Older readers: Anxious People

From the author of ‘A Man called Ove’, translated from Swedish, ‘Anxious People’ is a humorous book of life observations.

Set in a small Swedish town where nothing much happens, the tale opens with a bizarre bank robbery (at a cashless bank) which then turns into a hostage drama at a nearby apartment building. As a small-town police team of father and son seek to resolve the situation (without relying on the heavy guns from Stockholm), Backman sprinkles the story with the quirks and foibles of those caught up in the drama while viewing an apartment open house.

Cleverly woven links between present and past, among the characters and the building’s location, occur throughout. Similarly, clever comments on normal everyday things – like food preferences, domestic needs, and views on family relationships – give cause for a laugh or two along the way.

The bank robber is, of course, not your typical bank robber – more a result of a series of unfortunate events which culminate in a ‘hostage situation’ – again, not typical.

Each of the characters involved has their own version of what happened, and their own anxieties. Insecurities in relationships and work, perplexities about the impact of their past actions, lost loves and lives – all have left challenges to be overcome.

Even what is told from the police perspective is not completely what it seems. Have they handled the case properly? Why haven’t they had demands from the offender? How could they lose the suspect?

Backman makes some interesting observations throughout ‘Anxious People’ but in doing so, he does it gently and with humour. His characters are quirky but real (even though I disliked Zara, but maybe that was the point). An absurd situation in a little town becomes a feel-good book to make us all think while we laugh out loud.

Are you ready for a light-hearted read that also makes you think?

Green Almonds: Letters from Palestine

Two sisters show life in different countries and different cultures in this graphic novel by Anaele and Delphine Hermans – a memoir of Anaele’s 10-month stay in Bethlehem while volunteering for a youth organization/NGO.

Presented as postcards and letters shared between the two sisters, ‘Green Almonds’ highlights the living conditions of populations in war-torn zones of the world. At the same time, it humanises these conditions as they accept them as a ‘normal’ part of life.

Anaele’s initial arrival presented anxious times from the word go, as she negotiated customs at Tel Aviv airport in 2008. Her stories about the months that followed illustrate some of the precarious situations faced by everyday people in these occupied territories. At the same time, descriptions of simple joys in life shared amongst friends show things she enjoyed with her Palestinian friends. Cultural differences aside, there is still a place where: “we sing, we laugh, we talk until late into the night”.

As the correspondence journeys between Bethlehem and Liege, great contrasts are displayed in the lives of the two sisters. Interestingly, the postcards from Delphine mainly chat about shallow day-to-day life events at home in Liege; Anaele’s letters provide greater detail, empathy and passion about her experiences, as she negotiates a world apart from Belgium.

Of course, ‘Green Almonds’ is also a reflection of the harsh world experienced by those caught in this massive ongoing battle. As a graphic novel, it provides some introduction and insight into a dangerous conflict. Perhaps a more detailed follow-up would look deeper into the lives and relationships Anaele experienced in her time there and since her return to Belgium. (It would be an interesting continuation as she has worked to enable international volunteering projects since her return.)

Green Almonds received the Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) award for the best travel diary highlighting the living conditions of populations in precarious situations when it was published in France in 2011.

Do you read non-fiction graphic novels?

Do they offer a worthwhile presentation of historic or real-world events? (e.g. the March trilogy which focuses on civil rights in the US)

Can such a memoir make you think about world events and conditions?

Future Girl – Asphyxia

What a beautiful book – the story, the illustrations, the things you can learn, the things you can think deeply about!

As an artist, author and activist (who also happens to be Deaf), Asphyxia has created a sumptuous book with a tale to be considered carefully. Her illustrations are just beautiful, as they reveal Piper’s emotions as she journals her personal insights.

Piper has been deaf since 3. Her mother wants her to be seen as normal. In a near-future dystopian society, life is hard enough, but Piper finds school and its demands more exhausting each day. With the ability to ‘tell it from the heart’ (as a Deaf person living in a hearing world), Asphyxia reveals through Piper just how hard it is being Deaf.

‘Future Girl’ is also coloured by the real characters Piper meets, as she struggles to find direction for her life outside of her school experience. There is so much more she learns (and teaches us) from these people.

Marley first helps her fix her bike, and becomes a future love interest. Robbie, his mother (who happens to be Deaf), opens up a new (Deaf) world to her – a new way of being herself. From her, in a world of economic chaos and rationing, she also learns ways to provide for herself (and her mother, Irene) and begins growing her own food.

Gradually, Piper becomes part of a different community, where her talents are applauded. Her voice is found in her art. At the same time, many upheavals in her life create challenges, and she has to decide what is important to her.

Asphyxia’s gentle education of the reader is fascinating.

I was re-introduced to the sign language alphabet which I had played with at school, and found quite exhausting (imagine having to spell everything you want to say!). Her explanation of Auslan through Piper’s gradual introduction to ‘whole-word’ signs was eye-opening. I found the concept of how exhausting it is for a Deaf person using a hearing device and lip-reading thought-provoking too. (It reminded me of Being Jazmine by Cecily Paterson.)

The importance of community and belonging is another element ‘Future Girl’ raises. Just starting out with a local community garden myself, I found this a wonderful and warm attachment to the story. It was also timely in this COVID climate where relationships, separation and restrictions mark our current world. But there is so much more… it is impossible to deliver it all here!

Asphyxia ‘speaks’

This is a book you want to read, hug and re-read carefully. Absorb the ideas, the beautiful illustrations and the inspiration it gives us all. Inspiration to look at the world differently, with hope and with concern for those around us. (Recommended 14+)

 

# Asphyxia gave permission to include some of her stunning artwork – I hope this entices you to pick up a copy soon. There is so much to learn through the story and the personal notes from her at the end.

# A younger series she has written also displays her creative puppetry skills – the Grimstones, a gothic fairytale series introduced here. 

(Apologies for the quality of the photo images taken…)

 

Ursula and Tohby together!

Laureate Ursula promotes access to books via library cards!

What a privilege to attend a dinner with Ursula Dubosarsky and Tohby Riddle as guest speakers! What a wonderful way to celebrate nearing the end of a difficult year – dinner at the Farm, Katoomba, with CBCA lovers of children’s literature.

Aside from the amazing location and dinner, we heard from Ursula regarding her role as Australian Children’s Laureate, her long-term association with Tohby Riddle (from early days at The School Magazine) and the things which inspired her to write her latest book, ‘Pierre’s Not There’. Tohby then spoke about ‘Yahoo Creek’ (which was shortlisted this year in the CBCA awards), as well as his recent collaboration with Ursula on ‘the March of the Ants’ (due for publication in MARCH 2021!)

While speaking about her laureate role, Ursula emphasised it was an honour, and a job/role to be accomplished – not just an award for past work, but a challenge to inspire and encourage Australian children as readers and writers. With her many engagements as Children’s Laureate, past and present, she (and her magpie company) will undoubtedly continue to inspire many young readers and the professionals who promote children’s literature.

Tohby also spoke warmly of their past work together at the School Magazine (in publication since 1916, and still going – with subscriptions available!!), and he then introduced some of his latest books. This included ‘Yahoo Creek’ and the upcoming ‘the March of the Ants’.

Providing insights into the work of an author/illustrator, Tohby pointed to the endpapers of ‘Yahoo Creek’ (which are clips of Trove-sourced newspapers) as well as how these articles provided the language for ‘Yahoo Creek’. What an amazing use of historical newspaper records to create an imaginative tale for Australia’s youth!

When it came to illustrating Ursula’s story ‘the March of the Ants’, Tohby identified the ‘monastic’ dedication required to illustrate the multitudes of ants in the story (for an exacting audience who would not accept an illustrator sliding off in his drawing) – all to enable the true telling of the tale. Their past collaborations must have spurred him on in those challenging times!

Finally, Ursula spoke about her inspiration for ‘Pierre’s Not There’ – visiting the Palace of Versailles – almost under protest – at the least, disinterested – then sidetracked by a French puppet theatre nearby. Her puppet theatre visit, subsequent emotions and thoughts about this exploration inspired the events portrayed in ‘Pierre’s Not There’. And her haunting recollections ‘illuminate’ her feelings where this tale began. It’s always interesting to get into the mind of an author and hear where ideas come from…

Fans of both Ursula and Tohby should be looking forward to their new collaboration/publication in March – ‘the March of the Ants’. Here’s a link to the short story which has inspired the picture book. Can you picture how it might be pictured? Can you see it how Tohby may have illustrated it?

# Ursula is one of six Australian representatives recently nominated for the 2021 international Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award.

Hamnet – behind the scenes

Life and death. Roles and responsibilities. Poverty and plague. Elizabethan England.

Maggie O’Farrell’s ‘Hamnet’ provides an alternative insight into the family life and development of a famous playwright. (Guess who?)

Set in England in the late 1500’s – a time cursed by disease and poverty, it introduces a young girl wracked with fever. Her twin brother anxiously seeks help for her, but their father is away in London and their mother is occupied elsewhere. Where is she? Why isn’t she here to help him?

Time then moves back to when their parents first met, and how, against the wishes of parents and step-parents, they became husband and wife.

Because of this, theirs is not an easy marriage from the beginning and neither seems to be able to fulfil all the expectations of family and society.

The mother, Agnes, has gifts inherited from her mother – an unusual intuition, the ability to heal and a quiet way of observing and understanding the people around her. And the father strives for more than the village of Stratford-upon-Avon can offer his abilities, spending much of his time in London – away from Agnes, Susanna, Hamnet and Judith.

“Two extraordinary people.

A love that draws them together.

A loss that tears them apart.”

‘Hamnet’ describes the challenging settings and experiences of many people in these times, when infectious diseases were easily spread and poorly controlled. (How a flea in Alexandria is able to impact many on a sea journey and end up killing a child in England is thoughtfully described. Its final impact on the family is traumatic.) Agnes’ healing herbs are however a comfort, and sometimes a cure, for the village people who come to her for help – even though they do not entirely approve of her way of ‘being’.

Through the visions Agnes experiences, we know that someone in her family will be lost to the plague – but even she is unable to understand who it might be. The struggles of the family are multiplied as the parents each seek to realise their own role in life. And it is particularly heartbreaking as they deal with the death of their child, in different ways. Neither will be hurried in their grief.

Visiting England in the late 1500s through the tragic events of this family and their community is a real and thought-provoking experience. You can smell their home, feel their conflicts, empathise with their struggles, and sense their great sorrow. Life is far from the glossy pictures we might have about a renowned playwright the whole world now honours. Historical fiction at its finest; accessible and engaging, with lots to ponder.

Here, Maggie O’Farrell talks about Hamnet:

# Awarded 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

the Henna Artist

Married at 15, with an abusive husband and no-one to turn to, Lakshmi flees her rural village to seek an independent life. As her life evolves in the city of Jaipur, she becomes a renowned henna artist for the upper class. Her skills sought after, she is able to work towards her dream of a better life.

Alka Joshi’s debut novel pays homage to her parents’ Indian background – an arranged marriage and a desire for a better life. As her parents moved from India to America, theirs is not a traditional Indian lifestyle – though her mother had limited choices herself, she had greater aspirations for her daughter.

Naturally, Alka tributes her own freedom to her mother’s efforts, enabling her to live a life of choice that her mother never experienced. She sees ‘the Henna Artist’ as a reimagining of her mother’s traditional life in India of the 1950s – a girl making a life of her own.

Set in India in the mid-1950s, ‘the Henna Artist’ provides an authentic insight into some of the restrictions faced by young women/girls within Indian society. Themes include discrimination through the caste system, male vs female rights, wealth vs poverty, and the implications of all these for young girls.

As stated before, Lakshmi escapes an abusive marriage and is able to determine some of her life choices once she is in Jaipur. She operates her own business, employs a young but savvy local boy, and her henna work (and other skills) is in demand by upper-class ladies. However, the favours and relationships she has established to improve her status in life begin to unravel when her past catches up with her.

Life, with its class-related pitfalls, seems so unfair in this novel. There is both hope and despair, with no clear outcome for Lakshmi and those around her, except for the importance of family ties. But whose family ties will be significant?

This is a challenging #ownstorytelling, as Alka Joshi aims to:

“…understand that what my mother wanted was a life for me that she was denied. She wanted me to experience the freedom of choice…. Lakshmi embodies the alternative life (I) imagined for my mother.”

Including a glossary to explain the many Indian terms, a list to introduce the characters, and some relevant explanations/recipes ‘the Henna Artist’ reveals a world of struggle, love and pain with intriguing characters.

Vibrant personalities, colourful locations, and even threatening situations presented are easy to imagine. Cultural and social conflicts are frustratingly real and angst-ridden. Lakshmi’s future isn’t simple, but there is hope that she will rise above all that fate places in her path – but at what cost?

# Will this, a debut novel be a standalone, or the first of several stories from Alka Joshi? Is there more to tell about Lakshmi, Malik, Hari, Radha and Nikhil?

The Happiest Man on Earth

At the fine old age of 99, in May 2019, Eddie Jaku gave a TEDx talk at Sydney’s International Convention Centre. His debut book, ‘The Happiest Man on Earth’, followed in 2020!

As he tells his story, Eddie recollects both the fortunes and misfortunes which have marked his life as a German Jew. Indeed, much of this would be familiar to visitors of Sydney Jewish Museum since he has volunteered at the museum from 1992. It is his story to tell – to remember and honour the missing generations.

Why read another biography of a holocaust survivor? What makes ‘the Happiest Man on Earth’ an important read? In the case of Eddie Jaku – Authenticity. Renown. Optimism.

While Eddie documents the immense struggles of his life (which we may never experience), he also gives life lessons. He recognises the values which shaped him. He values the lessons his parents taught him. He acknowledges the relationships which saved him. And he records, as a survivor, events never to be forgotten – for the sake of those who were exterminated.

While Eddie records tragic events in his life – as a victim of Nazi concentration camps and a refugee caught between two countries, he also inserts the wisdom from a survivor – that which has enabled him to move on from such horror. In ‘the Happiest Man on Earth’, as each period of his life is noted, it is bookended with sage advice to deal with pain, prejudice, problems and the past – ways to be safe and secure in the present. Such advice includes:

# If you have the opportunity today, go home and make sure you tell your mother how much you love her.

# Hate is a disease which may destroy your enemy, but which will destroy you in the process.

# Tomorrow will come but first, enjoy today.

These revelations have not come to Eddie easily. Some thoughts were innate from his family’s upbringing, which helped him survive. However, damaged, post-war he was not a happy man, as might be the case for many – until his son was born. He now claims the greatest happiness comes from family.

From someone who has seen 100 years of extremes in human behaviour, Eddie Jaku has much to tell us and ‘the Happiest Man on Earth’ provides many thoughts to ponder. For those who struggle, for those with prejudices, for those who need to forgive or just simply move on.

Life can be beautiful if you make it beautiful.

It’s up to you.

CBCA Awards 2020

With a delayed and adjusted awards ceremony this year, the CBCA Awards have finally been announced!

 

View the award ceremony today (October 16) below:

 

This year, I didn’t read all the shortlisted Older Readers books, but two of those I reviewed here were awarded the Honour Book status – The Boy Who Steals Houses and Ghost Bird. (I was disappointed When the Ground is Hard wasn’t also among the winners, as it was my pick.)

 

That said, how many people regularly pick the winner?

This year the winner in the Older Readers category was ‘This is How We Change the Ending’ – a tough book for the author, dealing with tough issues. Author Vikki Wakefield even expressed how writing this book made her feel uncomfortable.

It is inhabited by kids who are tough and prickly and aimless. Kids trying to figure out who they are and what they stand for. Kids who feel they have limited choices.

Hopefully, it is a book that kids, like this, will read with hope; and also one read by others better off, to develop empathy.

 

When the passionate Eddie Woo introduced the Younger Readers award category, he aimed to remind everyone about the power of books – including the power to help us inhabit other people’s thoughts, to embrace other people’s emotions, and thus, develop empathy for others.

Winner Pip Harry accepted her award and then showed viewers around the area of Singapore (where she now lives). However, her book, ‘the Little Wave’,  was inspired on the shores of Manly Beach, which she misses. She spoke about reading as a friend, as well as a place to learn empathy. She said she loves to write for kids “because they are the best readers”, and read the following poem which was sent to her by an avid reader:

“Writing a fiction story is like creating a world

Piece by piece

And your head forgets who you really are.” – Amelia, Grade 3

 

Empathy and understanding of people in different situations seem to be key elements in many of the books involved in this year’s awards. This is also reflected in the comments of readers interviewed in the video clips, as well as many of the books. Accepting the award for Eve Pownall Award this year, Bruce Pascoe for ‘Young Dark Emu’ expressed his desire for the younger generation to develop an understanding and appreciation of Australian heritage – another book where kids can stand in the shoes of others.

What inspired you the most from this year’s awards?

The Boy Who Steals Houses

Some time ago, I heard/read that what defines YA apart from adult fiction is the notion of ‘hope’. (I need to research where this was…). And having just finished ‘The Boy Who Steals Houses’ I have a clear example of this idea.

How can a child from an abusive or negligent family relationship develop any hope for the future? If your basic needs of food shelter and love are not being met, what impact does that have on your life?

C.G.Drews does not shy away from difficult family relationships. Her previous book, ‘A Thousand Perfect Notes‘ dealt with an abusive mother of a talented musician, as he struggles to find his place in the world – while pressured to meet his mother’s expectations. In ‘The Boy Who Steals Houses’, Sam has to deal with responsibility for his older autistic brother in the absence of parental care. (Note, in ATPN Beck also looks after his younger sister…).

There are many things Sam has to deal with – an abusive father, an absent mother, an autistic brother, his own anger issues – but all he longs for is a normal family. But what is that? And who can you trust?

Avery seems to think Vi is trustworthy. Sam isn’t so sure.

Moxie trusts Sam, even though he is secretly living in her mother’s study. And her family doesn’t know.

Sam doesn’t trust Mr De Lainey enough to think he will not turn him into the police. But where else can he go?

Where do you go, when all your options are running out, and your past is catching up with you?

With an intriguing title and characters with quirky natures, ‘The Boy Who Steal Houses’ IS a hopeful tale. The contrasts between Sam’s and Moxie’s families are great, but they each face their own difficulties. There are some playful characters to be enjoyed, along with instances where poor decisions are made – will things work out in the end for Sam and his brother? And is Moxie’s life as idyllic as Sam seems to think? How do you deal with not only being a *glass child, but also one who is homeless?

‘The Boy Who Steal Houses’ is one of the YA books on the 2020 CBCA Shortlist – a worthy nominee. If you want to know what inspired the story, read from the C.G. Drew’s Author Q&A where she gives some really playful and insightful answers. Lots of advice too for budding writers!

# Should all YA books have an element of hope?

## Do you always expect a happy ending?

### Who is your favourite character in this story? (Then read what C.G. Drews says herself!)

 

*Glass child – “… Glass children are children who are growing up in a home with a sibling who takes up a disproportionate amount of parental energy.” (See Urban dictionary definition for more detail.)

Edit: ‘the Boy who Steals Houses’ is an Honour Book in this year’s CBCA Awards. Congrats!

the Ruin

Here is one for lovers of crime fiction – a more mature read for senior students and adults. ‘The Ruin’ is the first novel for Irish-born author Dervla McTiernan – the first of (now) several books centred on Garda Cormac Reilly.

Set mainly in Galway (which was actually Dervla’s hometown), it links together a 20-year-old cold case and an apparent suicide. Since his move from Dublin where he was a well-recognised investigator, Detective Reilly has sadly been given yet another cold case to sort through. However, this one has him intricately involved, as it follows up one of his first cases as a rookie police officer.

The prologue tells of Cormac’s first encounter with Maude, Jack and their dead mother in a crumbling country house. Then, 20 years later, he investigates what happened to Maude and Jack after their mother’s death and so the story begins.

In Galway, Cormac’s situation in his new office environment is fraught with all the difficulties of a newbie fitting into the local situation; especially with little recognition of his past professional achievements.

Maude arrives on the scene, attending her brother Jack’s funeral, and seeks to understand why he died. Aislyn, his partner, is also reluctant to believe that Jack was suicidal. Are their instincts correct?

There are many other questions to be answered in ‘the Ruin’, as a web of lies needs to be pushed through:

  • Who can be trusted?
  • Are the garda (police) being effective and vigorous in their investigations?
  • What is hidden in the past?
  • Can Cormac Reilly uncover details from so long ago?

Author Dervla McTiernan had a legal career in Ireland before migrating to Australia with her family. Interestingly, she has tied Australia lightly into this story. Her insight into the legal system in Ireland is obvious, but depressing, if real. Cleverly, it is the twists and turns and the possibilities in ‘the Ruin’ which keep you guessing as the investigations continue. Who is really telling the truth?

For readers interested in writing (and crime fiction), there is a Writing Studio conducted by Dervla, where she discusses some of the basics of writing: https://dervlamctiernan.com/better-reading/ which is well worth a visit. With 2 more books in the Cormac Reilly series (‘the Scholar’ and ‘the Good Turn’ there is lots more on offer! It would also be interesting to listen to this as an audiobook, even just to listen to the Irish brogue… 😊

Look out for the movie which has been optioned for production too!