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Thursday, January 24, 2019

'The Flatshare' by Beth O'Leary

Received from the Publisher 

FROM THE BLURB: 

Tiffy Moore needs a cheap flat, and fast. Leon Twomey works nights and needs cash. Their friends think they're crazy, but it's the perfect solution: Leon occupies the one-bed flat while Tiffy's at work in the day, and she has the run of the place the rest of the time. 

But with obsessive ex-boyfriends, demanding clients at work, wrongly-imprisoned brothers and, of course, the fact that they still haven't met yet, they're about to discover that if you want the perfect home you need to throw the rulebook out the window...

'The Flatshare' by Beth O'Leary is a debut fiction novel, coming out in Australia on April 23.

My first read of 2019 and it’s a favourite! Beth O'Leary’s 'The Flatshare' was AMAZING - I inhaled it in two days, and then went back for a re-read straight away. 

"Tiffy & Leon share a flat. Tiffy & Leon share a bed. Tiffy & Leon have never met."

It's a clever romantic premise that plays out in duelling-narrative chapters, when our protagonists initially communicate via Post-It notes left around the house, and by picking up on one another's moods, days, and personal battles via the social-cues left around the flat. Interestingly, Beth O'Leary says she got the idea for this set-up while living with her doctor-in-training boyfriend, when he worked long hours and she perceived his mood from things like how many coffee-cups were left on the drying-rack, and if his runners laying out meant he'd managed to squeeze in some exercise before work. 

What elevates this novel and the romance aside from the quirky and ingenious premise, are the personal obstacles Tiffy and Leon are overcoming. For her it's a recently disintegrated long-term relationship, and the dawning realisation that her ex was a lot more possessive and calculating than Tiffy ever allowed herself to examine. For Leon, it's his brother who is in prison and currently campaigning for appeal - coupled with his job as a palliative-care nurse who is trying to track down the long-lost love of one of his patients ... eventually these various threads that account for a lot of Tiffy and Leon's anxieties that leave an imprint on the flat, leak out into their real-world evolving relationship with brilliant results. 

Honestly, I need this quirky love story to be adapted into a rom-com movie (my request is for Riz Ahmed to play Leon) because my SOUL needs it! I haven’t fallen so hard for a book and its author since Rainbow Rowell’s 2011 debut ‘Attachments’ (which ‘The Flatshare’ gave me some vibes to in the best way, plus some Mhairi McFarlane feels - which you KNOW means a lot coming from me!)
And, honestly, I haven't instantly re-read a book as soon as finishing since Sally Thorne's 'The Hating Game' - which is high-praise indeed! 

'The Flatshare' is a stellar debut, and needs to be on everyone’s must-read list because Beth O’Leary is a UK author who KNOCKS IT OUTTA THE PARK first time out. Wow.

5/5 

Friday, December 21, 2018

Favourite Books of 2018


Hello Darling Readers,

It’s the most wonderful time of the year – the end of it!

I was quite slack in 2018, with my review-writing. But I make no apologies. This was a big year, and a tough one in so many ways. A lot of my reading (and favourite reads in particular) reflect that. They got me through it – either by being a temporary balm from reality, or a raging chorus to resist it.

So here they are, in no particular order. The books, authors and illustrators I owe a great deal of ‘thanks’ to, for giving me reprieve and resistance to the often-chaotic horror of 2018.

Stay safe everyone, keep fighting – I’ll see you on the other side and ready for anything in 2019.

 *** 
·      Hello Stranger The Ravenels #4 by Lisa Kleypas: I skipped the first two books in ‘The Ravenels’ series, and tapped in with book 3 ‘Devil in Spring’ because of ‘Wallflowers’ crossover. And boy am I glad that I eventually got on this bandwagon because I am LOVING the series!

·      Wicked and the Wallflower The Bareknuckle Bastards #1 by Sarah MacLean: I described this as ‘upstairs/downstairs’ romance about a bootlegger and a proper lady who cross paths in Whitechapel and begin one of the best new historical-romance series of 2018. I can’t wait for more!

·      Burn Bright Alpha & Omega #5 by Patricia Briggs: after going a little cool on Brigg’s last few books in ‘Mercy Thompson’ and spin-off series, it was a relief to tap back in with this book that in many ways goes back to the urban fantasy mystery whodunit basics – as Anna and Charles hunt for whoever is stalking the pack’s wildling wolves in the Montana mountains. A solid paranormal and mystery offering!

·      Blakwork by Alison Whittaker: confession is that I don’t actually read much poetry, but I love Whittaker’s stuff. Both this new book from her, and her debut Lemons in the Chicken Wire are phenomenal. Blakwork is perhaps more lucid in themes and story, a bit like a stream of anger (rather than consciousness) reading it in 2018 was a necessity.

·      Normal People by Sally Rooney: So – look – I felt a little pressured into reading this because it seems to be the stand-out and knockout book of 2018. And while I went in sceptical, I actually found myself really enjoying this (surprisingly readable!) novel … but I also need to confess to not quite understanding ALL the fuss. It’s good. Is it magnificent? – I wouldn’t think so. But I do believe that readers who don’t often bother with reading youth literature and therefore narratives that feature young people navigating the complexities of their lives – will wrongly believe that Rooney is revelatory in exploring such themes … she’s a fine writer, to be sure. This was an enjoyable book. I don’t think it was groundbreaking though.

·      Dear Mrs. Bird by A.J. Pearce: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, and Annie Barrows is one of my favourite books which is why I picked this one up by AJ Pearce and also loved it! There’s a little romance in here, a lot of comedy, and overall a really gorgeous friendship between women who get on during the wartime and find their voice amidst the London rubble.

·      How Do You Like Me Now? By Holly Bourne: this was my first Bourne novel and after reading it, I went out and pretty much bought her entire YA backlist. That’s how good this adult offering from her was.

·      An Easy Death by Charlaine Harris: first book in this new Western Paranormal series ‘Gunnie Rose’ by one of my all-time faves. This book is both so hard to describe (Russia! Gun-runners! Wild West! Altered US timeline!) all I can suggest is you dive right in and give yourself over to it…

·      The Witch Who Courted Death by Maria Lewis: one of the best urban fantasy writers this side of the equator, if you’re unfamiliar with Maria Lewis I’d highly recommend jumping in with this book (Witches! Kissing! Magic!)

·      Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty: Look, it’s Liane and I love Liane Moriarty. This book from her was a SUPERB offering of irony, satire and an examination of the ‘health and wellness’ toxic culture amid suburban, middle-class rot … and it was funny!

·      Magic Triumphs by Ilona Andrews: Finale in the ‘Kate Daniels’ serises, so I won’t say anything except … I am willing to be patient for a Julie-focused story next.

·      To Kill a Mockingbird: A Graphic Novel by Fred Fordham (Adapter/Illustrator), Harper Lee: when this was first announced I had the reaction of “weird, but I’ll give it a go.” Well I gave it a go and LOVE this graphic novel so, so much! Fred Fordham has done a remarkable job of boiling down the essentials of this beloved and heartbreaking story, and elevating them with illustration.

·      The Peacock Detectives by Carly Nugent: I want exactly 100% more of this type of clever and compelling middle-grade in the Australian marketplace, thanks!

·      Black Cockatoo by Carl Merrison, Hakea Hustler: This is a 62-page vignette that I think was so evocative and brilliantly lean. I think this would be a great addition in any primary-school classroom for grades 5 & 6!

·      Everything I've Never Said by Samantha Wheeler: if you or a young person in your life absolutely adored the 2010 novel Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper then Samantha Wheeler’s is the book for you!

·      Limelight by Solli Raphael: How are we not talking more about this young powerhouse of a slam-poet?! He’s a Kate Tempest in the making and this book is essential reading.

·      The Orchard Underground by Mat Larkin: along with The Peacock Detectives – these books are further proof that Aussie Middle-Grade is growing and thriving to an exceptional degree.

·      The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo: a most deserving winner in the US of the National Book Award, and look out for the Printz Award I am sure is coming. This book really is exceptional. A once-in-a-lifetime YA offering. The way people talk about Sally Rooney’s Normal People is actually how they should be lauding Acevedo and this book because it’s a reckoning. “The world is almost peaceful when you stop trying to understand it.”

·      I Am Out With Lanterns by Emily Gale: Considering that this is a loose sequel to her 2016 book 'The Other Side of Summer' (which I also thought was bloody wonderful) it's pretty spectacular that Emily manages to raise the bar yet again with her eloquence and understanding of young people navigating grief, friendship, heartache, and adventure.

·      White Night by Ellie Marney: unsurprising because Ellie is one of my favourite authors. ‘White Night’ is a twisty, heated, and beautifully complicated YA contemporary offering … read it!

·      Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson: I get emotional when I think or talk about this book. It’s one of the most heartbreakingly perfect responses to the current American political and societal climate, and a tragically tender glimpse into the ways that young people will be dealing with the ramifications and wounds for years to come …

·      Amelia Westlake by Erin Gough: Have you seen the movie ‘The Hairy Bird’? If not – go watch it immediately. And read this book too. You’re welcome.

·      The Science of Breakable Things by Tae Keller: a young girl tries to make sense of her scientist mother’s sudden plunge into depression. Funny, eloquent, smart and true.

·      Speak: The Graphic Novel by Laurie Halse Anderson and Emily Carroll (Illustrations): What a year for the graphic novel edition of the groundbreaking 1999 novel by Anderson to come out. A truly remarkable and cutting rendering.

·      Boys Will Be Boys: An exploration of power, patriarchy and the toxic bonds of mateship by Clementine Ford: Essential reading. Should really be handed out at birth.

·      The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire by Chloe Hooper: this is a master class in true crime from Hooper, who previously floored me with ‘The Tall Man’. I could not put ‘The Arsonist’ down, I was utterly entranced and found it one of the most disturbing, harmonising and thoughtful reads of my year.

·      Yes We (Still) Can: Politics in the Age of Obama, Twitter, and Trump by Dan Pfeiffer: this was ‘The West Wing’ meets ‘Pod Save America’. If one of both of those things are your bag, then you’ll adore this as much as I did.

·      I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara: This book nearly broke me. Both because it haunted and scared the crap out of me, and for the story of McNamara – who died before it was finished, but this book and her dogged determination in the case radically helped lead to Joseph James DeAngelo’s arrest this year. It’s all too much – this story, the story behind the story, the tragedies upon tragedies … but all that remains is this amazing example of authorship and deft storytelling and investigating. Truly remarkable.

·      Eggshell Skull: A memoir about standing up, speaking out and fighting back by Bri Lee: some books feels like products of their time, and that’s certainly ‘Eggshell Skull’ for the many ways that 2018 hurt and healed. This book is so multifaceted and important, I adored it.

·      Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of theWorld by Michelle Scott Tucker: historical biographies are SO not my thing normally, but Michelle Scott Tucker’s writing is so compelling and this story is so unbelievable and addictive … I stayed up well into the night with this one, and I have already re-read it once this year. I hold it now as an absolute favourite book of mine, of all time. Thank you, Michelle.

·      You Daughters of Freedom: The Australians Who Won the Vote and Inspired the World by Clare Wright: This book is a revelation. A marvel. The weight (both literal and in messaging) is sublime.

·      Becoming by Michelle Obama: imagine my shock when a book I bought to piss of Trump (his sold 1.1 million copies in 32 years, ‘Becoming’ had sold 1.4 million in ONE WEEK!) but lo and behold it’s actually an incredible memoir, beautifully written and a rousing call for working women the world over.

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·      Paperback Crush: The Totally Radical History of '80s and '90s Teen Fiction by Gabrielle Moss: Rest-assured, I will do a lengthier review of this, but for now let me say … this was my catnip. An examination of the impact that (American) young adult literature had on teenagers the world over, and on societies that so often discount the things that matter the most, and shape teenage girls. Amazing.

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