Monday, 25 May 2015

The French Confection

The French Confection was a very obvious book for me to read this month. I'd just read Anthony Horowitz's Stormbreaker, and was about to see him speak at the Sydney Writers Frestival. I'd never heard of The French Confection, and reading it would clearly break my "must read series in order" rule, but as soon as I saw the title in the library catalogue I was sold.

Anthony Horowitz has written quite a few books, a number of them in a series. The French Confection is a book in the Diamond Brothers series. It was helpful that I saw Anthony speak this week as he explained that there are never any parents in his books, he usually kills them off in Chapter 1. Of course this has been a very common ploy in children's books for a very long time, but I'd never heard an author say it before. The Diamond Brothers are Tim, who is 25 and a private detective, but rather dumb and not a terribly good detective. Tim's younger brother Nick is 13, and clearly the brains of the operation. Nick and Tim's parents have emigrated to Australia in an earlier book, and Nick and Tim have stayed on in London.

The French Confection takes them to Paris of course. We can see that clearly enough from the cover. And I'm going to like pretty much any story set in Paris. Here, the boys set off to Paris on the Eurostar after Tim wins a trip to Paris on a tub of strawberry yoghurt. Very quickly odd and rather dangerous things start happening. Someone is dead under a train. Two men are trying to kill Nick and Tim.

Anthony Horowitz at the Sydney Writer's Festival said that he tries to write visually, and he certainly does.

The first was in his forties, tall and slim, wearing a white linen suit that was so crumpled and dirty, it hung off him like a used paper bag. He was one of the ugliest men I had ever seen. He had green eyes, a small nose and a mouth like a knife wound. None of these were in quite the right place. It was if his whole face had been drawn by a six-year old child. 

I can see that man. Just like I can see Paris from this:

Paris is a big city full of French people. It's a lot prettier than London and for that matter so are the people. They're everywhere: in the street-side cafés, sipping black coffee from thimble-sized cups, strolling along the Seine in their designer sunglasses, snapping at each other on the bridges through eighteen inches of the latest Japanese lens. The streets are narrower than in London and looking at the traffic you get the feeling that war has broken out. There are cars parked everywhere. On the streets and on the pavements. Actually it's hard to tell which cars are parked and which ones are just stuck in the traffic jams. But the strange thing is that nobody seems to be in hurry. Life is just a big jumble that moves along at its own pace and if you're in a hurry to leave then maybe you should never have come there in the first place. 

Actually, I don't really need to read that paragraph to visualise Paris, but Anthony Horowitz nailed it right there! The parking is atrocious.

The French Confection is but a mere confection itself at 77 pages. At the Sydney Writer's Festival Anthony said that the Diamond Brothers series were based on old stories and films from the 1950s, and that he liked to put a humorous twist on old murder mysteries. Which makes sense now as The French Confection/Connection had been bothering me for a while. I don't have any real memory of The French Connection, apart from the title, but having a look at the plot on wikipaedia it seems no mere coincidence anymore.

Dreaming of France is a wonderful Monday meme
from Paulita at An Accidental Blog 

French Bingo 2015

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Laurie Halse Anderson at Sydney Writers Festival Secondary Days 2015

I had a fabulous day at the Sydney Writers Festival Secondary Day this week. There was a great lineup of 4 authors, and I was very keen to go after a similarly fabulous day last year (but I never got to telling you about that). I wasn't familiar with all of the authors, but got to reading at least one book from three of the four before the day.

Laurie Halse Anderson was first up and she fairly exploded onto the stage. She gave such a high energy presentation the audience of high school students were silent, completely captivated, she held them entranced by her words and her passion. It was honest, true, funny and moving. She spoke to each of them, and so many of them queued to buy her books and get them signed afterwards. It's always great seeing new books fall into the hands of children, and I may have been a little merchandised myself.

I hope all these books have new homes
with readers who will love them
Laurie had several important messages for her teenage audience. Mostly importantly that we have all survived something and everyone has a story to tell. She talked of her own childhood, disrupted by her father returning from World War II a damaged man. Like many returned soldiers he turned to drink, and this caused problems within the family- they lost their home, and the frequent moves naturally meant frequent changes of school for young Laurie. Laurie feels that she was kept alive by reading, even though she had difficulty learning to read in the first place. She didn't of course like the dreary stuff that was assigned in her English classes (who did?), and she rightly believes that teenagers don't like to read things that suck. Just as a point of interest, adults don't either. Laurie was then "saved" by an exchange year spent on a Danish pig farm where her teenage vegetarian self learnt to eat meat.

A library is a hospital for the mind. Anonymous.

Laurie has a great sense of adolescence, which really informs her writing. "It's weird, smelly and awkward for everybody, and it's worse if weird stuff is going on in your family". Laurie's first book success was the amazing Speak, published in 1999- a book that I read quite a few years ago, so long ago it was pre-blogging, so while I have some memories of reading it, they're not particularly detailed memories anymore. Speak tells a powerful tale about the rape of a young girl, and is widely taught in American schools. Laurie has spoken to thousands of kids about this book, and she was struck by how many boys could not understand how the girl would be so devastated for so long.

She then spoke specifically to many boys and learnt three things. Boys were generally confused about girls. Many boys had to deal with bullying, and many were sad because they don't have a relationship with either their own father, or a father figure. Her fourth book Twisted was written from a male point of view.

Her latest book, and my current read, is The Impossible Knife of Memory, a story born out of her father's experiences with PTSD after WWII, and also those of her nephew who is a recent veteran. "When your parent can't be your parent, that's about as bad as it gets". The Impossible Knife of Memory took a year to write, working 50 hours per week. Laurie's historical fiction takes longer to write as it requires lots of research.

Laurie talked about her writing process. She will often think about a story for a few years before she writes it. She writes well about things that make her angry. She never planned to write a story about eating disorders, but her readers were asking her for one. Still she didn't plan to write about it until she discovered that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric condition. Her book Wintergirls came from those thoughts.

She had a great response to a question about writers block. She thinks three things contribute to writers block.

1. Putting off your writing to the last minute. Emotions then hijack your cortex and you can't think straight.
2. We all sit down too much, and don't move. Moving helps. 
3. Stop trying to be perfect. "Noone writes a great first draft". Fear of not writing perfectly can create writers block. 

I can't overstate how much I loved this session, it was my favourite of the day. It was almost therapy at times. 

Everyone has to deal with sad stuff. We have little control over what happens to us, but we have almost complete control over how we react. Some young people will turn to drugs and alcohol to mute their pain as many adults do, but this will really only create more problems. 

These are powerful messages for young (and not so young) people to hear. If you get a chance to see Laurie Halse Anderson in person you should do it. She's amazing. If not you can still read her books. 

Monday, 18 May 2015


Stormbreaker is not the sort of book that I would come to by myself, spy stories not being my thing at all, but you know, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Which is impressive for one who gave up watching James Bond movies in the 80s. Because the Alex Rider series is very much in the James Bond mould. Indeed Anthony Horowitz was trying to get a job to write a James Bond film (he has an extensive background in film and television writing) when we thought about how old James Bond was now, and wouldn't it be great if James Bond was a teenager. He carried that thought about for five years, and then Alex Rider was born. Stormbreaker was to be the first of 10 books in the phenomenally successful Alex Rider series. It has sold in the tens of millions, and has been credited with getting many kids reading, including reluctant and dyslexic readers.

Stormbreaker packs a punch right from the start.

When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it's never good news. 

Anthony Horowitz credits those words with literally changing his life. Adults know this to be a self evident truth and indeed for Anthony they echo a phone call many years ago in the middle of the night with the news that his father had died.

Alex Rider is already an orphan, brought up by his uncle, a well-to-do banker in London who takes frequent business trips. Alex's parents died in a plane crash just a few weeks after he was born. And so we have it by page 3, 14 year old Alex is on his own in the world with only a twenty-something American housekeeper with visa problems to look after him.

Incredibly soon Alex is drawn into a world way beyond the scope of normal 14 year old boys. There is non-stop action, drama, dangerous villains, evil plots and James Bond style gadgetry to keep the reader entertained and highly amused right to the end. Stormbreaker is firmly set in London and Cornwall but is universal in its appeal. I haven't read a lot of the hard-boiled detective story either but was reminded of them from time to time.

He turned back and looked again at Alex. Something very close to an emotion slithered over his face. 
He glanced at the slices of cold lamb on his plate. Dead meat. Suddenly he knew how it felt. 

I am rather tempted to read on with this series. I hope my nephews have read them, I do think they'd love them. Even though Stormbreaker was only published in 2000 the technology is remarkably different - yellow pages not Google and game boy devices instead of mobile phones. The whole Alex Rider series is just being rereleased to mark the 15th anniversary of the publication of Stormbreaker. Alex Rider has a pretty cool looking website.


Saturday, 16 May 2015

Milk and Honey

I saw this fabulous exhibition at Orange Regional Gallery recently. I've visited several times so far, and know that I will see it again before it closes. 

From the exhibition brochure:

The exhibition Milk and Honey consists of paintings and sculptures executed between 2011 and 2015 and takes the Biblical expression "a land flowing with milk and honey" (Exodus 33:3) as a metaphor for rural Arcadia.

Coyte was born in 1953, in the bush, with a father who worked as a wool classer and a mother who came from a sheep farm. His earliest schooling was in a tiny convent school in Borenore, not far from Mount Canobolas and a ten minute drive from Orange, and this was supplemented by senior school in Orange itself. The 1970s were spent largely in art schools in Sydeny, while by the early eighties he was travelling and exhibiting his art in Europe. By the mid-eighties he was back in the Orange- Bathurst region with a growing family and teaching art.

All the paintings are for sale. I just wish I could afford one. 

Milky Moon 2011

Endless Column 2015

Udder Disaster 2015

Bee in Your Bonnet 2015

Count your blossoms (diptych) 2014

Sting  2015

Odd Couple (collaboration with Ros Auld) 2014

There's an excellent video that plays during the 
exhibition showing Martin working on some of the paintings. It's fascinating to watch and then look at the painting he was creating at the time. Thankfully through the magic of Vimeo you can watch it too.

10 April until 7 June 2015
Orange Regional Gallery
151 Byng Street
Daily 9-5
6393 8136

Saturday Snapshot is a wonderful weekly meme
 now hosted by 

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

The Brothers Quibble

I do enjoy Aaron Blabey's work and try to keep up, but somehow I missed The Brothers Quibble when it was released last year. It was only when I read the very fun Pig the Pug also last year (see my review) that I saw The Brothers Quibble was chosen to be the book for National Simultaneous Storytime 2015 (11am May 27) that I sought it out.

The Brothers Quibble is a very clever book about sibling rivalry. From the dedication onwards it is fabulous.

For those who had sharing thrust upon them. 

Spalding Quibble is an only child. Living the life of an only child.

Until the inevitable, awful thing happens.

Spalding reacts in a rather typical first child way. 

The Brothers Quibble is a great journey into sibling rivalry, and what families must do to get along. It is particularly clever, and you notice it is even more clever every time you pick it up.

Kingston Library have uploaded a Virtual Storytime version of The Brothers Quibble.

And SBS have made a French translation available!

Check out the NSS website and The Book Chook for a great range of resources for activities.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Baby et Lulu

I love finding something new and unexpected. And today I certainly did.

I like to listen to an hour of news in French on SBS. It's on four times a week. Mardi, Jeudi, Samedi et Dimanche à treize heures. I like pretending that I can understand most of it- actually they tend to talk somewhat slowly and so it is good for those of us still trying to master French, and then from time to time someone will speak in English and you think "wow I'm really getting the hang of this"... And then the crashing realisation. D'Oh. Thankfully though we can listen to it anytime online. Even so I don't manage to listen as often as I should.

I hadn't got to listen to it for ages. And this week I listened to the episode from Sunday May 10. Half way through they played a song that stopped me in my tracks. Literally.

It was Baby et Lulu's For Me, Formidable. I hadn't heard of either Baby et Lulu or this song, an old formidable Charles Aznavour standard from 1963 as it turns out. Baby et Lulu have given it an updated Australian swing and somehow it's very Paris. Baby (Abby Dobson) and Lulu (Lara Goodridge) are very talented Australians performing in French. How fitting that as many things Australian it started after a few drinks at a party.

Very soon today I was making my way to iTunes and bought both their albums for a mere $16.99. I've been listening to them all day.

Dreaming of France is a wonderful Monday meme
from Paulita at An Accidental Blog 

Sister Madge's Book of Nuns

Recently I came across a great list of 25 Classic Australian Kids Books. Most are very well known, but a few were completely knew to me. One of the new to me titles was Sister Madge's Book of Nuns. I've been keeping my eye on Doug MacLeod for a while now, ever since I saw him speak at the Melbourne Writers Festival in 2012. But I've only managed to read a picture book or two of his. He's one of those writers that I fully expect to love, I just need to find time to read more of his work.

So I couldn't go past Sister Madge's Book of Nuns- the title alone is proof enough that you can write a picture about pretty much anything. Indeed it is a book of nuns. But unlike any other book of nuns you may have come across before. Irreverent was possibly coined as a term to describe this book.

Written in verse, Sister Madge tells us about 10 of the nuns inhabiting Our Lady of Immense Proportions. These are no ordinary nuns. Murderous, bossy, bikie gang nuns, hoarders of Women's Weeklies.

Sister Laurel, rough and tough
Was very fond of taking snuff
I wonder if you've ever seen
The sort of substance that I mean?
It's powdery and black like soot
And up your nose is where it's put
Your nostrils twitch, they start to ache
You sneeze til your suspenders break.

The verses are full of great things loved by children- bursting nappies, burping babies, antlers growing out of nunly heads.

And quite a number of things seem to end up noses.

The manager who'd been so rude
Was knocked into the frozen food
And there he lay in cold repose
With two fish-fingers up his nose. 

Doug MacLeod has a rather hilarious account of the genesis of Sister Madge's Book of Nuns at his website. Is it true? Possibly. Probably. I certainly hope so.