Worthy Thoughts

Books, reading, life & other worthy thoughts

Image result for the art of taxidermy

Author: Sharon Kernot
Publisher: Text Publishing

Sharon Kernot’s verse novel, The Art of Taxidermy, is an exquisite, profoundly moving story of grief, loss and love and family.

The Art of Taxidermy is a beautiful verse novel that is set in a small country town in the 1960s. Kernot explores the theme of grief through her character, thirteen-year-old Lottie, who has experienced a great deal of death in her short life, including the loss of her mother. As the book unravels, you learn more about the losses that Lottie has experienced and you begin to understand why Lottie is so obsessed with death. Lottie’s way of grieving is unique – she collects dead animals and attempts to preserve them.

Lottie’s family has experienced significant losses and adversity. They are a German family living in post World War Two South Australia and one thread of the narrative is how members of the family were imprisoned in the Loveday Internment Camp during the war. Lottie’s family were considered enemies during this time and as such experienced great difficulties and hardships.

Lottie lives with her father, Wolfgang, who is gentle and kind-hearted, but he’s busy with work and he’s also distracted with his own grief. Her aunt Hilda lives nearby and helps Lottie’s father in the raising of Lottie. Aunt Hilda is a practical woman and she doesn’t understand why Lottie or her father cannot just move on with their lives. She doesn’t understand why they are both haunted by their losses.

The novel takes place in the 1960s and it is a time when people didn’t talk to children about death and dying. Lottie is confused and has been left to find her own way to understand what has happened to her family and to comprehend why she feels the way she does. No one is giving her advice or support, so she turns to taxidermy because that helps and gives her a place to understand her grief.

The reasons for Lottie’s desire to express her grief through taxidermy are evident.

I wanted flesh and blood, not ghosts.

Lottie’s father, a scientist, is accepting of her interests. Aunt Hilda, though, finds it ghoulish and unladylike. Kernot does manage to add some dark humour from the Lottie and Aunt Hilda relationship. Aunt Hilda finds some bloody sheets from one of Lottie’s experiments and believes Lottie has started her period. Aunt Hilda is delighted with this turn of events and gives Lottie advice and menstrual pads. Lottie accordingly uses the cotton from the menstrual pads to stuff a lorikeet.

The artwork on the cover also needs to be mentioned – the delicate gumnuts, wattle and pale blue and green eggshells that fill the cover are stunning and add another layer to the connection to the Australian bushland which features heavily in this verse novel and almost becomes another character in the book.

The Art of Taxidermy is ideally suited to verse novel. The dark and strange subject of taxidermy is a perfect fit. Verse novels are challenging to write and not many people can write them well, but Kernot has created a masterpiece. Beautifully voiced, this narrative took my breath away. What I love about this book, though, is that Kernot in such a beautiful way reminds us that no matter how ugly things may seem, there is beauty around every corner and that we all don’t have to see beauty in the same way.

Flower, Dead, Wither, Rose, Death

lovely2
Author: Julie Berry
Publisher: Viking

I’d seen a lot of reviews for this book before I read it and I thought it would be a perfect read for me – an impressive mix of mythology, historical fiction and romance. I have to admit, though, that the majority of the book left me cold, it wasn’t until the last third that I became interested. Once again, I find myself at odds with most reviewers who loved the book. I liked this book, but I didn’t find it captivated me like I think a book of this magnitude should do.  I found it slightly dull, particularly the interaction of the characters with each other. I thought Berry’s writing lacked humour and it was all so so.

I do applaud Berry for her meticulously researched book that spans two wars and two worlds. The majority of the action revolves around four young people finding love, experiencing loss and discovering themselves during World War I, but the principal story is set during World War II – a romantic triangle between three Greek Gods: Aphrodite, the goddess of love; her husband, Hephaestus, the god of fire and Ares, the god of war.

I will admit that Berry manages to weave these two storylines together magnificently. She is quite a competent writer, but it lacks humour, charm and that something that makes you want to keep on reading and for the story to never end. Personally, I found the book quite tedious at times and there were many times that I consider not actually finishing the book. To be quite honest, I couldn’t wait for the book to end!

I did read from many reviewers that they were amused and delighted by the Immortals’ snarky comments and constant competition with one another. Though I was left bored and I didn’t find the storyline amusing.

Berry begins her story in a Manhattan hotel on the eve of World War II, Aphrodite and Ares have been caught together by Hephaestus – Aphrodite’s husband and Ares’ brother. Hephaestus gives Aphrodite a chance to explain herself and so she begins to weave an elaborate tale of mortal love during wartime.

Moving between the present and the past, the goddess’ narrative centres on Aubrey, an African-American musician, Colette, a Belgian singer; Hazel, a naïve British pianist; and her beau, James, a hopeful architect who are all brought together by fate during the First World War.

The resulting story told by Berry is visually beautiful and historically accurate. By having an African-American character, Berry can highlight the racism that occurred during this time and this gives the book a point of difference.

So what kept me reading besides my stubbornness to finish. Berry does write beautifully. Her sharp eye for detail is quite compelling. I found myself lost in her writing of places such as London and Paris. She captures the beauty and makes you wish it was you walking the cobblestone streets of Paris. She also depicted the French front remarkably well – the nightmare that those young soldiers went through and she makes you wonder how so many of them were able to come home to a relatively normal life after all that they had experienced and witnessed.

The first casualty of war is the truth.

The characters are beautifully written and quite authentic, but I didn’t find that they kept my attention. I found the conversations between the characters quite mind-numbing and I wanted more. I wanted to feel their vibrancy, their youth, their humour and their originality. I also wanted to be enchanted by the Gods, particularly Aphrodite. I did like the take that Berry took on Hades, God of the Dead and the Underworld; I thought that she showed an interesting side to this god and his story was one that did have me quite interested.

Many have said that this is an unforgettable romance, I disagree. The writing of the places is beautiful – Berry has a way of transporting you to another place and this is a gift, but I didn’t find the characters memorable and I didn’t feel invested in any of the characters. I read that this novel will make you laugh, cry and swoon, but I didn’t feel any of these emotions when reading Lovely War.

But in saying all of that, this is one book that I will keep because it is so sumptuously beautiful.

Heart, Love, Romance, Valentine, Harmony

 

bogan

Author: Steven Herrick
Publisher: University of Queensland Press

Steven Herrick is one of my favourite authors. His gentle humour and vibrant characters bring both light and heart to difficult topics. The Bogan Mondrian deals with themes of grief and domestic violence.

Herrick’s writing is always unashamedly Australian and personally, I love this about his books. The Bogan Mondrian is set in the Blue Mountains where Herrick has lived since 1994. I might add that Herrick was born and bred in Queensland and I always feel this Queensland connection whenever I read his books – notably his sense of humour which features in all his work and despite the heavy themes of The Bogan Mondrian Herrick adds humour to this story which helps to balance it out.

‘Absenteeism…’ he repeats.
‘A scourge,’ I finish. Charlotte is a bad influence.
Cue loud exhale.
‘You will both report to Mr Dexter,’ he checks his watch again, ‘at lunchtime, for one week of detention. An email will be sent to your parents.’ He looks at me meaningfully. ‘I’d welcome a meeting.’
‘There’s only Mum left,’ I say.

He offers a stage-managed cough. ‘Yes, I’m well aware, Saunders. I believe you mentioned that last time you were in here.’

‘My dad’s alive,’ Blake adds, perhaps trying to be helpful. ‘But he lives in Queensland.’

When the book opens, we are introduced to Luke. A young man who lost his father to cancer and despite losing his dad two years ago, Luke’s grief is still raw and real. Since his dad’s death, Luke has lived in a fog and he is meandering through life with no direction. As a result, Luke spends much of his time wagging school and swimming at the reservoir. Luke doesn’t hate school but thinks it is boring and pointless. But when Charlotte, a young woman from a wealthy family, comes into his world, he realises there are worse things than school. Charlotte’s father beats his wife.

In reading a piece that Herrick wrote for Reading Time, he had this to say about choosing Charlotte’s family as victims of domestic violence.

The choice of a well-to-do family was deliberate – domestic violence affects people from all classes, races and religions. In the novel, Luke becomes a catalyst for Charlotte confronting the violence happening behind the neatly-trimmed hedge, circular driveway and security door. I chose a teenage boy and girl because this is not a women’s issue – the notion of masculinity and our propensity to violence is for us to understand and fix. I hope Luke is an example of male strength, kindness and empathy. I hope he’s a believable antidote to the destruction wrought by Charlotte’s father.

Charlotte father is a charismatic, attractive and successful man. When Luke first meets him, he questions Charlotte’s story. The man he meets doesn’t fit the version that Charlotte has given him. Luke starts to disbelieve Charlotte. Charlotte’s father is protected by his wealth, his status and his persona as a “good bloke”.  Herrick shines a light on so many facets of domestic violence. Men who hit their wives don’t always look like monsters and don’t always come from the wrong side of town.

As we all know, violence against women is about power. Herrick shows in The Bogan Mondrian what happens when the power is taken away. He encourages us to think about how we can take power from these men. Luke and Charlotte took away Charlotte’s father’s control. Herrick admits that how this was achieved in The Bogan Mondrian is not a solution to domestic violence. Domestic violence is complex and different for everyone experiencing it – to say that there is one solution is to simplify the issue and Herrick doesn’t want to simplify the matter. He wants to show how, as individuals and as a community, we can flip the power away from these violent men.

I’ve always admired authors who can give us fleshed out minor characters and Herrick does this beautifully. The Bogan Mondrian has a stellar cast. There is Rodney, the car thief who is both shady and kind. Luke’s best friend, Blake, who isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed but his goodness shines through. There is the librarian, Tracey, who shows Luke where to find information and give him moral guidance and Mr Rosetti, who is teaching Luke how to swear in Italian.

The Bogan Mondrian is a sensitive and beautiful story that highlights an issue that affects 1.5 million Australians, but most importantly, Herrick gives us Luke – a lovely young man who hopefully is our future.

Mondrian, Red, Blue, Yellow, Abstraction

 

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Author: Jaclyn Moriarty

Publisher: Macmillan Australia

I wanted to love this book. I bought this book and kept it until my Easter break to read because I wanted to read and enjoy it at my leisure without any distractions. Unfortunately, I never connected with this adult novel by Jaclyn Moriarty.

When I saw that Jaclyn Moriarty was releasing an adult book I was so excited. Moriarty is one of my favourite writers. Though, for some reason, I never connected with this book. I am not sure why when every other reviewer seems to have loved this book. Words such as extraordinary, beautiful, astonishing, uplifting and unique have all been used in relation to this book.

The writing is spectacular, as you would expect from Jaclyn Moriarty. At times, I enjoyed Abigail’s internal dialogue, sometimes she would annoy me and I didn’t always find her endearing. Though, nor do I think I should like the main character all the time! For characters to be three dimensional, I feel you should have mixed emotions towards them – like real people. But I also feel that in the end you should be championing for the character and wanting the best for them. In the end, I didn’t care for Abigail and couldn’t have cared less what happens to her.

There were times that I found Abigail’s internal dialogue hilarious, mainly when she made her way to The Retreat to find out more about The Guidebook. Though, don’t get me started on The Guidebook!

A plastic frangipani flower was woven into this woman’s ponytail; I tried not to judge her for this.

Other times I found the internal dialogue quite self-indulgent – which I guess in a way internal dialogue is meant to be (sometimes), but I found Abigail’s internal dialogue more annoying than it was endearing.

I wonder if I wasn’t the target audience for this book.  I don’t believe that Gravity is the Thing was written for childless women. I found Abigail’s child ANNOYING. I think (and I am looking through the book to find the child’s name) Oscar was one of the reasons that I didn’t like this book. I found all the interactions with Oscar tedious and grating. I know I was meant to understand the special bond she had with this child and I do believe that I was expected to fall in love with Oscar. I also can see how mothers would love this part of the book. I am sure there were lots of mothers out there nodding their heads and remembering their own similar instances with their children. BUT I just found Oscar another indulged small child. I didn’t find him funny, adorable or charming.

There was one quote in the book that I loved that was about children and I have probably taken this line entirely out of context!

I mean, they’re a dime a dozen, children.

I often find it interesting that people believe that their children are their most significant achievements. Yes, I imagine raising children is hard but lots of people do it. Lots of people have children – it isn’t really an achievement!

Ultimately, I didn’t connect with the book. I kept on reading hoping that the story and the characters would all fall into place and I would find that magic that everyone else had found from reading this book, but it wasn’t to be.

I do thank Jaclyn Moriarty for shining a light on missing persons. This was a part of the book that my heart did break at, particularly when I read the acknowledgements at the end. It must be truly horrific to have a loved one missing. That never knowing and always wondering and questioning.

I also do love how Moriarty wrote about how life moves on and even though great tragedy has struck your life you can still enjoy life and enjoy the beauty of the world around you.

Later that night, my mother phone and informed me: ‘We are designed to recover.’

‘I mean, I know that not everybody does,’ she added, ‘but that’s the design.’ And she expressed irritation with the number of people who say you never recover from the loss of a child.

‘But often I’m happy,’ she said. ‘You can be happy, Abigail. I myself am happy with my new frangipani tree and Xuang.’

I still love Jaclyn Moriarty and I will still read everything she writes. I am a little heartbroken that I can’t share in the love for this book. I know that  I am in the minority because lots of people loved this book and found great joy and magic within its pages. For me, I didn’t connect with the book and that’s okay. Not all books are for everyone.

gravity

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Author: Felice Arena
Publisher: Penguin Books Australia

A Great Escape by Felice Arena is another middle-grade reader. Usually, I don’t write reviews for middle-grade readers, or if I do, it is for the boys at my school and not for the general public. I have always found middle-grade readers to be quite tedious and not great reads. In the past few years, though, that has changed dramatically and I now find myself reading middle-grade readers and thoroughly enjoying them.

The last middle-grade book I read was A Great Escape by Felice Arena. I liked this book – A LOT! I enjoyed Arena’s last book Fearless Frederic, but  A Great Escape will push you as a reader. I love that Arena takes a decisive point in history and makes it accessible for younger readers. It is so hard to explain the Cold War and particularly The Berlin War to primary aged children, but this book succeeds in doing this.

Peter’s father works in West Berlin, but Peter and his family live in East Berlin with his grandparents. His parents have decided that the whole family (including his grandparents) will move to West Berlin to live. Peter is meant to go with his mother and sister for the day to look at accommodation in West Berlin. Peter is playing with his friends and his mother leaves him behind in frustration and goes to West Berlin with her daughter – thinking that she will be only gone for the day. It is this moment in time that will change Peter’s family’s whole life.

In just one day the border becomes impassable. A temporary barbed wire fence is constructed and is guarded by soldiers. The barrier is impenetrable. Suddenly Peter is in East Berlin with his grandparents and his parents and sister are in West Berlin.

Of course, Peter becomes determined that he will make it across the wall and starts to plan his escape. In his planning and attempts, he witnesses many disconcerting scenes of escapes that are unsuccessful. Peter soon realises that escaping will not be quite as simple as he thought it would be and an unsuccessful attempt will either end in death or imprisonment.  Not only does Peter witness unsuccessful attempts, but he also witnesses and hears of successful efforts.

A Great Escape has all the elements of a novel that boys will love – historical facts, daring ingenuity and a likeable protagonist.

I have to admit that this book stayed with me for a long time after I read it because even though I knew about The Berlin Wall and I studied it at school and university. I only knew the facts. I knew the politics behind the wall. I never knew that for twenty-eight years families and couples were separated. So many people were separated from the ones they loved. There were real people like Peter and his little sister who were separated for twenty-eight years. One day, like so many others, couples kissed each other goodbye for the day – one went off to work in West Berlin and the other stayed in East Berlin and then a wall was put in place and that couple were separated. I wondered how the reunions were after twenty-eight years. I wondered how a young boy like Peter grew up. I wondered how his sister grew up. The conditions in  East Berlin deteriorated as the years passed. Was their resentment after the initial joy?

Felice Arena has captured a time in history that should not be forgotten but more than that he has taken facts and created a gripping and emotional narrative. He gives us a story that is so much more powerful than the facts.

I would recommend this book because it opens young people up to a pivotal point in history — a time that should not be forgotten and a reminder that building walls are not a solution.

Berlin, Berlin Wall, Graffiti, Germany, Mural

Image result for catch a falling star meg mckinlay

Author: Meg McKinlay

Publisher: Walker Books

Meg McKinlay is an exceptional writer. Her books are both heart-wrenching and very funny. Her new novel Catch a Falling Star is stunning. I knew I was going to enjoy this book from the first page.

Jeremy’s wearing the bowl and a puffy jacket because it’s the closest he can get to a spacesuit. And he needs a spacesuit because he’s going to be an astronaut when he grows up, just like Damien last week, and Trevor the time before. I don’t know what the odds are of three kids from the same class in a tiny little town on the south coast of nowhere, Western Australia, becoming astronauts, but it seems like they’d be…astronomical.

Yes, this book is poignant and heartfelt, but it is also hilarious. I work in an all-boys school (mainly in the junior school) and emotionally moving won’t it cut it with the boys. I need to be able to sell these books, so humour is good. Grab them with humour and space and then let them discover a story which will give them so much more.

Catch a Falling Star is set in a small town in Western Australia, in the year of  1979. As I was reading this novel, I thought it would be a wonderful book to read aloud to students. To discuss what life was like in 1979 for children their age. No mobile phones, not a lot of technology, no Internet.

It is 1979 and Skylab, the U.S. space station is starting to break up and will re-enter the earth’s atmosphere. NASA can’t control Skylab and so no-one, including NASA, have any idea where the pieces of Skylab will land. They do know that Western Australia is on its flight path. I loved this part of the book because it is the 1970s and there’s no such thing as social media or a twenty-four-hour news cycle, so the public is relying on the nightly news report and their daily newspapers to give them their information. Imagine. Skylab dominates the news and everyone is talking about it.

Everyone is obsessed with Skylab and none more so than Frankie Avery and her younger brother, Newt. Frankie and Newt’s father died several years earlier in a plane. It too fell out of the sky. Their father loved space. Frankie spent many hours with her father star-gazing and talking about space. She remembers her father telling her about Skylab and now it is falling to the ground. Skylab brings back many memories for Frankie and she finds it all quite overwhelming, particularly since her mother doesn’t talk about her father anymore and all she does is work long hours at the hospital.

Newt was too young to remember their father, but like their father, he is fascinated by space. He is a curious, incredibly smart eight-year-old who loves science. Frankie’s mother isn’t home much, so Frankie looks after Newt. She worries about Newt and sometimes forgets to be a twelve-year-old because she is too busy looking after Newt who has no sense of danger and like most eight-year-olds lacks a lot of common sense.

Frankie is dealing with a lot. She is negotiating school, family, friends and grief. The book is beautifully written, but I love the humour that McKinlay provides in the book to lighten the mood at times. Most of this humour comes when Frankie is in class with her teacher. Adults and students will relate to the humour in the classroom.

As Skylab continues to fall to the ground, Frankie feels her life starting to spiral. The falling of Skylab triggers Frankie and everything comes to an emotional head as Skylab enters the earth.

Catch a Falling Star is a tender, hopeful, funny, poignant and beautifully written book.

I thought I would end with my favourite quote from the book, for all the readers out there!! Throughout the story, Frankie is reading the Australian classic Storm Boy by Colin Thiele. A book that parallels Catch a Falling Star in that they are both about growing up and handling grief at a young age.

“What’s it about?” She gestures at the cover. “A pelican.”

I  hesitate. People are always asking that about books: “What’s it about? It sounds like a simple question, but it isn’t. You could take all day to answer it if you really wanted to. And if the person asking the question really wanted to hear it.

“Yeah,” I say finally. “It’s about a pelican.”

Image result for storm boy - original novel cover

Image result for the dog runner

Author: Bren MacDibble

Publisher: Allen & Unwin

What I like about Bren MacDibble is that she doesn’t preach and she doesn’t patronise her readers. So many authors like to take a stance and they then proceed to hit you over the head with their beliefs. They try to make you feel stupid for believing in what you think and often they will ridicule the reader for not believing in what they believe is true and right. Bren MacDibble doesn’t do this; she shows us what a better way is and she’s let’s us decide. She did this with the wonderful How to Bee and continues to do this with her new book The Dog Runner. 

The Dog Runner is set in the not too distant future and Australia has succumbed to a fungus that has wiped out grass and led to worldwide famine. As you can imagine the world we live in is in anarchy – there is little food, nothing grows, livestock is dead and life is dangerous.

Ella lives with her father, mother, brother and their dogs. Ella’s mother has been working outside the city and Ella’s father goes off to find her and bring her home. Ella and  Emery’s father is gone for a long time and it doesn’t look like he and Ella’s mother are going to return. Life in the city is becoming more precarious each day and so Ella and her brother Emery decide to set off to the country where Emery’s mother lives.

With the help of five dogs and a dogsled, they leave the city and head out into the country. Emery and Ella know that no one can be trusted and they know that food and water on their journey will be scarce and that their journey will be filled with danger, but they feel that it is a better option than remaining in the city.

The Dog Runner moves at a cracking pace and is an exciting and brilliant read. Ella is an exceptional voice. She is a young character but by no means a naïve character. Ella isn’t tough and experienced but she has a quiet strength about her. She bravely steps up and takes on challenges which in her previous life she would have found terrifying. Through all the dangers and challenges Ella doesn’t become hardened by what she sees and experiences, she always remains hopeful about the future.

The Dog Runner is thought-provoking and challenges you to think differently. MacDibble gives the reader a warning about the hazards and perils of monoculture and shows us that we lack diversity in our crop growing, BUT she also offers solutions. She introduces the reader to native plants and shows us how to think differently about growing our crops so that we don’t exhaust and drain the land. It is quite the writer who is able to weave all this into a book that will excite young readers.

I have two copies of this book in my school library and both books are currently on loan and there is a waiting list for these books.  As soon as I describe it to the boys they want to read it and why wouldn’t they, The Dog Runner is brilliant – thought-provoking, intelligent and exhilarating.

Red, Fruit, Berries, Tamarind, Small Leaf Tamarind