enjoying the warm relationships depicted.

    The illustrations present grandmothers of all kinds: fun-loving, musical, glamorous, artistic, excellent cooks and nature lovers.

    This is a beautiful follow up to the first grandparent book, and highly recommended for children and grandmas to enjoy together.

    What Do You Call Your Grandma? is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in March 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    A fun mix of history and fantasy for middle grade readers: ‘The World Between Blinks’ by Amie Kaufman & Ryan Graudin

    Amie Kaufman is a much-loved writer of fantasy and adventure for middle grade and young adult readers. She has teamed up with another best-selling author, Ryan Graudin, for a new middle grade series, of which The World Between Blinks is Book One.

    First of all, this is such a cool title reflecting an equally cool premise: that there is another world that exists in parallel with our own, that some people (especially youngsters) can occasionally get a fleeting glimpse or sense of it – in between blinks.

    The book lives up to its promise of terrific world-building by the authors, some adventure, a treasure map and lots of magic, and engaging characters, especially the two protagonists, cousins Jake and Marisol, who arrive in the world by accident and must find the one person who can help them return home.

    Being a history nut, I especially enjoyed the way the story is peppered with figures and events from the past. The World between Blinks is the place where lost things are found, so the cousins come across many ‘lost’ people and things: aviatrix Amelia Earhart; former Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt; a thylacine (the extinct Tasmanian Tiger); brown M&M’s; London’s Crystal Palace; a Viking; the Ninth Roman Legion are just some examples.

    My feeling is that this would be a great springboard for some ferreting in a library or the internet by youngsters keen to discover who and what and when and why. I confess to doing a bit of ‘Googling’ of some of the references with which I was less familiar.

    The historical gems are dropped in with humour and a light touch and they add much to the story.

    At a deeper level, The World between Blinks explores memories, what it means to leave friends and places behind, and what makes family special.

    But what Marisol was really trying to hold on to was her family’s togetherness, and you couldn’t keep that in your hand any more than you could catch a puff of smoke…You couldn’t use a particular thing or a certain place to make your life just the way you wanted.
    But you could hold onto love…
    You could hold onto the things that made you you.

    The World Between Blinks p255

    An added bonus is the way in which so many cross cultural references are included, including American, Australian, Bolivian. Marisol and her parents speak both Spanish and English so Spanish expressions are effortlessly woven into the dialogue without losing the meaning and flow of the narrative.

    The World Between Blinks is a wonderful beginning to a new middle grade fantasy series. It will be enjoyed by readers who like adventure, magic, and a little history, all rolled into a satisfying package.

    The World Between Blinks is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in February 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Sweet celebration of friends: ‘Super Cute – The Sleepover Surprise’ by Pip Bird

    Things cute and cuddly have an undeniable appeal for children, so Pip Bird’s Super Cute series of early chapter books are well aimed. The stories feature kittens, unicorns, bunnies, and mice, as well as muffins, milkshakes and sloths. Everything is sparkly, multicoloured and magical.

    In The Sleepover Surprise, Sammy can’t wait for all his friends to arrive for his special sleepover night. He’s planned a spaghetti dinner and a treasure hunt. Everyone turns up, as instructed, in dress-up onesies, ready to have fun at the Museum of Most Important Items (MOMII).

    What Sammy hasn’t counted on is that his party will be gatecrashed by Clive, a particularly nasty and selfish little chihuahua. Even wearing a tutu, Clive is an unwelcome guest, but the friends try their best to include him in the fun.

    They also look after each other, especially when little Pip the Pineapple (who has never been to a sleepover before) has a moment of the collywobbles.

    All is well as the party group find the treasure hunt clues and work out ways to make MOMII an exciting and fun place to visit. But Clive the Chihuahua has one last trick up his onesie sleeve that threatens to turn the party into chaos…

    While I find too much ‘cute’ a bit cloying, I enjoyed the playfulness of the story and language, such as poking fun at oh-so-serious museums, and the rhyming and alliterative jokes.

    I had a chuckle that the ‘baddie’ in this story is a chihuahua, as it one breed of dog that I actually loathe. Don’t get me started on them – you either love or hate chihuahuas, it seems to me!

    Super Cute – The Sleepover Surprise will appeal to young readers starting on chapter books, and the illustrations throughout support the story. Kids who love unicorns, sparkles and cupcakes will love this series.

    Super Cute – The Sleepover Surprise was published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in February 2021.

    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Gentle story of loss & resilience: ‘Penguin Bloom: Young Readers’ Edition’ by Chris Kuntz

    If you have been to an Australian cinema this year you will have at least seen the posters advertising the movie Penguin Bloom. It’s based on the real-life story of the Bloom family in Sydney: Sam and her husband Cameron, who with their three young sons faced tragedy head-on when Sam was injured in an accident whilst on a family holiday in Thailand.

    She went from being an active young mum who loved surfing and running on their nearby beach, to a broken woman confined to a wheelchair. She was depressed, traumatised – and angry, too. She struggled with the impact this huge change had on her young family and despaired of ever feeling like a ‘real mum’ again.

    When an injured baby magpie is introduced to the family, this little bird transforms their lives. ‘Penguin’ brings hope, purpose and companionship to Sam and the boys and shows Sam a path back from despair.

    Cameron captured the story of Penguin’s time with the family on camera and Instagram and it was published in Sam’s 2016 memoir of the experience. Now a feature film starring Naomi Watts, it’s been a hit at the cinemas this summer. Perhaps its popularity reflects the need we have just now for stories of hope and overcoming hardships.

    The version of the story published for young readers is based on the screenplay and told from the point of view of Noah, one of the three boys. It expresses the confusion and sadness and yes, guilt, that children can experience when tragedy strikes. It doesn’t shirk from the anger and stress that bubbles within the family but is essentially a story of love and hope.

    Penguin Bloom Young Readers’ Edition is a gentle way to introduce the concepts of loss and resilience to youngsters, from a child’s point of view. It will be particularly enjoyed by children who love nature, wildlife and caring for animals.

    Penguin Bloom Young Readers’ Edition was published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in January 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

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

    Sibling rivalry with a laugh: ‘Can You Do This?’ by Michael Wagner & Heath McKenzie

    If you had a sibling, or more than one child, you’d be familiar with the tendency of brothers and sisters to try to outdo each other. Sometimes this is a bid for parental attention and approval, and at others it can be put down to plain old competitiveness. Parents the world over have been irritated and amused as their children vie for ‘top dog’ status.

    Can You Do This? brings such situations to life, with a younger brother performing all sorts of antics to impress his older brother, who dismisses him each time with a casual wave, wink, laugh, or ‘too easy’.

    The illustrations are in bright, bold colours; the brothers are depicted as mice, though other animals appear in scenes throughout.

    The feats of the little brother become more and more daring and skilful, and the punchline comes in a laugh-out-loud moment on the final page.

    The moral of the story is ‘Don’t believe everything you’re told’ which feels especially relevant just now!

    Can You Do This? is a fun, light hearted look at sibling rivalry that children – and parents – will enjoy.

    Can You Do This? is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in February 2021
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

  • 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.