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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’ by Sarah J. Maas - a cautionary review


From the BLURB:

Feyre's survival rests upon her ability to hunt and kill – the forest where she lives is a cold, bleak place in the long winter months. So when she spots a deer in the forest being pursued by a wolf, she cannot resist fighting it for the flesh. But to do so, she must kill the predator and killing something so precious comes at a price ...

Dragged to a magical kingdom for the murder of a faerie, Feyre discovers that her captor, his face obscured by a jewelled mask, is hiding far more than his piercing green eyes would suggest. Feyre's presence at the court is closely guarded, and as she begins to learn why, her feelings for him turn from hostility to passion and the faerie lands become an even more dangerous place. Feyre must fight to break an ancient curse, or she will lose him forever.

The start of a sensational romantic fantasy trilogy by the bestselling author of the Throne of Glass series.

‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’ is the first book in an erotic adult fantasy series by US author Sarah J. Maas that has long been miscategorised as young adult fiction … which is the whole reason I’m writing this review/caution.

Look. I wasn’t going to do this. Sarah J. Maas has been around for a long time now – since her debut novel ‘Throne of Glass’ came out in 2012, and ‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’ released in 2015 – and the issues I’m about to detail have been discussed ad nauseam and probably by more qualified people than me, since then.

Long-time readers of this blog may have also noticed that I don’t really do “take down” reviews anymore – not that I ever did (that was never my thing) but I read a few truly abysmal books in my time and gave them 1 and 2-star ratings accordingly, and always justifying my ranking. Sometimes I’d be so disgruntled with a truly terrible book that I’d take it one step further – vis-à-vis my ‘The Anita Blake 'Hit List' Drinking Game’ to mark my officially breaking off with a series that I felt was punishing me as a reader. But never take-down reviews for the sake of it.

But since becoming an author and literary agent myself, I am much more careful with the privilege and “power” I wield (or am perceived to), especially in the Australian books industry. Look; I do not have tickets on myself, but I am especially aware that Australia is a small industry and so is youth literature globally to some degree – so I have no interest in needlessly hurting those for whom I am working in the same small fishpond, or burning bridges in my own backyard. Basically – I step a little more carefully nowadays.

All that being said – I’m writing this because there is no way me sharing an honest review of Sarah J. Maas is going to damage her juggernaut of a brand. She’s a NYT-bestseller and will continue to be for the rest of time, it seems.

This also isn’t intended to be a “take down” on her either.

But I did want to put *something* out there on ‘my solo book club’ blog about Sarah J. Maas and my first encounter with this author … because I’ve put off reading her for a long time, and largely because I didn’t like the things I was hearing about her from other people.

But then I decided that it was high-time I jumped in and gained first-hand knowledge of her series and the problems surrounding it being labelled YA, and I put it out there on my Instagram (via stories) my reading it, and offering but a *hint* of the issues I was having, and … people came into my DMs. Parents, teachers, librarians, guardians – gatekeepers –who had 10, 11, and 12-years-old who were reading or had read Sarah J. Maas and they had no idea what was wrong with the books (because there is a *lot* wrong with them) and they wanted me to explain a little more clearly.

And just a P.S. – normally when talking about youth literature the term “gatekeepers” has weirdly negative connotations, like all librarians are prudish and burning copies of Twilight around a book-banning bonfire … no. That’s not what I mean when I use the term, and I wish we had a better one; henceforth when I write “gatekeepers” I mean those who have a vested interest in what young people are reading, and who want to connect young people with the best books for them.

So I’m writing this review – this “caution” if you will – on the off-chance that some people with young children in their lives may be wanting a little more detail around these books. And specifically; why I think these books are outright harmful for tween readers, and the damage that lazy metadata and marketing could be doing by putting these books in young people’s hands.

So with that in mind;

This series is adult fantasy erotica – not YA – and the publisher should do better

Let’s get this out of the way from the get-go because I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered a book with more murky metadata (a set of data that describes and gives information about other data – basically how books are sold on the back-end to retailers and online marketing places, it’s the categories that determine how a book will be sold, and shelved in libraries etc.)

This series is not YA. It’s adult. But it is marketed as being ‘for children’ – and that’s the fault of the publisher, Bloomsbury  

Exhibit A:



This is a screenshot from the official Bloomsbury (AU) website, and how they categorise ‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’.

They label it under ‘Children's > Books for teens 11+’ in two locations on the website, and they also brand it as “Bloomsbury YA”. None of this is clear: books for 11+ are middle-grade (which is a readership for 8-12 year-olds) YA is for 13+.

So even that category “teens 11+” makes ZERO sense; 11-year-olds are not teenagers. Do … do I need to draw a diagram? And on the off-chance someone is reading this and thinking; “great, but MY kid is an advanced reader and very mature for their age,” – to you I’d say, cool. Great story. Happy for you and your kid. But categories are not designed for the exception; they are designed to set the ground-rules.

So it’s concerning and disturbing that the publisher of the Harry Potter series has this so, SO backwards.

Their categories are wrong. They just are. But they are leaders in this market and Sarah J. Maas is just one example of how they’re doing a lot of damage by making deliberately murky age-ranges that do a disservice to readers and the gatekeepers who are trying to give them the best and most appropriate books for them. 

Exhibit B:



It’s not until you scroll all the way down to the blurb, that you see one little note of apprehension at the bottom of the synopsis: “Contains mature content. Not suitable for younger readers.”

Not good enough.

“Not suitable for younger readers” and yet you market is as being for 11+?

You know one real easy way to clear this all up?

Mark it as adult-fiction. Because that’s what it is.  

I’m not going to pretend to have any “insider knowledge” as to why Bloomsbury would so wildly miscategorise these books and this author as being YA when she’s clearly writing adult content. I’ve not read Maas’ original series, ‘Throne of Glass’ but I assume that one started out YA and they were looking for “brand” consistency?

Which – if that’s the case – is gross. Them trying for brand consistency should not become the burden of readers and gatekeepers, which is exactly what’s happening here. I’m sure many gatekeepers whose job it is to put good books in young reader’s hands have probably been led to believe that Maas’ series is fine – they’re for teenagers aged 11+, awesome! But Bloomsbury choosing branding over honesty creates backlash for those gatekeepers who are just trying to do their job, and help readers connect with good books *for them*.

I could also speculate wildly and say they did it in a sleazy cash-grab attempt. Marketing something as YA when it’s really adult-content ensures you get the best of both worlds, to a degree – starting with readers as young as 10 (which – yes, I’ve heard of 10-year-olds reading Sarah J. Maas) as well as all adult readers. Bigger age-range means bigger audience and more sales, maybe?

But as to why these books are most definitely not for “teenagers 11+”...

UPDATE: since posting this something has changed on the Bloomsbury AU website - the '11' age-category has disappeared. But as you can see - it was there from the screenshots I took. The fact also still remains that this is an adult series being labeled as YA. 

Maybe the miscategorising of Maas is misogyny?

Y’know what? Entirely possible!

Mya Nunnally wrote a great piece for BookRiot earlier this year; ‘There's a Weird, Sexist Problem in Fantasy That We Need to Talk About

In this, Nunnally basically unpacks and asks why the assumption is always that fantasy with sex and romance is *for girls* - and it probably comes down to certain genres having perceived less value (like, romance – and also, YA) and keeping female authors in an almost nurturing/mothering role of being “for children” rather than letting them own sexual agency and placing them in adult fiction (as well as this attempt to keep “proper” fantasy as being “for men”).

But it could also go deeper – like why does YA fantasy for girls get explicit sex scenes, and are we just too comfortable with sexualising young girls from an increasingly earlier age? Why can’t female fantasy heroes have a journey without men and a heteronormative sexual awakenings?!

All of these are very relevant questions and discussions – and they could very well apply to Sarah J. Maas, which is something Nunnally certainly thinks.

But it doesn’t negate the fact that Bloomsbury messed up, and are continuing to – … and maybe it’s also largely because YA female authors make bank, and they’re not going to ever course-correct when Sarah J. Maas is currently one of the most prolific and saleable authors around, even if it means feeding largely sexually inappropriate content to majority young girls?

Age Matters – children’s fiction, young adult, new adult and adult fiction

First of all – protagonist Feyre is 19-years-old when the book begins. She is hunting for her family’s dinner most nights, has already dealt with the loss of one parent, and is open about having been in a mature sexual and casual relationship for about one year when the book begins.

Now, making Feyre 19-years-old is a little bit canny … she’s still technically a teenager. But only for one more year, right? After that she’ll be a fully-fledged adult, no ‘teen’ to it.

Maybe this was Bloomsbury and Maas hedging their bets again to start the series out on a YA platform for consistency in her author profile. Maybe?

And given that Maas’s debut launched in 2012, I’m also going to bet she was around during the murky time of publishers trying to make ‘New Adult’ a relevant sub-category readership; another stepping-stone between YA and adult fiction (for more on this, read a Kill Your Darlings freelance piece I wrote back in 2013; ‘Adults: Young and New’) the main thing you need to know though – is that Fifty Shades of Grey was largely responsible for getting the conversation started around a possible need for ‘New Adult’; that marked a distinct difference from YA for the mature sexual content especially, and a move away from high school settings into university campuses etc.

What really matters in the end though, is that by its content – what Sarah J. Maas has written is for adults, not teenagers and definitely not children.

This is an adult erotic fantasy series – and that’s an issue when girls as young as 10 are reading it

I have no problem with sex in young adult literature.

I just want to make this clear – that my issue with Maas and this series does not lie in a prudish wish for all YA literature to be “clean teen”.

I have no problem with sex in YA, because sex in YA *always* serves a purpose. It has to – because you’re writing for a very specific audience who are at various levels and understanding and awakening within their own lives.

Sexual content is most thoughtfully conceived and laboured over in the YA readership and the romance genre than any other category of publishing – I’m going to say. Because authors in both readerships and genres (and especially that intersection of YA romance) understand the power they yield.

Nobody is having more discussions around consent and the #MeToo movement impacting literature than romance authors, for instance; ‘The Romance Novelist’s Gude to Hot Constent’ – dives into this brilliantly, discussing how the romance genre always has to reflect modern society and changing social-norms back to their largely female readers, to respect their agency. Romance is a feminist genre because it’s women writing about women for women, and it’s largely all about centring female pleasure and observing sex and relationships through the female gaze (prime example: Outlander, something else I’ve written about in the past).  

Young adult literature, likewise, understands that it’s being read by a very impressionable audience – never more so than when sex is involved. And of course it has to be; because YA’s job is (much like romance) to reflect modern-day and social norms back to its readers … and hey: NEWSFLASH! Teens have sex. They think about sex. It doesn’t mean they’re going to *do* sex, but they’re certainly starting to think about it and explore their bodies and their desires.

For that reason – young adult authors wield sexual encounters in their fiction very carefully.

And while I’m a big believer in “just because teens are reading about it, doesn’t mean they’re going to do it” – I do want to make clear that YA authors know there are *some* exceptions. Like suicide – and if you need any clearer an example of miscategorising and misunderstanding target audience and content, look no further than the toxic depravity of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why – and a recent study from the National Institute of Mental Health, which proved that dire warnings around Netflix’s sloppy portrayal of youth suicide had real-world consequences;

The study stated that “13 Reasons Why” was “associated with a 28.9% increase in suicide rates among U.S. youth ages 10-17 in the month (April 2017) following the show’s release, after accounting for ongoing trends in suicide rates.”

Similarly – those who work with young people know that portrayals of sex and sexual relationships can have undercurrents to the real-world, and how young people form their ideas and desires.

Again – ‘Sex in YA’ is something else I’ve written about for The Stella Prize, when I interviewed a number of Australian YA authors and asked them how they tackle the responsibility of writing sex and sexual encounters very seriously. I particularly liked what author Fiona Wood had to say;

“It’s important to me to present some positive representations of sex and sexuality to the readers. The sad truth is that casual sexism, objectification and crimes of sexual violence are permanent fixtures on the girl-radar. Misogynistic images and messages are prolific and unavoidable. Social media comes with its own set of problems. But fiction can offer some sane counterbalance: young women characters with agency, self-respect, and equal rights to pleasure, to initiating sex, to saying yes or no to sex. I want to show sexual experience in the context of individual identity, not as a stepping stone to happily ever after.”

For all these reasons and more, I want to be clear when I say; I don’t believe that ‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’ is romance. I think it’s erotica, and there’s a difference.

Romance = Novels of this type of genre fiction place their primary focus on the relationship and romantic love between two people, and must have an "emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.

Erotica = comprises fictional and factual stories and accounts of human sexual relationships which have the power to or are intended to arouse the reader sexually.

There is a difference between portraying “relationship and romantic love” and largely focusing on “accounts of human sexual relationships”.  And I think ‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’ largely does the latter (though sub out "human" for "fae" - same thing!) 

The brutal sex

When I started sharing that I was reading ‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’ on my Insta-stories, I had more than one person come into my DM’s to see if I was aware of a little game the Internet likes to play with Sarah J Maas books … the game is to pick a passage from any given book and have someone guess if said passage is a sex-scene, or a bear attack.

And reader, having now read this book and started the second – I can assure you … it’s not always clear.

Example:

I cried out as his teeth clamped onto the tender spot where my neck met my shoulder. I couldn’t move—couldn’t think, and my world narrowed to the feeling of his lips and teeth against my skin. He didn’t pierce my flesh, but rather bit to keep me pinned. The push of his body against mine, the hard and the soft, made me see red—see lightning, made me grind my hips against his. I should hate him—hate him for his stupid ritual, for the female he’d been with tonight … 
This reads like erotica, to me. And possibly an erotic bear attack? 

And maybe I can justify that as titillating on one level, because I’m a grown-ass 32-year-old woman.

But I know of kids as young as 10 who are reading this. And mostly, tween girls. And they’re having it presented to them as one of the complex romantic entanglements Feyre finds herself in in this series.

That’s a problem for me that I can’t forgive. Because as others have pointed out – the consent in this series is murky as all get out.

Blogger Tiff of ‘Mostly YA Lit’ has got a *wonderful* summary of her issues with the sexual violence within Maas’s book, and I highly recommend you go and read; ‘Sexual Violence, Bad Boys And A Court Of Thrones And Roses’ because that’s it, EXACTLY!

‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’ is basically trying to be a fae-version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ retelling – without any attempts to interrogate the most disturbing aspects of that fairytale (mainly; consent, stockholm syndrome, and the “alluring misogyny” of a captor/captive “romance”).

I can also say that I’ve started reading second book ‘A Court of Mist and Fury’ and 24-pages in there’s already been a very explicit sex scene. How explicit, you may want to know?

Well you determine if this is something a 10-year-old girl will be able to comfortably fathom and read;

Before I could answer, he nipped at my breast, then licked over the small hurt – licked as his fingers at last dipped between my legs. He stroked lazy, taunting circles. “No,” I gasped out. “But I don’t want people …” Cauldron boil me, his damned fingers – “I don’t know if I can handle them calling me High Lady.”
His fingers slid into me again, and he growled in approval at the wetness between my thighs, both from me and him. “They won’t,” he said against my skin, positioning himself over me again and sliding down my body, trailing kisses as he went. “There is no such thing as a High Lady.”

Does that read like it’s for “teenagers 11+”?

Because according to Bloomsbury and barring a small note about “Contains mature content. Not suitable for younger readers.” – it is.

I take issue with this series being read by a disproportionately large female audience under the age of, say, 15. It presents murky consent, rough sex, and an abundance of sex that is really the only motivation and purpose of the female protagonist’s story.

To End

I’m continuing to read this series not because I’m enjoying it – truly; the writing is mediocre at best, downright dull at worst – but because I had no idea of the harm it was perpetuating in the readership, and how rapidly it has distorted youth lit categories.

Maas is writing this series for adults, but I know that kids as young as 10 are reading it – and gatekeepers doing their due-diligence would see Bloomsbury metadata and think that was okay. It’s for those “teenagers 11+” after all.

But I’m going to say that ‘common sense media’ are edging closer to the true age-range as starting at 15+ (even though the issues of consent and rough sex still have me firmly labelling it as adult fiction, not anywhere close to YA).

This a series of flabby writing and lumpy plotting, poor representation and damaging sexual boundaries, particularly for female characters and readers – I cannot wrap my head around anyone younger than 15 reading it, and if you’re an adult on the fence as to whether or not you should be concerned that a young person in your life has delved into this murky world … I’d suggest you be very wary indeed.

1/5

Thursday, April 11, 2019

‘Don't You Forget About Me’ by Mhairi McFarlane


From the BLURB:

It began with four words.
‘I love your laugh. x'

But that was twelve years ago. It really began the day Georgina was fired from The Worst Restaurant in Sheffield (© Tripadvisor) and found The Worst Boyfriend in the World (© Georgina's best friends) in bed with someone else.

So when her new boss, Lucas McCarthy, turns out to be the boy who wrote those words to her all that time ago, it feels like the start of something.

The only problem? He doesn't seem to remember Georgina – at all…

‘Don't You Forget About Me’ is the latest contemporary romance novel from British author, Mhairi McFarlane.

Another Mhairi McFarlane novel is always cause for celebration, and ‘Don't You Forget About Me’ is no exception. It’s about a young woman called Georgina who has just turned 30, but finds she increasingly can’t ignore all the ways her life keeps sputtering to a stop … it’s probably tied to her Dad’s tragic death when she was a teenager, the high-school sweetheart that got away, and the night that clouded all of her romantic relationships ever after.

But when said high-school sweetheart returns to town, and Georgina finds herself inadvertently working at the pub he and his brother own – she’s both excited and terrified to have him back in her life. Except for the fact that Lucas claims he can’t remember Georgina at all – suddenly Georgina feels robbed of their memories and what he meant to her, but at the same time … maybe this can be a clean-slate for the both of them? Maybe this is a blessing in disguise?

‘Don't You Forget About Me’ has the feel of Jojo Moyes’s ‘Me Before You’ – but only for the fact that both Georgina and Lou Clark are having to confront a traumatic event from their teenage days, that is maybe part of the reason they’ve land-locked themselves to their hometowns. It’s one of the darker backstories McFarlane’s explored in recent books, and I thought she did is exceptionally well. Maybe a little too well for the heart-in-throat, cold-sweat breakout that I shared with Georgina as she confronts this moment from her past. But McFarlane should also be commended for the many types of abuse she highlights; from micro-aggressions to emotional manipulation, financial abuse, weaponized public embarrassment, and outright physical abuse. Everything within is something women will be intimately and tragically familiar with as the tools of abusers – that McFarlane highlights them with the upmost gravitas in this contemporary romance is powerful and satisfying, while also very unsettling.

I also read ‘Don't You Forget About Me’ and felt oddly reminded of ‘Normal People’ by Sally Rooney, the adult literary juggernaut novel of last year. It’s mostly in the fact that both novels begin back in time by exploring the first romantic relationship of two teenagers, who decide to keep their dalliance a secret from their friends, family and classmates … in both instances; Rooney and McFarlane write the “young adult” portion so beautifully that I actually found myself hoping to stay in that time-period for longer (maybe even the whole book?). They differ of course though, with the leap-ahead; Rooney’s novel becomes about these two people trying to always (and sometimes awkwardly) retrofit themselves around each other’s new adult lives. McFarlane tears the teenagers apart, and the story is of their reunion as adults – when only our protagonist is claiming to remember who and what they were to each other.

This is the crux of McFarlane’s book and the story; as she asks how long we can go on ignoring the big, impacting moments of our lives; the ones that built us up, and tore us down. How long can we go on kidding ourselves, and others – merely by refusing to confront the past?

She delivers so many decisively satisfying sucker-punches in this book; all of which are tied to Georgina slowly building herself back up bit by bit. I will say that I thought we’d get a few more chapters/moments of Georgina and Lucas though (a backstory to Lucas’s dog Keith is given, and tied to a potential other antagonist from his life – but then nothing becomes of it and I got the distinct impression that maybe a whole extra chapter and scenario was oddly axed or forgotten to be added?). It leaves an odd feeling of not having *quite* consumed the whole – like a piece was missing?

But that’s a small complain of an otherwise thoroughly lovely book, from a favourite author. A book that had me weeping in some parts, and laughing hysterically in others – such is life.

4/5


Friday, March 29, 2019

‘The Place on Dalhousie’ by Melina Marchetta

Receive from the Publisher 

From the BLURB:
'You look the type to break your father’s heart.'
'Yeah, but he broke mine first.’
When Rosie Gennaro first meets Jimmy Hailler, she has walked away from life in Sydney, leaving behind the place on Dalhousie that her father, Seb, painstakingly rebuilt for his family but never saw completed. Two years later, Rosie returns to the house and living there is Martha, whom Seb Gennaro married less than a year after the death of Rosie’s mother. Martha is struggling to fulfil Seb’s dream, while Rosie is coming to terms with new responsibilities. And so begins a stand-off between two women who refuse to move out of the home they both lay claim to.

As the battle lines are drawn, Jimmy Hailler re-enters Rosie’s life. Having always watched other families from the perimeters, he’s now grappling, heartbreakingly, with forming one of his own . . .

An unforgettable story about losing love and finding love; about the interconnectedness of lives and the true nature of belonging, from one of our most acclaimed writers.

‘The Place on Dalhousie’ is the new contemporary fiction novel from Australian author Melina Marchetta. It can be read as a sequel-of-sorts, to where many of the characters within first appeared; in Saving Francesca as teenagers in 2003, and then again in 2010 with The Piper’s Son as young adults. But Dalhousie can also be read and enjoyed as a stand-alone for newcomers to Marchetta’s writing.

Avid readers though, will also be pleased to learn that two teasing shorts Melina wrote in the lead-up to this story being told, do appear within; ‘When Rosie Met Jim’ from Review of Australian Fiction, and ‘The Centre’ from the Just Between Us anthology.

But first – a bit of background on the momentousness of this release.

Since Francesca came out in 2003, one name has haunted and delighted devout fans of Melina Marchetta’s books – Jimmy Hailler. He was the weird boy that Francesca Spinelli’s disparate friends and broken family collected and gathered close during the events of that book. He is a character that Melina has spoken lovingly about at book events, as being inspired by the students she met during her teaching at an all-boys school. In the beginning of Saving Francesca there appeared to be something a bit “off” about Jimmy – like maybe he was just the bully, one to steer away from. But over the course of that story his decency shone through; he was still quirky and with a lonely broken family, but it became apparent that he was fiercely loyal and caring too.

Jimmy’s absence from 2010 follow-up book The Piper’s Son was deeply felt – not just by the characters, but the readers too – as it’s revealed after some loss and heartbreak again in his life, Jimmy had taken off to God knows where during the events of that book … in the interim after The Piper’s Son and every time I attended a Melina event, or read an interview with her – the question of Jimmy would inevitably come up. Much like his friends Frankie, Tara, Tom, Justine, Siobhan and their collective families – readers were worried about him, and wanted to know if he was okay. More importantly – they wanted to know if Melina would ever write his story (which is the same thing, in a way.)

Much as there’s always been something innately lonely about Jimmy, he struck me as a character who best thrived from contact and the collective – so it didn’t surprise me in the least, when I first learned that when she told it, Jimmy’s story wouldn’t be his alone … rather The Place on Dalhousie is Jimmy’s story, and that of the girl that disaster and chance place into his life, as well as that girl’s stepmother whom she has a fraught relationship with. 

Jimmy seemed to shine brightest when he was surrounded, nurtured, and uplifted by the women in his life – Mia Spinelli, Frankie, Tara, Justine, and Siobhan – so it feels utterly right and natural that in Dalhousie we get three points of view of not only Jimmy, but Rosie (the girl) and her stepmother (Martha) too.


Jimmy and Rosie meet in a Queensland flood in 2010, and then have to reconnect 15-months later in Sydney, when Rosie moves back into her childhood home. The home that her father, Seb, built for her and her mother Loredana – who died of cancer when Rosie was 15, and before the house was finished. Seb married Martha 11 months after her mother died, and Rosie never forgave him – not really – and not even after he died just before she turned 18.

What Jimmy walks into is a house divided – literally – and about to be finished for the first time since Seb conceived it. Rosie is living upstairs, Martha downstairs at Dalhousie Street, neither of them willing to give ground or back down – Martha wants to sell the place and split the money with Rosie, Rosie just wants Martha gone.  

And this is the fraught setting of the story – at the heart of a family. It’s a book of divisions; not just of the upstairs/downstairs nature of co-existing within the setting, but of divisions within themselves and who they want to be … which sometimes means leaving behind who they were.

And that’s all I’ll say on the story.

I started reading these books when I was 16 – the year Saving Francesca came out. And then when The Piper’s Son released, I was 23. I’m 31 this year, and I continue to be gratefully shocked at the timing of Marchetta’s release for these books and characters, who I’m glad seem to follow me to milestones as they live their fictional own. The Place on Dalhousie slotted into my heart as easily as those first two books, and without giving too much away I’ll only say that … Jimmy’s okay. And that’s all I wanted from this story – but I got it, and so much more.

Melina’s characters have started echoing for me, and I was so glad for those ripples in Dalhousie. It’s not repetition, but foundation that I appreciate – this realisation that one has to come before the other for a story to begin. I felt that about Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil; that read to me like a companion to The Piper's Son. And it’s never more clear to me than in Dalhousie – at the way Melina has written another fiercely complex and messy young woman in Rosie, who I think would get along smashingly with Taylor Markham from On The Jellicoe Road, Quintana of Charyn from The Lumatere Chronicles and Violette Zidane from Tell the Truth. I can think of no higher praise for Melina, than saying that she writes young female characters who don’t give a shit if you like them or not – they’ve been through enough in their life, and trying to be “likeable” and “nice” is low on their list of priorities, and not nearly as important as learning to trust themselves and who to let into their complicated lives. Their flaws make these characters more interesting – not less likeable. Melina makes you work to really know these women, and to love them – but once you do, there’s no going back (as true for readers as other characters).

I could say that Martha reminds me of Georgie from The Piper’s Son – only because Melina continues to write women of a certain age who are otherwise forgotten in fiction (be it books, TV or film) – she continues to give them interesting high-stakes when society tells them they’re out of the game, and never more than in matters of the heart (Georgie and Sam from Piper’s and Trevanion and Beatriss from Lumatere are among my favourite romances of any book – but go back and read any Melina Marchetta novel and see how effortlessly she weaves interesting intergenerational stories for women of all ages.) I especially got goosebumps when Melina touches on this erasure of older women in the form of back-story for Rosie’s Sicilian grandmother, Eugenia. But actually, something of Martha reminds me of Frankie; in the way they are both the hub for their friends and family, maybe without always meaning to be.

And Jimmy. I have long thought that Jimmy’s fictional familiar was Froi, from The Lumatere Chronicles – and for so long I thought it was their tragedies that echoed for me. But something clicked with Dalhousie, and a line that Froi says in Quintana of Charyn, when he tells another character; 

‘One day,’ Froi said, clearing his voice of emotion, ‘I’ll introduce you to my queen and my king and my captain; and Lord August and Lady Abian, who have given me a home; and the Priestking and Perri and Tesadora and my friend Lucian; and then you’ll understand that I would never have met them if you hadn’t journeyed to Sarnak all those years ago, Arjuro. And if the gods were to give me a choice between living a better life, having not met them, or a wretched life with the slightest chance of crossing their path, then I'd pick the wretched life over and over again.’ 

Ah, that’s Jimmy. That’s his story; ‘And if the gods were to give me a choice between living a better life, having not met them, or a wretched life with the slightest chance of crossing their path, then I'd pick the wretched life over and over again.’

He’s the character who’s had the toughest life of all his friends. He’s the one that we’ve all worried about the most, have waited for Melina to tell us that he’s okay.

But that’s the thing – he would choose the wretched life over and over again, because it lead him here. To Rosie, and Martha. Back to his friends in Sydney (yes, all of them) coming together again like they did when they first started collecting each other in school. And that wretched life leads him to this house and a life, on Dalhousie.

I thought I pitied Jimmy for the longest time, but here I see my true affection for him – for all these characters, really – lies in accepting the good with the bad. Their flaws and imperfections made them real to me, and I love them more for it. And I am going to miss them so terribly, if this book really is the end.

But I do leave them here I think, somewhere in Leichhardt (or Stuttgart, London, a little town in Queensland, walking around Haberfield, about to board a train at Central…) being messy and carrying on their lives – making mistakes and seeing them through, being happy and sad but always together, even when they’re apart.

These characters really do feel like friends, probably because they helped in introducing me to so many in real life (those of us who have grown up around Melina’s stories, and found each other because of them). 

My God I am going to miss them, but I cannot thank the universe enough that they crossed my path …


5/5 


Sunday, February 24, 2019

'The Dreamers' by Karen Thompson Walker

Receive from the Publisher 

From the BLURB: 

One night in an isolated college town in the hills of Southern California, a first-year student stumbles into her dorm room, falls asleep—and doesn’t wake up. She sleeps through the morning, into the evening. Her roommate, Mei, cannot rouse her. Neither can the paramedics, nor the perplexed doctors at the hospital. When a second girl falls asleep, and then a third, Mei finds herself thrust together with an eccentric classmate as panic takes hold of the college and spreads to the town. A young couple tries to protect their newborn baby as the once-quiet streets descend into chaos. Two sisters turn to each other for comfort as their survivalist father prepares for disaster. 

Those affected by the illness, doctors discover, are displaying unusual levels of brain activity, higher than has ever been recorded before. They are dreaming heightened dreams—but of what? 

Written in luminous prose, The Dreamers is a breathtaking and beautiful novel, startling and provocative, about the possibilities contained within a human life—if only we are awakened to them.

'The Dreamers' is the new book from American author, Karen Thompson Walker. 

What a banger of a book! I really, thoroughly enjoyed it - which is no surprise since her debut ‘The Age Of Miracles’ was one of my favourite reads in 2012. I still think her debut is my favourite, though there’s such cunning & delightful similarities between the two as Thompson-Walker’s preoccupations & themes become clearer. 

She really writes a sort of gothic-science horror, and insidious Dystopia to a degree - by plucking out one little thread from our humanity & very existence, to see how we unravel ... in this book it’s a question of: what if all young women in one small town went to sleep, and never woke up? Soooooooo delicious & insidious: just as ‘The Age of Miracles’ slowed the rotation of the Earth to see what cataclysmic repercussions it would have, in ‘The Dreamers’ it’s a slowing and succumbing in individuals and how everything gets upended. A modern 'Sleeping Beauty' meets 'Year of Wonders' by Geraldine Brooks, for similar examinations of isolation during a time of curious plague ... 

Highly, highly recommend this sinister & rather sexy read, an almost philosophical “what if?” to keep you up at night. 

4.5/5

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.