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.

Italy: Hanging about in Siena

Tuscany is like a Renaissance painting; its beauty and mystique enthral those who step inside its frame. Take your pick, each city has its own story: Florence, Pisa, Pienza, Lucca, Siena. And that’s where this story lays its roots, in Siena, the bejewelled brooch that clasps the tapestry of Tuscany.

Siena rooftops

Siena rooftops

There are many things to love about Siena. Further down the palio track I’ll write more about its medieval charisma, but for this story, Siena’s black humour is my focus.

Had I been squeamish, I might have continued walking through the gloomy Vicolo del Bargello and into the bustle of Siena’s enchanting campo to enjoy a coffee in the sunlight. But the combination of the medieval laneway, the meaning of bargello (a zigzag stitch resembling flames) and the macabre blurb on the poster outside the Museo della Tortura (Museum of Torture) “these instruments show just how much human fantasy knew no limits …” reels me in, hook, line and tongue cutter.

a highwayman's coffin

a highwayman’s coffin

A skeletal hand reaches out from the Highwayman’s Coffin and points to the museum’s first dark chamber. This weathered wretch has been hanging around in his iron cage for centuries. He’s been swaying in the breeze outside town halls, ducal palaces and cathedrals, through winter winds and summer storms until his bones have fallen apart.

Not too far inside the first cold stone and brick cavern, reality sobers me to the horrors of human cruelty. It puzzles me to think of the hours of creativity that went into designing and decorating these devices of humiliation, oppression and torture. Take the iron sandals with the bell at the toe that was fitted to clumsy servants. Every time the bell rang, the master tightened the heel.

stained clothes of a penitent of the Inquisition

stained clothes of a penitent of the Inquisition

There are many gruesome original and reproduced items on display that reflect the time in history where public hangings and punishments were seen as entertainment. Behind a glass panel I examine a beheader’s sword. It looks like an oversized butter knife. It took a long apprenticeship to become professional beheader. With each victim, the apprentice had three goes to get the decapitation right. Who was going to worry about the occasional severed shoulder, arm or brainpan?

No detail is spared of how each instrument worked, which orifice the device was meant for, which limb was dislocated and who was the usual customer.  Women were particularly well represented with breast rippers, shrew fiddles, scold bridles, chastity belts and the ornately designed Pear of Anguish, a disturbing device inserted and expanded in the offensive orifice.

a prickly medieval occupation

a prickly medieval occupation

Rioting prisoners would have been well ventilated, as the wardens in those poxy medieval dungeons wore leather jackets pierced with iron spikes in Hannibal Lecter fashion.

The wry comment on the Inquisitor’s Chair bridges the gap of centuries. “Often a brazier of hot coals was used to heat the spikes before the victim was placed inside. Today, updated versions are used, improved by electricity to minimise tell-tale marks.”

I’ve spent about an hour examining racks, iron maidens and head crushers that inflicted pain and death on heretics, blasphemers and the promiscuous. You may think that the idea of a visiting a torture museum is no better than attending the public spectacle of torture in the past. Yet, it’s the professional display and insightful (often tongue-in-cheek) explanations that make me question how civilised we are meant to be today.

Buonanotte bella Siena

Buonanotte bella Siena



Book Review : What the Raven Saw

9781742757353What the Raven Saw by Samantha-Ellen Bound (Woolshed Press)

PB RRP $16.95

Also available as an ebook
ISBN 9781742757360

Reviewed by Marian McGuinness

On first sighting the gothic cover of What the Raven Saw I was reminded of Edgar Allan Poe’s equally gothic poem, The Raven, with its dark imagery and philosophical concepts.

Readers who love something different, something ethereal, something a little enigmatic, will enjoy this extraordinary and original tale about a raven that lives in the bell tower of Father Cadman’s church. Here, the raven converses with a bookish but inferior pigeon, a flirty weather vane and the many ghosts who inhabit the graveyard.

The raven is vainglorious as he preens and protects his treasure of ‘bottlecaps and silver-stippled stones, curls of flashing tin … human jewels … gleaming slender bones of small animals.’

But there are other stories happening around the raven. There’s the child-ghost of Todd, who has just been buried. His sister, Mackenzie, frets that his death is her fault. Somehow the raven finds a way to communicate between the two.

There’s the man who the raven sees in the churchyard tree; he is full of despair and ready to jump. The raven ‘dealt out life’s lessons in the branches of a tree’ and saved the man’s life. There’s a lonely scarecrow in a nearby field in need of solace, and a church thief. Both come under the watchful wing and the philosophical wisdom of the raven.

The concepts of this book are old, almost fable-like. You learn that beneath the raven’s cool, black feathers, there is a soul both proud and lonely. He loves to live in Father Cadman’s church as it welcomes all creatures.

Beauty is found in death, in storms, in tatty old scarecrows, ‘everything from tombs to abandoned wheelbarrows to the spires of the church, (they) had a lightness, a sense of belonging to only themselves’. This is the crux of the story.

It’s a book about mythology and symbolism. Its values are those of generosity and kindness and its themes are of loneliness, helping others and dealing with death. It’s about philosophy and finding your voice.

Samantha-Ellen Bound has done a fine job in writing such a layered, complex and compelling story that will hold the interest of readers 11+. Next time you see a raven, look it in the eye and wonder what it’s thinking.

Book Review : Dandelion

dandelionDandelion by Galvin Scott Davis, illustrated by Anthony Ishinjerro
(Random House Australia)
HB RRP $19.95
ISBN 9780857981028

Also available as an ebook
ISBN 9780857981035

Reviewed by Marian McGuinness

This picture book for primary aged children tells the story of Benjamin Brewster, a young boy in the first years of school. Instead of school being a safe haven of joy and wonder, it’s become a prison, as Benjamin is bullied by older children.

Capturing the sadness and the powerlessness of being bullied, illustrator Anthony Ishinjerro has used the persona of a faceless child (other bullied children might see themselves here) wrapped in a sepia world. It is filled with shadows and the reader looks through a kind of lens at Benjamin’s alienated childhood.

‘Each morning he would count the nine hundred and seventy-two steps that it took him to reach his school.’

But it was hopeless. All Benjamin saw were hovering, ominous figures, barred gates and pointing fingers, so he skips school and hides beneath the shelter of a tree. As he sits and worries and thinks, a field of dandelions sprouts around him. As all children do, Benjamin picks one and makes a wish as he blows the feathery seeds that parachute into the wind.

The dandelion seeds are a metaphor for the bullies (and perhaps his worries) as he blows them away.

The reality is that the bullies are still there. Benjamin calls on the namesake of the flower as dandelion means lion’s tooth, and he begins to let his roaring voice be heard. This, along with imagining the bullies being blown away, helps Benjamin to cope. He finds that if he uses his imagination, he begins to have control over the situation.

On the last page, Benjamin lifts his head to the light; his face is aglow as he looks into the future. Told mostly in rhyme, this poignant story will give many parents and teachers the opportunity to discuss bullying with their children. School Education Minister Peter Garrett said in November last year, ‘One in five students has experienced some form of cyber bullying. This means every family either has a child, or knows one, who is being bullied at school.’

As author Galvin Scott Davis says in his epilogue, he created a story ‘that could transport children and adults to a world where creativity is embraced to solve problems.’

Japan: Irises, Kimonos and Cloud-Pruned Plum Pines

In my last blog on Japan I wrote about the enchanting Sacred Forest of Kashima Jingu, in the water-district a short distance from Tokyo and Narita airport.

Another town in this area is Itako, on the Maekawa River. For hundreds of years Itako has changed its appearance depending on the season. The cooler months become the spectacle of blossoming cherry trees, cosmos, chrysanthemums and maples, but during summer, the iris holds centre stage.

sky art in Itako

sky art in Itako

Beside the Mae River, the Ayame Matsuri, the Iris Festival, is in full bloom. From May to late June, over a million Monet-hued irises brocade the stone-walled river. Wooden bridges arching over mauve fields become viewing platforms for visitors, and cycleways for the local women going about  their daily lives.

Monet-style bridges arch the iris fields

Monet-style bridges arch the iris fields

As the breeze picks up, the irises dance. And a summer tradition that dates back to the 1600s, unfolds. A bride processes along the wooden path through the gardens. She is dressed in a white wedding kimono. Her black lacquered hair is woven through her white tsunokakushi, the silk headdress designed to hide (at least for her wedding day) her horns of jealousy. Traditional music is piped through hidden speakers as her parents escort her to the river where they board a sappa-bune, a bamboo-leaf shaped boat laden with roped casks of sake for her husband-to-be.


the bridal party aboard the sappa-bune

the bridal party aboard the sappa-bune

As the boat glides downstream to the wedding ceremony, hundreds of women in iris-inspired kimonos dance in formation through the gardens. Their hand movements mirror the essence of Itako: its water, irises and the mountains of Fuji and Tsukuba.

iris dancers weave through the fields

iris dancers weave through the fields

With thousands of visitors there are vast stalls selling fast-food Itako style. Children from neighbouring schools join in the celebrations.

excited cherubs wait for their teacher

excited cherubs wait for their teacher

I take my own sappa-bune ride on the 12-bidge tour. Megumi, our cheery boat woman propels us through the water.

Megumi and friend

Megumi and friend

We all wear sedge leaf hats and hear stories of the river. We glide past pagoda-style houses and ancient stone monuments used as trade route guides when Itako was on the old trade root from Edo (ancient Tokyo). Peering into backyards abutting the river we see stands of camellias, willows, persimmon trees and the exotic cloud-pruned plum trees.

trees of dreams

trees of dreams

At the end of the iris gardens I follow a path to the Choshoji temple. Tani Genmyo, the Shinto priest in residence tells me that the path has prepared me for prayer, ‘like the prologue of a play.’ Shaded by ancient ginkgoes this 12th century temple was constructed by Minamoto Yoritomo, the warrior who became the first Shogun of Japan and who set in motion the rise and domination of the samurai that would last until the mid 19th century.

master of solace

Tani Genmyo, master of solace



Book Review : Seadog

seadogSeadog by Claire Saxby, illustrated by Tom Jellett
(Random House Australia)
HB RRP $19.95

ISBN 9781742756509
Also available as an ebook

Reviewed by Marian McGuinness

Fabulous and fun! I loved this picture book from the moment I saw Tom Jellett’s cheeky cover. There are many rascally dogs in children’s literature such as Harry the Dirty Dog and Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy, and Seadog has just as much charisma.

Just like we are all different, so too are dogs. Who wouldn’t love a sea dog? Who couldn’t love a sea dog? Seadog is not a work dog or a fetch dog or a trick dog or a clean dog, he’s a ‘find-and-roll-in-the-fish dog’. He’s a rapscallion and his day at the beach is described in lots of hyphenated phrases, until he is a ‘Pee-ee-euw, Seadog’. After the day is done when he’s all stinky with fish he becomes a ‘sit-still-till-it’s-done dog’ and succumbs to a bath.

With Saxby’s clever use of alliteration and assonance, children and adults will have fun twisting their tongues around the rhythm and rhyme as they go on Seadog’s adventures at the beach.

Tom Jellett has captured the enthusiasm and joy of such a scruffy, lovable dog. The endpapers give the book even more sea-appeal with a patchwork of international maritime signal flags. There are lots of close-up pictures of Seadog that make you feel as if you could give him a pat and hold your nose as you smell his fishy fur.

Claire Saxby is prolific in her writing and admits to being inspired by her own children, memories of childhood and by the children around her. It helps that she has a dog that often pretends to be a cat.

Tom Jellett is not only a bestselling illustrator of books for children; he also has been an editorial illustrator for umpteen print publications.

This is one picture book for 3 and up that will become dog-eared from love.

Japan: Samurais, Shrines and Sacred Forests

As much as I love the bustle of mega cities, like Tokyo, there’s something cathartic about delving into the opposite phenomena. A couple of hours north of Tokyo, and only an hour from Narita International Airpot, where you fly in, take the time to chill out in the Sacred Forest of Kashima Jingu.

There are English-speaking guides at the entrance who will give you a deep understanding of what this 70 hectares of ancient cedar, cypress and cherry trees is about, considering the Shinto shrines scattered throughout were built in 660 BC.

Welcome to Kashima Jingu

Welcome to Kashima Jingu

Firstly, we cleanse ourselves at the small pavilion called the temizuya where we scoop water into our left palms, rinse our mouths and wash our left palms again. Now we are ready to walk beneath the imposing vermillion Romon where my guide enthuses that I ‘feel the air change and sense the spiritual energy.’

Purifying ourselves

Purifying ourselves

As I walk along the winding gravel paths, fringed by ferns and moss-knuckled tree roots I look for the kami – the spirits – believed to inhabit the branches above me.

It’s a day of celebration at Kashima Jingua and there are families everywhere, dressed in exquisite kimonos. Children who are 3, 5 and 7 are being blessed to gain protection from the deities. The god of martial arts is the one enshrined here. His name is Takemikazuchi and his origins go back to the beginnings of sumo wrestling. Centuries ago, the samurais worshipped here to gain their energies from the sun goddess who appeared at dawn.

After the blessing

After the blessing

As well as a deer park, where the resident deers are said to be descendants of the ancient divine messengers, there are ponds and scatterings of haiku scribed on posts – as I found out the Father of Haiku, Matsuo Basho, came here to write almost 500 years ago. There’s a great little cafe where you can lunch on tempura seafood and vegetables along with freshly made soba noodles – and you can watch their making from scratch by Master Chef Mr Sasaki in his glass-walled kitchen.

One amazing place not to miss is the museum at the entrance of the Sacred Forest. It’s an opportunity to get up close and personal to samurai armour over 1000 years old. The armour is made of lacquered wood and leather and their saddles are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. There are helmets with full facial hair and shoes made of fur and feathers. Try and lift the replica 3-metre straight sword, the original is on display and was crafted in the 5th century. You appreciate how strong the samurais were to lift such hefty and unwieldy weapons.

Samurai armour not as big as you'd think

Samurai armour not as big as you’d think