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Monday, October 5, 2015

'Ready For This' - new ABC television series

Six teenagers, all elite within their own field, have come to live at Arcadia House to pursue their dreams. For some it's the opportunity of a lifetime. For others it's a last chance. 
 All are strangers, some a long way from home, and the last thing they expect to find is family. 
 Far from home, they must find a path through the new challenges and adventures that the big city offers while dealing with all the trials of growing up.

‘Ready for This’ is the new teen drama airing Mondays on ABC-3, an Australian co-production between Blackfella Films and Werner Film Productions.

The show follows six indigenous teenagers moving to Sydney to pursue and hone their talents in sport and music. There’s sprinter Zoe (Madeleine Madden) who has Olympic dreams. Levi (Aaron McGrath) is a talented AFL player, while Dylan (Liam Talty) has interests in electronic music and graffiti art. Ava (Majeda Beatty) comes from a close-knit family and struggles to find her singing voice as she feels lonely and isolated in the city. And the mysterious Lily (Leonie Whyman) is battling some serious aggression and bottling secrets. All six kids move to Sydney hostel, Arcadia House – and find themselves under the watchful eye of caretakers Vee (Christine Anu) and Mick (Lasarus Ratuere).

With the first episode we’re introduced to these teens, and hints are dropped about what will be in store for them as they get settled into their new environment. Zoe finds herself butting heads with the blonde-haired, Lorna Jane-clad crowd of established athletes at her new school, one of whom labels her a “blow in” and rattles her nerves. Ava’s homesick and particularly uncomfortable in the concrete jungle of Sydney, at one point musing to Dylan that it seems even the stars have stayed behind rather than come to this place … her upset is compounded by a haunted bedroom, while Lily thinks the spirit may be more of a message for her. Zoe and Levi have an initial attraction, which is thrown off kilter when they realise their families have a Darwin history and ongoing feud that cannot be overlooked …

There are just enough breadcrumbs dropped in this first episode to seriously hook viewers – characterization and the tentative establishment of relationships were particularly nicely done in this introduction. I especially loved that ‘Ready for This’ really does feel like an ensemble – meaning all of these fascinating tales will get their time in the spotlight.

I also do love this cast – many of the younger actors are new and clearly impressive talents to have been uncovered. Others are a little more familiar, like Aaron McGrath who has recently starred in another brilliant ABC production ‘Glitch’, but also in another favourite Blackfella Films production, ‘Redfern Now’. I remember McGrath in particular, because he appeared in my favorite episode ‘Stand Up’, about an indigenous scholarship kip attending a prestigious private school who keeps refusing to sing the Australian national anthem, for deeply personal and cultural reasons … it was such a powerful episode and McGrath so impressed me, and I’m beyond thrilled to see him appearing more and more on our TV screens! I particularly love the little touches to his character that definitely hint at the larger, important context of a TV show like ‘Ready for This’ … like the photo on Dylan’s wall, of Nicky Winmar’s famous protest (FYI, read the book ‘Black and Proud: The Story of an Iconic AFL Photo’) or the fact that he does sport a Sydney Swans jersey after a year of utterly disgraceful racism lobbed at (now retired) AFL star Adam Goodes.

‘Ready for This’ is the dream-time melding of two seriously impressive production companies in Blackfella Films and Werner Film Productions. Blackfella being the creators of the aforementioned ‘Redfern Now’, a series that really did change the Australian TV landscape at a time when our local content was dangerously whitewashed. Werner Film Productions, meanwhile, was the creator of international success ‘Dance Academy’ – another Aussie teen TV series that I absolutely fell in love with. That these two have come together to create Australia’s first Indigenous teen drama is happy news indeed – even while there is a fair amount of sighing involved to realize it is the year 2015, and we’re only just reaching this milestone.

‘Ready for This’ is an impressive and welcome new addition to the Australian TV landscape, particularly for teen audiences coming to this coming-of-age drama which focuses on indigenous characters. The first episode has absolutely hooked me (and if you missed it, it’s currently up on ABC iView!) I’m so excited to have a new ABC drama series to obsess over.


'Don’t Get Me Wrong' by Marianne Kavanagh

Received via NetGalley

From the BLURB:

For fans of Jojo Moyes, David Nicholls and Sophie Kinsella, here is a Pride and Prejudice for the modern era.

Londoners Kim and Harry can’t see eye to eye…until the life of the person they both love most hangs in the balance. 

Kim has never grasped what her free-spirited big sister Eva sees in a stuck-up banker like Harry and has spent her childhood trying to keep him out, while Harry’s favourite occupation is winding Kim up.

Both Harry and Kim are too trapped in their prejudices to care about what’s really going on beneath the surface of each other’s lives. They’ll never understand each other—until the worst of all tragedy strikes.

Faced with the possibility of losing the person they both love most, long-buried secrets come to a head in ways that will change both Harry and Kim forever.

‘Don't Get Me Wrong’ is the new women’s-fiction novel by British author Marianne Kavanagh.

I thought I would love this book and I really, really didn’t. It’s actually one of the harder-slogs I’ve read through this year, if not the hardest. I definitely should have DNF’ed this book, but for the frustratingly inaccurate tagline that promised this book was ‘for fans of Jojo Moyes, David Nicholls and Sophie Kinsella, here is a Pride and Prejudice for the modern era’ – that gave me a ridiculously false sense of hope that I clung to throughout the read, and became yet another reason I was so frustrated with the book.

The book is told in third-person, but follows Kim – an idealistic “greenie” whose first job out of college is in working for a charity – and our other protagonist is Harry, a London banker who rubs Kim the exact wrong way. They’re not friends, but they have one person in common – Kim’s sister Eva, who is Harry’s best friend and possibly something even more complicated … Kim can’t stand Harry, but when tragedy strikes she may have to set her prejudices aside and start seeing him in a different light.

There have been so many straight-up Jane Austen adaptations and in particular, modernisations that saying something is “a Pride and Prejudice for the modern era” is tricky. ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong’ actually has next to nothing to do with P&P apart from that over-zealous tagline, and an adversarial relationship that’s got the slightest whiff of Mr. Darcy and Lizzie’s complicated misunderstandings. But making a call that this book is “a Pride and Prejudice for the modern era” has kind of shot it in the foot because, like I said, readers nowadays are so accustomed to that gimmick of modernising that most beloved romance … I’ve actually noted that most of the negative reviews for ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong’ are complaining about things like; “did zero justice to one Elizabeth Bennett” and specifically calling it out as a bad retelling. It’s not a bad retelling because it’s not a P&P retelling. Not that I think Jane Austen can wholly claim the trope of judging someone before you’ve properly got to know them, but that’s all that ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong’ has tenuously in common … unless you also want to try and stretch Kim and Eva to being a riff on Jane and Elizabeth, which I don’t think they were.

So – first complaint out of the gate is the murky assumptions lots of readers will go into this book with, only because marketing has tried to throw just about every target-audience trigger at it that Kavanagh just doesn’t live up to …

I kinda get the Jojo Moyes and David Nicholls tagline reference too – but Kavanagh just isn’t as good or charming a writer as those two. I’m sorry, she’s just not. For one thing, Moyes and Nicholls know how to intersect weighty social commentary with addictive, romantic subplots – and they do that very well. Kavanagh’s attempts in ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong’ are clunky … I mean; a socialist-idealist and a London banker? Really? Especially when part of the book is set in the Global Financial Crisis of 07-08? Urgh.

Kavanagh’s third-person narrative is also hard to get through. There’s little finesse, especially in timeline-transitions. On more than one occasion I was pulled up short trying to figure out how the characters went from anticipating an event in one paragraph, to rehashing how it all played out in another. It even took me a couple of pages to realise that at one point, Harry had actually moved from London to Manhattan because following those timeline-leaps is just a headache. 

She’s also quite fond of rambling thoughts – or, rather, letting characters express rambling thoughts that just come out of nowhere and left me scratching my head. Like this monologue on why people only ever laugh awkwardly when female comics do sex-stuff in their stand-up: 

So sex gets a laugh because it’s like food – enjoyable, but with negative side effects. Like going out for a curry. You pile everything in, chew it, swallow it, sit there belching, burping and farting, and finally end up on the toilet. Overall, as an experience, you might rate it at ninety per cent, but not because of the gassy parts.

Her similes are also awful, and there are an awful lot of them. Like this one, in which she compares a toddler to an elderly colonel; 
 He seemed to experience the world as interesting but excessive. Loud noises, extreme weather and extravagant displays of affection all made him frown, like an elderly colonel who catches sight of a young woman in a very short skirt and isn’t sure whether to complain or applaud.
The similes are especially painful when they try to be profound. She’d have been better off just writing; ‘it was like this thing that I’m trying to express and whatever the opposite of that thing is’. Instead we get;

He took in her short blonde hair, her fine cheekbones, her determined chin, and it was like looking at a photograph of someone he didn’t know. It was like being presented with evidence of something that was obvious but that he’d always chosen to ignore.

Clunky prose style is the main problem with this book, or at least it was for me. I don’t know if it was third-person that she struggled with, but there was no eloquence or spark on the page. She’s no Jojo Moyes, David Nicholls or Jane Austen, that’s for sure;

‘Don’t you remember? I’m the rich banker. The one who pays.’ 
Oh, she thought wearily. So we’re back here again. She had a picture in her mind of a soldier in filthy battle dress bending down to pick up his gun.

And the characters are all pretty awful and one-dimensional. The author is so determined to hit home this ‘judging people before you get to know them’ concept that Kim has no flexibility throughout the book, she remains determinedly awful for her insistence on misjudging Harry …. and Harry, well – did I mention he’s a banker during the global financial crisis? Yeah – and pretty cardboard to boot. Eva was likewise a non-character for being a caricature hippie; a waifish free-spirit.

I did not like this book.


Thursday, October 1, 2015

'Dead Ever After' Sookie Stackhouse, #13 by Charlaine Harris

From the BLURB:

There are secrets in the town of Bon Temps, ones that threaten those closest to Sookie—and could destroy her heart...

Sookie Stackhouse finds it easy to turn down the request of former barmaid Arlene when she wants her job back at Merlotte’s. After all, Arlene tried to have Sookie killed. But her relationship with Eric Northman is not so clearcut. He and his vampires are keeping their distance…and a cold silence. And when Sookie learns the reason why, she is devastated.

Then a shocking murder rocks Bon Temps, and Sookie is arrested for the crime.

But the evidence against Sookie is weak, and she makes bail. Investigating the killing, she’ll learn that what passes for truth in Bon Temps is only a convenient lie. What passes for justice is more spilled blood. And what passes for love is never enough...

‘Dead Ever After’ was the 13th and final book in Charlaine Harris’s popular paranormal romance series; ‘Sookie Stackhouse’ which was adapted into the now concluded HBO TV series, ‘True Blood’.

So, ‘Dead Ever After’ came out in 2013 but I’ve only just managed to read this final book in one of my most beloved series from favourite author, Charaine Harris. Why so long? Well to be honest, I developed a bit of fatigue around this series. Twelfth book ‘Deadlocked’ left me seriously underwhelmed, and I was just never in the right headspace to bid farewell to beloved waitress Sookie Stackhouse, and read the conclusion to her colourful life. I thought perhaps the finale season of the HBO adaptation ‘True Blood’ in 2014 would ignite my curiosity to read how things wrapped up in Harris’s very different book series … but like many fans, I’d also grown weary of ‘True Blood’ by the end and was seriously underwhelmed by that finale. 

Instead I took my time coming to this conclusion. Prompted by my re-watching DVDs of ‘True Blood’, and so enjoying the earlier seasons that hinged closer to Harris’s, world I found myself curious about the fictional waitress who first stepped out in 2001 book ‘Dead Until Dark’, and how her life ended up … though I had my suspicions (first put forth in my review of ‘Deadlocked’) and unsurprisingly confirmed by all the online spoiler chatter when ‘Dead Ever After’ came out to much fan ire and disappointment.

Look, ‘Dead Ever After’ does feel a bit like a Variety Special ending. There’s a whodunit that draws in several shady individuals from Sookie’s past, and prompts many of her strongest allies to descend on her little house to help her figure out who’s trying to get her thrown into jail. I was especially surprised to see weretiger Quinn coming to Sookie’s aid and getting a bit of page-time, only because I’ve always been annoyed that he departed the series and Sookie’s love life so suddenly and without much preamble (but I do suspect this was Harris getting him ready for appearances in then forthcoming series ‘Midnight, Texas’).

The book therefore has the rather transparent feel of a ‘Best Of’, as various characters (some of whom we haven’t seen since book #7) come out of the woodwork … and of course those human and supernatural friends are there to reiterate Sookie’s connection to the living world, to the daylight – hence the other side to this coin is the absence of some of the series’ favourite vampiric characters.

Eric hasn’t been himself since he won Sookie’s heart. He just hasn’t – gone was the charming lechery, the blunt flirting and the delicious push-pull of his affection for Sookie versus his vampiric nature. And given the fact that Charlaine Harris had long dispelled fan speculation about vampire-human babies, and Sookie’s want for a family of her own has always been so strong – she and Eric were doomed from the start, a more interesting flirtation than relationship that withers and dies in spectacularly dull fashion here in ‘Dead Ever After’.

As I sat on the front porch with a glass of iced tea, I examined myself to see if my heart was broken. I was so emotionally exhausted, I couldn’t tell. As I saw it, maybe melodramatically, Eric and I were struggling with the chains of the love that had bound us together, and it didn’t seem we could either break free of those chains or resume them.
This is perhaps the biggest disappointment of the book – that one of Harris’s most beloved and colourful characters was allowed to become so mundane and predictable. I can only hope that she has a short story or ‘Midnight, Texas’ appearance in store for him in the future, to reclaim some of his – what Sookie refers to as, – ‘joie de morte’ that definitely petered out over the drawn-out course of the ‘Sookie Stackhouse’ series.

But otherwise I did kind of enjoy this finale book. I know many people complained about a lacklustre ending (mostly tied to the lack of Eric, and his muted nature in the scenes he does appear in), but I thought the mystery was decent (if a little overwrought) and I liked how changed Sookie is in this book from the first. She’s a little more bloodthirsty and headstrong, not so quick to comfort those who have made mistakes and just generally feels like a different woman (something I’d expect after 13 books).

Regarding Sookie’s final romance … look, I wish this had been pulled out a lot earlier, maybe at around book #10 to start really teasing out Sookie’s final happy ending and because I do genuinely think the coupling is a good one that makes a lot of sense, I’d have actually liked to read them play out a little more than the bare-tasting we get in this finale. That being said – I’m good with where Sookie ended up. And I’m good with the final book, and thoroughly enjoyed reading new (to me) words from Charlaine Harris, who has an indelible style;

“’Maybe’ is such a bad word,” I said. “You can ‘maybe’ yourself back to Adam and Eve and the serpent.”

This series isn’t my favourite of Charlaine Harris’s (‘Lily Bard’ and ‘Aurora Teagarden’ rank higher for me, followed by ‘Harper Connelly’) but I have enjoyed reading it since 2007 and have serious respect for how long Harris kept things interesting. I read the coda book ‘After Dead’ (which, yes, is awful and I won’t say anymore about it), but I was really touched by this note at the end from Harris that put Sookie into perspective;

In real-life terms, my daughter was in the first grade when I began; she graduated from college as the series ended. 
Sookie was my best fictional friend for a long time. I lived almost as much in Bon Temps as I lived in the real world, and my protagonist and her life were never far from me.

‘Dead Ever After’ was not a perfect finale, but then again the last few books in the series haven’t lent themselves to high expectations … that being said, I was good with where Sookie ended up, even as I wished to have read her settled a little earlier in the series and for longer. I’m glad I finally caught up in this series, that I got a chance to say ‘see ya later’ to Ms Stackhouse; so much more than a waitress.


Monday, September 28, 2015

'How to Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Sex and Teenage Confusion’ by David Burton

From the BLURB:

A funny, sad and serious memoir, How to Be Happy is David Burton’s story of his turbulent life at high school and beyond. Feeling out of place and convinced that he is not normal, David has a rocky start. He longs to have a girlfriend, but his first ‘date’ is a disaster. There’s the catastrophe of the school swimming carnival—David is not sporty—and friendships that take devastating turns. Then he finds some solace in drama classes with the creation of ‘Crazy Dave’, and he builds a life where everything is fine. But everything is not fine.

And, at the centre of it all, trying desperately to work it all out, is the real David.

How to Be Happy tackles depression, friendship, sexual identity, suicide, academic pressure, love and adolescent confusion. It’s a brave and honest account of one young man’s search for a happy, true and meaningful life that will resonate with readers young and old.

'How to Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Sex and Teenage Confusion’ is Australian author David Burton’s debut.

I read this book ages ago and then didn’t know what to do about how much I loved it. Writing a review was hard, and the words I tried to put down didn’t adequately express how much I loved the book. And then I went to Brisbane Writers Festival, and attended an ‘in conversation’ between David and fellow memoirist, Robert Hoge that just blew me away for how candid and funny he was – that reiterated for me just how special ‘How to be Happy’ truly is … and still, I struggled. So just know that this review will probably end up expressing only a miniscule fraction of my admiration for David and this book of his, which won the 2014 Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing. Sorry – I tried, but this really is one of those books and authors that I’m just going to end up telling you to read and attend any of his appearances because there’s something special here that you’ve just got to discover for yourself. Anywho.

The book opens thus;
 I don’t know how to be happy. 
Yeah, sorry. Awkward. 
Okay, let me rephrase. I don’t know how to make you happy. But I have a pretty good idea what would help. Trouble is, my tops sound fairly lame. It’s like when you ask someone about the secret to losing weight and then answer ‘eat well and exercise’. 
True, but profoundly unhelpful.  

And right there is how I got totally onboard with this brutally honest and funny memoir – because David’s “endgame” as a memoirist is really to just put the ugly truth down on paper. To put into a book all the things he went through – two brothers with Aspergers, bullied at school, worried about a self-harming friend, his own spirals into depression and anxiety not to mention all the teenager years of sexual confusion and hormonal whirlpools.

At one point David remembers his dad giving him a copy of John Marsden’s ‘Secret Men’s Business’, a 1998 non-fiction book for teen boys that touched on everything from leadership responsibilities to masturbation (a revelation for young David Burton at the time – hilariously). But what he especially remembers about this book crossing his path was just his astonishment at somebody writing these things down and sharing them – being candid with teenagers about such topics (remember, Burton is a Millennial and his childhood was a pre-Internet one!). That’s what ‘How to be Happy’ does too – through the “character” of David he explores his own fumbles and foibles in such a charming and self-deprecating way that it’s quite disarming for a reader, but then the moment comes when you do realise that these things being discussed are still somewhat taboo in society (particularly honest discussions around mental health) and there is real bravery in David putting them on the page, sharing his story, stripping himself bare.

One aspect in particular is his sexuality. A socially awkward teen who didn’t fit into society’s “machismo” stereotype of a sport-loving, rough-tumbling manly man, David discovered his voice through the self-expression of drama class … and then struggled with what it meant that he was drawn to inherently “feminine” pursuits and activities. He assumed he was gay (a common epithet shouted at him by school bullies too) – and this becomes a fascinating time for current self-reflection, as he does address the narrow gender definitions, which so confused his teenage self (and that still permeate in society today). But David’s lusting after several female classmates does eventually clue him into the fact that he is heterosexual, but now equipped with a unique and accepting view of sexuality and gender fluidity.

The other big focus of the book, which is retold so tenderly, is David’s mental health, and that of his family – for his brothers’ unique Asperger view of the world, as well as his family’s history of depression. This is where David reminded me of the late, great YA author Ned Vizzini – who wrote with such biting honesty about depression in his characters (drawn on his own experiences). In ‘It's Kind of a Funny Story’ for instance, which began with the eerily accurate line “Its so hard to talk when you want to kill yourself.” David has similarly in-your-face honesty when writing about his depression and anxiety, that I found to be both moving and vital.

I also loved the tender heart of the book, a celebration of the friendships formed and trials overcome – and also for the little things that actually become importantly intrinsic to who you grow up to be. That is, I loved David paying tribute to what he grew up loving – an acknowledgment of the stories, fandom’s and connections he made that have had lasting influence on him (particularly considering he’s had a career in theatre!).

Mary and I discovered Harry Potter together, which, in terms of major life events, is almost as important as YOUR ACTUAL BIRTH. Lunchtimes regularly involved rushing to the library to pore over the latest instalment in Harry’s adventures and attempting to make predictions about upcoming books. We would also discuss Star Wars, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Discworld and Doctor Who at length. We were nerd soulmates. 
There are few reasons I would ever wish to be a teenager again, but I could be persuaded if it meant rediscovering all of these stories again for the first time and finding my unabashed passion for them.
And finally – I can’t stress this enough – ‘How to be Happy’ is funny. Bitingly, embarrassingly, genuinely – FUNNY. This sort of humour surely only comes when we’re forced to reflect on our teenage selves and suddenly see the joke that was so hard to laugh at, at the time of adolescence. This book is gold, and if I could I’d make it mandatory reading in schools … or, maybe, not in schools but mandatory under-the-covers with a torchlight, late into the night reading for all those teenagers wondering why they feel this way, when will it get better and does anybody understand me? For those teenagers I’d like to gift them ‘How to be Happy’ – because David won’t claim to have all the answers, but he’s been through the trenches and written about it in all his embarrassing teenage glory. 


Wednesday, September 23, 2015

'The Singing Bones: Inspired by Grimms' Fairy Tales' by Shaun Tan

 Received from the Publisher 

From the BLURB:

A unique and alluring art book showcasing Shaun Tan's extraordinary sculptures based on the timeless and compelling fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm.

In this beautifully presented volume, the essence of seventy-five fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm is wonderfully evoked by Shaun Tan's extraordinary sculptures.

Nameless princes, wicked stepsisters, greedy kings, honourable peasants and ruthless witches, tales of love, betrayal, adventure and magical transformation: all inspiration for this stunning gallery of sculptural works. Introduced by Grimm Tales author Philip Pullman and leading fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes, The Singing Bones breathes new life into some of the world's most beloved fairy tales.

‘The Singing Bones’ is the new Shaun Tan book, inspired by Grimms' Fairy Tales.

Author Philip Pullman (‘The Golden Compass’) provides the foreword and reflections on Tan’s work; essentially summarising the paradox that his three-dimensional creations are “superb at representing two-dimensional characters.” And he’s absolutely right. Fairy tales are in many ways all about didactics – intended for instruction. The Three Little Pigs is, arguably, about how half-arsing a job may provide short-term enjoyment but choosing the hard slog will have longer-lasting not-being-eaten-by-a-wolf rewards. Pullman explains that, ‘Fairy tale characters have very little character, only characteristics.’ But Tan’s sculptures somehow breathe life into the moralising tales; he conjures mystery and imagination from a single image.

‘The Singing Bones’ actually reminds me somewhat of Chris Van Allsburg’s classic ‘The Mysteries of Harris Burdick’ – the 1984 picture book of seemingly random, unrelated illustrations accompanied by a title and a single line of text (which compels readers to create their own stories). In much the same way that Allsburg took a snapshot of an unknown, mysterious tale and encouraged readers to fill in the blanks – Tan’s work is going in the opposite (but still fascinating) direction, by providing a snapshot from a well-known fairy tale and encouraging readers to remember the stories for themselves, or to go forth and investigate the lesser known fairytales … and I do believe that ‘The Singing Bones’ will go down as a classic in much the same way as ‘The Mysteries of Harris Burdick’ has.

Some of Tan’s chosen fairytales are fantastically creepy and delicious, like ‘The Boy Who Left Home To Find Out About Fear,’ which begins; “The boy went to the gallows, sat down beneath it, and waited until evening came.” The accompanying sculpture is equally, eerily unsettling – as beautiful and beastly as the words themselves. A particular favourite of mine was ‘The Maiden Without Hands’; for its disturbing title but surprisingly beautiful accompanying story and sculpture – it was one of the many examples of a narrative surprise, and a lesson in not presuming to know the tale before it’s told.

Jack Zipes (a retired American professor whose career was based around studying the evolution, social and political role of fairy tales) provides an introduction to the Brothers Grimm, and how they ‘made their way into the world.’ Having read Kate Forsyth’s marvellous novel ‘The Wild Girl’ a couple years ago, which is a fictional account (based on true history) of how the Brothers Grimm collected their tales during the Napoleonic Wars (and emphasises women’s contributions to their tales), I found Zipes’s history equally fascinating. Particularly when he gets into the 1970s feminist movement impacting the illustration and adaptation of the fairytales. And like Pullman, I really appreciated his unique incite into Tan’s interpretation of The Brothers Grimm: ‘All Tan’s sculptures estrange us and beckon us to gaze and think about moving them, to discover how they have been made, and why they have been drawn from the Grimm’s tales. They have been taken out of one world and installed in another setting.’

Tan’s author’s note tells us that all of the sculptures photographed within are between 6cm and 40cm tall, and primarily made from papier mâché (though other materials used include: wood, bronze patina, wax, fabric, pepper, nails, blossoms … you get the idea. The man looks at the natural world and sees potential for art in everything.) 

‘The Singing Bones’ is destined to be another Shaun Tan classic. It’s a gift of storytelling narration, setting new precedent for illustration and interpretation of the fairytales you only think you know so well …


Saturday, September 19, 2015

'Dumplin'' by Julie Murphy

Received from the Publisher 

From the BLURB:

Willowdean Dickson (Dumplin', to her mum) has always been at home in her own skin. Her thoughts on having the ultimate bikini body? Really, the criteria is simple. Do you have a body? Put a swimsuit on it.

But life as Willlow knows it is about to change, and when this happens she suffers an unaccustomed, and unwelcome, attack of self-doubt. In an effort to take back her confidence, she enters into the local Miss Teen Blue Bonner beauty pageant.

With starry Texas nights, red candy suckers, Dolly Parton songs and a wildly unforgettable heroine – Dumplin' is guaranteed to steal your heart. And send you out to buy that bikini!

‘Dumplin'’ is the second stand-alone contemporary young adult novel from American rising star, Julie Murphy (whose 2014 debut was ‘Side Effects May Vary’)

“Eff Your Beauty Standards” was a hashtag coined by Tess Holliday back in 2013 – Tess being a body positive activist, feminist, all-round awesome lady, world's biggest plus-sized super model and this year she was on the cover of People magazine. Oh yeah, AND I’VE MET HER! But I mention her here because in reading ‘Dumplin'’ I was moved by this idea that Julie Murphy’s book is basically a YA-ode to “Eff Your Beauty Standards!” – and that’s goddamn awesome.

Because let me just say, that when we talk about ‘We Need Diverse Books’ probably one aspect of that grassroots movement that doesn’t get talked about more often is an acceptance of all different body types and physical diversity, and the promotion of positive body activism. I think Tess Holliday has been a great activist on this front, as has blogger Jes Baker (‘The Militant Baker’) and Australian author Robert Hoge who, if you haven’t yet - please watch his Australian Story and read his words on how important it is to embrace “ugly” in this beauty-obsessed world of ours (especially because the definitions of “beauty” are so narrow and restrictive).

There has really been a body/beauty positivity movement growing bigger and bigger, even in the last five or so years. And this year we have Julie Murphy’s ‘Dumplin'’, which is just the most beautiful young adult crystallization of this message – “Eff Your Beauty Standards!” love who you are. And, honestly, I couldn’t think of a better book or author to gift this message to teen readers.

The book is about 16-year-old Willowdean Dickson who, when we meet her, is a big girl already brimming with body confidence. She says completely rad things like;

I say the pants are to blame. I don’t like to think of my hips as a nuisance, but more of an asset. I mean, if this were, like, 1642, my wide birthing hips would be worth many cows or something.

And also …
 If living in my skin has taught me anything it's that if it's not your body, it's not yours to comment on. 
… not to mention …

It's not that I don't like new people. It's just that, in general, I do not like new people. 
Basically – she is an amazing individual and I don’t care that she’s fictional, because we are totally best friends.

And then Willowdean (‘Dumplin’ to her beauty pageant-obsessed mama) suddenly finds herself crushing hard on fellow Harpy’s Burgers & Dogs employee – and all-round dreamboat – Bo Larson … who starts to reciprocate the crush right back.

Suddenly Willowdean is thrust into a relationship with her dream guy, but far from being on cloud nine, she suddenly feels self-conscious. Her insecurity at being on Bo’s arm (and worrying that everybody is wondering what he sees in her), manifests in her sabotaging their relationship and her friendship with Ellen Dryver – her best friend in the whole world and the only person as obsessed with Dolly Parton as Willowdean is.

Running beneath Willowdean’s burgeoning insecurities is the memory of her aunt and surrogate parent, Lucy – who was obese and has died recently. While Willowdean is still mourning the loss and coming to terms with the emptiness in their home and her life, Willowdean’s mama throws herself into the Clover City Miss Teen Blue Bonnet Pageant … which gives Willowdean a brave idea to win back her confidence, and maybe win back the guy and her bestie too?

I loved this book. It’s smart and sassy, and Julie Murphy’s underlying message of loving yourself and embracing your own beauty standards is a great one, brilliantly communicated through the whip-quick character of Willowdean.

What I haven’t loved so much has been some of the mainstream reviews of the book, which are reductive and infuriating. Kirkus for example, summarised it thus; ‘a confident fat girl confronts new challenges to her self-esteem.’ And ended with; ‘In the end, it’s more liberating than oppressive, with bits of humor and a jubilant pageant takeover by beauty rebels to crown this unusual book about a fat character.’ Wow, Kirkus – way to miss the point and play into the fat-shaming by reducing an awesome, multi-layered teen like Willowdean to ‘a fat character’ … because, FYI – she’s more than her weight.

Thankfully though, those reviews that have missed the point are in the minority – and especially amongst teen readers, ‘Dumplin’’ is hitting a high-note – the word-of-mouth is insane, and overwhelmingly positive. Which just goes to show that the YA readership has been waiting a long time for someone as amazing as Willowdean, and an author as clever as Julie Murphy to introduce her to us.

This is a favourite of 2015 for me.


Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Interview with Fiona Wood, author of 'Cloudwish'

Q: Where did the idea for Cloudwish first spring from? And did you already have Vân Uoc’s story in mind when you were writing Wildlife?

Vân Uoc’s story was bubbling away while I was writing Wildlife. I took a long time naming the character – the translation of her name is the book title, Cloudwish. Her story wasn’t fully developed, but I knew she would be the protagonist. I liked the idea of taking a very minor character and saying, have a closer look, she has an interesting story, too; and taking a smartarsed jock (Billy Gardiner), and showing that he’s more complicated that he looks; and suggesting that these two characters might have a lot more in common than is immediately apparent.

And I wanted to use Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte as a reference point for the story. Vân Uoc calls Jane the quiet girls’ hero. Jane is a character judged by some within her narrative as being insignificant because she has no money or status or ostensible power, but she’s magnificently strong. Like Vân Uoc, she is relatively unprivileged in a world of privilege, but at every point she prevails. Vân Uoc lives her life by the credo: What would Jane do? She can’t always manage to do what she thinks Jane would do, but she gets better at it as the story progresses.

The magic story strand was suggested by a gift from Simmone Howell to me, and to Cath Crowley, of little glass tubes with slips of paper inside them. As soon as I held that object in my hand, it was asking to have a story told about it.

Q: Your first two novels – Six Impossible Things and Wildlife – were both written in first-person. I wonder if you can talk through your decision to change Cloudwish up and write in third-person?

In Cloudwish, I use the third person to note in a formal way that I am writing a character with a cultural and ethnic background that is not my own. It’s something that readers might not even notice particularly, but it was important to me to keep that in mind throughout the writing process. My point of departure was as a respectful, observant outsider. I wasn’t writing from inside a lived experience. Often, writing fiction, you’re not. You do take on imaginative tasks that are outside your experience, but as someone from a majority culture writing about a character from a minority culture, respect, research, and asking for advice and feedback from people within the cultural group were integral to the job.

Q: Vân Uoc has probably jumped to the top of my list of all-time favourite protagonists in Aussie YA … She’s the daughter of Vietnamese refugees who arrived in Australia in 1980, and she brings such an important and unique perspective that’s rarely explored in YA. I wonder how did you go about researching Vân Uoc’s Vietnamese background, to portray her experience as the daughter of refugee parents?

Vân Uoc was in part inspired by my now seven-year involvement in a volunteer tutor program, Friday Night School, where my student, and many other students, come from the Vietnamese Australian community. So I’ve seen over a number of years the particular challenges that students have in cases where their parents have sought refuge and settled in a new country, and the children’s understanding of the local culture and language exceeds that of their parents. At the same time there is an understandable expectation within families that the culture of origin is respected and adhered to. Living with two cultures provides a great richness, but also a frustration when two sets of expectations differ and sometimes collide. And I’ve seen the strong love and respect that children have for their parents, and the understanding of the bravery of their parents in looking for a new home. I also interviewed Vietnamese Australian people outside the tutor program, and did the usual desk research. But I wouldn’t have taken the character on if it weren’t for being part of the tutor program.

Q: I also love Alice Walker’s quote at the beginning of this book, from her 2014 Sydney Writer’s Festival appearance. I wonder if you can speak more about what Walker was saying, and how that influenced/helped you in writing Cloudwish from a cultural perspective that’s not your own?

To me, that quote is about empathy, which is not simply projecting yourself into an experience that is superficially just like your own; it’s about seeing a deeper commonality in the human experience. It’s an invitation to look more carefully and to understand how connected we are. Majority groups aren’t always so good at doing this. Minority groups have always been expected to do it, for example, to engage with texts that feature predominantly white characters. The character of Vân Uoc is the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants. She negotiates two languages and two cultures, and she’s a typical teenage girl living in Melbourne. I have such a strong sense of books and reading connecting us across time and language and cultures. Because Jane Eyre is an important book for Vân Uoc, it was a serendipitous delight to read Alice Walker saying that she, too, had loved and related to the character of Jane Eyre. I was about to deliver Cloudwish here and in America when I read the article that included the quote; it was the last thing I added to the manuscript before pressing ‘send’.

Q: There’s been some talk lately that teens are “over” romances. I, personally, don’t believe that and I love that Cloudwish is all about Vân Uoc’s very complicated romantic feelings for Billy Gardiner (made more complicated by some magic) … you’re not writing strictly romance here, but what do you think is driving teens to reject the romance genre right now?

I love writing the romance story strands in my books and I don’t think that teen readers are rejecting romance, as much as just pushing back against romance that is gratuitous to the narrative. I can imagine that if it seems like an arbitrary add-on, as though it’s a box that has to be ticked, then it probably won’t be well received. For me romance is always a subset of identity, it’s not the main driver, but it’s an important part of someone finding out who they are. One of the ways you do that is by finding out who you are in different roles, and relative to other people, and how your decisions and actions affect other people. Romantic relationships are great places to investigate those things in fiction. (Also I asked a big group of teenagers yesterday if they were over romance, and got a resounding ‘no’ in answer to the question.)

Q: I love that your books are all interconnected and feature students from Crowthorne Grammar … how many more books in this universe do you plan to write? … which is a round-about way of asking WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON NOW AND WHEN CAN WE READ IT?!?!

Thank you – I love coming across characters that migrate from book to book as a reader, too. To me it plays into the notion of a suspension of disbelief and an immersive reading experience in which the fictional world is ‘real’. There are more books in this world, for sure, but the next thing I’m working on is the book that Cath Crowley and Simmone Howell and I are writing together with the working title, Friends Anonymous.

Q: Your books are now available in America – what has the response been to them over there? And have you had any funny reader-interactions (especially around your being Australian?)

There’s been a really good critical response to both books. Wildlife was published first, in 2014, and Six Impossible Things has just come out recently. It was definitely a highlight when Wildlife was reviewed very favourably in the New York Times Book Review, and a great honour that both books have been Junior Library Guild Selections. There are no funny reader interactions that come to mind, but lots of lovely reader reviews and responses. An occasional person will mention the slang or food being a bit different, and readers have been intrigued by the outdoor education setting of Wildlife. I’ve had a great experience with my publisher, Little, Brown, as far as keeping the Australian settings and language intact. I hear people saying that the US requires big changes for the local market, but that hasn’t been my experience. 

Q: You’re a big supporter of the #LoveOzYA movement – so I wonder if you could share your top 3 favourite Aussie YA books?

There are so many fabulous #LoveOzYA books and writers, I feel really proud of our community. When I was first creating a story for Dan Cereill, these four books made me think, yeah, this is where I want to work: Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta, Notes from the Teenage Underground by Simmone Howell, Chasing Charlie Duskin by Cath Crowley and Feeling Sorry for Celia by Jaclyn Moriarty.