November 14

Before you see the movie…

Now out in cinemas, the Light Between Oceans, is a powerful story – with lots of questions about how the decisions we make can drastically impact the lives of others.

Previously reviewed here, the story remains thought-provoking, heart-breaking and well-worthy of being made into a movie – but READ IT FIRST – it’s an incredibly moving debut novel, from an Australian author!

I wonder how well the movie will reflect the book?

N.B. not really YA, but good for older readers.

July 17

Deceiving book covers – Zebra Forest

zebra_forest_cover-330When Zebra Forest was first shown to me, I was attracted by the cover – but it gave little away about the story beneath. That said, this debut novel by Adina Gewirtz is an intriguing and thoughtful novel about family relationships, and the shaping of our memories.

Annie B. and her younger brother Rew live with their grandmother. They know little about their past – not even their mother’s name, and assume their father is dead. Their unusual family setup is accepted by their local comunity – even school fails to worry should they not turn up regularly, as Annie takes on tasks for her brooding grandmother.

As summer vacation approaches, eleven year old Annie is suddenly confronted at home by a prison escapee, and all her understandings about her family history are shaken, as she and Rew and Gran are taken hostage.

Who is this escapee? How will they, as hostages, deal with their situation? And what will it mean for their family – this threat, this intrusion on their day-to-day existence? Will anyone notice their absence?

Perhaps one of the tragic points hidden in Gewirtz book is the fact that there is little intrusion or investigation when Annie and Rew don’t appear at school; and there is little community concern for Gran – an elderly person repsonsible for the care of 2 young children. Is this a reflection of society today? Or would there be more concern for the family held hostage by a convicted murderer in reality?

Is this just poetic licence explaining away family isolation? What do you think? Could the events of Zebra Forest happen in real life? If so, what should we do about it?

Here’s a book trailer introduction to Zebra Forest:

February 8

Write about what you know…

dietIn her first novel for young adults, Tamar Chnorhokian does exactly that; the Diet Starts Monday is set in Western Sydney and involves the mix of cultures you might expect to find there.

Zara (or Zaruhi, as her Armenian family wants to call her) is a typical western Sydney teenager, except for the fact that she is a size 22 girl with a crush on the hottest guy at school. Because of this, she decides yet again, to go on a diet – but with renewed determination this time, as the Year 12 Farewell looms at the end of the year.

Privy to Zara’s thoughts and anxieties, we can identify with her body image angst, and empathise with the things that trigger her poor eating habits. There are also little hints about what her friends think of her dieting efforts, and her fixation on Pablo Fernandez (after all he already has skinny girlfriend, and, what about his gross habits?).

There are times when you want to shake Zara back to her senses, and make her realise that as she loses weight, she is also losing the respect of her long term friends, Carmelina, Ramsi and Max because of how she is now behaving. I know I was also waiting for her new ‘friends’, Pamela and Holly, to turn around and trip her up on her self-discovery journey. And how was she now treating her own family?

The voices and characters in TDSOM are quite authentic, and the places they go are also real. As a member of Sweatshop, Western Sydney Literacy Movement, this is precisely what Tamar aims to do – to be real and provide an authentic reflection of the community she knows:

SWEATSHOP believes the best way for Western Sydney communities to identify issues that affect them, take control of how they are portrayed and perceived and build alternatives is through literacy.

(Tamar) was one of the original members of The Sweatshop Collective and has been collaborating with Michael Mohammed Ahmad since 2006. Tamar identifies strongly with her Western Sydney community and her Armenian background. [Sweatshop, Western Sydney Literacy Movement]

In an article in the SMH just before her book launch, it is clear how close to Tamar’s heart Western Sydney is:

I wanted to write a positive representation, because there are only negative representations in the media. Where I live, there are wonderful things that happen there, that is the thing I wanted to talk about.

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/my-secret-sydney-tamar-chnorhokian-20141126-11to2k.html#ixzz3NpAX7qmw

Readers should easily be drawn in to The Diet Starts Monday (we all know that phrase) and will be keen to find out what happens over the HSC year for Zara and her friends. Writers will be impressed with the example set by Tamar as she sets our her commitment and contribution to Western Sydney literacy and literature development in this novel.

What might you change in TDSM to reflect the area you live in and the personalities you know in your school and community?

August 20

Life as you know it?

incredibleMichael is a typical school boy living in the suburbs of Western Sydney. For him, life has a rhythm and routine which is closely bonded to his older brother’s. That is until tragedy strikes, and he decides that:

‘my life isn’t my life any more: It is like a movie, it’s the place where I enter the scene again and again and everything is different.’

From the time that Michael regains consciousness after the accident, his thoughts are fragmented. Indeed the nature of Felicity Castagna’s book, ‘the Incredible Here and Now’, is that it, too, is a whole story slowly pieced together. Gradually, chapters reveal little insights into the lives of people in Michael’s world, as the picture develops describing his life with family, school and his mates, and how life can suddenly become distorted and troubled.

Without his older brother, Dom, the form of Michael’s life has changed. At home, his mother grieves and (has) ‘slipped out of our lives’. His father, though acting calm and together, ‘walks (him) to school for the first time since I was 10’. In his own way, Michael disconnects from school and other aspects of his old life. He constantly wonders ‘how can someone be there one day and not the next?’

However, ‘the Incredible Here and Now’ is not a sombre tale, but a thoughtful one. As a coming-of-age story, we are taken through the neighbourhood streets where Michael is growing up and dealing with the first throes of love and conflict. Through his eyes, the tapestry of different immigrant lives are illustrated; with their particular features and foibles. Teenage lives are interconnected not only through school, but through sport and other hangouts.

Castagna’s little vignettes capture many different things about Michael’s family, friends and acquaintances. For most people around him, life goes on as before – but how can things remain the same when someone important is lost from your life. Castagna also captures the differing cultures which permeate Michael’s life, and the unique mix of his neighbourhood. This will provide some ‘aha’ moments to those readers who can identify with some of the locations described, and an interesting insight to others from different social backgrounds.

Teen readers will also love the short chapters which collect the thoughts of Michael fairly concisely. As he dips in and out, his thoughts seem somewhat fragmented but are also part of the whole – as he attempts to deal with his now fragmented world.

The Incredible Here and Now does not tell us how to deal with the loss of a family member. Neither does it come up with a solution to everyday teenaged angst. What it does is provide great realistic fiction which should appeal to many teenage boys; they could easily identify parts of themselves in many of the characters, and the situations in which they act.

In Felicity’s words, The Incredible Here and Now:

… is about being an absolute insider in a place you know as well as the back of your own hand. It’s a young adult’s novel told through the eyes of Michael whose life changes dramatically in the summer he turns 15. Michael knows everything about the community he lives in and through his stories, he lets the reader in; to the unsettled lives of his family members, the friends he meets in the McDonalds parking lot at night, the swimming pool where he meets the one girl who will acknowledge he’s alive and the classmates who spend their mornings drooling at the Coke Factory on their walk to school. (Source: the NSW Writers Centre, Felicity Castagna Talks Writing a Sense of Place, http://www.nswwc.org.au/2013/05/felicity-castagna-talks-writing-a-sense-of-place/)

# The Incredible Here and Now was shortlisted for this year’s CBCA awards, and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards 2014 – and is Felicity’s first novel.

February 23

Indie Award Shortlist 2014

The Australian Independent Booksellers recently announced The Shortlist for The Indie Awards for 2014:

awards

Source: Australian Independent Booksellers http://www.indies.com.au/BookAwards.aspx

FICTION SHORTLIST:
Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas (Allen & Unwin)
Coal Creek by Alex Miller (Allen & Unwin)
Eyrie by Tim Winton (Penguin)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Random House)

NON-FICTION SHORTLIST:
Girt by David Hunt (Black Inc)
Murder in Mississippi by John Safran (Penguin)
The Stalking of Julia Gillard by Kerry-Anne Walsh (Allen & Unwin)
The Good Life by Hugh Mackay (Macmillan)

DEBUT FICTION SHORTLIST:
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (Macmillan)
Mr Wigg by Inga Simpson (Hachette Hodder)
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (Text)
The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane (Penguin)

CHILDREN’S SHORTLIST:
Alphabetical Sydney by Hilary Bell, Antonia Pesenti (NewSouth Books)
Kissed by the Moon by Alison Lester (Penguin)
The 39-Storey Treehouse by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton (Macmillan)
Weirdo by Anh Do (Scholastic)

A limited number of these books are available from the High School Library, so you can see which one you might vote for – if you had the chance. Of course, local bookstores will have most in plentiful supply, for keen readers.

Winners will be announced on March 26, 2014.

February 18

It’s Black and White – audio with print book, too.

Night-Circus-UK-coverThe ‘Night Circus’ begins with an unusual delivery – a 5 year old girl delivered to her estranged father. It sets the tone for a tale filled with magic, mystery and strange happenings – nothing in this story is fully explained, at first.

Celia’s father is no ordinary father but a master magician. He claims however, that his trade is not in creating illusions, but in performing real magic. As her father’s daughter, Celia becomes involved in a high-stakes competition set up between Prospero and his long term rival – a magician know only by the mysterious name Mr A.H. The challenge is to prove whether magic is innate, or whether anyone intelligent person can develop the performance with skilful teaching by a master.

‘Let the games begin!’

Throughout the story, a major character is Le Cirque des Reves. This is no ordinary circus, since it arrives unannounced, without any fanfare and is setup from nightfall to dawn. Inside its black and white structures, spectators are treated to intriguing performances, theatrical stunts and out-of-this-world experiences unmatched by any other – all of which are intricately described and embellished beyond your imagination. In spite of the circus having no known schedule, a dedicated band of followers (reveurs) manages to anticipate and herald their arrival.

There are other significant characters who also anticipate the arrival of the circus and its entourage, as Morgenstern cleverly mixes the story together. In doing so, she has developed many intriguing characters and histories, in her debut novel – as well as some intriguing inventions for the circus itself.

However, this was one story which was a little difficult to follow in the audio version, as the chapters skipped from one time period to another, although the voices hinted at change. So it was great to jump into the print version from time to time, where it was much easier to track these time changes.

The book trailer below gives a hint about the style of the book – old worldy, black and white, circus focus with a bit of mystery, magic and love woven through:

 

 

Morgenstern also mixes an array of colourful characters and scenarios in her magical tale. Celia is not the only talented illusionist, as she is in competition of course with the dark and intriguing Marco, Mr A.H’s protégé. The history of her father (Prospero), the conception and development of the circus, and its impact on people are facts which are teased out at an agonizing pace. In a world of mystery and illusion, there is little that is really as it first seems. Many in this world are performers, and all is not always as we first see it.

It was easy to get caught up in the circus world, to suspend belief and engage in the battle for magical supremacy, even though you felt there was no chance of a happy ending – especially if you have empathies for both Celia and Marco, and the circus family. In this story, it is hard to decide who is the victim or villain, hero or heroine – or is it? A recommended read for you to puzzle over.

In this article from the HuffingtonPost, reviewers speak of the differences in reading and listening to the Night Circus – what do you think are the main differences?

Which way would you prefer to experience a book?

Or in which order would you try? Book? Audio? Movie?

February 11

Icy differences – Burial Rites

burial-rites‘Burial Rites’ is an amazing achievement for debutant novelist, Hannah Kent. It is based on historical fact, but seeks to present the story of an historic victim, Agnes Magnusdottir – the last person to be executed in Iceland.

Much of the origins of or inspiration for the manuscript derive from Kent’s time in Iceland as an exchange student. Her experience of the country in her time away from Australia have clearly impacted  her interests in Icelandic history and culture. Her skill as a writer brings to the reader an awareness of the sights, sounds and smells of the countryside where the chilling events of murder and mystery take place – it is a very visceral experience.

‘Burial Rites’ raises many different questions along the way, though we need to be mindful of the times and places it reflects. Kent is sympathetic to Agnes in a time of poor respect for impoverished females. Agnes Magnsudottir was clearly a victim of her time and gender. And, as a convicted murdress, she paid the ultimate price for love.

When Agnes is ‘assigned’ to a modest farming family for detention for the days prior to her execution, there is understandable conflict. Her choice of an assistant priest to guide her last days adds to the confusion of this assignment – a curious tension. Include among this the judgemental village mentality, along with attitudes of those in power, and there is little hope for redemption for Agnes. Still, her story must be told.

Many questions are raised along the way. What were the events which lead up to the murder of Natan Ketilsson? How did it come about that Agnes was in his household at the time? Was Agnes indeed guilty, or merely a victim of time and place? And how many others might have acted in a similar way given the same circumstances?

As mentioned in a previous post, I ‘read’ Burial Rites through 2 different mediums – as an audiobook and a paperback – and valued each highly.

To be introduced to ‘Burial Rites’ through an Audible.com edition gave me a wonderful grasp of culture and voice – which I would have missed if I had only just picked up the physical book (read here: pronunciation and authentic accent). There was also a greater impact to have all the introductory notes read out to me (since I usually just scan these hurriedly) ; though I didn’t realise this till later on – these are important to both cultural understanding and significant endings of the tale.

Another advantage of the audio edition was that the names of people and places were clear. When it came time for me to read the physical edition, (as I became impatient to read more and quickly…), at least I knew how names were to be pronounced! I could also sense the differing voices of the characters which occurred as changes from one personal view to another occurred. This was particularly strong when Agnes spoke in the tale.

In the video below Hannah Kent talks about her first introduction Agnes Magnusdottir, and to the area where the last execution in Iceland occurred – and how her inspiration and interpretation of the historic fact developed into ‘Burial Rites’ – as an author ‘drawn to absences and gaps’:

Clearly, I love historical fiction and its potential to place a different or alternative spin on the past. What do you think?

November 20

The Sky So Heavy

sky so heavyLife has changed dramatically for Fin and his younger brother Max. Their dad has not returned home since he followed Kara, their step-mum, when she fled their house after a disagreement. Their mother is away in the city, looking into what has happened. One day life is normal, the next it is dark and desolate and desperate.

I read ‘The Sky So Heavy’ around the time of experiencing the bushfires in the Blue Mountains, and so readily identified with many aspects of the story:

  • – the isolation which comes when normal communication lines  is lost
  • – the worry about friends and family in a time of chaos
  • – the anxiety felt when you don’t know what is really going on in the community around you

Fortunately, however, I did not experience the ongoing loss of power and communication which occurs for Fin, Max and their neighbourhood. For them, the trauma lasts much longer and they are forced to seek out food, fuel and other options to keep themselves alive. Also unlike the bushfire experience, their community is not cohesive and caring, since people begin to fight for their own survival, food becomes scarce and knowledge of what is going on around them is limited.

Much of what I liked about the book had to do with its setting; so I spent a lot of time considering where things were taking place, enjoying Zorn’s descriptions, while trying to imagine the mountains community cloaked in a nuclear winter coat.

Her characters also rang true, without being over-the-top in their actions. They behaved in ways that I could accept teenagers under immense pressure might – brave though still children, caring for one another while still wanting care for themselves, strong at times of importance but soft enough to feel for the plight of others. Other readers might ponder if they would act the same in similar circumstances.

‘The Sky So Heavy’ makes you think about many things – including what it might be like to be thrust into nuclear devastation. As we consider what life must be like for those caught up in the ravages of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, it helps us think about what actions we might take to survive a global catastrophe, and what lengths we might go to for family and friends.

 

August 27

Weaving a magical series

valleyHow do you survive in a world where the king bombs your city? where can you hide? how can you escape?

The king must have decided that Rourton’s people were gettting restless, because it’s unusual to bomb the same city twice within so few years. Perhaps we’ve got more dissidents than the other cities in Taladia. I wouldn’t know; I’ve never been outside Rourton’s walls.

After this bombing, Danika decides she must escape – after all there’s nothing for her in Rurton – her family had been wiped out by the last bombing, and she had been homeless and street-bound ever since.

In her first novel, Chasing the Valley, Skye Melki-Wegner builds a challenging fantasy world where you have to be strong and streetsmart to survive. Danika grabs the chance to flee the confines of her walled city, but only after she proves herself to a small group of teens who also aim to be free of their miserable and threatened existence.

In this world, Danika and the other teen refugees struggle against the odds, against the powers of the king, to find safety – as they journey towards the legendary haven of the Magnetic Valley. To survive however, they must first develop trust in one another, and use their shared skills to overcome their common enemy, the king and his troops.

Chasing the Valley would be enjoyed by fans of the Hunger Games, Tomorrow When the War Began and other dystopian fiction, with lots of unique elements. Danika, a scrubber, lives in a world where magical abilities (one’s proclivity) mature as you get older; it’s something mysterious to be tamed for use by each individual. (Danika’s illusion talents come to the group’s rescue many times.) Alchemy bombs rain down from the king’s biplanes to destroy lives, but often leave behind a bizarre sea of flowers in their wake. Foxaries, giant fox-like creatures are used for transport as the refugees flee – to name but a few things unique to their world.

Melki-Wegner introduces all sorts of charms and talents for Danika and her crew, many of which are essential for them to beat the odds. The abilities and schemes of their enemies are also woven carefully through the tale. There is a gradual build up of understanding about adolescents in a world that is different but the same as our own. The author’s early love of fantasy and other worlds shines through in this debut novel, with the great news that there is more to come!

For more inspiration, Skye Melki-Wegner talks about her writing here:

Lovers of fantasy and dystopic worlds with a bit of steam punk thrown in will love Chasing the Valley – it’s sequel, Borderlands is due for release in early 2014!

June 3

‘Ten things…’ techniques authors use

ten-things-ive-learnt-about-love-978144722249101Books are not always straightforward in their presentation. Some have quirky links and techniques throughout. Some take a while to adapt to, others just make sense.

As ‘Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love’ progresses from chapter to chapter, the story jumps between characters and lists.

One of the characters is Alice, the youngest of 3 sisters, who feels as though she doesn’t ‘fit’ her family. She is, and always has, felt unsettled and disconnected. Then, after months of travelling overseas, she arrives home to the news that her father is dying.

The other narrator who gives voice to the tale is Daniel; a homeless drifter, in search of his daughter. His synaesthesia gives him a special and interesting quality, and he too is both restless and disconnected. Unlike Alice, he lingers in one place, London – for that is where he feels his daughter is to be found.

We can guess that there will ultimately be some kind of connection between Alice and Daniel. Throughout the story they both create lists – of wants and wishes, anxieties and memories, statements of love and sorrows. It is through these lists that the reader experiences the ebb and flow of their emotions, as Sarah Butler weaves her story.

For Butler, this is a debut novel, with a clever and gradual intertwining of their lives now. Past events are slowly revealed to allow the characters to fill in the gaps and make sense of turns that have occurred in their lives. There are many times when you wonder ‘what if?’ something else had happened or ‘why?’ did this event need to occur.

For many readers, there will be time for quiet pondering about their own relationships, in spite of sitting safely in comfortable times with family and friends. As stated in its blurb:

“Heart-wrenching and life -affirming, this is a unique story of love lost and found, of rootlessness and homecoming and the power of the ties that bind. It is a story for fathers and daughters everywhere.”

For more information about Sarah Butler read this article, a guest post written by the author discussing what she learned while writing ‘Ten Things…’

What further questions would you ask if you could talk to Sarah Butler?

Did you like her collection of lists to start each chapter?