Three very different picture books here, all by Australian authors.
Giinagay Gaagal (Hello Ocean) by Gumbayngirr artist Melissa Greenwood (who also created My Little Barlaagany (Sunshine) among others.) It’s a celebration of the ocean and its pleasures: swimming, fishing, running on the sand, collecting pipis and shells. In the story the aunties share cultural knowledge and wisdom as well as fun:
But first, before walking on Country, we talk to the landGiinagay Gaagal (Hello Ocean)
and let her know that we are here to play.
We are grateful for what she has to offer,
we promise to take care of her during our stay.
I’m always delighted to see new books incorporating First Nations languages. It’s a gentle way to introduce young readers to the multiplicity of cultures and languages that flourished in Australia before colonisation, some of which are still in use or are being revived.
The illustrations are gorgeous, incorporating the colours of sea and sand.
Fans of Jackie French will welcome her latest picture book, The Turtle and the Flood, a companion to the wonderful The Fire Wombat. Fire and flood are the bookends of natural disaster events in this country, and our children experience them all too often.
Learning about how native animals have evolved to survive these events is one way of coming to understand the natural cycles of our land.
We are introduced to Myrtle the long necked turtle, who can sense a coming flood (even before the rains begin) and makes her long slow climb uphill to a safe spot, out of the reach of the water.
She is joined by others (snakes, wombats, water dragons, wallabies.) The animals are guided by Myrtle’s wisdom and understanding of her environment.
There are lovely soft illustrations by Danny Snell which bring Myrtle’s journey to colourful life.
The third book in my selection is a change of pace. The first in a new series featuring Bunny and Bird, How to Hatch a Dragon is a sweetly hilarious story about the importance of observation and paying attention. The two friends are so engrossed in the instruction booklet that came with their dragon egg that they completely miss most of the action!
Little ones will get the humour, as they can see in the pictures what’s going on behind Bunny and Bird’s backs.
Three new books to delight: Giinagay Gaagal, The Turtle and the Flood, and How to Hatch a Dragon are published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in September and October, 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for review copies.
I first fell in love with the work of Australian best-selling author Sulari Gentill with her historical crime fiction Roland Sinclair series, which combine my love of the two genres of historical and crime fiction in a brilliant and somewhat addictive way.
Since the last book about Roland and his friends, Ms Gentill has written several stand-alone novels, set in contemporary America. A theme that unites these disparate stories is the ‘behind the scenes’ glimpses of the worlds of writing and publishing, with twisty tales of dark deeds threaded throughout.
The Mystery Writer is set in middle America, a town called Lawrence in Kansas. This is where Australian student Theodosia arrives unexpectedly on her older brother Gus’ doorstep. She has left behind a partly completed law degree and brings with her a burning desire to become a writer.
She meets a best-selling author Dan and a friendship starts to form, but to her horror, Theo discovers Dan dead on the floor of his apartment, his throat cut.
The murders begin to mount up and Theo is suddenly the prime suspect. What can she do to protect herself, her brother and his friend Mac? She has to make a difficult choice which leads to devastating consequences.
Gradually she understands that Dan’s life and death have a connection to a dark web network of conspiracy theorist fantasists and ‘preppers’. The online posts of key members of this group preface each chapter of the novel, and are by turns hilarious and chilling.
In the midst of all the dramatic events, Theo receives an offer of representation by the literary agency connected with Dan. A condition is that Theo turns over total control of her social media and online presence to the agency for management by them. She is assured that this is standard procedure. We are left to wonder if this is true…
The novel explores how fictional narratives can be used to vicariously wield political and business influence. While this is in a context of a piece of fiction, it is worth thinking about in the broader sense, given the events that we’ve seen in US, British and Australian politics, economies and societies over past years.
Theo, Gus and Mac are all sympathetic and relatable characters,; the tension is nicely calibrated throughout the novel. It’s a book that will please crime and mystery readers and which also provokes some thought about the online worlds we now inhabit.
The Mystery Writer is published by Poisoned Pen Press, an imprint of Sourcebooks, in March 2024.
My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for an ebook copy to review.
The photograph on the cover of Shauna Bostock’s story of researching her ancestors is indicative of the book itself: compelling.
I am going to begin my discussion of the book with this: if you are a family historian or at all interested in Australian history, this book is a must-read.
The author, a Bundjalung woman who began researching her family story for a PhD in Aboriginal history, has skillfully woven together various strands of her exploratory processes in archives, libraries, and interviews, with the stories of her forebears. In doing so, she has created a vivid and multi-layered picture of Australian history, especially the experiences of First Nations Australians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
There is so much in this book that made me stop, turn pages back and forth to the meticulous referencing, to the photographs, or to previous pages. As someone passionate about uncovering my own family stories from the past, there were many moments of recognition in Ms Bostock’s research journey: the thrill of discovering a previously unknown fact; the way that serendipity or fate so often plays a part in the process; the coincidences of meeting someone or stumbling upon a document that hold the key to the very nugget of information you are seeking. The indescribable feeling of viewing an archival document from the past that tells you something about your ancestor, or an old photo that brings them to life.
As any family historian will tell you: family history research requires patience AND perseverance.
Especially so in this case, as Ms Bostock found when she experienced road blocks to accessing important archival information, and evidence of the mind-numbing level of bureaucracy that Aboriginal people have endured since colonisation.
The book begins with the shocking revelation that the non-indigenous ancestors in her family tree were descended from English slave traders – a huge irony given that one of them arrived in Australia as a convict, having been arrested on slavery charges in the late 1700’s.
From there, the narrative traverses key parts of the colonisation experience for First Nations: frontier violence and killings; theft of land, livelihood, spiritual and cultural connections; the precarious nature of life on Aboriginal reserves; the deceit and hypocrisy of the various government bodies set up to ‘protect’ and control Aboriginal people and the enduring damages inflicted through practices such as the forced removal of children from their homes and families.
rural and urban Also looming large are the ugliness of apartheid-like segregation and racism within communities; indenture of young children into service of white families or farms (often akin to slavery); increasing control and surveillance of every aspect of Aboriginal lives.
I could go on.
What distinguishes this book is the author’s research and how she has woven together the experiences of the colonisers and the colonised – including of course her own family members:
To use a photographic analogy…I felt like a photographer adjusting the focus of the lens. I have ‘zoomed in’ with a microcosmic focus on the individuals and the reserve/mission space – and then I have ‘zoomed out’ to capture the macrocosmic bureaucracy of the Australian Government’s Aborigines Protection Board.Reaching through History p174
There are stories of defiance and resistance as well, which the author rightly points out are important for all generations of Aboriginal people to know about.
I enjoyed the later chapters where she outlines the many creative and artistic ways in which her family members have expressed defiance and worked for change.
On a personal note, I had a little thrill to realise that several of the author’s close family members were instrumental in producing the excellent documentary film Lousy Little Sixpence, in which elders discussed their experiences as stolen children, in the homes set up supposedly to ‘care’ for Aboriginal children, or working as domestic servants or rural labourers for white people in the first half of the twentieth century. I used this film as a resource many times in my teaching during the 1990’s and early 2000’s, and I now see that it was one of the earliest publicly accessible resources telling the stories of the Stolen Generations.
There is so much to think about in this book. Please buy a copy or borrow it from your local library. It is such a rich resource on our nation’s history. And for family historians, surely we must all resonate to the author’s final words:
The history of Aboriginal people in this country is also a ‘living wound under a patchwork of scars’ but the process of truth-telling creates healing. By reaching through time and pulling our ancestors’ files out of the archives we restore their humanity…Reaching through Time p319
Ruminating on the slavery theme, I wondered if family history research was the key to emancipation, because researching my ancestors’ lives has spiritually unshackled them.
Reaching Through Time is published by Allen & Unwin in July 2023.
There is a very welcome trend in books for very young readers that focus on the amazing variety of cultures, languages and traditions across the globe, while emphasizing the things we all share.
In My Garden is a lovely addition to these, celebrating as it does the attractions of the outdoors and nature across a range of landscapes.
We visit a little girl who lives on a river boat in Laos, another in Australia’s tropical north, a boy in New Zealand who watches over little penguin nests and one who sees the rubble of bombed out buildings in war-torn Syria.
Other landscapes and gardens are from Iceland, Japan, America, Malawi, Canada, Italy and Brazil.
No matter where the children live, they are all nurtured by the beauties of nature, even little Sami who holds a pine cone from a garden not far from his apartment, which helps him remember Crocuses, tulips and the great Aleppo pine. That garden is his favourite place. He is remembering something there.
The pages are filled with detail and colour and are truly lovely. Young children can spend time identifying and perhaps naming the various plants and animals they can find, as they absorb the truth that children are children the world over.
In My Garden celebrates and honours the role that nature plays in all our lives, no matter where we live.
It is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in August 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
The sixth novel by Australian author Kirsty Manning explores the legacy of WWII trauma and loss over several generations.
It was inspired by the true story of an album of photographs smuggled out of Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. The graphic and shocking photographs were taken by an inmate of the camp under instructions from the camp commander, who wanted five albums made to present to his superior officers – itself a rather sickening act, I think.
The photographer risked all to create a sixth copy of each photo, which he kept hidden, until they could be smuggled out and kept in safety by a local villager. After the war, the photos were used by prosecutors during the Nuremberg war crimes trials. The album was brought to Australia in the 1970’s and today is kept at the Sydney Jewish Museum.
From these historical events, the author has woven a tale of courage and heartbreak, the pain that memories can inflict and the importance of truth telling. She has imagined how the album got to be in Australia, creating a cast of fictional characters and relationships that are entirely believable and compelling.
Hannah is a teenager in 1980’s rural Australia with her mum, who emigrated from then-Yugoslavia and married an Australian man. Hannah’s father has died and she has a difficult and complicated relationship with her mother, Roza; but she adores her grandfather Nico, who visits every few years.
On his last visit he leaves a mysterious book, wrapped in an ordinary calico bag. Roza refuses to allow Hannah to see it and hides the book, but Hannah later finds it. What she sees are confronting images, bewildering to her young eyes. Over the years, she learns about the war, the Holocaust and the camps, and longs to see the album again, to make better sense of it and to understand the legacy Nico’s experiences have left for her family. She studies history at university and decides to undertake an honours thesis, on aspects of WWII camps related to her grandfather’s experiences:
You couldn’t rewrite history, but you could explore different ways to study it and bring it into the present political and cultural domain…the whole of Mauthausen, inside and outside the camp, needed to be treated with reverence and remembrance. The question of how to present and tell stories of the past could perhaps be one of the backbones of her thesis.The Hidden Book, ebook location 123 of 221
Alternating with Hannah’s contemporary story are those of Nico during his long years at Mauthausen camp; Santiago, a young Spanish boy who helps the photographer Mateo in the darkroom; and Lena, a young woman in the village who is entrusted with the care of the photos. All of these characters risk punishment and likely death if their activities are discovered.
The novel is a tale of incredible courage and endurance, and of completing a journey that began decades earlier for Nico, Roza and Hannah.
It is a moving story about war and its aftermath. Readers who enjoy historical fiction with a foot firmly in real historic events, will love The Hidden Book.
It is published by Allen & Unwin in August 2023.
My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for a review copy.
I read Chris Hammer’s first, best-selling novel Scrublands soon after its publication in 2018 and was taken by its visceral descriptions of an outback Australian community and landscape. Crime fiction must always be about more than the ‘whodunit?’: I like stories that transport me to a place and time, with characters that I come to care about, and Hammer’s stories fit the bill.
‘The Seven’ takes place in the western part of NSW, the region known as the Riverina. This was country made fertile by an ambitious and extensive irrigation scheme, the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area, and Hammer has set his story in a similar, though smaller, fictional region, with the town of Yuwonderie at its centre.
It was here that one hundred years earlier, seven founding families established the scheme, creating a network of companies and trading arrangements that fueled their wealth, prestige and power in the district.
The story is told across various time-frames and points of view. There are letters from Bessie, an indigenous woman employed by one of the Seven households, just before, and during, WWI. In the 1990’s we follow Davis, a young man from one of the Seven families, on the edge of making a decision about his future. And in the present time there is Detective Sergeant Ivan Lucic, brought to the town with his detective colleague, Nell, to investigate the murder of Athol Hasluck, from another of the Seven.
Ivan and Nell feature in two earlier books, but there is no need to have read those to enjoy this one. They are terrific characters: with strengths that complement each others, and their own weaknesses too, which seem to be a must-have in crime fiction!
As I read this novel, I thought about the many country towns I have visited or driven through, and found myself wondering about their foundation stories and people. Certainly this is a solid thread running through The Seven: how the establishment of a town or farming community frames its future.
The author makes the case here:
He flipped to the first chapter, ‘Foundation.’ The text was heroic…no mention of any Indigenous people, no mention of how the Europeans had come to the district, no mention of any pre-existing ecosystem. But that in itself might prove useful: the document reflecting bygone attitudes, still alive, maybe even more so, by the 1970’s.The Seven ebook page 76 of 375
In the case of Yuwonderie, its origins are mired in misdeeds that carry down to the present, where criminal activity, corruption and deceit lie at the heart of the current murder, and also an unsolved double-murder from decades before. We are indeed looking at ‘original sins.’
The part of the book that didn’t work so well for me was the series of letters written in the early twentieth century by Bessie to her mother. The events and relationships related in these letters prove crucial to later events and I usually enjoy novels set over different time periods. It was something about the voice used in the letters that somehow jarred a little, drew me out of the story for a bit.
Overall, however, I enjoyed this novel and the light it shines on essential resources and the role they play in communities: in this case, water, without which none of the Seven founding families would have been able to create or maintain their wealth and influence.
See that line of trees, that grey-green line? That’s the river. The Murrumbidgee. That’s where the water comes from. And the money. Everything, really.The Seven loc 119 of 375
Readers who like gritty crime fiction set in recognisable Australian landscapes will enjoy this one.
The Seven is published by Allen & Unwin in October 2023.
My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for a review copy.
One of the nicest ways to welcome a new baby into the world is to gift the start of a children’s book library. The four books mentioned in this post would all earn their place there.
Board books are perfect for babies and very young toddlers. Robust, able to stand up to chewing, throwing, and dribbling, they offer hours of tactile fun, colourful pictures and simple repetitive text.
That’s not my kitten, by Fiona Watt and Rachel Wells, is the newest addition to the That’s not my… series, and includes all of these features. Babies can see the five different kittens, touch a furry tongue, a smooth kitten nose, a shiny bell, rough paws, and a fluffy tummy, while learning to turn pages and recite the repetitive text along with whoever is reading aloud.
Moving along in age, for older toddlers and pre-schoolers there is another in the Playschool series by Jan Stradling and Jenna Robaard, called Beginnings and Endings. The series helps littlies to explore feelings: in this case, sadness.
Little Ted’s friends want to help him feel better when his pet goldfish dies. A special scrapbook of Swish memories, a picnic in the garden, spotting baby birds in a nest and flowers blooming all help, as do a hug and talking about Swish and his memories. The soft illustrations reinforce the gentle theme of the story, that life challenges are best tackled with friends by your side.
One Little Duck by Katrina Germein brings memories of the children’s rhyme ‘Five Little Ducks’ but it’s a story with a twist. Instead of losing a duckling with each verse, in this story Mother Duck has forgotten how to quack, so each time she calls her duckling to her, she gains a new animal, until she has a menagerie following along. The rhyming verses invite youngsters to join in:
One little duck went out one day,One Little Duck
over the hills and far away.
Mother Duck said…
and Cow said,
Wait! Now I’m coming too
Danny Snell’s illustrations are sweetly humorous and children will enjoy Mother Duck’s dilemma as she finds new friends, and at the end is reunited with her baby.
Two Sides to Every Story by Robin Feiner explores the many choices and dilemmas that life can present. Boiled or fried eggs? Meat or vegetables? Is a dog or a cat the best pet? History or science? Country or city? Jacket and tie or lucky T-shirt?
Oscar has to decide on these and other choices in his day to day life, and deals with each one with his skill of ‘mental gymnastics’.
Oscar had a special way of looking at things.Two sides to every story
He took his subject, he twisted it this way
and that. He tumbled it all around…
inside out, and outside in, exploring it
every which way.
The illustrations by Beck Feiner are in bold, block colours and bring to life Oscar’s tumbling, turning way of looking at his world.
If you are building a children’s library, these four books would make perfect additions.
They are published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in July and August 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for copies to review.
The premise and setting of this story, debut novel by Australian Peta Miller, has special significance for me.
Those who have read my series of posts Travels with my Ancestors will know that I have several ancestors who emigrated as assisted and unassisted migrants, aboard sailing ships in the 1800’s. The bald facts of their journeys (name of ships, dates of arrival, etc) do little to convey the often-traumatic experiences they had and the risks they took in search of a new life in colonies of Australia.
The Ship’s midwife tells the story of Sarah Harlow, who in 1850 sails to Brisbane aboard an immigrant ship. She is alone in the world and hopes to be able to use her midwifery skills in the colony to support herself.
She becomes firm friends with her cabin mate, Bridie, a fiery and outspoken Irish girl, with midwifery experience of her own. Together they plan a life working together in the colony.
On the voyage, typhus breaks out amongst the steerage passengers. A common shipboard illness caused by unhygienic and cramped conditions – and the abundance of lice, among other pests), typhus is highly infectious, and it cuts a vicious swathe through passengers and crew alike.
Sarah and Bridie do their best to help nurse the sick, but little can be done to prevent its spread.
The ship is a microcosm of Victorian-era society: the bulk of passengers from impoverished backgrounds, cramped together in ‘steerage class’ below decks; the ship’s surgeon and his son, ship’s master and senior crew in more comfortable cabins, and the bulk of the crew sleeping in hammocks. There are grievances and arguments as the long tiring voyage wears away at patience, but also kindness and generosity.
Terrible events play out on the ship and to make matters worse, when they finally arrive in Brisbane, they are sent to quarantine at Stradbroke Island, which had been recently designated a quarantine station and was not ready or equipped to receive them. Sarah and the others must find the energy and grit to set up what is necessary to provide for all the passengers, until they can be received on the mainland.
I remember several visits I made years ago, to the historic quarantine station on Sydney’s North Head. It’s wild beauty and amazing views of the harbour must surely have provided some comfort for those sent there at the end of their long voyages across the world. But the remains of the hospital building, and the names carved into the cliff near the landing dock, spoke volumes about the experiences of the people who found themselves there. Having endured months at sea with all its risks and discomforts, and so far from home, arriving at a lonely, isolated spot like this must surely have been the last straw for many.
So it is with the characters in this book. People are people and there are those who will help others, who will do what must be done; and there are always those who complain and leave the hard work to others or fall prey to despair.
My only criticism – and it is a small one – is the title. The working title of the unpublished manuscript was apparently Sing Us Home, which (in my humble opinion) is a resonant and beautiful title. There is a current trend in historical fiction publishing that novel titles take a certain form: The Resistance Girl, or The Librarian Spy, for example. I applaud the focus on the agency of the female protagonists, but…I do wish there was a little more variety – and that terrific titles are allowed to stand more often. Still, publishers know the industry and what sells, so who am I to argue?
I very much enjoyed the research that has gone into the story of The Ship’s Midwife and I hope to see more historical fiction from this author in the future.
The Ship’s Midwife is published by HQ Fiction in June 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for the copy to review.
What a beautiful debut book this is.
With lush, gorgeous illustrations by Perth-based Jennifer Faulkner, The Lucky Shack tells the story of a simple cottage by the sea, built and cared for by a fisherman.
One day a frightening storm strikes and the fisherman does not return. The shack feels alone and neglected…until a fisherwoman finds it and once more, the place is loved and lived in.
The story celebrates the colours, depths and beauty of nature, along with human connection and love.
There is a wonderful assortment of vocabulary for younger readers to absorb, enriching the narrative and introducing beautiful new words to try:
Boats pass me by.
I creak my tired floorboards with loud groans,
but they don’t stop.
I flicker the porch light,
like the lighthouse on the cliff
sending codes in the night.
I let go of a precious window shutter
to send a message into the deep blue,
to anyone who will listen.
This is a gorgeous addition to any child’s bookshelf.
The Lucky Shack is published by Working Title Press, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in July 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy.
Do you know the feeling when you treat yourself to a new book purchase and, because you have several other books to read first, it sits on your bookshelf or bedside table for a while? Every time you pass it, you have a warm feeling inside. I will get to you soon, you promise. There is often great pleasure to be had in the anticipation of pleasure.
That was me with The Bookbinder of Jericho. I had (like so many others around the world) fallen in love with Pip William’s 2020 novel, The Dictionary of Lost Words, and so I was very pleased when I learned she was writing a second novel set in Oxford in the World War I era. Having at last been able to read it, I can say with certainty that it will be one of my standout reads for 2023.
Pip Williams writes the best kind of historical fiction: stories about real places and events, with characters to care deeply about. Fiction that tells us something about who we are today and how we got here. The past is the recipe for the present, whether we know it or not. These types of novels illuminate how and why.
The Bookbinder of Jericho stands on its own as a perfect story; there is no need to have read the earlier book. It is not a prequel or a sequel, but a companion novel. Having said that, I did have little thrills of recognition as characters or references from the first book made brief but profound appearances in this new story.
The narrative centers around the people in the ‘bindery’ of Oxford University Press: almost all women, they were the workers who gathered, folded and stitched the printed pages into books. This work is imbued with a grace and dignity; though never glamorised. In the early twentieth century, there was a steep price to be paid for being working class and a woman. Even as Britain moved towards women’s suffrage, this initially only applied for women who owned property or wealth.
Peggy is one of the ‘bindery girls’ but she longs to be able to have the words in her mind as well as the papers in her hands. She is told more times than she can remember, Your job is to bind the books, not read them. Her twin sister, Maud, is special: a ‘one of a kind’, loved by her family and neighbours, though Peggy has moments of wondering what life would be like without the responsibility of caring for her sister.
The sisters live on a narrowboat moored on the river, which sounds romantic but is also cold in winter, hot in summer, and very cramped.
Their tiny home is filled with bookshelves installed when their mother was alive, containing bound and loose leaf printings of books or parts of books, collected by Peggy and her mother when rejected as ‘waste’ at the printer or bindery. The girls’ mother introduced them to classics and works of antiquity, such as Homer’s Odysseus. Peggy dreams of entering the women’s college of Oxford university, just across the road from the bindery where she goes to work every day.
‘I’m from Jericho, Bastiaan, not Oxford. I left school at twelve, and Homer was not in the curriculum at St Barnabas – not in English and certainly not in Ancient Greek.’The Bookbinder of Jericho p258
‘But why not in English?’
‘There was no point. Our destinies were too ordinary to bother the gods, and our journeys would take us no further than the Press.’
‘The same Press that prints Homer in English and Ancient Greek?’
I raised my eyebrows and did my best impression of Mrs Hogg.
‘Your job, Miss Jones, is to bind the books, not read them.
Then WWI breaks out and life changes for everyone.
This is the story of women’s work and their challenges; the prison that social class and gender expectations create for everyone; the way war both damages and destroys, yet can open new opportunities for some.
Especially it is the story of people and relationships: how they can hurt and heal; how friendship and love can embrace and nurture even in the darkest of circumstances; how some injuries cannot be healed.
For me, it is a perfect piece of historical fiction. I loved this book.
The Bookbinder of Jericho was published by Affirm Press in 2023.
Here is a little video showing the author folding, stitching, and binding her own printed book – just as the bindery girls did in the novel.