Saturday, April 19, 2014

Oh we do like to be beside the seaside

My girls and I got back on Thursday afternoon from a 4-day break at Merricks, on the Mornington Peninsula, with my longtime friend J and her two children.

Both families were sans dads, as both the spouses had to work this week, but with two adults to share the "parenting", and five children who love each other and play very well together, it was an awesome little holiday all the same.

Our kids line up beautifully in age - my girls are 10.5, almost 9 and 5, while J's kids are almost 10 (girl) and 4.5 (boy). They have all known each other since birth and are as close as cousins (indeed, my girls consider M and X to *be* their cousins, although this does somewhat militate against my 5-year-old's fixed plan to marry X and live in a cave in the wild where she will be a vet and a rock star and make friends with all the animals ;-)

We were so incredibly lucky with the weather - in the first week of the school holidays it rained more or less constantly, but literally THE DAY BEFORE we were due to leave for the beach, autumnal Victoria finished her cry and put on a happy face, full of crisp mornings and gentle warm afternoons (and not a spot of rain in sight).

This meant, among other things, that we were able to get to beach not once but twice, something that I was honestly not expecting at this time of the year. Merricks Beach is perfect for kids - rockpools to explore, a lovely vast sandy expanse to play ball in and build sandcastles, and ankle-deep water a fair way out to paddle in. (Yes, paddle ... I thought them mad, but they all wanted to!)

I can imagine it would be lovely swimming beach in summer, but sunshine notwithstanding, it was definitely too cold for immersion in April.

We also made it to the Enchanted Adventure Garden in Arthurs Seat, a sort of omnibus maze / garden / rope climbing / tyre sliding multi-purpose activity centre. I was expecting kitschy so was surprised - and delighted - to find it beautiful. The gardens are immaculate and meticulously planned, and the autumn blooms were out in full force. We particularly enjoyed the in-maze game of snakes and ladders embedded into the ground, and spotting the animal statues.

The mazes themselves would've kept the kids busy for a day, but my eldest and my friend's daughter also wanted to do the treetop ropes course. I was massively uncertain about whether this was a good idea for my A, who can be very nervous of both heights and new experiences, but she insisted she wanted to try, so I let her.

As it turned out she did indeed have a panic when it came time to go up, but she faced down her fears and completed the course. I couldn't be prouder of her.

The next day we didn't push it so hard, partly because my nearly-9 wasn't well, and partly because a lazier day seemed in order. We did get to the strawberry farm for berry picking, treat eating and strawberry-themed alcohol purchasing, which was rather nice.

Another friend of J's met us at the strawberry farm with her two kids and we all repaired back to the house for an afternoon / evening of rest (for nearly-9), nonstop outdoor play (for 5 and 4 year olds), mixed play and giggling (for the other three), and cheese / olive / grape eating with cider tasting (for the three adults!)

All 10 of us then went out for dinner to the Pig and Whistle, a little pub in Main Ridge. On the drive back to Merricks, I saw a sizeable object in the middle of the road and slowed down to miss it; only when we were nearly upon it did I realise, to my astonishment, that it was an adult koala, sitting immobile in the dead centre of the road, thoughtfully chewing a leaf. We all hope it deigned to move before a speedier vehicle came tearing down the road.

Saying goodbye to our friends on Thursday, we drove home to Melbourne. The kids (and I!) were happy to see their dad, of course, and are looking forward to Easter Day tomorrow. Nonetheless, we all feel that we squeezed the juice out of our little holiday, and for me especially, it was sorely, sorely needed and hugely appreciated after having been very stressed and quite ill in March and April.

Note: I asked for, and received, my daughters' permission to post the above photograph to this blog.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Miles Franklin longlist

I'm over at Global Comment today doing a survey of the Miles Franklin longlist. I'm interested in your thoughts if you want to share them over there!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Reading Notes: These Broken Stars

This review covers the 5th and final book of my commitment to tread and review the YA nominee list for the Australian speculative fiction awards - the Aurealis Awards. I beat the prize announcement for once! So this review also contains my pick for the winner, and my prediction as to what will actually win.

What an interesting mix this YA list has turned out to be. Two really good strong-girl magic-based fantasies; two good, if depressing, boy-against-the-deteriorating-world post-apocalypse dystopias; and this surprising little gem - a really satisfying survival-journey narrative set on a strange and frightening planet.

I'll be honest - based on its blurb, this one didn't overly grab me. The central device (boy from wrong side of the tracks meets poor little rich girl, initial conflict and misunderstanding, growing attraction, you join the dots) is extremely well-worn. I may be one of the least romantic readers in existence - indeed, romance is the only main genre that I never read at all - so this trope does not float my boat if that's all the story has to offer. And in the set-up, I thought Tarver (our young military hero) and Lilac (our daughter-of-the-richest-most-sinister-man-in-the-universe) were not much more than creditable cookie-cutter exemplars of the device. I was prepared, in fact, to dismiss this book as a bit of fluff, and not to my taste.

What turned me around was the clever, deft and intriguing way that the authors unfolded the co-plot, which is a mystery / thriller / truly sci fi based adventure. It has conspiracy, aliens, ghosts (or does it?), energy sources, future tech, and mind games, all of which I approve heartily. It had nice little resonances of some truly great sci fi, including what I think, but am not completely sure, was a smoothly inserted homage to Serenity. (If so, double gold star for you, writers :-) It was complex enough without being bewildering, and instead of trying for gotchas, it contented itself with good quality story development, of which I also approve as a narrative choice.

This secondary plot was much more original than the primary romance storyline, and it was through the exploration of it that both Tarver and Lilac rounded out as characters and became relatable and three-dimensional human beings. Lilac's journey in particular in the last quarter of the book felt visceral and real in a way that the romance didn't, quite, to me. I believed in her struggle and her pain and yes, her attachment to Tarver, while remaining sceptical of the Grand Passion bit.

This is, apparently, the first book in a trilogy; I enjoyed this one enough to have a squizz at number two when it comes out, although I wouldn't describe it as a must-read.


So, having read all five of the YA nominees, I think the prize will probably go to either The Sky So Heavy or These Broken Stars, not because I think they are the best or most original of the nominees, but because they both have a red hot go at Big Themes, and speculative fiction awards, more than most, love the big themes.

If I was awarding the prize, though, I'd give it to Fairytales for Wilde Girls. I think it the most interesting, complex and fully achieved book on the list, and the one that's likeliest to stand the test of time.

We shall see!

UPDATE: Wow, I did better than normal! The prize was a tie between These Broken Stars and Fairytales for Wilde Girls. Warm congrats to all three authors.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Reading Notes: The Big Dry and The Sky So Heavy

This double review covers book 3 and 4 of my commitment to try to read and review the YA nominee list for the Australian speculative fiction awards - the Aurealis Awards. 4 down, 1 to go, and the clock is ticking as the prize is announced on Saturday night! I'm going to try to get the last one reviewed and up on Saturday, but we'll have to see how things work out.

The first two Aurealis YA nominees that I read, which I reviewed on Sunday were both fantasies featuring magic, strong but beleaguered female protagonists, and happy (ish) endings. Both were, basically, fun to read; both, although gruesome by patches, were essentially hopeful books.

Little did I know when I randomly grabbed the next two off the list that the mood of my Aurealis reading was about to plummet sharply. Because the two books I'm reviewing here are different kinds of post-apocalyptic dystopias, and both are, frankly, pretty damn depressing reads. This is not a criticism - I'd suggest that any post-apoc worth its salt is going to conjure up a few paranoid sads - but it is something of a reader advisory. Dear Reader, do not follow my example and read these back to back within 48 hours while also fighting off a cold and coping with multiple life stressors. You will be a very, very sad panda indeed if you do. (Ask me how I know...)

It's interesting to me that both of these books feature young male protagonists motivated largely by the need to care for younger male siblings. It's almost eerie, how similar the set-ups are if you consider the four books as two paired sets. The girls got the sweeter end of the deal this time, with the two fantasy heroines, Isola and Ash, emerging into decidedly brighter futures, while the best these bleak sci fi landscapes have to offer George and Fin is the weak sauce of "Not dead yet, and neither's the kid brother!"

Claire Zorn's The Sky So Heavy is a very classic post-nuclear apocalypse story, set in the Blue Mountains and Sydney, and featuring the quest for survival undergone by Fin, his younger brother Max, and their ally Arnold (Noll) and Fin's love interest, Lucy.  The book is pretty scary in all the ways that a post-apoc is meant to be scary - bombs far away, rapid nuclear winter, the failure of essential services, the absent (presumed dead) parents, the rapid loss of access to food, the fear and despair as people turn on their neighbours. It's convincingly chilling in its storyline - well, it does require a small suspension of disbelief to go along with the mere fact of Fin and Max's survival given some of the events of the story, but if you can allow that one gimme, it works. It's not a desperately original story - I felt all through that the tropes and themes were very, very familiar, and the story takes no unexpected turns - but it's extremely well executed, and will freak out unprepared readers quite nicely, I think.

The Big Dry's catastrophe is different - climate change induced drought, leading to various and many disasters, but its story arc is astoundingly similar to that in The Sky So Heavy. The cast of characters are younger here - main protagonist George is 13 and his little brother Beeper is 6, contrasted with Fin and Max's 17 / 12 - and the tone and style reflects this, with simpler language and less time spent speculating on the ways of man and so forth. Indeed, to me, these books illustrate the range of readers targeted by YA - a 9 year old strong reader could manage Dry, while Heavy definitely has an older feel to it. As an adult reader, I found Dry less satisfying, although I acknowledge the craft with which it was constructed and I do think it a very good book of its type. It's just that it felt like it wasn't getting down to business often enough, but as I am not the target audience, that's probably an unfair criticism.

Overall? These are both good books, neither is a stand-out of its type or radically original, but both are worth a read. I'll be giving The Big Dry to my 11-year-old to read, but I'll hold The Sky So Heavy back for a while, I think. Post-apoc is scary, and my own brain has been too tenderised this week to want to inflict that on my kid!

Monday, March 31, 2014

Self inflicted: A play in one act

[after school. the scene is a suburban house, in a moderate state of disarray.]

Nearly-9 year old: Mum! Mum! Come quick! I vomited again!

Me. hurrying to scene of action: Oh no honey, that's awful! I thought it was just a once-off since you haven't thrown up again after yesterday afternoon, but maybe it is a virus ... [pause] E. Why is your vomit blue?

Nearly-9: Oh, I dunno. [thinks] Maybe because I was eating, you know ...


Nearly-9: Oh, just some blue salt I found in a jar in my room.


Me: Salt. YOU ATE BLUE SALT. How much did you -

She: Ahhhhh ... three spoons? Or four?

Me: [sigh] E. That is why you threw up. Salt is an emetic. You should never, never eat that much at a time.

Nearly-9: An eme...

Me: ...tic. "Thing to make you vomit."

Nearly-9, by now thoroughly perky again: Oh wow, that's pretty cool!

[skips off to play]

[mother cleans puddle of chuck from bathroom floor]