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Friday, March 16, 2018

Block Blogger Hop: Children’s Writers(And St Patrick’s Day)

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This week’s Book Blogger Hop asks for your favourite children’s writer. It’s obviously aimed at people who don’t read much in this area. Hah! Children’s book blog, right? Teacher librarian? Children’s writer myself?  Children’s books are what I do. Impossible to answer this question with one. So... Let’s talk about several! 

As it’s St Patrick’s Day, I thought I might celebrate with a post about a few Irish writers I’ve read. Please forgive me if I’ve gone light on the women, but I’m sticking to writers I have read. I might add one or two books set in Ireland. 

One of these days I am going to visit Ireland, umbrella in hand, as I hear the reason why it’s so green is that it’s raining so often. An Irish couple I met once, who were tourists, told me that that particular year, it had not been raining about forty days(sort of Biblical in reverse!). It fascinates me, with its folklore and history. I believe it was never taken over by the Romans, among other things. Its patron saint, Patrick, whose day this is, wasn’t actually Irish. He appears in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists Of Avalon as a grumpy, unpleasant Bishop called Patricius, but definitely meant to be St Patrick.There are still arguments over the meaning of “he drove the snakes out of Ireland” - was it actual reptiles or did it mean pagans? 

On to the books and writers. I’ve read John Boyne’s The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, which became a huge hit and a film, about a boy whose father is in charge of a concentration camp. Despite all that, I’m afraid my response is “meh.” I much prefer Morris Gleitzman’s Once series, which I would love to see made into movies. 

Eoin Colfer is the author of the delightful Artemis Fowl series. Artemis Fowl is an Irish boy, the son of a wealthy  crime family. His father really doesn’t want to get involved in crime and has disappeared at the beginning of the first book. Artemis needs the money to get his father back and, unlike him, is a criminal genius. He decides to kidnap a fairy, Holly, who is a member of the elite fairy organisation LepRecon. She is, in fact, a female, fairy James Bond. A very funny series and I loved the whole idea of the fairies being technologically advanced beyond humans. There was a centaur Q, Foaly, who designed the stuff and a dwarf who made tunnels via huge farts... 

If you haven’t read C.S Lewis, shame on you! I confess to having first read the Narnia books as an adult, but I read his SF trilogy first: Out Of The Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength. Those weren’t children’s books, but,  like Narnia, were about Christianity. I preferred Tolkien, who was also religious, but didn’t shove it down your throat. However, I suspect I wouldn’t have noticed the religious elements in the Narnia books if I’d read them as a child. Perhaps I might, even then, have been uncomfortable with the hints of racism. But no doubt a classic series. If you’ve seen the TV series, by the way, you might have noticed Tom Baker in The Silver Chair as Puddleglum the Marsh Wiggle, a member of a pessimistic race(he is regarded by his fellow Marsh Wiggles as rather too cheerful). Another cast member was the late Patsy Byrne, who went on to play Nursie in Blackadder.   

I faithfully promise to start reading Derek Landy, whose Skulduggery Pleasant series was, at one stage, so popular in my school library! But I haven’t yet, so on to the next. 

Another popular series my students love, by an Irish writer, is Michael Scott’s The Secrets of The Immortal Nicholas Flamel. I’ve only got around to reading the first book in the series, The Alchemyst. It was a long time ago, but as I recall, Nicholas Flamel(remember him? Mentioned in Harry Potter?), creator of the Philosopher’s Stone, is still around. So is John Dee, Elizabeth I’s astrologer. In this book he is the villain. It’s seen, of course, through the eyes of some kids who have to help Nicholas Flamel stop the baddie. Again, read it years ago. I really must go back and read the lot. 

Darren Shan(actual name O’Shaughnessy) is the author of a series of children’s vampire novels. I’ve only read the first, Cirque Du Freak, in which a boy agrees to go with a vampire running the title circus to save his friend. The friend actually wants to be a vampire, but the vampire concerned refuses to turn him, considering him disgusting. The kids at my school loved this series. I had trouble keeping them on the shelves. 

You might not think of the playwright Oscar Wilde as a children’s writer, but he did write a series of fairytales. They were pretty sad and very Victorian in flavour, but hey, they count! I bet you have heard of “The Happy Prince” or “The Selfish Giant” at least? No? Go and read them. There are some beautifully illustrated editions. His mother Jane was an Irish nationalist and wrote for newspapers under a pen name. And by the way, she was a folkorist. 

I love the poetry of William Butler Yeats - magical stuff! Did you know he also edited a collection of Irish fairytales? Here is a cover from it. Pretty, isn't it|? I have a copy, though with a different cover.

As I’ve run out of Irish children’s writers and I’ve read and promised you at least a couple of books set in Ireland - by women - here they are.

Most books by Juliet Marillier - the Sevenwaters series, Heart’s Blood and the Blackthorn and Grimm trilogy. Great stuff and you’ll find plenty of posts here about them all. 

Anna Ciddor’s Night Of The Fifth Moon, set in pagan Ireland, and Prisoner Of Quentaris, not actually set in Ireland, but featuring leprechauns, who absolutely never wish you “top of the morning!” or hide pots of gold but are shown as a sort of mediaeval heroic Irish society in miniature.  

And there you are, and happy St Patrick’s Day! If you’ve enjoyed this post, share it. 

Got any favourites yourself?

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Just Finished Reading...Kindred by Octavia E Butler

People had been talking about this author and this book, so I decided it was about time to give it a try. So I downloaded it from iBooks. Big mistake to start this before bedtime. I was up reading till 4.00 am!

Kindred tells the story of Dana, an African American writer working on her first novel, who finds herself becoming dizzy one afternoon and suddenly appearing in early 19th century Maryland, which is definitely not a safe place for anyone with a black skin - especially for an educated person with a black skin. She timeslips back and forth, saving the life of a white ancestor, Rufus, each time he is in mortal danger. It’s usually his own fault, but she has little choice. She is simply whisked from her own time to his every time the idiot is in danger - and getting home is a painful process. But she has to do it, at least until he fathers her great something grandmother, or run the risk of never being born.

A fascinating timeslip story. Usually in timeslip tales, the character will take over the body of an ancestor. In this case, she simply arrives, physically, in time to save her ancestor, more than once. In fact, she takes her husband along the second time, because he’s holding her.

It’s not SF, of course, it’s fantasy. We never do find out how all this is happening, only what the rules are for getting back. Or why it happens when it does. And because the book was written in the 1970s, the "present day" is the 1970s and there are things we can do now, such as go online to research, that Dana and her husband can't. I wonder what a film or TV mini-series would do with the setting? Would it be updated? It's fun to speculate!

However, the important thing in this story is the characters - Dana, her white husband Kevin, who has to pose as her master in the past, the boy/young man she has to save - what do you do when you have to help someone you don’t much like? When you don’t know when you’ll be dragged back into the past? What happens when you’ve spent months or even years in the past and you’re back in your own time? Can you adjust?

There are other issues, but spoilers! Just read it. And read this Wikipedia entry about the author. Fascinating life! A true working class heroine - and reading it made me think that Dana’s life is just a bit inspired by her own background. Like Dana, Octavia had a Mum who wanted her to do a secretarial course and did a lot of dull jobs that let her get on with the writing late at night. A wise choice! If she’d become a teacher, say, she just wouldn’t have had the time or energy for writing as much as she did.

Now, excuse me, I have to find some more Butler to read. Any recommendations from Butler fans out there?

Friday, March 09, 2018

Book Blogger Hop: Do You Enjoy Retellings Of, or Sequels To, Classic Novels

Well, this question is about books, reading and stories. And yes, I do. If I didn’t, my reading choices would be much more limited. Broadening it to “classic stories” lets me include Shakespeare. There are so very many books and films inspired by Shakespeare. Romeo And Juliet turns up everywhere, but an example is West Side Story, in which the feuding Montagues and Capulets become two street gangs, the Jets(Montagues) and the Sharks(Capulets) and who wouldn’t love the film version with the aerial shots of the dancers in the streets of New York?

Kurosawa did at least two films based on Shakespeare, Throne Of Blood(Macbeth) and Ran(King Lear). Shakespeare translates to Japan!

American rom-com She’s The Man takes Twelfth Night to a high school soccer team. That one is great fun, and I have used it with my Year 8 English classes.

 I have to confess, I have an unfinished YA novel inspired by Much Ado About Nothing. Benedick and the other soldiers are a high school boys’ footy team. Must finish!

And if the Japanese film industry borrowed from English language classics, the Americans returned the compliment with The Magnificent Seven borrowed from Japanese classic The Seven Samurai, not to mention The Hidden Fortress providing inspiration for Star Wars.

You probably know that Clueless was a Hollywood version of Jane Austen’s Emma, both the original and the film hugely entertaining. And I loved Bride And Prejudice, which took Austen’s original to modern India, the Bennets becoming the Bakshis and dancing around the streets, singing, Bollywood style. Amazing how well it translated.

But let’s go to books. Sophie Masson, Kate Forsyth and Juliet Marillier, all of whom live in Australia, by the way, are wonderful fairytale re-tellers. Juliet Marillier has done quite a few, for example the Sevenwaters series beginning with Daughter Of The Forest, which sets “The Six Swans” in mediaeval Ireland, Heart’s Blood which also sets “Beauty And The Beast” in mediaeval Ireland.

Kate Forsyth has done a wonderful version of Rapunzel, Bitter Greens, in which the witch is an Italian courtesan who once modelled for Titian. Her historical novel The Beast’s Garden, takes a Grimm fairytale, “The Singing, Springing Lark” to Nazi Germany. It’s a sort of “Beauty and The Beast” story. A fabulous book! I loved it. And in case you hadn’t noticed she likes fairytales, there is The Wild Girl, about the girl next door to the Grimms. She told them a large chunk of the folk tales they wrote down and married one of them. Another favourite.

Sophie Masson has done a lot in this area, but I’ll discuss two of her fairytale re-tellings. Moonlight And Ashes, which I have reviewed on this blog, is a very enjoyable version of  “Ashenputtel”, the Grimm version of “Cinderella”. It’s set in the 19th century, with steam trains and newspapers. Hunter’s Moon is set in the same universe as Moonlight And Ashes. It’s “Snow White” with the father being the owner of a chain of department stores. The mirror is The Mirror, a newspaper which annoys the stepmother by proclaiming Bianca/Snow White the Fairest, an annual thing. It certainly worked for me.

Sophie Masson has also edited a series of fairytale and mythology re-tellings published by Christmas Press. They’re gorgeously illustrated, written by some of Australia’s top children’s writers, plus at least one from outside Australia, Adele Geras, who re-told “Beauty And The Beast” and “Bluebeard”. I should add that when I got my Year 7 kids to do a fractured fairytale I read them “Bluebeard”, which gave one student an idea for, not a fractured fairytale, but a version of his own, told by Bluebeard, and dear me, it was a chilling piece! It was totally publishable, in my opinion. I hope it will turn up at least in the school anthology.

Look, there are heaps of amazing re-tellings and sequels, but that will do me for now.

Do you have any favourites?

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Compulsory International Women's Day Post: Some Women Writers From My Bedside Table

It's nearly March 8 - gotta post about International Women's Day! Only once was I working at a girls' school at this time of year. I remember they got the kids to choose a woman from their national background(it was a multicultural school, like the one I have worked at for the last 20 years). One girl had a German background and didn't fancy Marlene Dietrich, as her teacher suggested, so when she came to do her research in the library, I suggested Hildegard of Bingen, "the sibyl of the Rhine", a 12th century abbess who composed gorgeous music we still hear, did science stuff, wrote at least one play that I know of and terrified the Princes of the Church. The girl liked that one and chose her. On the special day, we all went down to Richmond Town Hall, where the girls got up and talked about their chosen heroines. It was fun!

Sunshine does Harmony Day, but not IWD.

So, thinking of this post, I decided to just pull a few women writers from the pile by my bedside. Some I have read over and over.  Others I'm still checking out.

Left to right: The Eagle Of The Ninth Chronicles, by Rosemary Sutcliff. Actually, there are only the original trilogy in this book - The Eagle Of The Ninth, The Silver Branch and The Lantern Bearers. There is another one, Frontier Wolf, which is set between Silver Branch and Lantern Bearers. It must have been written later. These are classic children's books by one of the greatest children's historical novelists of the 20th century. The young hero of the first book, Marcus Flavius Aquila, goes on a quest to find out what happened to his father's legion - and their Eagle standard. He ends up settling in Britain and the rest of the series is about his descendants. You know who they are, even when they no longer have the Roman name, because there is this flawed emerald ring being passed down through the generations.

Semi-hidden behind that is Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly, which made a helluva movie, about black women mathematicians behind the early space program. It's not a novel, it's non-fiction. A wonderful book!

Next, Angela Carter's short story collection, The Bloody Chamber. The title story is based on Bluebeard, set in Brittany, but not in the Middle Ages! She also wrote Company Of Wolves, her take on Little Red Riding Hood. That was also a film, which I vaguely remember had Angela Lansbury as the grandmother.

Next to it is Den Of Wolves, the third in the Blackthorn and Grim trilogy. In it, we finally find out who Grim really was before being thrown into that prison where he first met Blackthorn, the heroine, and we find out why the elven lord is looking after her. And I have to say, it was a beautiful trilogy from a lady who can make fairytales sing!

Lying next to Eagle is a book you will have to take my word for, as it hasn't got a dustjacket. It's Annemarie Selinko's Desiree. I have to admit I know very little about the author, apart from this Wikipedia entry. She did write other books and a couple were turned into films, yes, but nothing in English. This niovel became a film with Jean Simmons and Marlon Brando. It's a delight! The heroine was a real person, though from what I have read of the real Desiree Clary, who was a very strange woman, I think I prefer the one in the novel. The novel covers the time from her becoming engaged to Napoleon till she becomes Queen of Sweden, with her husband, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte as king. It's in the form of a diary and is - utterly charming! Read it if it's still available!

Five Historical Feasts is written by historian, keen cook and SF author Gillian Polack, with some connected short stories at the end. It tells of all the work that went into researching, designing and testing the food for five historical banquets held at Canberra's annual science fiction convention, Conflux. It's a fun read, especially as I have been to one of those banquets, the Regency one, when it was repeated a few years ago. There are recipes interspersed with the story of the work done for the banquets. I think you might still be able to get a copy at Australian SF conventions, but be quick - Gillian tells me they are unlikely to reprint, due to copyright matters on the art.

My copy of Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan novel Cetaganda is almost falling apart from reading and rereading, but I can't help it - every time I finish I just have to promise myself a reread to cheer myself up for having finished it! Miles gets to solve a mystery while on the planet Cetaganda for a royal funeral, and we finally see what it's like. The inhabitants specialise in genetic engineering and women are in charge of the planet's gene banks.

Well, there are a few books by women that have delighted me! What about you?

Friday, March 02, 2018

Book Blogger Hop: Do You Use A Mouse?

...And what’s on it?

Dear me, another strange question and not strictly book-related. I could answer in one word: no. But this is a blog post, so I’ll waffle a bit.

The first computer I used, at work, was a little Apple 2C. It didn’t use a mouse, so no mouse pad needed. It was almost as bad as PC computers in that you had to give commands, and remember what they were. There was no hard drive; you had to slot a floppy disk with the software into an external drive. I had an extra disk drive for my writing, because otherwise you’d have to slot in the disk for the program, take it out and put in your other disk... I vaguely recall reading an essay by Italian-Jewish writer Primo Levi comparing a computer to the Golem; you put something in its mouth, it comes to life. Remove it and it’s dead. A magical description of the kind of computers we had in those days!

By the time I got my first computer, a 2E, it had a hard drive and no commands - much easier to use, but you now needed a mouse. I had a fabulous-looking mouse mat that had a 3D Star Trek image on it. Only problem was, the coarse texture made it harder to use. I gave it away to a fellow Trek fan; I’m pretty sure I did warn them that it was more decorative than useful.

Companies used to give out promotional mouse mats and I did use those at work, where there were desktop computers. The kids had a lot of trouble with the library computers because there were no supplied mouse mats(they would have gone in no time if I’d left some out), so I often suggested they use their diaries or exercise books as mouse mats. Those worked as well as anything.

My current laptop just doesn’t need a mouse, though I could get one. Neither does my iPad. So, no mouse mats, but I do have one I found recently, with an Isaac Asimov robot on it.

There! A book reference! :-) And post complete, about a very odd topic. 

Monday, February 26, 2018

Just Finished Rereading...Dragonfly Song by Wendy Orr

I got this for reviewing from Allen and Unwin ages ago. In the end, I did an interview with the author instead. Since then, it has been shortlisted for the CBCA Awards and won a Prime Minister’s Award. Both are well deserved. A reread made me appreciate this even more.

At the time, my entire fascination  for Minoan bull dancing came from Mary Renault’s classic The King Must Die. That was about Theseus and a wonderful book it was! I’ve read it over and over and had to buy it in ebook because ebooks don’t fall apart.

But it was very different from this novel. The heroine, Aissa, is the daughter of the Lady of a small Greek island during the Minoan era. Her mother panicked when she was born with an extra thumb on each hand - not perfect! - and, after her husband cut off the thumbs to save the child and drowned, ordered her to be killed by the midwife. Instead, she was brought up first by a family that had lost its child, then as a kitchen drudge when her adoptive family were carried off by raiders. At thirteen, she goes to Crete as a bull dancer, trained to do acrobatics with the sacred bulls. So far, nobody taken as a tribute has ever returned from Crete...

The fantastical elements are wonderful, as Aissa finds that, despite her elective mutism, she can “call” everything from dragonflies to bulls and even, in one scene, humans.

But the story is believable. The author knows about the behaviour of bulls, having lived on a dairy farm for twenty years - and about acrobatics and children. Mary Renault’s Theseus is eighteen and has already fought in battles and been a king. He manages to be a very good bull dancer because he is small, agile and light. And that’s fine. I have seen an adult trainer from Australia’s Flying Fruit Fly (children’s) Circus as a very athletic Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 

But I’m betting he started early. Some years ago, we had a Circus program at my school, to teach kids to do some simple acrobatics, then perform for the school. The students were all young, Years 7 and 8. None of them had ever done anything like it before. Yet within a few weeks they were doing amazing things! Young bodies are more flexible than older ones; it’s not for nothing that Olympic “women’s” gymnastic teams are made up of little girls.

Wendy also feels that as a sacred activity, the bull dance would be more than just entertainment. It’s an act of worship. It doesn’t happen every week, only once a season, in connection with a religious ritual. The trainers try to keep you alive by training you as best they can, and anyone not likely to make it as a bull dancer is weeded out and sent to be a palace slave. But there is to be no cheating. When Aissa saves a dancer by calling the bull in her mind, the Mother(Queen and High priestess) is furious. And unlike in The King Must Die, in which every team has its own bull, in this one, the bull is sacrificed at the end of the bull dance. There are herd bulls, but the fastest children are sent out to capture a wild one for the dance.  And, as the knowledgeable author says, sometimes the wild ones are less dangerous than the tame bulls, which know what to expect.

I think I enjoyed the book more this time than the first. I appreciated the large chunks of verse that seemed odd the first time. I cared about the characters.

I’m very glad that I no have this in ebook. I think I’m going to need it. 

Friday, February 23, 2018

Book Blogger Hop: Hardcovers - With Or Without Covers?

This week’s blog post theme in the Book Blogger hop asks, “Do you read your hardcovers with or without the dust jacket on?”

Goodness, what an odd question! Not really something I would normally spend an entire blog post on, but not a bad idea to muse on hardcovers in general. It’s more of an issue in the US, I suspect, where they publish a lot of hardcovers. Nothing of mine has ever been published in hardcover except one overseas edition of Your Cat Could Be A Spy and it didn’t have a dust jacket. Most books here start off in paperback and stay there. Most hardcovers with dust jackets are non fiction or adult books. Most children’s hardcovers don’t have a dust jacket.

Looking through some of the replies on other blogs, I haven’t yet seen one that keeps the cover on, for fear of damaging it. Some like the look of a hardcover on the shelves.

I’m a librarian. Dust jackets are there to protect the book. If you buy it for a library, you cover it in plastic - problem solved! And most hardcovers I read are borrowed from my local library. In fact, I’m reading one now, Barbara Hambly’s Drinking Gourd, the latest Ben January historical whodunnit. I just had to lug it with me, because I’m enjoying it so much, but I don’t often do this. Too heavy!

So, question answered and now - why buy a hardcover in the first place? They are more expensive - as a librarian, I have only ever bought them when kids were reading the series and they were on the CBCA shortlist. Some publishers, I’m quite sure, publish them that way around the time when the shortlist is announced so that you have to buy them! With a budget as tiny as mine, you try to get the best value out of it.

They are heavy. I can’t carry one around with me when I travel. Imagine being in the middle of an exciting story and having to leave it at home. And school kids also find it hard to take hardcovers home in their school bags.

They take up more space on the shelves. A bookworm like me needs to cram as many books as possible on the shelves.

BUT... they are more attractive. You can create special editions more easily than in paperback.

They are easier to read while eating. You can put your book down, open to your page, instead of having to hold it up with one hand and eat with the other. Or you can put it open on a book stand, like mine.

And they last! I have a tendency to read and reread favourites. My paperback copy of Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather is just about to fall apart. I can cover it, which will help, but the pages will still fall out if I’m not careful. I do have it in ebook, but it’s sad!

So, those are some of my thoughts on hardcovers. I do have some on my shelves because they were on special at the time, or I got them for reviewing, but not many. And I’m largely moving to ebook, which I can carry in my tote bag by the hundred!

What do you think? Hardcover or paperback? Or both?