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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Take One Of Three Girls: An Interview With Simmone Howell!

A few weeks ago, I received an invitation from the publicist at Pan Macmillan to do an interview regarding the new novel, Take Three Girls, a collaboration by three of this country's top YA novelists. I have yet to read a novel by any of them that I didn't enjoy, so of course, the answer was a glad cry of, "Yes! Absolutely!"

As Cath and Fiona had both appeared on this blog, both in review and interview posts, we decided that Simmone Howell should be the third girl of this trio on The Great Raven. And very welcome she is, too! Simmone says she remembers us meeting at what I think must have been a Booktalkers event at the State Library, back when they were doing these wonderful sessions. 

Anyone remember a British TV series with the same name? It was about three young women living together in London. No connection except the title(though I keep hearing the folk rock group Pentangle singing the theme tune, Light Flight, in my head...)

The three young women in this novel, Clem, Kate and Ady,  attend a boarding school in one of Melbourne's posher suburbs. Clem is an athlete who is losing interest in sport. Kate is a musician from the bush, a hugely talented cellist who has come to the city for her music and is preparing both for a scholarship exam that will let her remain at the school and an audition for a scholarship that will let her go to Finland for her cello playing. Ady, a gifted dress designer, is not a boarder and, due to family issues, might have to leave the school at the end of term. The three form an unlikely friendship. They all have their own problems, including an on line forum, Psst, which is a nasty gossip column along the lines of such web sites mentioned recently in the news, connected with a private boys' school in Melbourne. But these girls refuse to be victims...

So, without further ado, I'd like to welcome Simmone Howell to my blog. 

A basic question to start with: who got the idea for this novel? And whose idea was it to make it a collaboration?

We actually cant recall who thought of it. But once it was suggested we all went YES! The idea went collaboration first, story next. As soon as we knew we were going to do it we spent some time thinking about what we all really wanted to write about - the main thing being friendship, and unlikely friendship within a school - with the school with its heirarchies and posturing and lies and bureaucracy being like a microcosm of the world.

How did the three of you work on this? For example, was it planned out together, then perhaps you each worked on your separate bits? 

Exactly that way. We each created a character and then had mutual plotting sessions around a big table with a whiteboard, then wed go off and write our chapters, then re-meet, read, discuss, repeat.

I'm guessing that each of you created and worked on a separate leading character - am I right? If so, who was yours? What did you have in mind when you created her? 

My character was Clem. I had a few people in mind. It was the early stages of(US TV series) Girls and I loved watching Lena Dunham run riot over our screens - and I loved the idea of a character who maybe didnt know what she wanted eventually but could be passionate in the moment. I was also drawing on aspects of my teenage life, in particular my thoughts around boys and self-esteem.

The novel is centred around life in a boarding school - is this part of your experience or the experience of Cath or Fiona? If not, how did you research it? 

None of us went to a boarding school. I always wanted to (too much Mallory Towers). I did however go to a Catholic girls' school for some of my high school years, where I was a late arrival and never felt quite right. We all do a lot of school visits and residencies, so it wasnt so much research as experience.

Clem and Iris are twins who had once been close. I don't think we ever found out why they had lost this closeness. Thoughts on this? 

Clems reasons might have ended up on the cutting room floor. But it was nearly completely clear cut. I think just sibling rivalry, each one feeling like the other was more loved by their parents - their parents seeming not  to have enough time for them, and then familiarity breeding contempt. I think for some people having siblings is an empowering experience, where for others it just serves to make them feel more lonely.

In fact, there were one or two other ends that were left untied - if you can answer this without too much spoiler, was this deliberate? 

None of us is a fan of the tied-up-with-a-nice-bow ending. We wanted the book to feel realistic, and for people to imagine the characters being friends off the page into the future.

Is this novel very like or very different from your other work? In what ways?

I think its a bit different as theres one main idea to Clem. In my other books I have a lot more time and space to develop with secondary characters and storylines. Its closest in tone to Everything Beautiful - Riley Rose is also a fat and feisty character - a girl who wants to eat the world. The main characters from my other books are more introspective and ideas-y.

I see that before you turned to YA you wrote a lot of short stories - what made you decide to have a go at YA fiction? 

I was told that my no one was ever going to publish my collection of short stories (because it was indeed a collection by then) unless I also had a novel … And now writing novels seems easier, even though they take me ages and ages.

Are you working on something at the moment? 

I am working on a YA book thats set in San Francisco … and a memoir filtered through my formative film, music, and literary influences. And Ive got two half-written things all shiny in the corner of my eye but Im doing my best to ignore them!

I'm looking forward to reading your  new YA novel when completed and, some time, those two shiny things! Thanks for visiting, Simmone.

If you'd like to check out the author, further, Simmone has a web site here.

To buy the book, it should be available in Australia at all good bookshops. You can also buy it on line. Here are a few suggestions:

It's available in both ebook and print copy at Booktopia, in Kindle edition at Amazon, or in ePub on iBooks. 

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Music And Memories

Tonight my mother and I went out to dinner in a local restaurant, something we do most weeks, though not always the same place.

This time, there was music in the background. I don't much care for restaurants with music; I like to eat in peace and have conversations with my eating companion. But this time the music was the Beachboys and suddenly I was taken back to my teens.

My friend Denise and I used to go to St Kilda beach every summer, and Denise would bring with her two things: a transistor radio(yes, that's how long ago it was!) and reading matter. Quite often the music coming from the transistor was that of the Beachboys. My strongest memory is of "Good Vibrations".

And along with that are the books and magazines she shared with me. Denise and her family owned a boarding house, where boarders came and went. Sometimes they left soft drink bottles, for which, in those days, you got a deposit, which we used to buy comics and ice cream. That was, of course, in our primary school years, and I loved it, because my mother wouldn't let me have comics at home.

But by my teens, we were reading other stuff. Sometimes the boarders left books and magazines - speculative fiction books, SF magazines. Denise would read aloud so I could share them. I discovered Robert Bloch in the magazines. I can't even remember the titles of those short stories, but I do remember the stories themselves, and mentioning this to Mr Bloch years later, when he was in Melbourne for a convention. There was a story, for example, in which an old movie extra, who had lost a girlfriend during the silent era, kept seeing her in films she had never been in, seeing her wave at him, and received a note from her from the other side, explaining what was happening. He was telling someone else about it, then died himself - and turned up in the movie Intolerance, with his girlfriend, waving at the narrator. We shared that story on the beach.

And I encountered my first Robert Heinlein book. One summer, Denise got a copy of Stranger In A Strange Land, left behind by a boarder, and read it to me by the sea... I did eventually borrow it and read it fully, but my first memory of it is in the heat of summer, sitting on a beach towel with my friend, in between swims...

Who would have thought that a couple of Beachboys songs would bring back book memories?

Monday, September 04, 2017

Final Day At The Writers Festival!

Well, I went, as planned. But I left later than intended, so missed those 11.30 sessions I was debating with myself about attending - the one with John Safran? The one with father and daughter team Thomas and Meg Keneally? I had opted, in the end, for the Keneally session, but it was too late - I reached the city about twenty minutes too late for either session. My own fault, I was a bit slack.

However, I was glad in the end - I at least downloaded the new Safran book and bought Volume 1 of the joint historical crime series by father and daughter Keneally, and was just in time to have it signed by both authors. Mr K, about to pack up for lunch with his daughter's publisher, promised to wait till I returned from the book stall. Very nice they both were, and they expressed genuine interest when I mentioned I had a book blog. I grabbed a pen and envelope and wrote down the URL, and will be reviewing the book when I've finished. I've started and am enjoying it so far. It seems to be a murder mystery set in the Port Macquarie penal settlement. Lovely!

So, why am I glad? Well, before I left home, my nephew David rang to wish me happy birthday and told me that his brother, Mark, would be going with his delightful family to the Harry Potter event. His elder son, Eden, is reading the series now. He is eight years old and is nearly finished Goblet Of Fire! I've told him he is getting a copy of The Hobbit from me when he has finished the series. If he can read a YA novel like Goblet, he can certainly handle The Hobbit.

So, both boys wore a bit of basic costume, although Jonah didn't want to participate in the costume parade. There were trivia questions from the stage - Eden did put his hand up, but was never chosen. Still, he had a great time and he did get a chance to be "sorted" by the lovely Sonia Palmisano from Bloomsbury, who gave me a hug. Eden is a Ravenclaw(he plays the piano).

After it was over, they left. I had lunch, then returned for my one and only session, which was about the LoveOzYa anthology. There were five authors, including the editor, Danielle Binks. There was Alice Pung, Amie Kaufman, Melissa Keil and Ellie Marney, whose short story was actually based on a chunk she had chopped out of her first novel about the youthful Holmes and Watson-type characters. I bought two copies, one for me and one for the library, because young Raiesah of Year 8 had asked for it. "All those great authors!" she enthused.

I've read the first story, "One Small Step" by Amie Kaufmann, who explained yesterday that she had got the idea from two sources: firstly, from overhearing some Year 12 students talking about what they wanted to apply for as opposed to what their parents wanted, and secondly from the story of the world's first IVF baby, who had had to put up with the whole world  wanting to know about milestones in her life. It's about the first baby born on Mars, now seventeen and having to share her life with the entire population of Earth. Oh, and she falls in love with another girl, her best friend.

I've just started the next story, which is by Will Kostakis. Will wasn't part of that panel, though. It was all female. In fact, eight of the ten stories in the anthology are by women - the other man is Michael Pryor. However, the purpose of the anthology, as Danielle Binks explained, was that in the ALIA survey of most-borrowed books in Aussie libraries, only two out of the top ten YA books were by Australians. So this one is for Aussie voices, though of course, they have every respect for overseas work. Last year, we were told glumly, not one of the top ten were local.

I'm hoping to read the whole book this week, so I can suggest it for next year's English text. The stories are unfortunately a bit long for "short story" work, but so far, quite readable and not too dreadfully hard for our weaker readers. And there seems to be a variety of genres, which is good.

Anyway, a nice day out! 

Saturday, September 02, 2017

September 3 - Happy Birthday To Me... And Andy G!

I woke up this morning to a personalised Google Doodle, with birthday candles, so thought I might as well post about it. This is my official birthday, the one on my birth certificate but I believe my real birthday is September 4, because I was definitely born on a Friday and the year I was born September 3 was a Thursday. September 4 has a lot more interesting and positive stuff about it than the 3rd, and I've posted about that too(and September 5, the birthday of the delightful Kate Constable, YA author, who, I think, shares a birthday with historical romance novelist Frank Yerby, or maybe Joan Aiken...?).

However, here I am, and I will be shouting myself at least one session at the MWF later today, to celebrate. If nothing else, I'll enjoy the Harry Potter day. Friday was the day when, according to The Deathly Hallows, Harry Potter saw his son Albus off to Hogwarts, so they're having fun with a Harry Potter theme today.

BUT there's Kiwi SF author Cherry Wilder and I also share a natal day with Andy Griffiths! Yes, THAT Andy Griffiths, author of so much fiction that has delighted young children and even teenagers in Australia and other countries. I think his novel The Day My Bum Went Psycho had to be retitled The Day My Butt Went Psycho in the U.S. because over there "bum" means "tramp", not "backside" as it does here.  Oh, well. Happy birthday, Andy! Lots of cake and other delicious stuff for you.

I hadn't heard of most of the "famous people" with whom I share a birthday, or if I had, I hadn't read any of their work. The guy who invented the safety match was born On This Day, but he never made any money out if it because it was too damned expensive for most people. Interesting, really. I have always thought it was women who invented most of the ordinary everyday things which we take for granted but wouldn't consider doing without. A man invents this and can't sell it!

Apart from Andy G, most of the writers were people I was unfamiliar with, and the "famous birthdays" web site included some bloggers, for goodness' sake! Anyone on the list 25 years old or less was a blogger. And not even a book or political blogger, generally a lifestyle blogger! That seems to be how you get famous these days. ;-)

Not a lot of positive stuff happened on September 3 - battles, massacres and such for the most part. But Viking 2 reached Mars On This Day.

It was also the birthday of the world's first daily newspaper - September 3, 1833. That was the New York Sun, which operated until 1950. There is an on line paper of that name now. 

Here in Australia it is National Flag Day, commemorating the first time our flag flew, back in 1901,when Australia became a federation. They ran a flag competition and the one we have now is the design that won.

I see that in the U.S. it is National Welsh Rarebit Day, so enjoy your cheese toasties, my American friends! 

It's the birthday of San Marino, the world's oldest republic. The founder was St Marinus. Happy birthday, San Marino! 

Thursday, August 31, 2017

My Students Meet Morris Gleitzman! At the MWF...

On Monday I took nineteen students to the Melbourne Writers' Festival, where they were going to hear Morris Gleitzman speak about his Once series. It would have been twenty, but young Kim, who is a huge fan of the series, suddenly had to go with her family to Vietnam. She had been so looking forward to it. There wasn't time to invite another student to go in her place. I ended up buying her a copy of the newest novel in the series - Maybe - and getting him to sign it for her.

We had been planning this since July. My original plan had been to take them to Reading Matters, but it sold out before we could get the numbers, so we went to the Festival instead.

The kids were wonderful. All of them who were going to be late rang me to let me know. One poor girl ended up having to walk all the way to the station because she didn't have a myki card. I gave her one of my spares, which I'd topped up, because there is always at least one student who either forgets to buy a card or to top up the one they have with money. That time there were three - and I had bought extra cards just in case.

And who should we meet on the train station platform but Natasha, one of my former book clubbers, now studying to be a teacher! Natasha ended up chatting to Taylor, a hugely book-loving student, so I left them to it, after a brief chat with Natasha.

Morris Gleitzman was a very good speaker, talking about his series in general and specifically about the new book, which I hadn't realised was out already. Kim will love this, I thought. one of my students, who hadn't read any of the books, admitted that "it was a bit boring" when I asked him how he had enjoyed the talk. But next day he told me that he had found Once in his literacy class's book box, started reading and was loving it. So in the end, he did get something out of it.

I had intended to text my friend George Ivanoff, who was going to be there, but there wasn't time. I stood near the book-signing queue and took photos for the school magazine. Morris was quite happy to have kids pose with him.

Not all the kids had money for a book and I ended up buying about three books for them, because I couldn't bear for them to miss out.  It was worth it to see those joyful looks as I handed them their copy. And then I thought, what the heck, I'll get a print copy for me, and I was the last to have a book signed that morning.

We went to lunch at the Melbourne Central food court and along the way to the court, I pointed out the Little Library. People donate books to it and you're supposed to take one and either return it or bring one. I will certainly be putting in some books soonish, but I doubt my students will. They pounced on the books with cries of joy - one of them even walked off happily with a Rick Riordan novel, one of the Magnus Chase ones rather than Percy Jackson.

They all returned to our meeting place on time and we returned to our station, where I dismissed them. 

It was a good day!

Thursday, August 17, 2017

A Visit From The Local Member

Earlier this year, we had a phone call from the office of the local Member of State Parliament, Marsha Thomson,  asking if we were doing the Premier's Reading Challenge.

As it happens, we were. This is the first time I've ever done it and I must say, I regret not having done it before. It's not like Reader's Cup, which is a lot of work and requires a lot of support from the staff. And it doesn't cost anything, just a bit of the librarian's time to set it up, encourage kids to get into it and make sure to verify completed books. The kids get a certificate from the Education Department afterwards. Not a huge prize, but if they're reading anyway, why not? And if not, well, it might get them started, encourage them to challenge themselves. We don't have that many this year, but enough for now. 

Here's how it works: between two set dates, the kids are required to read a minimum of fifteen books. Of those, at least ten must be from the Reading Challenge list, but that's okay - there are plenty to choose from. In fact, two of my books, Wolfborn and Your Cat Could Be A Spy, are on the list. How good is that, eh? I was hoping that there would be more kids finishing the challenge, so far only two and a couple more are just about there, but haven't marked their books online as finished. If I had it to do again, I would make sure everyone chose their own passwords right at the start, so they didn't have  to have troubles logging in. And I'd urge the staff to get it going as part of our literacy program.

Anyway, on to the local member! 

Apparently she was a great enthusiast of the Challenge and of reading and was planning to visit schools doing the Challenge to get kids interested. Would we like a visit? Well, I thought, a writer would be nicer than a politician, but a writer costs money I don't have and it could do no harm to have someone promote the Challenge. So I discussed it with my Principal, who agreed it would be a good thing, and we said yes. 

The lady came this week, on Tuesday. We panicked a little when the whole school had assembled in the library and nobody had arrived yet. I was just hunting for a Challenge book when she arrived with one of her staff members.

And I must admit, she did very well. She began with talking about reading in general, about her own reading and the book club they have in Parliament House. The kids were intrigued by the idea of having a book club in Parliament and what the politicians do up there. She was impressed to learn that there were boys in my book club, and also asked who was doing the Challenge. I did suggest that perhaps not everybody knew what the Challenge was, so she explained to the kids that it started in Victoria in Premier Steve Bracks' time and told them what it involved.

Question time came and there were quite a few hands up to ask questions. One book she mentioned was To Kill A Mockingbird, which I lent to one of my book clubbers next day. She said she was not a great fan of fantasy and that she was never going to read Harry Potter! She pretty much only reads adult books and likes biographies best.

Since then I have signed up another Reading Challenge student. There were other requests, but nobody turned up at lunchtime to do it, so I can only assume it was a case of "it seemed like a good idea at the time, but lunchtime is when I go out and kick a footy around."

Marsha had another school to visit, so we said farewell to her and she had her photo taken with some of the students. I gave her some of my bookmarks, of Wolfborn and Crime Time, telling her she could give it to the kids at her next school or keep it to distribute at her Parliament book club.

It went for just the right length of time; another few minutes and kids would have been fidgeting, but as it was, they enjoyed it.

Thank you, Marsha!

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Latest Brother Cadfael Re-Read: The Pilgrim Of Hate by Ellis Peters

Yet again I'm re-reading some of Ellis Peters' classic whodunnits. This one came off my shelves, but some of them are at Mum's place, including one I recently re-read, An Excellent Mystery

They are all set in twelfth century Shrewsbury, a sort of mediaeval Midsomer, where corpses turn up regularly and it's up to herbalist monk Brother Cadfael to use his forensic skills to find out how they died and who killed them. He does this with the help of his friend Hugh Beringar, the Sheriff of Shropshire. Has anyone noticed the trope of the amateur sleuth and his or her buddy the cop? Because really, that's what Hugh is. He may be in charge of the shire, which he holds and defends for King Stephen during the war between Stephen and Empress Maud, but in the end, he is also the local law enforcement officer, a kind of police chief, so it fits, really, doesn't it? Hugh is in this one.

Despite what I said about a mediaeval Midsomer, this author sometimes does something a little different. In one novel, there wasn't actually a murder at all, just a mystery, with a missing character everyone thinks must have been murdered. In The Pilgrim Of Hate, the murder took place offstage, before the story even begins. The victim was a knight of Empress Maud who was killed on the street in Winchester while defending a follower of King Stephen from attackers. Nobody knows who the killer was; he vanished into the dark streets. But Brother Cadfael works it out anyway, or this wouldn't be a mystery. 

Meanwhile, in Shrewsbury, the monks are preparing for a huge festival, the annual celebration of the arrival of the Welsh Saint Winifred, whose coffin was brought there four years ago from Wales during A Morbid Taste For Bones(but not her body, because Brother Cadfaeł did a switch to keep her in her home soil with the villagers who loved her). Pilgrims are flocking there for the party, some in hopes of miracles. Among them are a widow, her crippled nephew Rhun and his sister Melangell, and two young men who are on their way on foot to Wales. There is a mystery here(of course!) about the two men. As usual there is a sweet young couple whose love might not prosper. And Brother Cadfael's son, Olivier De Bretagne, whom we first met in The Virgin In The Ice turns up on a mission. And there's a miracle - actually, two, as far as Cadfael is concerned, the second being his chance to see his son again. 

I love this series! I love its gentleness and its worldbuilding. It brings mediaeval England to life, not to mention a small-town community. The Shrewsbury of the novels is real - I once found I could follow the old streets just by having read the author's descriptions. 

But in the end, people are people and learn from their mistakes - or don't...

If you haven't yet read any of these wonderful books, you've been missing out - go read!