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Saturday, August 24, 2013

Reporting from the Melbourne Writers Festival

So, right now I'm doing my Digital Reporter gig at Melbourne Writers Festival and will be silent on this blog, but active on the MWF one.

So I thought I'd post links to all my blogs as they go up. 


• Storytelling and the School's Program: Schools’ Program Festival picks and MWF young adult author, Ambelin Kwaymullina, explains how “stories increase the capacity of our imaginations.” 

Dark Stories and Sea Hearts: an Interview with Margo LanaganInterview with Margo Lanagan; the Printz Honor, Stella-shortlisted author and this year’s winner of the CBCA older reader’s award.  

• Deborah Ellis: On Writing for Women in AfghanistanInterview with Deborah Ellis about the inspiration behind her books and why she donates royalties to organisations supporting Afghan women.

• Every Song’s Been Sung: Tavi’s Fangirl Fandom: Tavi Gevinson’s spectacular keynote on originality and fangirling ended up being reflected in the audience she was speaking to.

• Lucy Knisley: Graphic Novelist & Food Nerd: Lucy Knisley in her ‘My Life in Comics’ session gave students her best advice and shared some foodie obsessions. 


Loud VoicesHighlights from the ‘Hearing Voices’ Margo Lanagan and Cassandra Golds session, as well as the Out Loud! Youth Poetry Slam.

• The Problem with Strong WomenA Schools’ Program session with young adult authors Kelly Gardiner and Justine Larbalestier discussed ‘Strong Women’.

• Ambelin Kwaymullina: secrets within secretsYA author Ambelin Kwaymullina reveals secrets about upcoming sequel ‘The Disappearance of Ember Crow’ and what makes strong female characters.

• Wild. Girl. Moon: An interview with Cath Crowley, Simmone Howell and Fiona Wood. An interview with Cath Crowley, Simmone Howell and Fiona Wood about being friends and writing a book together.

That's a wrap!

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

'just_a_girl' by Kirsten Krauth

Received from the author

From the BLURB:

just_a_girl tears into the fabric of contemporary culture. A Puberty Blues for the digital age, a Lolita with a webcam, it’s what happens when young girls are forced to grow up too fast. Or never get the chance to grow up at all.

Layla is only 14. She cruises online. She catches trains to meet strangers. Her mother, Margot, never suspects. Even when Layla brings a man into their home. Margot’s caught in her own web: an evangelical church and a charismatic pastor. Meanwhile, downtown, a man opens a suitcase and tenderly places his young lover inside.
 just_a_girl is a novel about being isolated and searching for a sense of connection, faith, friendship and healing, and explores what it’s like to grow up negotiating the digital world of facebook, webcams, internet porn, mobile phones and cyberbullying – a world where the line between public and private is increasingly being eroded. 
Layla is just_a_girl. 

She goes to school, goes to work. Gets groped by her boss, pawed in the train toilets by her boyfriend. She uploads videos of herself writhing in bed for Mr. C. She cuts out articles about her gay celebrity-chef dad who buggered off to Queensland. And she meets older online men in hotel rooms.

Margot is Layla’s mother, coming off meds and discovering God. She has a crush on the local pastor and reluctantly wears tiaras with his perfect wife. It all went wrong somewhere; maybe when her husband told her he never loved her. Maybe after watching ‘Brokeback Mountain’. Layla scares her sometimes, with her wisdom.

Tadashi is lonely. He rides the train and looks at Layla, and her apple mouth, out the corner of his eye. He carries a briefcase and reads ‘The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’. He and his mother both felt a connection to nature, but he’s lonely since her death and wants love – so he’ll manufacture and buy synthetic human hair for it.

just_a_girl’ is the debut novel from Australian author, Kirsten Krauth.

The author sent me this book after I read Simmone Howell’s glowingly disturbing review. Krauth pitched the book to me as “adult, with young adult themes” and I loved that (it could be me! An adult with young adult themes). I was prepared, after reading Howell’s review, to be mad and a little scared when reading this book. What I wasn’t prepared for was the climbing dread that pervades the page, and to be so sucked into Krauth’s masterfully warped coming-of-age tale. This is a book of our times. It’s about sexualisation, pornification and the justification of both. It’s a coming-of-age for all the characters involved; from fourteen-year-old Layla to her God-fearing mother and the lonely stranger she looks for on the train. The disconnect-connection of these three characters is itself a commentary on the way modernity has found us more ways to stay in touch, by being farther away than ever before. 

Layla is the just_a_girl screen-name of the book’s title, and we are first introduced to her as she’s meeting up with an (older) man she speaks to on the Internet. Right out the gate, Krauth welcomes us with a worst-fear of parents and women, and then she pulls back and rewinds, leads us up to this point and beyond. She introduces us to Layla, who must be the “Lolita with a webcam” of the blurb. Layla is so young (fourteen) but disturbingly sexually ‘mature’. She gets a kick out of sitting opposite businessmen on the train, and sucking Chupa Chups in front of them. Men have been looking at her since before she was a teen, and she’s currently kicking around with eighteen-year-old Davo, from school. But what Layla considers romantic is an absence of the digital, where she lays her body and soul; 

What I've always wanted from a guy is a love letter. Not an email but actual words on paper. A romantic sentence that’s just about him and me. 

Layla is a product of our times. She is a girl who has grown up being told that sexy is beautiful, less is more and boys rule. But she’s a conundrum; at once aware of the violence and degradation women are told to suck up (epitomized in her sleazy, groping boss) and questioning of the status-quo; 

But if a guy comes up behind you in the dark. And he’s got a loaded gun. Or a taxi driver tries to grope you. In the front seat when you’re still a bit drunk. It’s hard to know what I'd do. In porn films the women always say no. Then moan and writhe and say yes. And end up loving it. Or I've heard it’s best to go along with it. So you don’t get killed in the end. 

You get the impression, from Layla's raw and biting narration, that she's on the cusp of anger and knowledge. She knows how men think and tick, she's smarter than Davo and puts on a performance for Mr. C. I think that once the gloss wears off and she starts acting on her instincts about the wrongness of it all; she'll get angry and be bloody glorious. 

But, for now, she watches porn videos with Davo (for whom the watching is as mechanical as eating). And this in itself is an interesting everyday aspect of modern life that Krauth dissects; especially from a young, female persepctive. When you think that boys as young as 11 start watching porn, it’s no wonder this leaks over and forms the way they think of women forevermore. They think women like to be slapped, ejaculated on and “no” means “yes”. Layla watches porn to please Davo, and she also starts thinking about what her sexual instinct and impulses are, in contrast to what’s on screen. 

Krauth also explores everyday misogyny amongst teens. What’s really frightening is how common and accepted it is, how inherently violent. And it’s also frightening how right Krauth gets it (I can attest to hearing similar conversations amongst schoolkids on the train); 

Davo says you can never trust anything that bleeds once a month but doesn’t die. He tells this to his mates and they honk like donkeys. All the girls in the outer circle shift position slightly as if to combat a stiff breeze. 

Layla is surrounded by sex and violence, and she wades into it of her own accord. She posts YouTube videos of herself masturbating and meets up with men from online Internet forums. Throughout the book I wanted to wrap Layla up in a blanket and tuck her away somewhere safe; I literally wanted to reach into the book and equip her with armour and shield, because it feels like everything is leading to something ghastly and inevitable … Layla’s actions are destining her to be headline news one day, a Facebook photo in a sad newspaper article.

But Krauth also offers us two other perspectives; that of Layla’s mother Margot, and a stranger on her train called Tadashi. 

Margot’s narrative is not here to cast blame as Layla’s disinterested or powerless mother, far from it. She’s another example of a woman at the bottom of the heap; single mother who doesn’t get child support from her now famous ex-husband. She’s coming off a medication dependency and searching for a place where she doesn’t feel like a pariah for being divorced and single, where she isn’t looked down on because she doesn’t wear a full face of make-up and can’t find the energy to exercise regularly. She turns to God, but even the church has a hierarchy and women are expected to look/act/be a certain way – most of it leading to pleasing the men in their lives. 

Tadashi is the outsider. The man on a train, forever reading Haruki Murakami. He’s been so beaten down by schoolyard racism and the death of his beloved mother that when he wants love and a connection, he looks for it online – purchasing a Life Sized Doll named Mika who looks faintly like Layla. This, by the way, is not a new phenomenon; watch the incredible and incredibly disturbing doco ‘Guys and Dolls’ for more. I’ve read some reviews that say Tadashi’s story was a real disconnect for them (maybe that hits the point of him home), but I was questioning his purchasing of a woman online (that’s what Mika is to him) – that he can manufacture a woman (working parts and all) and call it ‘love’. Maybe it could have hit home more if Tadashi regularly purchased prostitutes – but, honestly, what’s the difference? It’s men buying women for sexual gratification. In an article about the recent and brutal murder of St. Kilda prostitute Tracy Connelly, a fellow sex worker interviewed from the area said this about how the men think of, and treat these prostituted women; ''They think they buy you like an apple. Like they can do whatever they want … And they can't.” 

This is a tough book. It’s a necessary book, and one I want to pass on to quite a few people. It’s a book that will make you question our digitized everyday, and yearn for more human connections. It’s a gut-wrenching book, taking readers to dark places and introducing characters on the precipice. It’s about porn/love, isolation/connection, sexualisation/justification, misogyny/mentality, Facebook and the face-to-face. It’s about our world, right now, and it’s a little bit brilliant. Krauth wraps big questions up in an intriguing story about three dis-connected people riding trains and living under the same roof, who are so far from one another they can’t even see what’s right in front of them. Definitely adult with young adult themes. 


Monday, August 19, 2013

The adult vs children’s lit debate: An interview with Morris Gleitzman

My name Kill Your Darlings blog is up! I interviewed Morris Gleitzman on children's VS adult & YA lit.

And if you want to know what else we talked about, check out this review of his new book Extra Time which is also a mini-interview. 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

WINNER: 'Zac and Mia' book giveaway

Aaaaaaaaaand the lucky winner of the Zac & Mia giveaway is ...


Congrats! And thanks to all who entered. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

'Extra Time' by Morris Gleitzman - an interview and a review

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

When 13-year-old Matt is discovered impressing the livestock in an Aussie country town with his remarkable soccer skills, he's offered the chance of a lifetime – a try-out at one of Europe's biggest and most glamorous soccer clubs. His younger sister Bridie goes with him as his manager and tells us their story – warts, goals and all.

The funny and moving story of a sister's love for her brother, and how it survives everything fate throws at it, including the millions of pounds and mountains of pressure at the top of the world's most popular sport.

Matt is the soccer star, and his sister Bridie his manager. Matt doesn’t let a busted leg or bullies interfere in his game, same way that Bridie doesn’t let her asthma stop her from looking out for her big brother. This family knows to stick together, after a tragedy pulled them tight and has their mum always fretting, and Uncle Cliff keeping a watchful eye on things.

Bridie and Matt are due some good luck in their lives … but when it comes their way and dreams come true, both are surprised at the many and varied ways that things aren’t made better.

‘Extra Time’ is the new novel from superb Australian children’s author, Morris Gleitzman.

I was lucky enough to have a phone interview with Mr Gleitzman recently, for an upcoming Kill Your Darlings blog. And in-between asking him some very serious questions about a very important topic, I was also able to fan-girl and throw in some Qs about ‘Extra Time’ and his next book … so this is a review/interview of sorts.

There’s a moment in ‘Extra Time’ when Bridie dreams of her and Matt being suffocated by safety;

I have the bad dream again. 
The one I have a lot. 
Me playing for Australia in a World Cup soccer final. Nil-nil with two minutes to go. I've got the ball. Matt wants me to pass to him. 
But I can’t kick. 
There’s bubble wrap round my legs. And my arms. And my chest. 
Matt’s not much better off. His soccer shirt and shorts are made of cotton wool. Which is growing like fungus. 
It’s over his head and feet now. He’s being smothered in cotton wool. The more I struggle to kick the ball, the tighter the bubble wrap gets.

It’s a prescient dream for the many ways that Matt and Bridie have been made overly cautious in their lives, after a family tragedy … but also revealing of Morris Gleitzman as a successful children’s author, who often writes the sort of tough and admirably daring characters that kids love, and parents would prefer came bubble-wrapped.

‘Extra Time’ is about soccer and realizing dreams are not always as easy you’d imagine them to be. At the back of the book, Gleitzman acknowledges the Premier League families for sharing their experience and friendship. I asked him about their involvement as part of his research, and discovered the level of detail that went into writing ‘Extra Time’;

I was over in the UK last year, doing some research for the book. And though it’s not easy – because it’s quite a closed and self-protected world – I finally was able to meet three families who have boys training in different Premier League clubs in their academy system. And they weren’t able to go on the record with me . . .  because they had a sense from our conversation that I was interested in some of the aspects of this whole process that maybe the official football authorities wouldn’t necessarily want to have broadcast. And you can probably pick up from the book what some of those things are. 
So; it formed the core of my research because I got a lot of information, and not only did they take me along with their family to training matches, but I also had a sense of how aspects affected other areas. The impact it had on their families, how important it was to them. And most importantly, I got the sense that for the boys involved (they ranged in age from about 12 to 16) just what a huge focus in their life it is. 
I learnt, for example, that some families were approached by a big club when their son was four-years-old. Even the notion that kids play organized sport at four, I find that a little bit gobsmacking, but certainly the experts and scouts are trained to be able to spot that one-in-a-thousand sort of ability even in a four-year-old. And the clubs aren’t officially allowed to make any formal deal until the boy’s about nine, but such is the competition now to find the world’s best players very young. Because of course it’s not just a question of getting the best players for your team, it’s also big money. 

This is a gorgeous book (as a Morris Gleitzman books always tends to be); easily 5/5 that kids (sports fanatics and couch potatoes) will love, as will boys and girls (young and old). 

It always happens that after reading the latest Morris Gleitzman book, I’m always desperate for the next one. So I asked Mr Gleitzman about his current work-in-progress, and the bad news is; we’ll have to wait until June 2014. The good news is; ‘Loyal Creatures’ sounds heartbreaking and amazing; 

It’s a book I’m developing from a performance piece I wrote last year. I did some work with the National Theatre in London. I wrote a piece that they’ve been using in some workshops, as part of their ‘Warhorse’ stage production. They approached me because they wanted a piece that would look at some aspect of horses in WWI, from an Australian point of view. And I did some research, and hit upon something that absolutely fascinated me which was to discover that we sent about 150,000 horses over in WWI, basically to Egypt and Palestine in the Australian light horse. Many of them were the personal horses owned by the young men who volunteered. And of those, only one horse came back. 
Many were sold to the Egyptian army, British army. Many were sold to local horse dealers, but that was very unpopular amongst the troopers because they saw that the horse dealers didn’t treat the horses very well in most cases. And the rest were shot. And the thing that grabbed me, as the ‘story hook’, was that although the army denies this, quite a number of the troopers who had formed an incredibly close bond with their horse over those four years, in many cases were absolutely convinced that they owed their life to their horse. Rather than have the horse shot in the head, in an anonymous way, in an army bureaucratic shooting, they took their individual horses out to the desert, said goodbye, and shot them themselves. My story is called ‘Loyal Creatures’, and it’s about a sixteen-year-old volunteer, and he and his horse go off to war.

Extra Time is now available, and Morris Gleitzman will be appearing at the Melbourne Writers Festival later this month –
be sure to check out his sure-to-be-wonderful sessions! 

Monday, August 12, 2013

'The Sultan's Eyes' by Kelly Gardiner

 Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

The year is 1648 and life in Venice is serene for Isabella Hawkins and her friends Willem, Al-Qasim and Signora Contarini. Together they publish fine books like the controversial encyclopaedia, The Sum of All Knowledge. When a new Inquisitor declares war on free speech however, they are forced to flee across the seas to the wondrous capital of the Ottoman Empire, Constantinople, which is ruled by the infamous Sultanate of the Women. Old friends and new, including the boy Sultan and his sister, welcome them to the world′s greatest city. But Isabella is soon entangled in poisonous palace intrigues, while her friends secretly play perilous games of their own.

Sixteen-year-old Isabella Hawkins has experienced much sorrow in her time – first fleeing from England with her scholar father when The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition (aka ‘The Spanish Inquisition’) rode throughout the land, upholding Catholic orthodoxy by any means necessary. Isabella and her father tried to flee to Amsterdam; but only Isabella arrived, orphaned after losing her father to the bitter seas. But the Inquisition, and one Holy man in particular called Fra Clement, was never far behind. 

While in Amsterdam Isabella befriended and began working for a scholar called Master de Aquila and his young printing apprentice, Willem. But Fra Clement and his Holy order came again – and Master de Aquila was lost, trying to preserve the writings of Isabella’s father in ‘The Sum of All Knowledge’. 

But Isabella and Willem kept running and eventually found peace and acceptance in 1640 Venice, where we last left her, having found a new happiness for herself working for Signora Contarini’s Mermaid Press.

Now the year is 1648, and Isabella has known true happiness and beauty in Venice where she works with her friends – Signora Contarini (Valentina), Willem, Luis and Al-Qasim – and is again surrounded by books.

But when invitations arrive, inviting everyone to the Doge’s Palace, the past begins to stir and trouble lurks . . . and Isabella is again confronted by the Inquisitor, Fra Clement, whose Holy campaign has now stretched to the intellectual, artisan capital of the world – beloved Venice. Clement has been following Mistress Hawkins for all these many years, hell-bent on bringing her godlessness to justice.  

‘Your father was a blight on Christendom, like your precious Master de Acquila, like you,’ said Fra Clement. 
Who are you to say that?’ 
‘I am the Holy Father’s Inquisitor. I am the appointed hand of the Faith.’  
‘You know nothing about faith,’ I said. ‘You think it is about restricting people’s minds, people’s words.’ 
‘Faith without rules is merely superstition.’  
‘Is that what you believe? You couldn’t be more wrong. Faith without wisdom is merely superstition. Rules are made by men, and rules can change.’ 
‘These rules,’ Fra Clement took a breath through clenched teeth, ‘hold the world together. Shatter them, Mistress Hawkins, and you shatter faith.’ 
‘I doubt that very much. Real faith is about everlasting kindness, about grace, about mercy – and understanding. These things are the essence of all the great religions. If you had read Master de Acquila’s book, you would know that. But you haven’t read it, have you?’  
‘Of course not.’

Isabella and her friends accept there is nowhere in Christendom they will be safe from the Inquisition, at least not for people like them who have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of knowledge. So they decide to escape, to the Ottoman Empire and Constantinople.

This is a strange new land indeed, and only ex-pat Al-Qasim is wary of what lurks in their new sanctuary. 

All seems well to begin with, especially when the eight-year-old Sultan Mehmed IV reveals his love for ‘The Sum of All Knowledge’. But eventually Palace politics intrude on the group’s new refuge, and each of them must play a delicate game to keep their lives and guard their secrets . . . 

‘The Sultan’s Eyes’ by Australian young adult author Kelly Gardiner is the continuing tale of Isabella Hawkins’s thrilling life; sequel to the 2011 novel ‘Act of Faith’. 

I loved this book from first line; 

In Venice, the days die slowly

To last page. 

This really shouldn’t come as a surprise, since I fell in head-over-heels love with first novel ‘Act of Faith’ and have been desperate for Isabella’s continued tale since I first heard that Gardiner had more in store for my favourite Philosopher and Adventurer. ‘The Sultan’s Eyes’ does not disappoint, and has been well worth the two-year wait. 

When the novel begins we are offered only a small glimpse of what Isabella’s life has been like since we last left her, content and working with books once again, in beautiful Venice. We see that she has kept herself surrounded by the same people she met and befriended in ‘Act of Faith’, and now this group of bibliophiles and knowledge-pursuers have become a family. But just as quickly as we are reacquainted with Isabella, we are running with her again when The Inquisitor turns his raid on Venice – a city full of intellectuals and artists, and ripe for the Inquisition’s orthodoxy. And when Christendom is not safe, the group turn to Constantinople and the Ottoman Empire for refuge.

 Now, my heart gave a thrilled little flutter at Isabella and Co. venturing to Constantinople (now, Istanbul) because I have plans to visit there very soon. And now, more than ever, I want to see this beautiful and chaotic city because Gardiner’s descriptions are mouth-watering. Indeed, nobody evokes place and history quite like Gardiner for me – it’s not just her describing the many towers of the Byzantine city, or the silk burqas Isabella and Valentina wear. It’s in her describing the feel of the city –particularly through the eyes of Dutch Willem and British Isabella for whom this place is so wholly foreign, caught between Europe and Asia and unlike anything they have ever seen or experienced before.

‘The Sultan’s Eyes’ is also a much bigger book than ‘Act of Faith’, where that first book came in at 227-pages, Isabella’s new adventure is a satisfying 334. And most of the book does take place in Constantinople; a much different plot which doesn’t see Isabella escaping and on-the-run, so much as plotting and surviving within the Sultan’s palace.

Eight-year-old Sultan Mehmed IV is a precocious and driven young man. He has dreams of one day being greater than Alexander the Great, and when Isabella seeks asylum on his shores he thinks he’s found a way to start his process to Greatness by turning her into a sort of Scheherazade . . .  

‘Mademoiselle Hawkins will be my eyes,’ the Sultan announced in a loud voice. ‘She will read every book on earth to me. Through her eyes I will see the whole world. I will speak a dozen languages, understand the meanings of the stars and the ancient wisdom. I will know everything.’ 

I loved that Isabella and her friends were mostly settled in Constantinople, and the crux of the story is about them surviving Palace life. I would say that ‘Act of Faith’ was about Isabella the Adventurer – ‘The Sultan’s Eyes’ lets us see Isabella the Philosopher. We get a chance to see her dodge Palace politicking and untangle webs of lies, and we see how Isabella’s moral compass has developed through the years spent running and hiding from one man’s vengeance and misguided faith. In this book, we see how the years have shaped Isabella into a kind and determined young woman. This is never more apparent than in her caring for the Sultan’s sister, Ayşe, whom she insists be educated by Isabella right alongside her brother. 

The whole book is an opportunity to know the family Isabella has surrounded herself with, those she collected along the way in ‘Act of Faith’ and who she remains steadfastly loyal to. I loved reading about Willem’s dogged pessimism, Valentina’s strength and a small a spark of something between Luis and Al-Qasim. These are some beautiful characters who complement Isabella, and make it easy to see how she’s been shaped into the young woman she is today.

I also have to say that the book itself is stunning, as each chapter includes images from the Rare Books Collection of the State Library of Victoria. Behold and sigh;

Gardiner’s second book for Isabella ends exactly the way I wanted it to – full of wide, open spaces and endless possibility – which is just what I had hoped for my favourite Adventurer & Philosopher. We’d been with her through the fear and heartache of ‘Act of Faith’, and in ‘The Sultan’s Eyes’ we see what those trying years have moulded her into – this brave and cunning young woman who is loyal to a fault and exactly the kind of heroine I want all girls to be reading. 


Saturday, August 10, 2013

'The Spectacular Now' movie review

For Sutter (Miles Teller), a charming high-school senior and budding alcoholic, the ‘now’ is all that matters. It is where he can live in the moment and be the life of the party. But after a post-breakup bender, he meets shy Aimee (Shailene Woodley) and the pair forms an unlikely bond, as Sutter pines for his ex and searches for an estranged father.  

With strong performances from the young cast, which won a special jury award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, James Ponsoldt's The Spectacular Now dodges cliché to deliver an accessible, powerful and honest coming-of-age story. 

Today I went to a screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival, and saw the book-to-film adaptation of Tim Tharp’s young adult novel ‘The Spectacular Now’. 

It was only January this year that I read Tharp’s 2008 book, after hearing that an adaptation was in the works. And I pretty much fell head-over-heels in love with the book, even while having my reservations about its big screen adaptation.

Now I know, I know. Whenever the word “adaptation” is uttered, it’s a bat-signal for fans to come up with their long list of demands and iron-clad rules for the Director/Script Writer to follow. And then the endless whinging or championing of casting announcements . . . I get it. Us bookish-types get tedious when there’s cross-pollination going on. But I was genuinely curious (and maybe a bit hesitant) for Tharp’s book to become a film – mostly because it’s so not your typical YA novel (dare I say, it’s the ‘anti’ YA?) and so much of its charm lies in protagonist Sutter’s internal voice, that reveals him as an anti-hero even while his outward clownish and chillaxed displays herald him as a king amongst his classmates. It’s a complicated text, to say the least. 

I actually went into the movie with two small ‘hesitancies’. The main one being that the movie poster (lovely as it is) makes the film look like a romance. And my second concern was for the ending (and hoping it would remain intact). . . Now, having seen the film, I can say one is handled beautifully, but it’s affect on the other is also a weakness in the end.

Within the first few minutes I had a sudden lightning bolt idea – that Miles Teller was like a young John Cusack (even while ‘The Spectacular Now’ is the antithesis to those 80s teen flicks, and Sutter Keely is like a grittier, and far more interesting counterpoint to Lloyd Dobler). There’s just something about Teller – a charismatic, smart-assed panache – that captured Sutter keenly and within seconds. Where it took Tim Tharp a lengthy opening scene showing Sutter’s potential by rescuing a little kid, Miles Teller has audiences in his corner and on his side from the get-go. And that’s very important for Sutter’s character; because viewers are meant to be as dazzled by his chilled, jokester schtick as his friends and classmates, until we start scraping away the facade later on in the film . . . 

But if I thought Miles Teller was a dream cast for Tharp’s Sutter, I was bowled over by Shailene Woodley as Aimee – and what those two bring together. 

Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley very importantly look like regular teenagers. Woodley spends the film entirely make-up free and in oversized t-shirts, sometimes puffy-eyed and with a mane of hair that she’s always yanking into a messy ponytail. 

Miles Teller is engaging and instantly likeable – but he’s no Zac Efron (thank god); rather, he looks like a variation of some kid everyone went to school with or that you see hanging around the train station.

 And when these two are together their chemistry comes more from normality than sparking heat – it’s as though director James Ponsoldt just left a camera rolling and happened to capture the awkward bumbling of these two teens. It’s a little bit glorious. There were so many times when I felt Aimee’s vicarious awkwardness, as cool kid Sutter starts paying her attention and she desperately tries to subdue her geek-streak. And, what few sex scenes there are, benefit from being filmed on the knife-edge of awkward – as the camera remains in close-up, even through spontaneous laughter, condom opening and heavy breathing. It’s a blessedly awkward scene, devoid of Hollywood gloss, but that Ponsoldt doesn’t cut away to billowing curtains is brilliant and refreshing.

But Woodley and Teller’s down-to-earth looks and natural repartee also made glaringly obvious what wasn’t gelling so much in the film. Like Sutter’s girlfriend, Cassidy. Fans will probably be upset that Cassidy is played by the slim Brie Larson, when Sutter in Tharp’s book makes a constant (sometimes uncomfortable) point of calling her his “beautiful, fat girlfriend” all the time. Brie Larson is only a couple of years older than Woodley, but she looks too sophisticated beside Sutter and Aimee’s ‘everyteen’ appearance. And where Woodley and Teller play it beautifully natural (indeed, I often wondered how much of their interactions were scripted) Brie Larson was too “on” – she acted too hard opposite two leads who excelled at being deceptively unaffected.

With Miles Teller doing such a good job of being an average joe fuck-up, it wouldn’t have worked for Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber’s screenplay to stay too true to Tim Tharp’s narrative voice for Sutter. Throughout the book Sutter reels off this New Age thinking theory, like about how; “We’re not the Faster-than-the-Speed-of-Light Generation anymore. We’re not even the Next-New-Thing Generation. We’re the Soon-to-Be-Obsolete Kids.” This is reconciled somewhat by Sutter writing his college application and answering a question about overcoming hardship, and which we get to hear in voiceover. But also what we lose from Tharp’s interiority we gain in Teller’s smart-arse remarks and thinking-on-his-feet bullshit. 

Now, for what didn’t work for me: the end.

Look, I’ll be the first to admit that the end of Tharp’s book is somewhat ambiguous (I've since discovered, after hearing two friends’ ideas of what happened versus my own) and it’s somewhat bleak. In part, James Ponsoldt’s movie adaptation is about making Tharp’s book more accessible and audience-friendly by injecting some hope and smoothing the rough, dark edges. Where I read the book as being about Sutter hitting rungs on his way to rock-bottom, Ponsoldt’s movie is about giving Sutter ways and means to climb those rungs back out again. So my initial reaction to the film’s ending was a nose-wrinkle . . . but I have since amended my opinion to think; ‘Don’t judge a book by its adaptation’ (that’s not mine, I saw it on a bookshop badge). Tharp and Ponsoldt are discussing a young man’s spiral in very different ways, but that this is a movie about a teenager with a serious drinking problem and convincing happy armour is important in itself. So too is the fact that neither Tharp nor Ponsoldt treat Aimee and Sutter’s story as a romance; for Sutter it’s the kick in the ass he needed, for Aimee it’s something that will hopefully make her stronger. 

Immediately after watching ‘The Spectacular Now’ I wasn’t sure how I felt. That I loved Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller was a given, so too director James Ponsoldt’s down-to-earth teen film approach. But the ending felt somewhat cliché (when Tharp’s book is anything but) and it didn’t seem to follow Sutter’s learning curve . . .  but then I thought about it some more, and I decided I really wanted to see the film again. It’s definitely one to watch more than once, and a must-see if you haven’t already. 

'The Summer I Learned to Fly' by Dana Reinhardt

From the BLURB:

Drew's a bit of a loner. She has a pet rat, her dead dad's Book of Lists, an encyclopedic knowledge of cheese from working at her mom's cheese shop, and a crush on Nick, the surf bum who works behind the counter. It's the summer before eighth grade and Drew's days seem like business as usual, until one night after closing time, when she meets a strange boy in the alley named Emmett Crane. Who he is, why he's there, where the cut on his cheek came from, and his bottomless knowledge of rats are all mysteries Drew will untangle as they are drawn closer together, and Drew enters into the first true friendship, and adventure, of her life.

Drew Robin ‘Birdie’ Solo is reflecting on the summer that changed everything, at least, to her young mind.

In 1986, Drew was 13. She and her mother lived in a small Californian coastal town and her mother had just opened a boutique cheese shop on Euclid Avenue (which will one day prosper, but for now is a little run-down). It was just Drew and her mum for years, because Drew’s dad (for whom she is named) died when she was little, after his body ‘gave up living’. 

It was school holidays when the cheese shop opened, and her mother employed handsome nineteen-year-old surfer, Nick Drummond, to help make pasta and be a general handyman. Nick became the object of Drew’s young, unrequited affections throughout that summer. And then there was Swoozie, a divorcée who stopped by the little town on the way to someplace else but decided to stay.

And, of course, there’s His Excellency the Lord High Rat Humboldt Fog – otherwise known as ‘Hum’, Drew’s pet rat. 

The summer was already shaping up to be different from any other – what with Drew having a steady (if, unpaying) job at the cheese shop with the handsome Nick, and her mother weighted down with all the worry of a new business owner. And Drew’s distant friends were even more distant – all three being overseas on an acting camp. She was all alone, save for Hum.

And then she discovered a book of lists from her dad, who she never knew. Drew Solo amassed a collection of lists, presumably for his young daughter to one day find. He listed; worst mistakes, most embarrassing moments, worst traits and many, many more for Drew to slowly pick through and wonder over.

But the real butterfly-flapping of the summer didn’t begin until Drew met Emmett Crane in the alley behind the cheese shop one night. About her age, Emmett seemed to be a rat-whisperer with a penchant for exotic cheese. He was beautiful, but mysterious, and claimed to have moved into his father’s bachelor pad somewhere in town (though he won’t say more than that).

As the summer unfolded, so too did Emmett’s story and all the little flaps and acts that turned the Summer of 1986 into Drew’s most life-changing and memorable.

‘The Summer I Learned to Fly’ was a 2011 young adult novel by Dana Reinhardt.

What immediately struck me with ‘The Summer I Learned to Fly’ was Drew’s unwavering belief that these were the moments and times that set her on the path she’s currently treading. She is recounting the tale of Summer 86’ from somewhere in the future (and we don’t learn how far until the very end). Her narrative voice has matured, but she still remembers all the hopes, loves, fears and lonesomeness of her 13-year-old self. 

There wasn’t anything I could have done to prevent what happened, short of some random act that changed all the random acts that would follow. 
I knew the theory about the butterfly flapping its wings in the jungle. How everything happens because of the flapping. But I didn’t live in the jungle. I lived in the middle of California on a jagged edge of continent. I was smaller than a butterfly. I was a speck. 
What happened had nothing at all to do with me, with what I did or didn’t do, but that wasn’t how it felt at the time. 

In most ways, the little events that changed Drew’s life ended up being monumental. But some remained small and significant only to her; exploded and expanded by young eyes. What I loved was that Reinhardt treated the big and little things with the same importance, because they mattered to Drew and clearly imprinted on her young heart. 

This may be an older Drew narrating, but she slips back into her younger self very easily. And young Drew was quite a lonely child, reliant on a team of two with her mother and having few friends at school. It’s actually a kindly older town lady who gifts Hum to Drew, upon noticing that she could use a friend. And then Drew’s equilibrium is thrown when her mother starts drowning in cheese shop work, and maybe even dusting off her social life after missing her dead husband for so many years. Drew’s world is thrown entirely off kilter, and one of the few changes she appreciates is lovely Nick Drummond – a kind surfer boy who wastes his potential, has blinkers to Drew’s affections but is a worthy outlet for her first young crush. 

And then there’s Emmett Crane; the boy who appears in the alleyway one night and becomes Drew’s first real (human) friend, despite the fact that she knows nothing about him. Readers will know this is no ordinary teenage boy pretty quickly, for his quiet seriousness and gentle nature so at odds with his age. I loved him, and I loved how Reinhardt masterfully wrote him with both a wonderful sense of hope and sinking suspicion of foreboding. It’s easy to see why Emmett Crane has such a starring-role in Drew’s hindsight highlights. 

I also loved that while the book is set in 1986, Reinhardt doesn’t get bogged down in era-setting. There’s no lengthy descriptions of 80s shoulder-pads dressing, synth-pop ruling the radio or anything else to detract from Drew’s quiet and beautiful life-changing summer. You actually forget that this is set in the 80s because Reinhardt has, I think, chosen this time-period so as to avoid modern technological distractions like the internet and mobile phones.

I also adored the ending, mostly because it allowed me to have my own theories about butterfly-flapping and the characters in the book. For instance, when I read the epilogue I remembered a previous scene in which a busker Emmett introduces to Drew explains that he’s been playing songs for enough money to get him halfway round the world to find a girl (the girl).

‘The Summer I Learned to Fly’ is glorious. I loved the duality of Drew’s 13-year-old worries and life changes, coupled with the wisdom of her first-person narration, gained from looking back through the years. The ending is wide open and full of possibilities, which is just what I hoped for Drew ‘Birdie’ Solo. 


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