Another Kind of Resolution

For Christmas 2014, as it would be just as and the gramps (grandparents), I suggested going camping. Yup, you heard right. Of course after everyone got on board I started having second thoughts. I LOVE having my own loo within five metres of my bed, which is in a house with air-conditioning. There was no backing out, however, so I had to suck it in. What we did do, was actually “glamping” because the gramps had their luxury caravan, so we had power and cooking facilities. There were shared toilets and showers, so no digging holes in the ground, and we brought our automated air-bed, quilt and my ultra comfortable contoured pillow. Even so, after 3 nights of having to unzip the tent, walk 25 metres to the toilet and being woken up at 5am by birds having a conference over our heads, I was ready to come home.

On Christmas day we had our first bona fide Aussie Christmas with a trip to the beach in the morning, lunch of the barbe (bbq) and pot luck dinner with the rest of the camp in a large shed. Naturally the person who enjoyed it the most was Iris. She made a new bestie she played with all day everyday, had a family of goats next door and a couple who walked their cat on a lead. I might be persuaded to do it again if we get a darker tent and I bring ear plugs for all of us.

One evening, as I made my way back to our camp-site from a shower, I was literally stopped in my tracks by the sunset.

WA Sunset, Dec 14, Big Valley

Like an awesome sunset, there are children’s books that have the same effect. Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree is one of them and so is Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius.

Alice Rumphius lived by the sea with her grandfather who inspired her with tales of his travels. She wanted to do everything he had – travel and live by the sea. He left her with one more life accomplishment – “do something to make the world more beautiful”.

Grandfather and Alice

So off Alice goes, travelling the world and finally settling down in a cottage by the sea. Then she remembers what her grandfather tasked her to do, but she had no idea what to do.

Travelling to Asia

One summer, she plants her favourite flowers – lupines. She spends the next year or so convalescing. The following spring, on a walk, she finds  a patch of lupines some distance from her cottage. That is her “ah ha” moment.

Ah ha moment

She then spends the summer sowing lupine seeds all around the area. When the fields, hillsides, lane-ways, hollows and stone walls all bloom with the blue, purple and rose-coloured flowers, it appears she has perfectly fulfilled her grandfather’s words.

Lupines, lupines, lupines

I’ve never made a new year’s resolution. Not one. I think it’s nonsense. If you need an impetus to do something worthwhile, the new year is not going to give you enough of one. Take quitting smoking, it needs to be something personal, something that will give you enough will power to overcome your addiction. Likewise with losing weight and all the rest of it, which anyway, if you needed to do, you probably need to do it ALL the time. So not a new year’s resolution, but a life resolution – don’t sweat the small stuff.

Give Me Cake

Iris is turned four on Monday. This, I felt, called for a non-book related post. *Gasp* Back in Singapore, kid’s birthday parties have become yet another aspect of life to compete tooth and hangdog nail at. Parents splash out on venues, entertainment, cakes and photography. Frankly, it’s a little scary, because seriously, what kind of parent are you if you don’t book that playground with a balloon artist, metre-high fondant cake, photographer AND videographer?! But it is really good if you want to start an indoor play gym/outdoor water playground or any kind of kid’s entertainment. The thing I found most ridiculous to spend money on was the cake. Don’t get me wrong, I totally understand why parents, who are 90% of the time, both working their poor butts off, would rather just spend the money for someone else to make a cake. After all, we succumbed to it for Iris’s first birthday. We didn’t get the fancy venue (it was at my parents’ house), entertainment (we rented a foam play structure) or even a photographer (thanks Jay!), so we got one of those cakes.

Farm Birthday Cake

The theme was, obviously, the farm. I had everything in theme, cups, napkins, goody bag treats and even the balloons. The cake, while spectacular looking, like most cakes of its kind was very average in taste. Plus you can’t even keep the figurines. Quite possibly one of the most useless $250 we spent. In fact, I’d go as far as to say if I could do it over, I wouldn’t, at all! She doesn’t remember it, nor did she particularly enjoy it as a significant day. Sure she got lots of presents, but again, she was too young to appreciate them. Take note parents-to-be! Do not bother with first or even second birthdays. Focus on the fourth and beyond and ignore later questions of why there were no photos of first and second birthday parties.

For her second birthday, I decided to make the cake myself, a tradition which continues. I’ve had a mild thing for baking since my mid-teens. This grew into a proper hobby once I moved out and had my own kitchen. My problem, however, was that I had to wait for an occasion to bake cakes (I will not, contrary to popular thought, consume an entire cake on my own). So here was my chance. I even went so far as to practice making the cake twice to get the look and taste right. It was important that I had both. My cake was NOT going to be a bimbo fondant cake.

After three and a half hours’ work the night before, I made a rainbow cake with cream cheese frosting. I lost the pictures of the inside when some #*$& stole my phone but it was a rainbow cake. A proper one with six colours/layers. It was quite humongous, not terribly well frosted and we made the mistake of waiting too long to cut it. Hence we had a lot of leftover cake, but I did receive lots of compliments.

Rainbow Cake

Her third birthday saw my technique improve as well as one of my strokes of genius. The theme was Peppa Pig, because Iris, like almost every other girl child in Australia, England and anywhere showing Peppa Pig, absolutely loves it. It’s amazing how a cartoon with such simple artistry can be so entertaining, even for adults! Big balloon, big balloon, bigger than the moon….Anyway, I copied the design of this cake from Sweetapolita, but instead of slaving away at fondant figures that would have probably looked all wrong and couldn’t be kept/played with, I ordered plastic figurines and stuck them in the top! The chocolate is supposed to look like a muddy puddle, BTW, for those familiar with the show.

3rd birthday cake

It tasted divine because I had found THE CHOCOLATE CAKE recipe. No, I’m not going to share it.

This year, we hired a Shetland pony for the party so that became the theme. It’s always better/easier to have a theme. Incidentally, we thought it would be a simple affair as the kids would be entertained by the pony and the playground and we’d only provide finger food. WE WERE WRONG. Even the simplest of parties can be completely knackering.

For the cake, I took inspiration from one of my favourite food bloggers’, my name is yeh, funfetti and pony cakes.

4th birthday cake

I am still recovering from all this birthday business. I think I might borrow my friend’s idea and only have parties every alternate year. Or maybe not. Think she’ll have outgrown mermaids by then?

Rediscovering Old Gems

Another brilliant perk of being a parent (as if you needed more), apart from being legitimately allowed to play with toys again, is rediscovering all my old favourite books and sharing them with someone else who’ll appreciate them just as much.

Dean's Enchanting Tales from The Magic Forest

Dean’s Enchanting Stories from The Magic Forest  was one of those books I kept reading over and over again. I remember how I loved looking at famed illustrators Gillian and Ronald Embleton’s beautiful illustrations waaaaaaay back when.

IMG_20141112_164237

Published by Dean & Son, which was famous for its “moveable books”, the book follows Hans and Gretchen on their morning walk through the enchanted forest next to their farmhouse. They encounter myriad magical creatures from flower folk to dwarfs and a talking lion. It’s divided into neat chapters should the book prove too much after a long day. Iris is really into bookmarks at the mo.

IMG_20141112_164420

IMG_20141112_164553

IMG_20141112_164455

Unlike the Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson or Scheherazade tales, which all tend toward the macabre, Dean’s Enchanting Stories from The Magic Forest is pleasantly light and happy with only one mildly scary bit when a very naughty gnome leads the children astray in a gloomy, foggy bit of the forest. Although this also helps to teach Iris about not following strange men, so still a win!

IMG_20141112_164522

This is one of a series of such books, all of which were illustrated by the Embletons and are all out of print. However a quick eBay search yielded copies of three of the four books. Now I need to find a vinyl record player for my seriously retro audio books!

 

Lost in Translation

White-Horse

My third foray into young adult literature has been less enthusiastically positive. Having read books translated from loads of different languages, I have to say the most difficult to get right is by far those translated from Mandarin and its dialects. Having spent 14 years trudging through the language in school, I do have some understanding of it. Perhaps that is why I feel translations from Mandarin are not as good, but I don’t think so. It’s in the structure and nature of the language. Mandarin being so, extremely different from English it is virtually impossible to capture the exact tone and lyricism of the original. I should probably read those books in Mandarin, but then that would take me about a year and I still wouldn’t understand it!

So it is with White Horse by Yan Ge. Set in a small town in China, the plot follows ten-year-old Yun Yun. Through her older cousin, she is introduced into the ways of love, while learning to live with her single father and his various love affairs. This culminates in an explosive scene of revelations and mild violence.

White Horse plunges its reader right into the thick of Chinese culture with all its complexities and societal idiosyncrasies. This can be good and bad. While you get a sense of how a small Chinese community would behave, it’s delicate nuances can be lost on those not already familiar with the culture. For example the white horse could be pointing to the one in the Buddhist story, Journey to the West, where the horse symbolises mental will. Or it could refer to Gongsun Lu’s White Horse Dialogue, reading which gives me a headache.

Yet acclaimed author, Yan Ge’s literary skill does emerge in certain aspects of this snapshot of Yun Yun’s coming of age, which is vivid and believable. How she deals with the emotional turmoil surrounding her is poignant and easily related to. The imagery of the white horse, with or without the background historical information, is powerful and well done.

With the language, it definitely does not flow as well as if it were read in Chinese (I imagine) and Chinese idioms directly translated into English always sound ridiculous and totally out of context. Also, a warning that it contains one very explicit swear word.

Despite its flaws, it’s an interesting read that makes you think and would appeal to some. Particularly those going through similar situations (single families, older siblings becoming sexually active). I would recommend this for mid to late teens.

Politely Murderous

Cover

I definitely have a thing for black humour. When presented in the innocent oeuvre of children’s books, the delivery is so deadpan, it often reduces me to tears. Following in the vein of Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back (see my review here), Daniel Miyares’ Pardon Me! is kiddy macabre at its best.

Pardon Me! ShadowPardon Me! Frog

It’s about a bird, a little yellow bird with a large beak, sitting on what appears to be a rock in the middle of a body of water. He’s happy in his solitude, this bird is. Then along comes a great big stork asking pardon for intruding on the little yellow bird’s reverie to share his rock. After this, a blasé frog leaps into the tableau, settling himself next to the stork. A turtle swims over next. All of these creatures uttering the terribly polite, “Pardon me” as they crowded onto the rock. All the while the yellow bird is growing increasingly irate. Finally, when I fox calls from the shore the same two words followed by a half uttered warning, the yellow bird explodes into a rage. He chases them all off and is left, once more, gloriously alone. However, the fox’s warning is soon dreadfully clear when the head of a crocodile appears in front of his body, which is actually what the bird is sitting on.

Pardon Me! FoxPardon Me! Leave Me Alone!

I can NOT get enough of these exchanged looks of glee and fright portrayed so succinctly on the page.

Pardon Me! Face Off

Yet, it is the final two pages that get me totally rolling on Iris’s bedroom floor.

Pardon Me! BurpPardon Me! Last Page

Quite apart from the beautiful illustrations, the words are FEW. Not only does this mean less work for the reading adult, but with the story being portrayed in part by pictures, like Michael Stephen King’s Leaf (my first ever review), it allows the child to form the story for themselves, filling in the emotions, action, etc. Pardon Me! is definitely going on my Book Depository wish list.

Gothic Charm

Fairytales for Wilde Girls

Inspired by my first YA (young adult) book review, I decided to pop into the YA section at the library. The first book I saw on the “recommendations” table was Allyse Near’s Fairytales for Wilde Girls. I briefly glanced at the synopsis and thought, hey an Honour Book of The Children’s Book Council of Australia’s got to be passable and popped it into the book bag.

The book sat on my bedside table for a week and a half while I finished up Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales (very, very good but more for adults). The more I looked at the cover, the more doubts I began to have about it. Was it really something I’d like? Or some soppy pre-pubescent gothic romance with glowing vampires and other such rubbish? Yet, when the time came, I decided I’d at least give it ten pages. Boy was I pleasantly blown away.

I’ve always had a predilection for children’s fantasy. In my opinion, the best single, all-round novel is Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story (though a cult favourite, the movies do not come within a hair’s breadth of how great the book is). And of course there is the inimitable Roald Dahl who gave me years of fantastic escapism. However, I’ve not come across anything even near their quality since. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Harry Potter series but the writing itself is just not as good. Then I read Ms Near’s debut novel.

Her prose is pitch perfect. She uses a language both beautiful and suitably challenging for a teenager. Drawing on inspiration from Oscar Wilde, Sylvia Plath and Edgar Allen Poe, she manages to fabricate a vividly colourful world within a tiny English coastal village with exactly the right tones of ghostly horror appropriate for her audience. Her main character, Isola Wilde, named after Oscar Wilde’s ill-fated younger sister, is at once identifiable as a girl who stands out for being herself. Isola can see things that others can’t, including ghosts, fairies, mermaids and gargoyles. Then one day, walking through her beloved wood, she comes across a dead girl in a cage who proceeds to haunt her in a terrifying way. Isola finds herself slowing becoming possessed by this ghost despite the best efforts of her six guardian “princes”. Interwoven through this is her unhealthy relationship with her manic depressive mother who fed her on the fairy tales that seem to be swallowing her up. Can her new love interest, Edgar save her?

It’s one of those rare books that I did not rush through the end because I wanted to start a new book.

The ending is also pretty spectacular. Perhaps not the most original but still perfect in its execution. The only thing I’d change is the cover.

When I closed this book, I had a massive smile on my face. I cannot wait for Ms Near’s next work.

Ghetto Dreams

Janice

One excellent result of this blog is that I’ve been approached to do book reviews. More books to read! How awesome is that? Granted, there are stinkers out there, especially with the proliferation of eBooks. It seems as if everyone just gets a lot more sloppy when there isn’t a physical book.

Thus it was with some trepidation that I agreed to read the young adult ebook Janice by Jean Goulbourne published by Hope Road Publishing.

What most people know of Jamaica could probably be summed up in two words: Bob Marley. Yet the reality is far from worry-free happiness. Set in the rich and colourful vibrancy of Jamaica, Janice, is an engaging story of one teenager’s struggle with prejudice from others and herself.

Goulbourne manages to create distinct and strong characters you can sympathise with and the plot is one most teenagers the world over could identify with. Overcoming prejudice is something everyone faces to some degree. Very often they are our own prejudices that hinder us from growth and realising our full potential. So it is with Janice. Coming from the ghetto, with a father in prison, she is overjoyed when her mother earns a place as nursemaid to a rich family. However, she soon gets caught up in the relative luxury of her new surrounds and tries to deny her heritage. Through trial by a relatively mild fire, she learns that she needs to embrace her past and use it to help her to become the woman she can and should be.

Janice sets a very clear and strong message of a young person who may have grown up in difficult circumstances but overcomes them with determination, humility and plain good sense.

When putting a very distinctive accent to print, it can turn out absolutely awful and make the reader feel as if they’re wading through a thick sludge. Goulbourne, however, manages to bring across the Jamaican accent with a precision and clarity I wish all writers had.

I have a scant two criticisms of the book. I wish the author had injected even more of Jamaican culture into it, describing more of the sounds, smells, sights and tastes. I also thought she could have made the prose more complex for her audience. Young people nowadays mature at a much faster rate and so their reading levels are far more advance than we might imagine. For a young teen, it may read a little too simply.

Otherwise this was a very enjoyable, easy and satisfying read.