What I’ve Been Reading: #OzMG

I’ve been reading lots of interesting middle grade novels lately and by an Amazing Coincidence, they’re all by Australian authors.

'The Detective's Guide to Ocean Travel' by Nicki Greenberg

The Detective’s Guide to Ocean Travel is by Nicki Greenberg, best known for her teen-friendly graphic novel versions of literary classics such as Hamlet and The Great Gatsby. Her latest book is a detective story for middle-graders, set in the 1920s on a real-life ocean liner, the RMS Aquitania. Pepper Stark, daughter of the Captain, is very excited to be allowed to sail to New York with him and she promises to be on her best ladylike behaviour. But when an American starlet’s diamond necklace goes missing, Pepper evades her governess and bands together with some new friends to solve the mystery and save her father’s reputation. This novel is full of vivid descriptions of the ship and its routines, with special attention paid to the elaborate meals prepared for the first class passengers. The author clearly did a lot of careful research. I did find the characters were flat and stereotypical and the mystery takes quite a while to develop. However, the concluding chapters are exciting and fast-paced with some clever plot twists. This will appeal to middle graders who are proficient readers, interested in history (particularly those obsessed with the Titanic) and who enjoy Agatha Christie-style mysteries.

'Huda and Me' by H Hayek

Huda and Me is a funny, lively debut novel by H. Hayek, based on her own large Australian-Lebanese Muslim family. Twelve-year-old Akeal, his mischievous little sister Huda, and their five siblings are left at home under the care of a family friend, ‘Aunt’ Amal, when their parents travel to Lebanon. Unfortunately Aunt Amal is completely horrible to all of them except their adorable baby brother, so Huda hatches a plan to escape and Akeal is reluctantly dragged along. Akeal is an endearing narrator — thoughtful, caring and able to draw on hidden reserves of strength when his family is in danger. This book is rightly being celebrated for showing some of the diversity of modern Australian life and depicting the challenges young Australian Muslims can face (for example, in one scene, an Australian boy tries to pull off Huda’s hijab and Akeal bravely stands up for his sister).

However, this book reminded me that diversity in publishing does not mean pushing one particular, progressive viewpoint, but rather, publishing a range of books that reflect all aspects of society, including conservative, patriarchal, religious viewpoints. There is nothing subtle about this author’s message. All the male characters — Akeal, his father, their elderly neighbour, the male flight attendant, a security guard at the airport, a taxi driver who offers the children his own home-cooked lunch — are strong, compassionate heroes who are good at their jobs and always do the brave, right thing, even if it sometimes means disobeying the rules. (The boy who abuses Huda rapidly repents when Akeal confronts him, then he helps Huda and Akeal escape.) The villains — deranged Aunt Amal and a belligerent female flight attendant — are all women who don’t have children. Girls can be as feisty as Huda until puberty, this book suggests, but after that they need to be excellent at cooking (like Huda’s twin sisters), proficient at hair, make-up and beauty treatments (Huda’s eldest sister), then get married and have at least half a dozen children (Huda’s saintly mother, who is so passive that when she finds out her beloved children are in danger, her response is to cry and leave her young son and husband to sort out the problem). According to this book, girls who don’t fulfil their God-given destiny to become housewives and mothers will either turn into crazy baby kidnappers or ice-hearted, child-hating career women. Do I agree with these anti-feminist messages? Obviously not. Would I give this book to young readers? Sure, it’s a fun, Dahl-esque read with good male role models. But I’d then give those readers one of the many middle-grade books that show that girls can also grow up to be strong, compassionate and competent, whether they choose to marry and have children, or not.

'Elsewhere Girls' by Emily Gale and Nova Weetman

For example, Elsewhere Girls by Emily Gale and Nova Weetman, an enjoyable time-slip adventure, in which thirteen-year-old Cat from Sydney finds herself in the body of a teenage girl in 1908, who just happens to be Fanny Durack, future Olympic swimming champion. There’s lots of amusement as Fanny, living in 2021 in Cat’s body, tries to make sense of mobile phones, microwave ovens and aeroplanes. Meanwhile, Cat is horrified by her new life as one of ten siblings living above a Surry Hills pub, where it takes an entire day to do the laundry and girls aren’t allowed to swim in front of men. The authors acknowledge their debt to classic time slip novels, including Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow, one of my favourite books. There is some serious commentary in Elsewhere Girls on how much life has improved for girls and women, but this is aimed at middle-graders so it avoids the more grim, confronting realities of life in Edwardian Sydney slums (unlike Playing Beatie Bow, in which poor Abigail gets kidnapped and locked in a brothel). Elsewhere Girls is recommended for about twelve years and up, particularly girls interested in history and feminism.

'Footprints on the Moon' by Lorraine Marwood

Footprints on the Moon by Lorraine Marwood is set in more recent history, in 1969. In her first year of high school, Sharnie is dealing with a lot — her best friend turning into a Mean Girl, the death of her beloved grandmother, and family conflict due to her elder sister Cas protesting against the Vietnam War. Sharnie makes a new friend who is grieving over the death of her brother, a war conscript, and the two friends join forces with Cas to celebrate the moon landing and protest against the war in a creative way. This is a verse novel, a collection of beautifully written poems with careful use of metaphor and moon imagery, arranged in narrative form. It’s well researched and has an important message, so teachers and literary award committees will love it, but I must admit I found it a bit dull and worthy. However, I’d recommend it for thoughtful young readers dealing with the death of a grandparent or those who are interested in the moon landing.

'Are You There, Buddha?' by Pip Harry

Are You There, Buddha? by Pip Harry also has a narrator in her first year of high school, also dealing with a range of problems, but this was a delight to read. Bee’s mother has abandoned her to live in an Indian ashram, her best friend Leon is showing worrying signs of having a crush on her, her well-meaning stepmum keeps meddling in her life, a Mean Girl at swimming practice is making life difficult … and worst of all, her body is changing, with stretch marks, new breasts and the dreaded start of periods. Bee is such a lively, funny, sweet narrator, always trying to do the right thing, although not always succeeding. I especially liked the realistic depiction of menstruation — cramps and blood stains and trying to insert a tampon for the first time and the inevitable bad timing of the start of a period (an especially annoying thing for Bee because she’s a competitive swimmer). The only odd thing about this book is that it’s described as a verse novel, but to me, it just seemed like a book written in clear, simple prose with odd punctuation, with sentences broken up to create more white space on the page and make it more appealing to reluctant readers. There’s nothing particularly poetic about the language:

“I open the door
and he tips
a pile of picture books
on the floor.”

So, I don’t think it’s a verse novel but it is an excellent read. I’d recommend it for girls (and boys) aged about ten years and up.

'Dragon Skin' by Karen Foxlee

Finally, Dragon Skin by Karen Foxlee is an exquisitely written novel, a sad, gritty but hopeful story about a ten-year-old girl living in outback Australia in dire circumstances. Pip’s mother’s boyfriend is abusive and her only school friend has died. Then Pip finds a tiny, half-dead dragon by the waterhole and her quest to save ‘Little Fella’ and return him to where he came from changes her in profound ways. She makes new friends and ultimately moves on to a better life. The descriptions of Mount Isa are beautiful, each character is real and interesting, and the publishers have produced a gorgeous hardcover edition with lovely cover art, endpapers and line drawings. I’ve no doubt this book will win all the awards. However, it’s definitely for thoughtful, mature readers and is possibly a book that will appeal more to adult readers than child readers.

What I’ve Been Reading

How can we be a quarter of the way through 2022 already? Is it the multitude of terrible things happening throughout the world that is causing me this difficulty with time perception? I have at least been reading a bit more this year, both for education and escape. Here are my favourites so far.

'Unfollow' by Megan Phelps-RoperUnfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope, Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church by Megan Phelps-Roper was an inspiring memoir by a young woman who escaped a notoriously homophobic, misogynist, anti-Semitic, anti-everything cult founded by her grandfather. From the age of five, Megan was an obedient and devoted Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) member, holding up ‘God Hates Fags’ signs outside the funerals of American soldiers, picketing outside her own school and college, then running the church’s social media campaign. It isn’t surprising that she followed the church’s beliefs, because nearly everyone in her large extended family was a member of WBC. What is surprising is how she managed to leave WBC at the age of 26, cutting herself off from the family she still loves, to become an activist and educator dedicated to combatting extremist beliefs.

There were two things that helped her leave. Firstly, WBC, unlike other American cults, allowed its children to be educated in the public school system and encouraged them to go to college, where Megan was often socially isolated, but was at least exposed to other beliefs and learned some critical thinking skills. WBC members were also encouraged to use social media to get publicity for the church’s bigoted preaching. Megan writes of her “profound gratitude to Twitter … Instead of booting me from its platform for ‘hate speech’, as many had demanded, it had put me in conversation with people and ideas that effectively challenged beliefs that had been hammered into me since I was a child.” In fact, she ends up meeting and eventually marrying a man who had spent years debating against her on Twitter. She despairs of the “division of the world into Us and Them” in the Trump era and points out that in the age of the internet, “we cannot reasonably expect to halt the spread of an idea, whether good or bad … the answer to bad ideas is to publicly reason against them, to advocate for and propagate better ones”. Megan comes across as a thoughtful, ethical person who, despite her traumatic upbringing, has a lot of compassion and empathy, and she argues convincingly against #NoDebate and Cancel Culture.

'The Edible Balcony' by Indira NaidooI also liked The Edible Balcony by Indira Naidoo, a guide to growing fresh herbs, fruit and vegetables for those of us who don’t have backyard gardens. Indira managed to produce 70kg of produce in her first year of balcony gardening and this is a good beginner’s guide, with great photos and illustrations, handy tips and some delicious-looking recipes. It must be noted that although Indira claims her Sydney balcony is “small”, it is 20 square metres (about five times the size of my own balcony), and is north-facing, with its own water supply and a building concierge who looks after her plants when she’s away. She also has the advantages of farming friends who provide her with fresh manure, a vertical garden system supplied for free because she’s a celebrity, and access to ABC TV’s gardening gurus. Still, this book provided me with inspiration as I was re-establishing my own balcony garden, following last year’s building reconstruction works. Here are some before and after pictures of my balcony:

Before: my balcony in April 2021
BEFORE: My balcony in April 2021 as reconstruction started and the scaffolding went up
After: My balcony in January 2022
AFTER: My balcony in January 2022. I’m growing mint, rosemary, parsley, marjoram, lavender, lemon thyme, spring onions, two types of chives, three types of lettuce and two types of basil.

The Edible Balcony provided valuable food for thought. For example, I’d always considered tomatoes to be too difficult to grow on a balcony, but Indira successfully grew tomato varieties in pots, so that could be a project for me next summer. Conversely, I now think a little lemon tree might be a bit too ambitious for me, after reading about all the pest problems Indira had. Still, her remedy for powdery mildew (diluted milk sprayed on leaves) worked a treat on my afflicted mint plant, so thanks, Indira!

'Sugar Town Queens' by Malla NunnIn fiction, I enjoyed Sugar Town Queens, the latest YA novel from Malla Nunn. This is a fast-paced story about a mixed-race girl growing up in poverty in a Durban township. Amandla’s mother is white and her father is missing; they live in a one-room tin shack but her mother regularly comes home with wads of cash; and her mother has strange delusions and gaps in her memory. Amandla, with the help of her friends Lil Bit and Goodness, discovers the truth about her mother’s wealthy family and tragic past. The romance seems shoe-horned in and the conclusion is unrealistically upbeat and Cinderella-ish, but I really liked the depiction of strong relationships between the girls and women in the story, with schoolfriends, neighbours and grandmother working together for truth and justice. (I think When the Ground is Hard is a much better book, though.)

'Cat Problems' by Jory JohnFinally, Cat Problems by Jory John, illustrated by Lane Smith, is a charming and funny picture book about the very difficult life of a household cat who has many problems, all of which he complains about loudly. He has to deal with a sunbeam that moves; a noisy vacuum cleaner; dry cat food instead of wet; and another cat that persists in sitting “in my spot … in my other spot … now you’re in my THIRD spot.” A squirrel outside the window explains how difficult life is for wild animals outside but Cat is unimpressed (“How can I eat this very talkative squirrel?”) Then he stalks off to complain about the paucity of sunbeams at night. The fuzzy illustrations and mimimalist backgrounds are very appealing. Recommended for anyone who’s ever lived with a cat.

Local Authors at Glebe Summer Streets Festival This Saturday

As part of the Sydney Summer Streets Festival organised by the City of Sydney, Gleebooks will be hosting local authors and their books outside the famous Glebe Point Road bookshop.

Author Ken Saunders explains, “Over twenty titles from twelve different authors give but a glimpse of the wide-ranging interests of your very own neighbourhood writers. We have a fictional Pyrmont GP solving crimes, an absurdist comedy of an alleged ‘autobiography’ written by a computer program, reflections on Secular Buddhism, significant historical and sociological works, Young Adult literature of a family caught in the tensions leading up to World War Two, historical fiction, a beautifully photographed children’s book of Australian birds, local history and art, the biography of the great Glebian Sadie King and the travel adventures of some locals who drove two vintage cars on an epic journey along the old Silk Road.”

Glebe Summer Streets Local Authors 2022

Authors at the Summer Streets stall include Ken Saunders, Emily Booker, Winton Higgins, John McCombe, Michelle Cooper, Janice Challinor, Heather Goodall, Gaiti Rabbani, L M Ardor, Trish Curotta and Anne Wark.

Gleebooks
Local Authors’ Table
Saturday 12 February 10:00am – 2:00pm
49 Glebe Point Road
Glebe

My Favourite Books of 2021

I usually post about my favourite books of the year by Christmas Eve, but this week, I was somewhat distracted due to a) the hospital where I work going into Red Alert and having to evacuate our floor to make room for extra COVID beds, just after we’d finally moved back to our usual offices, at a time when most staff had gone on much-needed holidays or were in COVID isolation, why did I agree to work this week WHY, and then b) being identified as a COVID contact, developing symptoms and going into isolation on Christmas Eve.

This was a fitting end to a year in which my state experienced catastrophic floods, an earthquake, a mouse plague, our Premier resigning due to a corruption scandal, and of course, there was that ongoing pandemic with lots of exciting new viral variants. Also, the apartment building where I live needed urgent repairs that included demolishing and rebuilding all the balconies, so I’ve been living in a dark, noisy, dust-filled construction site for the past eight months.

Remember this time last year, when we were all looking forward to 2021?

At least I read some good new books. My favourite novels for adults were The Friend by Sigrid Nunez and Room for a Stranger by Melanie Cheng. I also found Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody informative and helpful (although alas, I did not make much writing progress this year, see above). My favourite books for children and teenagers included When the Ground is Hard by Malla Nunn, The Cricket Term by Antonia Forest and Maddie in the Middle by Julia Lawrinson. I may have read some other good books this year. I can’t remember. I can’t even recall my phone number at the moment.

Fortunately, I have a pile of library books to keep me entertained during my COVID isolation period:

Library books Christmas 2021

I hope you’ve had a good reading year, despite all the challenges that 2021 has brought us, and that you’re having a safe and enjoyable holiday season.

What I’ve Been Watching: Studio Ghibli Films

I haven’t been reading anything much lately, except hospital COVID policy documents and a lot of gloomy newspaper articles. My library and local bookshops have been shut for months and Sydney’s latest COVID outbreak has destroyed my ability to concentrate on long, complex books. However, I have subscribed to Netflix and I’ve been watching various TV series and films, which has led me to my best discovery of this year: Studio Ghibli films.

Yes, I know, people around the world have been rhapsodising about Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s work for decades, but as I had little interest in fantasy or animated movies, I hadn’t paid much attention. Still, several Memoranda commenters had recommended his adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle, so I decided to give it a go.

'Howl's Moving Castle' film poster

I think I might have liked this film more if I hadn’t read and loved Diana Wynne Jones’ novel. One critic has accurately described it as ‘fanfiction’ of the novel. Imagine if there was a film called Harry Potter, in which there was no magic and Harry was a coffee shop owner and Draco ran the florist shop next door and Draco’s father was a property developer trying to raze the neighbourhood to build luxury apartments and Harry and Draco fell in love. That’s how much resemblance there is between the book and the film of Howl’s Moving Castle.

I quite liked the film’s version of the castle, a giant mechanical beast roaming about the countryside on chicken feet, and Sophie retained a lot of her characterisation, but oh, I hated their version of Howl! They turned a fascinating, flawed human into a romantic superhero who sacrifices himself to stop the war between two countries. (Mind you, I was so confused by the changes to the plot that I didn’t even realise the soldiers came from two different kingdoms until near the end of the film.) Calcifer is voiced by a wise-cracking Billy Crystal, the Scarecrow is a benevolent Christ-like figure instead of a terrifying enigma, Sophie’s sisters barely feature in the story, there’s no visit to the ‘Land of Wales’… But the worst part is that the ‘war is bad’ theme is hammered into each scene so heavily that there’s no space left for the story. The hand-painted animation is often very pretty, but I can’t say I liked this film very much. It was nominated for an Academy Award in 2006, but lost to Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. I agree with the judges — The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is much better (and a lot funnier).

Netflix then recommended My Neighbour Totoro and I’m so glad I persisted with Studio Ghibli because this film is adorable. Four-year-old Mei and her older sister Satsuki move to the country with their father, to be closer to their mother’s hospital (I assume she has tuberculosis, although that’s never confirmed). The children meet some furry creatures in the forest — a small one, a medium-sized one and a giant Totoro — and have some very gentle adventures. Roger Ebert wrote a lovely review, in which he pointed out that this is:

“A film with no villains. No fight scenes. No evil adults. No fighting between the two kids. No scary monsters. No darkness before the dawn. A world that is benign. A world where if you meet a strange towering creature in the forest, you curl up on its tummy and have a nap.”

It’s true that My Neighbour Totoro doesn’t involve any thrilling, action-packed scenes or follow a conflict-driven storyline. The closest it comes to tension is when Mei, worried that her mother is dying, runs away from home to take her mother some home-grown vegetables, and Satsuki and all her neighbours try to find her, although I was always aware that everything would turn out just fine. There may be a lack of conventional ‘drama’, but this film is consistently engrossing, warm-hearted, funny and poignant.

'My Neighbour Totoro' film still

My favourite scene is when an awestruck Satsuki meets Totoro for the first time at a bus-stop. Totoro has only a very inadequate leaf on his head to protect himself from the rain, so Satsuki offers him an umbrella, to his delight. He gives her some seeds as thanks, then steps aboard the eight-legged Catbus and disappears. It’s a nearly wordless scene, but the facial expressions and gestures perfectly communicate each character’s feelings. I watched the version dubbed into English and I found the American actors’ voices a bit jarring. I think I might have liked this more if I’d watched the original Japanese version, even if there weren’t any subtitles.

Netflix’s next recommendation was even better. I thought Spirited Away was a masterpiece (and the Academy Awards judges agreed with me, making this “the only hand-drawn and non-English-language animated film” to win Best Animated Feature Film). Ten-year-old Chihiro is unhappy about her parents’ decision to move to the country. Driving to their new home, they get lost and her parents decide to explore an apparently deserted theme park. Unfortunately, it’s also a gateway to a terrifying, confusing spirit world, where Chihiro’s parents are turned into pigs and Chihiro finds herself trapped by a witch, who steals Chihiro’s name and makes her work in a bath-house.

'Spirited Away' film still

I don’t speak Japanese, haven’t visited Japan and know almost nothing about Shinto beliefs, so, much like Chihiro, I only understood about a third of what was going on, but I was still enthralled by every minute of this film. Each scene is beautifully depicted, from the witch’s elaborate, Western-style penthouse furnishings to the mechanics of the Japanese bath-house to the amazing landscapes. Chihiro is a relatable character — initially spoiled and sulky, then terrified by her situation, unable to decide who to trust, then determined and compassionate and courageous. The supernatural characters are fascinating, scary and often hilarious (my favourites were the soot sprites who fake injuries so Chihiro will do their job and then steal her shoes and socks, although I also developed a soft spot for enigmatic No-Face). The plot is inventive and complex and intriguing. The messages about the dangers of rampant consumerism and environmental destruction are cleverly woven into the story. I was still thinking about this film for days afterwards. I highly recommend it, even if you don’t usually like fantasy or animated movies. If anyone has recommendations for further Studio Ghibli films, please do let me know.