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.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Island Exiles by Jemima Garrett

It's amazing the treasures you find in second hand bookshops. This week I found Island Exiles, the non fiction account of how the Nauruan people survived Japanese occupation and starvation during World War Two. This particular book helped me to shape much of my first novel, The Birthmark. But the copy I had then was borrowed from a lady who probably cursed me for not returning it sooner.
   I did give it back, eventually. And now I have my own copy.
   The book records the experience of a handful of older Nauruans who were mostly children when the Japanese invaded in 1942. Some of them I knew from when I lived there myself in the early 1990s. Their stories are filled with wonder and fear but also a sprinkling of humour.

Island Exiles (ABC Books, 1996)

   Many Nauruans were shipped off their island to the Micronesian island of Truk during the height of the war. This left the native population on Nauru at less than eight hundred people. For Nauruans, building the numbers up to 1500 had a huge significance for famine and disease had decimated the population in the past. 1500 was known as the Angam number. Below this population number, the people believed they would die out. After the war when the survivors from Truk were returned, Nauru had to build their numbers up again.
  The book is easy to read and sets out what happened in Nauru alongside other actions of the Japanese during the war in the Pacific. A series of endnotes in the back sorts information into categories but the lack of an index is annoying. I would however, recommend it for PSSC History and English students.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Scottish Thread.

Last Christmas my daughter read a string of books that coincidently all had homosexual protagonists. Her friend had a similar reading experience; every book she read was written from the point of view of a nine-year-old boy. This year it was my turn. I accidently read three books in a row that were peppered with Scottish dialogue. It's actually made me say things to my family like, 'I think I'll have a wee cup of tea.'
   The first book in my string of coincidences was Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. Being a classic by the famous "Island" author himself, the revered Tusitala, I thought I ought to give it a go. It was hard work. Broad Scottish dialect does not come naturally to the Australian ear even though I have a drop of highland ancestoral blood in my veins.
   Although this story isn't a Pacific Island one it is certainly about the islands off the coast of Scotland. I learnt a great deal about clans and how loyalties work within them (a bit like the wantok system) and also the politics of the time when the story was set just after the Jacobean uprising. And I must admit I felt a kinship link to the lovable rogue Alan who was the main hero in the story as he was related to the same Stewart clan who were my ancestors.
   The second book I read was a Terry Pratchett novel filled with little wee men and although I have a love of Discworld novels there's really no space for them on this blog. They deserve a whole blog on their own.
   The third book was an autobiography written by British poet Jackie Kay called Red Dust Road. Jackie recounts her life as an adopted coloured girl growing up in a sometimes racist Scottish town. The reason why I mention it here is it's a story with 'mana'. Jackie's desire to find her natural parents lead her back to the dusty roads of Nigeria where she finds her ancestoral home and eventually a warm welcome from a brother she never knew before. There are hilarious and disturbing encounters with her Nigerian father who is a successful man and a born again Christian.

Red Dust Road (Picador, 2010)

   I found this book a bit annoying to begin with as it jumps around in no particular order detailing events and conversations in Jackie's life. However the result is like real life; snippets of character are revealed in layers, making you grow to love both Jackie's adoptive and birth family. Issues of racism recur throughout the book, many of which resonated with me raising so called 'coloured' children in Australia. It is a heart-warming book and a good one for adult readers but be warned...there is still a lot of Scottish dialogue and a smattering of politics.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

What makes a good short story?

Lately I've been spending time resurrecting some short stories I wrote ten years ago. Some of them are woeful, but there are fragments that can be salvaged and turned into good writing. One thing I've found is that in all my early work I've tried to do too much. There is action and the paranormal when the action is enough, or there are far too many charcters, each wanting different things which is better groundwork for a novel.

Source: B. Montgomery

   KISS or Keep It Simple, Stupid! should be the catch-cry of the short story writer. I think here of the analogy of weaving. For a small piece a basic eye-catching pattern is enough.
   And voice...your character/s need a good strong voice to convey their depth in such limited space.  Examples such as Alan Paton's 'The Waste Land', R.K. Narayan's 'An Astrologer's Day', Chinua Achebe's 'The Sacrificial Egg' and Witi Ihimaera's 'A Game of Cards' or even 'Beginning of the Tournament' are examples of this simplicity working well to create strong characters and memorable stories. These examples should be well known to PSSC students.
   So this Christmas break I'll keep chipping away at my short stories trying to create a voice and a conflict that is simple yet profound. That to me is the basis of a good short story. Merry Christmas everyone and a happy and safe New Year.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Into the Wilderness by Mandy Hager

With the tragedy this week of the shipwreck on Christmas Island claiming scores of lives of refugees it brought to mind Mandy Hager's book Into The Wilderness which was published this year by Random House. It is the second in the Blood of the Lamb series, set in the Pacific ocean miles from anywhere.
Into the Wilderness (Random House, 2010)
Marayam and her three companions set out for any island they can, just as long as it's far away from the tyranny of The Apostles of The Lamb, the cult who controlled their lives for so long. When they finally reach land they are confronted by the tragedy of genocide.
   Determined to find civilisation somewhere they set off again with tragic consequences. With their boat in tatters and beginning to sink, a ship intercepts them only to tell the companions that as refugees they're not welcome in the territories.
   Maryam resorts to desperate tactics to be saved and then finds herself in a refugee detention camp. This book is grim and confronting with little hope until the very last pages. And it makes you cry heaps...
   I found that just when things seemed bad for Maryam, they only got worse and worse again. Let's hope things come good in the third installment. I don't think it matters much if you haven't read The Crossing, book one in the series, because Hager fleshes out the backstory well with Maryam's gradual and profound loss of faith.
   This story is a terrific one for teenagers and a great one to start class discussions. The issues include refugees, discrimination, genocide and the availability of cheap medicine and medical aid for marginalised people. Come to think of it maybe a lot of adults and governments need to be thinking hard about these topics too.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Visual inspiration: Men's Island crafts

Making a raft, Navua Fiji 1992. Source: B Montgomery
Wood carver, Pohnpei 1995. Source: B Montgomery
Maori Fishing hook, Source: Te Papa 0L000105

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Scoop and Scribe Search for the Seven Stars of Matariki by Tommy Kapai Wilson

This chapter book is non-stop adventure for junior reporters Scoop and Scribe. A Maori tohunga tells the two that they have to find the seven stars of Matariki that were stolen by a cheeky kea or mountain parrot. The stars have to be recovered in time for the Maori New Year which is called Matariki.
Scoop and Scribe journey across New Zealand in a seven day mad dash to find the stars. They are helped by special guardians along the way and even encounter the cheeky kea near the end who caused all the trouble.
Scoop and Scribe search
for the 7 stars of Matariki.
(Random House, 2009)
   There was certainly lots of action but one thing that bothered me was that Scoop and Scribe found a couple of the stars without too much resistance. So much was packed into this little book that it could easily have been expanded into a bigger story of about 10,000 words.
   This is a good book for young readers who are still mastering reading techniques. There is a delightful colour illustration in each chapter and a glossary at the end. The glossary was vital for someone like me who doesn't know many Maori words. There were even interesting facts about how to find the constellation Matariki (The Pleiades) and some of the cultural activities undertaken by Maori people at this significant time of year. A good one for the youngsters.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Dead Birds by Trevor Shearston

I watched a David Attenborough documentary on Sunday night about Birds of Paradise. As ever the photography was beautiful and the dancing birds were just gorgeous but the whole thing brought to mind a disturbing book I read a few years ago called Dead Birds. Written by Trevor Shearston the novel is a  depiction of Italian naturalist and explorer Luigi D'Albertis' journey up the Fly River in Papua New Guinea. Set in pre-colonial 1877, the book depicts the violence of the plundering of indigenous communities by Europeans in search of biological and anthropological specimens.

Source; Greenpeace.org
    Be warned, this book is really hard work. The narrator is gross, an 'utamu' or spirit of a beheaded tribesman. Once you get past the macabre fact that his head is placed in a specimen bottle you actually get to like the spirit and hope for revenge.

Dead Birds (ABC Books, 2007)

   Shearston has done a terrific job maintaining the tribesman's voice throughout and showing his astonishment at all the technology and behaviour of the foreigners. It requires a lot of concentration though and I found I had to reread paragraphs to clarify meaning when I was tired.
   The narrator is confined to the boat for most of the story so we don't get to see a lot of the action. Hundreds of Birds of Paradise were shot, all in the name of science. Not that I wanted to be in on the hunting expeditions but surely a lot of the characters' interactions would be better presented out in the jungle.

source: ocellated.com

   As a reading experience it was challenging, a mind bending exercise for a writer studying  point of view and voice. However I wouldn't recommend it as a spot of light reading.

   It must be remembered that the portrayl is fictitious and D'Albertis did make it back to Europe in real life, however I found the historical theme really whetted my appetite for more information of early exploration of the Pacific and the work of naturalists.  

Friday, December 3, 2010

Award winners

As I go along this book reviewing journey I've realised that I've forgotten to put in the details of various awards that some books have won. The two that immediately spring to mind are Lloyd Jones' Mr Pip and Mandy Hager's The Crossing. They are both superb books.
   Mr Pip was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2007. The Man Booker Prize is a giant on the book award calendar so even being shortlisted is like winning a prize too.
   But Mr Pip actually won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize  and the Kiriyama Prize for fiction. It also won the Readers' Choice Award, the Montana Fiction Award and the Montana Medal for Fiction in 2007.
   The Crossing is the winner of the 2010 NZ Post Children's Book Awards for Young Adult Fiction. It was shortlisted for the LIANZA Young Adult Fiction Award and the 2010 Sir Julius Vogel Award.
      Every year there are book awards run all over the world. Some are mega big like The Man Booker which gives the winning author a big prize-winning cheque and boosts sales hugely. Others are small awards where an author might receive a trophy or a small cheque, and which does very little to boost sales. Each award could have dozens or hundreds of entries, depending on the eligibilty criteria. For example only the following books can enter: those by a local author or a female author, or a crime novel, or a non-fiction title, or a picture story book...
   The books are read by a panel of judges and a shortlist is selected. Sometimes it's a longlist. I guess it's because the judging panel have so many fights about what is the best book. And that really is the issue here; books are subjective things. What I love, you may hate and vice versa. But generally the judging panel is made up of smart, well-read and interesting people who choose a credible shortlist. The eventual winner is selected over many weeks and probably arguments.
   Awards can showcase some brilliant stories, but not always. I have read some award winners that I thought were crap, and I have read hundreds of books that I thought were fabulous that never even reached an award longlist. So really it all boils down to what your personal preferences are in reading.   
   So what good are awards and does it mean that award winning books are the only ones worth reading? Perhaps awards are just sophisticated marketing devices for books and not a measure of their worth at all? I like to think of an award as just another book review. If the panel liked a book that much, then it probably was terrific, but don't count on it. Maybe the panel members for that year were all into the kind of stories you hate... or they were half asleep or drunk when they chose the winner... 
   The lesson is read anything you like, award winner or not...just read and keep on reading. For the love of it.