Tuesday 27 November 2012

The Amber Amulet

Oh my, I don't think I can say how much I love this tiny gem of a book. An early contender for book of the year.

I love the story, the writing, the styling, the cover, the humour, the warmth, the humanity, the fabulous illustrations. And they all work together to enchance each other. It's extraordinary, quite extraordinary, most unlike anything I've read before I think. I was planning to give my copy to my local library (trying to cut down on the bookshelves, an unwinnable game, but still I try), but I know that I can't part with it. Perhaps I'll buy them a copy? Poor things, they certainly need one.

Fabulous illustrations by Sonia Martinez

The Amber Amulet is the story of 12 year old Liam McKenzie who lives with his mum in suburban Franklin Street. Except Liam is no ordinary kid, he has superpowers, enhanced by geological items on his Amazing Powerbelt, and his special outfit.

Adorning his wrist is a copper bracelet that his grandmother wore to soothe her arthritis, but he knows it is better used to amplify Empathy and Mercy. Pinned to his heart is his grandfather's bronze service medal, for Bravery and Valour. Two clear silicone discs secured in a wire frame rest on the bridge of his nose. They give his eyes Supersight, as well as protecting them against Debris, Hypnosis and Poking. 

Liam doesn't sleep much and at night he prowls his street as the Masked Avenger, aided by his "loyal crime-fighting comrade, Richie the Powerbeagle".

Picture source

The Masked Avenger looks out for his neighbours, he mends loose gates, and notices when their car tyres are flat. Franklin Street is "clean, orderly and respectful", but the Masked Avenger is "particularly concerned by the woman in the house at the end of the street. Something there is deeply amiss, though he can't quite put his finger on it."

The Amber Amulet is so compellingly readable. The Masked Avengers interactions with Joan, the lady at the end of the street are poignant, heartfelt and moving. I had saved this book to read on a short plane flight from Hobart to Melbourne. I'm glad I did, I loved it so much that I read it again on the flight from Melbourne to Sydney.

Craig Silvey is a young Australian writer, a mere 30 years old this year. I read, and loved, his previous book Jasper Jones, and still think of it fairly often. Zombie Cheeses. That still cracks me up. Listen to Craig Silver talk about The Amber Amulet recently on Books and Arts Daily. It's soon to be a short film. Yay. Will look out for it. I must search out his first book Rhubarb.

Monday 26 November 2012

Greatest Cities of the World- Paris

Our Australian ABC has recently been rescreening Griff Rhys Jones' Greatest Cities of the World. I haven't seen any of the other cities, but made sure to catch the episode on Paris.

Griff takes us on a 24 hour journey through Paris on a single day. Exploring such Paris staples as bread, the life of a Parisian waiter and a Parisian dog.

There are many glorious glimpses of Paris of course. And some fascinating facts along the way.

Paris was considered "too beautiful to be bombed", which is why it survived World War II so well.

200 years ago Paris was France's second busiest port.

There are two water systems in Paris. The newer one supplying drinking water. The older system for street cleaning.

Baguettes were a Viennese invention. In Paris 70% of the bread is made by hand, compared with 3% in the UK. Parisians may queue for bread twice a day.

Most disturbing is the image of Griff greasing the large mechanism that keep the lifts of the Eiffel Tower running with molten mutton fat. Apparently this occurs once a week.

Fascinating to accompany a canine client to the Salon de Toilettage, and see the use of dog cologne.

We also get to visit the bee hives on the roof of the Opera Garnier who make one of the most expensive honeys in the world. I must try some of that next year. I am also looking forward to helping to consume the 80,000 bottles of champagne that need to be drunk in Paris each day.

It all appears to be on youtube if you've missed it.

Sunday 25 November 2012

One Small Island

I was very excited about this title when it came out last year, it's a shame that it's taken me so long to read it. It's a fabulous book, about a fascinating part of the world. Little did I know how fascinating it really is.

One Small Island tells the tale of Macquarie Island, a small island in the Southern Ocean between New Zealand and Antarctica. But like all good things that good possibly be construed as belonging to New Zealand, we found it first and claimed it for Australia.

Macquarie Island was discovered in July 1810 by Captain F Hasselborough, who had been blown off course while heading to Campbell Island, another subantarctic island. He named it for Lachlan Macquarie, the new Governor of New South Wales. Actually, much of New South Wales is named either Lachlan or Macquarie, and I'm sure the ongoing popularity and use of the name Lachlan in Australia stems from this time also.

Macquarie Island was a natural refuge to huge colonies of seals and penguins. A sealing industry was immediately set up in 1810, and in the ten short years that followed the sealers killed more than 100,000 fur seals, until there were none left. Naturally a lack of seals didn't stop the ravenous desire for oil, the elephant seals were the next target, and when they were all but gone then penguin oil became the industry. It seems rather impossible that there was a penguin oil industry at one time, I'm glad we live in a somewhat gentler time.

I've known about conservation efforts on Macquarie Island for some time, the recent efforts to rid the remote island of rabbits and rats. I didn't know that previously there were feral cats, dogs and wekas amongst many others!

There is a lot of information packed into this book, so much so that both endpapers include even more.

The book itself alternates large illustrative double pages

with beautiful, intricate pages crammed with information in various formats- imaginings of primary journals from early explorers and sealers, newspaper accounts, maps, drawings. There are a few lines of text at the bottom of each page, that reads quickly as a stand alone story. I was too keen to read the story so read through the bottom first and then came back for a slower reading of the informative pages. It's a very clever design, easy to read just the text for younger children, but then with much more information that older children and adults can digest. Although young children do love pouring over illustrative detail.

While One Small Island is a tale of ecological destruction and (mis)adventure, it is ultimately optimistic and hopeful. We have stopped the slaughter of seals and penguins. Although it is sadly too late for the Macquarie Island parakeet, the seals and penguins have come back. The wekas, cats and dogs have gone. There rabbits and rodents are on their way out due to expensive, large scale government efforts. The books message that it's important to care for our "precious places, no matter how small or faraway they are" is a vital one.

An Illustrated Year by An Abundance of Books

Saturday 24 November 2012

Salamanca Markets

This time last week I was lucky enough to be wandering around Hobart's fabulous Salamanca Markets. Possibly the most famous markets in Australia. Certainly one of the most colourful and entertaining. I don't think I'd ever been before.

Every Saturday from 8am to 3pm an otherwise quiet city street is transformed, from this:

To this:

There are plenty of colourful flowers, of the real

and not so real kinds

 Colourful food

Intriguing fruit leathers, I bought some home but haven't got to sampling yet

Colourful handmade goods

Colourful, and good, buskers

 And a whole range of colourful characters, and causes. The most hippies I've seen in decades I think.

Not a hippie, just young and hip
Proving that Hobart is a small town,
we both dined in the same Chinese restaurant the next night!

Tasmania has a prominent social conscience
There were stalls from many major charities-
including The Wilderness Society, Amnesty International, and the Socialists
Not something you see on the mainland, not at a market so much as a protest day

I never did get to see what this guy did.
Another reason to go back. 

Saturday Snapshot, is a wonderful weekly meme from at home with books

Monday 19 November 2012

The Most Beautiful Walk in the World

I came across John Baxter somewhat accidentally. I stumbled upon his A Paris Christmas a few years ago, and immediately fell in love. So much so that I needed two posts to gush fully. Find the first post here, and the second. So I knew that I would have to read The Most Beautiful Walk in the World sometime. I've just recently reread Edmund White's The Flaneur, and so this seemed an opportune time to walk the streets of Paris again, this time with John Baxter.

I have to say that I was a little bit disappointed with this book. Primarily I think because I loved A Paris Christmas so, so much. And a bit because most of it wasn't quite what I was expecting of it. The weight of expectations like that are hard to live up to.

Which is not to say that it's not a great read. I did enjoy it, a lot, and I read it in a mere few days, I just didn't love it as much as I expected to. John Baxter is in the enviable position of living in the 6th arrondissement (central Paris is divided into 20 such arrondissements or areas). I am in the enviable position of planning a holiday in Paris next year, and of having secured an apartment in the 6th, so there was plenty of local interest for me. He describes it as Paris's Greenwich Village or Soho. In the time of Hemingway it was cheap, whereas the modern 6th is the most expensive area in Paris. 

There is a whole chapter on the Luxembourg Gardens, more on it's dark history than the current day delights- it served as the former haunts of murderers and Nazis, as well as medieval queens. I've had the pleasure of strolling through the Luxembourg Gardens on quite a few occasions, but am looking forward to enjoying it even more next year with ready access, and hope to find more of it's treasures such as the original model of the Statue of Liberty. 

John Baxter does eventually toy with the notion of the flaneur also. The broad avenues created by Baron Haussman as military conduits for Napoleon III (which happily destroyed the crowded tenements of the poor, and those likely to plot revolution) allowed Parisians to stroll and savour their newly beautiful city, and to promenade themselves in the fashions of the day.

I'd never quite absorbed the role of prohibition in helping to make Paris such a capital of artistic and hedonistic endeavours in the 1920s. It was the perfect time though really, coming as it did on the tail end of the First World War, and there were already many American servicemen staying on in Europe, teaching the Europeans how to drink cocktails.

Foreigners liked to drink early, in the late afternoon, when French customers were still at work and the cafes would normally be empty. They also ate early, unlike the French, who seldom sat down before nine. Above all, they possessed unquenchable thirsts. The French drank for pleasure and relaxation; the Americans, the Spaniards, and the Germans did so to get drunk. 

Indeed, this book is full of endless fascination. The role that opium has played in European art and culture. The endless variety of Paris Metro stations, some of which may be a destination in and of themselves next year. 

... we who walk in Paris write a new history with every step. The city we leave behind will never be quite the same again. 

Some of the many fascinating factoids that I gleaned from reading this book:

Speilberg is said to have used the forehead and nose from a portrait of Ernest Hemingway when refinining his visual concept of E.T! Along with the eyes of poet Carl Sandburg, and the mouth of Albert Einstein. 

The guillotine was in use until 1977.

Proust's favourite cafe was Angelina's.

Perfumiers gather flowers in the late afternoon, as their scent will be at its most powerful.

A newly elected president of France will make a courtesy visit to the Pantheon.

There is a statue commemorating the discovery of quinine as a treatment for malaria on the Boulevard Saint-Michel that I shall need to seek out.

Dreaming of France, a weekly meme by Paulita of An Accidental Blog

Sunday 18 November 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

I'm really not sure what hurtled this particular book to the top of my TBR. I'd seen the title around a bit I suppose. I knew some people who had read it, but I'd never talked to them about it. I didn't know what it was about, I don't think I've ever read a review. I vaguely knew that there was a movie coming out, but haven't seen the shorts. But then standing in a shop contemplating the bookshelves I read Rocky Horror Picture Show on the back cover blurb, flicked through and saw that it was written as letters, and then suddenly I was standing there buying it.

I do generally love books written in first person, and really enjoy quirky voices, but I found Charlie's voice a bit hard to warm to initially. I got used to it to some extent, but never became really comfortable with him. In fact, I don't know that I ever really engaged with Charlie. Perhaps that's the point? Charlie writes his rather personal and detailed letters to an unnamed, and apparently unknown friend. I guess I found that a bit weird and rather disingenuous.

Actually I'm not sure that I bought the whole premise. Charlie is supposed to be a very awkward 15 year old loner. Except despite him being painted as an odd fish he actually seems to make and keep friends quite easily. He has an active circle of friends. Not the wallflower of my imagination.

I was a bit surprised to find that a student commits suicide on page 2. Michael had been Charlie's best friend the year before. Charlie has had his share of personal and family tragedy. But at times it felt a bit like the author had made a comprehensive list of problems to include- youth suicide, teen pregnancy, alcohol and drug use, homosexuality, mental illness, domestic violence. They're all there in Charlie's life in a town somewhere in the mid-west of America, 2 hours drive from Ohio.

Which all comes across a bit more negative than I really feel about the book. I was travelling whilst reading this and I enjoyed it as my in-flight reading, and enjoyed the book well enough, I just didn't like it as much as I would have thought I would. I did like the Rocky Horror references, Charlie and his group of friends go see Rocky Horror every Friday night. I did that for a while too back in the 80s. I haven't seen it in years, maybe I should dust off my DVD and watch it again? It must be time.

Thursday 15 November 2012

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

I heard about this movie when it was released in 2005, but I'd never seen it anywhere here, and really had forgotten about it. Until recently when I saw a blog post about a new bird movie The Central Park Effect. I couldn't find it in Australia of course. But I remembered The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill and searched that out. It wasn't easy. My library didn't have it. I eventually found it at JBHifi. Except I didn't notice the fine print stating that they weren't sure that they had it either. Thankfully they did and it didn't take all that long to drop into my mail box.

Recently we watched it for my pick for our weekly family movie and pizza night. A Friday night institution at our house. We take it in turns to pick a movie for all of us to watch. We've been doing it for years, and have watched lots of great movies, and a few duds. Tonight it was my turn. So I picked a film about birds, much to the boy's despair.

It's a rather fascinating film about birds, it must be said. Except wow, it's much more than just a film about birds.

Mark Bittner was single man living in rather difficult circumstances in Telegraph Hill in San Francisco in the 1990s. He wasn't working, and didn't have much money, but he had time. One day he noticed a small group of exotic parrots, these parrots came to be a big part of his life. Much bigger than he could have ever imagined. Those parrots changed his life.

A beautiful, moving true tale of birds, yes. But so much more. It's exceptionally sad at times. I highly recommend it.

Sunday 11 November 2012

Metal Evolution

Heavy Metal isn't my thing really, well, um, no it's not at all. And that's ok. I'm more than ok with it actually, but it doesn't help explain my complete fascination with this documentary series on the history of metal.

I was rather uncharacteristically thrilled to accidentally find this tv series,  hidden away on ABC 2 whilst channel surfing late one night. I generally don't do that either. If only the Weekend Australia still printed a tv guide for the whole week, but they don't. So it was pure chance. Or serendipity. But for whatever reason I was hooked straight away.

The first episode I found explored the links between early blues and heavy metal. Both riff based, and "soak it for as much emotion as you can". Both are dark in nature, blues had an edge, "it sounded dark, it sounded dirty, it sounded evil. These old blues guys they had a growl to their voice."

More obvious roots perhaps in the early rock and roll of the 50s. Distorted guitar from broken speakers stuffed with paper at Sun Studios.

"Elvis was the Metallica of his time." 

Unexpected links between  the surf music of the 60s and heavy metal. Although it made perfect sense at the time....

Sam Dunn has interviewed most everyone who isn't dead, regardless of how drug addled they are and whether they can only be interviewed in a bar, and it's fascinating. Plus it's really funny to see how basically none of these guys have changed their hair since the 70s. And it's totally worth it to see Alice Cooper in a silver jumpsuit back in the day!

Somehow my DVD recorder didn't manage to record all the episodes, so I've missed a few in the middle. I find myself being attracted to the notion of the DVD box set. Did someone say Santa?

Saturday 10 November 2012

Australian Pelican

I love our pelicans. Pelecanus conspicillatus. They certainly are conspicuous. 

But they do have such an extraordinary grace.

Despite their appearance.

Although they do look ungainly and awkward flying.

And rather improbable. 

And even more ridiculous as they land. 

They seem to have a sense of fun though. You often see groups of them quite high, circling, soaring on thermals.

And they like sitting on stuff. Despite their size. 

Saturday Snapshot, is a wonderful weekly meme from at home with books

Friday 9 November 2012

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret

I'm not all that familiar with Judy Blume. I didn't read her when I was a child. I'm not sure that she was all that available in Australia back then actually. It's probably only in the past 5 years or so that I've even really heard of her and begun to appreciate her mystique and fame. After all, there is a whole book devoted to loving Judy Blume.

Which I have lurking in the TBR,
but I want to read some more Judy Blume first
Are you there God? It's me, Margaret was one of her early books, her first big seller, and her first to be quite controversial. Indeed even now Margaret stirs up controversy. It's a rather simple tale. Margaret Simon moves from New York to New Jersey with her family in the summer before she starts Sixth Grade. It's an anxious time, she will miss her grandmother in New York, wants to make new friends and is anxious about what her new school will be like.

Are you there, God? It's me, Margaret. We're moving today. I'm so scared, God. I've never lived anywhere but here. Suppose I hate my new school? Suppose everybody there hates me? Please help me, God. Don't let New Jersey be too horrible. Thank you. 

Eleven year old Margaret does settle into her new school quite well, she makes a new group of friends, but is beset with worries about the onset of puberty. Margaret and her friends are conducting a race of sorts, noone wants to be last to get their periods, and they all want to get breasts. Originally published in 1970 Margaret needs to learn to grapple with the sanitary belts of the time. I read a 1982 edition that was still original, but was interested to see that these sections were updated to reflect more modern feminine technology. I would have preferred if the references to plaid dresses, plaid bedspreads and wearing her best velvet to a party had been updated. Was the world ever really like that?

Are you starting to see why this has been controversial? But then there's the religion bits, and we're there. Puberty, menarche and religion, it's like a trifecta for controversy.

Are you there God? seems to be plagued
 by the worst selection of covers of any book I've seen.
This was the version I read. 

Margaret is half Jewish and half Christian, but doesn't practice either. Her parents aren't religious and. they want her to choose her own religion when she's grown up, if she wants to. But in New Jersey, Margaret's friends either belong to the YWCA or the Jewish Community Centre. So she begins to think about it more, and attends a number of churches to learn about their beliefs and teachings.

I enjoyed my time with Margaret and her friends at an interesting time of their lives. I'll look forward to reading more of Judy Blume's books.


Thursday 8 November 2012

Wondrous Words Wednesday 7/11/12

Wondrous Words Wednesday is a fabulous weekly meme hosted by Bermuda Onion, where we share new (to us) words that we’ve encountered in our weekly reading.  

Recently I read the wonderful The Graveyard Book. Naturally, with Neil Gaiman there were some fabulous new words.

1. Revenants (Noun)

"Your duty, ma'am, is to the graveyard, and to the commonality of those who form this population of discarnate spirits, revenants and such-like wights, and your duty thus is to return the creature as soon as possible to its natural home- which is not here."

i) One that returns after a lengthy absence.
ii) One who returns after death. The Free Dictionary. 

2. Wights (Noun)

Obsolete. A living being, a creature. The Free Dictionary. 

3. Rill (Noun)

She stopped beside a broken clay building like an enormous beehive, built beside a small rill of water that came bubbling out of the desert rock, splashed down into a tiny pool and was gone again. 

i) A small brook; a rivulet. 
ii) A long narrow straight valley on the moon's surface. The Free Dictionary. 

3. Snakestone (Noun)

"Snakestone?" he said, to himself, not to the boy.

Animal bones which are widely used and promoted as a treatment for snakebite it Africa, South America and Asia. Wiki

4. Skirling (Verb)

Bod wondered if he could hear it better because he was wearing the flower- he could make out a beat, like distant drums, and a skirling, hesitant melody that made him want to pick up his heels and march in time to the sound. 

To produce a high, shrill, wailing tone. Used of bagpipes. The Free Dictionary. 

5. Gloaming (Noun)

The rain had stopped and the cloudy gloaming had become true twilight. 

Twilight. Dusk. The Free Dictionary. 

Picture source

6. Ichor (Noun)

"Can you imagine," interrupted the Bishop of Bath and Wells, "how fine a drink the black ichor that collects in a leaden coffin can be?"

i) Greek Mythology. The rarefied fluid said to run in the veins of the gods. 
ii) Pathology. A watery, acrid discharge from a wound or ulcer. The Free Dictionary

I don't think I've ever seen two such contradictory meanings!

Tuesday 6 November 2012

Kingdom of Plants

I've just spent an hour each Sunday night for the past three weeks watching David Attenborough's latest project- Kingdom of Plants. And fascinating viewing it is too. Sir David Attenborough is an old man now, 86, his right knee looks dodgy as he walks, but he is still vital and engaging, and passionate about our natural world. This 3 part documentary was filmed at The Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, where rather astonishingly they have representative plants of 90% of the worlds plant species.

Part One, Life in the Wet Zone, explores the rainforests that cover just 2% of our land surface, but contain 50% of species. Sir David shows us how plants are competitive creatures, every bit as aggressive as animals. Flowering plants developed 140 million years ago and rather quickly became the dominant group. Water lillies were one of the first flowering plants.

There were fascinating images of orchids where the lower part mimics the appearance of a female bee, but the plant also produces a pheromone mimic to the scent of female bees! Ingenious. A particular Madagascan moth has a 30 cm (yes centimetre) tongue necessary to reach inside it's 30cm orchid partner.

We didn't see it in 3D, but you get the idea. 

Part Three Survival told us that deserts cover a third of the Earth's land surface, and are spreading rapidly. Fascinating to learn that nectar eating bats can eat one and a half times their own weight in nectar a night. I didn't know that some bats migrate- those in Mexcio can migrate 1000km, spreading cactus seeds as they go.

Of course it is all shot with the rather stunning photography that you expect from Sir David Attenborough and the BBC. Fabulous. And there's a great looking ipad app to check out too.

Monday 5 November 2012


I love picture books in translation. It's such a window into a non-English speaking world. The stories and images other cultures share with their young are often quite different from those we use. It's a fascinating insight, and they're usually great books.

I was searching my local library catalogue for 365 Penguins, the more famous book by Jean-Luc Fromental and Joelle Jolivet, which they used to have, but sadly seems to have disappeared when I found Oops listed. So I checked it out.

Outrageously large format in the way of 365 Penguins. Again with bright eye-catching colourful illustrations. A Parisian family is trying to get to the airport to go on holidays to Djerba. Where? Djerba. An island off the Tunisian coast. It seems Tunisia is a big holiday destination for French tourists, although political turmoil can upset holiday plans.

Our family are preparing to leave their Parisian apartment to go to the airport. Shortsighted Aunt Roberta is going to housesit while they are away, so she can look after the turtle and hamsters. Except she drops the soap out of the bathroom window and causes a rather catastrophic chain of events.

Oops! is a most Parisian book. Texting taxi drivers.

Traffic jams.

They appear to have captured our
last taxi ride in from CDG

 Metro strikes. The family travel by velib, metro and sewer! They pass by Tuileries, the Seine and Le Tour Eiffel all in their mad dash to catch their flight.

The illustrations are the sort of fun, detailed packed images that attract a young child's attention, they will pour over them for hours, and the book will become a favourite.

Dreaming of France, a weekly meme by Paulita of An Accidental Blog

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An Illustrated Year by An Abundance of Books