A Brief Take on the Australian Novel, by Jean-Francoise Vernay

While I was researching Australian fiction, people started asking me what they should read. This is a tricky question because you need to provide an answer while carefully avoiding establishing a canon. bearing in mind that any recommendation would reflect my own tastes, I tried to conceive a neutral space like a giant table on which would lie any appealing Australiana-packed novel, for avid readers to make their own choices.

For much of its history, novel writing in Australia has been seen as on offshoot of, or even one and the same as, the English novel. But, just as the nation has moved further and further way from being British, so too has the novel, shaped by the writers who call the country home. A Brief Take on the Australian Novel offers a survey of these writers and of the evolution of the Australian novel from colonial times to the present, including the influence of global trends, shifting social and political landscapes, the role of immigrants, minorities and Aindigenous writers, and more.

Written in accessible language and with discussion of what Vernay considers key texts and authors, chapters are broken by ‘Inserts’ win the form of whole page text boxes exploring individual texts, significant authors and more. This comprehensive overview does not claim to be all-encompassing or indisputable, instead being the ‘take’ of Vernay, a self-described outsider, who grew up in New Caledonia with a French father and Australian mother, but who has spent 20 years researching Australian fiction.

Suitable for any one with a love of or interest in Australian literature.

A Brief Take on the Australian Novel, by Jean-Francois Vernay
Wakefield Press, 2016
ISBN 9781743054048

Desert Lake: The Story of Kati Thanda – Lake Eyre, by Pamela Freeman and Liz Anelli

Far up north, clouds are gathering: thunderheads and rain clouds.
Rain falls.
Rivers fill and break their banks,
And water swirls and roars down the empty riverbeds towards the lake.

Kati Thanda – Lake Eyre – is a dry salt lake in the centre of Australia. But once roughly every ten years heavy rains to the north fill the lake with water, awakening frogs and shrimp. carrying fish down creek beds, giving new life to parched plants, and bringing birds, including pelicans and ducks, to the lake to breed, feed and flourish. When the lake starts to dry out again the birds and their new young fly away and the other life returns to dormancy waiting for the next flood.

Desert Lake: The Story of Kati Thanda – Lake Eyre is a beautiful non-fiction book which brings the changing lake to lif through the combination of well-written text and stunning mixed media illustrations. The narrative text is complemented on each spread by the inclusion of facts, presented in a different font so that readers can read the story and facts separately, if desired. The illustrations show the diversity of the lake’s inhabitants and the lake itself through contrasts between the ochres and browns of the dry, and the greens and blues of the wet.

Par of the Nature Storybook series, Desert Lake is excellent both as an educational tool and for prib=vate enjoyment.

Desert Lake: The Story of Kati Thanda – Lake Eyre, by Pamela Freeman & Liz Anelli
Walker Books, 2016
ISBN 9781921529436

Atmospheric: The Burning Question of Climate Change, by Carole Wilkinson

Sofia started going on about how climate change will, you know, end the world, how everyone should be doing something. I don’t know what. How the atmosphere is full of greenhouse gases. I looked up at the blue sky. It looked all right to me. Vasily was listening to her, nodding.
Sofia finished and people cheered. Vasily clapped. Someone else stepped up to give a speech. Sofia was still chained to the column. Three policemen walked over to her with a pair of boltcutters. A news crew was making its way through the crowd.
‘Won’t she get arrested?’ I said.
‘Yes.’
I looked at the pamphlet. Obviously this was something she thought worth getting arrested for.

Everyone has heard of climate change – or should have. But though it is widely accepted that this problem is massive and affects both our present and our future, the concept can be difficult to grasp, as can the idea that everyone can to make a difference (and should be tryin to do so).

Atmospheric: The Burning Story of Climate Change provides an excellent insight into what climate change is, and how humans’ actions now and back through history have changed the climate, with devastating impact.

Chapters explaining the science of climate change, the effects of pollution, excessive consumption, agriculture and more are interwoven with fictionlaised first person accounts of teens present at key moments or witnessing the impact of changes over history. There are also text boxes with brief biographies of key figures in science and technology. The text is accessible but very direct both about how we find ourselves in our current predicament, and what we need to do about it.

This is both an excellent educative tool, and inspirational,  and will leave readers better informed and keen to make a difference.

Atmospheric: The Burning Story of Climate Change , by Carole Wilkinson
Black Dog Books, 2015
ISBN 9781925126372

The White Mouse: The Story of Nancy Wake, by Peter Gouldthorpe

‘Right there and then I made up my mind that if ever I got the chance, I would do everything in my power to hurt them, to damage the Nazis and everything they stood for.

After a difficult childhood in Australia, Nancy Wake manages to travel first to London and later to Paris, where she talks herself into a job as a foreign correspondent. She is happy in Paris, and meets and marries a man she loves, but as the Nazi Party’s influence grows, she worries about what will happen, and when war breaks out, her fears are realised. Soon, Nancy is part of the resitance movenent, working to undermine the Nazis and to help their victims.

The White Mouse tells the remarkable story of a remarkable Australian woman and her work during World War 2: driving ambulances, helping escaped prisoners, transporting radios and other banned items. As a story which most Australian children are unlikely to know, and one which shows a strong woman working hard to make a difference in a time of hardship, the book is a really important offering.

The illustrations – in pen and ink and using techniques such as newspaper headlines and maps in the backgrounds of some pages, and text boxes looking as if they are taken from aging notebooks – have the feel of the time period in which they are set, and are reminiscent of the war story comics and paperback novels which adult readers may remember.

A quality book about a fascinating Australian.

The White Mouse: The Story of Nancy Wake, by Peter Gouldthorpe
Omnibus Books, 2015
ISBN 9781742990910

Platypus, by Sue Whiting & Mark Jackson

Platypus (Nature Storybooks)
Hurrying.
Scurrying.
Amlways moving.
Always busy.
Always looking for a meal.
Platypus is perpetual motion
– never still.

At dusk, Platypus leaves his sandy burrow and dives into the cool green pool. It is time for him to hunt and forage. As he dives, floats and swim, readers are taken along on his evening outing, all the way learning about this unqiue Australian animal. Alongside the story of this one platypus, there are platypus facts including physical features, diet, habitat and more.

The gentle text is informative, but is also poetic, with the feel of the nighttime meanderings. This is reinforced in the dusky colours of the mixed media illustrations. The platypus is realistically rendered, which makes him all the more endearing.

Part of Walker Books’ amazing Nature Storybooks series, Platypus is suitable for private enjoyment as well as classroom use.

Platypus, by Sue WHiting & Mark Jackson
Walker Books, 2015
ISBN 9781922077448

Avalable from good bookstores and online.

Australians At The Great War – 1914-1918, by Peter Burness

The rough and ready fighting spirit of the Australians had become refined by an experienced battle technique supported by staff work of the highest order. The Australians were probably the most effective troops employed in the war on either side.’ Major General John O’Ryan, US 27th Division.

Between 1914 and 1918, 250,000 Australians joined up to fight alongside soldiers from the Allied nations. 60, 000 of these men never came pack, and countless others were wounded. As Australia marks the one hundred year anniversaries of these terrible years, Australians at the Great War – 1914-1918 brings them to life with a stunning collection of photographs, paintings, diagrams and other images, along with commentary to help understand their significance.

There are pictures of destruction and misery, but also glimpses of quieter times, as well as maps, posters and more. This is an excellent visual resource, compiled by historian Peter Burness.

Australians at the Great War – 1914-1918, by Peter Burness
Murdoch Books, 2015
ISBN 9781743363782

Available from good bookstores and online.

Bad Behaviour: A Memoir of Bullying and Boarding School, by Rebecca Starford

It’s late, just before lights-out, and we’re all tucked up in bed. My book is facedown in my lap, untouched. It’s too cold to read; it is the dead of winter, my breath hangs like mist in front of my face. A few beds down, Ronnie is sniping across the aisle at Kendall – ‘Hey KFC. Albino pubes. Have you wet yourself tonight?’ – and Portia, in the bed beside her, laughs.

A boarding school in the bush, where students can learn resilience and confidence, and gain physical fitness and endurance, sounds like a wonderful thing. But when the level of supervision is low, and bullying behaviour is largely unchecked, it can be a recipe for disaster.

Rebecca Starford spent a year in such a boarding school when she was fourteen. At times one of the bullies, at others a victim, the decisions she made and the things she endured and witnessed, shaped the woman she became. In Bad Behaviour she presents an honest memoir of that time and of her years beyond boarding school as she struggled to reconcile both her time at boarding school, and the self she had become, including coming to terms with her sexuality.

Bad Behaviour: A Memoir of Bullying and Boarding School is, from the opening pages, confronting, but it is also a story of triumph, with happier moments and a level of honesty and openness which is utterly readable. Although billed as a memoir for adults, it would also be suitable for older teens.

Gripping, moving and extraordinary honest.

 

Bad Behaviour: A Memoir of Bullying and Boarding School

Bad Behaviour: A Memoir of Bullying and Boarding School, by Rebecca Starford
Allen & Unwin, 2015
ISBN 9781743319574

Alice’s Food A-Z: Edible Adventures by Alice Zaslavsky

You wouldn’t know this by looking at me – not even by speaking to me – but I grew up far away from the comforts of Melbourne. For the first seven years of my life, my family lived in Tbilisi, Georgia, part of the former Soviet Union.

When I was about five, my brother Stan went on a trip to Switzerland and came back to Tbilisi, having spent much of his souvenir budget on two of the strangest things I’d ever seen. One was greenish-yellow and curved like a crescent moon; the other, brown, a little smaller than the size of a tennis ball and just as furry. My family sat around our dining room table, mesmerised and full of curiosity, as my mum carefully sliced the two objects into thin slivers, so that we could each have a piece. …

… With food, as in life, it’s all about finding things you like and learning more about them, as well as always being open to new experiences that you might discover you like even more, whether this means trying a new fruit, or cooking a dish you love from scratch.

You wouldn’t know this by looking at me – not even by speaking to me – but I grew up far away from the comforts of Melbourne. For the first seven years of my life, my family lived in Tbilisi, Georgia, part of the former Soviet Union.

When I was about five, my brother Stan went on a trip to Switzerland and came back to Tbilisi, having spent much of his souvenir budget on two of the strangest things I’d ever seen. One was greenish-yellow and curved like a crescent moon; the other, brown, a little smaller than the size of a tennis ball and just as furry. My family sat around our dining room table, mesmerised and full of curiosity, as my mum carefully sliced the two objects into thin slivers, so that we could each have a piece.  …

… With food, as in life, it’s all about finding things you like and learning more about them, as well as always being open to new experiences that you might discover you like even more, whether this means trying a new fruit, or cooking a dish you love from scratch.

Ever wondered why eating beetroot makes your wee purple? Or why garlic makes your breath funky? Alice’s Food A-Z has the answers to these and many other food questions. Pitched at young readers, there are facts, recipes and anecdotes. There’s also suggestions about which foods go well with each other and just how to pick the best fruit (eg ripe kiwifruit are a little bit soft and slightly squishy). Each opening is jam-packed with info-bites and photos, word puns, colour splotches and sketches. Watermelon, for example, has 1200 varieties including Japanese square ones! Information is delivered in conversational bites and includes plenty of humour. Headings include: ‘Whys Guy’, ‘Word Wizard’, ‘Miss Z’s ramble’ and ‘Fun Facts’.

Alice’s Food A-Z is bright and colourful and easy to read. Information is presented in small bites, providing facts and more but also allowing further research should readers want to learn more. There’s a contents page at the front and a recipe index at the back. Alice Zaslavsky was a MasterChef contestant and now hosts TV quiz show, ‘Kitchen Whiz’. Alice brings the traditions of her Georgian family, mixes them with contemporary recipes and tastes and presents the lot as a huge, take what you want, multi-coloured feast. Recommended for primary readers and anyone who ever wondered what a xylocarp is.

 

Alice’s Food A-Z: Edible Adventures, Alice Zaslavsky Walker Books 2015 ISBN: 978192279388

review by Claire Saxby, Children’s author and bookseller

www.clairesaxby.com

The Tunnel, by Dennis McIntosh

‘Where have you been working…’ He glanced down his clipboard for my name. ‘Dennis?’ He looked up.
‘I’ve been shearing down the Board of Works farm out of Werribee.’ I didn’t tell him this job was my get-out plan from shearing.
‘Worked underground before?’
‘No.’
He was taken aback. ‘Never?’
‘No, never.’

Twenty-seven years old, a recovering alcoholic, and with a faltering marriage, Dennis McIntosh goes to work on an underground construction site in Melbourne’s west. He hates confined spaces, so working underground constructing sewer pipes probably isn’t his ideal job, but he knows he needs to stick at it. And he does, for seven long years, before resurfacing a changed man.

The Tunnel is an honest and open account of one man’s working life and the way he uses it to confront his past and his perceived failings. McIntosh enters the tunnels poorly educated and with not a lot going for him, but decides in his time underground that it is time to take control of his life, get an education and achieve the things he wants to achieve.

A Penguin Special, The Tunnel is a quick read, exploring the role of unions as well as issues of education and self-determination.

A gritty, powerful read.

 

The Tunnel, by Dennis McIntosh
Penguin Books, 2014
ISBN 9780143572220

Available from good bookstores and online.

The Silver Moon, by Bryce Courtenay

In the end, if someone says, “Here lies Bryce Courtenay, a storyteller,” my life will have been worthwhile.

When he died in 2012, author Bryce Courtenay left a huge hole in the literary landscape. He had written 21 books in 23 years, books which were loved by Australians and around the world, selling millions of copies.

Now an unexpected tribute, in the form of a final book, has been released. The Silver Moon: Reflections on Life, Death and Writing is, as the title suggests, a collection of writing and quotes from Courtenay. Pieces written in the final months of his life are interspersed with  quotes from television  and press interviews in which he shares his views on life in general and on writing more specifically.

The new pieces include a gorgeous piece about a childhood encounter with a giraffe drinking at a favourite waterhole, and pieces exploring his feelings about his impending death. The whole is gentle, uplifting, and thought provoking, likely to inspire writers and to move Courtenay’s loyal fans.

Lovely.

 

The Silver Moon: Reflections on Life, Death and Writing

The Silver Moon: Reflections on Life, Death and Writing, by Bryce Courtenay
Allen & Unwin, 2014
ISBN 9780670078264

Available from good bookstores and online.