Peter Macinnis' Favourite Book Reviews

These are some personal selections that I have unearthed from my files because even I couldn't find them.


Reviews of Australian Backyard Explorer
Reviews of Australian Backyard Naturalist
Reviews of Bittersweet
Reviews of Curious Minds
Reviews of Kokoda Track: 101 Days
Reviews of The Monster Maintenance Manual
Reviews of Rockets
Reviews of The Big Book of Australian History
Reviews of The Killer Bean of Calabar
Reviews of The Lawn
Reviews of The Rainforest

The Big Book of Australian History

bbah-cover-50 (241K) awards-CBCANotable (17K) This was a commissioned work. It is what I call a laundry list book, something I had never written before. A focus group had sat down and come up with a list of 120 topics that needed to be covered. I did 119 of the 120, merging two others to make room for a couple I thought they had missed.

Aside from that, I was an obedient scrivener, covering 90,000 words in just under four months. I would have made the publisher's wish of three months, but my back gave in and I lost time. It sold out, and there were new editions in 2015 and 2017.

The Big Book of Australian History reviews

From Book Chook:

I know enough of Peter Macinnis to sit up and take notice when a new book of his is published! You may recall my review of Australian Backyard Naturalist. This meticulous researcher and entertaining writer has managed to produce yet another book that’s been selected as a notable book in the Children's Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Awards.

At first, I decided to enjoy The Big Book of Australian History by dipping into it at random, but that didn’t work. Before I knew it, I was caught up in the text, poring over the cleverly and carefully chosen illustrations, and pondering the points made. As I read, I also found within myself a dawning understanding of Australia’s geological significance, a heightened appreciation of Indigenous people’s struggles, and an enhanced perspective on our Australian culture.

I love the way Macinnis gives us an overview of Australian history without sacrificing entertainment in the name of research. He has an ability to dive down rabbit holes and find quirky stories and facts that will delight young readers. Did you know the nickname for Australian megafauna, Bullockornis planei, is the Demon Duck of Doom? Or that Rupert Murdoch’s nickname was ‘the dirty digger’? I also love that I found mention of some of my Australian heroes in the book. Sporting heroes are mentioned, yes, but we also meet Nobel prize winners, scientists and many entertainers - how satisfying to see Gurrumul listed as a Popular Star! Macinnis’ trademark sense of humour is also evident at times - one of the subheadings in the chapter, Voyages of Discovery, is 'James Cook takes a look'.

Macinnis has an easy, conversational style that explains to children without patronising, sharing snippets from the lives of famous and not-so-famous Australians. Kids will be fascinated to discover the background to many controversial issues and how change came about often because of TV - Australians could actually “see” injustices for themselves. I believe The Big Book of Australian History is a must for libraries and homes where knowledge is prized, and people seek to add to their understanding of Australia and its people.

From The Kids' Book Review:

Australia has a big history. A long history. A rich and convoluted history. Making sense of this history for children can be challenging but if anyone can do it well, it's the National Library of Australia.

Award-winning author Peter Macinnis has covered myriad topics in this tome-like book--packed with priceless information on our country's past and its people.

Beginning in ancient Australia and the formation of our landscape, we are taken through the age of the dinosaur to The Dreaming--a time of land, legend and arguably the oldest surviving culture on earth--that of our Aboriginal (or First) people.

We are then introduced to early explorers, the mapping of Australia and the founding of British colonies, and then taken through the pivotal social and political upheavals and changes of that time, as well as the establishment of our major cities.

Exploration is covered next, with detailed yet clear information that children will fully engage in. Settling the land, the growth of cities, religions, transport and infrastructure, and of course, Federation is also showcased, along with immigration, welfare, Australia's part in the World Wars, and 20th Century advances in science, medicine and the arts that saw our country quickly become a world player.

There is a phenomenal amount of information in this book, with express detail on such issues as the Great Depression, conservation, Aboriginal rights, natural disasters, sporting achievements (of course!), embracing multiculturalism, and much more. Text is well-laid out with breakout blocks that catch the eye and make the content very accessible.

I can't even imagine the time and energy that went into coordinating and producing this book--a shining example of the stunning teamwork at the National Library.

What I love most about the book, beyond its overwhelming content, is its pictorial journey, with pages sharing imagery over the decades--all part of the National Library's impressive image collection. On one side of the page, we may have a portrait of Olympic swimming champion Fanny Durack from 1912, and the other, a modern day photograph of surfboats powering through the water at Bondi.

Strikingly designed and laid out...

From Buzzwords Magazine:

What a fantastic book! And it is indeed a big book encompassing the history of a big country from its very formation to contemporary times.

Written largely in a chronological fashion, Macinnis' informative and child-friendly text charts the course of Australia's pre-history and history. Beginning with the formation of our island continent and megafauna, chapters then explore the coming of the first people to Australia and Indigenous culture, early explorers and the founding of the colonies, exploration by Europeans, the gold rushes and the resultant growth of the cities, federation, the Great War and the ANZACs, the Great Depression, World War Two and post-war Australia. There are also thematic chapters on modern times, sport (of course - this is a book about Australia!), disasters, multiculturalism, the arts and controversies, some of which are still lingering and unresolved.

NLA Publishing always draws on the vast archives of the Library and this visual aspect adds so much. Maps, photographs, paintings and objects illustrate Australia's history as much as the text and combines to offer a sumptuous insight to our nation in the past, present and future. Importantly, the book ends with the reminder that everyone contributes to history and there is a call to all of us to make Australia a better place through our actions.

While it was written specifically for young people, all of us will find something in this comprehensive coverage of every aspect of Australian history - the good, the bad and the ugly - and the often conflicting perspectives held. Every home in Australia deserves a copy of this outstanding book. I leave ours on the coffee table and without fail everyone picks it up to peruse the gorgeous glossy pages chock full of Australia's heritage.

From Reading Time:

It was never going to be possible to provide an in depth history of Australia from ancient times to the present in one volume. However, what this volume does do is to supply a broad history of Australia and its culture, which is more than sufficient to provide an overview and to encourage interested readers to read and research further any areas they find of particular interest. It can be dipped into or read from cover to cover. The written component of the text is well constructed and provides a balanced view of many of the complexities of our history, and the language is readily accessible to young readers. The illustrations provide an interesting collection of maps, historical photos and documents, some of which will give rise to memories for many readers.

Additionally, most pages have a small section that looks like it has been torn from a notebook or a separate block of blue that contains interesting and sometimes ironic snippets of information that may not be well known. For example, ‘Very few Aboriginal people were harmed by those cyclones [such as Darwin 1974] because they knew when dangerous storms were coming and where the best places were to seek shelter.’

One of the most interesting aspects of the text is the last section, where it encourages readers to engage with the thought that they too are a part of history. The book is well indexed and acknowledges the source of all illustrations. Suitable for 10-16 years and readers, who want a real taste of Australian history. SC

From Children's Books Daily:

‘The Big Book of Australian History’ uses images from the National Library of Australia collections and has been compiled by the multi-talented and award winning, Peter Macinnis. This book provides an overview of the history of Australia from its earliest geological formations to the present day and was developed with teacher librarians (yay us!) and experts in the field. The contents page and index are comprehensive whilst remaining student friendly and the list of illustrations is a fine example of referencing and provides information on how to view full titles, medium and dimensions through the National Library of Australia website. This is a must have for home, school and library collections and would be suitable from middle primary to lower secondary.

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Curious Minds

cur-minds-cover-50.jpg (212K) The idea was conceived in the second half of 2010, inspired (in a sense) by some of the stuff I had that wasn't going to be accessible or interesting to the younger readers of Australian Backyard Naturalist. It is the story for some of the curious minds who came to Australia, or in a few cases were born here, people who cared about the natural history of the place. Some were artists, some scientists, some collectors, some explorers, and some just enjoyed natural history.

The Curious Minds reviews

Excerpts from a review in the Journal of Australian Colonial History

Robert Haworth, Journal of Australian Colonial History, 15, 2013, pp. 230-231:

"...the National Library of Australia has produced yet another masterpiece of colour illustration, as if to demonstrate by example that the death of the book has been greatly exaggerated. The book is beautiful to the feel: its 213 pages in soft but durable covers can be bent and flicked through like a good field naturalist's guide, revealing startling illustrations from the best nature artists of each era, and also striking portraits of some of the main characters discussed. A solemn elderly Joseph Banks stares out of one page, followed by pages of the equally knobbly Banksia plants named after him, and after these, some of the many eager but often unworldly botanists that he sent out to carry on his work."


"Macinnis makes some interesting points about the nation-building influence of the wide publication of Australian naturalist accounts, and how these in turn morphed into the Blinky Bills and Snugglepots of children's literature, which created a virtuous circle of national pride and environmental awareness. Beginning with the versatile Mrs Meredith, many of the compilers did not hesitate to join the fight to stop the senseless destruction of many of the wonders that they described, though it was obviously a lonely battle at times."


"The author is a former science teacher, whose students were very fortunate to be taught by someone with the obvious knack of bringing complicated ideas, events and people to life."

FROM ME: Thank you sir: I don't know you, but I like your words!

ill-merc-rev-cm (263K) d-tel-rev-cm (429K) gleebooks-cat (236K) abbey-cm (320K) launc-ex-cm (203K) Andrew Isles catalogue (234K) 506-Newc-herald (248K)

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The Monster Maintenance Manual

monsters (150K)awards-CBCANotable (17K) I had fun writing this book. It took seven years, and it is a work of complete fantasy.

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The Monster Maintenance Manual reviews

The Kids' Book Review: Who knew a writer of all things scientific could be funny? Award-winning author Peter Macinnis bares his olecranon (that's funny bone to you) in this fabulous book - a must-have manual for all things monsterly.

We all know the fastest way to dissolve our fears is to face them, and in The Monster Maintenance Manual, a little bit of knowledge goes a long way to helping kids get control of the monster trembles.

Yes, we meet monsters under the bed (among other curious places around the house), but we quickly learn that many of these monsters aren't quite as bad as they seem… Like the humble house spider, sometimes the odd monster or two might just be a help around the house - or even a bit of fun.

Whatever monsters are, they are a curious bunch - and this compendium of monsters is indeed curious to the point of bizarre - featuring a wonderful collection of whimsically odd and historically blended creatures that blow the term 'urban myth' out of the water.

Yes, a monster is responsible for missing post-wash socks... the Gobblesocks. Yes, a monster is responsible for tangling your shoelaces - what else but the Shoelace Monster? Yes, if you hit the wrong note on your piano, a Piano Tuna may just be responsible, and if you find hair on the soap, yes you have a Hairyoddities infestation.

Each entry in this fascinating spotter's guide offers an overall monster explanation as well as notes on its origins, size, uses, hates, likes and what the monster is a threat to.

The author — a monster expert if there ever was one — also tell us some unusual facts about each monster (as if there could be more unusual facts!) - for example, Pink Elephants have a very large appetite for rum-soaked fruitcake, and Sleep Eaters have a tiny hole for a mouth, just big enough to suck in sleep and dreams.

Complete with an introduction on the origins of monsters, where they live, caring for them, getting rid of them and how to choose the right monster for your home, this hilarious book will have your little monsters nose-deep in the pages.

Superb, detailed Illustrations by Adele K Thomas bring to life this loopy line-up of critters - from Bombats to Imps, Soap Slurpers to Ceiling Slimers - this is the only monster manual you'll ever need. And honestly? How could you comfortably live without it? Put one under the bed.

From Barbara Braxton, teacher-librarian:

The age-old riddle of why only one sock comes out of the washing machine when you know you put two in, is answered in this quirky book by Peter Macinnis. The Gobblesock has it! This multi-legged creature lives behind your washing machine and its mission is to gobble one sock from as many pairs as are put in the machine, even being willing to dive into the machine on the spin-dry cycle - unless of course there is a sea urchin in there too.

Those socks that are dull and boring are eaten; those that are bright and colourful are worn. Gobblesocks love green peas in wasabi and will listen to any poems about them, even if they are really bad, so avoid those if you can.

The Gobblesock is just one of 64 monsters that the reader is warned about although to make it easier, we are given lots of details about their origins, where they live, what they like and don't and even how to avoid them. We are also treated to very lifelike colour illustrations by Adele Thomas, who beat over 1300 others for the pleasure of putting Peter's words into pictures, although students would have a wonderful time interpreting the information into their own pictures. What a fun way to teach them to identify key words and phrases!

The book starts with an intriguing introduction to monsters and our world-there are three main types -and then, to ensure our safety and sanity, there is a comprehensive collection of ideas about how to get rid of them that would offer some delightful activities for children to undertake, such as developing a list of at least 20 names which start with the same letter or words that end in the 'shun' sound but not spelt 'tion'.

This will be most useful, given that we are moving into a high-danger period when the Pudding Monster will be about (and we are told that this is not a food but 'an extremely dense form of low explosive'). However, provided the reader keeps a collection of spin bowlers, spin doctors, spinthariscopes, spinets and spinning wheels handy, they are not likely to be an immediate problem because the Pudding Monster hates those things.

This is a very different book from The Australian Backyard Explorer which won Macinnis the 2010 Eve Pownall award, but for all of us who have been entertained by Peter's amazing knowledge, zany humour and brilliant wordsmithery through these lists over the years, then this a personal must-have. For those who want something totally different that lends itself to a myriad of ideas for activities that will engage students whose passion for Harry Potter demonstrates their willingness to embrace monsters, then this is a must-have. And for those who just want to provide students, friends or family with a good laugh, then this is also a must-have.

In the meantime, I'm going looking for the lamington monster because I swear there were a dozen cakes in the packet I brought home yesterday - and the coconut on my desk is merely circumstantial evidence.

Barbara Braxton
Teacher Librarian

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Australian Backyard Naturalist

coverwa (18K)awards-CBCANotable (17K) This is my best-loved book, because it describes me. Here you will meet springtails, pseudoscorpions, onychophorans, leeches, ticks, engaging spiders, mummified lizards. giant worms, some curious plants and even a few rocks. Readers will learn new ways of catching animals, keeping strange pets that will frighten adults, different ways of looking at them and more. You don't need a microscope for this, but if readers have one, they will have a great deal more fun from this book. I certainly had fun writing it.

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The Australian Backyard Naturalist reviews

The reviews started rolling in, a few days before the official release date. The very first was from an Australian web site called Need to Read.
Here is a brief quote: use the link to see the whole comment.

... a fantastic collection of facts, photos, illustrations and projects, as well as notes from the authors own experiences ... Photos of deceased animals and close ups of fly eyes and maggots, as well as the array of fun facts will keep children turning the pages. The projects are user friendly and include checklists and easy to follow instructions using mostly every day materials. ( —Need to Read).

The second review is from Barbara Braxton, teacher-librarian and in the interests of full disclosure, an old friend from several educational email lists. It is now also available online.

From the furry to the slimy, the large to the tiny, Peter Macinnis explores the lives of the animals that share our lives and spaces in this fabulous book designed to introduce the reader to the fascinating world living in their backyard. From possums to parrots to pill-bugs, we learn about the habits and habitats of creatures that many of us never even notice yet are critical to ensuring that our environment is healthy and harmonious. Much as I think that some creatures have way too many legs and shudder as I think of them creeping over my skin, I now have a new respect for them and although I'm yet to be convinced of the value of a fly, I do understand that without them there would be no maggots and therefore the medical world would be deprived of an important source of therapy.

For this is the sort of information that is characteristic of Peter's books he doesn't just give dry facts that can be clicked, copied and pasted into some equally dry assignment he tells a story that absorbs you so you just keep reading and learning, engaged and intrigued, and emerging with not just information, but insight.

Each section comprises smaller sections that make its information accessible in the short chunks that support the learning needs of its audience. In My Backyard gives Peter's experiences with each sort of creature and it's this personal touch that is one of the elements which sets this book apart. At a Glance gives a broader background of the creatures and this is supported by Amazing! full of those quirky facts that some may wonder at the author's ability to winkle out, but those who are familiar with his writing and know the depth of his research are not so surprised. A Closer Look examines more complex issues such as chemical signals in ants and then the storyteller side of the scientist returns with fascinating histories about man's interaction with the creature. Did you know that Amalie Dietrich spent ten years living rough in the Queensland bush in the mid-19th century collecting, preparing and preserving specimens for use in European scientific studies, including the first-ever taipan snake? Her work led her become known as "Australia's first spider lady". Finally, each section has at least one project idea that students can engage in so they can see for themselves just what it is they have been learning about. (Miss 5 is going to love those and Grandma is just going to have to grow some backbone.)

The whole book is lavishly illustrated with photos from the National Library's collections and diagrams and photos that no Google search will ever deliver. The whole thing has this rich, glossy, satisfying feeling that a quality print resource offers and is accompanied by teachers notes available at

Barbara Braxton
Teacher Librarian
M.Ed.(TL), M.App.Sci.(TL), M.I.S. (Children's Services)

And another, from Bug Reviews:

Reviewed by Cassandra Griffin.

Australian Backyard Naturalist is a thorough reference book intended for a juvenile readership. It covers a range of subjects including mammals, ants, spiders, snails and many more all of which can be found in average Australian backyards.

With easy to read information, scientific names, and amazing photos, this book is excellent for school assignments or just for a child interested in the various subjects contained in this book.

Not only informative, author Peter Macinnis has also included his own personal experiences in each chapter. Not only theory but also practical; projects the reader can try such as ‘keeping mosquitos ‘or ‘making a butterfly net’ ’ABN’ covers most urban animals and explores Animal ecology in an age appropriate depth. Macinnis has created a reader friendly reference book which will excite readers and urge them to take part in their own backyard becoming Australian naturalists.

And another, from The Book Chook:

Reviewed by Susan Stephenson (there is a snippet of this page below, and a quote here: to see the whole thing, use the link).

Australian Backyard Naturalist is a must for libraries everywhere, but what an excellent gift it would make for children who are fascinated by the creatures they encounter outside! Parents will appreciate that kids will enjoy the book for years - it will appeal to pre-schoolers because of the great sketches and photos; beginner readers will cope with text boxes, labels and lots of help on the more scholarly sections; and independent readers will relish it all. It's also a perfect book to share as a family - reading it aloud together would make a truly wonderful family project, both entertaining and educational.

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Australian Backyard Explorer

white-ravens (8K) award-ep-winner (19K) tiny-front-cover-nla (76K) 2010-cbca-winner (442K)

This book won the Children's Book Council of Australia 2010 Eve Pownall award for Information Book of the Year. It was later one of 250 children's books from around the world included on the 2011 White Ravens list of the Internationale Jugendbibliothek München (International Youth Library)

This book revisited ground covered in an earlier book for adults, and while it was a commissioned title, I had a free rein, and its success was due to a team effort. It was conceived by Susan Hall, cleaned up with patient and brilliant editing by Joanna Karmel, topped off by superb design and illustrations Paul Joice, not to mention the pictorial research people. We all deserved the plaudits!

On the right, what the CBCA judges thought of it, lifted from the Canberra Times, which got my name wrong.

The Australian Backyard Explorer reviews

This book was a 2009 Personal Pick of the NSW Premier's Reading Challenge team. Thanks, folks! Now go and have a look at some of the other choices: John Flanagan's Ranger's Apprentice series (he lives near me and he's a lovely bloke), and Markus Zusak's The Book Thief are two that I know. I'm chuffed to keep such august company.

aby-review-small (61K) It took me a while to hear about one of these. Jan Pittman, a Gidgiegannup (WA) friend and illustrator of rare talent, sent a copy to me, clipped from The Australian. August 22-23, 2009, Kid's Lit reviews by Jill Rowbotham. The other one, from the Sydney Sun-Herald, I saw on the day it came out. It was a rainy day, but I didn't care!

ANYONE who can breathe life into Australian history deserves success, so bouquets to Peter Macinnis. The Sydney-based writer has produced this terrific original treatment of the early explorers, tightly written with inviting layouts and excellent illustrations. He asserts early, and it is most welcome, that for all the adventurers we easily remember, such as the Sturts and the Oxleys, there are a host of unsung team members who helped them perform the amazing feats of exploration and survival. This is a great message to send to a generation utterly imbued with celebrity culture. Chapters are fascinating and topical — food, weather, finding the way — and each includes a practical task such as constructing a meat safe, making a laundry basket boat and making a water filter.

Magpies, November 2009, Jo Goodman (excerpts)

In this exemplary production from the National Library, Peter Macinnis gives readers a different and fascinating insight into explorers and exploration. He draws heavily on the library's resources, both for the explorers' own reports and diaries, and for the enormous number of sketches, paintings and photographs that enliven every page (all scrupulously acknowledged). In addition, there are activities related to the topics...

...This is an attractive and engrossing book, and provides a wonderful supplement to more conventional accounts of the achievements of Australian explorers. It is full of riveting facts: the weigh of various foodstuffs, skills needed (including sewing, mending leather, shoeing horses, doctoring men and animals, sourcing valuable timber, animals and plants, estimating distances and finding water...

...Congratulations are due to the author designer and publisher of this marvellous book; it not only provides intriguing information about exploration, it makes accessible some of the incredible historical riches held in the National Library. Highly recommended!

Australian Museum Explorer, December 2009-February 2010, Fran Dorey (excerpts)

Aimed at 10 to 14-year-olds, Australian Backyard Explorer is a fascinating and informative read that kept me turning pages—often with regret that books like this didn't exist when I was at school.

Gone is the dry and lifeless approach to history—the 'who, what and when' that does so little to whet the appetite.

In its place, Macinnis writes engaging stories of explorers (including modern-day adventurers) and their oft-forgotten teams who strapped on their shoes, slapped on their hats and headed out on horse, foot, plane, bike or camel to explore the outback.

History is brought to life and the reader feels as though they too were on the expedition...

This is an ideal gift book for any budding explorer.

And here's a very nice review from Kids Book Review.

Winner of the Eve Pownall Award for Information Books in the Children's Book Council of Australia 2010 Awards, Australian Backyard Explorer well-deserves its accolade. This information-packed tome is a wonderful collection of facts, projects, adventures and information on all things possibly related to the Australian 'backyard'.

Of course, what comprises a backyard is subjective, and this book honours that concept, covering our greater backyard as well as our house-bound ones.

Beginning with a look at Australia's finest explorers, the author also makes the lesser known contributors to our country's foundation known. He covers convict explorers, aboriginal explorers, governors and even women, providing us a fascinating peek into the past.

In Finding a Way and Leaving Signs, Macinnis gives readers wonderful tips on how to navigate sand, scrubland, beaches, mountains, and use pathways off the beaten track. Drawing on the talents of indigenous trackers and the people who went before us, this information gives kids the tools and mind-expanding capability to stretch themselves beyond the norm. There's even a project in this chapter to see how sand dunes actually form, and ideas on how to leave messages that tell others you were here before them.

In Food, readers learn how food was carried and sourced. They learn about hunting, preservation, bush tucker and how to identify poisonous plants. The projects here include seed-planting and even some fabulous recipes that can be used mid-exploration, right in the heart of the wilderness.

Chapter Four is all about Collecting Animals. Our country's early explorers were intrigued by the unusual flora and fauna to be found on our shores, and many species made their way back to Europe to be paraded and enjoyed in the Homeland. In Chapter 5, plants are covered in equally fascinating measure.

Journals and Notebooks, The Water Problem and Trying to Stay Alive are all covered next, giving children (and adults!) unique insight into the issue facing our ancestors - and the phenomenal talent and resourcefulness that allowed them to survive and thrive.

The book also covers weather, shelter, measuring distance, mapping, navigating by the stars and a fresh look at modern day explorers and their exploits - all with that defining blend of fascinating fact, did-you-knows and glorious projects that will keep any child utterly enthralled, from making a compass to estimating distance by sound.

Meticulously researched and beautifully presented in a highly accessible way for youngsters, Australian Backyard Explorer is magnificently-edited, styled and presented - illustrated by a catalogue of paintings, sketches, diagrams and photographs from the National Library's stunning and extensive collection. This book is informative, fascinating and fun - and with all these elements combined, this is the kind of book that makes absolutely everyone happy.

An Australian treasure.

I also did an interview with Kids Book Review.

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The Lawn

LawnCover-small (17K) This started out as a simple commission, but I uncovered a lot more than we expected. The lawn mower was invented in the 19th century, but it was only about 1860 that people started going mad about lawns, and this book traces the intertwined histories of mowers, architect-specified lawns, lawn sports from cricket to football to croquet and lawn tennis. Here, I need to bow briefly to Mr Darwin's Incredible Shrinking World, because it was while I was writing that book that I discovered the many sports that arose in 1859, or within a year either side of it. This was just 30 years after the invention of the first reel lawn mower, the point at which the first patents expired. Most importantly, though, by 1859-60, the lawn-mower was a maturing technology.

The Lawn reviews

A review from New Zealand (more of a mention, really):

Everyone loves a lush lawn—but they’re not as green as they look, discovers Peter Malcouronne. Here’s how to let your grass grow greener The ubiquitous lawn is, relatively speaking, just a pup. The first lawnmower was patented in 1830: an ingenious invention that put lawns within reach of those unable to afford an entire village of scythe-wielding peasants. “The lawn owner can claim to be monarch of all he surveys,” intones Australian writer Peter Macinnis in The Lawn: A Social History, which presents a compelling case against its subject. “‘I am rich,’ these lawns tell the world, ‘so I can afford to waste the world’s resources.’” The cost of tending the 30 million acres of lawn in the US is $55 billion a year—higher than the annual GDP of half the world’s countries. Lawns suck up half of the water US homes use, and each year they’re drowned with 30,000 tonnes of pesticide and $8 billion of fertiliser (a leading cause of nitrous oxide emissions, the greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than CO2). Lawnmowers consume 2,500 million litres of fuel annually, with an estimated 75 million litres splashing and leaching into the soil. A Swedish government study found that one hour’s lawnmowing is equivalent to a 160-kilometre car journey.

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Kokoda Track: 101 Days

Cover, Kokoda Track: 101 Days awards-premhist-sl (17K) award-cbca-sl2 (19K) This book was written for teenage readers, and my aim was to take a complex story and tell it in a simple form, which has apparently appealed to some adults as well. The story of the Kokoda Track has to be a complex one because there were so many conflicting interests involved. My first writing got bogged down in the stupidity and malice of General Thomas Blamey. Because he was a self-seeker, Blamey toed the line of an infamous American poltroon, General Douglas MacArthur. My first draft became a brief for the prosecution of this ghastly pair. I had to get that off my chest first.

In the end, with good editing from Karen Tayleur, we produced a book that was an Eve Pownall Honour Book in 2008.

The Kokoda Track: 101 Days reviews

Kokoda Track: 101 days
By Peter Macinnis
Black Dog Books, 176 pp, $16.95

Classed as juvenile nonfiction, this is a gripping book that will fascinate both adults and young people. It gives a vivid sense of what it was like for Australians who fought on the Kokoda Trail across the Owen Stanley Ranges in Papua in July-December 1942. The Japanese aim was to take Port Moresby and use it to neutralise Australia's value as a base for the Americans.

The heroes are the men of the 39th battalion, an Australian militia unit similar to the army reserve, and the 2/14th and 2/16th AIF battalions. They fought a strategic retreat, slowing the Japanese down until reinforcements could be brought back from North Africa and the Japanese pushed back.

The villains of the book are generals Douglas MacArthur and Thomas Blamey, pontificating back in Brisbane. The lowest point came when Blamey accused the men of the 2/14th and 2/16th battalions, who held the trail for weeks, of 'running like rabbits'.

Macinnis' 101 days joins a small library on the subject. The maps and illustrations are excellent.

—Paul Collins, Sydney Morning Herald, March 10-11, 2007, 'Spectrum', "Short Nonfiction", p 35.

You can't explain a war in a short book but Peter Macinnis' Kokoda Track: 101 Days is a surprisingly dense and detailed account for ages 12 and up that holds the reader's interest through the classic appeal of the ripping yarn.

There are "Imagine" sections that are true to the spirit, if not always the letter, of the enterprise: invented first-person accounts or letters home from Australian and Japanese soldiers. Any adult who wants a short introduction to Kokoda could do a lot worse than read this book.

-- 'The books that make TV history', Jane Sullivan, The Age, April 7, 2007

An author profile/review from the Curriculum Corporation:

Peter Macinnis got his start in writing with text books. He has also been writing science talks for radio since 1985. More recently, he has also been writing science content for an online encyclopaedia. Although Peter has now officially 'retired from teaching', science teaching was his main job for more than thirty years. He also spent some of this time in the education sector – as a public servant, and in two museums.

Most of his books are written for adults and look at the curious stories behind everyday things. Recent titles have covered sugar, rockets, and most recently, poisons and poisoners.

Peter began his post-school life planning to be a forester, which is what took him to Papua New Guinea.

He has an independent mind, which is why he admires Jim Cowey. Like Blamey, Peter was an officer of cadets, but let it go after a year because he could not take his 'pompous colleagues seriously'.

He has uncertain views about war. In 2002, he visited Gallipoli and wondered at the stupidity of those military geniuses who sent our young men to die there. A few weeks later, he left Auschwitz with the view that there was such a thing as a just war. But when he left Dresden (fire-bombed late in World War II) three days later, he wondered how he could have got it so wrong.

Macinnis believes that:

War will continue as long as the military geniuses and get-rich-quick schemers are not forced to learn what it is like to scream, bleed and have to shoot back. Until that day, war will go on, and nations will waste the best of their young people to win greater glory and riches for people who will stay far from the front line.

But, even if you are against war, you have to admire those who make a stand and fight - and that goes as much for the Japanese troops who were betrayed by their commanders as it does for the Australians, who were treated, if anything, even worse.

Peter's hobbies are walking - preferably in wilderness places - reading, writing, travel to unlikely foreign places, small invertebrates, and talking. He lives in Sydney with his wife who is also a science teacher. He is currently working on a history of 19th century science, and a book on how we came to be obsessed by neat and tidy lawns.

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The Killer Bean of Calabar

poisons-covers-all (202K)
< As you can see, this book came in a number of versions and formats, even two that I wanted desperately to call Poisons for Children, which would have sold well and severely annoyed a mob of old grouches. The central theme is the mystique, the romance to poisons. Poisons level the playing-field, allowing women to get back at men, or lesser mortals to harm their rulers: at least, that is how those on top of the heap, the rulers, the alpha males and their like saw it.

That opened niche markets for those supplying poisons, and for those fighting poisons, either by selling antidotes and those offering their skills as detectors of poisons in dead bodies. That way, the dead, even if they cannot avoid the poison, can be assured as they die, that their poisoners will be caught, but that led to a sort of arms race between the poison concocters, and the poison sleuths, running through most of the 19th century.

I get occasional emails from people who say they are seeking help to get a convincing poison plot for a murder mystery, something like a poison which will look like death by diabetes. I don't help, but I do invite terrorists to spend time looking through my book for help. They won't find any such assistance, but they will become better educated, and may be able to get a real job.

The The Killer Bean of Calabar reviews

From Publisher's Weekly:

Macinnis ranges widely and rather lightheartedly in investigating the uses and misuses of poisons (which have received media interest of late because of the poisoning of Ukrainian prime minister Yushchenko). The author, an Australian science writer (Bittersweet: the Story of Sugar ), delivers his carefully researched material in a series of anecdotes crafted with dry humor and informed ruminations. Macinnis describes with zest the effects of all sorts of legal and illegal poisons on humans and animals. He highlights criminal cases through history, including that of Locusta, who sold fine poisons to the Roman nobility and was believed to have supplied the emperor Nero with arsenic to kill Britannicus. As recently as two centuries ago, physicians still inadvertently hastened the deaths of patients through ignorance. George Washington, for instance, may have been the victim of his doctor's prescription for bleeding and some doses of calomel. And Macinnis provides myriad examples of how poisons have permeated the workplace and the world of politics. Mussolini's henchmen forced opponents to consume lethal doses of castor oil mixed with petrol. This engrossing history is not one for the squeamish.
Publisher's Weekly March 14, 2005. (This reviews the US edition, sold as Poisons.)

From The Australian:

USED carefully, notes Peter Macinnis in a compelling study, poison offers the killer "every chance of escaping retribution", which creates a form of murder fascinating to law-abiding citizens. Livy records the first Roman judicial trial for poisoning in 329BC. In sports such as boxing, poisons (atropine, caffeine, camphor, cocaine, digitalis, heroin and even nitroglycerine) have been used to block pain. As mood-altering drugs, poisons are tricky, too. Abraham Lincoln took mercury-based pills to relieve his melancholia, went a little crazy, then swore off them for life.
Tony Maniaty, Miscellany column, R14, The Australian, July 17-18, 2004.

More reviews

Boston Globe looks at Poisons, June 5, 2005

From The Northern Rivers Echo
November 16, 2004

Science writer/teacher Macinnis penned an earlier book of local relevance - Bittersweet, The Story of Sugar, a well researched and written tale 'full of ripping yarns and acts of bastardry,' and his follow-up about far more toxic substances is another intriguing work.

Ranging from some of history's best and least known poisoners through to poisonous work places, chemical warfare and the deadly bean of the title, grown in Africa and used to test the honesty, or otherwise, of people accused of witchcraft, it abounds in fine trivia.

When Capt Cook's crew tried cycad seeds they had a 'hearty fit of vomiting and purging' but noticed that pigs who ate them survived... until a week later when two hogs died and the rest were saved only 'with difficulty'.

Covering topics as diverse as Japan's deadly fugu fish, Sherlock Holmes' insights and the role of disinfectants in controlling bacteria, this is popular science at its best.

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rockets.jpg - 36619 Bytes Rockets looks at how rockets were invented, how they developed, how they were used, and how they may be used in the future. It took me to Massachusetts, California and Woomera. along the way. The story begins with me travelling in the outback of Australia, heading off to see the experimental launch of a scramjet at Woomera in South Australia. We visit China, where rockets were invented, India, where they came to the attention of the British, Fort McHenry where the British used them against the Americans, Sacramento, where I interviewed retired rocket chemists at Aerojet, Gallipoli, and quite a few other places as well.

Rockets had a chequered career, most of the military hated them, but they won World War II by giving Allied forces the edge against battleships, submarines, fortified coastlines and tanks. Later, rockets won the unfought Battle of Berlin when the Soviets blockaded it, and later still, the space race and the missile race left the US as the only remaining superpower with an intact economy. Rockets chewed up large amounts of German resources that might otherwise have gone to nuclear weapons.

Rockets reviews

Navy News, October 21, 2004:

Reviewer: AIRCDRE Mark Lax This book’s Australian author, Peter Macinnis, runs an interesting and educational web site.

With that in mind, Rockets is intended as both educational and fun – two objectives it admirably achieves.

Written from an historical perspective, Macinnis traverses the rich history of rocketry, gunpowder and propellants, beginning and ending with a commentary on the University of Queensland’s scramjet experiment at Woomera, which he sees as ushering in the next generation of rocket.

From Chinese beginnings around 700 BC through European adoption of rockets as weapons of war to Goddard, Hitler and the US space program, the book covers all things rocket related.

Given that rockets began as an alternative to artillery, the weaponry side is emphasised rather than the desire of man to go beyond Earth’s gravity.

Much is made of Congreve’s work with the Royal Arsenal in the early 1800s, as he established the first effective rocket rounds, which were successfully employed by the British against Napoleon.

Well written and an easy read, with a dozen or so illustrations, this book will certainly appeal to people with an interest in weapons of war, as well as those who look to the stars and wonder how we might get there.

Highly recommended.

David Skea, Reviewer

Note: this next review has appeared on the Web in a number of places — and I have since discovered that David Skea lives not far from me, having tracked him down to thank him. Neither of us knew that at the time. (Seeing this, I am reminded that since then, I have moved house, and if he is still where he was, he is just down the street, and has been for almost eight years. As a stalker, I am a failure :-)

Any intimate mixture of a fuel and an oxidizer is a potential explosive, and a molecule with one reducing (fuel) end and one oxidizing end, separated by a pair of firmly crossed fingers, is an invitation to disaster. - John Clark, Ignition. 1972

If you were to think that this book is a description of the various rockets that mankind has used over the years you would only be half right. The book is really more about the history of rocketry and about what makes a rocket fly: that is, what fuels a rocket. But there's more.

The story starts with gunpowder which was probably used to fumigate houses by the Chinese in about 700 BC. How it came to be developed for that purpose is a conjecture and how and why it came to be an explosive fuel is another. However, gunpowder soon fuelled Chinese rockets that were then used in war, although controlling the flight was not an exact science. But it did put the frighteners into the enemy. Chinese rockets were adopted by the Mongols and then by the Mughals, who used them in India as weapons against the English. Seeing a good thing, the English adopted the rocket as a weapon and used it against the French, the Danes and the Americans: although it is reported that Wellington was not a great advocate of the rocket, as at this time control of the rocket was, at best, more of an art than a science and artillery was more accurate.

The book progresses through solid fuel propellants into the 20th century and the development of liquid rockets fuels and culminates with discussion on the German V2, Sputnik, and the space shots that followed. Part of the story here is the mixing of the fuel and the oxidiser and some of the problems associated with this. Mention is made of red fuming nitric acid (RFNA) and other 'magnificently hypergolic' substances, and of the loss of fingers, limbs and life that the experimenters of the time were prone to.

Finally to Scramjet, which is a supersonic combustion ramjet. This is a rocket engine that may one day lift mankind into space. Recently the first flight of a Scramjet, the Australian Hyshot project, was made at Woomera. A flight witnessed by the author.

I can still remember the excitement when Russia launched Sputnik. I was a young technician working in a telecommunications facility. Soon after the announcement of the launch several of the radio engineers gathered in the laboratory and detecting the sputnik signal measured its doppler change as it passed by. This was enough information to calculate the speed and hence the orbit and period of the new satellite and although the result wasn't promulgated to the world (no internet then) the result was one of the first to be so derived.

Reading the book was very easy and I enjoyed it so much that I read it through for a second time, as it's full of odd facts such as the story of William Huskisson's demise.

I knew Huskisson died as a result of a railway accident involving George Stephenson's 'Rocket' at the opening of the Liverpool - Manchester railway line and there is a statue of him on the Thames embankment in London. What I didn't know was that Huskisson, a member of the Tory party, was withholding support from its leader and prime minister, the Duke of Wellington, and unless a rapprochement could be made the government would fall, which it did within the month. The opening of the new railway was considered a suitable venue for the meeting and, had Huskisson survived, he might well have led the rebel faction back into support of Wellington and saved the government. Now he is only remembered as the first victim of a steam passenger railway accident.

The English used rockets against the Americans in the American War of Independence and this earned a mention in the US national anthem as "the rockets red glare". I knew the words were there but I didn't know of the connection until I read it in this book.

Then there's the story of Professor Robert Goddard, who was an early American space rocket pioneer, and who was publicly taken to task in 1920 by the New York Times for suggesting that rockets could work in a vacuum: the paper only retracted this story in 1969.

This is an entertaining book and one that I'm sure to refer to again so it will remain on my bookshelf.

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Bittersweet.jpg Bittersweet, the story of sugar, looks at a commodity, how it was invented, how it spread, and the effects it had in world history. The ISBN is 1-86508-657-6.

Note: this book is now out of print, but there is an Amazon print-on-demand facility.

The story begins with me as a 17-year-old in Papua, where I first encountered sugar cane, and where, as I later discovered, sugar cane was first cultivated, 9000 years ago. The secret of the cane travelled from there to Indonesia, from there to India, and from India to China and Persia, where the Muslims found it, not too long after the time of Muhammad, and they carried it to the Mediterranean, where Crusaders found it.

Sugar was an attractive crop, and it spread around the Mediterranean, then out into the Atlantic, and then to the West Indies on the second voyage of Columbus. It was an industry that grew on slaves both white and black, it supported many wars and made many people very rich. The desire to own sugar islands led France to give up its claim to Canada, and it was taxes on rum, molasses and sugar, as much as on tea, that triggered the American

The Bittersweet reviews

Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 2003

Reproduced by permission from Kirkus Reviews

From Australian science writer and broadcaster Macinnis, an informative and readable history of the simple substance that changed the world and often brought out the worst in people. Sugar cane, a member of the grass family, was first discovered in the New Guinea jungle some 9,000 years ago. The locals found that chewing and sucking it was pleasurable; eventually they learned to cultivate it. A widely grown crop in the ancient civilized world, sugar's darker history began when the returning Crusaders brought it into Europe.

There, it was a luxury item, being both capital- and labor-intensive, until the opening of the New World, particularly the Caribbean islands and Brazil, gave European colonizers the abundant land and suitable climate necessary for growing cane. Because a huge labor force was required to work the plantations, the author writes, "Sugar and slavery seemed to go hand in hand."

Surveying the sweet stuff's bitterest legacy, Macinnis unsparingly describes the appalling cruelty and dangerous working conditions inflicted on slaves and their not-much-better-off counterparts, indentured servants. He also writes of sugar's influence on policy matters and history, such as Napoleon's decision to hang onto France's sugar-growing colonies and sell the others to the US in the Louisiana Purchase.

Blessed with a fine sense of humor as well as a sense of history, the author leavens his otherwise dramatic tale with lighter moments and such oddities as a four-volume 18th-century treatise on sugar-making written in blank verse, from which he quotes. Only a hardhearted few could resist priceless gems like,
"Of composts shall the Muse descend to sing,
Nor soil her heavenly plumes? The sacred Muse
Nought sordid deems, but what is base; nought fair
Unless true Virtue stamp it with her seal."

Lively and entertaining: a splendid saga for the general reader. (6 maps)

Courier Mail, July 1, 2002, Monday

BYLINE: David Potter

Thanks, but no thanks

THERE have been more gracious literary tributes than Queenslander Peter Macinnis's acknowledgments in his Bittersweet: The Story of Sugar.

"I specifically acknowledge the Australian Government, which taxed all my photocopy charges, the books I bought while researching this, my notepads and writing paper, my travel, the power that drove my computer, my software, and the shoes I wore out, and then, without having lifted a finger, had the temerity to level a tax on the finished book equal to the amount I get in royalties, and after that will filch half of my royalties as income tax."

[my comment] Potter left out the best bit of my snarky diatribe:
"This service made it very much easier for me to understand the complaints of the sugar growers who had rapacious and parasitic tax-happy regimes to contend with."
I do NOT agree with governments placing a tax on knowledge, and a GST on books is precisely that. It is barbarous and ignorant.

The Cairns Post, July 20, 2002, Saturday

BYLINE: Teresa Giacomi

Bittersweet: The Story of Sugar

By Peter Macinnis

Allen and Unwin $24.95

AS Far North Queensland cane farmers harvest their sugar crops, they might want to spare a thought for how the process of reaping and sowing sugar began.

Peter Macinnis's Bittersweet - a book that was inspired by a trip to the dentist - is an entertaining look at how the not-so-humble sugar bush has sweetened, soured and, generally, shaped world history since it was first found growing naturally in New Guinea forests 9000 years ago.

Farmers of the Cairns district might not want to think about the ruthless, greedy nature of the early sugar trade that first established the international markets they currently supply.

The labour-intensive nature of growing, harvesting and milling sugar in its cane form has seen millions of people kidnapped, displaced and worked to death as convict, indentured and slave labourers in hot, tropical cane fields from India to China, South America to Asia over hundreds of years.

In Australia, sugar cane came over with the First Fleet, and the early Queensland industry's chosen method of bastardry was black birding, a practice where young males were taken from their Pacific Island homes either by force or trickery and transported by ship to Australia where they laboured in hot fields of sugar cane for the rest of their lives. But if history isn't foremost on our modern farmers' minds, economics surely will be.

Bittersweet will inform them that their current struggles with protected markets, overproduction, changing trends and depressed world prices are nothing new for one of the world's oldest agricultural crops.

In 1845, the British sugar industry in the West Indies found it couldn't compete with the price of Cuban sugar, which was still grown by slaves.

In two other British colonies, duties and tariffs imposed by London were to cause distress a generation later when a preserved fruit industry in Tasmania was blocked by the requirement that sugar from Queensland - another British colony - be taxed as though it came from a foreign land.

In his short and sweet little work, Macinnis makes some huge historical claims in the name of sugar.

The Queensland-born accountant with degrees in zoology, botany and education credits sugar with having been a major force in breaking down the notorious White Australia policy.

As one of the world's first truly international industries, it saw massive bodies of people move around the globe following the sickly, sweet trail.

The wealth sugar generated in the 1700s resulted in a huge bloc of wealthy men holding seats in the British Parliament, and encouraging the development of British naval policy to suit and further their own sugar-based interests.

Macinnis also outlines the addictive and irresistible quality of the legal white power that has seen religions preach against it, British royalty overindulge in it, and men of medicine prescribe it.

Bittersweet delves into the more modern preoccupations of this ancient industry.

The author weighs into the ethanol-as-a-cheap-green-fuel debate, and looks at some of the environmental issues that surround the practice of cane farming today.

His ultimate conclusion, however, will not be music to our local farmers' ears.

Macinnis suggests that if we must continue to put sweetness in our food, " perhaps we should seek other ways of finding it, because right now our joint human sweet tooth looks set to cause a nasty abscess in the environment".

Brisbane News, July 24, 2002, Wednesday

BYLINE: Phil Brown

bittersweet: the story of sugar

by peter macinnis

(allen & unwin, $24.95)

How many books have been inspired by a trip to the dentist? Well, we know of at least one and here it is: an entertaining and informative little history of sugar.

It was the author's sweet tooth that led him to the dentist's chair and got him thinking about his penchant for the sweet stuff. And the story of sugar turned out, he found, to be a ripping yarn stretching across 9,000 years. Sugar cane is, after all, one of the oldest agricultural crops in the world. It was the refining of sugar cane that really led to the sugar revolution and as civilization developed sugar became a valuable commodity. It had a great effect on the world, and not always in a good way. (Though dentists probably don't have a problem with it.)

For a start it boosted the slave trade and drove trades of rum, cod and manufactured products around the Atlantic, causing wars and geopolitical decisions that have shaped the modern world and power balances we see today.

Not so sweet considering that over the centuries up to 20 million sugar slaves died prematurely in its production. The English took to it big time, though. The author quotes a German lawyer who wrote in 1598 that Queen Elizabeth I had black teeth - "a defect the English seem subject to, from their too great use of sugar". Maybe that's what put her in such a bad mood that she had her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots' head lopped off?

Sugar is, after all, powerful stuff.

The Weekend Australian, July 27, 2002, Saturday


BYLINE: Tony Maniaty

Bittersweet: The Story of Sugar

By Peter Macinnis, Allen & Unwin, 190pp, $24.95

'BY Shakespeare's time," notes Peter Macinnis, "people had learned that making sweet tastes is a marvellous way to gather the money that gives power." That, in essence, is the story of sugar, which Macinnis coats with a digestible formula of politics, economics and science. In India, the army of Alexander the Great found a reed that made "honey without the help of bees" and by the late 15th century refineries were established across Europe. But sugar's profits relied on slaves and, says Macinnis, "Africans were fair game to all".

Perth Sunday Times, July 28, 2002, Sunday

Bittersweet -- The Story of Sugar

Peter Macinnis

Allen & Unwin, $24.95

CONDENSING more than 9000 years into 190 easily readable pages Macinnis, an accomplished science writer, shows how sugar has shaped world history. He focuses on the vital role of slavery, the role sugar politics played in the development of the New World and the product's percolation down the social scale from delicacy to cheap junk-food filler. Along the way there are some ripping yarns from the bad old days of pirates and planters.

The Mercury, Hobart, July 31, 2002, Wednesday

HEADLINE: Such sweet sorrow


A STATISTIC used by anti-slavery campaigners in the 18th century was that a family using 5 pounds (2.25kg) of sugar a week would kill a slave in the West Indies every 21 months, 450 pounds of sugar being the output of a slave's 10 years or so of working life.

This "exchange rate" was a powerful tool in the fight for emancipation, and pointed to a very high consumption of sugar. This observation was put in perspective further down the same page in Peter Macinnis's book Bittersweet: The Story of Sugar, where he said these figures were massaged and the "real" exchange rate was about a tonne of sugar per slave life in 1700 and two tonnes in 1800. That is: "The amount of sugar that today's average high school population in the developed world consumes in one week, as junk food, confectionery, ice cream and soft drinks, is enough to have killed a slave in 1800."

Indeed, although we may no longer be using 2.25kg of sugar a week making cakes, jams and sweets at home, consumption has by no means diminished. The addictive flavour of sugar (and salt) dominate modern, processed food.

"Few foods have had such an impact on human history as sugar, from its origins, its influence on the slave trade and its use as a medicine, a luxury, a comfort food and now a cheap filler in the modern processed food industry," says nutritionist Rosemary Stanton on the book's cover.

Some 550 years BC, Buddha was exhorting people not to eat sugar if they were not sick. Sugar was first imported into England, from the Atlantic island of Madeira, in 1319, and in 1598 a German visitor remarked that Queen Elizabeth I, at 64, had black teeth "a defect the English seem subject to, from their too great use of sugar".

However, only the very wealthy then could afford to rot their teeth. Sugar was an expensive, luxury product, but it became cheaper, and over about 100 years, from the late 17th century, consumption of sugar in Britain increased 20-fold.

Cheap sugar required cheap labour, and so slavery, although not unknown before, became big business. Sugar grows in the tropics and it was believed white men could not work in such climates -- a justification for slavery and the movement of South Pacific islander Kanakas to Queensland.

Macinnis says it's estimated that between 1450 and 1900 about 11.7 million slaves were exported from Africa to the Americas, and that only 9.8 million reached the other side of the Atlantic.

White planters "with cheerful racism", says Macinnis, later wondered if Mediterranean Europeans might also be up to the task of working in the tropics, which saw Portuguese go to Hawaii and Italians to Queensland.

Sugar is a greedy product. It requires capital -- land on which to grow the cane, mills to crush it. Once the cane is cut, it must be crushed within 24 hours to preserve the sucrose. In the 18th century, it took 20 tonnes of cane to produce 1 tonne of sugar, and 5 tonnes of water had to be evaporated, r equiring heavy inputs of labour and fuel -- proximity to a sugar mill was not a good outlook for a forest.

About 1500 years ago, long after sugar cane had spread from its point of origin in New Guinea and was being enjoyed for its juice throughout the tropics, someone discovered that adding an alkali, such as ash or lime, brought the impurities out of the solution, and that with further boiling crystals formed.

Because sugar crystals would stick together on a long, humid sea voyage, sugar had to be refined near to where it would be consumed, a restriction that also meant the value-adding to turn a cheap product into a valuable one remained with the "home" country, not the colony.

Sugar, molasses and rum were also taxed, which caused resentment in the colonies. Macinnis reports that the author Anthony Trollope noted how the potential for a preserved fruit industry in Tasmania in the 1870s was blocked by the requirement that sugar from Queensland "be taxed as though it came from a foreign land, taking away the opportunity for profitable commerce in both colonies".

Macinnis was born in Queensland (and discovered an ancestor involved in the sugar labour trade there in the course of his research) and now lives in Sydney, where he works combining interest in writing, science and education. He is a lively tour guide through the history of sugar, a product he concludes still is not politically correct.

"Sugar has caused the mass movement and death of millions of humans," he writes. "It has resulted in the large-scale clearance of land and the destruction of soil and whole environments.

"If we need sweetness in our food, perhaps we should seek other ways of finding it, because right now our joint human sweet tooth looks set to cause a nasty abscess in the environment."

* Bittersweet: The Story of Sugar, by Peter Macinnis, Allen & Unwin, $ 24.95.

Herald Sun, August 3, 2002, Saturday


BYLINE: Fiona Lawrence, Paul Johnson, Dave Bullard, Shaunagh O'Connor


by Peter Macinnis

Allen and Unwin, rrp. $24.95

NEXT time you stir a spoonful of sugar into your coffee, consider the bloody, dark history behind those pure white crystals. From sugar's origins in New Guinea, Peter Macinnis traces its production and spread around the globe. Blending fact and insightful commentary with quirky yarns, he exposes a trail of misery created by greedy monarchs and mercenaries who harnessed slaves, fought wars and committed brutal murder to make their fortunes in sugar. F.L.

In a word: regaling

The Gold Coast Bulletin, August 3, 2002, Saturday

HEADLINE: Sweet and sour

SUGAR may be sweet but its history has often been bitter. For instance, up to 20 million sugar slaves died for its production.

In Bittersweet, by Peter Macinnis (Allen & Unwin, $24.95, out now), the well-known science presenter reveals sugar's impact on human history, including its influence on the slave trade, its use as a medicine, a luxury, a comfort food and as the cause of much cruelty and bastardry.

Here's a few facts about sugar - sugar cane is one of the oldest agricultural crops in the world; almost everywhere in the world, sugar has the same name, with only small local variations; in 1598, a German lawyer reported that Queen Elizabeth I had black teeth as a result of the English fondness for sugar; sugar is mentioned 102 times in the collected works of Charles Dickens.

According to Macinnis, sugar offered wealth and power to those who sold it but was actually a burden to those who grew it.

"A rare and special crop in the days of manual processing," he writes in Bittersweet, "it could only be produced in large amounts by the use of slaves, either human or machine."

Bittersweet looks at the discovery and exploitation of sugar and how it was used to shape the world.

The Age (Melbourne), August 10, 2002 Saturday


BYLINE: Cameron Woodhead

Bittersweet: The Story of Sugar, Peter Macinnis, Allen & Unwin, $24.95

The story of sugar began in New Guinea about 9000 years ago and is still going strong in the age of Aspartame. The sweet stuff's been around for almost as long as human nature, and seems an ideal subject through which to explore the latter. It's a relief to find that Macinnis' book isn't one of those shonky, fetishistic histories where thematic novelty is an obvious marketing ploy (you know the kind - the history of air, the history of hair, the history of those little plastic doovers at the end of your shoelace). On the contrary, it is a wise, readable and pleasantly idiosyncratic book that contains, among other things, the exploitation of slave labour, accounts of First Fleet voyagers experiencing tea without sugar, and the bizarre chemical accidents that gave us cyclamate, sucralose and other scary-sounding artificial sweeteners. Macinnis' exploration of the medicinal uses of sugar through the ages is especially interesting.

The Canberra Times, August 21, 2002 Wednesday Final Edition

HEADLINE: Taking the mystery out of cooking; Guide for beginners and young people

Raw sugar

Not long ago, we had a book all about salt, and now we have one devoted entirely to the other end of the flavour spectrum: sugar.

Different authors are behind the two, but both are similar in their approach in that they document the effects their subjects have had on the world.

In Bittersweet (Allen & Unwin, $24.95), Peter Macinnis chronicles how sugar brought tremendous riches through the ages, often at the expense of slaves forced into back-breaking labour. In earlier times, people paid dearly for this sweet new food from exotic places. The teeth of Queen Elizabeth I are said to have turned completely black as a result of her liking for sugared almonds and pastilles.

But the author argues that people today do not pay anything like the true cost of sugar, if the environment destruction from growing and processing it is taken into account.

Macinnis, who occasionally appears on ABC Radio's Science Show, got the inspiration for Bittersweet while sitting in a dentist's chair being treated for the tooth decay that began 40 years earlier when he first chewed on sugar cane in New Guinea. It's a cleverly written story and as the title implies, it's not all sweet.

Sydney Morning Herald, August 24, 2002 Saturday


BYLINE: Debra Adelaide

BITTERSWEET: The Story of Sugar

By Peter Macinnis

Allen & Unwin, 190pp, $24.95 (pb)

First cultivated in New Guinea about 400 generations ago, sugar travelled to India and thence Europe and the Americas; it was easily traded since the cane was such a portable sweet with virtues transcending country and language barriers. But the lust for sugar, argues Macinnis, changed the world irrevocably, especially after the Portuguese invaded African nations in the 15th century: slavery, once a by-product of war, became the reason for war as slaves were needed to cultivate and process this highly labour-intensive product. Closer to home, sugar had other major consequences: rum, distilled from molasses, gave grief to Governor Bligh and indirectly led to self-rule for the colony of NSW. A concise, readable and often dramatic account of a commodity that has caused such death (millions of people), destruction and tooth decay that its main benefit taste gratification seems unjustified.

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The Rainforest

Cover, The Rainforest whitley (153K) wild-soc (16K)

The Rainforest reviews

This was a commissioned work, where I as the writer and Kim Gamble, as the artist, never met, because Jane Bowring thought it better. We met once, years later, not long before he died, and were both puzzled at Jane's decision. Magpies, July 1999

The Rainforest, Peter Macinnis and Jane Bowring, ill. Kim Gamble, Puffin 0 14 037585 3 $12.95 pb Kim Gamble has surpassed himself in this stunningly beautiful picture information book that shows the reader what it is like to spend a few hours in an Australian rainforest. Among the inhabitants encountered are a green tree-snake, a brush turkey guarding its nest, possums, a quoll and a clutch of tadpoles swimming high above the ground in a pool of water caught in the hollow of a tree. A surprisingly large amount of information is conveyed in the text in an almost incidental and quite undidactic way. The immediacy of the commentary style, similar to the voice-over of a wildlife documentary film, brings to the reader a sense of involvement and personal experience not found in more traditional nonfiction texts. The water-colour and gouache illustrations are full-colour double-page, some with inserts, and have an attractive three-dimensional quality. As you turn the page the eye is drawn from left to right, taking in first the richly coloured and exquisitely detailed closeups of the animals in the foreground before shifting to the atmospheric soft focus forest background. Recommended for grades 2 to 7.
Barbara James

Bookphile Newsletter, July 1999
The levels of a rainforest, the struggles of the plants to seek sunlight, the diversity of plants and animals are outlined here for the very young reader.

A day in the life of a green tree snake, out hunting for a meal, provides the storyline that introduces the various forest creatures and conveys the feel, sounds and smells of this 'dark, damp place'.

The text is lyrical, like a long free-form poem, which makes this a fine book to read out aloud. Perhaps young listeners could be encouraged to close their eyes and imagine the scenes described before enjoying Gamble's lush and evocative illustrations. Obviously a must for preschool and primary school collections. Ages 3-10.

Brisbane Sunday Mail, 22 August 1999
If you want to take a trip into the Australian forest, this book is a good place to start!

Here you can learn about the fascinating creatures that live in the rainforest. And with Kim Gamble's breathtaking illustrations, you'll see how the tree snake travels from the forest floor to where the sunshine never reaches. Learn what lives in the forest canopy, about worms, mites, possums, bush cockroaches and more.

Kids in Brisbane, September 1999
Rich text, lush illustrations and a uniquely Australian feel - this is a book that parents are going to delight in sharing with children. While the book is beautifully written, it is Kim Gamble's illustrations that truly bring it to life. There's a fair chance you will find something new in her [sic: Kim was a bloke!] work every time you enjoy the book. The rainforest has been put together by the same talented trio who produced the 1997 book The Desert.

The Sunday Tasmanian, October 3, 1999
Very cleverly packs in masses of information about the rainforest and the creatures that inhabit it, without making it feel or look like a textbook. Glorious illustrations and fascinating insights into the lives of the tree snake, the lyrebird, the brush turkey, the antechinus and other animals of the forest, make a great read for primary school children with a curiosity about the world around them.

Dani Colvin

Reading Time, Vol 43 (4) (no date available on my photocopy)
A superbly evocative and illustrated title about some of the inhabitants of the Australian rainforest. As a tree snake searches for food, it takes the reader on a visually enlightening journey through all levels of the rainforest. Along the way, we learn lots of interesting facts about the daily habits and descriptions of the native plants and creatures.

The stark white text stands out clearly from its colourful backgrounds and is written in a descriptive flowing style that reads well aloud. The breathtakingly beautiful illustrations not only enhance the story of the tree snake and its environment but they capture the lushness and growth of the rainforest.

Complementing the text and the illustrations is the chronological depiction of all the fascinating creatures featured in the book. This would make a wonderful addition to any home, school or public library or a great gift for a child overseas.
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