Australia: flying high over Mudgee

What’s the quietest place to launch a hot air balloon on a cuticle-moon autumn dawn? Paddock? Oval? Guess again …

As our minibus with 17 eager, but apprehensive balloonists drove through the gates in the dark, the outlines of graves became clearer – yep – we were in the lawn cemetery. With its huge stretch of unused grassy section, the hot air ballon was unloaded and laid out on the lawn. With its dumpster-size wicker basket attached, Clay, our pilot, started up the burner and slowly, in the half-light, our balloon burgeoned into its gorgeous colours and pattern.

like a dragon's breath

like a dragon’s breath

And then the basket started to rise and the reality set in that soon we would be aboard.

up, up and almost away

up, up and almost away

We were allotted a space in one of the four compartments and I climbed most unladylike into the basket. And like Phileas Fogg in ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ (albeit the movie version), we were flying!

Soon, the sounds of dogs barking, birds calling and cows mooing, grew silent. Unlike the pic above, there was the absence of the sensation of wind. It was surreal as we were travelling with the wind, at about 30 kms an hour – we were flying in a vacuum.

With Clay giving bursts from the burner and adjusting the vents at the top of the balloon we sailed –  over dams, vineyards, fields of sheep and roos and the meandering Cudgegong River … we spun as we sailed, west became east and east became west.

Another ballon, with a P-plate pilot, was travelling with us.


After an hour in the air and reaching a height of almost 7000′ we started to descend. Our ears popped as we again heard the morning warbling of magpies, cows mooing, dogs barking and the early morning traffic heading into town.

We took our landing positions (scrunch backs into the wicker, grab the ropes inside) and watched the fields draw closer. With another couple of bursts from the burner, we shot up again to avoid the row of trees and the powerlines that appeared from nowhere, and with the greatest of ease, we landed in the middle of a thistle paddock. Ouch!

Australia: almost drowning at Avoca Beach

after the ordeal

after the ordeal

This is how I’m going to die …

flashed through my mind as the raging water of a freak wave thrust Gary, me and three others in its fury across the rock platform.

Yesterday we were at Avoca Beach. The perfect day for a stroll, a swim and some reading in the shaded sand of Norfolk Pines.

My swim was short lived. The water was crisp and refreshing, but the rip next to the flagged area kept dragging me out. And then there were bluebottles pulsating about. There was no nor’easterly to blow them in; so benign was the day. Indeed, it was an ominous foreshadowing of my last little excursion, the walk around South Avoca rock platform. I jammed a pen and notepaper into my pocket to write some images for a poem.

If you have walked the length of this rock platform you will know it’s quite wide and high. It’s dotted with rock fishermen and families exploring the trammels of the platform.

The sea looked pretty normal, with occasional waves spilling over the edge. Nothing to cause alarm. And then, out of the corner of my eye I saw something rise. A freak wave roared above the edge of the platform. We ran towards the cliff base, but the raging white water was a metre high. It smashed us off our feet and tumbled us towards the boulders at the base of the cliff.

This is how I’m going to die. This nanosecond thought flashed through my mind. As I struggled to breathe, I was tossed towards a huge sandstone block. I thrust my hands in front of my head. If I was knocked unconscious, I’d be dragged back over the edge of the platform and would drown.

My hands hit the rock with huge force and my legs were whipped around other boulders. I was battered and bleeding as I scrabbled to rise above the water that was now receding and sucking us towards the edge of the ledge. Then the second wave hit. Bigger, higher – waist deep, and more ferocious in its fury. A maelstrom.

It picked us up again and smashed us into the cliff base. As the water hit the cliff, it rose twice as high and dragged us back over the boulders. Underwater, everything was white. I clawed at anything I could find to hold me, rather than be swept again towards the edge.

A fisherman and a man with his teenage daughter were struggling beside me. The man yelled to climb high up the boulders. Gary had been dragged 100 metres away and had been wedged between the boulders. We stood up in shock, shaking, drenched, covered with sand (where had this come from?) and bleeding from our hands, legs, arms.

My fingernails were ripped down to the skin, sunglasses gone, thongs gone, mobile phone gone. My rings are scoured. I have cuts on my hands and feet like they’ve been grated, bruises and welts on my calves and a cut across my knee. Gary’s legs have been chopped by the rocks and we both have sore, bruising backs where we were pummelled against the boulders.

Had there been any children near us, they wouldn’t have survived. It would have been a New Year tragedy.

I have never felt fear like this before, and I’m still shaking.

Ireland: An intoxicating welcome to Dublin

Gathering outside The Duke Hotel

gathering outside The Duke hotel

“If you’re here for the drink, you’ll have to put up with the literature.” Welcome to The Duke hotel in Dublin. It’s a cracking venue to begin the Literary Pub Crawl.

Two actors, 50 people, 4 pubs. Singing, acting, reciting, drinking, laughing, the Gift of the Gab and lots of craic. What a great few hours we ‘crawlers’ had.

Derek and Finbar, two actors of stage and television, greeted us in the upstairs room of The Duke hotel. The song Waxies’ Dargle brought us all together as we raised our pints of Guinness and sang the refrain about cobblers (who waxed their stitches for waterproofing) celebrating at their annual picnic … “I’ll have a pint, yes, I’ll have a pint with you, sir!”

The boys started with a rendition of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. They had us hooked. Pathos and humour so closely aligned.

Waiting for Godot

Waiting for Godot

Swift, Stoker, Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, Behan, Heaney. We were to channel them all through the articulate and witty Derek and Finbar.

Back out on the street we gathered at the steps of Trinity College Library and listened to anecdotes of those writers who had attended the College. It was “a culture stop with no drinks,” said Finbar as he took on the flamboyant persona of Oscar Wilde and his travels to the silver mines of Colorado and then the poignancy of James Joyce … the grey block of Trinity … set heavily in the city’s ignorance like a dull stone set in a cumbrous ring …

the boys weave their magic in Trinity College

Derek and Finbar weave their magic at Trinity College

More serious drinking and stories took place in the snug of O’Neill’s pub frequented by Trinity students past and present.

Meandering the streets of Dublin we stopped at another great pub, The Old Stand; the headquarters of Michael Collins during the War of Independence.


Awkward beginnings of our global group soon turned to more lubricated interactions as we drank and shared our love of literature.

At Davy Byrnes’ pub we partook in an episode from Joyce’s Ulysses and learned that Brendan Behan, one of the most colourful characters to walk the streets of Dublin, was born “a drinker with a writing problem.” He started drinking at the age of eight and equated jugs of Guinness with holy water.

At the end of the night in a dark alley with the chill wind whipping off the Liffey we huddled for the evening-ending quiz of all we’d heard through the skits, witticisms and history of this city of literature. The last two standing were a lad from Newfoundland and a lass from Australia. He beat me to the final answer, but I was happy with a bottle of Bushmills Irish Whiskey as my prize.

There’s a great irony in replacing the brain cells while drowning them. Pass the Guinness please. Next stop, the Irish Writers’ Centre. Perhaps you have another suggestion for getting under the skin of Dublin.

yes, Marian, there are leprechauns in Dublin

yes, Marian, there are leprechauns in Dublin

Australia: Interval at the Sydney Opera House

One of the most intoxicating views of Sydney Harbour at night is from the northern foyer of the Opera House.

a view from every angle

a view from every angle

As the orchestra breaks for its mid-concert interval, the audience flows to the foyers within this graceful ivory sail.

My exit door is nearest the northern foyer. I sidle along the crimson seats, squeezing past the fat knees of patrons wishing to stay seated. While many line up at the bar for refreshments, I join the throng who gravitate to the topaz glass wing that suspends us towards the harbour. We are a tumble of furs and jeans, bubbly and beer.

the northern foyer waits for sunset

the northern foyer waits for sunset

Below us, on the path lit by sea-misted lamps, a large heart has been fashioned out of tea lights. The inside is bedded with red rose petals. As if on cue, a young man, hand in hand with his girlfriend, walks towards it. He lifts her into its refuge. Presenting a bouquet, he goes on bended knee and proposes.

The back-dropped harbour celebrates as its lights slide and riff across the pewter-stippled water. The Bridge, like the Colossus of Rhodes, straddles the two shorelines. A chain of climbers, headlamps flickering like fireflies, makes its way up the arch. On top, the red light nicknamed Blinky Bill, winks between the dual flags while the water-rippled pylons guard the harbour like golden sphinx of ancient times.


Across the harbour, Luna Park laughs; its yellow hair spikes and recedes. Within the fun park’s kaleidoscope of colours, the ferris wheel spins like a giant red chocolate wheel.

The harbour is in its evening ritual, its unique version of la passeggiata. Party boats parade their electric light shows. An eerily rigged tall ship glides. Red-lit water taxis flit and flirt with lumbering, ghost-windowed ferries as they chug towards their dark destinations.

Fort Denison sits like a giant plug in the centre of the harbour. One pull and you imagine the water spiralling clockwise to the centre of the earth giving off its final glug as the chill night air is sucked into its eddy.

fort denison

Opposite the Opera House, the Overseas Passenger Terminal awaits its next arrival in spangled colour. Around the curve of Circular Quay the ferry wharves underpin festooned city skyscrapers whose primary colours waver through the water like the tresses of Medusa.

I gaze towards the darkened north shore of Milsons Point and Kirribilli and think of Kenneth Slessor’s 1930s elegy Five Bells where the poet looked “in the dark at waves with diamond quills and combs of light.” Slessor describes the drowning of his friend, Joe Lynch, who fell from a ferry; the pockets of his tattered raincoat chocked with beer bottles. As Lynch struck out for Milsons Point he vanished in the moonlight, “sucked away, in mud.” I watch the lines of longitudinal swells rippling towards the far shore and wonder where beneath is Joe, “long dead who lives between the bells.” Are his bones scattered among other antediluvian secrets in the sediment of this drowned river valley?

Kenneth Slessor's plaque on the Writers Walk at Circular Quay

Kenneth Slessor’s plaque on the Writers Walk at Circular Quay

The bell tolls for the end of interval and I turn with the human tide and return to my seat. Stretching the length of the facing wall is the panoramic depiction of the harbour’s underbelly in John Olsen’s water mural, Salute to Five Bells. It’s an ultramarine manuscript of shifting notations, its lyrical stave blobbed with psychedelic sea creatures descending with Joe Lynch, as he becomes part of the mythology of the bottom of the harbour.

Salute to Five Bells

Salute to Five Bells

Musings aside, I am back within the mellow light of the concert hall for the second half of the program. I’m again ensconced within this majestic ship’s ribs. Although anchored physically to Bennelong Point, as the orchestra crescendos, my imagination sets sail for foreign landscapes, with bowing strings, lilting flutes and floating bells.

Good night, good night! parting is such sweet sorrow,  That I shall say good night till it be morrow. (Juliet to Romeo)

Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow,
That I shall say good night till it be morrow. (Juliet to Romeo)

Australia: Tall ships and tempest on Sydney Harbour

Had I been around a hundred years ago I would have been standing on the bounds of Sydney Harbour watching Australia’s first Royal Navy Fleet sailing through the heads.

A century later I am standing on the harbour’s bounds as part of the celebration of the International Fleet Review. Today will see the coming together of the biggest fleet of tall ships in the Southern Hemisphere.

I’ve long been a lover of tall ships with their sailing grace, cusps of timber and adventurous sailors. Not wanting to miss the opportunity of joining them in spirit, I hop aboard a train to Milson’s Point where I can wander down the hill to Kirribilli, stand in the lee of the Harbour Bridge, look across to the Opera House and watch the flotilla sail by.

Sydney has barely seen rain for the past few months, but today, on October 3, the weather gods have changed the game plan.

As my train nears The Bridge, not only is rain bleating down, but hail as well.


Inadequately dressed, I fight my way downhill against the bluster. I could have turned around and caught the warm, misty-windowed train back home, but where’s the fun and adventure in that.

Besides, the Harbour Bridge is a HUGE umbrella. Wrong. As I stand beneath its massive, masculine road span for shelter, I may as well be standing beneath a colander. Not only is the rain horizontally shooting in, it’s falling in long vertical lines from above. People are huddled against the pylons seeking shelter, kids are jumping up and down trying to keep warm. Families who had brought in rubber-backed picnic rugs are wrapped in them like tartan presents.



There are kids everywhere in plastic ponchos and there’s even a man wearing a folding chair on his head as as rather large sou’wester. Kids huddle under golf umbrellas as if they’re teepees.


“Makes it rather authentic don’t you think, like being in a squall at sea,” I comment to a lady standing beside me. She looks at me with my dripping hair flailing my face, my umbrella flipping in and out like some kind of purple semaphore. She just shakes her head.


As I’m waiting for the tall ships to arrive, I think of all the ways I could have stayed dry. An unlimited ferry ride would have seen me zigzagging the harbour in relative comfort. Or what about the giant ferris wheel at Luna Park with its bird’s-eye view.

And then, with the rain pelting and the wind whipping there’s a hoot of joy from a bunch of kids. There’s a flyover of helicopters, and a fire boat shooting plumes of water rounds the bend. Behind it are the first tall ships, the Young Endeavour and the replica of Captain Cook’s HM Bark Endeavour. “Do you think Captain Jack Sparrow’s on board?” an excited boy looks up at me wide-eyed. A canon booms and rocks the shore and kids cheer oblivious to the raging tempest.


More tall ships appear, some with sails and some without. My soaked admirers and I watch the sixteen proud ships sail under the Harbour Bridge towards their berths at Darling Harbour. The Bark Europa has taken eight months to sail here. On the Soren Larsen men stand tall along the yards and up in the crows nest. It’s blustery on land let alone up where they are.


It’s romance and reality in this flotilla. Wood and canvas sail beneath the rush of wheels and steel on the bridge above.


But wait. There’s one more bedraggled ship. It’s the Wreck of the Hesperus. Or is it the tempest-tossed me.

The ibis are waiting for the Wreck of the Hesperus.

The ibis are waiting for the Wreck of the Hesperus.

Book Review : The Floods – Bewitched

The Floods – Bewitched by Colin Thompson (Random House Australia)

PB RRP $14.95
ISBN 9781742755304
Also available as an ebook

ISBN 9781742755311
Reviewed by Marian McGuinness

Take a cauldron and simmer the usual suspects: blood, boils, bile, bedlam and, of course, bacon. Stir in a healthy dose of puns and drink in Colin Thompson’s 12th book, Bewitched, in his hilarious, The Floods, series.

The setting is Transylvania Waters and King Nerlin is going the way of all good monarchs. He’s going Doolally. ‘Things like Alzheimer’s disease and general Doolallyness weren’t supposed to happen to witches and wizards, they were the sorts of things humans got.’

As Nerlin’s mind slowly wanders off to Planet Janet, Queen Mordonna gathers their children and utters what all children dread to hear, ‘we have to do something about your father …’

Mordonna gets Nerlin his own personal manservant called Bacstairs, as Nerlin falls further under the spell of his imaginary friend, Geoffrey-Geoffrey.

But, as the title suggests, Nerlin may just be Bewitched! The Floods seek help from the old crones and ride their talking donkeys high up into the mountains, where ‘baggy knickers flapped like Buddhist flags’. They ride through the Masking Clouds (that keep things invisible) to the Impossible Waterfall, where water falls from thin air.

Nerlin is indeed bewitched as he loses control of his vowels and has to wear Incompetence Underpants until his vowels work again.

Thompson is a master of plopping in the puns. As with his previous Floods’ titles (that also pun the Soapies): Survivor, The Great Outdoors, Top Gear and Home and Away, Bewitched is bristling with them. There’s imaginary friend, Geoffrey-Geoffrey, the son of the Hearse Whisperer; the Floods ‘pop into Burnings, the famous Transylvania Waters hardware story’, and they even get caffe lattes from Scarebutts, where a wPhone is an iPhone for wizards.

There is also a parallel plot involving Geoffrey-Geoffrey; he is not all he seems to be.

So, is King Nerlin spiralling into Doolallyness or are the old crones able to cure him? All those children out there who are 8+ and who want to be in on the adventure, you’ll just have to read on.

Colin Thompson has more than 65 books published. He has won multiple awards, including a CBCA Picture Book of the Year, a CBCA Honour Book and was shortlisted for the Astrid Lindgren Award – the most prestigious children’s literature prize in the world. Let’s hope he never goes Doolally!

Book Review : Meet … Ned Kelly

Meet … Ned Kelly by Janeen Brian, illustrated by Matt Adams (Random House Australia)

HB RRP $19.95
ISBN 9781742757186

Also available as an ebook
ISBN 9781742757209
Reviewed by Marian McGuinness

I like the idea of “Meet …” as it’s an invitation to get to know, perhaps personally understand, many of the iconic men and women who have shaped Australia.

Meet … Ned Kelly is the first in this picture book series that spans the education and trade markets.

Told in verse, the story comes alive. The reader is involved in the action, just like in the bush ballads of Ned Kelly’s era. The font has a nostalgic look, as if it’s hot off an old-fashioned printing press.

The armour protected Ned’s arms, head and waist.
The bullets bounced off one by one.
Sergeant Steele took a shot at Ned’s legs that were bare.
With a cry, Ned collapsed and was done.

We all know how Ned’s life ended, but we are given a poignant insight into his early life of poverty and fatherlessness and how his mother was gaoled with her young baby. We share the major turning points in Ned’s life both by verse and by following the handy timeline at the back of the book.

As a young boy we learn how Ned saved a drowning child. He is presented with a sash for his bravery. Another poignant moment is the revelation that under his suit of armour, in the shoot out at Glenrowan, Ned is wearing the same sash from childhood provoking discussion on how deeply we are affected as children, along with the need to know that we have worth.

Matt Adams’ illustrations are evocative of Sidney Nolan’s famous Ned Kelly series, with hints of other landscape painters of the era, like Arthur Streeton and Russell Drysdale. Sometimes, it’s like I’m standing in an art gallery. Young readers will connect to the pathos and humour within the illustrations as they engage with Australian history. The cover is startling as you face Ned close up. He is kitted in his ironclad helmet and armour, although I would love to have seen a peek of the green sash that he was wearing underneath.

Award-winning author Janeen Brian has captured the essence of our most legendary bushranger and award-winning illustrator Matt Adams has brought him to life with colour and texture. An excellent read for 8+.

Book Review : Robert Irwin Dinosaur Hunter

Robert Irwin Dinosaur Hunter – series by Jack Wells, illustrated by Lachlan Creagh
(Random House Australia)
PB RRP $9.95 each

Book 1 – The Discovery
ISBN 9871864718454

Book 2 – Ambush at Cisco Swamp
ISBN 9871864718461

Book 3 – Armoured Defence
ISBN 9871742750910

Book 4 – The Dinosaur Feather
ISBN 9871742750927

Reviewed by Marian McGuinness

This new series featuring Robert Irwin, son of Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin, is every boy’s dream. With the aid of a dinosaur claw fossil, 9-year-old Robert and his friend, Riley, time travel back 95 million years into the Cretaceous era where they witness first hand, living with (and escaping from) dinosaurs.

Imagine being in the middle of a dinosaur stampede or crawling through a swamp, or camping in the Badlands of Canada or finding an abandoned dinosaur egg in prehistoric China.

Each book features a particular dinosaur. The font is large and clear and the chapters are scattered with black and white sketches heightening the action. The level of language is suitable for the readership of 6 – 9 year olds. Challenging words are used that will make readers feel more grown up, words like: carnivore, paleontologist, Cretaceous as well as the Latin names of the various dinosaurs. Readers will love all the prehistoric facts and finding out how to use a fossicker’s took kit to find fossils.

At the back of each book is a field guide detailing the chosen dinosaur. Lots of interesting information is given about their discovery, physical characteristics and the origin of their names. Robert Irwin has also sketched each dinosaur.

bob discoveryBook 1 – The Discovery takes place in Winton, in outback Queensland. Robert and Riley are at the dinosaur digs. Robert is chipping away and discovers a dinosaur claw that becomes his portal. He is ‘dragged down a plughole really fast’ into the prehistoric world to a waterhole where the dinosaurs ‘don’t have good table manners.’ As he is about to be made into a prehistoric meal, he is whisked back to the dino lab in Winton.

bob ambushBook 2 – Ambush at Cisco Swamp. Robert and Riley are on a research trip to the Cisco Swamp in Texas for the annual census of alligators, where they tag, measure and weigh each gator. Robert soon finds himself in the prehistoric swampland where he comes face to face with the largest prehistoric crocodile, four times bigger than its relative today. The croc is angry as it has a stick lodged in its massive jaw. Robert creatively thinks of a solution making sure he doesn’t become a ‘boy-sized meal’. A flock of pterosaurs wheel overhead as an enormous carnivore with ‘blood-stained teeth’ runs clumsily towards him. After a battle between the land dinos and the water dinos, Robert is back in the present, telling Riley of his adventures. Next time, Riley’s going with him!

bob armourBook 3 – Armoured Defence. The boys are camping in the Canadian Badlands, where the T-rex, Triceratops and Stegosaur roamed. At night, they are tumbled into the vortex of time travel to 70 million years ago, where instead of the desert they had left, they are in a swamp with quicksand and monster-sized mozzies. Vines have trapped a duck-billed dino and a meat-eating gorgosaurus is after it as an easy meal. Riley goes missing as Robert rescues the trapped dino only to become the target of the hungry predator.

bob featherBook 4 – The Dinosaur Feather. Back at Australia Zoo, where Robert lives with his family, he is making a video of the cassowary, the third largest bird in the world. There is a theme of evolution here as the boys are whisked to prehistoric China where they come in contact with an oviraptor, a dinosaur completely covered in colourful feathers. They find an abandoned egg and go in search of its nest only to be confronted by a giant dino, 9 metres long with a horn on its forehead. It is searching the trees for tasty birds and perhaps a couple of tasty humans!

What’s also exciting for lovers of all things prehistoric is that there are four more Robert Irwin Dinosaur Hunter books scheduled for release later in the year.

France: Beaune of Burgundy

After decades of quaffing oak-hinted, truffle-tasting burgundy, I’m here at its birthplace, where the veins of rivers, terroir and vine-combed hills of the Côte d’Or meet. I am a few hours southeast of Paris in the wine capital and heart of Burgundy. I am in Beaune.

van Gogh could have painted here

van Gogh could have painted here

I am here to explore the wine caves that labyrinth10 kilometres beneath the cobbled streets.

The Marché aux Vins, in the centre of town, is a former Franciscan church. It is still blessed with its original vineyard where the friars cultivated grapes for their altar wine. Its sole purpose today is to source wine from the Bourgogne region, where each village produces its own distinctive vintage. Fifteen wines are presented for tasting in the kilometres of caves now turned into cellars.

march aux vins - the walk of wines

march aux vins – the walk of wines

€10 gets you a personal metal clamshell-shaped cup called a tastevin. And then it’s down the dusty stone steps and into the chill of the vaults and the slightly musty maze of tunnels that wind beneath the town.

The wines are set up on spaced apart barrels. Notes pertaining to each are read by the glow of a dripping candle. A spittoon is positioned next to each barrel. I note that the aim becomes slightly skewed the more I sample.

deep in the caves

deep in the caves

One hour is allotted for the tour, but no-one is checking and although the rule is one sample per bottle (with excommunication guaranteed if you become a rowdy drunk), I find myself having to check two or three times to see if I really like certain vintages. Four white wines are followed by 11 regional reds; the finale being their finest, the Corton Grand Cru.

About half way through the wine caves I come across the ruins of a 5th century chapel. A chiselled stone sarcophagus is atmospherically lit in the darkness. When it was discovered during the excavation in 1971, the remains of 11 bodies were layered inside. They were victims of the 1581 plague. The monks had entombed their poxy bodies for time immemorial.

plague victims' sarcophagus

plague victims’ sarcophagus

After so much time underground, I emerge with mole-eyes up a flight of stairs into the nave of the church with its stone pillars, arches and flickering candelabra. There’s more tasting with samples of the local aperitifs, Cassis (blackcurrant) and Crème de Peche (peach). Sommeliers are on hand to answer any wine-related questions or organise purchase and shipping.

A note for the purists reading this, the 30 ml capacity of the tastevins does not allow for swirling and sniffing, nor are all the wines top quality, but for the casual quaffer, such as me, this has been the perfect way to get a taste of Burgundy.

my final blessing

my final blessing


Book Review : Bureau of Mysteries and The Mechanomancers

Bureau of Mysteries and The Mechanomancers by HJ Harper, illustrated by Nahum Ziersch (Random House Australia)

PB RRP $15.95
ISBN 9781742756486

Also available as an ebook
ISBN 9781742756493

Reviewed by Marian McGuinness

George Feather, chimney sweep and assistant cryptographer, is on the trail of the Mechanomancers, ‘ancient evil beings that mixed magic and technology to terrorise the world!’

In this sequel for 8 – 12 year olds, author, HJ Harper has created a fantastic, almost Dickensian world, melding genres of Steampunk, Western and Detective Novel with a pinch of James Bond thrown in. It’s a combination to intrigue most readers.

The young protagonist, George, with the aid of his Cryptographer’s Compendium (his code-breaking book) and his partner, Imp Spektor, have to save the mysterious metropolis of Little Obscurity. They team up with adventurer, Lord Periwinkle Tinkerton, who travels with his scribing assistant, Lexica Quill, in his mechanical mammothmobile.

Together they battle mechanical bulls and icebergs of garbage; they ride on a giant grey rat called Bubonic through the sewerage dungeons and joust giant lice.

George uses all the tools of the trade in his quest to eradicate the Mechanomancers. He has Antigravity Gauntlets and Eyeopener Goggles. There are skypirates and skydragons. The adventure twists and turns as each chapter ends on a hook.

The reader rollicks along with George as he comes across many codes that he has to crack. This is a strength of the book, as young readers will pit their wits against George, in the quest to work out the clues and eliminate the enemy.

There is clever wordplay throughout that keeps you chuckling. There are clichés and puns (the Clockness Monster, Joust in Time). The use of first person includes lots of internal dialogue, so you know what George Feather is thinking.

All is wonderfully illustrated in Nahum Ziersch’s stylised black and white panels that depict characters and scenes along the way.

Twist follows twist towards the last third of the book. You don’t know the goodies from the baddies as you weave in and out of the story. In the end, it’s down to the power of the pen … and the ability to decipher codes.