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 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.

What to do about ‘the Fall’

Sam wakes in the middle of the night after hearing angry voices in the apartment above his Dad’s. Then he witnesses a man fall from above, and thud into the pavement. As the son of a crime reporter, he quickly records details on his phone, and is seen by the man leaning over the body. Now he could be his next victim.

Sam is staying at his estranged father’s place, after his mother finally relents, while he recovers from recent surgery. His father remains a mystery and strangely is not around for Sam to tell him what he saw. Alone, he feels threatened, waiting for the murderer to seek him out.

Adoration for his absent father has lead to an interest in uncovering crimes, so Sam tries to employ logical thinking to find out more about the fall – even though the body has mysteriously disappeared. His tactics reflect some of the ideas he often adds in his own crime comics, which feature a hero detective, modelled on his perceptions of his absent father.

“Suspense in spades! You will be gripped by Sam’s story.” Author, James Phelan.

How will things unfold for Sam – a young boy, deserted by his father in an apartment and facing a murderer’s imminent return? What would you do in Sam’s position? Tell the police (his father didn’t want to contact them…)? Run away? Go back home in a hurry?

Tristan Bancks is not only a writer, but has been an actor and also involved in film-making. His previous YA book, Two Wolves, won Honour Book in the 2015 Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Awards and was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. Another mystery-crime story, which was cleverly introduced by this video:

Tristan is also keen on sharing his insights into the writing process and encouraging kids to read. There are lots of ideas at his website: http://www.tristanbancks.com/p/create.html and more on his YouTube channel like this one:

Off the edge? ‘One Would Think the Deep’ – Claire Zorn

Yet another year of nominations for Claire Zorn – this time for a story (One Would Think the Deep) set in 1997 in a small coastal town, where surfing is a major activity.

Sam once lived in Sydney with his mum, but following her untimely death, he moves north to live with his mother’s estranged sister and her family. Though once family ties were strong, it is hard for Sam to adjust to this different lifestyle and struggles to deal with the changes as he mourns his mum.

In his new ‘home’, Sam’s cousin Minty is idolised as the next surfing champ, and as Sam reconnects with his cousin, he too is introduced to the world of surfing and all its challenges. The highs and lows of Sam’s life are echoed in his attempts to conquer the waves. His friendships also have their highs and lows, with events from the past impacting on his behaviour as he tries to find his way.

Situations in which Sam finds himself make you feel for him as he deals with his losses, but his choices make you want to shake him to his senses. Will he make the most of what he still has? Can he overcome the difficulties he has been dealt? Who will be able to break through to him of he won’t really reveal some of his troublesome thoughts?

This is another authentic story from Zorn, though I think I liked ‘the Protected’ more. Is that simply because of the way Sam made me feel? Is it good that Sam made me react to his choices?

After you have read ‘One Would Think the Deep’, for some interesting reviews from others, visit Inside a Dog. And here is part of a review from the State Library of NSW:

One Would Think the Deep has a potent emotional heart, great characters and beautiful writing. Built around gorgeous evocations of surfing and the sea, it is driven by wonderfully evoked characters and an empathetic exploration of masculinity. Source: http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/one-would-think-deep-claire-zorn

Now consider if OWTTD gets your vote for the Young Adult CBCA award this year. Comments?

Deceiving book covers – Zebra Forest

zebra_forest_cover-330When Zebra Forest was first shown to me, I was attracted by the cover – but it gave little away about the story beneath. That said, this debut novel by Adina Gewirtz is an intriguing and thoughtful novel about family relationships, and the shaping of our memories.

Annie B. and her younger brother Rew live with their grandmother. They know little about their past – not even their mother’s name, and assume their father is dead. Their unusual family setup is accepted by their local comunity – even school fails to worry should they not turn up regularly, as Annie takes on tasks for her brooding grandmother.

As summer vacation approaches, eleven year old Annie is suddenly confronted at home by a prison escapee, and all her understandings about her family history are shaken, as she and Rew and Gran are taken hostage.

Who is this escapee? How will they, as hostages, deal with their situation? And what will it mean for their family – this threat, this intrusion on their day-to-day existence? Will anyone notice their absence?

Perhaps one of the tragic points hidden in Gewirtz book is the fact that there is little intrusion or investigation when Annie and Rew don’t appear at school; and there is little community concern for Gran – an elderly person repsonsible for the care of 2 young children. Is this a reflection of society today? Or would there be more concern for the family held hostage by a convicted murderer in reality?

Is this just poetic licence explaining away family isolation? What do you think? Could the events of Zebra Forest happen in real life? If so, what should we do about it?

Here’s a book trailer introduction to Zebra Forest:

55 years later…

New novel from Harper Lee

New novel from Harper Lee

Today marks the release of a long awaited book – the second written by Harper Lee, finally published 55 years after her first published book, To Kill a Mockingbird! (TKMAB)

Many thought this day would never come, so the book’s unexpected discovery has readers in a fervour to see how it unfolds.

Early reviews have indicated that the book is told from Scout’s point of view as a 20 year old, and also that it reveals (surprising?) bigotry of Atticus Finch. The explanation of this may be that Go Set a Watchman was actually written before TKAMB, and that it was not what her editor wanted at the time:

Go Set a Watchman was written in the mid-1950s, before she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published in 1960. She set it aside when her editor suggested that she write another novel from the young Scout Finch’s perspective. – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Go_Set_a_Watchman

Naturally, there has been lots of fanfare preceding the book’s publication:

Go Set a Watchman review – more complex than Harper Lee’s original classic, but less compelling, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jul/12/go-set-a-watchman-review-harper-lee-to-kill-a-mockingbird

Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman goes on sale  http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-33510168

Go Set a Watchman: Eight things reviewers say about Harper Lee’s new novel: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-07-13/go-set-a-watchman-reviews-latest-harper-lee-story/6615050

There’s only one Atticus Finch: why I won’t be reading Go Set A Watchman – http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-07-14/barnes-why-i-wont-be-reading-go-set-a-watchman/6617508

Author Harper Lee

Author Harper Lee

There have also been releases of the first chapter to entice readers in… which you can either read, or listen to a Reese Witherspoon narration here.

What are you thinking? Do you want to read the rejected manuscript? Can you handle characters who may not be the same as you remember them? Does it change the way you view TKAMB?

Do you wonder what Harper Lee thinks of all the promotion happening right now? Is it (the publication) authentic?

Life as you know it?

incredibleMichael is a typical school boy living in the suburbs of Western Sydney. For him, life has a rhythm and routine which is closely bonded to his older brother’s. That is until tragedy strikes, and he decides that:

‘my life isn’t my life any more: It is like a movie, it’s the place where I enter the scene again and again and everything is different.’

From the time that Michael regains consciousness after the accident, his thoughts are fragmented. Indeed the nature of Felicity Castagna’s book, ‘the Incredible Here and Now’, is that it, too, is a whole story slowly pieced together. Gradually, chapters reveal little insights into the lives of people in Michael’s world, as the picture develops describing his life with family, school and his mates, and how life can suddenly become distorted and troubled.

Without his older brother, Dom, the form of Michael’s life has changed. At home, his mother grieves and (has) ‘slipped out of our lives’. His father, though acting calm and together, ‘walks (him) to school for the first time since I was 10’. In his own way, Michael disconnects from school and other aspects of his old life. He constantly wonders ‘how can someone be there one day and not the next?’

However, ‘the Incredible Here and Now’ is not a sombre tale, but a thoughtful one. As a coming-of-age story, we are taken through the neighbourhood streets where Michael is growing up and dealing with the first throes of love and conflict. Through his eyes, the tapestry of different immigrant lives are illustrated; with their particular features and foibles. Teenage lives are interconnected not only through school, but through sport and other hangouts.

Castagna’s little vignettes capture many different things about Michael’s family, friends and acquaintances. For most people around him, life goes on as before – but how can things remain the same when someone important is lost from your life. Castagna also captures the differing cultures which permeate Michael’s life, and the unique mix of his neighbourhood. This will provide some ‘aha’ moments to those readers who can identify with some of the locations described, and an interesting insight to others from different social backgrounds.

Teen readers will also love the short chapters which collect the thoughts of Michael fairly concisely. As he dips in and out, his thoughts seem somewhat fragmented but are also part of the whole – as he attempts to deal with his now fragmented world.

The Incredible Here and Now does not tell us how to deal with the loss of a family member. Neither does it come up with a solution to everyday teenaged angst. What it does is provide great realistic fiction which should appeal to many teenage boys; they could easily identify parts of themselves in many of the characters, and the situations in which they act.

In Felicity’s words, The Incredible Here and Now:

… is about being an absolute insider in a place you know as well as the back of your own hand. It’s a young adult’s novel told through the eyes of Michael whose life changes dramatically in the summer he turns 15. Michael knows everything about the community he lives in and through his stories, he lets the reader in; to the unsettled lives of his family members, the friends he meets in the McDonalds parking lot at night, the swimming pool where he meets the one girl who will acknowledge he’s alive and the classmates who spend their mornings drooling at the Coke Factory on their walk to school. (Source: the NSW Writers Centre, Felicity Castagna Talks Writing a Sense of Place, http://www.nswwc.org.au/2013/05/felicity-castagna-talks-writing-a-sense-of-place/)

# The Incredible Here and Now was shortlisted for this year’s CBCA awards, and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards 2014 – and is Felicity’s first novel.

History lessons – Orphan Trains

orphanSometimes we learn things from books which we never knew about. For me, I had never heard of the concept of ‘orphan trains’ until I read the book ‘Orphan Train’ by Christina Baker Kline.

Here is some information about ‘orphan trains’, according to Wikipedia:

The Orphan Train Movement was a supervised welfare program that transported orphaned and homeless children from crowded Eastern cities of the United States to foster homes located largely in rural areas of the Midwest. The orphan trains operated between 1853 and 1929, relocating about 250,000 orphaned, abandoned, or homeless children. which took young children into the countryside to be adopted by country families of the USA.

Baker Kline’s tale personalises this experience, and makes us consider what it might be like to be relocated and adopted as a young girl, at this time in history, in a foreign land…

A young Irish girl, Niamh (pronounced “Neeve”), who immigrated from Ireland during the Great Depression, loses her entire family when a fire rips through their apartment building in their new homeland. The authorities see fit to send her on an orphan train for fostering by a family in the countryside – this deemed to be her only choice.

Orph-Train.photo1_Niamh’s tale is told by Vivian – an elderly woman living alone in a large house full of untouched possessions. Her possessions in the attic begin to be sorted with the arrival of Molly – a wayward teen, on her last chances in the foster care system. A community service position helping the elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping Molly out of juvenile detention.

Molly is reluctant to take part in the activity – since she is beyond expecting to get anything positive out of her life; but her boyfriend persists and encourages her to ‘do her time’ this way.

As Molly helps Vivian sort and revisit possessions, Vivian’s story plays out and they find they have more in common that might first be apparent.

In ‘Orphan Train’ Baker Kline provides characters and families to history, as well as presenting the emotions that could be felt by orphans and ofster children of the modern day. It is a story of both desperation and hope; of upheaval and settling; of desertion and friendship. Within it pages, both Molly and Vivian learn from one another, and the gap between generations dissolves. Past experiences shape us, but the present is how we learn and grow from these.

What things in the past have shaped how you are today?

Is there anything in ‘Orphan Train’ that surprises you? or anything you might question?

NB. Listening to this tale was a great experience as each character spoke in a different accent, as it jumped between differing locations and times!

Before and After – ‘After’ by Sue Lawson

afterCJ is sent to stay with his grandparents in the countryside. It is in the middle of the school year. He is not happy. Neither are they.

Life in the country is also quite different from the city life he is used to. There’s a lot of different jobs to do on the farm. Many different animals to get used to. And then, there’s a whole lot of new ‘animals’ and other stuff to adapt to at a new school.

The trouble for CJ (Callum) is that the town of Winter Creek knows more about him than he does. Nobody has told him anything about his background. What is worse is that Jack Frewen knows a whole lot more about him than he would like him to know. On top of this, Callum also has aspects about his recent past that he would like to forget – if only his nightmares and daytime flashbacks would allow him.

Sue Lawson has packaged some great characters into ‘After’. Why? Because they are realistic and believable. They could be your best mate, your worst (bullying) enemy, or your long lost grandparent. Look left or right, Jack or Ella or Tim may be one of your schoolmates. Nic or Benny may be much like your best friend. Or least, someone you know at school.

Since Callum strives to be a loner at his new school – private and solitary, it is interesting that along the way, he buddies up with Luke; a ‘special’ boy at school, victim of taunts and teasing. Someone who used to be someone great until….

Callum’s quiet acceptance of all that is dished out to him at school, bubbles under the surface through most of the story, at a time when he is struggling with why his mother has sent him away. He doesn’t dob on those who bully him. He doesn’t want to talk about his past. He doesn’t want to sort things out with his mother or his grandmother. How many of the people you know at school and work might be feeling much the same? [Quietly troubled.]

Events traipse along in ‘After’, loosely connected along a line of sporting and school activities. Favours and favouritism raise their heads, as old alliances are paid out with blind acceptance of the way things just play out in a country town. But Callum’s arrival begins to challenge the old order. And some, like Jack Frewen, aren’t happy about that.

Old hurts, anger, blocked memories and misinterpretations are some of the key things Callum has to deal with – which becomes clear to us as we move between the ‘Before’ and ‘After’ elements of this story.  Little by little, bits of Callum’s past are revealed – many of which are new to Callum himself. When some are revealed in an antagonistic manner, how will he react?

‘After’ is a story of hurt, rejection and reconciliation. A story of contrasts and differences.  A story of acceptance and friendship.

What do you think?

Young_adult

See: http://www.suelawson.com.au/books/young-adult/ for more.

* For more great books by Sue Lawson see: http://www.suelawson.com.au/books/young-adult/ – including ‘Finding Darcy’, ‘Allie McGregor’s True Colours’ and ‘Pan’s Whisper’.

Chopsticks and Roof Beams

chopsticks‘…she only managed to give birth to a handful of chopsticks and no roof-beam.’ I was struck by this way of referring to girls and boys. I had never heard it before, but it seemed to epitomise the manner in which the Chinese view the differences between men and women…

And so begins an explanation of why the narrator and her five sisters were only ever given a number as a name, and why their family faced much disgrace in countryside China – and why Three takes the opportunity as a young girl, to go to the city of Nanjing to find work when her uncle offers.

‘Miss Chopsticks’ is an interesting and unusual story which shows many contrasts between:
1. values placed on girls and boys
2. attitudes in city and rural areas of China
3. old and new ways

Xinran was born in China, but separated from her mother by the Cultural Revolution, and so grew up with her grandparents in Beijing. In China, after the Cultural Revlotion ended, she became a radio broadcaster whose program, “Words on the Night Breeze”, encouraged lots of discussion about true picture of the daily lives of Chinese women. Her high media profile ultimately lead her to leave China for England in 1997, where she began to carve out her current career in journalism and writing.

With this background, you can understand that her stories, including Miss Chopsticks, are well-informed and genuine  reflections of China as she knew it , and China as she hopes it is becoming today. Her girls, Three, Five and Six, are not tragic figures in ‘Miss Chopsticks’ but rather succeed in overcoming their birth consequences. They represent a new generation of Chinese girls. Unlike many other Asian tales, it is a more lighthearted. While it portrays some harsh values which still exist in parts of China, it does offer hope.

‘Miss Chopsticks’ is loosely based on many of the girls and women that Xinran has met –

“For a long time I have wanted to write down some of the stories of the girls I have met…”

Xinran gives an interesting insight to Chinese life and values. There is much to be learned from this tale. It would also be interesting to know how it might have been received in China…

For more detail about Xinran, there are many articles you can read from the Guardian.