The Art of Taxidermy – dark, but so exquisitely beautiful!

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Author: Sharon Kernot
Publisher: Text Publishing

Sharon Kernot’s verse novel, The Art of Taxidermy, is an exquisite, profoundly moving story of grief, loss and love and family.

The Art of Taxidermy is a beautiful verse novel that is set in a small country town in the 1960s. Kernot explores the theme of grief through her character, thirteen-year-old Lottie, who has experienced a great deal of death in her short life, including the loss of her mother. As the book unravels, you learn more about the losses that Lottie has experienced and you begin to understand why Lottie is so obsessed with death. Lottie’s way of grieving is unique – she collects dead animals and attempts to preserve them.

Lottie’s family has experienced significant losses and adversity. They are a German family living in post World War Two South Australia and one thread of the narrative is how members of the family were imprisoned in the Loveday Internment Camp during the war. Lottie’s family were considered enemies during this time and as such experienced great difficulties and hardships.

Lottie lives with her father, Wolfgang, who is gentle and kind-hearted, but he’s busy with work and he’s also distracted with his own grief. Her aunt Hilda lives nearby and helps Lottie’s father in the raising of Lottie. Aunt Hilda is a practical woman and she doesn’t understand why Lottie or her father cannot just move on with their lives. She doesn’t understand why they are both haunted by their losses.

The novel takes place in the 1960s and it is a time when people didn’t talk to children about death and dying. Lottie is confused and has been left to find her own way to understand what has happened to her family and to comprehend why she feels the way she does. No one is giving her advice or support, so she turns to taxidermy because that helps and gives her a place to understand her grief.

The reasons for Lottie’s desire to express her grief through taxidermy are evident.

I wanted flesh and blood, not ghosts.

Lottie’s father, a scientist, is accepting of her interests. Aunt Hilda, though, finds it ghoulish and unladylike. Kernot does manage to add some dark humour from the Lottie and Aunt Hilda relationship. Aunt Hilda finds some bloody sheets from one of Lottie’s experiments and believes Lottie has started her period. Aunt Hilda is delighted with this turn of events and gives Lottie advice and menstrual pads. Lottie accordingly uses the cotton from the menstrual pads to stuff a lorikeet.

The artwork on the cover also needs to be mentioned – the delicate gumnuts, wattle and pale blue and green eggshells that fill the cover are stunning and add another layer to the connection to the Australian bushland which features heavily in this verse novel and almost becomes another character in the book.

The Art of Taxidermy is ideally suited to verse novel. The dark and strange subject of taxidermy is a perfect fit. Verse novels are challenging to write and not many people can write them well, but Kernot has created a masterpiece. Beautifully voiced, this narrative took my breath away. What I love about this book, though, is that Kernot in such a beautiful way reminds us that no matter how ugly things may seem, there is beauty around every corner and that we all don’t have to see beauty in the same way.

Flower, Dead, Wither, Rose, Death

Steven Herrick shines a light on domestic violence

 

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Author: Steven Herrick
Publisher: University of Queensland Press

Steven Herrick is one of my favourite authors. His gentle humour and vibrant characters bring both light and heart to difficult topics. The Bogan Mondrian deals with themes of grief and domestic violence.

Herrick’s writing is always unashamedly Australian and personally, I love this about his books. The Bogan Mondrian is set in the Blue Mountains where Herrick has lived since 1994. I might add that Herrick was born and bred in Queensland and I always feel this Queensland connection whenever I read his books – notably his sense of humour which features in all his work and despite the heavy themes of The Bogan Mondrian Herrick adds humour to this story which helps to balance it out.

‘Absenteeism…’ he repeats.
‘A scourge,’ I finish. Charlotte is a bad influence.
Cue loud exhale.
‘You will both report to Mr Dexter,’ he checks his watch again, ‘at lunchtime, for one week of detention. An email will be sent to your parents.’ He looks at me meaningfully. ‘I’d welcome a meeting.’
‘There’s only Mum left,’ I say.

He offers a stage-managed cough. ‘Yes, I’m well aware, Saunders. I believe you mentioned that last time you were in here.’

‘My dad’s alive,’ Blake adds, perhaps trying to be helpful. ‘But he lives in Queensland.’

When the book opens, we are introduced to Luke. A young man who lost his father to cancer and despite losing his dad two years ago, Luke’s grief is still raw and real. Since his dad’s death, Luke has lived in a fog and he is meandering through life with no direction. As a result, Luke spends much of his time wagging school and swimming at the reservoir. Luke doesn’t hate school but thinks it is boring and pointless. But when Charlotte, a young woman from a wealthy family, comes into his world, he realises there are worse things than school. Charlotte’s father beats his wife.

In reading a piece that Herrick wrote for Reading Time, he had this to say about choosing Charlotte’s family as victims of domestic violence.

The choice of a well-to-do family was deliberate – domestic violence affects people from all classes, races and religions. In the novel, Luke becomes a catalyst for Charlotte confronting the violence happening behind the neatly-trimmed hedge, circular driveway and security door. I chose a teenage boy and girl because this is not a women’s issue – the notion of masculinity and our propensity to violence is for us to understand and fix. I hope Luke is an example of male strength, kindness and empathy. I hope he’s a believable antidote to the destruction wrought by Charlotte’s father.

Charlotte father is a charismatic, attractive and successful man. When Luke first meets him, he questions Charlotte’s story. The man he meets doesn’t fit the version that Charlotte has given him. Luke starts to disbelieve Charlotte. Charlotte’s father is protected by his wealth, his status and his persona as a “good bloke”.  Herrick shines a light on so many facets of domestic violence. Men who hit their wives don’t always look like monsters and don’t always come from the wrong side of town.

As we all know, violence against women is about power. Herrick shows in The Bogan Mondrian what happens when the power is taken away. He encourages us to think about how we can take power from these men. Luke and Charlotte took away Charlotte’s father’s control. Herrick admits that how this was achieved in The Bogan Mondrian is not a solution to domestic violence. Domestic violence is complex and different for everyone experiencing it – to say that there is one solution is to simplify the issue and Herrick doesn’t want to simplify the matter. He wants to show how, as individuals and as a community, we can flip the power away from these violent men.

I’ve always admired authors who can give us fleshed out minor characters and Herrick does this beautifully. The Bogan Mondrian has a stellar cast. There is Rodney, the car thief who is both shady and kind. Luke’s best friend, Blake, who isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed but his goodness shines through. There is the librarian, Tracey, who shows Luke where to find information and give him moral guidance and Mr Rosetti, who is teaching Luke how to swear in Italian.

The Bogan Mondrian is a sensitive and beautiful story that highlights an issue that affects 1.5 million Australians, but most importantly, Herrick gives us Luke – a lovely young man who hopefully is our future.

Mondrian, Red, Blue, Yellow, Abstraction

 

Catch a Falling Star

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Author: Meg McKinlay

Publisher: Walker Books

Meg McKinlay is an exceptional writer. Her books are both heart-wrenching and very funny. Her new novel Catch a Falling Star is stunning. I knew I was going to enjoy this book from the first page.

Jeremy’s wearing the bowl and a puffy jacket because it’s the closest he can get to a spacesuit. And he needs a spacesuit because he’s going to be an astronaut when he grows up, just like Damien last week, and Trevor the time before. I don’t know what the odds are of three kids from the same class in a tiny little town on the south coast of nowhere, Western Australia, becoming astronauts, but it seems like they’d be…astronomical.

Yes, this book is poignant and heartfelt, but it is also hilarious. I work in an all-boys school (mainly in the junior school) and emotionally moving won’t it cut it with the boys. I need to be able to sell these books, so humour is good. Grab them with humour and space and then let them discover a story which will give them so much more.

Catch a Falling Star is set in a small town in Western Australia, in the year of  1979. As I was reading this novel, I thought it would be a wonderful book to read aloud to students. To discuss what life was like in 1979 for children their age. No mobile phones, not a lot of technology, no Internet.

It is 1979 and Skylab, the U.S. space station is starting to break up and will re-enter the earth’s atmosphere. NASA can’t control Skylab and so no-one, including NASA, have any idea where the pieces of Skylab will land. They do know that Western Australia is on its flight path. I loved this part of the book because it is the 1970s and there’s no such thing as social media or a twenty-four-hour news cycle, so the public is relying on the nightly news report and their daily newspapers to give them their information. Imagine. Skylab dominates the news and everyone is talking about it.

Everyone is obsessed with Skylab and none more so than Frankie Avery and her younger brother, Newt. Frankie and Newt’s father died several years earlier in a plane. It too fell out of the sky. Their father loved space. Frankie spent many hours with her father star-gazing and talking about space. She remembers her father telling her about Skylab and now it is falling to the ground. Skylab brings back many memories for Frankie and she finds it all quite overwhelming, particularly since her mother doesn’t talk about her father anymore and all she does is work long hours at the hospital.

Newt was too young to remember their father, but like their father, he is fascinated by space. He is a curious, incredibly smart eight-year-old who loves science. Frankie’s mother isn’t home much, so Frankie looks after Newt. She worries about Newt and sometimes forgets to be a twelve-year-old because she is too busy looking after Newt who has no sense of danger and like most eight-year-olds lacks a lot of common sense.

Frankie is dealing with a lot. She is negotiating school, family, friends and grief. The book is beautifully written, but I love the humour that McKinlay provides in the book to lighten the mood at times. Most of this humour comes when Frankie is in class with her teacher. Adults and students will relate to the humour in the classroom.

As Skylab continues to fall to the ground, Frankie feels her life starting to spiral. The falling of Skylab triggers Frankie and everything comes to an emotional head as Skylab enters the earth.

Catch a Falling Star is a tender, hopeful, funny, poignant and beautifully written book.

I thought I would end with my favourite quote from the book, for all the readers out there!! Throughout the story, Frankie is reading the Australian classic Storm Boy by Colin Thiele. A book that parallels Catch a Falling Star in that they are both about growing up and handling grief at a young age.

“What’s it about?” She gestures at the cover. “A pelican.”

I  hesitate. People are always asking that about books: “What’s it about? It sounds like a simple question, but it isn’t. You could take all day to answer it if you really wanted to. And if the person asking the question really wanted to hear it.

“Yeah,” I say finally. “It’s about a pelican.”

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Lenny’s Book of Everything

Author: Karen Foxlee

Publisher: Allen & Unwin

The story takes place in Ohio, a state in the USA. It’s set in the 1970s. A time before technology overtook our lives. The main character, Lenny, lives in an apartment with her mum, Cynthia Spink, the proud, hard-working, sharp-witted, anxious mother of two and her younger brother, Davey – her happy-go-lucky brother who has gigantism. Her father, Peter Lenard Spink, has left them. He hopped on a Greyhound bus and never returned.

Lenny’s Book of Everything is captivating, charming and magical. Lenny, her mother and brother, live an ordinary life except for the fact that Davey grows at an alarming rate. At age six, he is four foot and ten inches or the equivalent of about 147 centimetres.

So what makes this book so charming? Is it because it set in the 1970s when life was simpler? The highlight of the children’s week is the arrival of the Burrell’s Build-it-at-Home Encyclopaedia which their mother won for the children through her talented writing. Cynthia Spink’s communication with Burrell’s (through letters) is a memorable part of the book.

The encyclopaedias allow the children a glimpse of the world that exists outside their apartment and their small town. They experience the wonders of the world through the books. Lenny discovers a fascination of beetles and dreams of being a coleopterist. Davey becomes enthralled with birds of prey and travelling to Great Bear Lake. I often wonder if Lenny fulfilled her dream and became a coleopterist.

A lot of the charm and magic of the book lies with the characters. Every character adds an element to the story from Lenny’s best friends CJ Bartholomew and Matthew Milford to the school principal Mrs Dalrymple – keep an eye out for Mrs Dalrymple and Mrs Oliver towards the end of the book!

My favourite character was Mrs Gaspar. The odd old Hungarian woman who lives in their apartment block and who looks after the children when Cynthia works. Every child should experience a Mrs Gaspar when growing up – she’s so beautifully disagreeable.

“The abominable snowman,” said Davey.

“Pah,” said Mrs. Gaspar, and she waved her hand as though we bored her. “I saw him once when I was walking home from school in Hungary.”

This bittersweet tale is full of so many perfect moments that remind you that our best life is experienced through kindness, hope and love. Lenny’s Book of Everything is gorgeous and borders on perfection. Thank you, Karen Foxlee, for giving me the reading collywobbles ♥

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Wild Blue Wonder

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Author: Carlie Sorosiak

Publisher: Harper Teen

Wild Blue Wonder is a quirky, original and beautiful book about grief and guilt.

The story alternates between two timelines, both narrated by Quinn. We follow Quinn in the present day during fall/winter, as well as the previous summer when Quinn’s life changed forever.

Quinn is seventeen years old and the middle child in a family that has drifted apart. As well as Quinn, there is her gay older brother Reed and her rebellious younger sister, Fern.

Quinn’s life was turned upside down when her best friend Dylan died in the summer. Dylan was adored by all three siblings and his death tore a once close-knit family apart. We find out that Quinn feels responsible for Dylan’s death and it would appear that her siblings blame her as well. She feels ostracized by not only her family but the small town that her family live within. The siblings are grieving and rather than turn to each other for support; they have decided to deal with Dylan’s death alone.

Instinctively, I roll my eyes, noticing that Fern and Reed do, too, and for a split second we forget not to smile at each other. When we remember, even the room sighs, all the hardwoods letting out a collective whoosh.

Quinn’s family owns a summer camp called The Hundreds, which serves as the setting for the majority of the book. The Hundreds is a magical place and Sorosiak makes you want to live in such a place. Her writing makes The Hundreds come alive both in summer and winter with her beautiful descriptions – blueberries grow in  winter, sick cats wander into the woods and suddenly they’re cured, ghosts wander through the camp and according to the family, an aquatic monster roams the depth of their cove.

The Hundreds, the summer camp that my family owns and operates – where we live. It’s aggressively pretty under the moonlight and dusting of snow. Small rustic cabins. A meadow of dormant wildflowers. A hundred acres of birch, ash and maple trees that whisper to one  another in the wind. No matter how green it is in June, The Hundreds is most striking in fall and winter.

In the flashbacks to the summer, we are given glimpses of life for the family before Dylan’s death. The siblings were inseparable and loving. They were the perfect family. The happiness and love you feel during the summer months contrast entirely with the emptiness, anger and despair that you feel in the winter months. Quinn was present when Dylan lost his life and she blames herself. She has decided that she is not worthy of living a happy, full life when Dylan’s is gone. Her siblings are confused and angry and all this is enhanced by the cold winter backdrop.

Wild Blue Wonder is a story of grief, but it is also a story of friendship and family. Sorosiak lightens the read by introducing us to some beautiful supporting characters including Quinn’s best friend, Korean-American Hana Chang and Alexander Kostopoulos, a Greek-British student grappling with family issues of his own. Hana and Alexander provide a humorous element to the book so that you aren’t overwhelmed by the guilt, anger and grief felt by the family characters. Also add to the mix, Quinn’s eccentric, hilarious grandmother Nana Eden who is determined to put the family back together again.

The plot is compelling and you will be drawn in by the mystery of what happened to Dylan, the fun of the summer camp, the beauty of winter in Maine and the characters who will make you laugh, cry and scream.

Sorosiak has masterfully written some likeable and well-developed characters and you will want everything to work out for them. This family deserves a happy ending. This is the first book of Sorosiak ’s that I have read and I was mesmerized by her writing.

She can write snark:

Fern can walk out of a room like she’s slamming a door in your face.

And she can write so so beautifully:

Outside it’s foggy, tendrils of haze crawling along the ground like vines. Even though the birch trees are whispering to each other, it feels empty. Beautiful, but empty. I miss the summer – the chaos of voices in the mess hall, sunshine against emerald glass, and fullness. Now the only moving things aren’t living at all: icicles on the ropes course swaying with the wind, haloed mist swirling above the wildflower meadow, and vague, shadowy shapes on the Yoga and Meditation Cabin’s porch. When I pass, they drift back and forth like splinters of moonlight, dispersing in the air as squid ink does in water.

Carlie Sorosiak, I am happy I found your beautiful book.

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The Day I Met Cath Crowley

After reading Words in Deep Blue, I fell in love with Cath Crowley and her writing. While at Somerset Literature Festival I attended one of Cath’s session. During the session, Cath focussed on her book Grafitti Moon, which I understood considering the audience (secondary students), but I so wanted to hear more about Words in Deep Blue. BUT Cath Crowley drew me into her presentation with her beautiful manner and her likeable personality. Cath’s writing is funny and warm, and this comes through when she speaks. After listening to Cath talk about Grafitti Moon, I now want to read it, and I can’t believe I haven’t read it before now.

During her presentation she made me laugh, and I could see within her the beautiful soul that it took to write such an extraordinary book such as Words in Deep Blue. For those of you who haven’t read Words in Deep Blue, you should definitely put it on your ‘to read’ list.

Words in Deep Blue is a love story about a second-hand bookshop named Howling Books, where readers write letters to strangers, to lovers, to poets, to words. It is also the story of Henry and Rachel who were once best friends and are now finding their way back to each other. Words in Deep Blue is a book that loves books, words and readers. Cath Crowley draws you into the book with her beautiful writing, and she takes a book about love, grief and death and makes it both funny and heartbreaking. It is a book that will linger with you long after you have finish reading.

Once the session had finished, I made my way to the bookshop where Cath was signing books. We chatted a little, and I told her that when I was reading Words in Deep Blue, I wasn’t talking to my boyfriend. We had a huge fight, and I was shutting him out. At the time he was in Canada, and I was in Australia. While I was reading this beautiful book, I knew that he would love this story. He would want to visit Howling Books (his favourite places are second-hand bookstores). He would laugh with the characters who are all flawed but adorable. So I sent him a text and told him that I had found a book with a second-hand bookstore that he would want to live in and just like that, I broke the freeze and that’s the power of a great book! Lucky for me Cath enjoyed my story (or pretended to) and didn’t think I was too creepy!

It is always scary meeting an author or going to an author’s presentation because sometimes they just don’t live up to your expectations but I am happy to say that Cath Crowley exceeded my expectations. She was delightful, kind and beautiful and it makes me love Words in Deep Blue even more, and I didn’t think that was possible.

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