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Friday, March 29, 2013

New York City, here I come!

Hello Darling Readers, 

I’m going on a holiday to the US of A – hitting up San Francisco, Las Vegas and the Big Apple! 

And, before you ask, yes – I have made a map of all the bookshops I want to hit up including City Lights, the Strand and Book of Wonders . . . not to mention I’m going to go crazy at the New York Public Library and Natural History Museum (geek-tour, here I come!). 

I also intend to visit the Central Park carousel that Holden Caulfield takes his sister to, get a photo outside the Full House house and try my damndest to get snapped on the Underground New York Public Library (while working hard not to look like I want to be snapped for the Underground New York Public Library. Naturally.) 

But that means there will be some blog-silence from Alpha Reader for a couple of weeks. My apologies (. . . but not really cause NEW YORK, BABY!). 

While I’m away I shall be delving into Paullina Simons’s epic ‘Tatiana and Alexander’ series – and I hope it lives up to all the hype, chivalry and romance I've been reading about these last few years. 

I shall return, but until then - happy reading!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

'The Rosie Project' by Graeme Simsion

From the BLURB:

Don Tillman is getting married. He just doesn’t know who to yet.

But he has designed the Wife Project, using a sixteen-page questionnaire to help him find the perfect partner. She will most definitely not be a barmaid, a smoker, a drinker, or a late-arriver.

Rosie Jarman is all these things. She is also fiery and intelligent and beautiful. And on a quest of her own to find her biological father—a search that Don, a professor of genetics, might just be able to help her with.

The Wife Project teaches Don some unexpected things. Why earlobe length is an inadequate predictor of sexual attraction. Why quick-dry clothes aren’t appropriate attire in New York. Why he’s never been on a second date. And why, despite your best scientific efforts, you don’t find love: love finds you.

‘The Rosie Project’ by Graeme Simsion is so wonderful; I’m going to attempt to enumerate my enjoyment of the novel; 

1. Don Tillman is an Associate Professor of genetics at the University of Melbourne. He has a black-belt in Akikido, and can cook a mean lobster salad. He also has Asperger syndrome – but he doesn’t know that. Don just thinks that there’s something missing that leaves him baffled by human behaviour and unappealing to other people (especially the opposite sex). But after his dear old neighbour tells him that he would make someone a good husband, Don decides to get married – and to limit the fallout of incompatibility and highly ineffective dating detection, Don decides to make a questionnaire to find himself the perfect wife. Thus, ‘The Wife Project’. This is not insane. It has actually happened, to Amy Webb from Baltimore who found her husband by using math and analytics to narrow the dating field. 

2. Rosie Jarman is not a potential partner for Don’s Wife Project. She’s a barmaid who is perpetually late and vegetarian. But she is also beautiful and smart. And she’s on her own quest to find someone – her biological father. Rosie has bright red hair, dresses to impress no one but herself and calls em’ like she sees em’. But she is not a ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’. She does not want to ‘fix’ Don, she’s tough and imperfect and very aware of her failings. She is one of the best romantic-comedy heroines I've ever read. 

3. This scene of Don speed-dating (which I read while on the train, and attracted many curious looks as I snorted my way through it);

‘I've sequenced the questions for maximum speed of elimination,’ I explained. ‘I believe I can eliminate most women in less than forty seconds. Then you can choose the topic of discussion for the remaining time.’ 
‘But then it won’t matter,’ said Frances. ‘I’ll have been eliminated.’ 
‘Only as a potential partner. We may still be able to have an interesting discussion.’ 
‘But I’ll have been eliminated.’ 
I nodded. ‘Do you smoke?’ 
‘Occasionally,’ she said. 
I put the questionnaire away. ‘Excellent.’ I was pleased that my question sequencing was working so well. We could have wasted time talking about ice-cream flavours and make-up only to find that she smoked. Needless to say, smoking was not negotiable. ‘No more questions. What would you like to discuss?’ 

4. Don Tillman is described as being a dead-ringer for Gregory Peck, circa Atticus Finch. *le sigh* 

5. ‘The Rosie Project’ started as a screenplay. Graeme Simsion then decided to turn it into a novel – but still used film-writing techniques and his writing partners were film-industry experts. This is why ‘The Rosie Project’ is destined for the big-screen. The dialogue is so tight and pitch-perfect, the lines just leap up at you and it’s as though characters are speaking from the page. I want to see this film adapted – move over Harry & Sally, it’s all about Don & Rosie!

6. At one point, Don and Rosie travel to New York where, Don says, “being weird is acceptable.” I am going to New York this year. I’m planning an entire day at the Natural History Museum, thanks to Don. I can’t wait! 

7. The cover is in-your-face-magnificence. It called to me from the bookshelf, and loudly announced itself to fellow commuters as I read it on the train. I liked this. Very much. 

8. Throughout the novel Don starts to question if it’s him that’s missing some vital human-connection component, or if maybe other people are the problem . . . this is encapsulated in the relationship Don has with his best friend and fellow teacher, Gene. Gene is fifty-six and happily married to a beautiful woman with whom he has two children. But Gene’s wife, Claudia, has agreed to an open-marriage and Gene is currently attempting to sleep with a woman from every country. Gene dispenses romantic advice to Don. This is not a good idea, and was a fantastic counter-point to Rosie and Don’s romantic shenanigans.

9. I would actually love a follow-up to ‘The Rosie Project’ because when I got to the last page I immediately missed Don Tillman and wanted him back! But whatever Graeme Simsion decides to write next, I’ll be reading because he’s now an automatic-buy author for me.

10. I could keep going and going and going because I adored ‘The Rosie Project’ (and give it a firm 5/5), but let’s agree that ‘10’ is a good place to stop espousing on all the reasons everyone should read this book (and watch ABC's 'The Book Club' on April 2, because it will be featured!) 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

‘Night Road’ by Kristin Hannah

From the BLURB:

For a mother, life comes down to a series of choices. 
To hold on…
To let go..
To forget…
To forgive…
Which road will you take? 

For eighteen years, Jude Farraday has put her children’s needs above her own, and it shows—her twins, Mia and Zach—are bright and happy teenagers. When Lexi Baill moves into their small, close knit community, no one is more welcoming than Jude. Lexi, a former foster child with a dark past, quickly becomes Mia’s best friend. Then Zach falls in love with Lexi and the three become inseparable. 

Jude does everything to keep her kids safe and on track for college. It has always been easy-- until senior year of high school. Suddenly she is at a loss. Nothing feels safe anymore; every time her kids leave the house, she worries about them. 

On a hot summer’s night her worst fears come true. One decision will change the course of their lives. In the blink of an eye, the Farraday family will be torn apart and Lexi will lose everything. In the years that follow, each must face the consequences of that single night and find a way to forget…or the courage to forgive.

Lexi Baill arrives in Washington State to live with her aunt, Eva Lange, in 2000. Lexi has been bounced around many foster homes throughout her childhood, and spent some sporadic years living with her drug-addict mother in between. But now Lexi has found a home and stability with her aunt Eva, living in a little yellow trailer in Port George, Washington.  

Jude Farraday is mother to twins Zach and Mia – polar opposites and partners in crime. Mia is shy and reclusive, while Zach is popular and outgoing. The two are best friends, and the pride of Jude’s life. Jude’s doctor husband, Miles, may have a point about her helicopter-parenting and reluctance to cut the apron-strings where the twins are concerned, but Jude’s own childhood was a lonely one cut off from her mother after her father’s death, and she won’t do that to Mia and Zach. 

When Mia and Lexi strike up a powerful bond over a shared-love of classic literature, Jude is both relieved and nervous. Lexi brings Mia out of her shell, but Jude is also aware that the Farraday’s have a very different, privileged life to that of Lexi and her aunt . . . then there’s the fact that Mia has been hurt in the past, when her girlfriends developed crushes on Zach, and abandoned Mia for him. 

But Mia and Lexi prove to have a bond that’s almost as strong as the one Mia and Zach have – and for three years they are the best of friends . . . until one night changes everything. Zach is left an only-child, Jude is cut adrift and Lexi takes on the burden of blame – and none of them will ever be the same again.

‘Night Road’ was the 2011 popular fiction title from Kristin Hannah. 

This novel is just awful. I hated reading it – all the characters irked me, and some of them made me want to reach into the story and throttle them. But I kept reading because I wanted to know how it would end. . . this book is, literally, like a McDonalds meal that you start feeling guilty about from the first bite but you can’t stop yourself from finishing all of it. 

We begin in 2000, when Lexi arrives at Port George and strikes up a friendship with Mia and is welcomed into the Farraday bosom by Jude. The first few pages introduce us to Lexi – a young girl who has had an unfair share of heartache in her short life. Between foster homes and witnessing her mother’s decline (more than once) her arrival in Port George to live with her unknown Aunt Eva is the first really good thing to happen to Lexi, possibly in her whole life. 

Then we’re introduced to Jude – who is panicking about her kid’s first day of high school. She’s worried that Mia won’t make friends, and she’s concerned about the kind of friends Zach will make . . . yep, Jude is one of those parents. Meeting Jude and the Farraday family after having first met Lexi is rather jarring – even more so when Jude goes over the floor-plan of their massive manor-home (the kids have the entire first floor to themselves – including a gaming room.) Straight away, I was on Lexi’s side and more invested in her story and narrative voice. I’ll always root for the underdog, and compared to the obnoxious wealth of the Farraday’s, Lexi is an extreme-underdog

Then the timeline of this story starts getting a little skewed . . . we jump ahead from 2000 to three years later (right in an odd place too, Hannah snaps forward right before we’re about to read Jude, Mia and Lexi start bonding on a girl’s outing). 

The next little chunk of timeline concerns Lexi and Zach’s developing feelings for one another in their senior year of high school – something they have to hide from Mia because she’s so fragile after having one friend in the past hook-up and break-up with her brother that has apparently scarred her for life. Geez. You know things aren’t good when you give characters nicknames in your head – Mia was ‘needy-psycho’ to me. This girl just grated – though I think Hannah meant to portray her as a sweet, innocent soul who needed looking after . . . I just read ‘whiny’. This section of story also concerns Lexi working round-the-clock at an ice-cream shop to try and scrape enough money together to go to a small state school, while Mia and Zach are struggling to decide between USC, Yale, Stanford . . . and of course dominating parent, Jude, is stressing right along with them. When Lexi’s Aunt Eva contemplates dipping into her life-savings to help Lexi go to a four-year school, I officially wanted to smack every Farraday character over the head, repeatedly.

Now, a huge let-down of this book is the supposed "soul-mate" romance of Zach and Lexi – which is meant to cover all manner of ills and explain a lot, later in the story. It doesn’t help that Zach is written a little too true-to-life as a teenage boy who says not a whole lot. Seriously – when Hannah pulls the “he’s in love with her!” card I was sitting there thinking ‘Really? How can you tell? The boy does not talk!’ Actually, Zach suffers the same fate as his father, Miles, in that neither male character does or says a whole lot. The men in this story feel depleted and sidelined, completely overpowered by the women despite them all going through the same losses and traumas. This is especially bad for Jude’s story – I might have warmed to her if she had been a well-rounded woman but she is literally labelled MOTHER and not much else. Her marriage, despite going through the biggest trauma any relationship can experience, is just back-burner to her being a mother (and then a mother who loses a child). She gardens, but that’s really her only discernible characteristic. She has her own mother-issues, but they’re anaemic and not at all an excuse for her being such a one-dimensional mother-cyborg. I get that this is the point of ‘Night Road’ – here is a woman who sees herself as a mother and nothing else, and what happens when that’s (partly) taken away from her? Well, that’s boring to me. Jude is the book-equivalent of all those people in my Facebook feed who only post photos and updates about their kids and nothing else – as if they weren’t really alive until they had offspring. Blergh. 

The second-half of the story jumps ahead to 2010 and concerns everyone’s fate after the tragic accident that kills Mia . . . and lays blame entirely (unfairly) at Lexi’s feet.

Now, if this had been a Jodi Picoult novel, you can bet this would have been the point that the story started. Because this is the most interesting portion of the whole book – everything else that came before; setting up Mia & Zach’s twin-dynamic, Jude’s helicopter parenting, the kids growing, Lexi & Zach’s romance . . .  all that was just boring filler. Part-two of the story, which starts at page 241 of this 385-page book, is where the whole thing should have started from (with some backtracking of story origin). Here is where Hannah pulls out questions of morality, forgiving, guilt and redemption. 

Jude just gets worse. Maybe I was meant to feel sympathy for her – but I have little sympathy for those determined to be victims and wallow in their own pain while blaming and punishing others for their state of being.

“Most patients want to learn how to live. They want me to make a map that they can follow to get them to a healthy future. You simply just want to survive each day.” 
“He-llo. I’m not bipolar or schizophrenic or borderline. I’m sad. My daughter died, and I’m devastated. There’s no getting better.” 
“Is that what you want to believe?” 
“It’s the way it is.” Jude crossed her arms. “Look, you’ve helped me, if that’s what this is about. Maybe you think I should be doing better by now, maybe you think six years is a long time. But it’s not, not when your child died. And I am doing better. I grocery shop. I cook dinner. I go out with girlfriends. I make love to my husband. I vote.”

I cannot, for the life of me, tell you why I didn’t chuck this book away about 20 pages into it. But I think I was looking forward to the skip-ahead portion, when we get to the meat of the morality-story. And, honestly, I did race to read that last half (though it left me utterly unsatisfied). Hannah rushes the ending, and what could actually take up an entire 300+ pages is watered-down with happily-ever-after shenanigans and unbelievable resolutions.

I know that popular-fiction writers get a bad rep. Their books are seen as nothing more substantial than fairy-floss . . . but, by God!, there are nuances within this genre. Someone like Jodi Picoult can have me enraptured in a couple of chapters, and I’ll finish one of her books a weeping-wreck, but completely satisfied. Then you read someone like Kristin Hannah who writes despicable characters like Jude (I’m convinced we were meant to like her) and waffles on for 280-pages writing absolute filler rubbish – only to leave the actual meat of the story for the last 100 rushed pages. But, you know, I can only blame myself for this one – I knew it was bad after the first chapter, but I kept punishing myself and reading it. Fool me once.


Saturday, March 23, 2013

'Song in the Dark' by Christine Howe

Received from the Publisher 

From the BLURB:

Where do you end up when you have nowhere to go, and no one to turn to?

Paul isn't thinking clearly. He's destroying everything that's important to him, and when he finally hurts the one person he cares about most, he runs away . . .

An extraordinary and heart-rending story of love, betrayal, addiction and hope.

Maybe it started back in Woollongong, when Paul’s mum packed them up and ran away from his dad . . . that was when Paul learnt to start letting things go. Even things he loved. They were on the run throughout Paul’s childhood, his mum forever paranoid that they’d one day bump into his old man, and Paul would be taken away from her. 

And then one day they stopped running and returned to Woollongong. Because his dad was dead, and nobody was looking for them, for him. 

Now fresh out of high school Paul’s life is going nowhere. He does drug drop-offs for his flatmates' older brother, and is slowly crawling towards addiction himself. 

His one constant in life is his grandma, Hetty, his dad’s mum. After returning to Woollongong as a young boy he remembered the way to her house, and has been regularly dropping in on her ever since (without his mum knowing). Hetty gave Paul his most prized possession – his dad’s old guitar, and she is probably his favourite person in the world. She’s definitely one of the few remaining people who trust Paul, who haven’t cut him off. 

But all that’s about to change, because Paul has just made the worst mistake of his life. There’s no going back, the only way is down.

Song in the Dark’ is a debut young adult novel from Australian author Christine Howe.

Don’t be fooled by this slim, 174-page book. This is not an easy read, nor should it be. Howe is exploring addiction; the spiralling destruction of addicts and those around them as we watch Paul sink lower and lower to rock bottom. This book is hard to read, and Howe writes beautifully and eloquently about something that is very, very ugly. 

The book is told in third-person, a narration that is sadly unique to young adult books these days, but is perfectly attuned to this story in which Paul is so far removed from his life and actions that there’s no way he could tell this story himself. And it helps that there’s a bit of distance from the story– allowing Howe to give some cold details and illicit that horrified-bystander response from readers. 

Howe delivers wonderful characterization in this nuanced story. The real trigger of Paul’s spiral is when he sells his father’s old guitar . . . it’s a small, material thing, but it bleeds into the larger story of how Paul was forced to abandon his father, and what it did to him when he had to stop hoping to ever be reunited; 

Paul had spent whole afternoons waiting in the yard of each place they’d lived in up the coast, hoping his dad would find them. Every time they went to a new beach he’d scan the carpark, searching for his dad’s ute just in case. Once he thought he saw him in the surf, but when the tiny wetsuited figure paddled for a wave and stood up, urging the board across the face, he could tell it wasn’t him. After that, he stopped looking. The thought had knotted in the back of his mind, curling around on itself like a great tangle of fishing line – maybe his dad didn’t want to come back. 

This is a story that’s set on quite a grey-scale. Paul is a loathsome human being for much of the book, but Howe also shows us explanations for his character. His mother took him and ran – she was driven by a paranoid need to keep her son and keep him on her side – but when she settled down into her second marriage, she all but forgot about Paul. He was a vulnerable young boy, and easy pickings for bad people who now control him through his addiction. ‘Song in the Dark’ is a story of many sides – and Howe doesn’t let any of her characters off the hook, or ever let readers think that their morality is black and white. 

This is a tough book, and so it should be. Howe will challenge young readers as she explores the spiral of addiction, the complexity of betrayal and the fragility of hope. This is a raw and beautiful book, a stunning literary debut. 


Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Interview with Kate Forsyth, author of 'The Wild Girl'

This week I read and loved Kate Forsyth's new book 'The Wild Girl'. A beautiful, epic love story about the power of stories and dreams. Forsyth takes the tales we've all grown up knowing by heart, and shows us how little we actually understand of their origins and meaning - to show us that sometimes, stories are more about the telling than the tale. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. 


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 use both methods, to be honest. In the early stages, as I'm daydreaming about the book and beginning to see my way clear, I very much trust the story to evolve naturally in my imagination. I do a lot of research and jot down lots of thoughts, images and ideas, and try to get a sense of my characters and so forth. I then begin to plan my story, but again in a very natural and intuitive way. I cannot start writing until I have the novel's title and my first line, and a clear sense of where the story is going. I also like to know how its going to end, and a number of important scenes along the way. As I begin to write, I will discover more about the story and its shape will become clear to me. Then I usually write very swiftly, holding it all together in my mind. New ideas will come, earlier ideas will be abandoned, the story will knit itself together ... and I really love that process.

Q: How long did it take you to write ‘The Wild Girl’, from first idea to final manuscript?
It took quite a few years, but that's mainly because I was working on my novel BITTER GREENS during those years too. The idea came to me because of research I was doing for that novel, and so I had to wait till it was done and I had the space and time clear to really begin to work on THE WILD GIRL.  The research was intensive, so that took absolute ages. Once that was all done, the actual writing took me about nine months to a year. 

 Q: Where do story ideas generally start for you? Do you first think of the character, theme, ending? Or is it just a free-fall?
I always begins with the story, and it grows from there. Usually the idea comes to me in a flash, and then I get all excited . I get more ideas than I can ever write, though, and it can be quite hard to put the idea away and keep focusing on the job in hand. I tend to write the idea down in a notebook, put it away in my bottom drawer, and then go back to the novel I'm meant to be writing. 

Q: You had me from the Foreword with this book, when you point out that the Brothers Grimm were men in their 20s, living during the time of Napoleon and Jane Austen. I had never thought of them that way, and I wonder if you can remember when you first had the light bulb moment about the Grimms? And I wonder if that realization was also the moment that you decided to dig deeper and make a story out of them?
When I was researching the origin of 'Rapunzel' in the early stages of working on BITTER GREENS, I read a book called 'Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm's Fairy Tales'. That was my lightbulb moment - it was when I first discovered  the romance between Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild, the girl who lived next door, and the first time I realised so much about the Grimms, and their background, and the sources of their stories. I knew at once I had to write a novel about them. 

 Q: You touch on your research in this book, in the Afterword when you talk about reading personal letters, memoirs and diary entries of the key players but also psychologist studies and writings from fairy tale scholars (not to mention your research on the Napoleonic wars!). How much research did you accumulate in the writing of this exquisitely detailed book – and was there any factoid or interesting insight that you had to leave out, but would like to share with us?
The research took me a long time, because I knew nothing whatsoever about the Napoleonic Wars, or Germany in the early 19th century, and almost nothing about the Grimm Brothers. 'Clever Maids' only mentions Dortchen briefly and I had to do a whole lot of digging up to discover anything more about her. I loved the research, though - it was fascinating. And of course there were many things I could not use, because they did not touch upon my narrative. I'd have loved to have had Napoleon as a character, for example, but he never came to Hessen-Cassel, the small town where Wilhelm and Dortchen  lived, and so I had to leave him out. 

Q: There’s something rather feminist about the Brothers Grimm, looking back on it. As you say in your Afterword “more than half of the tales were actually contributed by educated, middle-class young ladies of their acquaintance.” To think that all those infamous stories were passed down and recited by women, it’s a rather nice thought (even if most people attribute them entirely to the Brothers). You’ve certainly written Dortchen Wild as this strong, female character who triumphs over adversity just as the heroines in the stories she tells Wilhelm. Did you think it’s rather sad that the role women played in shaping the Brothers Grimm is fairly unknown? And is that partly what inspired you to write this book?
Oh yes, that was definitely one of my purposes in writing the novel. I'm drawn to the stories of amazing women who have been forgotten by history.  

Q: What is your favourite Grimm’s Fairytale?
I'll pick three! 'Rapunzel', 'Six Swans', and 'The Leaping, Lilting Lark', which is a variant of 'Beauty and the Beast' that Dortchen tells Wilhelm. I'd never heard it before and its very beautiful.

Q: What are you working on right now, and when can we expect it to hit shelves?
I'm working on a 5-book fantasy adventures series for kids aged 9-12.  It comes out in late 2014. Then I'll write another adult historical novel, set in Nazi Germany, that retells 'The Leaping, Lilting Lark'. 

Q: Favourite author(s) of all time?
Georgette Heyer, Mary Stewart, Tracey Chevalier, Joanne Harris, Philippa Gregory, Robin McKinlay, Sarah Dunant, Juliet Marillier, Kim Wilkins, Kate Morton, Karen Maitland, C.J. Sansom, Marina Fiorato, oh, too many to name!

Q: Favourite book(s)?
Anything written by the above authors .

Q: What advice do you have for budding young writers?
Be brave, have faith in yourself, trust in the story. 

'The Wild Girl' by Kate Forsyth

Received from the Author

From the BLURB:

One of the great untold love stories - how the Grimm brothers discovered their famous fairy tales - filled with drama and passion, and taking place during the Napoleonic Wars.

The Wild Girl tells the story of Dortchen Wild. Growing up next door to the Grimm brothers in Hesse-Cassel, a small German kingdom, Dortchen told Wilhelm some of the most powerful and compelling stories in the famous fairytale collection. 

Dortchen first met the Grimm brothers in 1805, when she was twelve. One of six sisters, Dortchen lived in the medieval quarter of Cassel, a town famous for its grand royal palace, its colossal statue of Herkules, and a fairytale castle of turrets and spires built as a love nest for the Prince-Elector's mistress. Dortchen was the same age as Lotte Grimm, the only girl in the Grimm family, and the two became best friends.

In 1806, Hesse-Cassel was invaded by the French. Napoleon created a new Kingdom of Westphalia, under the rule of his dissolute young brother Jérôme. The Grimm brothers began collecting fairytales that year, wanting to save the old stories told in spinning-circles and by the fire from the domination of French culture. Dortchen was the source of many of the tales in the Grimm brother's first collection of fairy tales, which was published in 1812, the year of Napoleon's disastrous march on Russia. 

Dortchen's own father was cruel and autocratic, and he beat and abused her. He frowned on the friendship between his daughters and the poverty-stricken Grimm Brothers. Dortchen had to meet Wilhelm in secret to tell him her stories. All the other sisters married and moved away, but Dortchen had to stay home and care for her sick parents. Even after the death of her father, Dortchen and Wilhelm could not marry – the Grimm brothers were so poor they were surviving on a single meal a day. 

After the overthrow of Napoleon and the eventual success of the fairytale collection, Dortchen and Wilhelm were at last able to marry. They lived happily ever after with Wilhelm's elder brother Jakob for the rest of their lives.

A margins note appears in the personal copy of Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm’s ‘Hänsel und Grethel’ – which reveals that in 1813 Henriette Dorothea (Dortchen) Wild contributed the children's verse answer to the witch, "The wind, the wind,/ The heavenly child," which rhymes in German: "Der Wind, der Wind,/ Das himmlische Kind." It is likely that the Grimms heard the entire story in the Wild household. 

Wilhelm Grimm went on to marry Dortchen Wild, in 1825.

In ‘The Wild Girl’, Kate Forsyth delivers a breathtakingly epic historic romance that imagines the relationship between Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild – set against the Napoleonic Wars and during a time of great hardship and uncertainty for the German people. 

In her Foreword, Forsyth asks readers to put the Brothers Grimm into correct historical context; 

Most people imagine the brothers as elderly men in medieval costume, travelling around the countryside asking for tales from old women bent over their spinning wheels, or wizened shepherds tending their flocks. The truth is that they were young men in their twenties, living at the same time as Jane Austen and Lord Byron.

This was the moment Forsyth hooked me. Because I was one of those people who must have had too many heavy doses of Hollywood, and was thinking of the Brothers Grimm as hobbled old men, something like Merlin-figures rather than real people. To think that they were young men, living during war-time completely reshaped my perception of them – and was a fantastic leaping-off point to begin ‘The Wild Girl’. Forsyth has created a mesmerizingly detailed historical reimagining of the Grimm’s and their journey to storytelling, not unlike Philippa Gregory or, dare I say, Hilary Mantel (if she ever turned away from tales of the monarchy.) 

This is a very long book (coming in at 533-pages) but that’s because Forsyth is covering the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) as well as Wilhelm and Dortchen’s rocky road to happily-ever-after (the book begins in 1805, but they weren’t married until 1825). And Forsyth has not skimped on any details concerning the war or in building Jakob and Wilhelm’s characters – she explores Wilhelm as a life-long asthma sufferer, and covers the death of Admiral Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar (news of which is reported second-hand to the German citizens, who are desperate for news of Napoleon’s movements and their impending invasion). All of which leads to creating a storm around the Grimm’s hometown of Hesse-Kassel in Hanau, which was invaded by France in 1807. Forsyth really highlights how the Napoleonic Wars went a long way to informing the Brother’s path in life – when a new French Government makes Jakob and Wilhelm’s law studies null and void, the brothers start taking their collection of stories seriously for alternate income, and because of a sense of Germanic patriotism. 

History geek that I am, I loved Forsyth’s attention to historic detail and her own imaginings and interpretations on how circumstance shaped two of the most famous storytellers in history. The most I knew of the Brother Grimm and their tales was how they were anglicized versions of fables that had roots in many different countries and cultures. Like ‘Cinderella’ having threads of a Chinese Duan Chengshi story, or being somewhat similar to a Philippine tale called ‘Mariang Alimango’. But reading ‘The Wild Girl’ puts a very interesting spin on this idea that the Brothers Grimm pillaged and plundered exotic tales and made them their own – it’s remarkable to think that while modern naysayers would have us believe the brothers tried an ‘Anglicisation’, in actual fact by collecting stories they were merely trying to preserve their own Germanic culture against Napoleon’s French empire. 

But ‘The Wild Girl’ is far from a history lesson. No, the real heart of this book is in Wilhelm and Dortchen’s romance, which begins when Dortchen is twelve-years-old and develops a small crush on the handsome Grimm brother;

. . .  but love has never been something that can be constrained by age. It happened in the way of old tales, in an instant, changing everything forever. It was a fork in the path, the turn of a key, the kindling of a lantern.

Dortchen is one of six Wild sisters, just as the Grimm family have six children (five boys and one girl, Lotte, who is Dortchen’s best friend). Dortchen’s father is the local apothecary, and a tyrannical man incapable of expressing love but quick with a beating for minor disobedience - he can easily be believed as the archetype of every witch/Bluebeard villain. As Napoleon closes in, times become harder and harder in Hesse-Kassel and both the Wild and Grimm families suffer. And as Dortchen and Wilhelm get older and realize their love for one another, the more it seems these are not the times for happy endings. 

She sighed and tried once more to draw away. He gripped her forearms and said, in a low, intense voice, ‘I've been reading Novalis. Do you remember? He said the most beautiful thing about love. It’s given me new faith, Dortchen.’ 
‘What did he say?’ she asked, waning to believe, if only for a minute. 
‘Love works magic,’ Wilhelm said. ‘It is the final purpose of the world story, the “Amen” of the universe.’ 
She caught her breath in a sob and reached up to kiss him. For a long moment, the world stilled around them. 

But Forsyth has looked beyond impoverished times and political upheaval as the reason for Dortchen and Wilhelm’s prolonged courtship. Just as every good Grimm tale contains a truly heinous villain, so too does ‘The Wild Girl’ – and this, I’m afraid, is a tale as old as time. Forsyth handles Dortchen’s story of abuse with tender care, and though there is no factual evidence to support Forsyth’s imaginings, her Afterword certainly lays down strong reasoning in the disturbing stories Dortchen told the Brothers Grimm. 

Kate Forsyth’s ‘The Wild Girl’ is a remarkable tale that beautifully blends fact and fiction. It is a sweeping historical romance that will appeal to both adults and young adults, as it reminds us the power of storytelling and loving, even in the hardest of times. 


Kill Your Darlings: 'Dear Jennifer Byrne…'

I have a new column up at Kill Your Darlings, in which I call for the ABC's Book Club to start featuring young adult titles. 

Look, I do love the Book Club - I'm a huge fan of Jennifer Byrne, Marieke Hardy and Jason Steger - but above all else I am a YA-reader and supporter and I feel like this letter is long overdue. 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

‘Etiquette & Espionage’ Finishing School #1 by Gail Carriger

Received from the Publisher 

From the BLURB:

It's one thing to learn to curtsy properly. It's quite another to learn to curtsy and throw a knife at the same time. Welcome to finishing school.

Sophronia is a great trial to her poor mother. Sophronia is more interested in dismantling clocks and climbing trees than proper manners-and the family can only hope that company never sees her atrocious curtsy. Mrs. Temminnick is desperate for her daughter to become a proper lady. So she enrolls Sophronia in Mademoiselle Geraldine's Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality.

But Sophronia soon realizes the school is not quite what her mother might have hoped. At Mademoiselle Geraldine's young ladies learn to finish. . . everything. Certainly, they learn the fine arts of dance, dress, and etiquette, but they also learn to deal out death, diversion, and espionage - in the politest possible ways, of course. Sophronia and her friends are in for a rousing first year's education.

Some people see a dumbwaiter – Sophronia Temminnick sees a means to spy on her mother and the mystery lady called Mademoiselle Geraldine whom she’s taking tea with. And in the course of her spying, Sophronia learns that the entire Temminnick has had its fill of her wild ways and tomboyish tomfoolery – now they are desperate for her to go away to a finishing school. And there is no finer school than Mademoiselle Geraldine's Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality.

Fourteen-year-old Sophronia is being carted away to become a lady – a thought she finds absolutely abhorrent. But from the moment she climbs into a beautiful carriage, she begins to suspect that she’s going to get a very different education to the one she, and her mother, initially thought. . . 

She is introduced to fellow schoolmate, the dainty Dimity Ann Pllumleigh-Teignmott who has a family legacy at the Academy. Along for the carriage ride to school is Dimity’s younger brother, Pillover – who attends a Boys' Polytechnique where he’s training to be an evil genius. And then there are the unplanned travel companions - the Flywaymen who attack from above. They demand something called “the prototype”, and in the course of a quite vexing combat, Mademoiselle Geraldine is revealed to be not the actual Mademoiselle Geraldine but an Academy student sent on assignment called Miss Monique de Pelouse. 

With the help of three novice students, and thanks to Sophronia’s ingenious, the Flywaymen are fought off and the foursome continues on to school . . . but the damnable Flywaymen are not forgotten, nor is this ‘prototype’ they were willing to die for. 

When Sophronia gets to the Finishing Academy, she finds it is in fact a floating dirigible – constantly moving and requiring the help of a leaping werewolf (also a teacher at the school) called Captain Niall to board. 

Now begins the real adventure – for this finishing school is unlike any other. Sophronia meets her roommates - Sidheag and Agatha, and unfortunately the senior student Monique de Pelouse who takes it upon herself to become Sophronia’s nemesis. Academy teachers include werewolves and vampires. And lessons include; History of social discourse, dancing, drawing, music, dress and modern languages, Fine Arts of Death, Diversion and the Modern Weaponries, the proper way to flutter eyelashes and the art of fainting. 

When Sophronia manages to sneak her (steam-powered) mechanimal pet, Bumbersnoot, onboard the floating school, his dietary requirement of coal has Sophronia venturing into the belly of the dirigible and meeting the ‘sooties’ – including one handsome boy called Soap and his little friend, Vieve (short for Genevieve Lefoux!) who is mechanical-obsessed. 

It’s a good thing Sophronia is learning a lot at this Finishing Academy (like a proper curtsey and how to fall into a pretend dead-faint) because the Flywaymen are back, and when Sophronia and her friends find out exactly what the ‘prototype’ is . . . she realizes they really will do whatever it takes to find it. 

‘Etiquette & Espionage’ is the first book in Gail Carriger’s new young adult steampunk series, ‘Finishing School’, which is a spin-off and set in the same universe as her adult ‘Parasol Protectorate’ series (and includes a few lovely cameos for real crossover-power!). 

I was a couple of pages into ‘Etiquette & Espionage’ when it hit me that this book reads exactly like Carriger’s adult series . . . and how absolutely wonderful that is! I think it’s the highest compliment to pay an adult fiction writer who crosses-over to the young adult readership, that their books lose nothing of the flavour and sass of their adult series – it’s a sign that they’ve dumbed nothing down, have retained their distinct voice and proven the versatility of their universe. Of course, I can imagine younger reader having to look up words like ‘dirigible’ and ‘prevarication’ – but, in all honesty, when I first started reading the ‘Parasol Protectorate’ series I had to get used to the steampunk-lingo and look words up too! The highfalutin language is intricate to Carriger’s steampunk world of Victorian England, and if kids have to look up words in a dictionary – that’s a good thing, not a hindrance!

Carriger’s language and narrative voice is as scrumptious as ever in this new series. She’ll throw out passages like this one, that are just melt-in-your-mouth perfection; 
‘Whot, whot?’ the man muttered, as if hard of hearing. 
He was very pale and boasted an unassuming moustache, which was perched atop his upper lip cautiously, as though it were slightly embarrassed to be there and would like to slide away and become a sideburn or something more fashionable. 

That level of characterisation and description is perfect in a young adult series, and it really brings this world to life. Everything from the floating dirigible school to mechanimal Bumbersnoot is intricate and fabulous – setting up a fascinating stage. 

Sophronia is one of the best new female protagonists on the young adult scene – hands down. She’s rough and tumble, loyal and inquisitive – and has so much room to grow as a fourteen-year-old sleuth-in-training. Although ‘sleuth’ isn’t quite right – in fact, the girls training at Mademoiselle Geraldine's Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality can be anything they want, so well-rounded is their training. 
She had to give her teachers credit: they were right to insist all pupils carry scissors, handkerchiefs, perfume and hair ribbons at all times. At some point she'd learn why they also required a red lace doily and a lemon.

The book-cover quote is from Marie Lu, who calls it “the perfect steampunk version of Harry Potter” – which irks me a tiny little bit. I know people have just replaced ‘magic’ with ‘steampunk’ and said it’s Hermione instead of Harry – but Gail Carriger has such a unique voice (and is a steampunk predecessor!) it’s just sort of insulting to reduce her to a JK Rowling writealike. 

This is a refreshing new series with a female protagonist young readers can cheer on and look up to – she comes with a cast of fascinating friends who will no doubt keep this universe extremely colourful and interesting. ‘Finishing School’ is set 25-years before Carriger’s original adult ‘Parasol Protectorate’ series, but both new and old fans will want to leap onboard this new thrill-ride! 


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Interview with Simmone Howell, author of 'Girl Defective'

This week my copy of ‘Girl Defective’ arrived and I consumed it in one train trip (this is like an informal rating system for me: read in one train trip = one amazing book). Simmone Howell definitely delivers on the YA benchmarks she set with her debut ‘Notes from the Teenage Underground’ and ‘EverythingBeautiful’.

Girl Defective’ is the Something Wild with Street Crazies, and it’s Some Weird Sin how much I loved this book ;)

P.S. – if you want to know what the animal-head pictures are all about . . .  get to the mess and read the book

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 am a bit of both. I always have an idea of where I want the story to go and I'll have a few key scenes in mind when I start, but if I go off track I don't mind because that's usually where the story gets more interesting - I think of it like a discovery walk where you know the start and finish but how you get there can change because of a road accident or a whim ...

Q: How long did it take you to write ‘Girl, Defective’, from first idea to final manuscript? 
I had started a St Kilda novel (called for a long time St Kilda novel) which was a version of Notes from the Teenage Underground back in 2004 - so some seeds were planted then... but GD has pretty much been at the forefront of my consciousness since 2008 where I wrote the first chapter that featured Sky and Nancy on the rooftop looking at the palm trees and throwing food at passers-by.

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? 
Character and situation. But it is a free-fall too. And sometimes the characters you think are going to be important become less so and vice versa. My themes don't change too much from book to book (I think. Generally.) With GD I wanted to try and write a crime novel but it quickly became obvious that my inner writer didn't want to be tied to crime-writing conventions, so there was a battle of wills for a while there. 

Q: Why do you choose to write young adult fiction? What is it about this genre that you love? 
I love writing young characters because I feel like they have more dreams and possibilities. I know this isn't actually true, but it's always a starting point. I also think a lot about what makes people the way they are, and my characters are kind of a study of humanity (on a very small scale). I don't think too much about the genre as I'm writing. Labels work when they work. But I do read a lot of YA and my favourite books could easily fit into this genre if you skewed the definition a tad.

Q: So, I see from your bio that among the many casual jobs you’ve worked in your life (portable animal farms among them?!) you also once worked in a record shop. Sky, the protagonist of ‘Girl, Defective’ works in her family record shop. How did you go drawing on your own record shop-girl experiences for this book – and have you had this story fermenting in your mind since your shop days? 
I have worked in lots of record shops -  old fusty ones and shiny desperate ones -  and I have always wanted to write a novel set in one. I love the reverence of vinyl fans and the humour and the strange combination of irritation and fondness you can have for the more challenging regular customer. My first proper job was at a second-hand record shop. I had dropped out of uni but have to say I got a better education at the shop than what the course would have offered me. 

Q: You’re a Melburnian, and ‘Girl, Defective’ is set in St. Kilda (Sky’s record shop being on Blessington Street – one of the best named streets in Australia!). All Melbourne locals know that St. Kilda holds special affection and fascination (with a nefarious) history. When I first read the synopsis for ‘Girl, Defective’ and read about the St. Kilda setting – I was thrilled and totally got the appeal. But can you explain the appeal of St. Kilda for those who don’t know the area – explain why you wanted your story set in this suburb? 
I grew up in the outer east and St Kilda was always this mythical dreamland to me. It is a place that's already full of stories and I guess I wanted to add to the layers. It has a reputation of being a place of edges and art and criminal activity and because it has a transience, the mood is always shifting. It seems to me to be like a place where people come to rather than from ... It has a well-documented history (and I recommend the St Kilda Historical society's walks - they are fascinating) and I love all the metaphors of it beginning as a swamp, then becoming a rich person's playground, then falling into disrepair and then becoming gentrified. Back when I lived there I was in a duplex that had a Sai Baba devotee on one side and  lunatic living in the shed out the back. PLus it's physically beautiful - the sea and the wide streets, the Spanish houses & the eerie canal!

Q: Family is quite a focus in this book – between Sky’s patriarch and her brother – the intense focus is beautifully summarised in the synopsis; ‘Family Rules’. So often in YA books, family units are pushed to the side and are non-existent or cardboard cutouts. In young adult literature it’s usually the friendship family that is the real heart. Why was family an important exploration for you in this book, and for Sky? 

I think the relationships in the book are a mirror of the important people in my life at the time of writing. I wanted to explore the themes of how families can stay together when they are so challenged, so at odds with their environment...

Q: What are you working on right now, and when can we expect it to hit shelves? 
I am writing a story about a Fitzroy witch. I have no deadline!

Q: Favourite author(s) of all time? 
  Carson McCullers, Barry Gifford, Gavin Lambert. 

Q: Favourite book(s)? 
 The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers, Wild at Heart by Barry Gifford, The Slide Area by Gavin Lambert

Q: What advice do you have for budding young writers?
My best advice is stolen from Ben Okri's poem. he says 'Read the World' ... 

'Girl Defective' by Simmone Howell

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

We, the Martin family, were like inverse superheroes, marked by our defects. Dad was addicted to beer and bootlegs. Gully had "social difficulties" that manifested in his wearing a pig snout mask 24-7. I was surface clean but underneath a weird hormonal stew was simmering...

It's summer in St Kilda. Fifteen-year-old Sky is looking forward to great records and nefarious activities with Nancy, her older, wilder friend. Her brother – Super Agent Gully – is on a mission to unmask the degenerate who bricked the shop window. Bill the Patriarch seems content to drink while the shop slides into bankruptcy. A poster of a mysterious girl and her connection to Luke, the tragi-hot new employee sends Sky on an exploration into the dark heart of the suburb. What begins as a toe-dip into wilder waters will end up changing the frames of Sky's existence. Love is strange. Family Rules. In between there are teenage messes, rock star spawn, violent fangirls, creepy old guys and accidents waiting to happen. If the world truly is going to hell in a hand-basket then at least the soundtrack is kicking. Sky Martin is Girl Defective: funny, real and dark at the edges.

Mia Casey’s graffiti face with blackened tears watches over Bill's Wishing Well record shop. Mia was a real girl who died a few months ago, found face-down in the river and thought to be a ‘party-girl’ – no investigations are underway.

Skylark ‘Sky’ Martin thinks about Mia, even dreams about her. But Sky has enough to worry about without deluding herself into thinking she knew a dead girl . . . 

For one thing, her dad is the Bill who owns Bill's Wishing Well record shop. Her dad can polish off a whole slab in a single sitting and long ago accepted his alcoholism as a permanent character flaw. Then there’s Sky’s little brother, Gully, who never takes off the pig-snout mask their mum sent him for his last birthday. And speaking of Sky’s mum – what’s the point? She changed her name to Galaxy and breezed off to perform installation art in Japan, and now she’s just a voice on the end of the phone.

But life isn’t all bad for soon-to-be-sixteen Sky. There’s Nancy; their failed cleaner turned only best friend Sky has ever known. Nancy is older and wilder; she’s a dream of a girl who can pull of wearing the vintage clothes Sky’s mum left behind and causes eyes to bug out of people’s heads. 

Home is Blessington Street in St. Kilda – where tourists outnumber locals and nobody but Sky and Gully are born and bred St. Kildans. Locals are a colourful bunch and frequent the record shop – there’s the Weird Sisters and The Fugg (a poet), Steve Sharp (once famous, now sober) and Mystery Train.

It’s Mia Casey’s graffiti face that ignites everything – or so it seems. She’s plastered on the wall and suddenly bricks are flying, mysterious white vans are peeling away and a pretty newbie called Luke is hired at Wishing Well. Suddenly Sky’s life becomes full and messy – and glorious. 

‘Girl Defective’ is the new young adult novel from Australian author Simmone Howell. 

It has been too long since we’ve had a Simmone Howell novel. ‘Everything Beautiful’ was her last, and that was 2008. The moment I started reading ‘Girl Defective’ and Howell’s cracking voice rang out from the page – that was when I knew something (or, rather, someone) had been sadly missed on the Aussie YA scene. Howell writes such sharp characters and dark edges with a wry humour that’s wholly unique and breathtaking. Reading her latest offering is like gulping air you didn’t know was cut off – and I hope we never have to go so long between instalments from Ms Howell. 

The novel is set in St. Kilda, Howell’s stomping ground. For those who don’t know, St. Kilda is a suburb of Melbourne and is one of the city’s more colourful areas. It has quite a past – back in the 1880’s the area experienced a land boom and because St. Kilda is overlooking Port Philip Bay, it became a seaside destination. But the depression bought a sharp decline to the area, and for many years it was a place for crooks, prostitutes and general low-lives. It was only in the 1990s that the area experienced a gentrification, and as ‘Girl Defective’ is set in the present, Sky observes that: “These days the red light still glowed but only faintly.” So St. Kilda is a real dichotomy – some areas are still imprints of the suburb’s seedy past, but there are oak-lined streets that are beyond posh and full of million-dollar properties. 

I love the St. Kilda setting; for one thing it becomes a distinct character within Sky’s story, and for another it seems to be a reflection of the Martin family and associates. Father Bill is definitely living in the past (encapsulated in his record shop’s motto – “nothing after 1995”) while Sky’s best friend, Nancy, is determined to look forward and keep her eyes off the rear-view mirror. And as for Sky . . .  well, she seems to be caught between the vibrancy of those around her. With a post-punk father and mother called Galaxy, a brother who is a detective-in-training and constantly snouted, not to mention Nancy’s silver magnetism – Sky constantly feels like the odd one out. She’s mostly friendless at school, prefers masculine clothing and is quietly observant. It’s no wonder that amidst so many fiery characters and temperaments, Sky doesn’t quite know where she fits in, what her ‘thing’ is or who 'her people' are. I love her. Quiet she may be, but Sky is wicked smart and eloquent. She’s such a wonderfully relatable character; constantly feeling like the sidekick or back-up singer is something many, many people can relate to. And Howell has given Sky quite a voice – I adore how she describes her tinging jealousy of Nancy’s shine; 

I don’t know why it had to hurt, the way she dialled the world with her little finger.
Howell’s writing is magnificent – and my copy of ‘Girl Defective’ is peppered with markers to remember all the fine lines that caught me unawares. Howell’s similes alone made my knees weak;  
My heart beating like a bird in a box
Not to mention;
Pheromones fizzing like fireflies around us.
This is, ultimately, a book about relationships. There’s a focus on family – of the parents who vamoose and those who stick around. Little brothers we want to cradle and protect, and the sisters we let slip away. The flimsy friendships we hope to blossom into permanency, and the tentative lust that catches us unawares. And then there’s the relationship we have to music – what Sky calls her ‘valve’ on life. Music is an outlet, a private ceremony and those in the book feel a deep connection to the soundtrack of their lives; 
‘Put something on. Whatever you like.’ 
To some eyes this could look like a test. The first track a newbie played might set the tone for his employment. Luke was right to look uncertain. He wandered around the aisles for ages, coming back with Simon & Garfunkel. 
I snorted. Even Gully shook his head. 
‘What?’ Luke asked. 
‘That record doesn’t tell me anything about your inner emotional landscape,’ I told him. 
Luke stayed poker-faced. ‘Don’t have one of those.’ 
‘Sky – don’t psychoanalyse the new guy.’ Dad turned to Luke. ‘Gully reads faces, Sky reads records. We, the Martins, have superpowers.’

Simmone Howell slays me, every damn time. I didn’t want this book to end, and now that it’s over I just want to climb back into Howell’s world and re-read her words all over again. ‘Girl Defective’ is a book about the moment when everything changes, when you lose some and get some and the world falls into place (if, a little crookedly). Everyone has to read this, it’s good for the soul.


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