It's been years since I read an Anthony Browne book, but his picture books were staples of my primary school library, I must have read Piggybook - theIt's been years since I read an Anthony Browne book, but his picture books were staples of my primary school library, I must have read Piggybook - the one about the fed-up mother leaving her husband and sons to fend for themselves (and they're so hopeless they turn into pigs, and have to beg her to come home and promise not to take her for granted anymore) - so many times, it was a real favourite of everyone in grade 1!
Silly Billy is about a small boy called Billy who worries a lot. He worries about hats, shoes, clouds, rain and giant birds. His parents try to comfort him but nothing they say actually help. Then one day he goes to stay at his grandmother's, and he was especially worried about staying at other people's houses. He tells his grandma, and she has just the thing to help: worry dolls. She tells Billy to tell each doll one of his worries and put them under his pillow. It works, and for several nights Billy has wonderful worry-free sleep.
But then, he worries about the worry dolls, having to deal with all the worry he put on them. So he makes the worry dolls their own worry dolls, to share their worries with. No one worried after that, and Billy continued to make worry dolls for the worry dolls.
Paired with Browne's well-known, richly detailed illustrations that often hide clever little details, Silly Billy is a solid story that children will easily relate to. Ideal for kids who are of a similar age to Billy and starting to worry, themselves, the trick of using worry dolls could be very handy - though what it's really saying is that you should share your worries with someone you trust, and it might lighten the burden.
The illustrations are just gorgeous, and the story is wonderful too - simple, but meaningful and realistic, and given a touch of fantasy, Browne-style. ...more
I absolutely love Alison Lester's picture books, and this one is no exception.
The kids are getting dressed up in costumes behind the green door, whilI absolutely love Alison Lester's picture books, and this one is no exception.
The kids are getting dressed up in costumes behind the green door, while the others wait outside and guess what the next person will dress up as. The cover features a peekaboo hole in the middle (showing a dinosaur), but the inner pages have a big, half-page flap for the door. The pages (of my edition, anyway) are fine and not suitable for very young children (which is a bit of a given - this is a paperback, not a board book).
Image courtesy of the author's website
The rhymes are fun, with enough repetition to get a rhythm going and enough variation to make it continuously interesting and engaging. You can have a lot of fun, reading this book out loud, and doing voices and tones and pitch. Also, if you happen to be stuck for costume ideas, there's some good inspiration here and more than a few home-made costumes in the illustrations.
With Lester's distinctively fresh-looking (and somehow, so very Australian) drawings and fun rhymes, this is a great book for the 3+ crowd. It can work for a daytime read to get your kids excited about dressing up, or a bedtime story (you'll have to see what Rose, the youngest, does behind the green door at the end!). Perfect for boys and girls, this is another gem from Lester....more
It has been three months, seven days and nine hours since Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard's mother died. Susan Worthington was a prolific horror wriIt has been three months, seven days and nine hours since Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard's mother died. Susan Worthington was a prolific horror writer who died young, and Ophelia, her older sister Alice and their father, Malcolm Whittard, are still grieving.
In an effort to help them recover and give them a chance of scenery, Ophelia's father accepts a last-minute posting to a museum in another country to finish setting up the greatest-ever exhibition of swords. Malcolm Whittard is, according to his business card, the "leading international expert on swords", but with only three days to go before the opening of the exhibition on Christmas Eve, it's a demanding job that takes up all his time.
Alice seems content to sit and brood, but Ophelia spends the time exploring the museum. It is a cold place, in a city caught up in a perpetual winter, and the museum is a weird and wonderful place. The guards in each room are old ladies with black handbags who spend most of their time knitting or sleeping, so Ophelia is free to wander into parts of the museum she isn't allowed to be in. It is during her exploration that she encounters a peculiar room, with a little door and a big keyhole through which is the eye of a boy, staring back at her.
The boy, who was dubbed "the marvellous boy", has been alive for over three hundred years. He was sent here on a mission by the wizards of east, west and middle, who took his name to keep him safe. He no longer remembers it. They gave him a sword, a relatively plain and heavy sword with a carving of a closed eye near the hilt, and certain instructions. He was to find the "One Other" and give them the sword, with which they would defeat the evil Snow Queen.
The Snow Queen was unable to kill him because of the protective spell on him which also prevents him from ageing and dying, and so she had him locked up here in the museum, and the sword taken away. She need only wait out the time of his protection spell, then she can kill him and be free to take over more of the world, as she did to his homeland and this place, where she has reigned ever since.
Ophelia, unlike her mother, is not prone to fantastical flights of the imagination. She is a member of the Children's Science Society of Greater London and believes in logic and reason and science. But little by little, she finds herself on small but dangerous missions to find the key to his room, to set him free and find his sword before the Wintertide Clock strikes on Christmas Eve and the Snow Queen's plan comes to fruition. But Ophelia is only eleven, she's not courageous and relies heavily on her asthma inhaler. She's a little girl up against a frightening woman, with only the whispered words of comfort from her mother for encouragement.
In her search for the hidden key and the missing sword, Ophelia might just find her hidden courage, and save her sister, her father and the world.
I don't read enough of stories like this one; or rather, I don't make enough time to read stories like this one, which is a sad mistake. Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy was utterly wonderful, a delightful story of adventure, danger, loss, grief, wizards who think a lot, deception, sibling love, resilience, courage and the classic fight between good and evil. It is fantasy in the tradition of the Chronicles of Narnia and similar works, a children's story that will engage and entertain readers of all ages, an old-fashioned tale given new life.
Ophelia is a timid and sensible girl, and the request made of her by the Marvellous Boy requires her to not just be brave, but to put aside all things rational, suspend disbelief and trust the word of a strange boy who claims to be several centuries old. The more involved she becomes, the more danger she is placed in, and the more her old certainties come crumbling down. She doesn't become a new person, or a vastly different person, she simply becomes her full potential as Ophelia. She's a great protagonist, suffering through the classic coming-of-age trial-by-fire that fantasy stories are best known for.
Wizards, [Ophelia] thought, when she gained her composure. What good were they if they couldn't tell you how to do stuff, if they were always talking in riddles and saying they knew everything before it even happened? It wasn't very helpful.
If she were a wizard, she'd write reports for people. She'd make sure everything was very clear. She'd write, Looking for a magical sword? No problem. Go to the fifth floor, turn left, open a large wooden chest, et cetera, et cetera. She'd have check boxes. Found your magical sword? Place X here.
The Marvellous Boy himself remains something of an enigma, and a sad one at that. He tells Ophelia his story in segments, and the vivid rendering of his life before being locked in the little room really brings him to life. He is quite clearly something of a sacrificial lamb, a boy hand-picked by the wizards who must sacrifice everything with little say in the matter. As such, he is an infinitely sympathetic character, a little boy lost who stays calm and friendly and positive in the wake of dire circumstances. I felt so sad for him, but also proud. Foxlee deftly captures the characters and their motivations within the confines of the fantasy formula, a fantasy that is none too clear about place and time. Any apparent plot holes - a never-ending winter somehow sustaining a human population, never mind the trees, is hardly believable - simply don't get in the way of the story. Such is the strength of Foxlee's writing, that it all comes together and works, much like a fairy tale still carries the strength of its own conviction despite the fact that the details don't really make sense.
Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy oozes atmosphere and tension, suspense and the thrilling bite of danger. Among it lies the fragile workings of family dynamics and confused love, vulnerable to the atmosphere, which makes it all the more precious. While Ophelia is off exploring and adventuring, fifteen-year-old Alice is being lured in by the museum curator, Miss Kaminski, who gives her princess dresses and flattery and helps drive a wedge between the two sisters while also flirting with their father. Miss Kaminski - and it's no spoiler to say this - is the true enemy. Beautiful and elegant but infinitely cold, Ophelia sees glimpses of the woman's true self but is too young to understand it.
While the overall plot is as predictable as any fairy tale-fantasy story - whether or not you have ever read "The Snow Queen" fairy tale (which I have not, strange to say, though I don't think there are all that many similarities really), this story does follow a fairly standard fantasy formula - the story is brimming with imagination and you never really know what's going to happen next, or how things will play out. The writing is strong and near-perfect, the pacing fluid and smooth and not too fast, and the characters fleshed-out nicely. I grew quite attached to Ophelia, and the Marvellous Boy, and welcomed the satisfying conclusion. With such rich detail and atmosphere and action, the story played out like a movie in my head, and I can easily see this being adapted to film one day. It would be a costume- and set-designer's dream come true, to bring this magical story visually to life. As it was, my humble imagination did a pretty good job of it!
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley. Please note that passages quoted here may appear differently in the finished book. ...more
Mary was the daughter of a silversmith and then, the wife of one too. Her husband, Pierre Renard, is now more of a businessman than an actual smith; iMary was the daughter of a silversmith and then, the wife of one too. Her husband, Pierre Renard, is now more of a businessman than an actual smith; it's been a long time since he wielded his tools at the bench. Now he panders to the rich and influential, ingratiates himself with them to secure their business, and farms out the work to others, stamping over their mark with his own before presenting the finished product. Pierre is a man of great pretension and affectation, who considers himself a great man and worthy of much - worthy, in particular, of a perfect wife who will give him the perfect son in his own image.
But Mary was never good enough for Pierre, and eleven years as his wife has made her a ghost of herself. The girl she once was has been shrivelled to nothing under his withering gaze, impatience and high expectations - not to mention the times of actual violence. She lives in terror of him now, a fear that manifests in severe sleepwalking, to the point that the whole house must be locked at night, and all the doors within, too.
On this particular night in 1792, though, she is woken from a doze by a knock on the door. The physician, Dr Taylor, arrives with bad tidings: Pierre is dead, mugged perhaps, his possessions - especially his distinctive pocket watch - gone. Mary is left in a state of shock. So long under Pierre's thumb and shadow, his dictatorial word, she's adrift, lost even. She fears that in her sleepwalking she did something, is to blame. Her forthright and indomitable sister, Mallory, scoffs at this and had no love for Pierre - who had many enemies - but she can see Mary is sinking into a bleak depression.
In his will, Pierre left the whole business to his young apprentice, the nephew of the woman he wanted to marry but wasn't granted permission to. He left a codicil for his wife, stating that she should marry his cousin - thankfully, the cousin is dead, but with Mary's life and future held in the hands of Dr Taylor and the other men who stand as trustees, she soon feels pressure to hear the proposals of other men.
Newly returned to London, Alban Steele has come to help his ailing cousin, Jesse, with his trade. Jesse produces work for Pierre Renard, but as he weakens he needs more help. Alban arrives the same night Pierre's body is discovered, and the news reminds him of the time he saw Mary, before she was married, an image of her that has stuck with him all these years.
Also affected by the death of Pierre is Joanna, a lady's maid for a young newly-wed, Harriet Chichester, who married her for her family's wealth. The Chichesters had commissioned a set of silverware from Renard, and Joanna had also made a request of him: a locket to hold a piece of her beloved's hair. Over the following months, Joanna uncovers a secret that sheds new light on Pierre's death and puts her in a difficult position.
Watching it all from the shadows is the nightwatchman, Digby, a red-haired man who resents the rich and the life he wasn't born to, who nevertheless manages to be where he is needed and who sees much, and understands more.
Set during the reign of Mad King George (George III), The Silversmith's Wife takes place in a London stripped bare of its glamour, riches and beauty. This is a dark, minimalist, almost bleak London, the London of the tradespeople, domestic servants and others who work hard in this slippery world where death is a matter of fact and life. There's no sign of the swelling French Revolution that would have started four years before, or of life beyond the sphere of the characters of this story. You'd easily forget that there was a world beyond Bond Street or the shadows of Berkeley Square. This creates a tense, brooding atmosphere that serves the story well, giving it the sense that you're getting a glimpse into the "real" world of London in the late 18th century.
Tobin's debut novel begins with a murder but, since there was no forensic science available and even post-mortems were avoided, there is no actual investigation into the death. Digby, the watchman, is asked by a gentleman, Maynard, to keep his eyes and ears open, but Digby is under no real obligation to do anything. No one wonders very much over the death, assuming it to be a mugging turned mortally violent. Yet the lingering tension over a death unsolved remains, and is ever-present, adding an unsettling sense of unpredictability to the story. It's as if, even though everyone has pretty much forgotten the matter, the fact that there's a murderer out there - for whatever unknown reason - adds a dark sense of menace to this London. The characters don't pick up on it - for them, that kind of threat and menace is probably a fact of life. But it's enough to keep the reader reading.
Sadly, not much else about this story kept this reader reading. I do love a good historical fiction novel, but this one left me feeling distanced, even a bit alienated, and lacking in sympathy. It's a slow read and not a whole lot happens, yet it's also long. It's rich with historical detail, but such details seem like too much padding. For a debut novel, it's competent, and Tobin has much potential, but her actual writing lacked fluidity and an organic naturalness that makes for a smooth, effortless immersion in another world. Her narrative voice does a good job of feeling historical - it has a syntax and diction that echoes contemporary novels, making it feel less modern and more genuine. But it's not quite polished, hasn't yet hit its stride, and reads too sluggishly.
Combine a slow, uneventful plot with dour, unlikeable characters and a sluggish writing style, and you get a story that loses its lively promise under the weight of historical accuracy. It was an interesting story, but not a very enjoyable or captivating one. I wasn't engrossed, only mildly curious. And after the slow, heavy-footed hobble to the finish, the climax was decidedly anti-climactic, serving only to vindicate (mildly) and answer the question that got us reading in the first place: who killed Pierre and why?
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book....more
Natalie Porter is a Ph.d student of history who has been working two restaurant jobs to help pay for private investigators in Russia, searching for heNatalie Porter is a Ph.d student of history who has been working two restaurant jobs to help pay for private investigators in Russia, searching for her father, whom she's never met. She's lost contact with the latest investigator, Zironoff, but hasn't given up hope of tracking down her dad.
While out one night at a bar with her friends, Nat sees a man who steals her breath. Everything about him screams "danger", from his dark looks, brooding glare and tattoos. But he's far more interesting than all the jocks in the place, with that sexy Russian accent, so she makes an approach only to be shut-down swiftly. It's a shock, then, to find him in her apartment later that night.
Aleksandr Sevastyan - nicknamed "The Siberian" - is in America to guard Natalie from her father's enemies; only now does he make his presence known because his orders are to get her on a plane to Russia immediately. Her father, Pavel Kovalev - known as the Clockmaker in his own circle - is high up in the Mafia and his enemies, having discovered the existence of a daughter through Nat's last PI, are closing in on her. Sevastyan is Pavel's right-hand man, an orphan he took in when just a boy and raised like his own. Pavel's excited to learn that he has a daughter, and trusts no one but The Siberian to bring her "home".
I'm a major fan of Kresley Cole, but I have to admit I wasn't sure about this one when I first heard about it - or even when I started reading it. It's all so ... outlandish. But then I remembered: it's romance. It's almost always outlandish, especially the good ones. Unless there are really noticeable flaws and plotholes and stupid decisions in the story, it's easy to go with it and enjoy. And I need not have worried in this case: this is Kresley Cole, after all. She writes so well, she can overcome even the most outlandish of premises (I mean, since when did the Russian Mafia become sexy?!).
I'll put aside my real thoughts on learning that Pavel, Natalie's father, is a lovely man who became a crime boss in order to protect people from the other crime bosses - he's a little bit too good to be true. He lives in a real palace, centuries old, one rescued and renovated, on a vast estate outside Moscow. His nephew and Nat's cousin, the incredibly handsome Filip Liukin, is living there as well - he seems to have a gambling problem as well as a flirtatious eye for Nat. There's also the slight implausibility of Nat being okay with her father being a crime lord, though granted she didn't have much choice in relocating. But she's certainly putting aside any ethics (or morals, for that matter) and getting on board with the whole thing.
But like I said, I put all that aside and just went with it, and as a result got a highly enjoyable story full of steamy scenes and fraught with sexual tension (and I'll admit, the Russian Mob angle is very exciting and a nice change for me). Cole's skill at writing stories you can really immerse yourself in, and characters who don't drive you nuts, comes to the fore. Her trademark humour is present, though not quite so much as in her excellent Immortals After Dark series. There's enough detail for realism but the pace is tight, smooth and fast ("that's what she said" - sorry, couldn't resist!). There's a hint of danger and tension - not from without, as we haven't seen it yet, but from within; I'm much more alert than Nat, clearly, and am picking up on something suspicious in the air. I'm expecting betrayal any moment, though not from Sevastyan.
Mmm and isn't he a dish? Certain descriptors may sound a bit cliched - the tats, the leather clothes, the dark brooding glare - but somehow Cole makes it all feel fresh and exciting. Nat, despite being a virgin, is sexually experienced in every other way and doesn't resist her attraction to him. This is erotic romance (not erotica, that's a different kettle of fish entirely and not half so fun as erotic romance), so the sex scenes are steamy and edgy; Sevastyan likes it a bit rough and intense, and Nat's learning that how much it turns her on, as well. Another trait of erotic romance (as opposed to other forms of romance) is the proclivity of sex scenes, or steamy scenes - even within this novella, there are plenty to keep you satisfied. And it's only just getting going.
Where the story will go from here I don't know, but I can't wait to find out with Part 2. I'm not a big fan of serialising romance stories, but it does seem to be the new "thing" for e-books, and I can understand the appeal to publishers. It's hard for readers, though, to get so far in a story only to have to wait to keep reading the same story. But once all the e-book parts are out, the complete novel should be printed. That's how it worked with Beth Kery, another erotic romance writer I love reading, so I hope that's how it will go here as well.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley....more
This companion novella takes place after book two, Unravel Me, and before book three, Ignite Me. The previous companion novella, Destroy Me, whichThis companion novella takes place after book two, Unravel Me, and before book three, Ignite Me. The previous companion novella, Destroy Me, which follows from book one, Shatter Me, was told from Warner's perspective and was extremely intense and absorbing, and perfectly set up my high expectations for Unravel Me, which weren't just met, they were exceeded. Unfortunately, this was not the case with Fracture Me.
Told from Adam's perspective, it doesn't add a whole lot to the story and didn't flesh out Adam's character in the way that Destroy Me did for Warner. As if all Mafi's creative power went into creating Warner and there was nothing left for Adam. I liked Adam in Shatter Me, I liked him a lot, and things got a tad messy in Unravel Me which really upped the ante, but in Fracture Me, Adam backs off entirely as he puts his brother first, and seems to lose all interest in Juliette.
Is this Mafi neatly getting rid of the love triangle that dogged the first two books? If so, it works, and I'm all for tying up that loose thread. But what really disappointed me was that Fracture Me felt inorganic, constrained by its need to fill in a bit of background that Juliette's unable to witness, and overall, a bit pat.
Where were the feelings that had seemed so strong, before? Where was his passion (other than that for his brother)? Where were his ideals, even? This novella not only failed to flesh out Adam, it added nothing to my understanding of this post-apocalyptic, dystopian world, either. If Warner was able to give us a bit of insight into the Reestablishment, Adam should have been able to give us insight into either the rebel organisation, or what life was like for regular people. I've been getting increasingly absorbed by this world and the players in it, but reading Fracture Me was decidedly anti-climactic. (It didn't help that I got my memory of the ending of Unravel Me mixed up - now I'm not sure what I was remembering, exactly, and I don't have the books on hand to check, but I kept expecting Adam and Kenji to break into the house and rescue Juliette; it wasn't until I started reading the teaser chapter one for Ignite Me that I remembered what had happened.)
I also find it disturbing that, in the machinations of the plot, so many people are killed and then forgotten. If you've read this far in the series, you know what I'm referring to. I should hope that they had an evacuation plan, an escape route, since Castle's so smart, but considering how he fell apart, it doesn't look like it. Juliette, in her self-absorbed, self-indulgent way, would probably care more than the more "human" Adam, whose only thought was for his brother. Understandable, but what about after finding him safe? Adam always struck me, before, as a young man of integrity, feeling, compassion, morals, generosity of spirit - all good things. Such is my disappointment with this novella, that not only did I not get to know Adam better than before, but that my impression and understanding of him was so greatly diminished. (Likewise, he didn't offer much of a perspective on Juliette.) Though I did like this bit:
A shot rings out. [...] A guy on the far left falls to the ground and I'm shaking with anger. These people need our help. We can't just hang back and watch thirty unarmed, innocent people get killed when we could find a way to save them. We're supposed to be doing something, but we're standing here for some bullshit reason I can't understand because Juliette is scared or Kenji is sick and I guess the truth is we're just a bunch of crappy teenagers, two of who can barely stand up straight or fire a weapon, and it's unacceptable.
Still, despite all these complaints, I am still just as enthused for Ignite Me as before. With a series like this one, it's clear that Mafi can achieve great heights, and great lows. I will shelve my expectations, then, and try not to hope too much for a book to match Unravel Me. If you're reading the series - and, again, despite my complaints - it is worth reading the novellas, including this one, as they do help flesh out the plot and fill in some gaps between books, things Juliette's not privy to.
And in the meantime, I am rolling my eyes at any and all projected hypotheses regarding Kenji. If Mafi turns him into a new love interest for Juliette, I will be utterly disgusted and will lose all respect. I'm certainly not convinced Juliette's got that much going for her that she attracts so many, very different, men, but more than that, doesn't Kenji deserve his own story? His own love life? It's the way everything revolves around Juliette that starts to annoy me. Can't she just be friends with him and leave it at that?...more
Layla is fourteen and living with her mother, Margot, in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. Her dad, Geoff, is gay and a professional chef livingLayla is fourteen and living with her mother, Margot, in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. Her dad, Geoff, is gay and a professional chef living in Queensland. Using the alias, just_a_girl, Layla cruises online chatrooms meeting grown men and arranging hookups. She has a boyfriend, Davo, until she discovers he's been seeing her best friend, Sarah, behind her back. She picks up a job at the local supermarket where one of the owners, a butcher, molests the female staff. But his son, Marco, catches her eye.
At home, Margot suffers from depression and is deep in her evangelical church, run by a charismatic pastor, Bevan, and his wife, Chelsea. She struggles with the perceived knowledge that she turned her husband gay, and she struggles with her memories of the past: of her alcoholic mother especially, and the family's long history of abuse and hate. She watches Dr Phil and prays and is trying to wean herself off her medication. She worries about Layla but the two don't talk. They operate in cocoons of silence or antagonism or pre-judgement.
On the train, Lalya likes to sit opposite men and unwrap a Chupa Chup, then slowly, erotically, lick and suck on it. Just to see them squirm. One passenger she notices is different from the others: he always sits with a suitcase and reads Haruki Murakami. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. He is Tadashi. He's been alone since his mother died and his search for love and companionship has led him to order an Asian-looking Love Doll from America. For six thousand dollars, he has the perfect woman, whom he names Mika. He dresses her and talks to her, feeds her and makes love to her. Takes her on trips up the mountain by carefully placing her inside his suitcase. And she looks almost exactly like Layla.
As the year rolls by and Layla turns fifteen, she finds herself deep in an affair with a married man while juggling her other relationships - with parents, friends and boys. Always searching, looking, yearning, but too young to really understand what she's doing, Layla is a modern-day Lolita, internet-savvy and precocious, wise to the world but also dangerously naïve and vulnerable.
Kirsten Krauth's debut novel is an excellent book. Both powerful and subtle, it hits you hard then softly, tenderly rubs the blow. It's this heady mix of violence and tenderness that permeates the novel and your own reading experience, but never tips it over into melodrama. Part of the magic is Layla's voice. Krauth has nailed Layla, with her acerbic humour, her intelligence and her inexperience - I didn't have much in common with Layla, as a teenager, but I could still relate, could still see elements of people I knew, peers, who did have a lot in common with her. She's realistic and believable and all too human.
This isn't a predictable story. I was never sure where it was going or how it would end, and it has one of those lovely open endings where certain things come to a head but aren't neatly tied off. Just like real life. This is, of course, a story about several things all at once. One of the most prominent themes is that of the precocious young girl discovering her sexuality and the power her sexuality has over men. Layla never really comes out and says why she pursues older men, but then, she doesn't really understand it herself. She's not especially self-reflective, any more than most teens are - she has moments of great insight and raw perception, but without experience (which comes with age and living), she can't really analyse her own actions. She rather dismissively refers to a psychologist's take that she's looking for a male role model, since her dad left when she was five. She's cynical enough to find that too simplistic.
I remember that time, that age, though unlike Layla I didn't take advantage of it - but I do remember what it was like, becoming sexually aware and not really knowing what to do with it. Being on the cusp of womanhood and wanting something, wanting more. Wanting to feel. Unlike Layla, though, I was all too aware that I would just be taken advantage of, abused even, that indulging in the feelings would lead to the kind of mistakes that you would always regret. I've always had super-effective impulse control - too much so, at times, makes me less adventurous than I might otherwise be. I also remember the girls I went to school with, who were exploring their newfound sexual power, and often revelling in it. (If nothing else, their experiences taught me that I didn't need to copy them.) They lacked the sophistication of Layla, and in the mid-90s we didn't have the internet either, but the thought-processes were much the same.
Layla gives voice to the compulsions and feelings experience by many teen girls, and while this is written for adults, it's a book that gives great insight into what's going on in their heads, without trying to supply the answers - since the issue is so complex, so individualistic, and a symptom of many varying causes. Layla's story is just one of many.
And yet it's not just Layla's story. It's also Margot's, and Tadashi's. Their stories take a back seat to Layla's, but not because they're unimportant. All three are voices of loneliness, and this comes across strongly in the style of writing itself. Each character has their own distinct voice, even Tadashi whose chapters are told in third-person. Margot is captured so well. Here is a woman caught up in herself and her own flawed nature, who recognises her problems but doesn't know how to solve them or deal with them. And so she turns to self-help, from Dr Phil to the church. It's clear to the reader that these things aren't really helping, certainly not in any practical way. It's easy to sympathise with, or feel sympathetic for, Margot, whose loneliness sinks its teeth into you. Even Layla, eventually, comes to realise the truth about her mother.
As we look out into the food court the fluorescent light settles on her. And I see her wrinkles. Just the beginnings of them. Dancing at her eyes. And the way she hesitates before asking for the bill.
And it hits me for the first time. She's not just my mother. She's a woman living alone. She's uncertain of the future. She's waiting for something to happen. She doesn't have any friends. She's shy. She's beyond lonely.
I let her have the last mouthful of cake. [p.171]
This is a story where you're constantly re-jigging your own perceptions and understanding, ditching those judgements and assumptions we all tend to make in a blink as we get to know these characters further. I absolutely love that kind of connection with fiction: the sense of being an active reader, not a passive receptacle for information someone else has decided you should have. It's not that Krauth isn't guiding things in her artful way, or creating a very specific story that she wants you to hear and learn from. It's that the way she's crafted this story, you're not being constantly told what to think. You're shown things, and from these things you actively participate, as a reader, in creating your own understanding. When the subject matter is like this, only a weak novel would try to give the reader all the answers, and this is no weak novel.
In some ways, this book reminded me of another I read this year: Jenni Fagan's The Panopticon. It's not that the stories are similar, but that they both tackle what it is to grow up young and without guidance in today's world - and it's a truism to say that this isn't the same world as our grandparents'. It's gritty realism at its best, laced with the kind of humour that comes from living on the edge: on the edge of understanding, the edge of adulthood, the edge of innocence. Interestingly, Layla is - if we are to believe her - a virgin. She thinks having sex before she's sixteen would be too "skanky". But it's clear she's doing everything bar actual penetration, and so she's very much a sexually active teenager - especially so because she actually, actively, searches for sexual encounters, encourages them, pursues them.
The question of who seduced who in her relationship with a much older married man (I won't name him, it would spoil things, though that is one detail that you will be able to predict) is an interesting one. Of course, it's illegal - and with good reason. While certainly many adults make poor decisions all the time, I think we'd all agree that underage teenagers are just too young for certain things. Somehow, it bothers me less to think of teenage girls "experimenting" sexually with boys their own age, than with older males. This is quite simply because "they know better." It's an over-simplification, perhaps, but oh so true: men, as opposed to adolescent boys, know that they're taking advantage of teenaged girls. Girls think they have all the power, and in some ways they do.
But it reminds me of this newspaper article I read a few backs, I can't remember which country or area it was from but it was about some orthodox Jewish men upset that a woman sat in front of them on the bus. Another article - and this one I do remember was from Montreal - was about a Jewish boys' school situated opposite a women's gym, complaining to the gym and insisting they blacken their windows because the sight of women in workout clothes was too tempting for their students. In both cases, the one thing that came to mind was the shifting of responsibility for men's sexual urges, appetites, whatever you want to call them, onto women, who are simply going about their business. It's the same thing with that ridiculous argument (that some women repeat, too) that women are to blame for being raped if they wear skimpy clothing, short skirts, high heels. There is the onus of responsibility at play here. Whether teenaged girls are acting the temptress or not, we need to shake the idea that men can take what's offered (or what's in front of them) from our society. Because it's one thing to take advantage of a young girl who's learning about sexual power, and another not-very-different thing to simply abuse a girl or woman. The two start to blur in your head.
just_a_girl skilfully walks the fine line between childhood and adulthood, loneliness and unhealthy ways of finding companionship - without being judgemental or censorious. Layla won me over with her distinctive voice, her vulnerability tucked away beneath her modern sophistication. She's misguided, certainly, but not the bad girl she might appear to be, hiding behind her fringe and black eyeliner and provocative manners. There is a gentle blossoming of her relationship with her mother, the possibility of a reconnecting between them that shows all too clearly that it requires both parent and child to mend a damaged bond. At its heart, there are all the signs of love and a sense of belonging, if only the characters realise it's there and acknowledge the active effort it takes to grasp it.
There is so much to explore in this well-crafted novel; I've barely scratched the surface. It's been a couple of weeks since I read it and it still lives strong in my mind. This was one of those beautifully gritty novels, a real peon for the modern age. It gives girls like Layla a realistic voice, raises some very painful and ugly issues that are, no matter what we'd like, prevalent in our society, and it does so with compassion, empathy and intelligence. I absolutely loved just_a_girl, and hold it up for all to see as an excellent example of stellar writing, characterisation and overall story-telling.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book. ...more
Victoria, 1932. On her sixteenth birthday, Bluebell "Blue" Laurence looks in the mirror of her bedroom in her aunt's rented house in Willow Creek, andVictoria, 1932. On her sixteenth birthday, Bluebell "Blue" Laurence looks in the mirror of her bedroom in her aunt's rented house in Willow Creek, and sees a monster. The scars from the fire cover her neck, and her red hair is falling out. She can barely walk, reduced to a clumsy shuffle because of scar tissue joining her thighs together. Her aunts, Daisy and Lilac, whisked her away not long after the fire to this house in the country, where they feed her detestable liver custard and tapioca. Her only company is the young Chinese servant girl, Mah, who rescued her from the fire at her parents' house.
Orphaned after her parents and baby brother, Willy, die when their ship sinks en route back from South Africa, Blue is kept in ignorance of the state of her family's affairs. Her father was the manager for her grandfather's shoe factory, Laurence Shoes, and she assumes their house burned down in the fire, but no one actually talks to her, not even her Uncle Herbert, who sends her chocolates and some money for her birthday.
With the ten pounds from her uncle, Blue sneaks out at night to see the circus that just arrived in town. The Magnifico Family Circus is a one-night-only event, and Blue enjoys seeing through the trickery in the sideshow tents and trying to guess how things were done. But it's in the Big Top that she really enjoys herself, watching the acrobatic displays and the elephant, called the Queen of Sheba. Led by the indomitable and very talented Madame - of no known name or age - the Magnifico Family Circus is a small group of skilled performers who take on several roles to make the circus feel bigger and more glamorous. Aside from Madame, the fortune-teller, there's Mrs Olsen, her daughter Gertrude and her young son Ginger, who are trapeze artists, and handsome young Fred who plays the bearded lady and many other roles. And there's the middle-aged brothers, Ebenezer and Ephraim, who play the Ring Master and the clown, respectively, among other things, and manage the heavy work.
Her aunts arrive to take her home during the intermission, and lock her in her bedroom for the rest of the night. It is when the house is quiet and everyone asleep - everyone but Blue, who tries not to panic at the thought of being trapped in the room - that there's a tap at her window. The circus has come to break her free, rescue her and hide her in plain sight. Madame, in her inscrutable way, has knowledge that Blue is being poisoned with arsenic - the hair loss is a sure sign. She wagers Blue has barely weeks left to live, and even though Blue resists the idea that her aunts could be trying to kill her, it starts to make a strange sort of sense. Especially when, from the very next day, she stops vomiting and starts feeling better.
It is a long road to full recovery for Blue, though, and in the meantime she's a runaway with the police looking for her. The circus is skilled at hiding people in plain sight, though, and soon Blue is masquerading as a boy when she's not performing as a harem dancer or a mermaid called Belle. Over the next few years Blue finds a new home in the circus, and a new family among the eclectic Magnifico family. Her only guiding thought is to wait till she's of age and can be financially and legally independent; until then, she plans to stay with the circus.
But Blue has no control over the way of the world, or the effect the Depression will indirectly have on the circus and the fate of her new family. It is at the small rural town of Gibber's Creek in 1935 that their luck runs out and Blue's carefree days of performing in a circus come to an end. It is there they meet Miss Matilda, owner of Drinkwater Station, and her husband who runs the nearby wireless factory. It is at Drinkwater that the circus's real secrets come to light and Blue realises just how clever they all are at multiple duplicity. And it is at Drinkwater that a murder and a murderer catches up with the circus.
While The Road to Gundagai is the third book in the Matilda Saga, it - and all the others (there are more to come too) - can each be read as a stand-alone book. The first book, A Waltz for Matilda, introduces readers to Miss Matilda as a child in 1894 and ends in 1915; the second, The Girl From Snowy River, is about Flinty McAlpine in 1919 till 1926; her brothers appear in Gundagai, as does Matilda from the first book. The next book will be set in 1942, during World War II, and the fifth in 1969.
But this is Blue's story, and I have to say right here, right now, that it's an excellent, wonderful, exciting, perfectly-written story that's easily one of the best teen novels I've ever read, and one of the best books I've ever read, too. I can't recommend this book highly enough, I am utterly in love with it and I know I would have loved it as a teenager as well.
Jackie French was previously known to me as a picture book author - her Diary of a Wombat is a modern-day Australian classic. But I had no idea until recently that she also wrote fiction, primarily for Young Adults and older children. I sought out her books one day and found a whole section in Petrarch's in Launceston, a bit tucked away sadly but completely devoted to Jackie French novels. They didn't have A Waltz for Matilda or The Girl From Snowy River, but I had already planned on reading this and was thrilled to find they had a few copies. I mean, who doesn't love circus stories? Stories about orphan girls being poisoned by wicked aunts? Stories about elephants who love to steal jewellery and have their own teddy bear? Stories about adventure and young love, mystery and treachery and family secrets? The Road to Gundagai has it all, and what's even better is that the writing is so ... flawless.
It's extremely rare for me - in my jaded, too-often-cynical 30s - to find a book, especially a YA novel, that doesn't annoy me in some small way, or feel a bit simplistic or unpolished or with weak world-building or characterisation or plotting. There's almost always something that stops me from really, truly loving a YA novel. One of the reasons why French's writing reads with such confidence and vitality and realism, is that she's practiced and experienced enough to know her own writing style and be comfortable in it: there's no pretensions here, no awkward turns-of-phrase in an attempt to be original, and no present tense! French is skilled at bringing her characters to life with just the right amount of detail, and the pacing is swift and sure so that you never get bored nor feel rushed. Like many of the characters, the story itself is full of charisma. It's completely absorbing and engaging, and just beautiful to read.
The story is also rich in period details, and setting. There is a handy appendix at the back for younger readers that gives concise and interesting explanations and insight into many of the things in the book, but if you already have the context and a general understanding of the Depression you can really revel in the fine details of life in a circus in Australia during the 1930s. Throughout the story, there's the running theme of what a circus - or any kind of theatrical performance - can bring people living in poverty, who spend what they can for a bit of glitter, a gasp and a laugh.
'And tomorrow, Gertrude will ride Sheba with Belle through the shanties before Ebenezer takes her down to the sea for her swim.' Gertrude's face appeared at the caravan door. She gave them all a swift angry look. 'I practise in the mornings.' 'One practice cut short will do no harm. You will be Gloria and Belle will be a dancer.' Madame shook her head. 'The mermaid would please them more, but a mermaid on an elephant is not believable. Best they keep the image from tonight. But wear the jewels. They deserve another sight of jewels. The children will tell their children.' Madame stared into the darkness. Her voice was soft. 'When they talk about these years they will not say, "We shivered in the wind with sacking walls, we ate stale bread and drank buttermilk," but, "One night I saw a fairy fly across a tent. I saw a mermaid swim, and wave her tail at me."' [p.158]
Balancing the dark tones is light and laughter, warmth and friendship. Blue finds love, too, and so does the reader: if you don't fall in love with Sheba the elephant, I shall be very much surprised. It should come as no surprise, of course, that French can write an elephant character so damn well.
Enriched with themes of economics and politics, class divides and gender imbalance, the story of Blue growing, maturing and really coming into her own is an absolute delight. She becomes a confident young woman with skills only the circus could have taught her - along with the nurturing of her circus family. There are moments of sadness and tears, and moments of bravery and resilience. Through it all, Blue is a strong heroine and protagonist you will come to love, along with all the other characters, so diverse and full of surprises. If I haven't won you over yet and made you eager to pick up this wonderful, wonderful book and read it today, then that's a lack in me and not in Jackie French's skill as a storyteller. For myself, I plan to read her entire backlist of novels and discover more gems....more
Cricket Whittier works for a short little gargoyle of a man called Oscar, who runs his own ad agency in San Francisco. She got the job after the agencCricket Whittier works for a short little gargoyle of a man called Oscar, who runs his own ad agency in San Francisco. She got the job after the agency she worked for went under and her wealthy and influential Uncle Jonathan, who had given Oscar the seed money to start his business years ago, asked Oscar to hire her. Which might be why he hates her and constantly tries to provoke her into resigning.
To soothe her rattled nerves, Cricket resorts to making up new and interesting ice cream flavours in her kitchen, and then inviting her best friends, Lindsay and Nora, over to try them. For years they've talked about Cricket's dream of opening her own ice cream shop and turning her passion into an actual business, but Cricket is overwhelmed by all that's involved in starting a small business and is focused instead on saving what she can towards her own start-up costs - because no way is she asking Uncle Jonathan for help. If she's going to do this, she's going to do it without his help.
Nora, once a high-powered lawyer who left her job when she married a filthy-rich investor, and Lindsay, a teacher, encourage Cricket to look into it anyway, to make the "one day" become "today". Nora finds a shop front in an ideal area and invests some of her own money into making Cricket's dream come true - as an equal partner. Next Lindsay jumps on board with a small inheritance; it's the summer and she's not working, and if it works out she might just quit teaching altogether. Soon, the plans for opening Cricket's gourmet ice cream shop are in full swing.
But her parents, true hippies who eschew business, are not encouraging - not that she expected them to be. Her two brothers, Dusk (who changed his name to Daniel) and Sage, are like her: they've ditched the hippie lifestyle they grew up in for the bigger world and money. Sage works in LA as an actor, but he comes to help with the renovations on the shop with his background in construction. His friend from years back, Bax, arrives to help as well - and offer advice from his own experience opening his own cafe.
Bringing her dream to life is as exciting as it is scary, and it's not without its hiccups. But Cricket is determined, and giving her boss her resignation is one of the most satisfying moments of her life - along with the sheer pleasure of tasting her ice cream and making her dreams come true.
There's something about Anna Garner's books that I really enjoy, something non-formulaic and un-generic, even within the genre formula that she works with (in this case, chick-lit). Perhaps the focus on starting a small business wouldn't be enough for some readers, without some big drama or more emphasis on romance - to be honest, I don't read much chick-lit at all, so I don't have a lot to compare this to, and I couldn't say what combination of elements actually works for me. I can only tell you the elements of Sugar Spun Sister and why they worked.
This book has the lightness, the fast pace and entertaining characters and scenes that you would expect of chick-lit. There's humour, great friendships, some drama (but never melodrama!), a little side dish of romance, and the right balance of ups and downs. Moreover, it has, in Cricket, a strong, realistic and very human heroine. She is easily relatable, but not so familiar that you'd be bored reading about her (I have read the occasional story, sad to say, where I had to wonder why the main character was worth writing about in the first place).
Cricket is someone I could certainly relate to. There are things I'd love to do in my life, but I have all the same reasons as Cricket for putting off doing them. She's seeing a man called Jimmy - or rather, sleeping with him - in a mutual arrangement whereby no one at his record company knows they're anything other than friends, while her friends tease her about "Jiminy Cricket" and urge her to break up with him, as they all know - including Cricket - that it isn't going anywhere. Cricket likes Jimmy a lot, and enjoys spending time with him, be it dinner, sex or making ice cream together. But there's no future with him, she knows that. She's no idiot, though she does put off making changes in her life out of a kind of fear - again, something I could relate to (I'm sure many people could: it's a very human thing).
Likewise, the process of starting a small business was realistic and informative, without being dull. I felt like I learned a lot - maybe I'm a nerd, but I always want to know things and hear about people's experiences actually achieving things like this, so this really satisfied in that regard. There were no easy short-cuts for Cricket and her friends. I really like the way Anna Garner can write such a nice balance of realism and entertainment. It can't be easy to achieve the right kind of balance, but the writing was strong, humorous and smooth.
In response to certain things in her life or, later, catering jobs in the prelude to opening the shop, Cricket devises ice cream recipes to either meet a request or as therapy. The first one, which headlines Chapter One, she calls "Anaphylactic Surprise" (AKA the ice cream that would kill my boss). It's full of pretty much everything her hyper-allergenic boss, Oscar, is allergic to. Chapter Two's ice cream concoction is called "Edible Rage" (the ideal choice when you're at your wit's end) and includes Red Hot candies, beetroot and as much organic red food colouring "as you need to achieve a blood red hue". I loved seeing what she'd come up with next, and trying to imagine what the ice cream would taste like (which is hard for me: I'm not particularly adventurous and I'm not a natural cook, I need a recipe).
There is a part of me - there's always a part of me - that would have liked a bit more romance, or rather, a bit more of a lead-up to the nice little romantic ending. It's not that it was a big surprise, or felt like it came out of nowhere, and there were hints leading up to it, but it did feel a little too tidy. Nice way to end things, though! For this book at least; the next two will focus on Nora and Lindsay, and I'm keen to read their stories - and continue to follow the ups and downs of their ice cream shop, Sweet Dreams.
My thanks to the author for a copy of this book....more
On the east coast of Tasmania where the world's sunshine is doled out in full measure, there stands a gaunt, solid house of stone. Pine trees protectOn the east coast of Tasmania where the world's sunshine is doled out in full measure, there stands a gaunt, solid house of stone. Pine trees protect it on three sides from wind and sea breezes; the fourth side faces the sea.
So begins A Fortune for the Brave, where we are introduced first to the house called Fipwood and then its occupants, the four Gogud children and their mother, the nice but vague and clueless Myrtle. Once a large estate, the land has been sold off and Fipwood, originally built by convicts, is shabby and becoming run-down. The Gogud children - handsome Lloyd who thinks very highly of himself; pretty but sour-tempered Gina; smarty-pants Prosper and the youngest, Theodore, or "Tacky" as he's called, who follows where Pros leads - have a new plan for the summer holidays. Lloyd has learned that the survivor of a well-known shipwreck off the coast, an old Dane called Olaf, hid some treasure from the Rua Rua on one of the small islands there. The only person Olaf told was Dr Trivett, after the good doctor saved his life.
Dr Trivett is dead now, but his son is alive and well, an orphan living in England under the care of guardians. They hope that this son, Huon Trivett, has, amongst his father's things, a map to the treasure - in a delirious state, elderly Olaf told Lloyd where to find the treasure, but not which island it's on. They busily formulate a plan that consists of enlisting their friend, Ernest Seward, who's friends with Jacko Burlington who sails his father's yacht, and decide on a time to go looking for the treasure and a way of keeping their mother occupied while they're gone.
In England, Huon Trivett has finished school with failing grades and has no real plans or ideas of what to do with himself next. The arrival of Mr Seward, neighbour of the Goguds and prosperous landowner and sheep farmer, on the houseboat on the River Thames where Huon lives with Mark and Phoebe Writhen, is a surprise to all, as is his offer of employment to Huon. Mr Seward likes the look of young Huon and downplays his aunt Myrtle's invitation to stay at Fipwood ("I rather doubt whether he would fit into that household for long") while offering him the post of jackaroo at Cottlestone instead. In fact, Huon can have his seat on the plane headed to Australia, as Mr Seward's wife and his daughter, Barbara, want him to accompany them on their own European tour by steamer.
Huon accepts the offer, and accepts the invitation to stay at Fipwood until Mr Seward returns around Christmastime. He's a good-natured, friendly lad and is taken aback by the unwelcoming - nay, cold and hostile reception from his cousins. His aunt is affable and welcoming but has no idea what her children get up to, only thinks the world of them and would like to offer them better opportunities in life. Huon brings with him his father's journal, which does indeed contain a map of treasure and a description of the island where it's located, ending with the words "A fortune for the brave, but have I the courage--" Huon, aware that his cousins have asked after the map via Barbara Seward, offers to show it to Gina, but Gina is so put out and hostile that she pretends they don't need it, only to sneak into his room later and try to find it.
Thanks to his unfriendly reception at Fipwood, Huon goes exploring and discovers their neighbour, Jimmy Stone. Jimmy, a lad his own age, lives with his Scottish mother and his uncle, "Unk", in a small cottage nearby. Jimmy's passion is beekeeping, and he teaches Huon all about keeping bees, different kinds of bees and grades of honey. Huon spends many a happy day helping Jimmy with his bees, but it isn't until he learns from Mr Burlington, a lawyer, that he's inherited an island owned by his father that he's galvanised into action and a desire to thwart his cousins' plans to the treasure.
For Huon, though, the real treasure is the island itself, and what it means to him to have a home, and dreams, and a plan for the future. A fortune for the brave, indeed.
Nan Chauncy ("Chauncy" to rhyme with "Nancy") is a well-known Tasmanian children's writer from the last century, who died in 1970. Born in England in 1900, she migrated to Australia in 1912 and went on to write 14 children's books, among them They Found a Cave (1948) and Devil's Hill (1958) - which (along with other novels) was made into a film called Devil's Mountain which I remember watching (and loving) in primary school. In fact, I've never been able to forget it and I've always wanted to read one of her books. This lovely old edition is my mother's, who's had it since Christmas 1960, and knowing my interest in Australian (and Tasmanian) literature and my efforts this month to read Aussie books for AusReading Month, she lent it to me.
It's always very interesting, to me, to see how much the English language and writing styles have changed over the decades. Originally written for children (which would have included teens - "Young Adult" being a relatively recent publishing niche), I think kids and teens today would have a bit of a hard time reading this. As an adult, I found it took a while to get into the style, which is distinctly "old-fashioned" and very much grounded in the period it was written in. Makes you realise how, in historical fiction today, authors don't really recreate the way people would have spoken "back then" because we would struggle to read it! But by no means do I want to give the impression that the writing is old-fashioned in the sense of being formal, or restrained, or - god forbid - dull. It is full of humour, rich in atmosphere and setting, and alive with realistic characters and believable adventure.
The Gogud children are really quite horrid. There's no other word that fits them better than "horrid". Lloyd is vain and superior, and puts the charm on thick when he wants something - Huon dislikes the fakery and it really does put you off him. Gina, only slightly older than Huon, has been soured from living in a remote, isolated house and having to manage so much of its upkeep - she dreams of owning a fashionable dress and being seen. Prosper is a real piece of work, having brains but no outlet except to cause mischief. Tacky has the makings of a nice kid, since he's young enough not to be fixed, but with no father-figure and an older brother who takes advantage of him, he's just as problematic. Yet they work together well - they really only have each other, after all, and they're "thick as thieves", as the saying goes. Very loyal to each other, no matter what. And they harbour great pretensions: pretension to wealth and status that their current situation cannot support.
Huon is very different. He's extremely likeable, and is a wonderful bridge to his world for the modern reader. He sees things differently from the locals, and his observations and thoughts are peppered with insights that we can relate to, like in this scene as he tours Cottlestone with Mr Seward's eldest son, Neal:
'What's this - like a dark smudge over here?' 'Ah, that's the Plantation. That's Dad's great pride - pine trees to make a breakwind, you know, and for timber!' 'It looks as though you cleared out the native trees and then planted pine trees in their place?' exclaimed Hu. Neal saw nothing strange in this and agreed without a smile. 'That's right. Now, we'll hop in the utility and I'll take you a run round and you'll see everything. The shearing shed is almost new - electric machines and all the latest gadgets.' [p.78]
Huon is a wonderful hero and a great character, but it's when he's with Jimmy Stone that he really comes to life - and it's quite possible that Jimmy is the real scene-stealer here. When we first meet Jimmy, he appears to Huon as an old bearded man - except that the hair on his head is fair and the beard, which comes down to mid-chest, is black. As he comes closer, Huon realises that the beard is actually made up entirely of bees! Jimmy is, it turns out, moving his "swarm" of bees, and has a camera ready to go to take a photo of it for the picture prize offered by the apiarists' magazine that he reads (three quid for a photo of bees swarming in an unusual place). Huon takes the photos and so begins their friendship. The two characters play off each other wonderfully, and Jimmy's enthusiasm for bees is catching.
As is Chauncy's enthusiasm for her local setting. Having grown up in Tasmania, it resonated with me on a deeply personal level, but even without that connection, her descriptions and sense of place are vivid. The east coast of Tasmania isn't just a setting, it's very much an intricate part of the story. For me, it came with deeper layers of unspoken meaning, things left unsaid but discernible to, perhaps, local readers or anyone with an ear to it. Issues of colonisation, white settlement and the noticeably absent Aborigines flirt with the narrative, as do themes of class and family dynamics. Huon, an orphan, barely remembers his parents, who died in England during World War II. His Tasmanian family will never be friends, but it is through the unexpected inheritance of an island that Huon at last connects with his dead father, and finds a kind of home, or sense of place.
This is something I felt I could relate to - not inheriting an island, nor am I an orphan - but the homecoming, that I can distinctly relate to. I also loved the presence of bees and beekeeping, as I love bees, especially honey bees, and wouldn't mind learning beekeeping myself one day. As an adventure story, it was often exciting but not relentlessly so; it worked up to a gripping climax and show-down between Huon and his cousins; and naturally it doesn't follow a neat, straight line. There's a bit of mystery, there's clue-hunting, there's the play of friends-and-enemies, and ultimately it's a genuine coming-of-age story for Huon.
Ernest B Spinosaurus isn't wasting any time telling Santasaurus what he wants for Christmas: he writes his first letter to Santasaurus on the first ofErnest B Spinosaurus isn't wasting any time telling Santasaurus what he wants for Christmas: he writes his first letter to Santasaurus on the first of January and continues to write throughout the year. And he's determined to stay on Santasaurus' Nice List! Through Ernest's letters, at once hopeful and cheeky, we get to know this young dinosaur, about his friend Ty, his little sister Amber, and his desire for a Jurassic Turbo Scooter X9. He wants to stay on Santasaurus' "nice" list, and keeps up a steady stream of letters partly to explain away his naughtiness.
Ernest may be a dinosaur, but really he's a typical young boy that children (and their parents) will be able to relate to easily. Coupled with Jef Kaminsky's cartoon-like illustrations, this book reminded me a lot of children's television shows. Granted, the ones I've started letting my two-year-old watch (yes, it's come to that, there's only so long you can hold out!) are predominately British and a mix of fancy 3D CGI and old-style animation a la Peppa Pig, but they all tend to have one thing in common: using animals (like pigs or bees) or mythological creatures (like fairies or elves) or fictional characters (like robots or aliens) to make everyday stories more interesting, as well as to show a universality to human stories. Children's books are, likewise, often used to help dispel the classic "us vs. them" dichotomy that seems to rise in children instinctually, and I do find the books to be less obvious than the TV shows (and I have zero guilt in letting my child read books!).
Dear Santasaurus is a sweet, funny and very entertaining book, a picture book for older children. It was too long and too advanced for my boy, who doesn't really remember his first two Christmas' and is only just getting his head around the typical Christmas symbols: Santa etc. The concept of naughty and nice, or of writing to Santa, these are a bit too abstract for him yet. The story itself has lovely context jokes where the illustrations play off the text - and vice versa - in really fun ways, but likewise my boy is too young yet to get any of the humour, or even really understand the situations or what Ernest is really saying in his letters. It's one I will have to wait a couple more years before getting out again to read to him, which isn't a bad thing. If your child is five or older, they will get a lot out of this.
Here's a taste:
April 1 Dear Santasaurus, For Christmas, I want rainbow underwear with white polka dots. Seven hundred pairs of underwear. And Ty wants a thousand pairs of socks. That's it. No toys. No scooter. Your friend, Ernest B Spinosaurus PS: Just kidding. APRIL FOOL'S DAY!! Ha ha ha.
April 2 Dear Santasaurus, Yesterday's letter was a joke. You knew that, right? I do NOT want seven hundred pairs of underwear for Christmas. I don't want any underwear. I want the Jurassic Turbo Scooter X(. Please, please, please do not bring me any underwear. Your friend, Ernest B Spinosaurus PS: Ty doesn't want socks, either.
May 13 Dear Santasaurus, Today, I scored two soccer goals (one for my team, one for the other team). I ate all my dinner (except for what dropped on the floor). I even helped Amber take her first steps. So let's forget about yesterday's mess with the glitter glue, paint, and Dad's toothbrush. Besides, Mom sure did like the Mother's Day card I made with my own claws. I've been thinking about my Christmas list. I want the Sea Serpent Blue Jurassic Turbo Scooter X9. I also want a Raging Raptor action figure. Please. Your friend, Ernest B Spinosaurus
The illustrations are bold, colourful and lively, and don't simply echo the text but rather show another side to the story, a kind of "what really happened" side to it. They're fresh and fun and really help with the whole book's festive, exciting, cheerful vibe. And what was really nice, especially for a Christmas picture book, was the fact that there was no in-your-face, saccharine moral at the end. Ernest got the Christmas present he wanted, and was really really happy. The point of the story isn't about good deeds and impressing on kids any kind of pressure to be something they're not; it's about kids being kids, and enjoying their childhood, and striving and trying without weighty repercussions or negative consequences. You could read this as "Santasaurus" standing in for God, but not being religious I didn't read it that way (but you could). Children reading this will be able to enjoy it for the entertaining story it is, while also seeing a bigger picture. It's a story that makes an impression, but isn't heavy-handed or lecturing or do-goody. Know what I mean? Kids don't respond well to that anyway.
Children will connect well with Ernest, who is proud of himself for taking a bath without being told, and who does harmless pranks. They will enjoy reading about a year in Ernest's life, and getting to know him. And if anything, it will teach kids that it's okay to play, that you should try to be good and helpful and considerate, but if you mess up nothing bad's going to happen. Your life won't be - shouldn't be, if you have decent parents - ruined. (Sadly, not every child has the freedom to be a child that Ernest does.) Being a child is about learning, in more ways than one, and I've never thought that placing adult responsibilities - with adult repercussions and punishments - on children is at all useful, or teaches them anything but to be scared and anxious or that they're bad and that's that. At first glance, Dear Santasaurus is pure silly fun, but at its heart it's good, solid storytelling that, if nothing else, will secretly reassure kids that there's nothing wrong with being a kid.
My thanks to the author for a copy of this book.
Visit my blog to see Stacy McAnulty's guest post as she shares her "12 days of Christmas in picture books" and a cookie recipe!...more
It's the year 6036, and thirty-three year old Fran is regretting leaving her comfortable, if dull, life in Adelaide for a colonising expedition in spaIt's the year 6036, and thirty-three year old Fran is regretting leaving her comfortable, if dull, life in Adelaide for a colonising expedition in space. Her ship has been captured, she's separated from almost all of her fellow space-settlers, and the future looks dire. Locked up in a bare cell with a number of other females from different species on the planet of Olman, Fran can only keep young Margaret company as they listen to the sounds of alien warriors being tortured in a nearby cell.
Fran isn't one for sitting down and taking it, though, and she riles up the others to think of escape and freedom. One of her cellmates has an idea, but it requires Fran's willing participation. The warriors are Darkons, and while at the moment they're barely surviving, if they are awakened, sexually, then they become almost invincible. They would certainly be their best bet at escape.
There aren't many options available, and as one of the only human females there, it's up to Fran to awaken the warriors. At the time, she's thinking mostly of escaping this hell-hole, but all too soon the reality of what she's unwittingly committed herself to becomes clear.
I have to be clear: I haven't read Legend Beyond the Stars, the full-length story that begins this series and establishes the whole premise, and I think my reading of this novella suffered for it. The problem was that this was too short a story - too short to explain things, establish anything, create a clear context or even develop the characters. I feel a bit unfair, but all I can do is speak of my experience reading this novella.
While Fran's situation is explained, albeit in short detail, the broader context is missing. There's no explanation for why her ship was captured and all the colonisers imprisoned, or why any of the other females were locked up either. I don't think this would be explained in the first book. There're hints that there is a major inter-galactic war going on, when one of the aliens mentions that the Darkons are resisting and the Elite Guards of Olman are planning a major strike against the Darkon home world. But nothing is explained, and without the right context the scenario of Awakening the Warriors didn't quite hold up. I would hope that the first book fills in these gaps.
But let's take this as the erotic space-opera novella it is. It has a conventional, simple plot structure divided into three short sections: the prison, where Fran sexually awakens the warriors, and from which they flee amid much gunfire; on board the ship they escape on; and the last stage on the space station where Fran and Margaret are nearly captured again. There's not a whole lot to it, which made me think that I prefer longer stories to novellas. But mostly I was disappointed by how formulaic it was. I've read quite a few stories generally classified as Paranormal Romance, and this shared many of the same tropes. The Darkon Warriors could have been alpha vampires, or werewolves. The two Darkon who survive and are awakened by Fran are called Jarrell and Quain. Jarrell is younger, sweeter; Quain is older and very alpha - macho, even.
Since this is a novella, there isn't all that much sex in it - two scenes only, though with two men involved it feels like more. Again, the condensed nature of the novella format made the lusty writing come across as a wee bit silly. I often had to stop myself from rolling my eyes and work at going along with it. Again, the problem with a novella is how squished it feels, how rushed the sexual attraction and progression becomes, and how dependent the story is on romance conventions and familiar language. If you had enjoyed the first book and got into the world-building and set-up, it would be easier to enjoy this for its own sake and not worry about any of these quibbles. I didn't realise it was a sequel or a novella until I started reading it, but for all my criticisms, there were enjoyable elements to this story.
Fran is likeable, she rises to the occasion and becomes a strong heroine. She's got a sense of humour, and she doesn't over-think things or get self-indulgent in her thoughts and reflections. The writing is capable and flows well, and regardless of how corny you might find some of the lines, they are fun and Gilchrist made an effort to add a dash of originality. I found myself more curious about the world and its politics then this short story allowed, and rather wish there was a more serious, lengthy story available that really developed it. It makes me both interested in reading Legend Beyond the Stars but also wary, afraid that my questions won't be explained and I'll come out of it even more confused and frustrated.
Aside from anything else, this is a snappy and exciting story. The fast pace and novella format don't allow for dull moments, and the sex is quite steamy. Unfortunately, the Darkon warriors are under-developed as characters, and come across as mere muscle-men-with-demanding-cocks. Like any other intelligent woman, I find that sexy men are only sexy when they have personality and some brains, too. So overall, this was a frustrating mix of good and unsatisfying, exciting and disappointing.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley....more
I wanted to read this as soon as I watched it discussed on ABC's The Book Club in late 2013. Most of the panellists loved it but not all; it was theI wanted to read this as soon as I watched it discussed on ABC's The Book Club in late 2013. Most of the panellists loved it but not all; it was the descriptions and conversations about the story and the writing that made me want to read it and join in the discussion. I got a copy straight away but it took more than a year for me to get around to reading it - long after it won the Man Booker Prize and the Prime Minister's Literary Award, both in 2014 (Flanagan shared the latter prize with Steven Carroll for A World of Other People). It was also short-listed for the Miles Franklin Literary Award (All the Birds Singing by ex-pat British writer Evie Wyld won). But I don't feel like I'm coming late to a party: this is a book that will stay around for a long time (that's my prediction) and appear on many book lists (including the senior secondary - college - level reading list here in Tasmania). It could well be a divisive book, not because of what it says - more on that in a bit - but because Flanagan doesn't shy away from the reality of the POW camps in Thailand in World War Two. Some people can't even finish it - either they lose interest before it gets interesting (for them), or they are so sickened and upset by the confronting imagery that they can't read on. (If I read that in someone's review, almost nothing could work faster to entice me to read a book!)
The story revolves, mostly, around Dorrigo Evans (whose first name is actually Alwyn). Dorrigo is originally from Cleveland, an old coach-stop hamlet north of Campbell Town in central Tasmania - a town that still exists today, technically, though it's no bigger or more prosperous than it was in Dorrigo's day, and the need to change your horses at the inn is long gone. The youngest of seven children, he does well in school and receives a scholarship to continue his education at Launceston High (now Launceston College, where I went for years 11 and 12 - I love reading a book set in places I'm familiar with!!) and then proceeds to the University of Melbourne to study medicine. There he falls in with an upper-crust crowd and meets Ella, a girl from the 'right' sort of people who envelops him into her society and lifestyle, the kind of lifestyle he feels he should want.
When war comes, Dorrigo enlists and is stationed in Adelaide for training and to wait for further orders. It's there that he meets Amy, who turns out to be married to a non-blood relative, Keith Mulvaney. The Mulvaney's run a hotel and pub outside Adelaide and soon he's conducting an intense affair with his uncle's wife. When Dorrigo finally receives his orders to ship out, his relationship with Amy is up in the air and he's proposed to Ella partly because she expects it but mostly in order to grope her breasts.
First sent to Syria to battle the French, Dorrigo and his battalion end up in the Changi prison in Singapore. From there he and a thousand other POWs are sent into Burma and Thailand (then Siam) to construct a railway that many nations and powers had dreamed of but only the Japanese had decided wasn't impossible. Conditions in the camps along the Line are horrific, and thousands die from starvation, the many diseases that starvation and malnutrition bring, the brutality and cruelty of their Japanese (and Korean) guards, and the work itself. With hardly any tools but blunt picks and old hammers, no machinery and no medicine, life on the Line is a death sentence. Dorrigo, as a colonel and a doctor, oversees one camp and is forced to make the worst kinds of decisions at the compulsion of the Japanese in charge. Then one day, one pivotal day, the day Darky Gardiner is beaten and Jack Rainbow dies during his third leg amputation, Dorrigo receives a letter from Ella with devastating news.
Told primarily - but certainly not exclusively - from Dorrigo's perspective, the story follows a skilfully orchestrated, non-linear dance through time and events, whetting your interest slowly at first before, finally, plunging headfirst into the horrors of the POW camp before slowly, scarred physically and mentally, it rises up into the torment of liberation. Inspired, and slightly based, on Flanagan's father, Arch Flanagan, who was one of the prisoners used as slave labour by the Japanese on the Burma-Siam railway - otherwise aptly known as the 'Death Railway' - I felt that certain scenes about one or two of the ex-soldiers from Tasmania after the war, struggling to live and cope and love their families, were probably the most autobiographical (one character, Jimmy Bigelow, the bugle player, was obsessed with his four children folding their clothes and blankets in the Japanese fashion - fold out - and what violent punishment he was helping them avoid by insisting on this, seemed so simple and painful as to be drawn from Flanagan's childhood. I'm speculating of course, but such descriptions - and it's not the only one - really struck me in that way).
Divided into parts delineated by Japanese haikus, the novel has its own, unique structure. We often use words like "woven" and "interwoven" to describe novels like this one - such words are apt, and the skill demonstrated here by Flanagan is only fully appreciated at the end, when all the strands come together and you can see the whole intricate dance as one artful piece. The first section covers pretty much the whole story in a condensed form, in bits all mixed up, that merely whetted my appetite and had me yearning for more. The next focusses more on Dorrigo and Amy's relationship, building a foundation for their love - which is just as tangled and confused as the narrative structure of the novel - and really delving into their personalities. While later in life, especially before his death, Dorrigo isn't all that likeable, it is learning about his life, what he endured, the incredibly awful decisions he had to make, the things he witnessed and lives with, and how detached he feels afterwards - it all goes a long way to helping explain his later years, why he has affair after affair, why he struggles to bond with his children. It makes you more sympathetic towards him, but it also makes you think of all those other veterans of the wars - your grandparents, if you're my age - who were so irascible, so quiet until their temper suddenly broke. So alcoholic. So flawed. Stories like this one remind you to not judge so quickly, to allow for reasons beyond your understanding. (It also made me think how all the survivors of World War Two are gone now, and younger generations won't get the chance to meet any of them.)
In fact, all of the Australian soldier characters who are fleshed out and given a voice show another perspective and aspect of the war and its toll on the survivors. The sad fact is, these men didn't receive counselling afterwards, but were told to keep quiet, to not talk about their experiences. They were never diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder or depression or anything. I've read other novels (like Sadie Jones's The Outcast) set after the war, where it's clear why so many people turned to drink. There's a whole generation or two of alcoholics - the parents of baby boomers especially - who have, possibly, very good reason for it. One thing Flanagan's novel does exceptionally well, something I really appreciated and loved, was how he explored all these different people, Australians and Japanese and Korean, and strove to give them voice, to return a sense of humanity and logic and rationality to them. Even if logic and rationality is all in the mind of the beholder.
Not all the narrative threads connect up in satisfying ways, though. The last section, post-war, that focusses on Dorrigo felt a bit scattered and even confusing, mostly because the revelation - no, the fact that there is a revelation for Dorrigo in Ella's letter all those years ago, is kept from us until the very end - even though the publisher's blurb on my edition says "he receives a letter that will change his life forever." When he does get the letter, about halfway through the book, there's absolutely no indication that its life-changing, so that I kept wondering whether I'd missed something. (To be fair, my confusion was caused by the blurb, so if I hadn't read that I would have read the 'revelation' as Flanagan intended it, as a tidy conclusion that explained certain things.) I also wished to understand how they ended up POWs in the first place. One minute they're fighting in Syria, the next they're in Singapore and then Burma. And the way Changi prison is described, it's not immediately apparent it's a prison at all, so there's a real disconnect and possibly even an expectation that that part of history, readers will already know all about. I found that frustrating.
But such things are small quibbles within a story this staggeringly haunting and beautiful. I don't use the word 'beautiful' lightly: there are pages-worth of descriptions detailing the brutality and suffering of the POWs, in particular, yet 'beautiful' is still somehow fitting. This would be, mostly, because like all fiction, this is a story about what it means to be human. The suffering, yes, but also the wonder, the high moments and the low moments, the things that connect us all, the universality of humanity and what we endure as well as what we hope for. Brought down to their lowest, to the absolute basics of survival, the men are stripped to their core and while the character flaws of some dominate, most exhibit more generous, profound and, yes, beautiful characteristics. Darky Gardiner, who understands that survival isn't about looking after yourself, but about caring for your fellows, even when you hate them. Jimmy Bigelow, who plays the "Last Post" at the daily funeral service for the latest round of emaciated, rotting corpses who were once his friends. Little Wat Cooney, who always made sure everyone had something to eat - even though all they had to eat was three or four spoonfuls of runny rice water for breakfast and a little rice ball for lunch.
Darky stuck by Tiny, but something in him was revolted by that formerly big man, that once proud man, now a shitting skeleton. Something in Darky could not help but think Tiny had let go, that it was a failing of character. And such a thought, he knew, was simply to make himself feel better, to make him think he would live and not die because he knew he had no such power. For he could smell the truth on Tiny's rancid breath. Whatever that stench was, he worried that it was catching and he just wanted to escape it. But he had to help Tiny. No one asked why he did; everyone knew. He was a mate. Darky Gardiner loathed Tiny, thought him a fool and would do everything to keep him alive. Because courage, survival, love - all these things didn't live in one man. They lived in them all or they died and every man with them; they had come to believe that to abandon one man was to abandon themselves. [pp.194-5]
You can surely see the beauty in that passage above, not to mention feel refreshed from the more original expression of the idea of solidarity and community, of working together, cooperation. There is something about the setting, the location, where these men have been stripped of dignity as surely as they've been stripped of clothes, fat, muscle and rebelliousness, that stripped down to the essential human spirit, it shines so brightly. Not cleanly, not prettily, but raw and honest and reassuringly present nonetheless. Tales such as these, especially arising out of the heartache, suffering, pain and loss of war, are ones we are drawn to again and again because of this quality, this wonderment: the question, Who are we? or Who am I? is often understood - not explained, but understood - at moments of abysmal suffering. Or maybe it's the most obvious, the least self-indulgent. Perhaps, also, because the honesty that comes with it is not always flattering, or glorifying, or anything we would want anyone to see under normal conditions. In the POW camp, the façades are gone, the masks ripped away. It begins with the larger context: nationality, and then moves on to the individual humanity within each of them.
One of the things I loved about this book was the realism - something that Pierre Boulle's famous French novel, The Bridge Over the River Kwai, first published in 1952, was criticised for lacking. You can't escape the degradations of life in the POW camp on the Line (interestingly, I was riveted by all the sections of the novel that take place there). Flanagan paints such a vivid, visceral image that I was haunted by it; certain descriptions and images filtered into my dreams and made for some restless sleep. (It's also not something I recommend you read while you're eating!) I couldn't separate myself, and I feel that that's as it should be. That's what good fiction does: it gets under your skin. But more than that, I love stories, books, that give voice to previously silent peoples, scenes, events etc. They have a right to be heard, and I want to hear. I just can't help but empathise - Flanagan doesn't let you look away, he doesn't let you dismiss the suffering these men endured - or the strengths of their characters that rose to the surface, or what they endured afterwards. It's not about whether they were good people or bad people (as the Japanese major, Tenji Nakamura, is so preoccupied with and worried about), likeable or not. They were people, and the bald truth is: we do some pretty despicable things to each other in this world.
The Japanese (and Korean) side was another aspect I loved about this book. Too often the 'bad guys' are simply bad guys, explained away in simple terms that merely display the ignorance and/or arrogance (and, generally, the white privilege) of the author. Sometimes it's too hard. Sometimes the author wants to raise the issue, start a conversation, make people think rather than jump to conclusions, but wouldn't presume to know what's going on in the minds of the 'bad guys'. In that sense, Flanagan has taken a risk, but it's a risk that's paid off and adds an important - and essential - angle to the narrative. Through the perspective of Choi Sang-min, a young Korean guard who earned the nickname 'the Goanna' among the POWs, we learn how he ended up there, how ostracised and considered naturally inferior he was by the Japanese, how brutal the training was, where beatings and face-slappings were not only common but considered essential. He signed up for fifty yen a month, the most money he had ever earned, and the notion that you didn't do what you were ordered to do was an alien one.
Likewise for Nakamura, who believed, right down to his bones, that he was doing the Emperor's will and therefore he was a good man, would never have considered any other perspective. Towards the end of his life, the doubt and anxiety again rises, and he again finds solace and comfort in the knowledge - not a belief, but knowledge - that he was a good man because he did the Emperor's will (and the Japanese, at the time, did not view the constant beatings in the same way we would). To question the Emperor's will would be open the floodgates of his own conscience. He carefully and deliberately seals it away. In such ways are we able to live with ourselves, by explaining things in rational and logical ways. The disconnect between the POWs and their guards also speaks to a clash of cultures and the barrier of language, something experienced time and again throughout history (such as between settlers and Aboriginals). The Japanese can't understand why the Australians complain so, or why they won't work harder: to them, there is honour in doing this work and dying for the Emperor, and honour is everything in Japanese society. All of this, Flanagan manages to get across.
If you're going to write on the theme of humanity and its accompanying themes of suffering and loss and hope and inhumanity, you must also consider love. Dorrigo's womanising starts later in life and is a poor salve for his loneliness and emptiness; before, with Amy, it was more pure, more honest, more real, if just as messy. If you look at the 'before' and 'after' via Dorrigo's so-called love life, you can truly see the effects of war on a soul. It isn't pretty, and he doesn't believe he needs to apologise or do anything differently. In terms of a love story, it's a tragic one, but a good way of establishing Dorrigo's flawed humanity. (Besides, what great war epic isn't also a love story?)
Poetry, both classic European poets like Tennyson, and the Japanese poetry of Basho or haikus - especially 'death poems', haikus written on one's death bed - is not just a recurrent, slumbering and gentle theme of grace and beauty, but also the glue that binds the whole story together. Nothing could prove the inherent humanity of the Japanese, Flanagan seems to be saying, than the fact that they're just as capable of capturing the human spirit and the beauty of the world - sometimes more so - than Westerners. Art is often linked to the idea of humanity, of the soul, of humankind's superiority on Earth. What The Narrow Road to the Deep North does is more than explore and give voice to the suffering of the POWs in Thailand in World War II. It also gives voice to the other side, and - like all good stories - shows just how connected we all are. The death poem by Shisui, an eighteenth-century haiku poet, 'writes' is one simple circle ('quoted' on page 29, as well appearing at the beginning and end of the book): "Shisui's poem rolled through Dorrigo Evans' subconscious, a contained void, an endless mystery, lengthless breadth, the great wheel, the endless return: the circle - antithesis of the line." [p.29] On his own deathbed, Dorrigo finally understands its meaning. What he understands isn't stated; the truth of poetry is that we all have our own understandings, our own epiphanies, that are often impossible to vocalise (that's why poetry exists). My own thought was this: that the circle also represents a togetherness, an interconnectedness, an inescapable truth, the reality of humanity.
There are endless ideas, issues and themes in this novel that I could happily discuss - not to mention all the wonderful, quotable lines - but at some point you have to just stop. I will instead encourage everyone to read this book, to read it all the way through whether you're enjoying it or not (it isn't always 'enjoyable' in the fun sense of the word), and to give yourself time to think about it afterwards, quietly, in solitude. Flanagan's novel is a beautiful, exceptional book of powerful language, imagery and ideas - and by now I hope you know what I mean when I say 'beautiful'. This is a novel that stands on its own; that, once you start listening to the voices of these characters, you could never ignore or forget, but must relive by re-reading. As a memorial to the travesties of war and the flawed nature of humanity, as well as a treatise against further warmongering, The Narrow Road to the Deep North is rich, earthy, unflinching and brutal, and also poetic, colourful, grotesque and impossible to forget.
[To read my full review, with quotes, please visit my blog.]...more
In 1984, when he was twelve years old, Andy was sent to Wakma Reception Centre in Ballarat because Wakma Reception Centre was the type of place kids lIn 1984, when he was twelve years old, Andy was sent to Wakma Reception Centre in Ballarat because Wakma Reception Centre was the type of place kids like Andy got sent. It was the place you went if your dad left your mum high and dry, or put her in hospital for a spell, or they just couldn't afford you. Or if they hated you. You ended up there if the department deemed you 'at risk', or if you'd already risked everything and lost. Nobody stayed there long; it was like a vestibule, a doctor's waiting room. A place you fetched up in until something else came along.
It isn't the first place Andy has been sent to. When he was only ten, his weak-willed mother, Dahlia, allowed her new husband, pony-tailed Victor, to divorce him. He was only adopted, anyway. Unwanted, unloved, isolated, Andy ends up in a place where the young, slightly effeminate social worker, Nigel, took him under his wing. What began as fun weekends trail biking turned into weekends at Nigel's place where the young boys were introduced to cigarettes, drugs and booze - and where Andy was introduced to Nigel's sexual appetites.
Broken, haunted and completely alone, Andy washes up at Wakma after a foster family situation goes badly, and it's there he meets the first person to show him unconditional love. Mary, or "Mez" as she's called, is only twenty-two; a small woman who's endured her own awful experiences at the hands of selfish, entitled men. She is Andy's first real friend, and he easily slips into the practice of thinking of her as his mother. When she leaves for a year of travelling the world, like so many Australians, Andy is taken in by a new foster family, one with a son about his own age. Unfortunately, without explanation (though the truth was that the couple's marriage broke up), Andy is suddenly removed from the home and sent to Ironside in Melbourne. He's only fourteen, and Ironside is not just a "youth training centre", a place where unwanted boys wash up; it's also a remand centre. There are real criminals at Ironside, rapists and murderers, grown men with violent pasts.
At Ironside, the boys live in cells with barred windows, are locked in at night, served bad food and rub shoulders with criminals. It is at Ironside that Andy makes his first friend his own age. Clunky, as he's called, has only a grandfather left, and they're fighting the system to be allowed to live together - something made difficult by his grandfather's history of alcoholism. Later they're joined by a boy nicknamed Spinner, a charismatic but ugly youth who leads Andy astray but teaches him staunchness, and honesty and dignity. It is at Ironside that Andy endures the kind of psychological trauma no child should ever have to experience: watching a cellmate hang himself. It's clear that, while no one knows about the sexual abuse he experienced with Nigel, this faked suicide gone wrong never leads to any kind of therapy or counselling for Andy.
Andy's path begins its new downward trajectory when Spinner, after a Sunday let out of Ironside, convinces Andy and Clunky to abscond, just for the day he says. But several drug deals, drinks and stolen wallets later, Andy doesn't know where he is until he wakes up in a Ballarat police station, strung out and washed up, with Mez there to greet him.
Over the following years, the path repeats itself many times. Absconding, drugs, stolen cars, bad crowd, back in jail again. Every time, Mez is there to catch him and hold him up, but even she starts to despair that the cycle can ever be broken, that Andy could ever have the chance to be the man he could be.
I knew this would be heavy, going in, and I knew it would be heartbreaking. I expected I'd cry quite a lot, but actually it didn't turn me into an emotional mess. Mostly I felt anger, and despair, and empathy. It was a forging kind of read, a story that hardens the heart rather than makes it a soppy mess, and that's just what you need, because it leaves you with a clearer head. I have to warn you, though: this review gets a bit ranty, a bit soap-boxy - sure sign of exactly the kind of emotional and intellectual response Staunch generates in readers.
Oh Andy, poor Andy. Truly - and he is just one boy of hundreds - what he went through, what he experienced, how he ended up, all of it is preventable. This story is a true story, Andy was a real person as are all the other characters, and it is in part inspired by the Forgotten Australians Senate Report, which looked at the fate and experiences of wards between 1930 and 1970. In her afterword, Briggs puts her story into this broader context:
When you read Forgotten Australians, when you read the testimonies, a whole lot of it sounds awfully like the experiences of Andy and other later state wards. Sexual abuse at the hands of a carer; the absence of a proper education; lack of belief, or succour, or affection. Dealing and coping with the horror of childhood. Andy, like so many state wards before his time and after, languished in jail...
When I started this book ... I thought I'd come up with answers to these questions. I haven't. All I have is this: kids need love and family - of whatever stripe - to thrive and grow. Only adults can parent, and many aren't very good at it. But one thing is certain - the state can never parent. When all the kids are waiting at the school gates, no one wants to acknowledge the mother who is cumbersome, impersonal, bureaucratic, twelve storeys high and has a letterhead. [pp. 292-3]
From the very beginning, with the ease with which Victor got rid of him - and for no other reason than that he didn't like him, but bullied and tormented him while Dahlia simply fluttered her hand uselessly - to the sad fact that he never had a social worker, never had anyone talk to him, listen to him, find out anything about him (until Mez, who stepped out of her official role to do so); his file contained short reports on him, terse descriptions of his movements between centres, but nothing about working with him, no attempts were ever made to set him on a healthy, safe path toward adulthood. "No help." [p.160] The state failed him even worse than his adoptive parents did, than his horrible stepfather even.
The letter [Mez] hated most confirmed the end of his wardship. Andy had been done with the government since his fifteenth birthday.
Andrew is still adamant that he wants to be able to go his own way and is confident in being able to do so. Given the firmness and thought put into Andrew's comments, his request for Discharge of Wardship is supported.
Everything possible would seem to have been tried to assist and direct Andrew in the past five years, it is therefore time to try it his own way and allow him the opportunity to make his own plans and carry them through, with voluntary assistance if he chooses to seek it from the networks he knows so well.
It sounds like a shitty ex-girlfriend, thought Mez. Fine. Try it your way. No one had invited Mez to this meeting because she had no official role in Andy's life, despite the fact that she had supported him emotionally and sometimes financially for the past three years. They dumped him. As if he would have said anything else but that he wanted to try it his way. What good had their way done? Andrew had a Grade Six education because they hadn't helped him at school, and no family home because their placement families never stayed around. No family, because they adopted him out to a nutter; and no job, because they didn't give him an education. And no love.
The state was a shithouse parent. And then, she thought, some bastard will have the gall to blame him when he breaks into their bloody car. [pp.160-1]
Aside from the blatantly obvious fact that clearly no one actually cares about these kids - else they would watch over them better, make sure they didn't get taken advantage of by pedophiles like Nigel, or end up in what was essentially a jail when they'd done nothing wrong - the system seems set up to ensure these boys end up exactly where they end up. And then we, us "nice ordinary people" with loving families, an education, a roof over our heads and jobs, we look askance at these kids, these young men. We blame them, and then we dismiss them. All the stupid things they do, the mistakes they make: it's all their fault, we think, because we assume they have the same understanding of life that we do, have had the same childhood experiences and that it's merely a question of "turning their life around".
What gets me is that we know that children need safe, loving, supportive environments in which to thrive (and for sure, going in the extreme opposite direction doesn't help them much either), so who in their right mind thinks that the system set up for these defenceless, unwanted, vulnerable and often abused kids is a good idea? I would never ever want my own son to go anywhere near the places Andy was sent to live in, because I know how bad that would be for him. Briggs mentions that some changes have been made since Andy's time, and there's more of a focus on prevention - keeping them out of the ward system and with their families - but that, when that fails, once they're in the system nothing's changed.
Everything about Andy's story hurts. The picture of a little ten-year-old boy being taken away with no explanation, being divorced from his family, as shitty a family as it is, while his mother tells him he was "too naughty" and must seek forgiveness from God, oh that makes me so mad! And then, when I thought things couldn't get any worse after Nigel's predatory abuse of him - and young boys like Andy are prime targets, so desperate are they for a father figure, a role model, a friend - to see him end up in Ironside! What bloody stupid idiot thought putting young wards into the same place as criminals was a good idea?! These are kids with no role models of their own, no positive father figures, which makes them hugely susceptible not just to abuses but also to learning the "wrong", or destructive, kind of normalcy, the wrong kind of being. And if I can just point out the obvious: make these boys' "home" a jail, with its cement walls, barred windows, locked doors, regimented structure and strip-searches and rules, and it's not surprisingly that it becomes a kind of comfort zone for them. Getting sent to prison when they actually do something wrong isn't much of a punishment: it's their life story. It becomes normalised.
It is, of course, more than just the environment and lack of nurturing that shapes Andy and his friends. It's also the ready access to drugs, the lack of an education (he never finished grade 7), and the comradely community of cons and druggies and shifty types. It's the perfect combination for the creation of a shiftless young criminal stuck in a cycle of drugs, poor decisions, and incarceration.
'You'd hate me if you knew. You'd hate me if you knew what I have to do to survive in here.' He seemed to nod off for a bit. 'Victor was a cunt to me, wasn't he, Mez? I should go get him. When I get out. Need to get it out of my system. Beat the fuck out of him. How come Mum never came for me? No family for me. Feelin' sorry for meself, Mez,' he said decisively. 'I'm letting it get to me, in'I?' He started crying. 'Wasted time. All of me youth. Now I'm old and I'm all screwed-up. Don't want to be in here anymore, Mez.' 'I know, I know.' She'd never heard him talk so much. 'I'm just saying, Mez. I've been trying to stop it in my head. I don't have any blood, don't feel like there's blood in my body. Maybe that's why the drugs. That's why they don't even work no more. They work but... Hard to explain... That's why I get so out of it. Need drugs, sometimes, to stop thinking. I remember Victor beating me up all the time. I think about it all the time. Why didn't Mum stop him?' [p.185]
Brigg's novelisation of Andy's life is highly readable, nicely structured and well plotted. It's not told in straight chronological form, which would lack tension and drama, but organised in such a way that the story builds on our curiosity and empathy and creates more just when you think you know it all. It's not just Andy's story, it's Mez's story too, and it's the story of all those kids - not all of them wards of the state, some just made bad decisions or had bad relationships with their parents or just didn't care - who become druggies and lost causes. Through Andy's story, all of us who've never experienced what they had, who probably just think it's a matter of will power to not do drugs, or stop taking them, who can't understand why they keep making such stupid, stupid mistakes when following the rules of society and law seems so easy for us - all of us gain a clear understanding and an empathetic perspective of those like Andy. Not all of them are as sympathetic as Andy is, but then we don't learn the full stories of many of them.
Overall, it's simply tragic. It doesn't end well. It doesn't make you feel very positive about the situation. What this novel does do, very successfully, is give voice to these "forgotten Australians", these kids who never really had the quality of life that we consider every child to have the right to in our cosy, affluent country. Staunch humanises these wards of the state, sheds a light on their life and opens it up for understanding. And the importance of this shouldn't be underestimated: this book, books like Staunch, this is our education, this is our chance to gain some insight, because without it nothing will ever change, we will never demand change, and we will simply go on creating more juvenile criminals and druggies and "hooligans" that we can dismiss and blame and castigate without guilt or remorse or the slightest smidge of empathy. Staunch is a memorial to kids like Andy, and it is a very powerful, emotionally-intense, moving, thought-provoking one. It taught me plenty, and it should be required reading if we ever want to really consider ourselves to be enlightened thinkers and compassionate civilians. It would be a start, anyway....more
Thirty-year-old Mackenna Birch is on her first holiday in years, a trip to New Zealand to research sheep breeding programs. A chef who grew up at WoolThirty-year-old Mackenna Birch is on her first holiday in years, a trip to New Zealand to research sheep breeding programs. A chef who grew up at Woolly Swamp, a sheep farm in South Australia, Mackenna has been working with her dad, Lyle, to remake the farm into a real boutique meat business. She even has plans to turn the old, uninhabited homestead into a gatehouse restaurant and tasting room, to showcase the Woolly Swamp lamb. But the trip has brought an extra unexpected pleasure for Mackenna when she meets Adam. Another chef, though an itinerant one, Adam is the first man Mackenna has really, truly clicked with in a long time, melding friendship with passion.
So when she wakes up after their first night together to find him gone with no explanation, she feels angry, upset, duped, foolish. She cuts her trip short and heads home, intending to put the whole thing behind her and concentrate on her plans for the family farm.
Yet nothing's quite right when she gets home. The place is deserted - or almost so. She meets Cam, the man her parents have hired to help with all the farm work, treating the house like his own and with a smug, cocky grin to go with it. Her brother, Patrick, is there too - eight years younger and with a successful job in Adelaide and no interest in farming, she's surprised to see him there, until he explains that their dad had a heart attack.
Lyle's sudden health change has had an impact on his wife Louise, too. She takes them to get new wills made, and overrides Lyle's objections to how she wants the property left. Because even though Mackenna is the one who is passionate about the farm and knows how to work it, Louise has decided that it must be left to Patrick, that it is his right as the son to inherit the land, that he can learn to be a farmer if he's given the chance. Louise's conviction about what is best for her children extends to meddling in Mackenna's love life.
Mackenna's old childhood friend and neighbour, Hugh, is back in the area, staying with his parents while he takes a temporary job in town. He doesn't intend to stay, though: he's already accepted a job in Canada to work on a special research project, and is just filling in time. But both his mother and Mackenna's are hoping the two will be more than friends. So much so that, when Adam arrives out of the blue, having tracked Mackenna down, Louise does what she can to discourage the relationship between them.
As Mackenna works hard to get the Woolly Swamp Gatehouse up and running, with Adam often helping her in the kitchen to make the group dinners a success, certain things about her family and what's going on at the farm begin to sink in. Her suspicions about Cam grow, but her understanding of her parents' plans for the farm that she loves so much come as a complete shock, and threaten to destroy everything she's worked for.
I am learning not to expect romance from these novels set in rural Australia, published by the big romance publisher, Harlequin. This is an imprint, Mira, and Mira doesn't do "bodice rippers"; they publish everything from historical fiction to fantasy. If you're expecting a romance from Right as Rain, you will be disappointed. There is a romantic relationship woven into the plot, but it's not central to the story as it would be in a Romance novel; in fact, it's almost - almost - superfluous to the plot. This is very much a story of one woman's love for the land, and her struggle against gender stereotypes and out-of-date traditions that only make people unhappier than before. As such, it was a highly successful story and a real pleasure to read.
Mackenna is close to her father, and knows how to run a sheep farm just as much as she knows how to run a kitchen and prepare a four-course meal. She's a skilled chef with a vision, a strong, hard worker with close ties to the family property, and she has no idea her mother wants to "set her free", as it were, of the burden of living on a farm. Louise, like most people who meddle, thinks she's doing what's best for her children but is blind to the obvious fact that Patrick doesn't want the farm and Mack does. This rather callous machination on Louise's part definitely adds tension to the story, far more so than any other plot development: from almost the beginning you read this book waiting, waiting for the blow-up, for the day when Mack finds out. The tension exists not because of the anticipated family blow-up, but from the scarier possibility that Lyle (and Louise) might die before Mack finds out, before the wills can be changed.
While the novel might lack a more traditional plot structure and focus - it's not about Mackenna finding love, it's not about a mystery or a crime or anything so concrete - it was a nice change to read a story that felt more true-to-life than one that was more tightly plotted and (possibly) predictable. I was never quite sure where the story was going, or if one thread among several would resolve into the main plot. It was, instead, a slice of life on a farm, rich with realistic detail and vibrating with life in all its complications. Having grown up on a sheep farm myself (albeit a much smaller one), the setting was familiar and comforting - I do love reading stories that involve sheep! I don't know half of what Mackenna knows, of course; like Patrick, I love the land and I enjoy helping but I couldn't take on a whole farm and be a farmer.
Mack's perspective isn't the only one we get in this story, though. We also get Louise's perspective, and Hugh's. This has an interesting effect on the overall story and how we read it. Louise's perspective gives us great insight into her thought processes and motivations, her convictions and her reasons, which really helps to round out the story and flesh out the family dynamics. The inclusion of Hugh's is perhaps a bit more odd, but actually it works quite well. If we didn't get Hugh's chapters, the character wouldn't have been superficial and obscure. As it is, having Hugh's perspective not only helps to flesh out his character, but helps to flesh out the town and the overall setting, too. It adds an extra dimension to the whole neighbourhood, and Mack's history. I grew very fond of Hugh. (Incidentally, it was amusing to find the two love interests in this book were called Adam and Hugh - my husband is Adam and my son is Hugh!)
Perhaps because he doesn't get to share his perspective, Adam is a bit of an unknown entity in comparison. Giving Hugh his own voice makes him seem a stronger contender for romantic interest, while leaving Adam less well fleshed-out makes him harder to get to know. Yet, I didn't mind it all. I liked the sense of mystery that clung to Adam a bit longer, and I found his character fleshing out enough to make his chemistry with Mack believable. Too much delving into Adam's character and backstory would have made the whole book over-crowded and really lack focus. Instead, the novel concentrates on Mack: she is the pivotal centre around which everything else rotates.
There are some lovely digs at traditional stereotypes in this book. I loved what Stringer did with the character of Yasmine, Patrick's girlfriend. When she turns up, Mack sees a thin woman wearing layers of black, who doesn't eat meat and seems too fragile and soft to handle the realities of farm life. And for quite a while, this mostly baseless pre-judgement seems to hold true, until Mack learns the truth and her assumptions about Yasmine are turned completely on their head.
And of course the tradition of leaving land and property in general to the eldest son is put under the microscope, in satisfying ways. The family dynamics and the sense of building mistrust - encouraged by Cam covering up his mistakes by pointing the figure at Patrick, which in turn encourages Mack to see him as almost incompetent on the farm - add to the building tension and the sense that something is terribly wrong. Out of balance. Just not right. I've always thought that blindly following traditions for the simple reason that they are tradition, is rather stupid and sometimes even harmful. Ah the benefits of an education that teaches you to question and critique things! Makes it hard for me to understand the comfort (I suppose it is comfort) others find in doing things a certain way, simply because that's "how it's done." Stringer successfully makes Louise both believable and understandable: even though I couldn't condone her actions at all, I could understand, even empathise with her reasoning. She is using her own experiences, and an unspoken resentment, to justify her motives.
And then there is Cam. Another character whom we never learn all that much about, which makes us much more suspicious about him than Mack is. In fact, I was surprised at Mack's naiveté in general. She doesn't pick up on her mother's plans, that I can understand since she's not privy to Louise's thoughts like we are. But interestingly, she doesn't make assumptions about Cam like she does about Yasmine, for instance. She's mildly puzzled about him and where he fits in, but even when he keeps "borrowing" the farm truck to do jobs on the weekend, with ready excuses as to why he can't use his own ute, she doesn't think much of it. Maybe it's just me, but alarm bells rang in my gut as soon as he appeared on the scene. He creeped me out. Which was perfect really: the story wouldn't have been as solid or entertaining if the Cam angle hadn't been included. It tied in neatly with the Patrick story-line, and the way the action played out at the end helped wake Mack up to her feelings for Adam. As my husband would say, "Well played. Well played."
This was the first time I'd read a book by Tricia Stringer, but I don't think it will be the last. The story may not be as tightly plot-driven or as fast-paced as it could have been, and the romance angle may come across as a bit last-minute, but I still really enjoyed it, especially once I stopped expecting it to be a romance. Or a romance in the traditional sense. Right as Rain provides fascinating insight into the running of a family farm, and explores the constraints of honouring traditions and gender stereotypes and their affect on people. It has all that rich detail and fleshing-out that I love in stories, and a strong sense of place. But it is the characters and their complex dynamics that really makes this story both interesting and emotionally engaging.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book. ...more
It's been a year since seventeen-year-old Miranda Sun's parents were killed in a terrible car accident, but she's still harbouring a secret guilt thatIt's been a year since seventeen-year-old Miranda Sun's parents were killed in a terrible car accident, but she's still harbouring a secret guilt that has damaged her relationship with her older, beautiful sister Lauren. That January, when their grandparents take them to the family shack by the beach at Bob's Bay for two weeks of summer holiday, Miranda is finally preparing herself to open up to Lauren when her situation drastically changes, and she disappears while taking a midnight swim.
Miranda is caught by a stranger, dragged underwater and kidnapped. She wakes, days later and still groggy from the drugs that helped transport her, in a very strange place. Completely alone and scared, Miranda is slowly introduced to the mysterious underwater city of Marin, somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. Lit by glowing crystals, oxygenated by hidden air shafts, Marin's origins are unknown but the founder of the current civilisation, Frano Tollin, a pharmaceutical entrepreneur and explorer, speculated about an ancient civilisation that built it but died out. Now Tollin's descendents rule in his place: Marko, a young and temperamental nineteen-year-old king, and his older sister, Sylvia. But things aren't as glowing and utopian in Marin as they might seem.
Marko's older brother and Sylvia's twin, Damir, is in hiding somewhere in the city. A dark and twisted mind, Damir wants to follow in Frano Tollin's footsteps and experiment on young women in the insane attempt to create a real mermaid. Tollin's nightmarish experiments focussed on cutting women's legs open and sewing them together to form a tail, among other things, and if Damir ruled Marin the nightmares would continue. Marko has been made king in his place, but his rule is tenuous if he cannot secure an heir.
This is Marin's other problem: there are no children. No babies are born. The women who live here are infertile. Barren. And thus Sylvia's selfish plan: to capture a girl from the surface and bring her to the city to marry Marko and have his children. She sends Marko's personal guard, Robbie, to find a girl, and its Miranda who is caught - not Lauren, her beautiful, popular older sister. When Marko learns that Miranda is not even of legal age yet, he's furious, but with the threat of being fed to the sharks, the wedding is still going ahead.
Miranda's fear turns to curiosity, but she never stops planning to escape. When she learns that the one way to the surface is accessed via Marko's suite, she decides that convincing Robbie to let her go is the only means available. But even as she befriends the young guardsman, she begins to get to know Marko and the city of Marin, and fall under its spell.
Captivate combines the old and the new in creating a romantic fantasy story that touches on gothic horror. The premise is interesting, and even though it employs many tropes that aren't original, the character of Miranda and the Garden's writing made it feel fresh. And while it looked like it was going to have a romantic triangle like so many other YA stories ("yawn"), it actually doesn't, which was very pleasing. In fact, the way the characters evolve and grow was one of the things I liked best about Captivate - especially Marko. He's a complex, interesting character who seems at first too obvious and one-dimensional, but who gradually becomes much more interesting and charismatic as the story progresses.
But I should talk about the book's weak points, because it is a bit of a biggie. Stories like this one hinge on the world-building, and if the world-building is shaky then everything that follows feels a bit flimsy. The problem with Captivate is the premise, the point of abducting Miranda in the first place and bringing her to Marin - though Marin itself was a little under-developed for me, especially in regards to how they get air, food and water, not to mention building materials, clothing etc.
The glitch is the infertility premise. A fairly common trope in speculative fiction, it can be a great motivator for action. Unfortunately, it didn't really make sense here. The entire population of Marin consists of two kinds of people: those that were born there (though no one has been born there in eighteen years), and those who are brought there. The cause of the infertility problem, they speculate, is related to being removed from the sun and moon and life cycles in general, though they don't know for sure. Only, if people are continuously - not often, but continuously over time - brought to Marin (rescued from near-drownings, or suicide attempts, mostly), then does it not follow that their population will be refreshed with fertile women? Like Miranda? Miranda was captured and brought against her will, but why not simply invite or rescue a woman instead? They'd done it before. If Miranda was brought to Marin to have babies, then infertility does not happen straight away; therefore plenty of other women in Marin should also be able to have children. It didn't make sense, and so the whole plot was shaky because of it. If it had made more sense, with no holes in it, then it would have been quite powerful because the notion of dying civilisations and places bereft of children will always resonate with us.
The story was strongest in the development of the characters, and the novel's sense of atmosphere. There was a tantalising, uncomfortable tinge of fear to the whole story and setting that I particularly enjoyed; I wouldn't have minded a bit more of it though that might have been too much. It's that shade of menace and dark forbidden things to what is otherwise something of a utopia that really makes the concept work, and adds tension to the plot. You don't know who to trust, or what's really going, and the taint of Frano Tollin's plans and experiments linger. It nicely balances the fantasy and romance elements of the story, giving it maturity and extra layers.
Another strength was Miranda herself. She narrates (and not, thankfully, in present tense, might I add!) and her voice is solid. She's convincing and undergoes a gradual change influenced by her new surroundings and situation. There was chemistry between her and Marko, though it was shadowed by that sense of suspicion, distrust and uncertainty that pervades the story in general, making their relationship that bit more interesting than it might otherwise have been. She has tenacity, and balances adolescent insecurities and selfishness with a growing sense of compassion, empathy and understanding. By the end, I had grown very fond and proud of her and wanted very much to find out what happened next.
Speaking of, the ending was spot-on. In terms of: no cliffhanger, not forgetting the overall abduction plot or the people she'd left behind, and in setting the stage for a real, legitimate relationship with an abductor. In that sense, it was very satisfying, as was seeing just how much Miranda had matured by the end. I wish the world of this underwater city had been more tightly formed and explained, because if the nuts-and-bolts of the story were stronger this would have been excellent all round. As it is, I'm caught up enough in Miranda's story, and curious about what's going on in Marin, to want to read more of this new series.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book. ...more
Harry and the Dinosaurs Make a Splash is part of the Harry and the Dinosaurs series of picture books, but this was the first one we'd read. Harry hasHarry and the Dinosaurs Make a Splash is part of the Harry and the Dinosaurs series of picture books, but this was the first one we'd read. Harry has a collection of toy dinosaurs who are his friends, he takes them everywhere. In this story, he and his older sister Sam go with their grandmother to the indoor Water World. He and the dinosaurs are having loads of fun until a big wave came and knocked them all over.
They run back to Nan and she tries to coax them into another pool, but they all hate the water now. After an ice cream distraction, she again tries to encourage Harry and the dinosaurs to get back in the water, but Harry tells her he'll only go in if she comes too. It's been a while since Nan's been swimming and she's a bit hesitant, but in the end she gets herself a yellow swimsuit and a pair of arm floaties and they all go down the big water slide together, and make a big SPLASH at the other end.
This is a fun story, a nice blend of realistic family dynamics (the grouchy older sister, the lovely nan who joins in the fun, plenty of insecurities at play) and an encouraging message of how to overcome fear. There's also a double-page spread at front and back that show all Harry's dinosaurs and their names, with pronunciation guide. I picked this up for a dollar at the op-shop and it was a good find. My two-year-old enjoyed it but slightly older children (four year olds perhaps) would get even more out of it....more
Fifteen-year-old Gary Black is one of the numerous Black clan. His dad is an abusive alcoholic who styles himself a fisherman but doesn't know how toFifteen-year-old Gary Black is one of the numerous Black clan. His dad is an abusive alcoholic who styles himself a fisherman but doesn't know how to fish. His mum is worn out raising seven kids and doing the laundry; she's got no teeth left and her one pleasure is reading Mills & Boon novels and smoking. The second oldest, Blacky's only talent seems to be coming up with nicknames, including his own. He's the second ruckman in the Port's under-18 football team and almost never touches the ball, which is alright by him. But in the lead-up to the much-anticipated yearly Premiership, it's discovered that the first ruckman, an Aborigine called Carol, is really Carol's older brother Colin and is thus disqualified from playing. Their coach, Mr Robinson - whom Blacky calls "Arks" because that's how he says "asks" and it gives Blacky a thrill to hear it - has no choice but to make Blacky the lead ruckman.
The effect this has on Blacky is immediate. He feels like a sinking ship. The whole town wants the footy team to win and it all comes down to the ruckman - to Blacky. He can only watch with admiration the true stars of the team, the Aboriginal kids from the Nunga reserve at the Point. The Aborigine players are the best on the field, only they don't really play by the rules - they don't play to win so much as play for the sheer joy of it. Blacky watches one player in particular: Dumby Red. A handsome kid with perfect white teeth, Dumby is vain but immensely talented. Despite the fact that playing on the footy team is the only thing they have in common, the two become friends.
But Blacky is at a crossroads. He's old enough to notice and recognise the inherent racism and bigotry he sees and hears all around him, but he's not yet old enough or educated enough to really understand it. He still has a childlike innocence to his worldview, one that both shelters him from the worst of it and makes him a vulnerable target. When Dumby makes a deadly choice and the repercussions resonate throughout the Port, Blacky comes face-to-face with the blasé racism Australia is notorious for, and has to decide for himself whether he'll accept the status quo, or follow his heart.
Phillip Gwynne's 1998 novel, which was made into the 2002 movie Australian Rules (a nice play-on-words there), pops up on school reading lists across the country - and for good reason. The book is not only a classic coming-of-age story about a young boy growing up in a small town experiencing financial downturn and trying to make sense of the world and his place in it; it also gently explores Australia's inherent racism towards the first inhabitants, the Aborigines. It doesn't explicitly pass judgement, though it certainly takes a side; and it doesn't exactly explain anything, only provokes emotion and thought in readers - which is ideal.
For a people as "relaxed" and "down-to-earth" and "fun-loving" and "carefree" as Australians are portrayed and known as across the globe, it is frightening to witness and experience the kind of blasé racism - notably that towards the Aborigines - that exists here. You will hear people make derogatory, stereotypical comments and statements that are highly offensive, but they are made with a kind of "you know what I mean" offhandedness, a matter-of-fact "everyone understands this" evenness that appals. It is the dismissive casual attitude with which the comments are made that truly offend and dismay because it makes it clear just how inherent and thoughtless such attitudes are. Non-Aboriginal Australians (can't say "white Australians" anymore because the irony is that it's a country of immigrants and it's only in outlying rural areas that you see a majority race - white - in effect) have inherited an attitude of complete contempt towards the Aborigines, a ridiculous "I wash my hands of them" dismissiveness that implies that we tried in the first place.
The inhabitants of Gary Black's small town on the coast of South Australia are very typical of Australians at large. At times it's subtle; other times, blatant; but always casual. No one wastes much energy in doing anything about it. Everyone seems to think the same way, and anyone who disagrees - like possibly Blacky's mum - keeps their opinions to themselves. The idea that someone would speak up and denounce a person for making a racist comment is laughable. And of course, the kinds of things said about the Aborigines are things that white Australians are just as guilty of: alcoholism, laziness, theft etc. When the white kids - Blacky and his friends - hear that a group of young Nungas are heading into town, they get all tense and antagonistic - a kind of inherited rivalry exists between them, something they've picked up on from their parents and other adults in the community, and imitate without really understanding just what they're perpetuating.
"There's some Nungas heading this way," he said. "A big mob of 'em." Everybody looked up. Usually the Nungas came into town, got their supplies and left again. But sometimes a mob would walk all the way from the Point. I'd heard them talking in the front bar about the good old days, about huge brawls down the jetty, Nungas against Goonyas. But I'd never been in one. I wouldn't want to, either. Those Nungas were tough, much tougher than us. "Where are they?" "They're coming down the main street." "How many?" "Dunno. Fifteen, twenty, a lot." "What is it?" said Cathy, sitting up. "Boongs," said Pickles. "Abos," said one of the Maccas. "Coming up here. A tribe of 'em." "Are they allowed up here?" said Cathy. "Yeah, of course they are," I said. "They shouldn't be, said Pickles. "It's our jetty, not theirs." "Bloody oath," said Deano. I could see them now, at the start of the jetty. They were mucking around with the ropes that went out to the dinghies. "If they touch our dinghy," said Pickles, "I'm gunna go get the old man." [pp.190-191]
Of course, the Nungas just muck about, go swimming, have a laugh and leave. Perhaps part of the fun for them was putting the white kids on edge. What's noticeable is the vast disconnect between them. Not only are the two groups on opposing sides, not only are the locals distrustful of the Nungas, but no one ever makes any attempt to actually learn if any of it's true or not. No one wants to befriend an Aboriginal, to learn about them, understand them, see another perspective. That's what makes Blacky unusual, and that's what makes his position in the town somewhat precarious. As anyone who's ever been caught up in schoolyard bullying knows, it's pretty difficult to go against the status quo without making yourself a really vulnerable target. Easier - and often safer - to go with the flow, keep your head down and your mouth shut at best, or join in.
When Blacky takes the unprecedented step of walking all the way to the Point, his first impression is one of confusion.
The Point was not a big chance in the Tidy Towns competition, I can assure you of that. Not even in Section B. The streets weren't sealed and there were hardly any trees. Most of the houses were fibro, but there were a few brick ones as well. I kept thinking. But that's not right, something's wrong. Then I realised what it was. The houses all had doors and windows. And according to the front bar the first thing Nungas do when they move into a new house is rip the doors off their hinges and smash all the windows. So that was the image I had in my head. No doors. No windows. Well, not any more. [p.222]
It's such a crappy equation, though: either the Aborigines do things they're way and the way they're comfortable with, which earns them everyone else's disapprobation and scorn and contempt, or they assimilate and do things in ways that are familiar to us, which make us feel safe, and abandon their own culture in the process. Because here's the thing: Australians won't respect the Aborigines unless they make an effort to look and behave like us, but in actuality it doesn't matter what they do, we will always look down on them. They can't win, in this equation. And the second thing is: they don't want to. They don't want to assimilate, and become "Australian" according to our (white) definition. Why should they have to? The problem lies in the sad fact that colonial Australia not only degraded them, but made sure there would be no place for them, regardless. They're stuck in a kind of racist Catch-22, and honestly, I can't blame them for being royally pissed about it.
The title Deadly Unna? refers to an expression Dumby Red often uses. "Deadly" meaning "cool" or something similar, and "unna?" akin to "isn't it?" or "right?" or, in Canadian, "eh?" (It doesn't say so in the book, but you can get the gist from the context.) The story is a quiet, fairly understated kind of tale, carried by Blacky's endearing and humorous narration. It has just the right amount of plot balanced by just the right amount of characterisation and character development to please me and keep me engaged. Truly I found it to be very well written and beautifully told. Blacky's voice is convincing for his age, his demographic and his environment. I found the publisher's blurb to be rather misleading, in that it implies much more drama than actually happens and much more interplay between Blacky and Dumby. It does make your expectations go off in rather the wrong direction, sadly. As long as you take the story as it's told, you will get a lot out of it.
There's a lot of subtlety and depth to this novel, tucked away within and without Blacky's observations. Much of it is sad and poignant, like Blacky's mum's life and marriage to his rather horrible father; the town's poverty; Mr Robinson's dead-end career; the way the "blacks" are ignored and treated like second-class citizens (or barely citizens); the poor state of the town library; the sense that this town and its people are largely forgotten - noticeable in the state of its community buildings, like the footy oval, and the local member's grandiose speech cataloguing his own achievements, none of which have any relevance to these people. Yet Blacky's voice remains largely upbeat and optimistic, in an adolescent way, and his observations of other people and his world overall are both insightful and humorous, epitomising that other stereotypical quality Australians are known for: the ability to avoid self-indulgence. No one wants to be a "bloody whinger", right?
With its understated approach to a sensitive, contentious issue nicely balanced with a humorous yet intense coming-of-age story, Deadly Unna? is unforgettable and thought-provoking. It's a story that takes its young and generous-hearted hero on a tentative journey exploring the grey areas between black and white, boyhood and manhood, love and hate, to discover the price of not just standing up for your values, but the price of formulating said values in the first place.
Blacky's story continues in the sequel, Nukkin Ya....more
In 1994, thirteen-year-old Daniel Kelly begins his first year at one of the swankiest boy's private schools in Victoria - a place he and his best frieIn 1994, thirteen-year-old Daniel Kelly begins his first year at one of the swankiest boy's private schools in Victoria - a place he and his best friend, Demet, nickname Cunts College. His mother's a hairdresser and his dad's a long-distance truck driver, but after he wins a local swimming competition and is spotted by Coach Torma, he's offered a scholarship and a place on the swim team. Coach Torma is a large, obese man who dishes out praise sparingly, but he's a great coach even though he hasn't yet turned out an Olympic swimmer.
Danny doesn't want to go to Cunts College, where he feels like an impostor, but he loves to swim. And he's good at it, he's the best on the team. Over time, he rises above the taunts and ostracising of the other boys and becomes friends with a popular rich boy, Martin Taylor. Through Taylor, Danny gets a taste of what it's like to live with affluence, posh holiday houses, private swimming pools and crotchety old grandmothers who rule over the whole family. Danny wants to be successful, he wants to win, he wants to be an Olympic champion and provide for his family.
So when he competes at the Pan-Pacific in Japan and his dreams come crashing down, he doesn't bounce back with renewed determination. He sinks, fast and hard, and lets his feelings of failure consume him until everything culminates on the night of the Sydney 2000 Opening Ceremony, when Danny's dreams and failures collide in tragic, violent way.
Tsiolkas's new novel begins in the present, when we meet an older, more grounded Dan still trying to piece his life together after a spell in prison. He's in Scotland with his partner, Clyde, but the two are at a breaking point since Danny wants to live in Australia and Clyde wants to stay in Glasgow. As older Daniel's first-person, present-tense narrative slips slowly back in time, young Danny's experiences at the private school, in training and competitions, at home and with friends, travels slowly forward in third-person, past tense. In the second part of the book, post-jail Dan takes up more of the narrative, filling in the gaps of the story to build a comprehensive understanding of the character and how the past has shaped him, while child-Danny comes in shorter and ever younger sequences, until we arrive back at the day when he's five and his dad is teaching him to swim at the beach.
This richly layered and grittily realistic novel explores themes of class, race, nationality and identity, what it means to be a success or a failure, and our preoccupation with sport and sporting heroes. Tsiolkas has an astute eye and brilliantly captures class warfare, hypocrisy and snobbery; beautifully brings to life both Danny's working class family and his peer's upper-crust, moneyed and totally alien home lives with wit and flair; and creates in Danny a young, idealistic boy who lacks perspective as much as he lacks a proper father figure. Because he's at odds with his own father, he has no male role model to turn to in his own home. He fills this gap with Coach Torma, but he's only a boy and he doesn't have the experience or the empathy to really understand adult dynamics, or what the coach might really be thinking. His relationships with others, especially adults, are tarnished with adolescent arrogance and selfishness.
Even so, Danny is a sympathetic and even likeable character, partly because we can all relate - and none of us were particularly lovely as teenagers, that would be something of an oxymoron - and partly because we can see where the adults in Danny's life stuffed up, or at the very least didn't help. They, too, are plagued and hobbled by their own shortcomings and insecurities. Danny is on a rocky coming-of-age journey, one where his own ego is his worst enemy, and his determination to hold onto his own failure takes over.
There is a strong sense of urban Australia in Barracuda, in all its nuances and vagaries, its good points and flaws. I am always happy to read a book that embraces and explores Australia and what it means to be Australia, without the cultural cringe. Maybe it's my generation, or the fact that I've lived in other countries, but I'm all for embracing the virtues and flaws of my native country, and I think we're long past the stage of feeling like we don't have anything real to add to the international world of art and literature. We do, and we are. Writers like Christos Tsiolkas, by focussing on Australia rather than writing about Britain, or Europe or the Americas, is leading the way. And he's not doing it in some contrived, overly-nostalgic way either. There's no sentimentality to Barracuda, no smugness, no pretension.
The writing is strong, extremely readable with lovely flow, and brimming with intelligence and wit. It's not that Barracuda is a funny book, but it has black humour moments, and the descriptions of certain characters will trigger in Australians certain understandings and some chuckles. The idea being that nothing in Australia is sacred, but that doesn't mean you can't be proud of something you're taking the piss of. However, I did find that the last, oh, hundred pages were a bit slow and uneventful after the strong surge of the previous four hundred pages. It lost its wind, lacked direction and felt almost like padding. Granted, it rounds out Danny's story and finishes filling in the gaps, but it doesn't feel as well tied-in to the rest of the story. Perhaps the real problem lies in the fact that it feels a bit depressing, too, those last hundred pages. No longer on a forward momentum, the story seems to slowly sink into a muddy swamp, not going anywhere, not really adding much, accompanied by a feeling of apathy. That's always the problem with ending with the beginning: you know where it goes, how it ends, and the sense of optimism you began with is completely gone. Rather like looking at the Christmas tree on Boxing Day: bereft of cheery presents, ignored and forgotten, beginning to go brown and sad looking.
Barracuda touches on a lot of secondary themes, and several of them really connected with me. Dan's discovery of books and reading while in prison was one of these, captured in this passage:
Dan had discovered that he had been mistaken, that books did not exist outside of the body and only in mind, but that words were breath, that they were experienced and understood through the inseparability of mind and body, that words were the water and reading was swimming. Just as he had in water, he could lose himself in reading: mind and body became one. He had taken the Chekhov story with him on release ... That story was a song: in reading it he believed he was opening his lungs and singing. [p.341]
Another, rather more entertaining theme was Australian national identity and our relationship with Britain, captured so unerringly in scenes between Demet and Clyde:
Dan had heard the mantras before; Clyde's dissection of Australia had become both more bitter and more resigned the more his frustration with the country grew.
So Dan sat and listened while Clyde listed all the things he found perplexing and annoying about Australia. 'You all think you're so egalitarian, but you're the most status-seeking people I've met. You call yourselves laid-back but you're angry and resentful all the time. You say there is no class system here, but you're terrified of the poor, and you say you're anti-authoritarian but all there is here are rules, from the moment I fucken landed here, rules about doing this and not doing that, don't climb there, don't go here, don't smoke and don't drink here and don't play there and don't drink and drive and don't go over the speed limit and don't do anything fucken human. You're all so scared of dying you can't let yourselves live - fuck that: we're human, we die, that's part of life. That's just life.'
And Demet was his chorus; Demet answered every insult, every jibe with her own litany of complaints that Dan knew off by heart - he could have recited it along with her. We are parochial and narrow-minded and we are racist and ungenerous and we occupy this land illegitimately and we're toadies to the Poms and servile to the Yanks; it was an antiphony between Demet and Clyde. [p.401-2]
There's a lot going on here, and it all brings into sharp relief the fact that a kid like Danny, an adult like Daniel, isn't shaped in a vacuum. He isn't even an isolated "case", if I can call him that for a moment. He's a pretty normal human being, flawed and insecure and afraid but also generous at heart, yearning to love and be loved, to succeed and make his loved ones proud of him. He's a child, and he's an adult suffering from the after-effects of a child's decisions. This was almost one of my favourite books of the year, if not for the lacklustre final lap - ha! How indicative. Definitely a book worth reading, and while I haven't (yet) read Tsiolkas's previous novel, The Slap, which established him as a powerhouse writer, Barracuda is a strong novel and puts Tsiolkas squarely in the forefront of contemporary Australian literature - a writer accessible to the world, too....more