Late November/early December 2020: Happy Holidays

Weeks of Sunripe Mulberries

Usually ‘happy holidays’ is a break from work, though (whispers) for an author, December and January are the months editors usually send large packages to be corrected for when they get back from the beach. (NB I rather enjoy this).

But this year ‘holidays’ may hopefully mean a break from 2020. The pandemic will ease, the vaccines may prove successful, masks will be worn, bushfires will either flare or be extinguished before they become monstrous, the cherries will ripen, and wombats will be fat, and I may even get around to mowing the lawn.

It’s been an interesting year. Everyone we know has had personal trauma added to the national and international ones, as if 2020 decided that we weren’t going to enjoy it so it may as well lump a truckload of disasters on us and get them over with.

I hope. But never will ‘happy new year’ be cried with quite so much fervour in our home before.

And yet…

As I write this life is magic. The lyrebirds are singing and scratching up the damp bush and not my strawberry bed.

Dappled Water

It rains at least once a week lately, as if on a timer. Three girls are heading up the valley to talk about why they want to be writers and how they might make their work professional; Bryan is boiling the kettle and about to make a cup of tea, and there are three kinds of biscuits I made two days ago waiting to be served

Later: One of the girls asked why I didn’t live in New York. I laughed and told her to look outside – six million roses, ripe cherries on the trees and a wallaby eating as many loquats as possible before the possums and fruit bats feast on them tonight. (Luckily wallabies, possums and fruit bats prefer large fat loquats to smaller ripe cherries).

Wallabu with loquat

But also the quality of gossip – and eccentrics, and people with fascinating stories their grandparents told them – is far superior in country areas. In cities you mostly mix with your peers. Here you meet everyone, work together in disasters, even if their bull broke your fences last week. The perfect place to be a writer. Also this is home, deeply and absolutely.

The Not Quite Holiday Season

For some reason a large proportion of our friends and relatives have birthdays about now, so holiday season begins on November 6 and continues till after the Australia Day weekend, though still can’t understand why we need a day to celebrate being Australian, given we also have 364 days to do so, and if we don’t feel like doing it then, why bother?

But to return: this is the gift finding season, but hopefully not for Bryan and me, as we are what museums and art galleries call ‘de accessioning’ which means we’d rather give possessions away than gather more of them, and there is nothing we need except possibly a house which will not burn down no matter what the extremes of bushfire, world peace, a reduction of C2 in world temperature, and goodwill to men, women, kids and wombats.

I’ve had fun getting the kids’ gifts though. Or rather one gift. The best presents to give to kids are the ones you always wanted when you were a kid, so this year (shh) there will be a flying fox between the trees, or there will be if I can find the correctly sloping spot with soft grass below to put it. We have trees in abundance, and also grass, but we also have an abundance of rocks, which turn out to be six tonne boulders when we try to dig them out. The flying fix is still provisional, but Grandma will be the first to try it out.

And for everyone else, books. And more books. A book is a six times gift as when you give them to the right people they pass them around, plus I get to read them before I post them. Dad taught me never to give a book I hadn’t read, just to make sure it was excellent all the way through.

May your season be full of cherries and sun-ripened apricots, real and metaphorical, with no storms or fires or pestilence, rea or metaphorical, and a season of pure joy.

Wombat News

The wombats are fat, but there are no new babies – last summer was not a time for mating, even though we kept the animals here fed and watered. Phil is still a darling, Monkey Whiskers scampers three times around the garden table in sheer joy at being given carrots, and Wild Whiskers still tried to bite the legs of everyone, human, wallaby or wombat.

Twelve Ways To Enjoy Summer

  1. Take a book to a shady tree and read to someone, even if it’s just the dog. Or especially if it’s the dog. Dogs love being read to, and a book feels different read aloud.

  2. Freeze tea or coffee in ice block trays to either add to iced tea or coffee, or to pile in glasses when guests arrive so they can sip the gloriously cold liquid as they melt, possibly with a little milk or cream poured over them.

  3. Freeze a bunch of grapes to eat one by one (they taste like grape sherbet) or to add a few to chilled sparkling wine or sparkling apple juice.

  4. Water in the cool of the evening- night scents are different. On very hot nights, water yourself too.

  5. Play skipping games with the jet of water from the hose.

  6. Put your feet up for ten minutes after lunch and dinner, unless you are very busy, in which case make it twenty minutes.

  7. Look for Santa Claus’s practice runs in the night sky. Any excuse to look up and wonder is a god one.

  8. This is the season of giving. Give something to someone who needs it every day, even if it’s just a smile you might not have remembered to give, or coins to a busker, or actually filling in the donation to that charity, and if you see a kid looking longingly at a book, buy it for them, or for their parents or guardians to give them.

  9. Put out wild bird seed. This is a hard year in most places for wild birds.

  10. Smile a lot. Smiling also releases pleasurable endorphins in the smiler.

  11. Nothing made or offered with love has calories – Grandma said so. Life is too short to resist any deeply delicious temptation.

  12. Nod politely to dogs, with reverence to cats, and don’t forget the animal treats if asked to dinner where some of the guests may be four footed.

Books to Buy for the Holidays

The Angel of Waterloo

Out: November 2021

The Angel of Waterloo

Henrietta is a surgeon on the battlefield of Waterloo, at a time when women were not surgeons, nor, officially, on battlefields. She was born on a battlefield, will marry on the battlefield, lose her husband and hunt for love, change and a place where she can work in colonial Australia.

This is a story of how those Napoleonic wars shaped colonisation and the nature of our nation. It also tells how, at some times and some places, there was friendship, love and exchange of knowledge between indigenous and colonial women. The histories of tragedies and slaughter of indigenous people must be told, but these stories need to be remembered too.

It is also, of course, a story of the many roles of women that are only now being acknowledged, from Hen’s surgical skill to Elizabeth’s farming, Mrs Cook’ indomitable survival and Jessica’s deep indigenous knowledge. It is adventure, mystery, and above all love, for each woman in this book has her own love story, as well as love for the land on which this book was written.

Please read it. (I have never asked that before).

The Fire Wombat (with Danny Snell)

Out: Now

Ages: 3+

The Fire Wombat

This is the true story of the small wombat who staggered towards us from the smoke at 2 am in last summer’s bushfires, and of the animals she led to safety. It is also a story of the uncounted volunteers, the hope and the renewal.

The Schoolmaster's Daughter

Ages: 10+

The Schoolmaster's Daughter

The Schoolmaster’s Daughter was released earlier this year – I’m not quite sure what crisis was occurring just then. I love the book, which I don’t say about all my books. Each review has focused exactly on the heart of the book, and why I wrote it – a coming of age for a girl, and a nation, where our nation’s first law was of racial division, forcibly removing Pacific Islanders who came as slaves, adventurers or indentured workers for decades to Australia, and their children for whom Australia was home. It’s about the fight for education for those with a dark skin as well as for women; how books can light a future; how battles might take decades to win, but we do, eventually, get there, or at least much further on the path.

It’s also the stories of my grandmothers, combined. And even the shipwreck, the secret school, and the treasure on the beach, are true.

Pandemic (with Bruce Whatley)

Out: November 2020

Ages: 7+

Scholastic Books had what we thought might be the final book in the Disaster series ready to go to print – Earthquake. Then the pandemic hit. So while Bruce was in quarantine for a fortnight to be able to see his mother in South Australia, we created this, and Scholastic books edited and designed it with similar sped and dedication. It will be out soon, and there have already been overseas rights sales. It is the story of the 1918-1921 Spanish Flu pandemic, and again a true story, about my great grandmother, as well as the two heroes of a pandemic that finally vanished across the world: kindness and quarantine. Luckily we still have both those gifts to help us now.

We were going to bring out another this year in the series ready to go to print – Earthquake. but this seemed urgent. I wrote it in a week. Bruce was quarantined in a hotel for a fortnight to see his ill mother in SA, and all he had were a few coloured pencils and hotel pens - and in that fortnight he used those to create artwork unlike any of his others, because he never had to work with just hotel pens and a few coloured pencils. It is the story of hope and help and happiness — even in a pandemic.

The Ghost of Howler's Beach (The Butter O'Bryan Mysteries)

Ages: 10+

Adventure, The Depression, mysterious kids who vanish from a beach, The Very Small Castle and Aunts Cake, Peculiar and Elephant who I love dearly, as does the hero, Butter O’Bryan. The sequel will be out next year.

Great fun, and I hope deep insight into our past too.

The Early Summer Garden

Plant, plant and plant again. Seasons like this come rarely. Be extremely, totally extravagant and plant all you can afford and have space for and ask Santa Claus for the rest. Plant seeds of your favourite trees to grow to give to schools or to plant in unloved public places.

November is the time to evaluate what you’ve planted, and what you need to plant. Do you have enough carrots, parsnips, and celery to last a year?

Have you put in enough tomatoes, watermelon and zucchini?

Are you continuing to put in successions of corn, beans, and lettuce?

Plant more Beans whenever the last lot flower; corn and lettuce every three weeks; radish every month; and cabbage whenever you remember.

I usually stick in another lot of cucumbers and zucchini in December in case early plantings are hit by powdery mildew. Plant them well away from the first lot, with a tall crop like corn in between if you can. Plant another large lot of corn now too, so you have some to store for winter.


Most winter crops and all-rounders will have gone to seed; broad beans and peas will be fruiting; early silver beet can be snipped small and young; mignonette lettuce sown in August will be ready; parsley will be plentiful; dandelions will be leafy and sweet; and you can gorge on asparagus and artichokes.


Cherries, early peaches, early nectarines, early apricots, small early plums, Joaneting and Irish peach and lady Sudley apples (late November to December), loquat, orange, mandarin, citron, bush lemon, early Capulin cherries, lemon, lime, grapefruit, tangelo, avocadoes, strawberries, blueberries, early loganberries, Japanese raisin fruit

, lillypilly, and raspberries.

(An easy way to pick cherries, if you’re not going to store them, is to climb a tree with a pair of scissors and snip the bunches, then gather them at the bottom of the tree. This also tells the birds that the whole cherry tree territory is yours – not just the bottom branches. Otherwise they sit at the top of the trees and sneer at you.)

Other jobs:

*Feed lettuce, seedlings, celery, silver beet and corn with liquid manure.

*Weeds are the worst problem now. Cover them with mulch. The weeds will die and turn to fertiliser.

*Sniff the roses down at the nursery – then buy your favourite.

*Collect and plant seed from your favourite bulbs, like daffodils and dahlias.

*Use a long handled ‘chipper’ to cut out weeds from your paving: cheaper and less toxic than herbicide.

*Put ‘fruit fly’ bags or netting over peaches, mangos and other fruit that might be ‘stung’. It’ll keep birds and possums off too!

*Scatter a good organic plant food around.

*Don’t forget the hat. And sunscreen. And mozzie repellent if gardening in the evening cool.

Check the wisteria, Chinese jasmine and kiwi fruit vines to make sure they aren’t invading your roof or dreaming of conquering the neighbourhood. Be firm and cut wandering tendrils back.

Five Why I Can't Garden Myths

Myth No 1: I can’t bend down

Solution: Convert your garden into shrubs, mulch and a few raised beds among gravel or tan bark paths where you can plant flowers, herbs or vegies without bending down.

PS You don’t get as many weeds in raised garden beds either.

Myth No 2: Gardens make me sneeze

Solution: Pollens and moulds make you sneeze, not gardens! Pave or have gravel instead of lawn, and go for flowers that don’t produce much pollen, like ageratum, alyssum, anemone, azalea, banksia, boronia, bottlebrush, many bulbs, cacti and succulents, camellias, correa, gardenia, hakea, lavender, leptospermum, magnolia, lillipilli, plumbago, rhododendron, roses, salvias, viburnums, weigelia, impatiens, pansy, nasturtium, petunias and phlox. Wear goggles and – if necessary – a respiratory mask when pulling out flowering weeds, mowing long flowering grass, using a brush cutter, putting out hay or other mulch that might have mould spores. Or get someone else to do it for you!

Myth No 3: I don’t have a garden

Solution: Sorry – you mean you don’t have a garden YET! Buy six BIG pots. Put them by a sunny window or on the patio. Add potting mix, plants, slow-release fertiliser and water once or twice a week. You can even grow your own tomatoes, coffee bushes, tea bushes, passionfruit or Italian parsley in indoor pots.

Many suburbs also have community vegetable gardens where you have your very own plot, even if you don’t ‘own’ it.

Myth No 4: I can’t spare the water