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Monday, July 30, 2012

'After' Once series #4 by Morris Gleitzman

 Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

In the fourth part of Felix's story, continuing his adventures in World War Two, he faces perhaps his greatest challenge - to find hope when he's lost almost everything, including his parents. As Europe goes through the final agonizing stages of the war, Felix struggles to reconcile hatred and healing. He's helped by a new friend, but if he should lose her as well ...

*** This review contains spoilers of books 'Once', 'Then' and 'Now' ***

Felix has been hiding in a hole. He prays to storybook hero, Richmal Crompton, that the Nazis do not find him and that the war may be over soon. Felix has already lost so much to this war and Hitler – his parents died in a death camp, simply for being Jews. And two years ago his dear friend, Zelda, and their protector, Genia were hanged by the Nazis. Now it’s just Felix and Genia’s husband, Gabriek, left on the farm, along with trusty working horse, Dom.

But when people emerge from the forest, people with guns who claim they are not Nazis, Felix’s world is turned upside down yet again.

He and Gabriek are thrown into the middle of the Partisan war – a group of guerrilla fighters hiding in the Polish forests, who are doing everything they can to stop the Nazis – by stealing their guns, and blowing up their trains . . . and they want Gabriek and Felix to help them.

‘After’ is the fourth book in what was originally Morris Gleitzman’s ‘Once’ trilogy.

The first three books in Morris Gleitzman’s ‘Once’ series are vital reading. I cannot recommend them enough – and I made it a particular point to persuade my cousin, a primary school teacher, to read them to her Year 6 class. I told her that the books are actually intended for ages 9+, and that Gleitzman has a lovely sense of humour to balance out the darker themes . . . but it’s those dark themes that do in fact make this series so very vital.

With the ‘Once’ series, Morris Gleitzman has said: “This story is my imagination trying to grasp the unimaginable.” By that he of course means WWII, and in particular the events surrounding the Holocaust and genocide of roughly six million Jews.

Gleitzman’s subject matter is heartrending, but it’s a story that should always, at some point, be told and explained to younger generations . . . and I don’t think there is a better way to help young children understand the gravity of such unimaginable events, than by introducing them to Morris Gleitzman’s epic ‘Once’ series. Particularly now that there is a fourth book with ‘After’, and this truly feels like a series that has come full-circle, and took a long, rough road to get there.

‘After’ slots in between books two and three, ‘Then’ and ‘Now’. In ‘Then’, Felix and his young friend Zelda were still on the run, hiding from Nazis and getting help from farmer, Genia. That second book finished on a note of utter heartbreak, and in book three ‘Now’, Gleitzman skipped ahead to Victoria, Australia in February 2009 and the Black Saturday Bushfires. In ‘Now’, Felix is an old man and looking after his granddaughter, Zelda, when the bushfires strike and they are forced to take shelter, just as Felix remembers he did as a young boy hiding from the Nazis . . .

‘Now’ did seem to be the final book of the series for Gleitzman. But it didn’t feel like the end, not really. It was a comfort to read ‘Now’ after the harrowing events of ‘Then’ – it was sweet relief to know that Felix grew old, that he’d become a doctor after the war and dedicated his life to helping people. It was bittersweet to learn that he’d named his granddaughter for his own personal hero, Zelda. But Felix made mention throughout ‘Now’, to events that happened in 1944, when he was part of the Polish Home Army, hiding in the forest and helping to blow up Nazi trains. That was a tale too good to let lie, and I was thrilled to learn that Gleitzman extended his trilogy to include ‘After’.

In this fourth book, Gleitzman delves into the resistance/partisan war effort carried out by the Polish people. Felix and Gabriek meet some nice partisans hiding in the forest, like Doctor Zajak, who wants Felix as his medical apprentice. There’s also Yuli, a Russian woman who escaped from a Nazi work camp and is fierce in her fight against their injustice. Not all the partisans are nice, however, and most of them have the same intolerance for Jews as the Nazis do.

Gleitzman has clearly done a lot of research into the war resistance movements going on across Europe during this time, and he weaves a lot of crucial information expertly into Felix’s story. And it’s during his time with the resistance movement that Felix starts asking some big questions of himself – when he has life and death in his hands, when he is witness to more killing and more violence.

I wish Gabriek had some weapons to help him escape. But he’s not interested in weapons. He’s only interested in mending things. He’s a genius at that. Machinery, animal equipment, electrical objects, anything except weapons.
If my best friend Zelda had met him, she’d have called him a mending person. Zelda was only six but she had the loving heart of a ten-year-old and she knew when a person was good.
That’s another reason Gabriek has to be kept safe. The world needs all the mending people it can get at the moment. There are too many people around who just break things.

I loved that in this book, Felix saw violence being performed by more than just the Nazis. He really sees what human beings are capable of doing to one another during desperate times, and it’s very telling that he often comes to the conclusion that fighting fire with fire just makes more violence, and an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. In this book it’s quite easy to see how the Felix of ‘Once’ went on to become a doctor, and kind old man in ‘Now’.

Be prepared. Morris Gleitzman holds nothing back in ‘After’, as well he shouldn’t if these books are going to inform an entire generation of younger readers about the true horrors of the war. You will cry, but you will also feel that spark of indignation and hopelessness that comes when you look back on the events of WWII and comprehend just how awful human beings can be to one another.

I loved Morris Gleitzman’s initial ‘Once’ trilogy, and I was so thrilled to learn that he had a fourth book planned, to properly conclude the series and brave Felix’s journey. ‘After’ was everything I hoped it would be. Morris Gleitzman’s series is a hallmark of Australian young adult literature, and I maintain that it is vital reading for young children. Yes, the story is sad and violent, but that is unfortunately the very true human history that Gleitzman is exploring. Take comfort in the knowledge that Felix is a wonderful narrator on this harrowing journey. He is the best kind of young protagonist; for he sees the wrongs and atrocities being carried out around him, and he vows to be better and do better, and I feel better for having read his story.

Australian covers

UK covers

Friday, July 27, 2012

Interview with Pip Harry, author of 'I'll Tell You Mine'

I recently had the pleasure of reading Pip Harry's young adult debut, 'I'll Tell You Mine'. 
Harry is a welcome addition to the Australian YA scene, and I was delighted that I had the chance to interview her. I was doubly-delighted when Pip Harry even supplied me with photos from her days as a young adult! I am seriously thinking of asking every YA author I interview from here on in, if they'd be kind enough to let me post pics of their younger selves (seriously, how cool would that be!?)

Without further ado, here is the very cool Pip Harry!

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

I sent my manuscript out to agents with a query letter when I was nine months pregnant with my daughter, Sophie. I figured I wouldn't check my email or stress out as much if I had my hands full with a newborn! A few months later I got a phonecall from another Sophie - Sophie Hamley of the Cameron Creswell agency. We met up for coffee and she signed me up and sent the manuscript out to publishers. I signed with UQP not long after that and worked on the book with their dynamic Children's Book publisher Kristina Schulz and freelance editor, Jody Lee. I'll Tell You Mine became so much stronger through the exacting editing process!

Q: How long did it take you to write ‘I’ll Tell You Mine’, from first idea to final manuscript?

The actual writing took about three years, with lots of meet-ups with my writing groups. It was a further two years in developments and edits with UQP. I couldn't believe how long it took - but in the end, the book really needed that time to breathe and find it's way.

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?

Pantser! I like to discover how the story unfolds as I go along. That makes for quirky twists and turns that I don't expect. Like Lachy, the cute farmer love interest in ITYM - he just wandered onto the page from thin air as I was typing.

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?

I first think of the main character/s and then usually a basic outline of the story (in my head) and I always know the ending. The theme usually emerges as I write and flesh it out. My main character, Kate, from ITYM was first a very strong voice that I listened to and wanted to write down - the rest just unfolded word after word.

Q: You have quite a writing career! -Entertainment Editor for NW and Deputy Editor for TV Week, and Health & Travel Editor for Woman’s Day. What prompted you to turn to writing fiction –and young adult specifically?

I've been writing professionally since my early 20s - mostly on national weekly magazines. I used to read gossip magazines in class and then I found myself earning a living from knowing the names of Brangelina's kids! I had so much fun with it - interviewing huge stars and covering events like the ARIA's and Logies. As a travel writer I worked all over the world from African safaris to skiing powder in Japan and swimming with stingrays in Tahiti. Pretty good work if you can swing it! While I was working as a journo, I was studying writing fiction at night at UTS, and I knew I wanted to write a novel. I was first signed to a literary agent when I was 23 - and even though my early books never made it out into the world - since then I hoped I would one day be a published author. Writing for young adults came very naturally to me - I have no idea why! But every story I wrote that had a young character really appealed to other people and felt good to write. You've got to play to your strengths as a writer I think.

Pip Harry kindly provided photos from her own days as a young adult in high school! Photo on the right is Pip at her Year 12 formal ('prom' for any American readers) and on the left is Pip on her 16th birthday.

Q: You wrote a great post on your blog back in June, titled ‘High School Reunioning’, in which you had a bit of a reminisce about your school days at Melbourne Girls Grammar School. You also thanked your old MGGS boarding house friend (also called Kate!) in your acknowledgements of ‘I’ll Tell You Mine’. Just curious how your own school days inspired you in writing this novel, and if any real-life stories/characters pop up in the book?

The Kate I thanked in the acknowledgements is an old school friend who inspired the character of Maddy. Something about my friend Kate's free spirit as a teenager was transferred to Maddy! She is very thrilled and happy with being the inspiration for such a great character. My own school days were of course in the back of my mind while writing ITYM. I was also a rebellious teen and I spent some time in a school boarding house so I used those memories in the book. But I was a very different girl to Kate - I was extremely sports focused and had a big circle of friends. But I do think all teenagers at some stage feel isolated and misunderstood and so I think Kate's experiences are fairly universal.
Q: Kate is a ‘Goth’, partly to stop feeling invisible, and also as a tribute to her music tastes. Just wondering what sort of research you did into the Goth lifestyle in writing Kate?
In my first draft Kate was an emo! But I had no idea what that was (or what a goth was either) so I did have to go away and do some research into goths and their music, clothing ect. I ended up really loving Kate's style and I often listened to goth music when writing!

Q: Favourite book(s) of all time

Some of my favourites are The Perks of being a Wallflower by Stephen Chobsky; Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami; Grafitti Moon by Cath Crowley; The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville; Breath by Tim Winton; Raw Blue by Kirsty Eager; Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta.

Q: Favourite author(s)?

Melina Marchetta, David Sedaris; John Marsden; Curtis Sittenfeld; John Green, Vikki Wakefield
Q: What advice do you have for budding young writers?

Never, Ever, Ever Give Up! If I had quit after my first rejection I would have stopped writing years ago. It took me over a decade to get published and it was easily the hardest thing I've ever done with countless setbacks and disppointments. I just stuck to it with a dogged determination and that made all the difference. And also, remember that not everyone will like your work but that doesn't mean it's no good. Just keep believing in your voice, keep polishing your skills and sharing your work with others for feedback.

Q: What are you working on now? And when can we expect your next novel to hit the shelves?

I'm working on a YA novel which focuses on a brother and sister who are training for the Head of the River rowing regatta. I hope to have a first draft finished by the end of this year, but it's anyone's guess when it will be out in bookstores! I'm planning a writing camp with my brother (also a writer) in October, at our aunts farm in Victoria. Hopefully that will help progress along!


'I'll Tell You Mine' by Pip Harry

Received from the author

From the BLURB:

Kate Elliot isn’t trying to fit in – that’s the whole point of being a goth, isn’t it?

Everything about her – from her hair to her clothes – screams different and the girls at her school give her a wide berth. How can Kate be herself, really herself, when she's hiding her big secret? The one that landed her in boarding school in the first place. She's buried it down deep but it always seems to surface. 

But then sometimes your soul mates sneak up on you in the most unlikely of places. Like Norris Grammar Boarding School for Girls, where's she's serving a life sentence, no parole, because her parents kicked her out.

So, how do you take that first step and reveal your secrets when you’re not sure that people want to see the real you?

Kate Elliot has done something so bad; her parents are kicking her out of home and into boarding school. What’s worse is that everyone at school knows there’s something odd about Kate switching from day-girl to prison boarder. She lives in Melbourne, for crying out loud! There’s no reason for her to commute to the boarding house, unless everyone’s suspicions about her freakdom are true . . .

This is just another in a long line of incidences that make Kate stand out like a sore thumb. She also dresses ‘Goth’ (not to be confused with emo – ever!) thanks in part to her two best friends, Nate and Annie, whom she met while waiting in line at a music festival. The Elliot name may be quite a prestigious one these days, what with her mum being a big-wig politician in Canberra – but Kate can’t live up to her ideals lately. If they’re not fighting about her room, aka: ‘the pit’, then they’re waging warfare about Kate’s clothes/hair/friends/curfew . . . it seems that Kate has ongoing battles at school against the blonde brigade and at home with her perpetually-disappointed mother. Kate can’t win.

But kicking her out of home isn’t going to fix things. At least, Kate doesn’t think so. She’s rooming with Harriet and Jess – two of the perfect posse at her school. And then there’s her third roommate, Maddy Minogue; a girl with an easy reputation and a hot brother called Lachy. This is going to be a disaster.

‘I’ll Tell You Mine’ is the debut young adult novel from Australian author, Pip Harry.

Let me start this review by confessing something. THIS WAS MY LIFE! . . . Speaking as an ex-private all girls schoolgirl, I can safely say that Pip Harry has nailed the Norris collegiate setting of ‘I’ll Tell You Mine’. I too had to adhere to wacky school rules like not eating hot food on the street in our school uniforms, always wearing our straw-hats when outside the school gates in summer and that the cloth belts on our ‘ginghams’ had to be tight and riding securely on our hips – and that’s just to name a very few. We also had Year 12 prefects who manned the school gates, inspecting uniforms and handing out detention slips (I later became one of those detention-giving prefects; I was Magazine Captain, of course! And I've got to say, it was an enjoyable power-trip).  My high school also had a boarding house attached – and the same way that Kate Elliot views the boarding house as something akin to mandatory detention, that was also the general consensus when I was at school. The ‘day girls’ really didn’t mix with the boarders – we thought it was weird that when we went home after school, they remained forever imprisoned. They were a very cliquey bunch, and the entire boarding house seemed to be an extended family who was as disinterested in us as we were in them. It wasn’t until Year 12, when a shared common room and the impending sense of doom that was final exams, actually gave us all a chance to bond and get to know one another. And us day girls discovered that those boarders could PAR-TAY! Turns out, they didn’t hide away in their cell-like rooms after the 3:30 bell. They snuck out. They each had a boyfriend-backup system to break out of school at night and live their teenage lives in heady abandon. They were actually kinda great.

I admit, the boarding school setting intrigued me (especially with ‘On the Jellicoe Road’ being one of my favourite books of all time!). But it was the opening paragraph that hooked me;

I've been grounded for sixty-two days this year. That’s 1488 hours of imprisonment. Of sitting in my room thinking about how much I hate my mother. I know I’m not supposed to hate someone who cracked her pink bits in half giving birth to me. But if you knew her, you’d understand.

Fantastic! Straight away I got an idea of Kate’s voice (pink bits – brilliant!) and in that first chapter we also learn that Kate did something so horrible to her mum, that she couldn’t bear to live with her for another second – kicking her out, and into boarding school.

So begins ‘I’ll Tell You Mine’, told from Kate’s perspective as she lives a term out of home, forced to fend for herself and reflect on how she, and her family, got to this drastic stage.

Kate was a really intriguing character. Arguably the most outwardly interesting (freaky?) thing about her is her appearance – full Goth, complete with black tulle, painted white face and drastic eyes. And while Kate adopted the Goth persona in part because of her love for the music scene, she also admits that attending school at Norris turned her invisible. She didn’t fit in with the Duke-of-Ed, white-jumper-wearing, blonde prefects, and so began to feel utterly invisible in a sea of over-achievers. Becoming Goth was a way for her to be noticed, to matter to someone, anyone.

Someone else who doesn’t fit in at Norris is Maddy Minogue – the girl whose mother died last year, and who has been busy building her reputation as the school ‘slut’ ever since. Arguably the two biggest out-casts of Norris, let alone the boarding house, I really loved when Kate and Maddy joined forces. They’re both wearing masks and almost playing a part, to an extent, and I really loved reading about how they picked each other’s layers away throughout the course of the book. 

As much as I enjoyed reading the building-up of Maddy and Kate’s relationship, I also think Harry nailed the mother-daughter conflict that’s really at the heart of the novel. Kate’s mother is a politician, away to Canberra for most of the week, and seeming only to return home to yell at Kate’s dad and express for the umpteenth time her distress at Kate’s new Goth look. Harry beautifully gets to the heart of mother-daughter conflict with these two, as they butt heads over who Kate is and who her mum wants her to be.

I did feel like ‘I’ll Tell You Mine’ was just a little too loose in some parts. There were moments when I wanted the story to be tighter, or the characters to stay on the page for just a little while longer, to really be strung out and examined. Kate’s parents, for example; very early on it becomes obvious that Kate’s home life isn’t great. Her parents have a complex back-story, which involves them both being free-spirits once (her mum even sported a nose ring for a little while!) until Kate came along and her young, 20-something parents had to settle down and get married. Over the course of their marriage they’ve drifted further and further apart – her mum into politics and a high-stakes career, and her easy-going father into a part-time graphic designer who still chases waves on occasion. There was a moment in the book when Kate reveals that she knows how bad her parents’ marriage has got – but it’s a small reflection on a botched family vacation, and isn’t really revisited again. I thought Harry did a wonderful job of writing Kate’s claustrophobic home-life – that even if I thought Kate was quite unreasonable (and a bit of a terror sometimes) I thought any outbursts she had were also a product of her parents’ high-strung, walking-on-egg-shells marriage that forever seemed on the verge of cracking wide open. I was looking forward to that boiling-over moment in their marriage – if only for release (something I think Kate feels too). But it doesn’t come. Harry shied away from the tougher stuff and ended up writing a bit of a bandaid fix for what seemed like a far more complex relationship between two very different people.

I also felt like a few secondary characters fell by the wayside towards the end of the book. Kate’s fellow-Goth friends, Annie and Nate, were interesting. I wanted to figure out if they were the bad influences Kate’s mum seemed to think, or genuine friends deserving of Kate’s time and energy. There’s even an interesting crush set-up, when Kate reveals she has unreciprocated feelings for Nate . . . this storyline, in particular, could have been a bigger bombshell towards the end of the book, but Nate and Annie actually got very little page-time considering how important they supposedly were to Kate.

A few of the secondary characters did pique my interest though, as they drifted around Kate’s periphery – like her roommates, Harriet and Jess. Harriet cries at night, even though she’s a perfect-A pupil with her sights set on a school captaincy. Swimmer, Jess, is unsuccessfully hiding a secret from the world, and while everyone can see she’ll be a lot happier when the cat’s out of the bag, she’s holding on tight to the lie. And then there’s outcast Lou, a sweet-natured fellow boarder who practices sycophancy, but who should embrace her own voice and do her own thing . . .  all of these girls, along with Kate and Maddy, really helped bring the story together. And each of them, with their secrets held close to their chests, certainly had a case of ‘I’ll Tell You Mine’ if you tell me yours.

I feel like the last few chapters really started to pick up steam, and I especially felt more connected to the story and Kate’s plight when she travels to Maddy’s farm out Wagga Wagga way. I really liked this turn in the story, because Kate gets to see the fall-out felt by the Minogue’s, since the death of their mother to cancer the year before. I also really liked this country turn, because we get to meet Maddy’s intriguing farmer brother, Lachy. And it was in these final chapters that Harry wrote some of my favourite, heart-swelling scenes;

Lachy nods and he looks out at the road and the thick scrub.
‘You know what I really hate?’ he says, just when I’m starting to think he’s stopped speaking for the night.
‘When people say my mum has gone to a better place.’ He looks up at the sky, which is starting to darken. ‘No better place for her than right here, I reckon,’ he says, and it’s all I can do not to lean over and hug him. He sounds so broken. ‘Here is where her family, her friends are. Y’know?’
‘Yeah,’ I say. But I don’t really know what it’s like to lose someone I love. And I guess that makes me lucky.

Reading Pip Harry’s debut novel had me reminiscing about my own private school days, spent in chequered gingham and straw-hats, braving the ferocious wars of all-girl school terrain. Harry excels at setting – from the vivid recreation of dorm-life, to Kate’s claustrophobic home life with parents who are worlds apart. There were times when I wished we’d spent more time with certain characters or that Harry had chosen a rougher route for their development, instead of shying away on occasion . . . but, all in all, this was a lovely introduction to a new Aussie YA author who I will certainly be keeping my eye on.


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Interview with Myke Bartlett, author of 'Fire in the Sea'

A very happy release day to Myke Bartlett, whose Text Prize winning novel, 'Fire in the Sea' is available as of today! I strongly suggest you rush out and buy a copy!

The book is another incredible and welcome addition to the Aussie YA scene - set in Perth and delving into all things mythological and mysterious. And I was so happy when Myke Bartlett let me pick his brain about the novel ... not least of all because he let slip that a sequel is in the works! 

Without further ado, I give you - Myke Bartlett!

Q: How long did it take you to write ‘Fire in the Sea’, from first idea to final manuscript?

The central idea arrived way back in 2008, I think, on the short walk from work to the tram stop. I probably scrawled a few notes on the back of some old paper and stuck it to my noticeboard, where most ideas go to fester. I didn’t actually start writing it until 2010. It actually came together remarkably quickly. Certainly, it helped that I was writing the book with the full intention of winning the Text Prize. I knew it had to be finished by May 2011, which it was. Just.
 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?

Both. I start off with a ten or twelve point outline. From there it becomes about joining the dots. I’ll write more elaborate outlines, usually in notebooks or across scrap paper, working out details and jotting down dialogue. I actually thought I’d planned out ‘Fire in the Sea’ very meticulously, until I found my outline a few days ago and realised it bears almost no resemblance to the final story. Once a book gets underway, it takes on a life of its own and becomes something you hadn’t quite planned. As it should. I never stop having new ideas about things to change. Even now, with it in print.

Q: Did you start writing with a conscious decision to make ‘Fire in the Sea’ young adult, or did that evolve naturally? Do you write with an audience in mind?

I’d had a US agent suggest I try writing Young Adult fiction, but I hadn’t really read much at the time. It wasn’t until I read Phillip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart series that I became excited about it as a genre or category or whatever we’re calling it. Those books showed me how intelligent, how sophisticated and how exciting YA could be. Around the same time, someone gave me a flyer for the Text Prize, which was what made me start writing. So I definitely had a clear idea of the audience I was writing for, which was really helpful. But, at the same time, I was writing a book I wanted to read. Specifically, I was writing a book that I would have wanted to read as a teenager, growing up in Perth.
 Q: Something I loved about ‘Fire in the Sea’ was the Perth setting. In your Text bio, it says:“Myke Bartlett was born in Perth, and spent his first twenty years trying to escape.” – which I suspected, from Sadie’s very authentic & claustrophobic feelings about the city. I’m curious to know when your own feelings towards Perth turned – to the point that you decided to base ‘Fire in the Sea’ there?

My feelings about Perth probably turned as soon as I left it. It’s obviously a place I feel very passionate about, but one with which I have a somewhat conflicted relationship. I grew up in Cottesloe, which is still one of my favourite places on the planet. Most of the best times of my life have been spent there. I’m so grateful for having grown up there. But I think it’s natural to get restless in paradise. You start longing for a bit of dirt and grime. You start longing for adventure. Now that I’ve settled elsewhere, I long for the place. I’ll be back there in September and I can’t wait.
Q: I really loved the many and varied supernatural creatures in this novel, not to mention the mentions of myth interspersed with history. There’s certainly a lot going on here. How did you pick and choose your paranormal inspirations? And were you personally interested in all these paranormal aspects before writing ‘Fire in the Sea’, or did you start researching when you decided on the large fantastical plot?

I did minimal research. I read a couple of books I thought Sadie might have read, including Herodotus’s Histories, which is incredible stuff. But all that mythological stuff came from childhood obsessions. I’ve always been into spooky things. I probably looked a few things up but I was wary about that, because I wanted to use things as I remembered them, rather than getting tied down to the facts. Myths are someone else’s take on particular stories and I really wanted to do my own.
Q: I loved your protagonist, Sadie Miller. She’s a really ballsy heroine, and the sort of girl that I’m glad for young adults to read. Did you read YA books before you wrote ‘Fire in the Sea’? And did you build Sadie’s characteristics from what you did/didn’t like in YA books, particularly concerning female heroines?

I hadn’t read a great deal of YA fiction, actually. It’s pretty much all I read now! That said, I absolutely wrote Sadie as a response to the protagonist in Twilight, who I saw as being far too passive and flimsy. I want to read stories about real people, even if the circumstances are fantastical. The girls and women I grew up with were — and are — strong, capable and independent human beings. Sadie is longing for adventure, but she isn’t sitting around waiting to be rescued.
Q: Really tough question now – if ‘Fire in the Sea’ was to be adapted into a movie or TV show, which actors would you cast?

When I’m working on something, I always have a number of picture references for characters. For Sadie, I was thinking of Emma Stone, Emily Blunt and Emma Booth. Basically anyone called Em. But all of them are probably too old to play her. I quite like the idea of an up-and-coming Perth actor taking the role. Oh, what the hell, let’s go with Emma Stone. As for Jake… I really have no idea. His points of reference were James Dean, Marlon Brando and Paul Newman. Sadly, I don’t think any of them will be available.
Q: You’re also a journalist – writing about politics, movies, pop culture and rock music. You also write quite a few film and music reviews. I’m interested to know what it’s like to now have the shoe on the other foot – with your work being under review?

It’s absolutely terrifying. When I first held a copy of Fire In The Sea I felt briefly elated, and then fell into a mild panic. Obviously, reviewing is intensely subjective. As a reviewer myself, I like to think that I can take a more objective approach — judging a work on its own merits, rather than my own preferences. But I know the power of a glib remark and how hard it is to resist one. I also know how a reviewer’s whims can briskly toss aside something an artist has spent years working on. That said, I love reading reviews. Particularly the good ones. I know there will be bad ones and, yes, they’ll probably stick at the front of my brain for longer than the good ones, but I’m really happy with the book. The right people will like it. Everyone else is just missing out.
Q: Favourite author(s) of all time?

I honestly can’t do lists. I was asked to appear on a film review podcast at the end of last year and made a mess of their end-of-year wrap by refusing to do a top five. They were very patient, but I won’t be asked back. Some authors that I love: Raymond Chandler, Phillip Pullman, David Mitchell, Haruki Murakami. Other writers who have left their mark on me are TV writers Jimmy McGovern and Russell T Davies.

Q: Favourite book(s)?

Aargh, same again! I’ve read dozens and dozens of YA books over the last year, but the best of the bunch has been Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking series. I also loved Leanne Hall’s This Is Shyness. Although I did resent the fact that I hadn’t written it.
Q: What advice do you have for budding young writers?

Write. Read. Read and write. Actually, the one question I hear most at author talks is ‘where do you find the time?’ You don’t find the time, you make it. If you really want to be a writer, then you’re probably already making the time. And you’re probably feeling guilty you’re not spending more time outside, or with your friends, or with your family. I still get excited when I’ve got a few hours alone with my work. Who needs a social life? Oh, but you should definitely get a dog. Because your best ideas will probably arrive as soon as you leave the keyboard for a few minutes and a dog won’t want to distract you with conversation.

Q: What are you working on now, and when can we get our hands on it?

I have a couple of things underway. One is, predictably, the sequel to Fire in the Sea. I’d love for that to be out next year, but these things take time. I’ve also been working on a time-travel adventure story for boys, but that’s having to take a back seat for now.

'Fire in the Sea' by Myke Bartlett

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

Sadie is sixteen and bored with life in Perth. It’s summer, and lazing on the beach in the stifling heat with her cousins and Tom is a drag. Then something comes out of the sea.

Dark menacing forms attack an old man, leaving him for dead and Sadie wracking her brains to understand what she saw. Then there’s a mysterious inheritance, a strange young man called Jake and a horned beast trampling the back yard.

Sadie finds herself caught in the middle of an ancient conflict that is nearing its final battle, a showdown that threatens to engulf Perth and all those she loves in a furious tsunami.

Fire in the Sea is a fast-paced thrilling adventure with a feisty heroine who is not afraid to fight for what she knows is right.

Sadie Miller needs to get out of Perth. This town is too small to hold her, and has too many bad memories that keep a hold of her. Like the memory of her parents’ death, and every one of her sixteen years that should have been shared with them. Instead, Sadie lives with her grandparents and keeps to her close-knit bubble of friends, including her two cousins Heather and Kimberley, and her best friend (who wants to be more), Tom.

But just as Sadie starts fiercely wishing for anything to change, everything does . . .

At Cottesloe beach one night, Sadie and Tom watch an old man be set-upon by two masked thugs, and Sadie steps in to help. The attackers disappear into the water, and the beaten man tells Sadie to beware of “men with wet shoes.”

But the strangeness is only just beginning. It seems that the old man, a one Mr. Freeman, signed the entirety of his will and estate over to Sadie while on his deathbed – she now owns an old Gothic house and everything in it, and is tasked with taking care of the premises, including a vicious guard-dog called Kingsley.

One night, in the process of guarding Mr. Freeman’s house (now hers) Sadie finds herself pinned by a shirtless, posh, sword-wielding boy demanding to know the whereabouts of the ‘relic’. Even stranger than finding this shirtless, posh, sword-wielding boy in Freeman’s abandoned house, is discovering that the same boy claims to be Mr. Freeman – Jacob ‘Jake’ Freeman. One in the same. Reincarnated. Like the Dalai Lama.

Sadie wouldn’t believe all this rubbish, normally . . . but stranger things keep happening. Like Tom having a close-encounter with a horned man. Or a siren song that keeps calling from the sea, or the appearance of those men with wet feet that Mr. Freeman warned Sadie about.

This really is just the beginning. And if Sadie doesn’t help the reincarnated Jake Freeman find his ‘relic’, an old wooden box worse than Pandora’s, then all hell will break loose . . . literally.

Only one thing is certain – Perth just got a whole lot more interesting for Sadie Miller.

Myke Bartlett’s debut novel, ‘Fire in the Sea’, was the 2011 winner of the Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing.

I love an Australian young adult paranormal novel that relishes being an Australian young adult paranormal novel. Case and point – Myke Bartlett’s incredibly compelling ‘Fire in the Sea’. This novel marks the first Aussie paranormal I've read that is set in Western Australia, and makes a focal point of the City of Light, Perth. A good portion of the drama and supernatural shenanigans take place at the iconic Cottesloe Beach, with the grandiose Surf Life Saving Club in the background standing watch. It’s clear from the moment that Sadie Miller laments her Perth surroundings (dreaming of a move to Oxford or Melbourne) that Bartlett is himself well-acquainted with the teenage pastime of wishing to be ‘anywhere but here’. Sadie knocks around the beach with her friends, and rides her bike through suburban neighbourhoods, but is thoroughly sick of it all. Not only does this small town hold vastly painful memories of her dead parents, but the fact of the matter is: nothing happens . . . until a beaten old man leaves Sadie with everything, almost more than she can handle.

Bartlett’s particular brand of supernatural is more like a patchwork of monsters, myths and imagination. I don’t think I’ll be spoiling anything if I say that he covers a broad spectrum of paranormal from the Minotaur to sea sirens, while providing a harrowing explanation for Pompeii’s eruption and an even more chilling mystery surrounding a famous long-lost city. It’s a most peculiar mix of myth and mayhem that works brilliantly when woven by Bartlett. But what really saves ‘Fire in the Sea’ from just being a hodge-podge of fantasy is its young protagonist, Sadie Miller.

We are with Sadie every step of the way – from Mr. Freeman’s attack to his seeming reincarnation to a particularly handsome young man. She is as cast adrift in the supernatural sea as readers, but her particular brand of brittle, sarcastic loyalty makes navigating Bartlett’s mythical waters so very easy (and downright enjoyable);

Jake lifted the talisman from the front of his shirt. ‘This marks me as a servant of the Gods. As long as I wear it, I’ll always come back.’
‘Good for you. So you don’t die. You don’t get old.’ Sadie looked down at the dog by his feet, the dog with the same name as countless dogs before him. She saw herself, staring at a dog, standing on grass she’d played on as a child. ‘No. Seriously, what is wrong with me? Demons, Gods. A magic box. I mean, I've never ever read Lord of the Rings. I hate all that stuff.’

I loved Sadie. She’s just the sort of young heroine I love to read – she spends a good portion of the novel being scared witless, but never lets her fear get in the way of saving her friends or doing what’s right. She's quick-thinking and fierce, and just the sort of friend I'd like to have in my corner (should a Minotaur ever attack). But she’s also thoroughly relatable – combating Perth-fatigue, a best friend who wants to be more and trying not to succumb to the grief that constantly pulls at her.

I really shouldn’t be so surprised that another Text Prize novel is incredible, but I am. ‘Fire in the Sea’ is a fantastic new addition to the Aussie young adult paranormal scene – set in the beautiful (if lamentably dull) city of Perth, and featuring everything from sea sirens to crazy reincarnated boys. Myke Bartlett has written a parade of paranormal creatures and a thrilling sea-depths mystery . . . I, for one, hope that this is just the first of many more novels from an interesting new Aussie YA voice.


Monday, July 23, 2012

'Spark' Sky Chasers #2 by Amy Kathleen Ryan

 Received from the Publisher 

From the BLURB:

Teenagers Waverly and Kieran were the first boy and girl born in space, and the first to fall in love.

Cruelly wrenched apart when the enemy ship the New Horizon attacked the Empyrean, they have finally been reunited. Now the young crew on board the Empyrean must chase down the other ship in the race to save their parents. But Kieran's leadership methods have raised suspicions, and Waverly questions if this could really be the same handsome loving boy she was torn from such a short time ago. Meanwhile she finds herself drawn ever closer to the wild and unpredictable Seth, despite the accusations Kieran has levelled against him...

After the attack, everything changed.

Two spaceships heading to New Earth hadn’t crossed paths for light-years. And then one day, out of the blue, the New Horizon captained by Anne Mather requested permission to board The Empyrean . . . but that was just the beginning.

Upon her orders, Mather’s New Horizon unleashed an attack that devastated the Empyrean crew and killed most of the adults onboard. But their onslaught didn’t end there – they also kidnapped all the Empyrean’s girl children, as part of grand plan to restore their declining fertility rate and re-populate the New Horizon.

It was only oldest teenager, Waverly’s, grand plan that saw the Empyrean girls escape and return to the devastation of their ship – where they were to discover that the boys had managed to rescue some, but not all, of the badly wounded adults and a fight for leadership had erupted between ship’s protégé Kieran and black sheep, Seth.

Now the Empyrean is trying to catch-up with the New Horizon, and rescue the sole-surviving parents of the attack which left their crew devastated and halved. But fights for leadership amongst this young, inexperienced crew are still breaking out. And when a sabotaging New Horizon spy is thought to have snuck onboard, tensions rise and their battle turns inwards. . .

‘Spark’ is the second book in Amy Kathleen Ryan’s ‘Sky Chasers’ intergalactic YA series.

I really enjoyed first book ‘Glow’ last year. It was quite a space Odyssey/Dystopian, with the narrative split between Kieran and Waverly and observing the kidnapped chaos onboard the New Horizon, and ‘Lord of the Flies’ type battles going on in the Empyrean. It was a great addition to the YA scene, and I really looked forward to second book ‘Spark’.

I must admit that I suspected Amy Kathleen Ryan would struggle to keep my interest in the second book, considering that a lot of the drama and tension had been sucked out and somewhat resolved by the end of ‘Glow’. My favourite thing about that first book was Waverly’s story taking place on the New Horizon – where religious zealot ship’s captain, Anne Mather, had made a flock of her crew and convinced them that kidnapping girl children (raging from teens to pre-teens) was a good and Godly solution to their infertility problem. The New Horizon crew then proceeded to harvest the older girl’s eggs, and speak to them of being the future Eve’s of New Earth. It was creepy-fantastic, zealous religious exploration mixed in with a high-octane escape plot. By contrast, I sort of felt like Kieran and Seth’s battle for captaincy aboard the Empyrean wasn’t nearly as interesting.

When ‘Spark’ begins, the girls have been back onboard the Empyrean for a few weeks. To account for the lacking crew, all children have been assigned jobs – from security to clean-up, harvest and maintenance. Kieran has assumed the role of captain, and Seth Ardvale is being held in the brig – for attempted murder. Waverly is a pariah amongst the crew, who blame her for leaving their kidnapped parents aboard the New Horizon (never mind that she managed to save all the girls – and get shot in the process). The Empyrean is currently abusing their thrusters trying to catch-up to the New Horizon, and rescue the remaining parents onboard – but the extra speed is wreaking havoc on their bodies, and when engine failures and mechanical faults start occurring, it’s suspected that a New Horizon saboteur has somehow snuck on board.

Even though I wasn’t terribly invested in the goings-on of the Empyrean in ‘Glow’, I can appreciate that Ryan has ratcheted up the tensions onboard and done a commendable job of making the new Empyrean situation a damn interesting one. When tensions are running high, Kieran starts succumbing to the same power-hungry failings of his predecessor, Seth Ardvale; throwing dissidents into the brig and failing to share all communications with Anne Mather with the rest of his crew, who have a vested interest in any peace-talks.

Where ‘Glow’ began by introducing us to Kieran and Waverly’s romance (partly of convenience and expectancy – since they are the two oldest children onboard, and expected to procreate) when ‘Spark’ begins it’s clear that Waverly is on the outs, especially with Kieran. Having seen what slavish devotion does to a crew from Anne Mathers’ example, Waverly is becoming increasingly concerned with Kieran’s insistence on crew sermons and the expectation that everyone just do as he says.

Waverly sighed heavily. “Have we all lost our minds?”
“Kids aren’t meant to deal with this kind of stuff.”
“Adults are no better,” Waverly said ruefully, thinking f the way Captain Jones and Anne Mather had both seemed to have their adult crews hoodwinked completely.

Ryan has certainly written an interesting tangled web for the Empyrean children. But, as I suspected I would be, I wasn’t as invested in this story that is solely about the power-struggles between youth. I was perking up much more towards the end, when there’s more overlap with the New Horizon story and I have high-hopes that a third book takes us back onboard that ship, manned by a crazy zealot.

Lots of things worked for me in ‘Spark’ – particularly the changing character of Seth Ardvale, who went from being a frightening bully in ‘Glow’, to a changing man in ‘Spark’. What didn’t work so much for me was Seth’s budding romance with Waverly. I suspected that the Empyrean female favourite and black sheep outcast would have a lot more spark than Waverly and Kieran – but I felt a little let-down by their romantic play in ‘Spark’. I think it comes down to more telling than showing – with the majority of their respective feelings being picked apart in inner monologues, with the characters thinking about acting on their feelings, but not taking the plunge into *showing* how they feel.

Something else that sort of bugged me in ‘Spark’ was the polarities of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters. Now, I like characters who live in the grey areas – but I feel like in ‘Spark’, Ryan’s three main characters were all being slotted into ‘black’ and ‘white’. What I loved about Seth in ‘Glow’ was that I wasn’t sure if readers were meant to even like him – he was a total jackass and nearly murderous, but we were given insights into his abusive childhood and hopeless infatuation with Waverly. I loved that Seth was a tricky character to piece together. But in ‘Spark’ I feel like Seth went to the other extreme and became too nice – I wish he’d retained some of his jackass behaviour, for character consistency and just to make him more interesting.  Likewise, I thought Kieran to be a card-board cut out ‘good guy’ in ‘Glow’ (and therefore not nearly as fascinating as Seth) but in ‘Spark’ he is also at the extreme, becoming a complete jerk. And some of his decisions didn’t even seem to be reactive to the situation; it was just to make him come across a little meaner.

I loved first book ‘Glow’, and I’m not too surprised that I didn’t love ‘Spark’ the same way. I understand that this story had to primarily take place aboard the Empyrean, but as I suspected from book one, that ship is not nearly as interesting as the New Horizon. I will be making the trek to book three, if only to be reacquainted with Anne Mather’s villainous plot and zealous theatrics.

Spark is also available as an Audiobook!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

'Walk Two Moons' by Sharon Creech

From the BLURB:

"Sometimes you know in your heart you love someone, but you have to go away before your head can figure it out."

To trace the path of her missing mother, Sal embarks on a journey from Ohio to Idaho with her grandparents. On the road, Sal tells the strange and exciting story of her friend Phoebe. As the miles pass, Phoebe's tale becomes more and more outrageous, while Sal's own story begins to emerge. In unraveling Phoebe's mystery, Sal comes ever closer to finding out the truth behind her own bittersweet journey. What will she find at the end of the road?

Salamanca "Sal" Tree Hiddle is telling a story to her Gram and Gramps. While on a road-trip trek from Ohio to Idaho, with the trees whispering for her to ‘hurry, rush, hurry’ Sal is recounting the story of her friend, Phoebe Winterbottom and the lunatic who changed her life.

But in the telling of Phoebe’s tale, Sal is learning the truth of the old proverb: "Don't judge a man until you've walked two moons in his moccasins" . . .  because Phoebe’s story is entangled in Sal’s own, and what happened when her mother left for the badlands.

‘Walk Two Moons’ by Sharon Creech was first published in 1994, and won the Newbery Medal in 1995. It has since become an American children’s classic, and for good reason.

I read the last chapter of Sharon Creech’s ‘Walk Two Moons’ aboard the Number-57 tram. Lumbering towards Lonsdale Street I started to cry, and by the time I'd arrived at my North Melbourne destination I was attracting curious stares from my fellow commuters. This book wrecked me, in the best possible way.

We meet Salamanca "Sal" Tree Hiddle shortly after her father has uprooted her from Bybanks, Kentucky and the last memories of her mother. Now they live in Euclid, Ohio next-door to Margaret Cadaver and her blind mother. But when the book begins Sal is at the beginning of a road-trip journey to Idaho with her Gram and Gramps. Something in the trees is compelling Sal to rush across the American heartland, to get to Idaho and her mother . . . but along the way Gram and Gramps want to be entertained. So Sal starts telling them a story. She tells them about her new life in Euclid, where she has befriended the prudish Phoebe Winterbottom, whose family is undergoing a change somewhat similar to the one Sal’s little family went through not so long ago. Sal also talks about Ben Finney, who imagines a soul similar to her own and keeps trying to plant a kiss on Sal’s lips.

‘Walk Two Moon’s is a novel of beautiful equilibrium; at once terribly sad, and terribly funny. In recounting the story of Phoebe’s lunatic, who brings her family crashing down, Sal paints a wonderful picture of her best friend; a young girl whose wild imagination is rivalled only by her snobbish temperance. Sal recounts Phoebe’s story like a puzzle she’s piecing together for her Gram and Gramps – explaining the cryptic messages that were first left on the Winterbottom porch, and then the various investigations Phoebe and Sal conducted searching for the lunatic.

But Phoebe’s story has a deeper meaning for Sal, who draws parallels between the Winterbottom’s struggles and the events that led to her mother leaving Sal and her father behind to go on the very same Idaho road-trip Sal is currently undertaking with her grandparents.

‘Walk Two Moons’ is glorious. For a long time it feels almost like Sal’s story is a collection of vignettes as she recounts the many memories she has of her mother, the enigmatic Chanhassen Hiddle. So many things trigger memories for Sal, something as harmless as a blackberry pie holds a landmine of remembrance; 

She pulled me to her and said to me - though it was meant for my father, I think - 'See? I am almost as good as your father!' She said it in a shy way, laughing a little. I felt betrayed, but I didn't know why.
After that dinner at Phoebe's where we had the blackberry pie, I started wondering about all of this. I was part of my mother - she was me and I was her - more than I was part of my father. So anything that was true of her was true of me. It was as if she had said, 'We're almost as good as your father,' and I wanted to say, 'We're as good as - We're better,' but why I wanted to say this, I don't know. I love my father.
It is surprising all the things you remember just be eating a blackberry pie.

But in teasing out the memories, and questioning the events that led up to her mother leaving home, Sal’s story begins to take shape. I wouldn’t say that ‘Walk Two Moons’ is ever a strictly linear story – though Sal’s recounting Phoebe’s lunatic tale is a fairly straightforward narrative, Sal explaining her own story takes many twists and turns. She’s a young woman who has gone through a lot of life changes in a very short amount of time – not least of which includes moving away from the only home she has ever known, a new shivery awareness of Ben Finney and the colossal hole her mother’s leaving gouged in her heart. It often happens that to understand one component of her changing world, Sal has to go back and look at old memories with a fresh perspective. This is a rather lovely facet of childhood-into-adulthood that Creech explains at Sal’s slow and steady pace.

Half-way through the book, you will begin to feel a niggling of sadness. Something is on the horizon, and the same way that Sal hears trees telling her to ‘rush, hurry’ or ‘slow, slow’ – so too will the sadness of this book start whispering. It’s a creeping kind of sadness – beautifully teased by Creech increment by increment. But there’s an overarching theme in the book, concerning the Greek myth of Pandora’s Box, a subject Sal’s class are studying in English. By the end, tears in my eyes, I decided that ‘Walk Two Moons’ was a literary Pandora’s Box in itself – that although there was incredible sadness and pain within, the slivers of hope are the lasting effect of Creech’s wonderful novel. The lessons Sal learns, her singing tree, blackberry kisses, the shivery feeling Ben ignites and Phoebe’s lunatic are all so beautifully hopeful that the sadness, though sharp, does not prevail – hope does.


Thursday, July 19, 2012

'Not Quite a Husband' by Sherry Thomas

From the BLURB:

Their marriage lasted only slightly longer than the honeymoon—to no one’s surprise, not even Bryony Asquith's. A man as talented, handsome, and sought after by society as Leo Marsden couldn't possibly want to spend his entire life with a woman who rebelled against propriety by becoming a doctor. Why, then, three years after their annulment and half a world away, does he track her down at her clinic in the remotest corner of India?

Leo has no reason to think Bryony could ever forgive him for the way he treated her, but he won't rest until he’s delivered an urgent message from her sister—and fulfilled his duty by escorting her safely back to England. But as they risk their lives for each other on the journey home, will the biggest danger be the treacherous war around them—or their rekindling passion?

Bryony Asquith tried for happiness three years ago, and it failed miserably. Not only a spinster, Byrony was also a female doctor and disgrace to her illustrious family. Regardless of her unappealing profession and over-the-hill age, she took a chance and proposed to Leo Marsden, the fifth son of an Earl and her old childhood neighbour from the Cotswolds. No one was more surprised than Byrony when Leo accepted, but it didn’t take long before the prediction of London high society proved true and the marriage ended in disaster and annulment. . . and Byrony has a constant reminder of her failure in a white streak of hair, the last sign she needed that it was time to cut and run from her husband.

Three years later, in the North-West Frontier of India, Bryony Asquith is in her third year of running from the memory of her disastrous marriage. She has been to Germany and America, and now finds herself doctoring in the Rumbur Valley. So she is beyond shocked to hear Leo’s voice one day, and even more shocked to learn that he has hunted her down upon order of her young half-sister, to drag Byrony home and to the bed-side of their ailing father.

Will a trip through India, during the dangerous Pathan Revolt, bring Byrony and Leo closer together? Or will laying all her secrets bare shatter an already broken relationship beyond repair?

‘Not Quite a Husband’ was the 2009 stand-alone historical romance novel from Sherry Thomas.

Where the heck have I been? Seriously! ‘Not Quite a Husband’ is the first Sherry Thomas book I have ever read – and I am so annoyed at myself that I didn’t rectify that situation sooner! Thomas is quite a romance heavy-weight, having previously won the ‘Publisher’s Weekly Best of the Year Book’, and with ‘Not Quite a Husband’ she was the 2010 RITA Award recipient for Best Historical Romance. I have heard her name bandied about before, and someone at some point has recommended her books to me. I just can’t believe it has taken me this long to finally pick her up, because after ‘Not Quite a Husband’ I think I have discovered a favourite new romance author!

It always bothers me that historical romance novels are regarded as amongst the lowly literary genres. True, sometimes the bodice-ripper front covers don’t help the cause, but for the most part it’s frustrating when so many wonderful authors and their fantastic writing are overlooked and sneered at for being none other than ‘romance’. That’s how I feel about ‘Not Quite a Husband’ – the ravishing red cover, showing a lot of thigh, really doesn’t communicate the depth within.

We meet Byrony Asquith in India; her third continent in three years, since the end of her marriage. A travelling doctor, who used her skills as a convenient excuse to get away from prying, gossiping London society, Byrony is stupefied when her ex-husband Leo Marsden appears one day, and announces his intentions to escort her safely home to her father’s bedside. She reluctantly accepts, and their trek through India sees them caught in the middle of the Swat Valley Uprising of 1897.

Byrony and Leo have a complicated past. They were neighbours during their childhood in the Cotswolds, and Leo loved the older Byrony from afar – a serious and solemn young girl who had already lived through the death of her mother and step-mother by the time she was eight, abandonment by her father left her a lonesome teenager. Four years her junior, Leo was captivated by her, and delighted when they reconnected in London in their 20’s – he, a renowned mathematician and sought-after dinner companion, and she a much gossiped about female physician. Leo was especially delighted and surprised when Byrony proposed to him soon after their reconnection, and they enjoyed a wonderful engagement. But not long after they took their vows, their marriage began to deteriorate. Whereas Leo went in with a full heart and heady optimism, Byrony turned from him and eventually barred him from their marital bed. Annulment shortly followed.

During their trek through India, we are given insight into both Leo and Byrony’s memories of their marriage . . . and it’s most curious to read how very differently they view the deteriorating year. Byrony reminisces about her embarrassing infatuation with Leo – her prideful feelings towards such a handsome, popular husband which eventually turned bitter and embarrassed. Leo, meanwhile, remembers his infatuation as a young lad and his being blind-sided by her sudden turning away from him;
“What’s the matter?” she asked, her tone subdued.
“Nothing,” he said softly. “I forgot that you could make me laugh, that’s all.”
Her reaction was a slow, downward sweep of her lashes. When she raised her eyes again, her face had assumed a plasterlike smoothness.
The Castle. He’d seen this expression far too many times during their marriage. The Castle was Byrony drawing up the gates and retreating deep into the inner keep. And he’d always hated it. Marriage meant that you shared your goddam castle. You didn’t leave your poor knight of a husband circling the walls trying to find a way in.

As their trek continues, Leo and readers slowly become privy to the event which ultimately undid the marriage for Byrony . . . and it’s a hurt that even three years of running has not managed to heal;

Her heart was made of glass: It could break, but it could not expand.

I loved the point at which Sherry Thomas wrote Leo and Bryony’s rekindling. Really, this book could have quite plausibly began with Byrony’s proposing to Leo, or it could have followed them through their first disastrous year of marriage . . . but I love that Thomas throws these two damaged, wounded people into the wilds of India during anti-colonialism uprisings. Fear of death crystallizes their feelings for one another – and prompts an outpouring of truths and hidden hurts. Everything is ramped-up, every emotion all the more powerful for Thomas having set ‘Not Quite a Husband’ during turbulent times, and concentrated on the even more turbulent falling-apart marriage.

I also loved Leo and Byrony’s pasts. They are both very complicated people, Byrony in particular. She had already experienced so much death at such a young age, and that really shaped her into the woman she became . . . an introverted, brittle woman who didn’t trust in love. Leo, on the other hand, had loved Byrony from afar for such a long time (without her knowledge) that when their marriage crumpled he had to deal with the crushing blow of all his highest hopes being dashed.

As much as I loved Byrony and Leo’s unusual love story, I especially loved all the tid-bits of information Thomas throws in about the Swat Valley uprising. She goes into fantastic detail on her website about the India setting and colonialism underpinnings.

‘Not Quite a Husband’ is one of the best historical romance novels I have read in a long time. I am ashamed to say that it was the first Sherry Thomas novel I read, but I vow that it won’t be my last!

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