• Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    A Jackie French lovely: ‘Christmas Always Comes’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Christmas Always Comes

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

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

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

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

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

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

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

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

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

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

    Rosie the Rhinoceros

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

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

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

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

    Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2021: my Aussie reading year

    This year I signed up to read at least 10 books by Australian women writers and review at least 6. On this score at least, I am an over-achiever! As at the beginning of September, I had read (and posted reviews for) 30 books by Aussie women. I think next year I’ll need to aim for the top level of AWW Challenge. It is not hard for me to read plenty of books by the wonderful and talented authors we have here in this country.

    My 2021 reading ranged across multiple genres, from historical fiction (always a favourite, especially Australian history and stories featuring women in WWII, which is a theme that has become very popular in recent years); memoir, history, quite a few children’s books, true crime and crime fiction.

    My standout reads by Aussie women so far for 2021?

    These four spoke to me the loudest (the links are to my reviews):

    People of the River by Grace Karskens (non-fiction, history) This one, by the way, recently won the Australian history prize as part of the NSW Premier’s History Awards.

    The Things We Cannot Say by Kelly Rimmer (historical fiction)

    Ten Thousand Aftershocks by Michelle Tom

    Of the children’s books, Night Ride into Danger by the marvellous Jackie French

    Thank you to the wonderful Australian Women Writers’ Challenge for another year of fabulous reading. If you haven’t checked out the AWW website, be sure to have a look. You will find so many recommendations for new authors and books to discover.

  • Books and reading

    Heartbreaking truths: ‘One Little Life’ by Naomi Hunter

    Where to begin to discuss Naomi Hunter’s debut adult novel? There is so much to unpack in this book. A published children’s picture book author, Naomi is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and a seriously problematic early family life. One Little Life is her story, in fictional form.

    I can completely understand her decision to come at the telling of her experiences as fiction. This book describes unspeakable horrors inflicted on a very small child from both family members and a neighbour. And it is detailed. Very detailed. There is no way that anyone with a brain could read this story and not feel visceral revulsion, heartbreak, and anger at what happened to her. Re-telling the events from a third-person narrator about a different little girl would be one way to cope with the remembering and telling of these events.

    I would go so far as to suggest that anyone working in the arenas of policy, funding decisions or the justice system in relation to child sexual abuse, should absolutely read this book. It is an extremely uncomfortable read. Perhaps that is what is needed to bring home the seriousness of the problem. We need to experience the vulnerability of a child who is abused by the very people she should be able to trust. We need to bear witness to the pain, both emotional and physical, that children in this situation endure. We need to care about the child at the centre of this story because she stands in for all the other children that we never hear about.

    My first reaction on beginning this book was dismayed disbelief at the level of immaturity, self absorption and incompetence exhibited by so many people in ‘Lily’s’ little life. The author makes crystal clear how the process of ‘grooming’ works – the insidious, planned way in which a trusted other sets up a child for abuse and the ways in which it is explained away and perpetuated.

    Readers will also see the damage inflicted by uncaring, ignorant or insensitive others – health care providers, family or friends – and the incredibly important contribution by those who get their response right. Believing the victims, allowing awful truths be told in their own time and their own words, offering unconditional love and constant unwavering support. This stuff matters, whether you are a therapist, a GP, or a friend.

    I am glad that the police and justice systems did work for ‘Lily’ in her time of incredible vulnerability.

    Touching on the style of the book, I found the narrative a little overdone. I think the events and emotions are themselves so powerful that they could be described in sparser, simpler language and pack an even greater punch. In stories such as this, I do think that less is more.

    I have nothing but enormous admiration for the author: for choosing to tell her story in such an honest way, for surviving, for her resolution not to be brought low by the things done to her. And her husband, who stood by her every step of the way.

    One Little Life is not an easy read. But perhaps it is a necessary one.

    One Little Life is published by Empowering Resources in 2021.
    My thanks to the publisher for a copy to review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Rebellious women: ‘The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka’ by Clare Wright

    One part of Australia that I especially love is the goldfields region of Victoria. Rich in history, with picturesque villages like Maldon and bustling towns like Ballarat, it has heritage and physical beauty aplenty. The legendary Eureka Stockade understandably has pride of place in the folklore of the region. So it was with interest that I began The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, which won the 2014 Stella Prize and was short- and long-listed for a swag of others.

    Of course I expected it to be about the role that women played in the famous rebellion that occurred in December, 1854; to my pleasure it was about much more as well. The books paints a vivid picture of the phenomena that were the Victorian gold rushes of the mid nineteenth century, and what drew a diverse community from all over the world and all walks of life to try their luck in the chaos, hope and heartache of the goldfields.

    Unlike many other works examining this period, in this book, the women take centre stage – those who accompanied their menfolk, those who came independently, those who had children or bore babies in the mining camps, those who ran businesses, those who prospered and those who suffered.

    Also included is some of the story of the contact between gold seekers and the Wathaurung, the original inhabitants of the country around Ballarat, which was rapidly changed from ancestral homelands to pastoral land and then, almost overnight, to a frontier town.

    In this account we can clearly see the social, political, environmental, economic and emotional factors that contributed to the tinder-dry circumstances on the diggings, that needed only a spark to ignite the all-out conflict between the mining community and the colonial authorities.

    The addictive nature of gold mining, the disparity in results (creating both great wealth but also terrible poverty), the inequitable impositions of the government and police on the diggers, the brutality of life on the diggings, all built towards the sickening violence that occurred at dawn on that fateful day.

    And present and active through it all, were women. The author highlights a number who were to play key roles, but also emphasises the many other, nameless women who were there – ‘right beside {the men}, inside the Stockade, when the bullets started to fly.’

    It’s fascinating stuff, made poignant by an epilogue in which the eventual fates of the ‘main characters’ of the story are outlined – some who went on to live happy or successful lives, others dogged by tragedy or hardship.

    This book certainly made me think about the Eureka Stockade, one of Australia’s ‘foundation legends’, differently, and to see the connections between the experiences of women there and on the goldfields more generally, with later political and suffrage rights campaigns.

    {The} nuggets of evidence that women’s political citizenship was being advocated in Australia as early as 1856 are significant. They place the genesis of women’s rights activism in that gold rush community of adventurers, risk-takers, speculators and freedom fighters who struggled for the more famous civic liberties often said to be at the heart of Australia’s democratic tradition.

    The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka p453

    The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka was published by Text Publishing in 2013

  • Books and reading,  History

    Cycles of tragedy and hope: ‘Daughter of the River Country’ by Dianne O’Brien with Sue Williams

    Imagine being not quite sixteen, alone in the world and pregnant. Now imagine being faced with two intolerable alternatives: give up your baby for adoption or choose a life of violence, terror and misery.

    This is what happened to the author of this memoir – not a hundred years ago, but in the mid twentieth century. Brought up in a white Australian family in the 1950’s, Dianne experienced unwavering love from her mother, but abuse at the hands of her father. She did not know she was adopted until later and was confused about many things, including why she always felt different from others around her.

    Daughter of the River Country paints a vivid picture of suburban Australia in the latter half of the last century: the casual racism, bullying and violence meted out to those who least deserved it; the White Australia Policy that was still firmly in place; the neglect, jaw-dropping abuse and cruelty by those in charge of institutions meant to care for girls with no safe home to live in. For these reasons the memoir is hard to read at times but no less important for that. It tells of parts of our country’s history that many would prefer to forget, but which must be remembered so that we don’t keep repeating into the future. And as the author reminds us, some things haven’t changed as yet – the shameful gaps in life expectancy between indigenous and other Australians is one example, as is the shocking rate of incarceration and deaths in custody of indigenous people.

    Dianne discovered that she was one of the Stolen Generations, taken from her birth mother when a baby. Her people were Yorta Yorta, from the river country of Victoria. Her adoptive mother had very much wanted her and Dianne had a relatively happy childhood, though with edges of danger from her adoptive father that were fully expressed in cruelty after her mother died. From there, everything fell apart for the young girl: she experienced multiple violent relationships, incarceration in both a girls’ home and gaol; alcohol addiction and indifference or outright abuse from some who should have helped her.

    Discovering her birth family, her Aboriginal heritage and her people, brought about an incredible turn of events and her life took an upward turn, though not without tragedy along the way. It is the true measure of the woman that she was able to rise above the awfulness of her earlier life and work towards a better future for herself and her own children and grandchildren, and for her community.

    I have nothing but admiration for Dianne O’Brien and her memoir sheds further light on what has often been a hidden part of Australia’s past. It is one of the growing number of books that allow Australians to learn, reflect and hopefully understand more about the experiences of First Nations communities.

    Daughter of the River Country is published by Echo Publishing in July 2021.
    My thanks to Better Reading for an advance reading copy to review.

  • Books and reading

    Light & deadly by turns: ‘Digging Up Dirt’ by Pamela Hart

    I’m sure you’ll agree with me that the strap line for this new novel by Australian author Pamela Hart, is a beauty:
    ‘Renovations are hell – and that’s before you find a body beneath the floorboards.’

    It neatly ties in two irresistible motifs for many readers: a who-done-it mystery and real estate / renovations – the last still endlessly fascinating for residents of Sydney, which is where the story is set.

    Ms Hart is the author of many novels for children and adults covering several genres, including historical fiction, fantasy and non-fiction. This is her first foray into contemporary crime and I look forward to reading more about Poppy McGowan, who is an engaging, wryly humoured heroine with an interesting job (researcher for kids’ programs with ABC TV). Digging Up Dirt the first of what promises to be a series featuring Poppy.

    She owns the house in Sydney’s inner west which is undergoing renovations at the start of the novel. To begin with she is dealing with a possible heritage order, due to the discovery of animal bones of potential historical significance, which has brought building work to a halt. Poppy’s previous job was in a museum so she is appropriately respectful of heritage issues… but she’s also worried that her renovations might be put on hold indefinitely while investigations into the bones continue.

    Those concerns are compounded the following day, though, as investigations of altogether another kind are required – a murder enquiry, after the body of the archaeologist brought in to look at the bones is discovered in the same pit where the animal bones were discovered. Poppy begins her own bit of investigating, keen to see the matter brought to a close quickly so that her little house can be lived in sooner rather than later.

    Political and religious organisations are involved because the murdered woman had been vying for pre-selection as a candidate for the Australian Family Party, a right-wing conservative organisation with strong ties to the Radiant Joy Church (possibly a thinly disguised version of an evangelical church frequented by a certain prime minister?) As Poppy digs deeper she realises that more than one person who knew the victim had a motive for wanting her gone.

    Digging Up Dirt is essentially a light read, with elements of romantic comedy in the mix, though it does touch on some serious topics such as homophobia, sexism and the theft of Indigenous cultural materials. Poppy is smart and also acerbic at times, which makes for some apt barbs in the direction of politicians, and entitled, white, conservative and prosperous men – and women.

    The great thing about sexism is that men who think women are stupider than they are truly believe it. So they are very, very reluctant to acknowledge that a woman may not be stupid. Thus far, I’d played to their expectations of a young woman who wasn’t really a reporter, and their own mindset predisposed them to believe I wasn’t a threat.

    Digging Up Dirt p147

    Sydney based readers will enjoy the strong sense of the city’s environs invoked. I enjoyed reading about Poppy and can visualise this story made into a film or TV series. I’m sure I will be meeting Poppy again in the future.

    Digging Up Dirt is published by HQ Fiction, an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises in June 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

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

    Magic of buttons: ‘Eliza Vanda’s Button Box’ by Emily Rodda

    When I was a little girl, I loved looking through my Nanna’s button collection. At one point she began to give my mother assorted buttons each time we visited; much later on I realised that Nanna knew she was dying of cancer and had begun divesting herself of objects. Perhaps they were special buttons, treasured for some memory they evoked of happier times. I’ll never know. Now I have my own modest button collection and I sometimes think of Nanna when I search through them to replace a missing shirt button.

    The new story from award-winning Australian author Emily Rodda is all about buttons and the mysterious but kind woman who appears in Milly Dynes’ small village with her magical button collection.

    Milly is in the midst of a spate of difficulties in her life, and meeting Eliza Vanda (or EV as she is known) and her companion Victor, takes her into a magical world in which she encounters witches, black jellybeans, a princess, a bewitched frog and a beautiful wedding dress.

    It’s a gentle story with humour and compassion in equal parts, and allows younger readers to explore emotions such as sadness or anger in a safe context. Milly is a sweet and clever girl and EV and Victor quite complex characters; Milly quickly realises that things (and people) are not always entirely as they appear.

    Eliza Vanda’s Button Box endows the humble button with a significance which I think is fully deserved, as I recall the pleasure I had in sorting through my Nanna’s button box all those years ago.

    Eliza Vanda’s Button Box is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in May 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.