Thursday, 26 May 2016

A Single Stone by Meg McKinlay

One of the things I love about the CBCA shortlist is that, each year, it encourages me to read books that I may not have taken the time to get to otherwise.

A Single Stone is one of those books that I'm delighted to have taken the time to discover.

Every girl dreams of being part of the line – the chosen seven who tunnel deep into the mountain to find the harvest. No work is more important. 
Jena is the leader of the line – strong, respected, reliable. And – as all girls must be – she is small; years of training have seen to that. It is not always easy but it is the way of things. And so a girl must wrap her limbs, lie still, deny herself a second bowl of stew. Or a first. 
But what happens when one tiny discovery makes Jena question the world she knows? What happens when moving a single stone changes everything?
I confess that the cover art and blurb didn't really draw me in initially. However, as I read through, the strength and beauty and appropriateness of the cover grew on me.

McKinlay's writing, though wowed me from start to finish.

I almost felt suffocated by claustrophobia as she described the girls tunnelling for mica in the first few pages.

And I immediately felt an affinity for her practical, thoughtful protagonist, Jena.

This is not a YA novel full of teen angst and teen issues (those stories are great for teens and those still in touch with our inner teen).
A Single Stone is much, much more than that. It is an engaging, engrossing novel with the universal themes of belonging and personal self discovery.

McKinlay has created a rich, believable post-disaster community doing what they have to, to survive the new conditions in which they now find themselves.

The ending was satisfying and felt right within the context of the story. Personally I would have enjoyed a little more dramatic tension and conflict around the role of the Mothers and the belief that the mountain was somehow giving advise and directives.

Both these points (societal conformity vs personal responsibility and our belief systems) would make for fabulous class discussions and McKinlay does provides plenty of provocations around these ideas to promote a healthy debate.

By the end, I realised that A Single Stone was more of a mature junior fiction book than a YA story.

Therefore I highly recommended it to 10+ readers and all lovers of a satisfying, well-written story.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday hosted @The Broke and the Bookish.

Books I feel differently about after time has passed.

In no particular order... 

1. Freya    

When I first read Freya I quite enjoyed it but had some mixed feelings about it.
It felt a bit too light and fluffy and even predictable at times.
But over the last couple of months, as I've talked about it with other people, I have come to realise that I not only enjoyed it far more than I first thought, but that I am very happy to recommend it to a wide range of readers knowing they will get an enjoyable and satisfying reading experience.

2. The Buried Giant      

When I think about 2015 and my very best reading experience, the first book that comes to mind is The Buried Giant (the other two are Testament of Youth and Germinal but I was unreserved about my praise for them from the start).
The Buried Giant was praise-worthy from the start but it also continues to grow in my estimation.
My love for it grows deeper and my curiosity about what I will discover with a reread grows higher.
The Buried Giant was special.

3. A Suitable Boy

I read this book about 15 yrs ago.
I loved it.
 I adored it.
I raved about it to everyone.
I even declared that this was the book I wanted to be buried with!

Fifteen years later, I still love and adore this book. I still think about Lata on a regular basis and wonder how she is doing. (Will Seth EVER finish his sequel, A Suitable Girl?!)

The only reason I haven't reread this amazing story about family, friendship, love and India every single year since then is that it is over 1400 pages long!

4. My Brilliant Friend tetralogy

It has taken me over 8 months to read all four books in this incredibly popular series.
I finally started The Story of the Lost Child this week and I was instantly reminded of and thrown back into my complicated relationship with these books.

Elena and Lina annoy me so much with their continual and devastating (to themselves and others) poor choices. I've tried to see their behaviour within the context of the society that they live in. I can try to imagine the affects of a society ruled by the Camorra but it is so far from my life experiences that it is difficult to really get it and why it would make them all act the way they do.

But I feel compelled to finish the series.

5. The Fortunes of Richard Mahony

This one was a bit of an effort to get through last year.
Over 1000 pages - three books in one.
But I can now honestly say it is one of the best Australian classics that I have ever read.

6. Heat and Light

This is another book that has grown on me (in a good way) every day since I read it.
I definitely want to reread it and I can't wait for Van Neervan's next book.

7. A Little Life

I loved most of this book.
Well loved is the wrong word, but if you've read the book, you know what I mean.
It's dark and difficult and quite depressing at times, but there is something compelling and obsessive about it too. However I found the final part of the book (from the car accident onwards) so annoying and unnecessarily harsh that I almost gave up on it.

8.  The Secret History

Five years later I'm still wondering what it is that everyone loves so much about this book.
It's not that I hated it. It was okay.
In fact it was a decent holiday read and I do still remember quite a bit about it, but I just don't get the rave reviews.

9. 11/22/63

11/22/63 helped me to fall in love with Stephen King once again.
I either love or hate his books.
In particular I adore the scare factor in his earlier stories and the romance of his Gunslinger series.
I love his books that are heavy on the connections and links to his other stories.
11/22/63 excelled at this.

10.  Games of Thrones series

I doubt very much that I will have the time or the inclination to read this entire series of books.
I've been enjoying the TV series (except for any of the scenes with Bolton which I refuse to watch!)
I'm not sure that I will ever willingly want to invite that much violence and conflict into my reading mind, especially as most of my reading happens just before falling asleep each night.
I simply do not need those kind of nightmares!

But now, it's time for me to continue my complicated relationship with Elena Ferrante!

Happy Reading.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Sister Heart by Sally Morgan

Nominated for this year's CBCA Younger Readers shortlist, Sister Heart is a verse novel that highlights the plight of the Stolen Generation.

Sally Morgan's autobiography, My Place was one of the publishing super stories of the late 1980's. Her story was fascinating but has since been surrounded by various controversies and academic debates.

Morgan has also gone on to publish an untold number of children's books and picture books featuring Aboriginal culture and stories.

Some are these books have been beautifully illustrated but the stories fall flat somehow. Sometimes the stories are fine, but the illustrations fail to inspire.

Every now and again, one of these books gets both the story and its execution just right.

Sister Heart is one of those.

Beautifully packaged in a lovely hardcover book, each verse chapter is discreetly headed by a simple line drawing of Australian flora.

The verse novel format will put some readers off which is a shame, because I find them such a wonderful way to tell a story that has a lot of emotional impact.

Following young Annie from capture in far northern West Australia to her boat trip to Perth then to her time at the missionary run school, emotional impact is never far from the reader's experience.

The story is told entirely from Annie's perspective, so the reader, like Annie cannot fathom why this is happening to her. All she wants is to be with her family living her familiar life. And that's all we want for her too. Except of course we know exactly how this forced assimilation process turned out. There were no happy home comings. There were no happy endings.

And Morgan stays true to this reality without leaving the reader (and Annie) without some hope.

Suitable for mature 10+ readers.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

CBCA Shortlist 2016

I know I say this every year, but how can it be a whole year since the last CBCA Shortlist?

My aim, as usual, is to read as many of them as possible before the winners are announced in August.
Will you be joining me?

Book of the Year - Picture Book

One Step At a Time by Jane Jolly ill. Sally Heinrich
My Dead Bunny by Sigi Cohen ill. James Foley
Ride, Ricardo, Ride by Phil Cummins ill. Shane Devries
And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda by Eric Bogle ill. Bruce Whatley
Flight by Nadia Wheatley ill. Armin Greder

Book of the Year - Early Childhood

My Dog Bigsy by Alison Lester
The Cow Tripped Over the Moon by Tony Wilson ill. Laura Wood
Perfect by Danny Parker ill. Freya Blackwood
Mr Huff by Anna Walker
Ollie and the Wind by Ghosh Ronojoy

Book of the Year - Younger Readers 

Run, Pip, Run by J. C. Jones
Molly and Pim and the Millions of Stars by Martine Murray
Star of Deltora #1 Shadows of the Master by Emily Rodda

Book of the Year - Older Readers

Inbetween Days by Vikki Wakefield
Freedom Ride by Sue Lawson
Cloudwish by Fiona Wood
The Flywheel by Erin Gough
The Pause by John Larkin

Eve Pownall Award for Information Book

Phasmid: Saving the Lord Howe Island Stick Insect by Rohan Cleave
Lennie the Legend: Solo to Sydney by Pony by Stephanie Owen Reeder
The White Mouse: The Story of Nancy Wake by Peter Gouldthorpe
The Amazing True Story About How Babies Are Made by Fiona Katauskas
We Are the Rebels: The Women and Men Who Made Up Eureka by Fiona Wright
Ancestry: Stories of Multicultural Anzacs by Robyn Siers

 Crichton Award for Children's Book Illustration (debut illustrator)

The Underwater Fancy Dress Parade by Davina Bell ill. Allison Colpoys
My Gallipoli by Ruth Starke ill. Robert Hannaford 
Fish Jam by Kylie Howarth
Meet Weary Dunlop by Claire Saxby ill. Jeremy Lord

Sadly, Gillian Mears died at age 51 earlier this week after living with MS for 17 years.
Her wonderfully sweet story, The Cat With the Coloured Tail is now made all the more poignant.

Friday, 20 May 2016

The Bricks That Built the Houses by Kate Tempest

Kate Tempest is the woman of the moment in Sydney right now.

She's out here for the Sydney Writer's Festival. She's doing several speaking engagements including the opening address for the Festival that was held on Tuesday night.
She has also appeared on a number of TV and radio shows during her time here.

And, I think it's fair to say, that she has wowed, stunned and surprised everyone she has talked to.

Her dazzling, daring performance on Q&A has become one of those 'water cooler' conversations (click on the above link to read parts of her opening address and to see her Q&A performance).

I've been reading her book, The Bricks That Built the Houses over the past week. I only had about 80 pages to go when I went to my day out at the Writer's Festival. I took it with me to read whilst waiting in the lines. So many people stopped me to ask me what I thought of it - it seemed that everyone wanted to talk about Tempest and her work to anyone who would listen.

So many people are curious. So many people want to know. So many people want a part of this.

What is it? What is this thing that Tempest has started?

Are we all, in our gentle upper - middle class lives, trying to find our grunge?
Do we enjoy being shocked and provoked out of the safety zone of our cosiness?
Are we trying to be hip and young again or trying to get in touch with our inner cool by mere association? Perhaps we're trying to show that we still have our finger on the pulse, even as we slide into another decade of our lives?

Maybe it's a simple as responding to a voice that is raw with honesty and experience. We're paying homage to one who observes and knows how to turn that experience and that observation into poetry, into a story we all need to hear.

I also suspect that underneath Tempest's passionate pleas and confronting opinions and words that can cut like a knife, lies a tender-hearted, hopeful soul. Tempest cares deeply and she wants you to care deeply too.

Her characters in The Bricks That Built the Houses wear inverted rose-coloured glasses. They can be just as snobbish and dismissive of others as they claim others are of them. Which, I guess is where the connect happens. For although my upbringing is pretty far from south-east London in the 80's, there is something sympathetic and something knowable about her characters, despite the differences, that elicits our empathy and our compassion.

The Bricks That Built the Houses is not always an easy read.

At first I thought it was the all the back stories (the bricks) that Tempest liked to introduce that slowed me down. But, by the end, I realised it was the uneven use of language that caught me out at times.

Her first chapter is stunning. I had to read it out loud to capture it's rhythm and pacing. And I was expecting the whole book to read the same way.

However, it would be hard to maintain that level of poetic intensity for the entire book,

People are killing for gods again. Money is killing us all. They live under a loneliness so total it has become the fabric of their friendships. Their days are spent staring at things. they exist in the mass and feel part of the picture. They trust nothing but trends.

Tempest's characters step in soon after so that her well-known opinions come out in the natural course of events, as conversation and introspection, rather than as Tempest's own voice.

Becky looks at Harry, and thinks she has the physicality of someone who is desperate to escape themselves; she is constantly adjusting unruly strands of hair or pulling at her clothes and she is riddled with the haunted, shy defiance of a woman born with all the bits adding up to the wrong amount.

This is a book to read for the journey it takes you on.
I found the journey to be gripping, thrilling and exciting.
It's a 'here and now' kind of book.
It grounds you in the present reality of south-east London.

There was lots of back story and reflection on how we got here, but not a lot to look forward to. It felt like the best we have to hope for is more of the same. Our humanity is our curse and our potential.

Thankfully, we all leave our twenties behind us eventually!

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Banjo Paterson Picture Books

In the lead up to this week's CBCA shortlist announcement I have instigated my own personal mini-challenge to read as many of the previous CBCA winners as I can before Friday.

Today I bring you a selection of classic Australian picture books all featuring the poetry of A.B. 'Banjo' Paterson.

Some of them are award winning books and some are not.

Waltzing Matilda illustrated by Desmond Digby won the CBCA Picture Book of the year in 1971.

Using A.B. 'Banjo' Paterson's well-known and much loved song as his inspiration, Digby paints page after page of iconic Australian bush scenes that bring to mind the great paintings of Frederick McCubbin or Tom Roberts.

The swaggie looks a little like a down-on-his luck Santa Claus. He has a kind of face and Digby paints him very sympathetically. In fact, Paterson's waltzing matilda must be one of our earliest stories that features the great 'Aussie battler' - our favourite anti-hero.

The final pages of Digby's book provide a glossary of Australian terms as well as information about the origins of the poem. This includes the fascinating and apparently true story of Christina Rutherford Macpherson who played the music (a tune she had adapted from a folk song she had heard in her earlier travels) for Banjo Paterson. He was then inspired to compose his poem.

Sadly Desmond Digby died last year. In an article at this time in the SMH, Digby was credited with "establishing the picture book in Australia as an art form".

Mulga Bill's Bicycle illustrated by twins Kilmeny and Deborah Niland was published in 1973.

In keeping with the less serious nature of this particular Paterson ballad, the Niland's illustrations are comic in style. They encourage our enjoyment of the silliness of Mulga Bill.

Kilmeny and Deborah are the children of Ruth Park and D'Arcy Niland (they also have another three siblings). Sadly Kilmeny died in 2009 after a battle with cancer.

The Man From Ironbark was illustrated by Quentin Hole and won the CBCA Picture Book of the year in 1975.

Sadly, it seems that this particular version of Paterson's poem has been out of print for a while.

Which is a shame, as this humorous poem taps into the urban legend of the 'murdering barber' and plays around with the country/city divide that is still evident in Australian society today.

Hole's illustrations are full of action and drama and continue the Digby tradition of picture book as art.

Quentin Hole also illustrated the Paterson poem A Bush Christening in 1976.

This is another humorous yarn about country life, heavy drinking and religion. Like the man from Ironbark, young Magee is a bit of a larrikin, a rogue. Therefore we enjoy the joke that fate and circumstance plays on him.

Arguably Paterson's most famous poem is The Man From Snowy River.

In 1977 it was illustrated by Annette Macarthur-Onslow a sixth generation descendant of Elizabeth and John Macarthur.

She created a beautiful flowing style of illustration for this book about one of the most famous horse rides in the world.

Macarthur-Onslow was probably more well-known for her 1970 CBCA winning picture book, Uhu, which has been reviewed by Louise @A Strong Belief in Wicker.

In 2002 Kilmeny Niland illustrated her second Paterson poem. This time she chose the romantic rural hero, Clancy of the Overflow.

Her Clancy is much more softer and rounder in style than the lanky, angular Mulga Bill.

Clancy later makes an appearance in Paterson's 'The Man from Snowy River'. Although, for most of us, Clancy will now always appear to us in the guise of actor Jack Thompson thanks to the 1982 movie.

The Man From Snowy River was again illustrated in 2004 this time by Freya Blackwood.

Even though this is one of Blackwood's early attempts at picture book illustration, her trademark style and colour palette is instantly recognisable.

In 2007 Freya Blackwood published another Paterson poem.

This time it was Waltzing Matilda that received her special deluxe picture book treatment.

She incorporated collage scenes of the 1894 shearer's strike which embedded her version firmly in it's historical context. The swaggie's behaviour and the police response made much more sense with this extra detail.

This particular edition also came with a CD featuring 'true blue' John Williamson performing the song.

In 2015 (to mark the centenary of WWI) Mark Wilson illustrated one of Paterson's famous letters to the troops for Harper Collins.
Australia takes her pen in hand, to write a line to you, to let you fellows understand, How proud we are of you.
Wilson's illustrations are very moving and some of the most realistic ones in the entire Paterson picture book oeuvre.

All Paterson's poems were designed to entertain his readers, but this one in particular, was also created to boost morale and stir up patriotic fervour.

2015 also saw Random House publish a children's biography by Kristin Weidenbach called Meet... Banjo Paterson. 

Weidenbach uses snippets of Paterson's poems to retell his life story. She includes a timeline of Banjo's life at the back of the book and Random House provide detailed Teaching Notes.

James Gulliver Hancock's illustrations convey a lot of detail. In particular, I love how he captures Paterson's nose and turns it into an iconic feature throughout the book.

Hancock's drawing style may already be familiar to you thanks to his All the Buildings in... series (so far New York, London and Sydney).

This post ended up being bigger than I first anticipated. Who knew that there were so many adaptations of Paterson's poems out there!

If by any chance I have missed an illustrated children's picture book of one of Banjo's poems, please let me know.

(Robert Ingpen illustrated a version of Click Goes the Shears in 2011 which is part of the Harper Collins Children's Classics poetry range, but, of course, it is not a Paterson poem.)

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

The Bunyip of Berkeley's Creek by Jenny Wagner

The Bunyip of Berkeley's Creek won the CBCA award for Best Picture Book in 1974 for Jenny Wagner and illustrator Ron Brooks.

When I first saw this book as a young child in our school library, the cover scared me so much I never opened the book.

It wasn't until I started my teaching career, that I finally succumbed to all the rave reviews and the "OMG you've never read TBOBC?" comments from my colleagues.

And yes, the first few pages can be quite gloomy, scary and dark.

As the bunyip emerges from the swamp covered in mud, pondering "what am I?" you're not quite sure if this is going to be worth your while. But as you get to know the bunyip and go with him on his existential journey to discover who he is, you come to care about him.

We understand the bunyip's need in seeking such approval and validation. Pathos is the predominant emotion as the bunyip asks the other animals in turn, "am I handsome?" and "what do bunyips look like?".

Until frightening Mr Big Head Scientist tells him that a bunyip looks like nothing, for the very simple reason that bunyip's don't exist!

By now, even the most hard-hearted reader wants to wrap the shattered bunyip up in a great big warm-fuzzy bear hug.

We are, therefore, all delighted, when he eventually stumbles across another swamp and another creature emerging from the mud mumbling, "what am I?"

In the guise of a bunyip, Wagner explores the perennially popular CBCA theme of belonging.

Through her words and Ron Brooks earthy, detailed drawings we explore perspective and the idea of beauty being in the eye of the beholder.

Over the years I have had to be cautious about which classes I read this story to. The first few pages in particular have been known to cause nightmares in many four year olds.

But for many, many more, the fate of the bunyip has become a very personal call to find someone who believes in them and accepts them for who they really are.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

LaRose by Louise Erdrich

LaRose is now my best book for 2016.

I'm not sure what I else I have to say after that!

Except, do yourself a favour and read this book now.

The only reason LaRose doesn't get a 5 star rating on my goodreads page is that I will probably never reread this book.

In this case the blurb really does say it all...
In this literary masterwork, Louise Erdrich, the bestselling author of the National Book Award-winning The Round House and the Pulitzer Prize nominee The Plague of Doves wields her breathtaking narrative magic in an emotionally haunting contemporary tale of a tragic accident, a demand for justice, and a profound act of atonement with ancient roots in Native American culture.
It's literary; it's a masterpiece and I suspect LaRose will be an award winning book for Erdrich. It's emotionally haunting (and very very compelling). It's tragic yet hopeful. It's about justice and also about retribution and redemption. It's profound and thought-provoking. There is atonement as well as forgiveness and understanding. And there is a lot of fascinating stuff about Native American culture and mysticism, and about contemporary life and how ancient traditions continue to influence modern behaviours.

I loved it. I feel like a richer, more soulful person because this book is now a small part of my story as well.
LaRose would make a great bookclub book - is has interesting moral provocations and ethical dilemma's to discuss.

LaRose and his family will stay with me for a long time. I hope I am correct in sensing that another story, a continuation, could be born from the ending of LaRose (for some of the characters at least).

I don't want to say much more. I want you to discover this tremendous book for yourself just as I did.

But if you do want to know a little more detail, Teresa @Shelf Love's review is worth checking out.

If you have read any of Erdrich's previous books and have a favourite that you'd like to recommend, please do. I'd love to read more of her work.

P.S. I love the cover too. I think it taps into the heart of the story beautifully.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

The Australia Book by Eve Pownall

Next week the CBCA will announce their shortlisted books for 2016 from amongst the 80-odd books currently selected as 'notables'.

In preparation, I thought I'd like to revisit some of the older winners to get a better sense of where we've come from and how things have changed - not only for the CBCA and the choices they've made but also the type of books being written by Australian writers.

The Australia Book was first published in 1952 by The House of John Sands. Recently, Black Dog Books republished this classic award winning book.

Eve Pownall was born in 1902 in Kings Cross. She was a writer, an advocate for Australian history and an early champion for children's literature. As such she was involved in the beginnings of the group that eventually became the Children's Book Council of Australia.

The Australia Book won the CBCA book of the year for 1952. Pownall's trademark social history style was evident throughout.

They used to say when I was young, 'geography is maps, history is chaps'. Its the chaps I go looking for, and the chaps' wives and the kids...what were the kids playing? How were their mothers coping out on the frontiers.... (Writing History: A Child With a Doll, 1977, source)

After her death in 1982, Pownall's family initiated an award in her honour.
The Eve Pownall Award for Information Books eventually became an annual award in 1993 to honour imaginative non-fiction work.

There is a lot of love for this book out there in blogger land. However, I don't remember The Australia Book from my childhood. Perhaps, it was already considered somewhat dated in the early 1970's?

Which would be a shame, because despite its dated attitude towards Indigenous peoples, The Australia Book is a very good example of how to make history fun, informative and easy to read.

And when I say dated, I don't mean racist. Pownall was far more generous and progressive than that. But her version of Australian history was very Euro-centric and reflected the thinking of the times.

Her language unintentionally supported the white version of history that believed that being white equalled right. That white represented civilisation and every other way of life was somehow less.

So even though, the first page of The Australia Book acknowledged the first peoples and respected their traditions, some subtle choices of words can offend our modern sensibilities. (As no doubt, future readers will feel uncomfortable with our current way of thinking on issues to do with, for instance, refugees.)

For example, Pownall wrote about some Aboriginal traditions like this -

From its plants they made their simple medicines.
The moon watched their feastings, their corroborees, their lean bodies painted queerly as they danced and sang.

And her version of first contact looked like this -

Aborigines stood on the cliffs, shook their spears and called "warra warra!" which means "go away!" But the white men took no notice. This time they had come to stay.
The explorer's found much land which was rich and fertile, but only the aborigines lived there

Pownall was very thorough in her selection of historic events - explorers, Cook, Arthur, convicts, rum, Macarthur, Bligh, squatters, penal colonies, early settlers and wool. The gold rush, advances in technology, cotton, sugar and the use of Kanaka's  - "Blackbirding was very like slavery..." (more white history revisionism that has yet to be addressed satisfactorily in our country to this day. But that's another story.) Our relationship with New Guinea, bushrangers, the various wars, early law making, Federation, the Great Depression and life up to 1952.

From other lands come immigrants for Australia. Some do not speak English. Some come from countries where life is very different from ours. In large camps, they are taught how Australians live so they quickly become new citizens.

Loose smut of oats - Margaret Senior
One of the successful techniques that Pownall used in writing this book, was her sense of history unfolding gradually and logically. She created an easy to read flow of information with causal links and useful details.

The lovely illustrations by Margaret Senior have added to the appeal of The Australia Book over the years.

Senior wrote and illustrated several children's book during this time before devoting herself to wildlife studies. The University of Newcastle now presents the Margaret Senior Wildlife Illustration Award annually.

Her illustrations for the book are warm, graceful and humanistic.

Pownall finished her book with some speculation about what our future lives might look like. She discussed the advances in aviation and left her young audience with this tantalising promise -

Perhaps YOU will fly in one that shoots through the air like a rocket.

And finally -

Every country is now close to every other country. When atomic power is used for everyday things, we will be closer still

I know my two almost grown booklets would be challenged by this notion. That the people alive in 1952 could possibly think that they were as modern and as connected and as technologically advanced as they now think they are would mess with their heads completely!

It is those elements in Pownall's book that make it still so worthwhile and relevant today. The differences between her now and then and our now and then would make for great classroom discussions.

The glaring (to us) omissions from her historical record would also make for an interesting discussion about how and why history is revised. Which could lead to a debate about what will future generations think about us.

How will the future view our living history?

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Australian Classics by Jane Gleeson-White

You may well ask what an Indy bookshop employee was doing trawling through second hand bookshops in Glebe recently (as Mr Books is prone to do with eyebrows raised in askance!)

My only defence as an Indy bookshop employee, is the obvious one - I adore books.

I will always love browsing through over-stacked shelves. Shelves that contain an untold number of hidden potentials and serendipitous finds.
And as an Indy bookshop employee, I now also know which books are difficult to find, expensive or out of print, so if I spot something good I know to grab it then and there!

Which is why on my day off work as an Indy bookseller, I sometimes come home with an armful of second hand books.

One of the treasures from my recent haul was Australian Classics: 50 Great Writers and Their Celebrated Works by Jane Gleeson-White.

Her aim was to "create a book that would give a broad overview of Australia's writing and bring some its key authors to a wide audience." Gleeson-White felt that
The history of Australian literature is a story of writers attempting to engage with a land they found alien, then claimed and celebrated; of writers engaging with modern Australia's criminal origins and their legacy, as well as the impact of European settlement on Indigenous Australians, their land and culture; and of writers dealing with the fact that Australia's language - English - was imported from elsewhere and that the literary font of this language lies in the green fields, soft light, low skies and delineated social structures of a small island on the other side of the world.

Interspersed amongst her 50 Australian classic stories and poems are lists of favourite Australian novels by well-known contemporary authors and media personalities.

The 50 classics included many of the well-known authors that you would expect to see on this kind of list, but there were several new-to-me discoveries.

I found out where one of my Pop's favourite quotes came from - the poem, Ye Weary Wayfarer by Adam Lindsay Gordon:
Life is mostly froth and bubble,
Two things stand like stone,
KINDNESS in another's troubles,
COURAGE in your own.
I was dismayed to read how many of our early writers died at a young age thanks to alcohol abuse and suicide. And saddened to read that Coonardoo by Katharine Susannah Pritchard as recently as 1929 was the "first novel by a white Australian to attempt to see the world from an Aboriginal point of view."

However the predominant feeling as I read this book was one of pure delight. The joy of reading and discovery and shared love oozed from every page.

I have read (in the order Gleeson-White presented them in her book):

'The Man From Snowy River' by A B Paterson
Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner
The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson
My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin
Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
'Five Bells' by Kenneth Slessor
'Woman to Child' by Judith Wright
Storm Boy by Colin Thiele
The Tyranny of Distance by Geoffrey Blainey
Grand Days by Frank Moorhouse
Our Sunshine by Robert Drewe
True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey
My Place by Sally Morgan
Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

As a classics lover, 14/50 made me blush with embarrassment.

I now have a new reading mission!

To read the other 36 books and poems
Robbery Under Arms
Such Is Life
'The Sick Stockrider'
His Natural Life
'The Chosen Vessel'
'The Drover's Wife'
'The Gentle Water Bird'
The Magic Pudding
10 for 66 and All That
Lucinda Brayford
A Fortunate Life
The Man Who Loved Children
The Pea Pickers
'A Letter From Rome'
My Brother Jack
Tirra Lirra by the River
Power Without Glory
'No More Boomerang'
The Lucky Country
Milk and Honey
The Acolyte
The Glass Canoe
The Transit of Venus
An Imaginary Life
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith
'The Buladelah-Taree Holiday Song Cycle'
The Fatal Shore
The Plains
Monkey Grip
Lillian's Story

The lists of writers and personalities included the likes of Helen Garner, Charlotte Wood, Georgia Blain, Louis Nowra, Tim Winton, Tegan Bennett Daylight, Gabrielle Carey, Leonie Kramer, Caroline Baum, Christos Tsiolkas, Delia Falconer, Emily Maguire, Garth Nix, Frank Moorhouse, Les Murray and Gail Jones.

There was sooooo much love from all of them for Henry Handel Richardson, Christina Stead, David Malouf, Patrick White, Les Murray, Tim Winton, Kate Grenville and Randolph Stow in particular. I really must try a Patrick White book soon and read one of Helen Garner's fictional works.

Naturally this got me thinking about what would my Top 10 Australian classics list look like.

Which books or poems have evoked a sense of place and described the Australian experience for me?

In no particular order, I give you Brona's 15 best Australian classics.

The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson
A Descant for Gossips by Thea Astley
Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner
Grand Days by Frank Moorhouse
'The Man From Snowy River' by Banjo Paterson (although my teenage love for the Tom Burlinson movie of the same name plays a big role in the addition of this poem into my list!)
Cloudstreet and Dirt Music by Tim Winton
The Great World by David Malouf
Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
Ash Road by Ivan Southall
Pastures of the Blue Crane by H F Brinsmead
Shark Net by Robert Drewe
The Secret River by Kate Grenville
Sara Dane and Fiona by Catherine Gaskin

These are the books and poems that made me love Australia and connected me to country somehow. They opened my eyes to our history, our culture and our environment.

What would your best Australian classics list look like?

Monday, 9 May 2016

Stories and Shout Outs

Meditation class often throws up exactly what I need to hear.

Last week our discussion and meditations centred around clarity of mind. Our teacher said "what we put into our mind, we experience."

It was an ah-ha moment for me.

It made sense and helped me to work out why I have been avoiding some books and some authors lately.

I take on too much of the bad feeling and the meanness until I also feel icky and messed up. So unless the story can give my mind a way out of the bleakness, or I can somehow keep my distance emotionally, it's simply not worth it to me any more.

So you may be surprised to hear what I'm reading at the moment.

LaRose by Louise Erdrich:

In this literary masterwork, Louise Erdrich, the bestselling author of the National Book Award-winning The Round House and the Pulitzer Prize nominee The Plague of Doves wields her breathtaking narrative magic in an emotionally haunting contemporary tale of a tragic accident, a demand for justice, and a profound act of atonement with ancient roots in Native American culture.
North Dakota, late summer, 1999. Landreaux Iron stalks a deer along the edge of the property bordering his own. He shoots with easy confidence—but when the buck springs away, Landreaux realizes he’s hit something else, a blur he saw as he squeezed the trigger. When he staggers closer, he realizes he has killed his neighbor’s five-year-old son, Dusty Ravich. 

The youngest child of his friend and neighbor, Peter Ravich, Dusty was best friends with Landreaux’s five-year-old son, LaRose. The two families have always been close, sharing food, clothing, and rides into town; their children played together despite going to different schools; and Landreaux’s wife, Emmaline, is half sister to Dusty’s mother, Nola. Horrified at what he’s done, the recovered alcoholic turns to an Ojibwe tribe tradition—the sweat lodge—for guidance, and finds a way forward. Following an ancient means of retribution, he and Emmaline will give LaRose to the grieving Peter and Nola. “Our son will be your son now,” they tell them. 

LaRose is quickly absorbed into his new family. Plagued by thoughts of suicide, Nola dotes on him, keeping her darkness at bay. His fierce, rebellious new “sister,” Maggie, welcomes him as a co conspirator who can ease her volatile mother’s terrifying moods. Gradually he’s allowed shared visits with his birth family, whose sorrow mirrors the Raviches’ own. As the years pass, LaRose becomes the linchpin linking the Irons and the Raviches, and eventually their mutual pain begins to heal. 

But when a vengeful man with a long-standing grudge against Landreaux begins raising trouble, hurling accusations of a cover-up the day Dusty died, he threatens the tenuous peace that has kept these two fragile families whole.
Inspiring and affecting, LaRose is a powerful exploration of loss, justice, and the reparation of the human heart, and an unforgettable, dazzling tour de force from one of America’s most distinguished literary masters.

The beginning of this story is based on a tragic devastating accident. Grief, heartbreak and vengeance lurk behind and inside most of the characters. But so does love. And that's what hooks me.

I'm not trying to deny or ignore the pain of life. I'm not trying to shut my mind and heart to the darkness that can affect us all. Sadness is okay. Angst is part of our human experience. I just can't do hopeless. I just can't let a book be responsible for bringing me down.

I need to believe in the better side of human nature. I need to do my bit to bring this out in others and myself. It's what I choose to read.

I feel like I'm becoming more jealous and protective of my time - I don't want to read books that bring me down - there are enough other things in life that can do that.

Books are my escape, my solace and my chance to live in a better world. They are my door to new worlds, new ideas and new possibilities. Books are my hope.

And hope is what I want to experience.

Before I leave you tonight let me give a quick shout out to Laura @Laura's Reviews for exemplifying my reading philosophy. Her recent review of William Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow highlights why we read - to explore and create meaning of our own experiences. To be moved and challenged and to feel connected.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

It has taken me a while to write this review for The Voyage Out, as I had got myself into a bit of a muddle.

A literary muddle.

After reading such a fine literary classic, full of clever literary devices, I felt duty bound to write a clever, literary review in appreciation.

But, of course, there are already so many of those fine, clever literary discussions out there - what could I possibly add that would be fresh or new or exceptional?

That's when I remembered the raison d'etre for my blog - to document my reading journey and reactions.

Therefore I could talk about rites of passage and the role of civilisation and modern life, or discuss the ideas about internal and external exploration. And we could unpack the feminist issues and Darwinian elements to our hearts content.

But did I enjoy the book?

I attempted To the Lighthouse in my late twenties...and failed miserably. I abandoned the story after the first handful of dense rambling pages that were unable to hook my interest.

I've also dipped into A Room of One's Own a few times over the years with an equal measure of pleasure and rage.

This taught me that I could read Woolf - but perhaps it was only her non-fiction that would suit me?

Therefore when I spotted Ali's #Woolfalong post last year I decided, that if I was going to do Woolf properly with the justice I felt she deserved, I would have to start at the very beginning.

The Voyage Out was Woolf's first novel and one her most highly revised and reworked books.

It is also one of her most accessible works.

Early on, during the actual voyage, I thought it was going to be a Cowardesque country club comedy of class. But Woolf's relationship with her characters was more affectionate than that.

Then I thought it was going to be a clash of cultures novel as the Europeans encountered the natives.

And it was a little bit of that. It was also a little bit of a coming of age story for Rachel, a romance and a Shakespearean tragedy.

But the thing that carried me through and affected me quite deeply, page after page, was Virginia's depression which all her characters wore on their sleeves in one way or another.

From tears and tantrums to thoughts of suicide, despair and hopelessness were experienced by all who inhabited these pages.
Never again would he feel secure; he would never believe in the stability of life, or forget what depths of pain lie beneath small happiness and feelings of content and safety.
They pondered the meaning of life and debated the purpose of human relationships.
The lives of these people," she tried to explain, "the aimlessness, the way they live. One goes from one to another, and it's all the same. One never gets what one wants out of any of them.
Woolf's fragile emotional state clearly shone through but so too did her creative intelligence and her literary knowledge.

As the Introduction in my Oxford World Classic edition says 
the book is full of references to books of all kinds, from Austen and the Brontes to Balzac and Ibsen to Gibbon and Burke to Milton and Shelley, and Sappho and Pindar.
Rachel's story was terribly sad and terribly fascinating at the same time. 

Ali @Heavenali is hosting a year long #Woolfalong.
This post is also part of my Women's Classic Literature Challenge.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Dubliners by James Joyce

Dubliners by James Joyce was my selected book for the latest Classics Club #CCSpin.

This was my first attempt at reading Joyce, who I felt somewhat nervous about tackling, so I felt fortunate that my first would be a slim volume of short stories.

Over the years I have read quite a bit of Irish literature.

From the glorious short stories of William Trevor to Anne Enright and Colm Toibin's painful stories about growing up in Irish families.

I also read Frank McCourt's desperate coming of age memoir, Angela's Ashes when it first came out.

Furthermore thanks to writers like Roddy Doyle, Emma Donoghue, Colum McCann, Sarah Moore Fitzgerald I appreciate that the Irish seem to have this weird love/hate thing going on with misery, bleakness and grinding poverty.

All this is to let you know that I knew what to expect from Joyce as far as godforsaken, woeful Irish stories goes. Joyce even declared it as his intent in the afterword written by J.I.M. Stewart in the back of my copy of Dubliners -

My intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country...I have written it for the most part in a style of scrupulous meanness.
Joyce was very successful in realising his intent!

I have no problem with stories that highlight the miserable existence of the human experience. I don't need everything to be rosy and positive and uplifting. But right now, misery stories are not working for me no matter how wonderfully well they are written.

And so I struggled my way through Dubliners.

I felt completely weighed down by words and phrases like -

mourning mood
agitated and pained
melancholy (Joyce's favourite word in this collection)
note of menace
dull resentment
tears of remorse started to his eyes
full of smouldering anger and revengefulness
coloured with shame and vexation and disappointment
he was outcast from life's feast

It was relentless and hopeless and just so joyless. Even the elegantly wrought sentences were tinged with such sadness and despair that it made me wonder how on earth the Irish continue on with anything at all!

Her dress swung as she moved her body and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side.

My eyes were often full of tears (I could not tell why) and at times a flood from my heart seemed to pour itself into my bosom.

He had dismissed his wife so sincerely from his gallery of pleasures that he did not suspect that anyone else would take an interest in her.

Writing appreciation 5/5 but personal enjoyment only 3/5.

How did you go with your CC Spin book?

My previous spins were - 

#1 The Magnificent Ambersons with Cat @Tell Me A Story.

#2 Tess of the D'Urbervilles with JoAnn @Lakeside Musings & Several Four Many.

#3 My Cousin Rachel.

#4 The Brothers Karamazov with Bree who also read a Dostoyevsky novel for this spin. I gave up on this chunkster about halfway through, then I lost the bok during our move earlier in the year...serendipity, I say!

#5 The Odyssey with Plethora of Books. This one was a bit of a cheat as I had started it for another readalong, but struggled to finish. I added it to my list to motivate me to finish it. When no. 20 spun up it seemed like the gods had decreed it so!

#6 No Name by Wilkie Collins with Melbourne on My Mind.

#7 Silent Spring by Rachel Carson with Booker Talk - my first classic non-fiction spin.

#8 Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh has been my one and only dud Spin read so far.

#9 The Great World by David Malouf my first Australian classic spin.

#10 A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark.

#11 So Big by Edna Ferber with Christy where we both experienced the joy of rediscovering a forgotten award winning classic.

#12 Dubliners by James Joyce.

Friday, 29 April 2016

The After-Room by Maile Meloy

I decided to finish off The Apothecary trilogy this past weekend during Dewey's 24 hr Readathon.

It was a great readathon choice.

The After-Room was a quick, easy, entertaining read.

It started off terrifically and I raced through the first half. Conversations with the dead, a mind-reading magician and a trip to Italy kept the action and the drama intense and suspenseful.

But, just like the second book, the ending fell away.

Too many things happened at once, and in this case, for this adult reader, there was too much romance. As a teen reader, I probably would have adored the lovely romantic ending - it was neat and sweet.

I suspect Meloy lost focus at the end and forgot what the book was meant to be about - was it romance, was it mystery, was it magical or was it historical? It's reason for being just seemed to fizzle out. By the end I was even confused about who the intended audience was. So many elements were obviously junior fiction and the writing style was junior fiction, but the content was veering towards teen/YA.

However, the black and white illustrations by Ian Schoenherr were tremendous.

My review for The Apothecary and The Apprentices.