Monster Blood Tattoo: Book One: Foundling – D.M. Cornish

monster.jpg‘Foundling’ is the first book in a trilogy by D.M. Cornish called ‘Monster Blood Tattoo’. It is set firmly in the fantasy genre and has enormous originality and inventiveness. Just to handle this book before you read it, is to feel its potential to take you into another and strange world. It is beautifully bound with old fashioned brown end-papers and comes with delicate pencil illustrations drawn by the author. The last third of the book is called an ‘Explicarium’, being a glossary of terms and explanations including appendices – there are marvellous maps and diagrams, even a calendar.

With anticipation, you begin the story of Rossamund, who lives in an orphanage, where he is teased by the other children because he has a girl’s name. When the hiring season comes for the children, he is chosen to be a lamplighter and sets off on a journey to his employment. Here begins a fantastical adventure, where he meets many strange creatures. One of these is Europe, a fulgar, a monster fighter whose arms are covered with tattoos made from the blood of the monsters he has killed.

‘Foundling’ is not an epic fantasy with grand battles and heroes. Rather, it is a strange journey set in the world of the Half Continent where people wear tricorne hats and carry flintlock pistols. Some are humans, some are monsters, and some are surgically altered creatures. Rossamund has to work out who is to be trusted, and who is to be feared. I felt it most closely resembled ‘Alice in Wonderland’ with its dreamlike quality, and monsters resembling the Jabberwocky.

The pace of the book is slow at first, but persistence is rewarded as it improves in the second half. I look forward with anticipation to the next instalments.

My Big Birkett – Lisa Shanahan

mybigbirkett.jpgGemma Stone is convinced that it is a bad thing to chuck a Birkett. She describes it this way:

“In my family, when anyone rides the wave of their emotions, we say they’re chucking a birkett. When the emotion drives out all common sense, we say they’re chucking a big one. The telltale signs are: flaming cheeks, shortness of breath, bulging eyes and a prolonged illogical outburst.”

Gemma is trying to keep her temper in spite of all the things that are complicating her life. These include falling in love with the coolest boy in school, dealing with her sister Debbie and her bizarre wedding plans, and dealing with Raven de Head, the town bad boy who has a crush on her.

The whole novel has a dramatic feel and would make a wonderful play. Lisa Shanahan, the author, trained as an actor at University of Western Sydney and taught school drama. She begins by introducing us to Gemma’s sister, Debbie, and her wedding plans. In something resembling ‘Muriel’s Wedding’, Debbie wants a wedding with all the trimmings. This includes Gemma wearing a sequinned and feathered swan costume, as the flower girl, along with trimmings like ice sculptures, and serviettes in the shape of origami birds.

However, the main action occurs at Gemma’s school where she is having a crush on Nick, the rich and handsome one that all the girls want. He, of course, hasn’t noticed that she exists. On the other hand, someone else has noticed her – Raven de Head, who comes from the wrong side of the tracks.

To get Nick to notice her, Gemma joins the school play which is to be a performance of the Tempest. This is when art starts to resemble life. Nick plays the shallow Prince Ferdinand, Gemma is Miranda and Raven De Head unwillingly takes on the role of the monster, Caliban.

Gemma has to choose between Nick and Raven. In the course of this, she goes to Raven de Head’s home for dinner, where she receives the shock of her life and is jolted out of her safe middle class existence. Raven’s home is completely dysfunctional. His father and mother live on welfare, one brother is in jail, and two others are delinquents. Their family solve arguments by violence, and Gemma is shockingly caught in the middle of one. One scene is portrayed so realistically that it is painful to read. I made myself keep going, but wanted to put the book down. Of course, after this Gemma wants nothing to do with Raven or his family.

In the end, Gemma makes the right choice but I will not give that away! It climaxes with Gemma chucking her own birkett at Debbie’s wedding. It is a hilarious but very moving scene. This book is highly recommended for its wisdom and humanity.

The Red Shoe – Ursula Dubosarsky

red-shoe.jpgI had to read ‘The Red Shoe’ twice before I really appreciated it. At the first reading, I found it frustrating, disjointed and hard-going. However, the second time around I began to appreciate the subtleties of this novel. Unlike the others on the short list, this novel needs to be taken slowly and savoured, as there are many layers of meaning.

‘The Red Shoe’ is the story of three girls, aged 6, 11 and 15, living in a remote house at Palm Beach in the 1950’s. Matilda is the youngest, then there is Francis, who is refusing to go to school, and Elizabeth, suffering a mental breakdown. The story is told from the perspective of Matilda, the youngest sister, and Dubosarsky has captured the six year old point of view skilfully. One fascinating element is Matilda’s imaginary friend, Floreal. He is not the usual alter ego, but is a 22 year old Argonaut who has come out of the radio. Instead of being comforting, he is often blunt and sarcastic, but he helps to be a commentary on events she doesn’t comprehend. The disjointed nature of the book comes because Matilda’s childish mind is often describing events beyond her understanding.

We, as readers, are given clues to these outside events using the device of intertextuality. The book includes excerpts from the Sydney Morning Herald from April 8th to 30th, 1954. These newspaper articles concern the Petrov Affair, Einstein and the Atomic Bomb, the Cold War and the polio epidemic of the time.

There are three main plot lines which are interwoven in ‘The Red Shoe’. These are the lives of the three girls, their parents’ relationship and the politics of the outside world. Dubosarsky skilfully interweaves these by using evocative imagery involving red shoes. There are the red shoes of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale, told at the beginning of the book to Matilda, the red shoes of their mother, and the red shoe of the wife of Russian spy, Vladimir Petrov. This imagery evokes an atmosphere of foreboding and mystery. We feel more and more that something terrible is about to happen.

I feel that this book has a more limited audience than some of the others on the short list. It is recommended for extension students and advanced readers. Also, it would probably appeal more to girls than boys. Adults who lived in the era of the fifties will enjoy reliving the history of that period.

Red Spikes – Margo Lanagan

redspikes.jpg‘Red Spikes’ is the third book of short stories for Margo Lanagan. Her other two volumes have won numerous awards both in Australia and internationally. These stories are written in the fantasy/horror genre and are quite definitely not for children. They are characterised by a black humour and subverted imagination.

Each of the stories draws the reader immediately into a world that is twisted askew from our familiar one. We are given no explanations as we plunge into the strange scenarios and try to find our feet. For example, in the first story, ‘Baby Jane’, Dylan has to help an alien queen to give birth to her baby. But these alien characters – a soldier, a queen and a bear, are actually toys grown to terrifying and unpredictable life.

Another story, ‘Winkie’, has Wee Willie Winkie as a serial killer stalking a town to catch any children outside after dark. He wears a nightgown made from a patchwork of the skins of his victims. Two of the stories are a picture of heaven, ‘A Feather in the Breast of God’, and hell, ‘Under Hell, Over Heaven’, but not as we usually imagine them.

One of the most remarkable stories is ‘Hero Vale’, set at an English boarding school. But don’t expect a comfortable Harry-Potter feel. These students have adventures which are usually fatal, but if survived, they change the victors forever.

I love Margo Lanagan’s stories because they are completely unique. You will not find anything like them anywhere. Be prepared to be amazed, frightened and transported.