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Wednesday, August 5, 2020

'Stepping Stones' by Lucy Knisley


'Stepping Stones' is graphic novelist Lucy Knisley's first middle-grade fiction book.

Knisley is best-known for her adult memoirs ('Relish', 'Kid Gloves', 'Displacement' and more) but recently she has illustrated picture-books like 'You Are New' and 'Go To Sleep: (I Miss You)'

'Stepping Stones' is her first venture into middle-grade realms however, and even though it's biographical (emphasised by the author's note at the back) the protagonist here is called 'Jen' and names have been changed throughout.

'Stepping Stones' tells the story of Jen who has moved to the country with her Mum and her Mum's new boyfriend, Walter following her parent's divorce. Every weekend, Walt's kids - young girls Andy and Reese - come along to Peapod Farm and what begins as a tense relationship on multiple fronts eases into a sweet acceptance of changed circumstance and family-unit.

Knisley's MG offering is very much in the vein of Raina Telgemeier's books - which are also largely biographical recounting aspects of Raina's life growing up in San Francisco (books like 'Smile', 'Sisters', 'Guts' etc.). Raina is really the queen of this niche in tween graphic-novels for a largely female readership; in fact her most recent book 'Guts' with Scholastic got a 1-million copy print-run because her past successes proved she could reach that sales-figure (and did!). It makes sense that a publisher would tap Knisley to produce in this space too; given that she's had huge success in an adult-biographical graphic realm (her last book 'Kid Gloves' was nominated for a Harvey Award, in the Eisners) and in her adult books she's doing similar work to Raina; mining past traumas and complications in her life, to break open various spaces and conversations for her audience (Knisley has written about everything from; miscarriages, to birth complications, break-ups, loss of grandparents, bisexuality, etc.)

But there's something missing in translation as Knisley switches from an adult to middle-grade audience in 'Stepping Stones'. I think what I absolutely love in her adult works is the way she goes off on context-tangents (in 'Kid Gloves' she included pages explaining a history of misogynistic and racist medical practices that see black women dying from labor-complications due to a mismanaged and white patriarchal healthcare structure in America). In her adult works she also seamlessly flashes forward and backward to moments in her life as recounting them brings a fuller understanding of past incidences and future upheavals. That's all missing from 'Stepping Stones' ... we occasionally see Jen (who is also a budding comics artist) drawing out past memories of her parent's fraught marriage and breakdown, but they're stick-figures and light on introspection.

Maybe most frustrating is the character of Walter - her Mum's boyfriend - who really is a bully, and whose own children touch on past incidences between their father and mother, how his aggressive emotional behaviour likely led to divorce. Everything to do with Walt is really left open-ended and not confronted, and it robs the reader of a feeling of conclusion, in a way?

HOWEVER - I did wonder if 'Stepping Stones' was intended as the first in a series based at Peapod Farm, or following the post-divorce adventures of Jen and her family? There are little hints that maybe 'Stepping Stones' is setting up more exploration in this world, and it did strike me that this could be a similar series to Rita Williams-Garcia's 'Gaither Sisters' in switching locations each book, depending on which parent or family-member the girls are with (certainly I could see a Book #2 following Jen home to the city and staying with her Dad?)

As it is; something of 'Stepping Stones' feels a little ... flat? Too short, not quite rich enough with intertextual play like I've come to expect from Knisley and not enough depth to the situations and characters being set-up. I'll hold out hope it's simply a matter of more coming soon!

3/5

Friday, July 31, 2020

Writing for a Middle Grade Audience with Danielle Binks


Hello Darling Readers,

Hello Darling Readers, It's been a while, but I wanted to jump on here and announce something very exciting that I've been working on - an online Middle Grade writing course! 

Yup; Kill Your Darlings (whom I've been writing for since 2012!) very kindly invited me to contribute to their spectacular roll-call of online writing workshops and I jumped at the chance. 

Back in 2016 I wrote about the rise of MG-lit in Australia for Books+Publishing; 'Unstuck in the middle'. And this week a follow-up to that 2016 piece came out; 'The golden age of middle-grade'. And I truly do believe the Australian landscape is seeing a huge surge in demand for the readership and we are in a 'Golden Age' - which is also why it's nice to have this writing workshop out there now, for those who want to grasp this opportunity and get serious about writing for this spectacular audience! 

Then there's also the fact of my literary agenting in this realm, and the release of my own MG title - 'The Year the Maps Changed.' 

So, yes - I'd like to think I know a thing or two, and now I can share that knowledge with you!


Wednesday, July 22, 2020

'Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake' Love By Numbers #1 by Sarah MacLean


From the BLURB: 

A lady does not smoke cheroot. She does not ride astride. She does not fence or attend duels. She does not fire a pistol, and she never gambles at a gentlemen's club. 

Lady Calpurnia Hartwell has always followed the rules, rules that have left her unmarried—and more than a little unsatisfied. And so she's vowed to break the rules and live the life of pleasure she's been missing. 

But to dance every dance, to steal a midnight kiss—to do those things, Callie will need a willing partner. Someone who knows everything about rule-breaking. Someone like Gabriel St. John, the Marquess of Ralston—charming and devastatingly handsome, his wicked reputation matched only by his sinful smile. 

If she's not careful, she'll break the most important rule of all—the one that says that pleasure-seekers should never fall hopelessly, desperately in love.

Okay, so - in the first Melbourne lockdown I decided that *eventually* I'd get into a reading-rut that I'd need to be sucked out of and so I decided to finally invest in buying and reading all of Sarah MacLean's backlist books that I didn't own yet. 

I came to be a MacLean fan during her 'Scandal & Scoundrel' 2015-2017 series and owned all those books, as well as her most recent 'Bareknuckle Bastards' trilogy - so I needed to source and find this series 'Love by Numbers', 'Rules of Scoundrels' and her stand-alone YA regency romance (and debut book) 'The Season'. Via eBay and Booktopia I did it and then the deliveries slowly started trickling in and LUCKILY by Melbourne Lockdown 2.0 I owned literally *all* of her books. And boy, am I glad that past Danielle in a total 'Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure' move preempted that I'd need these books because I have indeed been in a RUT! 

It's a combination of course of the current circumstances, Netflix and Stan Australia being a comfort, 'Hamilton' having dropped and been watched on-repeat and just ... my short-term memory feels a little lagging lately. So I decided to just go easy on myself and see if I couldn't tempt my brain into reading with this book, 'Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake' and then - LO! - one day and night later I'm officially back and ready to tear through all of MacLean's book. 

'Nine Rules' is my favourite trope of historical romance - unrequited love, with a wallflower-spinster added into the mix who has been pining after a notorious rake for YEARS! This here is my catnip. Add in a surprise sister for the rake, and the wallflower-spinster determined to start a list of scandalous activities she wishes to complete (with the help of said rake) and I was HOOKED. 

This is MacLean's second-published book after YA stand-alone 'The Season' and there are a few tell-tale signs that she was finding her footing in this book. For one thing, it's quite long at 397-pages. For a paperback romance and definitely in comparison to her other books, this one is a little over-inflated ... and I started to feel that at around page 287 when I thought we'd entered into maybe one-too-many "he can't love me because I'm plain" woe-is-me moments between the heroine Calpurnia (Callie) and her rogue, Ralston. 

There's also a slight case of *everything but the kitchen sink* in terms of plots and secondary stories - but this was MacLean trying to establish a family trilogy based around Ralston, his twin-brother, and their long-lost sister so she's attempting to throw out enough intriguing life-rafts to pull readers in ... but I probably could have done without the "wooing me to win a bet" secondary story that starts unfolding properly in the latter-half and added to the plot's slight bloat. 

I also see a lot of criticism of this book centring around 'lots of sex, not enough romance' and for sure there are *lots* of sex-scenes in here (all very well done, and offering a tease of MacLean's future Queendom status in the genre for this very reason) but I can see why some people found them laborious to read through ... I think it's also that, this *is* one of my favourite tropes - unrequited love and spinster-meets-rogue; and for that reason I also occasionally found myself wanting more stuff that centred on those dynamics as opposed to just - working them out physically. 

Overall though, I loved this and it was exactly what I needed in the moment.

4/5

Monday, July 13, 2020

'A Longer Fall' Gunnie Rose #2 by Charlaine Harris


From the BLURB:

In this second thrilling installment of the GUNNIE ROSE series, Lizbeth Rose is hired onto a new crew for a seemingly easy protection job, transporting a crate into Dixie, just about the last part of the former United States of America she wants to visit. But what seemed like a straight-forward job turns into a massacre as the crate is stolen. Up against a wall in Dixie, where social norms have stepped back into the last century, Lizbeth has to go undercover with an old friend to retrieve the crate as what's inside can spark a rebellion, if she can get it back in time.

‘A Longer Fall’ is the second book in Charlaine Harris’ Western Paranormal ‘Gunnie Rose’ series – set in an alternate world-history timeline in which the Romanov family escape Russia and revolution with their lives, and would go on a land-grab of America after the influenza pandemic wiped out most of the powerful men in Washington and left a power-vacuum.

So … I read the first book ‘An Easy Death’ way back in 2018 and when I went to continue the series with ‘A Longer Fall’ I’d evidently forgotten a lot of the world-building because it hit me like a brick. That Harris – back in 2018 – was writing a skewed world-history in which the trajectories of revolution and pandemic skewed slightly and totally remade the world? Yah. Reading the second book in 2020, it slaps hard.

‘A Longer Fall’ picks up a while after ‘Death’ when our protagonist, Lizbeth (a gun-runner with companies-for-hire) is helping transport precious cargo on a train that suddenly explodes and is derailed, then raided by masked bandits. What follows is an ‘Indiana Jones’-esque storyline of trying to get a trunk to where it needs to be, and along the way grigori wizard Eli reappears when it so happens that the trunk Lizbeth and Co. were carrying, is of great significance to the Holy Russian Empire …

Someone recently asked me if they’d enjoy this series, given their only other Charlaine Harris read was the entire ‘Sookie Stackhouse/Southern Vampire’ series and the way that ended left an (understandably) sour taste. I warned that ‘Gunnie Rose’ is perhaps the straight-up darkest of all Harris’s works; and even though all her books get there eventually, ‘Gunnie’ starts out dark in tone and then it’s a matter of brief glimpses of light getting in. One of those glimpses is the Russian wizard Eli, and his strange relationship with Lizbeth that’s built around their chance-encounters and clear sexual chemistry… but also a shared secret that Lizbeth has grigori blood in her veins.

Even though ‘Gunnie’ is the darkest in tone of all Harris’s books (beating out the previous ‘Midnight, Texas’ that I would have said had much more sinister southern gothic tones) I am so enjoying this ride. And ‘A Longer Fall’ especially – reading in 2020… it has HBO’s ‘Watchmen’ vibes meets ‘Indiana Jones’ for its vigilante, racial upheaval and culture-war undertones. I’m really impressed that Harris pulling on this one thread of history has unravelled so much of present-day society which is exactly what the best of fantasy and sci-fi should always do; hold a mirror up to the present world and make commentary through various mechanisms of almost absurdity.

I really enjoyed ‘A Longer Fall’, and can’t wait for ‘The Russian Cage’ coming in February 2021, which promises to send Lizbeth to the Holy Russian Empire (finally!). I really can’t see this series wrapping up in 3 books though, when the weight of the real world seems to be increasingly impressing on its relevance. I’m hoping for a full-blown multi-book series that continues to build this universe.

5/5

Monday, July 6, 2020

'Turbulence' by Thuy On


I’m trying to read more Poetry because it’s good for me.

I always encourage emerging writers to read outside their form/readership/genre to stretch their brains a bit, but I hadn’t been doing that myself lately and I needed to ... I’m in awe of poets. Their tight lines and pace, perfectly selected words & phrases just floor me.

One poetry collection I picked up recently was 'Turbulence' by Thuy On. It's all about sex, relationships, humour, heartbreak, rebirth, rejection and longing.
CAMEO 
In this game of chance  
the dynamic chaos 
that whirlwinded us both 
whimpers and waits 
for pattern and tidy 

the idea was to be 
interwoven into narrative 
separate skeins 
gently plait bound 
singular becoming plural 

but your cameo sightings 
make us a poor play 
half-formed ghostings 
creaking on floorboards.

I found a lot of humour in this collection too - dark humour, for sure, but an ability to look at life and raise your eyebrow to it all. - like the final stanza in Perspective:

just a slice of the drama 
on reveal 
like a fingernail clipping of the moon.

I think this is a wonderful modern and deeply personal collection out of Australia and UWA Publishing, and I think there’s something for everyone here


5/5

Monday, June 22, 2020

'Living on Stolen Land' by Ambelin Kwaymullina

Received from the Publisher 

From the BLURB: 

Living on Stolen Land is a prose-styled look at our colonial-settler ‘present’. This book is the first of its kind to address and educate a broad audience about the colonial contextual history of Australia, in a highly original way. It pulls apart the myths at the heart of our nationhood, and challenges Australia to come to terms with its own past and its place within and on ‘Indigenous Countries’.
This title speaks to many First Nations’ truths; stolen lands, sovereignties, time, decolonisation, First Nations perspectives, systemic bias and other constructs that inform our present discussions and ever-expanding understanding. This title is a timely, thought-provoking and accessible read.
There is no part of this place
that was not
is not
cared for
loved
by an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander nation


I’m going to say this is one of the most important books to seek out, own, and learn from in 2020 - and will go down as an instant classic, a staple of every library and classroom forevermore.

Somebody in #LoveOzYA community was recently asking if any non-fiction books exist about the history of systemic racism in Australia and the realities of being a settler-colony where sovereignty was never ceded ... 'Living On Stolen Land' isn’t non-fiction, it’s prose-style but *everything* is covered within. It's lyrical truth.

The poetry style has you absorbing blows of that truth not *easily* but in a way that really does imprint. And the blurb does proclaim its uniqueness (long-overdueness?) for the Australian landscape. 
I’ve long been a huge fan of Ambelin’s, and everything that’s in this book are ideas in the pages of her Aussie-YA too; but here they’re stark and laid bare. You can’t look away - her words bite and bare down and this is an essential book for *everyone* to read, not least because I can’t even begin to imagine how emotionally taxing it would have been to write and share. Wow. 

I encourage you to buy this book now, to be part of the conversation that is sure to spring ...

There are no trees
rivers
hills
stars
that were not
are not
someone’s kin

5/5


Book available from July 1 



Tuesday, June 2, 2020

'What Zola Did on Monday' by Melina Marchetta, illustrated by Deb Hudson

Received from the Publisher 

From the BLURB: 

From the author of Looking for Alibrandi comes this gorgeous series to engage and entertain newly independent young readers. 

Zola loves living on Boomerang Street with her mum and her nonna. Every day of the week is an adventure. But Zola has a problem. No matter how much she tries, she can't keep out of trouble! Seven stories in the series – one for every day of the week.

*** 

What Zola Did on Monday by Melina Marchetta and illustrated by Deb Hudson is a beautiful story (the first in a 7-day series) and perfect for early readers aged 5+. It’s a truly gorgeous rendition of memory and grief - tempered in the perfect way for kids and so filled with family and happiness too. 
And oh, the dogs ☺️ 

Nobody will be surprised that this is another stunning addition to Marchetta’s list; a way to talk about family and complex emotions with a new readership who will benefit from the empathetic intelligence she always imparts.

5/5