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.
This evocative novel by Australian author Jennifer Mackenzie Dunbar is a lively combination of historical fiction, multiple timelines, and a dash of magical realism, centered around the story of the Lewis Chessmen collection.
The tiny chess pieces were discovered in 1831 on the remote Scottish island of Lewis. They have been dated to the second half of the twelfth century and were carved from walrus ivory and whale tooth.
Images of some of the pieces can be found on the British Museum’s website here. If you have a look you’ll see how intricately carved they are, with quirky, individual expressions and postures. Some pieces were included in the exhibition History of the World in 100 Objects which traveled from the Museum a number of years ago; I remember seeing these little characters in Canberra and was quite taken with them. Some pieces are in the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland in Edinburgh.
There is much about the chessmen that is still shrouded in mystery and history, such as exactly where they were made and by whom, why they were buried, and if there are missing pieces and if so, why?
The author has made good use of the historical known facts and the remote location of the find, to weave an engaging story across three timelines and settings: Iceland in the twelfth century, Lewis Island in the nineteenth century and in 2010, and London.
The main character is Marianne, a lab assistant at the British Museum, whose master’s thesis was on cultural and national issues around the repatriation of museum artifacts to their places of origin. She is being undermined at every turn by a toxic manager; also facing a restructure of the museum’s staff, the recent trauma of her father’s death, a complicated relationship with her mother, a sad secret from her own past, and a crushing lack of confidence in her own worth and abilities.
She is sent (reluctantly) to Lewis Island to accompany twelve of the pieces from the BM, for an exhibition on the island on which they were found nearly a hundred and eighty years earlier. Here she meets several locals who give her a refreshing new way of seeing history, including her own.
Marianne sank into a warm fog, letting the music wash over her. With it came a twinge of envy for the way the locals all seemed connected to each other and to the music, joined by their history and stories of their past. An ache inside her grew.Missing Pieces loc. 1187 of 3824 (eBook)
The story caught my attention from the start, because of the chessmen at its centre, but also its focus on issues of return of cultural artifacts. It’s a topic which has been in the news of late, including here in Australia, as many Aboriginal objects of spiritual and cultural significance have been kept in museums overseas, including the BM.
Also, I share Marianne’s mother, Shona’s, passion for family history research and was amused at the eye rolls it sometimes induces in Marianne – I am pretty sure my own interest elicits a similar response in all but fellow family historians. The time slip quality of parts of the novel appealed to the side of me that dreams of time travel (in a safe and totally reversible manner, of course!)
Most of all I enjoyed witnessing the development of Marianne from an uncertain, often prickly young woman who often feels out of her depth, to someone with more confidence in her knowledge and views and the ability to decide on her own future.
The characters are believable and relatable and the various settings of time and place brought vividly to life.
Missing Pieces is a terrific read, one I thoroughly enjoyed. It renewed my interest in the Lewis chessmen and spurred me to read more about them, and the island where they were re-discovered.
Missing Pieces was published by Midnight Sun in June 2023.
My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.
I wonder if any parent out there can read this picture book by the Stephen sisters, (aka the Teeny Tiny Stevies) and not feel a little wistful?
As each double page spread charts a child’s growth and passage through their world, readers also catch glimpses of the emotions of mum and dad as they witness their daughter’s growing independence.
There’s love, and pride, and satisfaction, of course – with a little nostalgia in the mix:
Darling, I’ve been feeling wistful lately.
I’m so proud of you, but I feel sad
that you don’t need me.
Can you stay where I can watch from the side?
I won’t get in the way,
I’ll just be thinking ’bout how time flies…
…One day soon I’ll take the leapHow Brave Can I Be
and let go of that
tight grasp I keep.
I’ll move away and say,
‘I’m OK, I’ve got this, I’ll show you how brave I can be.’
Cause I had you to teach me.
The lovely thing about the illustrations by Simon Howe is that readers always know which character’s thoughts we are hearing, (mum, dad, or daughter) because the individual is highlighted in the picture. It’s a clever technique which underlines the contextual understanding of the words and pictures together.
A lovely, lovely book, How Brave Can I Be? was published by HarperCollins Children’s Books with ABC Books in May 2023.
My thanks for a review copy.
A debut novel by Sri Lankan-Australian Ayesha Inoon, Untethered offers a vivid insight into the culture of a Muslim family in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and the experiences of two people who try life as immigrants to Australia.
The title evokes the dual meaning of ‘untethered’, conjuring both the sense of isolation from being apart from one’s homeland, and the possibility and freedom that can come from breaking with old behaviours and expectations.
Zia, a young adult woman at the outset of the story, has her marriage to Rashid arranged by their families with the help of a matchmaker. It is fascinating to learn about the customary ways in which engagement and marriage are celebrated by some Muslim members of the Sri Lankan community. I enjoyed how the author effortlessly wove Sri Lankan words, foods, clothing, and cultural references throughout the narrative.
As she waits for the ceremony to begin on her wedding day, Zia ponders the contrast between her childhood dreams and the reality of a wedding:
She had imagined that was how she would feel when it was her turn.Untethered p50
She hadn’t known that there would be hope but also fear, that there would be love but also doubt. She hadn’t known that the tools with which she had to build their dreams would be so fragile.
The story is told from both Zia’s and Rashid’s points of view, allowing the reader to experience their life together as a couple, and the process of emigration, with each character.
Especially, once they arrive in Australia, their differing expectations and experiences are stark. Rashid feels deeply the ignominy of being unable to find work commensurate with his Sri Lankan work experience as an IT manager; Zia feels lonely and isolated, missing her close family and friends left behind.
The couple must traverse rocky ground and tragedy before the slow tendrils of hope appear.
Immigration, it seemed, was the great equaliser – no matter where you came from or who you were before, you had to let it all go and reinvent yourself.Untethered p129
Zia is young and somewhat naive at the novel’s start, but her self confidence grows over time. She is a sympathetic character whose awareness of the world around her also develops, allowing her to see and empathise with others who are in more difficult circumstances than her own. Both Zia and Rashid learn about other Sri Lankans held in offshore detention for years, after trying to reach Australia as refugees from the terrible civil war in Sri Lanka.
On a personal note, Australia’s capital city, Canberra, is where the couple settle when they get to Australia. Having spent ten years there myself, I very much enjoyed reading about familiar locations and landmarks there; a story set in Canberra is long overdue!
Untethered is a highly recommended read; I think it is a wonderful debut from an author with a promising future.
Untethered is published by HQ Fiction, an imprint of HarperCollins Australia, in June 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
How Do You Say Hello? is the latest in the series by Australian duo Ashleigh Barton and Martina Heiduczek, exploring the richness of human language and culture in picture books. It follows on from earlier titles including What Do You Call Your Grandma?, How Do You Say I Love You? and What Do You Do To Celebrate?
This one explores a diversity of greetings from languages such as Arabic, Hindi, Japanese, Gamilaraay, Turkish, Brazilian Portuguese, and Swahili, among others.
As always, the illustrations by Martina Heiduczek add a great deal to the story, showing families and friends enjoying time together.
I love this series and I’m sure there will be more to add to the collection.
How Do You Say Hello? is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in June 2023.
A Very Dinosaur Birthday is by US writer Adam Wallace with illustrations by Christopher Nielsen. It’s a fun romp through a birthday party which is gate-crashed by a bunch of dinosaurs, resulting in hilarity and a great deal of mess – perfect for youngsters who dream about dinosaurs. My grandson would have loved this book a few years ago. The illustrations are bold and bright and the rhyming text moves at a smart pace, echoing the rumbunctious antics of the dinosaurs.
A Very Dinosaur Birthday is published by Tommy Nelson, an imprint of HarperCollins, also in June 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for review copies.
Ming and Hilde Lead a Revolution is book no 3 in Jackie French’s superb series of middle-grade historical fiction, ‘Girls Who Changed the World’. These stories are all about putting women and girls back into the historical record.
In this book, Ming is sent by Herstory back to the 1800’s, on a sailing ship heading from Europe to Australia. Her companion, Hilde, is one of several girls looking after royal Saxon sheep that are being imported, to add to the flocks of Merino sheep made famous by the Macarthurs, amongst others.
I love that Ming has to guess at the specific timeframe she is in, judging it by the various historical facts she knows. And as always, she needs to work out which girl she meets will change the world, and how.
This particular setting and scenario were new to me: I knew nothing of this particular breed of sheep and how it contributed to the success of the Australian wool industry in the nineteenth century. Which is odd, seeing as how in my primary school classes we learnt all about how Australia ‘rode on the sheep’s back’ – until mineral resources overtook wool as a major export a century or so later.
Not so odd, though, when you think about it. Because according to this story, it was the young women shepherds from the part of Europe that later became Germany, who went on to demonstrate a radical new way of taking the fleece from the sheep – ushering in the technique that we now recognise as ‘shearing’. And yet, the quintessential image of Australian shearing is a Tom Roberts painting, featuring muscled bronze men grappling with woolly sheep in a colonial shearing shed.
Another example of girls and women being written out of history.
Young readers can learn these gems of history from this book, along with an understanding of earlier attitudes to Asian and First Nations Australians, the sexism taken for granted in colonial society, and attitudes to crime and punishment. The daily life on a wealthy rural estate is portrayed beautifully, especially the contrast between conditions for the rich and poor.
And as always in a Jackie French novel, the past and present are both shown in a balanced way, neither wholly bad nor wholly good. The actions that bring about change often have unforeseen and unintended consequences – the environmental consequences of colonialism and the introduction of animals such as sheep, being one example in this book.
The poor bare hills, the animals killed or driven off, and the people of this land too. The country had seemed so beautiful as they passed through it, not wild at all, but tended enough to keep its natural beauty. But we’re in the past, she reminded herself. This is the beginning of the Australia I live with today: most of its forests cleared, its rivers shrinking, its wetlands drained, so many animals extinct of in danger of it.Ming and Hilde Lead a Revolution p150-151
This was how it began.
Ming is a delightful, thoughtful character, learning more about herself, her country and its past each time she is sent on another adventure by Herstory. I can’t wait to see where and when she lands next time.
Ming and Hilde Lead a Revolution is published by HarperCollins Children’s Publishing in June 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Sheena Knowles and Rod Clement’s Australian classic Edward the Emu turns 35 this year. It was first published in 1988 – the year my son was born (which, I admit, makes me feel a teensy bit old!)
Luckily, books age much slower than their readers and this one is as fresh today as it was then.
It tells the story of Edward, an emu who has become bored with his life at the zoo.
He decides to join some of the other animals for a while, to sample what seems to be a much more exciting existence.
The rhyming verses invite youngsters to join in or read aloud.
Edward the Emu was sick of the zoo.Edward the Emu
There was nowhere to go, there was nothing to do.
And compared to the seals that lived right next door,
Well being an emu was frankly a bore.
Firstly he is in with the seals, then the lions, the snakes…until things turn around full-circle, and he realises that the emus are the best animals in the zoo after all.
The little twist at the end is a laugh-out-loud moment, as are the comical expressions on Edward’s face.
It’s a sweet story about falling for the ‘grass is greener’ phenomenon and about living and loving your own life.
Angus & Robertson, an imprint of HarperCollins, re-releases this timeless picture book in 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.
This beautiful picture book by Gumbaynggirr author and artist Melissa Greenwood reads as a bedtime story from a mother to her child.
With soft illustrations in pastel and ochre shades, it is a perfect introduction to a First Nations language and contemporary art style for very young Australians.
The text follows the path of the sun and moon across a day and night, incorporating words and phrases from her Gumbaynggirr language from the mid-north coast of NSW.
As the sun shines throughout the day,My Little Barlaagany
it warms your cheeks while we play.
As the sun sets in the evening sky,
say, ‘Yaarri Yarraang, goodbye.’
Now it’s time for Giidany (the moon) to rise
and we say, “Darrundang, thank you,’
for the gift of the night skies.
It is wonderful to see First Nations language included in texts for children, and I look forward to more works of this kind to add to children’s bookshelves across the country.
My Little Barlaagany was published by ABC Books and HarperCollins Children’s Books in May 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy.
A follow up of sorts to Rick Morton’s earlier work One Hundred Years of Dirt, this book is a purposeful meander through life and what happened when he decided to allow love – in all its forms – into his life: to feel it, express it, talk about it. It’s not just about ‘romantic love’; the book touches on many things about the world, about living and being human, that he marvels at, has been touched by, or considers essential to life.
It’s a very personal book. Childhood trauma that changed him and his family forever are a constant backdrop, and he explores how the effects of this has lingered and how he set about to get better (not cured or fixed, just better.)
The topics traversed include touch, forgiveness, wonder, beauty, toxic gender norms, aloneness and loneliness, kindness and doubt. I was reminded, at times, of Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence, which similarly discusses some of the things that make life worth living and give meaning.
There is great beauty in the prose, verging on poetic at times, and also laughter-inducing moments, such as the hilarious description of cephalopods.
If you enjoy a book that invites you to think, and that remains with you long after you have read the final page, this would be a good one to add to your ‘TBR’ list. I’m now going to search out a copy of One Hundred Years of Dirt, wanting more of the Morton brand of philosophy, observation and wry humour.
My Year of Living Vulnerably was published by Fourth Estate in 2021.