My Sister Sif by Ruth Parks

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Fourteen-year-old Erika and her older sister Sif are desperately homesick and want to flee their life in the city. Their island home, Rongo, and their family are calling them. 

Arriving on Rongo, a green dot in the Pacific, they find the locals frightened by the changes to their world, and cracks forming in their once-perfect home. Even in this paradise, Erika and her family feel the threat of the encroaching world. And it isn't only Erika's home that needs her attention. Henry Jacka, a young American shell-collector, catches Sif 's eye and uncovers a long-guarded family secret. Only the determined Erika can prevent him from revealing it. 

Ruth Park's prophetic tale, My Sister Sif, is a distinctive, much-loved classic by one of Australia's most highly acclaimed authors. It will appeal to a whole new generation of young Australian readers.

My Sister Sif
is a beautiful, fable-like speculative story - a small, lovely novel that mixes fantasy into reality so well it feels like it really could have happened. 
I'm not going to give away what those fantasy aspects are, in case you decide to read it - I think it's nice to be surprised. I came to it not knowing very much about the story itself, and I was very quickly swept up in it. The magical aspects of the story are perfectly ordinary to the characters, making the story feel very much of our world.

I always love stories about the bonds between sisters.* Sif is my favourite - she's shy and a dreamer. Erika is more practical, and despite being the younger sister she feels she must look after Sif. Erika is so sure that she knows best she can be obnoxious, but she's ultimately an endearing character, despite her mistakes (she is fourteen, after all). Her relationship with Pig is adorable. Their island home of Rongo is well-drawn and realistic,** and I think the young narrator and the magical, childlike freedom of the story will appeal to younger readers (I would've loved this even more if I'd read it when I was ten or twelve), while the thoughtfulness and relevance of the issues raised in the story will interest adult readers of YA, too. It's easy to read and authentic and just the sort of book you want to hug.***

The issues raised in the novel are even more important now than when it was first published, but the story has a real timeless quality. There are parts of My Sister Sif which remind me that it was originally published in the 1980s, aspects of the story that speak of a different generation (things I can imagine in my parents' childhoods which don't exist in mine): Erika having a secret hideout that no grown-ups know about, the girls being able to just roam about and leave Australia on their own, Erika seeing adults as this entirely separate species who just don't understand kids. It adds to the charm. Despite the environmental protection message and fantastical creatures, the central themes of My Sister Sif are the same as a lot of YA: characters trying to become independent, relate to their family, figure out who they are and where they belong. It's a gorgeous little book.

My Sister Sif on the publisher's website

*I am the eldest of two! Sisters are the best! I really liked Frozen, like a lot, mainly because sisterly love saves the day.

**When I'm reading, I tend to fill in the detail places described with places from my own memory. I've been to Vanuatu a couple of times, and once swam in a very lovely lagoon on the island of Efate, so I kept imagining that. I don't think Rongo is a real place, but it'd be nice to visit if it were.

***You hug books you really love, right? Or is that just me?

Just a Queen by Jane Caro

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Just a girl to those around her, Elizabeth is now the Queen of England. She has outsmarted her enemies and risen above a lifetime of hurt and betrayal – a mother executed by her father, a beloved brother who died too young and an enemy sister whose death made her queen.

Not knowing whom she can trust, Elizabeth is surrounded by men who give her compliments and advice but may be hiding daggers and poison behind their backs. Elizabeth must use her head and ignore her heart to be the queen her people need. But what if that leads to doing the one thing she swore she would never do: betray a fellow queen, her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots? 

My entire knowledge of Tudor England has been sourced from two TV shows: The Tudors and Horrible Histories. Being that The Tudors ends pre-Mary's rule (and employs creative license pretty liberally), and Horrible Histories is a comedic kids' show (the best ever, but pretty light on for detail), I came to this novel knowing not very much at all about Elizabeth I. So I can't comment as to the historical accuracy of Just a Queen, but I can say it read as very authentic. I'm really interested in reading more about Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart - historical fiction, non-fiction, anything! - which hopefully conveys how much I enjoyed this novel, despite not being a great reader of historical fiction. (Lately, I am not a great reader of anything other than legal cases, unfortunately. I'm very much looking forward to binge-reading all the novels in my to-read pile over the summer.)

Just a Queen recounts events from Elizabeth's perspective in the aftermath of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, retelling her reign from her coronation through to her decision to have Mary executed thirty years later. Mary is a central focus for Elizabeth - her only real peer, but also someone she is forced to compete with and whom she felt threatened by - and the way she tells it, events conspired to lead inexorably to Mary's death, despite Elizabeth's desires to the contrary. The narration is at times unclear - jumping from the present, where Elizabeth is middle-aged and wracked with guilt over killing a fellow queen, to significant events in the past - but reflects her mindset from the point at which she's telling the story well, I think. The large time period being covered in a relatively short book means that there is depth and insight when significant events are retold, but other aspects can feel like they were covered in only a cursory fashion. The good thing about this is that it's inspired me to read more. I think it'll be great as a historical resource for young people to be introduced to this era.

Despite Elizabeth not always being a likeable character, she makes for an engaging narrator. She's nuanced: I love her aggressive independence, but not her narcissism. As I mentioned, it's told from the perspective of an ageing Elizabeth, and recounts her reign which began when she was twenty-five - so though the preceding novel, Just a Girl, is a YA title, I'm not sure the same can be said of Just a Queen. It's historical fiction that's accessible to young readers, but not exactly YA. It's a very interesting, thoughtful exploration of what it is to be a powerful woman in a sexist society. I would love to read Mary Stuart's version of events, as written by Jane Caro.

(Though I love the cover, the girl pictured seems a little too glam and blonde to be Elizabeth I, going by her Wikipedia page. And her depiction on Horrible Histories, obviously.)

Just a Queen on the publisher's website

National Young Writers' Festival 2015 Artist Call Out

Friday, March 13, 2015

The National Young Writers' Festival has opened their Artist Call Out for submissions for the 2015 program. It's a terrific festival (I attended way, way back in 2010 and had a splendid time), and it's on from October 1-4 this year in Newcastle (if you haven't been to Newcastle, it's pretty great. The restaurants are excellent).

They're after writers, poets, journalists, comedians, etc aged between 18 and 35, and it's well worth applying if you fancy taking part, even if you don't have lots of experience - it's a festival all about young and emerging writers.

According to their website:
This year we’re going into the deep – to venture into the unexplored crevices of the writing community. We are looking to include a wide scope of artists with different experiences, backgrounds and talents – a passion for writing is the only non-negotiable requirement. If you feel as strongly about words as we do, we want to hear from you, so send us your ideas. If you’re young (between 18-35), living anywhere in Australia and you’re passionate about writing, then congratulations! You’ve met all the selection criteria. 

It promises to be awesome. Submissions close March 30 at midnight. For details and to apply, check out the NYWF website.

Word up: creative writing workshop at the State Library of Queensland

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

From April 14 to 16, the State Library of Queensland are running Word up - a three-day creative writing workshop series! It's for young writers aged 15 to 17 and promises to be awesome. According to SLQ's website, the workshop will feature:

  • Access to professional writers and industry professionals
  • Hands-on experience and resources to develop your skills, confidence and abilities across various trans-media writing platforms
  • Tips on how to make it as a writer 
  • A body of work created during the workshop program

  • I'll be giving a workshop as part of the program, which I'm very much looking forward to. Meeting young writers is terrific, and running workshops is the most fun, and the State Library of Queensland always put on awesome events for young people.

    For more details and to register, check out the State Library of Queensland's website. It runs from 9.30am-4.00pm from April 14-16 and costs $100 for the full program. If you're aged 15-17 and can get yourself to the State Library in Brisbane this April, you should register! (You have to register by Monday 16 March, so be quick.) It'll be excellent.

    (How crazy is it that April is NEXT MONTH? And we are in the year 2015? What is going on, time?)

    How to achieve big scary goals, and a very belated Happy New Year!

    Wednesday, January 14, 2015

    This year is already 1/26th over! I swear 2013 ended five minutes ago. I'm going to blink and it'll be 2016, and then I'll nap for a bit and it'll be the year 3016 and all of our consciousnesses will be uploaded to the cloud and easily downloaded into teeny-tiny robots that can roam outer space and the bottom of the ocean. It'll be grand. In the meantime: a very belated New Year post!

    Speaking of time being weird, I forget how long I have been keeping this blog for. I have five years worth of New Year posts (here they are, in reverse chronological order: 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010) and I had to write a sixth or it would ruin the continuity. Blogs are like funny little personal time machines that anyone can access. This time last year I was binge-watching The Walking Dead; this year it's Game of Thrones and Supernatural. I've totally evolved as a person, clearly.

    My 2014 highlights: All This Could End was longlisted for the Gold Inky. I taught a workshop for young writers at QWC for a week, and had lots of other lovely school and library visits. I finished writing a manuscript and worked on two others. I graduated from one course I was studying and started a double degree. There are probably a lot of other things I'm forgetting.

    My 2015 goals: write every day (so many novel ideas!), blog more, study smarter (less binge-studying at the last minute! Why do I do this to myself?), have more fun and adventures and stop stressing quite so much. It's all very unnecessary. (My goals are not all that different from when I was fifteen.)

    I don't have any big scary goals this year, more habits I want to put in place, but I've had big goals in the past that I managed to achieve and big goals that I sort of... forgot about. So: maybe you want to write or publish a book in 2015. Which can seem like a very intimidating goal, but it's very possible. Here are the best ways I know to make big scary goals way more likely to be achieved (obviously with reference to writing books, because that's what I know. But I think you can apply these to anything):
    1. Make yourself accountable to someone. Tell people about your goals! People who will ask how everything is going later in the year - make sure you get some work done so that you can answer truthfully rather than vaguely. Promise a friend that you'll send them the next chapter of your novel every Friday at lunchtime. Preferably the sort of friend who will come over in the afternoon if you fail to do so and take away your modem and uninstall all the programs on your computer except Word. Join online forums or enter in challenges or writing sprints (this is why NaNoWriMo is so great: community! time limits! pressure!). If you do not have deadlines from an external source, create them, and make sure someone will hassle you if you miss them. If you don't tell anyone and no-one's checking up on you, it's really easy to just let things fall by the wayside and wait till next year and have the same goals again. Which we don't want! You can do it! You just need someone to yell at you! Or, be supportive and encouraging. Either, both. It all works.
    2. Make a daily habit of it. Everyone is different, but I do think that the best way to get work done is to work consistently, a little bit every day. I tend more towards binge-writing sporadically and then stewing on ideas but not actually writing for a few weeks, and then it's always harder to get back into it. If it's something that's really important to you, and you don't want to forget about it, make it a daily habit. Tell everyone that you write from 7:00p.m. until 7:30p.m., and then write. Put it in your day-planner/Filofax/Google Calendar/iPhone/scheduler of choice. Make it an important and immovable commitment. You wouldn't miss an appointment with your hairdresser (I hope you wouldn't), so you shouldn't miss an appointment with... yourself, I guess? And your goals? (Talking to yourself is optional. I enjoy it, it contributes to my writing process.)
    3. Make sure your goal really means something to you. It's much easier to motivate yourself to work towards something you want more than anything else in the world. There are a lot of people I know who say that they would like to write a book, but for whom writing is not of central importance in their life. It is incredibly difficult to put work into something day after day unless it's something about which you're passionate (or something for which you're being paid or there's some other obligation). Big important difficult goals that involve a lot of work over a long period of time (like, writing and publishing a book) are challenging to achieve, but borderline impossible if you don't have really strong motivation. Don't set goals that aren't really important to you, personally - there's not enough new years for resolutions that are really from other people/society (for example, weight loss).
    4. Take small steps. The other day I went on a big walk over a big hill. My life is incredibly thrilling. If I thought about the entire trip at once it seemed overwhelming. So I told myself I only had to walk to the next tree. That was manageable. So I walked to the next tree. Super cool. Walked to the next tree. Eventually got over the hill. No big deal. Manageable steps. I thought to myself, this'll be a great metaphor for my blog. I didn't really. It's a terrible metaphor. At one point I thought I was going to faint and I realised hiking at midday in Queensland in the summer was a bad idea. Not really relevant. What I'm saying is: don't think about the whole thing at once. You don't have to write a whole novel. You just have to write a hundred words. How manageable is that? Then you write another hundred. Repeat until book reaches desired length. That's how books get written.
    5. Enjoy the journey. I don't want to sound like a hippy guru yogini, but I think a lot of the time people want to achieve something because they perceive that they'll feel different once they've achieved that thing: happy, or confident, or cool, or proud. I know this is true for me, and it's definitely true for goals related to weight loss - people believe they'll be happier when they're thinner. Unfortunately the reality of things is often very different to what we fantasise about. Once you achieve something, you will just aspire towards something else. It's absolutely worth aspiring to be your 'best self' or whatever else, but enjoy the process of working towards your goals, because you likely won't feel hugely different once you achieve them. (I still fully expect I will reach a certain level of success as a writer and suddenly become a Glamorous Novelist. Delusional, I know.)
    I hope you are having a most splendid 2015 so far, and you manage to achieve everything you set out to achieve this year. Don't stress if your resolutions don't work out. You're probably pretty awesome already. I wish you a year of good reading, good writing, good fun, lots of lovely people to be with and lots of lovely places to go and just lots of magic, generally.

    P.S. Here are my five favourite blog posts from last year:

    Video games are not the root of all evil

    Friday, December 12, 2014

    Growing up, I obsessively played the video game The Sims.

    And by ‘growing up’ I mean I played it a great deal from the age of about 8 all the way through until yesterday, when I played it for four hours before I became really, really frustrated with the lag (it’s all those damn expansion packs) and annoyed by my own lack of productivity. ‘You should be accomplishing something, Steph! You have so little time on this earth! Whatever happened to carpe diem?’ is on constant replay in my head (my internal guilt trip narrator would never use the word ‘yolo’, even ironically).

    People idealise childhood as this magical time in their lives, when they didn’t have a care in the world. I think the further you move away from being a kid, the easier being a kid seems. I feel like I am still just young enough to remember things as they were. Sure, you don’t have to worry about finding a career and earning money and eating properly when you’re a kid – you’ve got your parents to look out for you. And there are lots of fun times (before you get all weird and self-conscious and emo).

    But, gosh, being a kid can be downright terrifying. You’re pretty much powerless. You’re at the mercy of parents and teachers and older siblings. As you get a little older you gradually realise there’s so much terrible stuff in the world – people starving and wars going on – that you can do nothing about. It’s depressing.

    I think video games are great and not the creativity-killers lots of people claim them to be, and I wrote a whole post about it for Birdee. Read the rest here.

    Pandora Jones: Deception by Barry Jonsberg

    Tuesday, November 25, 2014

    Pan is still struggling to distinguish between her dreams and reality. When she wakes in the Infirmary her mind replays the sight of Nate running along the shoreline and the way his body froze and then flopped after he was shot. But her memories hold more questions than answers and she doesn't know who to trust.

    When she forms an unlikely alliance with Jen to try to make sense of everyone's haunting similar memories and the conflicting information about The School, she finds herself with unexpected enemies.

    Pan and Jen are determined to seek the truth - no matter what rules they must break or how terrible the danger they face. But can they even trust each other?

    I'm not a big reader of dystopian novels, possibly because I'm not a big reader of series (and with all modern YA dystopian novels it seems there's an unspoken rule that there must be at least three books to complete the story arc). I like things to be resolved by the end of the book, and I find there's a tendency with series for the books in the middle to be duller than the first and last book. Nothing is being established, but nothing's being resolved, either, but readers keep reading because they've already committed so much time to the characters and the story (a classic example of this is The Two Towers, which is easily the most boring Lord of the Rings book. I much preferred The Hobbit, and it annoys me that they're turning one great self-contained story into I-don't-know-how-many drawn-out films). I am possibly prejudiced towards series, and I'm sure there are plenty of series that don't let down in the middle. I just lack the attention span.

    In fact, I'm so rubbish at reading series that I didn't even read the first Pandora Jones book. I thought I had. A couple of chapters in, I realised I hadn't. I was quite involved at that stage and couldn't quite bring myself to stop reading, find the first book, read that, and then come back to where I was up to (I don't think it mattered all that much, in the end). I was excited to read it because it's Australian dystopian YA and I believe that all books written by Australians are by default better than all other books. I have a lot book prejudice. It's a real problem. That said, there's nothing especially Australian about it - The School, where Pan is being kept, is on a very non-specific island, far from her home (or, what was her home, before the majority of the human population got wiped out by a plague).

    Jen's the best. Jen's my favourite character. I think it's great that there are now more YA novels that feature non-hetero characters, in stories that aren't centrally about being LGBTQI (YA novels that are centrally about LGBTQI are great, too!). I also loved that both central characters were girls, and both were tough and had practical skills (I entirely lack both toughness and practical skills so I like living vicariously through fictional characters who are action heroines). The quiet menace of the School and its staff is terrific, and the fact that both the characters and the reader know so little about the School's motives and what's actually going on means that suspense is maintained even when the pace slows a little.

    The ending is the sort of ending that makes you sit still with the book closed for five minutes, amazed, and then attempt to explain the entire book and the excellent concept and the awesome ending to all nearby humans (complete with acting out scenes and manic hand gestures), so that they, too, can be amazed. Which of course never works particularly well because explaining a book to someone is nowhere near the same experience as actually reading the book. But still. (Do other people do this? This is possibly a weird thing to do.) If you like dystopian YA, I reckon you'll like this. It's speculative, with a fair chunk of science fiction and lots of action, but the character development and interaction keeps it believable.

    Pandora Jones: Deception on the publisher's website
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