Once There Were Wolves

Once there were wolves in Scotland – until they were viewed as too great a threat to farmers and their animals. In fact, in 1577, James VI made it compulsory to hunt wolves three times a year.

Thus hunting them was rewarded, and the last wolf was reportedly killed in 1680 in Killiecrankie (though there are reports that wolves survived in Scotland up until the 18th century). The long-term consequence of this was major destruction of woodland, overrun by the deer population and other herbivores. They were no longer culled naturally by wolves, the apex predator in the forest ecosystem.

Biologist Inti Flynn arrives in Scotland, leading a team of scientists which aims to reintroduce the grey wolf into the remote highlands. The team’s aim is twofold – to increase wolf numbers in the wild and to heal the landscape. Inti also needs to heal her twin sister, Aggie.

Not unexpectedly, the local farmers and villagers are very wary of the scientists’ plans, fearing their animals and families might fall prey to the wolf packs which are to be introduced. They remain blind to the true nature of wolves and their place in nature.

Inti’s passion for her wolves is deep, and due to a rare condition of mirror-touch synaesthesia, she can even sense their feelings, as well those of others she observes. Her childhood experiences with her twin sister, Aggie, provide some extreme examples of this and have left them both broken to different degrees.

With the disappearance of a local man, the ongoing opposition to their rewilding project comes to a head. Who/what will be blamed?

Naturally, Inti fears for her wolves. But who can she turn to? Who can she trust? Will her upbringing enable her to discover the real truth? And can she bring Aggie back to her senses?

Through Inti’s experiences, Charlotte McConaughy writes a sensitive and sensual discovery of the need to accept the role of wild creatures. Some locals are won over, but fear of the unknown echoes through much of the population.

McConaughy provides both poetic and informative descriptions of the wild, while she slowly reveals details about the nature of the people in this tale. In this, there is much to keep you guessing – and much to give you hope…

For more about the reintroduction of wolves to Scotland, start with this article:

Wolf Reintroduction in Scotland

The Paris Library

This is definitely one for book and library lovers – and those who understand the power of reading.

Switching between Paris in the early years of WWII and Montana in the 1980’s, ‘the Paris Library’ (by Janet Skeslien Charles) links the stories of Odile Souchet and Montana teenager, Lily.

Odile is an intense young lady, living in Paris. Her father is keen for her to find a husband, and regularly brings home suitors for Sunday lunch after church. Odile, however, isn’t particularly interested in any of them, and is more concerned with establishing herself in her dream job at the American Library.

When war is declared, the Library staff is determined to maintain their service for the Parisian community, providing books to British and French troops, and constantly work at ways to overcome the obstacles arising from Nazi occupation. Problems arise of course, due to the various backgrounds of library staff, and some reluctantly need to move on and away from their normal ways of functioning as military threats increase.

At times, it seems the library will be closed; something their dedicated subscribers (members such as students, writers, book lovers and soldiers at war) would find so tragic. Thus, the library staff do their best to meet their needs; a band of resistance in perilous times of occupation.

Woven into a tale from the past is the story of Lily, a young teen girl in Montana, as she develops an unlikely friendship with her widowed neighbour. While both are guarded, they begin to warm to one another since they share a love of language and books. Then there are slow reveals of former lives, loves and losses as the tales alternate between 1939 and 1983.

Based on the historical fact of occupied Paris during WWII, ‘the Paris Library’ is written by an author whose interests were piqued when she worked there.  It provides an insight into the actions of brave individuals and the role that the American Library played in trying to normalise life and maintain civility:

With the coming of World War II, the occupation of France by the Nazi regime, and the deepening threats to French Jews, Library director Dorothy Reeder and her staff and volunteers provided heroic service by operating an underground, and potentially dangerous, book-lending service to Jewish members barred from libraries. (Source: the History of the American Library in Paris, https://americanlibraryinparis.org/history/)

The other storyline in Montana will appeal to a young adult audience, as Lily struggles with school, friendships, the loss of her mother and the subsequent change in family relationships in a small country town. How will her growing relationship with her neighbour make a difference?

Both storylines raise questions about love, trust, loyalty and the need to belong. Lovers of historical fiction will enjoy a different insight into the impact of war, both immediate and long-term. Lovers of libraries will enjoy library/literary references, and applaud the tenacity of realistic characters as they continue to provide services in this tragic period in history.

Thus, it is highly recommended for these readers, and a great choice for those wanting something new.

Older reader: A Room Made of Leaves

The challenge of historical fiction – reflecting events of the past, recalling people of the past, and weaving these convincingly into a story. As a favourite genre of many people, it is also one open to critique when it strays too far from the truth perhaps?

In ‘A Room Made of Leaves’, celebrated author Kate Grenville opens up the world of Elizabeth Macarthur. She invites readers to consider a different perspective of life in early colonial Sydney – one not normally addressed by high school history classes – the female perspective.

Historically, John Macarthur is lauded as the pioneer of the wool industry, with his portrait gracing Australian currency over the years. However, his dark side as a scheming, driven personality is what drives this story. In his absence from the colony (fighting Governors and facing a court-martial in England), it seems his wife and sons were the ones driving this pioneering success.

Writing as Elizabeth Macarthur compiling her account of their personal history, Grenville challenges our acceptance of historical records and our assumptions about life for the early settlers. Early on, the reader is warned: ‘do not believe too quickly’, though we quickly become absorbed into this changed view of history.

A clever portrayal of Australian history. One to make you think, question, and consider what history really is. HIStory vs HERstory?

Always… (at last)

It seems it has been a long wait, but finally, we have the last book in Morris Gleitzman’s Once series. ‘Always’ completes the lifelong journey of Felix, the young boy introduced 16 years ago in ‘Once’.

Felix is now in his eighties, living in aged care in Australia. When a young boy is brought to him and left unexpectedly in his care, Felix once again embarks on a journey (with the boy, Wassim) to right wrongs built upon the prejudices and beliefs from history.

Dedicated followers will enjoy many references to characters and phrases used in past books. Some of these voices echo clearly in my mind, having listened to several of the books, particularly with Morris Gleitzman reading them. (Highly recommended audiobooks!)

Endearing, with characters like young Felix, Zelda, and the many strong people determined to fight against the tragedy of the holocaust, this final book in the epic series is gentle in its teaching for young readers. It is also compelling for older readers who are lucky to discover the series when reading alongside young readers – a chance to share and reflect together.

Always stay hopeful. That’s my motto.
You’re probably thinking … what’s he got to be hopeful about? He’s ten years old and look at his life. (Quote from Wassim in ‘Always’, p.3)

You can find a better and deeper review of Always at Kids’ Book Reviews. And there is always the author’s own revelations and musings at Morris Gleiztman/Always.

# Have you read the whole series?

## Did you find any parts of the stories confronting?

### Are there other books of historical fiction you would recommend?

 

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?