Open Mind Lecture: John Marsden

John Marsden is a writer, teacher and school principal. He has won all the major Australian awards for children’s and youth literature, and has produced a string of bestsellers, including “So Much to tell you” and the 7-volume “Tomorrow” series. John now has more than 40 titles in print: the most recent is his first novel for adults, “South of Darkness.”

In 1998, John bought the Tye Estate, 850 acres of natural bush north-east of Melbourne. For eight years he ran enormously popular writers’ courses and camps at Tye, before starting his own school, Candlebark, on the site in 2006. The school now caters for students from years Prep to 10, and has a four-year waiting list.  John is also the patron of the youth media organisation, Express Media.

Geelong Regional Library Corporation presents Open Mind Lectures each quarter. John Marsden spoke last night at the Geelong West Town Hall, to an audience of about 400 appreciative listeners.

John talked about five things that schools must address to give their students the best possible opportunities for learning:

Aesthetics – the learning environment must look and be attractive. Students should be surrounded by beauty. Far too many schools look anything but aesthetically pleasing. Most children leave the comfort and pleasant surroundings of home and go to learn in a place that’s forbidding, uncomfortable, has little appeal

First-hand Experience – Children should be given first-hand learning experiences wherever possible. Candlebark students go to theatre and concerts in Melbourne, see visiting artists and musicians of high calibre, visit workplaces, historical sites, a campus in France. They look for things in the bush, build things, grow and process their own food. Too often learning can be about experiences rather than experiencing things themselves.

Space – Children need plenty of space to learn optimally. The should be able to run, ride, play and get plenty of exercise, not necessarily just in scheduled sport time, but at any time of the day. Brains work better if bodies are fit.

Language – Do not be too regimented and restrictive about language. Children are naturally poetic until the age of 7 or 8, but they stop playing with language and enjoying the musical qualities of words because they get laughed at or forced to make their language regulated and precise. Don’t take the red pen to everything your children say!

Status – This is tied to language in many ways. Try to achieve the fine balance between mutual respect and collegiality / collaboration. Schools should be run by adults, but students should not feel they belong to a different class of being. Many schools won’t allow students to use the main entrance or to even be in the plush reception area, or won’t deal with enquiries from a student partly out of uniform. Some of the most successful schools invite students into the teachers’ lounge when they seek tutorial help or want a discussion. A teacher won’t achieve anything by trying to be best friends with students – they are educators, and have a job to do. On the other hand, teachers must respect students and invite conversation and encourage ideas.

From question time:

There are some wonderful high-fee independent schools, and some terrible high-fee independent schools. There are some wonderful cash-strapped government schools, and some terrible cash-strapped government schools. The majority of schools are at best mediocre. What makes the difference is the quality of the teachers and the school leadership.

One of the biggest challenges to education is bureaucracy: it is extremely difficult to set up any sort of alternative school, much more so now than in the past. Bureaucrats demand compliance with the most idiotic things, often that have no bearing on how children are cared for, or what they learn.

 

Review: The Big Over Easy (Jasper Fforde)

The Big Over Easy (Nursery Crime, #1)The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was my first Jasper Fforde, and whilst it was a fun read, with plenty of laughs, I’m not rushing to the next in the series. The retold fairytales that kept cropping up lost their effect after a while, and even started to irritate. How many books are in this series? It’s difficult to justify more than a couple of titles, but I know there are lots of readers who can’t wait for the next Nursery Crime novel. I’m not one of them.

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Review: Defying Hitler (Sebastian Haffner)

Defying HitlerDefying Hitler by Sebastian Haffner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the few accounts of Nazi Germany written by someone not persecuted by the regime, this memoir documents the loss of nationhood of the German people. It helps to explain one of the great puzzles of the age: why the German people allowed Hitler to achieve total control.

“The first country to be occupied by the Nazis was not Austria or Czechoslovakia. It was Germany. It was just one of their now so familiar tricks that they occupied and trampled on the nation in the name of ‘Germany’ itself – that was part of the mechanism of destruction.”

As an Aryan, Haffner was for much of the time immune from the horrors afflicting so many people in that country, and he writes with great clarity of the decline of reason and humanity. Written in 1938-39, before the outbreak of the war, it describes the feeling of desolation of an exile – in Haffner’s case, an exile yet living in his own country. What I found remarkable is that he viewed Hitler as completely depraved, bestial and abhorrent – and personally responsible for driving anti-Semitism – all before the terror of the regime was finally unleashed during the holocaust. This is compelling reading for anyone who is concerned about political oppression, corruption and tyranny: in other words, every human being.

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Review: Terms & Conditions (Robert Glancy)

Terms & ConditionsTerms & Conditions by Robert Glancy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4 stars? That seems a little high, but I enjoyed it more than most of my 3-star reads. Glancy’s central idea – some will call it a gimmick – is a little quirky, and must have been demanding to maintain for the whole novel. I suppose it’s worth the fourth star on that basis alone!

This is another fun novel that is a light exploration of human relationships, couples and families. It takes its place beside similar works by other emerging southern hemisphere writers (Glancy is from Africa but lives in New Zealand) like Graeme Simsion (The Rosie Project / The Rosie Effect) and Toni Jordan (Addition / Nine Days). A highly recommended light read – it’s not taxing, but is so much more satisfying than most of the best-seller fiction clogging up bookstore and library shelves.

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Review: The Tyrant’s Novel (Thomas Keneally)

The Tyrant's NovelThe Tyrant’s Novel by Thomas Keneally
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A novel for our times – Keneally’s story tells of an Iraqi asylum-seeker whose work brought him dangerously close to Great Uncle, a fictitious parallel of Saddam Hussein. Like many of Keneally’s works, there is well-documented historical fact to support a tragic human story. For Australians, there is a sinister message, and an even more sinister question from this 10-year-old story: we have treated refugees incredibly badly – but why have we been doing it for so long? Nothing has improved in the way our country treats the stateless person.

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Review: Cold Grave (Kathryn Fox)

Cold GraveCold Grave by Kathryn Fox
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I attended a talk by the author when this book was first released. Kathryn Fox is a skilled presenter, and the disccusion of her investigations into the cruise ship industry convinced me to read the book. It took me a while to get my hands on a copy, and even longer to finish it! I started with an audiobook (for convenience) but had to return it unfinished. Finally, I tracked down a hard copy, which moved several times from bedside table to car and back again before I eventually sat down and read to the end. This detailed account of how I read the book best explains my response to it: it was worth reading, but plenty of other things got in the way – it wasn’t the un-put-downable thriller or the intellectual detective novel I’d hoped for. The plot has enough twists and turns to make it interesting, without feeling too contrived. The forensic descriptions are authentic (the author has experience in forensic medicine) but the characters are mostly flat and stereotyped. I get the feeling that this isn’t Fox’s best work – she does seem a better writer than what we read in this book. She was correct about one thing: anyone who reads this book is likely to think twice about taking a cruise!

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This app will have them twitching

Twitcher |ˈtwi ch ər| (noun): A birdwatcher whose main aim is to collect sightings of rare birds.

Pizzey and Knight Birds of Australia Digital Edition
Gibbon Multimedia (Aus) Pty Ltd 2013
Original text: Graham Pizzey
Illustrations: Frank Knight
Field Guide Editor: Sarah Pizzey

Birders in Europe and North America have been using smartphone apps to help them identify birds for about as long as we’ve had smartphones. Australia has had a few of these apps, but they have essentially been ebook versions of older field guides, with the addition of bird calls of each species. The new digital edition of what is possibly the most popular Australian bird field guide, by Pizzey and Knight, takes birding into an exciting new realm. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to use the Pizzey and Knight app for a few days before it is released on the App Store. It’s expected to be available at the end of this week. The app can be used on both iPad and iPhone (I’ve been using the iPhone version) and an Android app is also under development.

For most of this year I’ve been using the Michael Morecombe & David Stewart eGuide to the Birds of Australia, and it has been helpful to have a field guide in my pocket wherever I go, especially for identifying birds by call. The superb sound recordings by Dave Stewart are what made this app unique, and an important part of a serious birder’s toolkit.

Until now.

The Pizzey and Knight Digital Edition takes birding apps to a new level. This is a REAL app – it uses so much of the smartphone/tablet functionality that a lot of what it does was really just a dream a couple of years ago:

* Bird lists based on location, using inbuilt GPS, or map search, or location search
* A superb Key Guide for identifying species – also uses habitat/size/shape/features, but it can limit a search using location services (GPS), and colours for different parts of the bird
* Multiple personal lists, and the ability to consolidate any or all into a master “life” list. These can be sorted and searched by trip, or to show where a species has been recorded
* Birding Sites – showing 250 of the best hot spots in the country, with key species, full species lists, and even 7-day weather forecasts!
* Option of tagging each record with GPS coordinates
* Option of tagging each record with date and time
* Side by side comparison of species (drawings, photos, maps, calls)

As well as all that, we still get the full P&K field guide, plus calls for most species, and multiple photos of each species. There is a glossary, detailed help section, Parts of a Bird, and the maps showing seasonal distribution and status.

This is a superb guide. I love the way it allows access to the data in so many different ways. Yes, some people prefer a more linear approach – scroll through taxonomic order or look up an index. Well, that’s how a book works. It’s ideal for some birders because it never runs out of batteries, they can write in it, drop it, and even sit on it. But it won’t show them a list of species recorded in any area they arrive at, or play a range of calls for a species, or allow them to quickly build a trip list tagged with times and GPS data.

The ease with which a species can be added in real time is one of the great features of this app. Once you have a species list for your location, a single tap next to each species adds it to whatever list you’ve specified – along with the parameters you’ve chosen. Bird names are always a bit contentious, and there are several ways of cataloguing all the birds of the world. Research ornithologists don’t always agree whether some species are in fact different species, and occasionally one name will be preferred over another. Most North American birders follow the taxonomy described by James F. Clements (Cornell University); the British tend to favour a different list published by the International Ornithological Congress (IOC). In Australia, we used the checklist of Christides and Bowles, though recently our main ornithological body has preferred yet another variation, the Birdlife International checklist. The Pizzey and Knight app allows the user to specify which taxonomy to use, and that can be changed at any time.

There is a detailed tour of the app on the Gibbon Multimedia website:

http://www.gibbonmm.com.au/tour/PKBA_iOS.aspx

This gives a much better overview of what the app can do, and what you can do with the app. And that’s the whole point: the user isn’t constrained to view the field guide in one way, or in one order, but has at their fingertips an extensive database, and several ways of finding information in it. Different birders will use the app in different ways.

I haven’t listened to a lot of the P&K calls (most recorded by Fred van Gessel) but I do like the fact that each call shows where it was recorded, the race or subspecies, male or female, and age where relevant – plus the name of the sound recordist. Personally, I prefer the Dave Stewart recordings, so I won’t be deleting the Morcombe app. We’re a bit spoiled to have such a wealth of birdsong at our fingertips now!

It’s hard to believe I’ll be carrying such a powerful database of bird calls, descriptions and information in my pocket. I probably won’t even need a notebook to record sightings any more. I wonder when someone will build all this functionality into a pair of binoculars?

Reviews: Garry Disher

Garry Disher is speaking at our library tomorrow night. It’s part of a promotional tour for his new crime novel, Bitter Wash Road. I thought I’d better read the book! Here is my review, together with some reflections on his much earlier YA novella (for want of a better classification), The Apostle Bird.

Bitter Wash Road (1997)

Bitter Wash RoadBitter Wash Road by Garry Disher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was the first of Disher’s crime novels that I’ve read, and it probably won’t be the last. I’ve enjoyed his YA work in the past, and this very recent publication confirms Disher as one of Australia’s better novelists. What I particularly like about Disher is the way he brings his settings to life – without getting bogged down in tedious description like so many writers. This book is set in rural South Australia, where the author grew up, so it is not surprising that he can describe the harsh surroundings accurately; but it takes great skill to make the reader feel as though they are there.

I’m not going to bother with a plot summary here. It would be difficult to summarise this story without giving too much away – there are a few seemingly insignificant incidents that assume greater importance as the novel unfolds (isn’t that always the case with this genre?) so a summary might spoil the next reader’s experience. The narrative is fast-paced, with a new lead or clue every few pages, but we rarely get the impression that the action is contrived. There were a few incidents that seemed a little too serendipitous, but the explanations are in the end satisfactory. The characters are mostly believable, though a few are one-dimensional (Andrewartha and Nicholson are probably the worst examples).

The language is often very coarse, and some readers may find this a problem, but it is authentic. The conversations would seem unrealistic if sanitised. There is violence, gore, sex, but nothing gratuitous. International readers may be confused by the names of some vehicles, foods and other items well-known to Australians – it will be interesting to see if any of these are changed for editions in other countries.

I read this book as an eBook, thanks to my local library and the Axis 360 lending platform. It’s a great way to read crime fiction. Any time I needed to be reminded where I’d met a character before, I just searched for the name. This didn’t help me solve the mystery of course! Some of my initial suspicions were confirmed, but there were enough twists and surprises to keep me interested until the last page.

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The Apostle Bird (1997)

The Apostle BirdThe Apostle Bird by Garry Disher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A short, simple tale, enjoyable but not entirely satisfying due to a lack of balance in audience and length. The narrator and two other main characters are about 15 years of age: the tone is suited to a younger audience, perhaps 11-12, though a few passages are appropriate for a more mature reader. This lack of equilibrium is also evident in the narrative, which unfolds steadily, then rushes to a climax and resolution in a few pages. The book feels a little like a stretched-out short story, but also hints at a lot of loose ends that demand to be followed through. Perhaps a longer novel would have been more fulfilling?

There is plenty of interest here for the student writer. The use of present tense and first-person narrator is expertly handled, and Disher is a master of location. The reader quickly gains a sense of the harsh mallee conditions, and the quiet desperation of the goldminers. None of the characters are drawn in great detail, partly due to the brevity of the book, and partly because everything is described from the narrator’s point of view. It succeeds as a short rite-of-passage story, despite the misgiving outlined above.

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Review: Bitter Wash Road

Bitter Wash Road
Bitter Wash Road by Garry Disher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was the first of Disher’s crime novels that I’ve read, and it probably won’t be the last. I’ve enjoyed his YA work in the past, and this very recent publication confirms Disher as one of Australia’s better novelists. What I particularly like about Disher is the way he brings his settings to life – without getting bogged down in tedious description like so many writers. This book is set in rural South Australia, where the author grew up, so it is not surprising that he can describe the harsh surroundings accurately; but it takes great skill to make the reader feel as though they are there.

I’m not going to bother with a plot summary here. It would be difficult to summarise this story without giving too much away – there are a few seemingly insignificant incidents that assume greater importance as the novel unfolds (isn’t that always the case with this genre?) so a summary might spoil the next reader’s experience. The narrative is fast-paced, with a new lead or clue every few pages, but we rarely get the impression that the action is contrived. There were a few incidents that seemed a little too serendipitous, but the explanations are in the end satisfactory. The characters are mostly believable, though a few are one-dimensional (Andrewartha and Nicholson are probably the worst examples).

The language is often very coarse, and some readers may find this a problem, but it is authentic. The conversations would seem unrealistic if sanitised. There is violence, gore, sex, but nothing gratuitous. International readers may be confused by the names of some vehicles, foods and other items well-known to Australians – it will be interesting to see if any of these are changed for editions in other countries.

I read this book as an eBook, thanks to my local library and the Axis 360 lending platform. It’s a great way to read crime fiction. Any time I needed to be reminded where I’d met a character before, I just searched for the name. This didn’t help me solve the mystery of course! Some of my initial suspicions were confirmed, but there were enough twists and surprises to keep me interested until the last page.

View all my reviews

Review: The Apostle Bird

The Apostle Bird
The Apostle Bird by Garry Disher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A short, simple tale, enjoyable but not entirely satisfying due to a lack of balance in audience and length. The narrator and two other main characters are about 15 years of age: the tone is suited to a younger audience, perhaps 11-12, though a few passages are appropriate for a more mature reader. This lack of equilibrium is also evident in the narrative, which unfolds steadily, then rushes to a climax and resolution in a few pages. The book feels a little like a stretched-out short story, but also hints at a lot of loose ends that demand to be followed through. Perhaps a longer novel would have been more fulfilling?

There is plenty of interest here for the student writer. The use of present tense and first-person narrator is expertly handled, and Disher is a master of location. The reader quickly gains a sense of the harsh mallee conditions, and the quiet desperation of the goldminers. None of the characters are drawn in great detail, partly due to the brevity of the book, and partly because everything is described from the narrator’s point of view. It succeeds as a short rite-of-passage story, despite the misgiving outlined above.

View all my reviews