Tuesday 31 May 2016


Wow. Everything you've heard about how fabulous Magda Szubanski's Reckoning is, is true.

I listened to the audio book read by Magda herself and from the very first words it is obvious that Reckoning is a treat. Within moments we are thinking of the Polish resistance in World War II, Hieronymus Bosch is referenced, with his famous 15th century painting, The Extraction of the Stone of Madness. Well, I hadn't seen it before, but it's still famous. And rather fascinating.

This is no simple comedic memoir. (Although perhaps none of them are?). Magda Szubanski is very well known in Australia for her work in television and comedy over many years. She rather famously came out on television a number of years ago, but is more famous for playing the rather simple Sharon Strzelecki on Kath and Kim. But Magda has really hit her stride with Reckoning. The audiobook read by Magda is sensational. The confidence from her years in performance and television gives us a masterful reading, as she slips effortlessly between the soft Polish and harder Scottish accents of her family. 

The first disc tells of the recent death of her father, her own birth in Liverpool, and how her family moved to Australia when she was five because of nylon. She was a cheerful but anxious child, with many traits bordering on obsessive. Magda is intelligent, and bored at school but is fascinated with medicine, and plans to be a surgeon. She is a tomboy, with crushes on Marcia Brady, but is very distressed by shooting a rabbit on a hunting trip with her father. 

Magda has a close relationship with both her parents. She describes the life and death of her father in particularly moving ways.
It is as much a struggle to die as it is to live, the letting go of life is no peaceful business and my father's body fought hard to stay. 

As with every major life experience we usually can't fully understand or appreciate it until we experience it ourselves. 
Billions have been down this path before but we bumbled through as though we were the first. 
Her Polish father's childhood and wartime experiences are vividly recounted. Magda isn't sure if she really wants to know his story, if she can cope with the details, the truth of it, but "Someone has to bear witness. But am I the right person for the job? Do I have the stomach to gouge beneath the scabs and clean the wound?"

We were tugboats in the river of history my father and I, pulling in opposite directions. He needed to forget, I need to remember. For him only the present moment would set him free, for me the key lies buried in the past, the only way forward is back. 

Of course Magda also tells her own story as well as those of her parents and her Polish and Scottish families. The love of humour she shares with her mother, "I'm not the funny one in the family. My mother is."

But when I was about seven something magic happened- I made my mother laugh.... I knew that I had learned that laugh. I knew that this was a rite of passage and that I had inched closer to being a human and humour was the lifeline. It had got her people through famines and clearances and clan wars. Humour the life force. 
For Magda it was to become her life's journey and work as well. It was interesting to listen to her burgeoning career in Australian comedy, her work on classic shows such as The D Generation and Fast Forward, where she was writing with Doug MacLeod. The tales of the making of Babe are fascinating- the Babe of the film was actually 42 pigs!

Magda travels to Poland several times, and also to Scotland. There are fascinating tales of travelling in Eastern Europe in the 80s- East Berlin still existed, and Poland was besieged by queues for everything. I am now particularly interested in seeing her episode of Who Do You Think You Are after her descriptions of the show. Of writing Magda says that "what made you a writer was having the balls to call yourself one. That and a computer of ones own." Naturally she never takes herself too seriously with chapter titles such as Becoming a Fat Lesbian.

However, I do think that it was the section describing her coming out to her parents on a Sunday night in the mid 90s that was among the most extraordinary of this extraordinary book. 
Coming out- it sounds like making your debut. But for gay people there was no party, no celebration, no welcoming into the bosom of our family and our community. We came out and then waited for the brickbats. We came out not knowing if, at the end of it, we would still have a family, a community. Some people were convinced it would kill their parents. Some of my friends have been with their partners for twenty years and more and their parents still don't know they are lovers. 
That constriction, that inability to be open with the people we love more than anything in the world corrodes the soul. My generation of gay people are sometimes like the walking wounded, as teenagers closeted and terrified most of us never learned to weather the ups and downs of dating. I for one am a classic case of arrested sexual development, and the crucial difference between lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, intersex and questioning people and other minorities is this- in every other minority group the family shares the minority status. In fact it is often something that unites them, but gay people are a minority within the family. A minority of one. 
It means, among many things that gay children cannot draw on the collective family wisdom about how to deal with their minority status. Noone else in the family has experienced what the gay child is going through. Worse still, all through our growing up, from the instant  we realise that we are gay, we live with the gnawing fear that our parents love could turn to hatred in an instant. 

Magda spent 8 years writing this book and it really shows, the writing is just fabulous, Magda can move you whether she is describing a piece of amber or her visit to Auschwitz. Magda visited on a gorgeous summer day, but this moving BBC drone vision was taken in winter. 

I loved driving about with Magda talking to me in the car over several weeks. It was such an extraordinary experience that I listened to each disc twice through before progressing to the next, savouring it even though I was keen to keep going. I hope Magda delights us with many more books. My only gripe about Reckoning in the audiobook format is that I know I'm being jilted on the pictures that are in the print book (16 pages of photos). Why can't audiobook people make liner notes like CDs have so that we can see the pictures printed in the book?

Reckoning has already deservedly won many awards including The Australian Book Industry Awards Book of the Year 2016 and the Non-Fiction Book of the Year at the NSW Premier's Book Awards. 

Aussie Women Writers 2016

Saturday 21 May 2016

CBCA Book of the Year Awards Shortlist 2016

The Children's Book Council of Australia do so much to promote the vast number of marvellous childrens and young adult books that are released in Australia every year. The CBCA Awards are the pinnacle of this recognition. Every year I look forward to the release of the Shortlist in April. This year was no exception.

I've made somewhat random predictions for the winners, based on nothing much really a lot of the time as clearly I haven't read most of the books. I am pleased to have read 4 of these books so far, but have quite a big undertaking to get through as many as possible by August. I'll be particularly trying to get through the Picture Book, Early Childhood and Younger Readers Shortlists. Although Soon is the fifth book of a series, none of which I've read, which makes things very difficult.

Book of the Year Older Readers Shortlist

The Flywheel - Erin Gough
The Pause - John Larkin
Freedom Ride - Sue Lawson
A Single Stone - Meg McKinlay
Inbetween Days - Vikki Wakefield
Cloudwish - Fiona Wood

Older Readers Notable Books

In the Skin of a Monster - Kathryn Barker
Rich & Rare - Paul Collins
The River and the Book - Alison Crogon
One True Thing - Nicole Hayes
Talk Under Water - Kathryn Lomer
The Beauty is in the Walking - James Moloney
Newt's Emerald - Garth Nix
For the Forest of a Bird - Sue Saliba
A Small Madness - Diane Touchell
The Guy, The Girl, The Artist and His Ex - Gabrielle Williams

The Book of the Year Younger Readers Shortlist

Soon - Morris Gleitzman
The Cleo Stories: A Friend and A Pet - Libby Gleeson, Freya Blackwood (illustrator)
Run, Pip, Run - J.C. Jones
Sister Heart - Sally Morgan (see my review)
Molly and Pim and the Millions of Stars - Martine Murray (see my review)
Star of Deltora: Shadows of the Master - Emily Rodda

Younger Readers Notable Books

The 65-Storey Treehouse - Andy Griffiths, Terry Denton (illustrator)
The Cut Out - Jack Heath
300 Minutes of Danger - Jack Heath
Bella and the Wandering House - Meg McKinlay
Bridget: A New Australian - James Moloney
Helix and the Arrival - Damean Posner
The Fourteenth Summer of Angus Jack - Jen Storer
The Hush Treasure Book - Karen Tayleur

The Book of the Year Early Childhood Shortlist

Piranhas Don't Eat Bananas - Aaron Blabey
My Dog Bigsy - Alison Lester
Perfect - Danny Parker, Freya Blackwood (illustrator)
Ollie and the Wind - Ghosh Ronojoy
Mr Huff - Anna Walker
The Cow Tripped Over the Moon - Tony Wilson, Laura Wood (illustrator)

Early Childhood Notable Books

As Big As You - Sara Acton
I Need A Hug - Aaron Blabey (see my review)
Pig the Fibber - Aaron Blabey (see my review)
The Very Noisy Bear - Nick Bland
I'm a Hungry Dinosaur - Janeen Brian, Ann James (illustrator)
Small and Big - Karen Collum, Ben Wood (illustrator)
Puddles are for Jumping - Kylie Dunstan
This & That - Mem Fox, Judy Horacek (illustrator)
Meep - Andy Geppert
Thunderstorm Dancing - Katrina Germein, Judy Watson (illustrator)
What Do You Wish For - Jane Godwin, Anna Walker (illustrator)
Hop Up! Wriggle Over - Elizabeth Honey
Too Busy Sleeping - Zanni Louise, Anna Pignut (illustrator)
Frog Finds a Place - Sally Morgan & Ezekiel Kwaymullina, Dub Leffler (illustrator)
This is a Ball - Beck Stanton & Matt Stanton
Alfie's Lost Sharkie - Anna Walker
Bogtrotter - Margaret Wild, Judith Rossell (illustrator)

The Picture Book of the Year Shortlist

Perfect - Freya Blackwood (illustrator), Danny Parker (text)
Ride, Ricardo, Ride - Shane Devries (illustrator), Phil Cummings (text)
My Dead Bunny - James Foley (illustrator), Sigi Cohen (text) (see my review)
Flight - Armin Greder (illustrator), Nadia Wheatley (text)
Suri's Wall - Matt Ottley (illustrator), Lucy Estela (text)
And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda - Bruce Whatley (illustrator), Eric Bogle (text) (see my review)

Picture Book Notable Books

The Eagle Inside - Bronwyn Bancroft (illustrator), Jack Manning-Bancroft (text)
Eye to Eye - Graeme Base
In the Evening - Gaye Chapman (illustrator), Edwina Wyatt (text)
How the Sun Got to Coco's House - Bob Graham
My Gallipoli - Robert Hannaford (illustrator), Ruth Starke (text)
One Step at a Time - Sally Heinrich (illustrator), Jane Jolly (text)
Adelaide's Secret World - Elise Hurst
Platypus - Mark Jackson (illustrator), Sue Whiting (text)
Why I Love Footy - Tom Jellet (illustrator), Michael Wagner (text)
What's Up MuMu - David Mackintosh
Lara of Newtown - Chris McKimmie
Bob the Railway Dog - Andrew McLean (illustrator), Corrine Fenton (text)
Tea Cup - Matt Ottley (illustrator), Rebecca Young (text)
Numerical Street - Antonia Pesenti (illustrator), Hilary Bell (text)
Where's Jessie? - Anne Spudvilas (illustrator), Janeen Brian (text)
Mr Huff - Anna Walker

The Eve Pownall Award for Information Books Shortlist

Phasmid: Saving the Lord Howe Island Stick Insect - Rohan Cleave, Coral Tulloch (illustrator)
The White Mouse: The Story of Nancy Wake - Peter Gouldthorpe
The Amazing True Story of How Babies Are Made - Fiona Katauskas
Lennie the Legend: Solo to Sydney by Pony - Stephanie Owen Reeder
Ancestry: Stories of Multicultural Anzacs - Robyn Siers, Carlie Walker (illustrator)
We are the Rebels: the Men and Women who made Eureka - Clare Wright

Eve Pownall Award Notable Books

The Girl from the Great Sandy Dessert - Jakuna Mona Chuguna & Pat Lowe, Melvyn Street (illustrator)
Life in Australia's Inland Sea - Danielle Clode
Green Tree Frogs - Sandra Kendell
A is for Australia - Frane Lessac
Australian Kids Through the Years - Tania McCartney, Andrew Joyner (illustrator)
ANZAC Sons: Five Brothers on the Western Front - Allison Marlow Paterson
My Gallipoli - Ruth Starke, Robert Hannaford (illustrator)
Atmospheric: The Burning Story of Climate Change - Carole Wilkinson
Alice's Food A-Z - Alice Zaslavsky

Chricton Award for New Illustrators Shortlist

The Underwater Fancy Dress Parade - Allison Colpoys (illustrator), Davina Bell (text)
The Cat With the Coloured Tail - Dinalie Dabarera (illustrator), Gillian Meares (text)
My Gallipoli - Robert Hannaford (illustrator), Ruth Starke (text)
Fish Jam - Kylie Howarth
Meet Weary Dunlop - Jeremy Lord (illustrator), Claire Saxby (text)

I'll be trying to read as many titles as I can before the winners are announced on August 19 at the start of Children's Book Week 2016. The theme this year is Australia! Story Country with fabulous art work by Shaun Tan. 

Tuesday 17 May 2016

NSW Premier's Literary Award 2016

I can barely keep up with the book awards season this year. The New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards were presented at a ceremony in Sydney last night to mark the start of the Sydney Writers Festival

I must hang my head in shame at only having read one of these books. I have meant to read several others of course, although to continue the shame there are quite a few listed here that I'd never heard of. 

Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children's Literature

Tea and Sugar Christmas - Jane Jolly, Robert Ingpen
A Single Stone - Meg McKinlay
Molly and Pim and the Millions of Stars - Martine Murray (see my review)

The Greatest Gatsby: A Visual Book of Grammar - Tohby Riddle
Flight - Nadia Wheatley and Armin Greder
Teacup - Rebecca Young and Matt Ottley (WINNER)

Ethel Turner Prize for Young People's Literature

Napoleon with dinosaurs!
Battlesaurus:Rampage at Waterloo - Brian Falkner
Freedom Ride - Sue Lawson
Laurinda - Alice Pung (WINNER)
Welcome to Orphancorp - Marlee Jane Ward
The Peony Lantern - Frances Watts
The Guy, The Girl, The Artist and His Ex - Gabrielle Williams

I find it particularly interesting to see that a new category has been added this year- the Indigenous Writers Prize. I think it's great that it's been added, but saddened that it is only planned to be biennial. There were joint winners this year- Bruce Pascoe's Dark Emu and Ellen Van Neerven's Heat and Light, which surely suggests that there is more than enough talent to include the award annually like all the other categories, especially as Dark Emu went on to win Book of the Year.

Messenger of Fear

I'm really surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. To be honest I'm really surprised that I enjoyed this book at all. Horror and supernatural themes not being my favourite kind of reading. I've read my share of genre fiction in the past- sci fi and police procedurals/ forensic fiction in the main, but I don't normally read books with warnings on the back...

And now I wonder about that warning. Cruelty and some violence. Why not just cruelty and violence? I guess it softens the warning a bit- cruelty and some violence. Master Wicker tells me that all his books have that same warning.

But I was soon to see Michael Grant as part of the Sydney Writers Festival and so was keen for a taste of his writing. Master Wicker has read and loved Grant's blockbuster Gone series, and had read this one, and been suggesting that I read it for some time, he thought it would suit me better. So now was the time. I didn't know anything about the story, or Grant's style at the outset, but was vaguely aware that it wasn't the usual fare for Ladies who Lunch and Read. Michael Grant had helped me accidentally learn about titles on the spines of books in English and French, and for that I was grateful.

The story begins with 16  year old Mara waking up in a strange location. She seems to be in a field. And there is a threatening mist surrounding her, it is the colour of "yellowed teeth" . Yes, there is emotive, creepy, dark language from the start. Things are clearly not right with the world. There is descriptive threat all around.

The mist swirled slowly, sensuously, and it touched me. I don't mean that it was merely near to me; I mean that it touched me. It felt my face like a blind person might. It crept up the sleeves of my sweater and down the neckline. It found its insinuating way under rough denim and seeped, almost like a liquid, along bare skin. Fingerless, it touched me. Eyeless, it gazed at me. 

Mara doesn't remember anything about her life. She struggles to remember her name, her family, her home and her friends. She wonders if she is dead. I was a bit frustrated with this early on, and felt manipulated by the author, but came to realise that we the reader only know as much as Mara does, and we struggle to understand just as Mara does as she meets the Messenger of Fear.

I felt the tickling of panic. Somehow amidst all the evidence  of overturned laws of physics, all the unnatural flouting of the unseen but omnipresent laws, it was this, this creeping, sentient mist that most impressed upon my strained senses and raw emotions that I was in a place that was fundamentally at odds with reality. 
There is an interesting back and forth between the real world and an odd supernatural plane. But not all the threats are supernatural, there is plenty of real world bullying and violence- both planned and random. Some scenes are quite disturbing, and yes there is cruelty and some violence. I was pleasantly surprised by the sudden appearance by Joan of Arc at one stage, although in Grant form things turned nasty rather quickly.

Messenger of Fear was a quick, enjoyable read on the whole, although a bit distasteful for me at times, and now I find myself being in the unanticipated position of actually being a bit tempted to read another one...

Thursday 12 May 2016

Readings Children's Book Prize 2016

The book prize shortlists have been going mad lately. The Readings Children's Book Prize was established in 2014. It is for books written for children aged 5- 12. Readings is a Melbourne institution and was recently won the Bookstore of the Year Award at the London Book Fair.

The Bad Guys - Aaron Blabey

Samurai vs Ninja: The Battle for Golden Egg - Nick Falk and Tony Flowers

Run, Pip, Run - J.C. Jones (WINNER)

88 Lime Street - Denise Kirby

The Cat with the Coloured Tail - Gillian Mears and Dinalie Dabarera

Mister Cassowary - Samantha Wheeler

Synopses for all the books from Readings here.

The winner will be announced in June. 

Update June 2016. Run, Pip Run was announced as the winner. Read the Judges Report here. And in yet another moment of pure synchronicity I am about to start reading one of the author J.C. Jones' favourite books, I am David. 

Monday 9 May 2016

The Lottery

I'd never heard of either Shirley Jackson or The Lottery before Master Wicker read it for English last week and suggested I read it. Naturally I did, and it helps that it is a very short story and can be read in just a few minutes. It's available online here

The Lottery starts off simply enough, in a bucolic small town. 
The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. 

I imagined it as a idyllic English village somewhat like that in The Vicar of Dibley. But Shirley Jackson was American and she set the story in her own small town, North Bennington, in Vermont. All of the villages 300 residents are gathering in the town square for the annual lottery that takes place each year on June 27. 

The head of each household draws a piece of paper from a shabby and splintered black box in a village tradition older than memory. Some nearby villages have begun discussing giving up the lottery. 

“Nothing but trouble in that,” Old Man Warner said stoutly. “Pack of young fools. “

But then it's a lottery you don't really want to win. The story is rather dated and sexist now.

“Wife draws for her husband. ” Mr. Summers said. “Don’t you have a grown boy to do it for you, Janey?” 

It was interesting to read The Lottery and think about this rather famous American short story. It was understandably very controversial when it was published in The New Yorker in 1948. The many letters of complaint written in response to The Lottery are still making news nearly 60 years later. It has become one of the "best known and most frequently anthologised short stories in English." No wonder then that it has been adapted for the stage, tv, opera and even a ballet. And in what is perhaps the highest point of cultural recognition The Lottery was referenced in an episode of Series 3 of The Simpsons, Dog of Death

Shirley Jackson is said to have written her most famous story in just two hours. Somehow taking her baby out for a walk one day to do some errands in the village inspired her to write this controversial story of conformity and violence that has had an enduring appeal. 

Part 1 of a 1969 adaptation

Saturday 7 May 2016

Collette Dinnigan Unlaced

Recently I made use of a few spare hours in Sydney and got along to the Collette Dinnigan retrospective at the Powerhouse. It was fabulous. But then I do like a fashion exhibition. Which is kind of strange because fashion really isn't my thing.

My favourite room, was this incredible space put together by Collette and it was mesmerising. A kaleidoscope of colour inspiration and design. Actually it was a bit like being inside a kaleidoscope. I could have stayed in there all day. I might try and get back just to spend more time in here.

There were so many fascinating glimpses into design and production. 

Even if you didn't really like the colour, like this chartreuse section, it was transfixing. So much detail, so much to absorb.

"I am inspired by colour, art, flowers, landscapes and details from vintage clothes or antique bric-a-brac. Travelling has always been a great influence too. I sketch with fabrics in mind and develop inspiration boards alongside my draping." Collette Dinnigan

There were glimpses of Paris everywhere..
Collette Dinnigan also appears to be inspired by flamingos


and bananas.

It was amazing to see the inspiration, the imagining

and then see it take final form in the next room. 

Desert Poppies tie neck top and skirt
Resort 2014 and 2012

Desert Poppies outfit 2013

One room highlighted spinning metallic disco ball dresses. Often worn on the red carpet by the rich and famous. 

The main room had 4 or 5 exhibits with many dresses on each. There are perfectly polished mirrors top and bottom so you can see the dresses from every angle.

Ballerina Belle evening dress
Autumn/Winter 2011

So much gorgeousness. This dress was designed to look like shimmering snowflakes after Colette read Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen to her daughter. 

River Snowflakes dress
Autumn/Winter 2012

Possibly my favourite frock in the whole thing:

Crystal Tulips dress
Spring/Summer 2003-2004
There was a history lesson too. Collette Dinnigan established her label with a range of luxurious handmade silk lingerie. Emerging in 1990 at the height of grunge her first catwalk show featured lingerie clad models walking between the tables at Angelina's on the Rue du Rivoli! Hard to imagine.

There is a whole room dedicated to Collette Dinnigan's signature fabric - lace. Stunning with models lit from within. She initially used antique lace, but then worked with contemporary French lacemakers to create modern and unique lace designs.

Like any fashion show the exhibition ended with a display of bridal gowns. 

The lighting made it look much more peach in my photo.
It wasn't. It's still gorgeous though.

The real colour

There's also a fabulous hands on section where you can use beautiful papers to make your own designs. It's a fabulous exhibition. If you're anywhere near Sydney before August get along to see it. Otherwise here are some great youtube highlights.

Collette Dinnigan Unlaced
Powerhouse Museum Sydney
Daily until August 28 2016 (UPDATE! Unlaced extended to 29/1/17)
Adult $15/ Concession $8/ Children Free

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