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Saturday, April 28, 2012

'Promise' Darian Richards #1 by Tony Cavanaugh

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

Top Homicide cop Darian Richards has been seeking out monsters for too long. He has promised one too many victim's families he will find the answers they need and it's taken its toll. After surviving a gunshot wound to the head he calls it quits and retires to the Sunshine Coast in an attempt to leave the demons behind. But he should have realised, there are demons everywhere and no place is safe. A serial killer is prowling the Sunshine Coast area and Darian tries to ignore the fact his experience could make a difference hunting him down.

All he wants is to sit at the end of his jetty on the Noosa River and ignore the fact that girls from the area have vanished over the past fourteen months. All blonde and pretty. Youngest: 13. Oldest: 16. He knows they are all dead but the cops were saying 'missing' or 'vanished . That s what you have to say if you don t have a body.

Jenny Brown was the first. She vanished sometime after 4 in the afternoon, Saturday 15 October the previous year. Except for her parents and her friends and everybody who knew her, it was thought she was just a runaway. Especially by the cops who allowed a good two or three minutes before arriving at that conclusion. By the time they d reached the gate to the front yard of her house, before they d even walked across the road and climbed into their cruiser, they would ve forgotten Jenny Brown even existed.

But then others disappeared and they couldn t call them all runaways. Darian can t sit idly by and he decides he is going to find the killer and deal with him ... his way.

Darian Richards threw his service weapon into the ocean and walked away from his job as Australia’s more successful homicide detective. He has left Melbourne behind after failing to catch ‘the train killer’, and has settled in for retirement on Queensland’s Noosa River.

Darian spends the first few months enjoying his retirement and a certain notoriety in his new, small town. He has a similarly retired friend in Casey Lack, a fifty-something ex-brothel owner who also migrated from Melbourne, after his club was blown to high heaven. Then there’s Casey’s twenty-something girlfriend, Maria, a cop on the local force. Maria is beautiful and smart (as Darian believes all female officers are, far more than their male colleagues) but she doesn’t like Darian, partly because her station has ruffled feathers over the country’s top homicide detective moving on to their turf (retired or not).

And then girls start going missing . . .

Young girls, aged between 13 and 16, all with blonde hair have been reported missing. At first the local police were happy to write the disappearance of one girl off as a runaway case. . . but when more reports came in, with all the missing sharing similar physical descriptions, it was hard to ignore. And then the ‘trophies’ started showing up – the girl’s mobile phones, with disturbing photos loaded, leave little doubt that all of the missing are dead, and met violent ends.

Darian cannot ignore ‘Operation Blonde’ for a minute longer. The local police are showing a disturbing level of incompetence, and in once case cover-up, and he is compelled to reach for his gun once again.

‘Promise’ is the debut Australian crime fiction novel from Tony Cavanaugh.

This is a highly-anticipated novel. Tony Cavanaugh has quite a resume – he’s a writer and film/television producer (having worked on shows like ‘The Sullivans’ and ‘Carson’s Law’). He was also nominated for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for the screenplay ‘Father’ and the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for the screenplay ‘Through My Eyes’. ‘Promise’ is his debut novel, and with a writing resume that stellar it is riding on high expectations . . . and meets them, in my opinion.

A few years ago Scottish crime writer, Ian Rankin, made the explosive statement that "the people writing the most graphic violence today are women ... they are mostly lesbians as well". Backlash ensued. But I would say that if Rankin were to read Tony Cavanaugh’s debut novel, he might just eat his words.

‘Promise’ is a difficult read. Cavanaugh has written a bloody and masochistically violent killer, and he vividly documents the abuse of the missing girls in stomach-churning detail. The detail is especially overwhelming because parts of the book are told from the killer’s point of view (interspersed with Darian’s). That’s right, from the get-go readers know who the killer is; he calls himself ‘Winnie’ and it becomes quickly apparent that he is warped and caught somewhere between man and child; he’ll rank his favourite Disney movies in one sentence, and then go cut into his latest victim. The story becomes a cat and mouse game, as we read Darian close in on the killer, while also simultaneously subjected to the madman’s thoughts, his creepily personal addresses to the reader (“brothers and sisters”, as though he knows he has an audience) and then we read his torture, rape and eventual killing of his young female victims. It is supremely unsettling, akin to reading Patrick Bateman’s first-person lunacy in ‘American Psycho’.

Winnie’s descriptions of his outbursts, sexual assaults and violent rapes are horridly vivid and hard to get through. But what is also creepy is his step-by-step ‘instruction’ on how to kidnap ‘prey’. He speaks, at length, about how much he loves shopping centres; in particular, he adores shops like SUPRÉ and Sportsgirl, where he can pick his next victim, perhaps catch a glimpse of them in the change-rooms. . . As a female reader, I found the lead-up to Winnie’s violence utterly terrifying, because there’s no doubt in my mind that Cavanaugh has done research into how predators work – and it’s horrifying to think how simple it is to be caught in some lunatics’ crosshairs.

So, in that sense, ‘Promise’ is extremely unsettling. But at the same time, the violence and grotesqueness of Winnie’s POV did add to the tension. I can’t deny that it was damn good storytelling, no matter how disturbing.

I’m not sure if ‘Promise’ is the first in an ongoing series with Darian Richards, but I hope so. Because Darian is a very interesting ex-cop. For one thing, he’s extremely smart. Cavanaugh places a lot of emphasis on Darian having been the top homicide detective in Victoria – with a kill-rate and arrest record that had him being courted by other states to clean up dragging cases and nagging cold cases. And I, for one, completely believed that Darian was that good. He receives some geeky tech-support help from a friend back in Melbourne called Isosceles (by all accounts a brilliant recluse) but for the most part Darian relies on his own wits throughout the investigation.

Darian is by no means an ‘ordinary’ cop – this job has got under his skin and it will never leave him. Darian’s unique brilliance comes to focus in strange little paragraphs and asides. Like when he recounts the history of guns; that his preferred Beretta company goes back to 1526 and the Italian Wars, while the Smith & Wesson is from 1852 (coinciding with the American Civil War) and the Glock is a product of the 60’s (and the Vietnam War). When he comes face-to-face with the more archaic and ‘Neanderthal’ attitudes of the local Queensland police force, he puts those deadbeat cops in their place (either with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the rule book, or physical force). Darian has been in the force since he was nineteen-years-old; and in his many years he has collected insights into the cop psyche that are Raymond Chandler-esque for their accuracy;
Cops have this thing about loyalty. When a cop puts on a uniform, it’s like they’ve just departed the human race and joined another clan. I used to be like that. You think you’re different and, in truth, you are. You think your loyalty is to your fellow officers but it’s not. It’s to the victims. Sometimes it takes a little while for a cop to discover that. Sometimes a cop won’t ever discover it.

That’s not to say that Darian doesn’t have his faults as a protagonist. He is fascinating for his brilliance, but certainly lacking a more substantial warmth and, possibly, long-lasting interest. Darian is a solitary being, and by no means perfect. He admitted to being an alcoholic at one stage in his career. Part of the reason he decided to retire to Noosa was because of a broken promise to a victim’s mother, and the near-miss ethical over-the-line he almost had with that same mother. Darian doesn’t do relationships – but he’s not the womanizing archetypal cop so prevalent in the genre. Instead he prefers the once-a-week company of a young escort, who he ‘quietly loves’, but only needs human contact in small doses. At one point he reveals that his father abandoned the family when Darian was ten, to go and live in Thailand. But personal insights like that are far and few between, and I did wish that as a reader I had more of a human connection to Darian, more understanding of what makes him tick and future interesting human entanglements.

The more interesting character, really, is Maria who becomes a sort-of sidekick for Darian. Maria is young, and for her the sheen of the badge hasn’t quite worn off. But over the course of ‘Operation Blonde’ she starts having nightmares, and begins to understand the inherent evil in some people . . . even more disturbing for Maria is the realization that her fellow cops are not perfect, that they do not have the same integrity as she does (particularly where female victims are concerned). Darian is not surprised, since he maintains that female cops are always smarter. But for Maria, circumstances and damning evidence lead her down a dark path;
‘Guys and their dicks,’ she said. ‘Eighty-five per cent of violent crime comes from guys and their dicks.’

Something else I really loved about ‘Promise’ was how Tony Cavanaugh peppered the story with interesting insights and factoids about Australian police history, the most interesting of which concerned females in the force. For example, Darian (again, showing his mettle as an above-average cop) mentions that the first female police officers in Queensland were Ellen O’Donnell and Zara Dane, who joined in 1931, but “throughout their lifetime careers on the force, they were never sworn in.” One of the most fascinating (and disturbing) factoids was about Lorelle Saunders, who in 1984 became the first woman to become a detective in Queensland – only to have her fellow officers charge her with conspiracy to murder a fellow cop (her lover), “a charge of which she was innocent”, but still spent ten harrowing months in prison for. Thanks to Cavanaugh, I went away and researched these juicy morsels of history.

All in all, ‘Promise’ is a fascinating and unsettling read. I welcome Tony Cavanaugh as a startling new voice in the genre, and hope that he intends to write more books for his unique ex-cop character, Darian Richards. Gruesome it may be, but ‘Promise’ is also a deliciously hair-raising thriller to keep readers hooked until the very last sentence. . .


Friday, April 27, 2012

'Dance Academy' - TV series

I have said it before and I’ll say it again - it’s very rare that I blog about anything other than books. So when I make an exception to this rule, you can guess that I have a new (worthy) obsession to spruik.

My new exceptional obsession is the Australian ABC3 teen drama, ‘Dance Academy’. To be fair, I am jumping on this band-wagon way too late. The first season aired in Australia in 2010, followed by a year-long gap when the show’s creators didn’t know if it would be picked up for a second season . . . which it (thankfully) was, airing this year between March and April. There are 26 episodes in a season, and the last one for 2012 aired on April 24. And, yes, a third season has been commissioned (no word on whether or not there will be another year-long gap between season 2 and 3, making for a 2014 release?).

The show follows fifteen-year-old country ballerina, Tara Webster (Xenia Goodwin) whose love of dance stems from a dream of flying. Tara gets one step closer to her dream when she is accepted into Sydney’s prestigious National Dance Academy. . .  but it doesn’t take long before Tara realizes that loving dance isn’t the same as being a good dancer.

Tara’s technique is not where it needs to be, and her fellow students at the Academy are cut-throat, with their eye on becoming principal dancers by the end of their three years. In her first week at the Academy, Tara is given the nickname ‘training bra’ by scholarship kid Christian Reed (Jordan Rodrigues) after an embarrassing changing-room incident with the beautiful Ethan Karamakov (Tim Pocock) who happens to be the half-son of an infamous Australian prima-ballerina and choreographer. Tara’s roommate is Abigail Armstrong (Dena Kaplan) the best and most ruthless first year dancer at the academy, and the one with the biggest grudge against ‘country bumpkin’, Tara.

Tara is ranked lowest in all of her dance classes and her teacher, the cold-blooded Miss Raine (Tara Morice) lets her know that she has a long way to go. . .  But Tara got into the Academy because she has something that no dancer can learn – she puts her heart and soul into every pointe and pirouette. She dances from the heart.

There are bright spots in Tara’s new life. Like Ethan’s half-sister, Kat Karamakov (Alicia Banit) a bubbly, bright and begrudgingly good dancer who struggles to be one of the ‘betty bunheads’. Kat’s best friend is Samuel ‘Sammy’ Lieberman (Tom Green) string-bean with a heart of gold, who is attending the Academy without his father’s support.  

Season one of ‘Dance Academy’ follows Tara and her friends through the highs and lows of first year. Second season shows the gang return for second year, and adds goofball Ben Tickle (Thomas Lacey) to the crew, as well as new prima mean-girl in Grace Whitney (Issi Durant).

‘Dance Academy’ is phenomenal. Created by Samantha Strauss and Joanna Werner, it is a fantastic series that combines a coming-of-age story with all the requisite heartbreak, love triangles and hiccups, with the backdrop of a competitive creative environment.

The show is shot in the heart of Sydney, literally. The National Dance Academy is situated near Circular Quay, while the boarding school lies in The Rocks (the most beautiful and expensive area of the city). There are lots of panning shots of the Harbour Bridge, and especially in second season the Opera House becomes the stage for a worldwide dance competition, the Prix de Fontayne.

I also love the show because it has a great, diverse cast. When so many Australian shows are lacking ethnic diversity in their casts, ‘Dance Academy’ shows a far truer Australian melting-pot and is more interesting for it. But the diversity is also in the storylines explored – the show had a wonderful plot about Sammy being attracted to his male roommate, Christian . . .  this plot, in particular, was handled beautifully with no over-dramatizing; it was treated as the coming-of-age it was, grounded in reality and with little flamboyance some shows sometimes want to give the ‘coming out’ storyline.

Other heavy issues have been touched on – such as eating disorders and bullying (in the form of teacher/student, to make for an especially interesting change). And, of course, the complications of love and relationships are also consistently touched on. From liking your best friend’s brother, to liking your best friend’s ex. First season has a mini love-triangle between Tara, Christian and Ethan while second season changes shape to explore a Kat/Christian/Tara love complication. The romantic up’s and down’s of these characters are a real draw-card for fans, and the writers do a brilliant job of spreading the drama out across 26, half-hour episodes. But my favourite couplings have been Sammy’s – the character with the most interesting and diverse love background, I have most enjoyed his romantic storylines.

I can’t go past a review of ‘Dance Academy’ without at least touching on the dancing in the show (even though I must confess, I have the dance skills of a one-legged robot). The choreography is beautiful, and tells a story in itself. From Tara’s obsession with ‘The Red Shoes’, to Sammy’s explosively heartbreaking season two solo, performed to the Jezabel’s ‘She’s So Hard’. The actors do a remarkable job, and the choreography is so good that while watching an episode I do find my feet pointing and hips shaking. God, I wish I could dance.

I fell into obsession watching the first season of ‘Dance Academy’, but it was really the second season that cemented this show as something truly remarkable for me. The second season storyline takes a dramatic and heart-wrenching twist towards the end. I refuse to give anything away, but save to say the writers outdid themselves and the actors broke my heart while watching a breathtakingly sad story unfold.

Dance Academy’ is one of the best Australian shows I have had the pleasure of watching in recent years. It’s a little bit ‘Centre Stage’ crossed with ‘Heartbreak High’, and with stories and dialogue that would do Aussie YA proud. The actors are phenomenal, the choreography sublime and I am happily addicted. For curious international’s, I believe ‘Dance Academy’ episodes can be downloaded on iTunes and through Amazon (don’t hesitate – just watch and get on the bandwagon!).

Season 1 DVD is now available

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Kirsty Eagar interview

I was very lucky this year, to receive an advanced copy of Kirsty Eagar's highly-anticipated new young adult novel, 'Night Beach'. 

Ms Eagar is a favorite Aussie author of mine, for a lot of reasons. Her debut novel 'Raw Blue' was exquisite; a painful but vital book about one girl's battle with the trauma of her past. Her second novel, 'Saltwater Vampires' was an Aussie-Gothic extravaganza. But I also adore Ms Eagar because I was lucky enough to interview her in 2010. She is so wonderful, funny and kind - and that just makes her writing success all the sweeter! 

I truly, truly believe that Kirsty Eagar is one of the most important voices in Australian YA at the moment, so I was over-the-moon when an early copy of 'Night Beach' came my way. And I've got to say - Kirsty Eagar meets, and exceeds, fan expectations with her third book. It is incredible: a goosebump-inducing tale of obsession and mystery, at once a coming-of-age tale and a mesmerizing Gothic-horror story. 'Night Beach' is definitely a favourite book of 2012 for me, and it should be on everyone's must-read list!

I was so thrilled when Kirsty agreed to do another Q&A with me. Just a little FYI, you'll find that in this interview I have included images of many different artworks by a collection of Australian and international artists - some of these works are intrinsic to the 'Night Beach' story, and are mentioned by the book's protagonist, Abbie. Other images included in this post are just ones that I thought reflected the story (like Jacob Sutton's incredible 'Underwater Girl' collection'!)   

Without further ado, I give you my interview with the wonderful and talented, Kirsty Eagar! 

 Q: How long did it take you to write ‘Night Beach’, from first idea to final manuscript?

That's going to require some thinking! I had the original idea and started writing it just after Raw Blue was accepted for publication, so around September 2008. The first 15,000 words came very quickly (and they never changed much). But then other things got in the way - edits for Raw Blue, my second child, the experience of being published for the first time, edits for Saltwater Vampires ... I didn't get a chance to work on Night Beach again until December 2010, and it was only the looming deadline that got me back into it. I finished the first draft in February 2011, and I was pretty wrecked by the end of it. I didn't work on it again until midway through 2011 when I did the structural edit. Life got in the way again after that, so the final edits were completed in February and March this year. I guess, looking back on it all, that book came about in three or four short, intense periods of writing, with long waits in between.
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?

Every time I finish something I tell myself that next time I’m going to plot it all out before I start. But it never works like that. Eventually, I just give up and start writing, and the final outcome never has much overlap with my original plotting attempts. In my case, I sometimes think that the urge to control it all stems from fear – fear that I’m not going to be able to do it again, because I’m never really sure how I did it last time. Plotting works best for me when I do it on the hop: say, by having a rough idea of where the next three scenes might take me, and something to aim for further in the distance.

Q: Where do story ideas generally start for you? Do you first think of the character, theme, ending? Or is it just a free-fall?

That’s such a great question. For me, the main character always arrives at the beginning of the process, but the idea itself is pretty vague. It’s more like a number of things I want to explore that I know are somehow going to be woven together in a story.

Q: ‘Night Beach’ references many famous and beautiful pieces of artwork. Abbie cites a great mix of Aussie artists (like Brett Whiteley), and classics (such as René Magritte’s mind-bending works). Were all the paintings and artists mentioned your personal favourites, or did you start researching when you decided that Abbie was influenced by these masters?

All of the paintings mentioned in Night Beach are works that I love, but that said Abbie’s tastes are slightly different to mine. I went overboard in the early drafts and there were a lot more references. Luckily my editor, Amy Thomas, reined that in and got me to cull it back to only the works that were significant in terms of where the story was going.

Q: Something I loved about ‘Night Beach’ was learning about artists and artwork that I had never seen before. I had a lot of fun reading Abbie reference a painting, and then looking it up and getting new insight into her emotions. . .  in particular, her mention of Giorgio De Chirico’s ‘Mystery and Melancholy of a Street’, gave me chills to look at that menacing shadow around the corner. And Dorothea Tanning’s ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’ is so beautifully strange, and no wonder Abbie feels like it reflects current circumstances. How hard was it to find pieces of artwork that resonated with scenes, and complemented Abbie’s mindset and the story?

It was actually a pretty organic process. ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’ was always going to be there because it directly inspired that part of the story (the hair, the door). I first came across that painting when I was seventeen and I felt like it was the key to a secret – all I had to do was find the secret! Overall, what helped narrow things down was that I was picking paintings as much for the ideas behind them as the art itself. So the Surrealists had to be represented (in view of their focus on dreams and the unconscious), and the Romantics did too (the power of nature, Gothicism, the supernatural, the artist’s individual journey).
Q: ‘Night Beach’ is definitely scary. You have readers literally jumping at shadows . . . Have you always been a fan of horror/spooky stories? And how do you know something is scary enough when you’re writing – do you test scenes out on certain, trusting readers and gauge their scare-factor? Or do you aim to scare yourself?

You know what’s funny? Before now, I had never given this any thought. I’ve been surprised that people find Night Beach so scary. I definitely enjoy spooky stories, but that doesn’t mean I’m comfortable reading them – I always lie awake afterwards. And I’m the biggest wuss when it comes to suspense in movies. I cover my eyes AND block my ears, and (if I’m in a movie theatre) I usually embarrass my husband by repeatedly asking in a loud voice: ‘Is it over yet?’

It didn’t occur to me to test anything, but I did scare myself. The first draft of Night Beach was written at night, usually between 9pm and 2am. Normally I’d be writing in a sleep-deprived trance, but there were a couple of scenes that bumped me out of it. I was checking behind me, feeling like the air had suddenly become very cold.

Q: [SPOILER question]. There’s a bit of Djinn (jinn/genie) mythology in ‘Night Beach’ that really harks back to the ancient, even Qur'an, origin of those ‘demons’. How did you settle on Jinn as your supernatural creature in ‘Night Beach’ – and how was it different writing about them (when they have Islamic mythology origins) versus the more commonly known supernatural villains in ‘Saltwater Vampires’?

Danielle, you put so much thought into your questions – thank you! I became interested in Jinn mythology when I decided I wanted to go on a surf trip to the Maldives. But in writing about it, I was definitely conscious that it’s a mythology based in a culture that’s quite different to mine. So I left things open to interpretation as much as possible. It’s up to the reader how much they attribute to the workings of a Jinn, and how much they attribute to the workings of Abbie’s subconscious.  

Q: The title ‘Night Beach’ is a very apt one. There is something about a beach at night that is so changeable and fearsome. In the moonlight it can be beautiful, but crashing waves can sound deafening and menacing in the pitch black. I feel like you captured this beautifully in ‘Saltwater Vampires’, when the beach became a Gothic setting. . .  and you do it again in ‘Night Beach’. How much time did you spend wandering beaches at night? And was that a fun/frightening way to get the creative juices flowing?

A lot is the short answer, but it’s something I’ve always done. While I was writing Night Beach we were in a place that was on the beach. I could see and hear the waves from my desk. I’d walk out and take a look at it whenever I felt like it. And I often surf until after dark (especially in summer when it’s crowded). The other thing is, when I was growing up, my grandmother had a house right on the beach. There was no back fence, just sand. You’d be lying in bed in the sleep-out and you could hear the waves as though they were just outside the window. I feel more at home there at night because there’s nobody else getting in your way. It’s usually just you and it.

Q: Something else really interesting in ‘Night Beach’ is the focus on human connection, particularly between Abbie and Kane. . .  because it is so one-sided, and Abbie has invested so much into her feelings for him (feelings Kane doesn’t necessarily deserve). What was your inspiration for writing about this sort of ‘romantic’ relationship?

I’m not sure why I chose to write about it. I know that even though it’s not always healthy, there’s something addictive about the intensity of obsession. You feel more alive. And I think in that sense, Abbie is using Kane (which might seem like an odd thing to say in view of that one-sidedness you’ve mentioned).

Q: Your first novel, ‘Raw Blue', won the 2010 Victorian Premier's Literary Awards Young Adult Fiction. That novel, about a girl called Carly; a lone surfer with a suffocating secret, really resonated with readers and has quickly become an Australian YA favourite, while also gaining popularity overseas. It was a very intense novel, and Carly’s journey was a difficult one. . .  Even though the novel came out in 2009, do you still find yourself thinking about Carly? Is it hard to let a character like that just go, even though the book is out and, for all intents and purposes, ‘done’?

Yes, definitely. I still think about a lot of the characters from that book, and I miss them. When it was published I went through a form of grief - that was it, I was cut off from them. But every now and then I get a nice email from someone that makes me feel like they live on.

Q: What was the last great book you read?

 The Good Daughter by Honey Brown. She leaves me breathless.

Q: Favourite authors of all time?

Tove Jansson, James Lee Burke, S.E. Hinton, Cormac McCarthy, Harper Lee, and I’m going to say Shirley Conran, too, because I read Lace at eleven and that goldfish scene has never left me.

Q: What are you working on right now, and when can we expect it to hit shelves?

At the moment I’m working on what could only be described as a big mess. It’s got a long way to go before it gets anywhere near a shelf! 

'Night Beach' by Kirsty Eagar

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

Imagine there is someone you like so much that just thinking about them leaves you desperate and reckless. You crave them in a way that's not rational, not right, and you're becoming somebody you don't recognise, and certainly don't respect, but you don't even care.

And this person you like is unattainable. Except for one thing . . .

He lives downstairs.

Abbie has three obsessions. Art. The ocean. And Kane.

But since Kane's been back, he's changed. There's a darkness shadowing him that only Abbie can see. And it wants her in its world.

A gothic story about the very dark things that feed the creative process.

Abbie feels abandoned in her own hometown. Her older sister, Anna, has moved away for University, leaving Abbie stranded with her distant mother and meticulous stepfather. Abbie’s real father is starting a new family with his pregnant girlfriend, wiping the slate clean, or so it seems. Abbie has also distanced herself from school friends, and been abandoned by her best friend Petey in favour of her new boyfriend, Jake.

But all of these cut ties and drifting friendships are nothing compared to losing her step-cousin, Kane. After a confusing Christmas encounter, Kane and his friends went for a surf photo shoot overseas and absence has certainly made Abbie’s heart grow fonder. For weeks she has been thinking and obsessing about Kane, missing him and remembering their ‘almost’ moment.

Abbie fills the time between waiting for school and Kane by thinking about her all-important final art project, and surfing. She duck-dives and rips through the waves, paddles out every day until she’s numb with cold. Accompanying her are new friends and local art/surfer boys Max and Oliver Wood (aka, ‘Ollie Wood’, aka ‘Hollywood’). And for a little extra money she babysits a little girl called Joey, a budding young artist with a curious imaginary friend named Pinty.

And then Kane comes home.

Abbie is still under his spell, and elated by the news that he has recently dumped his girlfriend. Kane’s time away, surfing with friends around remote islands, has improved his technique and turned him into an even more ruthless surfer. Abbie admires his bravado on the waves, the way his powerful body cuts through the surf . . .  but something has changed about Kane. His first day back in town and he picks a fight with the meanest old boy there is, Greg Hill, sparking a nasty territory war amongst the local surfers.

But that’s not the only thing that has changed about him. He’s hot to the touch with gouges on his skin. His shadow is not right, and a cryptic message in the back of his notebook has Abbie looking over her shoulder.

Something happened on those islands, and Kane has come back changed. While Abbie tries to figure out what’s wrong with him, her artwork takes on an intensity that scares even her.  The only other person who seems to realize Abbie’s concerns is her babysitting charge, Joey. A little girl whose invisible friend, Pinty, understands about the black thing following Kane, and knows where Abbie must go. . .

There is an old maritime superstition that says if the rim of a glass rings, there are shipwrecks ahead. In the weeks after Kane’s return, the peal of vibrating glass can be heard constantly, warning of the wreckage. . .

‘Night Beach’ is the much-anticipated new YA novel from Kirsty Eagar, winner of the 2010 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for her debut, ‘Raw Blue’.

In her first novel, Kirsty Eagar introduced readers to an angry and scarred young woman named Carly who found catharsis in surfing, but whose grief and anger could not be washed away, no matter how much she tried to purge them. In her follow-up novel, ‘Saltwater Vampires’, Eagar turned Australia’s sun, sand and surf into a spine-tingling Gothic setting for a vampire horror story. The best way I can describe her third novel, ‘Night Beach’ is as a glorious blend of these first two books – the emotional complexities of ‘Raw Blue’, examining relationships and wanting, combined with the sinister surf setting of ‘Saltwater Vampires’, with a supernatural malevolence plaguing our heroine.

Our protagonist in ‘Night Beach’ is Abbie, a talented young artist who feels cast adrift in her life. Her older sister, Anna, is arguably the only real family Abbie has left – and even she has abandoned her to study in Canberra. Abbie is left with her reserved mother and Brian, dull-as-dishwater step-father. Abbie’s real father lives interstate, with his pregnant girlfriend, busy creating a new family. Abbie has so many disconnections in her life – even her best friend has abandoned her for the holidays, choosing to vacation with her all-important boyfriend. But the biggest loss in Abbie’s young life has been the recent death of her grandfather – a cranky old bugger who enjoyed morning swims in the ocean and gifted Abbie with numerous and curious treasures.

It is little wonder then that Abbie has a particular obsession with her step-cousin, Kane, who lives with Abbie and her family in a basement for rent. A not-quite pro surfer, Kane is the archetypal surf boy – concerned only with catching waves and picking up girls. Abbie knows he is not the best target for her young romantic feelings – and her best friend, ‘Hollywood’, has cautioned her against those feelings enough times. When Abbie has so few links in her life, she finds comfort in her steadfast feelings for Kane, even as she rallies against their hopelessness (not least of all because of their familial connections, however distant and bloodless). 

I don’t want romance and stolen kisses and sweetness and hand holding. I want something so big it’s like two planets colliding, with an aftershock that I feel for the rest of my life.

But when Kane returns from a surf trip with his mates, there is something decidedly wrong with him. He’s cagey and cryptic, talking about a mysterious island he visited with those mates and the local’s superstitions of the place after dark for its ‘bad demon shit’. Abbie observes Kane’s erratic behaviour with growing concern – his punch-up with the local surf bully, and a shifting shadow that seems to cloak him, that only Abbie can see. . .

There is such a sinister ambiance throughout ‘Night Beach’, that Eagar’s ability to conjure fright and tension in the reader is bordering on sublime . . .  I read this book at night, under the covers and looking out the window into a blackened evening. And I've got to say, it was the best way to read a book that so delights in being a horror story. Once again, Eagar masterfully paints a very different version of Australia’s iconic sandy beaches – turning them once more into an unsettled and unpredictable landscape. Question-marks drawn into the sand, a flock of birds shedding hundreds of feathers in the surf. . . Eagar slowly but surely flips Aussie geography on its axis, and imbues it with a whole new meaning and menace.

Abbie loves surfing, but what she really craves is the ocean. When no place and no one in Abbie’s life truly feel permanent or reliable, the ocean feels like home. So it’s wonderful to read the way the beauty of the sea turns into a very different landscape throughout the book, warping and shifting with Kane’s mystery that seems somehow linked to Abbie and her sacred home. The other way Eagar turns the tide is in the violence of the men for whom the ocean is a playground, and they’re king of the kids. Local surfer Greg Hill was once great, but is now a bullying menace on the waves. He harasses Abbie’s friend, Hollywood, and is hell-bent on a revenge attack against Kane. This too is something Eagar excels at; her observations of men and their pack-like behaviour, both in the water and out, that is wonderfully translated through the politics of surfing;

To really belong, you have to be really good, really tough, really psychotic, really fearless, really misogynistic, really violent – any of these might do. But loving it isn’t enough. And being nice is a handicap, unless you’re also an excellent surfer, in which case they’ll say you’re a top bloke. Only blokes belong of course, but that goes without saying.

Abbie is the stand-out of this novel. She’s utterly relatable and wonderful – navigating her first and arguably doomed love with older step-cousin, Kane. She is the book’s narrator, and some of her observations of this tricky time in her life, when her feelings overrun her common sense, are enviably communicated.

Pretending to be good, even if no one is around to see it, calms me down. It makes me feel virtuous and protected. Clean of sex stink.

But Abbie is especially interesting for her other obsession - art. She has prints of Brett Whitely works hanging on her wall, and expresses her thoughts in relation to Rene Magritte illusionary classics. There’s a real delight in reading ‘Night Beach’, of writing down the artists Abbie references and looking up the artworks she is thinking about; like the surreal splendour of a Dorothea Tanning painting, or ‘Thebes Revenge’ that she loves most.

‘Night Beach’ reads like an ocean swell; turning and flipping the reader, dunking us under the cool depths of Eagar’s beautiful and complex story. It is at once a coming-of-age novel, as Abbie comes to terms with her imperfect and fractured family, and her complicated love for Kane. The book is also a look at the influences and triggers of creativity – as Abbie looks at her world with an artist’s eye, and feeds her creative instincts with her problematic feelings for Kane, and the shadowy presence that haunts him. . . which carries us to the final aspect of the book, the pervading danger that Kane bought home with him, the ‘something’ that stalks Abbie and sets wine glasses ringing. . .

‘Night Beach’ is the quintessential young adult horror story – the mysterious shadows will keep you up at night, but it’s the teenage protagonist’s personal struggles that will keep you suctioned to the page, as desperate to find out about her doomed love story as the island mystery. This is, without a doubt, one of the most anticipated new Australian young adult novels of 2012, and Kirsty Eagar’s new tale absolutely earns and deserves all the hype and anticipation.


Tuesday, April 24, 2012

'Missing May' by Cynthia Rylant

 From the BLURB:

When May dies suddenly while gardening, Summer assumes she'll never see her beloved aunt again. But then Summer's Uncle Ob claims that May is on her way back--she has sent a sign from the spirit world.

Summer isn't sure she believes in the spirit world, but her quirky classmate Cletus Underwood--who befriends Ob during his time of mourning--does. So at Cletus' suggestion, Ob and Summer (with Cletus in tow) set off in search of Miriam B. Young, Small Medium at Large, whom they hope will explain May's departure and confirm her possible return

It seems to Summer that everybody in her life leaves too soon. Her mother died when she was young, and after that she was passed around to live with relatives, to be “treated like a homework assignment somebody was always having to do,” and never staying with any relative for very long. And then Ob and May came along when Summer was six. Her aunt and uncle were elderly by the time Summer went to live with them in their Deep Water trailer, but she didn’t mind. For the first time since her mother’s death, Summer felt loved and safe. She had found a home with Ob and May, and not a moment too soon; their trailer was filled to the brim with love – May cooked big breakfasts and used to tell Summer she was the best little girl she ever did know. Ob makes whirligigs – but not the typical cartoon ones most people stick in their gardens to frighten away birds. Ob’s whirligigs are works of art – he makes fire whirligigs and storm whirligigs, and spirit ones too.

But if there’s one thing Summer knows, it’s that everything good will eventually come to an end.

May has just died – keeled over while tending to her beloved garden. Now there’s just Ob and Summer left behind, and Summer can already feel her uncle pulling away . . . he doesn’t wait with her for the bus anymore, doesn’t cook big breakfasts like May used to and he has gotten to sitting around in his pajamas all day long.

In the midst of their grief, Summer’s classmate (and resident oddball) Cletus takes to popping round for a visit. Cletus used to collect chip wrappers, now he is obsessed with photos. He and Ob get along like a house on fire; Summer just wishes she wasn’t so jealous about seeing Ob light up when Cletus comes round with his suitcase of pictures, like he’s helping to ease Ob’s grief when Summer can’t seem to do anything.

And then Ob gets a visit from May’s spirit, and Summer knows what she must do to keep Ob here with the living, where she needs him.

‘Missing May’ was the 1992 highly-acclaimed middle-grade novel from Cynthia Rylant. The book won the coveted Newbery Medal and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award.

I've become a little bit obsessed with reading Newbery and Printz books. These are two of the biggest children’s book awards in the US, and lately I have been gorging on winning and honour books recognized by these prestigious organizations. It started with ‘Vera Dietz’, progressed with ‘Frankie Landau-Banks’ and hit a high-point with ‘The First Part Last’. I especially love perusing past and recent nominee lists because I find they are full of books I would have otherwise never heard of. Take Cynthia Rylant’s incredible ‘Missing May’, for example. An old book, first published in 1992, and very short (89 pages). But ‘Missing May’ caught my eye when I perused an old list of Newberry winners, and I am so glad I went hunting for a copy to purchase online. . .  because in just 89-pages, Rylant has written a heartbreakingly beautiful book that is exquisite for its honesty and simplicity.

‘Missing May’ is a book about grief. We meet Summer shortly after her aunt May has died, leaving behind Summer and her old uncle Ob in their trailer on a hill which now feels filled to the brim with grief. As Ob sinks further and further into his grief and loneliness, Summer becomes concerned that she won’t be enough to keep Ob on this earth. Summer becomes particularly worried when Ob claims to have received a visit from May’s spirit, and becomes hell-bent on tracking down her wayward soul. Helping in the spiritual mission is Summer’s classmate Cletus; a strange young boy who touts around a suitcase full of photos, and does not find Ob’s obsession with May’s spirit the least bit strange;
Cletus never once asked why I wasn’t at school that day. Never once commented on Ob being in his pajamas.
He sure had some gifts.
May would have liked him. She would have said he was “full of wonders”, same as Ob. May always liked the weird ones best, the ones you couldn’t peg right off. She must be loving it up in heaven, where I figure everybody must just let loose. That’s got to be at least one of the benefits of heaven – never having to act normal again.

But while Summer tries to help Ob find May’s spirit, and gets to know Cletus better, she seems to be forgetting about her own grief. . .

Rylant’s novel is beautiful. I read this on the train, and I got a few odd looks from people when they saw how thin the book was (with clearly a children’s front cover). I bet those same commuters found it especially odd when tears welled up in my eyes and I quietly sniffled through the last pages. That’s the thing about ‘Missing May’ – it may be only 89-pages, but Rylant has filled her book with such achingly precise observations of grief and missing, that 89 pages is all she needed to move me. I felt the same way about Angela Johnson’s (Printz-winning) novel ‘The First Part Last’ – “it takes a true maestro to move a reader to tears with a word-count that some authors spend on first chapters alone.”

Summer’s story is told with the utmost patience and care by Rylant, who has written a wise young narrator in Summer. She is a young girl who has had more than her fair share of heartache – from losing her mother to feeling rejected by nearly all her relatives . . .  all, except Ob and May. Summer’s aunt and uncle were the best kind of people – they didn’t have much, but what they did have they gave to Summer – all their love, care and attention was heaped on her, until it almost felt like all the pain she had previously gone through was worth it, to end up in that trailer on the hill with May’s big hugs and Ob’s whirligigs.

Everybody should read Cynthia Rylant’s ‘Missing May’ – it doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, this is a book which beautifully and painfully communicates the ache of missing and the hopelessness of grief. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.


Sunday, April 22, 2012

'The Calling' Darkness Rising #2 by Kelley Armstrong

 Receive from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

Maya Delaney's paw-print birthmark is the sign of what she truly is a skin-walker. She can run faster, climb higher and see better than nearly anyone else. Experiencing intense connections with the animals that roam the woods outside her home, Maya knows it's only a matter of time before she's able to Shift and become one of them. And she believes there may be others in her small town with surprising talents including local bad boy Rafe, with whom she shares a dangerous, powerful secret.

Now, Maya and her friends have been forced to flee from their homes during a forest fire they suspect was deliberately set. After a terrifying helicopter crash, they find themselves stranded in the Vancouver Island wilderness with nothing but their extraordinary abilities to help them get back home.

But can Maya really trust her friends? And can she learn how to control the frightening new gift she has discovered before it controls her?

 This review contains minor SPOILERS from first book 'The Gathering', with spoiler-hints about Armstrong's 'Darkest Powers' trilogy and 'Women of the Otherworld' series.

In just a few weeks, Maya Delaney’s entire world was turned on its head. The arrival of temptingly dangerous new boy, Rafe Martinez sent Maya’s world spiraling. Her small, idyllic town of Salmon Creek was already starting to show a few cracks – after the mysterious drowning death of her best friend, Serena, Maya was already questioning a few things about Salmon Creek, and it’s ties to the St. Clouds drug company that own and populate the town with researchers. Then an out-of-town snooping reporter went missing, and was later found dead.

At the same time, Maya had a run-in with an old witch, and drew closer to Rafe and his funny little sister Annie… eventually gaining their trust, and learning the truth about their appearance in town.

Salmon Creek is not a town of scientists and researchers – it is a town in which the children are the experiment.

Rafe revealed to Maya that they are both shifters – wildcat skin-walkers with healing abilities. The entire town is populated with supernatural kids – born and bred with special powers, for reasons unknown. The town’s youth are in fact a mixture of shifters, demons, witches and God knows what else.

Now the St. Cloud Company are bringing their experiment to an end. Having just set a forest fire surrounding Salmon Creek, their goal now is to flush out Maya and her friends that managed to escape.

Maya and her friends have just leaped out of the fire and into the frying pan, literally.

‘The Calling’ is Kelley Armstrong’s second book in the ‘Darkness Rising’ paranormal YA series, a spin-off of her original ‘Darkest Powers’ trilogy, which in turn is set in her ‘Women of the Otherworld’ universe.

Kelley Armstrong hits the ground running in her second ‘Darkness Rising’ installment. We left Maya and her friends in a helicopter, being airlifted from the middle of a forest fire where they were ambushed by mysterious St. Clouds’ armored men – and after Maya came face-to-face with her biological father.

When ‘Calling’ begins we are back in the helicopter; on-board is Maya’s best friend, Daniel, her loyal dog Kenji, unconscious Rafe and Maya’s old friends and classmates; Sam, Corey, Nicole and Hayley. The mayor of Salmon Creek is also being taken to safety … but it doesn’t take long before it all goes horribly wrong. Maya and Daniel’s suspicions about the danger they experienced on the ground are reignited mid-air, when the pilot starts veering off-course and a tussle ensues. Now Maya and Daniel are convinced that the St. Clouds drug company is out for their blood – and they can trust no one from Salmon Creek. Not even their parents?

The first two chapters of ‘Calling’ concern a helicopter crash with devastating consequences and body-count. It’s an impressive, heart-thumping opener that is sure to leave fans reeling and second-guessing everything they thought about the trajectory of this series. In true Armstrong fashion, she comes out swinging and throws her young protagonists between a rock and a hard place.

After the explosive, helicopter-crashing first chapter though, things take a turn for the slightly more sedate… After surviving the crash, Maya and her remaining friends find themselves in yet another forest, and they are not alone. St. Cloud employees are hunting them – and as their trek to safety unfolds, they discover another group of players – the Nasts are also hot on their trail.

‘The Calling’ is set entirely in the forest, and follows Maya & Co. as they make the long, dangerous trek back to Salmon Creek, with bad guys on their tail. Readers learn a lot about the St. Cloud drug company in this book – and we are privy to recent wheelings and dealings in the ‘Otherworld’ universe. Cluey readers who have made the journey from the first ‘Darkest Powers’ trilogy, by way of ‘Women of the Otherworld’ will know that the Nasts are a cabal of male-witches, who hold a lot of sway in the supernatural world. When we discover that they now have a hand in the Edison Group/Salmon Creek experiments, savvy readers will predict that Ms. Armstrong has a few curveballs up her sleeve … and she might just be setting up for a longer haul in her ‘Women’ universe and young-adult spin off series.

For those readers though, who are coming into ‘Darkness Rising’ completely cold, I do wonder how much of ‘The Calling’ went unknowing overhead. Readers unfamiliar with ‘Women of the Otherworld’ who did read the ‘Darkest Powers’ trilogy will be slightly more clued-in, particularly towards the end… but I still think this is a book where the uninitiated will find themselves lacking. Particularly because this is a book of little character/relationship development; it is almost solely concerned with pushing the larger arcing conspiracy story forward, sometimes at the plot’s expense.

In ‘The Gathering’ Rafe and Maya’s romance was set-up – beginning with loathing and mild flirtation, and progressing to animal magnetism (literally). But the explosive beginning of ‘Calling’ means that Maya and Rafe’s relationship is put on hold. Armstrong tentatively sets up a maybe-kinda-sorta romance between Maya and her best friend, Daniel, but at this point it’s still in the walking-on-eggshells, looks of longing stage and not particularly riveting. And even though Maya is surrounded by a supporting cast of friends, none of them get the same interesting character development that Maya does in this book…

In ‘Calling’ Maya feels her skin changing. She is hearing the call of the wild and succumbing to her shifting instincts. She has also just met her biological father (who happens to be apart of the team hunting her down), not to mention she suffers a great loss early on. ‘The Calling’ really is Maya’s time in the spotlight – but she does tend to hog.

Trekking through the forest with Maya is Daniel, her loyal bestie who is starting to throw her looks of longing. Her frenemy Hayley is quick with the snipes, and party-boy Corey is limping along with a bad knee. Cousins Sam and Nicole are the wildcards – one of them blows hot and cold, while the other seems to know more about the St. Cloud company than she initially let on. This is quite a big bunch of secondary players (especially when you think that ‘Darkest Powers’ concentrated on the main foursome; Chloe, Tori, Simon and Derek). I feel like Armstrong gave us too many minor players, so that by the end of ‘Calling’ I really didn’t feel like I’d gotten to know any of them (save Maya) any better. And, as a result, I wasn’t particularly caught up in their plights or side stories. Sure, the kids are quick and good for a laugh, but Armstrong writes them in such broad brush strokes that I feel we missed out on the minor details that are meant to endear them to us;
"You're cute," Hayley said. "Well, cute enough."
"Fun to be around," I offered.
"So I'm ... a clown?"
"At least you're a cute clown," Hayley said. "Not a scary one."
"You're a good fighter," Daniel said.
"And you're a good drinker," Hayley added. "You can hold your liquor better than anyone I know."
"Uh-huh," Corey said. "So Maya will grow up to be an amazing healer who can change into a killer cat. Daniel and Sam will roam the country hunting criminals and demons. Hayley and Nicole will divide their time between recording platinum albums and winning gold medals in swimming. And me? I'll be the cute, funny guy sitting at the bar, hoping for a good brawl to break out."
"In other words, exactly where you were already headed," Hayley said.

‘The Calling’ really didn’t feel like a book about the characters, it felt far more focused on the BIG story;
"We have the upper hand here," Daniel said. "If you're going to give us some crap about turning ourselves in because we're a danger to society? Don't bother."
"Danger to society?" Moreno pursed his lips as if considering it. "Not really. A danger to yourselves? Absolutely. You're going through a lot right now, but it's nothing compared to what's coming. You need help." He looked at me.

It wasn’t until about page-250 (of this 288-page book) that I felt my heart begin to race and knew my interest had been piqued. Towards the end of the book, sleights-of-hand are revealed and Armstrong beautifully sets up her ‘long game’. The ending is exactly what I, and many fans, have been hoping for since ‘Darkest Powers’ ended. I just wish that ‘The Calling’ had started from that point – when the action and drama coalesce, and the entwining of two stories hints at great things to come.

Even if I wasn’t overly impressed with the majority of ‘The Calling’, Armstrong’s stellar ending has ensured I’ll be anticipating the third book in this series (and crossing my fingers that it’s not the finale!).


Friday, April 20, 2012

'Mockingbird' (mok’ing-bȗrd) by Kathryn Erskine

From the BLURB:

In Caitlin’s world, everything is black or white.  Things are good or bad.  Anything in between is confusing.  That’s the stuff Caitlin’s older brother, Devon, has always explained.  But now Devon’s dead, and her father cries a lot.  Caitlin wants to get over it, but as an eleven-year-old girl with Asperger’s, she doesn’t know how.  When she reads the definition of “closure” in the dictionary, she realizes that is what she and her father need.  In her search for Closure, Caitlin discovers that not everything is black and white--the world is full of colors--messy and beautiful, and it is through this discovery that she embarks on a road which leads her to find both healing and Closure.

Caitlin marks time from ‘The Day Our Life Fell Apart.’ The day Devon died.

Her brother was shot at school, by a fellow classmate. He left behind a half-finished Eagle Scout wooden chest, one little sister who is not allowed in his room and a father who now cries all the time.

Caitlin can’t understand how Devon died; the doctors said he had a hole in his heart that couldn’t be fixed or filled. But every time she walks past his closed bedroom door she half expects him to swing it open and invite her into his room, to read from his favourite book, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.

Caitlin can’t get used to life without Devon, but she’s trying. She goes to school and sees Mrs Brook, the counsellor who talks about feelings and how to express them. But Caitlin has never really understood how other people work, let alone how she’s meant to work. Caitlin relies on the dictionary and her precise drawings to understand the world. Feelings just get in the way and make things confusing.

Also not helping matters are the kids at school. Josh is the cousin of the boy who shot Devon, and he’s become meaner since the shooting, getting in other kid’s personal space. But there’s also Michael, whose mum was a teacher that died the same as Devon. Michael is younger than Caitlin, but they get along minding each other’s manners.

Caitlin is trying to get used to life without Devon, but her dad isn’t helping. He doesn’t make dinner on time anymore, and the TV news has him crying at the drop of a hat. When Caitlin discovers the word ‘closure’ in the dictionary, she’s sure it’s just what she and her dad need. . .  and she thinks the best way to get it will be by finishing Devon’s wooden Eagle Scout chest.

‘Mockingbird’ is the middle-grade book from Kathryn Erskine, which won the National Book Award in 2010.

Kathryn Erskine lives in Virginia, and was deeply affected by the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech where 32 people were killed, and 25 others wounded. This event deeply impacted on Erskine, and in her author’s bio it says she was “driven to understand how community and family – particularly families with special-needs children – dealt with this violent event. . . ”

Erskine also has a daughter with Asperger syndrome, which is an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that is characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction. Thus, in telling a story about how people reconnect after tragedy, Erskine thought to include a young protagonist whose very unique perspective of the world makes it difficult to connect at the best of times. ‘Mockingbird’ is told in first person through Caitlin’s unique voice, and the result is a novel of shattering brilliance.

We meet Caitlin shortly after Devon died in a school shooting – leaving Caitlin and her father to pick up the pieces of their fallen-apart life. But Caitlin and her father aren’t doing so well at picking up the pieces. A constant reminder to all that they have lost sits in the middle of their lounge room, a half-finished wooden chest intended for Devon’s Eagle Scout project.

At home I think about Devon’s Heart. I sit on the sofa and look at his chest. It’s still under the gray sheet. There are rays of light coming in through the blinds and the dust swirls around in the beams and hits the chest and I wonder if any of the dust particles are Devon and if I can feel him.
I close my eyes and remember some of the things that happened on The Day Our Life Fell Apart.

The chest becomes a symbol for everything Caitlin and her father have lost. It’s as hollow as the doctor’s say Devon’s heart was after the shooting, a CAVernous chest that cannot be filled or healed.

Caitlin is set adrift in this world without Devon. He used to say that they were like Jem and Scout from his favourite book, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. Like the kids in that book, Devon and Caitlin’s mother died when they were young, and ever since they only had their father . . . only, Jem didn’t die in the book and leave Scout all alone and Atticus crying into the night. Caitlin misses Devon; she misses her brother who used to tell her how to act around other people and when to stop throwing a tantrum. She misses her dad being her dad and not this person who cries at the TV news.

As the story progresses, Caitlin unwittingly finds herself connecting with other children affected by the school shooting. A younger boy at school called Michael lost his mother in the shooting, and Caitlin’s fellow classmates jump at loud noises, thinking it’s a gunman returned. But Caitlin still needs closure for her and her father – and she’ll get it by fixing Devon’s chest.

Erskine has beautifully crafted this book of black and white. Caitlin may prefer to see the world without colour and confusion, but she has a deceptively deep perception of what goes on around her. She draws pictures precisely and has her own understanding of how words work (even when her teacher’s tell her differently);
She has put an X over the H in Heart and written a lowercase h. It doesn’t look right that way. I’m sure she’s wrong about the special words and capital letters even though she’s a teacher. How can any word be more special than Heart?

‘Mockingbird’ had me blubbering and laughing throughout the whole book – Erskine’s stunning narrative regularly sits on the knife-edge between tragedy and beauty, hilarity and heartbreak. It’s amazing how quickly a scene can be flipped on its head – like when Caitlin decides to literally get some quarter-cut pine – her unique perspective of the world turns from endearingly calamitous to gut-wrenching.

Kathryn Erskine’s ‘Mockingbird’ is a novel about connecting. It’s about picking up the pieces after tragedy and finding a way to move on, with the help of other people. I adored this book, despite all the tears it wrought from me. I also had a few laughs at Caitlin’s endearing antics; she’s one of the best protagonists I have read in a long time, and Erskine’s precise Asperger’s narrative is masterful. This is an absolutely must-read book.

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