Monday, March 28, 2011

Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones – author of some of the best and most creative and immersive kids/adult fantasy fiction I have ever read – died on the weekend. There are a number of blogs that have great eulogies up about her, and although I could write tonnes on how much her books meant to me as a child and how I would stay up reading her books, entranced, well into the night, I really just wanted to acknowledge her and encourage everyone to pick up her books. Because she was AWESOME – as a writer and a person.
She is probably best known for books like Hexwood and the Howl’s Moving Castle series, but equally as extraordinary were The Dalemark Quartet series (LOVED The Spellcoats), A Sudden Wild Magic, The Ogre Downstairs and Dogsbody.
Seriously, she created such wonderful worlds and characters, and her World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement was very well-deserved indeed.

EDIT: A good succint summary of DWJ: here

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


The finalists have just been announced for the 2010 Aurealis Awards, which are awards - first established in 1995 - that celebrate the achievements of Australian science fiction, fantasy and horror writers. In the past few years there has been a growing list of different categories, including awards for best short story, YA and kids book, to all the better include Australia’s prolific output in the SF, fantasy and horror genres.
I Love these awards! Some of my fav authors have won or been finalists over the years, including Juliet Marillier, Victor Kelleher, Margo Lanagan, Isobelle Carmody and Sonya Hartnett. These were the books I devoured as a kid and of course still revisit even know, and what’s even better is that they are all Australian. These books can more than hold their own in the worldwide literary landscape! To quote from the website:
This list of past winners and finalists is not only a great guide to a basic bookshelf selection of the best Australian works, it is also a useful survey of more than a decade's worth of signficant topics and themes, a who's who of the genre locally and the growth of the Australian publishing industry's commitment to the genre.”

Below are the finalists for the SF, fantasy, horror, YA and Children’s Fiction categories:

CHILDREN'S FICTION (told through words)
Grimsdon, Deborah Abela
Ranger's Apprentice #9: Halt's Peril, John Flanagan
The Vulture of Sommerset, Stephen M Giles
The Keepers, Lian Tanner
Haggis MacGregor and the Night of the Skull, Jen Storer & Gug Gordon

Merrow, Ananda Braxton-Smith
Guardian of the Dead, Karen Healey
The Midnight Zoo, Sonya Hartnett
The Life of a Teenage Body--Snatcher, Doug MacLeod
Behemoth (Leviathan Trilogy Book Two), Scott Westerfeld

(I hope Merrow wins this one – I read it last year and thought it was amazing)

After the World: Gravesend, Jason Fischer
Death Most Definite, Trent Jamieson
Madigan Mine, Kirstyn McDermott

The Silence of Medair, Andrea K Höst
Death Most Definite, Trent JamiesonStormlord Rising, Glenda Larke
Heart’s Blood, Juliet Marillier
Power and Majesty, Tansy Rayner Roberts

(my heart’s with Marillier on this one)

Song of Scarabaeous, Sara Creasy
Mirror Space, Marianne de Pierres
Transformation Space, Marianne de Pierres

More details at:

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Slightly True Story of Cedar B. Hartley, by Martine Murray

This edition published by Allen & Unwin, 2002

Caught sight of this book while browsing at the bookstore; read a few pages and loved the distinctive narrative voice and the Melbourne inner-suburb vibe. All the positive reviews I glanced at kept mentioning how cute it was, and I certainly found it cute, which is largely down to the central character, Cedar B Hartley, and her quite charming way of thinking about things. But in general I couldn’t really fault this book. It is utterly engaging – a simple story about an almost-teen who is in self-devised ‘training’ to be an acrobat. Doesn’t sound like much, right? But Cedar is at that beautiful age where she knows a whole lot, or is learning for the first time – but at the same time doesn’t really know anything at all – and this creates such a lovely intelligent naivety that sets the whole tone of the book.
The only parts I didn’t quite feel completely charmed by were the explanation at the end about her father – it was perhaps a bit clunky and tacked on, when it probably could have been worked in a little more seamlessly throughout. Also maybe just a couple of times I thought I was being pushed a little too much with ‘Greenie’ and left-wing politics, albeit in a very watered down way. Still, it was enough for me to notice.
But otherwise this book was just adorable. This book is largely set on a street in Brunswick, which for those who don’t know, is an inner suburb of Melbourne, in Victoria. It is always such a unique reading experience, when you are reading stories set in places you know. I loved this about the book and think Murray captured the neighbourhood scene perfectly. The minor characters, and there are quite a lot, add so much to the story, and no matter how much page time they get, they rarely feel flat.
I loved Cedar – her voice, her understanding of the world, her courage and humour. Such a great little character: precocious without being annoying, and for all her sass, a little girl who considers others and is genuinely kind. I enjoyed very much reading the scenes with her and her mother, and also the relationship she has with her missing brother Barnaby: really just their little family unit as a whole. Very touching without being sappy.
What I really enjoyed was that though a lot of the kids in the book/neighbourhood know each other from school, we get to see how they interact beyond the school gate, which is actually quite unusual and adds a whole new dimension to the relationships. The way Cedar describes what goes on at the weekends and after school is right on, and there is something quite whimsical about it all.
And the relationship between Cedar and Kite is just perfect – I dog-eared a lot of pages where the author just got it so right, what happens between them. Some of my favourite relationships in books come from this not-kid/not-quite teen/very late primary school age, because there is such a lovely innocence about it all, and all the cuteness without the angst. Great characters, great relationship. Great book.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Doctor Who and Dalek I Loved You

Recently I just finished reading Dalek I Loved You, a kind of memoir/ode to Doctor Who by British TV journalist/reviewer Nick Griffiths, published in 2007. This book divided me. I absolutely loved the parts about Doctor Who: his anecdotes, his rememberances of the show, his lists of favourite episodes. It was really quite touching to read how, through his work with the Daily Mail, Griffiths got to meet many of his heroes from the show. He tells of it in quite an understated way, but we cannot miss how much it means to him, we cannot miss that beautiful sense of childlike awe at getting to meet the characters who so populated his imagination.

Therefore, I think if he left it at just that - revolving around Doctor Who - then Dalek I Loved You would have been a better read. As it is Griffiths drops in memories of his experiences at boarding school and his loves and the path he took to getting a job and pretty much anything he really wants. Which is fine I guess, if I knew who he was. But I don't, and so I was left wondering exactly why I should care, what warranted me reading his memoirs. Perhaps he is a well-known personality in Britain, and if so, then that's fine. But to me it just felt a little bit self-indulgent, like using Doctor Who as a guise to get his story out there. To his credit he is quite an engaging storyteller, and I was quickly turning pages. The only thing that really bugged me is that he kept playing down his Doctor Who geekiness and so it felt like he felt like he had to justify his love for the show, to which I say....

JUST LOVE IT, MAN. Because this is a show that must be loved whole-heartedly. I do. I love it with every inch of my heart and soul and brain - for me, it is right up there with mermaids and peanut butter on toast. I don't think it is geeky or embarrasing to love The Doctor anymore, such is the surge of popularity it has received since bursting back to our screens in 2005. I absolutely just adore this show: the idea, the action, the imagination, the adventure, the characters, the intelligence, the humour, the stories - but really, what totally won me over is that it has such a big heart. Everything is underscored by such a perfect understanding of emotion, and paring everything down to the humane experience. And although there have been some dud episodes, this understanding of humanity is rarely off mark.

I absolutely love the Doctor with all his eccentricities and loneliness and pure brilliance - whether he be portrayed by a Tom Baker or a David Tennant or a Matt Smith, the acting is a joy to watch. I just want to give this show a great big hug - it really is television at its best.

And lastly, while we're on topic (sort of) - a couple of good movies I've recently seen. The Last Station, with Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer and James McAvoy. Brilliant acting from these three and an engaging look at the latter life of writer Tolstoy. And a decent YA-ish movie - Remember Me, with Rob Pattinson and .... well, I guess anyone else doesn't really matter after him ;). Yes, he has his sexy turned up pretty high here but also busts some pretty swish acting chops and there's some nice stuff about family relationships/dysfunction. Worth a look.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Beastly, by Alex Flinn

First published in 2007 by Harper Collins

A retelling of classic tale Beauty and the Beast, Alex Flinn’s Beastly places the characters in modern-day high school and lets the scenario play out among teen hierarchies, the internet and neglected-child syndrome. It is one of the better fairytale retellings I’ve read for teens, and I have read some pretty woeful ones that make me so cross over the fact someone could create such a hackneyed and uninspired story from the classics I love so much.
That being said, Beastly never really kicked into gear for me until Part 5, which comes about two thirds of the way into the book. It was pretty generic up until then. The main character was a bit of a tosspot. I wasn’t feeling the fairytale magic. But when Lindy came into Kyle/Adrian’s house and the relationship began to develop, I was turning the pages pretty fast, till the point even where I read it as I walked home from the bus. I haven’t done THAT in ages.
I think part of the appeal is that I knew how the story would play out, but rather than reducing my enjoyment of the book it made me more interested to see how the author would go about it – how would she twist it, make it her own, how high would she make the stakes. You know it is going to end but you want to see the Beast get his happily ever after. So that actually worked in Beastly’s favour.
Some parts I didn’t like – number one, the ‘IM chats’ between the parts. I don’t know if this was an attempt to make it more relevent to a modern teen audience, or just to play around with the novelty of other well-known fairytale characters using the internet. I didn’t find it clever, and it didn’t add anything to the plot/story. Pointless, really.
Adrian/Kyle/the Beast is attracted to Lindy – I get this. Flinn did the whole ‘coming round to trusting him after initially hating his guts’ pretty decently. But I still didn’t really get what attracted him so much to her – apart from the fact that she was really the only girl he had been in contact with for a long time. The whole ‘love story’ felt more just like what would inevitably happen when two people get pushed together; it didn’t go really that deeply into the psychology of it, more just touched the surface. Something didn’t quite click. Although there were a few cute moments between them.
The dialogue was also a bit eugh. Didn’t ring true. Flinn relied quite a lot on clich√©, and then kind of tried to worm her way out of it by having Adrian/Kyle think something like ‘Ugh, I can’t believe I just did/said that, what am I thinking?’ Sorry, but you can’t get out of it that easily. It just made me completely detached from the text.
Still, I enjoyed Beastly well enough. And I’m quite keen to see the movie.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud, by Ben Sherwood

This edition published in hardcover by Bantam Dell, 2004
I don’t feel like I can write a proper review of The Death and Life of Charlie St Cloud, and I don’t really want to. Because to be honest, this book infuriated me. It frustrated me to the end where I started wondering what was wrong with me, and why wasn’t I seeing all the amazing and magical things about it that all the other famous authors were, according to the glowing reviews on the back cover. So let me drop a few points about my reading experience:
·         I read this book because I recently saw the film, starring Zac Efron. The film was okay. It was pretty much what I expected. The characters Tess and Sam annoyed me, or maybe I just found the actors playing them really unlikeable. I think the Zef did pretty well, considering the material he was working with. But then again, I’ve always thought he was a decent actor, right back from when he used to be in Summerland (AMAZING show – why still no DVD????!!) The kid’s got some talent in addition to those much-lauded looks.
·         The premise of the book is clever enough, and the setting gorgeous. I did enjoy the anecdotes and description 0f the town and the harbour and the graveyard. I love reading anything about graveyards – there is so much material to be got out of them, there are so many stories you can build, themes you can explore. So that was okay.
·         BUT, the way it was all executed – yuck. This whole book, to me, felt contrived. I could not find and did not feel any genuine emotion. The writing was self-congratulatory. Designed to make the reader feel like they were reading the greatest, most life-affirming story they’d ever come across, to find the secrets of life among all its pages. Instead, I just wanted to run away.
·         The dialogue was pretty bad. It didn’t feel natural to me at all. In fact, nothing about this book felt natural. The scene where (SPOILER) Charlie and Tess finally get their sexy on just made me feel embarrased to read such purplish prose and badly-articulated sentiment.
·         I didn’t like Tess. I didn’t care what happened to her. I hated the way she was introduced, as some ballsy, modern, everyone-was-in-love-with-her woman. It all felt just so put-on.
·         My biggest dislike was waaaaaaaaay too much telling. Every character gets their own two-page backstory which is supposed to make us see how well-rounded or hard-done-by or totally-cool-guy they are. Hardly any of it, in the overall story arc, is relevent. Hardly any of it is interesting. In fact, I just found it bad writing.

There are other things, but I won’t go on. Overall, I just really felt the author couldn’t get past his own agenda and let the story speak for itself. It was over-done, over-written and pappy. I can see where others might find it sweet, or life-affirming, or touching. That’s fine. But this time, not for me.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Tinkers, Sydney Bridge Upside Down & 2011 Book Design Awards

In addition to my own blog reviews, I also, through work, do some reviewing of adult fiction books. And I’ve read a couple of amazing ones this past month.
The first was David Ballantyne’s Sydney Bridge Upside Down, a seemingly forgotten ‘New Zealand classic’ that has recently been republished/printed by Text. Just gorgeous – atmospheric, gothic, nostalgic, disturbing, enthralling, well-written; all those things I read it would be. Will get around to publishing a link to my review when it’s published but if you can, in the meantime, get a hold of this book, then it will be well worth your time, especially because it is very nearly YA fiction.
The second was 2010 Pulitzer Prize winning Tinkers, by Paul Harding. The writing isn’t for everyone, but I found it to be a remarkable, ethereal read. So perceptive, such exquisite ways of capturing the transitory moments that leave their mark on our lives forever. There will sometimes be moments in movies when I just want to sob and sob because what I see is so stunning, so perfectly captured, so beautifully tragic that I just ache because I know life can never be like that. It was a similar experience with this book – there is such a perfect mix of tragedy and beauty and hope. I want to cry because Harding has captured, in such delicious prose, the moments where we almost think we can see beyond the here and now, beyond the physical body that holds us to this life. Absolutely loved it.
Other literary news that caught my eye this week is the shortlist for the 2011 Australian Book Design Awards. The full list, incuding the YA and Children’s categories, can be found by following the links here: