About Me

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Victoria, Australia
I am an author of Young Adult Fiction books. I worked as a teacher in the Pacific Islands for seven years. Whilst in the Solomon Islands I taught PSSC English before the ethnic tension in 2000 forced a change of plans. I love Pacific literature, art and music. You can find me on Facebook at Beth Montgomery Author.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Juno of Taris by Fleur Beale

This is the first book I've ever read that makes an issue of shaved heads. At first I thought it was a bit comical, a quirky detail of the plot that added interest. It wasn't until things sped up in the second half of the book that I realised how central and symbolic the shaving issue was to the people of Taris.

Juno of Taris (Random House, 2008)
    Taris is a future world, a biosphere dome set over an island in the Southern Ocean. The dome is populated by 500 people who are self-sufficient and peaceful, but whose elders harbour deep secrets.
Juno is twelve when she first starts to question the rules of Taris. But with the questioning brings danger. The rulers of the dome are watching her and Juno is certain they mean to kill her. But Juno has a band of loyal friends who support and protect her as the dome's technology starts to fail. Together they uncover the secrets that have bound the people of Taris for generations.
   This is a good story for younger teenagers as it brings up issues such as conforming and family loyalty. The pace is quite slow at the start but once the action takes off it's hard to put down. The large cast of unusual names is a bit difficult to stomach but there is a list of key characters at the beginning of the book which helps confused readers.
   At the end of each chapter are three paragraphs which convey the daily gossip of the dome. As a literary device it works really well, giving out background information and showing the society's values and fears.
   If you don't like science fiction then give it a miss, but I found it a delightful story about a gutsy heroine who is determined to uncover the truth. This book won the Ester Glen Award in 2009.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson

Maybe I'm a bit off the mark here because this book has nothing to do with the Pacific, but strictly speaking it's an 'island' story and it's a good one for teens, so why not?
   It's the story of twins, one loved and one hated (like Jacob and Esau), growing into womanhood on the small island of Rass (somewhere in the USA) during the 1940s. Louise spends all her time crabbing and getting her hands dirty while her sister Caroline is the talented musician whom everyone adores. Louise constantly feels that she walks in Caroline's shadow and she resents her twin sister enormously. When Caroline leaves the island and Louise helps out on the boat during hard times she learns that she too is loved and needed.
   Paterson is an award winning author whose sensitive handling of this narrative paints a young girl struggling with infatuation and jealousy. The ailing and deluded grandmother is also beautifully depicted. The island descriptions are plain but powerful. The smell of crabs and oysters is ever-present and I learnt a great deal about the life-cycle of crabs from reading this novel. This book was awarded the 1980 Newbery Medal.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Loku and the Shark Attack by Deborah Carlyon

Loku and the Shark Attack (UQP, 2006)

This is a chapter book designed for young readers of about eight to ten years old. Set in Papua New Guinea it tells the story of Loku, the quiet boy in the village who never gets into any scrapes. His twin brother Nul seems to have all the adventures and all the fun. Setting out to prove himself, Loku ventures into the territory of another tribe where he accidently starts a bushfire. He is captured and made to pay for his mistake. He is forced into a dangerous plan to lure and spear a shark. But everything goes wrong and Loku finds courage he didn't know he had.

   There are cute little illustrations throughout done in black ink by Johnny Danalis. The story is written like a fable, with everything turning out well in the end. A good one for children establishing themselves as readers. 

Monday, November 15, 2010

Author Interview: Anna Mackenzie

Anna Mackenzie is a New Zealand author who writes for teenagers (just like me). Anna's third book, The Sea-wreck Stranger, won The 2008 NZ Post Book Award for children and Young Adults and the Sir Julius Vogel Award for Fantasy and Sci Fi. Maybe I seem to go on and on about this book, but it is one of my fav's and when Anna agreed to do an interview I was rapt. So here are her answers...

1.      The Sea-wreck Stranger is set in a future world. Are you naturally drawn to speculative fiction or was it hard to create this future island in your head?
Dunnett Island came easily, as did the issues and challenges my characters face in this future – and not very happy – world. On an interpersonal level, the challenges are universal in terms of time setting, I think, but the environmental issues are more specifically located in a not very distant future. That the community in Vidya has responded differently to that on Dunnett is one of the underlying themes of the story – and one that gets further attention in the sequel, Ebony Hill.

2.       The island itself is very real. What is your inspiration for this setting?
Dunnett is an amalgam of a number of places I’ve lived or visited, with a hearty dose of imagination thrown in. I wanted to create a setting that could be anywhere – I think YA fiction works well when the reader can transpose their own familiar reference points into the setting, so I have tried to keep it non-specific. That said, the cave at one end of Skellap Bay is a real place, and various aspects of the island’s topography and isolation are also taken from a real location.

3.      How do you go about forming characters for your stories?
I usually start with a single, simple idea. In the case of The Sea-wreck Stranger I was watching my children and their friends mess about on a lakefront, rummaging through items washed up against an old log. I thought ‘what if what you find is not what you expect?’, and the idea grew – quite quickly – into the novel. I walked back to the house with the plan of noting down the idea and wrote several chapters straight away. Ness’s character, and those of the people around her, formed immediately; plot came later.
The common model for me is that a character develops first, often simultaneously in my head and on paper, and as I write about them I ‘discover’ what their story is.

4.      How long does it take you to write a book? Can you take us through your process?
It varies a little. A first draft usually takes between four and seven months. I then spend a similar period of time editing and perfecting, including time when I set the book aside and ignore it. I sometimes have several books at different stages – I’ll be ‘ignoring’ one while I’m writing the first draft of another, so they leapfrog a little. The publishing process also works on different timeframes. My last few books have come out more quickly than my first.

5.      The sequel, Ebony Hill, has been released in NZ. Was it easier to write than The Sea-wreck Stranger? Can you tell us a bit about the story?
In Ebony Hill, we meet up with Ness two years down the track – and discover, as Ness has, that things are never simple or perfect. Vidya has high ideals and the community works hard to achieve them – but they, like the islanders, are struggling with a world in ruins. Ness is unsure of her own place in her new society, and none of her uncertainty is helped by her confused feelings for Dev or by the arrival of an interloper who seems to both threaten and clarify her nebulous sense of belonging.
Just when she thinks she might have found a promising path, the world around her erupts into violence. Practical and ethical dilemmas force Ness to explore her own beliefs and discover both strengths and weaknesses as she, and those around her, are tested to the limits.
Strangely, I found this second book harder to write than The Sea-wreck Stranger. This was partly because my plan was to write a sequel, and I consequently kept trying to make the next stage of Ness’s story fit into a single book. When I finally accepted that it wouldn’t – I’m just now finishing the third book of the trilogy – it became easier again. A great example of how, as a writer, you have to follow the story rather than trying to make the story follow a preconceived notion about it!

6.      What are your favourite Island stories?
When I was about 6 my father read us a novel by Joyce West called ‘The Sea Islanders’ which I remember as being about a family as warm and unruly as my own, and containing a signature refrain from the youngest child: ‘”I’m hungry,” said Rory.’
I studied William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ at school, and was disturbed by the author’s bleak subtext. As both a teenaged and adult reader I much admire Ursula le Guinn’s Earthsea Cycle (comprising two trilogies written 20 years apart), which offers a masterful example of the way fantasy can explore the realities of human nature and the trials and issues we all face in finding a path into adulthood.
Islands allow writers to explore the impact of isolation on individuals and social hierarchies – certainly true in The Sea-wreck Stranger, but also true of communities isolated by less physical barriers. Fleur Beale’s ‘I am not Esther’, about a closed religious community, is a chilling YA example. Amongst adult novels, Margaret Attwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, set in a dark future offering a rigid and oppressive social hierarchy, stands out. 
Stories speculating on dystopian futures influenced me from a young age – the BBC TV series of the 1970s ‘The Survivors’ and John Wyndham’s ‘Day of the Triffids’ (also serialised by the BBC) – lived in my head for many years. And on dystopian future novels, I would be remiss not to mention Cormac McCarthy’s unsettlingly dark but masterfully written ‘The Road’. See the film if you will, but for sheer beauty of writing, read the book.

7.      If you were stranded on an island for a year, what three non-essential items would you take with you?
A clarinet (I’ve just begun learning, and stranded on an island, I might perhaps have time to make some progress! The great thing about a clarinet is that even when you’re not very good, the sounds aren’t too unpleasant.)

The complete works of William Shakespeare – for the beauty and cadence of his sentences, for his linguistic ingenuity, and for his acute observation and ability to generate phrases whose longevity often transcends an awareness of their source.

And thirdly, inevitably perhaps, notebooks and pencils.

8.      Why do you write for young adults?
There’s no simple answer. I like kids, I’m fascinated by human behaviour and motivation, and I think the teen years are incredibly interesting. It’s as teens that we make the choices that determine the adults we’ll become, it’s generally when we’re hit with a mountain of challenges and trials, and it’s when we build the resources we’ll need to cope with everything the rest of life has to throw at us. Growing up isn’t a straightforward business, but it’s something we all do (sooner or later). I think it’s a period of our lives that deserves as much attention as we can give it.
I also have two teenaged children, though when I began writing they were youngsters. They’re kind of useful though – as sounding boards, zoological specimens and reminders of reality.

9.      The Sea Wreck Stranger won many awards. As a writer, do you feel the pressure is now on you to perform?
Actually, no more than I always feel. I want every book to be the best it can possibly be – I’m sure every writer does. A book that’s not yet finished still has that potential; the pressure is always there. With every book I write, I aim to learn. 

Friday, November 12, 2010

Visual Inspiration: markets

Melons at Honiara town market, 2010. (Source: B Montgomery)

Suva market, 1992. (Source: B: Montgomery)

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Why island stories?

Lots of authors fill their blogs with writing techniques and tips about approaching publishers. I wanted to do something different that reflected who I was as well as show my love of writing. It's a pretty safe bet that you can gauge a person's interests from what they read. I am an eclectic reader. My bookshelves house topics as diverse as gardening, anthroplogy and forensics to theology, mythology and astrology. I love insects and words, so I have entomology and etymology books. I like reading crime, comedy and fantasy. But by far the biggest section of my bookshelf is devoted to what I call island stories. 
   For me these are stories about islands, seafaring and village life. They are stories of indigenous people and colonialists, missionaries and sailors.  My first island books were The Boy Who Was Afraid and Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins. Both of these books are about surviving on your own and they follow in the tradition of Robinson Crusoe. I am always interested in how people make do with very few resources and how they rely on inner reserves of courage and ingenuity to succeed.
   Island stories don't have to be about the tropics. The Sea-wreck Stranger is set on a cold windswept island. And they don't have to be told by an indigenous author. Both insiders and outsiders have the right to tell a story.
   Mythology is another aspect of many island stories. Although I have always loved classical Greek and Roman Mythology, the custom stories of the Pacific are rich, diverse and fascinating. Mythology ties in with culture and tradition. Learning about Polynesian culture or African traditions or Carribean legends is akin to travelling the world in your armchair.
   This is where 'world literature with mana' comes in. Many of the books listed on the PSSC English prescription are African or Indian, such as Things Fall Apart and A Village by the Sea. Some stories depict the world's colonial past or war-torn regions or urban slums in developing nations and they are stories so filled with spirit and determination that they make a profound impact on readers. These are the type of books I cherish.  

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Sea-Wreck Stranger by Anna Mackenzie

The Sea-wreck Stranger (Longacre, 2007)

This is such a gorgeous book simply because of the quality of the writing. The voice of Ness, the teenage protagonist, is lilting and almost 'old world' which is in contrast to the future setting of the story. But this technique works well to depict the culture of her isolated island home where technology is shunned and things from the sea are feared. The islanders farm the land but will not fish the ocean due to a spate of poisonings, years before.
   When Ness discovers a man washed up on the beach she knows she must try to save his life. However the people on her island are not so compassionate and would gladly persecute and kill the newcomer. Ness and her cousins strive to heal and conceal the man in a cave at the shoreline, but things go wrong and his presence is discovered.
   The island in this novel is cold and windswept, nothing like a tropical paradise. The way it is depicted gives the island a feeling of wretchedness and hopelessness, a place Ness desperately needs to escape from.
   This book is so good it won The Sir Julius Vogel Award and The NZ Post Honour Award. It's well worth reading especially if you like speculative fiction.