In 1974 writer Penni Russon was born in a suburb of the port city of Hobart, Tasmania, Australia, where there are cool-sounding places like Knocklofty Park and a town called Dynnyme. (Den Me? Denny Me? How does one say that aloud?) Hobart is home to beaches, and bridges, and boats and a really cool Botanical Garden. Miz Russon studied children's literature at Monash University and writing and editing at The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. She claims that she first became a poet first because the length was as much as she could write - but poetry seems to flow from people who have such a way with words. This exquisitely disturbing piece shows just a teensy sliver of her range. Penni now writes poetic novels from Melbourne, and she blogs poetically at the quirkily named Eglantine's Cake. Who or what is eglantine? Eglantine is, according to the encyclopedia, a type of wild rose often called sweetbriar, but it is also often been used as a place or character name in English poetry. Penni Russon's Eglantine is a bit mysterious, a bit unknowable. Says the blogger:
"I think Eglantine is a little girl. The house is quiet. The baby is sleeping. Eglantine's mother is outside somewhere, pegging clothes on the line or weeding the vegetable garden. They have a big sprawling backyard, a hills hoist, some chooks. It's afternoon, hot outside but inside the house is dark and cool. Eglantine has a home haircut, but it's sweet, short with blonde tufts sticking out. She's creeping through the slumbering house, up the hallway - bare feet on floorboards. Tomorrow is Eglantine's birthday. In the kitchen on the bench is a cake, with hard pink sugary icing. Eglantine is peeking through the kitchen door, she's standing stretched up on tiptoes. She wants a taste, just a bite of pink, crystally sugar..."
Eglantine's Cake is a blog full of musings on the everyday, with thoughtful talk on the writing life ("...if a novel was a daily account, a diary, it would be pages and pages of 'nothing to report'. When we look back on our lives we probably see it in this way, episodes of note and in between an aggregate memory of undistinguished days: dinners, breakfasts, showers, sleep."), sprinkles of cuteness from Penni's two very young and gorgeous daughters (One of them calls stewed apples 'stupid apples.' Yet she probably eats them...), and enthused comments on books she likes. The author encourages lurkers to 'delurk' and leave her a comment.
Penni Russon's first YA novel, Undine, reveals the intricacies of a complicated family dynamic that includes secrets and lies and manipulation - as well as a reliable friendship, a cute little brother, and an ordinary life. The book was published in Australia to critical reviews in 2004, being named a Notable Book of the Year by the Children's Book Council of Australia.
Quietly bizarre Undine is the last girl you would expect to be "magical." Certainly her best friend, Trout, has paid silent homage to her awesomeness with his undying crush, but pretty much everybody else thinks Undine is just average. Even Undine herself believe that she's nothing special. There are plenty of other girls with little brothers and dead stepfathers; with mothers who are sort of neglectful sometimes and sort of obsessive other times. That's why the day she imagines she hears voices telling her to come home, she begins to worry. The afternoon she imagines rain clouds butting together to create a storm, and one blows up -- centering on her -- she really begins to worry. Because being 'special' means that everything she's shoved down inside about her longing to be different and unique... just might have a chance of happening. And who -- or what -- will she be, then?
Family descriptions come alive in Russon's writing. Relationships and the responsibility a young person has to both listen to those they love and to follow their hearts are the common denominators which draw the Undine trilogy together. After Undine finally crossed hemispheres to land on American bookshelves in 2006, it was followed closely by its sequel, Breathe in 2007.
Breathe is not as easy a book to read as the first in the series. For one thing, you're well assured early on that the happy-after wrap-up from the first novel has lulled you into a false sense of security. The omnipresence of the narrator draws readers from being safely behind Undine's or Trout's perceptions, and pushes them into a broader stream. Trout's fears and feelings, little brother Jasper's impotent frustrations at being too young, Lou's fearful rage that she cannot keep her daughter locked up safe forever are all equally accessible, thus giving an emotional resonance to Undine's struggle for balance. Is she Girl or Magic? Magic or Girl? Is it possible to choose both? Or must it be, as her mother insists, Girl only, or as her father seems to suggest, Magic only, and forget the consequences?
This narrative stance also gives readers a chance to be deceived, as the truth is obscured by the emotional tension of the varying characters. The conclusion to this trilogy isn't yet available, but I will be quite intrigued to see how it all ends.
As always, there is a bit of artistic disparity between the covers of a book released in the United States and its overseas counterpart. The U.S. cover of Undine is dark and dramatic, with a blue eye staring out balefully over a stormy sea. Please note the exceptionally placed lightning bolt.
To my mind, this cover doesn't really do the novel justice. Part of Undine's bizarre charm is that she is ...dead ordinary. Really. She fights with her Mom, and thinks she's just a bit weirder than other moms. She had a little brother who sometimes refuses to wear pants. She has a best friend who's heart she breaks by falling for his brother, and she's stubborn yet at times so bewildered by her sudden maturity that she's hilarious. So the lightning? It's there, but it's not so much a part of that Ordinary Life, at least not in the first book in the series. The Australian cover, with the layers of depth beneath water seems to suit the story best.
We hope you've enjoyed this rare treat, a splash of underwater sprite, a bite of cake, a bit of Vegemite from the land down under. There are more salty, crunchy bits out there waiting - bundle up in your fleece (remember - it IS winter in the Southern Hemisphere) and don't miss when:
Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast interviews the amazing Margo Lanagan
Kelly Fineman shows some love for Melina Marchetta
Big A, little A discusses Anna Feinberg's "Tashi" series
Jenn at Not Your Mother's Bookclub gleefully interviews Simmone Howell
Chicken Spaghetti reviews Kathy Hoopmann's award winning All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome - which sounds hilarious -
Gwenda at Shaken and Stirred is all about How Sassy Changed My Life, The Red Shoes by Ursula Dubosarsky and more love for Margo Lanagan
Jen Robinson discusses John Marsden's "Tomorrow" series, which is very cool
Finding Wonderland also salutes Jaclyn Moriarty's epistolary novels with a little letter love of our own
Little Willow discusses the sweet and funny Finding Grace by Alyssa Brugman
At A Chair, a Fireplace & a Tea Cozy it is all about Catherine Jinks and her four intensely superlative historical "Pagan" books,
Jackie at Interactive Reader posts about Randa Abdel-Fattah's Does My Head Look Big in This? (a book I am dying to read), as well as John Flanagan's The Icebound Land
Trisha at The Ya Ya Yas interviews Queenie Chan
Fuse Number 8 talks more about John Marsden and also highlights a new Hot Man of Literature: Andy Griffiths
Mother Reader will be posting on Am I Right or Am I Right? by Barry Jonsberg.
Enjoy them all, and be a happy little vegemite!