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Thursday, November 29, 2018

'Harbor Me' by Jacqueline Woodson


From the BLURB: 

It all starts when six kids have to meet for a weekly chat–by themselves, with no adults to listen in. There, in the room they soon dub the ARTT Room (short for “A Room to Talk”), they discover it’s safe to talk about what’s bothering them–everything from Esteban’s father’s deportation and Haley’s father’s incarceration to Amari’s fears of racial profiling and Ashton’s adjustment to his changing family fortunes. When the six are together, they can express the feelings and fears they have to hide from the rest of the world. And together, they can grow braver and more ready for the rest of their lives.

*** 

I miss the beginning of our story together. And the deep middle of it.

Jacqueline Woodson's 'Harbor Me' is easily one of my Top 3 favourite books of 2018. 

It's a middle-grade of only about thirty-thousand words; but the economy of language is even more remarkable, considering the heartbreakingly big ideas and topics being explored within. 

Woodson has spoken about how she wrote this in the middle of America's shifting and toxic attitude towards immigrants, and in particular; increased powers to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and less rights for recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). For a book that was written right in the midst of so much hurt and pain, what Woodson has achieved is a remarkable feat of equal parts tenderness and bitterness, hope and resistance. 

It's about six children with various learning difficulties, who are put into a trial classroom and made to thrive with a caring teacher who encourages them to listen to one another, and speak their truth too, in the ARTT room (A Room To Talk) amongst themselves. 

Our protagonist is Haley - who is recording everyone's stories - she's a biracial girl whose mother died tragically, and is being raised by her uncle, while her white father is in prison and soon to be released. There's also Ashton - a white child at a predominantly black middle-school, who has to start thinking about the ways his life is different and will continue to be, from his fellow classmates - simply because of the colour of their skin. Esteban's father is currently being held in detention in Florida, after being caught by ICE agents - his family don't know his fate, and are themselves hiding out with relatives, lest they be detained too. The other children have their own plights and insecurities - like a father telling them they can no longer play with toy guns, and a mother who will no longer speak Spanish in the street for fear of having racial abuse hurled at her. 

These kids are discussing big ideas amongst themselves - like how they speak the 'Pledge of Allegiance' but don't really feel free, and when their teacher asks them to think of the Lenape first peoples of the land they're standing on - and whether or not they would have fought with them to keep their land, or been one of the invaders taking it away? 

This book is a product of 2018 in many ways - but because of that it also feels timeless, because of the deep hurt being inflicted on society (and around the world) right now. Woodson carves these marks in 'Harbor Me', knowing we'll be dealing with the repercussions of these actions for generations to come. 

'Harbor Me' though, feels like a celebration in so many ways. Even at its most heartbreaking. Because the children read true - they feel like an honest reflection of our next generation currently living these times and asking questions, while deciding that it'll be different with them. Because they'll make it so. 

Jacqueline Woodson is one of my favourite authors of all time. Reading her is like coming up for air. She's the kind of author that makes you want to be a writer, and feel so grateful that you get to be a reader too. 'Harbor Me' is one of her best, and that's saying something. 


5/5

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

'An Easy Death' Gunnie Rose #1 by Charlaine Harris



From the BLURB:
From the No. 1 New York Times bestselling author of the Sookie Stackhouse series and the inspiration behind HBO's True Blood, comes an electrifying new thriller centered on a young gunslinging mercenary, Lizbeth Rose.

Set in a fractured United States, in the southwestern country now known as Texoma, this is a world where magic is acknowledged but mistrusted. Battered by a run across the border to Mexico, gunslinger Lizbeth Rose takes a job offer from a pair of Russian wizards.

She may be young, but Gunnie Rose has acquired a fearsome reputation and the wizards are at a desperate crossroads, even if they won't admit it. They're searching frantically to locate the only man whose blood they believe can save their tsar's life.

As the trio journey through an altered America, they're set upon by enemies. It's clear that a powerful force does not want them to succeed in their mission. Lizbeth Rose is a gunnie who has never failed a client, but her oath will test all of her skills and resolve to get them all out alive.

The Dark Tower meets True Blood in this gritty and wildly entertaining tale of Gunnie Rose. A woman fighting unimaginable odds to keep her people alive after the disintegration of America, this is a surefire hit for fans of The Walking Dead or Westworld.

‘An Easy Death’ is the first book in a historical-paranormal series by American author Charlaine Harris, called ‘Gunnie Rose’.

If you’ve been reading my book blog for a while now, then you would have figured out that Charlaine is easily one of my all-time favourite authors – and certainly the one I own the most books of. I inevitably fall in love with all her new series (whether they’re gritty small-town mystery noir, or paranormal-noir) I always get hooked, and I’m thrilled to say that ‘An Easy Death’ first book in this new series is no exception.

For one thing, Charlaine Harris has her finger on the pulse of American society. It’s little wonder that ‘Dead Until Dark’ – the first book in her ‘Southern Vampire’ series – came out in 2001, the time of September-11 and the most deadly terrorist attack on American soil. What followed in that series (at first very successfully, and then towards the end – less so) was a paranormal story focused on vampires that unlike Stephenie Meyer’s ‘Twilight’ a few years later, was not solely focused on vampirism as a metaphor for lust, but rather as an ongoing metaphor for “othering” in American society. Which remained especially timely when HBO and Alan Ball adapted the books into the mega-successful (again, more in the beginning than the end) television series ‘True Blood’, that used vampirism as an allegory for the gay rights movement in America. The final and seventh season of the show aired in 2014, and the following year in America the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all state bans on same-sex marriage, legalized it in all fifty states.

So, yes – you can see that Charlaine Harris often has a canny ability to take a long view of the present situation in America and write some fabulously quirky and timely allegory and metaphors. Which is especially true here, in ‘An Easy Death’ and post-2016 Trumpism but especially Russian interference in Western democracy. Because ‘An Easy Death’ and the ‘Gunnie Rose’ series is essentially a historical-paranormal Western mash-up, set in a fractured America that broke apart after President Roosevelt and half the nation died in the wake of an influenza epidemic.

As the protagonist, Lizbeth Rose’s, teacher mother explains to her daughter one day;

A lot of people didn’t want to talk about the past, because it was painful. But Mom thought I should know how things had gotten to be the way they were: the dead president, the dead vice president (influenza), the banks crashing, the drought, and the influenza … again. 
The population had dropped, the government could not protect itself, and other countries had grabbed pieces of America.“USA got big bites takes out of it: by Canada from the north, by Mexico from the south, and by the Holy Russian Empire from the west, where the Russian tsar settled when he fled his own country. To the east, the thirteen original colonies – all but Georgia – voted to form a bond with England, to keep from becoming part of Canada. They picked the name Britannia. The southern states banded together as Dixie. Georgia went with them.” She was pointing out the new countries on the map. 
“So what about us?” I asked, looking at the old map. She pointed to the place where we lived. “Texas and Oklahoma and New Mexico and a bit of Colorado became Texoma, where we live. We live in Segundo Mexia, in Texoma. And this big area north of us, the plains, that’s New America.”

Yes, especially interesting that in this version of human history – the Romanov Dynasty was not ended in a basement execution by Bolshevik rebels, but rather the tsar and his family (yes, all four daughters and son) were rescued by his British cousin, and were royal refugees for a time until they swooped in on a weakened America and created the Holy Russian Empire (HRE).

When ‘An Easy Death’ begins – Lizbeth says that following Nicholas’s death, the young Tsarevich of Russia Alexei Nikolaevich has taken over as tsar (though rumours abound that he has a blood disease that keeps him perilously close to losing control of his reign).

And while at first all of this big moving around of human history like jigsaw pieces feels like Charlaine Harris just world-building, it’s actually surprising how much all of the above soon comes to directly affect Lizbeth Rose and the trajectory of this gun-slinging story – when she’s offered a job to bodyguard two grigoris from the HRE as they hunt down one of their own …

Now, as is often the case with the first book in a Charlaine Harris series – there is a lot of laying the land here, and possibly more than usual because there’s a historical component to this story (that as far as I can tell, takes place some times in the 60s?) and has to go over some rewriting of the 20th century to explain a few things;

And bandits were everywhere, especially in Texoma, New America, and Dixie. I had heard that in Britannia, the area that had knelt to England, there was so much law that bandits were caught and hung quickly. The same for Canada, which had expanded to take in a lot of northern America. Canada had its horseback police, who were supposed to be crackerjack at their jobs. The Holy Russian Empire had a squad of grigoris and militia whose job it was to track highway robbers and kill them on the spot. 
But in Texoma and New America, formal justice was scarce on the ground.

I can imagine that people who come into this hoping for all the Western gun-slinging and paranormal fun (of which there is – since grigoris in this universe do possess magical abilities) may get frustrated with how slow-going this is.

But I personally loved everything about ‘An Easy Death’ – right down to the very sparse romance that could well grow into more with the series, or be a one-off (something else Charlaine Harris is very fond of, is a sort of “red-herring” romance in the first book and a completely new contender appearing down the track). Certainly ‘Gunnie Rose’ feels like classic Westerns, tipping into enclosed mysteries – in which every book could be a completely new adventure with a whole new cast of characters. I have learnt to be somewhat patient with Charlaine Harris, especially in the romance department (hello, Harper Connelly and Tolliver!) so while there's not a lot to go on here, I have hope and confidence that that will become more of a focus down the track ...

Either way, I am onboard! And given the comparisons to ‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘Westworld’ especially (I’d also throw ‘Wynona Earp’ in the mix) I’m also not surprised that this is yet another Charlaine Harrris book being optioned for television (her series ‘Midnight, Texas’ is also a seriously decent paranormal show!)

But mostly I am very impressed by Charlaine building an entire series on the premise of how precarious American history has been – that it all could have been so very different give or take a few influential players dropping off the scene … and talk about Russian interference in modern US-politics, here’s a new series in which the Russian Empire has embedded itself in the American heartland. I can’t wait to sit back and see how all of this unfolds, indeed.

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5/5

Thursday, October 25, 2018

'Normal People' by Sally Rooney


From the BLURB:

Connell and Marianne grow up in the same small town in rural Ireland. The similarities end there; they are from very different worlds. When they both earn places at Trinity College in Dublin, a connection that has grown between them lasts long into the following years. 

This is an exquisite love story about how a person can change another person's life - a simple yet profound realisation that unfolds beautifully over the course of the novel. It tells us how difficult it is to talk about how we feel and it tells us - blazingly - about cycles of domination, legitimacy and privilege. Alternating menace with overwhelming tenderness, Sally Rooney's second novel breathes fiction with new life.

'Normal People' is Sally Rooney's second book and my first attempt to read anything by her, and I am pleasantly surprised that I didn't mind it! 

If you don't know - Rooney was this 26-year-old wunderkind Irish author whose debut 'Conversations with Friends' came out last year, and caused quite a stir. 'Normal People' has likewise continued to herald her a superstar, when it was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize... which is also why I thought I wouldn't enjoy or ever attempt to read her work; because I have this ongoing joke that the Man Booker is always just a list of books I am guaranteed not to read.

But 'Normal People' and the inundation of praise its been receiving gave me pause - especially because everyone has been calling it a revelatory millennial romance. It also alludes to as much in the blurb; "... it reveals how we learn about sex and power, the desire to hurt and be hurt, the desire to love and be loved. Here is an exquisite love story which breathes fiction with new life." 

Well, HUH! 

So I picked it up and gave it a read and - look! - I am as shocked as anyone that I found it immensely *readable* and somewhat enjoyable. But as I also said to a friend of mine - a lot of the praise I see Rooney receiving is for her writing about the complex inner-worlds and relationships of teenagers and young people and, frankly, Young Adult Literature has been doing that for a lot longer with none of this Literati Fanfare. But, whatever! 

'Normal People' is a very Man Booker prize book. Rooney, for instance, does not use quotation marks (I KNOW! Liane Moriarty had her author-character make a joke about these kinds of books in her latest 'Nine Perfect Strangers' and I snorted to think of it when I saw Rooney was one of those). 

The book reminded me a lot of British author David Nicholls' 2009 novel 'One Day' that was eventually adapted into an okay-film (P.S. - 'Normal People' is also set to be made into a mini-series). Though 'One Day' checked in on a couple for one day every year for 19-years, 'Normal People' spans only from 2011 to 2015 and in alternating-perspectives between young woman Marianne and man Connell - who know each other in high school, where Marianne lives in a small mansion infamous in their town, where Connell's mother is the cleaner - right up until their early years in college. Rooney doesn't quite give us a day-in-the-life of this couple every few years, but rather lengthy summaries in chapters that fill in the months being skipped and relationship revelations that have happened off the page. But still - for all intents - it was very 'One Day' by David Nicholls to me (hey - not that crazy, since Nicholls novel 'US' which I loved, was long-listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize ... huh. Maybe I do read Man Booker books more than I think?) 

'Normal People' also reminded me a little of the Greta Gerwig movie 'Lady Bird' - but an Irish version. Of growing up and being torn up by love - one is set in West Ireland and the other in Sacramento, California but still the same early story beats in a lot of ways. 

For all that this is a really gorgeous book and some of the stark prose really sucker-punches you; I was still surprised at how readable it was. I thought that with alllllll these super literary types raving about it, that it'd just end up being one long metaphor wrapped around elusive prose, but then I started reading this story of a working-class boy falling for the girl in the mansion that his Mum works in as cleaner and they really just have a lot of sex and start falling for each other and I thought "Hold on a second! I totally understand this!"

Sally Rooney is also being celebrated for not punching down on millennials (as a millennial herself) - and it's nice to see critics are embracing rather than ridiculing her subject-matter of nuanced relationships between young people. 

Because here's the thing; what she's writing about isn't all that wildly different from YA. She's essentially writing with fierce finesse and tenderness about what it is to be young, aimless, feel loveless and scared of the world around you and the people in it who you let get close to you. Hi - that's what a lot of books written about - and for - teenagers are. Even when Rooney goes to dark and intense places, I was surprised at her restraint in writing - which further struck me that this is an accessible story for young people. 

I think it's wonderful that a young woman writing about young people and relationships is being celebrated - and rightly so, when 'Normal People' is as tender as a bruise to read and delightfully, surprisingly lovely too. But I personally don't think her writing is any better or worse than what young adult literature has been producing to a similarly stellar quality lately (and always). Sorry. Maybe this is what the Man Booker has been for a long time now and I just misunderstood it? But I am surprised at the level of adoration Sally Rooney is receiving, and I wish those who write YA (the women especially) could receive similar open-minded encouragement for the way they also write the tough and tender truth of what it is to be a teen. 

As my friend put it; "Funny, this dichotomy between YA people look down on and stories about teens that are taken seriously as Art." Yes. Funny - that.

Though I will say that (much as with the David Nicholls book) I should have known that a Man Booker "love story" doesn't have the requisite happy ending of commercial fiction. More's the pity.

4/5

Monday, October 15, 2018

'This Will Only Hurt a Little' by Busy Philipps

Sent by the Publisher in exchange for an honest review

From the BLURB:

A memoir by the beloved comedic actress known for her roles on Freaks and Geeks, Dawson's Creek, and Cougartown who has become 'the breakout star on Instagram stories . . . imagine I Love Lucy mixed with a modern lifestyle guru' (New Yorker).

Busy Philipps's autobiographical book offers the same unfiltered and candid storytelling that her Instagram followers have come to know and love, from growing up in Scottsdale, Arizona and her painful and painfully funny teen years, to her life as a working actress, mother, and famous best friend.

Busy is the rare entertainer whose impressive arsenal of talents as an actress is equally matched by her storytelling ability, sense of humor, and sharp observations about life, love, and motherhood. Her conversational writing reminds us what we love about her on screens large and small. From film to television to Instagram, Busy delightfully showcases her wry humor and her willingness to bare it all.

'I've been waiting my whole life to write this book. I'm just so grateful someone asked. Otherwise, what was the point of any of it??'

*** 

‘This Will Only Hurt a Little’ is Busy Philipps’ memoir, available in Australia by Hachette and available from October 16.

Confession – I instantly flipped to the “Is This It” (The Strokes) chapter of Busy’s memoir when it arrived. The ‘Dawson’s Creek’ chapter – because how could I not? This was the show that defined my teenage years of yearning, and a couple of weeks previously myself and a bunch of rad people on Twitter had concluded an epic live-Tweeting re-watch of all six seasons (#PaceysCreek). We had all been in agreement that Busy’s character of Audrey Liddell had been a low-point in an already terrible final two seasons of a once-great show … but we were also all in agreement that upon re-examination as strong, feminist adults – Jen Lindley and Michelle Williams had been the true breakout star of that show, and we were all smitten with her and Busy Philipp’s best-friendship that had its start in Capeside.

So I flipped to the gosh-darn ‘Dawson’s Creek’ chapter because I wanted goss – particularly on Busy’s sure-to-be-truthful observations as a late-comer to the show and how the dynamics played out by then. And she did not disappoint … or – maybe she did – but not in her gossip content delivery, just in shattering some of my teen idols;

Josh really fancied himself “one of the guys” with the crew. The Creek’s very own mini George Clooney! He’s a good guy and just wanted to be well-liked but I wish I’d known the term “mansplaining” when I met Josh. His ability to turn a conversation into a dissertation was incredible.
Dang it, Pacey! 

There’s also a lot of hints given about the tensions on set between the cast by this point, as Busy points out;

One day, the whole cast was sitting around a table filming the Thanksgiving episode, and James looked at me and said, “See? You got lucky. Your show was cancelled after the first season.”’ 
Gossip delivered. But the chapter offers a lot more than just the Dawson’s Creek revelations I had hoped for… Busy highlights the many ways she was made to feel inadequate about her weight and appearance on the show, particularly in being constantly compared to the “breakout star” of Katie Holmes. The chapter also takes a sharp turn when September 11 happens in the middle of a break from filming, and Busy needing to take a flight back to Wilmington from LA despite being terrified – as everyone was in those days – of getting back on a plane and then having to carry on with life and work. In the wake of it all.

I felt so silly at work the next day, dressed in a costume for the Halloween episode. The world was fucking ending and I was trying to get Joey Potter to come to a party with me. I remember there were a lot of pep talks about how this is what we do. We make entertainment for people so that they can escape the real world for forty-three minutes a week. It’s not without value or merit. It’s important to not just tell stories, but also to remember to entertain. Any anyway, someone’s got to. May we well be us.
And so we did.

And she delves into how she started drinking as a coping mechanism for all the ways the world sucked, and she was made to feel shitty in her little corner of it. The chapter ends on a doozy of a scathing and on-point one-liner and it pulled me up short. Hang on. I was mostly looking forward to this memoir for the celebrity gossip, but … could it be that Busy is actually a good writer?

Yes. She is. A damn fine one, in fact.

I went back to the beginning and then I didn’t stop – I ended up reading the whole book through to 1AM when I finished, teary-eyed and a little weak from the punches she packed.

This memoir is GOOD. Not just good … bloody brilliant! It’s up there with ‘Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?’ by Mindy Kaling and Tina Fey’s ‘Bossypants’ for comedic memoirs … but it’s also more than that. It’s a memoir by an actress in the wake of #MeToo and Harvey Weinstein (who – yes – she knew, but not the extent of his depravity). An actress who is pulling no punches about the toxic masculinity and patriarchy upon which Hollywood is built and Busy acquiesced to for a long time.

Case in point: Busy had the idea for the 2007 film ‘Blades of Glory’ and shared it with her boyfriend at the time who agreed they should write a script together … until he and his brother took the idea and ran away with it, even having the audacity to shop it around without Busy’s name on it, though she’d also contributed to the writing. Luckily she’d registered the idea with the Writers Guild of America screenwriting credit system and they ended up having to credit her, since there was a sufficient paper-trail proving her ownership (so it was fear of potential litigation rather than letting a woman own her damn work as the right thing to do!)

Busy dissects these moments, and many more (including – yes – the one the media has chosen to pick apart in James Franco’s treatment of her on the set of ‘Freaks and Geeks’). But she doesn’t just talk about them in the context of Hollywood. Busy’s memoir – starting from when she’s a child and then a teenager in Scottsdale, Arizona through to her college years acting and early established career – is a searing personal critique of all the ways she tried to contain herself to please men in her life. Tried to be less than, quieter, prettier, thinner, agreeable, laid-back, loving … even at the expense of her own happiness and mental-health. It even results in her convincing herself that being raped at the age of 14 was something that she wanted from the boy, because she convinced herself to love him to make the event “okay” in her own mind.

‘This Will Only Hurt a Little’ isn’t just a memoir. It’s a searing, honest and fantastic examination of a young woman taking control of her life, career and identity. I also got this idea that it’s a little bit ‘La La Land’ meets ‘Lady Bird’ (a film I hated by the way, for its feeling directionless and pointless – but after reading Busy’s memoir I now wish more than ever that Greta Gerwig’s film had some of her beats and honesty to coral it).

The most impacting chapter to me was ‘Tear in Your Hand’ (Tori Amos) which delves into Busy’s first true teenage love affair that ends with an abortion and then winds up somewhere miraculous. It’s a chapter that you feel down to your bones, and is so incredibly literary perfect – I want to see it reproduced in The New Yorker or made into an indie movie (again – better than ‘Lady Bird’ in all ways) or maybe even fictionalised into a contemporary YA novel. This is the chapter that sealed the deal for me – and not just because it shits all over James Franco’s ‘Palo Alto’ wankery. But because it’s genius, perfectly crafted. That I read Sally Rooney’s ‘Normal People’ right before delving into Busy’s memoir further highlighted this for me – the beauty in writing about the pain of teenagers and teenage girls in particular, the finesse and fierceness was all in this chapter. It makes me hope that Busy has another film-script up her sleeve, or another book – collection of essays, further memoir or fiction – I don’t care, I just want more of her words, thoughts and ideas.

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5/5


Wednesday, October 10, 2018

'Nine Perfect Strangers' by Liane Moriarty



From the BLURB: 

The retreat at health and wellness resort Tranquillum House promises total transformation. Nine stressed city dwellers are keen to drop their literal and mental baggage, and absorb the meditative ambience while enjoying their hot stone massages. 

Watching over them is the resort's director, a woman on a mission to reinvigorate their tired minds and bodies. These nine perfect strangers have no idea what is about to hit them. 

With her wit, compassion and uncanny understanding of human behaviour, Liane Moriarty explores the depth of connection that can be formed when people are thrown together in... unconventional circumstances. 

Okay - I went into this Liane Moriarty a *little* bit dubious, but I came out converted and all the better for having read it. 

Any hesitations I had were around the nine perspectives (there's actually more, but it works well) and because the whole 'wellness retreat' thriller-esque storyline had burnt me once with 'Fearless' by Fiona Higgins (which was *truly* awful, but thankfully 'Nine Perfect Strangers' is nothing like it). This latest from Liane Moriarty was another true joy and gem of a read; it's layered and complex, while also reading like a gossipy unravelling of human psyche and intimate relationships. I particularly loved the underpinnings of needing to choose your own happy-ending, and especially how that was characterised in the (sort of?) main protagonist of Frances, an older woman and once semi-famous romance author who has just been duped by an internet love scam. 

Frances is a bit of a conduit, I think, for Liane's experiences on the author circuit prior to becoming a NYT-bestselling author. So she has some delicious asides about gropey older male authors at writers festivals, bad reviews that claim her romance is anti-feminist for concluding with a happy ending, and the way she can't stand reading "literary" crime-thrillers without quotation marks and in which beautiful women either die or fawn over the grizzled older male detective. 

Ohhhhhhh, Liane - this is pure gold. And I think she has more than earned the right to have an author character get astutely persnickety about these things (also, can the sentence "unassuming mum from the suburbs" in relation to Liane just die already?) 

I also continue to adore how much Liane embraces Australian sensibilities. I've not ever read a US-version of her books, but I hope perfect observations like these remain; 

He loved the sound of the whipbird: that long, musical crack of the whip that was so much a part of the Australian landscape you had to leave the country to realise how much you missed it, how it settled your soul. 

Liane Moriarty continues to write at the top of her game, as a justifiable juggernaut of the publishing realm. That she's a genuinely lovely person, whip-smart author and keen observer of human interaction just makes her success that much sweeter ...

5/5

Saturday, October 6, 2018

'Heart on Fire' The Kingmaker Chronicles #3 by Amanda Bouchet


From the BLURB:
Who is Catalia Fisa?

With the help of pivotal figures from her past, Cat begins to understand the root of her exceptional magic, her fated union with Griffin Sinta, and Griffin's role in shaping her destiny.

Only Cat holds the key to unlocking her own power, and that means finally accepting herself, her past, and her future in order to protect her loved ones, confront her murderous mother, and taking a final, terrifying step - reuniting all three realms and taking her place as the Queen of Thalyria.

What doesn't kill her will only make her stronger . . . we hope.

‘Heart on Fire’ is the third and final book in American author Amanda Bouchet’s fantasy romance trilogy, ‘The Kingmaker Chronicles’ released in 2018.

Bingeing a completed series has its up’s and down’s. Instant gratification is always nice, and being able to feel intimately connected to the characters and story for an intense period of time … but unlike reading at the real-time release-pace, it also probably affords you more scrutiny of the series, when you’re able to take in all the moving parts as a whole and see how the long-game mapped out. In this sense, I’ve got to say that Amanda Bouchet’s third and final book in ‘The Kingmaker Chronicles’ trilogy falls maddeningly short. It’s not enough to taint the previous two books (I maintain that Book 1 ‘A Promise of Fire’ also works as a brilliant stand-alone!) but there’s no satisfaction in the end here, and that’s a frustrating note to leave on (for now).

One of the shortfalls of ‘Heart on Fire’ is actually that Amanda Bouchet has done too good a job with her secondary characters, and its highlighted in book three especially when I often felt more inclined to go off on their tangents rather than keeping with Cat. For one thing – it’s the Beta Team trio that I’m sure fans have come to love in Carver, Flynn and Kato. All of these men have had really full characterisations and future-journeys set-up, and they never work better than when off with Griffin and Cat on an adventure. So it’s maddening when Griffin and Cat go off on their own for a majority of this book, breaking the brilliant spell of camaraderie that had so endeared it previously. Never mind that the set-ups for Flynn, Kate and Carver are never followed-through, left dangling for readers to hope for a promise of spin-offs and more …

It was also the addition of a new secondary cast in Cat’s sisters Ianthe and Bellanca who joined at the end of Book 2 – these two are so fascinating, and while Bellanca’s set-up as a possible match for the world-weary brother Carver was a hopeful glint in the distance, Cat’s younger sister Ianthe strikes a truly fascinating bargain with leader of the cantaurs, Lycheron that is 100% worthy of its own series. Bouchet must have realised this somewhat too, because we get (a somewhat unnecessary) independent scene of Ianthe and Lycheron interacting and clearly loving that had me so desperate for the possibilities. And probably a sign that things weren’t concluding satisfactorily enough for me in ‘Heart’ was when Ianthe rode Lycheron off into the distance; I desperately wanted to follow after them and their story …

The last-half of ‘Heart on Fire’ was actually this really strange story of isolation for Cat, that introduced another new character who felt like there was more to them and he was being introduced so as to launch into something new … it’s maddening to meet interesting characters in the literal last-half of a final book. It’s not a cliff-hanger at that point, but a dangling annoyance. And further adding to this was the sad and frustrating end to one character, that also hints at more to come.

And while Bouchet has said she does intend to revisit the ‘Kingmaker’ realm with spin-off stories in future (something I wholeheartedly welcome!) it will be a while before readers get any kind of satisfaction, since Bouchet is launching a new series next year in the urban fantasy ‘Endeavor’ (described as Robin Hood in space). I would have been fine if Bouchet had left readers with such an unsatisfying conclusion if there was definite promise of those spin-offs launching from next year onwards … but instead we’re all painfully aware that she has a new series to invest her time in, so it’ll be a long time before we get any true satisfaction from the ending of ‘Kingmaker Chronicles’ and that’s not the half-full feeling you want to leave readers with in a finale.

It’s also that the Big Bad Arc was underwhelming executed in the end too. More a whimper than a scream, and it’s probably partly wrapped up in how many new characters had nabbed my attention, and how frustrating not knowing where favourites ended up that also dulled the final blows … but overall this was indeed a maddening wrap-up of poor pacing and patchy characterisation that doesn’t quite taint the series whole, but also doesn’t leave readers with a great taste at the end. A shame.

2.5/5 


Monday, October 1, 2018

'The Hairy Bird: and the lessons Hollywood didn’t learn from Now and Then'



* Full disclosure: I wrote this back in 2015. I tried pitching the article to various online magazines and pop-culture websites, but nobody had heard of The Hairy Bird (or its other iterations) so the article went nowhere. Then I saw Jenna Guillaume's Buzzfeed article on her re-watch of the film and I was inspired to go read my own article again. 

And ... aside from it having some pretty telling condemnations (especially now) of Harvey Weinstein's movie taste where female portrayals are concerned, I found it to still be so relevant - everything Sarah Kernochan told me then still applies today.

So here it is. 
Ejoy. 

[left to right] Merritt Wever, Gaby Hoffmann, Kirsten Dunst, and Heather Matarazzo.

When I was eight-years-old I started wearing pedal-pusher pants, Chuck Taylors and was desperate to drink Coke out of a glass bottle. Because when I was eight-years-old I saw the movie Now and Then for the very first time – a film about four 12-year-old girls growing up together during an eventful small-town summer in 1970. I was obsessed with the film, and regularly rented it from my local Civic Video store (shut up, it was 1995!).  

So when director Lesli Linka Glatter spoke to Vulture in February, revealing that she and writer I. Marlene King are still friends and hinting that they’ve explored the idea of a remake, my inner eight-year-old was thrilled.
But then reality kicked in.

Putting aside the possibility of disaster that comes with remaking a classic, the more I thought about it, the more frustrated I was with the idea of a Now and Then reboot (and not just because that word is fast becoming the most overused in 2015 – between Twin Peaks and The X-Files). No, I was frustrated because the legacy of Roberta, Teeny, Samantha and Chrissy shouldn’t be to retell their coming-of-age story. Rather, the cult-classic status of that film should compel Hollywood to make more movies focused on young female narratives, because there simply aren’t enough of them. Glatter even told Vulture the reason they made Now and Then in the first place was because, “there hadn't been anything done about young girls growing up,” and – ummm – there still isn’t a hell of a lot.

Really, it’s hard for me to name any recent American films for young ‘tween’ girls (no, those great HelloFlo period ads don’t count) … instead you’ve got to look at more dynamic international and indie films like 2013’s Swedish-Danish drama We Are the Best! about three rebellious teenagers who form an all-girl punk band in 1980s Stockholm. Or the 2014 French film Girlhood, about young Marieme, who joins an all-girl gang in the projects of Paris.

In fact, if you’re looking for evidence that Now and Then had any real impact on the way Hollywood recognized the need and potential in telling stories that appeal to young female audiences … you’ll be pretty disappointed. Case in point was another female-focused 90s movie that had such a struggle, it really crystallizes the fact that film studios didn’t learn any lessons from Now and Then or realize the potential in harnessing female audiences.

The Hairy Bird is a film set in the 1960s which follows a group of friends at Miss Godard's Preparatory School for Girls who learn that their school is going to be combined with a nearby all boys school. They concoct a plan to save their school from the invading St. Ambrose Boys academy, and learn some lessons about themselves along the way.

The Hairy Bird came out in 1998, and I fell in love with it as fiercely as I did Now and Then three years earlier – not least because I related to the unique dilemmas of the all-girls school environment. The cast alone was a 90s slam-dunk: there’s Kirsten Dunst (who would go on to star in another cult-classic for my generation, Bring It On and the brilliant The Virgin Suicides), Rachael Leigh Cook (She’s All That), Heather Matarazzo (from another indie classic, Welcome to the Dollhouse), Mad Men alum Vincent Kartheiser and – *drumroll, please! – Samantha from Now and Then, the wonderful Gaby Hoffmann!

In many ways The Hairy Bird deliberately doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test, because the storyline revolves around the girls planning to keep Miss Godard's same-sex by holding back the tide of an invading boy’s school. Or as Kernochan once described it, the film is about; “the incursion of the penis in young girls lives,” (hence, The Hairy Bird refers to male genitalia and in one scene, Dunst’s character declares; “I'm not gonna live in the shadow of the Hairy Bird!”).

I recently spoke to writer and director Sarah Kernochan about the film, which she admits, “Had a difficult birth, overcoming the inertia of an industry which traditionally has had reservations about women running things.” And despite being a success in Canada and Australia, her female-focused drama was bought down by an American distributor who wanted it to appeal more to young male audiences.

[left to right] Actors Gaby Hoffmann and Lynn Redgrave with writer/director Sarah Kernochan

‘It took about seven years to get financing, and to get a financial entity to believe that you could make a movie with an almost solely female cast,’ Kernochan says during our Skype chat, ‘Everyone shied away from it, because there were no major men’s parts and the girls were either fifteen or the head mistress was an older woman in her 50’s and they couldn’t understand why that should be bankable.’
‘There had been a number of films up until then that had been successful, that should have proved to producers that in fact an audience would show up for this. It was Clueless, it was Titanic (which was a completely different film) but it was driven by girls of that age. You just had to know how to get them in and market to them. And that’s what nobody could figure out how to do.’

Eventually a Canadian company financed the film, which was then picked up by Harvey Weinstein for distribution by Miramax … and that’s when things started to go wrong. Weinstein envisioned The Hairy Bird as a Porky’s for female audiences, and as detailed in Peter Biskind’s book Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film, he wanted to have greater editorial control over the film which eventually saw him pushing Kernochan to make it more appealing to male audiences. ‘At one time we had two versions screening for audiences at a mall – my version, and his version cut for young male audiences – and the scores came out exactly the same,’ Kernochan explains, ‘But one reason for mine not having higher scores was that it wasn’t finished – it didn’t have a soundtrack, or looped dialogue. But even though it wasn’t finished, my version still received positive feedback. But his cut of the film was just disastrous, and once he realized that he wasn’t going to turn this all-girls for a girl audience film into a female Porky’s, then he got very cool on the whole thing.’

Weinstein even insisted on changing the title of Kernochan’s film, because he believed The Hairy Bird was too vulgar a reference (‘but American Pie did it!’ she points out), so the film ended up having three titles – Strike! in Canada and All I Wanna Do in the US – but it retained its original title and the version of the film that Kernochan envisioned made its way to Australia, because the distributor here refused to change it (much to Harvey’s chagrin, because he hadn’t bought Australian territory rights).

In America the film had a single week of screenings, bringing in just $5,383 before going straight to video and DVD. But it was a success in Canada and Australia (who saw the Kernochan cut of the film) – ‘I wrote it for me and my friends,’ Kernochan says, ‘I figured between mothers and daughters we would be cool. I mean, if you make 20 million dollars off of a 1.5 million dollar budget film, that’s good! And that’s what we made in Canada.’

I ask Kernochan if she thinks the film would still struggle, if she’d been pitching it to studios today; ‘Nowadays I would not have even bothered, I would have gone straight to television because women rule on TV. It’s completely the opposite.’

Monica Keena as Tinka Parker leading the Godard's rebellion 

She’s absolutely right, of course – much has been written about the female disparity between film and television, but to really boil it down consider that Now and Then’s director Lesli Linka Glatter is now the director of television show Homeland, for which she has been Emmy-nominated and awarded by the Directors Guild of America. Meanwhile, the writer of Now and Then I. Marlene King is today executive producer and showrunner on the teen television series Pretty Little Liars. Those two women – who made a cult-classic about young girls growing up because there were no such films at the time – have gone on to find greater success in TV because that movie has remained the exception to the studio’s rule that stories about young girls don’t have an audience.  

My inner eight-year-old would love a reboot, but adult me who was shaped by my watching films like Now and Then and The Hairy Bird despairs at the thought that Glatter and King would rather tell the same story again, rather than challenge an industry that insists young girls are not a ‘bankable’ audience.

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