Monday, September 5, 2016

Rich and Rare edited by Paul Collins

What a robust and eclectic aggregation of story is Rich and Rare. When over forty-five of Australia’s finest writers pool their collective imagination to produce an anthology of short stories for middle school children, the result, overall, is a heartily gratifying read. There is something for everyone in this lot. As the back cover blurb proclaims, these are ‘stories to sink your teeth into … a world of natural (and unnatural) gifts on every page – from humour to horror, thriller to fantasy – encompassing the past, the present and the future’. The collection also includes adventure, crime, science fiction, romance, ghost stories and poetry – which pretty much caters for all tastes. (The graphic by Leigh Hobbs entitled ‘A Writer’s Morning’ would plant a smile on any writer’s face, the target audience aside.)

After an enticing foreword by Sophie Masson, that, let’s face it, the kids will probably skip, the reader is treated to a sumptuous array of content and writing styles. From Gary Crew’s Dickensian ‘Dr Lovechild Regrets’ about the haunting of a sadistic and sour old teacher with a penchant for persecution to Susanne Gervay’s ‘Grandma in the Sky’ in which a young girl seeks solace in talking to her teddies and dollies as she comes to terms with the loss of her grandmother, the reach of theme is broad. Readers are treated to Michael Gerard Bauer’s trademark humour in ‘The Knitting Needle Ninja’ and to Catherine Bateson’s beautifully crafted and cleverly understated ‘The Stray Dogs CafĂ©’ in which they are credited with an ability to make their own story connections. Sophie Laguna’s mini essay on the incorporeal nature of hope in ‘Hope Cannot be Photographed’, Lucy Sussex’s horror story, ‘Angelito’, about a child rising from his grave during Mexico’s Day of the Dead festival and Gabrielle Wang’s allegorical ‘The Two-Faced Boy’ in which a boy with everything learns a life lesson when a jinn steals his face are more examples of the rich diversity and scope of the anthology. Phillip Gwynne’s ‘Tidy Town’ in which the main character dares to go against the grain in a world that would have him conform, Kerry Greenwood’s who-dun-it, ‘The Glass Egg’ and Paul Collins’ fantasy story, ‘The Black Sorrows’, where Jelindel must rescue an angel from the depths of the sewers … Poems by Sherryl Clark, Meredith Costain and Michael Wagner … The list goes on.

This is a significant collection of stories, poems and artwork that would be a welcome addition to any bookshelf, be it in a school or public library, a child’s bedroom or the family living room. Rich and Rare truly does offer something for everyone.

A version of this review appears in Magpies

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Flight - Nadia Wheatley & Armin Greder

The first thing that strikes you about this stunning picture book is its Cimmerian appearance. The dark starkness of the cover, end papers, title page and a quick flick through the rest of the book indicates the likely tone of what is to unfold within its pages. It’s not surprising, then, on the first page opening to see a young couple with their babe in arms cowering in the shadows of night and to read, ‘Tonight is the night./The family has to flee./They’ve been tipped off that the authorities are after their blood.’ We follow this middle eastern family as they make their way across hostile landscapes, battling the elements amid the ravages of war. Throughout the text, the reader, along with the characters, is subjected to the relentless tension of whether one of the significant obstacles and dangers along the way will eventually cause the family’s demise. All the while, at each crisis point the father entreats, ‘Inshallah’ – ‘God be willing’, the mother soothes the baby, ‘Lulla lulla … lulla bye bye …’

This is a powerful story about the plight of the refugee. The visual and verbal texts work to produce a rich alchemy of multi-layered significance of meaning. The work invokes the power of its obvious intertextual biblical references to add weight and depth, with the little family following a star for guidance in the desert and, until it bolts, the use of a donkey for transport. The employment of omniscient point of view, where we learn each of the characters’ thoughts conveyed to us by an external narrator creates a distance which feeds into the starkness and mood of the text. Armin Greder has created a lush landscape of sombreness and despondency. His evocative illustrations are bold, haunting, and disquieting. His broad brushstrokes in every shade of black, the strong movement of line and the spare unframed double-spreads work together to produce an expansiveness that is in clever juxtaposition to the unfreedom of the refugee protagonists. A thought-provoking picture book for primary school children with appeal to teenagers and adults, this work of art is a timely addition to the global world of literature; it does not presume to answer the hard questions but neither does it deny a filigree of hope, however tenuous in today’s climate that hope may seem.

(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 30, Issue 3,  2015)

Sunday, July 5, 2015

I am Henry Finch - Alexis Deacon & Viviane Schwarz

It’s always a delight when a book with a difference comes across your desk. I am Henry Finch sits outside the ordinary; it has loads going for it – it’s a book that makes you think. The finches, as you might expect, are all the same: they say the same things, maintain the same routine day in, day out. The only interruption to their happily mundane life is the occasional visit of the Beast. Once the Beast has moved on, however, they carry on as always. Until one day, something amazing happens to Henry Finch: he has a thought. And then another. Henry discovers he can think for himself. He could be great, he thinks. But when Henry applies his new thinking skills to warding off the Beast, it looks as if Henry has made a fatal mistake …

Alexis Deacon and Viviane Schwarz have teamed up again to produce a quirky, clever, humorous, and thoroughly enjoyable picture book for the school-aged child. Although the book with its cover a simple illustration of Henry – a thumb print with a few squiggly lines – looks as if it’s been targeted at the pre-schooler, it hasn’t. Not to say a younger child won’t garner enjoyment from within its pages, mind you. But this is a book that leaves plenty of room for the more discerning reader to make connections and draw conclusions. It is lush with symbolism and positions the reader to assimilate meaning on numerous levels. The older child will be more likely to appreciate the innuendo and be astute to the intersection between visual and verbal text. For instance, finches are all represented by a finger or thumb print. Each one unique. This works superbly to highlight the individual finches’ initial inability to think for themselves and builds a bigger pay-off at the end of the story when they discover they can. Even the endpapers are magnified thumb prints. The change of background colour from white to black during Henry’s dangerous encounter with the Beast is also symbolic: it could represent the physical darkness, but also the darkness associated with negative thinking and the presence of something that could be construed as evil. The subjectivity of the Beast, of course, would provide an interesting topic for discussion between child and adult/parent/teacher.

This delightful book with its child-like illustrations and out-of-the-box story arc is an entertaining, intelligent and thought-provoking read.

Walker Books, 2015

(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 30, Issue 2, July 2015)

All the Bright Places - Jennifer Niven

When a book opens with, ‘Is today a good day to die?’ it certainly grabs your attention. When that same question is one of the driving forces that sustains the story arc for much of the book, it’s satisfying to know the opening line was more than a sneaky lure to start you reading. Theodore Finch and Violet Markey meet on the ledge of their high school’s bell tower, six storeys above the ground. Here begins a tentative association soon to flourish into much more when the two begin working together on a school project that has them ‘wandering’ the state of Indiana, writing up their experiences and impressions. Finch is a troubled youth, nicknamed Theodore Freak by the general school population. With no support from his dysfunctional family and limited guidance from the school counsellor, he is left to his own devices to try to sort himself out. The ominous threat of expulsion continuously hangs over him. Violet’s parents, on the other hand, can’t do enough for her, but the death of her sister in a car crash that Violet survived has had a stultifying effect on the whole family. Amongst the many aspects of her life that now seem lost to Violet is her passion for writing; she is paralysed with sorrow – and guilt about still being alive. As the two form a relationship, Finch encourages Violet out of her bubble of grief – she steps inside a car, she begins to make plans for a blog. Violet in turn tries to encourage and support Finch …

Written in the first person alternately from Finch’s and Violet’s points of view, this is a book that is not afraid to call the shots when it comes to the complexity of human frailty and the messiness of everyday life. Sometimes it isn’t only bad decisions and their inevitable consequences that cause a life to spiral out of control; fate deals an unfair blow more than once in a while. All the Bright Places shines a light on the power of love to transcend hopelessness while refusing to shy away from the gritty reality of the power of despair. A gutsy book about teen suicide that will leave you both reeling and buoyed by the promise of beginning again.

Penguin, 2015

(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 30, Issue 2, July 2015)

1854 Do You Dare? Eureka Boys - P. Matthews

It’s 1854 on the Ballarat goldfields where life is tough. Young Henry’s daily routine rarely changes. Mostly it’s working the gold-washing cradle on his father’s mining claim on the Gravel Pits Lead. It’s a boring and back-breaking grind, pouring water over the shovelfuls of sandy dirt, rocking it up and down before carefully scrutinising every square inch. Henry’s father is ever-hopeful that each new day will be the one they strike gold. Even Henry’s seven-year-old sister, Eliza, is put to work, panning for gold in a shallow tin dish. When their new-born baby brother succumbs to one of the illnesses rampant on the goldfields, then a week later, their mother, Henry can’t imagine how things could get worse. Bullying and corruption is rife amongst the trappers, the police troopers who collect the exorbitant thirty shillings a month for the miners’ licences, and who make life for the miners even harder than it already is. There seems to be little the miners can do about it without even the right to vote. Henry’s father, bound up in grief and the job of keeping his small family alive, pays him scant attention, and when he does, targets Henry with his anger. So it is not surprising that Henry finds himself enjoying the warm embrace of the family of his new Irish friend, Frank. When this extends to becoming involved with ‘Happy Jack’ and the rebel diggers responsible for burning down the Eureka Hotel, Henry is torn. Obey his father, return to the diggings and never see Frank again, or join the uprising against the traps and the rebellion?

Part of the Do You Dare series, Eureka Boys is an excellent inclusion on the history of the Eureka Stockade and Ballarat gold rush. Penny Matthews has crafted an engaging, well-researched, page-turning story the target audience will love. This period of Australian history comes alive as Henry’s story unfolds and invites the reader onto the diggings and into the harshness of life in 1854 Ballarat. Matthews does not skimp on authentic detail but the brutality of the times is mitigated by humour and the warmth of the main protagonists, Henry, Frank and Happy Jack. The prose is lively and captivating positioning the reader for an evocative response to the powerful story arc. Insightful sections at the back of the book offer a resource to the reader about Eureka, the history of the times, other events that occurred in 1854 and glossary of terms. A thoroughly enjoyable and informative read.

Puffin, 2015

(A version of this review - incorrectly attributed to Patricia Halsall -  appears in Magpies Vol 30, Issue 2, May 2015)

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

One Rule for Jack - Sally Morgan, Eziekiel Kwaymullina and Craig Smith

Let’s face it – no one wants to hang around doing jobs if they can be out playing with their friends. Jack certainly doesn’t – especially when he’s planned to spend the whole day enjoying some new games with his mate, Thommo. So when Jack stumbles upon a way to trick his parents into thinking he’s done the chores without actually doing them it’s a win-win situation. Or is it? When Jack puts his one rule – ‘When your parents ask you to do a job – do it badly’ – into place, are Jack’s parents on to him or not? When Jack ends up sweeping the leaves off the patio with a dustpan and brush instead of the broom – which has mysteriously snapped in half – and when he ends up with toilet water all over him after suctioning the toilet because something that looks suspiciously like bits of mop sponge are blocking it, you have to wonder.

This is another delightful book from Sally Morgan and Eziekiel Kway Mullina, who have captured the trying-to-get-out-of-a-job scenario perfectly for the young reader. The writing is lively and accessible, the characters likeable and engaging and the whole story is infused with vitality and humour. The authors cleverly position the reader to see what’s coming, when Jack doesn’t, providing plenty of room for an empowering engagement with the text. Craig Smith’s inimitable illustrations are perfect for capturing the spirit of the story; they bring the characters to life superbly.

An entertaining read.
Omnibus Books, 2014
(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 29, Issue 3, July 2014)


Between the Lines - Jodi Picoult and Samantha Van Leer

If you’re looking for a quirky fairy tale with appeal to the younger end of the market, this could be the book for you. Picoult fans will be pleased to hear that she and teenage daughter Samantha Van Leer have teamed up to co-write a tale with a metafictive twist. Fifteen-year-old Delilah has become obsessed with a children’s fairy tale book she discovered in the school library. She finds herself tugged back to the book time and again for subsequent readings – in fact, such is her preoccupation, she’d rather live inside the story of the book than in her real life. Delilah must hide her obsession by sequestering herself away in order to keep face with the one friend she has, and not to further alienate herself from her peers. Delilah is unhappy, a loner and struggling to make sense of her life. So it is not entirely surprising to find she has fallen in love with sixteen-year-old Oliver, protagonist of the fairy tale. Prince Oliver, in the meantime, tired of re-living the fake scripted life imposed on him by the author of the fairy tale whenever a reader opens the book, wants out. Especially now that they have discovered a way to speak to each other, and he has fallen in love with Delilah.

Essentially the reader is taken on a journey of countless attempts to extract Oliver out of the fairy tale and into Delilah’s world, where they can be together. I began to find this tiresome as it became apparent that this was to be the focus of the story arc. The novel is structured with chapters presented in turn from Oliver’s and Delilah’s perspectives, interspersed with the fairy tale itself. The fairy tale characters felt more fleshed out than the real world characters in this intrepid co-authored novel and I found it difficult to like or have empathy for Delilah, who seemed remote and two-dimensional at times. Some of her angsty responses to her mother, her peers and Oliver felt contrived and not readily believable. I would have liked to have seen more of the book devoted to developing Delilah’s backstory in order to set the reader up to care about her and to understand her motivation.

Given these limitations, the book still delivers an enjoyable read and teens will no doubt engage with the well-drawn array of fairy tale characters – often imbued with humour – and the leitmotifs of the book – loneliness, identity, loss, authenticity and strategies to cope with life, to name a few. The reader is able to read this book on several levels and one of the strengths of the writing is in the clever use of symbolism to underscore the broad themes. Does Delilah actually communicate with Oliver in the fairy tale or is the reality of her life so unbearable that it is easier to obfuscate it in the fantasy offered up by the world of the book?

An audacious teen love-story for those who love fairy tales.

Allen & Unwin, 2014