June 13

Freedom Ride

freedomSue Lawson’s book, Freedom Ride, has previously been reviewed on this blog, so it is just to offer congratulations for its inclusion on the CBCA shortlist that this post is about. And to offer praise for a well-told historical fiction tale which is sure to make people stop and think.

In Lawson’s book, we are introduced to Robbie – a teenager in a fictional (but representative) country town in NSW. Through Robbie’s eyes, we quietly see the subtle segregation that was ‘accepted’ in Australian history. Naturally, Robbie’s youthful views are his family’s views, but these are slowly adjusted as he critically observes the practices and beliefs of different adults around him. https://crewsreviews.edublogs.org/2015/08/11/history-meets-fiction/

Since this time, Freedom Ride has already received several accolades, being included in the 2016 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and the Ethel Turner Prize for Young Adult Literature, and of course, the current CBCA shortlist.

Freedom Ride was actually released to coincide with NAIDOC week, an annual celebration of Indigenous achievement. It is another worthy choice which young adults will enjoy, even as it teaches us something (cringeworthy) about our past.

How powerful is it for us to learn history from fiction? Do you enjoy reading historical fiction? 

February 10

Taking a stand – ‘The Beauty is in the Walking’

the-beauty-is-in-the-walkingDoes the title of a book ever keep you wondering all the way through? Does it capture you more, or less, than the book cover?

I admit that I picked this book up based on the reputation of the author. Australian author, James Moloney has over 40  books for children and teenagers in his writing swag, along with a collection of literary awards. But the title had me puzzled.

It is only gradually that the reader is introduced to the narrator, 17-year-old Jacob O’Leary, who seems to be an average teenager – looking for friendship, his own status and love. What makes Jacob unique is his cerebral palsy (CP).

The Beauty is in the Walking shows how this impacts his daily life, his own thinking and his family’s expectations of him. Also, though he has a strong circle of friends, he is sometimes the victim of bullying. And of course, at times, even these friendships can be fickle and changeable when under pressures such as final exams and outside influences.

Set in a fictional country town in Queensland, the story raises issues about outsiders, racism, fitting in and the adolescent search for romance, against the mystery of a series of violent crimes. Jacob shows strength, determination and commitment when he beleives that the police have accused the wromng person for the shocking crime that has impacted the whole community.

At the same time, he begins to question, with the help of his outspoken English teacher (Mr Svenson) and friend, Chloe, the limited opportunities set out for him after he completes Year 12. He struggles with the plan his parents have set for him (to remain in Palmerston in the family business), against the changing perception of his own potential.

Students will identify with the angst felt by Jacob, as he ventures timidly into his first romantic relationship. They will feel his pain as he deals with his mother’s protective nature, intensified since his older brother, Tyke, has left home. And older students will understand the difficulties and anxieties faced in the final days of high school. (Though students in NSW schools may question the timing of some end-of-year events)

Jacob has a lot to prove – to the community, his parents, his teachers and himself. With determination he will try – can he succeed in his ‘walk’?

August 11

History meets fiction

I thought of Micky – there was nothing useless or dirty or stupid about him. He was funny and worked hard. He was smart too. Actually he was just, well, normal. And that man on the television, Charles Perkins, spoke better than half of Walgaree.

freedomThis quote comes from Sue Lawson’s book, Freedom Ride; a fictional tale tied into the real events of the 1965 Freedom Rides which occurred in NSW. (Their aim was to draw attention to the poor state of Aboriginal health, education and housing.)

In Lawson’s book, we are introduced to Robbie – a teenager in a fictional (but representative) country town in NSW. Through Robbie’s eyes, we quietly see the subtle segregation that was ‘accepted’ in Australian history. Naturally, Robbie’s youthful views are his family’s views, but these are slowly adjusted as he critically observes the practices and beliefs of different adults around him.

With little previous exposure to the plight of Aborigines in his community, Robbie only begins to question community values when a holiday job sees him working side-by-side with Micky.

Historic events litter the tale, setting it in a real time and place in Australia. For a brief history about the time in which it is based, see BTN Freedom Ride

Was this how things really were in country towns in the 60’s? Some would argue this was not the case. But Sue Lawson has taken a pocket of humanity to illustrate the racist attitudes which promoted the Freedom Ride movement. Many who lived in similar locations would agrue that these emotions were not rampant in their mind’s eye – but for those suffering racist taunts and restrictions, it would have felt this way.

An interesting tale to put young adults in another person’s place and time in history.

July 16

My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece

Once upon a time, Jamie had twin sisters – but that was before the bombing. Since then, the fairytale has changed, and his family has become disjointed.

Now, his mum lives in London; while he and his sister (Rose’s twin) live with their alcoholic father – with Rose’s cremation urn on their mantelpiece.

‘My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece’ is told from the perspective of 10 year old Jamie, as he struggles to settle into a new school; dealing with bullying issues and the impacts of the family’s horrendous past. Clearly, Dad still struggles with the loss of a child; and Rose’s twin, Jasmine, reveals her own issues along the way.

Jamie is ever-hopeful that his mum will return,  and take family life back to normal. In the meantime, one of his only friends at school is Sunya – a girl with Muslim heritage.  It is hard for Jamie, in his childhood innocence, to understand why this might be a problem for his father to deal with.

So Jamie hatches a plan – one which will bring Mum back to the family, even though she already seems to have missed some of the most important family events in the last year. Jasmine is reluctant to get on board with his plans, but may be convinced to help out. And what about Sunya – will she understand that Jamie is not like his father? and would her parents also forgive Jamie for his father’s intolerances?

Lots of issues are reflected in this tale – told without driving to a fairy tale ending. It’s a well written debut novel for Annabel Pitcher – I’m just not sure about any of the cover images I’ve seen yet. Will they grab the audience they need?

Engaging, sad, reflective. What do you think?

October 19

the Help – change that begins with a whisper

Kathryn Stockett, born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, has written a book about an author living in Jackson, Mississippi, writing a book about Jackson. The difference is that Miss Skeeter lives in times of prejudice and intolerance – and to write about these things at this time is both risky and challenging.

Eugenie Skeeter, however, takes up the challenge and invites others to find the courage to tell the tales of life during the civil rights movement – importantly, from the points of view of ‘coloured’ house maids. As a dissatisfied writer, she yearns to do something meaningful with her life – which is devoid of any real friends in Jackson. Returning home from college, she provides her mother with angst (with no husband-propects on the horizon), but as a keen observer, she now sees relationships at home with new eyes – ‘where black maids raise white children, but aren’t trusted not to steal the silver’.

When she finally convinces maids Aibileen and Minny to begin telling the tales of their lives as second class citizens, a momentum builds. At the same time, tension and conflict rear their ugly racist heads, as social climbers in the community work to maintain the status quo – and to keep the downtrodden in their place.

Eugenie’s friendship with two black maids is dangerous; writing a book about their experiences even more so. The outcome and whether the whole exercise is worthwhile, considering the potential harm for all those involved, creates a constant tension throughout the story, and the risks are great for all those involved.

The voices Stockett has created are immensely believable, and full of humanity. As each character (Aibileen, Minny and Miss Skeeter) tells her story, the frustrations and pressures for each of them is real and considered. Little by little, their lives are painted before us, and the impact of the prejudices of small town gossip and traditions make our hearts ache for those involved.

We feel for little Mae Mobley whose (white) mother neglects her, leaving her in the care of her maid, Aibileen. We fear that Minny will be again moved out of a much-needed job, if past employer Miss Hilly finds out where she is – that is, if Minny’s husband, Leroy, doesn’t beat her senseless before then. And then, there is the constant worry that Miss Skeeter’s writing activities will be uncovered and demonised by Miss Hilly, the young socialite, who wants to keep the blacks in their rightful positions for her view of society.

Stockett has created a strong believable story, with courageous women in a time of trouble and strife – a modern day ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ scenario – blacks guilty before being tried, dealing with trashy white attitudes – people demanding respect from family staus rather than any true accomplishemnts in life. Though ‘The Help’ has now been made into a movie, I resisted seeing the movie before reading the book, which absorbed me fully into the lives of 3 brave women at a historic period in America. having ‘heard’ their voices, I can now look forward to what has been a well received adaptation of the book:

“The Help” is a delicious peppery stew of home-cooked, 1960s Southern-style racism that serves up a soulful dish of what ails us and what heals us. Laughter, which is ladled on thick as gravy, proves to be the secret ingredient — turning what should be a feel-bad movie about those troubled times into a heart-warming surprise. – Los Angeles Times, August 10, 2011.

Check out one of the many film trailers here –

October 14

the Inheritance of Loss – Kiran Desai

the-inheritance-of-loss1As mentioned in an earlier post, I have been ‘reading’ (via a CDs-and-book combination) ‘the Inheritance of Loss’ – a book by Kiran Desai which won the Man Booker Prize in 2006. I had picked it up in my search for books reflecting issues of globalisation.

Set mainly in the foothills of the Himalayas, it tells the stories of several characters interwoven by family and work relationships, amid the legacies of post-colonial India, and the local struggles for political independence. Position, power and politics all play a part in this tale – with some predictable outcomes – and a perspective into cultures quite different from my own.

Since finishing (and enjoying) this book, I have searched to see how others had reviewed and found a mix of praise and criticism for the prize winner. Some reviews were quite effusive in their compliments, while others decried Desai as using too many stereotypes and betraying the culture of many Indian people groups.

Comments used in reviews include:

  • a series of parallel stories… each quixotic
  • ‘literature of tourism’ – a fascinating introduction to a particular time and place
  • overwhelmed by detail
  • gripping stories of people buffeted by the winds of history, personal and political
  • the book gets under your skin
  • a bleak view of the clash of the ‘first world’ with the ‘third world’

(Most of these comments from: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/95186.The_Inheritance_of_Loss)

It’s interesting to see the polarisation of reviews which often occurs with awarded books. These also made me wonder how the book might be received differently based on your ethnic background – would people who lived in, or knew the ethnic cultures, be accepting as I was of the way characters were portrayed and acted in the tale? Is that where the acceptance or rejection of the novel diverges greatly? Perhaps based on our own cultural baggage?

‘Reading’ using an audio production may have had an input to my enjoyment of the novel, read as it was by experienced narrator, Sam Dastor. This gave accents and voice to the characters which my personal reading-from-the-page may have missed. It certainly gave me things to laugh at in the car, as humour was interwoven with the daily struggles of Sai, Biju, Noni and Lola, and the Judge. And the language Desai uses is, at times playful, at other times precise, reflective and colourful. Perhaps that is why I also felt the need to purchase a physical copy of the book – and to see the shape of her words, and to see the names of the people and places in the tale.

I recommend picking up either copy (audio or book), or, as I did, try both! As usual comments and feedback welcome!