Category Archives: Australian

Look Who’s Morphing by Tom Cho

Look Who's MorphingEach of Tom Cho‘s 18 stories in his just-over 100-page-debut is a surprise waiting to happen to you. Already lauded and awarded in Cho’s native Australia, his Stateside arrival is sure to elicit gasps, guffaws, and more.

Welcome to half a century of pop culture icons – before you ask ‘how can pop culture be that old?’ allow me to point out that ‘the hills came alive’ 49 years ago on a screen near you back in 1965. That said, Cho’s Captain Von Trapp isn’t who you might expect. In fact, morphing proves to be the occupational hazard of choice throughout.

“Suitmation” has a different identity available to anyone and everyone, from Godzilla to Olivia Newton-John, while two siblings admit in “Dinner with My Brother” they might choose “Marlon Brando” and “Indiana Jones” over their own Chinese monikers, given the chance. “Dinner with Auntie Ling and Uncle Wang” becomes a computer adventure, and “Learning English” means hiring Bruce Willis to talk instead. Inner rage goes out of control in “Today on Dr. Phil,” while “The Bodyguard” chivalrously deals with a bionic stalker to save Whitney Houston. Mother and son get transformative makeovers in “I, Robot,” and the girlfriend dismisses a Muppets adventure in “Pinocchio.”

As the stories unfold in surreal glimpses, a blurred outline of the unnamed narrator emerges: a Chinese Australian young man with extended relatives on multiple continents, including parents and a brother Hank, who has a sometime girlfriend Tara among many, many lovers, who is driven by a fertile imagination without boundaries – not to mention quite the multi-platform command of TV, film, music, and games. In his many morphing guises, Cho explores a myriad of unexpected identities and impossible situations. This is fluid fiction, he seems to insist on every page: forget any expectations about culture, race, gender, sexuality, and more … embrace the pure, fantastical stories found here.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009 (Australia), 2014 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Short Stories, Australian

The Children Who Loved Books by Peter Carnavas

Children Who Loved BooksCheck out the fabulous cover …. this is exactly what my reading piles have looked like the last few days – a very good thing, by the way! I’ve been oh so very blessed to be part of judging committee for a kiddie book award, and the latest batch of arrivals included some 50 books which must all be read by September 1. Talk about joyful binge-reading all weekend!

Angus and Lucy, the eponymous ‘children’ of this delightful story, utterly, completely, totally, understand that joy. Their parents, too, of course. For a family without a television, a car, or even a house, the one thing they did have was hundreds of books. Overcluttered and overcrowded, the tiny little trailer they call home “could take no more” and the books “had to go.” But then nothing was quite the same with all that space, because with space came more distance – especially among the family. Until, that is, a single book falls out of Lucy’s school bag … and Dad starts reading out loud, and doesn’t stop …

Page after page, Australian author/illustrator Peter Carnavas‘ visuals are invitingly enchanting, a mixture of seemingly effortless lines infused with cheerful colors; his style is reminiscent of award-winning writer/illustrator Peter H. Reynolds, working with a slightly brighter-hued palette. Likewise offered with whimsy, humor, and charm, Carnavas’ straightforward story has important life lessons to share: Take a break from our over-wired, over-committed lives of constant accumulation, reconnect with those who matter most (who probably happen to be under the same roof with you, ahem), and enjoy together the unlimited adventures offered in books. Carnavas’ latest title shows us that perfect, simple truth: “Angus and Lucy didn’t have very much, but they had all they would ever need.”

Readers: Children

Published: 2013 (United States)

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, Australian

Out of This Place by Emma Cameron

Out of This PlaceOooh, am I sucker for novels in verse, even though I’m embarrassingly inept with poetry. Who knows why … my limited brain can only take so much.

Australian author Emma Cameron‘s first novel hit native shelves as Cinnamon Rain, and arrives Stateside as Out of This Place. Meet Luke, Casey, and Bongo, three teenagers on the cusp of adulthood. The one major characteristic they share? Each is hoping, praying, working toward escape, to get ‘out of this place’ into new lives …

Luke, with a year left to go in high school, has eyes only for Casey, who caught his devotion “with a grin / that reached across the room / the day she joined our class.” “‘She’s new,’” the teacher explained, “‘Please look after her.’” For eight years, that’s exactly what he’s done, “As much as [he] can. / As much as she lets [him].” While he’s waiting to be noticed, while waiting to leave, Luke works at the local supermarket, building his bank balance. He hopes a scholarship “with this place in the city” might get him out sooner than later, but for now, all he can do is wait.

Casey has run out of patience; living under her parents’ tense roof and obeying her father’s stifling rules is no longer bearable. Her parents’ lives are circumscribed by their teenage decision to settle for being a family when Casey arrived unplanned. Their regret finally pushes Casey out the door, and discover who she might be on her own.

Bongo, who is also David, is finished with being abandoned by his addict mother, and bruised and abused by his brutal stepfather. When all hope is lost of ever reuniting with his younger brother, Bongo first hits the city streets, then takes to the high seas. Somewhere in between, he finds his balance, and perhaps even enough acceptance to live his own life.

Told in three distinct voices filled with longing, confusion, delight, and discovery, Place both mourns and celebrates the losses and gains of growing up enough to claim independence. Cameron writes with a direct simplicity and unguarded honesty, each page both confession and revelation. “‘Strange, isn’t it?’” Luke questions at book’s end, “Where life takes you and / how much can change.’” For these three young friends bound together by their entwined past, their journey ‘out of this place’ and beyond promises dovetailing futures with “[s]o much / to look forward to.”

Readers: Young Adult

Published: 2012 (Australia), 2013 (United States)

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Filed under ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, Australian

The Night Ferry by Michael Robotham

Night FerryIf I had not stuck Tana French‘s Dublin Murder Squad thrillers in my ears, I might never have discovered Australian journalist-turned-bestselling novelist Michael Robotham – French’s The Likeness (I think) ended with the ‘if you liked x, then try y‘-recommendation that led me to Night Ferry.

Contrarian that I am, however, of course I have a quibble. Like French, Robotham elevates his latest protagonist from a less-than-starring role from his book before – love that clever narrative domino! While each book is also a standalone title, carryover details always enhance the reading experience. Night Ferry is #3 in Robotham’s dark oeuvre, which means his leading lady here, Alisha Barbar, had a supporting role in #2, Lost, whose protagonist Vincent Ruiz appeared first in Robotham’s debut, Shattered, which stars Robotham’s most popular leading man, Joseph O’Loughlin. Got all that? All that means is that if you’re new to Robotham’s thrillers (he has eight out already!), best to start at the beginning: Shattered. I’ll be reading backwards myself.

Okay, so introductory digression aside, meet Ali Barbar, a British detective of Indian Sikh heritage. A former competitive runner who almost made it to the Olympics, Ali has just recently returned to her job at London’s Metropolitan Police a year after a horrific accident: she helped solve a kidnapping case that left her spine crushed, and defied all her doctors to make a fully mobile recovery.

After eight years of silence, Ali receives a terrified note from her childhood best friend begging for Ali’s help. When Ali next meets Cate at a school reunion, Cate – visibly pregnant – manages to blurt out, “‘They want to take my baby. They can’t. You have to stop them.’”  That evening as they leave the reunion, Cate and her husband are fatally wounded, and Ali is left to piece together what happened.

At over 500 pages (or more than 12 hours stuck in the ears – narrator Clare Corbett is chillingly controlled), the plot will twist and turn plenty before Ali unravels the knotted strands around a fake pregnancy, illegal immigration, desperate refugees, school violence, virgin mothers, evil fathers, wayward heroes, while criss-crossing through Britain, the Netherlands, and Afghanistan.

Perhaps the one character detail that doesn’t quite keep up the pace is Ali’s Indian Sikh heritage. Her ethnicity seems superficial, occasionally clumsy, providing at best an opportunity to give her stereotypical Asian parents, especially her dotingly demanding mother determined to marry off her still-single daughter. The eligible doctor planted at a family gathering in order to meet Ali proves to be useful enough to the plot, although again, the mother-daughter-doctor could have been of any background. Ironically, that the protagonist is British Sikh was exactly what made me choose the title. As unfulfilling as that detail proves to be, the rest of the engaging narrative builds swift momentum you won’t want to miss.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2007 (United States)

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Filed under .Fiction, ..Adult Readers, British Asian, Australian, .Audio

Where the Streets Had a Name by Randa Abdel-Fattah

Where the Streets Had a NameHere’s the seemingly simple story: When her grandmother falls ill, 13-year-old Hayaat decides that a jarful of her ancestral soil – a mere six miles away – will be the very thing that will make her grandmother well, so Hayaat grabs her best friend and goes off on her quest.

But … there’s always the ‘but’ … when home is a conflict zone, six miles might as well be 600. Hayaat is a Palestinian living inside heavily guarded walls in Bethlehem, her family forcibly displaced from her father’s home of many generations once filled with olive trees and open space. Now cramped into a tiny apartment, the family of seven is often at odds with one another, their movement restricted by long curfews. The family matriarch, Hayaat’s grandmother, has little left beyond her stories of another time and place, of family Hayaat can never meet except through the stories she never tires of hearing.

Hayaat bears the scars, both inside and out, of a childhood amidst guns, soldiers, and shifting borders. Her best friend Samy is a virtual orphan who lives with his aunt and uncle, having lost his father to prison and his mother to a heart attack soon thereafter. The intrepid pair venture forth through barriers, guard towers, and checkpoints – never mind not having any travel permits – and head toward Jerusalem with only a vague description of a long-ago neighborhood and a much-missed home. Their journey is aided by the kindness of strangers, including a peace activist couple, the husband a former Israeli Defense Force soldier who refused to finish his service in protest of the military mistreatment of Palestinians.

Randa Abdel-Fattah – Australian-born and domiciled, of Egyptian and Palestinian descent – offers a sobering novel about the harsh lives of children who inherit the consequences and tragedies of adult hostilities. In spite of childhoods stolen by violence, identities shaped by resentment and hatred, young people like Hayaat somehow manage to hold on to their humanity: “… so long as there is life there’ll be love … I’ll do more than survive … in the end we are all of us only human beings who laugh the same, and … one day the world will realize that we simply want to live as free people, with hope and dignity and purpose. That is all.”

Out of the mouth of babes …

Tidbit: Just as I finished writing this post, this link serendipitously landed in my inbox from a dear friend: “Books about Contemporary Palestine for Children” by Katharine Davies Samway. Timing really IS everything!

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2008, 2010 (United States)

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, Australian, Palestinian

The Bird King: an artist’s notebook by Shaun Tan

Bird KingWhenever I open a Shaun Tan book, my face just gets a goofy grin. It’s a Pavlovian reaction, guaranteed.

Although his latest doesn’t come with a straightforward narrative, it does manage to cleverly include tidbits and reminiscences from his entire oeuvre to create a whimsical portrait of an artist as a young man. From “inspiration,” to “artist’s block” to Paul Klee, Tan explains how even though most of his work “involves exhibited projects like books, films, and finished paintings, the primary material of all these … remains largely unseen, tucked away in folios.” Culled from those “folios, boxes, and sketchbooks,” this latest title “present[s] a cross-section of such material from the past twelve years, ranging from fairly precise drawings to scruffy scribbles.” All the drawings, by the way, were “generally completed in a single sitting of less than two hours.” Tan’s genius moves quickly, that’s for sure!

The book does, of course, have a method to its creative madness, neatly presented in four sections. Every picture in “untold stories” – “[m]y stories generally begin with images rather than words” – is a tale waiting to be discovered, or even made up, by the beholder. In “book, theater, and film,” Tan offers examples of “source energy … a wonderful, embryonic vagueness” that fuels Tan’s various projects across media. In “drawings from life,” Tan presents “a careful study of the real world” – including a most adorable rendition of bespectacled “Dad” and chubby toddler “me.”  The final section, “notebooks,” is an on-the-road free-for-fall, with sketches both “observational” and “equivalent to daydreaming.” As an added bonus, brief descriptions are offered in a “list of works” in the book’s final pages.

Conveniently compact, colorfully intriguing, and invitingly ingenious, this delightful notebook is all about potential. For Tan, the contents here produced multiple bestselling books, an Oscar-winning film, and countless awards and honors (including the 2011 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the coveted prize known as “The World’s Largest Children’s Literature Award” for the five million Swedish krona, or $800K+, that comes attached with it!). For his lucky audience willing to invest just a bit of imagination – regardless of age! – Tan’s notebook can take you from simple entertainment to whole new worlds. Who doesn’t want to be a part of that?!

Readers: All

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Children/Picture Books, ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, Australian

The Perfect Flower Girl by Taghred Chandab, illustrated by Binny Talib

Perfect Flower GirlAwww … who doesn’t love a joyous wedding? In this delightful cross-cultural Muslim marital fest, Amani is determined to be the best flower girl ever for her Aunty Sarah. Even when her little sister Mariam won’t join her, Amani practices her flower girl walk diligently and regularly: “‘It’s a very important job, leading the bride and groom,’” she admonishes her distracted sister. “‘It must be perfect.’”

The preparations are many (and hunger inducing – I can practically smell that kibbeh!), and the excitement builds as the festive date gets closer. A special dinner, the glamorous dress fittings, and Aunty Sarah’s laylia (a no-men-allowed party complete with fabulous fashion show during which Amani and Mariam get to don “spectacular belly-dancing costumes”) make the time pass quickly. Soon enough, the katb il kitab – the marriage ceremony performed by a sheikh the night before the wedding party – is already here … with more of Tayta (grandmother)’s cooking, oh be still my belly! The next morning with tummies all aflutter, the celebrations are about to begin … will Amani be the perfect flower girl?

Australian author Taghred Chandab (currently living in the United Arab Emirates) continues her goal of “promoting better understanding between Anglo-Australian culture and Islamic culture in Australia” through her writing. Thanks to our global markets, that understanding doesn’t have to stay limited to Down Under … we certainly can always use more Stateside – glittering sequins, swirling henna patterns, rose petals, and all. Here’s to many, many love-filled celebrations across borders.

Readers: Children

Published: 2012 (United States)

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Fiction, Australian, Lebanese

Captain Long Ears by Diana Thung

Captain Long EarsSo enthralled by Diana Thung‘s August Moon earlier this week, I immediately ordered Captain (her first and only other title thus far), and was delightfully tickled to find a blurb on the back cover from Gene Luen Yang (of first-ever National Book Award graphic novel finalist-fame for American Born Chinese): “Goofy and endearing with a touch of Taiyo Matsumoto.” Always comforting to come across graphic agreement (I, too, commented on that Matsumoto-channeling in Moon).

The connection here is even visually stronger: Thung’s titular Captain Long Ears pays homage to both brothers who star in Matsumoto’s TEKKON KINKREET, sporting Black’s goggles and White’s animal hat (which resembles a tiger through most of TEKKON, but at story’s end a bonus drawing of the boys as toddlers shows White wearing .. well … long ears!). No worries, however, about encountering something derivative; Thung’s got a captivating style all her own.

Somewhere in space, Captain Big Nose has gone missing. Captain Long Ears, together with his most trusted companion, Cap’n Jam – a giant purple gorilla with self-reported “32 perfectly, perfect sparkling white teeth” – prepare to head out to Space Ninja headquarters (also known as Happy Land). There they hope to find some answers about Captain Big Nose’s “top secret reconnaissance mission that will take a long, long time to accomplish,” as reported by Mum, who also insists calling Captain Long Ears “Michaeeel …”

All is not well at headquarters: the fearless Space Ninja pair are threatened by a “cannibalistic blob witch,” get attacked by flesh-eating piranhas, are trapped in the revolving prison, and must rescue a baby elephant. All the while, the dynamic duo are not any closer to finding Captain Big Nose – who seems to look a lot like Daddy – who remains elusive, always waving goodbye, no matter how much Captain Long Ears begs him to come back.

Throughout her action-filled debut, Thung presents the powerful ability of a child’s imagination to make sense when no answers can be found. Young Michael’s escapist world – complicated, adventurous, exciting – in which he’s never alone, provides a necessary antidote to a loss too difficult to bear … for now. Michael will return to the so-called real world soon enough, but first he’ll need to draw on his Space Ninja superhuman strength to get through the challenges ahead.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2010

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, Australian, Indonesian

August Moon by Diana Thung

Get ready for surreal delight.

When a mysterious creature with an imbedded bullet turns up, Fi and her scientist father head to the town of Calico – linked “to the rest of the country! and the world!” by a single bridge. They’ll be staying with Fi’s Uncle Simon, the younger brother of Fi’s late mother.

Insulated by headphones, Fi seems to distance herself from what’s going on around her. Her vision of the world is mitigated by one of those pre-digital age instant cameras, watching the photographs slowly develop into something other than what’s visible right in front of her.

In Calico, Fi meets Jaden, a young boy everyone knows but who doesn’t seem to belong to anyone, although he has a special relationship with Grandmama, an elderly food cart vendor who keeps him well supplied with her delicious bao (steamed buns). Jaden is no ordinary child – he has seemingly imaginary friends, he can fly, and he just might be able to save the world from the corporate out-of-towners who are snapping up all the empty spaces of unsuspecting Calico.

With elements of save-the-planet, good-vs.-evil, reclaiming the mother-daughter bond, celebrating heritage, and even a hint of Totoro-like faith in the impossible (while visually reminiscent of Taiyo Matsumoto’s dystopic TEKKON KINKREET: Black & White), Indonesian-born Australian artist Diana Thung creates a magical, mystical adventure for all ages.

Intrigued? How could you not be?

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2012 (United States)

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, Australian, Indonesian, Southeast Asian

The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal, and Less than Four Minutes to Achieve It by Neal Bascomb

Neal Bascomb is a consummate storyteller: he can unravel a tale with an ending you already know, set it at a heart-thumping pace, and never let you rest until you hit that final page. Unless you’ve been in total seclusion your entire life, you probably know that the four-minute mile barrier was broken quite a few decades ago. [I'll save you a Google search: as of today, the world record of 3:43.13 (OMG!) by Morocco's Hicham El Guerrouj remains unchallenged since 1999.]

Just how that four-minute barrier was finally overcome gets breathtaking (bestselling!) treatment from Bascomb on the page; and in case you were wondering, the stuck-in-the-ears version incites even more excitement as read by Nelson Runger, who adds a welcome, old-time sportscaster enthusiasm to his narration. [One of my biggest gripes with audible books has been the laziness of producers with casting/directing for proper pronunciation. Why is basic respect for the author's words so much to ask for??!! Here's shocking (pathetic that it is so shocking!) news about thisproduction: Both Bascomb and one of the book's major subjects get a shout-out of "grateful acknowledgement" for their help in "researching certain pronunciations in this book"!! Really, how hard was that??!!]

But back to the pursuit of perfection … Mile by mile, race by race, Bascomb follows three young athletes around the world as each devotes himself to be the first to achieve the deemed-impossible sub-4:00 goal: British Roger Bannister, an Oxford-educated medical doctor-in-training; Australian John Landy, a Melbourne University track hero; and American Wes Santee, who had to battle his critical father for the chance to run (and be educated!). Their backgrounds are vastly different, their training plans at times antithetical to proven regimens, their lifestyles bear little resemblance to each other … and yet their shared goal never wavers, and ultimately, one man breaks that elusive tape.

I knew how it would end, and yet I often couldn’t pull the earphones off my head: “shhh, he’s on the fourth lap,” I’d admonish the hubby, or “just a sec, he’s about to break another record,” I’d tell a whining child, or “we’ll talk in a minute, they’re gonna announce the official time,” I’d hang up the cell call as it interrupted my iPod function. With Bascomb’s addictive step-by-step retelling, knowing the ending never diminished the wanting to know happened next.

Confession time: I’m not delusional enough to ever think I’ll ever come close to run the perfect mile, but thanks to someone Bascomb and I know in common, I’m out there running a bunch of my own (albeit much slower!) perfect miles – yesterday morning, the exact time I had visualized actually flashed up on the board as I crossed the finish line of a local race. Not that I’m bragging (well … only a little bit), but my miracle-making coach has managed to make me an ultra-athlete (yeah, me!). So here’s the best sneak-peek news for ultra-wannabes: come next spring, the wisdom of that impossible coaching will be available to anyone and everyone when my ultimate ultracoach’s first book hits shelves next spring. Watch this space for details.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2004

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Audio, .Nonfiction, Australian, British, Nonethnic-specific