{television} Miss Fisher’s second series

miss f header“Our glamorous lady detective, The Honourable Miss Phryne Fisher, swans into early 1929 Melbourne, fighting injustice with her pearl-handled pistol and her dagger-sharp wit.”

No need to imagine my delight with the second series return of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (2013) if you’ve read my ravings about series one or have seen the Australian television show for yourself. We signed up for a free month’s trial for Acorn TV (which we are tempted to subscribe to once we’ve the funds) so we could get our greedy medium-sized hands on the latest 13 episodes. Please, renew, please renew for a series 3!

If you are unfamiliar with my reasons why you should watch The Honourable Miss Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis) and company at work: read my ravings here. and then catch series one on Netflix, I believe they are still streaming.

In the meantime…Season/Series 2

Miss Phryne Fisher, Lady Detective, returns to television with as fabulous a wardrobe as ever, and the mysteries aren’t too shabby either. Of course, the interactions between the primary characters of absolute interest. The evolution of Dorothy “Dot” Williams (Ashleigh Cummings) continues in an exciting fashion. And the ways in which the male characters respond to the ‘new woman’ and their own societal pressures/expectations is especially emphasized this season—and not at the cost of Fisher’s ideals.

miss f s2 stats b miss f s2 stats

We get to meet:  Dot’s sister—who is decidedly not Dot-like. Aunt Prudence’s (Miriam Margolyes) husband (in a flashback). Learn more about Hugh’s (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) familial background. And Jack’s ex-wife Rosy, and his (ex)father-in-law join the cast…

That romantic-friendship tension between Jack (Nathan Page) and Phryne…yeah, it gets even more delicious and so achingly sweet. And if you don’t leave certain shows wanting to hug Hugh and Dot, you’ve no romantic bone in that body at all!

We are still recovering from World War I, so mysteries related continue. Other excitements include: Gentleman’s clubs; Seances; Temperance Unions; Pugilism; Gangs; Haute Couture versus Ready-to-Wear; Football; Labor abuses/trafficking; Race Car driving (ladies); Religion; University life; and madness; creepy rural villages; Radio Shows; Silent cinema; and Christmas in July.

miss f s2ep1

(1) “Murder Most Scandalous” dir. Tony Tilse, written by Kristen Dunphy

Miss Phryne Fisher is back! When Jack’s father-in-law is implicated in the brutal murder of a prostitute, Phryne decides to perfect her ‘fan dance’ in order to go undercover at a gentleman’s club.

(2) “Death Comes Knocking” dir. Ken Cameron, written by Ysabelle Dean

Phryne plays host to ghostly soldiers and exotic spiritualists and Aunt Prudence is swept up in the new spiritualist fad and enlists a famed psychic to contact her dead godson.

miss f s2ep3(3) “Dead Man’s Chest” dir. Ken Cameron, written by John Banas

Buried treasure and pirate legends bubble to the surface in the seaside holiday town of Queenscliff and Phryne finds herself at the pointy end of a Spanish dagger.

(4) “Dead Weight” dir. Declan Eames, written by John Banas

When a gang leader is found dead outside a travelling boxing tent, Phryne’s investigation leads her into the dangerous but thrilling world of fight rigging & tribal payback.

miss f s2ep5(5) “Murder A La Mode” dir. Sian Davies, written by Kristen Dunphy

When Phryne arrives at the exclusive fashion house of Madame Fleuri for a fitting, she unexpectedly finds herself amidst a crime scene, and everyone present is a suspect!

(6) “Marked For Murder” dir. Declan Eames, written by John Banas

Set amidst the passion & fanaticism of 1929 Australian Rules football. When Phryne is duped into investigating the coach’s missing ‘lucky cap’, she discovers a gruesome murder instead.

miss f s2ep7
(7) “Blood at the Wheel” dir. Sian Davies, written by Michelle Offen

When the driver of the ladies’ motorcar rally team is found dead in her roadster, Phryne is up in arms struggling to convince Jack that her friend’s death was no accident.

(8) “The Blood of Juana the Mad” dir. Peter Adrikidis, written by John Banas

Now estranged, Phryne and Jack step around each other to investigate a murder and the disappearance of a valuable manuscript.

miss f s2ep9(9) “Framed for Murder” dir. Peter Adrikidis, written by Chris Corbett

Phryne journeys into the twilight world of silent movies. When a lead actor and a director are murdered, Phryne steps in to solve the crime and save the production.

(10) “Death on the Vine” dir. Catherine Millar, written by Chris Corbett

When Phryne arrives at an idyllic vineyard to investigate a suspicious death, hostile townsfolk do everything they can to drive her out of town, and Hugh prepares for a perfect proposal.

miss f s2ep11(11) “Dead Air” dir. Catherine Millar, written by Ysabelle Dean & Mia Tolhurst

There’s a new wireless in the Fisher household – and a murder on the airwaves. Dot suffers the realisation that she doesn’t want to relinquish working for Miss Fisher when she marries.

(12) “Unnatural Habits” dir. Tony Tilse, written by Ysabelle Dean

The gothic world of a halfway house for pregnant & wayward girls sets the scene for the death of a teenager. Phryne & Jack realise the threads of the crime lead closer to home than they suspected.

miss f s2ep13(13) “Murder Under the Mistletoe” dir. Tony Tilse, written by Elizabeth Coleman

Phryne, Dot and Dr Mac accompany Aunt Prudence to a picturesque chalet to celebrate Christmas. When they arrive they find one of the residents dead and soon the body count starts to rapidly rise.

{episode synopses via ABC Australia}

"review" · cinema · foreign · mystery · recommend · wondermous

{television} finding miss fisher

miss fisher's murder mysteriesIt is 1920s Melbourne and the sophisticated Miss Phryne Fisher is fearless in the face of injustice as a lady detective and woman.

The Australian television drama series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries was one of our favorite finds of 2013. Created by Deb Cox and Fiona Eagger and based on novels by Kerry Greenwood, its first run of 13 episodes during 2012 popped up on Netflix. Intrigued, and noting its multi-star rating, we gave it a go and were hooked. Now to figure out how to get ahold of Series 2. The inseparable personal and professional drama of Miss Fisher’s life is addictive.

The majority of our favorite mystery-drama television series are terribly dark, so imagine our delight at the bright humor and wit that is Miss Fisher. While there are dark elements, including some pretty gruesome deaths and heinous social injustices, an effervescent Phryne (played by the enormously talented Essie Davis) is gloriously incorrigible. I’m not sure which I enjoy more, her mischief or razor sharp intelligence—not that I should choose, because they are intertwined. She has determination and bravado in spades, but avoids being strident in how sincerely she cares for her friends and the present-day social issues of women, men, the immigrant, poor and ill.

“‘Phryne is such a firebrand, she’s a good role model for women and she’s a feminist without being at all didactic or boring,’ says [Deb] Cox. ‘Her social conscience is fantastic, her values are fantastic, so it’s a great thing to put out there. And she likes a bit of action, she’s not hung up in any way.’” (Vogue Australia interview*)

The series is historically informative in an effortless way, primarily due to the fact that Phryne runs contrary to the normatives—even in our present day representations of women. For one, pretty much every other episode hosts a steamy sexual encounter at her invitation. She shoots, drives, and demands a word, or three. She isn’t interested in being tied down, but she does want to be loved and seeks the care and affection of friends. Her troubled relationship with Melbourne Police Detective John “Jack” Robinson (Nathan Page) becomes one of the most endearing in the due course of the show. I will get to her wardrobe and art collection in a moment.


{Jack (Nathan Page) & Phryne (Essie Davis)}

Miss Fisher uses some of the best implementation of charm I’ve seen in a long while.

miss fisher hugh and dotThe strength of the extended cast and characters helps. The first episode, “Cocaine Blues” introduces most of the primary characters moving forward as Phryne returns to Melbourne from abroad. Naturally, some are developed more quickly, but each are a resource for much of the adventures we come to experience and I’d be hard-pressed to choose an absolute favorite. I do have an affection for Dorothy “Dot” Williams (Ashleigh Cummings, left), a Catholic housemaid who is a prim foil for the wealthy and uninhibited Honorable Miss Fisher. Hers is one of the most enjoyable character progressions over series 1. Bert (Travis McMahon) and Cec (Anthony Sharpe) become handy men to have about. We’ll soon meet the awesome Mr. Butler (Richard Bligh); another character to enjoy in the unfolding. It is hard not to adore the well-played constable Hugh Collins (Hugo Johnstone-Burt, left). Female Dr. Mac (Tammy Macintosh) is a best friend and excellent source of information—and conflict.

I mentioned ‘historically informative’ and ‘social injustices,’ but the conditions for women provide a lot of the material for the series, and lovely relevance to having a female detective about. She has insight and access her male counterparts couldn’t possibly. Makes me think of Nancy Springer’s Enola Holmes. That she is well-traveled and well-read work in the shows favor.


We’ve been enjoying identifying the Phryne’s art collection, and eventually (episode 7) we get more of a background there. And I can’t go much longer now without mention of Phyrne’s costume. I think all the clothes are smart, but I get terribly excited by Phryne’s clothing and accessories. I was reading about how Costume Designer Marion Boyce headed a small team to recreate 1920s fashion of gorgeously suitable proportion.

miss-fisher-s_20120222170202466550-420x0“Phryne is a really sassy individual and the leeway she allows is fantastic. She wasn’t conventional in any way – she’d served in the war, lived in Paris in bohemian style, and probably travelled further afield. This meant our parameters were wider and we could have an enormous amount of fun with her. Phryne’s influences would’ve been European. At the time, most of our dress was influenced by UK fashion, and because she’s lived in Paris, her boundaries are broader. She was much more playful than the more conservative English. […] I had this concept that Phryne was always completely fluid. She was a woman with an extraordinary amount of energy, like a little tornado. I always wanted her clothes to have a waft to them so they would move with her as she went in and out of rooms, taking Melbourne by storm. I designed pieces with that in mind.”-Marion Boyce (Smith interview**).

As Darren Smith observes in his interview with Boyce, her wardrobe is an enviable one…seriously, the hats alone…


Miss Fisher is a vivacious character with a marvelous cast, not just in support of her, to play out entertaining mysteries and engaging social dramas. Some of the bright does move into a riveting creep-fest as the season closes, you’ve seen it coming as Miss Fisher is not the least bit careless in its crafting even though, for the first several episodes especially, you can just jump in and enjoy the fun.

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries are a treat I cannot recommend highly enough.


trailer for season 1

* “Behind the Set of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries with Essie Davis” by Alexandra Spring, 10 Mar. 2012, Vogue Australia. link

** “Marion Boyce: Designing Miss Fisher’s Wardrobe” by Darren Smith, 27 Mar. 2012, for ABC TV Blog (Australia). link


Miss_Fisher's_Murder_MysteriesMiss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries created by Deb Cox and Fiona Eagger, based on novels by Kerry Greenwood; theme music by Greg J Walker; cinematography by Roger Lanser; costumes by Marion Boyce; exec/producers: Cox, Eagger, Christopher Gist & Carole Sklan; Every Cloud Productions. Starring: Essie Davis (Phryne Fisher), Nathan Page (Jack Robinson) Hugo Johnstone-Burt (Hugh Collins) & Ashleigh Cummings (Dorothy “Dot” Williams).  {images belong to ABC1}

as of this review, available streaming on Netflix

"review" · fiction · Lit · poet-related · recommend · wondermous · young adult lit

{book} graffiti moon

graffiti moon coverGraffiti Moon by Cath Crowley

Alfred A. Knopf, 2012 (2010 in Australia)

hardcover, 257 pages. contemporary teen fiction.

tagline: an artist, a dreamer, a long, mean, night

a little wanting song guaranteed I would be reading more of Cath Crowley’s work. I took me a bit of time to get a hold of a copy of Graffiti Moon, and it was well worth the wait–not that I would recommend any body who likes good contemporary teen fiction wait, especially if they like romantic comedy and/or art.

Senior year is over, and Lucy has the perfect way to celebrate: tonight, she’s going to find Shadow, the mysterious graffiti artist whose work appears all over the city. He’s out there somewhere—spraying color, spraying birds and blue sky on the night—and Lucy knows a guy who paints like Shadow is someone she could fall for. Really fall for. Instead, Lucy’s stuck at a party with Ed, the guy she’s managed to avoid since the most awkward date of her life. But when Ed tells her he knows where to find Shadow, they’re suddenly on an all-night search around the city. And what Lucy can’t see is the one thing that’s right before her eyes.—publisher’s comments

It’s a bit of a case of You’ve Got Mail except the cute meet has an amusing twist; a bit of Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, but different. Told in alternating narrators (Lucy and Ed and with poems by Leo), the Cath Crowley’s Graffiti Moon spans the night following Lucy and cohorts’ completion of year twelve. The occasion for overlays were so nice and really exemplified Crowley crafting of three very individual narrators.

Lucy is roped into an evening out with her best friend Jazz and she decides to make the best of it by finally meeting Shadow. Jazz eyes Leo with interest and the feeling is mutual, but that means Ed has to come along. Even so, Leo has an early morning date with crime that he is obliged to make and Ed is (again) set to help out his friend. So the passing of time is marked as they travel about, looking and talking about the graffiti art/ist; which is not tedious reading in the least. If anything, it would be fun to reference the images/artists Lucy and Ed talk about as they talk about it. Love that Rothko is a featured inspiration.

Graffiti Moon could be accused of creating a cast of quirky characters foreign to the novel’s audience for mere entertainment, but the verisimilitude will be striking—I hope, because it would depressing if they were not. Okay, so some of the problems at home may resonate, and that isn’t a happy-making thought, but young people dreaming and passionate about artful things is. Ed may do graffiti, but Leo does the poetry, and Lucy is a budding glass blower and in certain company sharing their passion for art is okay. But not everyone gets it and that comes into play. Being able to be oneself and find your mode of expression is paramount, survivalist even, and both relationships and individuals operate in unique ways (e.g. Lucy’s parents).

The choice of art, the graffiti for Ed and the glass for Lucy are nice choices, nicely used and well-articulated. I was especially charmed by Crowley’s sense of humor and her own artful ways with the craft of writing. I enjoyed a turn of phrase time and again and laughed outright a time or seven. It is fun that N read it because I had to merely reference a moment and we were laughing over it again together. I am smiling just now thinking about the hijinks with the bicycle. And yep, the get-away van…

Graffiti Moon isn’t all sweetness like I’m worrying that I am making it sound. Lucy is pretty cute if not frustratingly naïve at times. The romancing isn’t easy nor is it necessarily every character’s immediate concern: at least, not with their pairing. Crowley layers in quite a bit of character history and personal conflicts in these 257 pages, not all of it pleasant (especially for Ed and Leo). For a story set on that edge of a future, some of the images appear bleak, certainly messy. I like the messiness of the characters and the relationships (except the threatening, bloodletting parts) not just because it makes them interesting reading, but because it makes for characters who actually change—and one night’s progress would’ve failed Graffiti Moon if not for Crowley’s sense of story. (As for the threatening, bloodletting parts, that was good dramatic effect and who doesn’t love Ed and Lucy all the more after the park encounter?)

Crowley’s energetic launch into story, her humor and deft handling of character there in the first chapters invest the reader into an adventurous night that only gets better and better. I could say that you could find morning having experience a light-weight’s rush of adventure, but there is too much heart for that and I should think that no reader could leave Graffiti Moon unaffected in some way.

recommendation: high school and upwards, boys and girls alike. lovers of art, contemporary drama that isn’t too sticky, romantic comedy, art, and swoon-worthy kinds of characters even when they can still be asses at times.

my review of a little wanting song (U.S. print: Knopf, 2010)

* had I read Cath Crowley’s “about” page I would have known she was my kind of person from the start.

"review" · Children's · concenter · Picture book · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy

{book} look, a book

DAY 28

Look, a Book! by Libby Gleeson illustrated by Freya Blackwood

Officina Libraria, published in Australia in 2011; US in 2012

Red is a favorite color and that it frames such an attractive illustration… I think I’ve found a new Illustrator to add to my favorites list.

Two children find a red book lying in the dust. The discovery will lead them into a magical world where the children’s imagination transforms the surrounding reality.—publisher’s summary.

The story is very straightforward, just as the above summary suggest. “Two children find a red book lying in the dust” where it had fallen from an old woman’s bag as she was returning home. They are curious about it and tote it around as it “transforms the surrounding reality” and as they mind the books care, noting they should not leave it about in the dust, or with the dog, or with the weather. A book is not trash, they seem to say, but something to be treasured and re-used over and over; and something that can indeed transform the world about them—the reality in which they live.

The text is hardly simple in its setting. And despite a reminiscence, neither are the boy and girl Dick and Jane, and the dog is certainly not Spot. The barefoot children live in a place with a lot of open space, lots of dirt and sun, and junk and debris lying about. There also looks to be a small chicken farm. What is remarkable is how when their surroundings are transformed by their imaginations (thanks to the red book), we/they are not transported to some magical kingdom or some elsewhere urban or fantasy. Objects (often the trash) around them find new dimension and purpose. I am unsure of the implications, but the effect is lovely in Freya Blackwood’s hands. The place with which they are obviously familiar, climbing here and there, are explored anew: defying gravity, or now underwater… The effect lingers as they huddle about the old woman who now reads the red book to them. A book that is transformed by them, if the meta still figures in.

the overlap at the center & right suggest that they are sharing an image, which they share with us far right, where they return to a previously imagined place but the woman is with them this time. I love the shift in dynamics there.

The message that books can fuel our imaginations and transport us in fantastical ways is and will be clear to the early reader (and its younger audience). Perhaps, too, we come to learn that books may have greater transportative power, to get out and to get into the others’ realities. The depiction of the underprivileged here should not go without notice or remark in this red book.

the sequence marks the transition into envisioning this “transformed reality,” the layers/focus.

The text is inseparable from the illustrations and vice versa; which should go without saying in picture books, I suppose, but the crafting of this one makes the notion especially true—and successful. The figures, human or otherwise, have a bit of rough line work about the edges, a suggestion of a lack of refinement? though it possible in some offing somewhere/ the radiance of the sun? The illustrations are pretty: the palette, the forms. There are details that can draw the eye create the context, but there are also moments of focus and movement that signal transitions. There are layers, the two primary being: the story of the children’s adventure and the care and keeping of the book that takes them there. The lives of these children are precious, as is the existence of the book—a book. And really, the elderly woman as well. She has brought them the book and she is reading it to them.


At first I thought I had stumbled on an overly simple yet pretty picture book with a vibrant yet worn red cover, I found something more. I love those kinds of discoveries. I look forward to enjoying more of Libby Gleeson’s and Freya Blackwood’s work in the near future. Add them to your lists as well.

{images belong to Freya Blackwood}

"review" · cinema · music · recommend

{film} broken hill

…and an absence of glamour.

Luke Arnold as Tommy McAlpine and Alexa Vega as Kat Rogers in Audience Alliances musical drama Broken Hill. Image: Matt Nettheim

A gifted teenage composer (Tommy), dreams of being accepted into the famous Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Unfortunately, a good band is hard to find in the middle of Outback Australia – until a strange incident involving flying watermelons leads him to a group of talented prison inmates. ~published summary by H. Rose (IMDb)

Plenty have pegged Dagen Merrill’s 2009 film Broken Hill as a formulaic small-screen feel-good drama—as if this is necessarily a bad thing. Nor is the accusation wholly accurate. A family channel submission would have a excluded two important aspects to the film. As it is, I think the film works for young audiences.

Luke Arnold as Tommy plays the Dreamer convincingly. With a faraway gaze, a youthful (almost childlike) verve, a smile of absolute delight he transcends the limits of his rural home in Australia. Even as the inescapable is acknowledged, Tommy’s determination is equally impossible. He is driven, partly because he is impossible—wonderfully improbable. Or is he?

Luke Arnold as Tommy McAlpine in Audience Alliances musical drama Broken Hill. Photo Image: Matt Nettheim

One of the wonders of the film is how much Tommy is a product of his surroundings. Not the “uncultured” small town, but the greater vista and history of his homeland. He isn’t impossible, and, ultimately, what he needs isn’t necessarily elsewhere. The story is lovely in how it strives to find value in what already exists, in places that are small or marked uncivilized. Tommy’s mentor and the music teacher at the school is aboriginal. Tommy goes to do community service at the prison, where unexpected beauty exists. Tommy meets and finds encouragement from a prisoner who “lost” diamonds he was accused of stealing and only seeks means of escape. The forgotten and the forsaken and the lost echo the feelings and trajectory of the hero, Tommy.

The echoes are transparent for the older, more critical crowd, and as devices they lack sophistication in the mechanics of plot. However, I prefer the error of accessibility in a film that would inspire young people to pursue their dreams both within their environs and beyond.

By finding an ending more probable than impossible, Broken Hill moves from a whimsy of dream to hopeful reality. We know the formula where some great talent, some diamond in the rough, finds his or her way to the great urban center where they obtain glory and redemption for all that hard work. And we sigh and rarely believe its potential in our own lives. The characters are mythical, legendary, other. After the marvelous experience of witnessing Tommy and his musicians glimmer in the stage light, the film settles. And while they do end up in a great urban center of Sydney, they aren’t in the iconic Sydney Opera House, and there is no Conservatorium scout in the audience. There is his father, and his teacher.  But what is hopeful about missed opportunities? Because there was a key opportunity missed, an initial goal unfulfilled. There is an absence of glamour. We return to the argument Tommy has with his father (Timothy Hutton) when the small-town hero shares the time-worn story of the injury that held him back from playing for the big leagues, from becoming someone. Tommy wants to know just how things went wrong for his father whom we have already seen to be a prince among the locals; he owns his own future, married well, has a gifted son who loves him, is a celebrity. Opportunities shift and dreams become flesh, and it is not to inglorious result.

The other unexpected aspect to the formula that is Broken Hill is in the romantic drama between Tommy and Kat (Alexa Vega). Tommy is obsesses over Kat from afar. His best friend Scott (Rhys Wakefield) pushes him to ask the American beauty out. Yep, a big school dance is in the offing. But Scott’s Cyrano approach is painfully embarrassing. And what gets Tommy on Kat’s radar is that he has a truck. It is actually his father’s, but he has the keys and the crush. He stupidly allows himself to be used. Kat would then leave Tommy to get arrested, obvious in her careless manipulations, and while his attraction isn’t fully extinguished, Tommy becomes wise, cautious, and repelled. Unlike Scott, Tommy doesn’t excuse her because she is “hot.”

The relationship between Kat and Tommy is given time for recalibration with each re-evaluating their assumptions of the other. The development works thematically, the initial daydream shifting into a workable reality that could still inspire a happy ending. Broken Hill is ultimately pragmatic. There could still be the romance, but Tommy isn’t completely the fool, no matter how hot Kat is. He would pursue his dreams, but it takes work,  humility, and great deal flexibility in vision.

With a film about a talented young composer, the music composed must be good. And it is. I like the different forms it finds, both elegant and rugged. I like the hands that carry it. And as a character in itself, the way the piece Tommy composes develops.

The photography is lovely. There is enough of the landscape to enthrall without becoming the main course. The pacing, editing…little if anything in the film is unexpected or erroneous. The transparencies, any predictability, they are not unpalatable. Even the young reader of film will be saying, “of course,” but to comforting effect.

That happy ending is noticeably off-center, unusual to formula. Yet, in the end, Tommy has everything that matters, including his dignity. His dreams now attainable are perhaps less glamorous, but they didn’t have to sparkle, they only needed to serve his desires—for acceptance, for freedom, to be.

Broken Hill (2009)

Directed by Dagen Merrill

Produced by Chris Wyatt, Julie Ryan

Original Music: Christopher Brady

Cinematography: Nick Matthews

Film Editing: David Ngo, Mike Saenz

Starring: Luke Arnold, Alexa Vega, Timothy Hutton, Rhys Wakefield

Rated PG for thematic elements and some language

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes.

IMDb. Wiki.

{photo images via Matt Nettheim at fanpix.net}

"review" · comics/graphic novels · fiction · Illustrator · juvenile lit · Lit · Picture book · recommend · short story · Tales · wondermous · young adult lit

lost & found

(from The Red Tree)

Lost & Found : 3 by Shaun Tan

Arthur A Levine Books, 2011.

A Shaun Tan book is a joy for ever. Its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness. [L & Keats] Yes, I’ve a grand love for Shaun Tan’s work. His words and his artwork really resonate with me. When the daughter and I were at the library for the sole purpose of checking out audio-books for our road trip this weekend, I did the habitual quick scan of the “New Releases” Shelf in Juvenile. It is right by check-out. And really, I can’t not pick up a Shaun Tan book, if only to hold it for a little while. I brought Lost & Found home.

Lost & Found is a collection of three stories: The Red Tree (2001), The Lost Thing (2000), The Rabbits (1998, words by John Marden).  As Shaun Tan writes in the “Author’s Notes:”

Each story could be said to be about the relationship between people and places, especially when that relationship is ruptured by physical displacement, an emotional disconnection, or an otherwise trouble sense of identity; a country invaded by aggressive strangers, a homeless creature, and a girl adrift in the world of her own dark emotions. They are each in their own way tales of loss and recovery, and a question about belonging in the absence of any direct language–where central characters hardly speak–as though some things are too strange, personal, or confronting for words.

Out of three stories, The Red Tree is the most difficult for me to find proper words. It feels rather personal to talk about this story, even though it was Tan who provided the words and images.

“I wanted to create something useful from what can seem to be a uselsess experience–an abject feeling of hopelessness–but more important, to simply acknowledge its reality, its strange distortions of persepctive and reason, and illuminate something that is often invisible. I intended my paintings to be honest reflections, without any didactic or moral message, and open to multiple interpretations by different readers.”

While there is an inkling of hopefulness in the symbol of the little red leaf throughout the story’s images, it is fairly swallowed up by the senses of vulnerability, of isolation. But at the end of the day, seemingly out of nowhere, hope is there and in full blossom.  It is no less impossible or improbable than anything else witnessed or felt on previous pages.

The Lost Thing is a lighter piece, more casual in approach, whimsical and fun. A young man has a story to tell about a “rather ordinary day by the beach.” He was out working on his bottle-cap collection when he “for no particular reason” looked up and saw “the thing.” This thing, not unfriendly, was evidently out of place and lost. No one was minding it, no one knew where it came from or to whom the thing belonged. After a long day of playing together (love the sand city they build), the young man takes the lost thing home.

But it can hardly stay. So using the card with suggested directions as to where to take the thing, the young man goes there. But an odd figure has better advice for the caring young man: a different place, an obscured place. And so the lost thing and the young man follow the squiggly arrow to a button, which opens a door to a fantastic place full of odd and lost things of varying degree of fancy. They said good-bye, the lost thing much more receptive to this destination versus the other, and that was it. “Well, that’s it. That’s the story. Not especially profound, I know, but I never said it was. And don’t ask me what the moral is.”

The young man gets back on his tram still thinking about the lost thing, until the thinking becomes occasional, until he stops noticing “the something out of the corner of my eye that doesn’t quite fit.” The tram, in a series of four subsequent illustrations, slowly joins the masses of trams in the dark. “Maybe I’ve just stopped noticing them. Too busy doing other stuff, I guess.” Yep, the melancholy ending to a casual outing, a whimsical find. He becomes the lost thing without it.

There are several lovely moments in this story, both sweet and haunting. One of my favorite is nearest the end, looking through the tram doors outward onto a street corner. The text below says, “You know, something with a weird, sad, lost sort of look.” On the street corner is an alien-looking creature at a mailbox. It has a small light looking into the opening. I faces it against the direction of a painted arrow on the street. You can see the thing is unusual and ignored through the multiple windows of the tram, but caught in a window frame with the thing is a man who looks to be waiting by a bus-stop pole, arm up, head down, looking at his watch. He, too, sort of looks sad and lost there in the corner of the window; a member of the story’s shift to who or what is as lost as the marvelous thing the young man finds.

Note: as with Tales from Outer Suburbia, when Tan makes the effort to illustrate a newspaper, take time to read the text surrounding the one one he has centered for you. He has a sharp sense of humor.

Just when you don’t think you can take anymore beautiful writing or gorgeous imagery, there is The Rabbits. This story has one of the best opening lines: “The Rabbits came many grandparents ago.”  The author of this piece, John Marsden, notes that he was influenced by a book called A Sorrow in Our Heart by Allan W. Eckert, a book about Tecumseh, a Native American warrior, and his people. He was drawn to think about the Native’s plight in North America, and again of the Aboriginal’s plight in his native Australia. “There [is] an obvious similarity between the humans and the animals, and it seemed to me that telling the story of rabbits–rather than people– would be a better way of illustrating the damage done by invaders and colonists.” It is told with the soft rhythms of a traditional oral tale–so lovely and so heart-breaking.

Marsden’s words met with Shaun Tan’s studies of postcolonial art and literature at university. “I was able to crystallize some of these interests around John’s enigmatic text, and build on further research into colonial history, which occasionally does read like science fiction.” Tan provides a visual context, an incredible setting that portrays a past, and a present. The science-fictional aspects create a visual relevancy–a sense of not-too-distant past and future-possibility. There is a delightfully strange mix of curving warm Tribal and angular cold Futurist. The images of doom equally excite, to disturbing effect–is it our training to respond to such imagery? There is also a bit of propaganda art? (my lack of art education showing. I really need to pair up on these reviews with the husband.)

While The Rabbits would be brilliant in any classroom history course, elementary through university, the story belongs to several other discourses as well. To keep quoting the eloquent Mr. Tan,

“The Rabbits is a story of universes collindg: one culture driven by powerful technology that transcends nature (much like our own), and another whose spirit is embedded in a an ancient ecology. The conflict between the two is, I think, a central concern of our age, one that exists far beyond the Australian landscape of deserts and billabongs that inspired my paintings and John’s words. Aside from historical issues of race or politics, The Rabbits is about a deep environmental crisis, a crisis of conscience, and a costly failure of communication. At the end the question of reconciliation is left open to the reader as it is in the real world: The future, as always, remains undecided.”

“The future, as always, remains undecided,” is an important thematic thread within the three stories of Lost & Found. For all the melancholy, the depressed, the isolated, for all the violence, for all that is lost, hope is found in the open ending, in the possibility, in that which “remains undecided.”

If you are unfamiliar with Shaun Tan’s work, remedy this. He images the most probable things in the most impossible ways, and can it look any more familiar? Shaun Tan is talented; his work, it’s beautiful.

"review" · comics/graphic novels · recommend · Tales · young adult lit

“joyn me”

Woolvs in the Sitee by Margaret Wild & Anne Spudvilas

Originally published Penguin Group (Australia), 2006.

US edition: Front Street (Boyd Mills Press), 2007.

Picture Book, ages 10 & up.

In a strange and sinister world, Ben is in hiding from the “woolvs.” His only ally, Missus Radinski, doesn’t believe the woolvs exist–until it is too late.

Alone, Ben must go out into the streets and confront his fears.

In Woolvs in the Sitee, award-winning team Margaret Wild and Anne Spudvilas chart new territory. They have created a book that is both beautiful and challenging. ~jacket copy

As I was browsing the Teen Graphic Novel section (the only place graphic novels aren’t dispersed into the stacks) Margaret Wild & Anne Spudvilas’ picture book caught my eye. Woolvs in the Sittee‘s cover is intriguingly creepy; and my mind went immediately to Dave McKean. The jacket copy drew me in deeper, though afterward I found it forgivably misleading for the most part.

What is actually going on in Woolvs in the Sitee is not transparent. In a way, the paranoia of the protagonist Ben could have sketched the hostile environment, imagined these Woolvs that “spare no won.” Ben’s only neighbor Mussus Radinski thinks he should get out more, go to school. But as Ben observes, even Radinski “stares up at the sky wen she goes serching for water with her littil buket. She offen trips. Grazes an elbow. a nee. I don’t blame her for not looking down.” Maybe it is Missus Ridinski who is “scrooching down” into her delusions.

After Ben is lured outside and into a harrowing moment, there is little doubt on anyone’s part that the Woolvs are real; though who they are is another matter. And what they’ve done, still another.

The situation is creepy, and the font, the phonetic spelling by the narrator Ben, the charcoal (slashing in the background, fluid and real with the characters), the colors used and how applied, the perspectives in the composition of each illustration… Wild and Spudvilas truly capture the atmospheric and set the reader on an edge.

“Spudvilas’s rough charcoal sketches of deserted streets and vacant interiors slash the full-bleed spreads, and watercolor washes of sour yellow, blood red and toxic green imply apocalypse.”~Publisher’s Weekly.

It is unclear what created the situation, or how it is resolved. Woolvs only tells the story of one lone boy hiding, keeping occasional company with his older, maternal neighbor, who is eventually forced to confront his situation in a new way after she disappears. Will he continue to remain “scrooched up in won room in a mustte basement, hevy kertins akross the window?” Or will he go out and reclaim the “streets as his rivers and the parks as his vallees?” And ultimately, will he go it alone?–which is an unanticipated ending, an ending in which you realize just how far the narrator and his creators wish to draw the Reader into their world. The “yoo” Ben is addressing is a device the writer is taking seriously. This world Ben lives in isn’t just happening to him. The Woolvs may in fact kum for yoo, as he warns, for yoo and “yor bruthers and sisters, yor muthers and fathers, yor arnts and unkils, yor grandfathers and grandmuthers. No won is spared.”

Whether the story will find success with the Reader is left to the Reader. The ending was strange and somewhat abrupt, certainly more open-ended than I expected. Publisher’s Weekly observes: Woolves in the Sitee “reads more as a prequel to a thriller than as a tale in its own right.” Is this where the “challenging” part of the jacket copy’s assertion comes in? What does the unsettling aspects of the story provoke–to include ending it as it does?

I can say it is well-rendered, and it’s a nice creepy little read. And it may be a delicious little writing prompt; may be you decide to “joyn” Ben; may be you’ve a beginning of your own.