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Summer reading: more books, different style

Summer reading, childrens

chatterboxcatThe chatterbox cat, Brolly Books, 2016

Reviewer revealed below

Welcome to The Chatterbox Cat, number nine of Robyn Goodwin’s Backyard Tales. These are books for the very young and they really entertain kids from round about two years of age.

Wait a minute, how old is the person writing this piece? Don’t ask. Still the truth is that text and the full page illustrations mix to entertain anyone who gazes with wonder at this world, experienced by our multi-species fellow travellers.

Take a look at the image facing the text: A meeting was held late at night/ In the old barn, well out of sight/ All attended who could stay awake/ A big decision they had to make. A child’s gaze cannot avoid necessary tracking across the sleeping rabbit, over-alert chickens flanking a proud-loud rooster, white mice keeping warm up close to the kerosene lamp plonked on top of a weathered barrel. This compositional complexity is close to that of, say, a Pieter Bruegel painting of peasants getting on with it.

Further along the way we encounter feline pedagogues, snails offering advice just when it is or isn’t needed, and an upset owl on a moonshine night.

These are Backyard Tales of which this, and the previous Bella Blue Heeler’s Wacky Dream, also have been presented in a larger format (more than three times the size). Robyn Goodwin’s visual imagination was able to reach out for more. As well, backyard pictures let us see what’s in her own backyard (complete with aged VW).

These creatures ring as true as they do because outside the author’s backdoor there’s a universe. The backyard images are tagged Molly Wombat’s Hole, Foxy Wallaby Lives Here and so on.

A magical journey. Toddlers through to the doddery are transported to a fresh world by what’s accumulated on these pages. Brilliant.

Review by Hartmann Wallis* (Hartmann Wallis’ latest book is, who said what, exactly, published by Findlay Lloyd)  *aka Robin Wallace-Crabbe

by Robyn Goodwin

One of planet’s oldest love stories

jackFor the Love of Jack,By Forbes Gordon, illustrated by Robin Wallace-Crabbe, 2016, Findlay Lloyd

Jack is a dog. He lives a pretty good life with his male and female humans and a cat. Jack’s story, told from his own perspective, is related in earthy narrative by his male human in the person of Forbes Gordon.

This book is a celebration of that timeless partnership: human and dog. A testimony to everything that has ever bound the two species together: love, loyalty, co-dependence, good humour.

There’s more to the book than Jack’s pithy observations of life, however. Robin Wallace-Crabbe’s drawings bring Jack’s story to life vividly and with a deep understanding of what makes a dog tick.

Jack’s game with a stick, his penchant for lying on the sofa, his love of food, his mutually tolerant relationship with the cat, are all rendered – richly on every page.

For the Love of Jack is at one level, a simple book. Large text and clear, colourful illustrations make it appear at first glance like a book for a beginner reader. And so it certainly could be. Children will warm to Jack’s story and cannot help but be amused and entranced by Wallace-Crabbe’s wonderful drawings.

At another level, however, this is a book for grown-ups. Those of a certain age might recall the days when the cult TV show, Hey Hey It’s Saturday, began as a Saturday morning show for kids. It very quickly became apparent that a large proportion of the live studio audience (and presumably the home viewing audience as well) were adults, drawn by a brand of humour that had two distinct levels, one pitched at its young audience, the other at their parents. This is that kind of book.

The initial print run of For the Love of Jack sold out quickly and a second run will be printed in time for Christmas. Buy it for the young readers, enjoy it yourself!

by Robin Tennant-Wood

Wildlife conservation on the farm

wildlife-conservationMost country people today understand something of the importance of wildlife conservation, even if it’s just a nostalgic look back at Granny’s time when “things were different.”

A new book from CSIRO spells this out in fascinating detail. Like most CSIRO publications, it’s beautifully produced, and the seven authors led by ANU researcher David Lindenmayer cover a huge range of creatures, feathers and fur and scales. They acknowledge that they’ve left out fish and amphibians.

The great virtue of this book is that it covers a wide geographical area, and importantly, a long period of time: almost 17 years of systematic research in the temperate farmlands of eastern Australia. – arguably, say the authors, one of the largest scaled terrestrial monitoring programs in the world.

Research has been done at widely different scales: from a single nest or hollow tree, through to entire regions, with landholders, ecologists and biological statisticians joining forces to present a detailed picture in a readable format. This is not a scientific textbook, but it is fully referenced and the underlying research papers are freely available.

The book is divided logically into short chapters based on biological groups: birds, mammals, reptiles, invertebrates and plants, with a final chapter bringing together key principles and practices, always with the farmer or landholder in mind.

There are some surprising observations, some of them only possible through the long research time-frame. What happens when a pine plantation is created? It depends on when you observe. After a few years, forest birds invade the plantations and a mixed forest-woodland population is established; after another five years, the woodland and open-country birds have disappeared. Overall, the number of species, and the number of birds, has not changed, but a different range of species has become dominant.

How effective are ‘remnant’ plantations, or single old trees, in paddocks? What about windbreaks as bird habitat? Again there are some surprising observations.

And reptiles … what colour is a Brown Snake? (Almost any colour on the palette, striped included!) There’s the old folk tale that a bite from a goanna will re-appear after some years, and that the pain and bleeding are a result of the goanna’s fondness for carrion. But as recently as 2005, researchers at the University of Melbourne found that – yes! – goannas do have poison glands in the lower jaw which produce toxins very similar to snake venom.

The authors add: “This is even more reason to give goannas a wide berth at picnic grounds.”

Finally, there’s good advice on the management of ‘wildlife friendly’ farmland. Size does matter, say the authors, and in general ecological terms, bigger is better. This means conserving large areas such as travelling stock routes (TSRs) – “some of the most intact areas of temperate woodland in the best ecological condition in agricultural eastern Australia.”

Well-sited small patches are valuable too, as stepping-stones of biodiversity, and individual paddock trees, with their hollows and fallen logs, are disproportionally important for conservation in the farming landscape.

A significant and fascinating book for any rural resident or land manager: Wildlife Conservation in Farm Landscapes, David Lindenmayer et al (CSIRO 2016).

By Nick Goldie

Two linked life journeys

from Bywong author Christine M Knight

life-song-cover-resized-for-good-reading-2 Life Song and Song Bird, Highlight Publishing*

There are many harrowing stories of violence against women but a lesser number of stories address how some women rise above the trauma and move on in life.

A character-driven novel, Life Song explores the choices Mavis Mills makes as she balances competing demands and responsibilities with her desire to find an identity beyond motherhood. A survivor of domestic violence, Mavis discovers unexpectedly that she has a choice: accept her life as it is or try to rise above her circumstance, realise her potential, and make her nearly forgotten dreams come true.

The novel does not focus on the abuse – that is in the backstory. Life Song’s uplifting plot is very much about the woman that Mavis becomes and the influences that shape her rather than being a novel about a ‘chick-musician on the road to fame story’. In terms of its appeal, Life Song is a blend of wry humour and vivid storytelling with memorable characters who inhabit the imagination long after the reading of the novel is finished.

Vivid storytelling with memorable characters who inhabit the imagination long after the reading is finished

Its sequel, Song Bird, is a coming-of-age story and in no way a formula romance. Song Bird is a story about resolve, courage, transcendence and the complex nature of love. Mavis, now Nikki, continues to grow into the woman she wants to be and not the woman others expect her to be.

Christine M Knight is internationally recognised as an author who explores the many roles that women play in life and the complexity of their choices juxtaposed against assumptions about how they should behave once they become mothers. Its appeal is universal. This is the sort of novel that delights on a day when the sofa calls. The music from Song Bird heightens the reality created in this easy-to-read novel that offers readers something more than the literal story.

*Available in Australia as print on demand through Ingram Content Group (Melbourne)

By Rebecca Chown

How lucky are we?

the-lucky-countryThe Lucky Country? Reinventing Australia, by Ian Lowe, University of Queensland Press, 2016

“Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck. It lives on other people’s ideas, and, although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise.” Donald Horne, 1964.

The Lucky Country by Donald Horne was a scathing indictment of Australia in the 1960s, nevertheless, the book became a best-seller. He argued that we had to recognise that we were part of the Asia-Pacific, not Europe despite our colonial history.

Horne called for public discussion about societal values, population growth, and what we would like to become, ideally with visionary leaders (unlike the ones we had) who would participate in, even guide such discussion. He called for a revolution in economic priorities and the need to invest in education and science.

Now, 52 years since publication of The Lucky Country, Ian Lowe, academic and scientist, revisits these warnings and says they are still relevant. He adds his own warning, namely, that the environmental challenges we face cannot be ignored, such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, and the unsustainable use of resources.

Those of us who grew up in Australia in a time of peace and plenty, says Lowe, now have a duty to put in place the structures and policies that will allow our descendants to have secure, comfortable and rewarding lives.

Lowe refers to Horne’s three main themes: that it is essential to accept where Australia sits on the map; that our identity needs to be boldly redefined; and that there is a need for a revolution in economic priorities.

In response to each of these Lowe writes:

“…the biggest security threat to Australia probably arises from the possibility that our alignment with the USA will bring us into conflict with our Asian neighbours.” (p.82)

“We should be testing and redeveloping our social institutions, our position on population growth and migration, how our changing social values affect family life, and what changes in the workforce mean for society as a whole.” (p.88)

“Neoliberalism…. has morphed into a system programmed to inflict recurrent catastrophic failures.” (p.196)

Lowe chaired the committee which produced Australia’s first State of the Environment (SoE) Report. It noted that if we are to achieve ecological sustainability, then economic and social decisions must be made in the context of their environmental aspects.

Lowe writes in a wry, understated way but occasionally some genuine anger bursts through, for instance, when he says it is “outrageous” for the Coalition government to be claiming credit for Australia meeting its Kyoto obligation. As he says, Australia’s stance at the Kyoto meeting on climate change was a “national embarrassment” with our delegation demanding an increase in emissions while other developed countries undertook to reduce theirs.

The Lucky Country? Reinventing Australia comes to us from one of the nation’s leading thinkers. It is a serious book but leavened by Ian Lowe’s dry wit.

By Jenny Goldie

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