Thursday, 30 November 2017

Review: Galax-Arena by Gillian Rubinstein

Imagine a time when children and teenagers are taken and forced to perform gymnastics for the amusement of aliens. That is the premise of this now-classic Australian YA novel by Gillian Rubinstein. As the novel opens, Joella informs us that she and her siblings Peter and Liane are on the run. The trio have experienced a terrible ordeal. Abducted by a human talent scout, the trio are taken and held captive in an arena. Peter and Liane are forced to be performers along with a group of other kids, while Joella (an unsuccessful gymnast,) is taken away to become a pet for one of the aliens. Joella has to use her will--and her wit--to survive, but who can she turn to? More importantly, who can she trust? And what is the terrible secret behind the Galax-Arena?

I first read this novel when I was in my early teens, and I was surprised by how much I had forgotten when I picked it up again. Possibly, I was a little too young when I read it and much of it went over my head. In any case, I was rather impressed by it all the second time around. Although the setting is fantastic, the deceptions and allegiances and other awful bits of human nature ring true. And one thing that I was really impressed by is the way the author presented a truth that is rarely spoken about in young adult fiction, but one that is certainly worthy of discussion--that older people can be quite jealous of young people because of their youth, and are all too eager to exploit them for that exact reason. (I wish I could elaborate on this point further, but it would be quite difficult without giving spoilers.) Joella is quite a mature and resourceful character, the opposite of her older brother, the supposed golden child of the family. The other children in the book, or pebs as they call one another, make for quite an interesting and motley bunch, who are surviving as best they can in an environment where they are forced to both trust and dislike each other. And, of course, Bro Rabbit makes for quite an interesting plot device.

This was meant to be the first book in a trilogy. The second novel, Terra-Farma was published in about the mid-1990s, while the third book in the trilogy to have been titled Universrcus remains unpublished.

Random trivia: Wikipedia lists the initial publication date of this one as 1995, while Goodreads lists it as 2001. Galax-Arena was, in fact, initially published in 1992 by Hyland House and was an Honour Book in the Children's Book Council Awards 1993.

This book was read as part of the Aussie Author Challenge 2017

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Review: The Burden of Lies by Richard Beasley

The underbelly of Sydney's corporate world--one full of cocaine and corruption--is the setting for this entertaining and well written legal thriller. Peter Tanner is a maverick barrister with a distaste for many of the people that he represents. When he is called in to defend Tina Leonard, a woman accused of murder, Tanner finds himself delving deep into the corporate worlds of banking and construction, where everyone has an agenda and where everyone will do anything to save their reputation. Nothing about this case is straightforward, least of all Tina. 

This is the first novel by Richard Beasley that I have read. The genre is a world away from the things that I usually read, but when the authors' Australian publisher, Simon and Schuster, offered me the opportunity to review this one, I decided to take a bit of a chance. I found myself thoroughly entertained by Tanners thoughts about corporate world and the people that he represents (a cricket bat scene early on is quite memorable,) and caught up in the case. I admit, I wondered a bit about Tina and what she might not be telling her lawyer, but the author ties all of this into the story in a satisfactory manner.

A solid story set in a corrupt world. Recommended. 

Thank you to Simon and Schuster Australia for my review copy.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Review: My Life as an Alphabet by Barry Jonsberg

Candice Phee is twelve years old, beautifully honest and just a tiny bit different from the other kids in her class. When she is asked to write an autobiography for a school project, she takes the task very seriously, documenting her life from A to Z. And what a life it has been. Candice might be a bit unusual, but she certainly cares about her family--her mum, her dad and her rich uncle Brian, and her friend/boyfriend Douglas from another dimension--and she does her best to make them happy, with some hilarious results.

This was a wonderful and fun read about a young woman who doesn't always fit in, but who manages to come up trumps despite the odds. Candice doesn't really get along with the rest of the kids in her grade, who have dubbed her S.N. or Essen (short for special needs,) but she rejects that, and other labels that adults try to give her (such as being autistic, or on the spectrum.) She tells people, "I'm me," and I think that is all readers really need to know about Candice. She's accepting of other kids, to the point where she believes wholeheartedly in Douglas's story that he's actually from another dimension and came to this world after he fell out of a tree, and where she wants to help Jen Mashall, a bully who struggles with her schoolwork. But she also tries the patience of her parents, both of whom are still grieving for the loss of Candice's baby sister. Candice grieves for her sister in a very different way, which her mother who is not only a cancer survivor, but who also has depression, finds very difficult to deal with. But the family unit is at its best when the Phee's allow Candice to be herself, though the parents do find themselves on the receiving end of a number of Candice's strange, but well meaning, plans.

Entertaining and endearing, I think this is a YA novel that will be enjoyed by adults as much as teens.

Highly recommended. 

This book was read as part of the Aussie Author Challenge 2017

PS My Life as an Alphabet is published as The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee outside of Australia. 

Friday, 24 November 2017

Friday Funnies: Bert and Ernie Come Out as Asexual Puppets

Found this online recently and nearly died laughing. Diversity and role models are a great thing. But we should never one, take ourselves too seriously and two, speculate about other people's lives just to prove a point.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Review: The Cursed First Term of Zelda Stitch by Nicki Greenberg

The Cursed First Term of Zelda Stitch has something for everyone--witches, a class full of crazy kids and one very sulky and badly behaved cat. Zelda Stitch is not exactly what you would call a terribly good witch. Actually, she's rather bad at it, and has decided to try her hand at something else--being a primary school teacher. Through her diary entries, we laugh and cry with her as she navigates her first term as a primary school teacher. Not only does she have naughty children to contend with, but there is MM the uptight Vice Principal and she must keep her witchcraft under control, or else her career as a teacher is finished. And then there are all the problems that are caused by her cat/companion Banarby. A rather discontented and disagreeable puss, Barnarby would much rather be the companion of someone who was a proud and capable witch--basically the opposite of Zelda. But through her first term at the school, Zelda learns some valuable lessons about working with others, and some valuable lessons about herself.

Although this one is pitched at middle grade readers, I found myself laughing out loud on several occasions, and rather enjoying all of the illustrations, especially the ones that featured Barnarby. (And what a grumpy thing he was too!) Zelda herself is a lovely character, one who readers of all ages will be able to identify with and cheer for. This one is a lot of fun, with plenty of madness and mayhem. 


This book was read for the Aussie Author Challenge 2017

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Review: Firelight by Kristen Callihan

Firelight would have made an absolutely ripping short story or novella. There's a lot of romantic and erotic potential in this paranormal story about a poor young woman with a strange gift who is more or less forced into marrying a rich man who always wears a mask. And while there is a good lot of chemistry between the characters, and a lot of mystery, the story itself feels too long. The mystery lacks depth, as do most of the characters. 

Miranda Ellis is a young woman living in London in 1881. She is forced to marry the disfigured Lord Archer, a man who never shows his face and who has secretly been admiring Miranda from afar for the past three years. Archer makes Miranda's father an offer he can't refuse for her. The pair marry, realise that they're hot for each other, don't do anything about it for far too long, and then, one by one, a number of Archer's old friends start getting popped off. Most of the story focuses on whether or not Archer might be the killer, and it all becomes rather dull after a while. It felt very tiresome and overlong to me, and I feel that more could have been done with the paranormal element, especially Miranda's gift. 

This novel is the first in a seven book series that has garnered mostly favourable reviews, so I imagine that it has its fans, but the book and writing style really weren't for me. I also find myself wanting to weep just a little for a world that would rather read this than Jane Eyre. Then again, I also weep for a world that finds it acceptable for an author to use the word "cocksucker" in a book set in Queen Victoria's England. 

Not really recommended.  

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Literary Quotes

Above the rumbling in the chimney, and the fast pattering on the glass, was heard a wailing, rushing sound, which shook the walls as though a giant's hand were on them; then a hoarse roar as if the sea had risen; then such a whirl and tumult that the air seemed mad; and then, with a lengthened howl, the waves of wind swept on, and left a moment's interval of rest.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Friday Funnies: Cute Tips

Love this Peanuts comic

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Review: Came Back to Show You I Could Fly by Robin Klein

Arguably Klein's best work, there's a strange sense of hope in this novel about friendship and addiction. Seymour is a bored and lonely kid who has been sent to stay with a family friend in suburban Melbourne while his mother tries to sort out a bitter custody dispute with his father. Forbidden to leave the house, eleven year old Seymour sneaks out one day and soon finds himself being chased by a local gang. He stumbles through a back gate where he meets Angie, a friendly and imaginative young woman. The pair soon develop an unlikely friendship and help one another out. It's difficult to believe that someone as lovely as Angie might have a dark side, but that is exactly what Seymour discovers as he learns more about Angie and slowly puts the pieces together.

This is the first time that I have read Came Back to Show You I Could Fly in over twenty years--I can't quite remember how or when I read it the first time, only that our local KMart had a copy that I could not afford (and, consequently, never bought,) but I imagine that I must have borrowed it from either a school or public library. In any case, I was thrilled when Text decided to publish this one as a classic and bought a copy from Dymocks. I'm pleased to say that it still packed quite a punch, despite being written and set in the late 1980s, and despite the fact that I was well aware early on that Angie had a problem with addiction (instead of having to slowly put the evidence together, like I did when I was a kid.) Angie's an interesting character--it's clear from the start that she's keen to act like a big sister to Seymour and that she wants someone to look up to her. However, the life that she has led means there is a huge trail of destruction behind her, and she's done a lot that her upper middle class family find very difficult to forgive. I guess what, ultimately, Klein shows with this novel is the human side of drug addiction. Meanwhile, Seymour learns a few harsh lessons about growing up, though he gets through it okay.

Highly recommended. 

This book was read as part of the Aussie Author Challenge 2017

PS In 1993 the novel was made into a film titled Say A Little Prayer. To the best of my knowledge, the film has not been released on DVD

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Review: The Secret Pony by Elspeth Reid

If Colin Thiele had written an episode of Home and Away, the result would have been something akin to The Secret Pony, a  children's novel from the mid-1990s that I found secondhand recently. Scartlett is a good kid who is, essentially, just trying to roll with the punches. The past year hasn't been great--her parents have split up and now she and her two younger sisters are trying to get used to life in a small, beachside town in New South Wales. The local kids don't really accept Scarlett, and she feels quite lonely. She misses her Dad, and her old friends. Most of all, she misses being able to go horse riding, something that she did often back when she lived in Sydney. (There are no stables near her new home, and in any case, her family can no longer afford to pay for riding lessons.) One night, a kind of miracle happens, when a white stallion just happens to stumble into her yard. Scarlett knows that the horse, who she names Silver, has been mistreated--and instantly suspects Wendee--a spoiled girl who has just arrived in town. With the help of Adrian, the school nerd, Scarlett finds a way to hide Silver and keep him safe.

This novel was enjoyable enough, and would certainly appeal to any pre-teen girl who has ever wanted to keep her own horse. Scarlett's adventure was a little far-fetched in places, though it made for interesting reading. (Because hey, who wants to read about kids who follow the rules. Plus her and Adrian's solutions to various problems were quite innovative.) More troubling was Wendee, the spoiled rich girl who continually wanted to do "bad" stuff such as smoking, and taking her father's Mercedes without asking and using it to do burnouts. Or, at least Wendee claims that she wants to do these things! (I suspect she just wanted to look cool in front of Scarlett.). Ultimately, the novel is an inoffensive product of a bygone era, one where children's books were filled with ordinary kids having adventures and learning some valuable life lessons along the way. 


PS Some trivia: Author Elspeth Reid is the mother of actor/author Isla Fisher. She wrote two novels with her daughter in the mid-1990s, and according to the bio in the back had some other novels and short stories accepted for publication. (I am unable to find details of any of these, so I don't know if they were published using a pseudonym, or if they were published somewhere other than Australia. If anyone has any information, feel free to let me know in the comments section below.)

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Review: Autumn by Ali Smith

Autumn left me marvelling at its brilliance and wondering how on earth this shit got published. It's the story of a little girl and her friendship with an elderly neighbour, it's a story of a grown up woman visiting a dying man in a nursing home, it's the story of how one man escaped the holocaust and lived a long life in England, it's the story a nation in political turmoil, and it's something of a modern tribute to Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. In other words, this book is everything and nothing, it's brilliant and it's stupid, it's good enough to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize but, evidently, it was not good enough to win. 

And that's really it. Everything and nothing. Yet strangely addictive.

This may well be a book that needs to be read two or even three times to be appreciated.


Saturday, 11 November 2017

Rememberance Day: What Have You Learned Charlie Brown?

Lest we forget.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Friday Funnies: Realistic Garfield

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Review: The Last Long Drop by Mike Safe

Johno Harcourt is a seasoned journalist living in Sydney. Made redundant on Christmas Eve, he finds himself a little lost--he's the wrong side of fifty and the rest of his family, wife Tess and children Jack and Kirsten, are going from strength to strength with their own careers. He spends his days surfing and hanging around with his old mates until one day, the opportunity comes up to be the ghostwriter for the biography of Australia surfer/Hollywood legend Mike Vargas. Soon, Johno finds himself on a bigger adventure that he had counted on ...

This story is, essentially, about a man who defies the odds and finds a new path after he finds himself without steady employment. It's also a rollicking adventure featuring some mad keen surfers. I think this one will appeal very much to any reader, particularly an older male reader, who has found themselves at a bit of a crossroad and want that sense of hope, that it is possible for life to begin again after a redundancy. I felt that the author rambled sometimes and it took a little while for the story to get moving, but on the whole the story was entertaining enough.


Thank you to Ventura Press for my review copy.

This book was read as part of the Aussie Author Challenge 2017

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Review: It's Yr Life by Tempany Deckert & Tristan Bancks

Sim and Milla are as different as two teenagers can be. Sim lives in Byron Bay with his foster family who spend their evenings dumpster diving for food. Milla lives in California with her rich and famous parents. When the pair are forced to email one another for a school assignment, they discover that they may have something in common--each has a dark secret, and they both just might be able to help one another ...

This was an entertaining read, told from the duel perspective of two kids who appear to be quite different on the surface. The early interactions between Milla and Sim were extremely amusing, particularly as each one was keen to assert themselves. Over time a genuinely friendship develops, so much so that Sim becomes the one person that Milla can confide in--and it turns out that her problems are pretty serious, though believable. Parts of Sim's family story are quite gross, but in a way that is more amusing than offensive. It's interesting to watch the characters grow and discover just how much they have in common. (On that, the irony of their names wasn't lost on me, Sim & Milla.)

Overall, this is an enjoyable YA read that kept me entertained and, occasionally, guessing.

Highly recommended.

This book was read as part of the Aussie Author Challenge 2017

Monday, 6 November 2017

Around Adelaide (Best of Kathryn's Instagram)

A post shared by Kathryn White (@kathrynsinbox) on

I spotted this tram mural in Adelaide recently. It pays tribute to the old H-Class trams that ran along the route for many years. New trams were purchased in 2007 when the line was extended and the H-Class trams were reduced to special historic weekend services before eventually being decommissioned.  Some of the trams now live at the St Kilda Tram museum, while another is on permanent display at Glenelg. 

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Review: Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

While Rebecca, or My Cousin Rachel, or even her short story The Birds may get all the fame, Jamaica Inn is most certainly Daphne du Maurier's finest novels. A gothic romance of innocence lost, it tells the story of Mary Yellan, a young woman sent to live with her aunt and her aunt's abusive husband in Jamaica Inn. The hotel is a front for such terrible criminal activity that no one even dares speak of it. What Mary uncovers at Jamaica Inn is so terrible that she will never be the same again. 

This is a page turning novel of murder, greed and innocence lost. It is difficult not to get caught up in the flowery prose and twist upon twist as Mary uncovers murders, thefts and shipwrecks and learns some painful lessons about what makes a good man. Like many gothic novels, a theme or two is lifted out of the works of the Bronte sisters, but the story works better for it. The author has a solid understanding of male-female politics, which adds a pleasing level of depth to the plot as Mary struggles with a sense of self versus her feelings for Jem--a horse thief who though dishonourable and rude, may also be the one man who truly cares what happens to Mary. 

Overall, Jamaica Inn is an entertaining read that stands up just as well today as it did when it was published eighty years ago.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

The Great ...

I'll just leave this here ...