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Saturday, November 24, 2012

Cairo Jim Memories

This morning I woke up thinking of Cairo Jim.

Cairo Jim is the hero of a series of children's books by Geoffrey McSkimming. I know Geoffrey because we were in touch for a while by email after I went to a library conference where he was the speaker and I learned from him that there was a market for short non-fiction at the NSW School Magazine, where he worked at the time. Thanks to this information I established a long, happy relationship with the magazine and its delightful  editor, Jonathan Shaw.

But this is about Cairo Jim. Cairo Jim is Geoffrey McSkimming's creation, a sort of Indiana Jones for younger readers, although the author does throw in a lot of in-jokes which adults are more likely to pick up than children, like the Asterix comics. Mind you, he told me I was the only reader he'd met ever to spot his reference to Marge and Gower Champion, those famous Hollywood dancers of the 1940s in  On The Trail To Chacha Muchos. That book is chronologically the first, though the second written. In it, Cairo Jim visits South America where he first meets his Shakespeare-quoting macaw companion Doris, while searching for a local tribe, the Chacha Muchos, who danced off into the jungle under the leadership of their chief Arturo Murrayo. At one point, Jim is rescued by that fabulous flight attendant Jocelyn Osgood, who arrives in a balloon accompanied by a dance band who think she's Dorothy Lamour.

Jocelyn Osgood has her own series, in between the Cairo Jim books, starting with After The Puce Empress. She solves mysteries. She is a strong, capable woman and there are hints that she has a thing for Jim, but he never notices. Actually, he doesn't notice when another woman, a member of the Turkish branch of the Antiquities Squad, throws him strong hints about her attraction to him via her mobile phone ring tones and in a later book she finally tells him that she was causing trouble for him because he didn't take her hints.

And this brings me to the time in which the novels are set - I have no idea when that is! There's that mobile phone, of course. In an early book, Mrs Amun-Ra, who runs the tea shop in Jim's village of Gurna finds a photo of Buzz Aldrin on the moon(1969).

 On the other hand, Gerald Perry Esquire, who's a sort of Marcus Brody character, says he remembers an incident that happened in 1912! He's not a young man, but he couldn't be that old. And the novels have that 1930s/40s flavour, with the dance band and mentions of  Dorothy Lamour, who was around in the fifties, with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in the Road movies and a character being excited to find a radio in his hotel room. 

I've given up trying to date them and just enjoy them for what they are. I think the author simply picks up the best bits of every era and throws them into the mix.

The series is delightfully clever and often laugh-out-loud funny.  The characters are over the top, such as Captain Neptune Flannelbottom Bone, the villainous ex archaeologist who is now into looting and has his own animal companion, a fleabitten raven called Desdemona. Jim's two companions are Doris the macaw and Brenda the wonder camel, who reads westerns and makes telepathic suggestions, although Jim doesn't realise this.

Children won't pick up that Gurna was the name of a village whose inhabitants made a living out of tomb robbing, but I did - and laughed. Probably they won't have heard of Dorothy Lamour, let alone the Champions, but that won't stop them from enjoying.

Funny as the books are, there's a serious message under all the jokes: that we shouldn't  be looting the heritage of other people's countries. Funny as Neptune Bone is, he is only a representative of the real world looters who have helped themselves to ancient treasures over the years and refused to return them. Both Jim and Jocelyn believe firmly that these things should be returned and so does the author.

But you're not hit over the head with it. There's a delicious silliness about the whole series that lets you enjoy while you get the message.

Think I'll go and reread the lot!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Skeleton Key by Tara Moss. Sydney:Pan Macmillan, 2012

Meet Pandora English. She has come from small town Gretchenville to live in New York City with her great-aunt Celia, a witch, in a haunted mansion on Addams St in the unmapped suburb of Spektor, which is perpetually hidden behind a tunnel of fog. Celia was a fashion designer to the stars in 1940s Hollywood and still has such treasures as Lauren Bacall's coat and Ingrid Bergman's favourite dress to lend Pandora. She also has some tenants who live there as long as they behave, but Pandora has learned to carry a bag of uncooked rice to distract any misbehaved vampires- sorry, Sanguine. The V word is considered un-PC.

Apart from being "the Seventh", a member of her family who can communicate with dead people, Pandora has normal girl troubles. There are two gorgeous guys in her life, but one is dead( the ghost of a Civil War soldier) and the other has had his memory of her erased in a previous novel. She has a job at Pandora fashion magazine, but her boss has been coming in after dark and was last seen counting rice grains, something new vampires do, obsessively.

What about the mad scientist who built the mansion and was apparently burned up by spontaneous combustion? Are his dabblings in necromancy about to bear zombie fruit in modern New York? Read and find out!

I haven't read any of Tara Moss's books before and this is the third of a YA series, but I didn't have trouble following it. If anything, there is perhaps a little too much explanation of what happened before. There are also a number of things that may, perhaps, be important in a future novel, but I couldn't see why they were necessary in this one. For example, the gorgeous Jay Rockwell, whom Pandora had dated in a previous book but who has forgotten her, reappears but doesn't do a lot. In fact, both young men - and they are men, not boys - are strangely passive. Jay does show his attraction to her and ask her out, but that's it. He seems to be there only to express Pandora's need for normality, which can be difficult when you're living in a spooky mansion right out of The Addams Family, are the subject of a prophecy and hang out with ghosts and vampires.

Still, I found it a relaxing read, very easy to slip into after a long, exhausting day sorting out teen troubles. I had a giggle out of such elements as Great Aunt Celia's silent undead chauffeur Vlad, wondering if he was that Vlad - in Aunt Celia's home, nothing would be too surprising. I enjoyed the notion of obsessive compulsive vampires - that particular piece of folklore is genuine, by the way, with suspected vampires having been buried with seeds to keep them too busy counting to get out of their graves. Just think, you could manage without the stakes and holy water if you wanted to escape, simply take a bag of rice. The suggestion that it's only new vampires affected that way may be only Tara Moss, and is understandable - how can you write about scary vamps if humans can escape them merely by throwing rice?

There was a gentle humour in this one that I liked very much and it's not difficult reading for reluctant readers.

This book goes into my library next week, to see how the girls like it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Saying Goodbye To Book Club -A Sad Day

Today I will have to say goodbye to my foundation book club members, the same ones I took to the YABBAs last week. Before Thando, Paige, Dylan, Ryan, Kristen and Selena, I was never able to get any interest. Over the last four years we have laughed, discovered exciting new writer ad book web sites, gone on excursions together to see writers, plunged our hands into new boxes of books, written reports on new, unpublished books.

I do have some interest now, some new young readers- thanks to them, since I'd given up even trying before they turned up. But these were special. They turned up regularly, not just  when the weather was bad, and tried new things. They worked on novels and asked my opinion. Kristen did a book trailer for my novel when it came out and posted it in YouTube. They hung out at my library desk for a chat when they didn't need to. They are close with each other and with me. When some of them went on school camp in Queensland last year, they came back with a handwritten card that said,"Did you miss us? We missed you!" They brought me little souvenirs which sit on my shelf at home. when Wolfborn first came out, three of them got together to make a special popup card with a wolf and a full moon on it. that, too, sits on my shelf over the TV at home.

And now they are moving on to Senior Campus. I'm proud of them all, but will miss them.

Forgive me for finishing here, but a few tears are falling.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

THRONE OF GLASS By Sarah J. Maas. London, Bloomsbury 2012

Celaena Sardothien was the world’s greatest, most famous assassin, until she was caught - probably betrayed - and sent to the salt mines of Endovier a year ago, at the age of seventeen. Now she has been removed from the mines and taken to the royal palace, which is a quite spectacular construction of glass, and offered her one and only chance of freedom. All she has to do is win a competition for the job of King’s Champion, against a large number of other convicted criminals. The winner gets an impressive contract and well-paid job killing for the king, everyone else is sent back where they came from.

But someone is killing off the competitors one by one, ripping out their brains and organs. Despite the king’s having destroyed magic in his empire, there’s something ancient and horrible loose in the castle. Will Celaena make it to the final duel or will she be the next victim? 

I must admit, this book was better than I had expected from some reviews I had read and quite readable, although it left me with a number of questions. It has certainly had a lot of promotion after the author grew her own fan base on-line over a number of years. I have no doubt it will have more fans as the sequels arrive. When I mentioned the book to some of my students, one said, “Oh, yes, I’ve heard of that one.”

I think it might be simplest if I divide my comments into what worked for me and what didn’t, quite.

What worked for me:

The author didn’t have her heroine recover immediately from her ordeal. Celaena, when she arrives at court, is thin and weak and has nightmares about her trauma for most of the book.

She has a healthy appetite and a love of clothes. She may not be crazy about her current assignment, but she is going to enjoy the perks while she can; this is one of the few touches of humour to be found in the book - and every book needs humour!

There is some witty conversation and the occasional really nice line, such as when Celaena is getting ready for a ball she has been ordered not to attend: “This would be her first ball where she wasn’t there to kill someone.” The mind boggles at the image of what might have happened at those balls where she was working!

The romance played a major role, but wasn’t the most important part of the novel, although there was the standard threesome. There was quite a lot of mystery - and this might have made a nice murder mystery in its own right.

What puzzled me:

Why would the king be staging this competition in the first place? Surely the role of King’s Champion would be an honour given to a great knight? We’re talking Sir Lancelot here! Instead, we get a bunch of thieves and murderers who have to be guarded and threatened with death if they try to escape. How could the king rely on the winner, especially some of the truly awful men in this contest, who would be more likely to kill him than kill for him? He does think of a way, yes, in the end, but only because the winner is essentially a decent person. It might have worked better if the competition had been between the king’s top knights, who resent the intrusion of this assassin. We may find this out in a future volume, but not yet.

In real life, top assassins tend to be plain people nobody notices, let alone has heard of. A successful assassin should be able to move through a crowd, stab someone with a poisoned umbrella and move on without anyone noticing them. A spectacularly beautiful woman like Celaena would be unlikely to do this, unless she was a master of disguise and this is never suggested anywhere in the novel. Nobody, it seems, is brave - or foolish - enough to create a plain heroine these days. Perhaps, though, the master of disguise thing would have worked?

Some of the things Celaena does in the course of the competition seemed, to me at least, to be physically impossible, such as her rescue of another competitor in the course of a climbing challenge. 

How likely is it that there would be a secret passage leading from a room, hidden behind a tapestry, with no one having noticed before, even the servants who clean the room? It might have worked if something magical had happened to reveal the long-hidden doorway. Unless I missed something, the door was discovered because of a breeze coming from behind the tapestry.

Still, this book wasn’t written for the likes of me, but for teenage and twenty-something girls. And they will enjoy it.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Happy Birthday, Bram Stoker!

Today's Google image was centred around vampires and Bram Stoker. Today is his 165th birthday! When I declared this at school today, one of my students said,"Miss, he's dead." Some people just don't get it.

In this day of romantic Gothic-style vampires, it's hard to imagine them as anything else. It's not that Stoker wrote the first vampire tale or even the first glam vampire tale; that honour goes to John Polidori, who was on that weekend writers' retreat with two poets and the girlfriend of one of them  - the one where the two amateurs actually wrote something worth reading and the two poets didn't come up with anything much? :-)

But Dracula is the novel on which our whole view of what vampires can and can't do is based. And he did something unusual, with Vlad Tepes, Romanian national hero, linked with the scary undead villain of his novel. I actually only read it a few years ago, and found, to my surprise, that it was easy reading. It was done in the form of letters and diary entries, which even fairly reluctant readers can handle. And scary? Oh, yes! I was biting my knuckles, muttering,"No, you idiot! Don't take off the garlic flowers! Stop opening that window, Dracula's out there!"

So, hands up those of you who haven't read it? Go on, we won't tell. But how about putting down that paranormal romance for a day or two and trying this?

I have sometimes recommended it when students have had enough of the Gothic romances that the big publishers are pouring out for teens at such a huge rate. "How about a book where the vampire is the bad guy?"

And the adapted version for children is doing well too.

Anyway, raise your glass in a toast to the grand master of the spooky vampire tale - and yes, I do

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Back From The YABBAs

Andy Griffiths accepts his award

A slightly adapted version of a post first published on Write On!

I've spent a wonderful morning with five of my terrific students and a whole lot more at the YABBA Award ceremony.

We met at Flinders Street Station this morning - poor Dylan was sick, so there was Ryan,Thando, Paige, Kristen and Selena, three of whom were readers on the Banned Books Week DVD. From the station, we got to Collins St to catch the 109 tram to Kew, where the event was happening at Trinity Grammar. We started to walk down Charles St to the school, when someone pointed to a sign on a corner building that said"YABBA Awards" and sure enough, the building was a Trinity Grammar hall. We were the first school there, which was nice - I'd worried we would be running late. We parked our bags at the side, where there were chairs. It seemed they expected the students to sit on the floor, but as there were only five of them and the rest seemed to be primary children, I got permission for them to sit on the chairs.

The MC was Graham Davey who, apart from running YABBA, is a professional story teller and knows how to work the audience, who were delighted with him. There was a sort of Mr Squiggle thing in which children were invited up to do a scribble which three of the guest artists( well, two - one was Felice Arena, who's a writer, author of the Specky McGee novels, but did a great bit of art)had to turn into a drawing.

Some very cute children brought a special cake to Corinne Fenton, author of the book about Queenie, the Melbourne Zoo elephant, as it was Queenie's birthday. The audience sang happy birthday to Queenie.

Corinne Fenton and elephant cake

Andy Griffiths won two prizes, one for Just Doomed(older readers), the other inducted into the Hall Of Fame as it had been nominated five times. The picture book prize went to Fearless In Love by Colin Thompson and illoed by Sarah Davis. The prize for younger readers went to Alice Miranda At School by Jacqueline Harvey, who couldn't make it but sent a video message. The Year 7 to 9 prize went to Chris Morhew's Phoenix Files. Chris, a teacher in NSW, couldn't make it, so his publisher accepted the prize on his behalf. It was a reminder that most writers here have day jobs. If I hadn't lived in Melbourne I couldn't have made it either, but as it was, I wanted to grab the chance for my foundation book clubbers to have one more excursion together and we went.

I had three books to be signed for students who weren't there. I had thought Vikki Wakefield would be coming, but she wasn't there, so I'm afraid Jenny will have to have her copy of Friday Brown unsigned. :-( I got Dylan a copy of 26 StoreyTreehouse.  Natasha had requested one of Oliver Phommavanh's books - and guess what? The two gentlemen were sitting together in the author section and I sat next to them and asked for their autographs, which they gave readily, and very nice ones too, not just their names or "best wishes" but cute drawings. I introduced Kristen to Carole Wilkinson and she finally got a Dragonkeeper book signed. Selena had a chat with Gabrielle Wang, who signed for her in Chinese (Selena is a Chinese immigrant).

While my students wandered around mingling with the guests, I sat down for a signing and was pleasantly surprised at how many children asked for my autograph, two little girls even asking for a photo with me! The book stall, alas, didn't have any of my books and I hadn't brought any because it would have been too much to lug books home and then out again by train and tram, but I had brought a pile of Crime Time bookmarks and they all went. Hopefully some children will request copies at their libraries, at least, if not buy. ;-)

I sat next to Sophie Laguna, who gave me a pen because mine had gone missing and I hadn't time to look for another with those delightful children making my day by asking for my autograph. Sophie had to leave soon because of a babysitter at home, so I chatted with Gabrielle Wang and Nicky Johnston. Here's a photo of us, after Gabrielle kindly signed a couple of bookmarks for my students.
L-R Nicky Johnston, Gabrielle Wang, me

We met my friend George Ivanoff,who has visited my school to launch Wolfborn, and two of the students bought copies of Gamer's Challenge. (George is more cluey than I am and brought his own copies). I got a photo of him with Book Club, but it didn't turn out too well.

Thando was interviewed for the YABBA web site, but I have to get the permission form before they can use it. I hope they do use it; the snippets I could hear sounded good and Thando looked splendid in the school's new uniform, all blue and gold, with her Student Beacon Ambassador badge on.

We left at a little after noon, with a lovely goody bag of some of the short listed books and others and, over lunch in town, sorted which ones the library already has and which it doesn't. Those we already have I let them take home, while we have several new books to gloat over tomorrow at school. Thando had made sure the author's who were there had signed. She also did an interview for the web site and from what I could hear, it was a good one.

 Now to see if I can be invited again next year... And maybe take some of the younger students next time. It just wasn't possible today - the event started in Kew at 9.30 and getting there from Sunshine,we would have had to leave well before school. I took the older ones who could meet me in town and be left at the station on the way home.

They must have felt like Gulliver in Lilliput, with the rest being primary kids, but had a great time anyway! 

Friday, November 02, 2012

Dear Teen Me Post Is Up!

My post on Dear Teen Me has gone live. If you want to see what I looked like at sixteen, here's your chance. Actually, thinking back, I was fifteen in that photo, because it was taken at my sister's engagement party and she got married the next year. There I am with my short elfish hairdo, short because I deliberately had a haircut to avoid being forced into one of those awful beehive hairdos fashionable at the time.

Deat Teen Me is a great web site. It's a book blog with a difference - it's made up entirely of letters by writers to their teenage selves and recently they published a book of seventy of the letters.

I liked doing this because it made me focus on my hopes and dreams during my teens and wonder how many of them had come to pass. Some of them did, in my case. I was that girl who was always scribbling. None of my teenage jottings were ever published, thank heaven, but it showed me my way. The acting and singing never happened; I only did one musical, at school, in which I threw myself into a rock singer's arms crying,"Let's have an OR-gy!"( hard g) . My last play was at university, though I did get to act a little in some of Helga Hill's Renaissance Dance performances, later. But the writing continued.

And for readers, it's an enjoyable way of reading a short bio of their favourite authors and many they may not have heard of, seeing inside them, so to speak.

I will be adding a link to this site shortly. Meanwhile, why not wander over and find out what I was doing in my teens, then stay to look up some others? I think I spotted at least one Aussie writer there, there may be more.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Rhiannon and Braydon Interview Justin D'Ath

Dear readers,

Today I would like to introduce you to my guest interviewers Rhiannon Mustapic and Braydon Harvey, who have prepared some questions for well-known Aussie YA writer Justin D’Ath, who has kindly agreed to answer them here on the Great Raven.
Pool, a novel published by Melbourne’s Ford Street Publishing and shortlisted for the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards, is set in New Lourdes, a small Victorian town where a miracle once took place at the local swimming pool. In fact, the town was renamed after the miracle happened, to get the tourist trade, which it does. Wolfgang, a boy who has a summer job at the pool, meets and befriends blind and nocturnal Audrey, the object of the miracle, in which she seemed to drown as a toddler, but came back to life. As the summer goes on, strange things begin to happen and butterfly-loving Wolfgang begins to see black butterflies unknown to science…

I reviewed this book when it first came out, so I’ll let you find out more details from that  and let Justin, Rhiannon and Braydon tell you all about it. Welcome to my blog, everyone!

RM What inspired you to write the book Pool?

JD: Believe it not, I wrote Pool because I didn’t want to write another book. Here’s what happened. Fifteen months earlier I applied to the Australia Arts Council for funding to write a YA novel about a rock band called Wolf Gang. Eventually, and much to my surprise, my application was successful and I received a $30,000 grant to write the novel. But by this time I had lost interest in the project so I turned the would-be title into the name of a character and wrote about him instead, and the result was Pool.

RM: What is your favourite line from the book (Ours was when Audrey said “I want to smell the lions”)

JD: Good choice. I think that’s my favourite line, too. In fact, the chapter when Wolfgang takes Audrey to the zoo is my favourite.

RM: Why did you use butterflies as part of the story?

JD: I like butterflies. And when I began the first chapter I had this character called Wolfgang working at the New Lourdes Pool and I needed something to happen to kick off the plot, so I wrote a butterfly into the scene to see how he would react, and it turned out he was interested in butterflies, too (but in a different way than me).

RM: Does the black butterfly represent Audrey’s soul?

JD: It wasn’t my intention. On the other hand, when you trust a novel to your readers it’s their interpretation that matters, and I quite like the idea.

RM: Why did you choose for there to be a love interest between Audrey and Wolfgang?

JD: I wanted their lives to come together. Also it presented Wolfgang with some interesting dilemmas.

RM: Have you ever known or experienced any of the events that occurred in the book in real life?

JD: No. It’s entirely fictional. I come from a strong Catholic background, so drew on that where it touched the plot and found it interesting to juxtapose Wolfgang’s beliefs with the extraordinary spiritual contradictions suggested by the sloping pool and by Audrey.

RM: Why did you choose for Wolfgang to finally see Audrey’s “special place” near the end of the story?

JD: I think Wolfgang needed to understand Audrey as fully as possible, if only to offer the readers entry into where she came from, or went.

BH: Why did you make Audrey blind?

JD: Again, this was purely happenstance. When I write I simply explore ideas, and it seemed interesting, since I had a butterfly in the story, to see how a blind person, who couldn’t see one or feel one, might react to it.

BH: What inspired you to write your first book? (And what is it?)

JD: My first book was a novel for adults called ‘The Initiate’. I wrote it after spending 10 months on an Aborigine mission in Central Australia. Living there was like being in a novel, so I decided to write one.

BH: What books have most influenced your life?

Every book that I have read from beginning to end has influenced me both as a writer and a person. If they don’t influence me, I don’t finish them. But there are too many to name.

BH: Why is Audrey nocturnal?

JD: I wanted to give this blind girl a reason to be at the pool every day, and since she was asleep most of the time I wondered why.

BH: Why did you choose for Wolfgang to have an interest in butterflies?

JD: See my answer to Rhiannon’s question. Also I wanted to make Wolfgang an interesting and slightly unusual young man – a misfit, if you like, which gave him a connection with Audrey.

Thanks for the great interview! One more thing before I go: last year, some of my students who had read Pool stumbled across some information on the Internet, about an American girl called Audrey Santos, who had had the same experience as the girl in the book. I asked Justin if that was where he’d got his inspiration for his own Audrey and he said he’d not heard the story. Weird!

St Martin's Youth Theatre Love Letters

Last night I went to see my nephew Max in his youth theatre show. Drama lessons have been good for Max. He started with the National Theatre, but had to drop out for timing reasons. Then his parents discovered the St Martin's program, which is in the afternoon, and he went to my old stomping ground.

I was a member of the MTC Youth Theatre back when St Martin's was just starting to be used for these activities. Two of the members went on to become professional actors and one became a Logie Award winning TV director. As for me, I got to play the Cow in Andre Obey's Noah and do the rooster crow before dropping out. I have a vague memory of watching Westerns to observe the cattle as I had no access to real cows in the middle of Melbourne's beachside suburbs. I think I made a good cow, but acting wasn't for me. I became a children's writer and have never looked back.

But this was different. It was very much an ensemble piece. There were no "stars" or lead roles here. The kids all contributed to the stories that made up the show and worked together to make it go. One story that Max had told was spoken by another boy. Max himself got to talk about music he'd heard "in utero".

The play was in the form of individual stories, separated by characters' thoughts as they posed for a school photo. They weren't all charming stories about your first crush at school, either; Max sang the murder ballad "The Wild Rose" with one of the girls before his character was sent off to hell from the Purgatory Bar. What tickled me is that the piano accompaniment was a recording of him playing, and he played accompaniment all through the show. There was the boy who was in love with a Phoenix and the girl who had the future stored under the floorboards in a silver foil-covered ice cream container, as well as the Justin Bieber-obsessed girl covering him with the Christmas decorations of her expectations like a tree.

I had, of course, expected to cheer on Max, but these kids were all terrific. I suspect there are a few who might make their way on to the professional stage and good luck to them. And those who don't have a good future in other creative areas.

Lucky them, by the way. They got to perform in the Arts Centre, at the Fairfax Studio! Afterwards there was a free bar and garlic pitta and dips, very classy!