The Book Thief

This was the second time I've read Markus Zusak's The Book Thief (it's coming up for next month's book group) and I have to say that I approached it with a little trepidation. I've struggled to find a way of expressing how I feel about the experience of reading this book, and finally I came up with this: it feels like walking along a beautiful shoreline, barefoot, on sharp stones.

The first time I read it, the discomfort of the sharp edges underfoot was overwhelming. The Book Thief is written in a very distinctive, deliberate style. Almost every adjective choice is unexpected: wooden tears, glittering anger, the sun was blond, her cardboard face, the bumpiness of love. You can never forget that you're reading a text; it's impossible to lose yourself in the story, because the jarring (often apt and beautiful, sometimes awkward) language constantly jerks you back. And that's without even mentioning that the book is narrated by the character of Death...

On second reading, I was able to adjust better to the language choices, and admire them, and find my way to the actual story. I could lift my eyes to the landscape I was passing through, and appreciate its shape and sorrow. I'm glad I've read it twice.

The Book Thief has been incredibly successful, and ardently loved, and made into a movie (which I haven't seen). It would be a very hard act to follow.


Inventing Imaginary Worlds

I bought this on the Kindle as part of my on-going research for a possible future project (still mulling…)   The full title is Inventing Imaginary Worlds: From Childhood Play to Adult Creativity Across the Arts and Sciences. Michele Root-Bernstein argues that imaginative worldplay should be encouraged as a means of promoting creativity, not just for writers and artists, but scientists, inventors, social scientists and others, and she details many case studies where successful practitioners in the latter fields report having created imaginary worlds as children and adolescents. She sometimes stretches her definitions of 'worldplay' quite far, including imaginary baseball leagues, for example, but it's still an interesting, and encouraging, thesis. Refreshingly, she doesn't condemn computer play out of hand, recognising that participation in a shared imaginary world is often part of the appeal of such activity; but she is also aware that technology will need to progress before children can take full advantage of the potential for world-building online without adult intervention. (Minecraft, which she doesn't discuss, is surely a step in the right direction.)
What I would have liked was more detail about the actual worlds her interview subjects invented, but Root-Bernstein was more interested in the implications of their play for their adult lives; which is fair enough.

(I'm going to start calling these posts 'book responses' rather than 'reviews', because I think reviews demand a more considered, critical and thoughtful analysis than I have time to prepare -- these posts are just a gut-feel reaction, really.)


More New Guinea Moon Reviews!

I find it extremely peculiar that when New Guinea Moon was published, almost a year ago, it received barely a single review, and yet now reviews seem to be popping up from the most unexpected places.

This one is from the Subversive Reader:
This was an absolutely beautiful read which did a wonderful job of bringing the beauty and contradictions of 1970s New Guinea to the reader. I realised, as I read it, that I’d never read a book set in New Guinea before, which seemed like a pretty big oversight.
One of the things Julie discovers in the book is the casual racism of the ex-pat community, especially the diminutive terms used for the local men and women who work for them, regardless of their age (Julie seems particularly conscious of it, which is explained away by having a mother who talks about it at home, but I’m still not sure how realistic it is for a teenager in the 1970s). However, the author doesn’t shy away from showing the reader moments when Julie is also casually racist – the book does a good job of showing the complexities involved and pointing out that there’s always ways to do better.
I think it’s terribly important that we have books which tell stories of Australia’s past – the honest truth beyond what is often taught in history classes. This is a book which points out that we had a colonial past beyond our own borders and that it wasn’t really that long ago – less than 10 years before I was born. It’s not always a nice story to think about, but it is an important one. Books like this help us think more about it and should be celebrated more than they are.
My only complaint about the book is that it felt a little rushed towards the end, almost like another storyline had been pushed in where it didn’t really need to belong. It just felt slightly unbalanced, like it appeared too late in the book.
New Guinea Moon is a really lovely book which does a wonderful job of setting up Julie’s world and the things she sees. I thoroughly recommend it.

And this one comes from the Darien Times in Connecticut, of all places. It's most mysterious, I don't know how their reviewer even came across it!

But thank you!


The White Darkness

Wow! The White Darkness, by Geraldine McCaughrean, wasn't what I was expecting at all. I came across a reference to it recently when I was looking for books about people who invent imaginary worlds and imaginary companions (the first stirrings of a possible future project), and I remembered reading a review in The Age when it was first published (2005, which seems awfully long ago) and thinking, that sounds interesting… And then I found it in the local library. Yay!

All I could recall when I started reading is that the main character, Sym, is in love with Titus Oates (Scott's doomed Antarctic expedition, 'I'm going out of the tent and I may be some time,' you know, him), whose presence she carries around inside her head. But more than an exploration of the comforts and pitfalls of imagined companionship, The White Darkness became an unexpectedly gripping and quite bizarre thriller, set in the wastes of the Antarctic, which is described in gorgeous, vivid and unsettling prose.

Totally, surprisingly, fabulous.


Dirt Music

I picked this up at the library book sale and it's been sitting at the bottom of the pile-by-the-bed for at least two years, until my daughter shamed me into finally reading it. I'm sure neither the book itself nor Tim Winton need my approval (Dirt Music alone has won about a trillion awards), but it's true I did resist starting this one for a long, long time, and the resistance lasted till I got about halfway through, when I finally managed to surrender to the story. For a while I had to break the book up into fifty page chunks and force myself to keep reading one chunk at a time.

It's weird, I love the way that Tim Winton writes about country, and being in the bush, and by the sea -- but I feel so remote from his characters. I couldn't connect to Georgie or Lu or Jim until almost the very end of the book. Maybe they're just not my kind of people, I don't know; if I met them in real life I'd be scared of them. Maybe this is why I don't read much adult fiction? Maybe I felt resistant just because it had won so many awards? Also, I am not a music lover, so that wasn't a way in for me either.

But the descriptions are wonderful.

Note: I've just found this article which asks, why did Georgie sell the boat her father gave her, instead of setting off herself in search of the missing Lu? Hm. Good question!


Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean

A couple of exciting parcels arrived on my doorstep recently: copies of Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean in both its Indian and Australian incarnations. At last I could hold it in my sweaty hands (literally, this week!) and devour its contents (not literally).

I knew that it was going to be a strange and intriguing mixture, but I wasn't prepared for the sheer range of pieces -- styles and forms and different kinds of collaborative process -- that made the book even more fascinating than I expected. There are paired short stories, graphic stories, fairy tales and science fiction. Reading the notes at the back where the authors and artists discuss their collaborative journeys was just as absorbing as the stories themselves! Some pairs (like Priya Kuriyan and me) developed a single piece together; others tossed ideas back and forth across cyberspace and bounced away to create separate but linked stories; others critiqued each other's work. The result is a rich brew of individual, bite-sized morsels, swirling in a single spicy pot (forgive the mixed metaphor!) It was wonderful to be able to read it properly at last. Publication day is the end of January, so it will be hitting the shops soon!

Just to whet your appetite, here is another image from Swallow the Moon, the story that Priya and I created together. Isn't it gorgeous? Priya is so talented!

Also read:
World's End Was Home, by Nan Chauncey
This is an old-fashioned adventure from the 50's, set partly in Tasmania and partly in Melbourne, complete with an orphan, a long-lost (rich) relative, a baby wombat and a sinister pursuit. There were a couple of explicitly cringey moments, as when Dallie is required to write in an exam 'all you know about the Australian blackfellow.' And when the family settle in their pristine, isolated Tasmanian bush paradise, the ghosts of the original dispossessed inhabitants seem to stir silently between the lines of the story.
But overall, this was a light, enjoyable yarn, beautifully illustrated by Shirley Hughes.


The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas

Years ago, I read a discussion of John Boyne's The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas on the blog of my American editor, Cheryl Klein, in which she stated that she hated this book 'with the white-hot loathing of a thousand suns.' It's possible that this prejudiced me; Cheryl is a woman's whose opinion I greatly respect. But seriously, now I've read it for myself, I can confidently state that it really is that bad.

This is not a book written for children; it's written for very stupid people. Bruno is supposed to be nine (ten, by the end), but his level of understanding is about that of a four year old. He's the son of a Nazi commandant who has never heard the word Jew, or Fatherland, or Fuhrer. He calls Hitler 'the Fury', which is 'cute' in a really inappropriate way, and ignores the fact that German and English are completely different languages. In fact the whole book is written in this coy, cutesy way, presumably to highlight Bruno's innocence and naivety; but it's just irritating, and trivialises the dreadful facts of the death camps by pretending that the events of the story could ever have occurred, even in a 'fable.' Also (spoiler alert) I find it really disturbing that the shock ending is (presumably) intended to upset us more than the actual horrific reality.

I could go on, but I'll save it for book group, which is the reason I read it. Should be an interesting discussion...


To The Wild Sky

I remember picking up To The Wild Sky by Ivan Southall from the classroom bookshelf in Grade 5, starting to read it, and putting it back. Perhaps it was too confronting; my father was a pilot, who flew small planes much like the one featured in the book. In the early chapters, the pilot of this plane suddenly drops dead, leaving the six children on board to cope as best they can. One of them, Gerald, has luckily tried his hand at flying this plane before, under his father's supervision (even though he's only 13!), and he takes the controls. The book follows their flight, their crash landing, and what happens next.

Even after nearly forty years, I still found this a difficult read; I started it before Christmas and only just managed to finish it yesterday. It might be the almost excruciating detail of the flight itself that put me off, especially in light of recent aviation disasters. It was just too vivid for my imagination, too realistic. I very much enjoyed Southall's Hill's End last year, and this is similar in theme -- stranded kids forced to draw on their inner resources, and co-operate, to survive -- but this version came perilously close to be being too harrowing for me. It was all so grim, lacking the flashes of humour that lightened Hill's End. It was well done, despite the traces of sexism and racism of the time -- it was published in 1966 --but I soldiered through this one rather than enjoying it. Even the ending is pretty grim; the kids aren't rescued, but they manage to light a fire, and might be about to find fresh water in their remote location. It's not much to feel cheerful about!


2014: Reading Round-Up

Time to review my year of reading in 2014. This year I read a total of 94 books; my totals below won't add up because of things like multiple authors (also I'm doing my sums on the back of an envelope!) This total is a lot lower than last year's. I didn't read much while I was getting over my op, in the middle of the year; I watched hours of TV on the couch instead. And a couple of blockbusters (Far From the Tree and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet) chewed up weeks of reading time.

Adult: 44
YA/children's: 50
This was actually the hardest category to define. I read a number of books that could have fallen into either classification: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Sea Hearts, The Cartographer, To Kill A Mockingbird? But it's come out in a pretty even split. The proportion of adult books was slightly higher this year.

Female author: 65
Male author: 31
My pro-female bias is showing again! This split is about the same as last year. And I must admit, going over my list, I realised that the books I didn't enjoy were usually by male authors. Sorry, guys! But I hasten to add that I did read some really excellent books by men this year -- the two titles mentioned in the intro, for example.

Fiction: 84
Non-fiction: 10
Yikes! Last year the split was about 75% fic/ 25% non-fic. I've read hardly any non-fiction this year, with, again, the notable exception of Far From the Tree, which was massive. Maybe I was looking for escapism in a fairly tough year? I must give a shout-out to Helen Garner's This House of Grief, which was also wonderful.

New: 21
Second-hand: 35
Library: 16
E-book: 7
Borrowed from friends: 9
Re-read/already owned: 7
I bought a higher proportion of new books this year, partly thanks to a book voucher I received last Christmas, but also due to a scary new on-line book habit (thanks, Readings.com.au and biblio.com...) Again, most of my reading matter was sourced from second-hand books shops and library book sales. Interestingly, I bought fewer e-books this year. I made a lot of visits to the library, but looking at the number of books I actually read, I realise that I spent most of those visits borrowing for my children. Sometimes I feel guilty about the number of second-hand books I buy, but even if I bought two a week it probably wouldn't equal my husband's coffee habit, so I won't feel too bad! My re-reads this year were To Kill A Mockingbird and my Antonia Forest collection. The joys of the latter were enhanced enormously by an on-going on-line read-through via Live Journal (I might talk more about this in a later post).

Australian author: 31
UK: 40
US: 16
Canada: 2
Germany: 1
NZ: 1
India: 3
This spread is slightly more diverse than last year, but not much. I forgot my resolution to read more non-Anglo authors and my bias toward British authors is still apparent. This reflects a lot of comfort reading this year -- eg multiple Agatha Christie and Antonia Forest titles which I return to repeatedly for reliable pleasures. I did, however, start to address my ignorance of Australian children's writers like Nan Chauncey, Ivan Southall and Hesba Brinsmead.

New releases (since 2000): 46
1950 - 2000: 36
Pre-1950: 13
New category! I'm actually quite relieved to see that my reading preferences are not entirely antique! A clear majority of the books I read were recent releases, and most of those were brand new. Doing my bit to support the publishing industry… In future I might break this down more precisely, as there's a big difference between a book published in 1999 and one published in 1950.

This year I'm going to try to be a bit more diligent in reviewing the books I read on this blog, and try to overcome my aversion to reviewing books by authors I might meet (or already know). They might not be long reviews, but I will try to stretch those critical muscles slightly.

Happy New Year, everyone, and I hope you got lots of books for Christmas! (I scored four.)


Unexpected in the UK!

It is worth Googling oneself, because just occasionally, you get a nice surprise, like this unexpected review of New Guinea Moon in the UK Independent, as one of a dozen titles in Susan Elkin's wrap-up of Best books for children this Christmas. New Guinea Moon was featured in Part 1, books for 12 year olds and up.

New Guinea Moon by Kate Constable (Allen and Unwin, £6.99) is about an Australian 16-year-old, Julie, who goes alone to New Guinea to spend the summer with her charter pilot father, Tony, whom she hasn’t seen since she was three. It’s 1974 and New Guinea is about to be granted independence. She finds more than she bargained for, including a man she’s attracted to, and another she isn’t, many colourful characters (Barb is nicely sketched and so is Andy) in a world in which indigenous people are often ignored, an unexpected secret in her father’s life and, eventually, a future.


Not Quite Cold Turkey

In my never-ending quest to ramp up my writing productivity, I'm trying something new.

Like everyone else who works primarily at a keyboard, I've found myself increasingly distracted by the diversions available online. Fascinating links on Facebook, witticisms on Twitter, endless football speculation on my club forum, in depth analysis of my favourite children's books by people who love them as much as I do... There's always something to look at.

I've tried rationing, and rewards (get over the next 1,000 words and you can browse for five minutes; write 100 words and you can read one more post on WOOF). But it's still getting out of hand.

So now I've made a new rule: No Internet Between 10am and 5pm.

And my deadline is about to kick in... Gotta go, bye!


Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean!

 Just look at this gorgeous thing, will you! (This is slightly premature, as it's not out in Australia just yet...)

It is a strange and wonderful object. I can almost guarantee you've never seen anything else like it. It's a collection of speculative fiction (science fiction and fantasy), a glorious bundle of collaborations between Indian and Australian writers and artists. Each of us was paired with an artist or writer from the other continent. Each pair found their own way to work together -- through email or Skype, shooting messages back and forth.

I was lucky enough to be matched up with a wonderful artist called Priya Kuriyan (you can see some of her work here) and as it happens, the cover illustration is taken from an image in the story we created together. (If you click on the link, you will see another beautiful picture from our story, Swallow the Moon.)

The only other time I've worked in collaboration was when Penni and I wrote Dear Swoosie together. (I wrote about this a little while ago.) But I've never worked with an illustrator before. What I found weirdest, but most weirdly satisfying, was that as Priya's illustrations arrived, I was able to cut back on my words -- she was expressing what I'd written so beautifully that my descriptions became simply unnecessary. I think the final word count was about 25% of the original draft!

Another unexpected effect was that my story started out as quite a murky, depressing piece; but Priya's vision transformed it into the most beautiful, uplifting story.

I can't wait until you can all see this unique, extraordinary creation for yourselves. I'll let you know when it's available!


Warriors Challenge!

Evie was a little bit offended when she read my last-but-one blog post and saw my reference to 'those damn cat books,' ie Erin Hunter's Warriors series, which is probably singlehandedly responsible for her literacy skills at this point. I suppose Warriors have been to Evie what the Famous Five books were to me - compulsively readable, seemingly endless, slightly despised by smug adults.

So she's set me a challenge today - to write down everything I know about Warriors (without consulting Google!), and she will correct me with her own comments later today.
(Hello! I will be in bold because I said so. Time to see how much Mum got wrong!)
What I Know About Warriors
The Warriors are a collection of warring clans of wild cats, who live in the wilderness in an English-y landscape. One group live in the woods, one by the river, one on the moor etc, and they are named accordingly eg Riverclan, Windclan...um... Treeclan?? (I know that's not right.) (ThunderClan. Not TreeClan.) They fight over territory, but they do share a common mythology based around Skyclan, (StarClan, SkyClan is the fifth clan that were banished.) which is composed of the spirits of dead cats. When you die you join Skyclan, and you stay there as long as some living cat can remember you. After that, I don't know what happens. Maybe you get reincarnated? (Sometimes, yes.) Sometimes Skyclan cats communicate with living cats through dreams.

The individual clans are structured around a strict set of roles. Kittens are called 'kits' and are raised in the nursery by their mothers, the Queens. The Warriors hunt and fight. The young cats are apprenticed to particular warriors who teach them; during their apprenticeship, their names carry the suffix '-paw.' There is a Leader, and also a Medicine cat, who doesn't produce kits but devotes their life to healing (I think they also have the magic dreams.) (That's all true, good job!)

The cats have nature names: Brackenwing, Firestar, Fernwind, (Warriors aren't supposed to have names that contain things related to clan or sacred things) that kind of thing. A cat might start out as Foxkit, become Foxpaw as an apprentice, and finally be given the full name Foxtail.

Firestar was an important cat, maybe the founder of the clans, (He was a house cat who revealed Tigerstar's wanting to be leader and he defeated him. Well, technically Scourge did, but still.) some kind of hero anyway. Brightheart was a cat who was horribly scarred (when I started reading the story of Brightheart, A. refused to let us continue because she was so upset when the other cats were mean to her.) There was a blind kitten called (I think?) Jaykit. (Jayfeather.) Otherwise the fates of individual cats and their complicated inter-relationships escape me. Sometimes the clans are joined by former pet cats, known as 'kittypets.' These cats are distinguished by only having one-part names eg Daisy. (Actually, only some kittypets didn't change their names like Millie and Daisy.)

And I think that's all I know about Warriors!
(Mum, please actually listen to what I tell you, I talk about warriors every time I read it!)


The Book I Wish I'd Written

Several years ago, I started to think about a book I wanted to write. I wanted to set it in the marshes, that misty halfway territory, half-land, half-water; at the edges of things, with stretches of beach and sky, and mud and water. I wanted to write about loneliness and courage, stories and spells. I was going to include a blind person, and a dog, and a girl who doesn't know how brave she is… It was going to be eerie, and magical, silvery with moonlight and dreams, with ghosts and half-forgotten songs.

Well, in the writing, my book, as books often do, has turned into something quite different from that original conception. 

But Julie Hunt has written the book that I was dreaming of, all those years ago, and she's done it so much better than I ever could have. Song For A Scarlet Runner has been short-listed for every award there is, and deservedly so. This is a wonderful, rich and rewarding children's fantasy.


The Colours of Madeleine

I don't do many reviews of current books on this blog. I'm self-conscious about reviewing the books of authors I know (even though they are all GENIUSES). But I just can't bring myself to stay silent on these ones. Bonus: I've never met Jaclyn Moriarty, so I can talk about how clever she is without fear.

I absolutely adored these books, the first two volumes of the Colours of Madeleine trilogy (yay! still one book to look forward to!). They are fresh and funny, sweet and serious, fantastical and moving, both unexpected and plotted tight. For me, they fell in the sweet spot between children's and YA: smart and philosophical, but also magical and filled with wonder.

In A Corner of White, we meet 14 year old Madeleine Tully, who has run away from her dysfunctional father to live in a garret with her mother in Cambridge, England. And we meet Elliot Baranski, who has also lost his father, though under very different circumstances. Elliot lives in the small town of Bonfire, The Farms, in the Kingdom of Cello.

Elliot and Madeleine discover a crack between their two worlds, a crack just large enough for a letter to slip through. They begin an illicit correspondence (contact with the World is a capital offence in Cello). Cello is a world not unlike our own in many ways. But its seasons shift about from day to day; there is a Lake of Spells in the province of Magical North, and other, dangerous magic in the province of Olde Quainte, which has an irritating dialect all its own; and the population are at risk from random attacks of   Colours -- a sixth level Purple, for instance, or third level Red. But Elliot is searching for his vanished father, and he has other things to worry about…

I'm especially grateful to Jaclyn Moriarty, because A Corner of White was the first book I could persuade Evie to read to get her away from those damn cat books, and she loved it too. We raced each other to finish The Cracks in the Kingdom (I won, she is still going). Both volumes start off slow, but be patient. Moriarty is building a careful edifice of small pieces, and at the end you can only stand back and gasp at the perfect, utterly satisfying whole. There was a twist at the end of Book 2 which I might have been dumb not to foresee, but it gave me that wonderful jolt of happy surprise that the best books give you when you're young. Maybe that was why I loved these books so much; they recaptured for me, as so few books do these days, the utter delight and wonder of immersion in a new world. And now I'm all itching for volume 3.

Just read them!