Cloud and Wallfish

Imagine how you would feel if your parents picked you up from school, and whisked you away to a foreign country? No time to say goodbye to friends, unable to pack your favourite things – in fact, having many of your school possessions dumped in a bin, never to be seen again!

On top of this, imagine they expect you to change your name (just as they have), and to ‘remember’ where you went to school as somewhere you have never heard of – and to forget where home is. This is what happens to 11-year-old Noah Keller when his parents take him to the ‘other’ Germany to support his mother’s research studies. They even tell him his birthday isn’t really in March but in November.

‘Cloud and Wallfish’ by Anne Nesbet is an interesting tale which follows Noah/Jonah and his parents at a climactic time in history – as change begins in East and West Germany – nearing the end of the Cold War.

As Noah adjusts to a confusing new home, his mother deals with her studies, and his father ‘writes his novel’ while acting as the house-parent. There are lots of rules to take on board too – it seems that East Germany isn’t very accepting of Americans, who they label as brash and opinionated. Thus, Noah stays quiet and alone for some time, acceding to his parents’ requests to stay ‘under the communists radar’.

In telling Noah’s story, ‘Cloud and Wallfish’ outlines some of the historical changes happening at the time his family are there – based on the author’s personal experiences having lived in East Berlin in 1987, and again in 1989 just before the Wall came down.

Peering over from East Berlin – website details the history of the Berlin Wall – click on image

Noah’s struggles (loneliness and his own ‘Astonishing Stutter’) are buoyed in the story when he meets Cloud-Claudia; though he still also remains eager to go to school. However, that is not an easy thing to do.

Those who love a bit of history, or even just learning about other ways to view the world*, will enjoy ‘Cloud and Wallfish’. Episodes in Noah’s life are followed with some explanations, in ‘Secret File’ pages which provide an historical understanding of events.

It raises a lot of questions about the past, world politics and rules. It will also have you thinking about when it is wise to keep a secret – about yourself or others. And whether there is a time you need to reveal all you know – even if it may impact on others, because that’s what Noah has to consider time and again.

# Do you like historical fiction?

## Do Noah’s experiences and actions ring true for you? (i.e. do you think this is the way an eleven-year-old would really act?)

Recommended 10-14 years

For details about the fall of the Berlin Wall see: Fall of Berlin Wall: How 1989 reshaped the modern world

*considering a ‘worldview’

# Available as an ebook.

Van Apfel Girls – Why are they missing?

My daughter commented the other day about how many new books she had read recently were now using flashbacks and multiple viewpoints*. This may have related to the genre she has been reading (several crime and mystery stories), but I certainly reflected on this comment as I read ‘the Van Apfel Girls are Gone’ – flashbacks are crucial.

The story itself reflects back to “the long hot summer of 1992, the summer the Van Apfel sisters – Hannah, beautiful Cordelia and Ruth – vanished…” (Blurb on the back cover)

Told by one of the girls’ friends and neighbours, Tikka, it is a tale of pondering, wondering and wishing. What if Tikka had…? What if people had noticed…? What if friends and neighbours had…?

Twenty years after the girls went missing, Tikka returns to her family home to be with her older sister, Laura, who has tragically been diagnosed with cancer. Also told from the point of view of an eleven-year-old girl, it provides a young viewpoint, as remembered by Tikka.

Together and separately, Tikka and Laura think about the events leading up to the girls’ disappearance, and the seeds are sown for the reader to contemplate what actually happened – and why. The recollections of others are also finally laid out for Tikka and Laura to ponder.

In spite of the title, you are never quite sure what happens to the Van Apfel girls, but there are lots of dim, dark secrets revealed along the way. Some of the nuggets of information are cleverly hidden in the story (while others may be distractors) so that you are never quite sure what will happen next, or what is the real impact of (several) people keeping observations to themselves.

# Does this story leave you with all the answers?

## How does this story make you feel about keeping secrets?

Recommended 15+

# Nominated for the Indie Book Awards 2020 for the best Australian books published in 2019 – category Debut Fiction.

* She was recently reading ‘See What I Have Done’ by Sarah Schmidt and ‘the Secret of the Tides’ by Hannah Richell.

Dumplings, anyone?

When I first began reading ‘the Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling’ it made me recall ‘Front Desk’ by Kelly Yang (reviewed here). Both stories deal with families of Asian heritage, and their struggles to assimilate in a Western culture and daughters battling with their parents’ expectations of their school achievements. However, as a novel for an older reader, SPOAGD has more layers and detail.

As the eldest sibling, Anna has a lot of responsibility – especially since there are times when her mother won’t get out of bed for weeks on end. Her father seems more focussed on the operation of the family restaurant, and even spends overnights there since it is some distance from home. Thus, Anna, Lily (her younger, smart sister) and Michael (her kindergarten brother) are left to cope as best they can.

Though they recognise that their mother’s behaviour is not ‘normal’, the children are unable, or unwilling to seek help – family pride – and their father appears too weak to act.

Family struggles arise. Michael’s teacher wishes to see his mother. Anna’s teachers push her to lift her game, as she nears the senior years of school. Previously-loyal employees leave the restaurant for better opportunities. Their father spends even more time away from home, seemingly ignoring his wife’s health issues and their impact on the family.

When she goes to help out at the restaurant in the school holidays, Anna meets Rory, who begins work as their delivery boy. Slowly, a vital friendship grows, and Anna is confronted by the struggles that others around her also face.

Dealing with mental illness, SPOAGD highlights how hard it is to take action and get help. In the layers of the story, bullying, suicide, stress and depression are carefully exposed. As a reader, you anticipate some of the key characters opening up to each other, as they identify with similar problems.

But, credit to author, Wai Chim, there is no easy path for Anna, Rory, or others like school acquaintance, Wei. However new friendships and old loyalties form a comforting base for Anna and Rory, as they work through their individual struggles.

The story subtly points out some of the tiny ways in which different cultures critique and antagonise one another – sometimes without even understanding their impact. At the same time, it shows that the nuances of each family’s cultural background is important.

As Wai Chim states, the power of own voice stories is important, and books like ‘the Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling’ provide some interesting insights into different cultures, without lecturing. It’s a coming of age story, with lots of ups and downs to keep you emotionally connected to the very end.

Recommended 13+

# Other books by Wai Chim include ‘Freedom Swimmer’, ‘Shaozhen’ (a CBCA Notable book for Younger Readers for 2018, set in China) and a number of picture books in the Chook Chook series.

# How important is it that authors represent or write about their own culture?

## As someone who now lives in Australia, born in the USA, does Wai have the credentials to write Chinese ‘own voice stories?

The immigrant experience

Mia’s family has immigrated from China to the US for a better life – which is fine, until the reality of finding work hits. With little more than $200, the family takes on a job running a motel for Mr Yao, the wealthy owner. They soon realise life isn’t going to be as rosy as they first thought, as Mr Yao takes advantage of their desperate situation.

‘Front Desk’ reflects a lot of the personal experiences of the author, Kelly Yang, as she too helped her parents manage several motels in California from a young age. Just as Mia finds school difficult (hiding her poverty and facing racist taunts), so too did Kelly.

The exploitation of immigrant workers and racist attitudes facing people of non-white appearances is strongly portrayed, as Mia’s family struggles to get ahead. They find some comfort and support from the ‘weeklies’ who live in the Calivista Motel – though initially puzzled by the warning one gives them about the nature of their employer:

[Hank] “Everyone hates Mr Yao… Trust me, he’s anything but all right.”

Mia strives to get off the hopeless roller coaster of her situation. She  has ambitions to become a writer, even though her mother constantly directs her to devote her studies to maths. Is this an unrealistic ambition for a Chinese daughter of immigrants? Why is her mother so insistent on maths?

While Front Desk is fairly easy to read, many of the events and issues it raises are not. The ways Mia has to employ to cope with her family’s impoverished situation – both at school and at home, could make you sad. However, the other disempowered people she meets who spur her on and support the family provide hope.

It is HOPE that has to be continually reignited in this story, as Mia’s roller coaster takes her and her family on a rough, and sometimes dangerous, ride.

Kelly Yang wrote this story with purpose:

Finally, I hope that through this book, more people will understand the importance of tolerance and diversity…

This book is about what happens when you include, when, despite all your suffering and heartache, you still wake up every morning and look out at the world with fresh, curious eyes.

In this video, Kelly introduces Front Desk:

A recommended read for middle schoolers, and those who would like to see the immigrant experience through authentic eyes.

# The copy previewed has a different (newer) cover – why do you think the publishers have done this?

## Which of the things which happens to Mia and her family do you find most surprising? or most shocking?

Wearing Paper Dresses (with feeling)

Wearing Paper Dresses is a story you can feel. In its pages, even a city-slicker can begin to understand the stresses and strains of rural life – and to anticipate the troubles to come.

In this debut novel, Anne Brinsden introduces us to a family dealing not only with the struggles of drought but also the struggles of adapting to a ‘foreign’ lifestyle. For indeed that is what it is like for Elise, who marries Bill while he is working in the city (where she belongs). In the city, they start to build their family life.

When Bill’s father (known as Pa) calls him back to help on the family farm in the Mallee region of Victoria, Elise and their daughters must follow. Her urban background offers little to support her in her new environment (a working farm planted in tough conditions), and her own upbringing stands her apart from the community into which she must now try to blend.

“But Elise wasn’t from the Mallee, and she knew nothing of its ways.”

The Mallee, its weather and even their farmhouse are alive and important in this story. Each of these elements has emotions and thoughts, as they ‘watch’ events unfold. Through them, you are forewarned of looming difficulties. You really feel ominous tremors as you read.

Mallee scrubland

Subtle changes in Elise arise as she tries to adapt to rural life. Unfortunately, Bill is either too busy, or reluctant, or unable to see these changes. While Pa and others try to point these out, their daughters Ruby and Marjorie run wild. They also bear the brunt of Elise’s difficulties and take on many of her family responsibilities.

Thus the girls spend their time ‘on eggshells’ – anticipating the next time Elise will do something strange or moody or threatening. Her attempts to become part of the rural community fail, as she is viewed as too glamorous for the country. Her cooking skills are too fussy (especially for the shearers who want plain country tucker). Some local women find her pretentious and show-offy in her Paris-inspired home-sewn creations. Even her musical talents don’t seem to impress – at least that is what she begins to think.

Indeed, much of the difficulty comes as Elise begins to doubt herself, and as she fails to understand how to adapt to her country home. Lacking emotional support, Elise suffers several breakdowns – which youngest daughter Marjorie identifies as the ‘glimmer’ beginning.

Wearing Paper Dresses speaks to the heart of the many struggles faced by those on the land, even though it focusses on the mental health of an outsider unable to cope, rather than the fraught farmer. But does Bill’s inability to act for Elise simply show a different coping mechanism? and a danger to his family?

At this time of drought, as Australian farmers struggle to survive, this is a challenging story which reminds us of the harshness of our beautiful land. It honours the resilience of many rural communities while illustrating the fragility of some personalities who may live there. It recognises the impact of things out of our control. Ultimately, it reveals the strength of human spirit and the optimism which ties people to the land, which we should aspire to and wholeheartedly applaud.

Recommended for 15+ / adult audience.

Amal Unbound, a novel

Life is precarious for many girls around the world – and education is not always freely available. For Pakistani girl Amal, school has been a wonderful privilege which she was lapping up, until things go frightfully wrong – her plans study to be a teacher in ruins.

Amal Unbound echoes some of the realities for many girls around the world:

  • bound by traditional roles in their remote community
  • suffering for their low status
  • caught in their family’s debt spiral
  • extorted by people in positions of power

Amal also echoes the bravery and strengths of girls like Malala Yousafzai, whose desire for girls’ education lead to her being shot at point-blank range in 2012 by Taliban extremists. Like Malala, Amal yearns to better her position in life beyond accepting a traditional subservient female role. When things go awry for her, this desire becomes even more heightened – but what can a young girl do?

Malala’s story

Aisha Saeed is a Pakistani-American writer, teacher, and attorney. She is one of the creators of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks social media campaign. Her book, Amal Unbound, raises the issues of inequalities and indentured servitude (i.e. slavery for debt) which affects millions of people worldwide. It also recognises the need to be brave and take a stance against this – like Malala, and those who support the Malala Fund.

In most cases, education is a vital key, worldwide. For those caught in the tragic circumstances poverty sometimes deals them, it helps them strive for more; and for those in privileged positions, education aids understanding of the difficulties faced by many, and invites us to support ways to break down the barriers that hold girls back.

As Aisha Saeed states in her notes, Amal is relatively lucky in her servitude conditions – others suffer far worse. However, her loss of family life is her cruelest punishment, with lots for YA readers to consider. It would be interesting to know if the author plans a follow-up story…

For more detail about how she wrote the story, and why, read this interview – Q&A with Aisha Saeed.

This book is about resistance and about not giving up. That’s a message that a lot of people are connecting to as well. – Aisha Saeed.

We learn a bit about Pakistani culture from Amal Unbound. Was there anything which surprised you?

Did the beautiful cover portray the contents?

# Recommended for 10-15 year olds.

We See Everything

Two young men. Two families. Living in the chaotic, dysfunctional city that was once London. What hopes and aspirations can they have?

In We See Everything, we experience the pangs of youth – needing acceptance, understanding and love. As Lex and Alan move about in different circles of life, they both look for these things – from their family or their work. But in some ways their lives are in-sync.

Though they will never meet, Alan has a perception of Lex’s life, lived on the edge on the Strip – “the overcrowded, bombed-shell of London.” He views Lex’s comings and goings incidentally, while surveilling the movements of Lex’s Dad, #K622 (through his work as a drone pilot).

Lex is aware of the surveillance drones which buzz the city streets, but seems to have become accepting of them, and tries his hand at testing the limits of his freedom – just to feel alive. Growing older, he begins to sense his father keeps secrets from him; but getting older, he takes on the challenges (duties?) his father begins to place before him. Will he meet these challenges? And what could the consequences be if he doesn’t?

We See Everything, told from 2 different points of view, is a thriller which will have you guessing, feeling the angst of the players, and considering the possibilities for those involved. Some twists and turns make it a thought-provoking read as you ponder the impact of technology and its role in depersonalising the tasks people are sometimes called on to perform.

Both Lex and Alan seek love and attention from their family. What conflicts exist? Do you feel they are resolved in the end?

Whose life would you choose to lead in this tale?

Short stories anyone? That Stubborn Seed of Hope

In the busyness of life, it’s sometimes hard to find the time to dedicate to a whole novel. With schoolwork, sport and other activities, time to read has fallen aside. And if you find reading hard, keeping track of a storyline can be difficult. Why not try a short story or two?

Always on the lookout for short stories to add to the library collection? This collection, ‘That Stubborn Seed of Hope’, will “take you on a nail-biting journey through your worst nightmares” – or so the blurb tells you. Indeed, it is a great collection, which you can dip in and out of, choose which ones you want to read, and then spend some time pondering how you are feeling afterwards…

  • What does it feel like to think you are a 17-year-old mistakenly trapped in an 80-year old’s body?
  • What if you lived in a world where physical contact was prohibited due to a virus (would you risk a kiss?)?
  • How do you cope with a brother’s vegetative existence after a major accident, for which you have some aspect of guilt?

These are a few of the issues which author, Brian Falkner, tackles in his collection of 10 short stories:

…stories of fear, heartbreak and tragedy, but also… stories of endurance, of coping and overcoming.

Brian Falkner also encourages the writer. At the end of this book, he includes a section outlining what inspired/directed each story. Thoughts for aspiring writers, if you wish to look beyond the stories. There is also advice for young writers on his website.

What other short story collections have you enjoyed? Any you would recommend?

Will well-written short stories help to engage time-poor readers?

Worse than school?

“There are lots of things worse than school.”

This comment, made by Charlotte, begins an argument between her and Luke’s best mate, Blake; on a day they decide to skip school. It later becomes something Luke ponders more deeply, as he gets to know Charlotte a little better.

In usual Steven Herrick style, ‘the Bogan Mondrian’ is told in a clear, waste-no-words fashion.

Luke and his friends are relatable characters – teens biding their time at school, but preferring to spend a more casual existence away from school. As regular visitors to the principal’s office for truanting and cheekiness, they are nonetheless likeable.

Luke is still coming to grips with life after his father’s premature death from cancer. Charlotte has recently enrolled in the local public high school he attends, though she is clearly from a wealthy background and could attend a costly private school. Even though they live in contrasting worlds of wealth, their friendship evolves as they work through their own personal issues, and occasionally gain support from each other.

That said, it is not always an easy relationship, with aggression and flareups often arising. Luke is uneasy about Charlotte’s homelife, and Charlotte is not very willing to be open and honest with everyone – under attack and often quite aggressive herself.

Other characters woven into the story provide interesting levels of support for Luke, in the absence of his father. Rodney, a petty local criminal, gives Luke a few pointers/things to think about at times, and later in the story, tools for action. Neighbour, Mr Rosetti, also provides advice and amusing banter each time they cross paths. Even Buster (the local mutt that Luke adopts for his walks) has a important place in grounding Luke’s emotions throughout the story.

For Blue Mountains readers, there will be places and names you may well enjoy recognising. On the other hand, you may have to allow poetic licence to Herrick as he tells his tale – with the cultural divide north and south of the highway a bit irksome, and the efforts of the Mr Pakula, the school principal, (seeking out truants himself) a bit questionable. But still the story must be told.

You will find that there are worse things than school; things sadly that some young people face daily. Herrick’s fictional youth tackle these the best way they can – though not always with glowing success. Lots of food for thought and highly recommended reading.

# Those who wonder about the title and cover design can find information on Mondrian here.

## More importantly, after you have finished ‘the Bogan Mondrian’, you can read here the reasons why Steven Herrick wrote this book.

### Shortlisted for CBCA Older Readers 2019.

Obsession or escape?

What do you know about dead things? How do they make you feel?

Charlotte (Lottie) seems oddly fixated on dead creatures – collecting them from her local neighbourhood in the hope of preserving them. Her interest extends to anything at school which alludes to preserving life, such as the embalming rituals of the Egyptian culture. Is there a reason for this?

Her Aunt Hilda (who cares for her, and her father, since the death of her mother) struggles to cope with Lottie’s obsession, calling it crazy and unhealthy. Thus she constantly tries to block Lottie’s collection and preservation attempts.

In his own grief, Lottie’s father also struggles. However, as a scientist, he supports her investigations – and encourages her scientific curiosity and interest in taxidermy.

In “The Art of Taxidermy”, death, grief and emotions are both raw and beautiful. Mix in a few elements from the past (an immigrant history) and cultural conflicts of the time (mid 60’s?) and you can understand the turmoil Charlotte/Lottie and her family experience.

As a verse novel, the reading flows easily. (If you haven’t tried a verse novel before, this is a good one to choose.) Australian readers will lap up the vivid and concise descriptions of all that Charlotte finds beautiful – dead or alive e.g.:

The corellas were grazing
with a scatter of galahs.
We sat on a fallen log
and watched them squabble and tussle,
beat their wings and waddle
like hook-nosed old men
with their arms tucked
behind their backs.

What some might struggle with is her fascination with ‘dead things’. But then, that may be the key to understanding the issues of dealing with premature death – from sickness, accidents and war – to intentionally make you uncomfortable. Through all these things, Sharon Kernot explores how we might feel in this wonderful, but heartbreaking verse novel. Don’t hesitate – read it – available from your school library – and in ebook version from other sources too!!

Have you read a verse novel in the past? Did you like it?

Don’t you love Kernot’s descriptions of the Australian countryside? Which part is your favourite?

Why do you think Aunt Hilda is so much against Lottie’s ”obsession”? Is it the right choice?

Note: this book is shortlisted for CBCA honours this year. Will it be a worthy winner?