Thursday, December 29, 2011

Bones of Faerie by Janni Lee Simner

First published in 2009 by Random House

I liked Bones of Faerie well enough, but I don’t have anything particularly interesting to say about. It didn’t leave that much of an impression on me, but it’s a good quick read and one of the better YA faerie books I’ve read, if only in that it takes a slightly different path to the usual paranormal-romance path. It’s much more Franny Billingsley’s The Folk Keeper, say, than Aprilynne Pike’s Wings.
Interesting mesh of paranormal romance and post-apocalyptic fiction. For the most part I think it works. The details of the actual war that caused all the resulting chaos and divide between human and faerie are a bit lost on me, but Simner deals with the fall-out well and makes it a set-piece for Liza’s journey with her companions. I would have liked to see her take it further, but I don’t really think this book was meant to be bogged down in the expository and complicated plot.
I’m actually really glad the romantic side of things wasn’t taken further between Liza and Matthew. It’s enough to imply, and put the story’s focus elsewhere. I wasn’t really feeling them as a couple, anyway, and the book wasn’t long enough to make a developing relationship plausible, so props to Simner for not taking the easy path.
Was not a fan of all the italic bits, the memory/vision parts. By which I mean what Liza actually saw was interesting enough, but stylistically I really disliked the way it was told and we were dropped into it, and especially because it happened so often. Just a pet-hate of mine, that style of writing, and I didn’t care much after that.
That’s about it for this one. Nice story, good concept, but personally I just found there was not much in it. Good opening chapter though.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

First published in German, 1979

What an important, amazing and imaginative book The Neverending Story is. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that can balance such magic and imagination with such insight and perception into the human psyche and the real world, and have the two inform understanding of the other. And then, above all, to do it within the framing device of the central character literally stepping into a book that teaches him all these things, and at the same time relies on him to keep creating the stories within. So clever, and so much fun.
I have read Momo by Michael Ende, and wasn’t such a fan – it was just a little too preachy and twee for me. The Neverending Story has a similar sort of intellectual whimsy, but I found I could stomach it better. Perhaps because the over-arching message is quite beautiful, and the way the central figures, Bastian and Atreyu, discover these things is through exposure to such wonderful things and creatures, whose beauty and magic helps them realise very human things like courage and individualism and selflessness and my personal favourite, imagination. When the fantastical comes to reflect and impact on the real, this is my kind of story.
To begin with I found The Neverending Story a little fussy – there was so much going on, and I wasn’t quite feeling the writing style (especially the parts told wholly in italics!), and there were so many strange creatures coming and going that I had to keep reading back to keep up. But as soon as Cairon the centaur went to find Atreyu, then I got swept up in his quest and all the fabulous lands Ende takes us to and the even-more fabulous creatures he has us meet. And I also didn’t mind Ende’s plot device of ‘but that’s another story and shall be told another time’ – this reinforces the idea of the book living on long after we close the pages (the neverending story), of wonderful things still to discover and stories to tell.
The Neverending Story has a lot of colour and vibrancy. It seems Ende’s imagination never runs out. The places we go to are not the same old places we might find in a fantasy book (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but just marvels of strangeness and wonder. In this way, The Neverending Story reminds me of The Phantom Tollbooth. We go from the magnificent, like the Sphinxes guarding the three gates, to the spectacularly strange and creepy, like Spook City, to long ladders formed out of letters of the alphabet, to the beauty of Perilin, the Night Forest. And then all the creatures we discover inbetween – it never ends, and it never feels like too much. One of my favourites was the idea that forgotten dreams fall out of a person’s sleep and into the earth where they are mined, and collected, waiting for the moment when a person needs them again. I love it when an author  can take something from the human world that we don’t really think about much, and turn it into something entirely new and full of meaning.
This book also has a lot of heart. It feels like Ende really did have a lot to say about the power of the book and of the imagination, and a way of making you believe it yourself. The Neverending Story is also full of themes, but the big ones concern memory and choice, power and compassion. I wasn’t such a fan of Bastian in the real world (I found those scenes just a little too sentimental), but in Fantastica his story is powerful and engaging.
And this book also has much sadness, which I love. I love the tragically beautiful in books and movies. I love when characters come to an end that isn’t wholly sad, but certainly bittersweet. This, I find, is when the worlds and creatures authors create come the closest to real life.
And so I loved Morla, who has lived so long she finds the world ‘empty and aimless’, who knows so much that ‘nothing really matters anymore, because it’s all the same’. And I loved the Spook City ghosts who leapt into the nothing because they have given up hope and become weak. And Gmork, the bitter old werewolf.  And the City of Old Emperors, whose inhabitants have used up all their memories and so wander around aimlessly, because ‘without a past they can’t have a future, and they can never change so nothing changes for them’. What a sad, beautiful idea. And of course Dame Eyola, who waits so long for Bastian and then gives him all of her love and affection so that all her vibrancy wilts and she becomes like a ‘black, dead tree’.
I have seen The Neverending Story film of course, but I am so glad I’ve now read the book. I did like the first half (the movie half) better for adventure and excitement, but I found that the second half really reinforced the thematic material, and was just as important in its own right. A wonderful book that should not be forgotten, because in every way it reinforces the idea of what a book is really about.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Top Ten Picks for Christmas

If you need some last minute Christmas gifts (and what better than a book!), here are my top ten  middle grade fiction books for kids (and kids at heart). They are both my own personal choices and what has been selling heaps and getting great feedback in my bookstore in the Christmas season. Enjoy.

Liesl & Po by Lauren Oliver 

Ship Kings: Coming of the Whirlpool by Andrew McGahan        
 Northwood by Brian Falkner

Wildwood by Colin Meloy

The Truth about Verity Sparks by Susan Green       
 Tales from the Tower: The Wicked Wood ed. by Isobelle Carmody & Nan McNab

The Apothecary by Maile Meloy 


The Flint Heart by Katherine & John Paterson         
 Ravenwood by Andrew Peters

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Saltwater Vampires by Kirsty Murray

First published in 2010 by Penguin

Picked up Saltwater  Vampires after falling in love with Eagar’s Raw Blue. For me, this one was not in the same league. But there were lots of things I enjoyed and appreciated about it.

Saltwater Vampires is like a weird mesh of old-world type vampires invading the very contemporary Rocky Head music-festival scene – an old-school sensibility meets a young, hip awareness complete with all the typical modern teen emotions. For me, it wasn’t quite a perfect match, and that was my main problem with the book. I appreciated it, but I didn’t really get it. I felt there was perhaps a little too much going on. The way the three distinct story overtones overlapped was all a little too complicated, with the different stories becoming distractions from the other stories to the point where I couldn’t really commit to any of them.

I liked the ‘contemporary YA’ overtone the best, and this is what I think Eagar excels at. Jamie and his gang of friends and vamp-busters are all funny and likeable and totally cool and all the rest, and their interactions are true to life and affectionately written. I liked where Eagar was taking their emotional stories, but the nature of the book – with all it’s time-jumping and shifting perspectives and what-not – means I never really got involved, like I did with Carly in Raw Blue.

This is a book all unto its own genre – it’s not a conventional vamp story, especially as we’ve come to know them from YA, and it’s not quite contemporary Aussie YA-lit. I do feel that with everything that was going on, it was more suited to an adult readership. Of course I’m all for YA pushing conventions, but I felt the plot, pacing, stories, scope, etc, would just be a better fit for ‘adult fiction’. But I did enjoy its novelty, and also the fact that these vamps were ugly and nasty – something to be scared of, disgusted by, instead of romanticised and smitten by. The whole book had a good grittiness to it.

Aussie setting is used well – the beach, the coastal town, the music festival – in a way that’s familiar but then, as Eagar works her word magic, into something strange and atmospheric and full of the unknown. Particularly the night-surfing scene and when Jamie’s bike breaks down in the national park – fantastic stuff.

I enjoyed the final big ‘showdown’ scene at the end – it provides a nice pay-off, gives the whole book a sense of urgency, and is fun to read. I found the final ‘dealing with the vamps’ (at the festival) a bit weird but that’s a minor quibble – I guess I’m just used to vamps crumbling to dust or something.

Also, a teeny bit long. Weird and wonderful and well-written but not quite perfect –kept me entertained, but just a little too much going on. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Six Impossible Things by Fiona Wood

First published in Australia by Pan Macmillan, 2010

This was one of those 'awesome Aussie YA' books that have been on my radar for a while - aka with the likes of Graffiti Moon and Good Oil and Raw Blue - the books that have been doing well overseas and racking up all the awards and nominations.

It's cute and cool, most definitely.  Funny and awkward in the most endearing of ways.  It never quite felt 'real' to me - though, and by this I mean every problem seems to have a happy, convenient resolution,  and the emotional heart of it doesn't quite ring true.  It's very entertaining and I can't fault the writing; it's one of those books where I can't actually find anything wrong, but it just didn't quite suit my tastes. I love quirky and awkward and silly-funny, but I like there to be a little grit as well. I found Six Impossible Things to be as light and fluffy and fun as they get.

Who doesn't love Dan? He is a real cutie,  and makes 'being awkward' cool. His social ineptitude is familiar and endearing, and some of the situations he finds himself in (and inwardly reacts to) are hilarious. I particularly liked the walking across the road to avoid the awkwardness of walking so near to his crush Estelle, only having to cross back over so he can get home (she lives next door). I've done it, and numerous other predicaments he finds himself in. I really love it when an author can expose all those awkward moments we all have in such a genuine and warm-hearted way, and this book is full of them. And of course the teenage years are such rich material for this.

I didn't mind the 'crush' Estelle, but I wasn't really feeling their relationship. The cuteness of it came from Dan and his thoughts more than any meaningful interaction they had. I like relationships to be angsty in YA - I guess you can say this one kind of is, but it's all so funny  and Dan such a mooning clown that for me it sat on the 'cute' level and nothing more. Also it was all just a little too perfect - but once again, that's just a personal choice.

Cute supporting characters - the Mum annoyed me a bit. Some nice stuff with the gay Dad, if a little too forced. And Howard is as great a 'pet' character as you can get - in fact I'd almost say he was my favourite. I do love a wise, perceptive poodle.

Impossible not to like this book ... but for me, impossible to fully love it. There is also a nice, subtly done message about not wallowing in pity and just cutting the crap and taking responsibility for your own feelings and actions. Fluffy and fun. 

Friday, December 2, 2011

Sleepers Almanac No 7

I am running around living the cliched 'too much to do in December' life at the moment, and so am not getting to read or blog as much as I'd like. That being said, there are so many kids books out right now that look so absolutely amazing and I'm dying to read - Christmas sure knows how to bring them out. Every time I come to work at my bookstore my eyes boggle and fill up with greed and I want them all. The (Australian) Independent Booksellers Summer Reading Guide is full of great stuff - you should stop by your local indie and check it out.
But I did get time last night to attend the launch of the latest Sleepers Almanac - up to number seven now, and still the same eclectic and talented mix of new and established authors totally killing it with this collection of short fiction. One of my stories is in it as well, so you should definitely go and pick up a copy and see what makes Sleepers one of the best short fiction collections in Australia ;)
It was also fairly nice to once again see my name and work in print (in an actual book - alright!) That feeling certainly never gets old.

Some places you can buy Sleepers are here:

And of course you can buy and order from most bookstores.

And a selection of some of my fav/recent books, perfect for Christmas presents:
WILDWOOD by Colin Meloy
 THE APOCOTHERY by Maile Meloy

WICKED WOOD (Tales from the Tower Volume 2)
edited by Isobelle Carmody and Nan McNab


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Happy Doctor Who Day

Apparently today is Doctor Who Day - a celebration of the day Doctor Who first graced our television sets.
And who am I to turn down any chance to show a bit of love for my dearly loved Doctor and the absolutely most amazing TV show I've ever seen!?
So Happy Doctor Who Day!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Walter the Farting Dog

I have a new favourite book character. His name is Walter, and he's a farting dog. Whether you are familiar with Walter or not, you really need to read all about his farting adventures.  I have not laughed at or loved a picture book so much since I was a wee tot reading Graeme Base.

There are five Walter books in this hilarious picture book series - Walter the Farting Dog; Walter the Farting Dog: Trouble at the Yard Sale; Rough Weather Ahead for Walter the Farting Dog; Walter the Farting Dog Goes on a Cruise; and Walter the Farting Dog: Banned from the Beach. I hear now there is also going to be a movie in 2013. Not sure how well it will translate to the screen (anyone remember the Garfield movie?) but I can see the appeal.

I guess it would be easy to run with the easy humour idea of a farting dog, but these books are warm, genuinely hilarious, witty and Walter such a lovable creation, despite his frequent troubles with gas. The books are also quite irrelevant, but that's what I love about them. They are also gently mocking/ridiculing, but in a way appropriate to kids. And the illustrations are strange but suit the story so well. Everything about the books just fits perfectly together.

I love a good underdog, and I guess Walter is the perfect one in every sense of the word. Although good-natured, he is frequently judged for his smelly farts and how they inconvenience everyone around him. Often when someone tries to help Walter control his problem, it just makes it worse. And then something happens and Walter will save the day with his enormous gas build-up. A dog who saves the day by farting - you've just got to love it.

Pretty much the perfect picture book, and hits all the right notes for kids. I just adore Walter the Farting Dog!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman

This edition published in hardback by Bloomsbury, 2008.

I do love me some Neil Gaiman - he has done some terrific, wacky, original and touching (especially his shorter fiction) stuff over the years. And as a lover of children's fiction, The Graveyard Book has been on my radar since its release - even if I've only got to it now!

On the night his family is murdered, a toddler wanders into a graveyard, where the ghosts and supernatural residents who live there agree to raise him as one of their own. Bod, as he is named, grows up with all the dangers and adventures possible in a graveyard, but he is not allowed to leave - or the man Jack, who killed Bod's family, will kill Bod too.

Although The Graveyard Book was all the things I thought it would be - clever, magical, well-written, quirky - for me it lacked an emotional punch. I wanted it to kind of chew up all my emotions, as well as my imagination - like the best fantasy does. But I feel like it never quite got there.

Although certainly creative and well-written, I think the way The Graveyard Book is written might be part of the reason why I never really fell in love. It's very episodic, each chapter concerning an event every two years in Bod's life, with the threat of the man Jack hanging loosely over everything. Each chapter could be a short story, in fact I'm sure I have read some of the chapters in short story compilations, and all throughout the book I was in that weird, sometimes annoying state of going, 'I'm sure I've read this before.'

Gaiman's books have such a wonderful folklorish feel to them, and that is certainly present here. It's a special kind of gritty whimsy. The chapters about the ghoul-gate and the danse macarbe are the best kind of creepy and lovely respectively. That sense of the other, of longing for fantastic worlds just out of reach, is done with a great sense of understanding and love.

Gaiman's secondary characters are always a joy - I especially had a lot of love for Silas, Miss Lupescu and Liza. They are the kind of strange, mysterious and charming characters we make stories about as a kid. They, and others, provide just the right amount of wisdom and fun.

There are, of course, obvious metaphors - namely Bod growing up and learning about the world outside the graveyard, learning from his own mistakes, is reflective of any young person's journey into the unfamiliar world of adulthood. This is never done in twee or over-the-top ways. Bod is often thoughtless and makes mistakes but we see throughout the book how he learns from them and respects those he does ask for advice. The mistakes he makes always seem justified because we are put so fully in his head that we understand them - this is great, effective writing. Bod is quite an endearing little character and we see how his life and actions are enriched by others.

The Graveyard Book is lots of fun with some widsom and depth to boot, but not quite the emotional attachment to tie it all together. Book two in my quest to read 10 children's classics before the end of the year. Recommended.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Siren's Storm, by Lisa Papademetriou

First published by Random House in 2011

A new summer is starting and both Will and his best friend Gretchen are troubled, recovering from a tragedy that took Will’s brother’s life the summer before. Gretchen’s sleepwalking is taking her closer and closer to the water, and Will is intrigued and a little bit beguiled by mysterious newcomer Asia, who has an unnatural effect on people. What is her story, and what do Will and Gretchen have to do with the sinister goings on in their sparkling summer town?

I’m seeing a trend. Vampire paranormal YA seemed to take well to the high school setting. Fallen angel books were all about boarding schools. Mermaids have got summer vacations covered all across the genre – nice for me, I guess – mermaids, the beach and young love – some of my very favourite things.

Siren’s Storm was another book that grew on me. When I first started reading I just thought: bleh. I couldn’t really find anything to like, and it all felt a bit juvenile. But it’s an easy enough read, and after a while I warmed to it.

I didn’t think the introduction of The Odyssey mythology blended into the story, or really suited it. For it to work, I think it needed to infuse all the pages, needed to be engrained more. Getting it in a chunk at the end kind of felt just like a way to give weight to a pretty lightweight story. A shame, because oh my goodness, I would love to read a book where bringing that kind of history and mythology into a modern story was done really well.

Also, the revealing of Gretchen’s true nature – I didn’t really get it, or what she was supposed to be. Once again, I would have liked to see that build up through the story, rather than just getting it in a scene at the end.

I liked Asia and Gretchen as characters. Will was okay. I actually really enjoyed reading from the male perspective, and I also liked all the details about his family business and his stall and the farm and the fact that Papademetriou actually gave him a life and hobbies away from the romance/mermaid plot. Some good supporting characters too, although the dialogue was perhaps just a little cringey.

Look, it’s an easy read, the writing is okay, and it will be interesting if you’re into the whole mermaid/siren thing. Plot wise and structurally I could pick a few holes. If I had really high expectations I would be disappointed. But I kind of just took Siren’s Storm for what it was, and in that way it’s pretty harmless.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Peter S. Beagle wins Lifetime Achievement Award

Peter S. Beagle won a Lifetime Achievement Award at the World Fantasy Awards 2011.
I think this is wonderful - I have long been an admirer of his gorgeous books, especially those for kids. They are full of wit, wisdom, imagination and warmth. Well deserved.

Journey to the River Sea, by Eva Ibbotson

First published in 2001. This edition published in 2002, by Macmillan.

Maia, an orphan, is about to leave the boarding school she has grown up in and start a long sea voyage to Brazil. Up the Amazon River, she will begin a new life with her governess, Miss Minton, and relatives she has never met. In the jungle she will find exotic worlds under the canopy of trees, the colour and life of the local Indians, friendships and adventures like she has never had before. But it can’t all be good, of course, or where would the story be?

Journey to the River Sea is a lovely little story, rich and warm-hearted, with great doses of energy and imagination. The baddies get their come-uppance, the good guys get their happy ending, and everything in-between is uplifting and told with wisdom and humour.

I think perhaps because everything was just as it should be, that I didn’t quite love this as much as I hoped. I found it all just a little too nice and lacking in a bit of pizzazz; although at the same time I can’t really find anything wrong with it. It’s just there is never that sense of danger or intrigue, because I knew, from the tone of the book, that everything would always work out in the end.

I did enjoy the sly digs and knowing humour. It’s great the way Ibbotson took a stab at the ‘baddies’ whenever the opportunity arose – and it’s never nasty, just enough to show them up.

There is a great sense of discovery in Journey, both with Maia discovering what she is capable of, and of a strange and wonderful world waiting to be explored, if only you are brave enough to do so. Actually, the whole book is big on bravery. But the Amazon jungle has a very real presence here, and Ibbotson paints its humidity, its colour, its sound and its secrets with love and energy.

Maia has lots of spirit and enterprise but I really loved Miss Minton – the fearsome old governess with, really, a heart of gold. And not done in a sappy way either. Above all others, I wanted a happy ending for her.

An enjoyable story, with pleasant humour, racing adventure and overall a nicely satisfying quality. I want to read ten ‘children’s classics’ by the end of 2011. This was book one.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Graffiti Moon, by Cath Crowley

First published in 2010 by Pan Macmillan

Lucy and Ed. Leo and Jazz. Daisy and Dylan. Six characters and one sultry spring night. They are searching for Shadow and Poet – graffiti artists whose work makes even the bleakest parts of the city into something beautiful. But each of them are also dreaming for something else. Graffiti Moon has us travel with them as they search for answers over one long, surprising night.

This is one of those books that is kind of indescribable. How to put into words a book that has all the beauty of a dream and yet such wonderfully funny slices of reality, so much heart and so much hurt. It has that achy feel; bittersweet and momentary – like one of those nights where even everything that is imperfect is perfect, because you know it will never happen in this way again. One of those nights where your chest feels full to bursting. Graffiti Moon is just like that.

I wasn’t convinced at the beginning, but the book won me over with its characters, its humour and Cath Crowley’s beautiful writing.

The writing is kind of flowery and stream-of-conciousness but it is done in a way that is pretty but not purplish. There are so many lines in this book that just get it right.

And of course, the way the six main characters interact is wonderful and warm and witty. There is lots of funny banter, clever without being carried away by it. The three main romantic relationships are cute and charming, but the interplay between the three girls and the three guys is done well too – I especially loved Leo and Ed.

Lucy as a heroine is rather gorgeous – from worrying about her parents to ‘dinking’ Ed on her bike, she has all the quirk and personality heroines should have. How I would love to see more female leads in YA written like this!

Lucy and Ed ended a bit too fairytale-ish for me. I would kind of preferred it if they didn’t end up the way they did – endings can still be happy without everyone getting what they want.

I liked the poems that were included for what they do for the book as a whole, but on their own they don’t do much for me.

I also loved how Crowley created the ambience of a hot night in the city, the strange mix of beauty and filth, the sense of being young and alive with only the night ahead of you. It reminded me a bit of Leanne Hall’s This is Shyness (another great Aussie YA read if you haven’t already).

Graffiti Moon is a pretty book, whimsical and romantic and adept at finding beauty in the strangest and ugliest of places. I can see why it has received so much praise. It is hopeful and sad and vivid with emotion. One of my fave reads this year.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Literary Musings

"I stare at him, trying to see him for who he is, not all the bits that have been scattered tonight ... and then I do know the truth. Then he clicks together and I see him. His face is kind of lopsided for a second, like he's trying to keep himself together, keep himself in the shape that he shows to the world but he can't do it anymore and everything in him is sliding out."

From 'Graffiti Moon' by Cath Crowley

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Orphan of Awkward Falls, by Keith Graves

First published by Chronicle Books, 2011

A boy, Thaddeus – living alone in a dilapidated old mansion with only an ancient robot and an oddball cat for company, conducting strange but brilliant experiments, answering to no one but himself. A girl, Josie – adventurous and curious, recently moved to Awkward Falls and drawn to the old mansion next door. And a grotesque hunchback, Fetid Stenchley – just escaped from the Insane Asylum and heading to a certain mansion where he used to work under the watchful eye of his master, many years before.

What will happen when these three meet? And what could one dilapidated old mansion possibly be hiding? And finally, what will happen when the mansion’s secrets are finally let loose?

This was a grim, gory and immensely readable little story. It is easy to get sucked in and once you’re hooked, the pages fly. There is a great deal of adventure, a bit of sly hilarity (at least for kids) and lots of spooky and gruesome details to keep the enthusiastic reader happy.

I did have a bit of trouble with some of the content – I feel like some of it wasn’t appropriate for the intended age group, there were a few parts where I thought it was just a little bit too sick for kids. I wouldn’t like my own children (if I had them) privy to some of the more violent and macabre scenes. This is not to say that kids shouldn’t read it; but perhaps just exercise some caution when recommending to kids – it’s really dependent on the individual reader.

It looks gorgeous. I had a proof copy, but I have seen the final version and the cover is eye-popping and perfectly captures the content of the book. And although I mainly had unfinished illustrations in my copy, they look like they will be super-gorgeous (in a gruesome kind of way!) as well.

Like I said, it is immensely readable, written in easy English with lots of action and a dose of wit. Scenes are snappy and well-paced. There is a bit of mystery to keep you thinking, lots of creativity and a large amount of fun.

It’s just ... something didn’t work for me. The whole book felt a bit off-balance. I think it was that it tried to be zany and funny in a way that appealed to kids but then having that right next to the violence and scenes that are grisly and even psychologically hideous, it just didn’t sit comfortably. And I think that may alienate some audiences.

Monday, October 10, 2011

India Dark by Kirsty Murray

First published by Allen & Unwin in 2010

India Dark is the story of two girls, Poesy and Tilly, who join a children’s touring theatre company, the Lilliputians, in the early 1900s, and set off on what they think will be show after show of glitz and glamour and adulation. But as the season progresses and the much-promised dream of touring in America becomes just that – a dream – the children are stuck in India. They struggle under poor working conditions and the temper of their Manager Mr Arthur, whose sharp tongue and even quicker hands have earned him the nickname ‘the Butcher’. As Tilly leads the rebellion against the Butcher, Poesy is caught, partly by her own making, in a web of confusion and deceit, where not even all the colour of India and thrall of the stage can get her out of her predicament.

Murray did a great deal of research in writing India Dark, and from what I’ve read, became quite invested in it. This allows me a greater appreciation of the book. I think she has done a fantastic job of taking a small but fascinating part of Australian history and turning it into a novel which is vivid, well-written and complex, plus a rollicking good adventure to boot. I would highly reccommend India Dark for school libraries. It has all the important stuff while remaining a compelling, at times fun, story. There is lots to discuss. There is even more to enjoy. Great stuff.

The journey from suburban Melbourne to the heart of India is filled with colour and life and heat. Murray does a wonderful job of showing us how the intensity of that journey takes its toll not only on eveyone’s emotions, but also the show itself, and it is quite fascinating to watch the Lilliputians fall apart. I also liked Murray’s writing because although there is lots of description and imagery and generally just good writing, it doesn’t get in the way – it suits the tone of the book and moves everything along.

Poesy and Tilly are certainly two very interestig little girls. I began by being more inclined towards Poesy but in the end Tilly won me over. I think the thing with Poesy was that although she was meant to be either totally naive or a bit unreliable – as Tilly herself noted, Poesy never knew what side she was on, she jumped from this to avoid conflict and confrontation – in the end I was still not really sure of her as a character. Did she mean to do everything she did and cause all that trouble, or was she just that totally clueless? I don’t know, because Poesy never seemed to know herself. I find that frustrating. I can handle an unreliable narrator, but I also want to be sure of them as a character.

I did like the switching viewpoints between Tilly and Poesy, though. And some interesting stuff to discover about the other Lilliputians. Also, I think Murray did a wonderful job of allowing us just the briefest of insights into the struggles and hardships Mr Arthur faced in trying to make the Lilliputians a success. Although it might not completely excuse him, it’s just enough to allow us to appreciate where he’s coming from.

In many ways this is a book about loss of childhood, loss of innocence and the terribly scary act of figuring out how to navigate the murky waters between being a child and being an adult. I found the sub-plot with Poesy and Charlie incredibly touching. Their last ‘big moment’ together and the resulting aftermath was so true-to-life that it hurt. A bittersweet ending for a lovely little book. Could have done without the epilogue though.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Siren, by Tricia Rayburn

First published by Penguin in 2010

I’m not one to normally jump on book fads or ‘next big things’, but I will jump on the mermaid bandwagon. Except perhaps it isn’t really jumping, because I have always read mermaid books ... there’s just a whole more lot of them at the moment, and many, I’m sure, to come. You can see more of my thoughts on mermaids by clicking on the ‘mermaid’ tag at the bottom of this post. But if you didn’t – and I know you probably didn’t: who cares, right? ;-) – then I guess I should say again: I love mermaids. They have always been my favourite fantasy/mythological creature, even perhaps one of favourite things. Who doesn’t love an outrageously irresistible beauty in a sea-shell bra?

Siren turned out to be better than I was expecting. Quiet, afraid Vanessa loses her sister Justine in a freak cliff-jumping accident while on holiday at their vacation home in Winter Harbour. Everyone assumes Justine’s death was accidental. But then other bodies, all men, start washing up around Winter Harbour. They are all grinning from ear to ear. Vanessa, with the help of would-be lover Simon and Justine’s grieving boyfriend Caleb, does some investigating. What is the conclusion she comes to? You guessed it – mermaids. And as the body count rises, Vanessa comes closer and closer to the truth about herself.

I liked the setting. It held the story together, it was an effective set-piece, it was slightly ominous and claustrophobic and Rayburn got the holiday vibe just about perfect.

There was a good ration of mermaid to human action. There was even some scenes below the waves, which is, I imagine, hard to do. Often I feel mermaid books don’t use the ocean enough, use the power of creatures lurking beneath, of a whole other world existing. It is all speculative in the mind of the heroine. But I felt I got my money’s worth in Siren. Even though I knew exactly where the story was going, there was a nice atmosphere of mystery about ‘what lies beneath’.

I quite liked the writing. The prose is nothing special but it does what it should and I kept my cringing to a minimum. Of course there are typical para-romance tropes but that’s to be expected. I didn’t quite believe the plot point about ‘freezing Winter Harbour’. And I didn’t like when Vanessa’s Mum told her she was always the beautiful one, she has always had it all but just couldn’t see it; guys have always loved her etc etc. That felt a little bit indulgent. Some reviews I’ve read had expressed discontent with the way Rayburn doesn’t always tell us everything and how Siren jumps from scene to scene, often with no explanation. I didn’t mind. It’s good for the reader to have to work a little sometimes.

No real strong feelings about Vanessa. She was a bit nothing to me. So was Simon. I did like that the real relationship focus was on Vanessa and her sister, and even to some extent with her parents, rather than just being all about Simon. That’s refreshing.

All in all, not too bad. Pretty harmless and a satisfying read for a lover of mermaids. I might even read the next in the series.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

What caught my literary eye this week.....

  • This new (or perhaps I should say latest) illustrated edition of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy. It looks gorgeous, and to be honest, I'm really a fan of anything or any edition that keeps pushing Peake's books into the limelight. When I first discovered this trilogy, and Peake's writing, in my first year of university, I felt like my mind had been blown open by the most intense amount of creativity and ideas and just plain gorgeous, amazing writing. How had I never heard of this man and his books before? These books, to me, are genius. I would even say illuminating. Cannot talk them up highly enough.
  • Australian fantasy writer Sara Douglass passed away today, age 54. She was the author of the Axis trilogy and more than a dozen other books that have sold millions of copies worldwide. She twice won the Aurelius Award for Best Fantasy novel. Douglass was something of a queen in fantasy literature, but also an academic, and what I always loved the most, a woman who was more than willing to share with others her thoughts and advice on writing. She was one of the first authors I latched onto in my teens when I went through my fantasy-book stage (I still occassionally get resurges every now and then - but never as strong as I did then - the awesomeness of the LOTR movies has got something to answer for). Loved Douglass' characters, loved her attitude, loved her books, and love what she did for the Aussie fantasy genre.
  • ABC radio station's plans to change the format of the The Book Show program, on Radio National. I hope they don't mess with it too much - Aussie radio needs that focus and coverage on books and literature. The Book Show helped make many early-morning work days that much more bearable and I would hate to see it messed around with.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Literary Musings

"It's a bit magic, the sea, I think; put its call in you, and forever after it can tweak you by the nose, by that smell, any time."

Friday, September 23, 2011

Friday Night Lights Wins

I know it's a bit overdue, but I just have to share my excitement over Kyle Chandler winning the 2011 Emmy for Best Actor in a Drama series. When I saw this in my news feed a few days ago, yes, I probably did give an embarrasing little fist pump.
But so well deserved - Chandler and Connie Britton as  his wife Tami were just so wonderful - they are my favourite husband and wife team on television and their relationship was portrayed beautifully. I love how Coach Taylor could be so stubborn but cared so much about his family and the team and the individuals that made it up. I love that he could be so inspiring and so moving, and I love all his little funny moments - when he snuck in a few snarky words or a look it was gold. I love Friday Night Lights and I love Coach Taylor and this win was just the perfect way to end the series.

Friday Night Lights writer Jason Katims also won for best writing.  
For all those who have not yet jumped on the Friday Night Lights hype, it will be well worth your time and emotions. It is like if you had the best, most awesome, most hilarious, most inspiring, most touching YA series that you just couldn't put down - I think I seriously watched a whole season in about two days once.

Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose!

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Night Fairy, by Laura Amy Schlitz

First published by Candlewick Press in 2010

There is something very satisfying about holding such high expectations for a book, for quite a long time, and then having them met. The Night Fairy was like that for me. When I first saw it in the bookstore last year, it looked like a classic, it looked like it would be good and something I would enjoy reading. I am not sure exactly how a book ‘looks’ like a classic, but this one did. And I say now that it reads like a classic, without really knowing why – it’s just a feeling you get, I suppose. I really enjoyed The Night Fairy and think it does everything right.

Young fairy Flora is a night fairy, out enjoying the night and her beautiful wings when a bat comes along and accidentally and regretfully bites them off. Flora must then learn to live and adapt to life without wings, discover what she is capable of, and find out that the world can be very big, unfair, and dangerous, and she must do whatever it takes to survive.

The writing in The Night Fairy is simple, but I say deceptively, because there is a lot on stuff going on behind the gentle, lush descriptions and easy language. The writing flows, and it flows wonderfully. We drift towards each part of the garden and each new adventure/discovery and the writing is funny when it needs to be, thrilling when it needs to be, and tender when the moment requires it. There is never a distinctive shift between these changes, it just is, and for me this is the best kind of writing.

And how wonderful it is to see a fictional fairy with so much personality – I think she is a wonderful heroine for young girls. I love that she is feisty and stubborn and even sometimes quite boorish, but still has such a capacity to learn and admit when she may be wrong, without having her morals and beliefs compromised. She is resourceful and smart and determined, but still has compassion and the ability to look beyond her initial misgivings. This was especially prominent in the way she learned to overcome and understand the source of her greatest fear. I also liked how she subtly learned that there is more to her relationships with other creatures  than just what they can do for her in return – Schlitz lets it play out quite winningly and naturally but leave all schmaltziness at the door.

The backyard setting is great, and the way we are introduced to it from the perspective of a fairy not even the size of two acorns. I love when this technique works well – I think it is also a great and imaginative way of teaching kids to think outside the square.

The Night Fairy was a winner for me, and one I would reccommend for every school library. Smart, charming heroine, beautifully simple writing, rich imagination and a story that can teach us things in the best kind of way. 

Friday, September 9, 2011

It's all about ME

Whooooooo I just signed a very wonderful piece of paper called an Agency Agreement ... which means I now have a lovely Literary Agent to call my own.

Nothing to get excited about yet, but a very much appreciated, sought after, and magical little bit of news nevertheless.

But ohhhhhh I am well aware the hard work has just begun ...... I'll let you know when I get that $1,000,000 advance ;)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Undine by Penni Russon

First published in 2004 by Random House Australia

I really love Penni Russon. I have done a few writerly things with her and found her a really fantastic teacher; seen her on some panels and regularly check in with her lovely blog, Despite this, I have never actually read one of her novels. I’m not really sure how that happened, but I saw Undine at the library about a month ago and snatched it up.

Undine is a coming-of-age story that mixes contemporary YA with some magical elements and a little bit of mythology. Undine is sixteen, and going through a bit of a rough patch with her usually beloved mother, Lou. She keeps hearing a voice: Undine, Undine, it’s time to come home. She has also found herself the recipient of some unusual and frightening powers, and with the sudden attentions of not one but three guys. Her best friend and next-door-neighbour Trout is the only one who really fully understands her powers and can help, but the unreciprocated crush he harbours for Undine makes things a bit complicated. When Undine finally follows the voice, she finds it harder and harder to not give in to the power inside her ... which may just have consequences for everyone.

Russon is a lovely writer. Her prose here is dreamy and whimsical and matched quite perfectly to Undine’s experiences. It is also quite elemental, by which I mean the prose kind of snatches bits of the sky and the earth and the air and sensation and feeling and loops them in and out of the paragraphs. There is an ease to reading this book.  A few times I thought it was a little overdone, specifically with how Undine was feeling, but then again it does mimic that kind of angsty disconnection of the teenage years.

There are some cute characters – I love Trout and his endearing awkwardness and I loved little Jasper – he was so very cute without being annoyingly cutesy. Undine’s other two love interests were okay but I kind of wished that not every boy Undine encountered fell in love with her. I understood why Russon may have written it that way but stories where the main character has to deal with all these people being in love with her (gosh, that’s just so darn hard ;)!!!) do tend to annoy me a little bit. Lou was quite fabulous, though – great portrayal of conflicting emotions and not just stereotyping her as a ‘mother figure.’

A nice little coming-of-age story, paired very well with the magic elements and an overall theme of water and the ocean. I agree with some other reviews that the plot could have been filled out a little bit more, and the way Undine’s magic actually works, but I guess that’s what the second and third books are for.