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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

'Queen of the Night' by Leanne Hall

From the BLURB:
The dark is dangerous. So is the past. So are your dreams.

For six months Nia—Wildgirl—has tried to forget Wolfboy, the mysterious boy she spent one night with in Shyness—the boy who said he’d call but didn’t.

Then Wolfboy calls. The things he tells her pull her back to the suburb of Shyness, where the sun doesn’t rise and dreams and reality are difficult to separate. There, Doctor Gregory has seemingly disappeared, the Darkness is changing and Wolfboy’s friend is in trouble. And Nia decides to become Wildgirl once more.

Six months is not enough time to forget someone. Not when you spent one memorable, hell-raising night with them in an impossible town of darkness chasing tarsiers and playing on a pink ukulele. But that’s just what Nia has been trying to do, ever since she left Wolfboy sleeping in his bed as she slipped out of Shyness…

Six months later and Wolfboy (aka ‘Jethro’) never called Nia (alias ‘Wildgirl’) after their hedonistic night. So Nia moved on. She went back to her dull Panwood life, and tried to forget about the beautiful howling boy.  She took a job at vintage clothing shop, Emporium, and changed schools. She kissed a new boy and made firm friends with her two Emporium colleagues, Helen & Ruth.

And then Ortolan walks into Emporium, and Nia is thrown back into Shyness and obsessing over Wolfboy.

Meanwhile, in the suburb of darkness, Jethro has been nursing his hurt after a failed reconnection with beautiful Wildgirl, Nia. He has been spending time with his niece, Diana, and helping out her mother, Ortolan. But he can’t stop thinking about Nia, and what could have been.

Jethro’s daydreams are interrupted though, when his best friend and ‘The Long Blinks’ band mate, Paul, starts acting strangely. He’s gaunt and distant, disappearing for nights on end and tight-lipped about his ex-girlfriend. Jethro starts noticing similarly odd behaviour around Shyness, from the ‘blue people’, and when Dr. Gregory redoubles his efforts to contact him, Jethro knows it’s time to ask for help from the one girl he can trust …

‘Queen of the Night’ is the sequel to the 2009 Text Prize-winning novel ‘This Is Shyness’, by Leanne Hall.

 I absolutely, positively adored ‘This is Shyness’ – a crazily beautiful novel about two lost souls finding each other in the darkness of Shyness. So I was thrilled to learn that Leanne Hall was releasing a follow-up to her 2010 debut, and I was doubly-excited when an advance copy of ‘Queen of the Night’ landed in my mailbox.

Some people may have been surprised to learn of a follow-up to ‘This is Shyness’. Admittedly, it read beautifully as a stand-alone, and even its open-endedness suited the dreamscape of the story, giving it that extra little dash of magical realism, with hope on the precipice – when Wildgirl left her howling Wolfboy asleep in his bed, as she walked home and into daylight. But fans should quickly dispel any lingering doubts that Wolfboy and Wildgirl’s story ended there, as Hall takes us back to the darkness of Shyness, and explores what happened after ‘happily ever after’…

When ‘Queen of the Night’ begins (six months after the events of ‘This is Shyness’), Nia and Jethro only allow themselves fleeting thoughts of that night and each other as Wolfboy and Wildgirl. Both are nursing their wounds from the fallout of that night, while also glorying in their gains. For Jethro, Nia’s insistence that he get to know his niece, Diana, and her mother Ortolan, despite the hurt left over from his brother’s death, has seen him gain a family. Jethro also opened his home to Blake, an ex-Kidd sugar junkie who has turned her life around since leaving Orphanville. Jethro became a babysitter and gained a roommate, and now he doesn’t feel quite so alone in the darkness.

Nia, meanwhile, has an improved relationship with her mother. It helps that Nia’s mum is now attending night school, and that Nia left her old, hated, school behind… she has found a creative outlet at the Emporium vintage clothing store, and has gained two wacky lovely friends in Ruth and Helen, shop assistant and owner of the store.

But even with all these changes for the better, neither Jethro nor Nia can quite shake the feeling of something unfinished, a loose thread that needs tying. And Nia especially cannot shake the bitterness she feels after having had such sweet expectations of her Wolfboy;

I thought we would be more. I wouldn’t have said that about an ordinary one-night hook-up, but nothing about that night was ordinary. Not meeting Wolfboy, not getting mugged by the Kidds, not breaking into Orphanville to get his brother’s lighter back, not the rooftop showdown with the creepy Doctor Gregory. Not the feeling that we were just two stars in the endless night sky, as dazzling and dwarfed and stupendous and insignificant as that made us. I let my guard down with Wolfboy, and I think he did the same with me. I like to think that I’m a good judge of people, but I guess I’m not.

But pretty soon Shyness finds a way of throwing these two together again … Nia bumps into Ortolan, who frequents the Emporium, and an intriguing conversation with her about Jethro fans Nia’s curiosity about what Wolfboy is up to now.

Meanwhile, Jethro’s best friend and band mate, Paul, has succumbed to the ‘blue people’. Appearing like Shyness dreamers at first, Jethro has cause for concern when he crosses paths with Dr. Gregory again, and a mysterious ‘darchitect’ takes an unusual interest in Ortolan and Diana’s apartment. Too many coincidences and bad feelings forces Jethro to reach out to the one person he promised himself he’d forget.

This is Shyness’ was a beautiful tale compressed into one night; a night in which Jethro and Nia, Wolfboy and Wildgirl, used the dark cloak of a Shyness night to find themselves and help each other. In ‘Queen of the Night’, Leanne Hall is exploring what comes next. What happens when you wake from the dream into reality, and all is not as you dreamed it would be.

‘Queen’ stretches beyond a single night, giving Jethro and Nia days of normality to reacquaint themselves with one another, and be together in the ‘real world’. A good portion of the book takes place outside of Shyness, in the daylight suburb of Panwood. If ‘This is Shyness’ was the dream – a fantastical blend of real and imagined, skating the genres of speculative fiction and urban fantasy, then ‘Queen of the Night’ is a wake-up call. Indeed, some of ‘Queen’ reads like the blurred edges of an ungraspable dream – just the wisp of remembrance. Hall moves readers between Shyness and Panwood, juxtaposing Jethro’s life in Shyness (complete with tarsiers, Kidds and looming Dr. Gregory) with Nia’s normality (school, work at the Emporium, conversations with her means-well mum).

‘Queen of the Night’ also serves to expand Shyness. In the first novel Hall took readers on a curving adventure around the dark town’s landmarks – the Diabetic hotel, Orphanville and Jethro’s abandoned home. ‘Queen’ is more about exploring the history of Shyness, and its magic too. Jethro discovers a curious book about the town’s history, SHYNESS: A young lady’s treatise by Delilah Gregory, and Jethro starts to wonder about the years of unexplained darkness. And the big question, will the darkness recede? Jethro’s investigations also lead him and Nia to the ‘blue people’ – not-quite-dreamers who seem to be in a constant daze, blaming their forgetfulness and flights of fancy on ‘slippage’. It will take a visit to the Queen of the Night to understand how these blue souls came to be, and how Paul got suckered into their dream. . .

I loved Hall’s further exploration into the darkness of Shyness; it was exactly what I wanted from a follow-up book, but Hall doesn’t get so clinical or detailed about the town’s history as to shatter that magical realism vibe. Shyness still teeters on the edge of fable, even when Jethro and Nia start to poke and prod its origins – if anything; Hall manages to imbue the town with even more mysticism by writing a twisted history of the place.

‘Queen of the Night’ is, first and foremost, a love story. Jethro and Nia are delectable and infuriating in their lover’s dance, and their sweet romance is the big drawcard of this second book. Shyness may still be a place of dark mystery; full of dreaming blue people and looming sugar junkies, but Hall writes a good old-fashioned romance for Nia and Jethro that’s absolutely swoon-worthy and relatable. Both Wildgirl and Wolfboy learnt a lot about themselves during their night of revelry in ‘This is Shyness’, but in ‘Queen of the Night’ they have to live beyond the fairytale and be brave enough to take a chance on each other. I love these two; Jethro’s gentleman beast to Nia’s tough-girl act is completely adorable, and I won’t be alone in hoping that ‘Queen of the Night’ isn’t the last we see of these two. . .

‘Queen of the Night’ is everything fans are hoping of a follow-up to the mad-cap surrealism of ‘This is Shyness’. Leanne Hall returns triumphant with her delectable prose and whimsical storytelling, pulling readers back into the darkness to know what happened after Wolfboy and Wildgirl’s not-quite-happily-ever-after. I have my fingers firmly crossed that Leanne Hall writes a third instalment for Jethro and Nia, since ‘Queen of the Night’ finishes on a note of endless possibility – as vast as the night itself. Simply stunning.


Friday, February 24, 2012

'The Shiny Guys' by Doug MacLeod

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

'Wouldn't it be funny if they were real?'
'Shiny red men?'
'What if I were the sane one and everyone else was mad?'

One night, the shiny guys visit fifteen-year-old Colin Lapsley. They don't speak, but Colin can read their thoughts. They want him to pay for the terrible thing that he has done. When the shiny guys won't go away, Colin is admitted to ward 44. Ther he discovers an alien world, a powerful weapon, a gentle giant, and a girl who may be able to see what he can see.

The Shiny Guys is a dark, sometimes funny novel about how fantasy and reality can merge, especially when electricity is involved.

Colin Lapsley is in Ward 44 because he has a little problem. Colin’s troubles began with the disappearance of his little sister three years ago. Briony was snatched from a hiking trail while under Colin’s care, and ever since her disappearance the Lapsley family haven’t been coping too well. Then new information came to light in Briony’s cold case… and ever since then, Colin has been seeing the shiny guys.

Because of Colin’s issues with the shiny guys, he is in Ward 44. Everyone here is a little off-kilter. There’s Mango, a seventeen-year-old guy who has a problem with hugging people. Jill apologizes to everyone, for everything. Val is an alcoholic who has found Jesus Christ through AA. And Len is Colin’s roommate, a cantankerous basket-obsessed jerk whose snores are sickening.

There’s basket weaving on Ward 44. Blue pills and yellow pills throughout the day, plus talks with Dr. Parkinson. Not to mention electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) for the not-so-lucky few.

When a beautiful new girl called Anthea joins the crazy crew on Ward 44, already strange things start spiralling even more out of control in Colin’s mind. He meets Dr. Vendra and Dr. Maximew, two cockroaches from the realm of Nestor who let Colin in on a little secret… Nestorians have been kidnapping humans, and Briony might still be alive.

‘The Shiny Guys’ is the new young adult novel from Doug MacLeod.

Doug MacLeod’s CV and backlist is a wee bit impressive. He’s had a hand in some of Australia’s most beloved and popular TV shows, such as ‘Fast Forward’, ‘SeaChange’, and ‘Kath and Kim’. He also writes books for children, like ‘Kevin the Troll’, and last year his novel ‘The Life of a Teenage Body-Snatcher’ was an honour book for The Children’s Book Council of Australia. However, MacLeod’s newest book is a more serious deviation from his usual comedic fare.

The book begins rather ominously. MacLeod’s bio warns that ‘The Shiny Guys’ is a 'serious book without too many jokes'. And if that warning isn’t enough, the opening line is sure to set spines tingling;

Thus begins reader’s journey into Ward 44, with our charismatic ‘mental case’, Colin.

Crazy he may be, but readers slowly learn the circumstances surrounding Colin’s stay in Ward 44, and what bought the ‘shiny guys’ into his life, and it’s enough to send anyone round the bend.

Colin’s little sister, Briony, was snatched while on a camping trip. She was abducted while walking on a hiking trail, with Colin, and nobody has seen her for three years. Colin remembers little of the circumstances surrounding her disappearance, much to his parent’s disappointment. However, when Briony’s cold case was reopened (in light of a horrifying new discovery) the shiny guys started appearing out the corner of Colin’s eye …. Hence, Ward 44.

Colin doesn’t like Ward 44. Since staying there he has become a bit of a kleptomaniac, stealing packets of jam and the good doctor’s texta. He is also deeply fearful of ECT, electroconvulsive therapy, also known as ‘shock therapy’ – and he clings to the knowledge that his parents would never sign the release papers permitting Dr. Parkinson to perform it on him. But Colin has also made a good friend in the ward, a young man called Malcolm (‘Mango’ for short). Mango is a bit of a conundrum – he has rage and hugging issues, and recurring nightmares about the ‘impossible cupboard’, from which there is no escape.

Colin has been taking drugs to get rid of the shiny guys. But weeks into his stay at Ward 44 and they are back, and shinier than ever … and then Colin meets Dr. Vendra and Dr. Maximew, two giant cockroaches from the planet of Nestor. Nestorians, Colin is told, abduct humans. When Colin learns of this he instantly thinks of Briony, and confides his discovery to Mango;

'It makes sense. That's why I was seeing so many Nestorians around the hospital. They have to work together. It takes a hundred of them to abduct a single human. You believe me, don't you?'
'I will always believe you,' says Mango. 'I believe you when you say you will help me find the impossible cupboard. I know that will happen one day.'
'It will.'

Coinciding with Colin’s discovery of Nestor is a newcomer to Ward 44, a beautiful young girl called Anthea, with raven-black hair who has lying, drug and eating issues, and who Mango falls instantly in love with. Together, this trio intend to help Colin with his Nestorian plan…

This book is set in a psychiatric ward. Our protagonist sees cockroaches, and his friend dreams of an impossible cupboard. But this is not a book about ‘crazy’ people. Doug MacLeod writes with infinite sympathy and compassion about mental illness, and the people who are often misunderstood and misrepresented because of that label.

Cockroaches or not, Colin is a witty and endearing young man. I would have liked him anyway, since he’s from my hometown (my sympathies to him);

'I come from a mystical place called Frankston.'

MacLeod has written a rather infectious and cunning young protagonist in Colin. Mango is particularly impressed with him, because he does not swear and ‘talks funny’ – in stark contrast to the few chapters from Mango’s POV, which are written in spelling mistakes and colliding trains of thought. Readers very quickly come to realize that Colin is a unique and interesting young man. And, actually, his ‘illness’ is probably the least interesting thing about him. Rather, it’s his quick-wit and sharp mind that really entertains;

What is it about making a basket that is supposed to induce sanity? Most baskets are made in China, which should make it the sanest country in the world, yet they still melted all their saucepans when Chairman Mao told them to.

Colin is also a bookish young man. He has made a special friend of the Ward’s librarian, and has started reading Franz Kafka’s great unfinished novel, ‘The Castle’. It’s little wonder then, that cockroaches are such a symbol in ‘The Shiny Guys’ – admittedly, you can’t really talk cockroaches without at least a mention of the existentialist writer whose most famous work, ‘Metamorphosis’, was about a man called Gregor who one day wakes to find himself turned into a cockroach.

Something I really enjoyed while reading ‘The Shiny Guys’ was the fact that Colin’s ‘illness’, his depression and hallucinations, did not define him. He is a character in his own right, not a caricature of a ‘depressed person’. It’s also why I was quite surprised to find myself smiling through a lot of ‘The Shiny Guys’ (considering MacLeod’s warning of it being a ‘serious book’). Our protagonist has issues and is depressed, but MacLeod has not written a character that is black and white, and the obvious textbook definition of ‘depressed’. As Dr. Parkinson points out to Colin;

'Well, I think that jokes are your way of coping.'
'With what?'
'You'd be surprised how many comedians suffer depression. Being funny is their way of dealing with it.'

Something else I really liked about ‘The Shiny Guys’ was the lack of villains. I did go into the novel thinking of another famous book set in a psychiatric ward ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest’ by Ken Kesey, and I suppose I was half expecting a clear-cut ‘baddie’ Nurse Ratched type of character. Once again, MacLeod writes truer to life, and in ‘The Shiny Guys’ doctors are not out to get the patients and the nurses work a rather thankless job. MacLeod excelled at infusing his ‘crazy’ characters with warmth and a personality beyond their illness. He does the same for the staff members of Ward 44 – the people who are genuinely concerned for their patient’s health and wellbeing, working a rather depressing and difficult job for measly pay.

I was not surprised to come to the end of MacLeod’s book and discover, through the author’s website, that he had once been hospitalized for depression (in Ward 44, no less) back in 1985. I say it was no surprise, only because of the tenderness and patience he showed in writing these characters and carers. MacLeod gave them backstory and a reason behind their ‘mental illness’, he made them human and fragile and utterly endearing. Colin is a remarkable young man, for all that he has suffered in his young life and the remarkable (if imaginary) way he has found to cope with his losses. Mango was an equally extraordinary character whose personal history is gut-wrenchingly and exquisitely revealed.

‘The Shiny Guys’ is a little bit amazing. Doug MacLeod writes about the fragile human psyche with a raw understanding that is quite remarkable in young adult fiction. Yes, as MacLeod warns, ‘The Shiny Guys’ is a serious book, but I would say it’s also an important book for how he realistically portrays psychiatric patients, their care and coping, not to mention the catharsis that can be found in friendship.


Interview with Doug MacLeod, author of 'The Shiny Guys'

I absolutely loved Doug MacLeod's new book 'The Shiny Guys'. It's one of those books that stays with you long after the last page, that you keep churning over and thinking about for a while. So I was thrilled at the opportunity to pick Mr MacLeod's brain, and get some insight into this deeply personal and challenging book.

Big thanks to Penguin and especially Doug MacLeod.

SPOILER warning - If you haven't read 'The Shiny Guys' yet, some of my questions may spoil parts of the book. So rush out and grab a copy, then come back and read this Q&A, okay? Ta.

Q: How were you first published, agent or slush pile?

Slush pile, but years ago when slush piles were smaller. (1973)

Q: How long did it take you to write ‘The Shiny Guys’, from idea to final manuscript?

I guess it would amount to about six months, but it wasn't written in one long session. It was written to amuse myself in between the times that I wasn't writing a more traditionally 'funny' book called, for the moment, Beach Tigers (for which I had been contracted). I was genuinely surprised when the publisher favoured The Shiny Guys over Beach Tigers. Beach Tigers is still a good book and will, I believe, be published by Penguin in 2013. It will cause heaps of arguments because in the book I try to analyse why some things are funny and some aren't. (Comedy became a fairly good earner for me, though my life hasn't been a particularly funny one, just absurd.) I was fairly young when my father was diagnosed with bowel cancer. He's still with us, because he changed his whole life around. But it was very much touch and go for a while. We all loved and still love him like crazy; and because Death, or at least its Shadow was such a regular tenant at our home, I think we all developed a sense of humour to help us deal with the miserable old bastard that threatened to take our wonderful dad. I touch on that in Beach Tigers. So I started writing The Shiny Guys as a relief from a 'funny' story that was becoming quite heavy and wearing. I was surprised that The Shiny Guys turned out as funny as I'm told it did. All the stuff I write about how the patient feels when they have been hospitalised for clinical depression is as close as I could make it to how I recall feeling, along with the self-hatred you feel when you realise that some people are there because they have lost children or partners in war, and your own depression seems self-indulgent and distasteful in comparison, and the guilt you feel about making people worry. I was lucky to find myself in a group of younger patients with whom I became quite close, though Mango is an amalgam. I did have a friend who was very like him but the 'detachment disorder' from which he suffers was borrowed from a later story that a male nurse told me about a very large boy in a youth training centre in Parkville who really couldn't control himself from hugging people, usually completely out of the blue. It used to freak people out but he wasn't dangerous and he always let go. I think the reason behind Mango's detachment order is the creepiest thing in the book and I shuddered when I wrote it - a situation where you desperately don't want to embrace someone but you genuinely can't stop yourself.

Q: Are you a plotter or a ‘pantser’? – That is, do you meticulously plot your novel before writing, or do you ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ and let the story evolve naturally?

A mixture of both. I knew where I was headed with The Shiny Guys, which was the solution to 'The Impossible Cupboard' because I think that is quite a strong moment. (And it isn't even 'the hero's moment'!) The other business sort of grew back from that.

Q: The back-story of how ‘The Shiny Guys’ came to be is very interesting – for the way you draw on personal experience, but also the events that took place after writing the book. I’m talking about your own battle with depression, and the stroke that hospitalised you and left a shadowed cockroach in your brain(scan)… can you tell us about the trials and tribulations of writing ‘The Shiny Guys’ and Ward 44?

I still have depression but I no longer think I'm going crazy, which, as the book indicates, is an important part of dealing with depression. There are certain danger signs to watch for. Going to hospital recently for a prolonged period of rehab reminded me of ward 44, especially the occupational therapy, which seemed quite silly. One of the exercises was sorting a big box of washers into two smaller boxes of smaller washers, but they throw in a medium-sized one to see how you'll react. (There's more about it on my blog.)

Q: So I read that Len, Colin’s awful Ward 44 roommate, was based on a real person of your acquaintance. What about Mango & Anthea? Who else in the book was inspired by real people?

Dr Parkinson has a thinly disguised name and is based on a real character, but I've borrowed just his appearance and mannerisms, which I found quite endearing. He's not a control freak, but I needed him to be, for the story to work. And even when he's being a control freak, I tried to keep him committed to the cause and respectful of his patients, because most psychiatrists I have worked with have been like that. I gave him the Darnum background because I wanted to write jokes about cow psychiatrists, and I also knew Darnum quite well because I spent two years of my childhood in Gippsland. Sorry, I never lived in Frankston, but I like it and it's got such a great name. If you talk about a mystical, distant place known as 'Frankston' it's funny for the same reason that in the movie, Monty Python and The Holy Grail, this terribly impressive magician, making explosions everywhere, announces with much gravity that his name is 'Tim'. 'Frankston' and 'mystical' just don't seem to fit together and a lot of comedy is made by putting together two concepts that wouldn't normally be together because they are such mutually exclusive ideas.

Mango is real but somewhat idealised. He certainly wasn't the sort of handsome kid you would fall in lust with. And this is what has happened to Colin. It's actually very noble of him to set Anthea up with Mango, when Colin is secretly, unknowingly in love with Mango. It’s funny how no one has commented on the gay love story, but I bet they will. There were a few lines in the sequence with Mango driving the 'escape car' where I had Colin caressing Mango's hair, and little touches like that, but my editor quite rightly suggested I keep Colin's relationship with Mango a little more oblique. Their embrace in the shower is probably enough. (Reading that back made me laugh. Hair-patting equals too gay. Embracing in the shower equals acceptably gay without being all Alan Hollinghurst. You really do have to read the book to see that the embrace in the shower between Mango and Colin is definitely not gay. Or maybe it is? Hell, read what you want to read into it.) The decision to cool it a little on the gay front was nothing to do with worries about how the marketplace would react to a book with a covert gay theme. All my books have them. Though I read a Penguin sales rep report that Dymocks in Bendigo didn't take my book, Siggy and Amber, because the Amber character has gay parents. I'm not sure if this is really what the store manager said, but the sales rep reported something along the lines of 'We don't have those types of people in Bendigo.' I think Colin himself would be upset and confused if someone asked him to acknowledge a gay relationship with Mango, so those extra moments in the escape car really didn't work, as they made Colin too knowing in his love for Mango.

It's interesting how you mention that you really can't talk about Franz Kafka without alluding to Metamorphosis. There are the Samsa cockroaches, of course, but I never mention the book by name, and yet the word 'Metamorphosis' is the tag to the whole story. Do you think that works, if you don't already know the title Metamorphosis? I could have slipped it into the story somewhere, but I like an ending that leaves you wanting to know a little more.

Q: Which idea came first – to have cockroaches in ‘The Shiny Guys’, or Kafka? And can you have one without the other?

'The Impossible Cupboard' definitely came first. That's been around for years, since I put it in a play and freaked myself out about how nasty I could be. Then I spent a whole year where I read a lot of Kafka because his were the only talking books I could find and I was travelling a lot. I think the book works well as a 'package', it's not all doom and gloom, the cover is brilliant, it has a good title, which I had to fight for because no one liked it. In the end I had to rewrite part of the book to justify it.

Q: I loved Colin. He was such a wonderful, smart and sweet character (and he hailed from my hometown, Frankston! Shout-out!). And many times while reading the book I just wanted to reach into the page and give him a hug, say “it’s okay, it’s not your fault!” and remind him that things will get better. Thinking about your own history of depression, and your stay in a psychiatric ward –if you had the chance (and a time machine) to go back to 1985, what would you say to reassure your younger-self about the future?

'It gets better and there is someone for everybody.'

Q: I found it quite interesting that in the book you don’t condemn ECT (‘shock therapy’). Colin is afraid that his parents will sign papers permitting him to undergo shock therapy – but at the same time it is presented as a treatment with many benefits and successes. I suppose popular culture (I’m looking at you, Ken Kesey!) and just plain ignorance have conditioned people to think that shock therapy is much the same as a lobotomy. What research did you do into ECT to arrive at the conclusion that it’s not always bad?

I talked with two friends, writer Barry Dickins and copywriter Michael Smith, who both went through ECT at the same time. It worked wonders for Michael, but not Barry. I wanted to know exactly what all the equipment looked like and how it worked, so I was given a guided tour of an ECT facility. You really do lose a little memory immediately preceding then following a treatment, which of course gives Colin plenty of time to invent the whole Nestor environment . (I picture it as a Shaun Tan nightmare.) If you glance through the book again, you'll see that every single aspect of Nestor is established in the real world. Even the box-like little ambulance (very Shaun Tan) that attends the crashed Nestorian commuter shuttle is from Colin's real world experience. It's the first aid box they took to The Flinders Rangers. By the way, the national parkrangers at Pichy Richy Pass really do have trouble with people vandalising the sign to make it Ichy Ichy Ass. They won't thank me for pointing out this jape.

Q: [SPOILER question] Shock therapy does help Colin, in a strange, delusional way. Meeting the Nestorians and searching for Briony is how he comes to terms with his suppressed memories about her disappearance… and this suggests that shock therapy did work for him, in a way. Do you think Colin’s revelation about Briony thanks entirely to ECT, could he have had such a revelation without it?

I like to leave that open. Maybe the ECT helped him not to be so hard on himself? And depression makes you very hard on yourself.

Q: As I write these questions, there’s a disturbing news story from America about a girl who was nearly abducted from a Walmart store. The story behind Briony’s disappearance is sad and chilling – what influenced this story of child abduction?

I'm afraid it seems a common enough story. When I was writing the book there was a lot in the media about an Indian boy who had purportedly been abducted and killed by a stranger, though this proved to be a fabrication by the murderer, a member of the boy's family. I don't think many people were surprised that it was a deception, actually. It wasn't a terribly well thought-out or convincing one.

Q: You do warn at the beginning of ‘The Shiny Guys’ that it is a ‘serious book’ without too many jokes. But I did find myself smiling through a lot of the book (mostly Mango scenes, I loved that guy!). And Dr. Parkinson reasonably points out that “You'd be surprised how many comedians suffer depression. Being funny is their way of dealing with it.” Was it hard trying to rein in your funny bone for this novel?

Always. Nearly all the stuff on the cutting room floor is funny stuff.

I lost a whole patient character that had some really good visual jokes (she was a mad pleater: she couldn't stop pleating paper or material or anything that was pleatable, and she would end up at night with her blanket and her sheet all pleated at the end of the bed, in a thick line of Manchester. Mum worked at Judge Book Nursing Home in Eltham and she came home with quite a few stories like that. She never told them meanly, you could see she cared for her little old ladies. I decided to add the pleater to ward 44. My editor suggested there were enough endearing crazies already - especially when a gorgeous balloon-breasted American nurse appeared- and that we could probably lose her.

Q: Really though, why basket weaving? Did you find any research that correlates basket weaving to improved mental health?

None. But they really did have it. And when Len finally left the ward, I remember asking him what he felt he had gained from the experience, and he told me quite flatly that he had gained a very nice basket. I like Colin's extrapolation that it is in spectacularly poor taste for the Vietnam vets to be making things that look very much like that hats of the people who were trying to kill them. I don't think would have made that connection myself, but Colin did because he kept obsessing about little things like that.

Q: You have an impressive CV of comedy TV writing. You’ve worked on ‘Kath & Kim’, ‘Fast Forward’ and have written many children’s books. Which is harder – writing for TV, or writing books? And which industry is friendlier?

Oh, come on. You know the answers to these questions. TV is generally not friendly (though Jane Turner and Gina Riley and are absolutely gorgeous). TV is hard, but it pays more than writing books.

Q: Favourite book(s) of all time?

The Reginald Perrin books, by David Nobbs about an average suburban man who has a nervous breakdown, decides to fake his own suicide and come back as someone else. They’re moving and stupendously funny stories . I didn't realise what a huge influence they’ve been on me, until I reread some of them recently, and saw some gags, or at least figures of speech that I have used in my own books.

Q: Favourite author(s)?

Because I write comedy, I tend towards books that are rather dark. My favourite YA authors are Sonya Hartnett, John Marsden, Meg Rosoff, Sofie Laguna and Robert Cormier. I'm far too judgmental about comedy and find it hard to enjoy. I loathe Jasper Fforde and everyone tells me I'm meant to love his humour. Most Douglas Adams books make me laugh and I curse Azreal the Angel of Death for taking Douglas away from us when he was so young.

Q: What novel are you working on at the moment, and when can we get it into our hot little hands?

Firstly. I'm still in rehab after last year's stroke, so I'm not writing terribly much.

But there are two books.

One is called Beach Tigers, coming soon to a bookstore near you.

I'm also tinkering with a sequel to The Life of a Teenage Body-Snatcher because that really was great fun to do. Being very rude about the English, who never take my books. Most satisfying.

Q: What advice do you have for budding young writers?

Get a really terrible job first. I worked on a building site for a short time and it was horrible. When I find it hard to write or just don't feel like it, I remember how it felt holding those bricks around. If you really want to be a serious writer, don’t get married or have kids.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

'The Reluctant Hallelujah' by Gabrielle Williams

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

"But there I go, getting ahead of myself. Skipping straight to the part where I was front-page news and they were calling me Dorothy, instead of starting at the beginning..."

When Dodie's parents go missing just as final year exams are about to start, she convinces herself they're fine. But when the least likely boy in class holds the key -- quite literally -- to the huge secret her parents have been hiding all these years, it's up to Dodie, her sister, the guy from school, and two guys she's never met before, to take on the challenge of a lifetime. So now Dodie's driving -- unlicensed -- to Sydney, and being chased by bad guys, the police, and one very handsome good guy.

** SPOILER alert – if you don’t know what the ‘package’ is that must be transported to Sydney, I do spoil the reveal in this review.

If you want to take your chances and spoil the surprise, then click on the Show/hide button below for my full review.
Otherwise, I highly suggest you go grab a copy of the book and enjoy the OMG! plot twist **

Interview with Gabrielle Williams, author of 'The Reluctant Halleuljah'

I was so lucky to receive an early copy of 'The Reluctant Hallelujah' a few weeks ago. Since reading the book I have been bursting to share my thoughts and praise... so I am thrilled that today is the book's launch, and I had an opportunity to ask the author, Gabrielle Williams, some burning questions!

This is Gabrielle's second time sitting a Q&A with me, and I am once again very grateful for her time and patience with my long & quirky questions. And a big thanks to Penguin BTL for being equally fabulous!

'The Reluctant Hallelujah' hits stores today - rush out and buy a copy, because it's amazing!
Can I get a 'Hallelujah'?!

P.S. - There are some potential SPOILERS in the below interview. If you don't know what the super secret 'package' is at the center of the story, and you don't want to be spoiled, then I suggest you hold off on reading this interview until after you read 'The Reluctant Hallelujah'. You have been warned!

Q: Where did you come up with the (ludicrously quirky) idea for ‘The Reluctant Hallelujah’?

As with most ludicrously quirky ideas I have, it snuck up on me quietly, and by the time I noticed it, it had been sitting beside me for a good few hours so I was kind of used to it by then. In fact, by the time I really noticed it and thought maybe it would make a good idea for a book, it seemed completely and utterly sensible!

Q: How long did it take you to write ‘The Reluctant Hallelujah’ – from first idea to final manuscript?

My first draft took 17 days – I kid you not. As soon as I noticed the idea (sitting beside me), all I had to do was write it up. It seemed to be fully formed and ready to go. My hubby told me to write a chapter a day, and being the obedient wife that I am, I did it. Actually, I’m not that obedient a wife, but I found it intriguing to see if I could actually write a chapter a day. Of course, the first draft was completely unreadable, but at least the idea was down on the page, and that’s always the hardest part for me. Unfortunately, the rest of the process took a lot longer than 17 days – probably 18 months from start to finish.

Q: I just love the insanity of a road trip with Jesus! So I’m curious how you ‘pitched’ this idea to your agent and Penguin publishers. How did you ease them into the odd-ball story?

I’m lucky that I’ve got a brilliant agent who is open to anything. And a brilliant publisher who is also open to anything. They were absolutely fantastic and they ‘got’ the book straight away. I didn’t really tell them what it was about, instead I just sent it through saying that it was this idea I had and I thought it was really interesting. However, my American publisher completely freaked, and said there was no way they could publish it. They said it would be waaaaay too controversial over there, and suggested I change Jesus to Elvis (insert gobsmacked smiley-face icon here!!!!!).

Q: I’m guessing it’s no coincidence that Dodie is short for ‘Dorothy’ and the novel involves her going on a journey with a rag-tag bunch of friends? What made you include the ‘Wizard of Oz’ references? And I wonder if I missed any (or just made wrong ones up?) Hume Highway like the yellow brick road? Could the Messiah be ‘The Wizard’?

Oooh, you’re good. Yes, there’s definitely a Wizard of Oz-ish element to the whole book. I always knew this was going to be a road-trip type book, and what more famous road-trip is there than The Wizard of Oz? I started off with Enron as the scarecrow, Taxi as the cowardly lion, and Jones as the tinman, but as I got further into writing the book those characterisations fell away and the characters developed their own distinctive personalities. But it was definitely a good starting point, and certainly structurally I stayed fairly true to it. Emerald City – Sydney. Yellow Brick Road – Pacific Highway. But I don’t think Jesus is The Wizard. Or maybe he is. I’m not sure.

Q: One reference I really loved in the novel was to Melbourne’s Cave Clan. Which is a group dedicated to urban exploration – they wander around the city’s underground network of drains, and Dodie bumps into a couple of them when she, Enron and Coco are smuggling Jesus out of her family’s basement. In your acknowledgements you do give a little shout-out to some clan men: ‘Ath, Draco & Apex from the Cave Clan for being brilliant guides to the underworld of Melbourne.' So I’ve got to ask… how did you first find out about urban exploration, how did you get in touch with the mysterious ‘Cave Clan’ and did you actually go underground?

The drains of Melbourne are the great untapped resource for all young, single girls of Melbourne – so many cute, cool guys go down there, interested in graffing (that’s cool-speak for doing graffiti) and exploring and just having a bit of an adventure. Of course, it’s completely illegal and really dangerous so I can’t tell you how to contact them or any of those juicy details because my publisher would kill me. And maybe the police would arrest me. And there are probably loads of parents who wouldn’t be terribly impressed with me either. But yeah, it was definitely an experience, going down with those guys. The worst part was climbing down into the drains – I’m scared of heights, and scared of the dark, and the description in the book of Dodie climbing into the drains is taken very definitely from my first-hand experience.

Q: Still on the cave clan … did you think they’d be a good fit for the novel because Jesus did, rather famously, spend some time in a cave?

Ah, that’s hilarious. I hadn’t even thought of that, but now that you mention it, definitely. It’s weird how many strange coincidences happened while I was writing this book. One of the strangest ones was when I was working on my first draft: my husband was driving past a church in Elsternwick, and the board out the front proclaimed ‘Jesus Lives’, and someone had graffitied underneath ‘in my basement’! Which, as you know, is exactly what happens in my book. Bizarre!

Q: I also really loved the fact that in the novel, Jesus’s ‘saviours’ are the most unlikely group of kids. This spoke to me, because I can imagine a lot of very devout, deeply religious people would be horrified at the thought of JC spending time with the youth of today (and all their London rioting, drunken, sexting behaviour!) but, actually, Dodie and Co. do a pretty good job of coming to the rescue. Did you think it would be interesting to see Jesus hanging out with today’s generation? And all the trouble they could get into?

I think Jesus stills lives in people’s imaginations – whether they’re Catholic or not – because He was such a good bloke. That’s my impression of Him. I think He would have been ace fun to hang out with, and probably had a really good sense of humour. And I’m sure He would have been totally into bands and music and partying. A lot of the stuff in my book is written from that standpoint. I think He’s the opposite of judgmental, and people were drawn to Him because He was very charismatic and interesting and saw things differently from the way everyone else saw them. And when you think about it, all the people He hung out with in His day were people living on the edge, so I don’t think He’d have a problem at all hanging out with kids today.

Q: I also loved that Jesus didn’t ‘overpower’ the book. He is the Messiah, after all, he could have stolen the whole show … but the book really focuses a lot on the kids; Dodie, Enron, Coco and particularly Taxi and Jones. Was it hard to let the young protagonists shine, when they’re sharing scenes with the Son of God?

I wanted Jesus to take a back seat (quite literally, in the case of the road-trip) to what was happening with the kids in the book. He’s the catalyst to the action, but he definitely isn’t the main character. It’s about having trust and faith in people. It’s about being a part of something that’s bigger than yourself. And it’s about rocking out to AC/DC on the outskirts of Merimbula.

Q: Now, be honest, how many ‘Weekend at Bernie’s’ jokes have you heard about this novel?

Well, we managed to keep the whole Jesus-lives-in-my-basement under wraps for most of the last 18 months, but now that’s it’s getting out there and being reviewed, there are starting to be a few ‘Weekend at Bernie’s’ comparisons. Which is fine with me, because the book has a light-hearted feel to it.

Q: Some people might be reluctant (ha!) to read the book, purely because of Jesus in a modern setting (in a young adult road trip novel, no less!) but you really are respectful to the Messiah throughout the book. And the story really is about faith. So what would you say to those people who will flat refuse to read ‘The Reluctant Hallelujah’ because they assume it’s disrespectful?

I’m sure there are plenty of people who will assume ‘The Reluctant Hallelujah’ isn’t their thing because of the whole Messiah thing. And that’s fine. Personally, I don’t think there’s anything particularly religious about the book (except admittedly, the head of the Church is one of the characters) but if people think it’s not for them, then maybe it isn’t.

Q: I’ve got to ask (and because you mentioned it at Penguin’s ‘between the lines’ open day) – are we ever going to get a ‘Beatle Meets Destiny’ sequel?

I did have a bit of a tinker with a sequel in the early days, and then put it to one side, and then picked it up again, and have put it to one side again. I’m not sure. When I write, I try to write from a genuine perspective, not from a ‘readers are looking for the sequel’ perspective. If it happens, it’ll happen, but I’m afraid I’m not a clever enough writer to be able to engineer a whole book without having my entire heart and soul in it. I have to wait for the idea to flutter into my head, and then I’m off. Until then, I just bash away at the keyboard, trying to stumble upon the idea that is going to capture me as much as it hopefully captures the people who subsequently read it.

Q: What are you working on at the moment? And when can we expect your next novel?

I’ve got this idea that I’m really excited about at the moment. It’s about the world’s most awesome party that happens on one night in Melbourne, and changes people’s lives for ever. It’s like a cross between Peter Seller’s ‘The Party’ and ‘Romeo & Juliette’. Which reminds me … when can we all expect YOUR new novel, which I’ve heard secret rumours about?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

'Autobiography of a Face' by Lucy Grealy

From the BLURB:

"I spent five years of my life being treated for cancer, but since then I've spent fifteen years being treated for nothing other than looking different from everyone else. It was the pain from that, from feeling ugly, that I always viewed as the great tragedy of my life. The fact that I had cancer seemed minor in comparison."

At age nine, Lucy Grealy was diagnosed with a potentially terminal cancer. When she returned to school with a third of her jaw removed, she faced the cruel taunts of classmates. In this strikingly candid memoir, Grealy tells her story of great suffering and remarkable strength without sentimentality and with considerable wit. Vividly portraying the pain of peer rejection and the guilty pleasures of wanting to be special, Grealy captures with unique insight what it is like as a child and young adult to be torn between two warring impulses: to feel that more than anything else we want to be loved for who we are, while wishing desperately and secretly to be perfect.

A friend of mine recently asked me for a reading recommendation, something outside of their usual crime/fantasy/romance genre. The first book that came to mind was Lucy Grealy’s ‘Autobiography of a Face’. It is a biography/memoir, and one of the most powerful books I have ever read. I was so insistent in my recommendation to this friend that I decided to go back and re-read the book myself. And it’s just as moving and horrifyingly powerful as I remembered.

‘Autobiography of a Face’ was first published in 1994, to much critical and commercial acclaim, and is a New York Times ‘notable book’.

When Lucy Grealy was nine-years-old, she was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare bone cancer that has around about 5% survival rate. Lucy’s cancer was in her jaw, and over the next five years she had several facial reconstructive surgeries that removed a third of her jawbone.

Grealy recounts her time spent in hospital. Her parents tireless bedside vigils and sense of hopelessness as they watched their daughter experience excruciating pain, and come out the other side victorious. Lucy likens her survival to climbing Mount Eiger; a seemingly impossible feat, a miracle.

But the crux of Grealy’s memoir is what came after she survived. The taunts from her classmates and stares from strangers were a different sort of suffering . . . there was no justification for peoples seeming scorn, for their cruel words. And no end in sight, since Lucy’s disfigurement was now a part of her.

Lucy Grealy’s biography is an exploration into identity. Her disfigurement made her an outsider, physically ‘other’ and clearly different. In ‘Autobiography of a Face’ Grealy meticulously and ferociously recounts her transition from a normal nine-year-old New Yorker, to veritable ‘freak show’, whose very appearance seemed to invite people to gawk and stare.

The general plot of life is sometimes shaped by the different ways genuine intelligence combines with equally genuine ignorance.

It’s not just strangers and classmates whose treatment of Lucy affected her. Her parents too, are guilty of imprinting on Lucy a feeling of difference and ‘other’ in the wake of her surgery. Upon leaving the hospital her father is bumbling and embarrassed, barely meeting his daughter’s eye. During a wig fitting for his post-chemo daughter, her father goes into a painful comedy routine which Lucy forgives him for because she understands his awkwardness around her now. When she returns to school, Lucy’s mother buys her multiple short-sleeved turtlenecks, and when Lucy asks why she’d want to wear turtlenecks in the spring, her mother replies; “If you wear something that comes up around your neck, it makes the scar less visible.” Lucy, as memoirist, now understands that her parents were simply trying to limit the fallout – obviously they knew the truthfulness behind “children can be so cruel”, and were finding ways to pre-emptively help their daughter. Looking back on their behaviour, Lucy is also forgiving of them because they were adjusting to Lucy’s difference just as much as she was – their daughter had changed, irrevocably, from what they once knew her as, and there had to be a period of awkward adjustment. But Lucy’s retelling of these memories, crystalline in their remembrance, hints that even these moments with her parents affected and hurt her.

The worst moments come from Lucy’s classmates. She remembers every insult; every hurtful word is imprinted in her memory; “That is the ugliest girl I have ever seen.” When Lucy returns to school she is 14, and older boys on the schoolyard are particularly cruel, entering into a game of one-upmanship in their taunts. Lucy again looks back on this with cold clarity, deciding that they were out to impress each other, commenting on her looks even from a sexual standpoint: “I realized they were passing judgement on my suitability, or lack of it, as a girlfriend.” Understanding she may be, but Grealy doesn't exactly forgive these people for their cruelties.

Part of the job of being human is to consistently underestimate our effect on other people.

I first read Grealy’s book when I was 14/15, and it was perfect timing. I was just at that age when you start comparing your body to other people’s, and noticing flaws in yourself by comparison. It was also at that time when boys started taking an interest in certain girls, while ignoring others. Grealy’s book really threw all my body-flaw panic into stark reality, and upon re-reading I am struck by how much Grealy’s book remains an important critique of ‘beauty’ and society’s preoccupation with the status-quo.

Part of the reason Grealy’s biography is so compelling and easy to read (especially for those unused to biographies) is simply her bitter honesty and lacking sentimentality. She is very much looking back on the events of her life and recounting them as an adult, imbuing them with an adult understanding, dissection and wit. She isn’t coaxing sympathy from the reader (though you’ll give it, undoubtedly) and she’s not being deliberately sappy or ‘woe is me.’ And that makes her recounting of these events all the more painful to read. Grealy is taking away all the cushioning prose and flowery explanations, and just writing stark facts. It’s incredible that someone who has been through as much as she can look back on these profound moments with such pure cadence and honesty.

And Grealy does write beautifully, I'd even say that she writes nakedly. There’s that old quote that goes; “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.” Lucy Grealy does just that. She pours everything onto the page and holds nothing back. What is left are some frighteningly candid and earnest observations of the human condition and cruelty;

Sometimes the briefest moments capture us, force us to take them in, and demand that we live the rest of our lives in reference to them.

Lucy Grealy, it should be noted, found some semblance of peace when she was accepted into Sarah Lawrence College at the age of 18. It was here that she nurtured a love of words and met influential and accepting friends, among them Ann Patchett (who would go on to write her own memoir on their friendship in 2004, titled ‘Truth and Beauty: A Friendship'). Grealy became a renowned poet, and went on to win two Academy of American Poets awards. But in 2002 she underwent a final reconstructive surgery, after which she became addicted to OxyContin. She died of a heroin overdose in 2002. She was only 39.

‘Autobiography of a Face’ is one of those remarkable books that live in your heart after you read it. I first discovered this book when I was 14, some ten years later and it’s just as powerful as I remembered, and a re-reading left me just as battered and grateful as it did the first time round.


Friday, February 17, 2012

'Various Positions' by Martha Schabas

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

Nuanced, fresh, and gorgeously well-written, Martha Schabas’ extraordinary debut novel takes us inside the beauty and rigour of professional dance, and the young women striving to make it in that world. Shy and introverted, and trapped between the hyper-sexualised world of her teenaged friends and her dysfunctional family, Georgia is only at ease when she’s dancing. Fortunately, she’s an unusually talented and promising dancer.

When she is accepted into the notoriously exclusive Royal Ballet Academy—Canada’s preeminent dance school—Georgia thinks she has made the perfect escape. In ballet, she finds the exhilarating control and power she lacks elsewhere in her life: physical, emotional and, increasingly, sexual.

This dynamic is nowhere more obvious than in Georgia’s relationship with Artistic Director Roderick Allen. As Roderick singles her out as a star and subjects her to increasingly vicious training, Georgia obsesses about becoming his perfect student, disciplined and sexless. But a disturbing incident with a stranger on the subway, coupled with her dawning recognition of the truth of her parents’ unhappy marriage, causes her to radically reassess her ideas about physical boundaries—a reassessment that threatens both Roderick’s future at the academy and Georgia’s ambitions as a dancer.

Georgia Slade has just been accepted into Toronto’s prestigious Royal Ballet Academy. At just fourteen, Georgia is one of the youngest students, and most talented. With her ballerina muse, Gelsey Kirkland, in mind, Georgia strives for faultlessness in her dancing. But as Georgia tries to command her body to perfection, her home life is unravelling.

Her mother, a university lecturer, is becoming increasingly erratic and embarrassing. Her emotional theatrics are nothing new, but in recent weeks they have got worse and worse – swinging between rage and deep depression. Georgia notices that her mother’s mood swings are focused on her father, alternately trying to gain his attention and rile him. An important psychiatrist, Georgia’s father is rarely home, and when he is he pays little attention to his wife and shows clear disdain for Georgia’s less-than-academic, dancing pursuits.

Georgia’s only solace is in ballet, but even as she lives her dream studying at the Academy, she starts to notice cracks in the fantasy. Her fellow dancers are catty and clawing; beautiful girls all sharing the same aspirations of stardom, they quickly turn on the weak and expose miniscule flaws for personal one-upmanship. But even more frightening than the barbs of her fellow students is the critical eye her esteemed dance instructor, Roderick Allen. He is renowned and revered, known for his harsh treatment of young students and merciless critique of the dancers.

As Georgia tries to make sense of her collapsing home life, she draws closer and closer to Roderick, desperate for his approval…

‘Various Positions’ is the debut novel from Canadian author, Martha Schabas.

The novel opens on a scandal. There are murmurs and rumblings about the temporarily closed Royal Ballet Academy, and young dancer Georgia Slade is about to make a confession to her fellow dancer and friend, ‘Sixty’, about the possible reason behind the temporary closure … and then the novel backtracks, taking readers to months before, rewinding to Georgia’s acceptance into the academy.

We meet Georgia Slade, who has been dancing from a young age, and is consumed by her love of ballet. But she is starting to notice her world beyond ballet, despairing at her lacking social circle. Georgia has few female friends, and is bullied at school for her ballerina physique (a chocolate bar is taped to her locker, imploring her to ‘eat!’). She is uncomfortable about her classmates burgeoning hormones and brimming sexuality – talk about playing ‘chicken’ with boys makes Georgia uncomfortable and highlights her disinterest in being a ‘sex girl’ for boys to paw. Georgia’s closest friend is her half-sister, Isabel, who has recently left home for college but keeps checking in with Georgia, curiously concerned about how things are going at home, particularly between her parents.

In the week leading up to her Ballet Academy audition, Georgia notices her mother’s behaviour is more erratic than usual. She seems angry with her father for being away from home so often, and questions his whereabouts.

When Georgia gains a coveted place at the Royal Ballet Academy, she is thrilled but nervous. Thus begins her ‘career’, and attempts to make it as a professional ballerina. Georgia befriends the girls in her class at the Academy, in particular a globetrotting girl called Laura (nicknamed ‘Sixty’, for the number she pinned at the audition). And Chantal, a beautiful dancer who is chubbier than a ballerina should be. When Georgia meets Roderick Allen, the famed and ferocious dance instructor, she is terrified of him, but desperate for his approval. It doesn’t help matters that Roderick’s reputation precedes him, and rumours of his ruthlessness send all the girls into dizzying terror;

“The Rodomizer,” she repeated with the same clever severity, grinning at Chantal. “It’s a mix of Roderick and sodomize.” Air hissed through the grate of her teeth. “Roderick’s approach to training dancers is like bending them over and doing them up the ass.”
I barked an uncomfortable laugh.
“No, it’s true. They say his approach to teaching is like systemized humiliation. And do you know why?”
I shook my head.
“Do you know why?” Sixty asked Chantal.
Chantal shook her head.
“Because he hates women,” Sixty pronounced. “Ballet is his revenge.”

When Roderick singles Georgia out, as a dancer with exquisite potential, she begins to have shifting feelings for him… from wanting his approval and guidance, to a misguided and devastating attraction she is ill equipped to understand.

First and foremost, I have to say that I don’t think ‘Various Positions’ is a young adult book (and when I say ‘young adult’, I’m talking the 14-and-under age bracket). It’s strange, but I have read numerous reviews that blasted the book for misrepresenting itself as YA – even though I’m not quite certain how it got that false label in the first place? Let me just contextualize and say that ‘Various Positions’ is less ‘Centre Stage’ and more ‘Black Swan’ – the hint is in the double-entendre title.

In the book, Schabas is examining the rigorous and conflicting life of the young dancer. But her exploration reaches beyond the ballet industry, to become an interesting examination of young people, and particularly women, in modern society. And as the novel progresses, the ballet aspect almost falls away – becoming a beautiful backdrop to Georgia’s personal story and evolution into womanhood.

Georgia Slade is a conundrum of a fourteen-year-old girl. When she enters into the Toronto Ballet Academy she is expected to have maturity beyond her years, to be the personification of grace and power that will shine on the stage and turn her into a prima ballerina. But at the same time, she is only fourteen, and combatting her burgeoning sexuality. She compares her flat chest to the bodies of her older classmates; their womanly curves and straining breasts. Roderick Allen is adamant that ballerinas should not be curvaceous or sexual – a dancer with large breasts will instantly turn a leg extension into something perverse, and a plie titillating, ultimately distracting from the dance itself. But Georgia’s classmates are still teenagers, and they giggle and gossip about boys and sex like any normal girls. But it leaves Georgia confused and conflicted, when she doesn’t see herself as a ‘sex girl’.

Adding to Georgia’s confusion is her mother’s increasingly erratic behaviour and rocky relationship with her father. Georgia starts to pay attention to her parents, and to question the beginning of their marriage – she starts to think about her half sister, Isabel, and Isabel’s beautiful mother, Pilar, the first wife of Georgia’s father whose marriage she always assumed ended long before Georgia’s mother entered the scene. A veiled comment by her mother about ‘men being men’ has Georgia paying attention on trains and in public, watching men watch women and thinking about them rutting, kissing and pawing in private.

Georgia’s conflicting emotions run parallel to her instruction with Roderick Allen, and suddenly his hand on her lower back as she extends in arabesque takes on a whole new meaning.

When Georgia hunts for more information and education on her sexuality, and attraction to an older man, she makes some terrible online discoveries. A few days ago Benjamin Law wrote an insightful (and disturbing) opinion piece for ‘The Drum’, titled ‘Sex education: far from decent’, in which he questioned the ‘speak no evil’ approach to sex education worldwide. A particularly horrifying aspect of Law’s article was on porn as the new ‘education’ for young men grappling with their sexuality, and how the distortions of porn are translating to those boy’s first (real) sexual encounters. This is particularly fascinating in ‘Various Positions’ – as Georgia uses pop culture references and her personal observations to make sense of her budding sexuality. She comes across older man/younger girl online porn, of the ‘Mandi is a slut’ variety, and it completely distorts Georgia’s view of her infatuation with Roderick. In this, Schabas makes some chillingly accurate observations – about how we view young women in society, and how sex is becoming a rite-of-passage sooner and sooner for young people. Another scene that had me tut-tutting for its pin-point observation was one in which Georgia’s mother takes her lingerie (!) shopping, and the sales assistant claims that thongs and zebra-print are what the young girls are wearing these days.

Yes, ‘Various Positions’ is about the rigours and horrors in the demanding world of ballet. And that aspect of the book, inside the Academy and the constant striving for an indecipherable perfection, was fascinating. Some scenes made my skin crawl, like Roderick Allen calling out Chantal (a bigger girl) to the front of the class and pointing out the fat on her legs. Schabas also writes about dancing from the heart, so there’s no doubt that she has lived the dancer’s life and has that impossible love-hate relationship with it;

Sometimes when I’m dancing, I feel like my eyes are closed even though they’re not. My body takes over and it’s like I don’t need to see, like I’ve lost control and have tons of it at the same time. Every movement harbours a secret fall, and it’s the danger that makes it beautiful. Isabel told me that she had smoked pot once, and that it made her limbs feel balletic. It made me think that dancing might be like doing drugs, breathing gentle poisons into your muscles.

But ‘Various Positions’ isn’t just a ‘ballet book’ it’s also an observations of women and girls in a society that (much like ballet) demands a certain, indecipherable look and mould for beauty that is impossible to grasp let alone represent.

‘Various Positions’ is a beautiful and challenging book. Written in breathtaking prose and making chilling observations, Martha Schabas’s book is in a somewhat similar vein as Darren Aronofsky’s twisted thriller ‘Black Swan’, with a touch of Zoë Heller. Schabas is observing the conflicts of perfection and perception, of obsession and blind obedience. Chillingly perceptive, this book offers wonderful behind-the-scenes to the ballet industry, while also being a truly contemporary examination of girls’ sexuality in society.

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