Book Review: Lone Wolf by Robert Muchamore

lone wolf

Lone Wolf by Robert Muchamore

This is the fourth book in the second CHERUB series, but the first one not connected to the Aramov clan. Instead this one, which concentrated on drug dealers, served as a bit of a cleanser after the intensity of the first three. It also served as an introduction to James Adams: Mission Controller.

Although I enjoyed the Aramov storyline, I did find it a little dense at times – I would spend a fair bit of time trying to remember which character was which and who was aligned with who. (Part of this was because I wasn’t rereading the books like I might have in the past.) I’m not sure Muchamore’s at his strongest across multiple books, though. In this story our agents are in position to engage with a highly organised drug ring, and a teenaged girl who used to work with her mother and then her aunt in opposition to the ring.

James as a mission controller works for me – he’s younger (I believe) than other ones we’ve seen, but there’s an element of his behaviour which makes me think of Zara or Ewart from the early books. Some of the reminders about his past as a CHERUB agent were a little over-laboured in the writing – even those who haven’t read the first series would be able to pick that up before the last couple of chapters when we’re reminded of it, yet again.

I still don’t feel like Ryan has been completely fleshed out the way characters were in the first series. Maybe because I haven’t reread them as much, but he often just feels like James v.2 – which is kind of boring since a) we’ve read those books and b) James is right there. Ning is a much more fascinating character, but this was a plot heavy book rather than a character development one, so we didn’t see a huge amount of that.

The plot was downright fun. It’s hard not to compare it to Class A, but this felt like it was amped up to a higher level. It feels like Muchamore is happier to hurt his characters now, and they seem to engage in riskier behaviour. There were points where I wondered whether James would get a dressing down for allowing his agents to get into such dangerous situations – there didn’t seem to be the same evaluation of the risk as in the first series.

This is a series I used to recommend to my students a lot – it was a ‘gateway’ series for a lot of students who weren’t really into reading. The characters feel realistic, they fight, swear, drink and get together. The plots are usually tightly written, but there’s not a huge amount of inference required. The action scenes are particularly good – I’d imagine a lot of readers can ‘see’ them when they’re reading. As this later series gets into the life of an adult James and with the riskier behaviour, I’d say it’s definitely better for teenagers and up, while the early books of the first series are better for the younger readers.

Project Based Learning: Beginning a Year of Exploration

Now that Squirm has turned 2, we’re starting to explore the world of project-based homeschooling (PBH). That’s a name which feels really heavy and loaded, especially when it’s used in regards to a 2 years old, but basically it’s about committing time and resources to explore a child’s interest and helping them find ways to investigate, create and share what they know.

At 2, Squirm isn’t ready to develop a full on project like some older children do. At the moment we’re at a pure exploration stage – we’re exploring his interests (things which move), we’re exploring different ways of playing and we’re exploring different mediums of creating.

This has been surprisingly easy to organise – I bought a fabric cube for keeping things together, plus a range of art supplies (as well as ones we already had) and different kinds of paper. The most important thing we got was a journal – just an art journal – which Squirm has fallen in love with.

It was the journal which taught me my first lesson about PBH.

As a teacher, one of the hardest challenges for me was letting go of control. There are definitely times when control is essential in a classroom. But there are also times when it’s ok to let the children take control – and when I did, there were often some amazing results. But it’s easy to fall back into the old habits, and when I presented the journal to Squirm, I had definite ideas about how it was going to ‘work’.

Squirm had his own ideas.

I glued in a photo of him building a tower out of blocks. He loved seeing that in the book and talked about it and drew next to it. But then he saw some pictures of vehicles which I’d printed and cut out for him to play with. And he wanted them in his journal too. And not just on the next page, but the next 6 pages. And he’d like to use the glue stick himself.

And after a bit of panicking (he’s not following ‘the plan’!), I remembered that it was his journal, not mine. That something which he had control over would mean more to him than something which I kept under strict control. So I let go.

So far, Squirm has drawn, added stickers, glued in pictures, asked me to glue in pictures, drawn on the pictures, added colour to old drawings, skipped pages and generally had a brilliant time. I add dates and notes where I can, and participate if he asks me too (mostly with sticking), but it’s his creation. And you can see him trying out different things when he draws – he moved from scribbles, to spirals, to trying to make shapes in a couple of days. He went back and looked at old pages and added to them. He spent time just looking through the journal.

It’s going to be a challenge to curb my teacher-control impulses – but I can definitely see the benefits of doing so. And I think this is going to be a fun year.

PBH 2014_08_121 PBH 2014_08_122 PBH 2014_08_123 PBH 2014_08_124

Sporadic Linking: Being Creative

Ok, I admit it. I love blogs which have regular link round ups. I love link round ups. I like it when people point out things I might have missed on the internet. So every now and then, I’m going to put together a bunch of links which I’ve found interesting/thoughtful/cool, possibly with a theme. Probably not on a regular day/time . . .

  • One of my lovely Twitter friends has just launched her blog – Mama Finch. She’s planned a regular series interviewing people about combining parenting and creativity. Her first interview, with Penni Russon, is here
  • I’ve spent a significant amount of time poking around Amy Hood Arts the other day. I found her Art Together page – which offers an ezine as well as links to the blog series – a good place to start.
  • A friend linked to this post  – it inspired me enough to get us out of our sick room/house and in to the fresh air for some art
  • We’ll be doing some (within our state) travelling soon – I want to keep art available for Squirm because he enjoys it so much, so I’m looking at travelling art kits. I enjoyed this one, then I got derailed and fell in love with the art kit and the whole blog post over here.
  • My cousin does some urban sketching and I love seeing her work on Facebook – I was happy to find a blog for Australian Urban Sketchers
  • Finally, here’s the blog of one of my all time favourite Australian children’s illustrators – Freya Blackwood. We borrowed The Runaway Hug from the library recently, which is one of those picture books where the story is told twice – once through the words and again through the illustrations. (I think I need to buy some of her prints too)
From The Runaway Hug, written by Nick Bland and illustrated by Freya Blackwood

From The Runaway Hug, written by Nick Bland and illustrated by Freya Blackwood

Letters to Squirm: Now You Are Two

Dear Squirm,

I missed writing you a letter on your second birthday earlier this month. It’s been another busy one – filled with birthday visits for you (and your grandfather) and unfortunately with illness – we’re only just getting back on track again.

The last six months have been difficult as a family. Your dad has been working overseas for four or five weeks at a time, then coming home for a week. You miss him lots, especially right after he goes, but we talk with him on Skype every morning and try to spend lots of fun times together when he’s at home.

You’re speaking a lot now. You have a pretty big vocabulary and put sentences together regularly. You have a few favourite sayings – ‘whoopsie daisy’ and ‘carry up’ among them. You use your vocabulary to ask for things, but you’ve also learned how to say please and thank you regularly.

Your sleep has changed dramatically during the last 6 months. You now sleep through the night in your own bed and have just started putting yourself to sleep which feels revolutionary. Your naps have also become longer which seems counter-intuitive as you are getting older. You still eat a lot of food, though you have become pickier and I need to be more aware of offering a wide range of foods so you get all your nutritional needs.

You like to go for walks a lot – you love holding my hand or daddy’s hand and heading out somewhere. You also love helping, especially when it comes to cooking. You helped make biscuits the other week and did a wonderful job.

Trains and trucks and cars are still big interests. You love watching Mighty Machines, though you change your favourite episodes regularly (from Firetrucks to Ferries to Roadwork). You also enjoy Thomas and Friends, Pocoyo, Peppa Pig and Postman Pat. You have lots of favourite books, and you also rotate though these. You sometimes ‘read’ along with us and love cuddling in for your bedtime read. You’re starting to sing more – mostly with music but there’s a few songs you sing without accompaniment – Twinkle Twinkle, The Alphabet song (though only ABCD – then the last line!) and Down by the Station. You’re starting to count too and love it when we find things to count.

We had a wonderful day for your birthday, heading to the Rail Workshop Museum at Ipswich. It was a weekday, so the museum was quiet and you had a wonderful time exploring, driving trains, colouring and playing. You began to understand how birthday cakes worked too – and spent a lot of time calling out for them!

You’re a wonderful, energetic, creative, thoughtful boy and we’re loving getting to know your interests and thoughts and preferences. We’re looking forward to watching you grow over the next year.

Love

Mum

2YrsOld 1 2YrsOld 2 2YrsOld 3

Slipping Back Into Blogging

2014 has been kicking my butt.

Mr Pilot has been doing FIFO work overseas this year, and it turns out that all those things that we do in our family are a lot harder when you’re doing them on your own. And when he’s home we do tonnes of family stuff, so I have less time to do things like blogging (and exercising). When I have had blogging time and motivation, I tend to write book reviews or write over at the sewing blog.

But I miss writing. And I have stuff I want to say and don’t feel like I have places to say it. So it’s obviously time to start blogging a bit more. I doubt I’ll be a prolific blogger any time soon, but it’s nice to maintain some space that’s mine and to keep my writing ‘eye’ in. And hopefully there’s still a reader or two around :)

Boys at the Park 23

Book Review: Showtime by Narrelle M Harris (Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014)

This year I am reading and rereading children and young adult ‘classics’ written by Australian women. Read more here. However, after reading Alisa Krasnostein‘s brilliant post at the Australian Women Writers’ blog, I resolved to go back and read some of the Twelve Planets series which I had previously bought, but not yet read. This was the perfect kick back into the Australian Women Writer’s challenge

Showtime by Narrelle M Harris

Showtime by Narrelle M Harris
(2012, Twelfth Planet Press)

Own copy

Vampires, zombies, ghosts. We all know them. We’ve all seen the movies, read the books, developed complex theories about them based on the imagination of one creator (thanks, Joss). So, when I opened Showtime, I knew what I was getting into, of course . . .

Except these aren’t quite the stories we’re expecting. They respectfully nod at the stories we know, and then twist and turn them around and add some Royal show cakes for good measure. We open with Stalemate – the story of Helen and her mother Olivia who are revisiting old arguments and frictions with an energy which is both familiar and urgent. This is followed by Thrall which was probably my favourite out of the four stories. Here we meet the traditional vampire, Dragomir who is finding it harder and harder to thrive in the modern world. I love the part where Dragomir expresses his frustration with the way popular culture has messed with the way people look at him:

“All these ridiculously tall and handsome fictional vampires, with their glowing eyes and their impeccable fashion sense. They gave people unreasonable expectations.”

The third story, The Truth About Brains is a fabulous funny story about siblings and childhood relationships. And zombies. Amy decides to leave her brother Dylan behind while she heads out swimming . . . with some rather terrible consequences. The final story, Showtime, is another vampire story set in a modern day setting. Though, this time, instead of the traditional Europe we expect (as in Thrall), we get Melbourne. At their Royal Show.

On the surface, Showtime is a fairly light hearted romp alongside some of our favourite speculative fiction creatures. Underneath that, though, it is a collection of stories about families – the families we would do anything for and they families we would do anything to escape. The families we create and the families which are thrust upon us. The families we love – and the very same families which drive us around the bend.

The other thing that struck me about Showtime was that you know that there’s something you don’t know about each story. But you’re perfectly happy for the story to play itself out – you’re enjoying the world, the characters, the descriptions – and for the twists to come to you. I actually stopped reading for a few minutes after each story, just so I could enjoy them and let them sink in fully before reading the next one.

I often say that I’m not a ‘speculative fiction reader’. I’m starting to question that now. While I don’t read as much speculative fiction, or in some of the same areas of speculative fiction as my friends, I really do enjoy books like this which take the things I think I know and twist them in a beautifully gleeful fashion. Showtime is a really lovely, highly readable collection of stories, and I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy to enjoy.

Book Review: Peeling the Onion by Wendy Orr (Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014)

This year I am reading and rereading children and young adult ‘classics’ written by Australian women. Read more here.

peeling the onion

Peeling the Onion by Wendy Orr
(1997, Holiday House)

Own copy

Peeling the Onion is the story of Anna in the aftermath of a horrific car accident. We first meet Anna in the hospital where no one really seems to know how badly injured she is, and we follow her as she – and the people around her – come to terms with her injuries, their effect on her preferred future and the circumstances of the accident itself.

The title of the book refers to a poem Anna writes and rewrites throughout the story, but it could easily refer to the story itself. As the book progresses, you peel off layer after layer, revealing more of Anna’s life, her feelings about the accident and her resulting injuries and her relationships with the people around her.

This is a really lovely book and one which deserves to be better known than it is. Young people may not go through the horrific event Anna goes through (hopefully), but it would be easy to relate to her changing world and her growing acceptance that things are not going to work out the way she once planned them. I would thoroughly recommend this book to teenaged readers – but also to adult readers. I really hope that its availability in digital form (I bought it on Kindle) means that young people will continue to enjoy it into the future.

Book Review: The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka by Claire Wright (Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014)

This year I am reading and rereading children and young adult ‘classics’ written by Australian women. Read more here. However, I am taking a short break from them to read some of the books from the Stella Prize Longlist. Read more about that here

forgotten rebels of Eureka

The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka by Claire Wright
(2013, Text Publishing)

Own copy

Even thought the Eureka Stockade is supposed to be one of those events ‘everyone’ learns about at school, I must admit that I learned very little about it during my 12 years of schooling. Maybe it’s a Queensland thing. So, I approached The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka with just a little bit of background knowledge – which turned out to be a great way to appreciate this history.

Claire Wright has compiled a vast and impressive history of the situation around and events leading up to the Eureka Stockade. She (successfully) challenges the long held myth that the gold fields were a ‘place of men’, introducing us instead to the many women and families who lived around the gold fields of Victoria- as diggers, shop keepers, theatre owners and writers.

The social history – often including primary sources written by women – of the time is particularly interesting. For so many this was a time of change, with women taking more freedoms than they’d ever had before – freedom from far away families and social expectations, freedom to make money as shop keepers, freedom to take part in the emerging political atmosphere.

With this background, Wright brings us through the chaotic chain of events leading to the Eureka Stockade, showing us that women were there – not just as wives – but as agitators, financial supporters and spies. At times there feels like the point is laboured a bit (the ovulation speculation feels a little out of place) but it is incredibly clear that Eureka is not the ‘men’s story’ so often repeated – that women were both there and vital to the events.

This history is the culmination of 10 years odd work, and it really is impressive. It is strongest when we follow individual women and their circumstances at the goldfields. At times the author moves from a historical/academic style language to a current affairs tone – which pulled me out of the narrative a bit – but the book as a whole is an amazing piece of work and a valuable edition to Australia’s history.

 

 

Book Review: Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta (Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014)

This year I am reading and rereading children and young adult ‘classics’ written by Australian women. Read more here.

saving-francesca

Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta
(2003, Viking Childrens Press)

Own copy

This was another reread for me. While I don’t have the same fondness for Saving Francesca as Looking for Alibrandi (there’s always something special about the books you love as a teenager) I always find myself engrossed in Francesca – and staying up to all hours to finish it.

Francesca is starting her second term as one of thirty Year eleven girls at a formally all-boys school. That’s hard enough, but on top of that her formerly energetic and passionate mother can’t get out of bed. Suddenly Francesca is tackling adult tasks in order to protect her mother and dealing with the complete change in her family, all while trying to work out who she is and where her place in the world is supposed to be.

There was an eleven year gap between Alibrandi and Francesca, and you can see the growth of the author in both the quality of the writing and the subtleties of the story. Francesca is a sympathetic narrator and it’s easy to like her. Supporting characters are a real strength of Marchetta’s and you can see that here – from the giggly ‘big-boy’ worship of Francesca’s little brother Luca, to the brisk, but sympathetic supervisor at her mother’s university, to the other students and teachers at her new school.

There are still lots of misconceptions and prejudices around mental illness, and we see a lot of them discussed or put forward here. These misconceptions often makes it harder for Francesca to comprehend her mother’s illness – especially when she doesn’t feel like she’s getting the full story and her father – relentlessly positive – keeps reiterating that everything will be fine – even when it’s clearly not.

Unlike Alibrandi, which now has a lot of outdated references, Francesca is pretty low key with just some references to game shows (which no longer exist) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This means you’re very rarely pulled out of the story, and it’s still very readable and relevant now. It would probably make an excellent substitute for schools and teachers who are tired of teaching Alibrandi. It might be a quieter and less applauded book from Marchetta (who went on to write other incredibly popular books after Francesca was published) but I think it’s one worthy of our recognition.

Book Review: Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get a Life by Maureen McCarthy (Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014)

This year I am reading and rereading children and young adult ‘classics’ written by Australian women. Read more here.

(I couldn't find a good image of the cover I have, so I decided to go with this most recent one instead)

(I couldn’t find a good image of the cover I have, so I decided to go with this most recent one instead)

Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get a Life by Maureen McCarthy
(1995, Penguin)

Own copy

(Note: Totally coincidentally, my wonderful friend Liz also read and reviewed this book at the same time. And then I twisted her arm to join the AWW Challenge :) )

This was another one of my favourite books as a teenager and I’ve read it a number of times since. It’s the story of three different girls from a small country town thrown together into a share house in Melbourne for their first year out of school. Carmel is the shy farm-girl, known around the small town for her amazing voice. Jude is the radical, juggling medical studies with protests while being haunted by the violent death of her father. Katrina is from a privileged and well known family, renowned for her beauty and her snottiness. Told from the three different perspectives we follow them up close and through each other’s eyes as they navigate the world after school.

There’s a lot to tackle in this book, and it’s definitely bigger than a lot of similar books. To me, Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude has always had an almost epic feel – like a fantasy novel without the fantasy. Maybe because of the different journeys we follow over the course of the book – as Carmel becomes more comfortable with who she is; as Jude confronts what her parents went through in Chile; as Kat gets over her head with a ‘fast crowd’ – the reader is pulled along, from one story to another, one place to another.

This time, when I read it, I was struck by how sad Kat was, especially at the beginning of the book. She seemed almost disconnected from herself and from other people, separate from any kind of human emotion. She didn’t want to have anything to do with a school-mate who had lost her father, she broke her mother’s favourite vase because she didn’t feel she was getting her way. She knew how to ‘act’ in social situations – after all, that training would come with being from the eminent family in a small town – but she seemed deeply uncomfortable and unable to deal with human emotion, and humans in general. I think Kat’s story wouldn’t have worked anywhere but at the end of the book, where we’ve been exposed to glimpses of who she is underneath the act – it would have been terribly tiring to read her performances earlier in the book.

Despite the mid-nineties publication of this book, it mostly works as a read for a modern audience, especially (I suspect) a modern audience living outside of Melbourne. (There are a number of settings which have apparently changed significantly in the time, but an outsider reader wouldn’t necessarily know that). The themes themselves are timeless – trying to please parents while forging an identity away from them, learning to live in a bigger world than your school world, finding a voice in a world that often tries to shut people up. The characters, including the supporting characters, are well developed and memorable, and you can often ‘see’ them as you read. And although there are a lot of ‘issues’ explored (especially in Kat’s story) it doesn’t read like an ‘issues’ book.  I’d definitely recommend it to high school students today, and I suspect a lot of them would enjoy it.