YA Review: Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta

JELLICOE ROAD by Melina Marchetta

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I wanted to love this book. So many things about it tugged at me before I even read it. It’s set in Australia, a place you hear about in passing all the time, but that you never really get to know beyond “G’day, mate” and kangaroos. And the story centers on a fierce and vulnerable schoolgirl coping with mysteries and loss and first love, all at the same time–which sounds irresistible. But here’s the thing. I could never actually picture the setting. Couldn’t really get my bearings. Physical descriptions don’t take up much space in the book, which would be fine if we all had a mental image of that part of Australia–but we don’t!

What takes up space is Taylor Markham’s mental landscape. And there are things about Taylor that don’t add up. For a start, people at the Jellicoe school are always putting her in charge of things, even though she seems to lack the will (not to mention the focus!) to lead. She is driven to the point of mental breakdown by her worry about the disappearance of Hannah, the woman who rescued her when she was abandoned by her mother at a convenience store. She even ends up drowning a cat, for heaven’s sake!

But the story is really about Taylor’s search for her mother. The connection between the past and the present is rather beautifully bridged through a manuscript written by Hannah about a group of teens who went to the Jellicoe School in the eighties. This manuscript holds the key to Taylor’s own story. But I wish Marchetta had shown a little more restraint when she was ladling out the tragedies and violent deaths in this book! It seems that her idea of a hero is someone to whom horrible things keep happening over and over again. Talk about misery overload! Still, it’s a book that sticks with you, leaving an aftertaste so distinct that you know you’ll never forget it.

Tough times, tough measures: Hosting the At-Home Kids’ Birthday Bash

These days we’re all trying to cut corners: mowing our own lawns, shoveling our own snow, ironing our own shirts… and even–ye gods!–throwing our own kids’ birthday parties!

As anyone who has ever hosted a little kids’ birthday party in their own home knows, the journey from the first ding-dong heralding the arrival of a small guest to the handing out of the last party favor is never a smooth one.

Balloons will be popped,  juice will be spilled, food will be trodden into the carpet, clothing will be destroyed, and  feelings will be hurt (especially if you decide to play musical chairs).

Nonetheless, at-home birthday parties can be fun and rewarding. Honestly.

The most important thing is to rope in a couple of mothers to help you on the day. Promise them wine or chocolate, or both. You could even offer to do all the car pooling for the next few weeks–whatever it takes. Just get them to stay, because no woman–gosh darn it, no couple–can handle seventeen seven-year-olds on a sugar high without back-up.

Choose your helpers wisely, though. You don’t want to your right-hand woman to be the kind who panics when the papier mache volcano blows, or  is too squeamish to mop up blood.

Perhaps most important of all, make sure non-designated parents understand that this is a drop-off event. Don’t allow lingering mothers to block up your kitchen for the duration of the party. They will stand around gossiping about the teacher and eating the kids’ Goldfish crackers by the fistful. They won’t be any help at all. And if you give them wine, you’re done for. They won’t leave when the disignated hour arrives. They may even suggest  moving the party on to a pizza parlor or other den of iniquity. Above all, they will not help cut cake, sing happy birthday, blow noses, hand out goody bags, or even clean up. The noise of their general merriment will vie with the cries of the children, who by then will be tired,  cranky, and primed to pick fights.

It goes without saying that you should keep the kids outside, if at all possible. To foil the devil in his eternal quest to find work for idle hands, set up stations where small groups of guests can fish for rubber duckies, throw beanbags at a coconut, or shoot hoops. Fit as many stations as you can into your space, to accommodate potentially short attention spans. At all costs, you want to avoid ending up with a crowd of bored elementary schoolers on your hands. The destructive potential of bored elementary schoolers can never be over-estimated.

If your child has a winter birthday, you’re probably better off  celebrating the half-birthday instead. Little kids trapped indoors, in sizeable numbers, are a recipe for disaster. In the event of a forecast of rain, phone around and see whether anyone you know has a canopy they can erect in your backyard.  Failing that, phone around again to see whether anyone has an obscure but gripping DVD that none of the kids are likely to have seen before. If the kids end up watching a movie, do NOT give them popcorn, unless you’re happy to be excavating it from your floorboards and furniture for the next several months. Darken the room as much as possible. Station an adult to keep order, or you may come back from heating up nuggets to find that the TV has been reconfigured and now operates only in purple and black.

Check toilets frequently and have a plunger standing by. Small children believe that paper cups are flushable.

Be sure to take photographs of all your party guests so that you can send cute thank you  notes back to the parents, showing their beaming child in the act of taking apart your antique Japanese fan collection. These will come in handy when you sue for damages.

Keep party favors simple and cheap.  It’s best if you can dream up a craft/activity that also doubles as a favor. For example, have the kids decorate cookies and send those home in a Chinese takeaway box with a couple of cookie cutters tied to the handle with pretty ribbon. Or have them create one of those fiddly crafts from Oriental Trading that involve glue sticks, googly eyes, and press-out pieces of foam. Nobody can ever complete these crafts, but that’s okay. Simply send them home as works-in-progress in an attractive goody bag–and let the mother dispose of them herself  in her own garbage can.

At-home parties are definitely making a come-back, and with just a little planning and imagination, your whole family should be able to enjoy a couple of hours of birthday cheer the old-fashioned way. Be aware though that you’ll need about a week to recover, so schedule carefully.

Should You Give a Kid a Kindle?

Seven Reasons to Give a Kid a Kindle:

1. She will think it’s the coolest gift ever.

2. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, endlessly renewing itself: new books at the touch of a button from here until eternity….

3. You’ll never have to rush out to the bookstore to get the next book in the series she’ s absolutely hooked on (unless Kindle doesn’t stock the next book in the series…. ).

4. Her bookshelves will be a lot less cluttered. No untidy piles of books waiting on the night stand.

5. Books are deeply discounted on Kindle. Assuming that they generally cost about $5 less, after about–say–25 books, the device will have paid for itself and you will start clocking up real savings.

6. She will be able to read several books at once without toting a huge book bag around with her.

7. And did I mention, she’ll think it’s the coolest gift ever?

Six Reasons Not to Give a Kid a Kindle:

1. Do you really want your absent-minded teen to have to keep track, on a daily basis, of  something that costs several hundred dollars?

2. It’s too easy to shop on a Kindle–just the touch of a button, no credit card details required.  What if she buys five books a day?

3. I like to know what my teen is reading; much harder to monitor, on a Kindle.

4. What if she wants to lend a book to a friend? No way is she lending out her Kindle…

5. She can’t read a Kindle at the beach, in the bath, or up a tree.

6. I bet she’ll be wearing glasses within six months if she starts reading on a screen full time–yes, despite what they say about it being no-glare etc.

BUT she will still think it’s the coolest gift ever

Are You a Power Mom?

CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOUL: POWER MOMS has just come out, and I have a piece in it.

I think every pediatrician’s office ought to have a copy of this book in its waiting room, for all those exhausted moms sitting glassy-eyed and shell-shocked with their crying children after yet another sleepless night mopping a fevered brow/changing a wet bed/cleaning up vomit/chasing away nightmares. It’s inspirational reading.

I’ve never really thought of myself as a Power Mom. I’m definitely a mom but sometimes when I’m going one-on-one with my seven year old, I’m not quite sure exactly who is wielding the power. But I like the concept of Power Moms. I think it’s great.

Because as we all know, the whole mom thing is totally underestimated by innocent bystanders.

I mean, nobody who hasn’t been through it really understands what’s involved.

I still remember my own rude awakening. During my first pregnancy I felt terribly important. Everybody treated me as if I were really delicate and fragile and special. People wanted to touch my bump. They wanted to know all the details of how I felt, what I was eating, how I was sleeping.

When we checked into the hospital, the special treatment went on. People were monitoring my every heart beat—oh, hang on, maybe it was the baby’s every heart beat. But they were definitely monitoring my blood pressure, and they kept asking me to describe my ‘discomfort’, on a scale of one to ten. They were hanging on my every word. I was the center of the universe.

Then, finally, the big moment arrived and my baby made her grand entrance into the world. On cue, the door of the hospital room flew open and about half a dozen people burst in—all decked out in white coats and masks. Somebody let me hold the baby for a fraction of a second, then a person in a white coat plucked her off my breast and marched out of the room with her. And everybody followed. Every last soul. Not even my husband stayed behind to hold my hand and ask if I wanted a drink of water. Which I did, pretty badly, to be frank.

So there I lay, battered and bleeding and bent out of shape, wondering when my crowd of admirers would come flocking back to my bedside, full of admiration and congratulations.

They never did. From the moment she entered the world, it wasn’t about me anymore. It was all about the baby.

And me—I was chopped liver.

And that’s what being a mom is all about: becoming a support system for another human life. There’s no ‘me’ anymore, only ‘mom-meee’.

Of course, the real trick is not losing track of yourself while you’re doing all that supporting. The real trick is holding on to a sense of yourself as an individual, that person you were before the baby made its grand entrance. The women who wrote the stories in CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOUL: POWER MOMS are power moms because, one way or another (and it hasn’t always been pretty), they’ve managed to do this. They’ve managed to maintain a sense of themselves in the midst of diapers and bottles and binkies, homework and carpools and soccer matches. Better still, instead of draining them dry, motherhood has made them stronger and wiser.

As I said, every pediatrician’s waiting room ought to have a copy of this book. But maybe the OB/gyn offices shouldn’t stock them. No point in scaring the living daylights out of pregnant women.

Beware the Mobile Dog Groomer

The mobile dog groomer came to our house a couple of days ago. Our dog, a wheaten terrier, had reached a degree of matted fluffiness that could no longer be ignored.  She looked like an explosion of fur, with no eyes to speak of at all–and her beard! Well, it was quite as revolting as the beard of an old man who trails his facial hair in his soup.

 Now, don’t run away with the idea that we neglect this dog. We brush her. We wash her. We spruce her up. Often. It just doesn’t help.

We didn’t want to shave her completely, or ‘strip’ her as it’s called in the dog grooming trade, given that we had a couple of inches of snow on the ground and a good three months of winter still ahead of us. Besides, when she was last shaved, the children were traumatized to see what a shrunken, pink-skinned, skeletal creature lurked underneath the robust shaggy silhouette we were used to. 

We had no choice but to do something, though–she was so matted that the vet threatened her skin would become oxygen starved. What happens to skin when it’s oxygen starved, I’m not quite sure. (I wasn’t really aware skin could breathe, in the first place.) But it hardly seemed fair on the wheaten terrier to wait and find out.

My husband came home with a scrap of paper he’d torn off a hand-written flyer on the message board at the supermarket.  “Wouldn’t the kids love it if a doggy parlor pulled up in our driveway?” he mused.

I was less optimistic about the probable entertainment value of the mobile dog groomer, but I felt that a small business owner might be more respectful of her client’s wishes than our usual doggy parlor was. At the place we normally take Maggie to, a disdainful teenage girl tends to insist that we sign a release allowing the parlor to ‘strip dog if necessary’.

When I spoke to her on the phone, the mobile groomer lady–let’s call her Barb–seemed willing to humor me. “We really don’t want her to lose her whole coat, if you can possibly save it,” I told her. “She has some matted patches–maybe you could comb through them? Or cut them out?”

“I’ll try,” Barb said.

On the day, the big white van showed up in our driveway an hour late. It was just like waiting for the cable guy. “Sorry, but I had to clean up the van,” she told us briskly. “The last dog I had in there threw up all over the place. Boy, could he projectile vomit. It’s still kinda stinky.”

“Want to look inside the lady’s van, kids?” my husband asked. But they slunk off without answering.

Barb then bent down to run a knowing hand over our terrier’s quivering body. Poor dog, she seemed to realize that this wasn’t a social call.

“She sure has a lot of mats,” Barb said. “How about… how about if I just trim her coat a little, make it more manageable?”

My husband and I looked at each other and shrugged. “Okay, but we don’t want her shaved,” we told her.

She led Maggie out like a lamb to the slaughter.

I was on the computer when, a surprisingly short time later, I heard Barb’s voice from the kitchen. I hurried along to investigate. To be honest, I had misgivings.

But my misgivings didn’t prepare me in the least for the sight that met my eyes.

Maggie was straining on the leash, her eyes bugging out of her head. At first, I thought the woman had done nothing to her at all. Then she moved and I saw her from the front.

Maggie looked like a kid’s drawing of a sheep–a fat little cloud, with two skinny sticks in the front for legs.

I looked at my husband, who was already in the room. He shook his head, speechless.

I looked at Barb.

“Sorry,” she said. “I couldn’t do it. Her mats are too close to the skin. I was afraid of hurting her. You’ll have to take her to an animal hospital.”

“But–but …” I gestured at Maggie’s front legs. They were roughly shaven, thin as pencils emerging from her great shaggy coat.

“I had to stop,” Barb said. “It was getting dangerous. Tell you what, I’m not going to charge you.”

And she left.

Five minutes later I was on the phone to our usual doggy parlor. They were able to take us first thing the next morning. As I walked in, the bored-looking teenager exhibited a small jolt of animation as she took in Maggie’s haircut. “Has the dog had surgery?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “She’s had a mobile dog groomer.”

The girl shook her head and went back (big time) to bored-and-disdainful mode. She pushed the form across the counter to me, the one authorising the parlor to ‘strip dog if necessary’.  I signed without a whimper.

'After'
'After'

Santa brought us a Wii!

Santa brought a Wii down our chimney at midnight on Christmas Eve.

 

Hurray, I thought. Santa’s a genius! Three Wii remotes, three children—dissent will be a thing of the past in the Chidley household. (Dissent has been rising to epic proportions lately because of the ‘one computer-three children’ state of affairs.) And indeed, the whole Wii thing started out on a highly promising note, with everybody rolling on the floor in hysterics over the antics of the hapless Mii tennis players, all of whom seemed remarkably inept. We would howl and hoot as they leapt in the air, desperate to make contact with the ball, always just a hair’s breadth too late.

 

But as the children grew more proficient with the digital racquet, the situation began to change. In a surprisingly short space of time, they’d all come to grips with the timing aspects of the game. No more wild flailing at the wrong split second. Long rallies became the order of the day. And then, out of nowhere, Middle Child mastered the hitherto unknown art of serving high-speed aces to her opponent, who generally didn’t even have the wits to shake a racquet at the ball as it blasted by.

                                                                                                               

Around the same time, Youngest developed the habit of leaping into the air as he ‘hit’ the ball, which seemed to give him a low hard stroke that was almost impossible to return.

 

Eldest developed a knack of swishing her ‘racquet’ continually, which allowed her net player to return impossible shots, completely confounding the opposing team.

 

Just as I was settling down with a book, congratulating myself on the new peace Wii had brought to our embattled household, voices became raised. The dreaded cry, ‘Not fair!’ began to ring in the air. At a certain point, a punch-up seemed inevitable.

 

“Children,” I said sternly, “if you can’t show good sportsmanship, we’ll have to put the Wii away.”  They slunk off to play with their Nintendo DS’s instead.

 

In the evening, Husband and I decided to give the Wii a go.

 

We’ve been at it for two days now, on and off. I won’t let him forget—not for a moment—that I knocked him out twice at boxing. There we were—drenched in sweat, wildly punching the air in our living room, weaving and feinting, going in for body shots when we dared, grunting and groaning, jabbing at each other’s heads with a grim concentration that the children found downright scary—just for the fun of it! It was sort of ridiculous, yes—but strangely satisfying. Because I won!

 

Tennis isn’t nearly as much fun. It was at first—because I won. But Husband has been practicing on the sly. The moment I leave the room to unpack the dishwasher or check my email, he’s up there with his racquet, challenging Jack and Hugo to best of three. And he’s getting ridiculously good. He has all kinds of tricks up his sleeve—angles, lobs, low balls, speed balls, I swear he’s even figuring out how to put spin on that sucker. I can’t seem to win a single point, anymore.

 

To tell you the truth, I’m beginning to think the Wii is over-rated. I mean, here I am, barely able to move my arms because they ache so much from swinging that remote control, glaring at Husband with deep resentment, subjected on a regular basis to the sight of his victory dance while my Mii hangs her head in shame on the wide screen; I mean, it’s just not dignified.

 

Anyway, at least Husband is going back to work tomorrow. I’ll have eight uninterrupted hours to figure out how to hit an ace. Perhaps Middle Child can teach me. I’ll have to bribe her with cookies. And when Husband comes home tomorrow night, he’ll be toast.

 

**Elise Chidley is author of Your Roots Are Showing, a romantic comedy about marriage, email, and mistakes.