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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Interview with Alyssa Brugman, author of 'Alex As Well'

I kicked off 2013 with Alyssa Brugman's deeply affecting YA novel, 'Alex As Well.' And when I finished reading the book, I had a million questions to ask the author; about minority representation in YA, flaws of parent characters and just what an emotional journey it must have been to write this very important book.

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

I submitted 'Finding Grace' to the Vogel, which is an unpublished manuscript competition. That seemed a sensible place to start because they had to at least consider it, and there was a defined time frame within which I would have an answer. Part of the rules of these competitions is that you can't send it anywhere else, but as it turned out I didn't have to, because Allen & Unwin offered me a contract for Grace. I realise now how incredibly lucky I have been in that respect.

Q: How long did it take you to write ‘Alex As Well’, from first idea to final manuscript?

I started in March 2011, and I received the first editions from the publisher in December 2012.

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?

I'm probably more of a pantser. The times I have done more active plotting, I have changed my mind at the last minute because it all seemed too obvious. That said, it depends on the book. When I wrote the series for Random, there were elements that had to be in the earlier novels to contribute the story arc over the whole series. I had to have some idea of where I was heading. I did a synopsis of each of the novels before I wrote them.

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?

It can be anything. There's never any shortage of ideas, but they're not always good ones. I used to stop and write down every passing notion, but I've since discovered that the forgettable ones should be forgotten. You don't have an opportunity to forget the good ones. They gnaw at you.  

Q: Why do you choose to write young adult fiction? What is it about this genre that you love?

I've published twelve novels now, and each of the different books cover a range of topics, but what they always have in common is young people renegotiating their relationship with their parents. There is a friction in that relationship which arises when the young adult seeks more autonomy. Parents and children need to emotionally (and physically in the case of the mother) extract themselves from one another over the course of twenty-odd years. It's often intensely painful. If children were charming and delightful all the time, parents wouldn't be so keen to kick them out the door, and similarly, if children could achieve all of their aspirations under the same roof they would never need to leave. There has to be conflict and friction to facilitate growth and change. I find that interesting.

Q: The American Young Adult Library Service Association recently posted a study which revealed that in 2012, only 55 LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, and Intersex) YA novels were released. That’s 1.6% of all YA in 2012. That is pretty abysmal, and while I don’t have a study for the Australian market, I have to say that ‘Alex As Well’ is the first Aussie YA I’ve ever read that focuses on a transgendered character. Why were you moved to tell this story, and do you think Australia needs to start better representing the LGBTQI community in its YA fiction?

Hazel Edwards did one in 2011. I haven't had an opportunity to read it yet. That's the only one I know of. I agree that there is a gap here. I can see why it would be difficult for publishers to take on material that focuses on sex, whatever form that takes. With Alex I was much more interested in the identity part of transgender than the sex part, although it's unavoidable to at least mention it. I tried to approach the subject both bluntly and sensitively, if that makes sense. Hopefully Alex will be the beginning of Australian publishers feeling more confident accepting manuscripts with LGBTQI protagonists.

Q: Alex has such a strong voice in this novel, and she is talking directly to the audience a number of times so you do feel this instant connection to her. What sort of research did you do for this novel to so eloquently and powerfully express Alex’s mixed-up feelings and struggles with identity? Did you reach out to the transgendered community?

I did study transgender a little bit, but a bigger contributor to what it is you're seeing in the novel is that I have just completed a PhD in narratology at Canberra University. My topic was unreliable narration, and this novel was submitted to demonstrate the various narrative devices that I identified in the thesis as being useful to overcome unreliability. This novel is much more technical in terms of structure and the application of narrative strategy than anything I have done before.

Q: In researching this novel, was there anything you discovered that really surprised/moved you? Something you weren’t aware of before? What was the most powerful discovery you made in the course of researching ‘Alex As Well’?

I watched the BBC show "My Transsexual Summer". There were so many heartbreaking and inspiring scenes, but one that stood out for me was where Drew, who is one of the cast members talked about going for a job, and being told that she would make the customers 'uncomfortable'. She said something like, 'Wait a minute, I can go outside. They're my streets too." She was so hurt and offended by this assessment of her that had nothing to do with her skills or aptitude for the job. And so she should be! It's open prejudice, and it's unjust.

In a book that I read, "The Lazy Crossdresser" by Charles Anders, one of his first recommendations is taking a self defense course. It was horrifying to me that there are people out there who can anticipate being physically attacked for just leaving their house. How can this be endured? Why aren't more people outraged by this?

Q: You really strike a nerve in ‘Alex As Well’, for a lot of reasons. But something I loved in the book was Alex’s mum, Heather, posting her parenting anxieties on a website called Motherhood Shared – where she asks for help and advice in dealing with Alex’s transition from boy to girl and where she receives both fantastic and questionable/concerning guidance. In the age of ‘mommy bloggers’, and in 2012 especially there was lots of talk in the media about mothers being made to feel inadequate (TIME magazine ‘Are You Mom Enough?’) where did you get this idea to give Alex’s mum a narrative like this? It’s a very different and perhaps uncomfortably honest portrayal of how sometimes parents can just get it horribly wrong, for all the right reasons – why did you think it was important to represent a parental voice in ‘Alex As Well’? 

This is one of the strategies that I studied in the PhD. In a nutshell, having more than one person telling the story encourages the reader to question the validity of the various versions of events that they are reading. Alex and Heather recount similar events in different ways, both coloured by their own experiences and emotions. Hopefully the reader will find reasons to be a little sceptical of each of them having heard them both.

In the past I have only ever given the parents in my novels a voice through dialogue, and through the actions that the protagonist chooses to draw to the reader's attention. When I heard the audio version of 'For Sale or Swap', for example, the reader had made Shelby's mum sound really mean! She's so snappy! I was mortified, because I hadn't written her that way at all. I had always thought of her as busy and tired, but mostly gentle.

You can imagine that if you only received Alex's version, Heather's actions would be completely incomprehensible. It was the most common criticism that I received for "Girl Next Door", and I did take heed of that weakness and try to address it in this novel. 

Heather gives us her motives in her own words, and even if you don't agree with them, it makes more sense. Heather can also give us information about Alex that Alex does not have about herself. 


Q: Your highly acclaimed 2001 novel ‘Finding Grace’ was about a brain-damaged woman called Grace and her new teenage carer, Rachel. The novel is about how Rachel slowly comes to see Grace not as ‘damaged’ or lesser in any way, but just a normal person. I found some connections between ‘Finding Grace’ and ‘Alex As Well’ – in that Alex’s parents treat her like she has a ‘condition’ and an ‘illness’ that needs to be cured with simple, black and white answers, likewise even strangers on the street feel the need to figure Alex out and label her. It seems that you really enjoy challenging and breaking down people’s misconceptions and stereotypes, and exploring characters considered to be on the ‘fringe’ of society. Why are such explorations important to you? And why do you think it’s important to present them to young readers to think about?

Wow, you ask really great questions.

I do wonder if sometimes people think of gender dysphoria as a choice - that someone chooses to change gender. With this novel I wanted to present an alternative to that view. I hope that all of the books give the reader an opportunity to examine their own perceptions, but without being finger-waggling and preachy, which is one of the most common criticism of YA in general.

The other thing is that initially they are not characters at all, but technical challenges that I set for myself. It takes a while for them to develop into people who shout at me from the page, and then I become very emotionally attached to them as individuals. They become real to me, and not necessarily representatives of a whole assembly of the misrepresented. Later, when I've finished, I have to start thinking about what it all means. It's less likely to be finger-waggly if I do it in that order.

Q: Favourite book(s) of all time

'Gould's Book of Fish' - Richard Flanagan. I heard this as an audiobook, and I had to put my whole life on hold to hear the whole thing. The minute that I finished I went online and bought a bunch of copies and had them sent to all my best friends.

I loved Rose Tremain 'Music and Silence' and Mordecai Richler's 'Barney's Version'. I could also read Terry Pratchett's 'Small Gods' over and over. It's funny and profound and beautifully put together.

Q: Favourite author(s)?

There are a million, but off the top of my head, I love Terry Pratchett, Margo Lanagan, Amy Tan, Jon Ronson, Ursula Le Guin, Bernard Beckett, Kirsty Murray and Cassandra Golds. There are two women who have just written their first YA novels that I have enjoyed - Colleen Clayton and Maggie Bolitho. I was lucky enough to see early drafts of their novels and I think they'll be ones to watch in the future.

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

Probably the most important thing to understand is that you might need to write a number of manuscripts before you write something that ends up being a novel. I don't begin any project thinking, "this is a Great Australian Novel", but instead thinking. "here is an interesting writing exercise", or "why isn't this story being told?". Often I will soon discover why it's a gap, and abandon that idea and start something else. One needs to accept the idea of refining skills, or rehearsing in this field, the same as any other creative enterprise.

‘Alex As Well’ by Alyssa Brugman

Received from the Publisher 

From the BLURB:

What do you do when everybody says you’re someone you’re not?

Alex wants change. Massive change. More radical than you could imagine. 

Her mother is not happy, in fact she’s imploding. Her dad walked out.

Alex has turned vegetarian, ditched one school, enrolled in another, thrown out her clothes. And created a new identity. An identity that changes her world.

And Alex—the other Alex—has a lot to say about it. 

Alex has never liked herself. She didn’t like herself in kinder, so she pushed the other kids down. She hated herself at that boy’s school, especially after the incident. And she hates who she is at home – having to follow mum and dad’s rules, taking their damn pills.

So maybe it’s time for Alex to change herself, by being herself.

Alex has never felt like herself because she’s always been told that she’s a boy. But she doesn’t look like a boy, and she doesn’t feel like a boy. But all that’s about to change, because she’s going to give herself permission to be exactly who she’s always wanted to be. She’ll start by attending a new school where she gets to wear a twirling skirt. She’ll visit the Clinique counter and come away looking like a Clinique girl. She’ll make girl friends at school; maybe even enter the catwalk fashion show. And she’ll pay a visit to one Mr. Crockett, to see about getting her birth certificate changed. She’ll flirt with a boy called Ty, make friends with girls called Sierra and Julia and fantasize about a beautiful girl called Amina. 

No more medication. No more boy’s school. Maybe even no more parents . . . it’s time for the real Alex to have her turn.  

Alex As Well’ is the new young adult novel from Australian author, Alyssa Brugman. 

I became interested in this book when the blurb promised a story “questioning identity” and “discovering sexuality” – coupled with that gorgeous androgynous cover, I knew Alyssa Brugman’s book was going to touch on some big issues not often explored in Australia YA, and I knew I had to read it. Brugman didn’t disappoint – ‘Alex As Well’ is a smart, moving and confronting portrayal of a transgendered girl trapped in a boy’s body. 

What will suckerpunch readers right from the first page is how strong a voice Alex has. Much of the time she’s speaking directly to the reader, sharing intimate details of her wrecked home life and constant conversations she has with the other ‘Alex’, reasoning with him or trying to quell his voice in her head. She speaks casually to the reader, inviting us into the story as a silent observer, so you’ll get some great rhetoric like this: 

We’re just one person. Did you get that already? You guess it from the blurb, right? I put in some clues.

Alex and I are the one person, but I feel like two people, and this is the problem. It’s always been like that, but since I stopped taking my medication five days ago it’s so totally clear that I can’t be the other Alex anymore. 
And what’s why my dad left us.

This intimate voice draws us in to Alex right away, from the get-go we’re on her side. It helps that she’s got wit and snark in spades and tries to see the world with blinding optimism, despite her struggles. But this intimacy also means we get first-hand understanding of what Alex goes through everyday – her internal struggles with the two sides of Alex, and other people’s reactions to her.

Putting yourself into the shoes of a transgendered youth is no mean feat, but Brugman accomplishes the seemingly impossible. She does so by peppering Alex’s narrative with memories of her youth, particularly her parents’ conditioning and sexuality prompts (father encouraged wrestling, boy’s toys were bought and open discussion about Alex’s ‘noodle’ which didn’t look like other boys private parts, but was normal nonetheless). We also read other people’s responses to Alex – back when she was a boy, and her fellow male pupils were clearly confused and angered by her. This, in particular, is something I never thought about with explorations of transgendered youth, but Alex discuses it openly and at length. This idea that so much of who we are is dictated by other people, simply because they’re uncomfortable with the unknown. It’s beautifully articulated in this passage: 

Why does it matter whether I am a boy or a girl? 

But it does. It really, really matters. People want to know which one you are. They want to be able to decide what you are, even when they are just walking past on the street and will never see you again. It’s crazy. Most people don’t see it as a grey area. They are physically affected when there is confusion. 
They are repulsed. 
For me it’s a very grey area. Greyitty grey. We are the Earl and Countess of Grey, Alex and I. 

While ‘Alex As Well’ is narrated by Alex, there are short asides on the website forum of Motherhood Shared, where Alex’s mum goes to vent about her son’s changing attitude and the sudden appearance of a very feminine Alex. Here we learn more about Alex’s ‘condition’ and medical history than even she knows. But the excerpts narrated, essentially, by Alex’s mum in her forum-like diary are critical and fascinating. It is here that the ‘greyitty grey’ emerges, and readers will begin to realize that Alex may very well be an unreliable narrator . . .  or perhaps a not entirely self-aware one.

True, Alex’s parents handle her transition abysmally, but for all the right reasons. Initially readers may side entirely with Alex, but through Brugman’s clever narration we’ll slowly start to put ourselves in her parent’s shoes and realize the reasons that they fear Alex’s changing sexuality.  

In a few of my recent book reviews I've been harking on this issue of LGBTQI young adult literature, or the lack thereof. I've become very aware of how little is out there for the young lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community because of brilliantly insightful blog posts like this one. Such posts make a really good point, and it’s all there in the title – ‘the invisible minority’. Because even a cursory glance at the current crop of popular YA books will alert you to the fact that they’re all pretty homogenous, particularly in their ‘boy meets girl’ tropes. Forget ‘girl meets girl’ or ‘boy meets girl’, let alone the complicated examinations of Brugman’s novel, which is more ‘boy is actually a girl who is also attracted to other girls’. 

But why is it important that the young LGBTQI community are represented in young adult literature? Well it’s what I always talk about with young adult books – that they’re meant to be holding a mirror up and reflecting society. Young adult literature is about making connections for young readers who find a little of themselves in these stories and take comfort from reading characters go through similar hardships and survive all the stronger for it. This is perhaps especially important for LGBTQI youth, who already have a hard enough time finding themselves represented in other aspects of society and media –  last year the Australian senate voted down a same-sex marriage bill, and afterwards a Liberal senator called Cory Bernardi equated same-sex marriage to bestiality. Already this year a (now former) candidate for Bob Katter's Australian Party likened homosexuals to pedophiles and said they shouldn't be allowed to work in kindergartens. Wow, huh? What a great message to send to the LGBTQI youth community, who are already struggling with admitting their sexuality to friends and family let alone thinking about going into adulthood without the same rights as heterosexual couples. How many movies came out this year with LGBTQI characters? I really love the Mackelmore and Ryan Lewis song ‘Same Love’, especially for this telling lyric: “If I was gay I would think hip-hop hates me”. 

Now back to that blog about ‘the invisible minority’, which takes a look at American transgender teenagers in particular, and gives this chilling statistic: “45% of transgendered youth will attempt suicide”. That’s why it’s important to have stories like Alyssa Brugman’s ‘Alex As Well’. You know that old saying – ‘you have to be the change you want to see in the world’? Well I think reading the change you want to see in the world is also important – and Alyssa Brugman’s ‘Alex As Well’ is one of the most significant books to be coming out of 2013 for that very reason. 


WINNER ANNOUNCEMENT: Australia Day Book Giveaway Blog Hop

And the winner of my Australia Day Book Giveaway Blog Hop is, drum-roll please....

Michelle from Novels On The Run!

Yay! Michelle, you have a copy of the incredible 'Sea Hearts' by Margo Lanagan heading your way. 

I hope everyone had a nice Australia Day (and long weekend!) and I'd really like to thank Book’d Out and Confessions from Romaholics for this really wonderful blog hop, and I hope we see it again next year.


Saturday, January 26, 2013

‘The Spectacular Now’ by Tim Tharp

 From the BLURB:

Sutter Keely. He’s the guy you want at your party. He’ll get everyone dancing. He’ll get everyone in your parents’ pool. Okay, so he’s not exactly a shining academic star. He has no plans for college and will probably end up folding men’s shirts for a living. But there are plenty of ladies in town, and with the help of Dean Martin and Seagram’s V.O., life’s pretty fabuloso, actually.

Until the morning he wakes up on a random front lawn, and he meets Aimee. Aimee’s clueless. Aimee is a social disaster. Aimee needs help, and it’s up to the Sutterman to show Aimee a splendiferous time and then let her go forth and prosper. But Aimee’s not like other girls, and before long he’s in way over his head. For the first time in his life, he has the power to make a difference in someone else’s life—or ruin it forever.

Everyone knows that if you want a good time, you call Sutter Keely. He’s the guy with a bar in his boot, enough whisky in his flask to go round and he doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘embarrassment’. There’s no doubt that Sutter is the life of any party – but when it comes to relationships, he fizzes pretty quick. He’s accumulated a string of ex-girlfriends in his eighteen years, and remained friends with every single one of them. But right now he’s hoping to hold on to his current girlfriend, the gloriously fat and beautiful Cassidy – of Icelandic eyes and Nordic locks. But Sutter can’t do the one thing that Cassidy asks of him; to consider her feelings. So Cassidy dumps him, and Sutter finds healing in the bottom of a whisky bottle. . . 

Aimee Finicky finds Sutter passed out on a strangers’ lawn. Of course she knows who he is, they’ve been going to the same school for years now and she can remember every class they shared and every hilarious thing he did – he’s cool and popular, so it’s no wonder he doesn’t recognise quiet, shy Aimee. 

After sharing a paper-route one morning, Sutter decides to ‘save’ Aimee. She has no self-esteem, a gambling mother and Walrus-like stepfather. She wears a purple puffer jacket that makes her look like a Christmas ornament, and her best friend is a miniature tyrant. Sutter decides to take her under his wing, and not a moment too soon. 

But it might not be Aimee who’s in desperate need of help. After all, Sutter has never quite recovered from his parent’s divorce and lies to himself about his idyllic absentee father. His sister has been angry with him ever since he set her husband’s suit on fire. And his best friend, Ricky, has gained a girlfriend and some perspective on Sutter’s wild partying ways. Then, of course, there’s Cassidy – who Sutter stills pines for, and intends to win back. 

Sutter Keely may be the life of every party, but at some point the lights always come on and the music eventually fades. 

‘The Spectacular Now’ is the 2008 young adult novel by Tim Tharp, which was a National Book Award Finalist.

I've been recommended this book for a solid five years now. I bought it and added to the TBR pile, and would occasionally re-read the blurb or scan the first page – but I was never moved to read. And then I heard from Persnickety Snark that a film adaptation was screening to rave reviews at Sundance Film Festival. This intrigued me. And when I found out Shailene Woodley (‘The Descendants’) was in the lead as Aimee, I decided to get on board this bandwagon. And I’m sooooooo glad I did, because ‘The Spectacular Now’ is flippin’ superb, and if it's half as good a movie as it is a book, then it will live up to the spectacular. 

There’s a certain plot trope called ‘Beautiful All Along’ – which is as it sounds, that a nerdy-type girl is plucked out of social obscurity by the popular jock who then makes her over, only to discover she was Beautiful All Along. Weeeeeeell . . . Tim Tharp takes that trope, puts it into a blender and hits ‘obliterate’, and what pours out is a disarmingly complex and refreshing young adult novel that’s part comedy with a heavy dose of stalled morality. 

Our ‘jock’ in this case is no jock, but rather popular party boy Sutter Keely who doesn’t think he’s an alcoholic, even though he frequently drinks first thing in the morning and by himself. He’s a good, harmless guy but he’s vapid and seriously lacking in self-awareness. Aimee is no nerd, but rather a downtrodden wallflower with the world on her shoulders.  And rather than the Beautiful All Along story being told from Aimee’s perspective, we get it from Sutter’s. This is not a romance – and that will frustrate some people. Sutter is not a knight in shining armour – he’s a ticking time bomb who doesn’t know he is his own detonator and Aimee is his doomed damsel. 

Tharp has such a great rhythm in this book. Sutter is a genuinely funny guy, he’s charismatic and oozing a certain je ne sais quoi that makes him utterly endearing. But slowly Tharp starts chipping away at Sutter’s armour to reveal the crippling lies he tells himself – and readers start to see what a few of his classmates have already realized; that Sutter believes those lies.

While I was reading this I was thinking that it would be a hard book to adapt, only because the writing is so lush and Sutter’s interior voice so vital to the book. Tharp writes something delicious. It’s little things in the description; 

Her voice is so soft. If it were a food item, it’d be a marshmallow. 

But Sutter’s worldview monologues are also kinda brilliant, and I'd hate to lose them in the screenplay. So I was really happy to see one movie review in particular that says there are long stretches of banter and blocks of back-and-forth dialogue between characters. 

We’re not the Faster-than-the-Speed-of-Light Generation anymore. We’re not even the Next-New-Thing Generation. We’re the Soon-to-Be-Obsolete Kids, and we’ve crowded in here to hide from the future and the past. We know what’s up – the future looms straight ahead like a black wrought-iron gate and the past is charging after us like a badass Doberman, only this one doesn’t have any letup in him

Now, as to the Sutter and Aimee ‘romance’ – some people will hate it. They’ll just downright hate it. But I revelled in its originality and honesty; I was so glad that Tharp took the road less travelled in teen romances, and the book is the better for it. 

“Hey, I told you – I’m not going to ask her out for a date. Let me repeat, she is not a girl I’m interested in having sex with. Not now or any time in the future. I will not have sex with her in a car. I will not have sex with her in a bar. I will not have sex with her in a tree. I will not have sex with her in a lavatory-ee. I will not have sex with her in a chair. I will not have sex with her anywhere.”
“Oh right, I forgot. You’re out to save her soul. Give me a hallelujah for Brother Sutter and his messianic complex.” 
“My what?” 
“Messianic complex. That means you think you have to go around trying to save everybody.” 
“Not everybody. Just this one girl.” 
“Hallelujah, brother!”

Look, this book will kick your ass a little bit. There’s this weird thing that happens where, as a reader, you become sort of like Sutter’s girlfriends; all those who fell for his rambunctious charm and carefree loving-life in the beginning, but slowly figured out his failings and shortcomings, becoming frustrated with his wasted potential. The ending is brutal perfection, and if Tharp had concluded any other way, then the entire book would have been a sell-out. As it is, ‘The Spectacular Now’ is one of the cleverest and truest YA books I've ever read.  


Friday, January 25, 2013

Aussie YA playlist for the Australia Day Book Giveaway Blog Hop

This is my post for the very special Australia Day Book Giveaway Hop, organized by the incredible Book’d Out and Confessions fromRomaholics.

A song is a sense of time and place – for me, Elvis Presley’s ‘If I Can Dream’ will be irrevocably linked to driving through Rosebud on a burning summer day with my best friend. Likewise, Crowded Houses's 'Don't Dream It's Over' tastes like salt tears and takes me back to my Year 12 graduation ceremony. 

Songs hold memories and people, and for that reason whenever I read and love a book, I find a special song that encapsulates that story and those characters for me. Sometimes the book and the song are already entwined, like Paul Kelly’s ‘How to Make Gravy’ being the ballad of the Finch-Mackees, for youngest son Joe: “Hello Dom, it's Joe here”. Sometimes I’ve asked authors what songs they listened to while writing, as I did with Laura Buzo who introduced me to the artist Holly Throsby. Other times, it’s my unique reading and interpretation of the book that finds the song and forms its own connection. 

Below is a collection of my favourite Australian young adult novels, and the songs I associate with them. I would love to know if you associate songs with books and characters, and if you want to give me a little listening/reading recommendation, I’d be thrilled!

  Aussie YA playlist

·      The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta: listen to Paul Kelly ‘How to Make Gravy’ 

·      On The Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta: listen to ‘Flame Trees’ (original song by Cold Chisel, also a cover song by Sarah Blasko

·      Chasing Charlie Duskin by Cath Crowley: listen to Clare Bowditch ‘When The Lights Went Down’ 

·      Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley: listen to ‘Throw Your Arms Around Me’ by Hunters and Collectors 

·      Night Beach by Kirsty Eagar: listen to ‘Overture’ by Patrick Wolf 

·      Beatle Meets Destiny by Gabrielle Williams: listen to ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ by The Beatles 

·      Holier Than Thou by Laura Buzo: listen to Holly Throsby feat. Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - 'Would You?

·      Friday Brown by Vikki Wakefield: listen to ‘Dark Storm’ by The Jezabels 

·      This is Shyness by Leanne Hall: listen to ‘Howl’ by Florence + The Machine 

·      Six Impossible Things by Fiona Wood: listen to The Six Parts Seven ‘Song of Impossible Things’ 

·      Everything Beautiful by Simmone Howell: listen to ‘With God On Our Side’ by Bob Dylan 

·      Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan: listen to ‘Alone Apart’ by The Swell Season 

The book I'm offering up for the Australia Day Book Giveaway Hop is Margo Lanagan's epic 'Sea Hearts'. 

Here are the details for how you can win:

How to enter:

 Become a follower of my blog (if you aren't already)

 Leave a comment on this blog post, with a way to contact you (e-mail addy or Twitter handle is fine)

 One post per entrant

 This is an INTERNATIONAL give-away

 Contest closes midnight on January 28th 
I will announce the lucky winner on January 30th

Monday, January 21, 2013

'Lessons From a Dead Girl' by Jo Knowles

From the BLURB:

Leah Greene is dead. For Laine, knowing what really happened and the awful feeling that she is, in some way, responsible set her on a journey of painful self-discovery. Yes, she wished for this. She hated Leah that much. Hated her for all the times in the closet, when Leah made her do those things. They were just practicing, Leah said. But why did Leah choose her? Was she special, or just easy to control? And why didn’t Laine make it stop sooner? In the aftermath of the tragedy, Laine is left to explore the devastating lessons Leah taught her, find some meaning in them, and decide whether she can forgive Leah and, ultimately, herself.

Friendships are meant to drift, not haunt. But since Leah Greene’s death, Laine is haunted by the memories of their childhood friendship – by the signs Leah left, the questions Laine didn’t ask and the pain of a terrible cycle that was inflicted on both girls.

‘Lessons From a Dead Girl’ was the 2007 young adult novel from Jo Knowles.

I owe big thanks to Nicole for recommending me this book – but for also forewarning me of its disturbing brilliance. Even with ample warning, I wasn’t prepared for ‘Lessons From a Dead Girl’ – but, then again, I don’t think any reader will be guarded against the terrible events explored in this book, and that’s probably a good thing for the impact Jo Knowles leaves behind.

We meet Laine the day she is told that her childhood best friend, Leah Greene, is dead. They haven’t been friends for a long time now – not since Leah developed a reputation she seemed to revel in. But one last explosive confrontation between the girls is haunting Laine as much as the memories from long ago, the ones that are resurfacing with evil intent in the wake of Leah’s death.

Laine was never quite sure why Leah chose to be friends with her – Leah was beautiful and popular, her parents were rich and everyone wanted to be her friend, but she chose Laine. But what started as an idyllic friendship, and entry into Leah’s beautiful life, soon soured … Laine’s memories take us from the present-day tragedy; to the slow-burning devastation that was Leah and Laine’s ‘dirty’ little secret.

Jo Knowles is a beautiful writer, who writes sinister and moving stories. In ‘Lessons From a Dead Girl’ she takes us back to Leah and Laine when they are in primary school. Knowles starts by showing us a normal, healthy friendship … and then slowly but surely introduces us to feelings of unease as Leah’s little girl games with Laine become something truly disturbing and over-sexualised, clearly hinting that this young girl has been exposed to abuse for much of her young life.
 The following weekend, Leah comes to my house. She pulls me straight into the doll closet. She doesn’t ask or even tell me what we’re going to do. She’s rough and angry. It doesn’t feel like practice. It feels like punishment. 
I hold myself as still as I can, my eyes squeezed shut, feeling like I deserve it.

The build-up to Leah and Laine’s inappropriate play is sickening, both for Knowles’s masterful foreshadowing and her expert narration in letting Laine talk about her memories with creeping sense of unease in the present (and new perspective gained in her teenage years). What’s equally disturbing are Leah’s reactions after what takes place in the doll closet  - when we, as readers, see that she is clearly mimicking the actions of her abuser in letting Laine think what they did was normal, and their little secret.

More than 90% of juvenile sexual abuse victims know their perpetrator in some way, and that’s true in ‘Lessons From a Dead Girl’, when Laine meets the family friend who started this awful cycle for Leah. What’s also disturbing is the fact that about 30% of abused children will later abuse their own children, continuing the horrible cycle of abuse. These are two statistical facts that Jo Knowles communicates through the narrative of ‘Lessons From a Dead Girl’. There are so many reports out there on child sex abuse – but Knowles’s book is about cutting to the quick and offering a tangible story of how far-reaching that abuse is, like a ripple affect that continues to widen.

I struggled to get through ‘Lessons From a Dead Girl’, because it’s such a disturbing story, so powerfully written by Jo Knowles. Despite its darkness, I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone – because it’s a story that must be read, especially by young adults. There are consequences laid out in this book, repercussions explored and victims given a voice as they admit the abuse that shaped them. I cannot recommend this book enough.


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

'Hope Was Here' by Joan Bauer

From the BLURB:

One new life, coming right up. Hope's used to thinking on her feet - she hasn't become a terrific waitress by accident. But when she and her aunt move from New York City to a small town in Wisconsin to run the local diner, she isn't sure she'll fit in. Luckily, she doesn't have much time to brood. G.T., the owner, has decided to run for mayor, an no one in town knows what to think. After all, G.T. has leukemia. And his opponent is the unscrupulous current mayor, who will do or say anything to win the election. Hope knows that G.T. is up against the odds=but his visiton of the future is so vivid and good that she can't help but join the campaign. Because, after all, everyone could use a little hope to get through the touch times. Even Hope herself.

Hope’s mother was meant to be a waitress more than a parent. That’s why after Hope was born prematurely, she left Hope with her aunt Addie and never looked back (though she does send Christmas newsletters). Just about the only thing Hope’s biological mother left her was a bad name (Tulip) which she has had legally changed… plus a talent for waitressing, and frequent tips on how to get good tips.

Addie has been the best mother a girl could ask for. Her pancakes are legendary, her pies are criminal and her meatloaf is drool-worthy. It’s Addie’s job to show up at diners that need help, get them back on their feet and then take off for parts unknown again.  Which means she has dragged Hope and a U-Haul all around America – and Hope has made friends and said goodbye to them in countless states, always leaving behind the scribbled words ‘Hope was Here’ in some unassuming place.

Now Addie and Hope are coming to Wisconsin, to help out a man called G.T. - owner of the “Welcome Stairways” diner who has recently been diagnosed with leukaemia, and needs a helping hand to keep the restaurant going while he recovers.

But that’s not all G.T. needs help with. He figures that since he’s dying, he has nothing to lose – so he’s taking on the local mayor, Eli Millstone, and the big business Dairy factory and running for local candidacy. G.T. intends to take on the corruption that is rife in town, bring down the tax-evading dairy factory, and Eli who is lining his pockets with dirty dealings.

Helping G.T. accomplish his clean political campaign is young cook, Braverman, who Hope develops a small fascination with. Local pastor and best friend, high school politician called Adam and a slew of small-town customers.

Hope isn’t really used to permanency, or trusting people. But since coming to Wisconsin and seeing the integrity with which G.T. is trying to win a hopeless campaign … well, it’s got Hope trying to live up to her very big name.

‘Hope Was Here’ is a NewberyHonor book, written by Joan Bauer in 2000.

 ‘Hope Was Here’ is continuing my love of Newbery Honor books, another sweet gem of the middle-grade readership that I gobbled up in one train ride. The book begins with sixteen-year-old Hope leaving New York behind and heading out to Wisconsin with her adopted mother, Addie, for yet another new food adventure. But when we meet her, Hope is becoming weary of the road and her and Addie’s always-changing homes. Hope is feeling particularly disgruntled at this latest move, because it came after their NY diner business partner, Gleason Beal, took off with another waitress and all of Addie’s life savings.

Hope is a most interesting character; because when we meet her life has already beaten her down and moulded her some. She admits that it took a short boxing career to punch out her built-up anger at her mother; anger for leaving her as a sick baby, anger for not being the mothering type, anger for still calling her ‘Tulip’ when she changed her name to Hope. After the Gleason Beal debacle, Hope is both saddened but not all that surprised at the betrayal. Here we are meeting a kid who is already world-weary, and if it wasn’t for Addie being her constant and comfort, she would have a completely negative outlook on life.

What kinds of kids live in Mulhoney, Wisconsin? 
Would they like me? 
Would I like them? 
Have they ever eaten suhi? 
That’s usually how I determine food sophistication. Maybe a personal ad would get the ball rolling. 
Insightful, hardworking 16-year-old girl, emotionally generous and witty, seeks friend/pal/chum to wile away meaningful hours. Picky eaters need not reply.

Hope’s low-expectations of people are confounded by her having to leave the best ones behind. She finds that making friends is the first step to accepting a new place as home, but having had to leave so many people she loves behind, she has taken to not making promises of seeing them ever again (though she does write them). When we meet her in Wisconsin, she’s really feeling down and out;

When does the magic hit in a new place and you suddenly fit in?

So, of course, the stickler of ‘Hope Was Here’ is reading Hope change her outlook on life, and try living up to her name. The journey Hope has to go on has an obvious end-result, but it’s the way Joan Bauer gets her there that’s so darn great.

When Hope and Addie arrive at the “Welcome Stairways” diner, they don’t realise they’re stepping into brewing political warfare. Diner owner, G.T. is dying and intends to fight against small town corruption with his last breath. He is the embodiment of everything Hope isn’t right now – he may not be a permanent fixture of this earth for much longer, but he’s intending to do the most he can with what little time he has left. He can’t promise people that he’ll even be able to complete a full term if elected, but he can show them that he intends to do the best job he can for however long this illness he’s battling will let him.

I loved this book. Hope is an exceptional narrator – I sort of see her as this girl who’s fighting a grin, so sometimes it looks like she has pursed-lips from sucking on sour grapes so long, but really that grimace is just a smile waiting to break out.  Her thoughts sometimes turn dark – when she thinks about the mother that didn’t want her, or the people she has had to leave behind – but her namesake is often bigger than her woes and she’s this girl who is constantly breaking out in sunshine, despite the rain. I loved her. And I think she’s the main reason that, despite being a 16-year-old narrator, Joan Bauer’s ‘Hope Was Here' is a proud middle-grade book.

This one also had me crying buckets by the end – as much for the story as to be leaving behind this cast of characters who I so enjoyed spending a little bit of time with.

This is a beautiful, heartfelt book that asks big life questions in a small-town setting. Hope is one of the best narrators, and Joan Bauer’s book is being added to my list of favourite Newbery’s.


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