Review: Batavia

BataviaBatavia by Peter FitzSimons
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An extraordinary piece of research by Peter FitzSimons. Just like he did with Nancy Wake, Tobruk, and many other histories, he has breathed life into fascinating events from Australia’s past. FitzSimons is a remarkable storyteller. It’s quite a feat to keep the reader on the edge of their seat when they already know the outcome: he has achieved this with most of his other books, none more so than with Batavia.

Much of the characterisation must be merely speculation. The only surviving written record from those in the event is Pelsaert’s journal, yet FitzSimons achieves fleshed-out, believable characters. For the main protagonists, he occasionally draws their dialogue from the journal, but otherwise the reconstructions rely on the author’s interpretations of patchy historical documents.

Why not five stars? I think it is easily four-and-a-half, but I found some of the blood-drenched descriptions a little gratuitous. There is a lot of killing in the this book – just as there was in the real event – but the detailed accounts of the murder methods, along with the physiological descriptions of the effects on flesh and bone, made the book hard going at times. Plenty of readers will prefer the gory depictions, but I think there are more than enough to convey the horror of what took place. One other complaint is that a few times the author steps out of character as contemporary narrator, and uses a modern expression or cliché: this weakens the sense of place that he has created.

There are redemptive elements, as I believe there must be in any chilling account of death and tyrany. The heroism of Hayes, the dignity of Lucretia, and even the dogged perseverance of Pelsaert give the book a sense of balance, as well as elevating it above the sanguine eye-for-an-eye vengeance in the punishment of the guilty. Above all, the quality of this book, despite my minor misgivings, convinces me to read much more from this highly-skilled and meticulous researcher.

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Review: The Rosie Project

The Rosie ProjectThe Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a great read! I can see why it’s selling so well – it has broad appeal, and is a little difficult to pigeonhole. It’s a little bit RomCom, and readers who enjoy light romances will find enough of the boy-meets-girl/boy-makes-a-mess-of-every-opportunity/boy-seems-certain-to-lose-girl elements to maintain their interest. It will also appeal to readers who like quirky characters. I’m sure there are also a lot of readers who see one or two things about themselves in the main characters, and read on to see how they fare!

The story is engaging, and the book is easy to read, but best of all is the quality of the writing. It’s a superbly-crafted book, and it didn’t surprise me to learn that it began as a several story ideas, grew into a short story, then emerged as a film script. The author then turned it into a novel – through all these metamorphoses it has been honed and refined to create a book that ticks all the boxes. The characters are three-dimensional and believable; the story has enough twists and puzzles to maintain interest; and some of the scenes really do make the reader laugh out loud.

The book has been optioned by a major film company so hopefully we will see it on the big screen at last – luckily the author is doing the screenplay so it will retain the sense of craftmanship that makes the book such an enjoyable and worthwhile read.

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Two Books Today

Working over the Christmas-New Year break isn’t much easier the second year around, but at least this year I’ve spent a lot of time reading. My aim was 50 books for the year – I managed to complete 45. Close, and not too big a challenge to aim for in 2013!

Today I finished two books – both by Australian women writers. That’s where the similarity ends!

Carpentaria by Alexis Wright

Tough going keeping track of caharacters, events, reality
A difficult read
Long and meandering (often intentionally so)
Unfamiliar places (Gulf of Carpentaria)
Unfamiliar social settings (antagonistic Aboriginal camps and an even more hostile white township)
I had to stop listening after disk 4/16, but one day I hope to read a print copy

Addition by Toni Jordan

Light but clever
A thoroughly enjoyable read (I love anything to do with numbers)
Short
Lots of familiar places
Lots of familiar social settings
Finished this in about 3 short sittings

Here’s my Goodreads review of Carpentaria – or I should say, my first attempt at it!

CarpentariaCarpentaria by Alexis Wright
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Don’t be misled by my rating. I gave it 4 stars because it is an outstanding work – but it has defeated me this time. It’s not the sort of book I can listen to, despite the superb narration of Isaach Drandich. There is just too much going on in this book to follow while I’m driving to and from work. Characters come and go, plot lines are left hanging, and events jump around in time. There is so much to absorb, so many events and characters to remember, that it is difficult to appreciate without giving it far more attention than I can while driving! For a while I thought that the author intends to blur the distinctions between dream and reality, thought and action, but I think that it’s necessary to absorb the elements thoroughly to get a better sense of what the book is saying. I may return to a print version – I’m trying to read all the Miles Franklin winners – but for the moment I have a large stack of books begging to be read, and a few lighter novels to enjoy while making the half hour trip to work each day.

I recommend this book to anyone:
hoping to learn more about indigenous Australians;
looking to follow-up Xavier Herbert with something more contemporary, and more literary;
wanting a better understanding of Australia outside the big cities and towns;
crazy enough to want to read all the Miles Franklin winners!

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Book Review: Nine Days

Nine DaysNine Days by Toni Jordan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A surprising book, an appealing story, and an introduction to an author I will be reading again. I loved the central device: nine characters each describing (in first person) a pivotal day, a day that completely changed their lives. The days are not presented in order, and that makes it a bit of a puzzle: I like the way each chapter (day) is named for each character, without any hint of time or relationship. We are left to make the connections ourselves, and for me that added an extra level of interest. There are signposts to help us, but the author doesn’t let these historic events intrude, other than in the case of the war, which is a central axis around which the whole narrative spins.

The characters are quite well drawn, given that each gets a voice in only one chapter, and is then at the mercy of the other narrators, not all of whom are friendly! A number of Goodreads reviewers complain that they would have liked to spend more time with some of the characters. I take this as evidence of the author’s skill. Just like favourite pieces of music leave you wanting more, a book that makes you want to know more about many of the characters is an artistic and technical success. Toni Jordan has achieved that here: I’d love to know Connie better, I want to know more about Kip’s career, and I want to find out why Frank ended up as he did. That’s the sign of a very fine writer: characters that walk off the page and engage us – whether we like them or despise them.

It’s interesting to compare this with another book I’ve just finished, Xavier Herbert’s Capricornia, a sprawling, rambling narrative that spans three generations, just like Nine Days. Herbert’s story leaves few stones unturned, few characters with anything left to reveal. It has some important things to say, but it preaches a little relentlessly at times. In contrast, Toni Jordan tells us just enough about each character to make them come to life, and merely hints at issues and leaves us to make up our own minds. Nine Days has the advantage of being a book that can be read comfortably in a weekend.
Compared to Capricornia, it is just a vignette, and is all the more appealing because of its small glimpses into extraordinary moments of ordinary lives.

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Book Review: Gould’s book of fish

Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish
by Richard Flanagan

My first Richard Flanagan novel, and I doubt it will be my last. I listened to the audiobook, superbly narrated by Humphrey Bower. Next time I read this it will have to be the standard print – not because I didn’t love Bower’s narration, but because it’s the sort of book where you need to flip backwards (and probably forwards) to try to understand it better.

This is a work of fabulous imagination, rooted in Australia’s dark past, at once a fantasy and an expansive philosophy. There are few likeable characters, yet we can see something of ourselves in many of them. I was initially attracted to the book because it is set, in part, in the harsh convict prison of Sarah Island, Tasmania. I read a lot of Australian history, and I’m lucky enough to have been to Sarah Island. But the island of the book is barely recognisable – and therein lies the first of the author’s many fabrications. Flanagan descriptions are convincing and utterly believable: yet when he tips reality on its head we wonder why we didn’t see it coming.

This is a book that will surprise, disgust, engage and move the reader: most authors would be happy enough to achieve just one of these!

Book Review: The widow and her hero

The widow and her hero
by Tom Keneally
Bolinda Audio edition (narrated by Beverley DunnDavid Tredinnick)
ISBN: 9781742011257

Keneally’s place as one of the most diverse living authors is confirmed by this, his 30th novel. It is surprising that few reviewers on this site have given it more than 3 stars, but those who read just for the excitement of the narrative are probably a little disappointed by this book. Whilst it is gripping in places, the author did not set out to produce a thriller or work driven by suspense. We know the fate of the main characters in the opening paragraphs: the main interest is in discovering how things turned out so badly. Whilst the story itself is both fascinating and enlightening, to me the real purpose of the book is an exploration of heroism: what drives us to do heroic things; what can restrain us when we feel the urge to do heroic things; and what impact heroism can have on the bystanders.

Like all of Keneally’s writing, this book is underpinned by extensive research. As well as being an enthralling examination of the human spirit, the novel is informative and instructive. The reader is taken convincingly to the streets of wartime Melbourne, and the language of the characters both reflects the naivety of the age and risks taken by those like Dotty Mortmain who push against the social confines. This ability to create “local colour” so convincingly is one of Keneally’s trademarks, and one that draws me back to his work time and again.

The events of the novel are loosely based around two strikingly similar missions, Operations Jaywick (Cornflakes in the book) and Rimau (Meramang). I haven’t been able to discover why the author chose to rename the missions, as well as the participants, but perhaps that was a concession to anyone still living who had some role in these events. There is an underpinning sense of frustration at how poorly the missions were supported in official terms, and Keneally (or the publisher’s lawyers) may have found it safer to treat characters as fictitious. Like many authors dealing with human failings, Keneally has certainly changed a few names before – even in the iconic Schindler’s Ark (List).

Keneally gets inside the mind, and heart, of his protagonist. We feel, more than just understand, her anger, frustration and resentment, yet the story has the redemptive threads essential to creating a sense of dignity, and even something uplifting.

Mobile Devices in Schools: iCame iSaw iPad

Just catching up with some of my PLN reflections … I wonder if I took on too much when I chose to work in 2 schools for 5 days and two nights per week, as well as doing the PLN? No – I don’t think so.  It was going OK until I decided to work 4 nights a week and start looking for a permanent position for next year! But I digress (as always) …

The Infobrarian household bought an iPad a few months ago to find out what all the fuss was about. We sort of understand the way-sexy-cool features that had people queueing up for them when they first appeared, and they are a lot of fun to play with. Let’s face it, for someone like me who is always doing something with my iPhone, having all that extra screen real estate has to be good – and it means I don’t have to get my reading glasses as often. I scored hundreds more on iPad Flight Control because I could at last see all those helicopters!

So what else impressed us about the iPad? Is it just a very big iPhone, or is it the tablet the MacBook should have got but never did? Is it going to revolutionise the way Mrs Infobrarian teaches chemistry? You could be excused for thinking the iPad really is the Next Big Thing. Plenty of schools have rushed out and bought them, either as class sets or in some cases, 1:1 across a whole school. There are hundreds of iPads-in-the-classroom blogs, and iPads feature at most educational technology conferences. What is it about the iPad that makes it the “one-stop shop” for education?

I’m going to argue that it isn’t – at least not for many teachers. Lots of the literacy and maths apps are great for students learning to read, and for forming basic number concepts, but I’ve yet to see an iPad app that can replace the sort of software needed in secondary schools: Sibelius for music, Adobe Illustrator in art, CAD programs in Design Tech, MYOB for accounting. While touch screens are great tools for teaching early primary school writers, this feature becomes less important as learners develop: many teachers would agree that the same applies to interactive whiteboards. A few other concerns and limitations have been raised by online forum participants:

  • it’s not possible to image a whole class set of iPads – you can do it with laptops.
  • the lack of Flash and Java
  • it’s more difficult to drag and drop content between apps on an iPad
  • printing is dependent on wireless connectivity
  • data storage is severely limited
  • data input is less flexible (no USB or SD card ports)
  • sharing of data between devices is restricted and cumbersome
  • iPads may be more susceptible to damage

I haven’t tried an Android tablet, but I think they would have many of the same constraints. Miss Infobrarian has used a tablet PC in Years 5-8, and it’s a long time since I’ve seen her use any input device other than the keyboard. I was in big trouble tonight – when helping with homework, I pointed to some graphs on her screen, and accidentally moved them out of place!

So we’ll keep enjoying our iPad, use it as an e-reader and a handy mobile device, but I can’t see it having a big impact on the educational lives of the Infobrarians.

 

Where can I put my website?

A fellow infobrarian asked this on a discussion forum. She was mainly puzzled about where she could put a site she had built in iWeb. This got me thinking about some of the web hosting options we now have. Most people want an online presence, and while many are content to blog, tweet or update their Facebook wall, others want something a little more personalised.

Here are some of the options for getting a website onto the web. As with all my tips and advice, there’s more here than most people need, so stop reading when you have enough info!

Apple had an online storage service called Dot Mac (e.g. infobrarian.mac.com). It was free for a trial, then had an annual subscription. After a while, it changed to Mobile Me (e.g. infobrarian.me.com) and added a few features, but now that is being wound down.  For iPhone/iPad/iPod users there will be a new service in a month or two: iCloud. Anyone who has the new operating system (iOS 5) will be able to get 5 Gb of free storage, and anything purchased through the itunes store, plus a range of other “inhouse” Apple content won’t count towards the 5 Gb. It will basically be a backup and sync service a bit like Dropbox – for Macs. For those of us who have 2 or more Apple devices (Mac computer, iPhone, iPad etc) it will make life so much easier keeping content synchronised across those devices. Like DropBox, you can pay for extra storage.

I’m not sure what Apple are planning to do with their web authoring application, iWeb. Once, iWeb published automatically if you had a .Mac account, so I assumed that will be the case with iCloud. Not so. Apple are closing Mobile Me sites on 30 June 2012, and now offer instructions for moving and iWeb site from there to a private provider. I wonder if there will be any more upgrades to iWeb – my guess is that eventually there will be a feature in iCloud for building a simple website, using online templates. I can’t see Apple abandoning all forms of web hosting for the millions of users of their iProducts. But perhaps Apple is looking even further into the feature, where the static website as we know it will disappear?

As for other web hosting, there are plenty of places to host a website for free, ranging from a private ISP (service provider) to online web authoring sites. Most of the latter require you to use THEIR authoring system (which means they can restrict the features you get in the free version). WordPress is my favourite – it’s really a blogging platform, but plenty of people use it as a conventional website. Google Sites allows you to build a website using their authoring system, and there is enough flexibility to make a personalised website. Most of their templates have an iWeb “look and feel”. I haven’t tried, but I don’t think you could upload an iWeb site to either of these free services.

Some people looking for an online presence via a website will want their own name in the domain. The simplest solution is to use WordPress or something similar – you just have to think of a name that isn’t already taken. Another option is to use the free web page hosting provided as part of most ISP contracts. If you are happy to have an address that looks like members.optusnet.com/~infobrarian, then that’s the way to go. If you’ve used iWeb or another application to build the site, there will be an export feature that lets you save your whole site to a folder – just upload the folder contents to your ISP site. More advanced web development programs like Dreamweaver, Fusion or WebStudio have tools that manage uploads to your web hosting service.

One step further along the customisation path is to register your own domain name. There are plenty of domain registry companies like NameCheap.com and BigDaddy.com and you can get a site like http://www.infobrarian.com for about $10-15 a year (if you want .com.au it will cost you a lot more, and you have to have a registered business name). You can set up a URL Redirect so that whoever goes to the the registered site name (e.g. http://www.infobrarian.com) site automatically gets redirected to your ISP hosted site (members.optusnet.com/~infobrarian).

If you want to take the final step, then register your domain name at one of those services, and set up a webhosting account. This will cost from about $40 per year, much more from an Australian host, with a few Gb storage, and more importantly, a limited amount of data per month. If you are expecting a lot of traffic, then you will need to pay for more data, obviously. I run a couple of sites, one through my ISP with URL forwarding, and one that is fully hosted. It only gets 50-200 visitors a day, mostly search engines unfortunately, so I am always well under my entry-level data limit. And won’t be giving up my day job just yet!

Infobrarian

By the way, if you were curious enough to click http://www.infobrarian.com you will see that it redirects here!

 

 

Google Plus. Plus What?

I worry that I might be falling out of love with Google. I like their stuff, but I’m afraid that in their great mission to not be evil, they’ve slipped into the trap of being greedy. Very, very greedy. Now Google understands just how rich they can become by using very clever marketing. The more information they collect about each of us, the more accurate the profile that Google has of us. Google will know what we like, when we like it. And they will sell that to advertisers who will pay an awful lot of money to know what products I’m definitely going to buy this month, and what products I might buy if I’m in the right mood – and yes, Google will be able to tell them when I’m in the right mood – I’m sure there will be a tool in Google+ that is irresistible to the user and very informative to Google and its clients. It’s clever. It’s insidious. It may not be evil, but I don’t like it.

 

This was originally a comment on Stephen’s Lighthouse

Google for educators: Tools for the classroom

I’ve used Google Docs a bit in the past, as well as plenty of other Google services. Despite the hard time we librarians give Google, it really is a very nice company because it produces some great online tools … and lets everyone use them for free! Sure, we’d be happier if the students in our libraries used Google Simple Search a lot less and our subscription databases a lot more, but you have to give credit where it is due: a lot of things we do online would be more difficult without Google.

I’ve been looking at a lot of online tools for educators, and revisited Google for Educators and had a look at what Google itself recommends as Tools for your classroom. I’ve used most of these before, but I think it is worth a few comments about how they could be used by teachers, and how they can help me in my role as a newly-fledged librarian.

Google Book Search

Google’s mission to digitize every book ever published has been somewhat undermined by the poor people who sell books to keep food on their tables – book publishers. OK, most of them aren’t exactly poor, but many of them have reacted strongly to the idea of making books freely available online. A group of publishers has been suing Google about it, and a few changes  have been forced. It’s now a lot harder to find a full text on Google Books, but it is still possible to search the text of a book – as long as it’s one of the limited titles Google is allowed to search. Google continues to negotiate, and sees part of its role as a link between readers and libraries, or between readers and publishers. The latest state of play can be examined here.

Google Geo Education

Four well-loved apps (Google Earth, Google Sky, Google Maps, and Google Sky) have been brought together to provide a suite of tools with a wide range of applications for geography, science, history literature and maths teachers. There is a classroom ideas section, and a community forum. The extensions of some of these tools extend the possibilities to every subject and teaching area – e.g. Google Art Project, a mashup of Street View, Maps, and images from major galleries and museums around the world.

Google News

There are plenty of news-based search engines. Google is one of the best because of its vast coverage. When combined with other tools, such as Google Docs, the news site, with its extensive archive, and customisable alerts, is a great resource for research and classroom activities.

iGoogle

This is a way to collect content from all over the web and display it on a single page. It could even be used as a presentation tool, with each element embedded in a separate widget. By customising the theme, iGoogle could even be used as a home page – although the content is really only visible to the Google account holder, so it presents a view of the web to one person (or one small team or activity group), rather than being a public front page for something like a library.

Custom Search Engine

This is a great tool for teachers and librarians, and can be used anywhere a widget can be embedded: intranet, blog, OPAC, etc. CSEs can be configured to search only specified sites for particular content: even the way the results are displayed can be customised.

Google Notebook

This sort of tool is becoming more common. It’s a way to grab information from several sites, annotate it, and keep it together for a later visit. Personally, I prefer Evernote, which does the same thing, but automatically sync’s to my laptop, phone and online account. I can also add a voice recording or webcam clip to Evernote. The advantage of Google Notebook is that it’s easier to share content with other users.

Picnik

Picnik is one of those annoying names that makes me think I’ve made an error every time I type it! Fortunately, I don’t think I’m likely to need to type it often. It’s an online photo editing site, a bit like Picasa for Kids. It looks easy to use and will pull images from Flickr and other photo sharing sites to save uploading them. It has lots of built-in templates and special effects – a good enough reason to give it a miss, in my opinion.

Picasa

This is a more robust, more grown-up image editing and storage utility. It can be used as a desktop application for cataloguing and editing photos, and the Web Albums make it easy to share images online.

Google Apps Education Edition

Google offers an integrated package for schools. Each school can choose from Gmail, Google Talk (instant messaging), Google Calendar, Google Docs and Google Sites (simple website creation), and create a customised institution-wide deployment of these apps. I’ve worked in a big school that replaced their dedicated mail server with Gmail – it worked well from day one, and allowed integration with Docs and Calendar (which are embedded into various parts of the intranet). I really don’t understand why so many schools insist on struggling with an Exchange server when Gmail provides such a simple solution at no cost. Maybe they think it is more secure to run their own mail server? Maybe they still put out milk and cookies for Santa, too. At my old school, we had hassle-free Gmail accounts for a couple of years, and in the single term at a new school, Exchange mail was down for up to a few hours – at least twice. Hmmm …