February 21

Capturing magic

nnestLife is not easy for ‘Little John’. His little sister is dead, his mother is in mourning, while his dad drinks away the money which is meant to pay their rent. Feeling mistakenly responsible for Raelyn’s death, John works hard by his father’s side in his tree-felling business during the summer.

While at a job for a wealthy community member, Mr King, John discovers Gayle – a young girl, perched in a tree on the property, who brings forth a beautiful birdsong. Gayle has also been noticed by the property owner, Mr King, who conspires a deal with John to get her to sing to him – so that he can ‘capture her voice’.

Tragically, Gayle is a foster child in a spiteful family – they have even renamed her, and so ‘Little John’ is drawn to protect her. At the same time, John is tempted by the offer from Mr King (to encourage Gayle to ‘sing for him’).

The struggles faced by both the children and adults in the story are realistic and thought-provoking. There are many decisions John needs to make – with sometimes conflicting outcomes.

Mixed in with this, is the mystery of Gayle’s songbird qualities – and her tale of longing to remain in her ‘nest’ for when her parents return for her. Ultimately, after she is left to sing for Mr King, Gayle loses her songbird skills, and we are left to ponder what happened. Further tragedy occurs, and John has to consider the outcomes of some of the choices he has made over the summer.

August 6

Thirst by Lizzie Wilcock

thirst-21Imagine:

  • a car accident in the desert
  • driver (probably) dead
  • 2 foster kids stranded
  • one totally disenchanted with foster care
  • the other a young boy

This is the way Thirst begins, and, as we learn a little about the stranded kids, 14 year old Karanda and 8 year old Solomon, it seems that there is little chance their luck is likely to improve in a hurry.

Karanda’s emotions are mixed – angry, perhaps privately scared, but she is determined to get away from her miserable existence as a foster child, passed from family to family. On the other hand, Solomon simply wants to tag along, as Karanda begins to storm off who-know-where, but away from the car-wreck (which is probably their one chance of discovery and rescue). What other option does he have, really?

In her anger, Karanda is uncaring; suspecting that it would be easy for searchers to eventually find sweet little Solomon near the car wreck. However, he is persistent, and keeps up as she marches away from the wreck and her old existence. Thus their circumstances ends up binding them together in a struggle for survival; which would challenge anyone of any age.

Thirst, by Lizzie Wilcock, is peppered with great descriptions of the Aussie outback, and many unique survival tips from the wise-for-his-age Solomon – lucky for Karanda that he follows along.

Karanda’s anger and struggles are palpable throughout, while Solomon’s quiet perserverence is far beyond his years – making much of Karanda’s action seem quite immature and thoughtless.

The physical situations they face are a good reflection of the harshness of the outback; and their emotional battles give the reader lots to pause and think about. But whether it is a realistic story has been questioned – there have been mixed reviews. It is a good survival story, if you just go with the flow.

In the end, is it worth the struggle? What do we learn? What really challenges us the most from this tale?

July 27

Moving on – but sisters forever

protectedAlmost 12 months after her sister’s accident, and with a court case looming, Hannah is still struggling. But she is not alone – her mother drifts aimlessly about much of the time and her father has also lost his spark, sustaining both physical and emotional injuries. This is much as you might expect when a family loses a sister/daughter.

Hannah, however, must continue her journey as a school student, facing the many trials and tribulations of adolescence.

Strangely, in some ways, life is easier at school without her sister. Before the accident, Hannah was bullied at school, with little help from her older sister, Katie. In fact, Katie’s presence often made things worse, as Hannah failed to develop the same standing at school, and Katie failed to lend any sisterly support. (Should Hannah feel guilty about this?)

The enjoyable part of Claire Zorn’s writing is how she captures place and time. Set in the Blue Mountains, the school and social situations in the Protected ring true. As with the Sky So Heavy, her characters are authentic, move about in real places in the community, and some act as thoughtlessly as egocentric teenagers sometimes do.

However, Hannah doesn’t have to struggle alone all through the book, and there are ultimately different degrees of healing for the family. Quirky little inserts (lists, goals, likes and dislikes) hint at the sisters’ relationship, differences between them and add the flavour of sibling intimacy. Thus, some of the situations will make you squirm, while others will have you cheering on the efforts of those who aim to help.zorn2

So, the story probably isn’t new (reflect back to the Incredible Here and Now, a male perspective), but the way in which it unfolds is real and believeable. Since people react to loss in many different ways, it is valuable for us as readers to take the time to step into someone else’s shoes; which indeed we can do as we read the Protected.

Congratulations to Claire; just like the Sky So Heavy in 2014, the Protected has been shortlisted for the Older Readers CBCA awards in 2015. (For a little insight to the author, you can read: Claire Zorn, author of The Protected, answers Ten Terrifying Questions)

 

March 5

Movie to book? Worth a look?

As always,  over the summer break in Australia, there is a flurry of movies released to the cinemas. At the same time, there is often a hive of activity to publish (or re-publish with a movie-jacket), the associated books. This summer was no exception – though this activity included at least 2 books which were written from the movie – Paper Planes and the Water Diviner.

paper-planesThe magic of what happens in Paper Planes is well suited to a movie format. The struggles of Dylan with his father’s depressed state, alongside bullying issues at school and further afield, are clearly recognisable in the early stages of the movie.

Scenes shot in slow motion capture the drama of what is happening and of course background music enhances the flights taken. Particularly engaging is the scene where Dylan’s grandfather fires up his imagination with a flight in a vintage plane in an Aviation museum. It certainly captured the imagination of the 6 year-old I took to see it.

The book itself lacks a bit of depth – I didn’t feel the same anticipation of what was to happen, nor imagine as vividly the action taking place. The addition of photos from the movie, within the book, and instructions for making paper planes at the end, were a bonus – and certainly inspired my 6 year old companion before we saw the movie. From the photos and the movie trailer we had seen previously, he could already identify some of the themes and characters – “He’s the bully… She does lots of backflips and somersaults… He gets pushed down the stairs.”

Certainly the story has value with great themes of resilience, friendship and the value of imagination- whether consumed as a book or a movie.* (Further review to come.)

the-water-divinerOn the other hand, having just finished the Water Diviner, I am really keen to now see the movie. Andrew and Meaghan Anastasios have developed rich characters and locations in the Water Diviner, and help you see both sides of the story of our historical Anzac tragedy.

You can truly imagine the rough-tough-but-sensitive Connor in his quest to find out the fate of his three sons. Details about the battle fields, life after war in the invaded country and reflections on family life from differing cultural perspectives develop throughout the story.

Thus, the Water Diviner provides the perspective of loss from point of view of the Turkish people. Contrasts and similarities abound in this tale, there is much to ponder about the impact of war.  (Further review to come.)

*********

Anyone who has read this blog before would know that I am an advocate for read-the-book-then see-the-movie. And my bias is often towards the richness of what the book has to offer over the movie. However, I have also agreed in the past with comments from authors who point to the fact that we can appreciate both mediums equally – that it is often unfair to judge them on their differences:

I can only respect what a screenwriter has to do when trimming a sizeable novel to a 120-page script.

I feel like when you give someone a creative job, you can’t say, “Right, be creative, but do it how I want you to do it.”

Source: Marcus Zusak – How I Let Go of the Book Thief,http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/movies/markus-zusak-how-i-let-go-of-the-book-thief-20140102-306he.html

And…

A film is a film is a film.

[On the other hand] Readers [bring a] box of effects and nuances to colour in the spaces left by the writer [of a book].

In film, the magic tends to be woven on the surface. The viewer is treated to another’s dream. In literature, the reader does the dreaming. And that, for me, remains the greatest magic of all.

Source: The Weight of Expectations for Lloyd Jones,http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/movies/the-weight-of-expectations-for-lloyd-jones-20131031-2whz8.html

 

So now it is over to you to judge – which way are you going to find a story? Will you always “read the book, then see the movie”? or does a movie sometimes inspire you to go back to discover the delicacies and intricacies of the book? 

* I do have one alteration that I would make to Paper Planes, and that is that I would at least infer that he had adult company to and within Japan – perhaps with Maureen?

 

October 17

What’s your reality? ‘We Were Liars’

imageSummers for Cadence were idyllic – spent on her family’s island with her cousins, aunts and grandparents. Then, when she is 15, (Summer 15) Gat arrives at the island sparking a bit of interest, kindlings of love… and a bit of tension, as he doesn’t quite meet the ‘Family’s’ standards.

“Wait a minute”, you say – “The ‘Family’ owns an island?”

Yes, the Sinclair Family is somewhat well-off – and well-respected because of this, it seems. But inside the family, things are not so perfect.

However, Cady’s memories of ‘Summer 15’ are vague – and there is mystery behind tragic happenings at this time. Things Cady would rather forget, it seems – or things her mind and body won’t let her remember; even though her mother has explained it to her numerous times. Now, the doctors say, it is better if Cady remembers in her own time…

After a summer away from the island, Cady returns in search of answers and explanations:

  • What really happened to her?
  • Why can’t she remember anything?
  • Why are her friends/cousins so distant?
  • Does she still have any chance of romance with Gat?
  • Why isn’t ANYONE telling her ANYTHING?

For a taste of ‘We Were Liars’, you can view the author, E. Lockhart, reading the opening here:

‘We Were Liars’ is intriguing – and has you guessing all along the way – but still has surprise in store. Can you anticipate the ending?

(N.B. the video requires Flash.)

August 25

Life choices – Level Up

Level UpGene Luen Yang is a clever writer of graphic novels – though this is probably not the career path his parents would have chosen for him. This insight is given in an interesting dedication at the beginning of the book:

Dedicated to our brothers Jon and Thinh, both of whom work in the medical field, for being good Asian sons.

Dennis Ouyang is the main protagonist in Level Up, and his parents have high expectations for their only son – that he should be a gastroenterologist. Dennis, on the other hand, would rather be playing video games. His struggle with meeting his parents wishes or following his own interests would be familiar to many young adults, particularly those with strong cultural influences on how a child should respect his/her elders.

Yang, and illustrator Thien Pham, have used some interesting techniques in this graphic novel:

# The early pages are shaded blue as we are introduced to the potential conflict of ideas of Dennis and his parents.

# Colour also plays an interesting part in depicting some of the unsavoury choices Dennis takes, the visitations he has (in his mind) from his father,  stronger colours are used during normal day-to-day situations.

# Symbols like angels and feathers link events to the past, and video game characters haunt Dennis till he overcomes certain issues.

# The novel is sectioned like a video game with new levels being achieved as the novel develops and Dennis’ choices take effect. As in videogames, Dennis does not always ‘finish the level’ and his path is sometimes bumpy.

As Dennis struggles to work out which is the right path for him to take, his mind begins to play tricks on him and he has visitations – from his father, from an angelic chorus (his conscience?) and from the ghosts of an old computer game. Though he at first happily drops out of medical school, and achieves fame and fortune in the videogaming world, there are more changes to come. Will he ultimately discover who he really is? Whose expectations he will meet in the future – his dead father’s? His ill mother’s? his own?

Yang himself may have faced the same struggles in his youth. While it is said his parents tried to instill in him a strong work ethic and traditional Asian culture, they also told him stories. It is clear that this combination inspired his creative skills with a will to achieve – though not in the medical field.

With Pham’s quirky but expressive illustrations, he has created a clever and humorous story, which also makes you wonder about which is the right direction to take in life. Being built around a videogame-style concept makes it appealing and quick to read. However, it is worth a closer look once you finish to find all the little elements we may gloss over in a graphic novel.

Another thought-provoking novel from the author of award-winning American Born Chinese. 

March 25

After ‘Fault in our Stars’… Zac and Mia!

imageZac is condemned – to spend an insufferable number of days, confined to a room, in the cheerful company of his mother. Not that he hates his mother’s presence – he just hates that she feels she has to be here. Or that he has to be here. But that’s what the medical system recommends. For treatment of his disease. And Zac accepts this.

Mia, on the other hand, resists. In the room next to Zac’s, she shouts, argues with her mother, and plays Lady Gaga on repeat, repeat, repeat.

Confined to his room, Zac wonders about the girl next door. Why is she so angry? Why does she argue with her mother? Why doesn’t she realise that the odds of her survival are so much higher than others on the ward? He knows all this – he has spent plenty of time googling for that kind of statistic. And her stats are good…

A.J.Betts  spent quite some time with kids in hospital. That fact is obvious. Her story is woven with mundane but realistic facts about living and dying with cancer. Without being boring, she tells of the ‘day-to-day’ experienced by families impacted by serious childhood illness, and the different ways they might cope.

Some have compared ‘Zac and Mia’ to ‘the Fault in Our Stars’. Some reviewers have criticized it as a copy, but having been written around the same time in a different continent it simply relates a similar focus – of young people dealing with cancer.

Having read and enjoyed both, and investigated the timing etc. needed to publish a book, I would say to the reader just ENJOY BOTH stories, since they have unique qualities to share. Zac and Mia do not go through the same therapy programs (as Hazel and Augustus). Zac and Mia finally meet after talking on Facebook and through hospital walls! Under different circumstances, their paths may never have crossed.

Strangely, the differences in their lives is what draws them together. The support Zac has in his family and friends is sadly lacking, for much of the story, for Mia. Their sameness is the struggle they face with a potentially lethal disease.

Zac and Mia is a thoughtful story, filled with astute observations and discreet comments from an author who has spent time on a hospital ward, supporting young adults in dire times. There is lots to absorb and think about – especially for those trying to understand some of the struggles faced by teen cancer patients.

A little bit extra:

In weeks to come, there will be a list of other books for those who have enjoyed  both ‘the Fault on Our Stars’ and ‘Zac and Mia’.

For those who can’t wait, there is another book worth reading – This Star Won’t Go Out’ by Esther Earl. This is a real life journey, said to have inspired John Green’s story, ‘the Fault on Our Stars’ – this video introduces Esther’s book. (Comments here from John Green and Esther’s sisters.)

That there are a number of books with a focus on young adults with life threatening illnesses at the moment is probably more a reflection of the openness of the medical profession, and more education from the media, than duplication or copying of an idea. 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.

 

October 16

the Kensington Reptilarium

the-kensington-reptilariumFor a long time, they were left to their own devices – able to run wild and free in the Australian outback. Then, sadly for the Caddy children, they receive news that not only their father is missing, but also that they are to be transported to London to live with their uncle because of this.

As they discover, postwar London is a vastly different place to their homeland. Also vastly different is the response of their uncle to their arrival as his family. Four grubby, wild kids from the outback are not what the reclusive Uncle Basti expects to house and care for in his London abode.

Then again, Uncle Basti’s London abode is not exactly what the four grubby children expected either. The fact that it houses a personal collection of snakes and other reptiles in the heart of London is also quite surprising.

As kids from the outback, who have been very much left to their own devices since their mother passed away, Kick, Scruff, Bert and Pin are bold and united – characteristics which see them overcome their uncle’s initial rejection when he flees his house.

As you would imagine, Uncle Basti is quite eccentric. Most of the characters in Nikki Gemmel’s first children’s novel are. Kick, as the nominal mother to her siblings, is wild and unruly – and her appearance reflects this; her character strong and protective. Pin, as the baby of the family, brings the elements of innocence and need to which his brother and sisters respond. The middle children, Scruff (Ralph) and Bert (Albertina), round-out or square-up the family as needed, while they endeavour to make the most of their strange situation in London. They provide important support to Kick when it almost becomes to much for her.

Family is important. What family means to the Caddy children is clear – yet while they don’t clearly state it, an adult figure in their life would make it even better. Uncle Basti’s family, however, is mainly of the reptilian variety – but for how much longer?

Gemmell’s book is fun and curious. Uncle Basti’s house is full rooms with surprises and challenges – intriguing to the imagination of readers young and old. Parts of it remind me of tales like Lemony Snickett, Nanny McPhee and others; with struggles, conflict and the hope of a happy ending. After all, when will Uncle Basti stop changing his mind about whether they are able to stay with him or be sent to an orphanage? And what will become of Perdita, Uncle Basti’s pet cobra, and the rest of his reptile menagerie? And how will they be able to celebrate Christmas in a strange city in a time of post-war rationing without their dad?

In a letter about her book, Gemmell explained that she wrote this book initially for her children to draw them away from screens, and because “the flame of reading passion just wouldn’t ignite”. Did she succeed? Yes, they loved it and I am sure there could be many others who might just have that flame lit for them, as they tumble along with the Caddy kids in their Kensington Reptilarium adventure.

October 8

Memoirs – Unpolished Gem

untitledOne of the great values of ‘reading’ an audiobook occurs when there is a distinct accent that knits the story together. This is certainly the case for Unpolished Gem, which I have been enjoying recently on my way to work.

The story is the memoir of Alice Pung’s immigrant family – their heritage including past lives in Vietnam and in Cambodia under the regime of Pol Pot. Alice, now a successful writer and lawyer, recounts her impressions of life as a child living across two very different cultures in suburban Melbourne.

Her family arrives in Australia and is in awe of all it has to offer – so different from their homeland experiences, and indeed, so different from the current migrant experience. For them, the suburban streets, shops and government support systems provide so much. In fact, every day her grandmother blesses ‘Father Government’ for giving old people money.

As refugees from the Pol Pot regime, her parents have great expectations of their new homeland, not the least of which is the value of education for their family. The family works hard – her mother as an outworker, while her father eventually becomes a ‘business entreprenuer’ embracing the miracle of franchising.

Naturally, though they embrace the Aussie dream, theirs is tempered by many strong cultural ideals. Insights into the Chinese culture are given with snippets of family conversations revealing their thoughts on how things should be done, must be done, as Alice struggles at times to bridge both cultures.

Listening to Unpolished Gem was fun – to hear Chinese expression, and the repetition and patterns of stilted Chinglish. The frustrations and struggles of Alice’s childhood also feel very authentic in the audio version, as her voice switches from recounts of the things she needed to learn, and things she needed to help her parents (particularly her mother) understand. Pung also loves language and Unpolished Gem is full of quirky sayings, and vivid playful language, so also dipping into the physical book was immensely satisfying.

Published in 2006, Unpolished Gem received much acclaim, and I imagine it would be an interesting contrast to the refugee experience of today. With the authentic insights it gives of a cross-cultural childhood, it is an unforgettable story with moments of tenderness, humour and bittersweet struggles well worth revisiting.

In an interview Writers Talk, Pung reflects on her family, inspiration for writing the book and the migrant experience:

A great book for concepts of belonging, cultural identity or journeys. Or simply a great read!