Monday, 23 January 2017

The Midnight Gang


I'm always pleased to see a new Walliams' title hit the bookstores. The Midnight Gang came out in late 2016, and I've just got to it now. I'd just spent three weeks reading Ballet Shoes (see my review) and as a consequence I was already one book behind on my Goodreads Challenge for the year, so that I knew I needed a lightning fast read. The Midnight Gang it was. Although it's getting harder to blitz through Walliams books- they are indeed getting longer each year. The Midnight Gang is a chunky 478 pages. 

The Midnight Gang is set in the Children's Ward of Lord Funt Hospital in London. Naturally it is no cozy, mural painted kids ward. The Children's Ward of Lord Funt Hospital is on the 44th floor of the building, right at the very top, and it is presided over by a mean, callous, child-hating Matron. Naturally it is peopled with great characters, like Raj the Newsagent, and Nurse Meese.


A large older lady in a blur-and-white uniform with a hat leaned over and examined the boy's head. Dark circles framed her bloodshot eyes. Grey wiry hair squatted on her head. Her face was red raw, as if she had scrubbed it with a cheese grater.

Tom Charper has just been admitted to the Children's Ward of Lord Funt Hospital after a tragic cricket accident. He has been hit on the head by the ball, concussed, and left with rather a large bump.  Tom is a lonely boy at his boarding school. His parents never contact him, and he is on the outer with the kids. Not in the rugby team, not in the cool gang of kids, but he finds firm friends in the other children in the ward.

Each night at midnight the children leave their beds for a series of adventures in the nooks and crannies of the hospital. Naturally Tom wants to join them in their exploits. Like all of David Walliams books there is a beautiful heart at the centre of The Midnight Gang. Readers learn that they shouldn't judge someone by their looks and that 


"life is precious. Every moment is precious. We should be kind to each other. While there is still time."

I just love that David Walliams did publicity for the book in his pyjamas!



Fascinating to see that David Walliams based Porter on one of his favourite childhood characters, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It's obvious when you know. 

Friday, 13 January 2017

Ballet Shoes



I'd been looking forward to reading Ballet Shoes for some time, and presumed that I would love it. For some reason I thought I would find it a bit like The Secret Garden i.e. just delightful (see my review). Noel Streatfeild wrote one of my favourite books of my childhood- The Children of Primrose Lane- still one of my earliest memories of reading. I remember reading it over and over again. I don't remember the story all now, but I remember the book itself. Indeed, my original copy has survived my childhood and still sits on my bookshelves. I've been meaning to reread it after I fell in love with Ballet Shoes, but now I'm a bit worried that it might spoil the memories.


You see I didn't really like Ballet Shoes. 


I found it boring. It was a bit of a slog to get through. I found the tone so passive that I had to push myself to spend any time at all reading it and I was constantly eyeing off other books that I could have been reading, and enjoying, instead. 


Ballet Shoes tells the story of three orphaned girls found in remote parts of the world and brought back to London by their benefactor and guardian, Great-Uncle Matthew, or Gum as the girls call him. Gum is a fossil collector and explorer who has a large house "at the far end of the longest road in London" where he deposits the girls and leaves them in the care of his great-niece Sylvia and Nana, her nurse. 



Gum had been a very important person. He had collected some of the finest fossils in the world, and though to many people fossils may not seem to be very interesting things to collect, there are others who find them as absorbing as sensible collections, such as stamps. 

The girls are brought up by Sylvia and Nana as Gum, whilst beloved by all, has left them alone without the funds to go on. It's the 1930s and things are tight. Although they go to Harrods for a new dress when needed, but spend much of their time walking to the Victoria and Albert and back. The V&A was mentioned a lot and each time made me think of my visit there in 2013. 


I did find some historical aspects rather interesting. The girls all attend Madame Fidolia's Children's Academy of Dancing and Stage Training and much of the book is taken up of rather intricate detail of the practicalities of their lessons. But as each girl turns 12 they are allowed to work in the theatre, and they must apply for a Licence to do so from the city of London. This seemed a highly regulated process, and there was even a copy of the Application for Licence included, which seemed an unusual feature for a book originally published in 1936.




Also intersting was that the death of a king (King George V in January 1936) could have a profound effect on how long a show would run. The populace of London were so saddened by his death that "Nobody felt in the mood for pantomimes." It's hard to imagine that now. 

All three girls contract whooping cough one year. 



Whooping cough is a miserable disease, but if you must have it, the worst place is the Cromwell Road; it is so far from the Parks and any place where you can whoop nicely in private. They spent the first part of having it in bed, but after a bit they got well enough to get up, and then it was most dressing. The weather was ghastly- very cold, with those sort of winds which cut your legs and face, and often it rained and sometimes half snowed, and they whooped too much to go on an underground, or a bus, and they were all cross, and they got tireder and tireder of walking to the Victoria and Albert and back. 

I did find Ballet Shoes disappointing overall in the end. There just wasn’t enough hook into the story for me I think. And I was never that interested in the girls story, which is surprising as it started out so well- 3 orphans in quick succession in the first chapter! 

And can Kathleen Kelly have been wrong all these years? 



The particular scene isn’t in that montage, but at one stage in You’ve Got Mail Kathleen Kelly says:

“I'd start with Ballet Shoes, it's my favorite; although Skating Shoes is completely wonderful.” 

I'm not so sure. 


304/1001

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Cogheart


It's January 12 and I've finally finished my first book of 2017! Which is also my last book of 2016 because I actually started it way back on Dec 23. Yes, it took me three weeks to read a 362 middle grade book. Which is not the books fault at all, not at all, it's mine. At 21 days to read a mere 362 pages it's a paltry average of 17 pages a day- which is a pretty dismal effort on my part, and sadly my reading of the book suffered for it. I'm not in a reading slump so much as having too much non-reading to do, and only being able to sneak in a few pages before I fall asleep each night.

Cogheart is the debut book from Peter Bunzl, filmmaker and author. I think I heard about it on twitter over the past few months, and then I saw it available in my local bookshop in December and I had to buy it immediately, and then it leapt to the top of my reading pile and I chose it for my Sydney Christmas read. Well that was the intention. 

Thirteen year old Lily Grantham is a student at Miss Octavia Scrimshaw's Finishing Academy for Young Ladies in a "wild corner of England" in 1906. Her mother had died a number of years earlier and her father had "chosen to send her to the school after she'd frustrated a number of governesses".

Lily had long ago noticed the other girls never read in posture class. It seemed thinking and walking simultaneously was too difficult for them. She doubted if a single important thought ever floated through their minds. 
Her father is also an inventor of some note and a recluse. He goes missing in an airship accident at the very start of the book, and Lily falls under the guardianship of her father's French housekeeper Madame Verdigris. Naturally I quite liked the sprinkling of French phrases scattered throughout her dialogue, although I always wonder what kids make of this, if they just skim over it, or they infer some meaning from context.

"Ça suffit!" Madame grabbed her arms and pressed them against her chest. Her long nails dug into Lily's wrists and get teardrop earrings swung wildly as she dragged Lily away from the door and threw her down on her bed.

I don't think that I've ever read anything that might possibly be considered steampunk before, and I was a bit nervous about whether I would like it as a style. I don't know why now. I just loved the mix of Victorian London, zeppelins, windup mechanimals (who wouldn't love a windup fox like Malkin?) and villainous hybrid chaps with silver eyes. It's interesting that Peter Bunzl is a filmmaker I think Cogheart would make a fabulous animated movie. There are some terrific action scenes and Peter Bunzl doesn't shy away from scaring the kids a bit. 

A shudder ran through her as his broken face surfaced in her memory, like a corpse floating from the depths of a glinting pond. 

At times Cogeheart stirred memories of Asimov's Laws of Robotics from decades ago when I read much more science fiction than I do now. 
'It's the first rule of mechanics, Robert: a mech cannot kill a human or seriously harm them."
I briefly wondered what it would be like to reread Asimov now, but I don't have the time. 

The sequel to Cogheart, Moonlocket will be out sometime this year. I'll be looking forward to it. 

Saturday, 7 January 2017

White Rabbit Gallery

The White Rabbit Gallery in Chippendale has been open since 2009, but I only heard about it more recently when Brona of Four Seasons went along to see the Vile Bodies exhibition. I was so intrigued by her post that on a recent trip to Sydney I made time to get along and see it, and I'm so very glad that I did. 

White Rabbit Gallery is particularly extraordinary as it is a private gallery that displays billionaire Judith Neilson's  massive collection of 21st Century Chinese Art. Entry is free. 

The atrium is filled with Zhang Dali's impressive Chinese Offspring 2005- it's captivating from every angle. 

Trussed and hung like slaughtered carcasses, Zhang Dali's naked bodies represent the millions of peasants who have quite the safety of family and village to seek work in China's booming cities. Many find themselves no better off for their gamble: poor, ill-housed and deprived of civic rights. "No one will help them," the artist says. But he doesn't know whom he pities more: these brave but desperate strays or the "herd animals" of the cities who close ranks against them. 






Gong Chenyu's Display Animal Taming 2015


I loved Cheng Dapeng's Wonderful City. Hundreds (?) of 3D printed shapes in forms combining anatomy and nightmare presented on a lightbox that looked like a cloudscape. 

As an architect Cheng Dapeng has a financial stake in China's breakneck urban growth. As an artist, he tries to atone for that role by drawing attention to development's dark side. The neat scale models in real-estate promotions represent "perfectly formatted" visions of the perfect life, he says. But the soulless money-driven reality of China's new cities is more like a social-Darwinist nightmare, a breeding ground for monsters.





Another fabulous room:

Cant Xin's Exotic Flowers and Rare Herbs had a Seussian sense of fun for me. 







White Rabbit Gallery is amazing and I'll definitely be back. Exhibitions change twice a year so there will always be something new to see. Vile Bodies  ends on Feb 5 2017.

Bird cages decorate the teahouse, which I will have to try next time,
as we were quite full of dumplings from Tim Ho Wan

Even the umbrella stands are beautiful
After our gallery visit we walked about Chippendale for a while. I hadn't been in there for years, decades maybe, it used to be grungy and dirty, it's amazing now. 


Halo, Jennifer Turpin and Michaelie Crawford

Turning and tilting with the wind, Halo hovers in finely tuned counterbalance. The 12-metre-diameter carbon-fibre ring pivots atop a 13-metre-high tilted mast. The entire weight of the off-centre ring and arm balances on a ceramic bearing the size of a marble!

Halo responds to the winds of the moment. Gentle breezes set its eccentric rotation in motion, while gusts and eddies cause it to pitch and roll. 

We saw rotation this day, no pitching or rolling sadly. 




 There are heaps of restaurants and shops and a cool Spice Alley



One of the delights that we stumbled across was chocolatier Kakawa. Completely new to me before now, we sampled two chocolates (gone much too quickly to be photographed but I had the Raspberry Delight and the Passionfruit and Mango- both very delicious) and bought some goodies to take away- the vanilla fudge is divine....

Saturday Snapshot is a wonderful weekly memenow hosted by WestMetroMommy

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

A Year in First Lines

I first saw this wonderful meme done by Lisa at ANZLitlovers. Brona from Bronasbooks also looked back at her First Lines.  I thought it a magnificent way to look back at 2016, a difficult year in many ways. I haven't done as much blogging as I would have liked which has been frustrating, will I ever finish my posts on The Life Changing Magic of Tidying and How Proust Can Change Your Life? I hope so. 

The meme came from Jane @ Beyond Eden Rock





December

I’ve been wanting to read Catherine Jinks for quite some time.

November

This week I came across this most excellent list and thought it worthy of a Listmania post.

October

I wasn't expecting to see this exhibition on my recent trip to Melbourne, indeed I had never even heard of it.

September

The list this week comes from Mamamia recently. 

August

I like hanging out in used book sales.

July

Best in Show is a fabulous exhibition currently on at Orange Regional Gallery.

June

I'm not much of a cool girl and so I'd never heard of Rosie Waterland before I heard about this book. 

May

I've been intrigued by this book ever since I saw the cover quite some time ago.

April

It seems rather incredible that another Forage has come and gone.

March

Platero and I, is a prose poem, a book like none other that I have read. 

February

I knew as soon as I saw the gushing ads for The Bélier Family before Christmas that I wanted to see it. 

January

I had a great time participating in French Bingo 2015, although sadly I never got to leap up yelling BINGO even though I read 14 books



So, it's not really surprising to see all my themes are there. Reading of course. 1001. Book lists. Art. My obsession with Paris and all things French.

Monday, 2 January 2017

For the Love of Meat


For the Love of Meat aired on Australian TV a few months ago, and it's taken me that long to work up the courage to actually watch it. It's a three part documentary made by Matthew Evans- chef, food critic and free range pig farmer. I'm glad that I finally did. And I'm particularly glad that I started watching it on a accidental vegetarian day. Naturally it's often confronting, but it's fascinating, and it's important.


Matthew was astonished to learn that while people eat 34kg of meat per year on average world wide, here in Australia we manage to eat our way through 90kg of meat per person per year, making us the second biggest meat eaters in the world (behind America). In that 90kg we eat 7kg of lamb, 20kg of pork, 23kg of beef and a whopping 43kg of chicken each. I was surprised that the proportion of lamb was so small, although I guess lamb is most often cooked at home, and doesn't make up a large proportion of fast food meals in the way that chicken and beef does. I can't imagine that I eat my 90kg average, but they're still sobering numbers. Matthew uses the three episodes to look at the animals that we eat the most of - chickens, pigs and cows.


Episode 1 deals with chickens. I learnt a lot of things. Meat chickens aren't housed in cages like laying chickens. 85% of the chickens we eat in Australia live in a space no bigger than an A4 sheet of paper. The average time from egg to slaughter is 35 days, and remarkably this time has almost halved in the past 40 years with increasingly intensive practices. I was most distressed to learn that these chickens are often only given 4 hours of darkness a day, so that they eat and grow for 20 hours a day. Matthew was never allowed access to an intensive chicken farm. Only 1% of the chicken sold in Australia is organic.


Episode 2 is about pigs and pork. Again I learnt a lot of things. Only 10% of our pork is free range. Pigs build nests! Free range pigs sounds great but apparently mother pigs squash 18-20% of their piglets in the wild. Which is why industrialised pig farms have farrowing crates that constrain the mother from moving while she is breastfeeding her piglets, and still with this 10% of piglets are crushed by their mother. Australia has already banned the use of sow stalls and these are being phased out by the end of 2017, while farrowing crates are "the next controversy in the pig industry". Farrowing crates prioritises the life of the piglet (and the interests of the pig farmer) over the freedom of the sow. Sows are in traditional farrowing crates for 3-4 weeks, and they do this 2.2 times per year. Farrowing crates have already been banned in parts of Europe, and the Danes have invented a convertible farrowing stall which limits the sows for the first three days when the piglets are most vulnerable to being crushed, and then gives the mother freedom to move after that. Pigs are 18-24 weeks old when they go to market. It would be great for consumers to be told on packaging if the pork they are buying was raised in ecosheds or in conventional sheds- they certainly looked vastly different experiences for the pigs. 


Episode 3 deals with cattle. Half of Australia's beef cattle are in Queensland and 300,000 hectares of land was cleared last year for the cattle industry- an astonishing 40 football fields an hour. Cows of course are mobile green house gas factories, and there was an interesting comparison on the amount of gas released for different foods. 


Lentils produce 1kg of greenhouse gases per kg of lentils

Chickens produce 3kg of greenhouse gases per kg of chicken
Pigs produce 6kg of greenhouse gases per kg of pork
Cattle produce 25 kg of greenhouse gases per kg of beef

The CSIRO in Townsville is doing some amazing research about seaweed/algae supplements for cattle that could reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 80%


Matthew feels that we are disconnected from the meat we eat, and that certainly is true. For the Love of Meat was mainly about animal welfare for me, although it also dealt with some areas of health and environmental concerns. It's no surprise that Matthew ended up advising us that we could all eat less meat, and as the second biggest consumers of meat in the world this is obviously true. 


I live with a vegetarian so I have already been eating less meat much of the time, and I ended up eat no meat on the two days that I watched For the Love of Meat. When picking my lunch the day after watching the chicken episode choosing a chicken sandwich that I was reasonably sure would contain low welfare chicken just didn't seem right- do I want to eat chickens that have been forced to eat and grow for 20 hours a day? Do I want to eat chickens that live out their life in a space less than an A4 piece of paper? No, no I don't. Do I think these practices should even be allowed in Australia? No, no I don't. 

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Feeling Sorry for Celia



Sometimes you're just in the mood for an epistolary read, it's a form I really like but don't find them that often. The urge had been building for some time and I knew I had this book lying about the house, and happily I had enough free time in November to allow me to dig out Feeling Sorry for Celia. And I'm very glad I did.

Feeling Sorry for Celia is an epistolary novel with multiple points of view. Both favourite styles for me. 16 year old Elizabeth Clarry lives in the suburbs of North West Sydney with her Mum, and the two communicate a lot with notes. At times this reminded me of Life on the Refrigerator Door which I read a few years ago. Elizabeth's parents have separated and Christina's Mum is busy with work and her Thursday night poetry club. There are also notes in italics from groups such as The Association of Teenagers, The Society of Talented and Interesting Correspondents and COLD HARD TRUTH ASSOCIATION. It took me a while to work these out, but they're fun and often rather funny. 

Elizabeth goes to Ashbury, her local private school and her English teacher assigns the class a task to write to a student in the neighbouring public school, Brookfield, which is only a block away.

I'm only writing it because of Mr Botherit. He's our new English teacher and he seems really upset that the Art of Letter Writing is lost to the Internet generation, so he's going to rekindle the joy of the ENVELOPE. Next he's going to bring in a club and a sabre tooth tiger and rekindle the joy of the STONE AGE.
If Mr Botherit was upset by the Internet generation of 2000 just imagine how upset he would be by them now! Elizabeth's pen pal is Christina Kratovac. Naturally the girls talk about their families, their school, the boys who sit at the back of the bus. 

A VERY IMPORTANT THING for you to know is that I'm NOT a nice private school girl. And I know I'm not, cause most of the other girls here are like that. They take clarinet lessons and go to pony club. And they do this things whenever I'm talking to them where they blink their mascara'd lashes really quickly as if they need to take lots of little breaks from looking at me. 

They also talk about Elizabeth's best friend Celia who is a troubled soul and often prone to going missing, and indeed Celia is missing for much of the book. 

He also says there used to be a fairy princess girl, with long feathery blonde hair, who used to sit with you, only he hasn't seen her for ages. Is that Celia? He said he used to watch you two, and Celia always looked tiny and not-quite there, like she was just about to float through the bus window and fly away like a kite.

I really enjoyed Feeling Sorry for Celia and whizzed through it in just a few days- I think that's one of the reasons I really like epistolary novels- they are often super quick reads which is good for a slow, plodding reader like me.  I had thought that Feeling Sorry for Celia was a stand alone book when I read it. It was at the time it was written I think, but it came to be the first of four Ashbury/Brookfield books- though the four books are loosely connected and don't have to be read in order! As if. 

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