Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Review: No Small Shame by Christine Bell

Written with heart and a whole lot of empathy, No Small Shame is the story of Mary O'Donnell, a young woman who is growing up in poverty in Scotland. She and her childhood friend Liam desperately want to better themselves. And, it seems, that opportunity may come their way when each of their families is offered the opportunity to come to Australia. But life in Australia in the period leading up to the first world war is tough, much tougher than any of them imagined. And though brave, Mary remains wilfully blind to Liam's many faults until the pair find themselves forced into an unhappy marriage by their strict Catholic families. But when Liam leaves to fight in the war, Mary finds happiness with Tom, a Protestant who her family will never approve of. Can she find the courage to be with the man she truly loves, or will the misguided sense of shame placed upon her by her family put an end to it all?

This is a story of choices, consequences and second chances that will ultimately tick all the right boxes for lovers of Australian historical fiction. In some ways, the story reminded me a little of Not Only in Stone by Phyllis Somerville though No Small Shame is set mostly in Victoria. I enjoyed reading this one, in particular its gritty portrayal of life in Australia and the harsh realities that Mary had to face--something that is all too real for many women. It also highlights the experiences of those who returned from the war, who were more or less expected to just return to their previous lives, in spite of the many horrors and hardships they had faced.The religious conflict was an interesting touch, though my sympathies certainly stayed with Tom. 

Recommended. 

Thank you to Ventura Press for my copy of No Small Shame. 

This book was read as part of the Aussie Author Challenge 2020. 

Saturday, 28 March 2020

Review: El Deafo by Cece Bell

At age four Cece Bell suffered a bout of meningitis that led to severe hearing loss. Equipped with the latest in 1970s technology hearing aid, she spent a year at a school where everyone in her class was deaf, before her family moved to a new town, and she found herself being the only kid with a hearing aid in her neighbourhood and at her school. El Deafo is her story of how she eventually found acceptance--and a kind of super power--at a school where she was different. And the best bit? This memoir is told as a graphic novel, with all of the characters as rabbits. (And they're pretty darn cute.)

Although intended for primary school aged children, this book can be read and appreciated by a wider audience. It highlights the problems that children with hearing aids encounter on a daily basis: people shouting at them, careless teachers, bullies, muddled attempts at kindness from kids who don't understand, and a sense that they are different from other kids. It's a great reminder (or way to learn) about the differences that exist in our community and what we can do that would genuinely help someone else to fit in.

El Deafo was selected as a Newberry Honor Book and it is not difficult to see why.

Highly recommended.

Friday, 27 March 2020

Curiosity Show: King Solomon's Circles



Another brilliant clip from the Curiosity Show. Check out their brilliant channel on YouTube

Thursday, 26 March 2020

Review: Gulliver's Wife by Lauren Chater

Australian author Lauren Chater takes Gulliver's Travels and gives it a new and interesting twist in Gulliver's Wife. Mary Gulliver and Bess Gulliver take centre stage in a story about what it really means to be a woman in 18th century England, particularly when they have been abandoned by a fanciful husband and father who seems to care more about his supposed adventures than he does for his wife and daughter. Life is tough, particularly when they don't have money and have been let down time and time again by the person who is supposed to care and look out for them--even if Bess doesn't quite understand that yet. Mary is strong and resourceful, and trained as a midwife. But when Lemuel Gulliver returns both Mary and Bess find their world turned upside down. And from there, things only take a turn for the worse.

This is a story of survival, and what it means to be a woman in a time when women had no power--and what little they did have in the world could be so very easily snatched away. After all, a number of young women in the town are being attacked, leaving Mary to fear for Bess. Meanwhile, Mary's own profession is in jeopardy with a push for forceps births and male midwives gaining momentum. And then there is the fact that Lemuel keeps babbling stories about little people that are unbelievable and Mary is doing her best to keep him quiet, lest he threaten her reputation. 

The author highlights the struggles and powerlessness faced by Mary and Bess well, as well as showing the complexities in their mother-daughter relationship. I was also extremely impressed by the level of research by the author. 

Gulliver's Wife is Lauren Chater's second novel and will no doubt be well received by anyone who loved The Lace Weaver. 

Thank you to Simon and Schuster Australia for my ARC of Gulliver's Wife.

This book was read as part of the Aussie Author Challenge 2020.

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

1990s Nostalgia: Little Miss Can't be Wrong by Spin Doctors




Sharing, because this one is a great song, and such an awesome early 90s clip. And ... paint!

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Review: The Family Law by Benjamin Law

Many Australians will be familiar with The Family Law thanks to the recent SBS TV series. This is the book that inspired the series--a memoir of growing up on the Sunshine Coast as the middle of five children to parents who had emigrated to Australia from Hong Kong. Laced with a little crude humour, this one tells the story of the family's many ups and downs as they navigate their way through life.

This was an enjoyable light read that never takes itself too seriously. Anyone who is easily shocked or offended, or who thinks that people should conform to certain stereotypes, will probably be very upset by this book, in particular, Law's portrayal of his mother whose language is often blunt, though full of some very colourful descriptions of certain facts of life. For the rest of us, it makes for a bloody entertaining read. (At one point, Law describes how his mother decided that the C-word was the perfect word to use to describe anyone she does not like.) Although, quite honestly, the part I enjoyed most was Law's description of the sex education class he had at school--and how he unintentionally ruined the sex ed book his teacher had borrowed from the school library. (That would have been one traumatic trip back to the library.)

An entertaining read about growing up in Australia.

Recommended.

This book was read as part of the Aussie Author Challenge 2020


Sunday, 22 March 2020

Off Topic: Drop Dead ... Beethoven

I have no idea how the subject came up, but recently I was talking with a friend about what were the worst movies of all time. You know those movies that everyone has seen, but no one will ever admit to watching voluntary from beginning to end, except as a vomit enducing experiment to see just how bad the movie can possibly be. The usual suspects came up; Howard the Duck, Fifty Shades of Grey, Superman IV.

And then my friend mentioned a film that unintentionally left me psychologically scarred for life.


Yes, Beethoven.

Released in 1992, Beethoven is a Hollywood flick about a family who adopt a cute St Bernard puppy who soon grows up to be a big and boisterous dog who is loved by all, except for the grouchy, workaholic dad whose schemes to get rid of him ultimately fail. I'm willing to admit, it isn't a terrible movie. The film has its moments, in a cutesy kind of way, and, it was successful enough for it to spawn about half a zillion direct-to-video sequels. 

Nothing too offensive, right?

Wrong.

When I was eleven years old, I learned that Beethoven can be used as a surprising guerrilla warfare tactic by enterprising adults. This happened at just about the point where the school year was coming to an end. As is the case at most primary schools across the nation, now and back then, not much learning gets done in the final few weeks of school. Those weeks are usually about excursions, perhaps Sports Day or a camp, rehearsals for the Christmas concert and making entirely impractical and useless Christmas gifts for parents and grandparents. That particular year, however, our school had a special gala day in November, and everyone was a little bit over crummy, handcrafted useless goods, and so our teachers had to think of a new activity. 

And so, our class teacher and the teacher of the other grade five class came up with an idea.

On Friday afternoon, we could watch a video. And this time, it wasn't to be an educational film. It would be an actual movie. And more exciting still, was that every class member could nominate a movie. The teachers would go up to Kevin's Shop (a deli next door to the school that had a small but popular video hire service,) and reserve the winning title. We were all pretty excited.

The nominations came flying in and eventually there was a three way tie between Home Alone, My Girl and Drop Dead Fred, the last two being new releases. No one had seen My Girl yet, but we assumed that it must be cool because it starred a girl who was about our age who had Macauley Culkin for a sidekick and Drop Dead Fred, with its title, and the fact that it starred Rik Mayall from The Young Ones was ticking all the right boxes. Eventually, after some debate, the tie was broken. Drop Dead Fred was declared the winner and the teachers promised that a copy would promptly be reserved. Our class teacher had a few reservations of her own about the film, but it had been declared the winner, and she was expected to be a good sport about it all. 

On Friday afternoon, approximately fifty excited kids, myself among them, made their way upstairs to the school library, where the school's one and only video and television were located. The time had come to watch our chosen flick, a silly, slapstick comedy about a woman and her troublemaking imaginary friend. 

We sat down, watched as my teacher opened her bag. Out came of a copy of Beethoven. 


Yep. Beethoven. Not Drop Dead Fred, the movie we had all agreed on, but Beethoven. According to our teacher, when she went to Kevin's Shop that morning, she had accidentally picked up the wrong video. And this was all well and good until I asked her how she could have possibly picked up the wrong video from the shelves when Kevin had a copy of Drop Dead Fred and I found my name written in neat script on the library chalkboard with a tick next to it. 

This was the one and only time at primary school that I ever had a "warning." 


And it was all thanks to Beethoven.

I really don't care that Drop Dead Fred is technically considered a worse film than Beethoven. I don't care that Drop Dead Fred has a rating of just 9% on Rotten Tomatoes than Beethoven. There is nothing, absolutely nothing more disappointing than being eleven years old and excited to watch Drop Dead Fred and being forced to sit through Beethoven instead, whilst suffering the indignity of having your name written on the chalkboard for all to see. It's the kind of stuff that will scar a kid for life. Well, that and the fact that our teacher flat out lied to us. She didn't even try to make her lie plausible, by accidentally picking up Home Alone, which one third of the kids in year five had voted on and would probably have watched without complaint.  

And for that reason I have always associated Beethoven with the fact that like the grumpy old dad who tries to sell the family's Saint Bernard to people with less than noble purposes, some people just cannot be trusted.

Saturday, 21 March 2020

Review: Esio Trot by Roald Dahl

Esio Trot was the very last Roald Dahl book to be published in the author's lifetime, and though a little short and a tiny bit sexist by contemporary standards, it is no less entertaining. Esio Trot which the author tells us is set some time ago, when anyone in England could go down to the local pet shop and buy a tortoise. Anyway, the story focuses on Mr Hoppy, a retired mechanic who spends most of his days pining for the lovely but emotionally unavailable Mrs Silver--while he really loves her, she only has eyes for Alfie, her pet tortoise. Mrs Silver, who would appear to know very little about the lifespan of a tortoise, wants little Alfie to grow and suddenly Mr Hoppy thinks that he might have a novel solution--and that he might just be able to find a way in to Mrs Silver's heart after all.

This was a quick and entertaining read. Though intended for children, this one is suitable for readers of all ages. Parts of the story are a little sexist (it seems a tad unbelievable that Mrs Silver could be quite so stupid,) but the whole thing is entertaining enough for the readers to look past its faults, especially when one considers that it was published in 1990. (Pleasingly, the film starring Dustin Hoffman and Judi Dench addresses this problem in a believable and amusing way.)

Ultimately, this one is a lot of fun and the humour far outweighs its faults.

Highly recommended.

Friday, 20 March 2020

Kathryn's Random Trivia



Random Trivia: It is estimated that 150 people live inside the exclusion zone in Chernobyl.

Source: BBC News


Thursday, 19 March 2020

DO THE HUSTLE - Van Mc Coy (HIGH QUALITY)



Sharing, because sometimes we all need happy, cheery things.

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Review: Danger Music by Eddie Ayres

ABC Classic FM radio host Eddie Ayres has had many wonderful experiences with music across the world, from first learning to play the viola in England to playing with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra to eventually being a host on ABC Classic FM. And if that name sounds a little unfamiliar to you, it is because at the time when Eddie did all of those things, he was known as Emma.

Danger Music tells of Eddie's year of travelling to Afghanistan to teach music, a year in which he would make many important discoveries about people and resilience, before looking inward and making an important discovery about himself.

This is an entertaining read, about someone brave enough not only to visit a beautiful country that has been ruined by war, but to do their best to bring the children there joy and to give them the skills to play music--something that will help them bring joy to many others. It is also the story of an important self discovery.

More than just a travel biography, this is the story of the healing power of music.

Recommended.

This book was read as part of the Aussie Author Challenge 2020.

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

Review: I Choose Elena by Lucia Osborne-Crowley

It had never occurred to me that my physical ailments, all appearing in the same part of me, at the same time, could have a common cause. ~ I Choose Elena, page 30

At age fifteen, Lucia Osborne-Crowley faced many women's worst nightmare--she was violently raped at knifepoint by a complete stranger in a public toilet on a night out. Afterward, she told no one what had happened, and tried to push the incident to the back of her mind. Her body had other ideas, and she suffered through many years of pain, and with little useful help from the medical profession. Eventually, though, she began to find comfort in books--thanks to authors like Elena Ferrante--and was finally able to tell her story and to find resilience in the face of trauma. 

There is no doubt about it. This is a harrowing story and may trigger many readers. It is also an important one--of a young woman who was on track for huge career as a gymnast, only to have that cruelly snatched away. It is also the story of the aftermath, of how the body remembers trauma and how the credibility of women is often questioned by the medical profession. It is also the story of the healing power of books, and the importance of one's own story.

Heartbreaking, but important.

Recommended

This book was read as part of the Aussie Author Challenge 2020 

Monday, 16 March 2020

Sunday, 15 March 2020

Review: Best Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham

Picking up where Real Friends left off Best Friends sees Shannon starting sixth grade as a part of the in-crowd, and as the best friend of Jen, the most popular girl in the school. Unfortunately, sixth grade is still full of problems--among the group there are rules that seem to change constantly, and plenty of spying and backstabbing. Shannon finds herself caught between two worlds, of wanting to be loyal to the lessons she learned about being the good kind of popular kid, who lifts others up, and wanting to be loyal and accepted by her group of friends. Eventually, after some humiliating life lessons she finds herself at a crossroads. And maybe, just maybe this time she will be able to make the right decision.

This was an entertaining but heartbreaking graphic novel. Although intended for middle grade readers, plenty of adults will find Shannon's situation relatable as this sensitive pre-teen struggles against the tide of mental illness, changing friendships and peer group pressure. There are also some sections devoted to the book that Shannon was working on as an eleven year old--the story isn't that interesting, however, the fact that a young woman from a tight Mormon community who was more or less taught that women could only aspire to be school teachers or mothers, is pretty noteworthy in itself. (As is older sister Wendy's journey to work as a model in LA.) 

Best Friends is a great read for any kid who is experiencing uncertainties with changing friendships or peer group pressure. I found the ending empowering and I hope that other readers (especially ones in the target audience) do as well.

Highly recommended.

Saturday, 14 March 2020

Review: Conjuror by John and Carole Barrowman

Remy is a Conjuror, who is able to create things just by playing his harmonica. Unfortunately, this skill means that he is on the run ... and also vengeful against those who killed his beloved mother who possessed the same skill. To do so, however, he will need to team up with Matt and Em Calder, twins who time travel through famous works of art. But what evil forces will they be up against as they search for the truth?

This was an entertaining read, perfect for readers who are transitioning from middle grade to YA. I found myself enjoying Remy's story more than that of Matt and Em, and felt that I had missed some crucial details about their lives. After finishing the novel, however, I discovered that the authors had previously written a trilogy featuring Matt and Em, which helped certain parts of the story make more sense.

Conjuror is the first instalment in the Orion Chronicles. Oh, by the way, if the names of one of the authors sounds familiar, it could be because John Barrowman plays Captain Jack in Doctor Who and Torchwood. His co-author and sister, Carole, is a creative writing teacher at a university in Wisconsin.

Thursday, 12 March 2020

Review: Code Name Hélène by Ariel Lawhon

Author Ariel Lawhon takes the remarkable life and achievements of war hero Nancy Wake and spins them into an utterly addictive story of a marriage, wartime and fighting back against injustice. Two parallel storylines make up this novel. The first is of Wake's time in France as a freelance journalist and her meeting and eventual marriage to Henry Fiocca, a man who refused to reveal her whereabouts to the Gestapo right up to the end. The second tells of her arrival in Occupied France by parachute in 1944 and her important role within the French Resistance which helped to save the life of thousands. 

The author portrays Nancy Wake as a plucky young woman determined not to sit on the sidelines while there are so many grave injustices happening all around her. It is also the story of a marriage--of two people so devoted to one another that even arrest, drawn out torture and the threat of imminent execution cannot break up. The prose is addictive, with plenty of cliffhanger chapter endings and descriptions of dangerous situations. Consequently, I found myself reading 'just one more chapter' until the book was unexpectedly finished a little after one in the morning.

My only real grumble with this one is that the occasional bit of American slang creeps in, though it is not enough to ruin the flow or authenticity of the story.

Anyway, this one is a ripping read, based on the life of a truly remarkable and awe inspiring woman.

Thank you to Simon and Schuster Australia for my copy of Code Name Hélène.

Wednesday, 11 March 2020

Review: Everything I Know About Writing by John Marsden

Intended for teenagers and originally published in 1993 (though later updated) Everything I Know About Writing is an honest and reliable how-to guide for aspiring writers. Marsden uses his experiences as a writer and an English teacher to bust apart many popular writing myths (i.e. write what you know, use creative dialogue tags,) and gives practical advice about the use of language, how to show not tell, and how to use short but effective sentences. The final third of the novel is devoted to a range of creative writing exercises, giving readers/budding writers an opportunity to hone their skills. 

There are also some excerpts from Marsden's novels. The cover is, unfortunately, rather dated, featuring a floppy disk with a label that looks as though it was printed on a typewriter, which may make an otherwise useful book seem old fashioned and, perhaps, difficult for the target audience to relate to. Then again



With an improved cover, this one would make a perfect gift for any budding young author. 

Recommended.

This book was read as part of the Aussie Author Challenge 2020

Saturday, 7 March 2020

Happy Birthday Karen Brewer!

Here's a thought. Thirty years ago today, the Baby-Sitters Little Sister book Karen's Birthday was released. And if Karen Brewer, star of the series aged in real time, that would make her thirty-seven years old.

And this begs the question: What would Karen be doing now?

In the series, Karen was an outgoing and outgoing and imaginative, child with a keen interest in Literature and the Arts. She was a child prodigy, and was skipped a grade in elementary school and later came second in a state wide spelling bee. 

And so, here's my theory:

As she grew older, Karen's status as a child prodigy continued. She excelled at school, and, thanks to Watson Brewer's fortune, was able to attend some of the most prestigious schools in Stoneybrook. She made the most of every opportunity and excelled any subject that involved literature and the arts. However, as Karen matured, she was able to reflect on both the positives and negatives experiences of coming from a blended family, and began to think of ways that she may be able to help kids who faced similar experiences.

Karen was accepted at Harvard University. While there, she was an active member of the drama society. She later traveled to England and studied for a PhD in English Literature at Oxford University, where she was a member of the Oxford Revue. 

Upon her graduation and return to the United States, Karen realised that her heart lay with helping children. She trained as a child psychologist and now runs her own clinic in Stamford, Connecticut. The distance between Stamford and Stoneybrook means that she can visit both of her parents and families more often. It also means that she can travel easily to New York, where she can visit her brother Andrew, who is an editor at a major publishing house. She also loves visiting her stepsister Kristy, who is now the Mayor of Stoneybrook, and her adopted sister Emily Michelle, who is a social worker. She frequently argues with her stepbrothers Charlie, Sam and David Michael on facebook, but the arguments are usually friendly.

Karen has no significant other and is an active member of the local asexual community. 

Thursday, 5 March 2020

Review: Penny Nichols by MK Reed, Greg Means and Matt Wiegle

Penny Nichols never really wanted to be well ... anything. And maybe that explains why, at age twenty-six, she has found herself working a series of unfulfilling temp jobs and with no social life, well, apart from the occasional baby-sitting job and blind dates with wholly unsuitable men. But when the opportunity comes up to work on an amateur slasher movie, Penny grabs it and soon realises that this is where she is meant to be.

This was an entertaining graphic novel, about a woman struggling with her lack of ambition and the expectations of others. The film crew make for entertaining side characters, as does Penny's overbearing sister. The illustrations are entertaining, though I was a little surprised by the size of Penny's thigh gap, especially considering her otherwise realistic figure. The moral to the story--of finding what you love and sticking with it--is a sound one and there are some truly inspiring moments.

Recommended.

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Review: Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe

Dark Emu presents a convincing argument that the hunter-gather tag often given to pre-colonial Aboriginal Australian's is fundamentally false. Presented in an academic but accessible way, Pascoe's arguments delves into numerous historical records to prove that Aboriginal people did work they land, harvested their grains, constructed dams and many other things that are often overlooked. This is a very real glimpse into how people worked the lands before European settlement.

Well-researched and highly educational, this is a book that should be placed in the hands of every Australian high school student to encourage them to think more about the land and to know more about the traditional owners.

Highly recommended.

This book was read as part of the Aussie Author Challenge 2020

Tuesday, 3 March 2020

Review: On John Marsden by Alice Pung

After a brilliant session at Adelaide Writers' Week last Saturday, where Alice Pung spoke with John Marsden, I just knew that I had get my hands on a copy of this short but brilliant book in which Alice Pung speaks about how she has been influenced by John Marsden's work.

Pung's story of how growing up in Melbourne, she found inspiration Marsden's work--the harsh realities faced by many of his characters from teenagers who are in jail (Letter's From the Inside, Dear Miffy,) to how Ellie and her friends use their ingenuity to help stop an invading military force (Tomorrow When the War Began,) is almost immediately relatable. After all, there is something brutal--and painfully real--about Marsden's characters, whether they, like Tracey in Letters From the Inside are in juvenile detention with no hope of release any time soon or who, like her penpal Mandy come from a seemingly respectable middle class family who refuse to address eldest son Steve's obsession with guns and violence. What was also pleasing, however, was to see that Pung's own experiences with the author and his work were different to my own--even when we had shared similar reactions to the stories.

Highly recommended to fans of both authors.

On John Marsden is short enough to be read in a single sitting. It forms a part of Black Inc's Writers on Writer's series.

This book was read as part of the Aussie Author Challenge 2020.