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Saturday, December 28, 2013

Historical Research And Year 8

I've been ordered to teach Year 8 history this coming year. It's not that I know nothing about history, I know plenty, especially about the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the eras being studied, but teaching it? How?

One thing we're apparently supposed to do is teach the difference between primary and secondary sources. Here I'm on firmer ground. But how many primary sources do we have for the Middle Ages that you can teach to thirteen year olds?

So I have decided to start the year with other primary sources, just to give them an idea.  I've got some newspaper articles from the 1960s about the Beatles visit to Melbourne. I've also discovered the joys of Trove, the National Library site that is in the process of digitising newspapers from 1803 on and the Women's Weekly between 1933 and 1982.

The Weekly is my primary source of choice. I picked a PDF of the issue for September 16 1939, which I can put on USB stick and show on an interactive whiteboard. There's a cover with a cute picture of a baby. So what, I might ask, was happening in September 1939? A student with an iPad can look it up: the beginning of World War II. Priorities? But this is a women's magazine. You aren't going to put a picture of a soldier on the cover or even the PM. And the first article is all about how women should be keeping busy and the author's mother had eight kids and never bought a cake or used an electric iron and did fine. There are photos of happy housewives cleaning.

Flipping further into the issue, you do find references to the war. There's a lot of human interest stuff - a letter from a girl in Poland assuring her mother she'll be fine(despite the Nazi invasion), pictures of cute kids being evacuated from London to the countryside, advice on stocking your medicine cabinet and how you, as a woman, can contribute to the war effort.

There is also plenty of fiction, knitting patterns, movie reviews(Wuthering Heights with Laurence Olivier gets a good one), fashion photos, an article about those cute kids Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland and ads for feminine-themed products. - soap, face powder, corsets, floor polish, baby formula.

And I love it. If I was writing a story set in Australia in the 1930s, this magazine would tell me how ordinary people lived, what they fantasised about, how much stuff cost in those days, what was on at the movies...

I will also look for some secondary sources:"Daily life in Australia in 1939" perhaps.

I may show them some of the research I did on the Beatles visit to Melbourne in 1964; you can now save newspaper articles to your USB stick at the State Library, and I did.

When I do have to get on to the Middle Ages, perhaps images will do some of the primary sources for me - peasants in the fields, a feast in the castle, war, there are illuminated manuscripts for them all.

For Vikings, there's that Arab traveller who describes the Vikings in Russia as the dirtiest people he'd ever seen, must find that on line somewhere... He also describes a funeral for a chieftain, very gruesome, including a human sacrifice of a slave girl who ends up being killed to keep the chieftain company in the Otherworld, AFTER some other horrible things, but I'm not sure I'd be allowed to show them that. They'd like the bit about dirty Vikings, though.
Can I persuade them that history is important? That research is worth doing?

Let's see how it goes.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Creature Department by Robert Paul Weston. New York : Razorbill,2013

Elliot von Doppler lives with his restaurant critic parents in the small town of Bickleburgh. They can't cook themselves but expect him to give a review to all his meals. Not much happens apart from his having to review burnt toast, until he receives an invitation from his loopy uncle Archie, who works as an inventor for one of the world's biggest technology companies, DENKi-3000, oddly located in nothing-ever-happens Bickleburgh. He is to bring new girl and fellow science nerd Leslie Fang, whose mother drags her from town to town, leaving as she becomes bored, but now living with grandfather Famous Freddy above Famous Freddy's Dim Sum Emporium, which does wonderful dumplings but has very few customers. It does, however, manage to survive because of regular orders from the mysterious R and D Department at DENKi-3000 - the department led by Uncle Archie. Leslie and Elliot are about to discover just who is enjoying all that wonderful takeaway Chinese food...and that the company faces takeover by the evil Quazicom if there isn't a fabulous new product to show at the next shareholders' meeting.

Think Charlie And The Chocolate Factory with a huge variety of creatures instead of Oompa Loompas, with a just a touch of Odo Hirsch, and without Willy Wonka - Uncle Archie is a genius, but not quite in the same way. The creatures aren't just minions, they participate in the design and creation of such things as TransMints(Get Your Freshness Direct From The Web). I also thought of Jim Henson's muppets.

There's a charming silliness about the whole novel(imagine getting away with being smuggled past security disguised as a giant pork dumpling! Not to mention the "expectavator", a lift staffed by a sort of worm who goes down by thinking about his divorce and up by making travellers feel hopeful) that children should enjoy.

There are some loose ends in the final scenes that make me wonder if a sequel is intended. We'll have to see. The art was delightful, though I'd like to know who the illustrator was, if it wasn't the cover artist. Just one thing: while I expect primary children to enjoy the story, there are some words rather too long or at least too hard for the average child and certainly too long for reluctant readers. Hopefully, this will change in any sequel that might be written. And I think there will be - there is too much character and world building to leave it at one novel.

Meanwhile, recommended for mid/late primary school readers and early secondary.


For more about this novel, including delightful pictures and descriptions of  the various creatures in this novel, go to

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Boxing Day Blockbuster - The Hobbit Part 2

I won't go far with this, as there will be too many spoilers, but yesterday I took my nephew Max and his cousin Dezzy to see The Hobbit : The Desolation Of Smaug at the Classic Cinema in Elsternwick, near my mother's place. Max went with me last year. He loved the first part; this time, he said he preferred Jackson's early work(Max is fifteen and writes a film appreciation blog), adding that the Orcs looked a lot like creatures in one of Peter Jackon's earlier films.

There was a lot to like about this film, though I think the Orcs are overdone, with too much of an effort to link it with LOTR. I like the fact that some, at least, of the Dwarves have individual personalities, expanded still more in Part 2. The casting is generally very good - well, if Thorin is just a bit too hot, as are his nephews, for a Tolkien story,  I am a lady who likes male eye candy and Richard Armitage also has a beautiful speaking voice and I adore men with beautiful voices. One with both - yum!

But Martin Freeman is absolutely right for Bilbo.  As soon as I heard he'd been cast in the role, I thought of his role as Arthur Dent, another man who is dragged kicking and screaming out of his comfort zone, and knew he could do it.

And Stephen Fry was a deliciously nasty Master of Laketown, who certainly enjoyed himself in the role.

The first film was relatively close to the novel; this one has moved a fair distance from it. Again, I won't  go into much detail due to spoilers - I think anyone who has been following the series knows, anyway, about the invented Elf shield maiden Tauriel and that Legolas appears in his father's woodland kingdom. I'd like to add that he isn't the nice Elf  we meet in LOTR and it's hard to imagine him eventually having a Dwarf as his best friend, though he does get to see a portrait of  "Ma wee lad Gimli"  taken from Gloin when the Elves capture the Dwarves in Mirkwood.

But there are other scenes where I thought, "Oh, nooo! You can't DO that!" and I suspected that Tolkien would have done the same.

It was visually stunning. Certain characters had their roles expanded, but that was okay and mostly necessary. There was a lot of action, including in the Lonely Mountain. Thorin is definitely getting darker - I do hope he will be allowed that wonderful final scene where he says that the world would be a better place if more people liked good food and drink and such ordinary things. Because in the end, no matter how many aristocrats and epic heroes he sends running through his fiction, it's the ordinary people who are Tolkien's real heroes.

No point in seeing this film if you haven't seen the first or at least read the book and if you have done either or both, you'll probably go to see this one anyway. Then wander back and share your thoughts here.

Anyone else got any comments to make about this film? Especially if you've read the book?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Just Watched...The Hobbit Director's Cut

This time last year I went with my nephew Max and a friend with her son to see part 1 of The Hobbit movie. Afterwards, Max leaned back with a sigh and said he wanted to sit there till the next movie started.

I know how he felt. A beautiful piece of film making and if they added stuff and sneaked in Radagast the Brown with a chariot pulled by rabbits...well, it was Sylvester McCoy, who was perfect for the role and I could pretend he'd been in LOTR. And Thorin Oakenshield was a lot younger and sexier than Tolkien's, but he was brilliantly portrayed by Richard Armitage. So what? Aragorn was also younger and sexier-looking than Tolkien's and we ended up accepting him.  And the Dwarves all had individual personalities, well thought out. And the film was made by people who loved Tolkien.

But there were things that don't quite make sense. The second time around, I could see that they were there for a reason that will become clearer in the rest of the movie, if you think of it as one very long film instead of three. Better still, the director's cut, which I watched tonight, slipped in some more stuff that made sense of the rest. I won't issue any spoilers here.

Not that I mind some spoilers for myself. See, I bought a large number of volumes of the History Of Middle Earth, which are tons of bits and pieces Tolkien wrote but that didn't make their way into the novels. For example, Gimli mentions that he was around during the quest of Erebor(The Hobbit to you and me) but was too young to be taken along, only sixty years old. There's a scene from the meeting of the White Council, where Gandalf is having a smoko during a break and Saruman says rude things about his smoking this hobbit substance which is affecting his brain cells and Gandalf tells him to lighten up(which maybe he does, since Merry and Pippin discover that stash of Longbottom Leaf in his tower). And Gandalf describes his first meeting with Thorin at the inn in Bree - a scene I've read will be in the next movie, which I'm going to see on Thursday. Nice!

I know it's not quite The Hobbit as we know it, but there's quite a lot that is still Tolkien.

I, for one, can't wait.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Path Of Night by Dirk Flinthart. Fablecroft Publishing, 2013

After being killed horribly by a creature out of a horror movie, medical student Mick Devlin  wakes to find himself in the morgue and, soon after, on the run. He had cut himself on an exploding vial of some mystery substance being studied by a now-dead scientist working at the hospital and, as well as coming back to life he now has super speed and strength and sharp night vision. Thing is, as he discovers, he's supposed to have turned into a cannibalistic monster like the one who killed him, but the only side effects appear to be a tendency to burn easily in the sun and eat a lot - ordinary food, not human flesh.

With a grumpy female police detective right out of a noir novel, he tries to find out what's going on - not easy when being hunted by two top secret societies which have the government's ear. 

There are many of the typical elements of an airport paranormal thriller - secret societies, a mysterious substance discovered on an archaeological dig, a cop who's been told to drop the case, nonstop action, explosions, characters being badly injured but somehow soldiering on after a bit of first aid, gruesome killings. Somehow, though, it all works. Unlike many of those thrillers, the main characters are likeable and there are humorous elements, such as waking in an evil society's lab strapped to a gurney to find, not a gloating villain, but three innocent doctors who haven't a clue they're henchmen or that he isn't a mental patient needing shock therapy, arguing over having to use code names. And unlike in The Da Vinci Code, most characters do stop to eat and sleep, not only the perpetually famished Mick. 

Definitely a change from Dirk Flinthart's usual swashbuckling fantasy, but still, action adventure. I read it over a weekend. 

Read it on the beach, but make sure you're not too close to the water or you might get caught by the tide.

Available as either ebook or print on line directly from Fablecroft Publishng, whose publisher and editor, Tehani Wessely, has been interviewed on this site, or, if you live in Australia, you can also buy it in the dealers' room at SF conventions..

Raven Flight by Juliet Marillier. Volume 2 Shadowfell trilogy. SydneyPan Macmillan, 2013

In Shadowfell, we met Neryn, a Caller. This means she can call the Good Folk(various varieties of what we would call fairies) and they must come. Unfortunately, in Alban, the alternate version of Scotland in which she lives, this is not an advantage. Anyone suspected of being "canny" - which can include especially good sight or skill in an ordinary thing such as spinning or archery - is hauled in by the King's Enforcers and Enthralled to make them loyal to him. But the process doesn't always work, leaving the victim a mindless wreck, such as Neryn's grandmother. No wonder she was on the run, first with her father, who died in a fire, then by herself and with double-agent Enforcer, Flint, who took her to a rebel group at Shadowfell, where she was made welcome as a potential weapon in their fight against the evil King.

Now, she must visit the Guardians, major Good Folk who can teach her skills she will need to help her in the fight against the tyrant without doing too much damage to any Good Folk she may Call. It isn't easy to reach them and in one case, the Guardian needs to be helped out of his own grieving for a dead child and lost wife before he can help her. He's been asleep for three hundred years, so it will be tough...

This is yet more powerful writing by the doyenne of folk tale-themed fiction Juliet Marillier. Nothing is ever easy, characters you care about can die, sometimes offstage while the protagonist is busy doing vital work elsewhere, love is not a good idea for rebels who may find it used against them if their loved ones are taken prisoner and the Good People who, in other novels of this kind, are not given much depth, are all too human, if you can call it that, with human needs and sorrows. They are long-lived - even the servants of The Lord Of The North have been waiting for him for three centuries, cooking and darning socks and watching his bed -  but can be killed and there's no "Halls of Mandos" for them to wait till they're simply reborn. Death is death, as for humans.

I like the Scottish flavour; I've only read her Irish-themed books before these. It's interesting to note that the Good Folk all speak with Scottish accents, nobody else does.

Just a warning, it ends on a cliffhanger. I'm not sure when the final volume, The Caller, will be out; I asked for this one to read while waiting. Be patient. Don't try to read this until you've read the first - but read it! The first novel, Shadowfell, has been reviewed on this site.

Boxing Day And Me

This was originally written as a submission for a Christmas-themed anthology before I realised the antho was aimed at children, so I'm working on something more appropriate for that(fingers crossed!) and this post is my contribution to the compulsory holidays blogging that everyone else seems to be doing. There's only one book mentioned, The London Ritz Book Of Breakfasts.

Boxing Day used to be a day out for the girls - Mum, my sister Mary and me. We went each year to the Treble Clef restaurant in Southbank for breakfast, then off to the Boxing Day sales, where I'd invariably buy a towel and some gifts for my gift box. Then there would be the Boxing Day blockbuster movie, after I'd seen Mum off on the tram.

After the Treble Clef closed, I invited Mum and Mary to my home for breakfast. I had a book, The London Ritz Book Of Breakfasts, I was keen to try. From it, I took recipes for Irish soda bread, fancy scrambled eggs and breakfast mocha made with melted chocolate and percolated coffee. I added fresh-squeezed orange juice, summer fruits and smoked salmon.

The next year, my father and my brother-law, Gary, asked to join us. The year after, my nephews arrived,  the elder one, David, with his two daughters in tow and the younger, Mark, with a baby bird fallen from the nest(we called someone to take it). That was before Mark married and became father of two delightful small boys.

I eventually got a larger table, one of those you can stretch, to make room for some of my extended family in the small living-room of my flat - and even that table was too small for everyone; we crammed in.

 It became a tradition. Each Christmas Eve I would shop for the ingredients of my family breakfast: smoked salmon, ground coffee for the percolator, a bag of oranges to squeeze for juice, the ingredients for my Irish soda bread, which I only baked once a year, but did well, fresh summer fruits such as watermelon, cantaloupe, peaches, apricots and various berries. (David's two little girls, Dezzy and Rachel, had never tasted raspberries and loved them). I made sure there were eggs for the scrambled eggs, and cheese for most of us, but not for my brother-in-law, who doesn't enjoy it. I gave up the mocha, as my mother thought it too sweet, so stuck with brewed coffee and tea. I'd do my shopping either at Prahran or Queen Vic market, good places to buy gourmet stuff and likely to be selling fruit cheaply at the end of the market day.

On Boxing Day I would get up early to bake bread, percolate coffee and set the table with goodies. The family would wander in at about 10 am, and enjoy the feast. My sister would comment that my bread was better each year. My brother-in-law was willing to delay his Boxing Day cricket to come along.

It ended when my father passed away. I had a simple, cut-down version of the breakfast for my friends Bart and Siu Ling a day before Dad died, and before I went to visit him in the hospital. Somehow, it just wasn't the same. Each year, we remember him at this time. I've gone back to Christmas Day beach picnics. I prefer not to party on New Year's Eve these days, remembering the storm on that first New Year's Eve after the funeral, though I might go to the Rocky Horror Picture Show if I'm in the mood.

But those years of the Boxing Day breakfast with my family, when I made a London Ritz gourmet meal for them, are a precious memory. I recall them with pleasure as well as sadness.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Just Finished Reading...

...the latest Benjamin January novel by Barbara Hambly. This is the twelfth in the series of historical crime novels that began with A Free Man Of Color. I love crime fiction anyway - not for nothing am I a Sister In Crime! And historical crime fiction is good fun. There are so many in which the sleuth is  a real character out of the history books, whether Shakespeare or Jane Austen, even Elizabeth I. I recently read one in which the heroine is Josephine Tey, author of the Inpector Grant series, though the actual crime solver is a weary police detective.

But this series has a fictional hero, Benjamin January, an African-American ex-slave who was educated by his mother's protector when he bought her and her children and freed them. He's a trained surgeon who studied and worked in Paris, but makes his living as a musician, which actually pays better, especially in 1830s New Orleans, where even the coloured community aren't comfortable with a coal-black doctor. However, he has family and friends, including policeman Abishag Shaw, a white man who wouldn't be allowed into Ben's mum's home for being so vulgar, and Irish musician Hannibal Sefton, who is suffering from consumption and plays a Stradivarius, suggesting his family background is a bit wealthier than his current poverty would suggest. (Actually, he's an aristocrat back home, as we discover in another novel). And Ben January is a first-class sleuth, for whose services people are prepared to pay.

This novel takes Ben to Washington, still a Southern city where any free black unlucky enough to be out after dark runs the risk of being kidnapped and sold, and everyone who dies runs the risk of being dug up by "resurrectionists" for sale to surgeons who want anatomy practice. A mathematician friend of his sister's protector's wife has gone missing. One of the characters is Edgar Allan Poe, who still can't make a living out of his writing and is in town looking for a job. I got the sneaking suspicion that Ben is something of an inspiration for Poe's private eye hero(he wrote the first detective fiction, long before Sherlock Holmes.)

I don't know how she does it, but somehow Barbara Hambly manages to keep up the quality even after twelve books. I pounce on these with a cry of delight as they appear and haven't yet been disappointed.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Housewives Of Harry Potter

It's strange, really. There don't seem to be too many women in the universe of Harry Potter who are both professionals and married. Okay, Neville's parents were both aurors, but look what happened to them - both tortured into insanity. I think the author mentions somewhere that Ginny became a quidditch player, but it doesn't happen in the books themselves and frankly, I think it wouldn't be a good idea to go on playing that particular game during pregnancy and we know Ginny has been pregnant at least twice.

For now, let's talk about two housewives in this world. One is a witch, the other a very determined Muggle who's been throwing herself into Muggledom since she was turned down for Hogwarts.

I'm talking, of course, abut Molly Weasley and Petunia Dursley. Both are career housewives who make sure their homes are just right for their particular families, as they see it. Both love their husbands and children. Both are very good cooks.

But the differences are obvious from very early on and not just in the way they treat Harry.

You really wouldn't want to live in Petunia's house. It's sparkling clean, but only because she makes sure no one tracks mud on to her nice floor or lets anything go into the wrong place - a place for everything and everything in its place! It is the sort of home that would be showcased in Home Beautiful, but not because of its liveability. Dudley's second bedroom is a mess, full of his broken toys and unread books, but nobody sees this, so it doesn't spoil the look of her house. It's a house, not a home.

I think Dumbledore is right to say Dudley has been abused. Petunia adores him, but she lets him eat himself into obesity as well as become a bully. In the first novel, when he makes a fuss over the number of gifts he has, it's Petunia who offers to buy him two more, supporting his spoiled brat nature.

If Petunia ever did anything other than run a home, we aren't told. She relies on Vernon to make the decisions and protect the family and it's his career she supports.

Molly Weasley's home couldn't be more different. It's shabby, relaxed and comfortable. Part of this is because they don't have much money, but when the Weasleys won the Daily Prophet prize, the money was spent on a family trip, not on renovations. Family doing something special together had priority over making the house look nice.

Molly loves her family, but doesn't spoil the children. She is small, plump and kind, but heaven help the child - or husband! - who does the wrong thing. Nevertheless, however frustrated she can become with them, it's only because she loves them so much and wants their best. She knows the twins are smart and could have done better in school, but eventually accepts their dream of running a joke shop. She is proud of them all, whatever they end up choosing to do with their lives.

Her kitchen is the heart of the home; the family live there and there is where she cooks her wonderful meals, food being how she shows love. There's a rubber pot which seems able to stretch to feed however many guests they have, whether it's Harry and Hermione or all the members of the Order of the Phoenix, whom she feeds regularly in 12 Grimmauld Place.

She was a founding member herself and is still sharp with a wand, after many years of running a home.

But ultimately, Molly is a mother. Her Boggart nightmare is the death of a child.  She kills evil Deatheater Bellatrix Lestrange in defence of her children, not as a warrior, though she is.

"Not my daughter, you bitch!" says it all.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Invisible Hero by Elizabeth Fensham. St Lucia: UQP, 2013

At an ordinary high school, a class of Year 9 students are given the task of researching and writing about a hero or villain and presenting to the class. It's a joint project between history and English, so there's a journal to keep as well. There is the usual variety of characters - totally evil bully Macca, the son of the local lawyer, and his gang, his girlfriend Genelle, leader of the popular girls' gang, but not very bright, new girl Raphaela who is intelligent and hard working, but the object of some of the bullying, gentle but brave Ruth, her friend Imogen and Phil Dugan, the "invisible hero" of the title who lives with his grandmother, a small, brave and giant-hearted woman, and is bullied by Macca's gang for wearing the blue glasses he needs to help with his dyslexia. 

The novel is made up of journal entries as the characters research their heroes and villains and muse on what makes a hero or villain. Macca decides his hero is Machiavelli, whose philosophy he follows. To the average student, he is a bully they are terrified to stand up to, but to most of the staff he is the golden boy who raises money for charity and arranges a school tree planting. Of course, it's all in the interests of power and his future career. Turkish boy Mustafa discovers one of his grandfather's heroes, Lord Bloody Wog Rolo, an Argentinian immigrant who found Australia was not as fair and just as he'd expected and fought with humour. Raphaela has a hard time making up her mind till she discovers the White Rose group in Nazi Germany and a pacifist who died horribly for calling Hitler evil.

During the research, there is bullying and random acts of kindness and the mysterious arrival of a river red gum seedling in the schoolyard, stealing the publicity from Macca's tree planting.

I liked that each character has his or her own viewpoint, including the villain. That worked well for characterisation. The reader doesn't have to see the villain merely from the hero's viewpoint because he has the chance to speak for himself, and isn't he dreadful!  It was a nice touch to have him discover Machiavelli and use The Prince in his own life, although I suspect he has been a Machiavellian all the time. Another nice touch when a character wonders if Macca has a dreadful home life, but it has already been made clear he is a copy of his horrible father, whom he admires and who supports him. Mustafa is a sweet boy who is close with his grandfather and respects his Turkish old "men's club" even though he's heard the same stories over and over. Phil is part of a large multicultural community that meets at his Nan's home for soup every week.

It's a powerful piece of writing which I think would make a telemovie if the Australian Children's Television Foundation ever gets around to it. The author has incorporated some of her own background into the book, including at least one hero whom her father knew at Oxford, and a woman who inspired Phil's Nan.

There are just a few nitpicks I have with the book. In real life, a boy as wealthy and snobbish as Macca would be unlikely to be attending a state school. He'd be leading the debating team and bullying the cadets at some exclusive boys' grammar. And then he'd probably go into politics and bully on a larger scale. Just check out the bio of any high scale political bully and that's the background you'll mostly find. A brief explanation of why Macca is at ordinary Taunton high school would have helped. Perhaps he was kicked out of his exclusive boys' grammar?

I also wondered why the class should be impressed by a PowerPoint presentation, something that has become standard in most schools. The average year 7 child I know automatically turns on PowerPoint for an assignment, even if they don't have to do a presentation.

The bullying teacher Mr Quayle is perhaps a bit over the top and you have to wonder why decent Mrs Canmore has chosen to team teach with him. 

Still, it's definitely worth a read, especially for teens who want ideas on standing up to bullies and might raise some interest in the historical figures mentioned. It also has some meat for class discussion.