• 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.

  • Books and reading

    Old but new: ‘Death at Greenway’ by Lori Rader-Day

    I love the idea of ‘falling into’ a novel – the image of plunging straight into another world, meeting the characters and their emotions and thoughts. That’s what happened to me with Death at Greenway. The world of this novel is WWII England: first London, where trainee nurse Bridget Kelly is receiving an ultimatum after a serious error on the ward; then to south Devon and the house of famous mystery writer Agatha Christie.

    Bridget goes there unwillingly, as one of two nurses hired to care for a group of ten children under five: they are evacuees, sent from at-risk London suffering under the Blitz, to country areas considered safer. For Bridget, it is her last chance to save her floundering career. She also nurses terrible grief and trauma, the result of a well-aimed German bomb, and this follows her to her new posting.

    The other nurse travelling with the group is Gigi, a glamorous young woman who has secrets of her own, one of which threatens the tenuous safety of their country refuge.

    I love stories that weave real-life people and events into the plot, and Death at Greenway does this. It is an homage to the world of thirties England, the works of writers like Christie, and the often heroic actions of so many ordinary people during wartime. Greenway really was a temporary home for two nurses and ten children during the war. The author has drawn on the names of some of the people who populated the home at this time, including Doreen, one of the young evacuees, who shared her memories of that time.

    All the tropes of British mystery novels of the era are there: a (nearly) invisible mistress of the house; gothic folk stories told by the locals; a muddy footprint on the front step; crying foxes and other unearthly noises; a butler and housekeeper with their own opinions about the newcomers; a growing body count and a disappearance. Suspicions rise and Bridget starts to think that no one is who they seem to be. I liked the dry tone of much of the narrative, reminiscent of an author like Kate Atkinson.

    Alongside the mystery, though, is the real theme of the novel: the toll taken by war and loss on the people living through such times:

    It was a thin thread that kept them tethered to the earth, a single strand of her embroidery floss, easily snapped. No one keeps us. They were all small lives, nowhere near the center. Tossed about by the gale of history and hardly noted for having endured.

    Death at Greenway p245

    The web of deception and intrigue becomes complex at times and I had to concentrate hard to follow the threads; but that was not to the detriment of my enjoyment of this satisfying novel.

    Death at Greenway is published by HarperCollins Publishers in October 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Non-Fiction Reading Challenge 2021: Done

    In this year’s Non-Fiction Reading Challenge I signed up to read at least 6 books across a range of categories. So far I have ticked off 13 books.

    These included memoir, biography, history, true crime, and indigenous cultures.

    Some were by Australian authors; some were published in 2021; some were older titles I had not read before.

    Most surprising read?
    One Last Dance: My Life in Mortuary Scrubs and G-Strings by Emma Jane Holmes: fascinating insight into two contrasting worlds – the funeral industry and exotic dancing.

    Most heartfelt read?
    Daughter of the River Country by Dianne O’Brien with Sue Williams – a troubling but ultimately hopeful story of a Yorta Yorta woman’s childhood and her journey of discovery of herself and her people.

    Most lyrical read?
    Ten Thousand Aftershocks by Michelle Tom – the story of family fractures woven together with the trauma of living through the Christchurch earthquake.

    Best history read?
    There are two: both exploring hidden aspects of Australian history
    People of the River – by Grace Karskens, and
    The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka by Clare Wright

    Laugh-out-loud read?
    Flash Jim by Kel Richards – a startling story of colonial recidivism and a unique take on early Australian language.

    Thanks to Shelleyrae at Book’d Out for hosting the 2021 Non Fiction Reading Challenge this year.

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

    Growing empathy: ‘Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief’ by Katrina Nannestad

    Once again, Australian children’s book author Katrina Nannestad brings us a story of children at war. As with her 2020 book We Were Wolves, this one features the experiences of kids caught up in the turmoil and tragedy of WWII in Europe.

    This time, the protagonist is a small Russian boy, Sasha, who at the age of six sees his village and his family destroyed by invading German soldiers. He faces starvation and other dangers until he is adopted by a passing company of Red Army troops. The Author’s Note tells us that Sasha is based loosely on the story of a real Russian child who joined with a troop of Russian soldiers as a bid for survival. He was about six to eight years old. Apparently there were many such children for whom the dubious ‘safety’ of the front line with troops was preferable to almost certain death from hunger or exposure on their own.

    It’s a shocking concept and the author acknowledges that this is confronting territory, especially for children. What she has created, though, is a story of love and hope; of how people need each other not only to survive, but to grow.

    The opening plunges us into a Russian military hospital with Sasha, who is recovering from numerous injuries, though we don’t learn why until towards the end. Sasha is ten and has spent four years with his company of Red Army soldiers. Trauma has robbed him of his ability to speak. Each night he roams the ward, stealing an odd assortment of items from staff and other patients. He has a collection of these pilfered things under his bed.

    Over the course of the book, these items become triggers for Sasha to gradually remember all the events that led up to this point: his flight from home; finding the Red Army company; the characters and personalities of the individuals there; and the way Sasha brings joy and comfort to these battle-weary soldiers in his childish, trusting innocence. He accompanies the troop as it makes its slow way to Stalingrad, and then westward to Berlin as the tide of war turns in their favour. They are protective of Sasha and care for him, in part because he reminds them of their own loved ones back home.

    As his memories return, he finds speech and so, bit by bit, he recounts his experiences to the hospital doctors, nurses and patients.

    Sasha’s story turns full circle as the novel concludes; by which time he has learned the truth of his shared humanity with the people he has regarded as the enemy.

    There are hints of the atrocities committed on both sides in this war. They are not explicit, though an adult reading alongside a child will understand the references. They are here to point out the basic truth that people are people (good and bad) no matter which army they fight with. Sasha learns a bitter lesson in Berlin, that hatred and revenge achieve nothing. The major in charge of his unit says:

    Returning cruelty for cruelty makes the hatred and misery grow. Their misery. Our misery. Surely we have had enough sorrow to last a lifetime. To last a thousand lifetimes. We must choose a better way.

    Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief p279

    Ultimately, it is our children and grandchildren who can make our world a more peaceful one. Empathy is an essential ingredient in this quest. Books such as this one, which combine plenty of wartime drama and adventure in a context of understanding war’s futility and cruelties, can help young readers to see the world from different perspectives and experiences than their own. This is how empathy is grown.

    Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in November 2021.
    It would be suitable for readers 10 years and older.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    An ode to family traditions: ‘What Do You Do To Celebrate?’ by Ashleigh Barton & Martina Heiduczek

    This is the third in the What do you… series of picture books (I have previously reviewed What Do You Call Your Grandma? and What Do You Call Your Grandpa? on this blog).

    Each one of these delightful picture books invites readers to think about what we all share, as well as to enjoy the colourful and creative differences that make humans so interesting.

    In What Do You Do To Celebrate? we explore some of the many ways in which families around the world mark special times of the year together: Christmas, New Year, Lunar New Year, Hanukkah, just to mention a few. We see family celebrations in Israel, New Zealand, the Phillipines, South Africa, China, and many other parts of the globe, coming together to enjoy special foods, lantern festivals, big family gatherings, festive music and parades.

    Each double page spread is devoted to one type of celebration, explained in simple and lovely rhyme by Ashleigh Barton and Martina Heiduczek’s vibrant, mixed media illustrations.

    The final page invites children to think about their own family traditions:

    So many traditions to mark the year.
    What about you – what brings you cheer?
    Presents, dancing or is it cake?
    What do you do to celebrate?

    This beautiful book is an ode to families, love, and celebratory traditions. It is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in October 2021.

    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Colonial women: ‘Daughter of the Hunter Valley’ by Paula J Beavan

    In my deep dive into family history during the 2021 Covid lockdown in NSW, I realised that the Hunter Valley played a big role in my paternal ancestors’ lives. Both Great-Grandparents emigrated from England in the mid nineteenth century as children and lived out their lives in the Maitland and Newcastle regions. So it was with interest that I picked up Paula J Bevan’s novel which is set in the 1830’s along the Hunter River.

    The heroine, Maddy, is newly arrived from England. Her father has established a farm there and planned to bring his wife and daughter to live in the colony with him; but Maddy’s mother died before she could embark on the voyage, and Maddy arrives alone to break the awful news. To her horror, the very next day her father drowns in the river and Maddy must decide what to do: return to England; or stay in NSW and try to make a new life for herself?

    She decides to stay and finish creating the house and farm that her father had begun; but it is a very different world for a young woman from the green gentility of country England. The house her father promised is largely still plans on a page, so Maddy must live in a rough hut with two convict women, and she has to quickly learn how to run a property with only assigned convict labourers, and Daniel Coulter, the overseer, to work the land. There is heat, dust, unfamiliar wildlife and unaccustomed threats, and plenty of hard work. To her surprise, Maddy finds that the new life agrees with her as she gradually becomes part of the local settler community.

    The original inhabitants of the region are the Worranua people; they get sidelong references in the narrative, which I found disappointing, though perhaps historically accurate; as many European settlers preferred not to think of the people whose lands they had taken. There is, however, a complicated cast of characters from properties nearby, who I found a little hard to sort out in my head. There are also convicts, bushrangers and an orphaned child.

    I enjoyed Maddy’s development from a confused, grieving daughter to a more assured young woman forging a new life for herself. The author based some of Maddy’s character on colonial women who stepped up to run estates in their men’s absence, and I always love it when I read fiction based in part on real people or events.

    Daughter of the Hunter Valley is primarily a romance, and I did find Maddy’s preoccupation with Daniel a little annoying after a while – as was her tendency to blush whenever she saw him!

    The strength of the novel is in its finely observed portrayal of early colonial life away from the Sydney township; the new environment in which the settlers found themselves, and the hardships they faced. I could picture my own ancestors in similar circumstances in similar locations. Knowing that they, too, had dispossessed Worranua in order to create this new life is uncomfortable, but it is part of my personal history and the history of this country. There are, no doubt, echoes of Maddy’s story in the lives of many of those who came as colonisers to this country.

    Daughter of the Hunter Valley is published by HarperCollins in September 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Making history: ‘The Story of Us’ by Michael Wagner & Beck Feiner

    This new book for kids is set to warm every family historian’s heart (and I am sure, their children’s). It’s designed to encourage kids to talk to various members of their family: mum, dad, grandparents, cousins, aunties, siblings, and anyone else considered ‘family’. Each double page spread offers an idea for discussion and a way to record the stories that make up the rich tapestry that is a family’s history.

    During the 2021 long winter Covid lockdown in my area, I have found solace and interest in a deep dive into family history, investigating hitherto unexplored parts of my family tree and finding the stories of the people there. It is, for me, always the stories behind the facts, dates and names, that turn a basic family tree into a world peopled by families, with all their ups and downs. Stories are what make family history so engrossing.

    The Story of Us is a wonderful way to introduce this idea to children, and to create a beautiful keepsake that family members can look through in years to come.

    The questions up for discussion include topics like: One of my earliest memories… One of the strangest things that ever happened to me… The best decision I ever made… One of the most precious things I own… My favourite and least favourite parts of school were…

    Each topic has illustrations that invite inclusion and diversity, with bold, colourful block prints by Beck Feiner, plus plenty of space for various family members’ comments and memories to be recorded.

    This book is sure to be a favourite way for families to explore ideas and memories and while they are at it, to write their own history.

    The Story of Us is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in September 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Talking pets? Yes please! ‘The School for Talking Pets’ by Kelli Anne Hawkins

    This book ticks many boxes for lots of children: pets (of all kinds), a school that is actually fun, making new friends, and two baddies who want to rule the world.

    The main character, Rusty, is a very ordinary boy who suffers from low confidence and has not had much go right in his young life. He wins a competition that takes him and his best friend, his pet blue tongue lizard Bongo, to a secret island, where he hopes Bongo will learn to talk at the School for Talking Pets.

    There are other youngsters who arrive with him, from Japan, Germany, England and the USA, all hopeful that their pets will also talk.

    Things don’t go quite as smoothly as they might have wanted, though, because there are two secret spies sent to the island by people who plan to use the animals for their own nefarious purposes. By the end, Rusty and Bongo are the unlikely heroes.

    I loved that the school is the brainwave of Miss Alice Einstein, the great-granddaughter of the famous scientist Albert. I also enjoyed the nod to the principles of effective education: Believe in learners. Listen to them. Lead by example. Make learning interesting. Give learners time and freedom to learn at their own pace.

    Hmmm… wouldn’t it be great if all teaching could be like that?

    The School for Talking Pets combines friendly animals, some madcap adventure, and a mystery to solve, in a package that will be sure to please middle-grade readers who love their pets.

    The School for Talking Pets is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in September 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Fractured lives: ‘Ten Thousand Aftershocks’ by Michelle Tom

    This memoir by New Zealand born- now Melbourne resident – Michelle Tom is already one of my standout reads of 2021. It cleverly, poetically, blends her story of family violence, love, and bitterness with the devastation of the earthquake that hit Christchurch in 2011. She uses geology and seismology as metaphors to drill down into the strata of her family; its patterns of behaviour and unrest over generations.

    I had some initial confusion in the opening chapters, with their leaps across multiple timeframes, before I realised this is also a metaphor: for memory, and the way past events and feelings come to us in a mélange of seemingly unconnected scraps and layers.

    The book is divided into five sections, each one reflecting the different stages of an earthquake, the final one being the aftershocks of the title. And for each of these stages, she identifies a corresponding period or event in her family’s life. It is such a powerful way of looking at family and individual trauma.

    As children, she and her siblings were burdened with adult secrets they should never have had to hear. Regarding her sister Meredith, she says, in a passage reminiscent of the Victorian idea of dying from a broken heart:

    Some days the weight of daylight was too much, as she hid away in her darkened flat. She fought to carry the secret of her beginning from each day into the next, and several years before she died I realised that she was not really living. Her spirit was fractured, and she possessed no energy for anything other than mere existence.

    Ten Thousand Aftershocks pp56-57

    The legacy left for successive generations by parents and grandparents who are emotionally immature, manipulative and volatile is laid clear.

    The descriptions of the earthquake itself and its aftermath are visceral and horrifying. My husband and I visited Christchurch in 2012 and saw evidence of the destruction it had caused, including mounds of strange mud that were left after the liquefaction that can happen during a major earthquake. Even this becomes part of the family metaphor:

    What becomes of liquefaction after it has issued forth from the darkness beneath, into the light of the world? Like shame, it cannot survive being seen. In the heat of the sun it dries to a grey powder as fine as talc and disperses on whatever current of air may find it, gentle zephyrs and howling gales alike, leaving only a scar in the earth where it emerged.

    Ten Thousand Aftershocks p278

    Ten Thousand Aftershocks is a profound and beautiful memoir, one I cannot recommend highly enough.

    Ten Thousand Aftershocks is published by Fourth Estate in September 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Nerdy fun: ‘The Curse of the Vampire Robot’ by Graeme Base

    Who can go past a Graeme Base book, with their clever play-on-words humour and illustrations that you can simply fall into? This new one is especially fun and will bring a smile to parents and teachers, too, chock full as it is with references to all things tech.

    In the Scottish Highlands, a modern-day take on an old folk story plays out. There’s a vampire in a grim castle atop a hill, fearful valley-dwellers, a humble cleaner. Littered throughout are tech references: there is a ‘baby ware-wolf’, a corrupted hard drive, range anxiety, a packet of ‘juicy little USBs’… you get the idea. It’s a playful mash-up of vampire tropes and the world of computers.

    We think you had a virus’, said the ware-wolf.
    “Or a worm.
    We ware-wolves often get them –
    you can feel the malware squirm.’

    The Curse of the Vampire Robot

    It’s a lovely addition to kids’ bookshelves for fans of Graeme Base and those new to his work.

    The Curse of the Vampire Robot is published by Angus & Robertson, an imprint of HarperCollins, in September 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.