Brilliant Brisbane Writers Festival 2015

The BWF shone again. Jon Ronson’s opening address wooed everyone and we bought a copy of The Psychopath Test on the spot. What a funny, clever man.

CollinsI realised on opening night that this was my 10th consecutive year moderating sessions at the BWF. What a privilege to have conversed with writers such as Booker shortlisted authors Abdulrazak Gurnah and Michael Collins over the years.

Another past highlight was when I chaired the phenomenal Andy Griffiths speaking to an adult audience. He morphed into Vincent Price and Struwwelpeter. I’ve never seen him as funny. I chaired a couple of sessions with Boy in the Striped Pyjamas author, John Boyne the same year, and he got to share the electricity of the stage with Andy for that memorable panel. John’s upcoming Boy at the Top of the Mountain is incredible, by the way. It will be published in October.Mountain

Other years it was a privilege to speak with Hungarian holocaust survivor Peter Lantos, and to listen to Gabrielle Carey and Linda Neil share how they grieved for their mothers.

I almost swooned when invited to facilitate the session with the brilliant Margo Lanagan and Marianne de Pierres. And Morris Gleitzman and Gabrielle Wang were another unforgettable pairing.

The incomparable Michael Morpurgo (War Horse) was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to speak one-on-one with an author I have admired greatly for years. He was such a gentleman. NZ writer Kate di Goldi was delightful and, last year, Nick Earls was a load of laughs. Mem Fox (Possum Magic) was the very first author I chaired at the BWF, back in the days of tents. There have been many, many special sessions, a number of which I was called in to chair at late notice and had to wing.

A final past highlight was ‘African Stories’ with Caine Prize winners EC Esondo Waiting, and Kenyan Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. This session was recorded by ABC Radio National http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/bookshow/brisbane-writers-festival-african-stories/2973532

RosieThe 2015 sessions were right up there too. I was thrilled to moderate three separate sessions with one author in each, beginning with the inimitable Graeme Simsion talking about The Rosie Effect. Graeme delighted in his audience and met many of them in the queue beforehand and then in the auditorium before the session began. He even beat me to it and jumped on stage to introduce me! I loved how he answered the questions with clarity and stayed on topic. I won’t give away his excellent tips on how to write comedy. The Rosie Effect also deals with big issues. The audience loved him. So did I.

Forever YoungMy second session was with 2014 PM Literary Award co-winner Steven Carroll. I was quaking because his new novel Forever Young is the best literary fiction I’ve read this year and he is such an eminent author (see *below) but we hit it off straight away with a shared interest in art and music (even though I disgraced myself on stage with an innocent question about the song Please Please Me. Unfortunately Steven wouldn’t sing the Dylan version of Forever Young but in every other way he exceeded expectations with his answers to my questions. This was a session of profound insights as well as lots of laughs. I’m now reading through the rest of his stunning Glenroy series.

ShiningMy last session was with Somali refugee Abdi Aden. Abdi enthralled the audience with his powerful story in Shining: The Story of a Lucky Man, which tells how he escaped from soldiers in Somali and his torturous journey to a refugee camp in Kenya and then to Romania, Germany and Australia. I have never seen an audience with such anguish in their faces as they listened to Abdi speak about what it’s like to be a refugee. Abdi recognises the generosity of the Australian people in giving him the opportunity to shine here.

 

Other authors I admire and had a moment to speak with in passing were Cass Moriarty, Briony Stewart, Felicity Plunkett and Christine Bongers (too quickly!) and I know I have forgotten to mention some – apologies.

I also met Richard Glover when I inadvertently mistook him for an *eminent writer of literary fiction. I’ll be hearing Richard speak about Flesh Wounds soon and know he will be hilarious.

Thank you to the wonderful publicists from the publishing companies and the staff and volunteers of the BWF who looked after us all so well. Our minds are now wide open!

G Simsion

Australian YA: Soon by Morris Gleitzman

SoonOn my recent bookshop tour of London there were more books by Morris Gleitzman on the shelves than copies of The Book Thief. This is not to detract from Marcus Zusak’s famous and well-stocked literary export but means that there were many, many Gleitzmans on display, a fantastic achievement for our popular Australian children’s and YA writer.

I moderated a session with Morris and the beautiful Gabrielle Wang  several years ago at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival. The children in the audience were spellbound by the words of both authors and Gabrielle didn’t have enough hands for all the little girls who wanted to hold hers. Fortunately Morris gave me some warning about how the session would end. He jumped up and sprinted for the door to beat the kids to the signing table. I had to try to stop them running out after him. Luckily I had spent a number of years as a teacher so was able to summon my latent teacher authority. His queue then and now rivals that of Andy Griffiths‘.

Gleitzman prefers to describe his books about the holocaust, which begin with Once (Viking, Penguin), as a ‘family’ rather than ‘series’ of books. When Once was published in 2005 I wrote teacher notes about it here. http://www1.curriculum.edu.au/rel/history/book.php?catrelid=1877 Once

Each book is characterised by an inimitable structure where every chapter begins with the book’s title, such as ‘Once’, ‘Then’, ‘After’, ‘Now’ and ‘Soon’ and each book also begins and ends with this word. Now breaks the chronological pattern by being set in present-day Australia with Felix as an old man.

I reviewed After for the Weekend Australian in 2012 and said: ‘After takes the reader back to Felix’s trials during the war, at first to the underground hole which was his home for the past two years. When Felix leaves it to rescue his benefactor, Gabriek, what dangers will threaten him? … The effect of war and trauma on children and young people can be horrific and should not be underestimated. Stories about these issues can provide opportunities for characters such as Felix … to play out their roles and show readers how goodness can be kept alive to help mend broken places and people. Damaged young figures move forward with hope in books of this calibre and, ideally, will not remain broken.’After

Most of the books show Felix as a boy evading the Nazis. In the latest title, Soonhe is 13-years-old and the war is over. But it’s not. Many people are still treating others without compassion; injuring and killing them in ways they wouldn’t treat animals.

Felix is surviving in a hideout with his former rescuer Gabriek. He is forced to confront more atrocities of war and its after-effects despite his work as a child doctor, innate goodness and belief in humanity. Soon is a strong anti-war cry. It is so harrowing that I would recommend it for young adults rather than primary school children. It is dedicated to ‘the children who had no hope’. Gleitzman alerts us to evil but ultimately does give us hope in these important books.

Australian YA and other fiction in London

I’m just back from a tour of (mostly indie) London bookshops.Children of the King

My visit to the Tower of London was enhanced after seeing Sonya Hartnett’s Children of the King, which alludes to the missing princes held captive by their uncle Richard III in the Tower, in a Notting Hill bookshop.

Australian YA, as well as children’s and adult literature, held its head high with sightings of Amanda Betts’ brilliant Zac and Mia, (which I reviewed here) and works by Kirsty Eagar and Melina Marchetta. I was so pleased to see my favourite Marchetta, On the Jellicoe Road on the shelves there. Watch out for the movie.Jellicoe

Karen Foxlee seems to be appreciated much more in the UK and US than in Australia. I saw Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy (for children) and The Midnight Dress. (I reviewed The Midnight Dress for the Weekend Australian here.)

And Jaclyn Moriarty has had a strong following overseas, which her own country is finally catching up with now she is winning YA awards here. Her sister, Liane’s Big Little Lies, the best seller for adults, was everywhere.

Margo Lanagan’s The Brides of Rollrock Island, published here as Sea Hearts was visible and I also noticed another crossover series, Tales of the Otori by Lian Hearn.Red Queen

It was great to see some of the incomparable Isobelle Carmody’s stunning YA works. Along with many others, I can’t wait for The Red Queen, the final in the Obernewtyn Chronicles, which is being published this November. This series is world class and dearly loved. How will Elspeth Gordie’s story conclude?

Shaun Tan’s Rules of Summer rules the world. It was everywhere, and even featured in bookstore displays.

Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief still has a high profile but Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect for adults seemed to be even more popular. Like Rules of Summer, Rosie was everywhere, which makes me anticipate my upcoming conversation with Graeme at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival in September even more eagerly. It is so difficult to write humour and we spent a car trip recalling anecdotes from his books and laughing aloud.

Australian children’s books were highly visible, particularly multiple titles by Morris Gleitzman, including his holocaust series beginning with Once.

SoonThe latest in the series, the chilling Soon, is now available in Australia, although not quite yet in the UK. Andy Griffiths’ and Terry Denton’s Treehouse series was as ubiquitous as London’s red, double decker buses and John Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice series was also popular. I spied books by Emily Rodda and it was a thrill to see Anna Fienberg’s stand-alone children’s novel, Louis Beside Himself, as well as her Tashi series, illustrated by Kim Gamble.

Some Australian adult authors taking shelf space were Peter Carey (Amnesia), David Malouf, Evie Wyld (All the Birds, Singing), Hannah Kent (Burial Rites), Tim Winton (Breath), Steve Toltz (Quicksand) and Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

A few standout OS YA authors on the shelves included Mal Peet (who I’ve written about here), Frances Hardinge (Cuckoo Song and Fly By Night) and Patrick Ness, whose latest YA novel, The Rest of Us Just Live Here, will be available in August. It’s one of his best. rest of Us Just Live Here

Brisbane Writers Festival Dazzles

Analogue MenThe  2014 Brisbane Writers Festival had an inspiring launch on Thursday night when author/publisher Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, What is the What – about the lost boys of Sudan) told a full tent  about the genesis of McSweeney’s publishing company and its 826 Valencia Writing Centres. The tutoring behind these pirate, superhero and other themed storefronts has helped countless children with their writing. Groups doing similar work in Australia are Sydney’s Story Factory with its Martian Embassy, Melbourne’s 100 Story Building, and Book Links in Queensland is working towards its own centre.

My next session was ‘Dangerous Allies’ where Robert Manne interviewed Malcolm Fraser in front of a capacity crowd. The insights about Australia’s alliance with the US were provocative and chilling.

‘Zen and the Art of Tea’ was a light-hearted exploration of tea by Morris Gleitzman and Josephine Moon. Josephine’s tip about brewing lavender, garlic or basil to make teas sounds worth trying and Morris – a literary Geoffrey Rush – was hilarious. He personified coffee as a bully, and tea as a whispering lover.

David Hunt was in fine form discussing his Indies Book winner, Girt which is a retelling of Australian history with a comedic eye.

It was fun to cross paths with David Malouf (for the second time in two weeks), Jennifer Byrne, Will Kostakis, Pamela Rushby and Tristan Bancks. If only there was more time for more sessions … I would have loved to see YA writers such as A.J. Betts, Isobelle Carmody and Jackie French but they were either offsite or clashed with my events. Andy Griffiths was so popular he had his own signing area after the other children’s writers’ part of the program had finished. Chairing Andy and John Boyne (Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) a few years ago was one of the funniest times of my life.

Forgotten Rebels of EurekaThis year I was privileged to moderate sessions with Clare Wright on The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (Text) and Nick Earls on Analogue Men (Vintage). Clare must be the world’s most informed person in her field of women at Eureka. Her book deservedly won the Stella Prize this year. It is compulsive, engaging reading, notwithstanding its 500+ pages.

Nick was as funny as expected and revealed a secret about Analogue Men. We learned that his favourite Dr Who is Jon Pertwee and his favourite tech device Bluetooth. I explained how I laughed out loud repeatedly over one scene that I read on instant replay and Nick implied that my brain is like that of a goldfish. But no – it really was the skilful writing. It was wonderful to hear the laughing throughout this session and see the animated audiences in both these events.

Many thanks to the authors involved in the Festival, particularly Clare and Nick, and to the incredible BWF staff and volunteers led by Kate Eltham.

Reviews – Ripping Mid-Grade Reads Two Wolves & Little Chef, BIG Curse

Mid-grade readers, tween fiction, early YA; call themLittle Chef Big Curse what you will, but books for 8 -13 year-olds must satisfy vital criteria. They require substance, humour be it belly-busting or cloaked as parody, and a completely honest rendering of imagination, no matter how fantastical the premise. Little Chef, BIG Curse and Two Wolves fulfil on all counts. Both are heftier reads for mid to upper primary aged kids (in excess of 200 pages). And ones I could have gleefully gobbled up again immediately I reached the end.

 Little Chef, BIG Curse is the debut work of Tilney Cotton and possibly one of the most exuberant reads I’ve enjoyed in ages. I’m not sure if it’s because of the foodie in me or the zealous, ribaldry with which Cotton writes but Little Chef, BIG Curse is utterly delectable and insanely moreish.

It’s an off-beat taTilney Cottonle about hapless 11 year-old, Matty Swink who dreams of being a famous chef. He is practically enslaved by the foul-tempered, mean-spirited Fenella as her live-in dishwasher. With no means, family or support, Matty’s future seems confined to sleeping under the sink in Fenella’s diner. But dreams as big as Matty’s cannot be suppressed forever and when the King of Yurp announces a grand Cook-Off and the chance to break a 500 year-old curse on his only daughter, Matty finally forges his way to fame and freedom.

This is a zinger of a tale tickling with intrigue, bubbling with soul and simmering with an underlying sinisterness that kids will find electrifying. Cotton’s brilliant mix of colourful characterisation and original one-liners like, ‘roll with pumpkins’ produces a story that is full of punch, flavour and fun. Peppered with a generous helping of comical metaphors (‘breath like dog poo’ is a favourite), sprinkled with danger and seasoned with revenge, Little Chef, BIG Curse has all the humorous and gross ingredients of a Morris Gleitzman adventure and some. Top notch nosh! That gets 10 out of 10 from me.Tristan Bancks RH

Scholastic Press February 2014

Tristan Bancks’ junior adventure books including the My Life, Nit Boy, Mac Slater Cool Hunter and the Galactic Adventures series rival those of Paul Jennings, Morris Gleitzman and Michael Gerard Bauer. Like kids 8 – 13 years-old, I can’t get enough of his quirky, comedy-loaded, layback style. Two Wolves however is a decisive departure from previous offerings aimed at the slightly older reader, demonstrating more drama, stronger conflicts and more thought-provoking themes. It blew my breath away.

Using the Cherokee Indian allegory that we all have good and bad (wolves) dwelling within us as the catalyst for conflict, Two Wolves explores moral dilemmas, innocence versus experience and family blood being thicker than water. Which wolf ultimately wins the internal battle depends on which one we feed, as thirteen year-old Ben Silver discovers.

Ben aspires to be a detective but naively lives in a world of limited resources and shaky real-life experience. He re-lives much of his life through the lens of an internal camera, ‘playing on the cinema screen at the back of his eyelids’.

This movie-making processing of events allows him to deal reflectively and safely with some pretty confronting issues, the most recent being the inexplicable, unplanned retreat into wildness with his parents.

Life on the run with them and his young sister, Olive, soon deteriorates into a painful battle of survival and family ethics. Ben is desperate to figure out what his parents are fleeing from and why but is uncertain of what to do with the truths he may uncover.

Ben’s most daunting concerns, apart from remaining alive with Olive, are the choices he is confronted with; right vs. wrong, family loyalty vs. honourable action. How Ben decides to end his movie makes for a gripping novel heaving with adventure and mystery.

Bancks’ delivery of Two Wolves is tight and crisp. Fragmented internal thought and observation are favoured over rambling descriptive narrative which keeps the reader firmly in Ben’s moments of extreme agitation. Ben is a believable hero. His naïve, almost tongue-in-cheek humour works beautifully against the darker aspects of this story resulting in a novel tweens can and will relate to even if they have never been in Ben’s situation.

Can money buy happiness? What scruples do you possess when it comes to family, or having to confess to a crime? Does deceit ever pay dividends? Two Wolves is destined to keep kids pondering over questions like these for months. Sensational stuff.

Random House Australia March 2014

 

4 Aussie Authors nominated for world’s largest children’s literature prize

Four Australian authors have been nominated for the 2013 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the world’s largest prize for children’s and young adult literature.

Ursula Dubosarsky, Jackie French (pictured), Morris Gleitzman and Melina Marchetta are the Australian authors selected among a group of 207 candidates for the 2013 award.

The winner of this year’s award will be announced on 26 March 2013 in Stockholm.

Australian writers Shaun Tan and Sonya Hartnett have previously won the award in 2011 and 2008 respectively

A complete list of the nominees for the 2013 award can be found on the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award website.

Review – Pizza Cake by Morris Gleitzman

Kids love funny. Kids love short stories. Kids love great writing. Enter Pizza Cake, a collection of 10 short stories from the master of pleasing kids – Morris Gleitzman . . . an author who also happens to be a master at pleasing adults (as evidenced by the fact that I had to tousle over this book with my 11-year-old daughter).

In Pizza Cake, Gleitzman takes kids through a series of stories to delight, entertain and most subtly educate. In Saving Ms Fosdyke, Gleitzman’s subtleties and humour are in peak condition as we learn about the imminent departure of the coolest, most wonderful teacher at Emmy’s school. But Ms Fosdyke is not leaving for any flippant reason. She’s leaving because she’s needed by a school who can’t afford really great teachers – and she’s leaving for the petty sum of just $50 million.

Of course, the best teachers, the highest-paid job in the world, easily pull over $100 million in salary, and Ms Fosdyke is up there with the best. Emmy is devastated and sets about blocking her teacher’s move to the new school. Can she pull off a miracle?

In Secret Diary of a Dad, we meet a bumbling father who can’t do anything right. Told in the first person, his antics had me laughing out loud.

And in the book’s title story – Pizza Cake, we meet young Glenn, cricket fanatic, with a secret weapon – candy-covered pizza slices. That’s right. Pizza cake; a recipe handed down from his grandfather, who once convinced Glenn he could do ANYTHING so long as he had a slice of this pizza on hand.

When Glenn’s schoolmate Dougal has the daunting task of speaking at his Nan’s funeral, Glenn highly recommends taking along a slice of pizza cake – for bravado. Dougal does, but when Glenn unwittingly discovers that his grandfather’s ‘pizza cake’ is really just a play on words inferring something can be easier than it seems – ‘it’s a piece of cake’ – he knows Dougal’s in trouble. Can that fake talisman, a slice of candy-covered pizza, get Dougal through his Nan’s funeral?

At once touching, hilarious, cleverly-crafted and superlatively imaginative, Gleitzman has done it again with this wonderful collection. Presented in bite-size pieces, it’s guaranteed to both regale book-lovers and heartily encourage book-reluctants. If you or your kids want the corners of your mouth to be pulled up at the corners just moments into the first story, then this is absolutely the book for you.

Pizza Cake is published by Puffin. See more on Mr Gleitzman right here.

 

2011 Sydney Writers’ Festival Program School Days

The Sydney Writers’ Festival has just announced the 2011 School Days Program.

For the second year in a row, the program features five primary school days held across Sydney, Parramatta and Penrith, with a day offered for free to NSW priority schools at Sydney Town Hall.

The line-up for the primary school days features Deborah Abela, Morris Gleitzman, Richard Newsome, Garth Nix and Sean Williams.

Secondary schools will have programs held at the Sydney Theatre and Riverside theatres, Parramatta, featuring Belinda Jeffrey, Michael Pryor, Bernard Becket and Cassandra Clare.

To see the full School Days program and for ticketing info, click here.

50 Books You Can’t Put Down

It’s that time of the year again. The Get Reading campaign kicked off at the end of last month and for the first time they’re offering an iPhone app to help readers connect with books.

The app is free from the App Store, and I’m surprised to say that it is excellent – far more useful than the Get Reading brochure available from most good book stores.

For those who don’t know, the Get Reading campaign runs every year and is designed to get people who wouldn’t usually read a book to have a go. The way it works is that there’s a list of 50 books broken down into a few basic categories: non-fiction, new authors, page turners and escapist reads. If you buy one of those books from a participating store you get a free exclusive book written specifically for the campaign. This year you get a choice between 10 Short Stories You Must Read in 2010 and Tickled Onions by Morris Gleitzman.

The iPhone app is great for browsing the books available and with the click of a button you can read the first chapter of the book or find a bookstore near you to buy it integrated with Google Maps. You can even find a place to read the book, as the app contains a directory of coffee shops (cute!). The app also has a schedule of Get Reading events that are being run throughout the month, which you can pinpoint and get directions to if you decide to go.

One-off apps of this nature are often a bit gimmicky, but I, for one, am all for them, so long as they are well made and actually useful, as this one is. Over the past year I noticed a Sydney Festival app and the Good Food Guide, and I’m hanging out for an app of this nature for the Sydney Writers’ Festival, which has a notoriously annoying schedule.

My only gripe, predictably, is that ebooks are not included in this year’s Get Reading campaign, though this is hardly the fault of the iPhone app. Nonetheless, it’s disheartening to see that in a campaign run by the government to get people reading at any cost, they have not managed to include reader-friendly ebooks as part of the promotion. (To be fair, they may have tried and failed – the only real Australian ebook retailer is Borders/Kobo, and they may have declined). Ebooks are incredibly easy to buy – and it wouldn’t be difficult for retailers to rig up a system for giving away the free books in a package (it is definitely possible with online retailers of dead tree books – cheers Boomerang! – so it should be possible for ebooks). At any rate, I applaud the effort, and I look forward to seeing what they come up with next year.

You can download the iPhone app here.