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Sunday, September 10, 2023

'Falco: The Complete BBC Radio Collection' by Lindsey Davis


From the BLURB: 

Full-cast BBC Radio 4 dramatisations of the first five Falco novels by Lindsey Davis, starring Anton Lesser as Marcus Didius Falco.

The Silver Pigs:

 One fine day, AD 70, Sosia Camillina quite literally runs into Marcus Didius Falco on the steps of the Forum. It seems Sosia is on the run from a couple of street toughs, and after a quick and dirty rescue, PI Falco wants to know why. Hoping for future favours from Sosia's powerful uncle, Falco embarks on an intricate case of smuggling, murder, and treason that reaches into the palace itself.

Shadows in Bronze:

 Rome, AD 71. Against his better judgment, Marcus Didius Falco secretly disposes of a decayed corpse for the Emperor Vespasian, then heads for the beautiful Bay of Naples with his friend Petronius. But this will be no holiday: they have been sent to investigate the murderous members of a failed coup, now sunning themselves in luxurious villas and on fancy yachts in Neapolis, Capreae, and Pompeii. 

Venus in Copper:

 A small accounting error has left Marcus Didius Falco sharing a cell with a large rat. But the Roman Empire's most hard-done-by investigator is finally bailed out and promptly accepts a commission to help a family of freed slaves fend off a professional bribe....

The Iron Hand of Mars:

 Falco is dispatched to one of the most hostile parts of the empire to deliver a new standard, an iron hand, to one of the legions. Germania is cold, wet, dismal and full of dark forests inhabited by bloodthirsty barbarians, but Falco has an even bigger problem to worry about: he has forgotten Helena Justina's birthday, and she is being pursued by the Emperor's son Titus Caesar. 

Poseidon’s Gold:

 Returning to Rome after his mission to Germania, Falco finds that his mother is being harassed by a centurion named Censorinus, who says he is chasing a debt owed to him by Falco's late brother, Festus. When Falco refuses to cough up the money, he and Censorinus end up fighting...and later, the centurion turns up dead. Under suspicion of murder, Falco must confront his past and uncover his brother's secrets before he can clear his name and solve the mystery.

These funny and fast-moving adaptations are a treat for all Falco fans.



Okay, I started listening to the first X5 'Marcus Didius Falco' books by Lindsey Davis, adapted for BBC radio (Dramatised by Mary Cutler, Directed by Peter Leslie Wild) because my library had them on the BorrowBox app.

I'd been vaguely aware of this series as a great recommendation of a Historical Crime - but given that they were first published in 1989 and there's currently 32-instalments across two series, it just seemed like a huge investment of time, money and resources .... step in local library and BorrowBox, not to mention how entertaining and *wonderful* this condensed BBC Radio Play was!

I think this series is absolutely brilliant; a gumshoe Roman-noir detective series set in AD-70 and featuring a wiry, jaded and sleazy 30-something ex-soldier who is somewhat scarred from his time fighting against the Boudica-uprising.

The first book in the series 'Silver Pigs' has Falco getting entangled with a Senator's family with a missing daughter whom Falco stumbled across and tried to help ... this has him becoming embroiled in a far great conspiracy scandal against the Roman Empire that Falco finds himself being hired to investigate (difficult, since he's also an avowed Republican - given he still has memories of Rome under psychotic Nero).

From the first book he meets the missing girl's cousin, Helena Justina - and she becomes his HEA and one-true-love throughout the rest of the series. I absolutely *love* this aspect, since I can only get invested in ongoing crime-series if there are relationships and romances established from the jump (hello, Karin Slaughter) and I rather love that Helena is far too good for Falco (and he knows it) but she sees and brings out the best in him, and the two spar and sizzle on the page.

Lindsey Davis does a marvellous job of bringing Rome to life and moulding her crime-of-the-week plot-lines around fascinating tidbits of Roman history; from their Legions to their love of art and culture, all within the seedy underbelly of Rome - the literal centre of the universe and first Empire. It has actually made me want to visit Italy for the first time, if only because the history Davis paints is so vivid I feel compelled to reach out and touch what's left of it ...

The BBC Radio Play truly is marvellous, and with a rich acting list;

Falco — Anton Lesser

Helena — Fritha Goodey/Anna Madeley

Petronius — Ben Crowe

Ma — Frances Jeater

Pa — Trevor Peacock

Vespasian— Michael Tudor Barnes

Titus —Jonathan Keeble

I cannot even begin to tell you how awks it is that I found Anton Lesser's voice to be so sexy in this (he who played Qyburn in 'Game of Thrones') and now that I'm getting deeper into Falco fandom, I also appreciate that many of them Fan-Cast Andrew Scott in the role, if it is ever adapted (and that is *spot-on*!)

I do know some fans were disappointed that to condense the books down to 2-4 hour radio-plays, much of Falco's interiority got cut for pacing - and that's apparently where he truly shines, and we see his cleverness and humour - so I am most looking forward to hunting down secondhand copies of ALLLLLLLL these books (R.I.P. my wallet) and getting stuck into a book-reading of the series to properly meet un-edited Falco. I might skim-read the first 5 books, just to make sure the BBC put me in good-standing and foundation for the rest of the series, but overall I'm just so grateful that they offered me a taster into this far-reaching and epic series and now I know for sure that it's right up my alley.


Wednesday, July 5, 2023

'Dirt Town' by Hayley Scrivenor

From the BLURB:  

My best friend wore her name, Esther, like a queen wearing her crown at a jaunty angle. We were twelve years old when she went missing. 

On a sweltering Friday afternoon in Durton, best friends Ronnie and Esther leave school together. Esther never makes it home. 

Ronnie's going to find her, she has a plan. Lewis will help. Their friend can't be gone, Ronnie won't believe it. 

Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels can believe it. She has seen what people are capable of. She knows more than anyone how, in a moment of weakness, a person can be driven to do something they never thought possible. 

Lewis can believe it too. But he can't reveal what he saw that afternoon at the creek without exposing his own secret. 

Five days later, Esther's buried body is discovered. 

What do we owe the girl who isn't there?

I am so late to reading this novel that came out with Pan Macmillan last year, but after hearing author Hayley Scrivenor speak about it at Brisbane Writers Festival I simply had to dive in.

And - wow! - I was blown away.

This is the tale of Esther Bianchi; who goes missing from her small Australian country community, called Durton ('Dirt Town' to the local kids). We follow various characters in town - including Esther's best friend Ronnie, Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels who has come to town to try and solve the mystery, Lewis another friend of Esther's with a big secret and abusive father ... and then interspersed throughout their accounts are the 'We' chapters - a Greek chorus of Durton children which is how Scrivenor came to write this story in the first place. She wrote her PhD in creative writing in 2016 all about collective narration, and this (from what I gathered at BWF) largely influenced 'Dirt Town' and the 'We' of Durton children who are an omniscient, playful and secretive Greek Chorus to the events unfolding ... it's an eerie and imaginative overtone to the whole tale which works so perfectly, and harmonises beautifully with the over-arching mystery.

I absolutely loved this; having listened to the audiobook via BorrowBox and narrated by Sophie Loughran, it totally consumed me for a couple of weeks and was a brilliant walking and train-riding companion.

Scrivenor is a real talent, and I'm sure she'll be compared to Jane Harper for the small-town-Australia angle ... but I think she has a particularly beautiful and distinct wandering eye to dying rural communities and claustrophobic townships, and especially the angle of how this sociology impacts the next generation. This is the real over-arching thread in the book - "what do we owe the girl who isn't there?" - and what wounds are we inflicting by our actions or silence?

I'll be so keen to read whatever Scrivenor writes next. I do wonder if it will be more Sarah Michaels or another Greek chorus overseeing a mystery as the thing that hinges her books together. But no matter - I'll be there.


Saturday, July 1, 2023

'Crushing' by Genevieve Novak


From the BLURB; 

Getting over someone is not that difficult. All you have to do is focus on every negative thing about them for the rest of your life until you forget to stop actively hoping for their slow and painful death, then get a haircut ...

Serial monogamist Marnie is running late to her own identity crisis. After a decade of twisting herself into different versions of the ideal girlfriend, she's swearing off relationships for good. Forever. Done. No more, no thank you.

Pretty inconvenient time to meet Isaac: certified dreamboat and the only man who has ever truly got her. It's cool, though, they're just friends, he's got someone else, and she has more important things to worry about. Like who she is, what she wants, and what the hell she ever saw in the love(s) of her life in the first place.

Flanked by overwhelmed new mum Nicola, terminally single Claud, and eternal pessimist Kit, Marnie reckons with the question: who are we when we're on our own?

'Crushing' is the new adult fiction novel from Australian author, Genevieve Novak. 

I absolutely adored this book.

It was not on my radar, but I went into a cute little indie bookshop called 'Heads and Tales' in Barwon Heads (Victoria, Australia) and literally just asked "what's good?" and had 'Crushing' handed to me and THANK GOODNESS!

So ... look; I've been a romance reader for a while now. I read every genre of romance (save for, maybe, medical romances?) and I get my reading-recs from authors and booksellers I love who frequently and generously share their TBR's. Blogs ('Smart Bitches, Trashy Books' being a fave). General chatter on socials and Goodreads ... but nothing - NOTHING - would prepare me for what a garbage-fire of spicy chilis the TikTok algorithm's thoughts on "romance" would be.

I've struck out on that app with its BookTok recs so many times now - *especially* in romance. It's bad, bland, or downright disturbing (and yes, my generation had 'Fifty Shades of Grey' so everything is a wheel and Colleen Hoover's spoke is currently at the top, but hopefully it'll topple soon)

Why am I mentioning this?

Well, because I think 'Crushing' is a little sneak-attack for female readers especially, who need their imaginations subverted and stretched. And this is the book to do it, as we follow a nearly 30-something protagonist called Marnie who has just been dumped. Again. And this one has hit so hard it's made her look inward and acknowledge the ways she doesn't know herself. How she's warped and pretzel'ed herself into being the type of woman each one of her ex's wanted - to the point that alone again, naturally, she doesn't actually know herself.

Marnie decides to move in with a new roommate - the fabulous and instant-bestie Claud - and start filling her spare days not-working at a little inner-city (Pellegrini's-esque) cafe, with any amount of classes and gym routines until she begins to meet herself for the first time in decades.

The one spanner in Marnie's plan is the appearance of Isaac. A bloke who is definitely off-limits because he has a girlfriend, but who Marnie connects with instantly ... how can she juggle this need to find herself, while she's also keeping her eyes-peeled on Isaac? That's the 'Crushing' conundrum of it all.

So I feel like this is probably a book being called a Melburnian 'Fleabag' and if that wets your whistle and gets you onboard, then - YES! - it's a Melburnian 'Fleabag' revelling in what it means to be young and messy, not-feminist-enough, self-deprecating, isolated and isolating, and not know what to do and where to put all this love you have ... it's definitely that, and more Season 2 than Season 1 vibes to boot.

But god DAMN, is it more complex and fun than that too.

The fact that I want to press this book into the hands of so many female friends and family members, for the ways that Marnie's crisis of identity has her seeing clearly (for the first time) the way that other women in her life short-change themselves constantly;

She tugged on the arm she was holding, and Jesse was pulled into frame.

I felt guilt before I'd even identified why: my first thought when I saw him was Oh.

Nothing prepared you for the distinct blandness of someone else's boyfriend. After all their gushing and mooning, you began to expect a prince. Reality and more objective eyes eventually revealed that they were ... just some guy.

Which is SUBLIME and has the same energy as @hellolanemoore's September 2020 Tweet; "every one of my female friends is too good for her boyfriend. I don't know how to explain it, but even if I had a female friend who was just a pile of rats on a step ladder she'd still be too good for Brandon"

I don't think this is a romance book (but I also don't think it's a bad thing if readers come to this under that misapprehension either) I do think it's a very pure and glorious form of Women's Fiction ... one that will by its very virtue of sneak-attacking under the premise of endlessly pursuing romantic love; raise the bar for the genre and the reader. You'll be surprised, delighted, stretched and challenged reading this one - without feeling "ripped off" for no neat HEA by 'The End'. Because that's kinda the point. And it's a crafty point that Novak is making - with humour and heart in the right place.

Like I said; I want to press this book into so many women's hands.


Saturday, June 3, 2023

'Yellowface' by Rebecca F. Kuang


From the BLURB: 

Authors June Hayward and Athena Liu were supposed to be twin rising stars: same year at Yale, same debut year in publishing. But Athena’s a cross-genre literary darling, and June didn’t even get a paperback release. Nobody wants stories about basic white girls, June thinks. 

So when June witnesses Athena’s death in a freak accident, she acts on impulse: she steals Athena’s just-finished masterpiece, an experimental novel about the unsung contributions of Chinese laborers to the British and French war efforts during World War I. 

So what if June edits Athena’s novel and sends it to her agent as her own work? So what if she lets her new publisher rebrand her as Juniper Song—complete with an ambiguously ethnic author photo? Doesn’t this piece of history deserve to be told, whoever the teller? That’s what June claims, and the New York Times bestseller list seems to agree. 

But June can’t get away from Athena’s shadow, and emerging evidence threatens to bring June’s (stolen) success down around her. As June races to protect her secret, she discovers exactly how far she will go to keep what she thinks she deserves.

Yellowface is the new novel from American author R.F. Kuang – or, Rebecca F. Kuang – it is already a New York Times Bestseller and being touted as *the* book of the year. And for good reason. 

First and foremost – no, I don’t know how I was able to read this via an ebook loan from my library (and I happen to know one of my besties was listening to the audiobook last week!) so it looks like the electronic versions have been out in ANZ (Australia New Zealand) since May 16 – but the paperback is not out until June 7? Baffling! 

So why is this *THE* chosen novel of the year? Why are you going to keep seeing that instantly-iconic yellow cover with the cartoonish eyes everywhere – and even that title Yellowface (used to refer to the practice of wearing make-up to imitate the appearance of an East Asian person, typically as part of a performance. This practice is generally regarded as offensive) is pure genius at every story-level and for discoverability. 


Well. I first got wind of this novel coming, around the time last year of the Harper Collins union strike – when R.F. Kuang was one of the biggest-selling authors to come out in solidarity with the striking workers (against her own publisher, btw!), and it was alluded to that hers was a natural affiliation, given that her next novel would be a departure from her betselling-fantasy, to an epic contemporary take-down of the publishing industry. 


So my interest was piqued given that I am part of the book publishing industry, and everyone in my circle was gearing up for a spilling of tea. And now that I’ve had the privilege of reading ‘Yellowface’ I can confirm, the tea is piping hot … 

The actual plot is a clever conduit to discuss much larger issues. The idea of two writing friends – one successful, one considerably less so – and what happens when the bestseller dies, leaving behind her conveniently only written out on a typewriter; pages of her next sure-to-be smash-hit novel … ripe for the taking. It’s an idea that’s been explored (like in the 2012 Bradley Cooper movie The Words – and no doubt there are other examples) but Kuang brings an important layer to the ethical and moral dilemma, because the dead bestseller was of Asian background, and her fabulous idea was all about Chinese labour workers in World War I … and the thieving writer is white. So this isn’t just a plagiarism story for the ages – exploring intellectual property and copyright, but big-time cultural appropriation. 

Kuang’s nuances in this discussion are too numerous to list, and clever to do a summary injustice. But something I loved was the repeated instances when our white protagonist author (June Hayward … writing as Juniper Song – her full first-name, and the middle-name her once-hippie mother gave her) finds herself in book-promotion predicaments where she’s invited to speak to Asian-American readers or on diaspora panels … as a white woman, who wrote a historical fiction novel inspired by Chinese history. A white woman with a deliberately ethnically-ambiguous name, and new author photos that have also given her a slight tan – to aid the confusion. This is something so rarely discussed in matters of cultural appropriation in art. You may well have done the research and had a heart in the right place – but what happens when people from the minority background you mined and stepped into, come calling and want to hear you speak? Well; 

For the first time since I submitted the manuscript, I feel a deep wash of shame. This isn’t my history, my heritage. This isn’t my community. I am an outsider, basking in their love under false pretences. It should be Athena sitting here, smiling with these people, signing books and listening to the stories of her elders. 

Juniper is a deliciously awful character. Not so cartoonishly villainous throughout that your teeth are constantly grinding – but it’s a melting into awfulness, a slow oozing that starts to stick and gum up the page; making you feel faintly nauseous (like when she has a real “are we the bad-guys?” moment, upon discovering that right-wing media pundits are rallying behind her when she’s accused of cultural appropriation.) And how magnificent that as I was reading, I kept thinking how brilliantly Kuang gets into this white-woman’s head. She has us read to rights and filth; and I found that my instinct to guffaw and say “we’re not all that way though,” was part of the wonderful ploy at play. The moment you feel the urge to say; ‘not all white women,’ it’s a stark reminder, right? 

But as I was reading, I was really trying to think how others would read it. Particularly for the minutiae of publishing which Kuang also hits with an absolute bullseye. From capturing the neuroses of writers; 

People always describe jealousy as this sharp, green, venomous thing. Unfounded, vinegary, mean-spirited. But I’ve found that jealousy, to writers, feels more like fear. 

Jealousy is the spike in my heart rate when I glimpse news of Athena’s success on Twitter – another book contract, awards nominations, special editions, foreign rights delas. Jealousy is constantly comparing myself to her and coming up short; is panicking that I’m not writing well enough or fast enough, that I am not, and never will be, enough. Jealousy means that even just learning that Athena’s signing a six-figure option deal with Netflix means that I’ll be derailed for days, unable to focus on my own work, mired by shame and self-disgust every time I see one of her books in a bookstore display. 

Every writer I know feels this way about someone else. Writing is such a solitary activity. You have no assurance that what you’re creating has any value, and any indication that you’re behind in the rat race sends you spiralling into the pits of despair. ‘Keep your eyes on your own paper,’ they say. But that’s hard to do when everyone else’s papers are flapping constantly in your face. 

To saying the quiet part out loud; that (especially in America) 1% of authors get 99% of a publisher’s time, effort and budget – by design; 

… author efforts have nothing to do with a book’s success. Bestsellers are chosen. Nothing you do matters. You just get to enjoy the perks along the way. 

And then the occasional thought that feels *very* inside-jokey. Case-in-point, that I marked this line as getting a real laugh-out-loud moment from me (because it’s so true); 

We’ve sold rights in Germany, Spain, Poland, and Russia. ‘Not France, yet, but we’re working on it,’ says Brett. ‘But nobody sells well in France. If the French like you, then you’re doing something very wrong.’

… but I wondered; will regular people care? 

No. Sorry. When I say “regular people,” I don’t mean that like a bad thing. I mean people who are not close to book-publishing in any way, beyond enjoying what it produces. I wondered if Kuang’s book was too close to the bone, and regular readers wouldn’t be able to appreciate the forest for the trees? The literary equivalent of; we’re too online. I also wondered this because I have noticed that on BookTok (what did I just say about ‘too online’?) I did notice that criticism of the book is largely about slow-pacing, and it being boring? But I didn’t get that, at all. I found it to have a cracking pace and brilliant plotted set-up … much of which took place in corporate emails that gave me second-hand anxiety for the very realistic and awful conversations I know are being had behind closed doors, and they are alluding to. I wonder if these micro-aggressions and corporate blunders are too mired in the world of book-publishing to be of significance to people outside of it? 

But then I thought; I loved Gabrielle Zevin’s ‘Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow’ which is about developing video-games (which I know nothing about). Also that I loved TV show ‘Succession,’ and just nodded along whenever they spoke of corporate take-overs and what the stock-market was doing or whatever. I’d gloss over it as “business stuff,” and get the gist. Andrew Sean Greer’s ‘Less’ is also about the sad side to literary life, and that got a wonderful critical and commercial reception. For a few months there so many people were obsessed with Caroline Calloway and the ghost-writing friend who broke her silence; everyone got the broad brush-strokes of that scandal, and I am sure they will in ‘Yellowface’ too? They might come away thinking complaining about book-publishing is all a bit “my glass slippers are too tight,” bourgeois clap-trap and we are all chronically online, but … I mean; yeah. Kind of. Accurate. 

But to the online of it all – my other question was how future-proof Yellowface would prove to be? Already the novel delves deeply into Book Twitter fuelling scandals and gossip, and already it reads slightly outdated for the weight Juniper ascribes to “blue-check mark” Tweeters … which; Elon Musk has ruined. There’s lots of name-dropping of current social media apps and the indiscretions and pile-on’s they’ve fuelled; and as writers, we’re constantly told not to do that, because it will age a book. And I think that’s true here, but – does it matter? Kuang is commenting in a very zeitgeist-y way on art, culture, media, and illusions of community happening *right now* and the book being touted as The Read of the Year means it’ll be read in a timely it-just-hit-shelves-and-I-have-to-read-it fashion. It’s Kuang very much capturing ~a moment~ in time, and if it ends up reading more like a time-capsule that might be baffling to future-readers in a decade; is that a bad thing? Maybe not? 

But Twitter is real life; it realer than real life, because that is the realm that the social economy of publishing exists on, because the industry has no alternative. Offline, writers are all faceless, hypothetical creatures pounding our words in isolation from one another. You can’t peek over anyone’s shoulder. You can’t tell if everyone else is really doing as dandy as they pretend they are. But online, you can tune into all the hot gossip, even if you’re not nearly important enough to have a seat in the room where it happens. Online, you can tell Stephen King to go fuck himself. Online, you can discover that the current literary star of the moment is actually so problematic that all of her works should be cancelled, forever. Reputations in publishing are built and destroyed, constantly, online. 

I loved this book. I inhaled it – even as I squirmed, and it made me look uncomfortably inward at the gate-keeping role I play in the very industry Kuang is bemoaning, and beloved by. I honestly think it’s a very special book precisely because it feels like absolutely nobody else could have written it – and how ironic, given the plot! – but it feels like a right place, right time, right author type of deal … and it reads kismet and electric; you absolutely feel that pulse on the page of “ohhhhh, this is almost unbearably special.” I’ve never felt such second-hand, heart-palpitating anxiety while reading, or such painful self-reflection that it felt like a cleansing of sorts. 

I’m only still on-the-fence about how “outsiders” will perceive it, and how future-readers might be baffled by the weight we placed on an app that is currently being run into the ground by a maniacal Musk. 

But my gosh … what a feast of hot-tea. What a wake-up call that my industry needs, and only this author could deliver in such a decisive and well-packaged blow. What an ‘American Dirt’ meets John Hughes plagiarism, Caroline Calloway ghost-written, Mary Hallock Foote being stolen, James Frey, and ‘The Hand that Signed the Paper’ (I could go on) what a gem of a book. 


Saturday, May 20, 2023

'We Could Be Something' by Will Kostakis


From the BLURB: 

Part coming-out story.

Part falling-in-love story.

Part falling-apart story.

Harvey's dads are splitting up. It's been on the cards for a while, but it's still sudden. Woken-by-his-father-to-catch-a-red-eye sudden. Now he's restarting his life in a new city, living above a cafe with the extended Greek family he barely knows.

Sotiris is a rising star. At seventeen, he's already achieved his dream of publishing a novel. When his career falters, a cute, wise-cracking bookseller named Jem upends his world.

Harvey and Sotiris's stories converge on the same street in Darlinghurst, in this beautifully heartfelt novel about how our dreams shape us, and what they cost us.

The sun sets on a bonfire in Leichhardt.

Back from Brisbane Writers Festival, and I finally sent something off that was overdue - which means my brain had been freed up to treat myself to some books I’ve been hoarding and *desperate* to read.

Top of that pile was Will Kostakis’ new #LoveOzYA from Allen & Unwin - ‘We Could Be Something

Now, before I can give my opinion you need to know that Will Kostakis got his first book-deal before he graduated high school, and his debut ‘Loathing Lola’ released when he was 19.

Now do you get it?

Never mind that I know and greatly respect Will - I was a fan first, but now I know him as an artist and friend too - and part of me wondered if my knowing how much this story is drawing on his own experiences would cloud my reading?

Never fear.

Because this book *walloped* me in the best ways. Humour and heart that I already knew Will could do, but a reckoning and sharing on the page that’s so generous and tender from him as an artist.

He really is grappling with voice here, amongst these characters - how they’re finding theirs, when Will’s as author has never been clearer, is pretty spectacular … he’s touching on some complex and wrought discussions about young people breaking away and finding out who they are, how they tear off pieces of themselves to give to other people - and what do they keep or hide for (and from) themselves. There’s a lot happening and all of it is brilliant and feels like a levelling-up in YA, particularly Aussie queer lit for teens. I don't want to give anything away; but I think Will Kostakis is giving people what they *think* they want from Queer YA, and then in the most loving way he's saying "actually, this is what we need." He's pulling it into a new era, and I agree.

No wonder this book has been heralded as a clear front-runner for the sweep of awards that’s sure to come. And I must say - I agree.

Not to mention - the writing within is just … *gorgeous*. It’s a voice cut to the bone, with such clarity that sighs and sings on the page. In particular (because I’m a sucker for them!) some of his opening and closing chapter lines - particularly those setting location - were just stunning!

It’s the kind of writing that feels effortless, but has clearly been honed and carefully considered so you don’t notice the effort. That’s hard to do. Will’s slam-dunked it here.

The whole thing just delighted me. I KNEW it would be good, but this? Was *exceptionally* good.


I abandon my cup. I leave a bonfire in Leichhardt.

Saturday, April 22, 2023

'Love in the Library' By Maggie Tokuda-Hall, Illustrated by Yas Imamura


From the BLURB: 

Set in an incarceration camp where the United States cruelly detained Japanese Americans during WWII and based on true events, this moving love story finds hope in heartbreak. 

To fall in love is already a gift. But to fall in love in a place like Minidoka, a place built to make people feel like they weren’t human—that was miraculous. 

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Tama is sent to live in a War Relocation Center in the desert. All Japanese Americans from the West Coast—elderly people, children, babies—now live in prison camps like Minidoka. To be who she is has become a crime, it seems, and Tama doesn’t know when or if she will ever leave. Trying not to think of the life she once had, she works in the camp’s tiny library, taking solace in pages bursting with color and light, love and fairness. And she isn’t the only one. George waits each morning by the door, his arms piled with books checked out the day before. As their friendship grows, Tama wonders: Can anyone possibly read so much? Is she the reason George comes to the library every day? Maggie Tokuda-Hall’s beautifully illustrated, elegant love story features a photo of the real Tama and George—the author’s grandparents—along with an afterword and other back matter for readers to learn more about a time in our history that continues to resonate.


Probably surprising nobody, I picked this book up (in Australia) when I saw that Booktopia had copies in-stock and after ready author Maggie Tokuda-Hall's brave blog post Scholastic, and a Faustian Bargain . In that post, she detailed US publisher Scholastic's attempt at censoring this book by asking Tokuda-Hall to edit her author's note at the end, removing mentions of and the word "racism" in her description about how 'Love in the Library' is based on the true story of how her maternal grandparents met; while both were in a Japanese internment camp in Idaho, during WWII.

Scholastic is not the original publisher of this book (that would be Candlewick Press, and kudos to them) but Scholastic wanted to license the book for sale in their catalogue and at the infamous Scholastic Book Fairs that they run in schools the world over. However, their condition on this licensing was for Tokuda-Hall to remove much of her 'Letter to the Reader' at the end, in which she provides the true-history context to the Internment of Japanese Americans (including her grandparents) - she refused, and Scholastic rescinded their offer (making abundantly clear that it was contingent on her whitewashing and silencing of this aspect in the book).

I am happy to see that Tokuda-Hall being brave enough to detail this publisher interaction has garnered her a lot of support, and the story has been shared widely (and Scholastic, rightly, shamed);

⦿ Got Values? Then Live Them. It’s time for publishers to operationalize their ideals

⦿ Bay Area author refuses Scholastic's suggested revision to cut 'racism' references in book

⦿ Scholastic wanted to license her children's book — if she cut a part about 'racism'

What this has thrown a light on, however, is the insidious idea with far-reaching ramifications that publishers are acquiring books (or, not) and being led by book-ban and censorship pushes that are sweeping across America;

⦿ New Report: 28% Rise in School Book Bans Over First Half of 2022-23 School Year

We know of Tokuda-Hall's brush with censorship because she was brave enough to talk openly about it - and the editor had laid out the publisher's thinking behind requesting it ... but how much censorship is happening behind closed doors and in acquisitions meetings, and taking the form of no offers coming in for a book that is seen to be too "risky" for a publisher? How much is it manifesting as books that won't ever see the light of day, authors going unpublished? Tokuda-Hall's shining a light on this one manifestation is highlighting the potential ramifications the world-over (New York is the centre of publishing, given that the North American is the biggest English-language market ... they choose the trends and blockbuster titles, they have Hollywood and Silicon Valley to help make a book go truly viral. Americans are the ones who have the most control over the future of book-publishing, and in light of this that thought is more worrying than ever).

I loved 'Love in the Library,' and I'm frustrated at the thought that it could have reached an even bigger audience in the country that would most benefit from reading it, if only a children's publisher had been braver.

The story of Tokuda-Hall's maternal grandparents is a tender and tough one; to have met and started their family in the Minidoka internment camp in Idaho is a testament to love conquering so much, in the face of xenophobia that still exists and persists to this day. Artist Yas Imamura's almost art-deco illustrations are gorgeous; muted tones, and always with the guard-tower looming (out a window, the corner of the page) they've done a brilliant job of balancing the soft with the hard visually, the same way Tokuda-Hall has done in the uplifting tone but serious-subject matter.

This book is marvellous and I highly-recommend everyone invest in a copy. For a local classroom, school library, personal collection - anything.


Saturday, April 15, 2023

'The Garden at the End of the World' by Cassy Polimeni, illustrated by Briony Stewart


Full-disclosure; Briony Stewart is repped by my agency, Jacinta di Mase Management. However, my colleague oversaw Briony's hiring to illustrate this book - not me.

'The Garden at the End of the World' is written by Cassy Polimeni, illustrated by Briony Stewart and has just been released by University of Queensland Press (UQP). It's about; Isla and her mother going on an enchanting journey to the Global Seed Vault in Norway to discover a garden waiting at the end of the world.

The Global Seed Vault opened in 2008, and is apparently opened three times a year to visitors - which is what kicks this story off, when young girl Isla finds a special seed to donate from her home in Australia. It's such a complex and important backstory presented really harmoniously and brilliantly. Like when Isla's mother explains; 'They're ordinary seeds that can live for hundreds of years and turn into food. I suppose that is magical. The mountain protects them so children who haven't even been born yet will be able to grow and eat the foods we love.'

This is a really fascinating and important humanitarian endeavour, and I love that Polimeni and Stewart have found such a loving and wonderful way to present it so that kids (and grown-ups reading to them!) understand what's at stake, and what is being achieved.

A note on the Global Seed Vault at the end lays out exactly what an important topics this is;

The first withdrawal was made in 2015 to replace seeds lost when a gene bank near Aleppo, Syria, was destroyed by civil war.

In a rapidly changing world, the vault helps promote food security and crop diversity by providing protection for the earth's most important natural resources. So there will always be a garden at the end of the world, waiting to be planted.

And the illustrations are absolutely beautiful; cool-toned and magnificent, and on some pages (like the gorgeous end-papers) Stewart has used a combo of ink and printmaking to lay gauzy hints of leaves, ferns, and twigs as an overlay to the solid illustrations, and it gives certain pages a real sense of growth and germination. A silent, text-less spread showing the green shimmer of the Northern Lights is particularly impressive. But the whole book truly is, and a must-read for classrooms to kick-off what I'm sure will be important and fascinating discussions.

I'd so love it if Polimeni and Stewart made a little series of these topics - looking at the ways humanity is preserving nature for future generations (the gentle foreshadowing here is of course; climate change, but not presented in a scary way for too-young kids to feel that worry too soon).

I'd love, for instance, a book about Canberra's National Arboretum; '... designed to be a place of peace, beauty, recreation, research, and education. With 44,000 rare, endangered, and culturally significant trees from Australia and around the world, it is a living seedbank of international significance.'


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