Sunday, 22 July 2018

Book Review: Ollie and the Starchaser by Tanya Southey

It is often acknowledged that children’s literature is devoured just as hungrily by the adult purchasers as the intended young readers. I became another proof-point to this widely accepted “truth” last week when I found myself lazing on the couch by the fireplace on a wintry Sunday afternoon as the wind and rain howled outside, riveted to a copy of “Ollie and the Starchaser”, aimed at 8 – 12 year olds.

Written by debut author Tanya Southey, it is a book with just the right mixture of fantasy and fact, fiction and realism, magic and adventure. It opens with Ollie being put to bed by his grandmother Nanoo.

Nanoo was not a usual gran who sat knitting scratchy jumpers and drinking tea. She was an astronomer who had discovered a new planet. She wasn’t much of a cook but she had one biscuit recipe that never failed. Ollie is also not the usual little boy. He finds school hard sometimes, other boys tease him about the books he read or about dropping the ball in footy.

Nanoo and Ollie spent time together with the biscuits, her stories and her telescope. Nanoo taught Ollie about the universe, the planet she had discovered and more importantly to love adventure and to imagine. As Ollie looked through her telescope, he marked things he could see. He also marked things he couldn’t see but imagined were up there and hoped he might discover, just as Nanoo had done.

One day when Ollie comes home from school, his dog does not run up and welcome him in the usual way. Inside he finds his mum crying, dad standing by with a grave look on his pale face. Nanoo is missing. Ollie’s life is turned upside down, he cannot believe this is happening. Grumpiness replaces laughter in his family.

Ollie’s luck changes when his friend Starchaser turns up in his garden one day. Together, Ollie and the Starchaser go on an epic adventure to find Nanoo. They explore vistas beyond the comfort zone, take risks and make brave choices. But does it lead them to Nanoo in the end? You have to read to find out.

This is a book that will provoke some rich conversations with the young ones in your life. About gender bias, self esteem, resilience, accepting those that are different, family and friendship. It also gives you a scaffolding to talk to children about dealing with loss and grief. The writing itself is incredibly visual, imaginative and fun. Gum trees look like tiny broccoli on a dinner plate from the sky. The sun pulls a blanket of waves over its head as it sinks into the ocean. The illustration by Jess Southey then pushes it to a whole new level. You can actually make it a game to see how many clues your young reader (or you) can find in the illustrations. Like the number plate for Nanoo’s car being NAN000. Or busy astronomer Nanno owning a cookbook named “COOKING 123” and a snakeplant, a houseplant notoriously hard to kill. Illustrations of Ollie’s bedroom or treehouse with its astronomy themed curtains and posters would be any adventure-loving kid’s dream.

The book is not without its little faults. The introduction to Starchaser (outside of Nanoo’s stories) is somewhat abrupt. Some of the references like a 10-57 police code seem American rather than Australian. The first few chapters used to build context are slow to being with and risks losing some young readers before they get to where the fun starts. But once the adventure gets going, this is a book that is hard to put down. It is also a book that lingers in your mind long after you have turned the last page. Overall, an amazing effort from a first time writer and a book that would make a fabulous gift for any pre-teen in your life.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Flat finish to the Clifton Chronicles

Being a loyal Jeffrey Archer fan, I picked up the first of the Clifton Chronicles (Only Time Will Tell) almost as soon as it was released. I had spent the previous few months awaiting this saga, the one that promised to tell a sweeping, all-encompassing story of its 3 heroes through all of the 20th century. The setting has many similarities to Archer's own life, the setting in South West England, life at a dockyard (Archer's grandfather worked in one), life as an MP, life as a successful author, life in prison, life on the verge of bankruptcy. Many say that Archer's life story would make a great read and that's an understatement!

And the series. at first, did not disappoint. It was hallmark Archer. Solid storyline, bold characters, sneaky twists and turns - all leading up to a sucker punch ending. I waited eagerly again for the next one. As the series evolved, however, the story seemed to lose some of its tautness. Like a much-loved champagne left out overnight after a party, I could recognise the tasting notes that had made me fall in love but gone were the bubbles and buzz, the flavour and fizz. I am nothing but a loyalist, and despite falling out of love by Book #3 (Best Kept Secret) in the series, with all of the might of my Taurean stubbornness, I vowed to not quit.

This was meant to be a 5 year project with a book each year, covering 20 years at a time. I wish the editor held Archer to it, because the last 2 books were like flat warm beer. Stories continue to meander and characters are added to just add to the length of the book rather than the story. In Book #6 (Cometh the Hour) What was the point of the Bollywoodesque love story between Sebastian and Priya? 1970s Bombay looks and feels mysteriously like 2015 and you cringe at the lack of research. Children's voices have never been well developed in an Archer novel, but Jessica's precociousness is as annoying as a thousand nails on a chalkboard. Even the perfection of the 3 protagonists now seem boring, having seen it already for 5 400+ page books prior to this.

Coming to Book #7 (This Was a Man), there seems to be very little point in even writing it. The first chapter resolves the characteristic twist in the tail that Archer ends each book with. The rest of the book focuses on minor characters and more meandering subplots rather than extending anything of significance in the protagonists' lives. More time was spent on the details of a school cricket match rather than the triumphs and failures of the Cliftons and Barringtons.

This dull ending to a much anticipated saga has made me somewhat sad, rather like losing an old friend. One that you haven't always kept in touch with, but so much of your early life and love are tied up in your memories of him. I have enjoyed many an Archer novel and short story over the years. I want to remember him for those - the sweeping drama of Kane and Abel, the thrill of the chase in Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, the cat-and-mouse game in A Twist in the Tale, the wit and entertainment in A Quiver Full of Arrows... The Clifton Chronicles was an audacious goal to take on at the age of 70. It was entertaining in parts. But instead of the characteristic cracking showdown in the Archer from the past, this one fizzles to a very very flat finish.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Shelf Help: When books help you heal

3 months ago life threw me a sucker punch that, for the first time ever, made me unable to read books. On January 30 this year, I lost my father.  Ever since then, I have not been able to read a single book. I could not decide what to read. If I chose something anyway, I couldn't settle enough to keep going. My eyes scan the words. My brain registers nothing but grief. I almost feel guilty doing something I would enjoy when my father is no longer around...

I, the forever finish-one-book-and-start-another kind of girl, had lost my reading mojo and it scared me.

Finally I decided it was time for some serious s(h)elf help! I have my own library full of books but it simply wasn't working. So last weekend, I walked down to my favourite local library and honed down on one of my all-time favourite authors, the Queen of Suspense, Mary Higgins Clark.

Mary Higgins Clark is known for her suspense and mystery thrillers. I love most of her books, but more than that I am fascinated and inspired by her own life. Born in 1927, she lost her father when she was only 11 and her older brother in WWII when she was 17. She aspired to be a writer from when she was very young but worked as a switchboard operator, secretary, model and stewardess, got married and struggled for a long time before enjoying literary success. Before her first big win with "Where are the Children" in 1975, she had also lost her mother, her only remaining sibling and her first husband. Today, at almost 90 years of age, she is still writing, while enjoying life with her children, grandchildren and current husband. Definitely on my reading list is her memoir "Kitchen Privileges"

As for me, this week I successfully finished 3 of her books!! The book balm has worked, I have now got 3 more books lined up to read (Jeffrey Archer and Tara Moss) and life is slowly getting back to enjoyable again.

A short review of each of the 3 books I read this weekend:

I Heard that Song Before (2007) Rating 6/10 - Daughter of a landscaper, little Kay Lansing sneaks into the mansion of her widowed father's rich employer one day and overhears a couple arguing about money and then the man walking away whistling a tune she is familiar with. Later that day, a woman disappears never to be seen again. A few weeks later Kay's own father commits suicide, apparently not able to live life without his dear wife. Kay is plunged into deep feelings of abandonment... 22 years later Kay ends up marrying the once-employer's son, knowing full well that there are rumours surrounding the mysterious death of his first wife as well as girlfriend (the woman who disappeared all those years ago). When the police arrive at their doorstep with an arrest warrant for her husband after some new evidence comes up, Kay is scared she has married a murderer - but determined to find the truth.

I identified with Kay's feelings of abandonment after her father's death (Illogical, I know. But it's there). However overall the characters are ill developed in this story and it is hard to relate to most of them. It kept me guessing for most of the book, but did not really grab me as most of her books do.

Where are you Now (2008) Rating 7/10 - A 21 year old university student at the cusp of a successful life seemingly walks out of it one day and is never seen again. He does call his parents every Mother's Day. Even the death of his father in the 9/11 tragedy does not bring him back, although the calls don't stop. 10 years later, his sister is determined to find him. Her actions set in motion a number of events that seems to prove that  her brother is now a serial killer!

What I found most interesting in this book is how each little element and different story arc connects and falls in place by the end. No wonder MHC is known as a master plotter. Although there were enough clues to guess the culprit, I couldn't quite figure out why and how until the very end. A good page turner and exactly what I needed for my bibliotherapy.

Daddy's gone a hunting (2013) Rating 7/10 - A family owned furniture business in New York bursts into flames one night killing a former disgruntled employee and severely injuring the owner's daughter Kate. It is evident the fire was deliberately lit and suspicion falls on Kate, while she is in an induced coma and unable to defend herself. Kate's sister Hannah is determined to prove her sister innocent while their father Doug seems distant and money minded.

Again in this book it is clever how so many different lives and families intersect and are connected by murders that take place in different times and for different reasons. I love the excitement of the guessing game of course, but the clever plotting and connections between characters is what kept me going.

Friday, 10 June 2016

Catalogue & Cover, Cover, Read....

Catalogue & Cover these...

Cover these.....

Read most of these....

A Book Lover's life is always busy...

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Love Crime Novels Set In Europe?.... You Might Like This Then...

If you love the crime fiction genre and can't resist the atmosphere of a Paris cafe scene, a dark foggy mystery in London, a chase through the streets of Prague or the seedy side of Berlin in the 20s, you'll probably quite like the suitably named site 

It doesn't seem to get updated that often, but hey, I'm guilty of that sin myself to some degree, but it has some great links and bits n bobs from the genre.


Sunday, 29 May 2016

A Weekend In The 1930s.....

I've been away this weekend. 

One of the pleasures of being a book lover is how much I get to travel, fitting global (and temporal) odysseys into just one weekend of 'real' time.

After spending much of last week flitting around Melbourne in 1929, in the scintillating company of Ms Phyrne Fisher, I found myself unable to pull out of the inter-war years. 

So, I elected to spend some of it in Berlin, circa 1930, where, in the company of Mr Isherwood, I was lucky enough to meet the delectably decadent Ms Sally Bowles. 

Sally likes to party, in spite of, (or, it could be argued, with total disregard for) the state of the world around her. She is a wonderful creature, as all her boyfriends know. Her life could be likened to a cabaret, all flash, glamour and entertainment on the surface, with the dirty reality hidden from the outside world by props and scenery. 

I'm still enjoying Sally's life, but my magical travel powers have allowed me to skip forward to 1932, where I've spent some time aboard the majestic vessel RMS Aquitania as she makes her way across the Atlantic to New York, then on to Sydney. In the company of the the Honourable Rowland Sinclair, (accompanied, of course by his good friends, Milton, Clyde and the irresistibly flame-haired Edna) I have been introduced to the guiding lights of the Theosophical Society. Of course, someone is inconsiderate enough to have gotten murdered, and even young Roly himself has been shot at! 

It's always so dangerous hanging around this gang of artistic Sydney-siders!

I look forward to continuing both of these journeys over the next few days!

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Phryne Fisher... Queen Of The Bright Young Things...

As a 'dyed in the wool' lover of classic Golden Age mysteries, and being possessed of a need to be retrospectively reincarnated into the turbulent times of the roaring twenties and the tumultuous thirties, what better vehicle for my escapism than the Phryne Fisher novels of Kerry Greenwood?

With a generous ladelling of period appropriate mis-en-scene, an intelligent, beautiful, talented, protagonist, and the requisite twists, red-herrings and villains of a Christie-esque creation, Cocaine Blues, ticks all the right boxes.

Many of you will have met Miss Fisher through the excellent TV series that has catalogued her adventures, but, in time-honoured fashion, the books, of course, far out-do the TV show based on this, the first offering. There are already a whole bunch of Phryne Fisher novels out there, great news for those of us who love a single author binge. I can't wait to get my teeth into the rest of them!

The visual assistance of the TV show definitely aided my easy fall into love with this book, who couldn't fall for Essie Davies? But the novel stands alone admirably. 

Greenwood has a talent for detailing the costumes her heroine inhabits throughout the adventure that might cause the non-sartorialy inclined to gloss over them a bit, but if flapper style is not your bag, if your interests lay along a more traditionally 'masculine' plane, just Google her choice of automobile, in this instance a 1920's Hispano-Suiza 46CV in red.... If you don't find that sexy, accompanied by the delectable Miss Fisher, you are clearly dead.

Read Cocaine Blues, it's wonderful!!