Monthly Archives: January 2012

Book 7 – “Falling From Grace”

“Falling From Grace” by Jane Godwin (2006)

I am currently half way through a non-fiction book for my own reading pleasure, but yesterday, while resting my injured foot (don’t ask), I re-read “Falling From Grace” in preparation for term 1, year 11, Area of Study. I have the second of four Standard classes this year. This is going to be more academically challenging than the last two years of English Studies and I am excited and hopeful that my class will contain at least some motivated students. Our Area of Study concept is Change and we examine both film and written text. The film text this year is “Packed to the Rafters” series 1, episodes 1 and 2. We haven’t used it before, but I am confident it will be successful as it is a text that works on many levels to examine the concept of change. Each teacher selects their own novel to go with the unit. I read “Falling From Grace” in 2007 and, as a consequence, we bought a class set for the faculty, as I felt it would make an excellent teaching text. As is often the case with my recommendations, I haven’t had a chance to actually teach it until now. Several of my colleagues have, with great success. Reading it again, I am pleased to see that it does offer the teaching opportunities I remembered it for… let’s hope the students agree!

“Falling From Grace” is a story about five different people who end up tangled in each other’s lives during a storm at the beach. It is told from three of the character’s perspectives. We learn about these narrators, and about the characters whose voices we don’t hear, through a period of 5 days of great distress. The story is actually about Grace, who goes missing on a cliff during the storm, but it is Kip, the 14-year-old boy who is in the wrong place at the wrong time, more than once, who I care the most about. He epitomises the confusion and misunderstandings of adolescence. He is concerned, he is frustrated, he is faced with great challenges and his reactions are normal and understandable. It is his journey through the five days that offers readers an opportunity to consider the ways in which circumstances and situations can change us. In particular, his efforts to comprehend the enigmatic Ted show the reader how truly challenging the journey from ‘kid’ to grown up can be.

My fingers are crossed – may I discover that at least some of the 25 faces looking up at me next Monday take this book home and give it a chance … and that some of them … maybe … even learn something!

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Book 6 – “Matched”

“Matched” – by Ally Condie (2010)

The current trend in YA fiction (when you push past the entire sub-sections of vampire spin-offs in the book shops – assuming you still have book shops where you live) is an increasing interest in dystopian fiction. Since “Uglies” by Scott Westerfeld (2005), I have picked up YA SF books regularly, and the ones that are selling and working are all dystopias with a common theme – the idea that our future will be based around an information overload that has led to a complete control of ideas, knowledge and history. An all-controlling government makes decisions in people’s ‘best interests’ and everyone is so scared of the evils of the past that they ignorantly accept the control in their lives as being a great gift bestowed upon them. Knowing too much terrifies them.

And this is “Matched” in a nutshell. Cassia is 17 and it is time for her Matching Banquet. This is the night she will find out who The Society has selected for her to spend her life with. All the data has been entered and her perfect match across all the provinces has been decided. It is only the next day, when Cassia discovers that her Match was not as perfectly selected as she thought, that the adventure begins.

The Society has reduced information down to 100 songs, 100 poems, 100 books and 100 paintings. They have created a society in which everyone is always busy, at work, study or organised leisure. This means no one has much time to think. And thinking is monitored. Each member of the family takes it in turn to wear sleep tags, so even when they are sleeping, The Society knows what people are doing.

What is really beautiful about this book is that the story unfolds around the discovery of Dylan Thomas’s poem, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night and all that it means for this poem to still exist. It is the idea that Condie is showing her readers how beautiful poetry is, line by line, word by word – having the characters taste and mull over the real meaning of the words – that make this a wonderful book.

It peeved me a little that it was so obviously written as part one of a series. Now that I’ve been to Condie’s website, I can see that it was always planned as book one of a trilogy. “Uglies” and “The Hunger Games” were too. The world around books now, online and across the world, is quite mind-boggling. If you would like to know more about these books, you can go to www.allysoncondie.com and experience information overload… but there aren’t enough hours in the day for reading books, so don’t waste them exploring websites!

Cassia is a strong, intelligent and curious protagonist – just Like Tally in “Uglies” and Katniss in “The Hunger Games”. I really enjoyed reading the book, I know teenagers who would like to read it and I think it would make a great teaching text. That’s high praise, considering some of the YA fiction I read. But “The Hunger Games” is better.

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Book 5 – “The Build Up”

“The Build Up” by Phillip Gwynne (2008)

This is another book from the  borrowed pile. Linda picked it up in a book sale and she knows  how much of a Gwynne fan I am so she let me go first! I discovered Gwynne’s writing to begin with thanks to a uni lecturer setting his first YA novel, “Deadly Unna” (1998) as a reading task when I was at uni and then a couple of years later I read the sequel, “Nukkin Ya” (2000). In 2010, I read his new YA novel, Swerve (2010). Gwynne also wrote the screenplay for the film “Australian Rules” which combines both “Deadly Unna” and “Nukkin Ya” and this is a film I use every year in my teaching. Less often I use the novel, but I wish it was the other way around because, as is so often the case, the book is much better than the film. So, it is fair to say that I started reading this book with high hopes and high expectations. The good news is, it didn’t disappoint me.

“The Build Up” is Gwynne’s first adult fiction novel. It is set in Darwin and its protagonist is an experienced detective with the Northern Territory police. Her name is Dusty and she is tough, experienced, and ridiculously good-looking – just the way a protagonist needs to be! A dead body is discovered at the start of the novel and there are a range of quirky characters and twists in the plot to keep you happily reading along to the end.

I think it’s fair to say that this book offers every single element I like. It’s a modern Australian novel by a talented writer. It is character-driven and captures the Australian landscape and lifestyle in a way that is familiar and comfortable. The narrative rolls along nicely, with exactly the right amount of detail dished up, bit by bit, at the end of each chapter so that you don’t really ever want to put it down. There are good guys and bad guys but the lines are blurred and they are all appealing.

I can’t lend anyone this book because it’s not mine, but if you see it in a book sale, grab it, or go and borrow it from the library. This one I definitely recommend.

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Book 4 – “Women of Letters”

“Women of Letters” curated by Marieke Hardy & Michaela McGuire (2011)

This can’t just be a review. There’s a story to go with this book – bear with me while I tell it.

Every year, as we Christmas shop, my love and I will always spot things we fancy for ourselves. “Here, my love, pop this in the Christmas stocking, please.” We end up, on Christmas morning, totally pointlessly unwrapping things we know, we knew, we needn’t have wrapped. This year, on our first foray into gift purchases for loved ones, after selecting calendars for ourselves and swapping bags post-checkout, we stopped for a coffee and had a conversation. “What if we say we can only buy surprises?” I boldly suggested. “Um, can you at least give me hints?” the sweetheart replied. “Well, no, that would sort of ruin it, really.”

And so we set out, on a mission to not point anything out, not even a subtle wink directed towards the latest Peter Brock book or pretty blouse was permitted. A couple of weeks later, Mum asked me for a particular book, and the next day, Luke saw it for sale and phoned me. “I bought the book your Mum wants. But don’t look at the bank account, I bought a couple of other things too.”

On Christmas Eve, late, very late, when we were exchanging gifts, I looked at the 3 book-shaped parcels labelled with Toy Story gift tags with some trepidation. We’ve been together 11 and a half years and he’s never chosen a book for me… me, the lady with 124 books on the ‘waiting to be read’ shelf. What courage this had taken, what determination to not only meet the surprise expectations, but launch bravely into the scariest world of surprises possible. The first parcel I unwrapped was the first book I reviewed this year “Worse Things Happen at Sea” – yippee, well chosen, husband! This second gift, “Women of Letters” was even more wonderful. Unbeknown to Luke, it is the same book I had purchased for Mickey. I’d read a review, I’d been intrigued, I wanted it for myself, so I bought it for someone else. And now, well now here it was, in my hands. My own copy. I was absolutely delighted.

So, Christmas surprises? An absolute success. My third book was “After Words” by Paul Keating (which I will read and review soon). My husband makes me smile wider every day. And what surprises did I get for him, I hear you wondering? Remote control Lightning McQueen, Batman board shorts and tickets to see Tim Rogers. Yep, I made him smile too.

You’ve been waiting patiently while I told my tale, so now I better get on with reviewing “Women of Letters”.

This is a book purporting, on its cover, to be ‘reviving the lost art of letter writing.’ That’s a bit of a fib, probably. It’s actually a book of little snapshots of autobiography – or memoirs – the only thing that makes them letters is that they start with Dear so-and-so and end with the person’s signature.

The book I thought I had bought for Mickey and the book I ended up reading myself are probably pretty different. I thought it was going to be a collection of letters celebrating the art of letter-writing. It is a book of letters, but a lot of the contributors are far more focused on celebrating themselves and their own utter brilliance than really engaging with the actual art of letter-writing. I also didn’t realise that the letters were originally written to be read out loud at performances. Performance poetry is painful enough, but performance letters??? Well, the comedians were probably good at it – stand up with the script permitted.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed a lot of the letters in the collection, and I particularly liked thinking about what sort of letter I would write for some of the sections. For example, there are letters written to ‘my first pin up’ (I’d have to write that to Shaun Cassidy); ‘to my twelve-year-old self’ (oh, the things I would say); ‘the best present I ever received’ (a toe-ring – it’s a long story); ‘my ghosts’ (someone I used to know); and ‘my turning point’ (delivering house keys to the uni bar changed my life).

The letters that had the most impact were: Jennifer Byrne’s letter, which was not her own, but which made me cry; Alice Pung’s letter to her Dad, which is horrifying and heart-breaking, but beautifully loving; Lisa Miller’s gut-wrenching letter to a person who won’t speak to her any more, which reminded me of a friend I once had and the strange feeling of never knowing why you weren’t good enough to be kept as a friend; and Helen Garner’s magnificent collection of tiny little snippets of letters of thanks and apology that make you ache to know more.

In the chapter entitled Men of Letters, I was particularly moved by: Paul Kelly’s effort to offer an alternative perspective of Othello; Eddie Perfect’s beautifully normal and familiar love letter to his wife; and Tim Rogers’ letter of love, regret and struggle.

I skipped a couple of letters. The one to Sarah Jessica Parker (who I think looks like a horse, but who Julian described as the woman with a face like a foot, which is so much more apt) and both of the letters by Noni (me, me, me) Hazlehurst, which went on and on and on and I just didn’t care.

I’m not sure Mickey will like it. Perhaps I’ll suggest that she just dips in and out, reading the letters by the people she knows. It’s not the book I thought it was, but it was a wonderful gift and I have enjoyed reading it. Do I recommend it? This one is a ‘borrow it, don’t buy it’ recommendation, I think.

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Book 3 – “Graffiti Moon”

“Graffiti Moon” by Cath Crowley (2010)

This book won the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for 2011 and was short-listed for the Children’s Book Council of Australia award. I can see why. I read it in one sitting. I couldn’t, didn’t want to, didn’t need to put it down. This is the blessing of holidays. And when Luke comes home and says “what have you been doing all day?” I can reply (with a smile), “working. I found a new book to teach today.”

“Graffiti Moon” is a book about Lucy and her obsession with a graffiti artist. The story spans one night – the night that marks the end of year 12 for Lucy and her friends. It is an action-packed night, where the characters find out about each other and themselves. The characters are real, believable, engaging, flawed and fun. The plot is uncomplicated but not predictable. The language is poetic and fluid and a pleasure to read.

Generally, I prefer not to offer quotes from the books I read. I worry that I might put you off a book I’d really like you to read. But, as I contemplate the huge adventure and challenge of teaching a very tough year 10 class in 2012, the following extract just seemed to me to be exactly what it must be like for so many kids these days. And it has made me determined to find a way for it to be different. Ed is talking about why school didn’t work for him…

Words, school, I never got the whole picture. I’d sit there trying to block the sounds of scraping chairs and the other kids. I’d try to make a tunnel round the teacher’s voice so it came to me clear. Most days I couldn’t do it. I’d hear it all and so I’d hear nothing. Like I was standing in a place where every sound was the same level and I couldn’t separate the threads. Like every door in the world was open and the sound was pouring in.

I’m quite convinced I’ve had kids like Ed in my classroom. I think they’re even in the majority. The challenge is to help them find a way to filter the sounds. To help them hear the joy they can find in reading and learning. The challenge, though, is mine, not theirs. It’s up to me to find a way – to invite them in.

Yes, you should read “Graffiti Moon”.

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Book 2 – “Never Let Me Go”

“Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)

One of my favourite things about teaching is when a student recommends a book – even better is when they bring their own copy of the book to school, thrust it towards you, and say, “Miss, have you read this? You must.” How do you resist such an invitation?

So, this is how I came to read “Never Let Me Go”. One of my Extension students leant it to me weeks ago. I’m determined to read all the books that have been leant to me before I go back to school. This one was at the top of my pile, because I was curious about a novel that apparently presented ‘…piercing questions about humanity and humaneness.’ Plus, it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and I’ve had a good run with books that the Man Booker gang like.

“Never Let Me Go” is a book about 3 children growing up in some kind of boarding school or orphanage. It takes a very long time to fully understand what kind of place it really is. It takes an even longer time to fully understand the 3 characters, Ruth, Kathy and Tommy. In fact, I’m quite sure I still don’t understand Ruth. It is Kathy who narrates the story, and, having been fooled by narrators before, I found myself being quite wary of her perspective from the beginning. I think Ishiguro wants his readers to be wary, unsure, uneasy, uncomfortable. Kathy offers glimpses of her adult life as she reflects back on many idyllic childhood memories. None of the memories contain parents. None of the memories contain any events outside the walls of Hailsham, the ‘school’ the children attend. The references to experiences after Hailsham, when the children are older and have left, are similarly cloistered and sheltered. It is exactly this sense of confusion, of something not quite right, that made it quite difficult to put the book down. I read consistently sure that it was all going to make sense, any minute now.

“Never Let Me Go” takes the reader somewhere quite odd, and quite unnerving. I was left trying to grasp the author’s intention and the real message all the way to the end of the book. I want to tell you I enjoyed this book. Unfortunately, I find myself much more inclined to tell you how uncomfortable it has left me. I think it is a great text to use in Extension and I will be encouraging the girls to write about it and explore their response to it. As for anyone else, well, maybe if you are a VC Andrews fan, you might enjoy this book. Otherwise, I find myself disinclined to encourage you reading it.

And so we are two for two… don’t read the last one, don’t read this one… I almost feel obliged to search my bookshelf for a sure-fire, recommendable book next, otherwise what’s the point! It’s young adult fiction’s turn, so it’s anyone’s bet how that will go.

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Book 1 – “Worse Things Happen at Sea”

“Worse Things Happen at Sea” by William McInnes & Sarah Watt (2011)

I decided to start the year with non-fiction… well, in fact, I received three new non-fiction books for Christmas, and I wanted to read them all, one after the other, but my plan this year is to rotate around non-fiction, adult fiction and young adult fiction, so I started with the most appealing of the three new books and I will be good and move through the range before returning to one of my other new books later.

If you haven’t read any books by William McInnes, do not start with Worse Things Happen at Sea. (This is the same rule that demands, for example, that if you have never read Tim Winton, you must not start with Cloudstreet).

First, meet and fall in love with my dear, lovely William by reading Cricket Kings (fiction) or A man’s got to have a hobby (non-fiction) or That’d be Right (non-fiction) or maybe even The Making of Modern Australia (non-fiction), or all of them. I don’t mind where you start, or what order you read them in, but you need to meet, learn about, get to know, and fall in love with William before you read Worse Things Happen at Sea.

William and his wife (but mostly William) tell a meandering collection of anecdotes about their lives together, their children, their parents, their successes and their heartbreak. They tell it through words and pictures (mostly by Sarah)… some of the images impressive and artistic and some of them simple family happy-snaps (more my taste, in truth). One anecdote wanders off into another anecdote, before strolling casually back over to the original one. It’s a lot like having conversations in and amongst a group of people you know very well, when you stroll through different memories and funny tales, only to look at each other for a moment, as if to say, wait, where were we, and then the words take you back to where you started.

Sarah died a few weeks ago. It made the book a little bit sadder, but she knew she was dying when she co-wrote it, and the book is overwhelmingly about joy and happiness and the real beauty found in the most simple of things. It’s a happy book, with some bits that made me cry. Clearly, William and Sarah were a very normal and very happy couple.

If you haven’t already, read the others first, not this one. Come and meet this one later.

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