BOOK REVIEW: Where Song Began by Tim Low (Review by Justin Cahill)

Way back in 1987, while flicking through New Scientist, an article on birds caught my eye. It was about research that indicated the ancestors of Lyrebirds were among the world’s earliest songbirds. Back then, Australia was thought to be a refuge for species left over after it spit from the supercontinent, Gondwana. Songbirds were generally associated with Europe. The idea they had first evolved here seemed so unlikely that I kept the article, assuming the whole thing would go the way of cold fusion.

In Where Song Began, Tim Low tells how what was once theory became accepted fact. This is an exceptionally important book. High quality, up-to-date works on our natural history written for a general audience for are rare. Low generously stuffs his account of with fresh insights. It turns out the Treecreepers that live in the Blue Gums at the bottom of my street evolved from another ancient song bird. The Magpies that pick their way through the lawn only recently diverged from the local Butcherbirds. Once-mighty theories come crashing down. I was taught New Zealand’s endemic flightless birds, including the Kiwi, only survived as it had split from Gondwana just before mammals big enough to eat them evolved. It turns out that their able-to-fly ancestors probably came from Australia after New Zealand drifted away and were large enough to suppress the development of mammals there.

Author Tim Low

There is much we still don’t know. The eminent archaeologist Colin Renfrew once observed that human DNA, archaeological and literary evidence remain difficult to reconcile. It’s the same with our birds. While it has long been known that Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea had a distinct birdlife, is only now becoming clear just how unique many local species are.

And how have we treated them? As Low recounts, we have destroyed large parts of their habitat, shot them en masseto decorate hats with their tail feathers, killed their young and collected or smashed their eggs. For decades, thousands of muttonbirds were bludgeoned to make a tanning oil, ‘Vita Tan’, sold to unsuspecting bathers at Bondi Beach. In Sydney, habitat destruction has caused the populations of many once-common species to decline sharply. Some face local extinction.

Low also provides fascinating insights into Australia’s economic history. Before the advent of plastics, we had a thriving trade in‘exudes’, the saps and gums that oozed from our native trees. They were used to make an extraordinary range of products, including gramophone records, cosmetics, chewing gum, paint and tooth paste.

Low’s accessible style makes this a very appealing book for those looking for an insight into Australia’s unique flora and fauna. It is a book you can dip into and be assured of learning something new.

Grab a copy of Where Song Began here

Justin Cahill is a historian and solicitor, his university thesis being on the negotiations between the British and Chinese governments over the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997.

His current projects include completing the first history of European settlement in Australia and New Zealand told from the perspective of ordinary people and a study of the extinction of Sydney’s native birds.

He is a regular contributor to the Sydney Morning Herald’s ‘Heckler’ column.

BOOK REVIEW: Here Come the Dogs by Omar Musa (Review by Caroline Baum)

here-come-the-dogs-order-your-signed-copy-The energy of this debut novel just leaps off the page. Musa, a charismatic rapper, has successfully translated the idiom and pulse of performance to the page with its syncopated rhythms and hard-edged beats.

Inevitably, he is being compared with his mate Christos Tsiolkas for his full-frontal engagement with contemporary Australian society: in this case, multicultural masculinity with its surges of often misdirected testosterone.

In small town suburbia during a tinder-dry summer, anything could happen. Booze, drugs, violence and a racing dog all help pass the time.

At the centre of this compelling mash up of poetry and prose are three iconic young men: Solomon, a charming Samoan, who has broken up with his girlfriend and is fascinated by Scarlett, a free spirited tattooist; his half-brother Jimmy, who has got himself into trouble, and their Macedonian childhood friend, Aleks.

Musa manipulates language with raw, bracing vitality, offering up a picture of Australia that is not pretty but feels authentic.


Caroline Baum has worked as founding editor of Good Reading magazine, features editor for Vogue, presenter of ABC TV’s popular bookshow, Between the Lines, and Foxtel’s Talking Books, and as an executive producer with ABC Radio National. She is currently Booktopia’s Editorial Director.

Grab a signed copy of Here Come the Dogs here

Grab a signed copy of Here Come the Dogs here

REVIEW: Life or Death by Michael Robotham (Review by Andrew Cattanach)

There seems to be two types of people in this world. Those who love Michael Robotham, and those who haven’t heard of him yet.

It can be difficult for a crime writer to receive critical acclaim and popularity. Books by design are denser than any cop drama on TV, asking questions designed for reflection rather than ratings. Formulas are examined and broken down, cliches noted, thin characters ridiculed.

What sets Michael Robotham apart? A simple, but often neglected factor.

He’s just a wonderful writer.

Life or Death starts with an intriguing premise. Audie Palmer is on the run, having escaped from jail. 10 years of beatings and torture are behind him. But what’s the twist?

He has escaped just one day before he was due to be released.

RoboIn Audie Palmer, Robotham has created a character we can all root for. Lucky in his unluckiness, stoic, brave, principled. He is haunted by the ghosts of the past and by a crime he swears he didn’t commit. But can we trust him? Can we really trust anyone?

While Audie is the heart of the story,  there is plenty of meat around him, an ensemble cast of crooked politicians, kind-hearted criminals and shady FBI agents, not to mention a missing seven million dollars. The waters are murky, and Robotham revels in it.

Life or Death is for the crime fan who likes a story, not just an account. Brilliantly written, intelligent, funny, sad and meticulously mapped out, it’s easy to understand why there has already been so much interest in a big screen adaptation of the novel.

There is nothing more exciting than an author operating at the peak of their powers. With Life or Death, Robotham is doing just that, further strengthening his hold as one of Australia’s finest crime writers. Find out why Audie is on the run, before it’s too late.

Grab a copy of Michael Robotham’s Life or Death here


Andrew Cattanach is a regular contributor to The Booktopia Blog and was shortlisted for The Age Short Story Prize. He enjoys reading, writing and sleeping, though finds it difficult to do them all at once.

You can follow his ramblings on twitter at @andrew__cat

REVIEW: Loyal Creatures by Morris Gleitzman (Review by Andrew Cattanach)

The opportunity to critique a childhood idol is an uncomfortable proposition. When I was a child my mother would thrust a library book in my hands after we’d run down the bus I was always late for. One of these books was Misery Guts, by Morris Gleitzman, a book that fostered my love of reading. I remain forever indebted to him.

Gleitzman’s new novel, Loyal Creatures, continues his legacy of placing ordinary children in extraordinary, trying circumstances. Frank is a bullish bush kid, of a size that belies his tender years. His mother has passed away and he lives a hard-working life with his father.

War has broken out and Frank is desperate to enlist, despite being underage. He pleads with his father to allow him to bring his loyal horse Daisy to the showgrounds for a trial, but his father refuses. One day Frank’s father receives a white feather in the mail, a signal of cowardice from the community, and gives in to Frank’s requests on one condition. They go to war together, and thus begin a journey that will change their lives forever.

Growing up, stories of The Great War never fascinated me like other boys. They terrified me. I was born on ANZAC Day, in a small town that had the highest enlistment rate of any place in Australia during WWI. The legacy of war was everywhere, and all I could think of was what if it was me? What if I was one of those foolhardy young men desperate for an adventure, who jumped aboard those ships, never to return? Few books can answer those questions as poignantly as Loyal Creatures.

There is an incredible empathy to Gleitzman’s work, spilling over generously into his latest effort. I suspect war terrifies and frustrates him just as much as it does I, and every inch of bravado Frank shows in the opening pages of the novel is met with anger and sadness later as he discovers what war truly is. An horrific, unnecessary loss of life.

Loyal Creatures has something in it for all ages, another telling story of courage and sacrifice during WWI that we should never forget. As a Morris Gleitzman fan, I can truly say he is on top form with Loyal Creatures. Don’t miss it.

Grab a copy of Morris Gleitzman’s Loyal Creatures here

Grab a copy of Morris Gleitzman’s Loyal Creatures here

REVIEW: The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen (Review by Hayley Shephard)

the-queen-of-the-tearlingThe book world is abuzz with the publication of The Queen of the Tearling. Likened to Game of Thrones for its epic setting and brutal violence, it has poignant moments that are reminiscent of the era of Queen Elizabeth Ist, and tells the story of a burdened girl in a dystopian world. Is it any wonder why I couldn’t stop reading? And why Emma Watson has chosen to play the lead in the upcoming film, despite hinting that she would steer clear from another big budget adaptation?

Kelsea Glynn is 19, and after the death of her mother, has reached the age whereby she can take the throne, currently occupied by her uncle, who has brought destruction to the land of the Tearling under the influence of a nearby nation. Kelsea was placed away from the reach of evil as an infant and treated in her formative years as a future ruler who needs to survive to see that crown put on her and not her head on the floor. But will Kelsea grow to become the leader she was destined to be?

The book delves deeper into the mindset of someone who has always been beaten down and looked down upon by those who remember her Mother; a vain woman whose rule made Tearling ripe for the taking. Kelsea wants to change the lives of her people but her dreams remain unfulfilled, stopped by those who have only taken oaths to escort her to safety and no further.

Kelsea could be any one of us, but while we don’t have to try and survive and rule at the same time, many of us have to take things on the chin and accept that we can’t have everything we want, especially when it is at the expense of other things in life.

Johansen, Erika2

Author: Erika Johansen

Over the course of the book Kelsea battles against all odds to fight back against the overshadowing country of Mortmesme, which expects large and regular shipments of Tearling men and women of all different ages, a legacy from her Mother’s troubled rule. Kelsea is not strikingly beautiful like her mother, but within her there is a fight she never had. She also has a type of crystal, a crystal that makes her powerful and yet she fears the implications of using it.

Erika Johansen’s writing style is dense, full of riddles and puzzling stories. I was filled with questions. Who is her father? What is this crystal? Who is that ruling bitch from Mortmesme really?

Clearly I already need the second book, so I can start to see Kelsea grow and change into maybe not only a great leader, but a just one.

And I guess Emma Watson feels the same way.

Grab a copy of The Queen of the Tearling here

The World of the ‘Well-Read’ and the Dangers of Book Lists

Q: Have you read the latest Hilary Mantel?

A: No. I prefer her earlier work…

It’s easy to imagine two cavemen standing at the foot of a rock painting and grunting softly over the irony of using mammoth blood to draw a wounded deer. Readers, like all passionate art lovers, tend to argue over the merit of works at the drop of a hat.

All arguments over books boil down to one common point. How is one book ‘better’ than another?

Is Dan Brown’s latest novel really worse than Green Eggs and Ham? Is a blockbuster hit really better than a self-published thriller?

Occasionally book lovers will come up with a list of books, saying you must read these books to call yourself well-read.

I ask these people, on behalf of all readers, to please, please not do this.

Debate is a wonderful thing. For my part, is Green Eggs and Ham better than Dan Brown’s latest novel? Absolutely.

But that’s only my opinion, and you certainly don’t have to have read it to be called well read. Dr Seuss famously wrote it as a bet with his publishers that he couldn’t write a book with just fifty different words.

Only a few days ago one of my friends (an intelligent chap, though a non-reader) told me he had read my review for Dan Brown’s Inferno, and wanted to know if he should read it. I unequivocally replied ‘yes’.

Well-read 2Would I have rather recommended Jane Austen? Or Ernest Hemingway? Or George Elliot?

Of course, but that’s just my opinion. Will he enjoy Inferno? Yes.

Will he read another book because of it? Yes.

And my job, as a preacher of the word of the book, is complete.

If you finish a book and think to yourself – I enjoyed that – that’s all that matters. Yes, in my opinion there many wonderful books that don’t contain wizards and werewolves. But that’s just me, and my opinion.

Putting together a list of books someone must read is helpful.

Saying someone must read all of these books to be called well-read is silly, and ignorant of the diversity, not just of human beings, but of centuries of literature.

Author Maude Casey once said ‘I was born with a reading list I will never finish‘. Embrace that thought, and read what you want. Feel no pressure to read what people tell you. Only then, can you find yourself immersed in the magic of books.


Andrew Cattanach is a regular contributor to The Booktopia Blog. He learned to read on a two hour bus trip to school every day, and learned to write in lecture halls and cramped tutorial rooms. He sometimes wins things for the lecture hall stuff.

You can follow his ramblings on twitter at @andrew__cat

BOOK REVIEW: The Secret Lives of Emma trilogy: Beginnings, Distractions, Unmasked (Review by Ariane Beeston)

After his events at this year’s Sydney Writer’s Festival, John Purcell’s bestselling Secret Lives of Emma trilogy has reached new audiences. We asked a fan of the series, writer Ariane Beeston, to share her thoughts. Unfortunately this wonderful review will do little to stop the boss gloating around the office.

For much of my early twenties, I spent hours wandering through the labyrinth of shelves in John Purcells secondhand bookshop (Johns Bookshop) a beautiful store tucked into the corner of a small shopping village in Mosman. The huge selection of novels, combined with Johns encyclopaedic knowledge of all things literary was a true bookworms heaven.

And so, it was lovely and a little intriguing to discover that the tall, mysterious man behind the counter of this much-loved little bookstore had penned his own novels, under the pseudonym Natasha Walker.

The Secret Lives of Emma is a wickedly sexy series. The heroine, 32 year-old Emma Benson, is a recently married Mosman woman, with a past. Uninhibited and with a constant string of lovers, Emma surprises everyone, including herself, when she chooses to settle down. While she initially attempts to remain loyal to her banker husband and her new, quieter life in the suburbs, ultimately, Emmas desire for the sensual is bigger than suburbia, the trilogy chronicling her secret, erotic adventures.

The Secret Lives of Emma, John Purcell, Natasha Walker, Books Online, Australian BooksShe was not unhappy, not all at, except in this: she needed from time to time to be very naughty.

Emma is a psychologically complex woman, both scheming and reflective. Shes beautiful, but shes clever. Beguiling. Theres an intelligence to Emmas encounters, to her analysis of situations, emotions and of course, the people she meets, lusts after and loves.

The novels are written in such a way that the experience is seamless, creating the sense that you might miss out if you stop reading, that the characters will simply continue on without you.

Purcell writes sex brilliantly, even elegantly at times. The language is perfectly sexy, avoiding the sorts of clichés that can make erotica more cringeworthy than sensual. Theres a wit and playfulness to the overall tone of the books, something which sets them apart from other novels in this genre.

the-secret-lives-of-emma-unmasked, John PurcellSex aside (which is as titillating and fantasy-fuelled as youd expect from good erotic fiction) the books are full of astute insights around the nature of friendship, of marriage and monogamy and of lust and love. Concepts like jealousy, possession and attraction are also explored through Emmas liaisons and the life choices she makes.

The Secret Lives of Emma is intelligent erotica. Its multi-layered, funny and at times, even wise.

A tease and a treat.

Grab a copy of The Secret Lives of Emma here



Ariane Beestons writing has appeared on The Good Men Project, Mamamia, ivillage Australia Role/Reboot and Essential Baby.

She can be found on twitter @Ariane_JMS and you can read her published work at

REVIEW: Luigi’s Freedom Ride by Alan Murray (Review by Terry Purcell)


Luigi’s Freedom Ride is a first novel by Alan Murray, an established writer of non-fiction which can be categorised as a “feel good” read with strong Australian, Italian and cycling themes.

It tells the story of Luigi, growing up in Mussolini’s pre-war Italy in a small Tuscan village, who, while still a young teenager, luckily acquires a damaged bicycle left with him by a British tourist.  With the help of his uncle he repairs the bike which allows him to glimpse the world outside his village.

From that point onwards Luigi’s bicycle is an important sub-text reinforced by amusing chapter headings about cycling.  The bicycle is also basis of Luigi’s long held dream of escaping village life and riding his bicycle to the near mythical land of Australia which he read about at school.

Eventually the war comes to Italy and the 18 year old Luigi is called up by the army and after a few months training he and several friends are assigned to a bicycle unit and end up in Ancona on the Adriatic coast.

By then, however, the hated Germans are in control and the war finally reaches Italy and their base becomes a target for allied air raids.

On an assignment to transport supplies to inland units Luigi and his friends are cut off and find themselves joining the partisans which exposes Luigi and his friends to the reality of war and the terrible losses caused by it.

Murray’s well written and readable novel is an intriguing story which tells us how Luigi sees the world on his way to Australia, a place he finds as magical as he had dreamed it would be as a teenager and finds freedom and love.

At a time when today’s refugees are made unwelcome, Luigi’s story is a timely reminder of the welcome most post war refugees received by the largely Anglo Celtic population, and the ease with which most quickly fitted in and became appreciated contributors to, as well as beneficiaries of, the post war growth of Australia.

It is very satisfying read and I strongly recommend it, not the least because we need to be reminded that probably the great majority of us descend from convicts or refugees.

Terry Purcell is a solicitor and was the founding director of the Law Foundation of NSW. He is a regular contributor to The Booktopia Blog.

Grab a copy of Alan Murray’s Luigi’s Freedom Ride here


Go in the draw to win this vintage bike when you pre-order Luigi’s Freedom Ride!


REVIEW: From a Distance by Raffaella Barker (Review by Terry Purcell)

Raffaella Barker is an established English writer whose latest novel From a Distance tells an engaging, heart-warming story commencing with war weary and battle scarred young soldier Michael finally returning to England from the Far East in the spring of 1946.

Instead of heading north to see his parents and fiancée, he heads south to Cornwall with no set plan other than to find a way disconnect from his six long years of war.
In Cornwall he is made welcome by strangers and quickly fits into an artists’ colony and finds new friends and work which helps to heal the emotional and mental scars inflicted by the war.

Barker’s post war Cornwall is a warm welcoming place full of interesting artistic people where the rigours of rationing and shortages seemingly have little impact on this remote and fertile part of England, all of which contributes to Michael’s recovery and his ultimate acceptance of the need to return to his parents and fiancée.

The author also introduces us to Luisa, her family of teenage children and teacher husband, in a small seaside town in Norfolk in May 2012.  Into her life, and that of her extended family, comes Kit, a wealthy bachelor who has just inherited a local redundant lighthouse.  Raffaella Barker

I like this book and particularly admire the clever yet believable way Barker seamlessly brings the several strands of the story together with a surprising yet heart-warming conclusion.

When preparing this review I happily re-read the book, something rare for me, yet doing so reminded me of this author’s ability to create warm and believable characters – it is a book for those who like engaging stories.  I look forward to reading some of the author’s earlier books which have just been re-issued.

Terry Purcell is a solicitor and was the founding director of the Law Foundation of NSW. He is a regular contributor to The Booktopia Blog.

Grab a copy of Raffaella Barker’s From a Distance here


REVIEW: Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira (Review by Sarah McDuling)

love-letters-to-the-deadLove Letters to the Dead is a powerful coming-of-age novel that will grab hold of your heart and soul, drawing you into the narrator’s world so completely that finishing the book is actually quite upsetting – like having a door slammed in your face by your new best friend. As far as I’m concerned it’s one of the top Young Adult novels of the year.

This book first came to my attention when I saw that Emma Watson had tweeted about it. As a general rule, I will do whatever Emma Watson says because she is Hermione and therefore my idol. So when she gave her seal of approval, I obediently googled Ava Dellaira and discovered that she’s friends with Stephen Chbosky and had worked as an associate producer on the movie adaptation of The Perks of Being a Wallflower. After that I was naturally desperate to get my hands on a copy. 

Love Letters to the Dead is the story of Laurel, a young woman who is quietly drowning in grief and guilt. We are introduced to Laurel as she starts her freshman year of High School. (That means Year 9, for those of you who don’t speak American.)

At a glance, all the usual hallmarks of YA contemporary literature appear to be present and accounted for:

1. The (seemingly) Unattainable Crush:

In this case, his name is Sky. And if Sky was a mathematical equation he would look something like this:

Hot Guy + Mysterious Loner = Swoon10   

(Maths was never my best subject but I’m pretty sure that’s accurate).

2.  The Friend/s with Serious Life Problems:

Ava_Dellaira_author_photo Laurel’s two closest friends, Hannah and Natalie, are in love!  But their relationship is complicated. Neither of them are quite ready to come out of the closet and Hannah is dealing with a pretty stressful home-life situation.  Also she keeps ditching Natalie to date boys.

3. The Parents Who Just Don’t Understand:

Neither of Laurel’s parents have a very clear understanding what she’s going through. Her father is blinded by grief and her mother has skipped town at a time when Laurel needs her most.

4. The Thing That Happened in the Past that Must Remain Secret (until the end):

Laurel’s family was torn apart after the death of her older sister, May. But only Laurel knows the whole story behind what happened the night May died. And she can’t talk about it. She can barely even think about it.

So there you go. The bare bones of the story probably sound familiar to you. Most of us have read books like this before. But while the ingredients that have gone into making Love Letters to the Dead may be standard staples, Ava Dellaira throws a serving of raw emotion into the mix that takes everything to a whole new level. And I think that’s what makes Love Letters to the Dead such a special treat. It’s a genuine heartbreaker.

Another thing I love about this beautiful book is the fact that it’s written as a series of letters addressed to dead celebrities. As a pop culture junkie, I got a real kick out of this. Kurt Cobain, Judy Garland, Janis Joplin, Amelia Earhart and River Phoenix are just a few of the intriguing people Laurel chooses to write to. She writes the first letter for a school assignment, but then cannot bring herself to turn it in. Instead, she keeps writing letters to dead people. And as she writes she slowly reveals the tragic secret behind the death of her older sister, May.

love-letters-to-the-deadDellaira writes with such perfect pitch and subtle skill, Love Letters to the Dead feels like a modern classic. Laurel is a very self-contained and unassuming protagonist, one who spends the majority of the book repressing her feelings and denying the past. The true depth of her suffering is revealed so gradually that  I think I was about a third of the way through the novel before it dawned on me that she wasn’t just wallowing in typical teen angst. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you. I happen to love wallowing in teen angst, and I’m a proper grown up adult (supposedly).

This is one of those books that sort of creeps up on you. You start reading and everything seems pretty cool. You’re like, “Oh hey! I see what’s going on here. High school girl with high school problems. Boy drama! Teen Issues! Burgeoning womanhood! I know the drill.”

But as you keep reading you find yourself starting to think, “Hold up. I’m having some strong feelings about this book. Powerful emotions are happening! This is not a drill!

This beautiful book is the perfect for fans of poignant (i.e. emotionally apocalyptic) Young Adult literature like The Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Fault in our Stars. And the craziest part? This is the author’s first book! I’m completely blown away by that fact. After such an impressive debut, I can’t wait to see what Ava Dellaira does next because … wow.

Grab a copy of Love Letters to the Dead here


Sarah McDuling is a contributor to the Booktopia Blog and Editor of the Booktopia Young Adult Buzz.  Her hobbies include (but are not limited to) sword-fighting, ghost hunting and lion taming. She is also an enthusiastic fibber.

You can read her other posts here or follow her on Tumblr at Young Adult @ Booktopia


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