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Monday, August 3, 2015

'Shining: The Story of a Lucky Man' by Abdi Aden with Robert Hillman

From the BLURB:

Abdi's world fell apart when he was only fifteen and Somalia's vicious civil war hit Mogadishu. Unable to find his family and effectively an orphan, he fled with some sixty others,heading to Kenya. On the way, death squads hunted them and they daily faced violence, danger and starvation. After almost four months, they arrived in at refugee camps in Kenya - of the group he'd set out with, only five had survived.

All alone in the world and desperate to find his family, Abdi couldn't stay in Kenya, so he turned around and undertook the dangerous journey back to Mogadishu. But the search was fruitless, and eventually Abdi made his way - alone, with no money in his pockets - to Romania, then to Germany, completely dependent on the kindess of strangers. He was just seventeen years old when he arrived in Melbourne. He had no English, no family or friends, no money, no home. Yet, against the odds, he not only survived, he thrived. Abdi went on to complete secondary education and later university. He became a youth worker, was acknowledged with the 2007 Victorian Refugee Recognition Award and was featured in the SBS second series of ‘Go Back to Where You Came From’.

Despite what he has gone through, Abdi is a most inspiring man, who is constantly thankful for his life and what he has. Everything he has endured and achieved is testament to his quiet strength and courage, his resilience and most of all, his warm-hearted, shining and enduring optimism.

Shining: The Story of a Lucky Man’ is the biography of Abdi Aden, written with Robert Hillman.

Abdi Aden’s story begins like any other – he’s a happy kid from a loving family, living in soccer-mad Somalia. Then in 1991 civil war breaks out in Mogadishu, and Abdi’s world falls apart.

What follows next is Abdi’s harrowing story of survival when, at just 15-years-old, he’s forced to flee the violence and death squads and make his way to Kenya.

I am lonely, I am exhausted. But for the fact that I desperately want to remain alive, I would be happy to die.

From there the journey takes a sickening twist, as the refugee camp turns out to be as dangerous as what Abdi has been fleeing from. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees sets up the camp in north-east Kenya, and it becomes the world’s biggest refugee camp; an indication of the scale of violence breaking out across Somalia. The camp was too dangerous for UNHCR and so abandoned, which left the refugees effectively looking at starvation and slow death – so Abdi fled again.

What follows is both an incredible story, and an incredible reminder of why stories like Abdi’s and those portrayed on SBS shows like ‘Go Back to Where You Came From’ are so important. Abdi’s story highlights the breakdown of the “system” when people get caught up in wars and violence – then the imaginary “queue” goes out the window, and the absolute breakdown of organisations designed to help refugees and asylum seekers buckles under the pressure and people are forced to survive any way they can.

Abdi’s survival story sees him searching for his family by making his way back to the Mogadishu he had run from – on the slim chance that he has not been left alone in this world. The story then tracks all over the globe – from Europe to Australia, where Abdi eventually settles into an extraordinary life and he makes the inspiring most of his freedom.

This is a remarkable story and a gripping read. I began reading, knowing the happy ending that awaits Abdi in Austraila (as he’s been doing a fantastic media turn, promoting his book) I still found myself riveted to the page, desperate to know what happened next in the chapters of his life …

The book also has quietly powerful moments of reflection, like when Abdi sees Frankfurt airport for the first time and is struck by the sheer wealth and hope in such a display of prosperity, in stark contrast to his Somalia;

Sure, I knew that Big Europe was rich, but this rich? No, no. When can Somalia be as rich as this? In a thousand years? That’s what’s so scary. Right now, our main industry is murder. Or maybe I’m too pessimistic. A few decades ago, Germany’s main industry was murder, to – more murders than in Somalia, many, many, many more. And the whole country was smashed to pieces, like Somalia. Maybe there’s hope for us.
And it’s probably a reflection of how much time Abdi spent in transit as a refugee, that one of his most powerful reflections upon arriving in Australia also happens at Melbourne airport, when he encounters racism for the first time and is made to feel like a criminal for the colour of his skin;

I’m going to learn in the years ahead that the whole of this continent of Australia once belonged to people whose skin colour was much darker than my own, and that they were considered (for the most part) to be of no importance to the white people who took their ancestral lands from them. And I will learn, too, of what was known as the ‘White Australia Policy’ and slogans such as ‘Australia for the white man’. But I come from a country where everyone is black or brown, coffee-coloured, chocolate-coloured, some blacker than boot leather. There is no discrimination in Somalia, not against dark-skinned people or fair-skinned people.

I appreciated that fact that Abdi spoke about his troubles in Australia – he was missing home and his family and this country wasn’t always welcoming. His side of the story rings so true, and makes those calls of “If you don’t like it – go back to where you came from!” all the more infuriating, because they fail to acknowledge how racist (sometimes even subversively so) Australia is, that those fleeing from extremely multi-cultural and diverse countries are made to always feel like outsiders in this country which should be their safe haven.

I’ve been saying ever since I finished this book that I’d like to see it on reading lists in high schools all over Australia. It’s such a powerful story – harrowing, of course – but also brimming with hope and celebration and important reflections on contemporary Australia culture.

Then I look around me at this big country I’ve come to, and I’m okay. I’m happy. I’m Nuurow, the Shining One. Parties, music, good food to eat, of course I’m happy. The last time I even glimpsed a soldier was in Bucharest. Where are the Australian soldiers? Haven’t seen one.

I loved this book, I cannot recommend it highly enough – it’s one of those books I want to get up on a soapbox about!


Saturday, August 1, 2015

'Me and Earl and The Dying Girl' movie review

 High schooler Greg, who spends most of his time making parodies of classic movies with his co-worker Earl, finds his outlook forever altered after befriending a classmate who has just been diagnosed with cancer.

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a screening of ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ at the Melbourne International Film Festival. I had good company in Adele (Persnickety Snark), Braiden (genius behind #LoveOzYA Twitter feed) and Kimberley (Pop Couture).

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ is the long-awaited film adaptation of Jesse Andrews’ amazing 2012 young adult novel of the same name. Andrews actually wrote the screen adaptation (unbeknownst to me until last night, Andrews was a playwright before he penned his debut YA novel) and Alfonso Gomez-Rejon directed.

Let’s just get something out of the way first, shall we? ‘The Fault in Our Stars’. Yes. I know. They’re both teen comedies/dramas about cancer, adapted from insanely popular YA “sick lit” books. Considering John Green’s TFiOS book came out in January 2012, and Jesse Andrews’ ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ March 2012, I think it’s safe to assume Andrews has been getting this comparison from day dot. The two don’t really bear comparing though – not as books, and not as movies despite the fact that Green’s movie juggernaut was released just last year. First of all – I think lumping these books/movies together as “sick lit” and therefore same-same pays disservice to the breadth and dignity that the subject of death and dying deserves in the YA readership. And secondly … even calling them “kids with cancer movies” or “sick lit” kinda misses the whole point of the stories trying to be told. ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ in particular, is presenting this idea that people are more than one thing – and it’s up to us to see and celebrate the journey it takes to discover all their facets, and that rings especially true for the “dying girl” of the title who doesn’t want to just be known or remembered as such. So – with that cleared up – on with the review!

I absolutely, whole-heartedly adored this film. I was so excited when I heard it would be adapted – let alone that Jesse Andrews would be penning the script himself! And I’ve got to say, ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ now enters into that exclusive club of “movies that are better/on-par with the equally amazing book.” I know – it doesn’t happen often, but lightening was caught in a bottle with this one, people – and it’s glorious! 

Thomas Mann plays our protagonist, Greg Gaines – a nation of one in the battlefield of high school, and that’s just the way he likes it. He’s a very self-conscious teenager, lacking in self-confidence and with a serious hang-up about his ferret face. I will say that in the book, Greg is also a little bit fat – and his weight was a great source of discomfort and embarrassment for him. There was a part of me, when Thomas Mann was cast, that was disappointed that we wouldn’t get to see a male teen character with these body hang-ups – but Mann did such a smashing job as Greg, that I’m willing to overlook.

Greg’s co-worker (really “friend”, but Greg doesn’t use that word) is Earl, played by newcomer RJ Cyler. Earl lives on the rougher side of their Pittsburgh suburb, and has known Greg since they were in Kindergarten. Over the years they’ve bonded (as much as Greg is willing to bond with anyone) over their shared love of cinema, and dedication to recreating classic films with their own quirky twists (like ‘Sockwork Organge’ and ‘Eyes Wide Butt’).

When Greg’s mum (played by the incomparable, Connie Britton) and father (Ron Swanson/Nick Offerman) tell him some bad news about a girl at school that he’s kind-of-not-really acquainted with, he’s strongly encouraged to spend time with Rachel (Olivia Cooke) as she begins treatment for leukemia.

What evolves is a “doomed friendship” with the dying girl of the title, and a quietly powerful and tragically believable journey for this guy who refuses to get close to anyone.

‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ is FUNNY. I spent about 90% of the film cracking up – and I think it could have been 95% was it not for the sheer volume of people’s laughter in the Comedy Theatre, drowning out what I’m sure were more brilliant lines. The humor is actually quite different to what’s in Jesse Andrew’s book – a lot of the script felt very, very fresh. I only got halfway through my re-read of the novel, but even with just that 50% of the book still fresh in my mind I was really impressed at how malleable the story was for the screen. I will say that where the TFiOS film was all about hitting those tumblr-quotes and recreating certain scenes pitch-perfectly for the fandom, ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ felt a lot more flexible in that Andrews had a keen eye/ear for what worked on the page but wouldn’t translate to film and needed to be reimagined. So, for instance, he took Greg’s opening about ‘it was the best of times and it was the worst of times’ and turned it into a stop-motion animation joke featuring “the hot girl from Pussy Riot” and man-eating sharks swimming in acid.

The other thing I noticed was that Earl’s character was toned down quite a lot – in the book he’s full of machismo anger and violence that’s tied into his home-life … sadly, Earl’s background info is chopped out quite a bit, but thankfully so is his expletive-ridden rants. It worked in the book and was quite funny while also being confronting – especially the way he spoke about girls and women and their bodies (which was then altered as he got to know Rachel). In the film it’s watered right down to an utterance of “titties” – but RJ Cyler still had such intensity to Earl, like he could be a tightly-coiled spring or a laid-back champ. Jesse Andrew’s humour still shines through in this film – even with some of his most memorable book jokes cut out (a lot of stuff around Greg’s embarrassing history with Rachel and girls generally, for instance). It means that lovers of the book will come to this film and be thrilled for the new words from this magnificent author.

I also think Andrews should be commended for letting the young stars shine with this script … yes, Nick Offerman and Connie Britton are big stars to be playing Greg’s parents (and perfectly cast to appeal to that hipster-indie crowd, who are no doubt Friday Night Lights/Parks and Rec aficionados!). And Molly Shannon does a great turn as Rachel’s single mum who is not coping with her daughter’s illness, and ventures into hilariously inappropriate territory … Jon Bernthal also plays favourite teacher Mr. McCarthy (“Respect The Research!”) who could have slipped into typical adult-imparting-wisdom mode, but isn’t allowed to when Greg’s the one who makes the bigger gestures. Because the adults are very much backseat passengers in this film, only ever on the periphery and sometimes even just talking off-camera while the shot stays on the kids. Because it is Mann, Cyler and Cooke who absolutely shine in this film – and they’re allowed to with Andrews’ brilliant script and Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s keen eye. There were a lot of uninterrupted shots when the camera was just left to focus on exchanges between these actors – and it was marvelous for letting audiences see the waves of emotion, and the actors spar with one another. This film totally hinged on the ‘Me’ (Greg) Earl, and Dying Girl Rachel and the chemistry of these three actors totally makes this film.

A keener cinephile than me could probably have played a pretty decent drinking-game for all the head-nods and references to classic cinema that are strewn throughout the film. But for me I’ll say that Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s direction and Chung-hoon Chung’s cinematography were marvelous – sometimes it felt like homage to Wes Anderson, but not in a rip-off way, more in a loving “this is a film about loving film” kind of way. If that makes sense? And hats off to whoever scouted the filming locations around Pittsburgh – from the suburban streets lined with Queen Anne-style houses, to the long cafeteria gulf that did indeed look like the pirate-infested red seas.

I also love that it’s got more diversity in it than a lot of contemporary teen fare we’ve seen lately (okay, yes – I am talking about TFiOS again which, you’ve gotta admit – is pretty much white and middle class). ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ sees Rachel coming from a single-parent household, illustrates Earl’s being from the “rougher side” of town, and has a body-conscious male protagonist in Greg Gaines. These are all off-shoots to the wider discussion around not stereotyping people, and embracing the idea of continually learning new truths about those we’re closest to.

Gosh, I really did love this film.


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

What bloggers, vloggers, and podcasters can do to support Indigenous books - final guest post by Ambelin Kwaymullina

This is the final post in a series I’ve been doing to answer questions I’m often asked about what people can do to support Indigenous books (which is to say books written or co-written by Indigenous people). And I’d like to begin this one with a thank you to bloggers, for two reasons. The first is that I am a YA author and without the blog-o-sphere there would be ludicrously few reviews of YA books in Australia (and virtually none of works by Australian YA writers). The second is that I am conscious of the work that bloggers have already done to draw attention to overlooked books, including those by Indigenous and other diverse writers. But I am going to ask you to do more, for the same reason that you started a book blog in the first place – because you love stories, and there is a whole world out there of Indigenous narratives waiting to be discovered.

1.     Review the books! They’ll be harder to find and you probably won’t get review copies in the mail. Works by Indigenous writers are more likely to be published by smaller and specialist presses which do not have the resources of the larger publishers – so sourcing the narratives might well require a trip to the library, borrowing from a friend or spending your own money (if you have some spare!). As to where you can find books by Indigenous writers, here are some suggestions:
a.     Check out the catalogues of Indigenous publishers (such as Magabala Books, IAD Press and Aboriginal Studies Press). Move on from there to looking at other publishers and discovering what Indigenous authors they have;
b.     Take a look at the Blackwords database on the Austlit site;
c.      Find out what Indigenous writing you can access online for free – for example, the Indigenous edition of Westerly, and Writing Black: New Indigenous Writing from Australia.

2.     Read the books and encourage others to do so – take part in book challenges that focus on Indigenous writers, or make a challenge of your own.

3.     Be conscious of how you review and talk about Indigenous books (and indeed books by other diverse writers). I’ve commented on reviewing Indigenous books in a previous post which can be found here (although I think on the whole bloggers do a pretty good job of judging Indigenous narratives on their own terms and not by preconceived stereotypes of what it is to be Indigenous).

4.     Inform yourself about the challenges that face Indigenous writers and diverse writers more generally. Many of the issues in relation to diversity have been highlighted by the We Need Diverse Books campaign in the US and you could start by reading the posts on their tumblr site. As to the challenges facing Indigenous writers in Australia, refer to author websites and interviews – google the names of Indigenous writers and see what we have to say. And take a look at the AIATSIS Guidelines on Ethical Publishing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors and their communities and the ‘Who Owns Story?’ presentation by Indigenous lawyer Terri Janke.

5.     Be proactive. Give space to Indigenous voices (and other diverse voices). Reach out to publishers and writers and volunteer space for author interviews and guest posts. Beyond that, use social media to raise awareness of Indigenous books and commentary by Indigenous authors. If you see a new release, a review, an author interview – like it, share it, promote it!   

Monday, July 27, 2015

Choose Aussie YA - #LoveOzYA readalikes part FOUR

Hello Darling Readers!

Yes! It’s that time when I do another ‘readalikes’ post – yay! (or are you sick of them by now? … Who cares?! I’m having fun!)

This readalikes has a “nonfiction” theme, because YA-nonfiction is having a bit of a moment in Australia and I, for one, am thrilled about it! I was inspired to this topic, partly because Clare Wright got me thinking about it when she gave a talk about women erased from Australian history at Reading Matters, and because I just finished reading Abdi Aden’s memoir ‘Shining: The Story of a Lucky Man’ and my first thought was “this should be required reading in all high-schools!”

So, onwards – !

Wonder by R J Palacio 
Ugly (younger readers) by Robert Hoge

Robert Hoge’s 2013 ‘Ugly: My Memoir’ is being released for a younger audience and I think this is a smashing idea and I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy! I’ve been following Hoge’s career for a while now, and I just love his writing and particularly his commentary around physical-diversity and how important it is to embrace “ugly” in this beauty-obsessed world of ours. Here are two pieces of his that I highly recommend you read: one from The Drum and his Australian story

I also think it’s very clever marketing that his book is orientated to riff off of RJ Palacio’s ‘Wonder’ – which has been a runaway bestseller, and while not technically YA, I know all age-groups have embraced this book (you know you’ve written across generations when they bring out an “adult” cover version). I really hope that an Australian Writers Festival cottons onto the idea to bring RJ Palacio our here and have her and Robert Hoge in a Q&A together – because both their books are sparking much-needed conversations around outward/inner beauty … and because I kinda love that while Palacio just wrote about it, Robert Hoge has lived it and I think their insights into how readers have embraced their messages would be fascinating.

And I’m also a little bit thrilled that Robert Hoge will be at ‘Write Around The Murray’ in September, because I’m also on the schools program, and I am definitely going to sneak into a few of his sessions!

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo 

Abdi Aden’s book blew me away. I read it over the weekend and was just alternating between snot-nosed crying and fist-pumping joy for this man’s journey. It’s about how; ‘Abdi's world fell apart when he was only fifteen and Somalia's vicious civil war hit Mogadishu.’ It tells of his time spent in a refugee camp in Kenya, and then his decision to go back to Mogadishu in a desperate search for his family … all the way through to his arriving in Australia and the even more incredible journey of resettlement that followed. I read this and my overwhelming wish was to put this book in the hands of every Australian high school student by making it required-reading in schools (and, - hey! If you want to join me in appealing to VCAA, here’s the link!)

I think NoViolet Bulawayo’s Man Booker Prize-shortlisted book is a fitting readalike (even though it’s fiction) because both she and Aden deal so beautifully and heart-breakingly with the pain of leaving your life behind. And because both books are focused on the coming-of-age aspects of resettlement, in many ways (a majority of ‘Shining’ deals with Aden’s life from ages 15 to 17).

Women Heroes of the American Revolution: 20 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Defiance, and Rescue by Susan Casey  

Like I mentioned before, I heard Clare Wright speaking at Readings Matters this year and was really excited to read her YA-version of her Stella Prize-winning nonfiction book ‘The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka’. Her book is quite radical, because it’s butting-up against long-held assumptions about women’s roles in a major Australian historical event – the Eureka Stockade. And, actually, when you put this book in kids’ hands and start them thinking about the wrong history of Eureka, it’s going to send them down the rabbit-hole to think more critically about how women are wrongly portrayed throughout history, and beyond … isn’t that exciting?

So I think Susan Casey’s ‘Women Heroes of the American Revolution’ is an interesting readalike for obvious reasons – because she’s likewise taken an iconic historic event and is asking people to think beyond the oft-studied heroes and landmarks. The difference perhaps being that the women Casey is writing about are somewhat known in American history, just not as well as they should be – whereas Wright’s book is unearthing history that has never been studied, let alone in Australian schools.

Binge by Tyler Oakley 

This one’s a bit of a cheat because both books aren’t out yet, so I can only speculate wildly on their readalike-ness (?)

I have heard David Burton speak though, and read a chapter-sampler of his forthcoming ‘How To Be Happy’ (releasing August 26) and I was so impressed that I booked to attend several of his sessions at Brisbane Writers Festival – which I’m super excited about! Because Burton’s memoir is just what Aussie YA needs right now – a candid exploration into ‘Love, Sex and Teenage Confusion’. There’s been a Guardian article floating around lately ‘Falling Out of Love with YA’ in which the young author has totally legitimate concerns about how so many YA books feel same-same and not too challenging … which, I think, doesn’t translate to YA turning sub-par but rather readers craving more complex stories that aren’t currently being pushed to the forefront of the readership. I think David Burton’s memoir is going to be the book that hits that spot this year.

I like YouTube-star-turned-author Tyler Oakley’s ‘Binge’ as a readalike (releasing October 2015) because he’s one of the (alarmingly) few diverse voices coming out of the vlogging world at the moment – and he is an LGBT+ advocate, so I can only hope that his book will touch on some issues around love, sex and confusion too.

Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen 
Bad Behaviour by Rebecca Starford

I am so far behind in my book reviews this year – suffice to say, I have read ‘Bad Behaviour’, I loved ‘Bad Behaviour’ and I’m very excited that ‘Bad Behaviour’ has been optioned for TV!

So Kaysen’s ‘Girl, Interrupted’ (which was famously adapted into an amazing film of the same name with Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie) might seem like a pretty out-there readalike. After all, ‘Bad Behaviour’ is a memoir about Starford’s teen years at an elite country boarding school with a strong focus on the bullying that occurred there, and ‘Girl, Interrupted’ is a memoir about Kaysen’s life from age 18 living with a bunch of fellow teenage girls in a psychiatric hospital during the 1960s. I’m not suggesting that Starford’s boarding school was exactly like a psychiatric ward … but, actually, kinda yeah.

I also like these as readalikes for the observations around all-female company, and how that can sometimes devolve into anarchy. Neither book may be strictly YA – but I think teens should definitely make their way to them.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

‘Six Degrees’ by Honey Brown

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

Emotion, seduction and passion wind through six intricately connected short stories, where strong Australian women embrace their most intimate desires, and men are more than just their suit and tie.

Apparent strangers are bound together by one tragic event, the effect of which is felt from the urban streets of Sydney to the dusty bars of Western Australia.

Six Degrees uses the allure, the action or the absence of physical connection to explore these everyday character’s flaws, quirks and strengths. For the first time, critically-acclaimed author Honey Brown has made sexual attraction the intriguing hero of each story.

‘Six Degrees’ is the new book from Australian author, Honey Brown. A departure from her usual horror/thriller/suspense writing, ‘Six Degrees’ is a collection of erotic-romantic short stories.

Honey Brown is one of my favourite authors writing today – I’ve loved all of her books so far, particularly for their scare-factor and an often disturbingly subversive underpinning. But I wasn’t actually all that shocked to realise that Brown had strayed from the genre that has made her one of Australia’s greatest new talents since 2009.

One of the reasons I love Honey Brown’s books is that she writes relationships and romance so very well and trickily … all of her crime-thriller book have a focus on relationships. ‘Red Queen’ may have been about a plague-outbreak, but the anchor of that story was a love-triangle between two brothers and a mysterious female survivor who comes to their isolated cabin one night. ‘After the Darkness’ was a crime-suspense novel about a couple who are captured by a killed and then escape, but have to live with their trauma in secret – that story had a big concentration on the changed dynamics of a marriage, after the husband is sexually assaulted in the ordeal. And ‘Dark Horse’ was about two strangers stuck by wild weather on a mountainside, whose attraction leads to revelations about what one of them was really doing in the mountains … so I was pleasantly surprised that in this short-story foray, Honey Brown would be concentrated entirely on the romance genre.

But make no mistake; ‘Six Degrees’ is no less complex for being romance-focused. Honey Brown isn’t “dumbing down” any of her writing for which she has been so celebrated by genre-lovers and critics alike. This short story collection may actually be a fine introduction for anyone who is under the mistaken impression that romance is a ‘lightweight’, fluffy genre of little importance. Au contraire!

In these six stories – loosely connected by the theme of a major/minor crises in all – Brown presents the many complications of the human heart. A man and woman who have never had the right timing in ‘Threesome’ may be about to get their act together, and a girl who witnessed a man’s death in ‘First Time’ finds herself connecting with his distraught son;

‘You didn’t talk too much.’ 
'I think I might have.’ 
‘And I would like to go out with you sometime.’ 
For a kiss that had sadness in it, it was good. It was perhaps the first honest kiss Emma had ever experienced. His lips were soft. No other body part touched her. Maybe it was Keegan’s first honest kiss too, because he pulled back and looked surprised by it.

There’s mostly an emphasis on female sexuality in these stories, and the book feels emboldened for that. Particularly for how Honey Brown explores the facets of attraction and sexual proclivities – her writing embodies honesty and non-judgmental celebration of sex and sexuality;

Sonya spent the rest of her adolescence on the hunt for that, with each new boyfriend (there hadn’t been that many) she had looked into their eyes to see if they might have it in them – the right sort of want, the maturity of wanting. Mostly, though, they wanted sex, no more than that. Or they wanted a girlfriend. It was almost as though they did not see the beauty in sex, the beauty of it. At that first party, against the rendered wall, she’d been given a preview of something better. Adult sex. But, thinking now, she wondered if anything had really recaptured that feeling.

I loved this collection; just as much as I have loved all of Honey Brown’s other books. This is a wonderful introduction to the romance genre for anyone who has never been brave enough to read. Brown’s exquisite prose and complicated stories will surely encourage others to further explore what this genre has to offer. I do so hope that Brown writes more of the like – either way, I will follow her wherever she goes.


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

'The Royal We' by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

Received from NetGalley

From the BLURB:

"I might be Cinderella today, but I dread who they'll think I am tomorrow. I guess it depends on what I do next."

American Rebecca Porter was never one for fairy tales. Her twin sister, Lacey, has always been the romantic who fantasized about glamour and royalty, fame and fortune. Yet it's Bex who seeks adventure at Oxford and finds herself living down the hall from Prince Nicholas, Great Britain's future king. And when Bex can't resist falling for Nick, the person behind the prince, it propels her into a world she did not expect to inhabit, under a spotlight she is not prepared to face.

Dating Nick immerses Bex in ritzy society, dazzling ski trips, and dinners at Kensington Palace with him and his charming, troublesome brother, Freddie. But the relationship also comes with unimaginable baggage: hysterical tabloids, Nick's sparkling and far more suitable ex-girlfriends, and a royal family whose private life is much thornier and more tragic than anyone on the outside knows. The pressures are almost too much to bear, as Bex struggles to reconcile the man she loves with the monarch he's fated to become.

Which is how she gets into trouble.

Now, on the eve of the wedding of the century, Bex is faced with whether everything she's sacrificed for love-her career, her home, her family, maybe even herself-will have been for nothing.

‘The Royal We’ is the new book from authors Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan – also known as the Fuggirls who run ‘Go Fug Yourself’, the comedy blog devoted to fashion and celebrity.

I love the Fuggirls – I’ve long been a fan of their blog, which is more funny than vicious when it comes to celebrity fashion commentary. And I loved their debut novel, a young adult fare called ‘Spoiled’. Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan’s novel writing has been a seamless transition from their blog writing; with all of their wit and sparking humor translating well to fiction. ‘The Royal We’ is not another YA book, instead it’s a chick-lit royal romance … sort of Meg Cabot’s ‘Princess Diaries’ for adults, if you will.

The very clever (American) cover hints at what this story is riffing off of – royal fever, thanks to Kate and Wills. It’s the story of American exchange student Rebecca ‘Bex’ Porter who spends a year at Oxford studying art, where she is share-housed with his royal highness Prince Nicholas … the book covers eight years in the friendship-turned-romance of Bex and Nick. Intriguingly the prologue begins near to their wedding day, with Bex receiving vaguely threatening text messages and anticipating a scandal of epic proportions – then it backtracks to their first meeting in 2007. Bex tells her side of their love-story, occasionally using the framework of an unauthorized biography ‘The Bexicon’ to separate their far messier reality from the fairytale fiction that abounds.

Clever cover aside, ‘The Royal We’ is not a chick-lit rip-off of Kate Middleton and Prince William’s romance. In ‘The Royal We’, Cocks and Morgan have cleverly created an alternate British history for these royal Lyons. Nick is the eldest and in line for the throne – he also has a younger cavorting brother called Freddie, whom the media have dubbed “ginger gigolo”. While their mother is not deceased, there is a tragic tale linked to her, which has very much impacted on the boys’ upbringing and hatred for the press. And there is a family matriarch – Queen Eleanor – who quietly rules over her brood and the nation with an iron fist. Bex, meanwhile, has a twin in sister called Lacey – whom the media eventually dub “racy Lacey” for her antics.

“Right,” Marj said, sweeping in and dropping an iPod in my lap. “In there you’ll find preapproved music for which you are allowed to express a public affinity. Some classical, some pop, some dance, and nobody who’s ever eaten meat in front of Paul McCartney.” She sighed. “That ruled out rather a lot of them.” 
I scrolled through it. “Oh, good, I get the Spice Girls?” 
“Eleanor enjoys the frightening one,” Marj said.

Clearly, Kate and Wills provide some inspiration. But to be honest, most modern European royal families have become more interesting of late, particularly when it comes to their love lives … just this year Sweden's Prince Carl Philip (known to have been a bit of a ‘Playboy Prince’) married Sofia Hellqvist, an ex-glamour model and reality-TV star. Australia remains quite chuffed with our own Mary, Crown Princess of Denmark – who caught the eye Frederik, Crown Prince of Denmark, while at a party in Sydney during the 2000 Summer Olympics. And let’s not forget that the press had a field day with stories that Princess Charlene of Monaco tried to run away on her wedding day. But really, it’s not just modern royals whose love lives have captivated the world. Edward VIII abdicated the throne so he could marry the divorcee Wallis Simpson … and, actually, let’s do forget that in the original hacking scandal of the 90s, recorded phone-calls revealed that Prince Charles wanted to be Camilla Parker Bowles’ tampon. And the Fuggirls love them all – some of their best posts of late have been in the name of royal-watching.

They do clearly take inspiration and research from it – particularly in the milestone trajectories and media stories. For instance, Bex cops a lot of flack over her first jobs out of college – first for a greeting card company and then an art charity. Much in the same way Kate was once ripped apart in the media for having a “frivolous” job as accessories-buyer for Jigsaw. And the complexities of Bex and Nick’s relationship take up a lot of the book’s friction. Nick doesn’t want their relationship to go public, so Bex is left to feel like the “other woman” in Nick’s life. When they do go public the palace offers Bex no help, and she’s left to the media swarm of misogynistic paparazzi camped outside her house and workplace.

But of course most of the book is Bex wrestling with the public persona versus reality – both hers and Nick’s – and trying to never lose sight of herself in the melee.

I loved ‘The Royal We’ – it is hands-down, one of my favorite books of 2015. It’s both charming and meaty, the antithesis of glossed-over royal love stories presented in the media. Bex and Nick make so many mistakes that are at odds with their airbrushed personas, that I loved them instantly. Bex, in particular, is whip-smart and lovely;

“So what now?” Lacey asked. 
“I figured we’d hang for a bit, then send Mom and Dad to the theater.” 
“I mean with Nick.” 
“We’re going to usurp the throne, and invade Switzerland just to be cute,” I said.

It’s quite a feat, but Cocks and Morgan made this royal fairytale into a realistic romance … because they do take some inspiration from Kate and Wills, there’s even a break-up period for them. And I loved that their musings on this were so relatable; 

“I’ve tried not missing you. I’ve tried so hard,” I said, rolling onto my back. “But if it works, it never lasts.” I shook my head. “Sometimes I just wanted to talk to my friend Nick about my ex-boyfriend Nick.”

‘The Royal We’ also has some of the best secondary characters. Freddie and Lacey play out a storyline that reminded me of those spoof wedding photographs that came out after the royal nuptials. And I was somewhat surprised that in a book like this, the only time I felt slightly bad for the real-life inspirations for characters was in Lacey/Pippa Middleton. Lacey is a hard character to like, but so is Pippa Middleton whose pinnacle so far has been having a very nice bum. Remember that party-planning book she wrote? Or that friend she has who thinks it’s funny to wave a fake gun around? How about her axed Telegraph column?

Freddie was one of my favourite characters – and not just because he’s clearly a nod to everybody’s favourite cheeky (sometimes gobshite) royal, Prince Harry. If there is a sequel (and dear god, I’m hoping there is!) I’d love it to be about Freddie. Probably because everybody is waiting with bated breath for Harry to settle down … I want Freddie to get his happy ending too. In ‘The Royal We’ he’s written with such tenderness, his larrikin layers stripped back to reveal a character of quite addictive depth. More Freddie, please!

I loved this book. It has just the right amount of head-nodding to reality, that tickles a reader’s curiosity about what goes on behind the scenes of those carefully calculated royals…

British and American flags bob vigorously as the teeming throng chants, sings, and cheers, at least a quarter of them wearing ghastly paper novelty masks of my face that will dance in the foreground of my nightmares for the rest of my life (matched for creepiness only by the time Nick put one on and danced around in his boxers, just to goad me).

… but this story revels in the messiness of reality, above all else, and presents these modern-day fairytale figures as human and fallible, lovely and funny. This is a favorite of 2015 for me.