• Books and reading,  History

    Familiar places through the lens of the past: ‘The Cartographer’s Secret’ by Tea Cooper

    Readers of Tea Cooper’s fiction will know that she likes to write dual timeline stories set in Australia’s past. The Cartographer’s Secret is no exception.

    The protagonists are two young women: Evie in 1880, and her niece Lettie in 1911. The story connects the two: Lettie drives from Sydney to visit her Great Aunt Olivia on the family property in the Hunter Valley, to inform her that Lettie’s brother (and the heir to the property) has died. She soon gets caught up in the secrets and puzzles held within her family’s history, particularly the mysterious disappearance of her Aunt Evie, thirty years earlier.

    Evie had shared her father’s fascination with maps and exploration, and become similarly obsessed by the famous explorer Ludwig Leichhardt who had disappeared without trace in 1848. She sets out to track down evidence that she believes will prove her theory of what happened to Leichhardt and his party, but she is never seen again, leaving her Aunt Olivia heartbroken.

    Poring over the map of the Hunter region that Evie left behind, Lettie begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together. She wants to solve the mystery of Evie to give Olivia, and the whole family, some peace (or closure, as we would call it today.) But things don’t go smoothly and Lettie uncovers more than she’d expected.

    Tea Cooper’s heroines are likeable and relateable: young women with gumption and interests unusual for women at the time (Evie with her maps, Lettie with her Model T motor car.)

    I found some of the details of the plot a little complicated and often needed to refer to the copy of Evie’s hand drawn map. While there is no happy conclusion for all the characters, there is a satisfying and believable resolution.

    For me the strength of Tea Cooper’s novels lie in the central role played by their settings. She takes me on a journey through time of and in doing so, shows me an earlier version of often familiar places, through the lens of history. I believe this is what historical fiction can do best: immerse readers in another time so that we can see the present in a different way.

    I also enjoy how aspects of the everyday inform that picture of the past. In The Cartographer’s Secret, this includes the beginning of rail and motor travel, the genesis of the famous Bulletin magazine, rural economies, the exploits of early European explorers, and the lives of women in both city and country.

    The Cartographer’s Secret is a satisfying addition to Tea Cooper’s historical fiction and fans of her novels won’t be disappointed.

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

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  • Children's & Young Adult Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The Fire Wombat

    The little wombat at the heart of the story survives.

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

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

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

    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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  • Children's & Young Adult Books

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

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

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

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

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

    Oh, and George is… a pig!

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

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

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

    My thanks to the publisher for a copy to review.

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  • Children's & Young Adult Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    We Are Wolves p126

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

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

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

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

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

    We Are Wolves p290

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

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

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

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

    Cute Christmas story for littlies: ‘Rudie Nudie Christmas’ by Emma Quay

    A follow up to the original and well-loved picture book Rudie Nudie, this book will delight little ones this Christmas.

    Author and illustrator Emma Quay grew up in England but moved to Australia in the early 1990’s and now lives here with her Aussie family. So it’s not a surprise that her delightful crayon illustrations depict Christmas fun without an emphasis on the Northern Hemisphere motifs like snow and holly. Instead, her two little characters run and play, rudie nudie, through bath time, decorating the Christmas tree, wrapping gifts, making gingerbread, and waiting for Santa’s arrival.

    The text is simple with repetition that allows children to ‘read along’:

    Rudie Nudie gingerbread
    will make it twice as fun,
    with two more Rudie Nudies
    on a Nudie Rudie run.

    Rudie Nudie by Emma Quay

    This is a lovely Christmas offering for kids three years and over who love to snuggle up while mum, grandpa or big brother reads aloud; the simple text also makes it perfect for beginner readers.

    Rudie Nudie Christmas is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in October 2020.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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  • Books and reading,  History

    Tragedy & survival: ‘Benevolence’ by Julie Janson

    The title of this book is a subtle reflection on its theme: the nature of dealings between Aboriginal people and white settlers in the early decades of the colonial experiment that eventually became the nation of Australia.

    The story is told from the perspective of a young woman from the Darug Nation, in part inspired by the experiences of the author’s own ancestors on and around the Hawkesbury- Nepean River, Parramatta and Sydney Town.

    We meet Muraging as a child in 1816, being taken by her father to live at the Parramatta Native Institution. This was a boarding school set up by Governor Macquarie, to educate Aboriginal children in the language and ways of the English. Muraging’s father takes her there in the hope that if his daughter can learn to understand the settlers’ ways, she may be able to help her people. He promises to return for her.

    What follows is a tangled series of events in which Muraging, now known as Mary James, experiences some kindness, but also many instances of heartlessness and misunderstanding by the people who are meant to help Mary and others like her. Mary excels in her English education but longs for her own home and her own people.

    This longing permeates the novel and it drives Mary throughout her life, through tragedy, danger, periods of freedom and happiness, horrific episodes of abuse at the hands of some English. As Mary grows and matures, so does the colony, bringing further encroachment of settler farms and towns on Darug lands and livelihood.

    The conflicts that arise from misunderstandings are illuminated:

    Through the cracks in the wall, the children look out and see a row of warriors with spears high on the hill near the town. They are silhouetted against the light. Mr Shelley is terrified. He sweats and paces, mumbling.
    ‘Why you lock us in, Mr Shelley?’ asks Mary.
    ‘Sweet innocent girl! Can’t you see that the heathen perpetrators of murder want to break down the doors and kill us and eat our hearts?’ says Mr Shelley.
    ‘They dancing, Mr Shelley. They not hurt us; don’t be frighten,’ says Mary.

    Benevolence p32

    I found the narrative spare and sometimes disjointed; however it occurred to me that the novel’s style can also represent Mary’s life: this is no ‘happy ever after’ historical fiction, but a portrayal of turbulence and upheaval as a society and culture are taken apart. Mary’s life can not have a smooth trajectory or a satisfying story arc, because the colonial and religious authorities do not allow for that.

    Muraging’s growing defiance of the people who mistreat her leads her into some perilous situations and much heartache, as she endures the agony of trying to live in two worlds. But it is also her salvation and allows her to find a way to survive and to live on her own terms.

    At the heart of this novel is the enormous injustice dealt by the colonisers, personified in one girl. As Muraging/Mary matures, the injustices grow:

    In Windsor Prison, Mary wears a grey blanket with a red stripe and the printed words ‘New South Wales Aborigine’. Just in case she forgets. Mary has many hours to ponder the injustice of being locked up for taking a few birds while the English take everything from her and her people.

    Benevolence p232

    I found it especially engrossing to read about the Darug experience in the region where I grew up and was educated, because I’d learnt nothing back then about the area’s first inhabitants. This novel also challenges the myth that the Darug and other indigenous peoples around the greater Sydney, Hawkesbury, Blue Mountains, Broken Bay and Hunter regions, largely vanished soon after colonisation.

    Muraging’s story shows the many ways in which they stayed and survived: sometimes living side by side with settlers, or working on farms or in towns, or gathered in small communities in the bush or isolated spots along rivers and creeks.

    Benevolence is a welcome and timely addition to fiction which tells a more honest version of the story of our origins as a modern nation, and shows the strength of Australia’s first people.

    Benevolence was published by Magabala Books in 2020.

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  • Books and reading,  History

    Another gem from Kate Grenville: ‘A Room Made of Leaves’

    The title of Kate Grenville’s latest and much anticipated novel put me in mind of the famous work by Virginia Woolfe – A Room of One’s Own. The message in both titles includes, I believe, the necessity for all women to have a space (whether that be an actual room, a favourite place in nature, or a corner of their imagination) where they can dream, write, plan, think, or simply be. In this and in many other ways, while A Room Made of Leaves might be a work of historical fiction, its themes are as relevant to today as to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

    Kate Grenville is well known to many Australian readers for her novels of colonial Australia, particularly The Secret River, The Lieutenant, and Sarah Thornton.

    Her new work has a most wonderful premise: that she has stumbled upon and transcribed the private writings of Elizabeth MacArthur, the wife of John MacArthur, Captain in the NSW Corps and so-called ‘father of the Australian wool industry.’ These scribblings are a ‘warts and all’ account of Elizabeth’s life, much more honest than the carefully penned letters that she wrote for public consumption.

    As always, Ms Grenville captures perfectly the voice of her protagonist, a woman of modest background but reasonable education, and convinces us that we are, in fact, hearing a first-hand account of life in colonial Sydney and Parramatta. Through Elizabeth, we meet some of the well-known figures of that time including John MacArthur himself, and Governor Phillip, Watkin Tench, Lieutenant Dawes; also Pemulwuy and other First Nations people who influenced the development of the faltering settlements.

    Of course, her real opinions and feelings about her husband, her life and her new home, as compared to the public ones, form the backbone of the narrative and serve to show Elizabeth MacArthur as a woman of much greater aptitude and empathy than the man she is tied to in marriage.

    I absolutely loved the way in which the author has used snippets of the actual letters and other writings of Elizabeth, in a way that brings her to life and also hints that she may well have had quite a different inner life than the serene and uncomplaining face she presented to the world.

    Elizabeth MacArthur, 1766-1850, from
    oil painting in State Library of NSW

    Writing about a time when women had little agency, she shows that through carefully chosen words, sly irony, and well-kept secrets, some women could and did manage to execute a certain degree of independence of thought, even if that was not always visible to others.

    A Room Made of Leaves joins the list of simply wonderful novels by Kate Grenville about early colonial Australia. If you enjoyed her earlier ones, you will love this book.

    A Room Made of Leaves was published by Text Publishing in 2020.

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  • Books and reading

    Gorgeous celebration of love: ‘Aunty’s Wedding’ by Miranda Tapsell & Joshua Tyler

    I purchased this beautiful new picture book for my granddaughter and can’t wait to give it to her for her 4th birthday! Picture books are such a joy, aren’t they?

    If you have seen the delightful romcom movie Top End Wedding, you will have had a taste of the writing duo Miranda Tapsell and Joshua Tyler, who created and co-wrote the screenplay for this movie all about love and weddings, culminating in a colourful and wonderful celebration on the Tiwi Islands, off the northern coast of Australia.

    Aunty’s Wedding is a snippet of that colour and joy, a gorgeous feel-good story for young ones. Beautifully illustrated by Samantha Fry, it captures the things that make a top-end wedding just like any wedding on the mainland – dressing up, special flowers and jewellery, family and friends – and the things that make them that little bit different – the vibrant indigenous designs, the tropical flowers, and the traditional decorations and dances.

    I just adore this book and I hope many youngsters will get to share in the joy of it’s simple text, sweetly affirming story and luscious pictures.

    Aunty’s Wedding is published by Allen & Unwin in September 2020.

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  • Books and reading

    Gothic blend of crime and small town life: ‘The Mystery Woman’ by Belinda Alexandra

    Rebecca moves to Shipwreck Bay to take up the position of postmistress in the small coastal town. She is nursing a secret after the end of her relationship with a well-known politician and she dreads being exposed as his mistress. What she finds is that Shipwreck Bay has several secrets of its own.

    Her plan to hide away from the controversy surrounding her former life turns out to be far more difficult than she imagined. To begin with, Rebecca is not the sort of women who blends in easily – her fashionable clothes, striking looks and style stand out against the blandness of the town and its inhabitants.

    Rebecca needs to tread carefully, to navigate between her need to keep on the right side of the community and her need to avoid unwanted attention.

    Her arrival sets tongues wagging. Women are suspicious of her – she is in her thirties, beautiful and not married (more unusual in 1950’s Australia than now) – and men ogle her shamelessly, including the married ones. The town and its citizens are portrayed in less than complimentary ways, with all the prejudices and small-town attitudes proving stifling to Rebecca’s creative spirit, and the hypocrisy and double standards of that era posing real threats, should her past be discovered:

    She was living two parallel lives – one as a postmistress gradually finding her place in the town, and another as a hunted animal that was about to be destroyed by the beast of the press.

    ‘Unique and different are fine for men!’ she said. ‘When you live your lives how you want to, people applaud you. It’s not like that for women. We are crucified for doing as we please.’

    The Mystery Woman p128 & 282

    The secrets beneath Shipwreck Bay’s placid surface pose other kinds of dangers: here the author touches on issues of domestic violence, sexual harassment and the abuse of vulnerable people. Environmental issues are also woven into the novel, as Shipwreck Bay’s economy is heavily dependent on the brutal whaling industry (which continued in Australia up until the 1970’s, seriously depleting whale numbers on their migratory routes.)

    I found Rebecca, and most of the characters of Shipwreck Bay, not very likeable. Having grown up in a very small country village myself, I can recognise the pettiness and love of gossip that often characterise small communities. What I remember most, though, are the many everyday kindnesses and genuine community spirit of the place.

    Of course, The Mystery Woman is at heart a crime novel, so the peculiarities of a small town and its people feel malevolent when viewed through this lens. Even the beauty of the seascape is foreboding for Rebecca.

    She is a woman who has made poor choices in the past and is left second guessing her every move. Will she make yet another mistake now, when the outcome could be so much more dangerous?

    The Mystery Woman is a novel of gothic drama: a passionate heroine, with secrets to protect and a beautiful setting with secrets of its own; danger; and redemption. It explores themes that are no less relevant today than they were in the Australia of the 1950’s.

    The Mystery Woman is published by HarperCollins in September 2020.

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

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  • Books and reading

    Sweet and colourful: ‘The Polar Bear in Sydney Harbour’ by Beck & Robin Feiner

    Kids (of all ages) enjoy incongruities and humour and this is definitely a feature of the new picture book by Sydney-based husband and wife team Beck and Robin Feiner.

    ‘When Hannah spots a polar bear in Sydney Harbour, she knows something isn’t right…But even worse, none of the adults seem to notice him at all.
    Can Hannah help her new friend find his way back home?

    The polar bear in Sydney harbour

    There is the obvious humour in the text – a polar bear in Sydney? – but the clever illustrations by Beck Feiner add another layer, as only Hannah can see the polar bear as they visit well known and beloved Sydney locations. Her parents don’t even notice the bear riding on the roof of their car!

    Kids will love pointing out the absurdities in this gentle book that, below it’s humour, is a child-friendly invitation to consider some of the possible effects of climate change on the animals most affected.

    The illustrations are stylised with gorgeous blocks of colour, portraying places like Bondi Beach, the Opera House and Sydney ferries, all very familiar to many Australian children.

    The brief friendship that develops between Hannah and the bear is heart warming and Hannah is a clever girl to work out a solution to the polar bear’s dilemma.

    The Polar Bear in Sydney Harbour is a welcome addition to picture books that introduce children to environmental themes, with humour and a child’s eye view throughout.

    The Polar Bear in Sydney Harbour is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in September 2020.

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

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    #AWW2020