Monthly Archives: March 2019

Ruby Reads (6)

This instalment of posts about books I’ve read as Ruby’s grandfather consists of two kinds of books: two that have been read to the audience of 0–2 year olds at Leichhardt Library Rhyme Time, and three that she requests on repeat.

Gail Jorgensen & Patricia Mullens, Crocodile Beat (Simon & Schuster 1989)

This starts with a scary image of a crocodile who is waiting for his prey to come to the waterhole. Then, page after page, a procession of animals arrives, making at least this reader very uneasy: it’s set up as a macabre variation on Who Sank the Boat?, something like ‘who will the crocodile eat?’

Happily, no spoiler really, everyone ends up alive, though it’s thanks to an extremely improbable intervention, and only for today. Tomorrow the crocodile may well get lucky. It was, however, beautifully read to us with lots of animal noises to match the colour and movement of the book itself.

Jessica Spanyol, Clive and His Babies (Child’s Play International 2016)

Clive is a little white boy who plays with dolls, one of whom is brown. He also plays with a number of other children, some of them also brown. This was read to us at the library. Its message of diversity and flexibility about gender roles, explicitly named on the back cover, is overwhelmingly front and centre and there’s no story to speak of, but who am I to complain? I joined in with gusto all the nursery-rhyme singing and gesturing, motivated at least in part by the desire as the only man there to set a model of gender-role flexibility.

Ingela P Arrhenius, Where’s Mr Duck (Nosy Crow 2019)

No author is named for the text in this lift-the-flap, and there’s no reason why one should be. The reader is simply asked to lift a flap on each spread to see if Mr Duck (not Mr Drake) is under it. Eventually, after finding Mrs Worm, Mr Frog and so on, we do find the duck. End of story.

What makes the book stand out is that the flaps are made of felt, which resists the deliberate or accidental depredations of little hands. The images by Ingela P Arrhenius, described on the publisher’s website as a ‘Swedish homewares designer’, are attractive in an impersonal, Ikea-ish way. The book is definitely designed for 15-month-old people.

Peppa Pig: Creepy Cobwebs (Ladybird 2014)

I’ve never seen an episode of Peppa Pig, and as far as I know neither has Ruby. On the strength of this little board book, we’re not missing much. It’s nominally about creepy things, but includes – among other non-creepy things – an image of Peppa Pig and family riding in a space ship. There’s no narrative line, and I find the images crude and uninteresting. Ruby, however, took the book from me after a couple of readings and proceeded to turn the pages while giving voice to what might have been a Martian rendition of the text. A big success for the unnamed author.

Kimberley Barnes (illustrator), The Wheels on the Bus (Hinkler Books, First Steps 2017)

Not so much a book as merchandise to accompany a song, this is one of several musical ‘novelty books’ we read/play. One of the buttons on the right plays the tune, the other three play the sounds of windscreen wipers, a baby crying and a car horn respectively. (I do wonder if Verna Hills, who Wikipedia says wrote the song, receives any royalties.)

I am reading on my non-grandfathering days. Some posts about that coming soon.

Brian K Vaughan’s Paper Girls Book 5

Brian K Vaughan (writer), Cliff Chiang (artist), Matt Wilson (colorist) and Jared K Fletcher (letterer), Paper Girls, Volume 5 (Image 2018)

So many books to read and, assuming I don’t live to much past 100, so little life left. Yet here I am writing about another instalment-compilation of a comic about a gang of young teenage girls taking on cosmic time-travelling forces. I plead in mitigation that this blog is a record of every book I read, however embarrassing or daunting the book. And this one has jumped to the front of the reading queue because it came as a birthday gift with invisible strings attached: the giver expects to be able to read it himself, soon!

The girls are in the future, dealing with time-travel paradoxes, particularly the ones generated by Tiffany having met her older self in Volume 4. The nature of their enemies is becoming clearer, and with it our hope that they will survive. There’s a terrible death, some incipient, awkward romance, and in the last pages a big twist that ensures that the story will continue for quite some time yet.

I didn’t warm to the artwork at all at first. In particular, the colouring seemed kind of drab. But I’ve not just acclimatised, but come to respect and even love the stylish near monochrome of much of the book.

Ruby Reads (5)

First a disclaimer: Some of the books I list in these posts about Ruby’s books are obviously completely age-inappropriate. Those books don’t necessarily get read to her, at least not more than once, but I include them because I’ve encountered them in Ruby’s context and they are splendid in their own right, or for some other reason. A case in point is today’s first book.

Shaun Tan, The Red Tree (Lothian Books 2000)

A stunningly beautiful, surreal picture book that’s not for pre-schoolers, probably not for anyone younger than about 15, and definitely not for 15-month-olds. It begins with dead leaves floating in a grey environment and continues with an extraordinary evocation of depression, loneliness and an overwhelming sense of meaninglessness – all with glorious (if that’s the word) full-page images evoking that mood. The red tree of the title doesn’t turn up until the final spread, but when it does, it’s a brilliant game-changer. Shaun Tan is a genius, and I’m glad he and his books have cheered up since 2000.

Lucy Cousins, Maisy’s Traffic Jam (Walker Books 2007)

Maisie the Mouse came into being when my sons were already teenagers. I was vaguely aware of her as a phenomenon, having seen people in giant Maisie suits at children’s book fairs in the 90s, but this is my first actual Maisie book – one of more than 27 million in print according to Lucy Cousins’s Wikipedia page, Wikipedia doesn’t list it in her bibliography. It’s a concertina book, which we picked up in a street library, and unfolded in Ruby’s local park, to the delight of a random passing two year old – and Ruby. Lots of flaps to lift, and who doesn’t love a metre-long fold-out?

Rod Campbell, Oh Dear! (1983)

A classic lift-the-flap book. Only one of its flaps has been torn out so far. but that’s more a sign of Ruby’s restraint than of any quality of the book. The little boy has to find eggs, and goes through a gamut of farm animals until he remembers, and goes to the chicken coop where, splendidly, after the chook has been revealed, there further flap must be lifted to find two eggs.

Doctor Seuss, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back (1957)

I guess everyone knows that Dr Seuss (Theodore Seuss Geisel to his friends) invented the Cat in the Hat in response to a challenge to create an illustrated text that would help children learn to read. Serious literacy aid or not, the character has been pretty popular in our family, including when read to someone with advanced dementia. The Cat in the Hat Comes Back doesn’t have quite the level of terror and insouciance about breaking rules that the original has, but it’ll do. The original hasn’t turned up at Ruby’s place yet.

Sally Morgan and Kathy Arbon, Can You Dance? (Pan Macmillan Australia 2018)

A board book produced by the Indigenous Literacy Fund, its reason for being is even more worthy than The Cat in the Hat‘s, but it wears its worthiness even more lightly. The reader is asked if they can dance in imitation of a series of native Australian animals. While a lap read is quite pleasant, the book cries out to be read to a group of small people who can flap their wings like the angry magpie, stamp their feet like the wombat and so on, until the last page is pretty much a wild rumpus.

Can You Dance? is the ninth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Ruby Reads (4)

At this rate I’ll be doing a weekly post about books Ruby and I enjoy – or at least experience – together for quite some time to come. Here goes this a selection of this week’s discoveries and rediscoveries.

Jan Pienkowski & David Walser, Meg and the Dragon (Puffin 2015)

A library book, this is part of the series that began with Meg and Mog all that time ago. Mog the cat is still on the scene; she’s just been nudged from the title. Meg the witch, whom I first met close to 40 years ago, still hasn’t got her spells completely under control, but everything turns out all right in the end. It’s a Halloween story. For anyone who thinks of the writer of a picture book as the main creator and the artist as an illustrator, the Meg and Mog series is a challenge, as artist Jan Pienkowski has been the constant. The first so many books were written, beautifully, by Helen Nicholl. David Walser seems to have been supplying words since about 2014. I doubt if the target audience notice the difference. I certainly have no complaints.

Oliver Jeffers, Up and Down (HarperCollins 2011)

This is a sweet book (borrowed from the library), but seen vicariously through the eyes of a 14-month-old reader it’s car too complex: it’s about a boy and a penguin, inseparable friends who have a falling out and are reunited in the end, raising questions on the way about why penguins can’t fly and should they want to, and how does one support a friend who has ambitions one knows will be destructive in the end.

Pamela Allen, Who Sank the Boat (1982)

Isn’t it brilliant how books survive the decades. We loved this in the early 80s. I still love it. One by one, five animals get into a boat which eventually sinks. The repeated question is ‘Who Sank the Boat?’ I guess you could see it as teaching a lesson about buoyancy, but I think of it more as gently mocking the idea of such a lesson. Ruby asked for it four tomes in a row yesterday.

Craig Smith & Katz Cowley, The Wonky Donkey (2009)

This was read to us by the splendidly showy Lisa at Leichhardt Library Rhyme Time. Evidently it started life as a song, and the wordplay is certainly brilliant. I don’t care for the somewhat grotesque illustrations when seen through my grandparenting lenses, and was relieved to discover that they are not the work of Australian artist Craig Smith. This is a different Craig Smith, possibly a New Zealander, and he did the words.

To be continued.

Who Sank the Boat? is the eighth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Frederick Macdonald’s Caruse of the Kanowna

The Caruse of the Kanowna: Frederick Macdonald’s 1914 Diary, Edited by Colin Macdonald (published by Colin Graham Macdonald 2005)

I read this for a family history project.

In August 1914 when my maternal grandfather was 32 years old, he was the officer in charge of 500 young men bound for New Guinea on board the liner Kanowna, possibly the first troops to leave Australia for service in World War One. This is not something that was ever spoken of in my childhood; it came to light through my sister’s research.

Frederick Macdonald, 19 at the time, was one of the 500. This little book, produced by Frederick’s son Colin, is built around his diary entries from 1 August to 21 September 1914, which tell the story of the ill-fated expedition: ill-fated because woefully undertrained and woefully short of food, water, clothing and other necessities. The Kanowna was eventually sent back to Townsville without seeing any action, thanks to what some would see as a providential refusal to work by the non-military firemen on board. (A couple of days after they moored in Townsville they heard that other, better equipped and trained troops had taken German establishments at Herbetsöhe, Rabaul and Simsonhafe.)

The diary entries, which account for just six of the book’s 56 pages, mention my grandfather by name only once, when he addresses a parade in Townsville the day young Frederick receives his discharge, but the diary is fascinating regardless of any special connection a reader may have to it. For example, the entry for Wednesday 2 September, mail having been received a little after ten o’clock the night before:

The parades this morning have been called off to allow the men to read their mail and to write and answer same. The dinner today was the worst we have yet had. The tea has been cancelled at dinner time owing
to shortage of water. The haricot beans were not well cooked, the sago was nearly raw and the bread [was] stodgy and sour. Several men from D company paraded with their meal to the OC and the result was a
rousing on for the cook.

The supporting material – an introduction that provides context, many photographs, an excerpt from The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–18, selections from the Naval archives – is beautifully done. My ancestor is mentioned again, though for the sake of family pride, I wish he hadn’t been. Evidently, according to one Colonel William Holmes, he ‘had very little military training or experience, and, in addition, lack[ed] personality and self-reliance’. Oh dear!

I got hold of a copy of The Caruse of the Kanowna on interlibrary loan from the Australian War Memorial. I’ve since discovered that it’s available for apparently legitimate download from this site.

Jeff Lemire and others’ Black Hammer

Jeff Lemire (writer), Dean Ormston (pencils), Dave Stewart (colorist) and Todd Klein (letterer), Black Hammer Volume 1: Secret Origins (Dark Horse Books 2017)
———————, plus Dean Rubin (artist, colorist and letterer for 22 pages) Black Hammer Volume 2: The Event (Dark Horse Books 2017)

Having enjoyed Jeff Lemire’s Descender (my blog posts here, here and here), I was happy that my Christmas gift from my Comic Supplier included the first two books in a new series by him. It’s shaping up to be quite a story.

The first volume sets up a superheroes-in-retirement scenario. There are six of them, in order of appearance: Abraham Slam, strong man, who is more or less content with his life in exile as a farmer; Golden Gail, a 54 year old woman trapped in the body of her child superhero identity; Barbalien, a Martian master of disguise who struggles with unfulfilled desire; Colonel Weird, who spends a lot of time in the para-zone, where past, present and future are jumbled up together, and whose mind appears to be pretty jumbled as a result; Talky-Walky, a robot who does all the household chores and keeps building probes to try to find a way to escape; and Madame Dragonfly, a dark witch figure with dragonfly wings who keeps herself apart from the others and is generally disliked by them.

The nature of their exile isn’t clear. All we really know is that they are confined to a limited space including their farm and the small town nearby, and that they’ve been there for 10 years. We learn snippets of their past lives fighting crime and saving the occasional cat from a tree, beating supervillains, and joining forces to combat the greatest of all supervillains, the daringly named Anti-God. We also learn that there was a seventh superhero, a leader of sorts, called Black Hammer. The first volume – which collects numbers 1 to 6 of the comic series – ends with the arrival at the farm of a young reporter named Lucy, Black Hammer’s daughter.

In the second volume, things develop in a most satisfactory manner. We get more detail of all the back stories, and of the struggle against Anti-God (he had destroyed a whole other world before attacking their former home, Spiral City, and many other superheroes died at his hands). Our understanding of the nature of their exile grows less fuzzy as Lucy snoops around (and incidentally one of her discoveries echoes a climactic moment in Joyce Carol Oates’s Hazards of Time Travel, confirming my sense that what JCO treated as a major unexpected twist can be an unremarkable plot point in genre fiction). Romantic and other relationships with the townsfolk develop, none with outright happy results. One member of the band commits a shocking act of violence against another.

The final moment of this volume echoes the end of the first. Lucy once again dominates the moment, and it may well be that the story is about to head off in a completely new direction.

One last comment. The art by Dean Ormston, colouring by Dave Stewart, and lettering by the legendary Todd Klein (who must be legendary because I’ve heard of him) are wonderful, and then there is a 22 page section in a completely different, gaudy and ebullient style, by Dave Rubín. This section is ‘The Ballad of Talky-Walky’, and though I probably wouldn’t have persevered with a whole book in that style, here it brilliantly enacts the bizarre circumstances in which Colonel Weird and Talky-Walky became close friends and allies.

I’m patiently awaiting Volume 3.

Ruby Reads III

Though Ruby likes to have the same book read to her over and over, she has still managed to accumulate quite a library, and casts her reading net wide. Here are some more titles from her bookshelf (and floor).

Michael Rosen & Helen Oxenbury, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt (Walker Books 1989)

Many people, in Australia at least, might be forgiven for thinking this is a spin-off from the Play School song with the same words, but I think I’m right in saying that the book came first. It’s a brilliant ear-worm of a read-aloud, complete with sound effects of grass, mud, forest and other obstacles that must be gone – not over, or under, or around, but through.

Jill McDonald, Hello World! Birds (Doubleday 2017)

I promise I’m not going to mention in my log every board book in Ruby’s collection. Let this one stand in for a dozen, including Cats and Kittens (a favourite).

It’s a thrill to be with a small child as she learns to turn the pages of a book, and to indicate which images excite her attention. This is a book that allows that to happen. (And there are plenty of board books that don’t judge their readership as well as this one.)

Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, Monkey Puzzle (Alison Green 2009)

Here’s a terrific ‘onion book’ (thanks to Ann Knight Bell in the comments for the term). I love the fabulous drawings of the little monkey who goes looking for his mother, and the range of animals who don’t make the grade, and the wit of the text as each candidate has some feature of the mother, but none of the essential quality, finally revealed, that she must look like the little monkey. Ruby loves the book, but turns the page once that page’s candidate has been named.

Matthew Van Fleet, with photographs by Brian Stanton, Moo (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books (2011)

Matthew Van Fleet has a whole string of beautifully produced, hefty picture books with pop-ups and moveable parts. This is the first one I encountered. There are also Dance, and Dog (in which a cat appears under the very last flap, and certain presenters of the book make sure it’s a very noisy appearance.

HTML for Babies (Sterling Children’s Books, 2016)

I really don’t get this. The web description website says, ‘These concept books will familiarize young ones with the kind of shapes and colors that make up web-based programming language and give them the head start they need.’ (It seemed appropriate to leave the US spelling unchanged.) It’s impossible to read aloud, as nothing in it makes sense. I guess it’s for browsing and taking in the visuals

Margaret Wild and Ann James, Lucy Goosey (Little Hare Books 2008)

Oooh! Another perfect picture book. Ann James’s little geese (goslings doesn’t seem the right word) are very sweet, and the story about Lucy, who is enjoying her life but doesn’t want to go flying because it’s so scary, is suitably reassuring: in the end she finds the courage because her mother reassures her she will always be there. So far Ruby seems to like pointing at the pictures most, but I like the word ‘whiffling’, for the sound made by the wings of grown-up geese.

Lucy Goosey is the eighth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Brian K Vaughan’s Paper Girls Book 4

Brian K Vaughan (writer), Cliff Chiang (artist), Matt Wilson (colorist) and Jared K Fletcher (letterer), Paper Girls, Volume 4 (Image 2018)

I wasn’t enthralled by Volumes 1 and 2 of this Girl-Goonies-meet-War-of-the-Worlds comic series, but when my Supplier gave me Volume 4 as a Christmas present I wasn’t unhappy.

Our time-travelling twelve-year-old girl heroes have left their newspaper delivering days well behind them, though there’s an occasional reminder that the skills and smarts acquired on their rounds come in handy when you’re caught up in a great war being fought wherever there are weird folds in the space time continuum. In Volume 3 the girls dealt with dinosaurs (I missed that instalment). Now it’s New Year’s Day 2000, and Y2K is a lot more dangerous and dramatic than it was in real life (always assuming that we haven’t all had our memories wiped, as happens to some of the characters here).

What can I say? I’m warming to it.

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Shortlist 2019

The 2019 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards were announced this week. The State Library of NSW has the full list on its website, but you have to do a lot of clicking back back and forth to read it. Lisa at ANZ LitLovers has listed most of the categories in easily readable form – just click here.

I haven’t read any of the books shortlisted for the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction or the UTS Glenda Adams Prize for New Writing, though more than one are on my TBR list. None of the contenders for the NSW Premier’s Prize for Translation show up when I search my blog for their names.

I’ve done marginally better on the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction. I’ve read Tracker by Alexis Wright (my review here) and I’ve listened to most of an audio book of Saga Land by Richard Fidler & Kári Gíslason (review to come when I listen to the rest of it).

Of the Multicultural NSW Award, I’ve read only Rainforest by Eileen Chong (my review here).

The biennial Indigenous Writing Prize lists two works I’ve read/seen: Taboo by Kim Scott, which we read for the Book Group (my review here), and Leah Purcell’s play The Drover’s Wife, which I was completely blown away by at the Belvoir.

Then there are the categories not blogged by Lisa (and mostly unread by me, sadly). I’ve commented where I have more than nothing to say:

People’s Choice Award:
If you live in New South wales you can vote for any of the titles on the Christina Stead Prize shortlist (click here).

Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry:
Interval by Judith Bishop
I Love Poetry by Michael Farrell (my review here)
Things I’ve Thought To Tell You Since I Saw You Last by Penelope Layland
Wildlife of Berlin by Philip Neilsen
Blindside by Mark Reid
Rondo by Chris Wallace-Crabbe

Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature:
Between Us by Clare Atkins
Small Spaces by Sarah Epstein
I Am Out With Lanterns by Emily Gale
Amelia Westlake by Erin Gough
Stone Girl by Eleni Hale
The Art of Taxidermy by Sharon Kernot

Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature:
Shine Mountain by Julie Hunt
Maya and Cat by Caroline Magerl
Leave Taking by Lorraine Marwood (I haven’t read this but I did blog about her Downhill all the Way, Five Islands Press 2005)
Dingo by Claire Saxby and Tannya Harricks
Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend
The Dog with Seven Names by Dianne Wolfer

Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting:
The Almighty Sometimes by Kendall Feaver
Oil Babies by Petra Kalive
Going Down by Michele Lee
Lost Boys by Lachlan Philpott
The Long Forgotten Dream by Howard Lawrence Sumner (I saw this in the Sydney Theatre Company, and though the performances were terrific there was something unresolved about the play itself,
Barbara and the Camp Dogs by Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine (I saw this at the Belvoir, and loved it – but I’d love anything that had Ursula Yovich in it, and this had Elaine Crombie as well)

Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting:
Picnic at Hanging Rock, Episode 4 by Alice Addison (Has this been screened yet?)
Jirga by Benjamin Gilmour (I saw this at the Sydney Film Festival, and it was one of my favourite films of 2018.)
Seoul City Sue by Noëlle Janaczewska
Mystery Road, Episode 5 – ‘The Waterhole’ by Timothy Lee (I loved this series, more than the first series, but I never remember individual episodes.)
Mystery Road, Episode 1 – ‘Gone’ by Michaeley O’Brien (Ditto)
Riot by Greg Waters

The winners will be announced on 29 April, on the eve of the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

Marilynne Robinson’s Lila

Marilynne Robinson, Lila (Virago 2014)

This is the third book in Marilynne Robinson’s superb Gilead trilogy. I wouldn’t be sorry to learn that the series will continue.

The first book, Gilead, is narrated by John Ames, an ageing Congregationalist pastor in the small US town that the book is named after, trying to explain his life of faith to his alienated son. A main strand of that book is Ames’s intense relationship with the Reverend Boughton, another pastor in Gilead. They both are devoted to their God, to their calling as clergymen, to each other, and to a rigorous thinking through of their Calvinist faith. I don’t know that I’ve ever read theological discussion that was so warmly human.

The second book, Home (which I’ve blogged about here and here), covers ground already traversed in the first, but from a different points of view: it’s mainly the story of Boughton’s disgraced son Jack, coming home with a new wife. Lila is named for Ames’s second wife, and tells the story of her radically deprived childhood and life on the margins leading up to the moment when she improbably but convincingly finds a home with the one she thinks of as ‘this good old man’.

I regret reading this so long after its predecessors. We only get what Lila overhears of Ames and Boughton’s conversations, and Boughton’s adult children have tiny, non-speaking roles, so there’s a sense of so much happening outside the scope of the narrative , some of which I’m fairly sure was explicit in Gilead. My impression is that the action of Home takes place after the action of this book, but I wouldn’t swear to it. And I don’t suppose it really matters. Lila’s story is compelling in its own right.

She was saved from probable death from neglect as a small child by a vagrant woman named only Doll. She grew up under Doll’s fiercely protective care in Depression USA, joining a group of itinerant workers, going to school enough to learn to read, always moving on when Doll feared they were about to be found by Lila’s vengeful kinfolk or other enemies. Doll’s life ends in violence – after she stabs to death a man who may be Lila’s biological father.

Lila manages to survive a time working in a brothel and the hardships of life on the road until almost by accident she walks into the church in Gilead. Before that, her minimal literacy has led her to the Bible, and phrases from Ezekiel about a baby weltering in its blood somehow struck a deep chord in her imagination.

Interspersed with this story, the story of Lila growing up, coming to Gilead and proposing marriage to Ames, there is the story of her emotional journey towards deciding to stay with him. Virtuous characters are notoriously difficult to create, and once created they are difficult to make interesting. From one point of view, Lila exists as a device to allow us to see Ames as interesting: her every interaction with him is informed by the violence and deprivation that have formed her, as well as her fierce love and loyalty to Doll.

We no longer hear the intricate theological discussions of Ames and Boughton. Instead, Ames is challenged to examine the basic nature of his faith. It’s a good bit of the power of the book that he rises to the challenge with humility, affection, even delight. It’s evangelical Christianity, but not as we have come to know it in the age of Trump.