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Friday, September 28, 2012

'Creepy and Maud' by Dianne Touchell

 Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

Hilarious and heartbreaking, Creepy & Maud charts the relationship between two social misfits, played out in the space between their windows.

Creepy is a boy who watches from the shadows keenly observing and caustically commentating on human folly.

Maud is less certain. A confused girl with a condition that embarrasses her parents and assures her isolation.

Together Creepy and Maud discover something outside their own vulnerability — each other’s. But life is arbitrary; and loving someone doesn’t mean you can save them.

Creepy & Maud is a blackly funny and moving first novel that says; ‘You’re ok to be as screwed up as you think you are and you’re not alone in that.’

Creepy and Maud are neighbours and on the outskirts, of everything.

So, they watch everything.

They watch their parents like they’re observing a particularly gruesome animal documentary. Creepy watches them yell blue murder at one another; he monitors the half-empty glasses of wine his mum stores around the house, and he quietly observes his dad training their dog, Dobie Squires, to attack his wife with a yelled “Gitah!” (get her). Maud watches her quiet mother, her mother who never cries. She sees her father lurking around the house, seeking out her mother’s cat to kick.

Creepy watches the people at school. He notices how the clique of beautiful girls are currently obsessed with Pandora bracelets, wrapping all their hopes and dreams up in tiny charms. Maud sees the shaking, sweating hands of their French teacher.

Creepy and Maud are on the outskirts, quietly watching.

And then, one day, Creepy starts watching Maud. From across the way he sees that his bedroom window looks into hers (if her curtains are open and Creepy stands a certain way and uses a pair of relic binoculars). Creepy watches Maud pulling on her hair – the hair atop her head, on her eyelashes, even the hair . . . down there. He watches Maud draw. He watches Maud’s father yell at her. He watches Maud being . . . Maud. And Creepy falls in love.

So he holds a note up to his window for her to see . . .

. . . And then Maud starts watching Creepy right back.

‘Creepy and Maud’ is the debut young adult novel from Australian author, Dianne Touchell.

Creepy and Maud take turns narrating their unfolding romance, beginning with Creepy observing the decidedly unromantic life of his parents who have not set a very good example for their young son. In fact, Creepy begins so sceptical about love that he does not like to be touched, by anybody. But then he starts observing Maud across the way, he takes note that she has Trichotillomania – enjoys pulling her hair out – and he is intrigued at her manifestation of pain. He’s also intrigued by her drawing, her cat’s eye glasses and eventually everything about her.

Creepy is Creepy partly because he’s invisible – always with his head in a book, his superior mind doesn’t leave him much room to tolerate most kids his age. He reads the classics, from Kerouac to Thomas Hardy, ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’ and ‘Peter Pan’. He quotes Lewis Carroll to Maud via a written message held up to his window, inadvertently appealing to her love of five’s (five letters, five-word sentences, five syllables. . .) But he’s also Creepy because he falls in love with Maud, fast and from a distance;

All right, so I have spent a bit of time looking in there. It’s funny how when you watch someone for a while, as you learn them, you begin to feel as if they’re complicit in the observation. As if you have their permission. As if they actually feel you watching, and like it. That’s when I got careless, though. That’s when I got comfortable.
Am I sounding creepy? Love is sort of creepy.
When you fall in love, you presuppose all sorts of things about the person. You superimpose all kinds of ideals and fantasies on them. You create all manner of unrealistic, untenable, unsatisfiable criteria for that person, automatically guaranteeing their failure and your heartbreak. And what do we call it? Romance. Now, that’s creepy.

This is such a lyrical, beautiful novel about a kooky suburban love story between teenage neighbours. It’s really a very simple story, insomuch as a love story can be simple, but it’s the characters of Creepy and Maud that make this book seem rather grandiose. And it's Touchell's fresh and delicious prose that makes this novel truly unforgettable.

Creepy is a very articulate, observant young man with a dark, dark, dark sense of humour. He starts out seeing the world in such a wonderfully austere way, but he starts to slowly and subtly change when he begins watching Maud. Suddenly, all those romantic books he reads come in handy. One day he sees Maud not looking her usual gloomy self, and he describes the image thus; “With a smile like a shiver on a landscape.” Urgh! He’s gorgeous; even more so for being a little bit mysterious to both Maud and the reader.

Creepy falling for Maud is a little bit of a miracle, considering the romantic role models his parent’s aren’t. So when he does fall, it’s a little bit spectacular;

And I wonder what would happen if we touched each other. Would we repulse each other like charged magnets held south to south, or would we short each other out and curl together like the knuckles of bone in the spine of a sleeping cat?

Maud is equally fascinating. She doesn’t think she’s as articulate as Creepy, or as smart (what with all those books he reads). Maud understands the world through drawing, her grandma and the sweet sensation of ‘pulling’. She yearns for a real friend, but doesn’t know how to get one. And she thinks Creepy’s parents love each other, since they still have enough passion to yell at one another. Each of her chapters ends with a Coda – the sum of her thoughts that reveal Maud is a lot smarter than anybody gives her credit for;

Coda: I wait for the light to fascinate me.

‘Creepy and Maud’ is a disarmingly wonderful novel. It’s funny, dark and weird; a neighbourly love story across the ways that contrasts the horrors of suburban family values with the seismic tremors of first love. Creepy is severely witty, and Maud a fascinatingly complex young woman. Dianne Touchell is most certainly a sharp new voice to look out for on the Australian YA scene.


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

'Quintana of Charyn' Lumatere Chronicles #3 by Melina Marchetta

 Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:
There's a babe in my belly that whispers the valley, Froi.
I follow the whispers and come to the road...
Separated from the girl he loves and has sworn to protect, Froi must travel through Charyn to search for Quintana, the mother of Charyn's unborn king, and protect her against those who will do anything to gain power. But what happens when loyalty to family and country conflict? When the forces marshalled in Charyn's war gather and threaten to involve the whole of the land, including Lumatere, only Froi can set things right, with the help of those he loves.

‘Quintana of Charyn’ is the much-anticipated third and final novel in Melina Marchetta’s ‘Lumatere Chronicles.’

I didn’t want to read this book, because I didn’t want to have it all come to an end. Melina Marchetta has taken readers on an epic and perilous journey that began with the assassination of a royal family, a Kingdom’s curse and ten years of exile that separated families, and destroyed lives. She has written tangled webs and fractured hearts, and the types of classic, grandiose love stories that can only be found in fantasy. I've loved every page of ‘The Lumatere Chronicles’, and though I was sad to read its end with ‘Quintana of Charyn’, I found there was a lot to love in this goodbye. But, then again, maybe I shouldn’t look at this as ‘the end’. A large focus of ‘Quintana’ is hope; hope and family and how those two are sometimes irrevocably linked. So maybe it’s more accurate to say that ‘Quintana’ isn’t about the destination, but the journey. You have to go there to come back, so to speak. Through the uncertainty of ‘Finnikin’ and the darkness of ‘Froi’, you had to go there to get to this point. To this book that’s brimming with hope and family – maybe it’s more like a homecoming than an ending?

‘Quintana of Charyn’ picks up where ‘Froi of the Exiles’ left off, give or take a few weeks during Froi’s recovery. When we revisit him, Froi is being tended to by his uncle Arjuro, but is restless and heartsick for Quintana, not knowing her whereabouts but knowing there will be a price on her head as King-killer and last Charyn royal. Not to mention, she carries their babe. So once Arjuro relents, Froi intends to go searching for his Quintana with his parents, Gargarin and Lirah, in tow.

Meanwhile, Isaboe and Finnikin are fighting – nobody has heard from Froi in weeks and rumours are swirling that his allegiance has shifted. Finnikin wonders if there is more to Isaboe’s concern over Froi’s whereabouts, and it becomes abundantly clear that he is still not quite resigned to his role as Consort. Though Isaboe is big with a baby on the way, Finnikin decides to leave their home and go travelling with his father, Trevanion and trusted soldier Perri, the three men still on the hunt of vengeance for Isaboe’s slain family.

Trouble is brewing in the valley since a plague killed some of the Charynite women, including Lumatere leader, Lucian’s, wife. Food is scarce for those seeking refuge, but Isaboe will not bring war to her valley by opening her home to those she has a dark past with. And while Lucian grieves for his deceased wife, Phaedra of Alonso is in fact hiding in a cave with other Charynite women; Cora, Florenza, Jorja and Ginny. These five women could not be more different, but it’s keeping someone secret that binds them together and keeps them hidden.

And down in the same valley, a savage girl wanders.

‘Quintana of Charyn’ begins with many tangled webs and seemingly disconnected stories, spread across the Skuldenore land. But as the book progresses, stories overlap . . . connections are made and fate plays a deft hand in these character’s lives and paths. And along with ‘family’ and ‘hope’, I do think that fate plays a big part in this book – and perhaps has been playing its part since ‘Finnikin of the Rock’, as storylines transpire and show roots reaching back to that first book. I think Froi summarizes this beautifully, in one of my favourite scenes between him and Arjuro. ‘The Lumatere Chronicles’ has been filled with characters transforming themselves and rising above their circumstances – Evanjalin to Queen Isaboe, and Froi from street urchin to Queen’s trusted assassin being the biggest. With that in mind, it was humbling and touching to read Froi’s thoughts on the hard life he’s had, and that he wouldn’t change any of it;

Froi saw the rage in Arjuro’s eyes, his clenched fists.
‘If I could find the men who did those things to you as a child I would tear them limb from limb.’
Froi embraced him.
‘One day,’ Froi said, clearing his voice of emotion, ‘I’ll introduce you to my queen and my king and my captain; and Lord August and Lady Abian, who have given me a home; and the Priestking and Perri and Tesadora and my friend Lucian; and then you’ll understand that I would never have met them if you hadn’t journeyed to Sarnak all those years ago, Arjuro. And if the gods were to give me a choice between living a better life, having not met them, or a wretched life with the slightest chance of crossing their path, then I'd pick the wretched life over and over again.’
He kissed Arjuro’s brow. Finnikin called it a blessing between two male blood kin. It always had made Froi ache seeing it between Finnikin and Trevanion.
‘I'd live it again just to have crossed all of your paths. Keep safe, Arjuro. Keep safe so I can bring your brother home to you.’

One of my favourite aspects of this book is the poisoned history between Queen Isaboe and Princess Quintana. Quintana and Isaboe actually reminded me a little of Elizabeth ‘The Virgin Queen’ and Mary ‘Queen of Scots’ for the very complicated royal rivalry where one life hangs in the balance of another, and what’s in each of their bellies could change the fate of Skuldenore forever. Throughout this book there’s this tension pulling Isaboe and Quintana tighter and tighter, like an invisible rubber band that’s about to snap and send them colliding into one another. I just loved that so much power and fate is bundled up in the wombs of these two very different, but very powerful women. They’re also interesting for the people they have inadvertently come to share between them – like Froi, who is battling the love he has for his Queen, with the need he has for Quintana. 

Speaking of the women of this book; they’re simply wonderful. I hate to draw comparisons between any of the ‘Lumatere Chronicles’ books and Melina’s previous contemporary work, because they’re very different beasts, but the Charynite women in the cave had powerful echoes of ‘Saving Francesca’ for me. It was the fact that these women are thrown together for reasons beyond their control, and to begin with they can barely conceal their disgust at having to cohabitate … but then something changes, something bigger and more important draws them together and by the end it seems they can’t imagine their lives without one other. They would die for each other. Substitute the cave for St Sebastian's and you’ll know where I got that connection from, and why I loved reading about the forming bond between these women.

Many of you will no doubt remember that ‘Froi of the Exiles’ left fans reeling with many cliffhangers and revelations. Well, let me assure you that Marchetta pays tribute to all those loose-ends and pitfalls in a most satisfying way. This book is really about coming full-circle; and while some resolutions are quieter than others (like the subtle mentions Beatriss makes to Trevanion teaching his daughter, Vestie, to swim) others are far more complex – like Lucian and Phaedra’s rather rocky relationship, or Tesadora and Perri’s secretive one. The big players are the focus of this book – Froi, Quintana, Finnikin and Isaboe – but it’s a mainstay of all Melina Marchetta’s stories that she writes as interesting and complicated secondary characters as she does protagonists, and that’s again true of ‘Quintana of Charyn’.

And as for whether or not ‘Quintana of Charyn’ is a most satisfying conclusion to the epic ‘Lumatere Chronicles’? Of course it is. I can’t wait until many people have read this book, and there’s wide-open discussion about how beautifully tricky and gut-wrenching a certain plot point is towards the end. It’s a scene that shows Queen Isaboe’s mettle, and her compassion – and another one of those moments that seems to ring with destiny. So beautiful is this scene, this moment between two Queens, it has the makings of a legend – like a tale that will be passed down from generation to generation.

‘Quintana of Charyn’ is indeed the end of the epic ‘Lumatere Chronicles’ (though I will have my fingers crossed for more Celie short stories). This has not been an easy trilogy, far from it – Marchetta wrote of a royal murder, heartbreaking curse, separated families, displacement and sad destinies. But this has also been a series with one of the most beautiful father/son relationships explored, between Trevanion and Finnikin. It has been a series based around strong women who were once broken, but never defeated. Marchetta wrote a foul street urchin in one book, and then built him up to admired assassin and kingdom saviour in another. She wrote of families being torn apart, only to make their finding one another that much sweeter. For three books now she has written a fine balance between darkness and light, hope and despair. Yes, you had to go there to get to this point, to this book . . . this book which takes us full-circle, to bring us home again. It’s not the destination; it’s the journey – and what a wonderful journey it has been.


Saturday, September 22, 2012

'Thirteen' Women of the Otherworld #13 by Kelley Armstrong

From the BLURB:

War is coming to the Otherworld. A sinister cult known as The Supernatural Liberation Movement is hell-bent on exposing the truth about supernaturals to the rest of the world. Their violent, ruthless plan has put everyone at risk: from werewolves to vampires, from witches to half-demons.

Savannah Levine - fiery and unpredictable - stands at the heart of the maelstrom. There is a new, dark magic inside her, granting her the power to summon spells of terrifying strength. But whether this magic is a gift or a curse, no one knows.

On the eve of battle, all the major players must come together in a last, desperate fight for survival - Elena and Clay; Adam and Savannah; Paige and Lucas; Jeremy and Jaime; Hope, Eve and more... They are fighting for lives. They are fighting for their loved ones.

They are fighting for the Otherworld.

This review contains spoilers for all previous 'Otherworld' books

‘13’ is the thirteenth and final book in Kelley Armstrong’s epic urban fantasy ‘Women of the Otherworld’ series.

This is the all-star final showdown, slow-clap finale to Armstrong’s much loved series. This is the book fans have been waiting for, but I’ve got to say … I was not impressed. Much as it pains me to admit.

Savannah Levine is again narrating, rounding out her POV books to a nice trilogy – ‘Waking the Witch’, ‘Spell Bound’ and now bringing it all together with ‘13’. But even though this is, again, Savannah’s book, every previous female protagonist gets one chapter devoted to them, so throughout the book we’re switched to Elena, Hope and Paige’s point of views.

Armstrong certainly has made ‘13’ an epic finale (maybe a little too epic?) with supernatural in-fighting between all supernaturals. The Supernatural Liberation Movement want to ‘out’ supernaturals (and presumably take over the world?) but they have a fight on their hands, against those who would prefer to keep their secrets. So all species are drawn into this one – vampires, werewolves, witches, psychics, necormancers, angels and most especially demons (many of whom are watching over their human offspring, and hedging bets on which side will come out victorious). Savannah Levine seems to be in the middle of it all – a powerful witch with a demon grandfather, deceased witch mother and warlock father who now have ties to the otherworld.

If it sounds like there’s a lot going on, that’s because there is. And that was actually a real problem for me – the helter-skelter plot really detracted from the characters and turned this into a rather cold, impersonal ‘sayonara’.

This feeling of detachment was particularly prevalent with the ‘romance’ aspect of this final book, between Savannah and Adam Vasic. It’s partly the fact that the groundwork for them really hasn’t been there in previous instalments. In Savannah’s other two narrated books, Adam was a bit player, and it was Savannah’s feelings for him (even in his absence) that were the focus. They literally came together in the last few pages of ‘Spell Bound’, and now we jump into the very chaotic events of ‘13’, when they really don’t have time to reconcile their newfound feelings and it just generally makes for a jumble. But, like I said, that’s partly due to the groundwork not being there for these characters in previous books . . . and you realize that maybe Savannah’s previous narration turns were a little too plot-heavy and not focused enough on her relationships. Really, the two books Savannah narrated followed similar storylines of Savannah going solo on an investigation into a small country town. We’ve really only got to know her on her own, and what we know of her in relation to other characters (Paige, in particular) we’ve only garnered when she was a secondary character in their books or short stories.

It’s actually reiterated a few times that Savannah and Adam are kind of testing the waters – this will be the first major relationship for both of them, and they’re wary about losing a friendship if the romance doesn’t work out. Then there’s the age-gap (Lucas, creepily, points out that Adam is only one year younger than him). But Savannah maintains that if it’s a mistake, she’ll have to make it on her own terms. Now, I completely understand that fast-tracking Adam and Savannah’s relationship from ‘childhood crush’ to ‘soul mates’ would have been disingenuous and would have had readers scoffing. But at the same time, this is the last book, and for that reason I would have liked more fireworks and epic love, as opposed to the rather ho-hum ‘let’s just see how it goes’ and ‘we’re taking things slow’ route. All in all, Adam and Savannah were a fizzle, not a sizzle. I was actually more invested in the small snippet scenes between werewolf, Karl, and his pregnant psychic wife, Hope because they had that deep, connected love story between them – and it just added more weight and meaning to all of their scenes. Karl and Hope actually ended up highlighting the hollowness of Savannah and Adam.

I did spend a bit of ‘13’ thinking this felt more like the book before the last book. Like Armstrong was still laying a lot of breadcrumbs and setting up her long-game ending … maybe because the many character reappearances, near-deaths and open-ended relationships felt more like build-up than finale.

There’s ‘a word from Kelley Armstrong’ at the beginning of the book, where she acknowledges the fact that many fans would have preferred that this final book finish with Elena narrating (and coming full-circle in the series that she started, with ‘Bitten’). Armstrong acknowledges that, but says she’s had the idea for Savannah to be the final narrator for a while now – since she’s the character we’ve seen grow from teenager, into young adulthood. Nevertheless, it just so happens that some of the most interesting exchanges and moments in ‘13’ are concerned with the Pack, and involve Clay and Elena anyway. It’s these moments that far outshine the rest of the goings on with Savannah, demons, angels and Adam. I feel like Armstrong inadvertently touched on this in one particular scene. . .

I grinned. “Yes, typical five-year-olds – playing Metallica and learning French for fun. As for the bunnies, I’m not going there.”
“Don’t. Anyway, sounds like situation normal at the Lester house tonight. The kids fighting, while Mom’s telling them to stop bickering before their dad comes down to chew them out.”
“Except at our place,” Clay said, “it’s me saying ‘Cool it before Mom comes down.’”
“Because I’m much scarier than he is,” Elena said. Now if I could just convince every mutt in the country to see it that way.”
Adam said, “So Lester’s upstairs?”
“Oh, sure, bring the conversation back on track,” I said. “Spoilsport.”

My sentiments exactly.

But I think Armstrong must have been more swayed by readers clamouring for Elena’s POV than she let on, because there’s another note from her at the end, followed by an Elena short story called ‘From Russia, With Love.’ In this ‘final note from Kelley’ she admits that ‘13’ didn’t wrap with the ‘Otherworld’ characters going quietly into the night, their stories neatly tied up.

“God, we’re getting responsible,” I said.
He smiled. “Being careful just means we’ll live long enough to have more adventures.”

If readers feel like this universe is still expanding, that’d be because it is – with Armstrong planning three short story anthologies (the first of which is slated for 2014) and she’s also not saying ‘no’ to a possible revisit to the ‘Otherworld.’ I certainly hope she does, particularly because a certain basement discovery in ‘13’ has great impact on the Pack, and the short ‘From Russia, With Love’ reminds readers that there are still some interesting, untapped werewolf secondary characters to be explored – like suave Nick Sorrentino and Australian wolf, Reese.

All in all, I was really disappointed with this book. It felt like Armstrong was so laser-focused on the big, grand, sweeping finale plot that all those characters we’ve come to know and love fell by the wayside. Clay and Elena, as always, were the most interesting aspect of the book – and their short story at the end was perhaps the major highlight of the whole thing. The romances of Lucas and Paige, Karl and Hope, heck, even Cassandra and Aaron all really highlighted what was missing from the ‘we’re testing the waters’ fledgling romance with Savannah and Adam – and made me realize that if you’re going to write about the end of the world, maybe don’t focus on a first-date couple, rather go for the epic love story of soul mates? Just a suggestion.

I certainly hope Armstrong continues to write ‘Otherworld’ short stories, and revisit a few characters, because ‘13’ was not how I envisioned this thing ending. Not at all.


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

'Switched at Birth' - TV series

I’m getting that familiar urge to climb aboard my TV soapbox and preach what I think everybody should be watching. My latest television crusade is the (American) ABC Family show, ‘Switched at Birth’ which has been airing since June 2011 in a seriously long (and still going) first season, that’s concluding in November after a huge 32 episodes.

Now, I’m going to summarise the basic premise of the show (sparknote version: the title pretty much tells you all you need to know) but I feel the need to warn you that while the basic plot sounds a lot like an over-the-top soap opera, it’s totally not. Just, trust me, and go with it.

Bay Kennish has always been the black sheep of her wealthy Kansas family, literally. Her dark hair colouring has always been attributed to a long-ago Spanish ancestor, but her penchant for explosive art experimentation isn’t so easily explained away. 

And then a school biology project has Bay questioning her entire life. After taking blood samples from both her parents, Bay makes the unsettling discovery that she shares no DNA with the people who have raised her. But the truth is just as much a shock to Kathryn (Lea Thompson) and John (D. W. Moffett) as it is to Bay, and her brother Toby (Lucas Grabeel) who certainly is his parents’ son. The family seek further genetic testing and realize that the first tests were not a fluke: Bay is indeed not their daughter.  

An investigation is launched that leads them back to the hospital where Bay was born, where it’s discovered she was ‘Switched at Birth’ with one Daphne Vasquez (Katie Leclerc). 

Daphne grew up in a rough neighbourhood in Riverside, Missouri. She is raised by her single-mother, Regina (Constance Marie) and Puerto Rican grandmother (Ivonne Coll) – Daphne is also deaf. 

When the Kennish’s seek Daphne and Regina out, the girls are reunited with their biological mothers for the first time – but that’s really only the beginning of the story.

I love ‘Switched at Birth’. Like I said, the basic premise sounds rather outlandish – but this show is wonderful because it has real heart. And if you think the switched at birth plot is complex, wait till the series unfolds and even more tangled webs are woven.

The show deals with parent’s guilt, Kathryn, Regina and John come to terms with the fact that they didn’t recognize that their baby daughters were not their own. They also deal with the guilt of finding connections with their biological daughters, that they don’t necessarily have with the girls they raised. For instance, Regina was a great painter in her youth, and Bay certainly inherited that artistic streak, while John is a retired baseball star who is thrilled to find that Daphne is sport-obsessed and a stellar basketball player for her deaf team. Of course, the show also explores how Daphne and Bay feel about making connections with their biological parents – while finding that the gap with their ‘switched’ parents grows with every newfound link. One wonderful episode involved the Kennish matriarch coming to meet Daphne for the first time, and deciding to all but sever connections with Bay (not least of all due to her newfound Puerto Rican roots). 

The show really becomes about how these two families fit together in the wake of their discovery. Because, certainly, the Kennish’s still think of Bay as their own, and likewise the Vasquez women feel the same way about Daphne. But the parents don’t want to step on each other’s toes in the raising of either their daughter, while still desperate to get to know the biological daughter they were denied. 

Some may say that Bay got the shorter end of the stick with finding her biological family – because she also discovered that her biological father, Angelo (Gilles Marini) left Regina and Daphne shortly after Daphne lost her hearing. Angelo had doubts early on, about Daphne’s paternity; but that he left shortly after she lost her hearing has always made Daphne assume that he couldn’t handle having a ‘disabled’ child. So while Bay is desperate to find and meet her biological father, establishing a connection with him dregs up old hurts for Daphne. 

The show throws spanners in the works in subtle but fascinating ways. For instance, in the socioeconomic discrepancies between the Kennish wealth and the Vasquez’s ‘wrong side of the tracks’. When it’s discovered that Regina is also a recovering alcoholic, Kathryn and John think that makes them somehow more entitled to raising Daphne. 

But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the show is its exploration into deaf culture. 

Daphne was not born deaf; she lost her hearing after a terrible bout of meningitis. This, in itself, is a problem for the Kennish’s who want to link Regina’s single-motherhood and low-earning income to Daphne perhaps not receiving proper medical care in her youth? But the fact that Daphne is deaf also presents another barrier for her hearing biological family – who do not know American Sign Language (ASL). 

The show is amazing for having such an emphasis on the deaf community. It’s fascinating the way they explore what it is to be deaf in today’s society, and especially what it means to be deaf in a hearing family. Daphne really has to train her biological parents – and likewise, viewers – and induct them into the deaf community. Daphne attends Carlton, a school for the deaf, and has a deaf best friend called Emmett (Sean Berdy), whose mother in the show is Oscar-winning deaf actress, Marlee Matlin. 

The deaf focus of the show is perhaps my favourite thing about it. I’ve actually picked up on a bit of ASL from watching (the basics like ‘thank you’ and ‘don’t understand’ – but also some words that translate beautifully with hands, like ‘marriage’). But, really, the entire deaf focus is so interesting and handled so beautifully, and the hearing actors do a marvellous job with what I’m sure is a very unusual script.

There were a few episodes in which Daphne agrees to take cooking classes at Bay’s fancy private school, but she has to have an ASL interpreter with her. This proves an embarrassing inconvenience when none of the hearing students or teachers know how to speak to her through the middle-aged man tagging along, and even though Daphne can read people’s lips they just act like she isn’t there and address her interpreter instead. It’s these little things that were wonderful to experience through Daphne’s eyes – her rage and frustration, and being made to feel like a ‘freak’. And it’s no wonder she ultimately chooses to go back to Carlton. 

A big storyline (that I had to spoil – but need to talk about as another interesting aspect of the show) is the evolving romantic relationship between Emmett and Bay. 

When we first meet him, Emmett is very much of an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality with regards to deaf people and the hearing community. Emmett comes from a deaf family, but bullying when he was younger definitely left its scars, and whereas Daphne is comfortable speaking, Emmett is embarrassed by his altered speech and refuses to talk. That’s something I’ve never really thought about – how revealing it must be for a deaf person to share their voice and I loved how ‘Switched at Birth’ handled and explained this. Now big SPOILER alert – if you want to definitely, 100% be convinced to watch this show then you must click here and watch this YouTube clip. It’s my favourite scene from the show so far, and so darn romantic! And watching this, you’ll easily see why everyone who watches the show has developed a massive crush on Sean Berdy. 

Maybe it’s a little thing, but I think ABC Family portray scenes between the deaf actors wonderfully. These scenes often won’t have soundtrack music playing; they’ll just be about the two actors – no ‘hearing’ distractions, real emphasis on what they’re saying. And, really, it’s amazing to watch how emotional a language ASL is – and how beautifully and accurately they speak with their hands. And I’ve already been inspired to read one book with a deaf protagonist (‘Five Flavors of Dumb’ by Antony John) because ‘Switched at Birth’ had me seeking out more stories centred around this fascinating community. 

As much as child/parent relationships are a focus of this show (as well as some Nature vs. Nurture thrown in) I think what it keeps snapping back to is Bay and Daphne. They have this very odd relationship where they’re almost like sisters, but they’re not actually related. In another life, their paths would never have crossed but through a twist of fate they will be irrevocably linked. I feel like plenty of episodes have explored the girls’ burgeoning relationships with their biological parents and how they sometimes fracture the history they have with the parents who raised them . . . but in more recent episodes the girls have shared some nice moments, and I look forward to them figuring out where they stand in each other’s lives too.

The show has a weird first season, because it started with only ten episodes but after it launched as the highest original series debut in ABC Family's history for its target demo, the network decided to give the show a further 22-episodes in its first season. So while some people may think the episodes currently airing (after a March to September break in-between) are the second season, it’s actually just a stretched 32-episode first season. And there is a high likelihood that a second season will be commissioned. I certainly hope so, because in a very short time it has become a favourite show of mine.

Monday, September 17, 2012

'The Fine Color of Rust' by P.A. O'Reilly

 Received from the Publisher 

From the BLURB:

Single mother and dreamer Loretta Boskovic lives in Gunapan, a town lost in the scrubby Australian bush. She has fantasies about dumping her two kids in the orphanage and riding off on a Harley with her dream lover. Her best pal is a crusty old junk man called Norm. She needs a lawnmower; he gives her two goats called Terror and Panic.

Loretta′s a self-dubbed ′old scrag′, but she′s got a big heart and a strong sense of injustice. So, when the government threatens to close down Gunapan′s primary school, and there′s a whiff of corruption wafting through the corridors of the local council, Loretta stirs into action. She may be short of money, influence and a fully functioning car, but she has loyal friends. Together they can organise protests, supermarket sausage sizzles, a tour of the abattoir - whatever it takes to hold on to the scrap of world that is home.

Loretta Boskovic dreams of lantern-jawed man with rough stubble, spurs on his boots and a purring Harley-Davidson. In reality Loretta wears creaking $2 bras and underwear on its last elastane legs, she has an overgrown lawn, clunking car and two kids to raise on her lonesome after her no-good husband bolted three years ago. And the cherry on top of Loretta’s life is Gunapan – the rusted old town situated somewhere in the forgotten Australian bush; so far out of mind that the local council want to shut the school down, and a hush-hush land development is brewing under everyone’s noses.

But Loretta also has Norm, the kindly old junk man who is quite possibly the best friend she has ever had. There’s also a new mechanic in town, Merv Bull, who probably won’t stay single for long but Loretta can admire from afar until then. Then there’s Terror and Panic – lawnmowers in the form of goats. And the urge to chuck Jake and Melissa into an orphanage and skedaddle to Melbourne is coming less and less.

Maybe the Japanese are on to something with that word ‘sabi’ – “which connotes the simple beauty of worn and imperfect and impermanent things.” Maybe Loretta’s life isn’t so bad, it’s just a little bit ‘sabi.’ 

‘The Fine Colour of Rust’ is the stand-alone novel from Australian author, P.A. (Paddy) O’Reilly.

There’s been a trend in Australian publishing of late, a trend called ‘chook lit’. In recent years the otherwise struggling Aussie publishing scene has experienced a boom in rural romances, which glamorize and romanticize the Australian outback and country life. Kylie Northover wrote an article for 'The Age' back in April: “The novels tend to follow the narrative conventions of romance novels - attraction, a conflict, a drawn-out courtship - but they also feature feisty female protagonists who love the land and poetic portrayals of farming or outback life.” Now, the cringe-worthy ‘chook lit’ tag aside, I have actually enjoyed a few of these novels and my grandma can’t get enough of them. But the very notion of a ‘romanticized’ outback suggests a rose-tint being added to rust, which is why I so enjoyed Paddy O’Reilly’s ‘The Fine Colour of Rust’ as a sort of antithesis to the ‘chook lit’ trend.

I, and I’m sure many people, know Paddy O’Reilly primarily as a short story writer. She won ‘The Age’ short story competition in 2002 for ‘Snapshots of Strangers’, and her 2007 short story collection ‘The End of the World’ received much critical acclaim. I was really eager to read ‘The Fine Colour of Rust’, but I was in now way prepared for how much I’d love O’Reilly’s novel.

First and foremost, I want people to know that this book is funny. No – it’s hysterical. If this had been ‘chook lit’, then Loretta’s wish of a hunk on a Harley riding off with her into the sunset probably would have been the focus of the story. And Loretta probably would have been described as fabulously slender (even after two children) with hair that never frizzes in the outback heat. But it’s like O’Reilly is kicking red dirt in the faces of all those ‘chook lit’ books that so glamorize the rural outback town and life. She’s telling it like it is, stripping the ‘ideal’ of its varnish and, while not necessarily writing a horror story of ‘Wolf Creek’ proportions, she is most certainly de-glamorizing and adding a wallop of reality. I just loved and laughed at O’Reilly’s examinations of country life in this book – when it gets so hot the birds open their mouths and die of heatstroke, the local pool is shut down over summer to install a fancy café (don’t worry, it’ll be open in time for winter) and the male prospects are dismal. Even mention of a new bachelor in town has Loretta despairing, before she even meets him, because she knows the type of men who populate rural outback towns;

“What’s his name?” I ask Norm.“Merv Bull.”I shake my head. Only in Gunapan. Merv Bull sounds like an old farmer with black teeth and hay in his hair who scoops yellow gobs from his ear and stares at them for minutes on end like they’ll forecast the weather. The image keeps replaying in my mind as I finish wrapping the lemon tarts in waxed paper.“You can’t judge people by their names, Loretta, or you’d be able to carry a tune.”

The town of Gunapan has a real ring of truth to it, and even if you’ve lived (or live) in a similarly sleepy rural hamlet or you’ve just driven through one on your way to some place better, any Australian reading this will be able to picture Gunapan clearly in their minds. And with O’Reilly’s masterful prose and scene-setting, you’ll be able to taste the wind-kicked dirt in the back of your throat, feel the sun scorching your skin and hear the groan of a tin roof simmering in the heat.

I loved Loretta. She used to live in Melbourne before her lousy husband, Tony, dragged them to Gunapan. So she takes a more astute observation of the town and its residents; she knows how ridiculous and country-bumpkin they can seem, but she’s never cruel about their backwards ways (partly because she has succumbed to them). 

I bet she never wears knickers with stretched elastic that slither down and end up in a smiley under each bum cheek. 

I honestly, hand-to-heart, snorted my way through this novel. But funny as it is, ‘The Fine Colour of Rust’ also has real heart. Loretta is fighting a David & Goliath battle against city council that want to first shut their only school down, and then start a questionable land development – all of which Loretta is disputing, with minimal help from the local community. She’s also struggling to raise her two children, both of whom are hopelessly clinging to the thought that their dad will one day return. She does it all with a weary countenance but steely spine (no matter how much she claims otherwise);

It’s been three years since Tony left us. Three years in real time, and more like thirty years in looking-after-children time. I’m sure mothering years go even faster than dog years. I can feel my back turning into a question mark. Sometimes I catch myself hunched over the steering wheel or sagging in a kitchen chair, and I can imagine myself after a few more mothering years, drooling into my porridge in the retirement home. Come on, luvvie, they’ll say to me, sit up straight now, after all, you’re only forty.

Oh, gosh – I loved this book. I loved the ‘sabi’ concept of ‘The Fine Colour of Rust’ that translated so beautifully and funnily to Loretta’s outback struggles (which kicked ‘chook lit’ out the door). I loved the cast of country characters who wormed their way into Loretta’s heart, and mine. And I loved the town of Gunapan – rusted, rural and run-down as it seemed. This is a favourite book of 2012.


Friday, September 14, 2012

'Liar & Spy' by Rebecca Stead

 Received from the Publisher
From the BLURB:

When Georges moves into a Brooklyn apartment building, he meets Safer, a twelve-year-old coffee-drinking loner and self-appointed spy. Georges becomes Safer’s first spy club recruit. His assignment? Tracking the mysterious Mr X, who lives in the apartment upstairs. But as Safer becomes more demanding, Georges starts to wonder: how far is too far to go for your only friend?

Rebecca Stead’s characters are delightfully engaging, and she has woven intricate ideas into a beautiful story. Liar & Spy is an inspired, often-funny novel for middle grade kids about friendship, fears, bullying and how to deal with your worries. It will keep readers guessing until the very end.

Georges is named after Georges Seurat, a famous French Post-Impressionist painter. Georges (the painter) was famous for using the pointillism technique; whereby small, distinct dots of pure colour are applied in patterns to form an image. Georges (the boy) can apply the pointillism technique to his life, the way his mum taught him. He thinks of the small dot that was his best friend, Jason, who no longer hangs out with him, and has become friends with the bullies who call him ‘Gorgeous’ (thanks to that silent ‘s’ in his name). He thinks of the small dot that is his dad losing his architecture job, and them having to move out of their perfect house into a small Brooklyn apartment. He thinks his mum’s longer work shifts at the hospital are one small dot. He thinks of the small dot that is the upcoming taste-test in Mr. Landau’s class, which may or may not decide his destiny. And all of these small dots, when Georges connects them, make up the big picture of his life and represent how insignificant the tough stuff can seem in the grand scheme of things . . .

Mom says that our Seurat poster reminds her to look at the big picture. Like when it hurts to think about selling the house, she tells herself how that bad feeling is just one dot in the giant Seurat painting of our lives.

And then Georges meets Safer, who becomes a very big dot in the grand scheme of George’s new life. . .

Safer is the dog-walker and resident spy of the apartment complex Georges and his family have just moved into. Safer’s sister is Candy who is aptly named for her sweet tooth. Safer’s parents are ‘smart bohemians’ who home-school their children and let them express themselves in odd ways. Safer expresses himself by being a spy, and his latest mission (obsession) is the mysterious black-clad tenant of their apartment complex. And Safer wants Georges’s help in his latest spy-club mission.

‘Liar & Spy’ is the new novel from Newbery Medal winning author Rebecca Stead.

Confession: I think I have a bit of a telepathic bond with Rebecca Stead. I don’t want to sound crazy, but it’s true. Because after reading Stead’s brilliant ‘When You Reach Me’ earlier this year, I likened the book to a Seurat painting – whereby all the dots of characters and plots seemed indecipherable and disconnected for much of the book, until the ending made you step back and admire "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte". 

After my review went live, Rebecca Stead even Tweeted to me the coincidence that Seurat would be mentioned in her next book. Hence, my totally legitimate telepathic bond with Rebecca Stead. See? Not crazy.

But there’s a lot more to ‘Liar & Spy’ than just this wonderful Seurat (‘Sir Ott’, to Georges) analogy. This is a book about a young boy living day-to-day; trying to get through the school week with minimal collateral damage from the bullies who tease him and the ex-best friend who doesn’t seem to want him anymore. Actually, a lot of Georges’s life is spent just grinning and bearing it – getting from Point A to Point B with the least amount of fallout. And his mum’s Seurat dot analogy about the grand scheme of things is fine, but Georges seems to spend a good deal of his time focusing on the BIG PICTURE while wading through the misery of all those little dots.

And then Georges meets Safer. Safer is a brilliant and cunning young man who Georges swings between being impressed and distressed by. Because his dad’s idea of a joke is signing him up for a Spy Club Meeting, Georges gets pulled into Safer’s latest mission involving the tenant who lives in the apartment below him, who never seems to be home, always carries a briefcase with indeterminate contents and is frequently seen wearing black. And suddenly Georges can’t just look at the big picture, because Safer is teaching him that to be a spy you have to look at the minute details and pay attention to all the dots and how they connect.

I loved ‘Liar & Spy’. What Stead does so well is explore seemingly minor occurrences in a young person’s life – but gives them the weight they deserve. And usually, it’s those small instances that make a much bigger impact. For Miranda in ‘When You Reach Me’ it was coming to terms with the sudden loss of her friendship with Sal, for some unknown reason he does not care to explain to her. For Georges, it’s his dad losing his job and his family having to move from their perfect house his dad designed, to a small Brooklyn apartment and his mum working late all the time and sounding forever tired on the phone. I think this is what grabs her young readers; these small problems they can relate to (and find an author who gives them the importance and exploration they deserve), but I also think this is where her older readers can vividly remember and be transported to their youth.

I also enjoy how Stead so perfectly articulates little everyday things, but it’s not until I read them that I realize I've experienced them too. Example?:

I’m hearing a sound. It’s a funny, high-pitched buzzing that I think maybe I've been hearing for a while, without noticing. There should be a word for that, when you hear something and simultaneously realize that it’s been swimming around in your brain for five minutes without your permission.

I will say that ‘When You Reach Me’ is still my favourite Stead book, purely because the aforementioned bigger picture was so epic and brilliantly woven throughout that book. The big reveal at the end of ‘Liar & Spy’ was not so grandiose. Whereas my reaction to all the dots forming at the end of ‘When You Reach Me’ was OMIGOD, my reaction at the end of ‘Liar & Spy’ was more “Oh. Huh.” But that’s not to say I didn’t immensely enjoy everything that came before the somewhat ho-hum ending. Rebecca Stead is still, without a doubt, one of the best children’s authors writing today.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

'Heartbroken and Horny' zine by Zo Watt

 Received from the author 

From the BLURB:

Heartbroken and Horny is the unnecessary diary of a clingy neurotic who becomes a common whore after getting her heart obliterated by her FRB (First Real Boyfriend).

From pregnancy scares to STIs to getting stood up on Lygon St a 11 o’clock at night, Heartbroken and Horny is a warm, uplifting tale about love lost and new depths of despair found, about self-loathing and shame-eating, about falling for your fuck buddies and having that sentiment never returned.

If you’ve ever been dumped; if you’ve ever been rejected; if you’ve ever reeked of desperation, vodka and cheese-less bean burritos, then this is the zine for you.

Full Disclaimer

‘Heartbroken and Horny’ is a zine, written by one “Zo Watt” (blatantly obvious it’s not her real name – hence the “air-quotes”) I got my hands on this little gem because I have been reading the author behind “Zo Watt” for three years now. We went to Uni together, were in the same writing class and became friends. She was a proud young adult writer with strong (‘stubborn’) ideas about what did and did not constitute ‘good’ YA. She wrote with a first-person voice that was so disarmingly rude, funny and pin-point accurate that even the mature-age students in our class who consistently claimed to not have any opinions about YA/children’s books, would look on her with unbridled envy. I distinctly remember feeling my own green-tinged haze when our teacher (a published author herself) claimed that “Zo” could get away with anything, because her voice was so strong and could carry the reader anywhere.

When I graduated I was upset about not being able to see my friends every day, and getting to live the carefree Uni life (to go to class or listen to the lecture online? Decisions, decisions, decisions) I was also upset that I'd no longer be sitting in weekly writing workshops and listening to “Zo’s” latest manuscript snippets. But since graduating, I have consistently put my hand up whenever she wanted a sounding-board for her latest piece of writing.

And then something happened in “Zo’s” personal life that had a profound impact, and it seemed her only catharsis was to write it down in her snarky, sarcastic, soul-searching way. That she chose to do so in zine-instalments is probably an indication of how slow and bit-by-bit this exorcising process still is for her. But that she has also chosen to put this zine out anonymously is an indication of just how honest she’s being. I am told that part of the necessity for “Zo Watt” is to keep certain people’s identities hidden. Oh dear. . .

Please proceed in an orderly fashion to my review . . . 

‘Heartbroken and Horny’ begins with Zo trawling through internet forums on the subject of; ‘I’m still in love with my boyfriend but I’m no longer sexually attracted to him.’ And that’s how she kinda-sorta-but-not-really breaks up with her beautiful, caring but frustratingly Asexual boyfriend, Simon. Simon is “Zo’s” FBF (First. Real. Boyfriend) and a five-year relationship that started in their teens has been a life-raft for both of them, carrying them into early-20’s bliss, which turns complicatedly sour post-breakup (thanks to that rented apartment that still has six months on the lease, a Nan who has come to adore Simon, and accumulated mutual Facebook friending).

First instalment of the zine deals with “Zo” yo-yoing between wanting to be with Simon because they have a relationship that “transcends sex” (plus, he cooks things other than toast!) or breaking up with him and possibly never finding anyone who ever even comes close to emotionally fulfilling her the way Simon does (but even the sound of his breathing is starting to irritate her). At one point “Zo” muses to Simon that life would be so much easier if he were gay; then they could still have the friendship, without sex (or lack of) complicating things. This statement turns out to be rather pathetically prophetic, and the second instalment of ‘Heartbroken and Horny’ chronicles “Zo’s” slippery slope into singledom.

I can safely say that everything I loved and craved in “Zo’s” workshop writing at uni is present and accounted for in this zine. She writes more pop-culture references than Amy Sherman-Palladino and her squirm-inducing honesty about all things love, sex, and being a 20-something moving back home after a break-up is deliciously and depressingly true. “Zo” is sort of Melbourne’s answer to Lena Dunham for the way she writes candid modern relationships (when Facebook becomes a battleground and status updates are landmines waiting to blow you to smithereens) but also the way she writes about modern Melbourne relationships. Expect some Brunswick hijinks’, St. Kilda sluttiness and to question where all those Safety Houses we learned about as kids have gone?

I will say that while “Zo” was adamantly YA in our writing workshops, ‘Heartbroken and Horny’ is most definitely not for that readership. If anything, ‘Heartbroken and Horny’ is a beautiful example of that new genre beast – ‘New Adult’. It’s these rude and crude, sexually-fuelled explorations that will so appeal to the early-to-mid-20’s readership who are going through the exact same things as “Zo” and Simon – when it’s time to leave behind the neatly uncomplicated feelings of our teens and map the rougher terrain of gay boyfriends, sex minus love and what to do with a six-month lease after break-up.

Zine #2 ends on a wee bit of a cliffhanger. Which is odd, for me. Because I've been treated to a little real-life insight into what came next and I know it gets ruder, cruder and funnier and I can’t wait to read it. It’s not even strange to be reading about the raw exploits of someone I know and call friend – because “Zo” writes with that same snarky, sarcastic, soul-searching that I came to crave during our Uni workshops, and just as our teacher predicted – she can carry the reader anywhere.

I'd love to reveal who “Zo Watt” really is, because she’s really great and ‘Heartbroken and Horny’ proves what I've always known about her, from the moment she first read an extract of her work-in-progress during our writing workshop. But like I said in the beginning, I see this zine as a catharsis and a sort of expelling of certain relationship demons. That’s cool. The day will come when “Zo Watt” breaks from her pseudonym-cocoon and morphs into the Lena Dunham/Diablo Cody writerly butterfly she’s destined to someday be.


This zine can be snatched up from the following locations:


Brunswick Bound (361 Sydney Road Brunswick VIC 3056)

Sticky Institute (10 Campbell Arcade, Degraves Subway Melbourne VIC 3000)

Polyester Books (330 Brunswick Street Fitzroy VIC 3065)

Or you can email "Zo Watt" at what may or may not be a real address:

'His at Night' by Sherry Thomas

From the BLURB:

Elissande Edgerton is a desperate woman, a virtual prisoner in the home of her tyrannical uncle. Only through marriage can she claim the freedom she craves. But how to catch the perfect man?

Lord Vere is used to baiting irresistible traps. As a secret agent for the government, he’s tracked down some of the most devious criminals in London, all the while maintaining his cover as one of Society’s most harmless—and idiotic—bachelors. But nothing can prepare him for the scandal of being ensnared by Elissande.

Forced into a marriage of convenience, Elissande and Vere are each about to discover they’re not the only one with a hidden agenda. With seduction their only weapon against each other—and a dark secret from the past endangering both their lives—can they learn to trust each other even as they surrender to a passion that won’t be denied?

Everyone always forgives Lord Vere a faux pas (of which there are always, inevitably, many). From spilling food on his clothes, to tripping over rugs and staring none too subtly down ladies’ cleavage. A riding accident when he was 16 left Vere ‘not quite right’, and everyone forgives and ignores his short-comings. Though it is a shame that the attractive Lord Vere is nothing more than an endearing idiot – had he been ‘normal’, surely he would have been the most marriageable bachelor in London.

Little does London know that Lord Vere is less an idiot, and more a brilliant actor. He is a secret agent for crown and country, and finds that posing as everybody’s ‘lovable idiot’ is the best way to go about undetected and unsuspected when on important missions.

Vere’s latest mission is taking him to Edmund Douglas’s estate, a man whose diamond dealings have bought him to the attention of the crown.

Little does Lord Vere know that while he’s busy using a rat-plague distraction to break into Douglas’s estate, Douglas’s niece Elissande Edgerton is desperately trying to break out.

Elissande and her aunt Rachel have been living under Edmund’s tyrannical hand for years now. They don’t leave the estate, aunt Rachel is forever complacent and doped up on laudanum and Elissande doesn’t dare leave her, for fear of what Edmund would do to get revenge.

What Elissande desperately needs is to take advantage of Lord Vere and the party of people who have fled to her uncle’s estate to escape a rat plague. Lord Vere may be an idiot, but he’s a rich idiot. With his money and title, Elissande and her aunt could escape from uncle Douglas’s clutches and start afresh . . .

‘His at Night’ is a stand alone novel from historical romance author Sherry Thomas.

I recently read my first Sherry Thomas novel, ‘Not Quite a Husband’, and was glad to find a favourite new romance author. So begins my trek through Thomas’s backlist, starting with ‘His at Night.’

When we are first introduced to Lord Vere, we’re told about all of his many and varied foibles, and that London society forgives him all of these indiscretions because he is ‘special’. Little does London know (but readers are made privy) to the fact that Lord Vere is actually a secret agent, who hides behind a ‘riding accident’ as the cause of his idiocy, which is really an elaborate cover-up for his true, secret identity.

Elissande Edgerton, meanwhile, is niece to Douglas Edmund, a tyrannical diamond tycoon who has come under the scrutiny of Vere’s secret agency. Elissande is looking for a quick escape for her and her aunt Rachel, who becomes frailer everyday that Douglas keeps her drugged on laudanum.

These two storylines, separately, are pretty big and ‘out-there’. When combined with a marriage plot that Elissande cooks up, in order to escape her uncle, then the mixture becomes downright epic. And running concurrently with Vere and Elissande’s story is that of Freddie and Angelica – Vere’s younger brother and his recently widowed best friend. Freddie had an intense relationship with one Lady Tremaine five years ago, until she broke it off and returned to her husband. Angelica has loved Freddie since they were children, and has been quietly waiting in the wings for Freddie to notice her and proclaim his love . . .

Yes, it is a tangled web Thomas weaves. And things become even more intense when Elissande is successful in her marriage plot, but Vere’s secret idiotic identity has her suspicious . . .

The handsome idiot hadn’t been at all an idiot, had he? He’d been angry, discourteous, and his language had been downright appalling. But he hadn’t been stupid. He’d known very clearly what she’d done to him, which begged the question: Had he been, like her, pretending to be someone he wasn’t?
The thought was a hook through her heart, yanking it in unpredictable directions.

Just as with ‘Not Quite a Husband’, ‘His at Night’ is not at all your typical historical romance. I love that Thomas wrote this big elaborate plot, but it never felt over-the-top or too ridiculous to believe. She writes so beautifully and her characters are so nuanced and lovely, it’s easy to go along on this rollicking ride with them and suspend disbelief. . .

I also really liked the side-story of Freddie and Angelica. We didn’t get a second storyline in ‘Not Quite a Husband’, and that book was certainly not lacking for it, but it felt like ‘His at Night’ was made fuller and more interestingly complex by Freddie and Angelica’s romance. It was nice to compare their slow-burning romance, which had been bubbling along since childhood, to Vere and Elissande’s sudden marriage and sneaking romance.

If there was any one thing that didn’t work for me, it was Vere’s sudden turn-around towards the end of the novel . . . I don’t think we really got a chance to read his chain-of-thought that saw his feelings towards Elissande change. It just seemed to sort of happen – and while there were events leading up to his turn-around, I feel like we went from gradual acceptance to a ‘light bulb moment’. But it didn’t really matter, because I loved Vere and Elissande together regardless.

This is quite a tricky story Thomas is weaving. Between secret agents, pretend ‘idiots’ and an elaborate escape plan, Thomas does a fantastic job of bringing all these rather outlandish plots together to make for a fast-paced, intense historical romance.


Sunday, September 9, 2012

'How a Moth Becomes a Boat' and 'Tarcutta Wake' by Josephine Rowe

Anton Chekhov put it this way: “Tear your story in half and start in the middle.

That’s probably the best way to describe micro-fiction, a particular literary style that favours brevity and everything left unsaid. It is a literary form with no particular word limit (can be 300 words, but some also consider a 1000-word piece to be micro-fiction) but it is most definitely a style that Australian short-story writer Josephine Rowe exquisitely excels at.

I stumbled across Rowe’s first collection of micro-fiction stories, ‘How A Moth Becomes A Boat’, at my public library. In this collection, Rowe takes a look at the little/big things and writes to the heart of them. She cuts to the quick and pries open stories to the tender morsel of truth. That she does so in fewer words than most is no mean feat; she doesn’t need florid prose to write something truly beautiful and magnetic. Take, for instance, my favourite short story ‘Moon’ which starts;  
She dreams of the moon and wakes with the taste of it still in her mouth. She knows the shape of the moon when it is full and the shape of the moon when it is crescent – has held both in her hands and understood that the moon moves between these states. She has been told the colour of the moon is silver. She has also been told that the colour of the moon is white. This is more difficult to understand, because she knows the taste of silver and she knows the taste of white and they are both very different.
Perhaps the moon moves between these states, also.
- Moon, ‘How A Moth Becomes A Boat

What I particularly love about this, and much of Rowe’s work, is that there are endless possibilities for interpretation. That is true of any written word, that the interpretation depends on the reader, but it seems truer in micro-fiction when so much is left unsaid that it opens up rooms within the reader, to fill in the parts of the story that are not on the page. To take away back story, character history and just write in the heart of a moment.

I was really upset when I attended Melbourne Writers Festival and found Rowe’s new short story book, ‘Tarcutta Wake’, on the bookshop shelves. Upset, because I realized too late that she was in fact talking about ‘Micro Fictions’ at MWF and by the time I’d found it, her event had already been and gone. It stings even more because ‘Tarcutta Wake’ is mesmerising. The blurb ties the stories together, by saying Rowe “explores the idea of things that are left behind”. This is also a nice description of Rowe’s micro-fiction style: ‘things that are left behind.’ 

Take, for instance, her short story ‘Brisbane’ which is a stunning example of in medias res (Latin phrase for ‘into the middle of things’). In medias res means starting in the middle, that old Chekhov chestnut of cutting a story in half to get to the juicy, pulpy centre. ‘Brisbane’ has the loveliest middle beginning;

And she had this way of swivelling her head round, like an owl to talk to you as she drove, except not like an owl because the skin of her neck creased up in folds and she looked so old when that happened, though she wasn’t, not then, and Luke would lean over and say Watch the road, Mum. 
- Brisbane, ‘Tarcutta Wake
I love 'Brisbane', in particular, because of the immediate intimacy the reader feels to this young narrator. As though he's leaning in close to share a favourite memory with us, or picking up a tale where he just left off...

I’m absolutely in awe of Josephine Rowe and her micro-fiction; she cuts to the heart of a moment and leaves you at once wanting more but utterly, splendidly satisfied. I’ve already re-read ‘Tarcutta Wake’ and ‘How A Moth Becomes A Boat’ and each little story keeps changing in the revisit, and what seems so simple in theory is actually, vastly complex and beautiful under Rowe’s pen.

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