Miscellaneous Memoranda

– I’m glad I deleted my Twitter account a few years ago. Perhaps the authors now leaving Twitter will turn to blogging? I’d like that. I like reading long, thoughtful, book-related posts, although of course, blog posts can also consist of miscellaneous snippets of articles and commentary and videos …

– This is worrying. American publishers are increasingly adding “morals clauses” to their contracts so they can terminate contracts and force authors to pay back advances if the author is accused of “immoral, illegal, or publicly condemned behavior”.

Image of contract and pen

As the Authors’ Guild points out,

“individual accusations or the vague notion of ‘public condemnation … can occur all too easily in these days of viral social media.

Now publishers apparently want the ability to terminate an author’s contract for failing to predict how their words will be received by a changing public. This is a business risk like any other, yet publishers are attempting to lay it solely at authors’ feet. Worst of all, morals clauses have a chilling effect on free speech. A writer at risk of losing a book deal is likely to refrain from voicing a controversial opinion or taking an unusual stand on an important issue.”

– In the UK, publishing is in a “parlous state”, writes a pseudonymous publishing insider:

“just warning people off books isn’t sufficient. The author in question needs to be punished for their crime, be it transphobia, racism, misogyny or whatever. Never mind that we can all take offence at anything or nothing; that one person from a particular group who is offended by a story does not equal all people from that group being thus offended; that a simple way to not be offended is simply not to buy the book.

No, that is no longer enough. The author must be hounded on social media, their publishers & agents must be emailed, and the sinner in question must then atone for their sins by publicly apologising, “educating” themselves (which to me is the language of the gulag) and rewriting the book to remove the offence…

To know that so many people live in fear of saying the wrong thing in an industry which should be celebrating dissent and freedom of speech is something I find deeply shocking. It has come about because a minority of people with the loudest voices have bullied their way into the publishing world and insisted that only they are on the path of true righteousness.”

– Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, five brave, outspoken speech therapists have been jailed for publishing a series of children’s books featuring sheep fighting back against marauding wolves:

“Judge Kwok said in his verdict that ‘children will be led into the belief that the PRC Government is coming to Hong Kong with the wicked intention of taking away their home and ruining their happy life with no right to do so at all,’ referring to the People’s Republic of China.

Defendant [Melody] Yeung quoted U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King saying ‘a riot is the language of the unheard.’

‘I don’t regret my choice, and I hope I can always stand on the side of the sheep,’ Yeung said.”

Looking for Alibrandi is thirty years old this year and Melina Marchetta discusses it here. There’s also an interesting new theatre adaptation of the book, written by an Indian Tamil migrant, who grew up in Kuwait and moved to Perth as a teenager, and starring Chanella Macri, an Italian Samoan actor, as Josie Alibrandi.

'Looking for Alibrandi' by Melina MarchettaAs Pia Miranda, who played Josie in the film version, says,

“It’s a migrant story that transcends being Italian. And a lot of the people that have spoken to me over the years [and said] that it means a lot to them are from different backgrounds, whether it be people from Muslim or Asian backgrounds.”

– Anne Tyler has a new novel out, French Braid. I’m always happy to see an interview with her, even though I suspect she hates doing them. Here she discusses, among other things, ‘cancel culture’ and cultural appropriation and how she’s an accidental novelist:'French Braid' by Anne Tyler

“I never planned to be a writer at all. For years, maybe even today, sometimes I think, ‘What exactly am I going to do with my life? What is my career going to be? I’m only 80, for God’s sake!’”

– Fans of Octopolis will enjoy this update on the residents’ behaviour: “Sometimes This Octopus Is So Mad It Just Wants to Throw Something”. I highly recommend Peter Godfrey-Smith’s book on octopus intelligence (and belligerence), Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life.

The New Yorker has a fascinating article on the creators of the Choose Your Own Adventures books.

– Look at this amazing Ghibli quilt! Look at Calcifer and Jiji and No-Face and all the little soot sprites! She’s also made a Totoro quilt.

– I’m not a fan of John Hughes films, except for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and only because of the museum scene, so I enjoyed this thoughtful article on Ferris, Cameron and the power of art museums. And yes, this IS related to books, because the painting Cameron gazes at also features in Rebecca Stead’s Liar & Spy. If you clicked on the video in that article, you’re probably now humming the lovely instrumental music from that scene, so here it is, The Dream Academy’s cover version of Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want:

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.