Monday, February 27, 2012

APA Book Design Awards 2012

The Australian Publisher's Association have announced their shortlist for the 2012 Book Design Awards.

Click this link : APA Book Design Awards  to see a list of all nominees.

I am a bit 'meh' about some of the nominees, (or really I guess I had my own favourites) but am pleased to see The Wilful Eye (Tales from the Tower Volume 1) in the 'Young Adult' category. It really was gorgeous in and out.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Fury by Elizabeth Miles

First published in 2012 by Simon & Schuster

The trick with paranormal YA is to kind of know what to expect – certainly not true of all titles, but when I pick up something like Fury I’m pretty certain of what I’m going to get and so just have fun with it. That’s why I like reading paranormal YA – it is easy, escapist and fun. It’s what I read when it feels like I have a thousand deadlines and other things to do and I want to spend an enjoyable fifteen minutes break with a cup of tea.

So no, Fury won’t rock the literary world. The characters won’t go down as classic heroes. But it was quick and easy, immersive and written well enough to keep my attention on the story.

You may have heard elsewhere that the characters don’t exactly set the world alight. This is true. I found most of them shallow and annoying. And a little stupid. No, I don’t understand why the Furies chose to target these kids (their crimes aren’t right by any means, but there are certainly worse). But then you have to remember this is a book for teens – glossy and sexy and embedded in high school dramas. The ‘sins’ these teens do have to be relevant to their intended audience. Anyway, no I didn’t care for the characters. A lot of them are just stock-standard. And the Furies are beautiful and mysterious and alluring, but we never really get much about them. But I kind of liked this.

It is quite creepy when they randomly show up, or just flit around at the edges of the character’s eyes. Fury is a little more dangerous and scary than your usual paranormal YA. Miles manages to wring a bit of atmosphere out of the dark nights and snowy, barren town. There is a bit more ‘adult’ content rather than just moony stares and heartfelt declarations of love. Sometimes I found the language, stylistically, a little too dramatic; and there is, especially at the start, a bit of cringey telling and not showing. When this happens it feels awkward and a little juvenile. But apart from this, the writing has a quick, fast pace and is easy to get stuck into.

Fury at least tries something different. It doesn’t have any life-affirming messages but it is a little bit sexy, a little bit trashy, and a little bit fun.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The 13 Clocks, by James Thurber

First published in 1950

When I first read James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks, my mind was blown. I was in my first year of Uni and the library had such an amazing collection of children’s books, especially old classics. Many of the books I read in this period have become some of my favourites, and are what really, really, made me have so much love for this genre.

One of these books was The 13 Clocks.

I had never come across anything like it before. I remember marvelling at the cleverness of it, and being delighted and then moved by the characters (especially that most wicked of Dukes), and just being so completely taken in by the ease with which Thurber used language in such creative and challenging ways.

The 13 Clocks is a fractured fairytale. It begins with Once Upon a Time and ends with Happily Ever After but everything that comes in between is about as original as you can get.  Thurber subverts the genre in much the same way as Shrek and The Princess Bride do, but overall I find the irony to have a bit more of a bite.

The Prince, with the help of the Golux, must bring back the evil Duke one thousand jewels within nine and ninety hours or he will be ‘slit from his guggle to his zatch’, fed to the Todal, and lose Princess Saralinda to the wicked ways of the Duke. Sounds straightforward, and indeed, the tale is a good one. But the fun, and the brilliance of the story, can really be found in the wonderfully weird and wacky way Thurber tells it.

I think a love and understanding of fairytales, language and writing helped me develop the huge amount of admiration I have for this book. If a plot device can be exploited, it will be; if a sly aside or knowing wink can be dropped, it will be; if stylistic language choices can be made fun of, or drawn attention to, they will be (A morning glory that had never opened, opened in the courtyard. A cock that never crowed, began to crow. The light of morning stained the windows, and in the walls the cold Duke moaned, “I hear the sound of time;” and if character names can be outrageously self-referential, they will be.

This is why I love The 13 Clocks – because it is, I think, above all about a love of language. Amongst all the sly cleverness there are some lovely thoughts, passages, and imagery – like clocks being murdered and spilling their cogs and springs onto the stairs. The story in itself is also a rollicking adventure, with a few twists and reveals and high stakes. But it is also so gloriously silly, with things happening just because they can. One of my favourites is:

“A purple ball with gold stars on it came slowly bouncing down the iron stairs and winked and twinkled, like a naked child saluting priests. “What insolence is this?” the Duke demanded. “What is that thing?”
“A ball,” said Hark.
“I know that!” screamed the Duke. “But why? What does its ghastly presence signify?”

All sorts of irrelevant objects and happenstances are placed into the story in such an affectionate self-referential way. The story has fun with itself. The language has such fun with itself – for example the story will switch in and out of rhyme, and even when it doesn’t rhyme, there is an obvious metre used, a rhythm to what words are used and when. And all of it just completely sweeps you up and takes you away.

And yet the characters, for all their silliness, and the relative shortness of the book, feel familiar almost straight away. I found myself becoming invested in them and getting sucked into their crazy existence. I think where The 13 Clocks really wowed me was that Thurber, even among all the silliness, can tweak emotions so very subtly. A lot is revealed about the characters through just one line, or thought.

The Duke is particularly well done. He is so very mean and cruel – “We all have flaws ... Mine is being wicked” – his dark humours are hilariously appalling, and he is gloriously tempestuous. But he is also sad. And lonely. Thurber shows this in his obsession with slaying time, his thoughtless repetition of commands, the way he slashes “his sword at silence and at nothing.” Princess Saralinda and the Prince give the books its fun, the Duke’s henchmen give it comic relief, and the Golux gives it all its mischief and silliness. But I have always found, perhaps strangely, the evil Duke to give the book its heart.

I couldn’t love The 13 Clocks more if I tried. It is hard to find these days, but there is a newish wonderful hardback, illustrated edition with an introduction by Neil Gaiman, published by the New York Review Children’s Collection. If you can find it, this book will be well worth your time.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

My Top 20 Classic Children's Books

In the last couple of months of 2011 I had grand ambitions to read ten children’s classics by the end of the year. Well surprise, it didn’t happen. Kind of picked the busiest months. And also in those few months I was also working on something a little closer to home – more on that in the next few posts.

Nevertheless, it’s still something I want to do, and so have changed it slightly – now it’s going to be my Top 20 classic children's books, which I will read (well, re-read really) and blog about. I’m excited about this because these books will be my absolute favourite children’s books – the ones that moved me so indescribably, that inspired me, the ones that I consider the greatest books in children’s literature. These are the ones that I buy in gorgeous hard copy editions and pick them up and coo at them (maybe not really ... perhaps just a little) and I can’t wait to share my thoughts on them.

For the record, the three books I started to review last year were The Graveyard Book, Journey to the River Sea and The Neverending Story.

Some of my favourite children’s books I have already reviewed on Book Grotto, so I will begin the countdown with them. (The Countdown will not be in order of favourites, it will really just be as I read and post about the books). And of course I would love to hear everyone else's thoughts on their favourite children's books as well.

So without further ado:

Number 20:  Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie

Number 19:  The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

Number 18:  Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

Number 17:  The Toymaker by Jeremy de Quidt

And coming in the next few days:

Number 16: The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Wicked Wood (Tales from the Tower) Volume 2, Edited by Nan McNab & Isobelle Carmody

First published in 2011 by Allen & Unwin

I was very impressed with Volume 1 of Tales from the Tower (The Forbidden Eye), and so have been looking forward to Volume 2: The Wicked Wood ever since. The fairytales in Volume 2 are not as well known, and some are just folk-tales rather than classic fairytale re-imaginings. There is still the same creativity, mix of dark beauty/terror and great writing from Australian authors – but I didn’t find it as ‘bewitching’ an experience as Volume 1. I don’t know if the fantastic concept had just worn off a little, or if the stories just weren’t as good. Maybe a bit of both.

The six rewritten fairytales in this book are The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids; Cinderella; The Little Mermaid; and the remaining three from slightly more obscure folk tales, including one based on a story from one of favourite mythologies, the Irish Tir-na-nog. To be honest, across the two collections I liked the stories more when they were based on the well-known fairytales, just because these tales are so familiar that it’s so interesting to see how these authors interpret and update them.

I was so delighted to see Victor Kelleher in this collection, rewriting an Irish folktale, Birthing. Practically every library trip I took as a teen, I would hunt down any of his books, and he has written one of my all time fav YA novels, Parkland. When I was thirteen years old, I had never read anything like the worlds he created, and the emotion in these stories was so often spot on. Birthing was an engaging story, although not one of my favourites in the collection, and I only knew the original story because I have quite a fondness for British and Irish folklore, and this is kind of the quintessential faerie story. Kelleher sets up the scene and the concept with lots of intrigue and peril, and the final showdown is very satisfying, if a little short. But I just love seeing Kelleher in this collection, and if you have a chance to unearth any of his older YA books I think it will definitely be worth your while.

Catherine Bateson’s Learning the Tango (The Little Mermaid) and Maureen McCarthy’s The Ugly Sisters (Cinderella) are the stories that come closest to their classic fairytale counterparts. I loved Learning the Tango, and think it just fantastic and also awesome of the publishers that Bateson wrote her version in free verse. It takes a bit to get into the style, but once there, it is very accessible and some beautiful insights can be found from the prince, the Little Mermaid, and her sisters. It has all the lovely sadness of the original but with a nice, sparky ending. Some of the lines I underlined just because they were so gorgeous. Loved it. The Ugly Sisters was great to hear from the perspective of the two sisters, and the mother, but I found them as characters just really horrible and couldn’t warm to the story. Even Cinders started to bug me at the end, although McCarthy did have a few great moments where she subtly let the father figure show a bit of backbone. And there was some great menacing action by the black birds in the backyard. But ultimately I found the birds the most enjoyable characters, and their watchful presence over the household the most exciting thing that happened.

I couldn’t really warm to Nan McNab’s Glutted, also based on a slightly obscure folktale. It made me feel rather queasy, and the ‘love interest’ character I found repulsive – I guess that’s a sign of writing well done, though, if the story can invoke such strong emotions. And I did like the ‘mother’ character. The style of it reminded me a bit of Margo Lanagan’s ‘The Goosle’ – it has that same abject feel to it.

Kate Thompson’s Glamour did not quite fit comfortably into the book as a whole. It was well-written, and had a lovely reflective quality, but it was also distinctly adult in flavour and felt like a bit of an outsider. Actually on the whole the stories in Volume 2 have a much more adult feel than in Volume 1. Which is fine but I feel like the audiences for the two different volumes are slightly different.

Cate Kennedy’s Seventy-two Derwents (Wolf and the Seven Little Kids) was just lovely. This is the story that gets it most right emotion-wise, and is a great example of how such a short and simple fairytale can be re-imagined and picked apart and built upon to create a whole new emotive meaning. The central character is gorgeous – I couldn’t help but wish for anything but a happy ending for her, and the relationship she has with her sister is a great example of how a great writer can show complexity and love in such a small amount of words. I found it really clever how Kennedy transferred the story across into the contemporary world. Probably my favourite story in Volume 2.

Once again, was interesting to see how the authors had interpreted the original stories in the ‘Afterwords’. And, unlike the first Volume, I did not have a problem with overly sentimental happy endings – the endings for these stories were more of the bittersweet kind – another favourite of mine.

On the whole I think publishing the Tales from the Tower concept was a brilliant idea, and it was really fantastic to have that kind of calibre of Australian writers in one collection. Some of the stories were hit and miss, and I do wish that all the stories had been based on classic fairytales, as I think it would give the collection a greater sense of unity. But still wonderful. And absolutely gorgeously designed too.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Newbery, Caldecott & the Today show

An article above from USA website, Publishers Weekly. Found the whole thing rather sad - both authors (especially winners of the Newbery & Caldecott) and children's literature needs every bit of media exposure it can get. People need to be reminded that reading and writing is still as important today as ever and these authors are at the top of their game in sharing their imaginations with the world. Disappointing.