When the Lyrebird Calls: An Aussie GSQ Review…

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I’ve unleashed the psyche triplets today to examine the Good, the Sad and the Quirky of Kim Kane’s new release, middle grade homage to classic Aussie time-slip literature, When the Lyrebird Calls.  Time-slip novels seem to be non-indigenous Australia’s way of “doing” fantasy, considering that we don’t really have any native fairy-type folk outside of indigenous Dreaming stories, and as many non-indigenous Australians know very little about indigenous Dreaming stories (myself included), time-slipping back to the early days of colonisation (or invasion, depending on your perspective) provides a serviceable substitute.  Anyway, we received a copy of this one from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

When Madeleine is shipped off to stay with her eccentric grandmother for the holidays, she expects the usual: politics, early-morning yoga, extreme health food, and lots of hard work. Instead, Madeleine tumbles back in time to 1900, where the wealthy Williamson family takes her into their home, Lyrebird Muse.

At a time when young girls have no power and no voice, set against a backdrop of the struggles for emancipation, federation and Aboriginal rights, Madeleine must find a way to fit in with the Williamson family’s four sisters – beautiful, cold Bea; clever, awkward Gert; adventurous, rebellious Charlie; and darling baby Imo – as she searches desperately for a way home.

Meanwhile, the Williamson girls’ enchanting German cousin, Elfriede, arrives on the scene on a heavenly wave of smoke and cinnamon, and threatens to shatter everything…

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When the Lyrebird Calls by Kim Kane. Published by Allen & Unwin, Octber 26th 2016. RRP: $16.99

The Good:image

When the Lyrebird Calls is essentially a story about women and girls; the ways in which their lives have been shaped and directed by the expectations of society and the ways in which they have rebelled, quietly and personally or loudly and publicly, as the case may be.    Madeleine is a sporty girl, her grandmother a hippy, yoga-loving, clean-eating independent sort, and the girls from the historical period of the story are variously tomboyish, ladylike and completely ignored.  Much of the plot arc involves Madeleine coming to an understanding of how the lives of these historical women differ from her own, and how much she owes to the personal sacrifice of the women that have come before her.  Kane has done a great job of highlighting the pertinent issues of the time – and in particular, the suffragist movement – without labouring the point in an overtly teachy sort of way.  Many of the finer points around women’s social power are revealed through family dynamics and the quiet upheaval that takes place when the German cousin Elfriede comes into the picture.  Overall, the story hangs together quite well, with loose ends from the beginning of the story (set in the current time period) tied up by the end of Madeleine’s historic adventure.

The Sad:

Only two things brought this book down for me.  One was the pacing: the historical period of the story moves along quite imagesedately and with much decorum, punctuated with a few moments of pinafore-ruffling action, but I was hoping for a few more near-misses or instances where Madeleine felt in danger, or at least in danger of being discovered as an interloper from the future.  This is just a personal preference though, and others might find the pace perfectly suits the setting.

The other thing that annoyed me slightly was the fact that the author obviously wanted to highlight issues of racism in the historical period, but kept signposting the fact by having Madeleine take particular note every time somebody did or said something racist (albeit typical of the historical period).  These instances did feel a bit overtly didactic, and somewhat out of keeping with the authenticity of the story.  Obviously, in order to authentically recreate the historical period, societal attitudes, however unsavoury, have to be recreated also, but most of the instances of racism seemed to be included simply to say, “Look! People in the past were overtly racist all of the time!”  Ezra, the indigenous servant/groundsman/horseman of the family seemed to serve little purpose other than as a reference point for Madeleine to note that (a) people are racist toward him and (b) she hasn’t actually ever spoken to an indigenous person before.  This second point could probably have been the basis for a meaningful bit of learning for Madeleine once she returns home from the past, but is never mentioned again, with greater emphasis being placed on the issue of women’s rights.

The Quirky:

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The most interesting thing about this book is the fact that it is being marketed as being “in the tradition of Playing Beatie Bow“, the Australian classic time-slip tale by Ruth Park.  You can see by comparing the covers of the two books that there has been a conscious attempt to connect the two in the minds of readers:

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Good old Beatie was a set text for many primary school kids of the era, so perhaps the marketing gurus are counting on adult readers (and particularly teachers!) making the link and picking up Kane’s tome, but apart from the few obvious similarities, the two books could be read as companion novels, rather than one being a straight re-telling or re-imagining of the other.  While Park’s story took place in the slummy environment of The Rocks, with a Scottish immigrant family and constant threats of being beaten yeller and green, Kane’s story is set in the grand house of an upper-class family of ladies.  The romance theme of Park’s work is missing from Kane’s story (thank the Lord!) and When the Lyrebird Calls is lacking the dark, gritty atmosphere and almost ghost-story quality of Playing Beatie Bow.  This is probably a good thing if, like me, the front cover of Park’s book and the eerie skipping-rhyme poem gave you the heebie jeebies as a kid.  Canny teachers will no doubt be pleased to have a newer time-slip story of the same historical period to introduce to their students, either alongside or as a substitute for the original classic.

If you are a fan of historical fiction, particularly in a book targeted at upper primary, lower secondary readers, I would definitely recommend giving When the Lyrebird Calls a go.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

 

A YA Read-it-if Review: The Walls Around Us…

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imageimageWelcome to a read-it-if review that has been  looooong time coming. I’ve had today’s book on my review shelf from Netgalley for months and months and months (surely close to a year!) but I have only just got around to it because it is released this month.  I must admit I very nearly had a “I’ve waited so long to read this and it’s THIS BAD?” moment early on, but thankfully for all concerned, I ended up really enjoying the (figuratively) muddy plot and the confusing twists.  Today, then, I have for you The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

The Walls Around Us is a ghostly story of suspense told in two voices—one still living and one long dead. On the outside, there’s Violet, an eighteen-year-old dancer days away from the life of her dreams when something threatens to expose the shocking truth of her achievement. On the inside, within the walls of a girls’ juvenile detention center, there’s Amber, locked up for so long she can’t imagine freedom. Tying these two worlds together is Orianna, who holds the key to unlocking all the girls’ darkest mysteries.

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Read it if:

*you prefer that if a book has to be mysterious and confusing, it had better be that way right from page one

* you always suspected that behind the tutu and perfect posture, ballerinas get up to some weird shit stuff

* you’ve never been too worried about ending up in prison because you have been blessed with a body shape that looks fab in shapeless overalls.

* you make it a point never to eat things you find growing on your walls.

The Walls Around Us is told from two points of view.  There’s Violet – self-assured, set-apart and biding time until she begins at Julliard. Then there’s Amber – beaten-down, self-conscious and biding her time until her release from a high security juvenile detention centre. The story begins with Violet as she prepares to dance in her ballet school’s showcase and reminisces about her old friend Ori, who died three years previously.  The first few chapters of the book did have me scrunching up my face in mild annoyance because the events of the moment are intentionally mixed up with not-quite-clear happenings from the past and this, coupled with the reasonably unpleasant personality of Violet had me fighting to remember why on earth I had requested this book in the first place.

I persevered though and was quickly rewarded with Amber’s chapters which, while still confusing – who was this girl and what does she have to do with anything? – suddenly got interesting as the magical realism kicked in. I’m not going to spoil anything for you here, but after riding out the initial parts of Amber’s story, it becomes apparent that there are two intertwining storylines here – one (Violet’s) which has a reasonably obvious trajectory for the most part, and the other which is completely baffling and will have you wondering, “how on earth is the author going to marry these two plot arcs up?”

On finishing this one I nodded appreciatively in the imagined direction of the author and tucked this book away in the “well, that was unexpected” category. I don’t think the style of this book will be for everyone, but I certainly enjoyed the strange combination of creepy, paranormal mystery and ordinary teen drama that pervaded the story. For me, the value of this tome is all in the clever construction of the narrative, using two mildly unreliable narrators to tell the story of a third party. The Walls Around Us is definitely worth a look if you are after an understated sort of paranormal mystery and are happy to persevere past a disorienting beginning.

Until next time,

Bruce