• Books and reading,  History

    Fact & fiction merge: ‘The Royal Correspondent’ by Alexandra Joel

    I first encountered the work of Sydney based writer Alexandra Joel when I read her work of narrative non-fiction Rosetta: A Scandalous True Story. This book was a good example of how truth is, indeed, often stranger than fiction. In her new novel, The Royal Correspondent, fiction is blended with real people and events from Australia and England in the early 1960’s.

    The author is the daughter of Sir Asher Joel, who was born in the Sydney suburb of Enmore, and went on to a long and esteemed career in journalism and the press. So it is not surprising that much of the action of this novel takes place in the rough and ready (and male dominated) world of daily newspapers.

    Blaise Hill is a young woman from ‘the wrong side of the tracks’, as Enmore was regarded in the sixties, but with a passionate desire to be a journalist. She battles the entrenched sexism and outright hostility of the many men she encounters who believe that a woman’s place is at home and certainly not at a typewriter.

    Much to her surprise and delight, she is sent to London to cover the wedding of Princess Margaret to photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones, and then the opportunity to become the newspaper’s permanent royal correspondent lands in her lap.

    Of course, it is not all easy sailing for Blaise. She has a secret that she cannot share with anyone. And there are two men in her life: one with secrets of his own, and one who appears to be kind, attentive, and very much in love with her. Eventually, she has to decide who to trust.

    Blaise finds, to her horror, that she has somehow become entangled in a dangerous set of circumstances – and that rather than reporting on the stories, she has herself become one.

    The novel’s settings (both Sydney and London) are vividly portrayed: the poverty of her childhood, with the scourge of a polio outbreak and the struggle to make ends meet, is contrasted with the glamour and excitement of the ‘swinging sixties’ in London and the pomp and ceremony of Royal events.

    Blaise is a relatable character: her deep love for her family and her determination to succeed in her career are set against her uncertainty in the new situations she must confront. I also liked that she has a bit of a temper which occasionally lands her in trouble!

    What I enjoyed most about The Royal Correspondent was the seamless way in which real-life characters and events from this time are dropped into the narrative. I had fun spotting the personalities and scandals that filled newspapers and magazines in the decade of my childhood.

    It’s also a good reminder, if one were needed, of the barriers that prevented the full participation of women in the workplace and society: unequal pay; the sequestering by men of the important and interesting jobs (leaving most female journalists working on the ‘women’s pages’ of publications); the requirement that women resign from public sector jobs once they married; male-only clubs; a bar against women entering public bars; just to name a few.

    I thought The Royal Correspondent was, in parts, a little reminiscent of a twentieth-century Pride and Prejudice. However, I enjoyed the characters and setting, and the intrigue kept my interest throughout. There is an informative Author’s Note (which I always love to read, especially in novels with an historical setting) which pinpoints the inspiration for many of the novel’s component parts. Overall, The Royal Correspondent is a satisfying read.

    The Royal Correspondent is published by HarperCollins Australia in February 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • 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

    True crime finally solved: ‘Stalking Claremont’ by Bret Christian

    A genre that I enjoy (but for some reason tend to regard as a guilty pleasure) is true crime, particularly the police procedural type of non-fiction. I enjoy the ‘behind the scenes’ feeling when learning of the ins and outs of a major crime investigation. Stalking Claremont is just such a book. The author, Bret Christian, worked as a newspaper journalist and publisher in the areas of Perth in which the Claremont serial killer operated, so the events of 1996-1997, and the subsequent drawn out investigation, would have been of great interest to him.

    In 1996 eighteen year old Sarah Spiers disappeared outside a Claremont nightclub and was never seen again. Four months later, Jane Rimmer disappeared from the same area. Her body was later found in bushland. In 1997 a third young woman, Ciara Glennon, was murdered. A manhunt ensued and the district went from being Perth’s party-central to living in fear that the killer would strike again.

    Christian describes the ups and downs of what became Australia’s longest and most expensive investigation. Police failed to make an arrest, until forensic evidence pointed to Bradley Edwards and linked him with at least two of several other attacks that had occurred in the Claremont area. He was found guilty of two of the murders in September 2020 – more than two decades after Sarah’s disappearance.

    The book outlines the missteps that were made: valuable clues overlooked; a tunnel-vision focus on three men as ‘persons of interest’ in spite of no physical evidence linking any of them to the crimes, resulting in great distress and trauma to the men and their families; a failure to link earlier attacks on other young women with the later murders; and careless record keeping which resulted in earlier mistakes being copied over and thus distorting information for later investigative teams to work with.

    Once they discovered the ongoing errors, a startling notion hit the two men, What if these mistakes meant a vital piece of forensic evidence had been missed? One that cracked the case?
    That brought excitement, but also trepidation. Big police forces are no different from any other political beast, bureaucracies where reputations are jealously protected and promotions coveted.

    Stalking Claremont p224-225

    However, Christian does give credit where it’s due. His admiration for the work of specialist forensic and cold case review investigators is clear, as is his regard for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Hall, who presided over the judge-only trial, parts of which were held during Covid-imposed restrictions. The killer was found because of the incredibly detailed work of the forensic experts and long hours, days, months and years of grunt work by detectives assigned to the case. Edwards may well have thought, after a decade or so had passed, that he had ‘got away with’ his crimes, so I confess I had a thrill to think of how he must have felt when he was finally arrested.

    Several things stood out for me in this book. In two of the cases under investigation, people admitted hearing a woman’s blood-curdling and distressed screams in the middle of the night – and did nothing! I’m amazed and horrified that anyone could hear unexplained screams and not, at the very least, pick up the phone to report their concerns to police.

    Also of note is the role that local businesses, local and state governments can play in improving safety and security for residents and patrons. For example, if improvements in public transport, taxi services, CCTV cameras and street lighting had been made earlier, some of the young women may still be alive. Such prosaic measures don’t hold the same allure as forensics or crime scene investigators – but surely it’s better to prevent terrible crimes being committed in the first place?

    Stalking Claremont is an engrossing examination of a high profile and complex campaign to catch and convict a serial killer. Readers who enjoy true crime and police stories will find it is a detailed examination of a case that absorbed so much police time, resources, public attention and of course, caused enormous grief and trauma for all involved.

    Stalking Claremont is published by HarperCollins Australia in January 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

  • Books and reading

    Looking at our world a little differently: ‘Factfulness’ by Dr Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling & Anna Rosling Ronnland

    This book is subtitled ‘Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are better Than You Think’. I must admit, it was a welcome breath of fresh air after a year in which it’s been hard to feel anything except pessimism about global and national issues – climate change, searing bushfires, floods, warfare, reports of poverty, child abuse, and the rise of populist, authoritarian regimes. Add a global pandemic into the mix and it’s little wonder that most people, if asked whether the world is getting safer, healthier, fairer, would answer a resounding ‘No!’

    Rosling, who sadly died of cancer in 2017, was a respected physician, epidemiologist, teacher and author. Rosling realised that even highly educated people and experts in particular fields, could not correctly answer a number of simple fact based questions about global levels of poverty and income, child mortality, education, life expectancy and so on. Indeed, on some measures, he found that the more educated a person was, the more likely they were to give an incorrect answer. He also noticed that the incorrect answers given tended to be on the more pessimistic or gloomy end of the scale.

    Rosling was troubled by this, because these misconceptions are also held by people in charge of policy setting and decision making across national and international bodies. He decided that what was needed was to better communicate the available data to people at all levels and in all walks of life. His general approach is that the world is making progress, and that policy decisions should be grounded in data; not ideology, outdated information, or misconceptions.

    Together with his son and daughter-in-law, he wrote Factfulness, which addresses these worldwide misconceptions and ignorance about human progress. The book presents data, available from reputable sources such as the World Health Organisation, the United Nations and the World Bank, but it does more than that.

    Rosling explores some of the reasons why people so often think the world is getting worse. He explains these as ten basic instincts that stop us from thinking clearly about a subject: among them are the fear instinct, the negativity instinct and the blame instinct. For each one of these natural and common instincts, he offers insights and ways in which we can train ourselves to think more ‘factfully’.

    If all this sounds a bit dry or tedious, let me assure you it’s anything but. The data is presented in a compelling and even entertaining way, in part due to his liberal use of personal anecdotes from his own experiences and career. The ‘bubble graphs’ employed throughout help turn a series of hard-to-grasp numbers into colourful and simple visuals that explain everything from the link between income levels and family size, and the surprising distributions of wealth within and between the richest and the poorest countries on Earth.

    Each chapter has a short, intriguing preface, such as:

    How more survivors means fewer people, how traffic accidents are like cavities, and why my grandson is like the population of the world. Factfulness p75

    Be less stressed by the imaginary problems of an over dramatic world, and more alert to the real problems and how to solve them.

    Factfulness p241

    Rosling argues that there are five global risks we should worry about: a global pandemic; financial collapse; world war; climate change; extreme poverty. Given our recent experiences of Covid-19, the global financial crisis, the two devastating world wars of the twentieth century, the changes occurring now due to climate change, and the persistence of extreme poverty despite all the gains made in the past fifty years or so, it’s hard to argue with Rosling’s summation here.

    Rosling describes himself not as an ‘optimist’ or a ‘pessimist’, but as a ‘possibilist’. He believes that the world can be both bad and getting better. He advocates an approach of curiosity about new information, that ideas should be tested, and that we should all listen to opposing ideas or arguments.

    To find out more about the work and ideas of Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnland, visit the website of Gapminder, a not- for- profit educational foundation that continues and progresses their work in addressing global misconceptions.

    Dollar Street is a tool on the Gapminder site which allows you to explore how people at different income levels across the world live, by using photos and videos, illustrating how basic human needs (such as shelter, food, sanitation, transport) are provided for. We can see that everyday life for people on similar income levels looks surprisingly similar across different places and cultures. The viewer can ‘meet’ a family, learn about their home, their work, children, hopes and dreams; giving a more realistic picture of human experience across the globe and showing that income affects daily life as much as do culture and nationality. I imagine that Dollar Street would be a very useful addition to teachers’ resources in schools and colleges.

    Hans Rosling gave many lectures and talks across the world, including this TED Talk in 2006.

    Factfulness was published in 2018 by Sceptre.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Long overdue – the real story of the Hawkesbury-Nepean: ‘People of the River – Lost Worlds of Early Australia’ by Grace Karskens

    I was born and grew up in the Hawkesbury region and returned to live there and in the nearby Blue Mountains in my thirties. I have at least four ancestors who arrived in the Hawkesbury and Nepean region after serving their sentences, to take up land as settlers. Despite this, and despite attending high school in Richmond, not far from the river itself, I had learnt little of the early history of the region – which is rather sad, when you consider that it was an area rich in stories of the people who lived here before and after British colonisation.

    In People of the River, historian and author Grace Karskens brings those stories to life, digging down into layers of history, back to what she calls ‘deep time’, tracing the ways in which the First People of the river and its surrounds lived before the English arrived, and the subsequent interactions between and among Aboriginal and settler communities.

    This is no lightweight or dry history text. It’s an incredibly comprehensive account, though the impeccable research is always conveyed with a deft touch. The book includes chapters about the Hawkesbury-Nepean’s ancient geology, geography, earliest human habitation, the cultural and spiritual lives of its people (both Dharug and settler), the economic, political and social contexts of the colonial era, as well as the tragedies endured by the First Peoples, such as disease, family and community dislocation, child stealing, and violence.

    However, we also learn of the many ways in which the First Nations communities adapted to and survived British colonisation and the many, sometimes surprising, ways in which they interacted with settlers. Referring to artefacts discovered, some held in museum collections, she writes:

    These are the poignant ‘small things forgotten’, the scattered, silent, yet insistent record of a vast and extraordinary human experience: the enforced creation of new worlds and lives, woven from the old. Despite the terror and violence, the determined campaigns, the loss of so many of their kin, the disruption to their food sources and their social and sacred places, the people of Dyarubbin survived, and remained in their Country.

    People of the River p175

    Ms Karskens is a gifted writer and her histories are engaging, lyrical and deeply moving – if you have read her earlier work, The Colony, about the history of the Sydney region, I am sure you will agree.

    Along with her research for this book, the author has also been involved in a project with Dharug knowledge holders and fellow historians, that aims at re-discovering and reinstating the Dharug place names of the region. I am so glad to learn that the town I lived in for ten years, Richmond, has a much older name: Marrengorra.

    I struggle to keep this post about People of the River brief – there is so much to enthuse about and so many amazing stories here. If you, like me, enjoy learning more about the real history of our country, this is a must-read. I lingered over it for several months – it’s a hefty book at 525 pages (not including appendices) but such a joy. I finished it with a satisfying sense that I now have a better understanding of the corner of Australia that has been so personally meaningful to me.

    People of the River was published by Allen & Unwin in 2020.

  • Books and reading

    Riveting memoir: ‘Honey Blood’ by Kirsty Everett

    As a twice-over cancer survivor, I should not have been bothered by the descriptions of chemo administered in a cancer ward, but I wasn’t prepared for being plunged into Honey Blood’s opening scenes of horrifying travails endured by young cancer patients.

    Kirsty’s story is both awful and inspirational: diagnosed with leukaemia at the age of nine, her hopes of pursuing a competitive gymnastics career are instantly dashed. She describes the treatments she underwent in enough detail to immerse the reader in the world of the sick child; but we also read about the other, more normal aspects of growing up in suburban Sydney: sibling squabbles, school, homework, parents.

    She makes very clear how important it is for the cancer patient to receive professional care that is both skilful and compassionate – and how this can vary from practitioner to practitioner – often with terrible results, which Kirsty nonetheless managed to confront with patience and dignity beyond her young years.

    It’s gobsmacking to read of the incredible insensitivity of some people with whom she came into contact, including a teacher at her school, a doctor, and some classmates. I became enraged at the outright cruelty of a mother of a child who displayed appalling behaviour towards a young, ill, vulnerable girl.

    Kristy’s story shows that the environments in which patients are treated – including the interpersonal and emotional as well as the medical – really do matter.

    Later, when she receives her second diagnosis, she’s in her mid- teens, facing all the everyday teenage concerns, joys and insecurities. As if they weren’t enough she also has to deal with traumas of heavy-duty cancer treatment and the worry that, after it all, she may not survive.

    She turned her experiences to fund raising efforts for children’s cancer research. I can only admire that determination for her troubles to make a difference in the lives of other youngsters.

    Her story is inspirational, occasionally funny, and imbued with hard-won wisdom. Her approach is beautifully summed up here:

    Ask me ‘What’s the worst thing about cancer?’, and my answer is ‘People.’ Ask me, ‘What’s the best thing about cancer?’ and my answer is ‘People.’ We have the capacity to make life better and we also have the capacity to make life worse. We have all the power – it’s up to us how we choose to use it.

    Honey Blood, p164

    Honey Blood will be published by HarperCollins Australia in February 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

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