Review – Heather Fell in the Water

Heather is a little accident-prone, especially when it comes to water. If there’s a lake, a puddle, a pool, seaside or drip, she’ll tumble into it, coat and hat and shoes and all.

Her parents worry for her safety. They worry so much, they make Heather wear floaties day in and day out. Just in case.

Heather is too scared to go to swimming lessons. “The water hates me,” she says. But her parents believe that throwing her in the deep end may be just what the swim instructor ordered. So, off they go to the pool.

To her surprise, Heather likes it. She likes the feel of the water on her arms and legs. She likes the way it splashes. She likes it so much, her floaties soon get the old heave-ho, and little Heather fast becomes a swimming champ, much to the delight of her proud, no longer-paranoid parents.

Based on author Doug MacLeod’s real life sister who always fell in the water, this is a charming story with – hurrah! – a great ending. Illustrator Craig Smith’s bright yet watery illustrations are delightfully funny – I particularly love the ones of Heather finally claiming the water.

This is a really large format book; I personally think it would have worked better slightly smaller. Nonetheless, it’s a wonderful stand-alone book but also one that’s priceless for schools and daycare centres – and anyone who has certain challenges with the wet stuff. Gorgeous.

Heather Fell in the Water is published by Allen & Unwin.

Body-snatching with Doug MacLeod

Last post I reviewed Doug MacLeod’s YA novel The Life of a Teenage Body-Snatcher. Today, I’m very pleased to welcome Doug to Literary Clutter for a little chat about his book.

Hi, Doug. Thanks for dropping by.

My pleasure. A very cosy corner of cyberspace you have here.

Thank you. You’re much too kind. So Doug, when did you develop an interest in body-snatching?

Very recently. I read The Resurrectionist by Australian author James Bradley, and enjoyed it — even though it was a little gruesome for my tastes. I also watched a documentary by English broadcaster Dan Cruickshank on the subject of the English medical schools of the early eighteen hundreds, and how there was a great need for freshly deceased bodies to be dissected by the students. In fact I named one of my characters in honour of Mr Cruickshank — though I’m not sure he would regard it as an honour.

In your last post you described a scene where our characters wade through human head sludge. I’m afraid that scene really does happen in the book. It makes perfect sense. It wasn’t just included for shock value. But after I’d written it, it occurred to me that I might have created something disgusting. However, the two boys are so wonderfully chipper about the horrible situation in which they find themselves, and so supportive of each other, that I think I get away with it. The book is more about the importance of friendship than digging up bodies, although quite a bit of the latter does go on. I didn’t write the book to offend people. My intention was to be funny rather than shocking. I wanted people to fall in love with my characters in much the way I did. They took me by surprise.

You probably did a lot of reading about 19th Century body-snatching in preparation for this novel. But did you have to do any practical research into resurrectionism?

I did no practical research whatever. I’m actually very squeamish. There are scenes from the last Monty Python movie that I find impossible to watch. And I find Justin Bieber chilling.

The questionable teaching methods of your character, Mr Atkins, bear a striking resemblance to those of a teacher who once ‘taught’ me back in the early 1980s. Are Mr Atkins and his methods purely the result of your demented imagination or is there some real life inspiration?

Oh my god, who was the monster who taught you? I hope you weren’t ‘the chosen one’ because you seem a gentle soul. My imagination isn’t nasty enough to invent such a hideous teaching method. In a recent biography about a prominent Australian broadcaster, it was heavily implied that during his time as a teacher of teenage boys, he used the technique described in the book.

Fear not… my teacher wasn’t as bad as Mr Atkins. And I managed to survive.

In your novel, Mrs Greenough has a weakness for alcohol whilst Mrs Timewell prefers laudanum. What’s your preference?

I’ve never tried laudanum. Since it’s basically heroin diluted with alcohol I think I am unlikely to do so. Victorian theatres used to have ‘retiring rooms’ for the ladies who wished to indulge in the stuff. It was all proper and above-board. They would go to these rooms during the interval and get retired off their faces. I, on the other hand, favour a nice drop of red. I did drink a glass of Absinthe once in the hope that it might turn me into a French impressionist painter. It didn’t.

It is pointed out in the book that each body-snatcher must choose a resurrectionist name (such as Plenitude, Tolerance and Clemency), or have a name choose them. What resurrectionist name would you choose for yourself?

The idea is that a resurrectionist’s name should be beautiful; a noun with positive connotations. I was very happy when I came up with the name ‘Plenitude’ for my main character, until I discovered it’s a brand of eye make-up. I’ll have to wait for my resurrectionist name to choose me, for I am at a loss to make the choice myself.

The Life of a Teenage Body-Snatcher successfully combines humour with tragedy. Not an easy task. What in the world possessed you to attempt it?

George, I really don’t know. I started writing a black comedy then realised there was a lot more to this story than I had plotted. I felt I owed it to my characters to give them compelling reasons to act the way they did — and that necessitated a certain amount of tragedy. I’m sorry, I know that sounds pretentious. It’s an odd book, so I’m very gratified that you enjoyed it, and that the CBCA decided to include it on their shortlist. Though I get the feeling that if I win, I will be torn into tiny pieces by fans of Cath Crowley and Melina Marchetta — both of whom are indeed smashing and more deserving of the honour than I. If I could cast a vote myself here, I think I’d plump for The Midnight Zoo by Sonya Hartnett.

Thank you, Doug, for stopping by and giving us an insight into your writing and into body-snatching.

To find out more about Doug MacLeod and his writing, check out his website and his blog.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on twitter… or I’ll dig up your grave!


The Life of a Teenage Body-Snatcher

Ever wondered what it would be like to dig up a fresh grave and snatch the body? Well… even if you haven’t, I can still highly recommend Doug MacLeod’s The Life of a Teenage Body-Snatcher.

I picked up a copy of this YA book for two reasons.

  1. I really liked the cover. Yes, a rather superficial reason — but I can be as superficial as the next person (depending, of course, on who that next person is). Anyway, it is a rather atmospheric cover, and I thought the contents deserved a chance.
  2. I met the author, Doug MacLeod, at a book signing. I had a chat with him and decided that since he was witty and interesting, so too might his book be. And guess what? It was!

Thomas Timewell’s grandfather has died. The old man had wanted his body donated to science, but Thomas’s mother circumvented the will and had him buried. So Thomas decides to dig him up in order to fulfil his wishes. As he is doing so, Thomas encounters a body-snatcher (or resurrectionist) calling himself Plenitude. This meeting results in Thomas’s life taking an unexpected turn. Embarking on a resurrectionist career, he finds himself pursued by murderous rival body-snatchers, an insane, devilishly tattooed gypsy, and even the Grim Reaper himself. Along the way he manages, amongst other things, to contribute to the death of a schoolteacher, wade through human-head sludge, defend his best friend, insult a famous author, buy a dozen oysters and even fall in love.

Wit, drama, tragedy and pathos combine in this difficult to put down book. The humour is an integral part of the story but is never self-conscious or distracting, and the other elements of the story work very nicely with it. The historical detail is terrific and you really get a sense of being in England in the early 19th Century.

There is much to recommend this novel, but it is the characterisation that makes it sparkle. Thomas Timewell, the titular teenage body-snatcher, is likeable and interesting. It is easy to sympathise with his woes, chuckle at his wry observations and cheer him on in his endeavours. Plenitude, the resurrectionist, is also likeable despite his occupation (perhaps even because of it) and the doubts cast over his actions and motivations. There are also a host of supporting characters, each with their own little quirks. And although the character oddities are humorous, they are never so over-the-top as to render the characters unbelievable.

My particular favourites are Thomas’s mother, Mrs Timewell, and her two friends, Mrs Greenough and Mrs Tilley. Mrs Greenough fervently denounces all those who drink alcohol while spending most of her time somewhere between tipsy and sloshed. Mrs Tilley takes a little too much interest in Thomas, and indeed, any other good-looking teenage boys she encounters. Meanwhile, Mrs Timewell’s addiction to laudanum plays havoc with her memory, resulting in her need to write everything down in a journal. She is a particularly well-rounded character for whom I came to feel greatly, especially upon the revelation of the reasons for her addiction. Balancing humour and tragedy is no easy task — but MacLeod makes it appear effortless.

Can you tell that I LOVED THIS BOOK! Go out and buy a copy… right now! In fact, why not buy two? You never know when a spare one may come in handy.

And tune in next time for a visit from Doug.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on twitter… or I’ll insist you buy me a dozen oysters.



A Celebration of Books at the Ford Street Literary Festival

Last week I attended the Ford Street Literary Festival at Scotch College in Hawthorn and I really wanted to blog about this inspiring example of kids having fun with books and their creators.

(Pictured below are Jo Thompson, Meredith Costain and David Miller who got down to the bare bones of writing and illustrating at the Ford Street Literary Festival.)

What better way for an author to spend a day than in the company of other authors and illustrators and 175 enthusiastic kids and their dedicated teachers?

Graham Davey (champion of children’s literature in Australia) was the MC for the day and he kept the kids entertained and the day moving along smoothly.

Students from schools across Victoria from Years 5 to 10 gathered to talk books and writing with Paul Collins, Meredith Costain, Justin D’Ath, Hazel Edwards, George Ivanoff, , Phil Kettle, Doug MacLeod, Felicity Marshall, Foz Meadows, JE Fison, Liz Flaherty, Sean McMullen, David Miller, Michael Salmon, Jo Thompson and me.

It was fantastic to see kids enthralled by books and coming to an event like this prepared with enthusiastic and informed questions for authors and illustrators.

A book quiz challenged the kids to work together and share their book knowledge to win a box full of books for their school – and all competitors attacked the task with enthusiasm.

Then Michael Salmon (pictured right with Phil Kettle) did an illustration demonstration that kept the kids mesmerised until it was time for JE Fison’s launch of her exciting new Hazard River Series.

It was great for me to catch up with fellow Boomerang Books Blogger, George Ivanoff from Literary Clutter – and of course the entire group of inspiring Children’s  authors and illustrators.

After the quiz and author chats with students, we all moved to the auditorium to watch Michael Salmon work his magic.

Then there was the sales and signings where students could buy their favourite Ford Street titles.

The Ford Street Literary Festival was a reminder that there are so many great ways to celebrate books and what they can bring to a child’s life.