Cuckoo Song – best fantasy award

Fly by NightI remember reading Frances Hardinge’s first novel Fly By Night in a Rome apartment in 2006. I was caught up with 12-year-old orphan girl Mosca Mye and the guilds of the Fractured Kingdom in Hardinge’s alternate 18th century England. I remember almost having to force myself to go outside and explore the sights of Rome. My family, which included teenage twin sons and our teenage daughter, were also engrossed in this atmospheric novel. Fly By Night went on to win the Branford Boase Award and was shortlisted for other awards including the Guardian Fiction Prize.

Hardinge’s sixth, and most recent novel for young readers, Cuckoo Song (Pan Macmillan), has just won Best Fantasy Novel in the British Fantasy Awards, the first YA novel to do so. It’s an extraordinary feat.

Cuckoo SongEleven-year-old Triss and (younger sister) Pen’s older brother Sebastian was killed in the War and Triss has taken on the role of being protected by her parents. Sickly Triss wakes up after falling in the Grimmer. She feels different, with a voracious appetite, dead leaves constantly in her hair and a voice in her head counting down days. As her memory falls into place she remembers that she used to love going to school but her parents thought her over-excited and have kept her away.

Her sister, family scapegoat, Pen knows what happened when Triss climbed out of the lake. She still seems to hate her and wants their parents to think Triss is mad but they form an uneasy alliance when Triss rescues Pen at a moment of betrayal.

Dolls speak and seem to be half-alive, letters are delivered to Sebastian’s desk at night, Triss’s diaries are destroyed and scissors act strangely around her. Sebastian’s former fiancée Violet returns to the girls’ lives. Intrigue coats every plot movement.

Australia’s Cassandra Golds‘s books, particularly The Museum of Mary Child, and Karen Foxlee’s Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy may be closest in style to the moody, gothic tone of Cuckoo Song.Museum of Mary child

The writing in first-person creates a distinctive slant to this tale. The imagery is delectable: ‘Day crept in like a disgraced cat, with thin, mewling wind and fine, slanting rain.’ Triss is a unique character who, like the best protagonists, develops and changes as her story unfolds.

Cuckoo Song is an unusual literary gift for girls aged from about eleven to fourteen. Older readers will also enjoy it.

Player Profile: Karen Foxlee, author of Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy

Sonya_Coe_Photography_Web_File--6Karen Foxlee, author of Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy

Tell us about your latest creation:

“Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy”.  It’s the story of a lonely young girl who finds a three-hundred and three year old boy locked away in a museum room. It’s a fast paced adventure story with lots of twists and turns.

Where are you from / where do you call home?:

I call a little miners cottage in Gympie, Queensland, home.  I share it with too many animals to mention and my adorable daughter.

9781471403361When you were a kid, what did you want to become?  An author?:

Yes, I knew it in grade two.  I was going to be an author! I wrote it down in class when we were asked.  I wrote, I WANT TO BE AN ARTHUR.  The teacher was a little confused

What do you consider to be your best work? Why?:

I’m proud of all my works in different ways but “Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy” saved me as a writer I think.  It made me want to write again.  It made me remember why I write.  It was an incredibly joyful story to write.

Describe your writing environment to us – your writing room, desk, etc.; is it ordered or chaotic?:

I have an office but I can’t use it.  It’s too crowded and cluttered.  Sometimes I perform a great ceremonial cleaning of the office and I spend a day writing there but….mostly I write in my bed, in the kitchen, or on the sofa.  I keep a cat for company.  There is always coffee involved.  And usually cake.

When you’re not writing, who/what do you like to read?:

I read anything that takes my fancy but lately only books I read to my six year old daughter.  Lots of Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis, and just recently A.A. Milne.

What was the defining book(s) of your childhood/schooling?:

So many.  “The Nargun and the Stars”, “Seven Little Australians”, “The Wizard of Oz series”, all the Enid Blyton books, especially “The Magic Wishing Chair”.  Probably the book I read the most though was The Readers Digest “Strange Stories, Amazing facts”.  We loved that book in our house.  It fell apart with reading.  Ghosts, crimes, mysteries, freakish facts…loved it.

If you were a literary character, who would you be?:

I would definitely be Gerda from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”.   She is so brave and determined and smart and loyal.  She never ever gives up.

Apart from books, what do you do in your spare time (surprise us!)?:

Grow my little girl

Tend to chooks.



Bake (cakes, scones, biscuits – infinitely calming)

swim in the sea whenever I can

oh dear, nothing exciting or surprising in there

What is your favourite food and favourite drink?:

The first mango of the summer. The first coffee of the morning.

Who is your hero? Why?:

Anyone who stands up for what they believe in.  At the moment Malala Yousafzai.

Crystal ball time – what is the biggest challenge for the future of books and reading?:

I recently spent a week talking to hundreds of school kids (8 – 12 year olds) across the Moreton Bay Council region (outer Brisbane).  I was blown away by their passion for books and stories, reading and writing.  Keeping them reading is maybe the challenge.  Do they fall off somewhere between 12 and adulthood???  Where does that passion go? How can we grow life long readers today?

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Australian children’s writer adds to her awards collection

9781471403361Queensland author Karen Foxlee has won three prestigious overseas awards for her gothic children’s fantasy released this year.

Foxlee’s book Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy (Hot Key Books) has been selected for three awards in the Middle School category.

Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy has been named ‘Best Book of The Year’ by the School Library Journal. It was also selected as one of the best three best books by the Publishers Weekly.

Foxlee is no stranger to winning awards. Her first YA novel THE ANATOMY OF WINGS won the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the 2008 Dobbie Encouragement Award and the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for an Emerging Queensland Author. THE ANATOMY OF WINGS was also awarded the Parents’ Choice Gold Award (US) and was shortlisted for the Australian Society of Authors’ inaugural Barbara Jefferis award. (2008)

Her second novel, THE MIDNIGHT DRESS (2013) was selected as an American Library Association Best Fiction for Young Adults title earlier this year and was the winner of the Sisters in Crime’s Davitt Award for Best Young Adult Book.

About the Book: In a clever twist of the Snow Queen fairytale, 11 year- old Ophelia joins forces with a 303 year-old magical boy to battle ghosts, wolves, misery birds and magical swords in a nail-biting quest to stop the Queen from destroying the world. It all takes place in an enormous mysterious ramshackle museum in a city blanketed under permanent snow.

Buy the book here…


Gothic Tales for Christmas

Withering-by-SeaThree gothic novels by Australian authors will intrigue primary-school aged (and slightly older) readers who enjoy reading about danger cloaked in mystique and how children can overcome this.

Withering-by-Sea (ABC Books) is written and illustrated by Judith Rossell, whose talent is really taking wings. She has also illustrated picture books, which include Ten Little Circus Mice and Too Tight, Benito and she wrote and illustrated Ruby and Leonard. Withering-by-Sea is the first of the ‘A Stella Montgomery Intrigue’ series – what a fascinating name for a series. Stella lives in the Hotel Majestic at Withering-by-Sea with her formidable aunts. The scene is set for skullduggery when Stella witnesses new guest, Mr Filbert, bury something in the conservatory, the lush garden Stella regards as her Amazon playground. She is thrown into a diabolical situation when she witnesses a burglary and murder.

Another atmospheric gothic tale is Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy by Karen Foxlee (Hot Key Books). Foxlee’s debut was a novel for adults, The Anatomy of Wings. She followed that with The Midnight Dress (one of my 2013 best books for young adults) and now she has triumphed with an original story set in a snowy city’s museum. With a countdown to Christmas Eve, Ophelia’s father is Ophelia and the Marvellous Boypreparing a sword exhibition. The museum where he works is a fantastic maze of exhibits and displays: the exhibition of elephants, the pavilion of wolves, an arcade of mirrors, a room full of telephones, a gallery of teaspoons, a checkerboard floor, paintings of girls in party dresses and, most importantly, The Wintertide Clock. The whole building is like an enormous cabinet of curiosities and this is where Ophelia discovers the Marvellous Boy, whose story intersects with that of the evil Snow Queen. Ophelia must race time and winter to save those she loves from the Snow Queen but she is invested with the power to be the defender of goodness and happiness and hope.

N.J. Gemmell’s sequel to The Kensington Reptilarium for both girls and boys, The Icicle Illuminarium, is also structured loosely around Christmas. The Australian Caddy children, who are living in England, are preparing an extravaganza for the Twelfth Night of Christmas when the story begins. But when their father’s health declines, they set off to find the mother who is presumed dead but may actually be alive. Their quest takes them to the mysterious, moth-eaten Icicle Illuminarium.

See more about this book at

These three stories are well written and imaginative, with elements of the macabre, but they ultimately reward hope, love and goodness over evil in true Christmas spirit.

Icicle Illuminarium