Sunday, February 27, 2011

Black Juice, by Margo Lanagan

First published in 2004, by Allen & Unwin

Recently I picked up my old copy of Margo Lanagan’s Black Juice, which I vaguely remember once having to study either for school or uni. Black Juice is a collection of ten short stories, each one strangely compelling and sprinkled with her usual mix of mystery and beautiful despair. My favourites are ‘House of the Many’, ‘Yowlinin’ and ‘Singing my Sister Down’, but really, each of these ten stories is as intense and disturbing as the other. They are saved from being uncomfortably confronting by such tiny, sad reflections on human nature and the world, which sink their teeth into all the vulnerable parts of your mind and body you’ve been foolish enough to expose.
What I love about these stories is that they all pack a punch and are in your face; they drop you right into the centre of the action and leave you to flounder your way out along with the characters. The worlds the characters inhabit are alien and troubled and feel like a sort of faraway mimicry of the world we know. They are utterly fascinating, because Lanagan only ever hints at the details of how they came to be, dropping a few well placed objects and hints and allowing us brief flashes into what the characters think about these worlds. Everything seems off-kilter, slightly amiss, an impression of reality. Her stories are scary with what we don’t know about them, but because they all have the slightest trace of the familiar, they are still, in all their strangeness, a little too close to home.
What is real and recognizable about these stories is the human emotion, and more specifically the human despair, that is woven through them. The insights Lanagan gives us about who her characters are as human provides the perfect amount of tenderness and compassion to balance the fierce unforgiving landscapes. This is what we understand, and what strikes so close to home. That she can do this over and over, for each story, yet in completely original ways, is what makes Black Juice such a brilliantly realised piece of work.
The imagination and originality put into these stories is remarkable. Lanagan’s writing is beautiful, as I’m sure is countlessly mentioned – her prose is poetic and expressive without being heavy-handed. I think the word is effortless - her writing doesn’t try too hard but still knows exactly what it is doing. But the real magic is in how Lanagan builds up time and place and landscape and then, delicately, shows us the cracks. Black Juice is quite extraordinary, and a wonderful reading experience.

"Irini performed the final part for all of us: stepped forward, knelt on the pavement, and, holding her skirt decent in the wind, bent and kissed Grandma's forehead. It seemed only right - she was the one who knew Grandma best, these last days. It's the role of daughters to move ever away from their mothers ... and it's likely, isn't it, that someone will step in, and appreciate everything the daughters can't, being so busy pushing themselves out into the world, saying, No, no, I'm not you."

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Peter Pan, by J.M. Barrie

I went and bought a copy of Peter Pan the other week, because despite it being just about my favourite book ever, I actually did not own a proper copy.  And by proper, I mean the actual text by Barrie, and not some re-imagined or rehashed or condensed version, because despite the pretty pictures, these versions just can’t come close to the real thing.

Why do I love this book? What is it about Peter and Hook and Tink and the Neverlands that makes me feel so awed and anguished all at once? Sure, I think Barrie has a way with words that completely captivates – a rollicking pace, sly wit, moments of reflection or sadness immediately offset with humour and action so the story, like Peter, immediately darts off in a new and exciting direction. Barrie’s narrative voice is excellent – knowing, interested in words, always considerate of the reader, engaging.
And sure, there is the appeal of running away and never growing up, and playing at adventure and derring-do without any thought for what you have to do with the rest of your life, and then settling for something sub-par anyway (as Barrie, quite poignantly, points out is the case with Mr Darling). There is the glorious nature of the vivacity and cockiness of youth, the blossoming of imagination, of believing things like flying and mermaids and skirmishes with pirates and living in a house in the roots of a tree is not only possible, but also such grand fun. All this is attractive, and captured so piquantly in Peter, this spirited little boy with his leaf and vine clothes and obnoxious crowing and baby teeth, so full of recklessness and excitement and devastating naivety. Barrie writes of Peter Pan that ‘no women has ever yet been able to resist’ and I think this is true of most children, and even adults as well.
But still, this is not why I adore Peter Pan. I love this book because in addition to the all-consuming adventure of it, it is also tragic and cruel and bittersweet. At its heart there are the nuances of loneliness and disappointment, driving Peter ever on in his quest for eternal youth, and many of the other characters as well.
Life is disappointing. We know this. For every shining moment when you just want to burst because everything has gone right, there are about ten disappointments that precede it. To make things attainable, to allow for reality, you often have to put aside other things, including, as Mr and Mrs Darling know, dreams and hopes and wishes. Often other dreams take their place, and often we make the most of and come to love what we do have instead. But it is that moment when you first make that revelation, when you realise that second-best is as good as it’s going to get, that is so sad and tragic and unfair. This subtle, horrible trickling of reality into our dreams and how it affects how we understand the world is really what I think Peter Pan is about: the first contact with the childish mind and the way it continues to resonate well into adulthood.
Peter Pan asks that niggling, aching question of ‘what if’. What if we never grew up? Growing up is exciting, but once you get there you really only want to go back. Wendy does. The Lost Boys, once they become lawyers and office-workers, they do to. Hook is a particularly fascinating case study – Barrie hints that he endured a miserable childhood and realities came rushing in much sooner than most. Hook has grown up, but he is still trapped in the hurts and woes of his childhood, and by pitting himself against Peter he is pitting himself against all the unfairness of his lost youth. At heart Hook is still a boy, dealing out retribution to all those who made him so miserable. Take that – he is a pirate, roaming the seas, living out adventures and mastering epic deeds. But, unlike Peter, he can distinguish between reality and make-believe, and he knows it is all pretence. Peter can brush off consequence and disappointment, Hook cannot. His body is aging but his mind is getting left behind, and he will fail where Peter will always emerge triumphant. All Hook can do, in the end, is show that he battled valiantly, and went to his death (by crocodile!) with good form. And I think, perhaps, that this is where he wins us over, and why he has become such an illustrious villain. He, too, is a victim of disappointment.
Barrie writes joyously of his characters, but he can also be quite perceptively cruel. He variously condemns Mr Darling for being pretentious and pandering, Mrs Darling for being a slave to her children and having ‘no proper spirit’, Wendy for being frivolous, Michael and John for being silly and cold-hearted. His observations of the Lost Boys make fun of them as much as they celebrate all the boys’ quirks. Not even Peter escapes Barrie’s occasional snarky asides. As a technical device this is quite successful, because it invites confidence in Barrie as the authorial voice, establishing intimacy and making us feel like we have one up on the characters, or know something about them that they do not. But it also gives us realistic, well-rounded characters, that not only make for great social commentary but also embellishes them with little niches or faults that cut into us and inevitably leave their mark.
And then, perhaps what I love most about Peter Pan, and what I think was done just so perfectly with the 2003 movie, is the relationship between him and Wendy. They are, I think, made for each other. What is so tragic is that they never get the chance to develop this beyond those intoxicating first stages. Wendy is the only one that would perhaps make ‘growing up’ worthwhile, but, like the best romances, the cost is too high. And really, I think that’s how it should be. They will always be kids playing at pretending to be adults, their relationship will always have the loveliness of possibility, always be caught in that  exquisite netherworld of dreams and make-believe. I think this is beautiful - but I am a sucker for a tragic ending. These are the ones that stay with me long after the last page.
Peter needs to be on his own. He cycles through his subjects, his companions (the gorgeous Tink), he defeats his arch-nemesis’ and promptly forgets about them. Reality does not leave its mark. He doesn’t, really, know who he is, only in relation to who he must fight and what adventure he must have, and when that’s over he begins again, and all he remembers is that he was brilliant and everyone adored him, but with no one lasting or meaningful to celebrate with him, he must go and ecstatically prove it all over again. Peter Pan is the epitome of escapism. He soars off the page and we can never quite catch him, but our lives are a little bit better for knowing he was there.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Witch in the Family, by Zilpha K. Snyder

First published in 1973 by Lutterworth Press

Also known as The Headless Cupid, A Witch in the Family is a short, breezy little book that depicts what happens when the Stanley children meet their new step-sister, Amanda. From the moment she arrives at Westerley House, with a crow and a horny toad, 'witchy' garb and her small upside-down smile, things begin to happen. Family things. Paranormal things. Growing-up things. For while Amanda announces she is studying the supernatural, the real story here is how the dynamics change when two families become one family, and everyone has some adjusting to do.

This book was recommended to me as a Newberry Honour book, and I really did enjoy it. The tone of the story-telling reminded me so much of the books I devoured as a kid - those sort of hidden away ones at the library which are always older than the rest and what I tended to resort to when I had read everything else or the book I wanted wasn't there. Of course, these are the ones which then kept me in the lounge room chair all weekend, and that is just what this book reminded me of - deceptively simple, funny, engaging writing for children, that is a joy to read and decipher.

I think this book won me over because I feel it captured how kids talk and relate to each other, and the little unit that is the Stanley children feels like a real set of siblings that squabble and play in the backyard together and know all the little things about each other that only siblings can know. When Amanda is introduced into this set, we see them being distrustful and awed and fascinated and accepting and negligent all at once, and watching them suss each other out is really quite delightful.

I like the way Snyder tells this story, there is just something very quaint and winning about the way she introduces ideas and scenes through the main character, David. Amanda has the potential to be quite unlikeable, and certainly her attitude in general doesn't make for the most charming of characters, but I think the way she is written is spot on. As an older reader looking back, I find all her little looks and snide remarks and the way she conducts herself so familiar, and can understand why she does it. And, of course, she does come right in the end.

As for the ending, I felt a little let down by it, maybe a bit cheated, but then Blair's last revelation made it alright again. A lovely little book that will both amuse and enchant, snap it up if ever you should be so lucky to find it.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Brian Jacques and Redwall

I was sad to hear earlier this week about the passing of children’s author Brian Jacques, at the age of 71. He was most famous for his Redwall fantasy series, which largely involved a bunch of anthropomorphic animals living in a huge old Abbey, and the many adventures which took them all over Mossflower wood, to the faraway coast of Salamandastron, and into the heart of battle with the many ‘baddies’ of the woods. With the first being published in 1986, Jacques wrote 21 of these books, which were in turn made into a TV series (never shown in Australia – boo!), an opera and graphic novels, and sold millions and millions of copies all over the world.
I first discovered the Redwall series in my first year of high school, courtesy of the school library. I read them well into my High School years, and probably could have read them all the way through Primary School as well, if I’d known they existed back then. They were full of high adventure and wacky characters, and all the sights and sounds of the Abbey and the surrounding woods were like familiar friends every time you opened up a new book. I absolutely adored these books, and as a young teen they brought the excitement of fantasy story-telling back to me.
That being said, I did try to read a couple a few years ago, both some old favourites and the latest in the series. Since I first started reading them, I have, of course, read very widely, and the Redwall books weren’t as super-amazing as I remembered. Maybe a bit of plot and character rehashing, not as much imagination, a tendency to be overly sentimental etc. But still, I think they were perfect for my age when I first started reading them, and they are the kind of books I would recommend to a reluctant reader, to get them excited about picking up a book. They were hilarious and sad and exciting and comforting, and for a few years I devoured every one. I’ll remember them, and Jacques, very fondly, for a long time.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Ebooks and traditional print

Really great post over at The Frenemy about how dirty old ebooks can never compare to traditional print! I myself can see the merit in them but will never be giving up my beloved paperbacks in favour of an electronic version. I agree with this post about how you develop a relationship with the actual, physical book, it is almost something sensory. One of my favourite feelings is to walk into a library and feel that warmth, that sense of shared and ancient knowledge, the comfort of those aisles stretching away before you, the excitement over what you are going to pick up and find. There is something personal about physically opening the cover and engaging with what's inside. And I do not think this is possible with an ebook.

The Frenemy is a great blog, by the way. So very funny and astute and a breezy writing style that just sweeps you along with all its randomness. Worth a look.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Children's Book Festival at the State Library

For all those who love children’s books and live near Melbourne,  keep Sunday 3rd April free. The Wheeler Centre, in conjunction with the Children’s Book Council of Australia, the State Library, Books Illustrated and others,  are holding a Children’s book festival on the State Library lawns.
Authors and illustrators will abound, there will be readings, activities and the State Library of Victoria’s exhibition ‘Look! The Art of Australian picture books today.’ Link is here: Wheeler Centre
Looks pretty cool, especially the exhibition. There are also some great authors and illustrators attending, including some of my favs: Bob Graham, Elise Hurst, Terry Denton and Sally Rippin.
Which reminds me, I need to do a post soon about some of my favourite picture books and picture book authors. My absolute favourites are so gorgeous they deserve to be gushed over...

Friday, February 4, 2011

Award News - Costa and Indie Prizes

Some book award news from the past week or so:
The Costa Book Award prizes were  recently announced, and the children’s shortlist was as follows:
-         Flyaway, by Lucy Christopher
-         Annexed, by Sharon Dogar
-         Bartimaeus: Ring of Soloman, by Jonathan Stroud
-         Out of Shadows, by Jason Wallace
Jason Wallace won, with judges reporting: “...[this] extraordinary debut novel was a unanimous winner. This compelling portrayal of a nation in crisis gripped us from start to finish and has stayed with us since."
The Costa Book Awards is one of the most prestigious and popular literary prizes in the UK and recognises some of the most enjoyable books of the year by writers based in the UK and Ireland.

The 2011 Indie Book Award shortlists were also announced, with the winners to be revealed in mid-March. On the children’s shortlist are:
-         Museum of Thieves: The Keepers Book, by Lian Tanner
-         Mirror, by Jeannie Baker
-         The Very Bad Book, by Andy Griffiths
-         The Legend of the Golden Snail, by Graeme Base.
I absolutely adore Jeannie Baker and Graeme Base (I couldn’t get enough of Graeme’s The Sign of the Seahorse and The Eleventh Hour as a kid – so clever and brilliant), so I hope either wins. The Indie Awards are chosen by Independent booksellers across Australia, who nominate their favourite books of 2010.

In other news, I have been trying to read Rosie Black, by Lara Morgan, for the past couple of months. I just cannot get into it, so have decided to move on. I think I found it perhaps a bit by-the-numbers, not particularly inspired? It just didn’t grab me. But I hate not finishing books so might try to pick it up again later on.