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Monday, September 25, 2017

Food In The Vorkosiverse

It's odd, really, but  the food that gets the most detailed description in Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosiverse seems to be on Barrayar, the homeworld of her hero, Miles Vorkosigan, or in Barrayaran homes elsewhere.

 I've just been rereading Cetaganda, in which Miles and his cousin Ivan arrive on the capital of the Cetagandan Empire to attend the funeral of the Dowager Empress Lisbet Degtiar, the current Emperor's mother. Cetaganda is a world which specialises in genetic engineering and loves things artistic. The palace spends the days to the funeral running different events and catering for hundreds of attendees, and we're told, on the first day, that Miles and his fellow delegates are served morning tea and lunch and that it's many courses of small delicate finger-food-type things, but not what any of them are. Same thing with the early reception at the Marilacan Embassy. Yet when Miles invites over Mia Maz, a Vervani etiquette expert, to their Embassy,  she pounces delightedly on chocolate petit fours. That is, we start to get some details. There is something called zlati ale on Cetaganda, but that's a part of the plot. I won't tell you what it does, in case you want to read it - spoilers! 

Because so much is centred around the military, we do hear of ration - rat - bars. They're not very tasty, but if you're desperate, as Miles sometimes is, you're only too happy to have one. At one point, in The Vor Game, he is imprisoned in a cell on board Commander Cavilo's ship, and fed on very basic food. Cavilo was unaware of this, telling him he was being fed only what she and her men have, but orders him something better - so much better that he wonders what her soldiers have. They must be overweight and happy. In that case, there was some detail. 

But once you get back to Barrayar, the home cooked meals begin, such as those prepared by Ma Kosti, the mother of two of Miles's guards, whom he offers a job as his cook. Miles gives lunch to Ekaterin, a young widow he first met on Komarr, where her husband was working before he was killed stupidly and needlessly. Ekaterin is the woman he wants in his life, and lunch is a Ma Kosti special, with peach tarts for dessert. Actually, Ma Kosti can make a gourmet delight of a sandwich. She concocts fishy delights for the cat! Before the end of A Civil Campaign, she has cooked a banquet for Miles's guests(using bug butter from the butter bugs being raised in the basement)and created maple ambrosia for the Emperor's wedding. 

A typical local breakfast is a cereal called groats, which are also used as part of wedding ceremonies. Barrayar has been terraformed for the most part, so that Earth maple trees are there to produce sugar - they are big in Miles's district. But there are, oddly, some edible indigenous fruit, brillberries, which are eaten quite safely by the human colonists and cooked into tarts. Well, they must be native fruit, unless they've been developed from Earth berries over the centuries. 

Bujold seems to take great delight in describing her food, especially little cakes, but mostly Barrayaran treats. Otherwise, food is there because it's part of the plot. 

Maybe Barrayar is "home" to the author! 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Take One Of Three Girls: An Interview With Simmone Howell!

A few weeks ago, I received an invitation from the publicist at Pan Macmillan to do an interview regarding the new novel, Take Three Girls, a collaboration by three of this country's top YA novelists. I have yet to read a novel by any of them that I didn't enjoy, so of course, the answer was a glad cry of, "Yes! Absolutely!"

As Cath and Fiona had both appeared on this blog, both in review and interview posts, we decided that Simmone Howell should be the third girl of this trio on The Great Raven. And very welcome she is, too! Simmone says she remembers us meeting at what I think must have been a Booktalkers event at the State Library, back when they were doing these wonderful sessions. 

Anyone remember a British TV series with the same name? It was about three young women living together in London. No connection except the title(though I keep hearing the folk rock group Pentangle singing the theme tune, Light Flight, in my head...)

The three young women in this novel, Clem, Kate and Ady,  attend a boarding school in one of Melbourne's posher suburbs. Clem is an athlete who is losing interest in sport. Kate is a musician from the bush, a hugely talented cellist who has come to the city for her music and is preparing both for a scholarship exam that will let her remain at the school and an audition for a scholarship that will let her go to Finland for her cello playing. Ady, a gifted dress designer, is not a boarder and, due to family issues, might have to leave the school at the end of term. The three form an unlikely friendship. They all have their own problems, including an on line forum, Psst, which is a nasty gossip column along the lines of such web sites mentioned recently in the news, connected with a private boys' school in Melbourne. But these girls refuse to be victims...



So, without further ado, I'd like to welcome Simmone Howell to my blog. 



A basic question to start with: who got the idea for this novel? And whose idea was it to make it a collaboration?

We actually cant recall who thought of it. But once it was suggested we all went YES! The idea went collaboration first, story next. As soon as we knew we were going to do it we spent some time thinking about what we all really wanted to write about - the main thing being friendship, and unlikely friendship within a school - with the school with its heirarchies and posturing and lies and bureaucracy being like a microcosm of the world.


How did the three of you work on this? For example, was it planned out together, then perhaps you each worked on your separate bits? 

Exactly that way. We each created a character and then had mutual plotting sessions around a big table with a whiteboard, then wed go off and write our chapters, then re-meet, read, discuss, repeat.

I'm guessing that each of you created and worked on a separate leading character - am I right? If so, who was yours? What did you have in mind when you created her? 

My character was Clem. I had a few people in mind. It was the early stages of(US TV series) Girls and I loved watching Lena Dunham run riot over our screens - and I loved the idea of a character who maybe didnt know what she wanted eventually but could be passionate in the moment. I was also drawing on aspects of my teenage life, in particular my thoughts around boys and self-esteem.

The novel is centred around life in a boarding school - is this part of your experience or the experience of Cath or Fiona? If not, how did you research it? 

None of us went to a boarding school. I always wanted to (too much Mallory Towers). I did however go to a Catholic girls' school for some of my high school years, where I was a late arrival and never felt quite right. We all do a lot of school visits and residencies, so it wasnt so much research as experience.


Clem and Iris are twins who had once been close. I don't think we ever found out why they had lost this closeness. Thoughts on this? 

Clems reasons might have ended up on the cutting room floor. But it was nearly completely clear cut. I think just sibling rivalry, each one feeling like the other was more loved by their parents - their parents seeming not  to have enough time for them, and then familiarity breeding contempt. I think for some people having siblings is an empowering experience, where for others it just serves to make them feel more lonely.

In fact, there were one or two other ends that were left untied - if you can answer this without too much spoiler, was this deliberate? 

None of us is a fan of the tied-up-with-a-nice-bow ending. We wanted the book to feel realistic, and for people to imagine the characters being friends off the page into the future.

Is this novel very like or very different from your other work? In what ways?

I think its a bit different as theres one main idea to Clem. In my other books I have a lot more time and space to develop with secondary characters and storylines. Its closest in tone to Everything Beautiful - Riley Rose is also a fat and feisty character - a girl who wants to eat the world. The main characters from my other books are more introspective and ideas-y.

I see that before you turned to YA you wrote a lot of short stories - what made you decide to have a go at YA fiction? 

I was told that my no one was ever going to publish my collection of short stories (because it was indeed a collection by then) unless I also had a novel … And now writing novels seems easier, even though they take me ages and ages.

Are you working on something at the moment? 

I am working on a YA book thats set in San Francisco … and a memoir filtered through my formative film, music, and literary influences. And Ive got two half-written things all shiny in the corner of my eye but Im doing my best to ignore them!

I'm looking forward to reading your  new YA novel when completed and, some time, those two shiny things! Thanks for visiting, Simmone.

If you'd like to check out the author, further, Simmone has a web site here.

To buy the book, it should be available in Australia at all good bookshops. You can also buy it on line. Here are a few suggestions:

It's available in both ebook and print copy at Booktopia, in Kindle edition at Amazon, or in ePub on iBooks. 


Saturday, September 09, 2017

Music And Memories

Tonight my mother and I went out to dinner in a local restaurant, something we do most weeks, though not always the same place.

This time, there was music in the background. I don't much care for restaurants with music; I like to eat in peace and have conversations with my eating companion. But this time the music was the Beachboys and suddenly I was taken back to my teens.

My friend Denise and I used to go to St Kilda beach every summer, and Denise would bring with her two things: a transistor radio(yes, that's how long ago it was!) and reading matter. Quite often the music coming from the transistor was that of the Beachboys. My strongest memory is of "Good Vibrations".

And along with that are the books and magazines she shared with me. Denise and her family owned a boarding house, where boarders came and went. Sometimes they left soft drink bottles, for which, in those days, you got a deposit, which we used to buy comics and ice cream. That was, of course, in our primary school years, and I loved it, because my mother wouldn't let me have comics at home.

But by my teens, we were reading other stuff. Sometimes the boarders left books and magazines - speculative fiction books, SF magazines. Denise would read aloud so I could share them. I discovered Robert Bloch in the magazines. I can't even remember the titles of those short stories, but I do remember the stories themselves, and mentioning this to Mr Bloch years later, when he was in Melbourne for a convention. There was a story, for example, in which an old movie extra, who had lost a girlfriend during the silent era, kept seeing her in films she had never been in, seeing her wave at him, and received a note from her from the other side, explaining what was happening. He was telling someone else about it, then died himself - and turned up in the movie Intolerance, with his girlfriend, waving at the narrator. We shared that story on the beach.

And I encountered my first Robert Heinlein book. One summer, Denise got a copy of Stranger In A Strange Land, left behind by a boarder, and read it to me by the sea... I did eventually borrow it and read it fully, but my first memory of it is in the heat of summer, sitting on a beach towel with my friend, in between swims...

Who would have thought that a couple of Beachboys songs would bring back book memories?

Monday, September 04, 2017

Final Day At The Writers Festival!

Well, I went, as planned. But I left later than intended, so missed those 11.30 sessions I was debating with myself about attending - the one with John Safran? The one with father and daughter team Thomas and Meg Keneally? I had opted, in the end, for the Keneally session, but it was too late - I reached the city about twenty minutes too late for either session. My own fault, I was a bit slack.

However, I was glad in the end - I at least downloaded the new Safran book and bought Volume 1 of the joint historical crime series by father and daughter Keneally, and was just in time to have it signed by both authors. Mr K, about to pack up for lunch with his daughter's publisher, promised to wait till I returned from the book stall. Very nice they both were, and they expressed genuine interest when I mentioned I had a book blog. I grabbed a pen and envelope and wrote down the URL, and will be reviewing the book when I've finished. I've started and am enjoying it so far. It seems to be a murder mystery set in the Port Macquarie penal settlement. Lovely!

So, why am I glad? Well, before I left home, my nephew David rang to wish me happy birthday and told me that his brother, Mark, would be going with his delightful family to the Harry Potter event. His elder son, Eden, is reading the series now. He is eight years old and is nearly finished Goblet Of Fire! I've told him he is getting a copy of The Hobbit from me when he has finished the series. If he can read a YA novel like Goblet, he can certainly handle The Hobbit.

So, both boys wore a bit of basic costume, although Jonah didn't want to participate in the costume parade. There were trivia questions from the stage - Eden did put his hand up, but was never chosen. Still, he had a great time and he did get a chance to be "sorted" by the lovely Sonia Palmisano from Bloomsbury, who gave me a hug. Eden is a Ravenclaw(he plays the piano).

After it was over, they left. I had lunch, then returned for my one and only session, which was about the LoveOzYa anthology. There were five authors, including the editor, Danielle Binks. There was Alice Pung, Amie Kaufman, Melissa Keil and Ellie Marney, whose short story was actually based on a chunk she had chopped out of her first novel about the youthful Holmes and Watson-type characters. I bought two copies, one for me and one for the library, because young Raiesah of Year 8 had asked for it. "All those great authors!" she enthused.

I've read the first story, "One Small Step" by Amie Kaufmann, who explained yesterday that she had got the idea from two sources: firstly, from overhearing some Year 12 students talking about what they wanted to apply for as opposed to what their parents wanted, and secondly from the story of the world's first IVF baby, who had had to put up with the whole world  wanting to know about milestones in her life. It's about the first baby born on Mars, now seventeen and having to share her life with the entire population of Earth. Oh, and she falls in love with another girl, her best friend.

I've just started the next story, which is by Will Kostakis. Will wasn't part of that panel, though. It was all female. In fact, eight of the ten stories in the anthology are by women - the other man is Michael Pryor. However, the purpose of the anthology, as Danielle Binks explained, was that in the ALIA survey of most-borrowed books in Aussie libraries, only two out of the top ten YA books were by Australians. So this one is for Aussie voices, though of course, they have every respect for overseas work. Last year, we were told glumly, not one of the top ten were local.



I'm hoping to read the whole book this week, so I can suggest it for next year's English text. The stories are unfortunately a bit long for "short story" work, but so far, quite readable and not too dreadfully hard for our weaker readers. And there seems to be a variety of genres, which is good.



Anyway, a nice day out! 

Saturday, September 02, 2017

September 3 - Happy Birthday To Me... And Andy G!

I woke up this morning to a personalised Google Doodle, with birthday candles, so thought I might as well post about it. This is my official birthday, the one on my birth certificate but I believe my real birthday is September 4, because I was definitely born on a Friday and the year I was born September 3 was a Thursday. September 4 has a lot more interesting and positive stuff about it than the 3rd, and I've posted about that too(and September 5, the birthday of the delightful Kate Constable, YA author, who, I think, shares a birthday with historical romance novelist Frank Yerby, or maybe Joan Aiken...?).

However, here I am, and I will be shouting myself at least one session at the MWF later today, to celebrate. If nothing else, I'll enjoy the Harry Potter day. Friday was the day when, according to The Deathly Hallows, Harry Potter saw his son Albus off to Hogwarts, so they're having fun with a Harry Potter theme today.

BUT there's Kiwi SF author Cherry Wilder and I also share a natal day with Andy Griffiths! Yes, THAT Andy Griffiths, author of so much fiction that has delighted young children and even teenagers in Australia and other countries. I think his novel The Day My Bum Went Psycho had to be retitled The Day My Butt Went Psycho in the U.S. because over there "bum" means "tramp", not "backside" as it does here.  Oh, well. Happy birthday, Andy! Lots of cake and other delicious stuff for you.



I hadn't heard of most of the "famous people" with whom I share a birthday, or if I had, I hadn't read any of their work. The guy who invented the safety match was born On This Day, but he never made any money out if it because it was too damned expensive for most people. Interesting, really. I have always thought it was women who invented most of the ordinary everyday things which we take for granted but wouldn't consider doing without. A man invents this and can't sell it!

Apart from Andy G, most of the writers were people I was unfamiliar with, and the "famous birthdays" web site included some bloggers, for goodness' sake! Anyone on the list 25 years old or less was a blogger. And not even a book or political blogger, generally a lifestyle blogger! That seems to be how you get famous these days. ;-)

Not a lot of positive stuff happened on September 3 - battles, massacres and such for the most part. But Viking 2 reached Mars On This Day.

It was also the birthday of the world's first daily newspaper - September 3, 1833. That was the New York Sun, which operated until 1950. There is an on line paper of that name now. 

Here in Australia it is National Flag Day, commemorating the first time our flag flew, back in 1901,when Australia became a federation. They ran a flag competition and the one we have now is the design that won.

I see that in the U.S. it is National Welsh Rarebit Day, so enjoy your cheese toasties, my American friends! 

It's the birthday of San Marino, the world's oldest republic. The founder was St Marinus. Happy birthday, San Marino! 


Thursday, August 31, 2017

My Students Meet Morris Gleitzman! At the MWF...

On Monday I took nineteen students to the Melbourne Writers' Festival, where they were going to hear Morris Gleitzman speak about his Once series. It would have been twenty, but young Kim, who is a huge fan of the series, suddenly had to go with her family to Vietnam. She had been so looking forward to it. There wasn't time to invite another student to go in her place. I ended up buying her a copy of the newest novel in the series - Maybe - and getting him to sign it for her.

We had been planning this since July. My original plan had been to take them to Reading Matters, but it sold out before we could get the numbers, so we went to the Festival instead.

The kids were wonderful. All of them who were going to be late rang me to let me know. One poor girl ended up having to walk all the way to the station because she didn't have a myki card. I gave her one of my spares, which I'd topped up, because there is always at least one student who either forgets to buy a card or to top up the one they have with money. That time there were three - and I had bought extra cards just in case.

And who should we meet on the train station platform but Natasha, one of my former book clubbers, now studying to be a teacher! Natasha ended up chatting to Taylor, a hugely book-loving student, so I left them to it, after a brief chat with Natasha.

Morris Gleitzman was a very good speaker, talking about his series in general and specifically about the new book, which I hadn't realised was out already. Kim will love this, I thought. one of my students, who hadn't read any of the books, admitted that "it was a bit boring" when I asked him how he had enjoyed the talk. But next day he told me that he had found Once in his literacy class's book box, started reading and was loving it. So in the end, he did get something out of it.

I had intended to text my friend George Ivanoff, who was going to be there, but there wasn't time. I stood near the book-signing queue and took photos for the school magazine. Morris was quite happy to have kids pose with him.

Not all the kids had money for a book and I ended up buying about three books for them, because I couldn't bear for them to miss out.  It was worth it to see those joyful looks as I handed them their copy. And then I thought, what the heck, I'll get a print copy for me, and I was the last to have a book signed that morning.

We went to lunch at the Melbourne Central food court and along the way to the court, I pointed out the Little Library. People donate books to it and you're supposed to take one and either return it or bring one. I will certainly be putting in some books soonish, but I doubt my students will. They pounced on the books with cries of joy - one of them even walked off happily with a Rick Riordan novel, one of the Magnus Chase ones rather than Percy Jackson.

They all returned to our meeting place on time and we returned to our station, where I dismissed them. 

It was a good day!

Thursday, August 17, 2017

A Visit From The Local Member

Earlier this year, we had a phone call from the office of the local Member of State Parliament, Marsha Thomson,  asking if we were doing the Premier's Reading Challenge.

As it happens, we were. This is the first time I've ever done it and I must say, I regret not having done it before. It's not like Reader's Cup, which is a lot of work and requires a lot of support from the staff. And it doesn't cost anything, just a bit of the librarian's time to set it up, encourage kids to get into it and make sure to verify completed books. The kids get a certificate from the Education Department afterwards. Not a huge prize, but if they're reading anyway, why not? And if not, well, it might get them started, encourage them to challenge themselves. We don't have that many this year, but enough for now. 

Here's how it works: between two set dates, the kids are required to read a minimum of fifteen books. Of those, at least ten must be from the Reading Challenge list, but that's okay - there are plenty to choose from. In fact, two of my books, Wolfborn and Your Cat Could Be A Spy, are on the list. How good is that, eh? I was hoping that there would be more kids finishing the challenge, so far only two and a couple more are just about there, but haven't marked their books online as finished. If I had it to do again, I would make sure everyone chose their own passwords right at the start, so they didn't have  to have troubles logging in. And I'd urge the staff to get it going as part of our literacy program.

Anyway, on to the local member! 

Apparently she was a great enthusiast of the Challenge and of reading and was planning to visit schools doing the Challenge to get kids interested. Would we like a visit? Well, I thought, a writer would be nicer than a politician, but a writer costs money I don't have and it could do no harm to have someone promote the Challenge. So I discussed it with my Principal, who agreed it would be a good thing, and we said yes. 

The lady came this week, on Tuesday. We panicked a little when the whole school had assembled in the library and nobody had arrived yet. I was just hunting for a Challenge book when she arrived with one of her staff members.

And I must admit, she did very well. She began with talking about reading in general, about her own reading and the book club they have in Parliament House. The kids were intrigued by the idea of having a book club in Parliament and what the politicians do up there. She was impressed to learn that there were boys in my book club, and also asked who was doing the Challenge. I did suggest that perhaps not everybody knew what the Challenge was, so she explained to the kids that it started in Victoria in Premier Steve Bracks' time and told them what it involved.

Question time came and there were quite a few hands up to ask questions. One book she mentioned was To Kill A Mockingbird, which I lent to one of my book clubbers next day. She said she was not a great fan of fantasy and that she was never going to read Harry Potter! She pretty much only reads adult books and likes biographies best.

Since then I have signed up another Reading Challenge student. There were other requests, but nobody turned up at lunchtime to do it, so I can only assume it was a case of "it seemed like a good idea at the time, but lunchtime is when I go out and kick a footy around."

Marsha had another school to visit, so we said farewell to her and she had her photo taken with some of the students. I gave her some of my bookmarks, of Wolfborn and Crime Time, telling her she could give it to the kids at her next school or keep it to distribute at her Parliament book club.

It went for just the right length of time; another few minutes and kids would have been fidgeting, but as it was, they enjoyed it.

Thank you, Marsha!

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Latest Brother Cadfael Re-Read: The Pilgrim Of Hate by Ellis Peters


Yet again I'm re-reading some of Ellis Peters' classic whodunnits. This one came off my shelves, but some of them are at Mum's place, including one I recently re-read, An Excellent Mystery

They are all set in twelfth century Shrewsbury, a sort of mediaeval Midsomer, where corpses turn up regularly and it's up to herbalist monk Brother Cadfael to use his forensic skills to find out how they died and who killed them. He does this with the help of his friend Hugh Beringar, the Sheriff of Shropshire. Has anyone noticed the trope of the amateur sleuth and his or her buddy the cop? Because really, that's what Hugh is. He may be in charge of the shire, which he holds and defends for King Stephen during the war between Stephen and Empress Maud, but in the end, he is also the local law enforcement officer, a kind of police chief, so it fits, really, doesn't it? Hugh is in this one.

Despite what I said about a mediaeval Midsomer, this author sometimes does something a little different. In one novel, there wasn't actually a murder at all, just a mystery, with a missing character everyone thinks must have been murdered. In The Pilgrim Of Hate, the murder took place offstage, before the story even begins. The victim was a knight of Empress Maud who was killed on the street in Winchester while defending a follower of King Stephen from attackers. Nobody knows who the killer was; he vanished into the dark streets. But Brother Cadfael works it out anyway, or this wouldn't be a mystery. 

Meanwhile, in Shrewsbury, the monks are preparing for a huge festival, the annual celebration of the arrival of the Welsh Saint Winifred, whose coffin was brought there four years ago from Wales during A Morbid Taste For Bones(but not her body, because Brother Cadfaeł did a switch to keep her in her home soil with the villagers who loved her). Pilgrims are flocking there for the party, some in hopes of miracles. Among them are a widow, her crippled nephew Rhun and his sister Melangell, and two young men who are on their way on foot to Wales. There is a mystery here(of course!) about the two men. As usual there is a sweet young couple whose love might not prosper. And Brother Cadfael's son, Olivier De Bretagne, whom we first met in The Virgin In The Ice turns up on a mission. And there's a miracle - actually, two, as far as Cadfael is concerned, the second being his chance to see his son again. 

I love this series! I love its gentleness and its worldbuilding. It brings mediaeval England to life, not to mention a small-town community. The Shrewsbury of the novels is real - I once found I could follow the old streets just by having read the author's descriptions. 

But in the end, people are people and learn from their mistakes - or don't...

If you haven't yet read any of these wonderful books, you've been missing out - go read! 


Thursday, August 03, 2017

Just Finished Reading... The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Attwood



For some reason I thought I had read this before. Well, some of it was familiar, but I suspect I never finished it then. This time I did. Mainly, I decided to read it now because I have been unable to watch the TV series at this stage, even though it's available online at the SBS station web site. I think my OS and browser are out of date and I can't update either till I delete a lot more stuff on my computer. I will wait for the DVD.

My copy is an ebook, a new edition with an intro by the author. The intro alone is a fascinating read. For example, she says she made the decision that her story would have nothing in it that hasn't happened at one time or another in our world. She has simply put it all together in one dystopia. It was written back in the 1980s, before the Internet was more than a bit of an experiment, and even then it was possible to simply switch off credit cards. Imagine how easy it would be today. Even in Australia we are being asked to give up freedoms, give authorities extended rights, all in the name of security. The novel is scary exactly because it is so easy to believe!

The novel starts when the nameless heroine(we only ever know her as "Offred", i.e "Of Fred", her master's name) is already living as a walking womb in the Republic of Gilead. The author tells us in her introduction that it's Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the place where bodies are hung like the heads on London Bridge is the wall of Harvard University. As the novel goes on, we gradually learn in flashback about her earlier life with her husband and child and how one day she is a working woman with an income and the next day her credit/debit card is cancelled and her boss has to sack all his female employees.

Interestingly, the Wife whose baby she is supposed to bear is a woman who used to be a member of a choir on a TV televangelist program when "Offred" was a child. The woman was one of those who declared in public that women should be staying home, in the kitchen, and no doubt regrets it now.

The "history conference " documents at the end were interesting, throwing hints of what might have happened. You needed that, because there was a very abrupt ending to the main story.

I thought there was rather too much flashback and my goodness, didn't those characters smoke! 

Still, an interesting story, one which is unfortunately all too believable, and hopefully I will be able to get hold of the DVD at some stage, and see how much difference there is.




Saturday, July 22, 2017

Of Doctors And Regeneration - Some Silly Thoughts!

So, we have a female Doctor, after months of speculation. Well, we have had a female version of the Master, everyone says, so why not a female Doctor? I think if they had given us a male Doctor after all that, there would have been howls of outrage from the fans. Especially after that scene where the Doctor tells Bill that Timelords don't worry about all that gender stuff. If that wasn't a powerful hint, then we needed a big marching band, preferably all female, to announce it. 

Me, I will wait for the stories before judging. All I can say is, if XX or XY Chromosomes don't count among Timelords, then that race is very, very different from ours, and it's a lot more than the two hearts, so it's highly unlikely that the Doctor is half human as suggested in the Paul McGann film. And I say this as a great Spock fan. 


Are all Gallifreyans Timelords? Do you get peasant Timelords like the peasant elves we meet in The Hobbit? There must be someone to grow the food and wash the dishes and so on. And as I recall, there was a barn in one episode. The Day Of The Doctor, I think. So yes, there probably are people on Gallifrey who don't go having adventures in time and space or playing politics on the Council of Timelords. Didn't Leela marry one? It's been a long time since I saw that episode, so don't complain if I got it wrong, just inform me. 

If there are ordinary people on that planet who don't regenerate, are they more like us, apart from the two hearts? With XX and XY chromosomes that don't allow them to change gender except by medical means? When you think about it, regeneration with the option of a new cycle of twelve for everyone could stuff up inheritance and you'd really have to keep the population down. 

Or it might just be those who graduate from the Academy who get that privilege... As I recall, the Master was offered a new round of regenerations in return for helping the Doctor in The Five Doctors, and it has since then been confirmed, so ability to regenerate can't be merely a genetic thing. And if it's not genetic, perhaps they can get around this whole chromosome issue. Problem solved! 

 Do the Timelords perhaps bring in children who have shown certain  abilities for training and give them the ability as part of the deal? 

Certainly, the Master has some amazing abilities. Think of the number of times he has come back from the dead, even in the Paul McGann movie, when the previous Doctor was bringing back his ashes, for heaven's sake! Maybe he/she will come back yet. In fact, I predict they will. Let's face it, we saw the last Dalek in New Who series 1 and we STILL have them! 

We know that there are children on Gallifrey - remember that episode where the Doctor is talking about how they are taken to stare into this abyss(he sensibly ran away)and we see a flashback in which a young boy who will become the Master is taken there and, it's implied, goes crazy as a result? (Talk about child abuse!) And yet, the first Doctor we saw was an old man with a granddaughter - seeing he was the first incarnation, not the first regeneration, surely he grew up and aged this first time. Hell, he must have been a child at some stage! 

There was an article in a fanzine I read years ago, speculating on what a Timelord family picnic might look like - the elderly man might be the youngest family member while the young girl is an aged Timelord on her final regeneration...that would be bizarre! 

One thing that I have always found mildly amusing is the matter of Susan. As far as we know, she is his granddaughter. That implies some sort of family life, or maybe a companion who managed to get into his pants. But as I recall, there was an early novel which told us that Susan was not actually related, she just called him "grandfather". See, someone worked out that having a granddaughter implied that at least once the Doctor must have fooled around - can't have that on a children's show! 

And with that particular silliness I will leave you. Feel free to comment, although if you have seen every last episode and remember the lot, I should explain that this is not the case with me and I would appreciate not being abused for having forgotten something. Let's keep this fun! 

Friday, July 21, 2017

An Interview With Vikki Wakefield


My guest today is Vikki Wakefield, award-winning Aussie YA novelist whose recent novel Ballad For A Mad Girl I discovered in my goody bag at Reading Matters and reviewed here. I first met Vikki when she visited my school along with authors Adrian Stirling and Tim Pegler, courtesy of the Centre For Youth Literature and Adele Walshe, the head honcho. She had only one novel under her belt at the time, All I Ever Wanted, but she impressed our students no end with her talk and computer images of the drawings she does while thinking about her stories. Every copy of All I Ever Wanted was checked out immediately after the talk! She tells me she hasn't done sketches for this one, but sent me a photo of her "mood board" , which I have posted below. It's nice to know that Vikki is a fellow "pantser" in her writing(a plotter is someone who plans out their story meticulously ahead of time, eg J.K Rowling and my friend Alison Goodman, a pantser does it "by the seat of the pants", eg Vikki and me!)

Ballad For A Mad Girl is a lovely piece of Gothic fiction which I have passed on to my Gothic fiction-loving niece Dezzy, and is Vikki's first speculative fiction. I hope her publishers will submit it for next year's Aurealis Award for speculative fiction, where it is likely to make the shortlist. 

Without further ado, here is Vikki! 






Let's start with an obvious question: where did the idea for Ballad For A Mad Girl come from?

It was a very different book in the beginning and it only started to come together when I found several boxes of old research papers. Many years ago I used to save stories based on urban legendsーI would try to trace more modern incarnations back to their origins to see how stories (passed through generations) had changed. I read through the entire box and got lost in them. That was when I first knew I wanted to include supernatural/horror elements and the story began to evolve from straight contemporary into something else.
Each of your books is different. For example, this one is Australian Gothic, the last one was about some characters who fix up an old drive-in cinema, your first one was humorous ... Will you be trying something different each time, or would you like to do a bit more of the same?

Someone once said most writers tell the same story, over and over, and to some extent I think that's trueーmy books are all similar in tone and underlying themes. On the other hand, they're quite separate from each other, too (in plot, character, language and structure). So, while I do attempt to write a unique book each time, when I'm rewriting there's a centrifugal force that pulls my stories in a similar direction regardless of my intentions. (It's probably a combination of instinct and fascination that makes this happen.) I can only promise I'll write many more YA books, but I never know what they are until they're finishedーthankfully, the YA readership is pretty open to writers who work this way.
You have mentioned in our chats on Twitter that the pipe in this novel was based on a real one not far from where you live - and that you had played on it as a child. Were there ever any "pipe challenges" or was that strictly fiction?




Yes, the pipe is real. There were no pipe challenges (as in time trials) but crossing the stormwater pipe was a rite of passage and it did sort the 'brave' from the 'scaredy cats'. I moved away from the suburb I grew up in but I've since moved backーnow I live very close to the old quarry where I used to play as a kid. When the area was developed the landscape changed dramatically and I assumed the pipe was no longer there. I only re-discovered it recently while I was walking my dog, and it reminded me of the foolish things I did to impress my friends (and enemies). I ended up rewriting the first chapter of Ballad for a Mad Girl to include the pipe crossingーit seemed like the perfect scene to begin a story about overcoming fear.




How much, if any, of this novel is inspired by where you grew up?

I grew up in the outer northern suburbs of Adelaide (the setting of All I Ever Wanted). Swanston and Möbius (from Inbetween Days) are inspired by the country towns I've lived in (places where everyone knows everybody's business and old feuds are generational), and my characters are loosely based on people I knew growing up. I have my setting in mind long before I understand my characters well enough to write about them and, because I write about teens on the verge of adulthood, I find my own teen experiences are the greatest source of inspiration.
Small town life is very different from city life. Do you think any of your characters would ever live somewhere else? (At one point, your heroine, Grace, says that her friend Kenzie is likely to succeed outside)

Kenzie is the most determined to succeed, but Grace is the restless oneーshe's more likely to move on than any of her friends. I think she would chase the original dream. I see her leaving Swanston while the others stay. 
This is a murder mystery as much as a supernatural story - did it take a lot of plotting before you got started?

Not so much before I got started (I tend to plan fairly loosely, leaving plenty of room for discovery), but once the first draft was complete it took a while to plug the plot holes I'd created. It meant cutting a few sub-plots and tightening the structure until the threads came together. As someone who doesn't rely heavily on plot, I found it challenging to allow plot to reveal character rather than the other way around. I was also aware there were two distinct reader perspectives in this storyーthat of the believer, and the non-believerーand I wanted to make sure both were validated. It was tough to find that balance; it taught me how to step away from the story and let go of my own convictions.
Actually, what is your writing process - plotter or pantser? Details, please!

I plot in my head (and that can take up to a year of doodling and daydreaming) but once I start writing I make it up as I go. Nothing ever goes to plan. I don't find the essence of a story until I'm well into my second or third draft (I edit as I write, so a draft takes forever), but I've learned to be patient. It comes when it comes. And by essence, I mean the premiseーI think the premise is for the writer, not the reader, because it's the underlying belief that holds the tension in a story. 
Grace has some very loyal friends, even though she scares them for a while. Who, if any, is your favourite? (I have to say, I'd like friends like Kenzie and Gummer!)

Gummer is lovely, and he's based on a real person, so he was easy (well, not easy, but true) to write. Kenzie is the friend who does the best she can, but when she falls in love she can't help but give a piece of herself to someone else. Grace doesn't handle that well (and she knows), but she tries to make up for it. She's a difficult friend to haveーGummer and Kenzie are the antidote, but they're both so grounded they were never potential main characters. They wouldn't have such a compelling story to tell. 
Is there an Australian book you've read recently that you have wished you had written? (Or just admired)

There are so many I admire! The most recent Australian YA book I wish I'd written is The Stars at Oktober Bend by Glenda Millard. I love all her work, but Alice's voice is particularly enchanting and Glenda's commitment to it is masterful. I also loved The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Lagunaーanother voice I found utterly compelling from start to finish.
Finally, are you working on anything right now?

I always have two or three projects on the go, whether they're in the daydreaming stages or slowly taking shape on the page. I tend to concentrate on whichever story calls loudestーI'm working solidly on a YA novel from the perspective of a sixteen-year-old boy right now, but I have a middle grade novel in the works too. Aside from writing novels, I recently spent a month working with illustrator Dan McGuiness and a group of SA primary school students on a progressive book. It's called 'The Carisbrooke Creek War' (theme: gender equality) and it'll be published in The Advertiser newspaper during  the last week of July.

Vikki's mood board


And here's where you can buy it on line! It is also available from Amazon.

Thanks for dropping in on The Great Raven, Vikki! 

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Laws Of Magic - Steampunk Rules!



The Laws Of Magic is a series of six steampunk novels by Aussie YA novelist Michael Pryor. Michael Pryor is a wonderful writer anyway, but I think these six books are his masterpiece. They are witty and exciting, with barely a stop for breath. And the worldbuilding is amazing. I discovered them several years ago, when the first novel, A Blaze Of Glory, first came out.

How can you not love a book that begins with the sentence,"Aubrey Fitzwilliam hated being dead"? Tell me that doesn't draw the reader right in!

The series is set in an alternative universe Edwardian England, except it's called Albion and the royal family is not the one we know. Magic is a part of everyday life. Even the technology is based on it. In one scene the hero, Aubrey, sneers at going out to see a sleight-of-hand artist on stage, because it's probably just ordinary magic, not sleight-of-hand at all. 

And someone is planning huge-scale death magic for his own benefit, and the best way to get that going is by starting what, in our universe, is known as World War I.

Fortunately the world has Aubrey Fitzwilliam, his friend George and Caroline, the girl Aubrey adores. 

But Aubrey is starting from behind. He's a magical genius, but stuffed up an experiment in death magic he was trying before the novel began and consequently is - well, technically dead. He is having a hard time keeping his soul from leaving his body. 

However, Aubrey, Caroline and George have plenty on their plates while Aubrey is trying to find a way - literally! -  to keep body and soul together. As the series goes on, the Great War begins and they need to focus on stopping the villain. 

I love all the characters in this series. George is the calm and competent one who keeps Aubrey from going overboard. He likes cooking; in one of the novels, when the characters find themselves in a place where they can live their fantasies, George's fantasy is to be cooking for lots of people. Caroline is the kick-ass young woman who manages to fight anything from a villainous human to a dinosaur in her elegant costume. (And yes, there are dinosaurs in the second novel, Heart Of Gold, which is set in Lutetia, this world's version of Paris).

That's another thing. In this Edwardian era, women may not yet have the vote, but they can be scientists or famous artists or explorers or whatever, and nobody thinks it's odd. The women in Aubrey's family are all strong, including his grandmother. No wonder he likes his women - or woman - strong and intelligent. But George too finds a strong, intelligent girlfriend, Sophie, a trainee journalist. 

And the books are funny, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. I lent a copy of Blaze Of Glory to one of our students, who told me her mother had come running to find out what was going on when she was reading it; it was just the girl laughing out loud. 

One other thing: Aubrey is oddly like Miles Vorkosigan in personality, if you can imagine Miles as tall and more or less healthy(if you don't count the fact that he's technically dead) and living on one planet instead of travelling through space. In fact, I asked the author and he did agree that he is a fan of the Vorkosigan saga. 

So, if you like Miles Vorkosigan and can imagine him in Edwardian England instead of out in space, this series may just be for you! Even if you don't, read these anyway - they will keep you chuckling through the dullest day! 

And here is where you can buy them!

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Matters Arising From The Identification Of The Body by Simon Petrie.Sydney: Peggy Bright, 2017



I bought this from the author as he was staffing the Peggy Bright Books table at this year's Continuum convention. Peggy Bright Books is one of Australia's many small presses that specialise in speculative fiction. Because the big presses in this country are mostly sticking to Fat Fantasy Trilogies, it's up to small press to publish science fiction.

I like hard SF and I like crime fiction. Simon Petrie, a physicist, knows his science and is an enthusiastic reader and writer of crime fiction - in his case, SF crime fiction. Usually it's humorous, but this one is utterly serious. 

Guerline Scarfe is a forensic psychologist living on Titan, where there is a colony. Her latest case: a girl who has gone out into Titan's freezing, lethal atmosphere and pulled off the helmet of her spacesuit. Why would a well-balanced girl with no particular reason for committing suicide do so? And why in that particular manner? As Guerline says, it's a nasty way to die. 

Guerline Scarfe is determined to find out, no matter how many people are trying to stop her, some in lethal ways. That, of course, is a standard trope in crime fiction, but no less enjoyable for it. And it is a very good piece of writing and I will be reading the next one if I get the chance. 

My only two gripes with this are as follows: firstly, the title. I have a copy and kept forgetting it. Something shorter and simpler next time! Please! Secondly, there were some scenes which told us about the heroine's background, but didn't really move the story forward. However, I'm going to assume that these will play a more important role in the next book.

Still, a well-written piece of crime fiction in a believable world. I finished it in about two sittings and I only took that long because I had other commitments. 

Buy it at Amazon, here,  or from the Peggy Bright web site here.  The publisher web site also offers the ebook edition. 

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Just Finished Reading... Ballad For A Mad Girl by Vikki Wakefield. Melbourne: Text, 2017


I received this book courtesy of Text Publishing, in my Reading Matters conference goody bag. I was a bit surprised, because it was a very new book, just published this year. I think Text has been doing a huge promo for this book; I saw a number of reviews on Goodreads whose authors mentioned they had received it in a giveaway. Of course, those might have been eARCs, or even just ebooks, but this is a print copy and there were several hundred attendees at the conference. That's a lot to give away, and not even proof copies! 

So I thought it deserves a review of sorts, even a chatty, informal one like this - and I hope to do a more formal version for January Magazine, which really prefers to review books published recently, so I can't review CBCA shortlisted books for them. It will probably  end up on next year's CBCA shortlist anyway, and I'm betting it will be on the Aurealis shortlist too, if not the Ditmars. 

So, what is it about? In a small town called Swanston(I'm guessing in South Australia, where the author lives)is a girl called Grace Foley. Her mother was knocked over and killed by a car a couple of years ago, and the family - Grace, her Dad and her brother Cody - moved from their farm into town, where they are still grieving.

Grace does pranks for her friends. Currently, she is grounded for one of them, but being grounded doesn't stop her from responding to a text message persuading her to do something called a "pipe challenge." 

Swanston - or Swamptown, as the kids call it - has a gorge nearby, crossed by a pipe. Teenagers have been going there forever and students from the state secondary school are competing with those from the private school next door, Sacred Heart. The challenge involves getting safely across the pipe in record time. Grace holds the current record. 

But this time, something strange happens on her way back. She doesn't remember what it was, but for a short time she has been seeing something different from her friends - something very different. 

Soon, Grace realises that she has become possessed. She finds herself bruised for no obvious reason, the gentle, placid dog is snarling at her and she is drawing pictures in art class of a girl who disappeared twenty years ago. She was believed to have been murdered by a boy who apparently stalked her and looked in through her bedroom window, but there was not enough evidence to convict him. However, he had jumped into the gorge a year later and died. There is a ghost who is possessing Grace, one who won't go away until she has found out what happened and the ghost has had justice. 

But it isn't just a ghost story. It's about Grace and her friends, and how she learns to move on, and acknowledge she hasn't treated them well in recent months. It's about her family and coming to terms with what happened to their mother. They feel responsible because they didn't worry when she was late coming home. 

Oh, and there is a twist near the end, so please don't do the DNF thing. Read and finish! Even if you are annoyed with Grace! She is annoying, but there are reasons - and she admits that she has been doing the wrong thing by her friends. (Which is no excuse for what one of her friendship group does to her)

It is interestingly like CBCA shortlisted novel Yellow in some ways. Both books are set in a small town, where everyone knows everyone else and anything you say is likely to be all over town in a short time. Both have a ghost in them and both have something dreadful that happened over twenty years ago, and a heroine who is investigating it. But this one is scarier and the heroine is under much more pressure to solve it, because the ghost won't go away till she does, whereas in Yellow, she just has to keep away from the phone booth from which she hears the ghost boy's voice, and she does for a while. And unlike Yellow, which was set in the 1990s, this one is set well and truly in the present day, where kids all have their own phones instead of relying on adults, where anything that happens is all over Facebook and you can be hurt when you're unfriended on Facebook by a lifelong friend. Grace only has to google information about what happened during that tragedy twenty years ago, instead of having to read old newspapers. 

And both have a twist at the end.

But to be honest, I prefer this one to Yellow, though that one was good. If you've read these two books, what do you think? 

Saturday, July 01, 2017

CBCA Shortlist #5 and #6: Captain Jimmy Cook Discovers Third Grade And Dragonfly Song



So, as I have read these two nominees a long time ago, and reviewed Captain Jimmy Cook and interviewed the author of Dragonfly Song, I thought it might be best to simply give you the links. Of course, I wasn't thinking of them as shortlisted books at the time! 





So, what did I think? Captain Jimmy Cook was great fun. There has since then been a sequel, Captain Jimmy Cook Discovers: X Marks The Spot. I have given them both to a book loving younger family member, Eden. Eden is in Year 2, but reading at a much higher level. However, the story themes do appeal to even a good reader who is about Jimmy Cook's age.

Dragonfly Song is set in the ancient Minoan civilisation and follows the adventures of a heroine who is suffering elective mutism, as she becomes a bull dancer. Unlike in Mary Renault's The King Must Die, in which the youngest member of Theseus's team is fourteen, these bull dancers are twelve or thirteen - and they actively compete for the honour, while those in The King Must Die are tributes who believe they are going to be thrown to a monster. Those in Dragonfly Song train and exercise and the best are chosen to go to Crete for the bull dance. 

The youth of the dancers in Dragonfly Song makes good sense. Children are far more flexible than adults; just check out those "women's" gymnast teams at the Olympics, made up of kids who can't be much beyond primary school, some still in primary school. If you live in Australia, you've probably heard of the Flying Fruitfly Circus, a team of child acrobats who do the most amazing feats. In fact, my school used to have a Circus program for our EAL students, many of whom were asylum seekers with dreadful memories who needed a chance to play. After only a few weeks, they performed for their schoolmates and they were wonderful. So, yes, children being bull dancers works for me.

Likewise, the behaviour of the bulls. Wendy Orr knows about these animals, having spent twenty years on a dairy farm with her husband. She says that sometimes the "tame" bulls are more dangerous than wild ones, because they know what to expect and can't be as easily fooled.

But look, why not just go and read both posts? I think these are both strong books. One of our students who read Dragonfly Song said she loved it. That has to count for something! 

CBCA Shortlist #4: Mrs Whitlam by Bruce Pascoe. Magabala Books, 2016




This is in the Younger Readers category of this year's shortlist. Younger Readers books vary from picture storybooks to books that most people would consider YA, but this short book is only eighty pages long and definitely falls in the middle grade category, though the heroine is in her teens.

Marnie is a horsy girl, incidentally Koori(the author is Koori and the imprint exists to publish indigenous work). On the very first page, the grief-stricken mother of a schoolmate who has died offers her the girl's horse, Mrs Margaret Whitlam, aka Maggie, a part-Clydesdale, begging her to take the animal off her hands, because it's just too much to look at her and remember. Oddly, it isn't because the late Vicki died in a riding accident, but I guess if you had to look after, feed and exercise a huge part-Clydesdale every day, you couldn't help remembering. 

Marnie is thrilled to be the owner of such a gorgeous horse - and I have to say, Maggie is the sort of horse I would have loved to have had as a horsy child, reading pony novels by the Pullein-Thompson sisters, if I hadn't been living in a flat, a long way from pastures and stables... She is huge and cuddly and loving. And before the novel is over, she has also been heroic. What's not to love? 

Luckily for Marnie, she is able to keep Maggie at the local riding school, where she hangs around and helps out, a good thing, as horses are expensive!  (That, of course, was something I never considered as I put away my pocket money for a horse...). The riding school owner is a wise older man who knows everyone in the district, including the apparently snobby girl who makes Marnie unwelcome at the pony club, but who has her own troubles. 

The reader is introduced to Marnie's large, cheerful family, and I feel sure that in a book for older readers it would be interesting to read about them, but they come and go and suddenly the book is over, with Marnie potentially an item with the school hunk, a surfer and a terribly nice, kind boy, who helps her out in a rescue. 

Really, not a lot happens or has time to happen, but I imagine horse-loving girls in the later years of primary school will drool over Maggie the horse. I know this middle-aged teacher-librarian did. 

Will it get far in the CBCAs? Hard to tell. I have only read two of the other contenders. One is the wonderful Dragonfly Song by Wendy Orr, and that is a book I think really belongs in the Older Readers category, not sure why it's with the Younger Readers. The other is Captain Jimmy Cook Discovers Third Grade. That one is good fun, in a Diary Of A Wimpy Kid style, but not really, in my opinion, awards material. However, I'm not one of the judges. Possibly the YABBA Awards, which are voted on by children, yes, but the CBCA Awards are judged by adults.

If there was a Morris Gleitzman Once novel on the list this year, it would be very likely to win, but the next book in the series, Maybe, is still cooking... There is a Holocaust novel by Robyn Bavati which I really should get, as our students love their Holocaust fiction and there's no new Morris Gleitzman book yet. Mind you, Gleitzman's hero, Felix, has survived the war and now has other troubles in post-war Poland. 

Still, let's see how this horse story goes over!

Thursday, June 29, 2017

CBCA Shortlist #2: Yellow by Megan Jacobson. Melbourne: Penguin, 2016




"Yellow" is the nickname of Kirra Barley, given to her because of her unusual eye colour, by her father, whose nickname is Lark, because in his teens he used to lark around a lot, nothing to do with the bird. Actually, there are a number of characters with nicknames in this book and Lark is the only one whose real name we are never told.

But Kirra's surfer father, a genuine dole bludger, has run off with the Avon lady, or at least, the door to door cosmetics seller, only a couple of months ago, and set up a home only three blocks away, which is not good in such a small town, where everybody knows and gossips about everybody.  Kirra's mother, Judy, has been living at the bottom of her gin bottle ever since, though it turns out later that it isn't only Lark's betrayal that has caused it. To tell you more would be spoilers.

Kirra's home troubles are bad enough, but she also has bullying troubles at school, with girls who are supposed to be her friends, but are the local Mean Girls. She finds herself being befriended by the school Bad Girl, Willow, who doesn't care what anyone thinks of her and gives the thumb to whatever or whoever she doesn't like. She teaches Kirra a lot and helps her confidence.

Then, one day, she answers a ringing in a telephone box that was supposed to have been removed years ago, and finds herself talking to the ghost of a teenage boy who died twenty years ago and claims to have been murdered. In return for her help in bringing his killer to justice, he will help her overcome some of her problems, though only with advice, of course, since how much physical help can a ghost give from the afterlife? The boy, who calls himself Boogie, has been unable to move on and is going crazy from loneliness.  

Really, it's a story about life in a small town on the coast, where everyone has been living for  the last couple of generations, never moving out, which gives it a faint flavour of Back To The Future. It's the story of a girl who learns to overcome the bullies and make real friends and help her mother. The fantastical elements are a bonus, but not, repeat not, a tacked-on element. They belong. 

I began to suspect who Boogie was when Kirra was talking to the town librarian, a nice old lady who remembered everyone from her parents' generation. I was a little disappointed that Kirra's research in the old newspapers was interrupted abruptly and never resumed. But there was a reason for it. 

And it was made clear that things - and people - aren't always what they seem. 

Interesting that it was set in the 1990s. A number of "contemporary" books have been set in the 1980s and 90s recently. I suppose it does help if the characters can't go on line to do research or make an urgent phone call with their own mobiles; in one scene, Kirra is wondering if the whole Boogie thing was set up by the bullies using their parents' mobile phones, because this is before teens had their own. And, as in Back To The Future, the parents had to have been there in a certain era.

Did I like it? Yes. I finished it more or less in one sitting. It's easy, comfortable reading. Do I think kids would like it? Perhaps. I think they might prefer Frankie. This one is a bit preachier than Frankie: "Be yourself! Don't believe people are what they look like!" And so on. 

We'll see how it goes over when I return it to the library. 

CBCA Shortlist #3: The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon. Hachette, 2016



Subhi is a refugee. Born in an Australian permanent detention centre after his mother fled the violence of a distant homeland, life behind the fences is all he has ever known. But as he grows, his imagination gets bigger too, until it is bursting at the limits of his world. The night sea brings him gifts, the faraway whales sing to him, and the birds tell their stories.

The most vivid story of all, however, is the one that arrives one night in the form of Jimmie, a scruffy, impatient girl who appears from the other side of the wires, and brings a notebook written by the mother she lost. Unable to read it, she relies on Subhi to unravel her own family's love songs and tragedies.

Subhi and Jimmie might both find a way to freedom, as their tales unfold. But not until each of them has been braver than ever before.


Oh, dear, what to say? It is so very sad! The author says in the afterword that she wishes this book didn't have to be written, that the story and characters are fictional, but the issues aren't. It's true, too. We read about it every day in the papers, whatever we can still get, since the government has threatened prosecution to anyone who has worked in these places and spoken out about them. You know - "fake news"? All I can say is, I didn't vote for them!

And the thought of a child actually born in one of these places is truly awful.

But for Subhi, it's all he knows. He makes the best of his situation. When the human rights advocates come to inspect the camp from time to time, the inmates know they will get a decent meal or two, and Subhi pretends it's for his birthday. His imagination frees him and one day a girl from Outside, whose mother has died and father is grieving with her, smuggles the Outside into the camp, along with hot chocolate and a book written by hand by her beloved mother, with the fantastical story of the bone sparrow she wears around her neck, given to her by her mother just before she died. Because of all the moving around she has done, Jimmie hasn't had time to learn to read, so she asks Subhi, whose English is fine(born there, remember?) and who can read, to read it to her. The story he reads is a part of the narrative, a sub-narrative about Jimmie's ancestors.

The characters are drawn with care and love. There is even one decent camp guard, Harvey, who looks after Subhi when he needs it and fills a rubber pool for the children in the hottest weather. When it's time for Subhi to have his say about a tragedy that had occurred, he knows he will have to involve Harvey, who witnessed it, but Harvey lets him know it's the right thing to do.

And there's a rubber ducky, the Shakespeare duck, which makes snarky comments from Subhi's pocket, in his imagination. This brings a little much-needed humour to an otherwise terribly sad story.

It rather reminds me of Morris Gleitzman in style, sort of Boy Overboard and Girl Underground meets Once. If you liked those books, you will find much to like in this one. I believe the kids will like it too. I'll be recommending it.

Meanwhile, I can only hope that this year's CBCA shortlist has at least two books with some real humour in them(I know there's one, Words In Deep Blue); for this one, stock up on the boxes of tissues!