November 18

A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness

a_monster_callsConor is facing a monster – it looms high above him and takes on the shape of the old yew tree – except it is in his bedroom. And it leaves evidence from its visit – like poisonous red yew berries strewn across his bedroom floor. This nightmare has been visiting him, ever since his mother started her treatment.

Life is troubled for Conor. At school, he is targeted by bullies; at home, his interfering grandmother has come to stay; and now, he feels distant from others he used to be friends with. His mother is also distant as she battles illness, even though she puts on a brave face.

Then all of a sudden, everyone wants to ‘have a little talk’:

  • at school, his teachers ‘have a little talk’ when he gets caught fighting
  • his grandmother wants ‘a chat’ about his mother
  • his father (returned briefly from his overseas/other family) discusses ‘the future’
  • and even the monster forces Conor to ‘talk’ – to express himself after three tales he tells him

‘A Monster Calls’ came about when Patrick Ness was asked to complete a story which orginated with another author. Unfortunately, Siobhan Dowd* tragically succumbed to illness before her characters and ideas came together fully in her novel. As stated in the preface, Ness was at first hesitant to write the story, but thankfully, was able to take a hold of her ideas which:

…were suggesting new ones to me …(so that)… I began to feel the itch that every writer longs for: the itch to start getting words down, the itch to tell a story.

(Then) along the way, I had only one guideline: to write a book I think Siobhan would have liked. Patrick Ness.

‘A Monster Calls’ has recently been released as a movie, which may not be for the faint-hearted as this clip may suggest:

‘A Monster Calls’ works on many levels as Conor struggles to cope with all that life is dealing him.

As a fantasy novel, it is a little different from his previous dystopian ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy. It challenges your feelings, questions the way people sometimes act, by presenting everyday events that you can relate to. Nightmares, real or imagined, face us all at times – emotions may ride high as a result.

Look around – what are your monsters, and how do you tackle them?

Do you think Siobhan Dowd would like the story Patrick Ness developed from her ideas?

August 12

Magic disguises

NewtsEmerald.inddSometimes, authors have an idea for a book which takes a while to complete.

Garth Nix’ book Newt’s Emerald is an example of this – beginning its life (well, the first lines) 23 years before it was published! In a note at the back of the book, Nix talks about the first version of this book “which remains in a bottom drawer and there it will stay.” Thus, Newt’s Emerald represents the re-working of a past tale from Nix’ creative mind.

Within the story there is a mix of fantasy, love story and historical fiction, as Lady Truthful seeks to recapture an enchanted emerald stolen from her ailing father. To do so, she uses her own enchantments (along with those of her aunt), to follow a dangerous journey while disguised as a man.

Woven into the mix is her proposed introduction to society, as a young lady from a well-to-do family, turning eighteen.  Thus, Truthful switches between the roles of a well-bred young lady and a gentleman, known as Chevalier de Vienne (her own French cousin). Will she be detected?

Truthful herself, is a mix of personalities – able to act as a lady, but at the same time able to parry with the male cousins with whom she has grown up. These influences come into play as the story moves into dangerous situations, as Truthful calls upon both her instinct and undeveloped magical powers to recover the Newington Emerald.

Add into this, an evil sorceress, people who are not always who they say there are, and you have situations which can twist and turn as the pages turn.

Newt’s Emerald – ‘a regency romance with a magical twist’. Shortlisted in the CBCA Older Reader’s  category this year.

Will it pull off a magical award? Will it enchant Garth Nix fans? Will the mix of fantasy, romance and historical fiction bewitch young readers?

Perhaps Garth Nix describing his book might invite you into the tale?

July 20

One wish – Cloudwish

cloudwishCloudwish comes from the creative mind of Fiona Wood, who won the CBCA Book of the Year (Older Readers category) award in 2014 with Wildlife. Her earlier book, Six Impossible Things, was previously reviewed here. So it is no surprise to see her latest novel among the CBCA shortlist for 2016.

While Cloudwish is a school story, with much of the usual angst and issues facing young teens, it has so much more to offer.

What is life like for a young girl, whose parents are Vietnamese refugees with high aspirations for their clever daughter? A scholarship to a prestigious private school  may seem the answer, but Van U’oc Phan faces struggles daily as the realities of her school life and home life contrast immensely and harshly.

With shades of Laurinda (by Alice Pung), Cloudwish is a wonderful portrayal of how different cultures may either mix or clash in our multicultural Australian society, and the extra struggles faced by children of immigrant families. Like Lucy Lam in Laurinda, Van moves between 2 worlds, and faces the challenge of fitting into both worlds. Poverty and privilege, blending in or maintaining a low profile, meeting parental expectations or following her own dreams – these are some of the issues for Van to deal with. Mix in a little magic and the fun begins.

References to Jane Eyre (Van’s role model?), Sylvia Plath and IB studies will strike a chord of recognition for many student readers. They also make it clear that Wood has worked in a school and indeed, she has tutored students from non-English speaking backgrounds (like Van) for many years. (See the SMH article, Working with a young Vietnamese-Australian girl inspired the author’s latest novel for more interesting details aout Fiona).

Cloudwish is a great read, and possibly, a relaxing contrast to the authors Van (and our own students) studies and admires!

March 26

Fairest of them all…

imageIf you are expecting a retelling of Snow White from Sophie Masson’s ‘Hunters’ Moon’, then you will be disappointed.Though it refers to the ‘Fairest Lady’ and deals with a step-mother plotting her step-daughter’s downfall, it is far more than ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’.

The tale of Snow White explodes in Masson’s tale. It is full and detailed; with characters new and real; with familiarity and clever modern twists that make it her own.

Bianca is not a helpless Snow White waiting for a prince to rescue her, but an observant, resourceful young woman, ready to take action and seek out the truth behind her father’s demise.

The world Masson has created is alive with characters, alliances and mysteries that Bianca must sort through. At first, she is blessed with rescue in the Haven after her stepmother’s servant, Drago fails to kill her. Unlike Snow White, however, she plans to overcome her alluring stepmother’s plans to win over the adoring community, to help them see through her pretentious facade.

‘Hunter’s Moon’ weaves fantasy, fairy tales and traditions with a little bit of magic and steam punk (automata) to bring about a challenging tale. You can never be sure who is hanging around in the shadows – friend or foe.

This is the challenge Bianca faces throughout the tale – who can she trust? Who can she rely on? How can she expose Belladonna for who she really is? Does she have the strength to do it herself? Who is on her side in the end?

A fantastic twist on a traditional tale – another great novel from the prolific Sophie Masson.

November 12

Mists and memories

imageAxl and his wife Beatrice cannot understand why they can no longer have a candle in the darkness of their modest home at the edge of their village warren – but that is what had been decided. Struggling also with the taunts of unruly, undisciplined children and the vagueness overcoming other villagers, they decide to embark on a journey to see their son.

Even though, for an elderly couple, such a journey looms as an ominous unknown venture, they feel compelled to attempt it  – and so Ishiguro weaves a veil of intrigue over their travels, and they move amongst differing villages and cultural contexts.

Others they meet along the way include warriors out for revenge, misguided monks upholding tradition and rituals, outcastes of various types, and a brave, though elderly, knight – all with passions of their own, and ideals conflicting with one another.

The world Ishiguro has created has mystical elements, including a mist of forgetfulness, dragons, pixies and ogres. Within this, human spirit battles historical conflicts, myths of the past and present, and that ‘which-may-be-remembered-but-probably-shouldn’t’.

A powerful mist has robbed many of their memories – both good and bad – and Axl and Beatrice had seen evidence of this occurring more and more before they left on their journey. They too, strugged to recall much of their past, but in their hearts they sought to find their son, and so their journey begins.

‘The Buried Giant’ recalls parts of history – the conflict between the Saxons and the Britons, but talks of a time of forgetting when they live peacefully side by side. Niggling memories are what haunt those like Axl and Beatrice, Master Wistan and Sir Gawain, and suspicion and cultural beliefs hunt young Edwin from his native home.

Their fragmented journey together, where loyalties are tested time and again, make for a challenging tale of love, life and destiny. Yet another well crafted tale from Master Ishiguro, including a beautiful portrayal of love and marriage.

For a bit of a taster, listen to this audio excerpt. This is definitely a great book for an audio version – I really enjoyed hearing the different voices, so well expressed by David Horovitch.

For another, more extensive review read: http://www.theguardian.com/books/audio/2015/mar/04/kazuoishiguro-fiction

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 16

Fabled flight – the Wishbird

Wishbird-cover-for-website-425x649

When discussing reading with students over the past weeks, we have often referred to the ability of books to take you different places, on a journey and to put you in someone else’s shoes. After a busy week, that is exactly what I needed – and today’s mode of transport was The Wishbird by Gabrielle Wang.

The Wishbird and tales like it always take me back to the books I used to love as a young reader – of fables, legends and fantasy. Whether it be Greek myths and legends, or Arabian tales, I was wrapt in the possibilities of the heroes and anti-heroes portrayed within. Wang has again taken me to these places, though with her Chinese heritage, she has changed the location.

The tale is told from two viewpoints – that of Boy, a street urchin who survives with his light-fingered talents and answerable to Panther, the Fagin in this tale; and then we hear from Oriole, a waif raised in the wild, but destined to play an important future role in resurrecting a torn kingdom far away.

Though initially alternating between Boy and Oriole, the story entwines their lives, their destinies. Mysteries abound in the novel – what can be real or imagined, interplay. What things are possible, or mystical, or fantastical combine – as the players in the tale seek to find meaning in their own personal histories, and to overcome tragedies of their past within their current circumstances.

The fact that this all occurs within a magical tale, where anything might be possible, is the charm of the Wishbird. Wang narrates mystical events, which are confused by conflict and deception, to weave a tale of courage and strength and trust. The pictures within the story add to its charm, affirming how you ‘think’ you see her descriptions – which is nothing different from the days when I read an illustrated version of the Arabian Nights, way back when…

Imagine a world without music.

Imagine if all the singers and musicians disappeared, never to be seen again. Music is outlawed. Even birds are killed because they sing. And because birds live in forests then the forests all around are burnt to stumps. 

Music is an integral part of human existence. Every culture in the world makes music. Without it, the soul dies.

This is at the heart of The Wishbird.

Comment from: http://gabriellewang.com/books/the-wishbird

 

To find out more about Gabrielle, the other books she has written and her way of writing, visit http://gabriellewang.com/faq . There is much to inspire the writer within you, and excite the reader looking for more of Gabrielle Wang.

What are some of your favourite fables, fantasy worlds or myths?

How much do you think the character names add to the Wishbird tale? Oriole? Boy? Panther? Mellow?

Gabrielle is also a talented illustrator and has lots to say to encourage the artist within everyone –

Imagine if students were allowed to doodle all the way through school.
Skills with line work and visualization would increase and both sides of the brain would be exercised.
It might turn out to be a very interesting experiment. For more see: http://gabriellewang.com/archives/the-gift-of-doodling

So get out your writing pens and doodling pencils NOW – you never know what may happen.

 

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!

March 20

Life of Pi – the book, the audio and the movie

It’s been interesting getting into Life of Pi in a number of different ways, as I have read the book from both a paperback and while driving my car (obviously with an audio version…).

Life of Pi has been on my to-read bookshelf for some time and, of course, came to my attention again recently, when promotion of the movie began. By ‘reading’ using combined audio and paperback, I found an unusual richness was added to the story with the contribution of a quality audio production*.

Martel’s writing is where all the magic begins, however, as he tells the tale of a young Indian boy on his journey to manhood. Pi has struggled for many years with taunting at school, derived from his name, Piscine. In spite of this, (or because of this?) Pi is a strong willed young man with a great curiosity of life and how the world around him works.

With a somewhat unusual homelife as a zookeeper’s son (what child wouldn’t love to grow up in a zoo?), Pi has developed keen powers of observation of animals of all kinds – humans included. This awareness of animal behaviour provides a great background later in the story, when he is set adrift in a lifeboat with a menagerie of different animals. His survival skills are well and truly tested to the limit!

His questioning nature is also revealed as he digs into the 3 main religions which exist in his Indian homeland – Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. As a curious child, he seeks an understanding of the differences and similarities of these faiths, and commits to all 3 – much to the ire of each of his religious teachers!

A move by his family, away from the politics brewing in India, results in their journey on a Japanese cargo ship to Canada. Their zoo is dismantled and animals are sold afar; some of which journey on the ship with them. The tragic sinking of the cargo ship begins another section of the book, where Pi faces the many challenges of being afloat on a lifeboat with very unusual company – including Richard Parker!

Martel’s writing is memorable, poetic and so rich that it is believeable. It is a book to make you think long after you finish it. It is fantasy, but also holds many truthful observations within it, and doesn’t necessarily provide a neat ‘happy ending’. As a winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2002, Life of Pi has had many reviews over the years, and has now been made into an award winning film (which I can now see, having first read the book!)

What messages did Life of Pi relate to you? Is it a believeable tale? Or is it an abstraction from reality? An allegory about human existence perhaps?

* the Audible.com version of Life of Pi was well narrated – the Indian accent added so much to the story, and made it even more compelling to listen to Martel’s poetic tale.

You can also view the film trailer:

(I have now seen the movie, and while it was great, I do prefer the book!!)