Miscellaneous Memoranda

Rivers of London fans, here’s a good interview with Ben Aaronovitch at Radio National (although, beware, it contains big plot spoilers for the whole series). Also at Radio National, there’s an interview with Leanne Hall about Iris and the Tiger.

I liked this article about Mary Gernat’s lovely cover art for the 1960s editions of the Famous Five books – the artist used her four sons and the family dog, Patch, as models for her sketches and watercolours.

Here’s an interesting attempt to sort into Hogwarts Houses by asking two questions: Are you governed by morality or ethics, and do you derive satisfaction from internal or external validation? (As always, I get thrown straight into Ravenclaw.)

A recent BBC poll of non-British critics about the greatest British novels of all time came up with a list in which women writers dominated the top ten and made up half of the top fifty. As I’d only read fifty-five of the books, I’ve added a few titles to my To Read list, although I think I can live quite happily without Lucky Jim and the two listed D H Lawrence novels.

I feel I’ve read a few too many of these type of novels lately (“I’m going to write a story about a character who feels the way I feel! Middle class, educated, with seemingly every advantage, but who still feels aimless and dissatisfied … Someone with my lived experience will be able to shine a penetrating dramatic light on the problems that arise when you don’t really have other problems.”)

In happier news, the new(ish) Australian children’s laureate is Leigh Hobbs, and hooray, he has a new Mr Chicken book out – Mr Chicken Lands on London!

If you happen to be in London (with Mr Chicken) and are worried about air quality – fear not, the Pigeon Air Patrol is on the case. The pigeons, equipped with tiny backpacks, measure nitrogen dioxide, ozone and other volatile compounds and send the results to Plume Labs for analysis. Londoners can request a reading for their particular location (by sending a tweet, of course). The patrol team includes “Coco, the ‘maverick’, Julius, the ‘hipster’, and Norbert — the ‘intellectual’”.

Finally, in important cephalopod news, a previously unknown species of milky-white octopus has been spotted four kilometres below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. The octopus is currently nicknamed ‘Caspar the Friendly Ghost’. It joins another a new species, a tiny orange octopus discovered last year that scientists would like to name Opisthoteuthis adorabilis because it is just so adorable.

My Favourite Books of 2013

It’s not quite the end of the year, but here are the books I read in 2013 that I loved the most. But first – some statistics!

I’ve finished reading 69 books so far this year and I suspect I’ll squash another two or three novels in before New Year’s Eve. This total doesn’t include the two novels I gave up on (one because it was awful, the other because I just wasn’t in the right mood for it) or the novel I’m halfway through right now (Kangaroo by D. H. Lawrence, which deserves a blog post all of its own). So, what kind of books did I read this year?

Books read in 2013

Authors' nationality for books read in 2013

My reading this year was more culturally diverse than this pie chart would suggest – for example, I read quite a few books by writers who’d migrated from Asian countries to Australia or the UK, and I found those books really interesting. (I also read a couple of books by white writers about Aboriginal Australians and Pacific Islanders, which were less successful.)

Authors' gender for books read in 2013

This was the year of women writers, it seems.

Now for my favourites.

My favourite children’s and picture books
'Wonder' by R. J. Palacio
I really enjoyed Wonder by R. J. Palacio, even though it made me cry. Honourable mentions go to Girl’s Best Friend by Leslie Margolis, the first in a fun middle-grade series featuring Maggie Brooklyn, girl detective and dog walker, and Call Me Drog by Sue Cowing, an odd but endearing story about a boy who gets a malevolent talking puppet stuck on his hand. Picture books that entertained me this year included This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen, Mr Chicken Goes To Paris by Leigh Hobbs and The Oopsatoreum by Shaun Tan.

My favourite Young Adult novels

I loved Girl Defective by Simmone Howell and Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan. I was also impressed with Mary Hooper’s historical novel, Newes from the Dead (subtitled, Being a True Story of Anne Green, Hanged for Infanticide at Oxford Assizes in 1650, Restored to the World and Died Again 1665, which pretty much tells you what it’s about), although I’m not sure it was truly Young Adult, despite being published as such – some of the content seemed horrifyingly Adult to me.

My favourite novels for adults

'Lives of Girls and Women' by Alice MunroI read some great grown-up novels this year. This may have been because I abandoned my usual method of choosing novels from the library (that is, selecting them at random from the shelves based on their blurbs) and started reserving books via my library’s handy online inter-library loan system, basing my choices on reviews, award short-lists and personal recommendations. I was happy to discover the novels of Madeleine St John and I especially liked The Women in Black and A Pure, Clear Light. I also enjoyed The Body of Jonah Boyd by David Leavitt (a very clever piece of writing which included some apt and cynical reflections on the business of creative writing), The Flight of the Maidens by Jane Gardam and Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. However, my favourite novel of the year would have to be Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro, who was recently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

My favourite non-fiction for adults

Among the memoirs I enjoyed this year were Births, Deaths, Marriages: True Tales by Georgia Blain and Growing Up Asian In Australia, edited by Alice Pung. I also liked Helen Trinca’s biography of Madeleine St John. The most interesting science-related books I read were Knowledge is Power: How Magic, the Government and an Apocalyptic Vision inspired Francis Bacon to create Modern Science by John Henry and I Wish I’d Made You Angry Earlier: Essays on Science, Scientists and Humanity by Max Perutz.

Hope you all had a good reading year and that 2014 brings you lots of great books. Happy holidays!

More favourite books:

Favourite Books of 2010
Favourite Books of 2011
Favourite Books of 2012

Five Favourite Picture Books

I don’t read many children’s picture books these days, but I’ve just come across two excellent ones, which reminded me of some old favourites. Note: I realise lots of children’s picture books are designed to teach Important Moral Lessons, but when I read a picture book, I mostly want it to make me laugh. All of these books deliver on that front.

1. This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen

'This Is Not My Hat' by Jon Klassen

“A fish has stolen a hat. And he’ll probably get away with it. Probably.”

This is a clever and very funny story about a little fish who steals a hat from a big fish. The little fish is not worried about his crime, because even if the big fish “does notice that it’s gone, he probably won’t know it was me who took it. And even if he does guess it was me, he won’t know where I am going.” Unfortunately, it turns out there’s a witness to the crime. But he won’t tell, will he?

The illustrations are fabulous, featuring simple, flat figures that manage to convey a vast amount of information through tiny changes in shape. I loved the single, visible eye of the big fish, which progressively showed the fish asleep, awake, alert to his missing hat, angry, and very, very determined to get his hat back. And the text was perfect, juxtaposing the little fish’s blithe narration (“So I am not worried about that”) with images of his impending doom (a little crab with scared, googly eyes points frantically with his claw as the big fish bears down on them). Bonus points for this book because the text is printed in a clear, easy-to-read black font of uniform size on an off-white background. (My pet peeve regarding children’s picture books is when the illustrator uses a barely-readable font that meanders all over the page, changes size constantly and blends in with the background colours, all for no apparent reason other than to make the book seem Wacky and Zany. Illustrators – it just makes it really hard for new readers to figure out the words. So stop doing it.) Oh, and I guess this book does have an Important Moral Lesson, too: Don’t steal hats from big fish.

2. Mr Chicken Goes To Paris by Leigh Hobbs

'Mr Chicken Goes To Paris' by Leigh Hobbs

“The world’s most beautiful city meets the world’s most startling chicken . . .”

Mr Chicken, a four-metre-tall, bright yellow chicken, visits his friend Yvette in Paris. It is a very eventful trip. He rides the Métro, drops in at the Musée du Louvre (where the tourists decide he’s far more interesting than the Mona Lisa), climbs the outside of the Eiffel Tower (“Mr Chicken was far too excited to wait for the lift”), plays in the bell tower of Notre Dame, does lots of shopping, and decides to go on a diet after looking at his “great big bottom” in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. This does not stop him eating “everything on the menu” at dinner, which causes some problems when he tries to squeeze onto the plane at the end of his trip. But luckily, his clever young friend Yvette has a solution . . .

Bonus points for teaching me some French phrases (for example, Monsieur Poulet va à Paris). Magnifique!

3. What Faust Saw by Matt Ottley

'What Faust Saw' by Matt Ottley

“One night, Faust woke up, looked out the window and saw something very strange . . .”

Faust is a big brown dog who just happens to be the only witness when a horde of drooling, multicoloured aliens invades his suburb. Faust wakes up his family to inform them, but they don’t believe him. It is all very unfair. Faust decides to run away (“Then they’d be sorry”), but the aliens follow him and worse, someone hears him barking at them. Oh no, it’s the dog catcher!

This book loses some points for having hard-to-read text that meanders all over the page, but the richly coloured, beautifully detailed oil paintings make up for it. This book was very popular with my young students (as long as I read the words aloud to them), because they loved the aliens, especially the big, dinosaur-like one with the disgusting string of snot hanging from one nostril.

4. Counting on Frank by Rod Clement

'Counting On Frank' by Rod Clement

This book is about a boy who likes counting. No, he really, really likes counting. He especially likes calculating and estimating – for example, figuring out how long it would take the entire house to fill with water if he leaves the bath taps on and the plug in the bath, or how many humpback whales would fit inside his house, or how long his arms will grow if he has to keep dragging tins of dog food home from the shops for his dog, Frank. The (unnamed) boy’s counting is driving his parents mad – until they encounter a situation where his talent really comes in handy.

This has great illustrations of the bizarrely logical world of the boy’s imagination. This will appeal to children who like maths or have their own obsessive behaviours, especially when they see the boy’s (and Frank’s) moment of triumph at the end.

5. Traction Man Is Here by Mini Grey

'Traction Man Is Here' by Mini Grey

“An exciting adventure about a boy and his superhero can-do toy.”

A brand-new Traction Man arrives for Christmas (complete with “dazzle-painted battle pants”, jungle camouflage, sub aqua suit and space gear). He’s soon embroiled in daring adventures, including battling deep-sea monsters (aka a dishcloth in the sink), photographing the legendary Mysterious Toes (in the bathtub), rescuing dollies from the Wicked Professor Spade, and also acquiring a sidekick, Scrubbing Brush. But after taking the InterGalactic People Mover to Granny’s house, Traction Man faces his toughest assignment yet – getting rid of the “knitted green romper suit and matching bonnet” that Granny’s made him for Christmas.

This is a hilarious celebration of children’s imaginative play, with a few sly jokes for grown-ups hidden in the detailed, brightly coloured illustrations. Super good!