Echo Mountain

As I delved into family history and considered the troubles my ancestors dealt with, I was also reading ‘Echo Mountain’, and then reflected on what many people faced in the years of the Depression when they lost their jobs and livelihoods.

Set in times of economic troubles, Ellie’s family moved to the mountains for a simpler, more manageable life. Life on the land. But life is harsh. And then tragedy strikes.

Though Ellie is the middle child and youngest daughter, she shoulders many of her family’s troubles. While her sister Esther does her fair share of housework (which she seems to like) it is Ellie who has to complete a lot more ‘yardwork’ since the accident.

Fortunately, she is an outdoors kind of girl, a trait once encouraged by her father. That, and her desire to find a cure to bring her father back to health, leads her to tracking down Cate, known in the mountains as a hag or witch, but also a healer.

With Cate’s instruction and guidance, Ellie uses skills well beyond the normal ability of a 12-year-old girl to heal. But it is not just her father she works to heal – a broken family, a broken woman and wild mountain boy become critical parts of her story.

The circumstances which brought about each person’s life-difficulties are carefully woven into this tale from Lauren Wolk, an award-winning American poet and author. (Her previous novel, ‘Wolf Hollow’, won a Newbery Honour in 2017.)

She provides a good insight into life in the Depression years, as the family battles to make ends meet – building, hunting, fishing and bartering goods with other mountain folk. The tasks Ellie is required to do may have some feeling squeamish, while in awe of her determination and intelligence. The skills of others in the story creating intricate wooden carvings and musical instruments are also something to be discovered along the way (I actually wish there were some illustrations of these).

Ellie learns a lot simply by doing things. There’s something for all of us in that. And there’s something for lovers of historical fiction and family stories in ‘Echo Mountain’.

Do you test out your own ideas just by doing what you think should work (like Ellie)?

How far would you go to help a member of your family?

Do you think we should always accept what we are told about different people?

Recommended 10+

Ghost Bird

It’s a mystery – Laney is missing and Stacey doesn’t believe the story told by Laney’s boyfriend, Troy.

The police don’t seem to be doing much about looking for her, though her family mob are searching where they can. The divide between black and white in the outback community is pretty clear:

“Everyone knows that some parts of the town are ‘white’ territory and others are ‘black’. Even the pub has a whitefulla and a blackfulla side.”

As Laney’s twin, Stacey feels it is up to her to follow her own instincts to find her, despite repeated commands from her mother to stay put. Her nightmares continue and though respectful of her family, she must do something – including speaking with Mad May Miller.

There are many tensions within the community – between black and white, poor and wealthy, current and past landowners.  Thus, Lisa Fuller brings together elements of racism, family loyalty, past conflicts and tradition into this intriguing debut novel.

While covering only a week in a divided community, there are many questions to be answered along the way:

  • What really happened to Laney? Can she be found alive?
  • What was/is it like to live in a divided community?
  • Should Stacey follow her instincts?
  • When is it time to get over old grievances?
  • Can the solution come from the past?

The characters of Stacey and her cousin Rhi are real and relatable, as are her family members and Mad May Miller. This would be a great class novel, but read it before it becomes one to enjoy the language and situations it introduces. A worthy nomination for this year’s CBCA shortlist!

# In this interview, Lisa Fuller responds to the comment: ‘One of the loveliest aspects of Ghost Bird is the infusion of your culture with a strong emphasis on family.’ and more.

EDIT: Ghost Bird is an Honour Book in this year’s CBCA Awards. Congrats!

Toffee – sweet & hard

“I like the idea of being

sweet and hard

a girl with a name for people

to chew on.

 

A girl who could break teeth.” Toffee.

When Allison flees from home and seeks refuge in a shed (in what she thinks is an abandoned home) her life takes an unexpected turn. The home is where Marla lives – an elderly woman, lonely, confused and neglected by her family.

Written as a verse novel, ‘Toffee’ (by Sarah Crossan) is physically easy to read, but somewhat hard to deal with – it raises issues about family violence and elder abuse/neglect. However, each of these is slowly and softly revealed, as we learn about Allison’s family situation and her feelings about those she left behind. There are also parallel revelations about Marla’s family.

Gradually Allison becomes ‘Toffee’, gaining a feeling of safety. She is slowly accepted in Marla’s home, as Marla thinks she is her friend from the past. For Allison, a new identity and friendship are welcome; especially given the comforts of Marla’s home, where her father’s ways can be forgotten.

Along the way, Crossan shows the complications of life for both Allison and Marla…

Allison longs to have a normal family life, and can’t understand what tips her father’s moods. Is she to blame? Should she be a better daughter?

Marla also longs for a happy family life, and the life she remembers from long ago. At times, she is forgetful and confused, which Allison/Toffee learns to manage.

What does it mean to be ‘family’? What are real friends meant to be like? Who can you trust? These are some of the ideas explored in ‘Toffee’, as Sarah Crossan* shows that not all family situations are reliably the same.

In this video, Sarah outlines why she likes to write verse novels like Toffee – made up of a “series of snapshots” for the reader, rather than the “film” version of a prose book.

*Other books by Sarah Crossan include ‘Apple & Rain’ and ‘The Weight of Water’

** Sarah Crossan is currently the Irish Children’s Laureate for 2018-2020.

 

What does family mean to you?

Do money and wealth lead to happiness?  (consider Lucy’s situation)

What do you really value in life?

Recommended 13+

The Hate You Give – revisit

Strong, harsh and confronting. Tells it like it is. Written from an #ownvoice perspective in 2017.

This is a hard book to read at this time of disruption (though I read it several years ago – in 2018), but more people should. Think I need to re-read it now in 2020.

Starr moves between two worlds – and for some time takes on 2 personas – between school (in a privileged world) and her home (a black neighbourhood). To get ahead, education is important; for balance, friends are vital; to live, family is critical. But where can she be real?

And what can she do, as a witness to an obscene injustice in a black community? How can a black teenager seek justice for a fallen friend?

I loved the characters in THUG – Starr, Khalil (while he lasts), even her flaky white friends at school. The contrast between Starr’s school friends’ aspirations and attitudes, and her home environment is stark. The story itself is a challenging read.

It took a while for me to get into the language and culture of the main characters – but then that’s what the book is all about. [So, language warning…]

Life is not homogenous. People are not all the same. For some life is easy, for others the struggle is real.

There’s a great interview and comments from Angie Thomas here– the call for #ownvoice writers is strong. There’s also a video discussing her inspiration for the book some 6 0r 7 years earlier:

I do now wonder what Angie might say today – in this time of #blacklifematters.

 

Read ‘The Hate You Give’ and reassess what you think.

 

# Is it important for stories like this to be told by #ownvoice writers?

The Dictionary of Lost Words

Who decides if a word is important? What should be recorded across time? Sometimes, Esme witnesses a word discarded, sees a word float below the table where the men worked as if it were unimportant – so she begins collecting neglected slips.

As a child of a lexicographer, Esme spends much of her day under this table in the Scriptorium* – the place where her father and a team of men work compiling the first Oxford English dictionary. Even as a young child, she is acutely observant and precociously curious. Her father does his best for her; fostering her inquiring nature. However, in the absence of a mother, she bonds with a young servant from the house of her father’s supervisor, Dr Murray, and learns more from a different world perspective.

Set in a time that the suffragette movement was beginning in England and World War was looming, this debut novel from Pip Williams reflects actual moments of history based around the family responsible for the beginnings of the Oxford Dictionary.

Lexicographers in Dr James Murray’s *Scriptorium. Source: https://public.oed.com/blog/meaning-everything-new-preface/

Esme is never destined to fulfil the typical woman’s role at this time, and her passion for words sets her on an unusual path.

Women’s words. Esme sees many of these neglected, left out and ignored in the collation of the dictionary. But why? And what is the effect of that?

“So often, the words chosen by the men of the Dictionary had been inadequate.

‘Dr Murray’s dictionary leaves things out, Lizzie. Sometimes a word, sometimes a meaning. If it isn’t written down, it doesn’t even get considered.’ (Esme explaining to Lizzie.)”

There are many strong women in Esme’s life, some more fortunate than others, though she learns from each of them. Lizzie, her bondmaid; Ditte, her godmother; Tilda, her actor friend; Mabel, her market word-source.

However, words (women’s words) remain very significant characters in this story. Collecting ‘lost’ words, Esme assembles her own dictionary, based around important life events and experiences. These show the power of language and the need to recognise the importance of all words – not just those used by scholars:

“It is not for you to judge the importance of these words [librarian, Mr Madan], simply allow others to do so.” (Esme urging the acceptance of Women’s Words in the Bodleian Library.)

Get lost in this tale, absorb the strength of those who inhabit it, and thus, enjoy the melding of history and story in ‘the Dictionary of Lost Words’.

Highly recommended for mature readers.

Past the Shallows

After reading Favel Parrett’s There Was Still Love, I had to find ‘Past the Shallows’ (which I had somehow missed in 2011). This was her debut novel, though she had quite a successful writing career before then.

Just like in ‘There Was Still Love’, the settings and experiences in ‘Past the Shallows’ are beautifully captured, so the visit to the southern region of Bruny Island is well-worth the journey. In fact, the coastal setting and the ocean are significant ‘characters’ within the story.

Three brothers, Joe, Miles and Harry live a troubled existence in this remote location following the tragic death of their mother. Joe has left home and thus, Miles is the one who is commanded to help on his father’s fishing expeditions, while Harry, the youngest is left to his own devices.

For his brothers, the chance to surf is a breakaway from their sad lifestyle, even though the area they surf is tough and unforgiving. Harry, who fears the ocean finds his escape once he discovers Jake and his owner, the reclusive George. Though we might fear a solitary man living in an old rundown cottage, (and maybe Harry should also) George provides a grandfatherly influence in Harry’s life.

As Favel Parrett carefully discloses details about the Curren family’s past, we grieve for their losses and rejoice in the precious snippets of family love they knew. Each of the boys has something to remember, learn from and live through. Is there hope?

Just as their remote location has both grim and beautiful aspects, so too do their lives. There is both joy and sorrow in this tale, with the bond of brothers a strong element. And there will be both laughter and tears as you read this one.

The Unadoptables

Five children left at the Little Tulip Orphanage, Amsterdam – all in strange circumstances. Fast forward 12 years and the same five children are still there – seemingly unadoptable. That is, until a strange and sinister man comes to visit; to take them away.

In ‘the Unadoptables’, Hana Tooke’s characters are wonderful individuals, each with their own unique qualities. These talents come to serve them well as they flee from Matron Gassbeek and Meneer Rotman.

Even though Rotman offers them a home on his ship together, Milou feels there is something foreboding about his manner and the deal he strikes with Matron. Thus, she convinces the other four –  Sem, Lotta, Egg, and Fenna – that they need to escape from the orphanage into the icy streets of Amsterdam and beyond.

Amsterdam, its canals and the surrounding countryside are features of the tale as the children flee. The city is dark and threatening as they hide from Rotman, much like the grim orphanage they are glad to leave behind. The canals, though icy and challenging, aid their escape. And the countryside of polders and windmills may offer a safe haven.

Using some of their individual skills and the strong belief of Milou that they can find her parents, they venture towards a better life. But can five orphans really track down a notional home, with very limited clues, then survive the suspicion of local residents? Their combined resourcefulness will be tested and their skills will become crucial.

Readers of Neil Gaiman, Lemony Snicket and Jessica Townsend (Nevermoor) will love this.

# What would life be like as an orphan? 

## Do you enjoy reading stories set in other countries?

Disclaimer: I have a personal love of the Netherlands (as a tourist) and can relate to so many aspects of the setting – canals, windmills, polders and of course, stroopwaffels! I was also lucky to receive a review copy ahead of publication now in July.

Our Chemical Hearts

Henry – at 17 has never had a real girlfriend. Lola – had a fling with Henry, but then moved on to a relationship with Georgie. Murray – comical crazy over-the-top Aussie friend is thrown into the mix. (Maybe he’s a good drawcard for Australian YA readers?)

Then, the elusive Grace turns up in their senior years of high school. Lola thinks Grace is competition for Henry. Muz (Murray) thinks she may be a zombie, werewolf or worse. But Henry is enamoured – he thinks.

When they are teamed as editors of the school newspaper, Henry and Grace have to spend more time together and things evolve. But Grace has an unexplained past – one she seems unwilling to reveal to Henry.

In ‘Our Chemical Hearts’ Henry is a somewhat gentle teenager – up till now, not too worried about what others think of him – until he meets Grace. Then, as he tries to understand a little bit about her, he finds himself in the throes of his ‘first love’. Grace, hurt by recent losses, is hot and cold in the relationship which confuses him and he digs deeper.

“I fell asleep… thinking of Grace Town and how, if people really were assembled from pieces of the universe, her soul was made of stardust and chaos.” (Is this Henry experiencing true love?)

Krystal Sutherland has a great story in this debut novel. There are moments of laughter and tears (I did both) as Henry and Grace search to understand each other, find their hearts and ultimately, themselves. Cute vignettes are exchanged between Henry and Grace (in texts, notes and letters) and funny (maybe over-the-top) quips from Murray and Lola add a friendly flavour to this touching and relatable tale.

# ‘Our Chemical Hearts’ is due for movie release sometime in 2020 – why not get to know the characters and read it before then?

## Why are there fish on the cover? (Maybe Ricky Martin Knupps II knows?)

The Tell

“A tell is a sign a person gives out, accidentally, when they are trying really hard to keep something a secret, and I just happen to be an expert…

I don’t know why or how exactly, but I seem to have a gift for reading the tells.” Rey Tanic, 14 year old. (p.11-12, the Tell)

Rey (Raze to his friends) has a few other instincts which he can’t really explain – although he thinks it may have something to do with his family heritage as the son of mafia boss. He has something to tell his father when he next visits him in prison – but what is it?

When he gets an (unscheduled) visit sooner than he expected, Raze is unsettled by his father’s behaviour – even after he raises his issue.

Rey struggles with the wealth and trappings which are the proceeds of the family business (fine possessions, mansion home and attendance at a private school), and does NOT want to follow in his father’s dark footsteps. While a lot has been hidden to him in the past, Rey uncovers many grim details as he gets older.

‘The Tell’ raises questions about family heritage – are we destined to repeat the actions of our parents? Is it in Rey’s genes to follow the violent family business, like his older brother, Solo? At times, his moods and actions make him think so. And what can a kid do to make a difference?

I see my face in deep shadow, eyes glittering like diamonds, the resemblance to my father never stronger. (Rey angered by abuse Candy has faced.)

Candy. Ids. The best part of Rey’s existence is spent with these friends, making street art in the inner city of Sydney – friends with their own struggles. Each of them is somewhat alone with these, but will they share and find support together? Have a peek at this trailer to get a feel for ‘The Tell’:

In ‘The Tell’, Martin Chatterton tosses Rey around in some wild and threatening situations – in jail, followed by criminal thugs, and even hiding in a police officer’s attic (unknown to him). It is action-packed, exposing the dark underworld Rey hopes to escape. The reflections of his father Rey finds within himself make us ponder how it will all end – like father like son? or can he break the mould?

Recommended 13+

There Was Still Love

This story oozes feelings and emotions; even in the little things. As you read, you can taste the meals Lucek has with his grandmother. They are deliciously described, even though they may be simple fare. You can also sense the atmosphere of their humble accommodation – a small apartment in Prague.

Told from two main perspectives – that of Lucek in Czechoslovakia under Communist rule, and his cousin, Liska living in Melbourne, it flicks between locations and periods of time as the family links are revealed. Relatives through their grandmothers (twins separated at 17), Lucek and Liska share a precious culture, though they too are separated by half a world.

Many of Lucek’s observations are innocent, but perceptive. His fondness of his grandmother, Babi and his great uncle is strong, even when they behave like grumpy old people. Beautiful moments break through in the story, which makes you want to hug Parrett’s characters. You laugh and cry at their playful antics, and feel their sorrow when things go awry.

Similarly, though Liska lives in a free country, her family lives simply. They save from her grandfather’s meagre wage so they can visit their homeland. Though they live in a relatively free country, they are not always treated well, and in 1980 suffer from prejudice and homesickness.

The home visits to Prague are joyful occasions for sisters, Eva and Mana (Babi), while Lucek ponders why he and Babi don’t have the same freedom to make a visit to Melbourne. He is also puzzled why his mother, Alena, continues to travel outside Czechoslovakia with the Prague Black Theatre troupe, leaving him in his grandmother’s care.

In an interview last year, author Favell Parrett revealed her book was inspired by a jar of gherkins! One she found in a Melbourne deli, which was the exact brand of gherkins her grandmother used to buy. The memories it sparked sent her on a journey to delve into her past to honour her immigrant family, and especially grandmothers. (Part of this novel was originally published as a short story – giving the flavour of the story here.)

Parrett encourages anyone with grandparents or older relatives to talk to them. “Because when they’re gone, those stories are just dust. And that’s what makes up a life really – what did you want to be when you were young, when did your heart first break, who was your first love.” From: An ode to the women who carry our world on their shoulders

‘There Was Still Love’ moves between different times as the family story evolves, and between Lucek and Liska as storytellers, so while I have read this story as an audiobook, I am keen to do a re-read with a physical book. (It’s so much easier to follow the changes in a physical book, don’t you think?) Also, I am late to discover the writing of Favell Parrett but ‘Past the Shallows’ will definitely be my next read.

# Can you describe your grandparents’ home? What does it feel like? 

## What is your favourite family memory?

### How often are you able to chat with the older generations of your family or neighbours?