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Sunday, July 28, 2013

'The Alphabet Sisters' by Monica McInerney

From the BLURB:

As girls growing up in Clare Valley, Australia, Anna, Bett, and Carrie Quinlan were childhood singing stars known as The Alphabet Sisters. The unbridled enthusiasm of their flamboyant grandmother Lola was the glue that held them together. As adults, though, the women haven’t spoken in years–ever since Bett’s fiancé deserted her to marry the younger Carrie. Now Lola is turning eighty and she is determined to reunite the girls for a blowout bash. And no one ever says no to Lola.

Bett, who fled to London after the scandal of losing her fiancé, is hesitant to face her sisters and her hometown–especially since she has yet to find another man. Sophisticated Anna, the eldest sister, isn’t too keen on the prospect either, though she’s secretly grateful for any excuse to leave her crumbling marriage behind in Sydney. And Carrie, who remained in Clare Valley, is perhaps the most apprehensive. Her marriage–the nominal cause of the sisters’ estrangement–is also on the rocks. Was she wrong to have followed her heart and run off with Bett’s fiancé?

When Lola shares her special request, that the girls stage a musical she has written, their short visit becomes a much longer commitment. As they are forced to spend more time together, the sisters must confront the pain that lingers between them. Preconceptions and misunderstandings are slowly put aside and the three find themselves gradually, irresistibly enveloping one another once again–until an unexpected turn of events changes everything in ways none of them could have ever imagined. . . .

Layering the lighthearted antics of small-town life with a heartbreaking story of loyalty lost and found, The Alphabet Sisters is an unforgettable story of two generations of women who learn that being true to themselves means being true to one another.

‘The Alphabet Sisters’ is the 2005 fiction novel by Australian author, Monica McInerney.

It was the opening line that hooked me enough to purchase this ebook and give it a go;

‘Your sister is married to your ex-fiancé?’

Yep. I had to know more.

Sadly, the explosive premise promised in the opening chapter is never really delivered.

The book is told from various perspectives, but mainly that of Bett; the somewhat tubby middle child, who grew up watching boys fall for her sisters and felt the last straw was her beautiful blonde little sister stealing her fiancé. Bett has spent the past two years in a London dream-job-gone-bust, and is called home upon threat of ex-communication by her grandma Lola. Carrie is that beautiful blonde little sister who fell in mad love with Bett’s then fiancé, now Carrie’s husband, Matthew. Carrie has remained in their home town to help run the family motel, but her marriage (the one she fought so hard for, and resulted in radio-silence from her sisters for years) is on the rocks ever since grandma Lola announced Bett was coming home. Anna is the elegant and poised eldest sister, who dreamed of becoming an actress and is now a voice-over specialist. She lives in a loveless marriage with her adulterous husband, and is still reeling from her daughter’s dog-attack which left her scarred and bullied at school.

All three sisters are being called home to Clare Valley for their beloved grandma’s birthday. But the three of them haven’t spoken to one another in years – ever since the night Carrie and Matthew sat Bett down and revealed their love for one another. Bett flung words at both Carrie and Anna, and then fled in the middle of the night, and has not returned home since. Anna told her little sister exactly what she thought of her latest cruelty in stealing Bett’s beloved, and Carrie likewise threw back hard truths about Anna’s obviously crumbling marriage. The sisters have been at a silent impasse ever since. And it’s a shame, because in their youth they were inseparable – they even toured the country as young singing group ‘The Alphabet Sisters’ managed by Lola. 

The premise of McInerney’s book is clearly inspired somewhat by the infamous Andrews Sisters; an American close harmony singing group of the swing and boogie-woogie eras. The Andrews Sisters were huge during WWII, but they had a rather infamous falling-out midway through their careers. Patty Andrews once told Merv Griffin, “The Andrews Sisters only had one big fight. Really. It started in 1937 and it’s still going!” While ‘The Alphabet Sisters’ is set in modern times, the singing group and sister rift is clearly inspired by the real-life Andrews sisters.

It was the sister’s rift (and the reason behind it!) that really intrigued me with this book. But when the sisters all return home for Lola’s birthday there are no explosions for a long time – they’re all walking on eggshells around one another. And when we get each sister’s perspective, McInerney allows the sisters to tease out the feud and the parts they played in it internally – so readers are made privy to the fact that Carrie is haunted by her betrayal of Bett, and thinks maybe her and Matthew’s relationship was doomed from the start because of it. Anna admits the depth of her hurt over her husband’s ongoing affair with a woman and his recent moving out of home. And Bett is able to reason with the fact that she’s always hated playing second-fiddle to both her beautiful sisters, and even if she knew Matthew wasn’t ‘The One’ when he proposed to her, his betrayal with Carrie still stung. All these revelations aren’t uncovered through explosive fights and physical confrontations between the sisters – most of these revelations come in the most hum-drum of internal monologue ways. Yawn. 

I actually think the multiple-narratives from each sister is the real detriment to this book, especially since I only liked Bett. She’s the underdog; the bookish, mousy one who never felt adoration from a man, and when she finally did he was snatched away by her blonde little sister. How can you not root for an underdog like that? Even more so when Bett thinks back to her childhood and teenage years, and pinpoints the moment she really started to drift away from her sisters; 

It had been the start of a horrible period of her life. From that moment on it seemed as though Anna and Carrie had been set adrift from her, into a world of romance, dates, boys and confidence. Bett had felt like Cinderella and Bessie Bunter rolled into one – overweight, unhappy, finding pleasure only in food and books and her piano. 

By comparison, Anna and Carrie were cold and uncaring characters. I couldn’t even rouse a whole lot of sympathy for Anna with her cheating husband and scarred daughter because she was just so cold, and it frustrated me that in flashbacks it’s revealed that she didn’t really side with Bett enough when Carrie revealed her affair.

And, on the topic of Carrie, I hated her. McInerney certainly set her up with the longest distance to fall and be redeemed, but she didn’t even come close to being tolerable. It didn’t help that in flashbacks to her budding love affair with Matthew, Bett hardly figured into Carrie’s wayward heart. And even in present day she apologizes for hurting Bett, but not the affair. I’m sorry; but you steal your sister’s fiancé (regardless of the fact that Bett and Matthew were a poor match) and you’d better have some redemption up your sleeve. Sadly, no. McInerney has kept Carrie as a selfish little brat who hates that everyone blames her for the sister’s feud and silence, but seems reluctant to take that blame on board in any meaningful way. All her scenes just made my skin crawl; 

‘Are you still sleeping with her?’ 
Matthew looked uncomfortable. ‘I can’t. I want it to be you. It wouldn’t be fair.’ 
It made her feel better, for herself, even while she felt sorry for Bett. But it just seemed out of her control, out of their control, as though it was fated, and destined and all the magical things.

For me, Bett should have been the one-and-only narrative star of this book. She was all I cared about, and I'd have loved if this was about her coming home to confront her sister, her ex-fiancé (now brother-in-law!) and move on to her own happiness. As it is, McInerney gives so much page-time to all the sisters that even when Bett is given a romance it’s rushed and reliant on what happened with a young man some years ago. Especially underwhelming when Bett is the underdog all readers will be rooting for, and her happily-ever-after is underplayed and under-developed. 

The plot of the book goes into wacky-wonky territory when Grandma Lola tries to play peace-keeper and bring the sisters back together by way of a town play she insists they put on for her. And, yes, it’s as crazy and contrived as it sounds.

But in the last 50 or so pages McInerney must have sensed that the weighty plot points promised in the first chapter hadn’t really been delivered (especially after they were so easily resolved) so she throws out a curveball climax in the last few chapters that is such a blatant plea to pull on reader’s heartstrings that it’s embarrassing. Even more so when it comes too little too late and probably would have worked better as the premise or not at all. 

Any rating I give this book is for Bett – who I did like throughout and wish I'd been able to spend more (/all) time with. Otherwise, this was a book with big emotional promises that should have been a family saga/drama but quickly devolved into internal-monologue hell, wacky town melodrama and a ridiculous last-minute climax. Yikes.


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Interview with A.J. Betts, plus 'Zac and Mia' book giveaway!

I was lucky to receive an ARC of the 2012 Text Prize-winning book, Zac and Mia by A.J. Betts
As I (and many Aussie YA fans!) have come to expect; Zac and Mia was another triumph for the prestigious Prize, and it's another book I'll be passing on to many friends and family ... and you! Text has kindly offered one copy of Zac and Mia to give away, so do check out the competition details at the bottom of this post. 
And you can check out more interviews with A.J. Betts tomorrow and right up until August 1st, as she's doing a blog tour for the book - see a list of all her stops here.
In the mean time, I give you the author herself - A.J. Betts discussing 'sick lit', Perth talent and the OHMYGOD moment she won the Text Prize.

Q: How were you first published – agent or slush pile?  
I sent my first manuscript (ShutterSpeed) directly to Fremantle Press’s slush pile. Luckily, they took me on.

Q: Are you a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’ - that is, do you meticulously plot your novel before writing, or do you ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ and let the story evolve naturally?
Both. I spend a lot of time planning, brainstorming, graphing, scribbling, tabling, etc, but then when I'm writing, I allow the characters and story to take over, if they want to. I’m becoming more trusting in the process, and doing more of the plotting in my head (which sometimes means I’m not paying much attention to the real world…).

Q: How long did it take you to write ‘Zac and Mia’, from first idea to final manuscript?
Almost four-and-a-half years. The idea formed in February of 2009. I worked on the manuscript until May, 2012, then with my publisher, Text, for another year. It’s released on July 24, 2013.

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?
My novels begin with a moment - a snapshot of someone, somewhere. It’s very sensory. This moment is the precursor to whatever happens next. I have a sense of the story which may unfold, but not many specifics. Character and narrative develop in the first few chapters, by which time I usually know the ending. Theme evolves somewhere along the way.

Q: First up: last year’s Text Prize winner was Perth-born Myke Bartlett. You are the 2012 winner, and you’re Perth-based … is there a YA author conspiracy we should know about? Something in the water, perhaps?
Sheer talent ;-)  It's great to know that Perth writers, although so far from the eastern coast, are being represented nationally. Myke has since moved to Melbourne, so I may need another WA Text winner to keep me company.

Q: At what point did you decide to enter ‘Zac and Mia’ in the prestigious Text Prize?
I decided fourteen months prior, in 2011. I was teaching a creative writing unit at Curtin University and was raving about the Text Prize to my students. They responded: Well if it’s that good, why don't you enter it? And the challenge was on! How could I not? The manuscript was already drafted then, but I knew it needed more work if it was to have a real shot. I'm glad I took that extra year.

Q: And on that note: what was running through your head when it was announced that you’d WON the Text Prize?
Ohmygodohmygodohmygod. I was shopping with my Mum in Cairns when I got the call. I sat in a flower bed and had a little cry. As soon as we got home, I jumped in the pool.

Q: You are a secondary school English teacher. I wonder if you were inspired by the kids you teach while writing ‘Zac and Mia’? – do you pick up on their dialogue and use fragments of their overheard conversations? Have any of your pupils read the book? If so, what was their reaction?
None of my students have read this book...yet. I prefer to keep the manuscript under wraps as I'm working on it. I hope they enjoy it when it’s released, and I hope they can identify with the characters, as they have with my previous novels. I definitely draw on teenagers’ dialogue, more so conversations I overhear, rather than from those teenagers I know. I love eavesdropping.

Q: ‘Zac and Mia’ is a sad, but hopeful story about hope, fear, love, friendship and cancer. Not too long ago there was a media outcry about ‘sicklit’ and the abundance of depressing stories in YA. What do you have to say to those people who think teenagers shouldn’t be reading such doom and gloom?
I think teenagers, like adults, can read what they want, when they want, how they want. I was reading a lot of fantasy - historical and comedic - when I was a teen. If they want doom and gloom, however, Zac and Mia probably isn't for them. It's not a book that will depress readers. Cancer is the catalyst that brings my characters together, but isn’t a main focus of the book. The book doesn’t have melodrama, but it does have heart.

Q: What’s the appeal in writing for young adults? 
I'm writing as younger versions of myself, which is liberating and fun. Also, I probably haven’t grown up a lot...

Q: What are you working on right now, and when can we expect it to hit shelves!?
Right now I'm having a timely break (I'm actually answering these questions while on a cycling tour of France) but I have begun work on a novel set 300 years in the future...near Tasmania. It won't see daylight for a few years, I expect!

Q: Favourite author(s) of all time?
Still my childhood obsessions: Roald Dahl, Robin Klein, Douglas Adams. 

Q: Favourite book(s)? 

Q: What advice do you have for budding young writers?
Keep reading. Write every day. Write a journal. Remember: not everything is supposed to be published. Maybe 0.5% of my writing makes it to print. Publication is not the only goal. Travel. Live with a curious mind and an open heart. Be vulnerable, but fearless.

I have one copy of Zac and Mia to give away, kindly provided by Text Publishing.

How to enter:
☼ Become a follower of my blog (if you aren't already)

☼ Leave a comment on this blog post

☼ Include a way to contact you (e-mail addy is fine)

☼ One post per entrant

☼ This is a giveaway for AUSTRALIAN resident’s only!

☼ Contest closes August 15
I will announce the lucky winner on August 17

'Zac and Mia' by A.J. Betts

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

The last person Zac expects in the room next door is a girl like Mia, angry and feisty with questionable taste in music. In the real world, he wouldn’t—couldn’t—be friends with her. In hospital different rules apply, and what begins as a knock on the wall leads to a note—then a friendship neither of them sees coming.

You need courage to be in hospital; different courage to be back in the real world. In one of these worlds Zac needs Mia. And in the other Mia needs Zac. Or maybe they both need each other, always.

Zac Meier tracks his fight with leukaemia by NASA’s Curiosity rover. When he was first admitted he watched a documentary about the construction of the rover; when he first relapsed the launch was making headlines and the night before his bone marrow transfer he watched footage of the rover being shot into space. Now he’s stuck in isolation from November 18 to December 22 while the graft from a German donor (his friends have since nicknamed him ‘Helga’) safely heals. They can shoot a robot into outer space to explore a new planet but haven’t yet found a cure for cancer . . . and that’s just the way it goes.

So, Zac waits. He waits with his mum who plays Call of Duty with him and does word puzzles. She welcomes all the new patients that are frequently in and out of this floor and she always has a detailed answer ready when the nurses ask Zac; “have you opened your bowels?” 

And then one day a newbie arrives next door. Zac suspects it’s someone his own age (around about seventeen; the unlucky cut-off which means he just missed out on being admitted to the ‘fun’ and colourful children’s ward) – the real clue is when the new patient starts blaring Lady Gaga. 

Over the next few days Zac finds out his next-door-neighbour is a young girl called Mia Phillips, who has localised cancer in her lower leg. She’s lucky. Her chances of survival kick Zac’s leukaemia stats in the butt.

Zac and Mia strike up a tentative neighbourly friendship.

It starts with tapping.

Notes are passed.

A Facebook friend request is accepted.

And all the while Zac learns of Mia’s anger and secrecy; she has screaming matches with her mother and according to Facebook, none of her friends know that she’s seriously sick. 

When Zac’s isolation comes to an end and it’s time for him to re-enter the real world and await the all-clear, he thinks he’s seen the last of angry Mia and her good-chances.

Little does he know, their story is just beginning. 

‘Zac and Mia’ by A.J. Betts was the winner of the 2012 Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s writing. Betts now joins the long list of beloved Australian children’s and young adult authors who found their start with the prestigious Prize.

Can we just get something out of the way quickly? . . . ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ by John Green. Yeah. So ‘Zac and Mia’ is only similar to Green’s juggernaut in that it deals with young people who have cancer. That’s it. And I’m going to make a big call and say that Green’s book is fantasy compared to Betts’s raw tale of surviving the shitty hand that fate deals.  There’s certainly no Phalanxifor miracle drug in Betts’s book. 

For communicating the day-to-day mundane madness of cancer, Betts deserves high praise. I've read a few cancer YA books now where it’s all about what comes after – whether that be after you know the battle is lost or remission won – and there’s often a bucket list involved either way (and a prerequisite romance for a real robust life experience.) And, that’s fine. But in the first half of ‘Zac and Mia’, Betts tackles what happens in the thick of fighting. She presents Zac a few days into his isolation after a bone marrow transfer. She writes about him being waylaid by a common cold, and how he looks like Jabba the Hutt – bald and bloated from medication. When we first meet him, Zac is bored and sick of himself – he’s counted the tiles on the roof and eavesdrops on his neighbours as they go through the routines he has come to know by heart. Everyone probably knows someone or of someone who has/had cancer – I certainly do. And I can attest to the waiting lunacy and monotony there is in ‘fighting’ for your life. So I love that Betts presented that side of Zac and Mia’s story – it’s certainly not pretty, and it does mean that the book has a slow beginning . . .  but I think it was so important that Betts show that side of cancer; the truth and the tedium. 

It’s also in this slow but important beginning that we learn the most about Zac. That he was a healthy football player before fatigue and slight sores made way for much worse. And that while he tries to remain strong for his ever-present mum and Facebook friends, Zac has his reservations and fears. Especially since he knows what it’s like to not be cured, for treatment not to work the first time round;

I’m told I’m now 99.9 per cent someone else. I’m told this is a good thing, but how can I know for sure? There’s nothing in this room to test myself with. What if I now kick a footy with the skill of a German beer wench? What if I've forgotten how to drive a ute or ride a quad bike? What if my body doesn’t remember how to run? What if these things aren’t stored in my head or muscles, but down deeper, in my marrow? What if . . . what if all of this is just a waste of time and the leukaemia comes back anyway?

Betts also looks at cancer through a modernist gaze, and rather beautifully. Zac has this to say about the social media benefits of cancer;

Cancer is a Facebook friend magnet. According to my home page, I’m more popular than ever. In the old days, people would have prayed for each other, now they Like and Comment as if they’re going for a world record. 

And at one point Mia wonders what happens to all the Facebook pages of dead people (and their iTunes music? To which Zac profoundly replies “in the cloud?”). It might date the book if Facebook goes by way of MySpace, but I loved that Betts asked these profound questions of death and grieving in the digital age. 
Part one of the book was ‘Zac’ and all from his perspective, part two is ‘and’ and part three is ‘Mia’. Between ‘and’ and ‘Mia’ the story shifts rather monumentally to the outside world and especially onto Mia; who copes very differently than Zac with her cancer. Mia has issues at home and amongst her popular friendship group. She’s used to being desired and desirable, parties and boys are her normal so when cancer interrupts her life she tries to maintain her status quo, with disastrous results. Mia is angry, and for that reason she may not be terribly likeable, initially. But readers will probably find her prickly, mostly because Mia is the antithesis to all those phony portrayals of what cancer ‘survivors’ and strugglers should act like. Zac actually tows the line in many ways; he’s scared but battling and hopeful. Mia is just angry – angry at her mum and the nurses, her stupid leg and the way her seemingly perfect life has been interrupted. She cannot stand the thought of attending her school formal on crutches or in a wig, and she’s going to do all she can to get as far away from reminders of her illness as she can. I liked her. I liked that she ranted and railed to the point of annoyance because she bloody well should be mad at everyone. It’s not fucking fair, and good on her for letting them know it. Of course, Mia can’t run away from herself and what her body is doing, any more than she can try to put distance between her and the problems she’s created.

What didn’t work for me so much was the ‘and’ middle part of the story. I was quite happy for Zac’s beginning to be slow, and I actually quite liked that Betts mirrored the mundane hospital life to introduce us to these characters and set their stage. But I did think the middle dragged a bit; and while I liked Zac and Mia individually, together I was never so sure or entirely sold or quite certain what I was meant to be feeling about the two of them. There was just a bit of a disconnect for me in the middle, and mostly (ironically?) when it was Zac and Mia together the story didn’t work so much for me. 

I will say I have a small beef with the cover of ‘Zac and Mia.’ When I saw it, my first thought was “not YA.” Now, having come from Reading Matters and the many legitimate and important discussions surrounding gender-flipped covers, I’m not saying that I think a twee cover featuring a guy and girl in Nicholas Sparks-esque almost-kissing pose would be better. Far from it. But the ‘Zac and Mia’ cover does not work for me and doesn’t lend itself to the incredible and heartfelt story within. Initially I thought maybe the weird Evil-Eye petals would make story-sense . . . but if it was ever explained then it went over my head. Look, someone like John Green can get away with a sparse Rodrigo Corral clouds cover because it’s John Green and his name is the cover (at this point, he could probably even get away with a black cover, Spinal Tap style). But for this really beautiful book about two kids finding each other under the worst of circumstances; I just wanted something more. And something that would let teen readers know this is a book with a lot of heart and heartache. I normally love Text covers and I actually don’t normally comment on book covers at all (unless they’re offensive); but I think ‘Zac and Mia’ has missed out on a lot by going for an unemotional literary look over more accessible and appealing YA, and it pains me to point that out. 

‘Zac and Mia’ pulls no punches and offers no easy outs for readers. This is a young adult book about two teenagers in the thick of their cancer battle; examining their boredom and fear, grieving Facebook friends and the infuriating hell of living in a modern age where we can send a robot to Mars but have no cure for what kills close to seven million people every year. Another triumph for the Text Prize, A.J. Betts is in good company and ‘Zac and Mia’ is another great read.


Monday, July 22, 2013

Kill Your Darlings: Discovering YA

New online column over at Kill Your Darlings - 'Discovering YA'

I ask questions about the two Australian publishing initiatives looking for new voices in YA - the Text Prize, and Ampersand Project.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Interview with Will Kostakis, author of 'The First Third'

This year I was lucky enough to get my hands on an advanced copy of a Greek tragedy Aussie YA. 'The First Third' by Will Kostakis is funny and heartfelt, and seems to ring so true to the young author's own life that I simply had to pick his brain about fact and fiction ...

Q: How were you first published – agent or slush pile? 
Slush pile - after seven rejection letters, eighth time was the charm.

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 have key plot milestones I want to hit, but I like to keep the parts between them loose, so that there’s a good mix of order and natural evolution. As a reader, there’s no more exhilarating feeling for me than when I know authors know what they're doing, and guide me with a steady hand, building towards an ending that utilises every piece of the story that comes before it. But that said, some of the best things I’ve ever written have been random, spur of the moment-type things, so I had to give myself the freedom to write those.

Q: How long did it take you to write ‘The First Third’, from first idea to final manuscript?
The idea of a grandmother, near death, meddling in her grandchildren’s lives, was in the back of my mind while I was writing the final draft of Loathing Lola. It was a potential arc for Katie in the infinitely-more-serious sequel I was considering.

The idea returned to me a few years later when I was swimming laps one evening, only this time it was of my own grandmother giving me a bucket list. And those plot milestones I mentioned earlier, they all started to just click into place as I swam (I ended up swimming twice as much as usual, only because I wanted to get to the end of it). When I emerged from the pool, I had that final scene, and I knew I had to write it, immediately. That was the middle of 2011. It was written by the middle of 2012, and then edited 4 more times until early this year, when it was finally finished.
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?
For me, scenario and ending come initially, then the characters I need to get the scenario to that ending just sort of fall into place. Given that the title was one of the first things I came up with, the theme of “crossing thresholds” (into adulthood etc) really informed the way the characters were built.

Q: In my review I said; “truth is stranger than fiction” and wondered on how much of ‘The First Third’ was you borrowed from your own life. So, can you discuss a bit about what’s fact and fiction and what real-life inspirations helped shaped this book?
It is fictional, but it was informed by a lot of fact. My yiayia did almost die from a kidney stone (and it was timed for dramatic effect too, but it was Christmas, not Easter), she thankfully survived. The bucket list doesn’t exist, never did, but you could say that a lot of it is inspired by what she’d want… The First Third was written at a time when there were no immediate plans to have a second book published, so I asked myself, ‘If I only get one more chance at this, what is the story I want to tell, and why?’

There was a lot to cram in there, the closeness I felt with my grandmother who helped raise me, my mother re-entering the dating world at 40 (hilarious), my absent father, my present-but-distant brothers, my really amazing friends… I eventually wrote a book that allowed me to say a lot, but in a completely fictional way.

The strongest motivating feeling was hoping to repair my strained relationship with my brothers, and that was what I was writing towards. And I knew that even if it wasn’t published, or if it was and then panned by critics, and a total flop, if my brothers picked it up, got to the end and knew how I much I cared for them, then I’d consider it a success.

Q: On that note, I’m assuming your family and friends have read the book – what were their reactions?
There was a lot of my mum saying, “You can’t write that!” Her exchanges with Yiayia in the book about her love-life are verbatim. But yeah, it’s hitting the right notes.

Q: Melina Marchetta is quoted on the cover of your book, and I can imagine for the multigenerational aspect you get a lot of “The new Melina Marchetta” tags. But I feel like Bill has a very different relationship with his Yiayia – and actually your book isn’t about a young person railing against the older generation’s restrictions, but seeing merit in them. And I loved Maria talking about this, telling Bill about the yiayiathes in Greece versus Australia. Can you talk a bit about Gen-Y Bill appreciating his Yiayia and what she teaches him?
I know it’s fashionable for kids to hate their parents/grandparents, especially in TV and film, but it’s something I never quite related to.

I was raised by my grandmother and mother while Dad committed himself to his do-over family. I couldn't "rail against" them because everything they did was for me and my brothers -- theirs is a love I wanted to pay tribute to, to appreciate.

As with a lot of YA, this is a story about defining self, but it comes from embracing heritage not from rejecting it -- that's not to say this is a blind acceptance of some of the crazy things my grandmother's generation believes. It's a meeting in the middle, a guide to being a third generation Greek Australian.

Q: I loved the character of Lucas, and the very affectionate friendship between him and Bill. I especially liked that he’s a gay character with cerebral palsy who is actually very comfortable and (seemingly) confident in his skin, but is dealing with other people’s reactions and misconceptions about him. Sometimes it’s hard to find male friendships in books that feel as true and lovely as this, and I wonder if you have future plans for Lucas - maybe in a book all his own?
My first instinct would be to say YES. The Ps were something that evolved a lot as I wrote (bar Lucas' admission, they were the unplotted portion). Damo was originally the third member of the Sticks/Bill group - they were a trio, but he wasn't working as a character, so I demoted him to a background character,  made him Sticks' older brother, and then he found his voice, and he became a rich character on the fringes.

I would love to write a book about the Ps, but I'm wary... They thrive in the background. Whenever my favourite TV shows give more plotlines to the underused characters I love, I slowly begin to love them less... be it because I tire of them, or because what enamoured me to them was the mystery.

If I find a plotline that services Lucas and his family, then yes, I will revisit them. I am certain this won't be the last time I write a novel in this universe, whether it'll be a story about teenagers, twentysomethings or fiftysomethings, I can't say for certain. While The First Third does satisfy all of its arcs, Bill's story isn't over.
Q: Favourite author(s) of all time?
Terry Pratchett. 

Q: Favourite book(s)? 
His Discworld books featuring the witches. Amazing. But looking locally, anything by Barry Jonsberg, Gabrielle Williams,  Melina Marchetta, Simmone Howell really works for me.

Q: What advice do you have for budding young writers?
Write the story you can't imagine going your whole life not writing, and write it like you're talking to friends. Small words, simple sentences, big ideas, and be honest.

The First Third is now available from all good bookstores 

'The First Third' by Will Kostakis

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

Life is made up of three parts: in The First Third, you're embarrassed by your family; in the second, you make a family of your own; and in the end, you just embarrass the family you've made.

That's how Billy's grandmother explains it, anyway. She's given him her bucket list (cue embarrassment), and now, it's his job to glue their family back together.

No pressure or anything.

Fixing his family's not going to be easy and Billy's not ready for change. But as he soon discovers, the first third has to end some time. And then what?

It's a Greek tragedy waiting to happen.

Bill is having a bad year. Possibly, a bad life.

It starts when a girl called Mia gives him his first ever kiss, and then runs away.

But things get worse when Bill’s beloved Yiayia (grandmother) collapses in church and is hospitalized. While on bed rest she comes up with a bucket list for him to complete, and fix his family. Nevermind that 18-year-old Bill can’t imagine a world without his Yiayia, but his family’s problems aren’t exactly easy fixer-uppers…

His dad left when he was younger, and now his mum has suddenly decided to re-enter the dating pool. She turns to Bill for fashion and sexting advice, and there’s just not enough therapy in the world.

His younger brother, Peter, has withdrawn from the family over some undisclosed altercation that nobody can remember but Peter is holding on to for dear life.

Older brother, Simon, is living the high-life all the way in Queensland where he can date boys and not break his Yiayia’s (grandmother’s) heart.

Bill’s best friend is Lucas, nicknamed ‘Sticks’ for the walking sticks he uses because of his cerebral palsy. While Bill’s life spins more and more out of control, and starts to look like a Greek tragedy, Lucas is there to help and offer advice – but he has his own struggles; like finding a nice boy who likes him for him, in spite or regardless of his disability.

‘The First Third’ is the new young adult novel from Australian author, Will Kostakis.

I’m trying to think of how I’ll summarise this book and why I so enjoyed it, and the best descriptor I can come up with is this; it had a lot of heart.

Maybe that sounds empty and trite, but there you go.

There’s clearly some truth that’s stranger than fiction going on in ‘The First Third’, and I suspect that Will Kostakis has borrowed heavily (if not, entirely?) from his own life in the writing. The giveaway is in the aforementioned heart, and the acknowledgements page (plus: Bill/Will. Not a stretch). I think Will being so close to this book is what gives it that pulsing heartbeat – there’s affection on every page, for the characters and their somewhat impossible situations. And even amidst fractures and heartbreak, Bill/Will has a ringing loyalty that’s impossible not to admire.

The standout relationship in the book is between Bill and his Yiayia (and in case you’re wondering; it’s ‘yiayiathes’ plural). She’s quite a character from the old world; a good Greek grandma who feeds her grandsons up, meddles to her heart’s content and calls sheets ‘shits’, to many a salesperson’s mortification. I loved this book early on, from the moment that Bill recounts the lessons in love his Yiayia imparted, and the difference between lasagne and moussaka;

I was fourteen when my grandmother taught me about love and the difference between moussaka and lasagne. The two were apparently related. She called me into her kitchen where she’d laid them side by side, the moussaka made from scratch, and the lasagne, store-bought and still in its aluminium tray. 
‘This,’ she explained, pointing to the lasagne, ‘you buy. Easy. But it not special. You get five, ten. No hard. You just pay more. Moussaka,’ she pointed to the homemade dish, ‘is different. The tray keep lasagne together, but the moussaka, look – it break easy. Because it fresh. Less cheese, more eggplant, more oil. It better for you and you make with agape, love. Yes? This,’ she pointed to the lasagne, ‘is Australian girl.’

Will writes about Yiayia and Bill’s deep affection for her with heart-on-sleeve honesty. And what I loved is that Bill’s never embarrassed by her, though she does some lost-in-translation/generation guffaws. It often happens in YA novels that adults and parents are lost from the page, swept under the rug and forgotten. That’s certainly not the case in ‘The First Third’, in which family takes centre stage. But it was so nice to read about a grandparent having importance in Bill’s young life. No doubt there will be comparisons to Josie and her Nonna and Melina Marchetta in general for the multigenerational family life – but where ‘Looking for Alibrandi’ was about railing against the old ways and sometimes suffocating family, Bill in ‘The First Third’ is more accepting and can even appreciate his Yiayia’s wisdom and what she’s taught him about family.

There is a romance in this book, but I don’t want to give it away because I was surprised at the girl that caught Bill’s eye in the end. The romance worked for me, but I think there’s a lot more than just the romantic love in this book to champion. For instance, Bill has a lot of love for his best friend, Lucas ‘Sticks’. He has such affection for his best-friend-since-boyhood, and it came across in their loyalty to one another, but also in the little things like Bill describing Lucas’s laugh:

Sticks channelled Boromir’s seriousness. ‘One does not simply walk into Malvern.’ 
He laughed. He had an infinite laugh. He’d make a joke, laugh at his joke, hear his laugh and then laugh at his laugh. 

That’s just gorgeous. And, actually, Lucas was probably my favourite character after Yiayia. He was interesting for being opposite to Bill in his battles. Where Bill seemed one to fall hard and fast for a girl (or two), Lucas keeps quite a reserved heart because he knows that people see him differently because of his cerebral palsy. And where Bill’s family life is quite fractured in this book, Lucas’s is a fortress around him – with an older brother and strong father who’ll thump anyone who dares say anything derogatory about Lucas’s sexuality, to a mother who won’t leave the room without an ‘I love you too.’ I just loved Lucas. He was funny and affectionate; he collects souvenirs from his raucous nights out and protects Bill with a fierceness that you don’t often read in male friendships. I want more Lucas, and I cross my fingers that Will has a book planned just for him.

I’ve also got to say that ‘The First Third’ is funny. Will has a whip-quick, snarky and sharp sense of humour that is self-deprecating, pop-culture ridden and observantly wicked. There were some times when I wished the jokes didn’t come so hard and fast and on every page, but that mostly comes from me thinking that he had such beautiful connections and tragedies in this book that sometimes just letting them lie and hurt a bit was needed, rather than cushioning with humour.

I can only go back to my initial thoughts, that ‘The First Third’ has real heart. This book reads like Will Kostakis putting his heart on his sleeve and his family on the page, and the result is nothing short of magnificent.


Saturday, July 13, 2013

'The Longest Holiday' by Paige Toon

From the BLURB:

He's smiling down at me with tears in his eyes as I say my solemn vow:
'I, Laura, take thee, Matthew, to be my lawful wedded husband…' I thought I would never feel like this about anyone ever again. Not after my first love… Not after the heartbreak and the loss and the trying to pick myself back up again… Then I met Matthew, and I know that he has my heart forever: my perfect, gorgeous, adoring Matthew. And then I wake up. And I remember that he's not perfect. He's so far from perfect that my heart could surely collapse from the pain that instantly engulfs me…

To say Laura is unlucky in love is an understatement. Her first boyfriend died in a horrific accident, and now she's just discovered that her husband of six months has been hiding a terrible secret. Devastated and unwilling to face reality, she escapes on a girls' holiday to Key West with her best friend Marty. But a deep and instant attraction to a sexy Cuban scuba diver takes her completely by surprise. When her two weeks in the sun come to an end, Laura doesn't want to go home again. But she can't run from real life forever. Can she?

For a little while there, Laura Perry had it all after losing so much.

Years ago her first love, Formula One champion Will Trust, died in a car racing accident. And then Laura met Matthew Perry; a journalist with beautiful blue eyes and she found love again. They were married shortly after meeting, and had been enjoying a blissful marriage of seven months when a Facebook message ruins it all. Turns out, Matthew drunkenly cheated on Laura at his stag do. He shagged a girl in the toilets and now this Tessa is contacting him (conveniently remembering his name-association with TV show ‘Friends’) to say that she’s pregnant. Seven months pregnant, and he’s the father. Laura suddenly finds herself a blushing new bride with a husband who is going to have a baby with another woman. And Matthew, being a good man, wants to be part of the baby’s life. He doesn’t want to be an absentee dad.

The only thing for Laura to do is run far, far away from London – to Key West, to be precise, with her best friend Marty and tag-along Bridget.

Laura spends lazy days by the beach, drinking too much and trying not to fall apart at every text message Matthew sends, begging her to come home and sort things out with him. 

And then Laura meets Leo – a local diving instructor. He has movie-star good looks and secrets behind his piercing eyes. As Laura gets dangerously closer to him, she starts to wonder if he’s a distraction from the destruction of her life – or something more? It doesn’t help that all her friends and family are begging her to come home and choose Matthew, but what she feels for Leo can’t be so easily dismissed …

‘The Longest Holiday’ is the new novel from romance writer, Paige Toon. 

You’d think I wouldn’t touch another Paige Toon novel with a ten-foot pole, after giving the laughably lacklustre ‘Pictures of Lily’ a 1.5/5 rating back in 2011. But, here I am, the Queen of wishful thinking.

I glimpsed the premise of ‘The Longest Holiday’ and was intrigued because it reminded me, bizarrely, of Melina Marchetta’s ‘The Piper’s Son.’ My favourite character in that book is Georgie, a woman who is 42 and pregnant to Sam, the man who cheated on her seven years ago and got a child out of his indiscretion. I loved them, and despite their rocky road they are amongst the most romantic couplings I’ve ever read. Their entire history intrigued me, and I loved the messy heartbreak they both had to overcome to be together. So, in reading this blurb it was less the Key West & Leo stuff that had me pushing past my last Paige Toon disappointment, and giving this book a chance … except (and I really shouldn’t be surprised by this) Toon herself is more intrigued with the boring, easy, mushy Leo stuff and that’s what the book focuses on. More’s the pity.

‘The Longest Holiday’ starts from the moment Laura is on the plane, heading into Key West. She’s clearly fragile and weepy, unable to escape her mind ticking over Matthew’s cheating and the bundle of ‘joy’ that’s to be a constant reminder of it. For the first few chapters Laura is understandably mopey while in Key West sunshine. But then she meets Leo and is dazzled by his movie-star good looks (Toon categorizes ad nauseum; his bulging arm muscles and Pavlov’s Abs that trigger Laura’s drool every time he gets shirtless…). Leo is a local dive instructor with a Cuban background and a ramshackle house that sits beside Laura’s hotel. He lives with his hodge-podge family: a half-brother, sister-in-law, nephew and a dog. Laura is intrigued, and when she opts for dive lessons she gets ever closer to him … until the time comes when she has to return to the UK. But just as she’s about to get on board the plane, Matthew rings to say his baby son has been born. Laura cannot cope, and so decides to spend her entire summer in Key West, determinedly dodging her awaiting heartbreak in the UK. In deciding to stay, she also inadvertently decides to see if she and Leo have more than just chemistry between them…

Look, I’m of the belief that readers quite like to poke at character’s bruises. There’s just something torturously delectable about reading someone else’s heavily fractured life – and infidelity plots are the best types of fictional itches to scratch. And Laura’s is particularly gruesome and intriguing. But Toon barely touches on it. Instead, Laura ignores texts from Matthew or plays a loop of the same conversation with him “I need space. I need time. I’m not coming home.” Now, on the one hand I really wanted Laura to go home and yell at Matthew. I wanted to poke that bruise of hers and see her back in the UK as her life and love slowly unravels … But on the other hand, Toon doesn’t really make Matthew that appealing a suitor. I think she tried to put Laura between a rock and a (rock hard abs) place, but Leo and Matthew are very unbalanced. Leo’s all brooding secrets and movie-star good looks, while Matthew’s just the drip who keeps interrupting sexy times with his text messages and is a broken record saying “I love you, Laura. Come home, Laura.” Gag. Toon tries to bring some appeal to Matthew through abysmal flashbacks of ‘happier times’ – but they left me cold and distant, too short to mean anything to me, and too vapid to mean anything to Laura. 

That being said, in relation to Laura I didn’t find Matthew appealing. But by himself? Well, I’d actually quite like to read his story and the complications of having a baby with your one-night-stand that contributed to the end of your marriage with the woman you love. Toon, I think, hints at a possible trajectory for Matthew in that he went to Uni with Tessa’s sister (Argh! Wouldn’t that be a tricky love triangle) – and even though I’ve now had two misses with her, if she was to write a book about Matthew, I’d probably read it. 

‘The Longest Holiday’ failed big time for me on two HUGE counts. One is that Laura is quite vapid and useless. There’s much made of the fact that loving Matthew helped her out of her depression over Will dying. Now we meet her when loving Leo helps her out of her depressive spiral over the end of her marriage to Matthew. She’s portrayed as entirely dependent on men (and really, really ridiculously good looking ones, at that – shallow much?). 

The second thing was the ending – which is laughably soap opera dramatic and sudden. Never mind that the big twist isn’t even properly concluded, but rather jumped to a clunky epilogue that sweeps everything Toon didn’t seem able to cover under the rug. 

You’d think I’ve learned my lesson about Paige Toon … but as I said, if she has a novel for Matthew up her sleeve I’ll probably read it, because his story was a million times more juicy and delicious than sad-sap, male-dependent Laura’s could ever be. Props for setting up Matthew’s twistingly complicated story, but that’s about it.


Wednesday, July 10, 2013

'Outlander' adaptation news: meet Jamie Fraser

I interrupt my regularly scheduled book blogging for some breaking news/fangirling . . .

So, by now anybody who’s anybody will know that the TVadaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s ‘Outlander’ book series is a GO. For realsies, people! … after years of fans clamouring for Gerard Butler (No. Just … no) and Katherine Heigl expressing an interest in the project. After YEARS of fan-made videos on YouTube featuring Liam Neeson from ‘Rob Roy’ (yes, he would have been fabulous, Once Upon a Time…) after YEARS and YEARS of rabid fan speculation, it’s actually happening – Outlander is coming to cable TV channel, STARZ.

I already had high-hopes for this adaptation after Ronald D.Moore was announced as executive producer (he’s notorious for having made hard-to-please ‘Battlestar Galactica’ fans very, very happy). And on a side-note: Ronald is a wee bit lovely himself. Can he cast himself as Dougal? Or just a marauding Highland extra? He looks the part, no?

Secondly, I’ve been watching the STARZ series adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s ‘The Cousins’ War.’ ‘The White Queen’ is amazing. I’ve never read the books, but now I have to because the TV series has suckered me in so much. The cast is superb, the filming locations are breathtaking and they’ve clearly condensed quite a lot of story into highly addictive television viewing.

So, I’ve been feeling pretty good about an ‘Outlander’ TV series. But the real test of fandom would come with the casting announcements. And now we know for sure this isn’t some pie in the sky dream; because Himself has been cast.

That’s right. Hold on to your hearts, lassies, because Jamie Fraser is being bought to life by Scottish (!) actor, Sam Heughan.

Sam is 6 foot 3. He has cheekbones that could cut glass and piercing blue eyes, a knife of a nose … Okay. Basically he’s a very lovely chiselled specimen of a man … I mean. Um. *gulp*. He’s good. Yep, he’ll do. Appearance-wise, he has that lovely long and lean look of Himself and though Sam is 33, he could very easily pass for 22-year-old Jamie in Book #1. But I’m mostly excited because Diana Gabaldon is infectiously excited about this casting news.

On her Facebook page, Diana detailed her finding out about Sam as a Jamie contender. She saw photos of him, before watching his audition tape.

So I’m lookin’ at some of Sam’s photos and sayin’ to my husband, “Yeah, I buy him as a virgin…but I think Claire’s going to get done for statutory rape!” You know, a bit apprehensive. He’s quite big, but a very chiseled face that makes him look a good bit younger than he is, at least in stills.

But then she watches his audition tape, and …

First five seconds, I’m interested—he looks totally different than he did in _any_ of the stills—and five seconds later, Sam Heughan’s GONE, and so am I. It’s Jamie Fraser, right _there_ in front of me, moving, talking. One of the biggest thrills ever.

And that’s what actors do. Good ones. They can “be” someone else, totally.

Now, I saw him do two scenes: the confrontation between Jamie and Dougal, after Dougal exposes Jamie’s back in a tavern. Ferocious, explosive, a glimpse of the warrior. And he…freakin’ _exploded_.

And then…the scene in which Jamie explains to Claire exactly why he intends to punish her for disobeying his orders to stay hidden, thus nearly getting them all killed.

OK. This is arguably _the_ most controversial scene in all the books. And I’m not about to go into the scene itself—not the point here. The point is that that’s one heck of a complex scene, emotionally, and _could_ be read/performed in a lot of different ways. Now, I happen to _know_ exactly how Jamie acted and spoke during that scene…and that’s…exactly what Sam _did_. Thoughtfulness, intimacy, fair-mindedness, annoyance, firmness—and quite a lot of humor. One of Jamie’s hallmarks is the ability to be threatening and funny at the same time—and Sam pulled that off.
So, yeah. I’ve watched those videos a couple dozen times, just to be sure I wasn’t imagining things. I wasn’t.

Woah. Chills. Goosebumps. Hot flush. I’m sold.

Of course, there are already naysayers. And I’m already sick of them. Doubly so, those who are still whinging for Gerard or Thor (seriously, stop trying to make them a thing.)

But as if I needed more reason to be over-the-moon excited about this casting news, Sam Himself chimed in:


2014 is shaping up to be the Year of Outlander. Book #8, ‘Writtenin My Own Heart's Blood’, is coming out March 2014 and the TV series will air next year too. I can’t wait. My fangirl heart is swelling with excitement for both and I’ve got nothing but good vibes and well-wishes going out to Diana and the Starz team.    
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