First Australian Reads: May Gibbs and The Gumnut Babies.

The first in what I hope will be a series and ongoing theme about Australian books and literature sincesnugglepot.png colonial times, as well as recent literature, and the bush poets that have shaped what it means to be Australian, this post on May Gibbs and the Gumnut Babies is my introduction to this project. I will still be reviewing books sent to me and by non-Australian authors, but I would like to promote Australian literature and the book industry here as well.

The literature of a nation can shape a country – whether it is oral or written, or oral and later recorded. Australian literature was shaped first through bush stories and bush poets, and some of the most popular authors and their writings have remained in print for decades. As a child, having access to a variety of literature from Australia and around the world – shaped my love of reading and has shaped a passion for Australian stories – wherever they come from and whoever may write them. To begin my series about this area of literature, here are some of my thoughts on May Gibbs.

Australian children have grown up for generations with iconic picture books and stories that have shaped their early years and cemented an Australian identity through the books that are read to them as young toddlers and that they then learn to read themselves. From there, they will explore Australian novels and poetry that have shaped and continue to shape our nation as more unique Australian voices are heard. However, one of the first books that young Australians will be introduced to and that, for nearly a century, has enchanted children and people of all ages, are the stories of the gumnut babies – Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, and their escape from The Big Bad Banksia Men.

aww2017-badgeMay Gibbs began her paintings of the gumnut baby characters in 1916, beginning with the first story, Gumnut Babies as well as illustrating cards to send to soldiers during the First World War. In 1918, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie was published, and will celebrate its 100th Birthday next year. It has never been out of print since, and can be found at the Nutcote gift shop, where May Gibbs lived and wrote, as well as other booksellers across Australia.

Snugglepot and Cuddlepie and the gumnut babies are Australia’s answer to the fairy tales of Europe that children are read. They allow Australian children to explore the Australian environment through a unique fairy tale that does not involve castles and ogres, but babies born from gumnuts and evil banksia men that threaten them when they get lost. A review and giveaway with the May Gibbs Foundation will be forthcoming in the next few months, so watch this space.

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The Book of Secrets: The Ateban Cipher by A.L. Tait

atebanTitle: The Book of Secrets: The Ateban Cipher (Book One)

Author: A.L. Tait

Genre: Children’s, Fantasy,

Publisher: Lothian Children’s Books

Published: 12th September 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 250

Price: $14.99

Synopsis: What’s the secret of the book, and why is it so valuable? These are the questions Gabe must answer when a dying man hands him a coded manuscript with one instruction: take it to Aidan. Gabe is hurled into a quest that takes him beyond his monastery home and into a world of danger, political intrigue and adventure.

As he seeks to decipher the code and find a mystery man who may not even exist, Gabe learns that survival must be earned and that some of life’s biggest lessons are not found in books.

Gabe finds himself questioning everything he knows about right and wrong and wondering if he’ll ever find a way back home. He also discovers that the biggest secret of all may be his own.

~*~

aww2017-badgeRaised in an abbey with religious brothers, Gabe was a foundling on the steps of the abbey fourteen years ago, with no clue as to who his true family is. Trained in the various areas of the abbey, Gabe’s favourite place is the Librarium, where he finds comfort in reading and words, and where a special book has been hidden by Brother Benedict, and that the Prior and other people in the land are desperate to get their hands on. Forced to flee with the book and the help of Brother Malachy, Gabe finds himself stranded in the forest, not knowing how to survive. Here, he runs into a gang of what he thinks are robbers or highwaymen, but turn out to be girls: two sisters, Merry and Gwyn, searching for a way to save their father, jailed by Lord Sherborne for a crime he didn’t commit, their cousin, Scarlett, running from a forced marriage to someone older than her father, and their friend, little Midge, who has nowhere else to go. Together, they agree to help Gabe, with Merry taking to him faster than Gwyn and Scarlett, but he fascinates all the girls, and they embark on a journey to help him find the Aidan he’s been asked to deliver the book pressed in his hands at the start of the novel to.

Things get complicated when they enter the town on the day the jails are open for visitors and for the upcoming Tournament. From here, they must decide how to proceed, and how they are going to keep the book from falling into the wrong hands either at the Tournament or the Abbey, and it is here that their friendship is cemented. At the heart of the book is the formation of the friendship and bond between Gabe and the girls as they discover that perhaps their individual quests intertwine in some ways, and the lessons learnt about working together are presented in a fun and exciting way for younger readers. A.L. Tait has created a story and characters that are enthralling, exciting and individual, and I adored reading it, and am keen for the next book to find out what happens to Gwyn, Merry, Gabe and the others on their journey to prevent whatever evil Sherborne and the Prior are planning.

I found the characters to be realistic – they all showed weaknesses and strengths, and all bad flaws that they didn’t like to admit to. This makes them relatable characters to child readers and showing the girls as confident and able gives readers role models to look up to and to show them that they can have a go at what they set their mind to, and not to be afraid.

Set in a fantasy town with a medieval feel to it, The Book of Secrets is a fast paced story, where girls are the heroes alongside the boy, who is learning how to live off the land and away from the comforts of the only home he has ever known. Together, they are strong, and individually, each character has their own strengths and weaknesses, making them well rounded characters that will hopefully develop nicely over the rest of the series. The Ateban Cipher is a book that shows that girls can do anything, and is a great adventure for boys and girls aged eight and older from the best-selling author of the Map-Maker Chronicles.

Ava’s Big Move by Mary van Reyk (Surf Rider’s Club #1)

Ava's big moveTitle: Ava’s Big Move (Surf Rider’s Club #1)

Author: Mary van Reyk

Genre: Children’s Fiction

Publisher: Hachette Children’s Books Australia

Published: 12th September, 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 129

Price: $12.99

Synopsis: Join the girls as they take on the world, one wave at a time!

Meet five very different girls with one thing in common: they’ve caught the surfing bug!

Ava has grown up in a big city. But everything changes when her parents decide on a sea change – they’re moving to the small town of Beachcrest to open a cafe. Ava will be starting high school that year, and now she has to say goodbye to her life in the city. Her new school is very different and Ava misses her friends. When she hears that surfing is going to be offered as a sport for the first time, Ava uses her snowboard skills to give it a try. Not everyone thinks she can become a surfer but Ava is determined to prove them wrong, and she’s making new friends along the way!

Ava, Alex, Bronte, Janani and Molly form the Surf Riders Club to help each other practise, but it quickly becomes much more than that. Whether it’s learning how to get barrelled, problem parents or annoying boys, the Surf Riders Club are there for each other, no matter what.

~*~

aww2017-badgeWhen Ava’s parents decide to move to a coastal town, Ava is distraught at the thought of leaving her school and her friends, and having to start over in a place where she’ll be the outsider. She has always been close to her older brother, Shane, who spends the summer teaching her to surf and body board at the local beach before school starts, prompting her to join the surfing sports club at school with a group of girls who immediately pull her into their circle: Alex, whose bubbly nature and kindness is instantaneous, Janani, whose Sri Lankan parents run a restaurant, and is part of the circle as a body boarder, Molly, whose mother is vehemently against her taking up a sport and would rather she spends her time on the piano, and Bronte, with two older siblings and parents who own the local surf shop, Ava finds friends, even though at first, she is unsure about Bronte until the girls start hanging out at Ava’s parents cafe and spending their weekends surfing together.

Aimed at children ages seven years and older, it is written for readers of all reading levels, from those who may need help to those who can read alone, and deals first and foremost, with friendship and acceptance. The surfing comes later, and whilst it forms the backbone to the friendship group, it is not the be all and end all, which is nice, as it presents opportunities for exploration of characters and relationships.

It is simply written, so it’s easy for readers starting to read alone to get through, but also a good book for not so confident readers to test themselves out on and learn to read longer books than they might normally be reading. For someone like me, who has been reading much longer books since I was quite young, it was a quick, two nights read. The surfing aspect wasn’t as interesting to me as it will be to some readers, but I did like that it had themes of friendship and acceptance, regardless of who you are and where you are from. It dealt with the idea that girls shouldn’t surf, perpetuated through some of the secondary characters, but will hopefully encourage girls who do want to surf that they can do it, and overall, I think sends the message that anyone can do anything they desire, and they shouldn’t allow people to put them down.

An enjoyable novel for young girls aged seven and older, and especially for those with an interest in surfing.

Booktopia

Terra Nullius by Claire G Coleman

terra nullius.jpgTitle: Terra Nullius

Author: Claire G Coleman

Genre: Speculative Fiction

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Published: 29th August 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 304

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: In the near future Australia is about to experience colonisation once more. What have we learned from our past? A daring debut novel from the winner of the 2016 black&write! Writing fellowship.

the truth that lies at the heart of this novel is impossible to ignore‘ – Books+Publishing

‘Jacky was running. There was no thought in his head, only an intense drive to run. There was no sense he was getting anywhere, no plan, no destination, no future. All he had was a sense of what was behind, what he was running from. Jacky was running.’

The Natives of the Colony are restless. The Settlers are eager to have a nation of peace, and to bring the savages into line. Families are torn apart, reeducation is enforced. This rich land will provide for all.

This is not Australia as we know it. This is not the Australia of our history. This TERRA NULLIUS is something new, but all too familiar.

This is an incredible debut from a striking new Australian Aboriginal voice.

~*~

aww2017-badgeTerra Nullius begins in an Australia that has a sense of a distant past, a setting that could have ben colonial days between 1788 and 1901, prior to the Federation of the nation, and it begins with a Native (as Claire writes it), running from a mission, conjuring up a very specific, and what is to me. A very sad, gut wrenching image of a young man running to find his true home and family after being ripped away from them by people who lack understanding of their culture. The first third or so of the book has this image and implication – the way the Settlers and Natives speak or don’t speak, the way they are portrayed through the eyes of the other, all suggest a novel about the early British arrivals making contact with the Aboriginal Australians, and their journey throughout the country, and how they dealt with what they saw as a hindrance and the aftermath that has had a trickle down effect into later generations. What Coleman has done though, is using this experience as a basis, is placed the Australia as we know it in an undecided time and place – and instead of the British, an alien race has come down and taken over all humanity and set out to destroy them, regardless of race, and regardless of how humanity, at the stage of the novel, has been working together to combat racism. Faced with interplanetary overlords, the remaining humans must fight to keep their humanity, keep their planet, and come together against a common enemy.

Told through a few perspectives – a spiritual sister, Sister Bagra, whose slow unravelling shows the flaws in thinking of the need to re-educate native populations that permeated throughout colonial times and powers, Johnny Starr, the rebel who slowly realises through contact with the Natives of Earth that perhaps, his people are wrong, showing that following a doctrine and specific way of thinking will often result in rebels who come to aid the down trodden, runaway Jacky, and refugee Esperance, whose stories, along with the head of the so-called protection board and the one who hunts down runaways, form a story that is familiar to many, yet unfamiliar to others, a story that some can identify with, but that others can hopefully learn from, and realise the mistakes of the past, and hopefully, work towards a better future.

Each character presents nuances in the way they react to the world around them, from outright hatred, to feelings of displacement, to attempting to understand beyond what they know, or feelings of superiority. Jacky and Esperance do not lose their humanity – instead choosing to unite their humanity and desire for freedom to fight an enemy that even some of its own people fear, or so it felt in the case of Johnny Starr, who could have acted as an intermediary, the one who wanted to stand up and say this is wrong, but whose own people refused to listen to. It sparked something in my mind of how people during colonisation thought – whether they all just accepted what officials told them without question, or if there were pockets who felt the desire to speak out, and yet didn’t – whether it was fear, or because they were laughed at or ignored – it would be interesting to know how these early contacts happened and whether different people had different experiences – and how listening to the other side and allowing them to be equally involved might have changed the history of Australia – would things have been better? I certainly hope so, for everyone.

Using speculative fiction to tell a narrative like this is powerful. Rather than distance itself from the history of colonisation, Coleman’s novel uses it but reimagines it in an undefined time during the history of Australia – so indistinct that it could be the distant past or near future. In doing so, Coleman has communicated a message of hurt and pain, and has evoked an empathy for the Australian Aboriginals in people who have not experienced what they have, and who also, may not understand it, but through speculative fiction, diverse voices like Claire’s can explore the politics that have influenced them and their families, and slot politics in where readers don’t expect it. I did come to expect some when I came to read this – I didn’t expect the speculative fiction, but rather, a historical fiction or alternate history dealing with colonisation in the eighteenth century. This would have been just as powerful, but the way Claire has done it, is exceptional. It provokes empathy and thought, and illustrates how the colonisation and settlement really was an invasion that led to colonisation and settlement – maybe this would be a better, more rounded way of putting it, and a way to acknowledge everyone involved in the history of Australia.

Black&write! Fellowship

Made up of the Indigenous Writing Fellowships and the Indigenous Editing Fellowships, this is a program designed to recruit, train and mentor Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander editors to develop Indigenous authored manuscripts. It is a State Library of Queensland project and more information can be found here: http://www.slq.qld.gov.au/whats-on/awards/blackwrite

We That Are Left by Lisa Bigelow

we that are left.jpgTitle: We That Are Left

Author: Lisa Bigelow

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 23rd August 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 400

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: A moving debut novel about love and war, and the terrifyingly thin line between happiness and tragedy, hope and despair.

Melbourne, 1941. Headstrong young Mae meets and falls head over heels in love with Harry Parker, a dashing naval engineer. After a whirlwind courtship they marry and Mae is heavily pregnant when she hears that Harry has just received his dream posting to HMAS Sydney. Just after Mae becomes a mother, she learns Harry’s ship is missing.

Meanwhile, Grace Fowler is battling prejudice to become a reporter on the afternoon daily newspaper, The Tribune, while waiting for word on whether her journalist boyfriend Phil Taylor, captured during the fall of Singapore, is still alive.

Surrounded by their friends and families, Mae and Grace struggle to keep hope alive in the face of hardship and despair. Then Mae’s neighbour and Grace’s boss Sam Barton tells Mae about a rumour that the Japanese have towed the damaged ship to Singapore and taken the crew prisoner. Mae’s life is changed forever as she focuses her efforts on willing her husband home.

Set in inner Melbourne and rural Victoria, We That Are Left is a moving and haunting novel about love and war, the terrifyingly thin line between happiness and tragedy, and how servicemen and women are not the only lives lost when tragedy strikes during war.

~*~

aww2017-badgeIn 1941, Australia is at war against Germany, and as they advance through Asia and the Pacific, Japan. Those in the armed forces at bases and at sea are away from their families, who are trying to make do back home. In Melbourne, two women’s lives will be inexorably changed by the events to come in Malaya, Singapore and at sea that are to come. Mae’s husband, Harry, has been assigned to the HMAS Sydney, and Mae, having just given birth, is at home under the care of family, and kept at arms length by Harry’s family at times. When the Sydney goes missing, Mae’s world begins to fall apart, and she is held together by her family, and her friends, Sam and his wife, Claire, whose kindness heals her and will eventually help her come to terms with what has happened.

In Melbourne, Grace Fowler has begun work as Sam’s secretary at the Tribune, where she meets Phil Taylor, who eventually takes a correspondents posting in Singapore to do what he can for the war, and is subsequently captured by the Japanese in 1942 after the fall of Singapore. Throughout his absence, Grace graduates from secretary to writing in the women’s pages and attending a memorial service for the HMAS Sydney, where she spies Mae – the only time they appear in the same section of the book, but do not interact. Through their separate lives, the story is about how these women, the ones that are left behind, cope with the looming war and loss of loved ones, whether dead or captured, and how they deal with grief and their hopes and dreams for themselves and their families.

We That Are Left as a novel, is more historical fiction, an homage to those left behind. Lisa got her title from the poem often read out on Anzac Day and Remembrance Day each year, For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

The realities of war and war at home are a major theme in We That Are Left. By focussing in on the stories of two women, with very different lives, like the many authors who have explored World War Two in literature, Lisa Bigelow has given a human face, another aspect of humanity lost and humanity found to the war. It explores motherhood and family tensions and resolve through Mae’s story, and the staunch belief in the best outcome, even if the reality is the opposite, and the time it can take for some people to come to accept the reality they are faced with in times of war, illustrating that grief affects people differently, and acceptance of a loss can take years. Through Grace, we see the fight of a young woman who yearns to be more than a wife and a mother, more than a secretary or teacher biding her time until she weds and has babies. Grace is head strong and determined to show she can do more than answer phones and write about knitting – she can write about a daring escape and capture of enemy prisoners of war, she can write about the human side of a story, catching the spirit behind the facts that so many reporters relied on, and she is praised for it by many.

The final chapters wrap up their stories, but in a realistic way, showing what life after the war means for different people in different situations. Rather than a happily ever after, it is just an ending. Life goes on, it is what it is for these women, who have shown varying degrees of strength and vulnerability throughout the novel, both with flaws that create well rounded characters and a story that is at times hopeful, but also gut wrenchingly sad in its realism.

Written to honour those who were left and those who came back but weren’t who they were, Lisa Bigelow’s inspiration came from family stories of her grandfather, one of the 645 sailors lost on the HMAS Sydney, and the death of her grandmother not long after. It is a story of hope and the ways we cling to our humanity in times of war. I found it to be very moving, and the little bit of romance between Grace and Phil was done very well and balanced out nicely with the bulk of Grace’s story and her fight to become a cadet and write for a paper. It is one of those stories that i think is too hard to give a starred review to, because there is something exceptional about it that giving it a starred rating cannot express eloquently or sufficiently.

Booktopia

The Cursed First Term of Zelda Stitch: Bad Teacher, Worse Witch by Nicki Greenberg

zelda stitch.jpgTitle: The Cursed First Term of Zelda Stitch: Bad Teacher, Worse Witch

Author: Nicki Greenberg

Genre: Children’s Fiction

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 23rd August, 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 272

Price: $14.99

Synopsis: Imagine if you read your teacher’s diary… and discovered she was a witch! With courage, imagination and a certain amount of recklessness, Zelda Stitch begins her first year of teaching primary school – as an incompetent (incognito) witch.

‘Zelda rides a broomstick!’
‘Zelda’s got a bat-friend!’
‘Zelda smells like toadstools!’
‘Witch! Witch! Witch!’

It was bad enough when I was eleven years old. But if they sniff me out now, it’ll be a disaster.

Zelda Stitch isn’t much of a witch – she’s hoping she’ll make a better primary school teacher. But if the vice principal finds out about her, her dream will go up in a puff of smoke.

Keeping her magic secret isn’t the only trouble bubbling in Ms Stitch’s classroom: there’s wild-child Zinnia, lonely Eleanor, secretive Phoebe and a hairy, eight-legged visitor called Jeremy. Not to mention the nits…

With NO HELP AT ALL from her disagreeable cat Barnaby, Zelda must learn to be a better teacher, a better friend and a better witch – even if that means taking broomstick lessons.

Magic. Mischief. Mayhem. Zelda’s classroom is a cauldron full of laughs.

~*~

aww2017-badgeZelda Stitch has just started a new teaching job, and she has more to worry about than just being a good teacher and the Vice Principal liking her. Zelda is a witch, and, according to her Mum and friends, not a very talented witch at that. Between witch lessons and teaching a class of children who seem to be trying to drive her away, to a Vice Principal who is constantly suspicious of her, Zelda must hide the fact that she is a witch from the class. Living a double life is hard, especially when one of your friends writes fantasy novels that use the tropes associated with witches, and your mother and friends are insisting you use your powers more than you do. And having a judgemental, disagreeable cat named Barnaby doesn’t help. Told in diary format, Zelda’s first nine weeks of teaching are filled with laughs, fun and magic, hinting at something bigger to come. Telling it in diary form is interesting and different – it allows the reader to truly get inside Zelda’s mind and see things the way she does, and she peppers her entries with conversations with her witchy circle, what happens in class and the snarky observations of her cat, Barnaby, whose character really shines from the page and he soon came to be the one I most looked forward to hearing about.

Zelda’s diary has illustrations of her class, Barnaby and other things she has written about, giving it colour and character that a purely text doesn’t always have. Aimed at children aged eight and older, I think it can be enjoyed by boys and girls, of any age, and by readers of all levels, from those learning, to confident readers, and will hopefully, like Harry Potter did for my generation, encourage reluctant readers to explore the world of books and words.

I thoroughly enjoyed this, even as an adult, and for older readers, I think is a wonderfully quick read when you just want something fun to enjoy and relax with.

Booktopia

The Crying Years: Australia’s Great War by Peter Stanley

the crying yearsTitle: The Crying Years: Australia’s Great War

Author: Peter Stanley

Genre: History

Publisher: NLA Publishing

Published: 1st August 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 264

Price: $44.95

Synopsis: The Great War of 1914-1918 affected all Australians and decisively changed the new nation. They were ‘The Crying Years’ according to writer Zora Cross, who lost her brother in 1917.

This visual history of Australia’s Great War offers a different perspective on a period of time familiar to many. It helps to connect the war overseas – the well-chronicled battles at Gallipoli, Fromelles, Passchendaele and Villers-Bretonneux – with the equally bitter war at home, for and against conscription, over ‘loyalty’ and ‘disloyalty’. Men faced life-changing choices: volunteer to fight or stay at home; join the revolutionary unionists or break the strikes. Women bore the burdens of waiting and worrying, of working for charities, or of voting to send men to their deaths. Even children were drawn into the animosities, as their communities fractured under the stress.

Prize-winning historian Professor Peter Stanley of UNSW Canberra uses documents, photographs, artefacts and images from the collections of the National Library of Australia to evoke the drama and tragedy, suffering and sacrifice, pain and pity of Australia’s Great War.

~*~

Peter Stanley’s new book, The Crying Years, coincides with the one hundred years since the Battle of the Somme. Rather than just being about the battles, and the statistics, it delves into the war they many fought at home – not as violent or deadly as the battle that the men who volunteered and those who were eventually conscripted from 1916 onwards had been –but a war none the less. Back home, people in Australia struggled with losing loved ones, not knowing where they were or where they had fallen, or been injured. Back home, those who hadn’t volunteered or were not eligible to serve were often thought of as shirkers, especially conscientious objectors.

The war that we know in most history books, whilst it deals with statistics, they also talk a lot about the Anzac legend and how it was formed, and what it means to be an Anzac and an Australian and the importance we give to it. Stanley’s book makes mention of this too, but highlights the darker side, the more tragic side of the war that led to the formation of the legend. We should still be proud of the men and women on the front, in hospital ships, and behind the lines and in the trenches who gave their lives for Australia during our early years as a nation, and also those back home, who lost family and loved ones, and by honouring their sacrifice, we do. But at the same time, we should remember it was not always heroic, that these brave men and women who returned home came with more than just physical wounds. Stanley states that when the last Anzac died in 2002, John Howard, the then Prime Minister, revived the Anzac legend – the idealistic one that seems to hide the dark and grim reality of the war, and presents the heroic image of a young nation and the sacrifice of 60, 000 men as what Stanley suggests was seen as worthwhile by a patriotic middle class – his interpretation of the fervour of war that perhaps did a disservice to the reality these men and women had faced. Stanley recognises the reality and the mythical legend in this book, and I felt he carefully balanced them out to give a more holistic understanding, through visual artefacts from collections and text, to the war and the Anzac legend.

The sombre images of battlefields, of war worn soldiers and nurses, reproductions of letters and other communications between officials contrast with the patriotic images of commemorations of Australia during the war and propaganda, and the profiles interspersed throughout of men and women who aided the war effort or protested it also give a more rounded view than some other books might. Stanley has attempted to be inclusive in this book as well, but as it is a visual history, acknowledgement must be given to what was available for him to utilise and write about during the research process.

An interesting book for anyone interested in history, and war histories, I think it is an important reminder that war has darker sides that were not as obvious back then, as it can be patriotic to those involved.