Category Archives: Australian History

The Wearing of the Green – Claire Saxby

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Walker Books

April 2022

ISBN: 9781760653583
Imprint: Walker Books Australia
Australian RRP: $18.99
New Zealand RRP: $21.99

It is certainly no secret that I love historical fiction, and colonial Australian history is a particular favourite of mine. I loved this exciting new narrative from Claire Saxby – whose prowess with picture books is already so well established. Set just two years before my first ancestors arrived in this country, this recounts the importation of young Irish girls to become, essentially, servants and/or wives in a colony that was heavily male dominated. With Ireland in tatters after the Great Famine (also known as the Great Hunger, the Famine or the Potato Famine) and 1 million dead as a result, many young girls ( among others) faced uncertainty without family or home to shelter them. These girls were outfitted with a basic wardrobe and shipped to Australia, among them young Biddy Blackwell whose older brother has been out in the colony for some years.

When Biddy arrives and her brother Ewen is nowhere to be found, she is sent to work on a remote farm with a cruel master, an indifferent and downtrodden wife and finds she is little more than an unpaid slave. Surviving first the conditions in which she finds herself, but then even worse after her master’s first wife dies and he brings home a new one, equally as nasty as himself, Biddy manages a daring escape following the mayhem of a flood, and finds herself back in the city under the protection of the hostel. While she discovers some clues as to Ewen’s possible location, she needs to restrain herself and finds herself working for an eccentric but kind journalist as his ‘eyes and ears’ in the courtrooms of Melbourne.

The prejudices and persecution with which the Irish immigrants are faced is rising fast and when Biddy attends the court sessions and sees one well-known dissenter, Brendan Black, she is elated to find she has finally discovered her missing brother. Naturally, his situation presents some problems but with the help of new friends and supporters, the way is made smoother and Biddy can finally hope for a new start, complete with family.

Claire Saxby’s inspiration for this novel was her own family history and this little known episode in Australia’s history is important to understand as its impact on the rise of concepts such as fair pay and work conditions cannot be under-estimated.

Highly recommended for readers from upper primary to mid-secondary and for students of Australian history, this is certainly a prime candidate for ‘read around your topic’.

Ceremony: Welcome to Our Country – Adam Goodes & Ellie Laing. Illustrated by David Hardy.

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Allen & Unwin

April 2022

ISBN: 9781761065064

RRP: $24.99

Oh David Hardy, you have excelled yourself!

I think we have all been eagerly anticipating the next title in this Welcome to Our Country series, the joyful introduction to First Nations history for younger readers, especially given the triumph of the first title Somebody’s Land. For me, this new addition surpasses that first, with not only another superb text which perfectly expresses the meaning and importance of Ceremony for our Aboriginal people but with David’s illustrations which just completely win me over. Frankly, they always do but the utter expressiveness and joyous delight in the faces of the book’s characters is just sensational!  The gorgeous artwork also depicts traditional landscapes and the native wildlife which would have surrounded those living on Country and little readers will love spotting and naming these.

Welcome, children!
Nangga! Nangga! Yakarti!
Tonight will be our Ceremony.

This is about family, tradition, Country and culture and for non-Aboriginal children provides a deceptively simple and vivid insight into the history of the world’s oldest continuous culture. I particularly love those words from Adam’s language group, the Adnyamthanha, featured throughout, with the bonus of a visual glossary via the glorious endpapers (yes, that’s me – always obsessed with endpapers!). Additionally, a QR code allows readers to listen to the story and hear the words for themselves – what an absolutely fabulous idea! 

Once again, a rhythmic rhyming text will have your little ones chanting along with you at every reading and, no doubt, they will be up on their feet ready to ‘shake a leg’ themselves.  In my opinion, these are simply a must for your collection – home, library or classroom – as we are all ready to move our great country closer towards a true conciliation between all our people. This year with the upcoming CBCA Book Week theme along with a terrifically powerful NAIDOC theme, is the prime time to be curating your collection of First Nations kid lit.  I not only highly recommend them for your readers from early childhood upwards but strongly urge you to rush out and add them to your catalogue.

The Unstoppable Flying Flanagan – Felice Arena

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Penguin Australia

29 March 2022

ISBN: 9781761044366

Imprint: Puffin

RRP: $16.99

In a completely genius move, Felice Arena has combined his love of football (the AFL kind) and his skill with bringing lesser-known history to life. Set in Melbourne in the later years of WWII, this is the story of Maggie Flanagan who loves the game of football, and her team St Kilda, with all the passion of the most diehard fan. It is also the story of everyday life in Australia with the threat of war and invasion hanging like a pall, the constant worry about the menfolk away fighting, the rise of feminism and the history of women’s football.

Maggie practises her footy skills every day, using the precious football entrusted to her by her older brother, Patrick, who is away over the other side of the world, fighting for King and country. Football for girls is not only considered inappropriate – “unladylike” – but, indeed, risible by many people, mostly but not only males. So, when the new local priest suggests the children of Maggie’s school come up with some fund-raising ideas to support the troops, and Maggie proposes a girls’ football match, the shock and ridicule from many quarters soon squashes the idea.

If nothing else, Maggie is one determined young woman, and with Blessed Mary listening to her prayers, she knows she can succeed in this enterprise, despite the apparent obstacles. Over the course of just a couple of weeks, Maggie seems to uncover potential players for her match in the most surprising of places: the new ‘ice-woman’ delivering for the household ice-chests now that her husband has enlisted, or similarly the ‘milk-lady’, the usherette from the cinema, school nurse Nancy, Lizzie who lives with Miss Kelly of the corner shop, and even Sister Clare. Some of these have actually played football before, much to Maggie’s surprise. She also makes discoveries about her elderly neighbour, Grumpy Gaffney, and new girl, Elena, that not only give her much pause for thought but show her different ways of thinking.

Felice cleverly weaves into this snapshot of a significant time in our history, many of the prevailing attitudes and customs of the time – thankfully, most of them long gone the way of dinosaurs – as his narrative reveals how diverse people such as Maggie’s effeminate best friend, George, and Italian Elena were generally treated. The arrival of the ‘Yanks’ in Australia was divisive at the time and this too, is reflected in older sister Rita’s deviation from her steady boyfriend, seemingly dazzled by a tall good-looking American. Overall, there is much here that will provide some interesting discussions and comparisons for your young readers.

Like all of Felice’s stories, above all it is a cracking good yarn, with a plot that moves along at a brisk pace with a keen desire to find out what happens next. This, aside from anything else, will make this a fabulous tempter for your reluctant readers, particularly those who love their footy – whether boys or girls – and along the way they will absorb some valuable insights into a period of history that had great impact on the growth of our nation and our society.

Highly recommended for your readers from around Year 5 up to Year 7 – it will definitely be going up on my current Specky Magee anniversary display and will be part of my book talking with my kiddos over the coming weeks. Just in time for footy season – it’s a winner all round!

[Pre-orders available from the usual suppliers]

Ming & Flo Fight for the Future: (The Girls Who Changed the World #1) – Jackie French

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Harper Collins

March 2022

  • ISBN: 9781460760208
  • ISBN 10: 1460760204
  • List Price: 16.99 AUD

A brand new series from Jackie French is always cause for great excitement, and this one is going to be a corker, given this fabulous start!

We have all been awed by Jackie’s wealth of historical novels and her indomitable female characters over the years. Now younger readers have the opportunity to examine and reflect upon the past, with its many, often hidden, layers while becoming fully immersed in an exciting and engaging narrative.

Young Ming Qong wonders why so much of history fails to mention girls and women, because surely they also contributed to the events that have shaped both Australia and the world. She imagines what it would be like to step back in time and forge destinies as an intrepid explorer or a wise ruler. When a strange purple-robed character appears and introduces herself as “Herstory”, Ming’s chance to see and experience the past is at hand, though not at all as she might have pictured it.

Instead of some grand setting, Ming is transported back to a drought-stricken, barren farm in the late 19th century where young Flo and her mother, try desperately to survive while the man of the family is largely absent – thankfully, as on the rare occasions he is home, it means drunken rages and beatings. When Flo’s mother is killed by snake-bite, Ming/Flo seeks refuge with her mother’s sister, Aunt McTavish, who lives ‘comfortably’ in Sydney. Her stay with her wealthy aunt introduces Ming to many new revelations about the past, especially of pre-Federation Australia: the long fight for both federation and women’s suffrage, the plight of the poor, the lack of education or indeed any other opportunities for betterment, and a far more diverse population than Ming has ever read about.

Can Ming help make a difference? She does her very best by helping Aunt McTavish in her mission to petition for a new referendum on the question of Federation but also, in her work with Louisa Lawson, for the advancement of women. As well, she instigates changes in her own right – teaching at the Raggedy School and rescuing orphaned Emily from dire circumstances.

It’s a cracking read all round. There is, of course, far more than the ‘big picture’ events enhancing this storyline, and Ming’s compassion, insight and empathy make for a terrific, positive example for readers – without any preachiness. The various characters who ably demonstrate that there are multiple aspects to anyone’s personality are memorable, and while we leave most of them behind at the end of the book, we do have the next one to deliciously anticipate, where Ming along with her brother, will be off on another time travel adventure.

This is eminently suited to your readers in Upper Primary up to Year7 or even 8, particularly your Mighty Girls, to whom I heartily recommend it. Congratulations Jackie on yet another fine series, again inspired by your own family “herstory”!

No Hearts of Gold – Jackie French

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Harper Collins

December 2021

  • ISBN: 9781460757925
  • ISBN 10: 1460757920
  • Imprint: HarperCollins AU
  • List Price: 29.99 AUD

If you’ve read this blog before no doubt, you have noticed my immense admiration for the talent of Jackie French and, in particular, her outstanding historical fiction. Her seemingly effortless recreation of the past always has the power to transport the reader into the time and place of the narrative, allowing one to be fully immersed in the lives, dramas, despair and fortunes of the characters. I say seemingly effortless but I know the depth and breadth of research, background reading and investigation Jackie undertakes for each of her works and it is that which enriches her exploration and teasing out of hitherto unknown or ignored aspects.

We share a love of colonial history and moreover, a fascination with the untold, forgotten or glossed-over facts of our nation’s, often, troubled past. Readers are well accustomed to the portrayal of white women in our early post-First Contact history and there is no doubt that there were many who deserve our respect and regard. Their resilience, stoicism, ingenuity as well physical and mental strength have earned their place in our canon. But those wives, daughters, and sisters managing a household on small holdings, supporting their menfolk (or possibly managing alone)  or working for others in domestic service can surely not be the only types that deserve recognition.

In this magnificent saga we accompany three very different young women as they leave everything behind and travel to a robust and raw Sydney colony. Each of them so very different to the others in background and temperament and yet the friendship they forge goes deep, providing each other with the truest support and sustenance they all need.

Kat Fizhubert has been raised as the indulged and wealthy daughter of interesting and loving parents but when her father’s bankruptcy and ruin sends him over the edge and he first murders his wife, tries to kill Kat and finally suicides, Kat’s life is in tatters and her spirit in absolute black despair. Her kindly and astute aunt arranges a marriage for her – to a well-respected young landowner in the colony of New South Wales.

Titania Boots has never known real love or even affection, growing up with indifferent parents, married off to an old man who merely wanted an unpaid housekeeper and drudge. However, Titania has brilliant business acumen, and her management of her elderly husband’s affairs provides her with all the knowledge she could need. Widowed and left penniless, she becomes a paid companion on a voyage to the Australian colony.

Lady Viola Montefiore is young, elfin, intensely clever and caring and part of a well-placed noble family.  She is also most noticeably not wholly of the family with her dark skin and Indian appearance. The obvious result of a love affair on the part of her mother means she is kept secluded from society, hidden not only  out of a perceived shame but because of the general response from ‘polite society’. Learning a little of her birth on her mother’s deathbed, Viola is sent away to the colony to be put in charge of a cousin as a ward until she attains her majority. She is wealthy, in a way most of can only dream of, but also compassionate and generous.

On their shared voyage to Australia these young women bond together to comfort each other, share their sad circumstances, and voice their hopes and vow to retain their friendship – though essentially, no vow is necessary as they are now so attached each to the other.

Their ensuing stories as each faces the challenges, good and bad, friends and foes of their new surroundings makes for compelling reading and if, like me, you will find it hard not so say ‘just one more chapter’.  I was completely enthralled and fully engaged, as if a bystander, throughout and read way past my bed time for the past few nights. As always though, when I reached the end I was incredibly sad to leave these wonderful and vibrant book friends behind, so I dare to hope that this could be the first of another of Jackie’s fabulous series.

No recommendation is ever needed for Jackie’s books but naturally I bestow my very highest on this new one. I do believe it has become my new best favourite 😊.

Searching for Charlotte: The Fascinating Story of Australia’s First Children’s Author/s-Kate Forsyth, Belinda Murrell

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Paperback | Nov 2020 | National Library of Australia | 9780642279699

AUD$34.95, NZD$39.99

I had hoped to review this when it was released – sadly, the publicists did not get the memo and I missed out.

But it was always going to find its place in our collection given both its subject matter and the authors. After some hiccups with our suppliers this term it finally arrived and no sooner was it processed than it came home with me earlier this week!!

I may have had a wait but it was worth it – without a doubt. I had known about Australia’s first book published for children – Mother’s Offering to her Children: By a Lady, Long Resident in New South Wales – by Charlotte Atkinson for years and when I was living/teaching in Canberra a decade ago was so privileged to see this rare book in a special ‘behind the scenes’ tour of the NLA. In addition to that, I had, of course, read Belinda Murrell’s The River Charm which was largely inspired by this remarkable woman.

When I first learned that Belinda and her sister Kate were working on this joint history of their ancestor, I was tremendously keen to read and learn more.

The young Charlotte who travelled to Australia aged 15 to take up a governess’ post was a girl clearly of astonishing courage and fortitude. Her meeting with James Atkinson on that long and risky voyage, and her subsequent marriage to this impressive and energetic man is the stuff of romantic fairy tales. Their beautiful home, Oldbury, in the Southern Highlands of NSW and their growing family of lively children were highly regarded and no doubt envied by the colonial society of the times. Sadly, as so often happens, especially in the oft-perilous times of the 19th century, fairy tales can crash and Charlotte’s certainly did. The death of her beloved James and her inexplicable marriage two years later to a man of dubious character sent her entire life into a downward, dark and depressing spiral of abuse and personal danger to both herself and her children. Their escape from the increasingly manic Barton and Charlotte’s ensuing long and painful battle to retain the rights to her children and the income from the estate has every harrowing hallmark of the bleakest of melodramas – although an all too common scenario for many women, both past and present.

Travelling through their research and family – both past and present – with Belinda and Kate was the most enchanting way to spend some quality ‘me time’ at this frazzled end of term time. My admiration and awe of this family’s achievements is second only to my regard for their innate warmth and generosity of spirit. The discovery that we both have long ago connections to the Norman de Warrene family (and there’s even some Warren connection in their later history) was a bonus joyful fillip that warmed my heart.

I can certainly endorse the many glowing recommendations this book has garnered since its publication late last year. Whether as a personal read or a significant literary ‘memoir’ of real interest to readers both young and old, I would urge you to seek out a copy.

Took the Children Away – Archie Roach/Ruby Hunter

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Simon & Schuster Australia

October 2020

  • ISBN13: 9781760857219

RRP: $24.99

What a privilege to be asked to provide a review for this fabulous 30th anniversary edition of Archie’s book. This great man, 2020 Victorian Australian of the Year, member of the Order of Australia and recipient of countless other awards for his music, is one my family’s heroes, not just for his music but his tireless campaigning for First Australian people.

Archie and his soulmate, Ruby Hunter, were both stolen children, and this collaboration between them is a testament to both the talent of each and their determination to provide insight into the shame of the past. Included on his 1990 debut album, Charcoal Lane, this very personal and poignant song received the prestigious Australian Human Rights Award, the first ever to do so.

This absolutely stunning edition with its textured binding (just wonderful!) and glorious endpapers, as well as Ruby Hunter’s evocative illustrations includes historical photographs and recollections, scant as they may be, from Archie’s family. [Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that this book contains images of people who are deceased or who may now be deceased.]

It has been longlisted for the 2021 ABIA Book of the Year for Younger Children award which, to my mind at least, speaks volumes.

Archie’s foundation has joined with ABC Education to create the Archie Roach Stolen Generations resources which will enable all educators to to “ignite a sense of place, belonging, community and identity for all Australians.” suitable for students from Year 3-10. You can find them here and I would urge to make full use of them with your students.

Needless to say this has my highest recommendation for students from lower primary upwards and I truly thank Simon & Schuster for this opportunity – and of course, Archie Roach AM and the late Ruby Hunter for their inspiring work on behalf of First Australians.

The Fighting Stingrays – Simon Mitchell

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9780143784104

Penguin Random House

9780143784104

July 31, 2017

Puffin (AU YR)

RRP $17.99

This is, in old parlance, a ripping yarn – a real Boys’ Own adventure. Charlie, Alf and Masa are the best of mates who go to school together, fish, swim and most of all are ‘The Fighting Stingrays’ determined to beat all imaginary Nazis and even Hitler himself. Of course, the Nazis aren’t very near to beautiful Thursday Island but that doesn’t stop them.

Charlie is one of the few white kids on the island which is a glorious melting pot of cultures in the 1940s. For decades the island has been peaceful although not without its injustices as Charlie discovers when he realises just how his father treats his pearl divers.

The boys’ loyalties and friendship are tested severely however when the threat of Japanese invasion looms nearer and nearer. Masa, who has lost his pearl diving dad, is about to be interned with the rest of the Japanese on the island and his two mates know they can’t let that happen. Add to the mix a certifiably insane, bigoted and criminal commanding officer in charge of the island’s troops and here is an adventure fraught with risk, danger and what seems an impossible task.

This is a great read and has it all; suspense, drama, danger, initiative and courage.

Not only will it provide readers with a gripping narrative but offer a viewpoint of a rarely discussed incident in Australia’s wartime history as well as some history of the Torres Strait islands.

Highly recommended for readers, particularly boys, from around ten years upwards.

 

The Hero Maker: A Biography of Paul Brickhill

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The Hero Maker: A Biography of Paul Brickhill

The Australian behind the legendary stories The Dam Busters, The Great Escape and Reach for the Sky

By Stephen Dando-Collins

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Penguin Random House

ISBN 9780857988126

August 29, 2016

Imprint : Vintage Australia

RRP: $34.99

 

As the daughter of a Lancaster wireless operator/air gunner growing up in the Sydney suburbs one of my favourite spots in our house was in front of our fireplace which had built in bookshelves on either side. My father was a voracious reader and Paul Brickhill’s books were among his favourites. I had also consumed them all by the time I was 12 and returned to them many times over the years. Now those same copies reside on my own bookshelf.

Having been raised on such a steady diet of Brickhill and knowing that my father had (at some stage) been acquainted with him (who knows where?), it would be reasonable to expect that I might have had some knowledge of the man’s life. The only thing I’ve ever known was that he was a journalist.

Thanks to this wonderful biography, which I have also devoured as greedily as I did the man’s books, I now have a much greater awareness of this hugely successful writer and his often troubled life.

Because I urge you to read this for yourself (I could almost impatiently stamp my foot and say ‘you must’!) there is no need for much detail regarding the content. Dando-Collins takes us on the full journey of Brickhill’s life including some background history regarding his family’s involvement with newspapers. He describes the young Paul’s childhood on the North Shore of Sydney and his meeting with a solitary unkempt boy of similar age named Peter Finch who became a lifelong friend. An uninspired school experience led to some unfulfilling jobs until Brickhill gained a foothold in the newspaper business which was his heritage, rising quickly through the ranks from copyboy to journalist. Despite enjoying some accolades for his work Paul felt in need of a new challenge and adventure and decided to realise his childhood dream of flying by joining the RAAF (despite initial disdain of enlisting). Before too long he was a fully-fledged Spitfire pilot and on combat missions but was shot down near Tunis narrowly escaping death as he abandoned his ‘kite’ and was captured by Italians who of course promptly handed him over to the Germans. There followed a long stint in Stalag 3 which Paul was later to make famous – or infamous – as the setting for The Great Escape (RIP The Fifty). Although an integral member of the X Organisation Brickhill was not among the escapees and at the close of war was force marched across Germany with other POWs along with retreating German troops and refugees. Returning to civilian life after the trauma and privations of POW existence was not easy for many survivors, Paul among them but his determination to tell the story of the Great Escape and honour his comrades drove him to complete his first ‘escape’ book. Almost ten years later, with other escape books,  The Dam Busters and (what I still regard as) his ‘tour de force’ Reach for the Sky, the biography of Douglas Bader, Brickhill was celebrated around the world for both books and screen adaptations as well as journalistic pieces.

The rigours of the war were not the stuff of easy and calm futures and Paul’s tempestuous and tumultuous marriage to young model Margot eventually collapsed into catastrophe. This is no kid gloves account of Brickhill’s personal life. His unpredictable moods and tempers (including striking his wife on a number of occasions), the depression, mental illness, heavy drinking and reclusiveness are all revealed.  When his marriage finally faltered it seemed that so did Paul’s creativity and though he ‘worked’ on several projects over the next two decades, he more or less lived rather like a hermit in his small top floor unit in Balmoral, Sydney, without ever publishing again.

Some critics have dismissed Brickhill’s work as being too ‘journalistic’ but I will say I have never enjoyed reading newspapers and the like, but I love reading Brickhill. If their comments refer to the fact that he employs his skills of journalistic details and observation, yes he does. But he also has a deft touch for laconic humour and the ability to weave facts into a cracking yarn. For me the absolute joy of this book was that Dando-Collin’s literary style appears to echo the very essence of the subject’s own work and at times I could ‘hear’ Brickhill’s voice telling his own story in his own words.

I am so grateful to Random House Australia for allowing me the privilege of reading and reviewing this volume. I am also grateful to Stephen Dando-Collins who has breathed life again into one of the integral storytellers in my life. How fitting in 2016, the 100th anniversary of his birth and 25th anniversary of his death that Paul Brickhill’s skill and story can be brought to a new generation of readers and this tribute which is a testament to his global acclaim is both perfect and poignant.

If you have secondary students who are keen on biographies I suggest this would be a valuable addition to your collection but above all, as an Australian reader, I highly recommend it to you to celebrate the life of one of our most widely recognised writers.

 

A blog Q&A with Stephen is being organised now so stay tuned for more!

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Flt-Lt Paul Brickhill

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Kevin Albert Warren – this one is for you Father Bear x

The50Memorial

Yong : the journey of an unworthy son – Janeen Brian

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ISBN: 9781925126297
Imprint: WALKER BOOKS AUST
Distributor: Harper Collins Distribution Services for Australia and New Zealand

August 1, 2016

RRP $16.99

There have been many accounts of the Chinese coming to Australia in the gold rush era both for adults and children but this is the first I have read which explores the history of some of these worthy migrants making their arduous journey to get to those diggings.

While this is historical fiction there are so many parallels to contemporary issues surrounding the plight of refugees risking all for a better life and the treatment which many of them receive.

“ Janeen Brian has vividly and realistically brought to life 1850s’ Chinese and Australian culture, and themes of prejudice, racism, exploitation, desperation and coping with change are explored.”

Yong’s father is Headman of his village, widowed and living with young children and an aged grandmother when he persuades a group of his fellows to join him on what they hope to be their salvation. He takes a reluctant oldest son, Yong, with him. They are swindled and beset by troubles from their initial ship voyage to the trek to the goldfields by tricksters who see them merely as objects of scorn. The contrast between the honour, respect for others and cultural values held by this group and that of those they encounter is poignant and terrible. Yet, they persevere in their quest, most especially Yong who struggles with his feelings of resentment and disloyalty towards his father and his feelings of inadequacy in the face of such a monumental challenge.

Beautifully written, with short chapters and a plot laced with danger and daring, this has strong links to curriculum (particularly Key Idea: Australians of Asian heritage have influenced Australia’s history and continue to influence its dynamic culture and society.)

If you are looking for a new novel for a class reading in Upper Primary or as a read aloud to accompany a unit of work this would be a superb choice.

It is also bound to very popular with Middle to Upper readers of historical fiction.

Highly recommended for readers aged around 10 years upwards.

Update: New trailer here