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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

'Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Circulation' edited by Shaun Usher

 Received from the Publisher 

From the BLURB:

Letters of Note is a collection of over one hundred of the world's most entertaining, inspiring and unusual letters, based on the seismically popular website of the same name - an online museum of correspondence visited by over 70 million people.

From Virginia Woolf's heart-breaking suicide letter, to Queen Elizabeth II's recipe for drop scones sent to President Eisenhower; from the first recorded use of the expression 'OMG' in a letter to Winston Churchill, to Gandhi's appeal for calm to Hitler; and from Iggy Pop's beautiful letter of advice to a troubled young fan, to Leonardo da Vinci's remarkable job application letter, Letters of Note is a celebration of the power of written correspondence which captures the humour, seriousness, sadness and brilliance that make up all of our lives.

Including letters from: Zelda Fitzgerald, Iggy Pop, Fidel Castro, Leonardo da Vinci, Bill Hicks, Anais Nin, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Amelia Earhart, Charles Darwin, Roald Dahl, Albert Einstein, Elvis Presley, Dorothy Parker, John F. Kennedy, Groucho Marx, Charles Dickens, Katharine Hepburn, Kurt Vonnegut, Mick Jagger, Steve Martin, Emily Dickinson and many more.

Letters of Note started four years ago with the sole aim of bringing people, “correspondence deserving of a wider audience". The collator of the blog and book is Shaun Usher, a writer himself, and I have long been a fan of his – so I was thrilled when he pitched the idea for a Letters of Note book to the crowd-sourced publisher, unbound. Eight pages at the back of the book list all of the unbound subscribers who made the Letters of Note book a reality, which is just lovely.

The book itself is a design feast. UK design studio ‘here design’ are responsible for the cover design and typesetting; but for the sumptuous loveliness and heft, I’m quite surprised that it’s only retailing for AUD$49.99 – also surprised, because Usher has included reproductions of original documents throughout the book, which adds such quality and uniqueness. 

So there’s a stunning reproduction of her own stationary that Annie Oakley wrote on to US President William McKinley, when she was offering her army of “lady sharp-shooters” to the Spanish-American war (he declined). There’s also a full-page picture of a tablet (circa 1340 BC) from Ayyab to Amenhotep IV. A yellow legal-pad letter from John Kricfalusi includes doodles of what would later become his ‘Ren & Stimpy’ characters. 

And on the pages where letters could not be reproduced in their original form, Usher has included some stunning photographs of the correspondents. Like the haunting portrait of Virginia Woolf that accompanies her suicide note, discovered by her husband on their mantelpiece (“If anybody could have saved me it would have been you.”) 

Sometimes, when the correspondents were not famous enough to warrant a photograph, Usher has included photography – like the image of earth from outer-space to go with a letter from the director of science at NASA, to a Zambia-based nun (she wanted to know why billions of dollars was being spent on space travel, when there were children starving here on earth.) 

The letters are laid down in no particular order, rhyme or reason – and I love that. They are just as they came to us on the blog, each page-turn revealing a delightful treat. Here’s Ernest Hemingway giving writing advice to F. Scott Fitzgerald (“That is what we are supposed to do when we are at our best – make it all up – but make it up so truly that later it will happen that way.”) An award-winning Pixar writer/director responding to correspondence from a young fan, or a threatening letter addressed to Martin Luther King. There is a surprise with the turn of each page.

And I was so pleased that my two favourite letters from the blog are included in this collection. 

The first is a letter of advice from John Steinbeck to his then fourteen-year-old son, Thom, who had fallen for a girl called Susan. “You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply – of course it isn’t puppy love.” I adore this because there’s such pleasure in knowing one of the greatest authors of all time wrote just as deeply and from the heart in his own correspondence with family as he did in the books that made him a legend. And he ends the letter “Love, Fa” – which just slays me.

But my absolutely favourite letter is one of sadly macabre humour and chest-swelling triumph. ‘To My Old Master’ is a letter from Jourdon Anderson to Patrick Henry Anderson, dated August 7th 1865. Jourdon was slave to Patrick Henry for 32 years, but fled with his wife and children when Union Army soldiers freed the plantation. One year later (and after the Civil War), Jourdon’s old master wrote to him, asking that he return to work. Jourdon’s reply is magnificent, though Jourdon makes mention of the injustice and brutality he and his suffered under the old masters –“We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense.” The letter ends, “Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.” 

The ‘Letters of Note’ November release is perfectly timed – here is a book that will make a fine Christmas present, but an even better graduation gift. Herein are the magnificent, laugh-out-loud, heart-piercing letters that Usher was right to want to share with a much wider audience. Gift this book to someone and they’ll appreciate the humour, wisdom and eloquence of the 100 letters within. 


Saturday, October 26, 2013

'Fangirl' by Rainbow Rowell

From the BLURB:

Cath is a Simon Snow fan.

Okay, the whole world is a Simon Snow fan . . .
But for Cath, being a fan is her life — and she’s really good at it. She and her twin sister, Wren, ensconced themselves in the Simon Snow series when they were just kids; it’s what got them through their mother leaving.

Reading. Rereading. Hanging out in Simon Snow forums, writing Simon Snow fanfiction, dressing up like the characters for every movie premiere.

Cath’s sister has mostly grown away from fandom, but Cath can’t let go. She doesn’t want to.

Now that they’re going to college, Wren has told Cath she doesn’t want to be roommates. Cath is on her own, completely outside of her comfort zone. She’s got a surly roommate with a charming, always-around boyfriend, a fiction-writing professor who thinks fanfiction is the end of the civilized world, a handsome classmate who only wants to talk about words . . . And she can’t stop worrying about her dad, who’s loving and fragile and has never really been alone.

For Cath, the question is: Can she do this?

Can she make it without Wren holding her hand? Is she ready to start living her own life? Writing her own stories?

And does she even want to move on if it means leaving Simon Snow behind?

Cath(er) is not thrilled about starting at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Ever since her twin sister, Wren, decided she wanted them to meet new people instead of being a package-deal and roommates, Cath has been panicking about rooming with a complete stranger and who she’ll eat with at dinner and how long she’ll be able to live off of snack bars. For another, she doesn’t feel great about leaving their single-dad behind to look after himself and hope he doesn’t let his creative-genius get the better of him and buy all of his meals at the gas station. 

For another, Cath isn’t so sure about the fiction writing course she’s taking. Sure, she writes – fanfiction. Simon Snow fanfiction, Simon and Baz slash fanfiction, to be more precise. But does she have it in her to create entire characters and worlds that don’t belong to Gemma T. Leslie? Cath isn’t so sure, and she’s not so sure about how she’ll get creative writing assignments finished when she’s also trying to finish her epic ‘Carry On, Simon’ fanficiton before GMT’s eighth and final Simon Snow book is released.

But it turns out Cath is going to have a lot more to worry about than just her dad, sister and the awaiting Baz/Simon fans. Cath tentatively befriends her prickly roommate, Reagan, but also falls for her boyfriend Levi, as much as socially-awkward, hermit Cath can fall for anyone. Then there’s the creative fiction study-buddy she’s mildly crushing on, and the old family wounds Wren has decided to re-open against Cath’s wishes. As her first year at UNL progresses, Cath is forced to live more outside of her own slash-fic and confront some bad guys not of Gemma T. Leslie’s creation. 

‘Fangirl’ is the new novel from Rainbow Rowell (probably marketed in that hot ‘New Adult’ market, but likewise appealing for young adults and regular adults too).  

You guys. YOU GUYS! This book is the cherry on top, the cream in the middle and the caramel drizzle all rolled into one. This book is probably my absolute favourite from 2013 so far, and that’s a darn big call.

I’m sure there are many, many readers out there like me who have been excited for this book ever since the synopsis came out and struck that particular nerdy-nerve in all of us. 

fan•girl [fan-gurl]  
Often Disparaging. An obsessive female fan, especially of something technological or from popular culture. 

Because I am a fangirl about many things, and I used to write fanfiction myself. 

fan•fic [fan-fik]  
1. fiction written by fans of a TV series, movie, etc., using existing characters and situations to develop new plots.  
2. a work of fiction in this genre.

I especially loved the idea of an author writing about this sub-culture in an affectionate way. Especially because authors haven’t always been terribly kind to the realm of fanfiction – whether it be blasting EL James for outselling the fandom she adapted her erotica from, or likening fanfiction writing to ‘rape’ (this one kills me, because it was said by one of my FAVOURITE authors and I disagree, wholeheartedly). But the moment Rainbow Rowell announced this as her next project, I knew it would be something very balanced, respectful and bring something interesting to the fanfiction world – and I was right.  

At first I thought Rainbow Rowell wrote Cath as quite the stereotypical fanfiction nerd – a girl who enjoys being cooped up in her room, spinning stories around her favourite stories and particularly favouring a homosexual-bent between characters who are heterosexual in the canon. That’s fine though – because Wren used to write fanfiction and she’s the ‘cool’ twin, and while at University Cath inadvertently meets other people invested in Simon Snow fanfiction (even her own) who she’d never suspect because they don’t fit the stereotype. 

But in the meantime I loved how truthfully Rowell portrayed Cath as this girl with hundreds of thousands of online followers who are hanging on her every word, but in the real world she tries to keep her geeky double-life on the down-low. I think anyone who’s ever written fanfiction can relate to this conversation Cath has with her (very cool and sexy) roommate, when she discovers Cath’s hobby; 

“I have lots of friends,” Cath said. 
“I never see them.” 
“I just got here. Most of my friends went to other schools. Or they’re online.” 
“Internet friends don’t count.” 
“Why not?” 
Reagan shrugged disdainfully. 
“And I don’t have a weird thing with Simon Snow,” Cath said. “I’m just really active in the fandom.” 
“What the fuck is ‘the fandom’?” 
“You wouldn’t understand,” Cath sighed, wishing she hadn’t used that word, knowing that if she tried to explain herself any further, it would just make it worse. Reagan wouldn’t believe – or understand – that Cath wasn’t just a Simon fan. She was one of the fans. A first-name-only fan with fans of her own. 

There’s plenty of comedic fodder around fanfiction and fangirling, and Rowell explores them brilliantly. I laughed out loud while reading this, and even though lots of people will come to this book and know exactly what Rowell and Cath are talking about with the underground fanfiction world, I also think ‘Fangirl’ will be really accessible, funny and a great introduction for people who are totally clueless about fandoms. 

Cath really is the draw-card of this book though. Rowell just writes Cath to perfection, and with utter tenderness. I think lots of people who are introverted and don’t like people/crowds are instantly labelled as hopelessly shy, but that’s not always the case. I know plenty of quiet people who just hate social situations, but get them one-on-one and they’re a laugh-riot and massive show-offs. That’s Cath. Yes, she’s panicked by the thought of not knowing where the dining hall is and doing that awkward standing-with-a-tray-of-food thing (so avoids the dining hall for one whole month) but she’s wicked smart, has a quick wit and feisty personality that she starts to show off to those around her. But that part of her that panics at the thought of new routines and meeting strangers en masse is so relatable to the less extroverted of us, and Rowell writes that pitch-perfectly; 

She lifted her chin up and forced her forehead to relax. “I’m the Cool One,” she told herself. “Somebody give me some tequila because I’ll totally drink it. And there’s no way you’re going to find me later having a panic attack in your parent’s bathroom. Who wants to French-kiss?”

While reading ‘Fangirl’ I also thought there was a lot of Rowell shining through, and her own experiences. Because a big part of the book is Cath being comfortable with her own voice (not just Gemma T. Leslie’s) and sharing her writing with the world, even becoming confident in her craft and calling herself a writer. At one point, her fiction-writing lecturer tells Cath that her characters practically ‘quiver on the page’ and that sounded so much like the sort of praise I can imagine Rowell receiving. This book will also speak to a lot of people about art and creating, writing especially, and how much showing your writing to people and believing in your work takes practice, patience and confidence. There are lots of threads in ‘Fangirl’ and this is just one of them, but it’s beautifully plotted.

And, of course, there’s also the romantic element. Look, I am in the minority for people who did not adore Rowell’s ‘Eleanor and Park’ (and I mean the minority – just looking at the back cover of ‘Fangirl’ with all the praise for ‘Eleanor and Park’ is pretty impressive. But I’m still not swayed). But I love, love, loved her debut ‘Attachments’. That book was funny and romantic and totally unique in its romance. ‘Fangirl’ has romantic links closer to ‘Attachments’ than ‘Eleanor and Park’, and for that I was very grateful.

The romance in this book is superb. It’s a slow-unfolding, but a worthwhile one – especially because Rowell even throws a red-herring love interest into the mix early on to keep things especially interesting. But I loved the romance in ‘Fangirl’ mostly because (as with ‘Attachments’) it’s all about these two people falling in love with each other’s personalities over more superficial things. I doubt Rowell would ever be so inclined to write love-at-first-sight, because her slow-boiling romances are just so darn good with big helpings of believability mixed with utter sweetness.  

I also have to give big kudos to this book for exploring mental illness. And not in a prescribed, easy-to-remedy, after school special kind of way but with a lot of grittiness, heartache, anxiety and reality. There are a lot of threads to this book. There’s also a storyline to do with Cath and Wren’s returned mother, but it’s used more for character exploration than as a plot-crutch and I even admired that (again, more reality, and no neatly-tied conclusions to messy situations). 

I just loved ‘Fangirl’; I can’t even begin to tell you how much. I laughed, I cried . . .  yadda, yadda, yadda. More importantly I immediately knew this was my book of 2013 – the one that has just made my (already phenomenal) reading year just that extra bit special. Bring on ‘Landline’ for 2014!


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

‘The Wicked Deeds of Daniel Mackenzie’ Highland Pleasures #6 by Jennifer Ashley

From the BLURB:

Second Sight And Seduction…

Daniel Mackenzie lives up to the reputation of the scandalous Mackenzie family—he has wealth, looks, and talent, and women love him. When he meets Violet Bastien—one of the most famous spiritual mediums in England—he immediately knows two things: that Miss Bastien is a fraud, and that he’s wildly attracted to her.

Violet knows she can’t really contact the other side, but she’s excellent at reading people. She discerns quickly that Daniel is intelligent and dangerous to her reputation, but she also finds him generous, handsome, and outrageously wicked. But spectres from Violet’s past threaten to destroy her, and she flees England, adopting yet another identity.

Daniel is determined to find the elusive Violet and pursue the passion he feels for her. And though Violet knows that her scandalous past will keep her from proper marriage, her attraction to Daniel is irresistible. It’s not until Daniel is the only one she can turn to that he proves he believes in something more than cold facts. He believes in love.

To settle a gambling debt, one of Daniel Mackenzie’s rotten opponents takes him to a tucked-away town house in the rough part of London. Here, Daniel is introduced to Violet Bastien – daughter to the city’s most famous medium – and promised a reading of his very own. It is here that Daniel witnesses nothing magical or mystical, but downright intriguing and smart. Violet has the parlour rigged with contraptions and mechanisms to fool punters into buying all her trickery fortune telling and ghost-talk. Daniel isn’t fooled for a second, but he’s impressed. Even more so when he remains behind and asks to see Violet’s various machines – amazed at the ingenuity of this woman. 

And though she’s not as beautiful as some of the courtesan’s he’s sampled, Violet intrigues and beguiles Daniel … even as she’s clobbering him over the head for stealing a kiss … Even when she dumps his unconscious body outside a doctor’s house, and escapes into the night with her mother and maid. 

‘The Wicked Deeds of Daniel Mackenzie’ is the sixth book in Jennifer Ashley’s addictive ‘Highland Pleasures’ series.

Daniel is my favourite Mackenzie after his uncle Ian and father Cam. For that reason, I went into this sixth book with weary expectations … weary, because Once Upon a Time I would have declared eldest Mackenzie, Hart, my absolutely favourite of the Highland Pleasures brood. That was, until his book ‘The Duke's Perfect Wife’ when I think Jennifer Ashley made an abysmal attempt at writing Hart’s “dark delights” and turned him very sanitary and dull (despite his much-commented upon dastardly reputation of previous books). So, I love Daniel and have done ever since his lengthy appearance as secondary character in his dad’s book ‘The Many Sins of Lord Cameron’, in which he helped Cam to woo his lady love, Ainsley.

I admit, after reading the blurb for Daniel’s book (an older woman AND a medium? Oh, boy) I was highly sceptical and kept forcing myself to go in with lowered expectation. But, to my surprise, a truly stellar heroine and new facets to Daniel’s previously cheeky-Casanova persona make ‘The Wicked Deeds of Daniel Mackenzie’ one of Jennifer Ashley’s best thus far.

Yes, Violet is somewhat older than Daniel and daughter to a medium. Now, while Violet swears up and down that her mum is the real-deal (and very fragile for all her spirit-talking) Violet has a more calculating, mathematical mind and does invent gadgets to help her convince punters of a gift she does not possess. Violet and her mum have actually lived a really rough life because her mother has insisted on travelling the continent, sharing her gifts. For this reason, Violet is more a parent to her mother and has been in charge of keeping them from the law and sleazy marks. Though Violet hasn’t always been able to save herself, and she has the psychological scars to prove it. 

Within a few moments of studying a man, Violet could understand what he loved and what he hated, what he wanted with all is heart and what he’d do to get it. She’d learned these lessons painstakingly from Jacobi in the backstreets of Paris, had been his best pupil. But she couldn’t read Mr. Mackenzie. He didn’t let anyone behind his barriers, not easily. But when he did … When he did, worlds would unfold. 

I love, love, loved Violet. Previously Beth and Ainsley were my favourite Mackenzie wives, but Violet is now front-runner. She is older than Daniel, and she has had to be a parent to her own mother, but there’s something very innocent and childlike about Violet too … even despite having had to grow up fast. She doesn’t really trust anybody and imagines the worst in any situation, so for that reason when she starts developing feelings for Daniel and daring to imagine becoming part of his family – there’s a childlike wonder and hope to her that’s instantly catching. 

And, of course, she’s wicked smart. Daniel loves to tinker with machinery and in this book he’s actually building a racing car and imagining a motorbike (or the ye olde equivalent of them, at least!) and she’s as captivated and fascinated by his blueprints as he is. This is, really, what attracts Daniel to her and everything else comes later – but her brain is the big pull for him throughout.

Now, Daniel surprised me in this book. He actually reminded me a lot of Ian, come to think of it. He’s so fascinated with machinery and lives in his own head that he can get that very determined, focused drive that Ian displays (though not to the same extent). I know in previous books much has been made of Daniel taking after his father’s footsteps in the lady-stakes (taking courtesans, and his first mistress at age fourteen or thereabouts) but in this book Ashley really hits home how much of a creative mind Daniel is and what a dreamer he can be. I liked seeing this side of him, though I do think I needed a bit more about his voracious love life to be reconciled.

If there was anything that frustrated me in the book, it’s the same old argument I’ve had since book three – more Cam & Ainsley! I feel like in all subsequent books since theirs, every other Mackenzie has had more than enough secondary character page-time. Lord knows Mac and Isabella are always clamouring across the page with their brood, and I’m thrilled that Ian is always very much intricate to his brother’s stories (he is in Daniel’s too). But Cam and Ainsley feel like the forgotten Mackenzies, and I was hoping that in his own son’s book Cam would make more of an appearance and us fans would have a chance to peek at the progress of his and Ainsley’s marriage (now with two little ones, half-siblings for Daniel). But, alas, Daniel speaks to Violet of the feeling of distance and disappointment he feels from his dad (and lengthy conversations the impact his mother’s insanity had on his life) but as for actual scenes with Cam, they are few and far between. Ainsley gets much more page-time with both Daniel and Violet, but Ashley keeps Cam stoically silent and gruff when all I wanted was some glimpses into his relationship with Daniel as it has now progressed into his son’s adulthood. 

Still, ‘The Wicked Deeds of Daniel Mackenzie’ far exceeded my expectations and Daniel proves why he’s a favourite Mackenzie and his lady love is a formidable new lassie to bring into the family. This book almost makes up for Hart’s lackluster one … almost.


Friday, October 18, 2013

'Wild Awake' by Hilary T. Smith

From the BLURB:

Things you earnestly believe will happen while your parents are away: 
1. You will remember to water the azaleas. 
2. You will take detailed, accurate messages. 
3. You will call your older brother, Denny, if even the slightest thing goes wrong. 
4. You and your best friend/bandmate Lukas will win Battle of the Bands. 
5. Amid the thrill of victory, Lukas will finally realize you are the girl of his dreams. 

Things that actually happen: 
1. A stranger calls who says he knew your sister. 
2. He says he has her stuff. 
3. What stuff? Her stuff. 
4. You tell him your parents won’t be able to— 
5. Sukey died five years ago; can’t he— 
6. You pick up a pen. 
7. You scribble down the address. 
8. You get on your bike and go. 
9. Things . . . get a little crazy after that.* 
*also, you fall in love, but not with Lukas.

Sukey was Kiri Byrd’s sister. Sukey died four years ago in a car accident, when Kiri was 12. One of Sukey’s paintings hangs in Kiri’s room, the last remnants of her sister with the words: We gamboled, star-clad. Sukey kept the sister painting, Daffodiliad. 

When she was younger, Kiri hung on Sukey’s every word and desperately wanted to be as cool as her older sister and admired by her.

Whenever Sukey spoke, it was like I was eating one of the magical cakes in ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ I grew taller and taller until my head bumped the ceiling, and the unhappiness of an hour ago shrank to the size of a pebble on the ground.

It didn’t matter that Kiri’s parents kicked Sukey out when she was a teenager and never took an interest in her artworks. It didn’t matter that after her death, the family seemed to have a secret agreement never to mention her again. It didn’t matter that Kiri’s older brother, Denny, got mean after Sukey died and eventually moved away to college. It didn’t matter, because while Sukey lived she was spectacular.

Now Kiri is following, somewhat, in her deceased older sister’s footsteps. Except where Sukey was all about easels and paints, Kiri is a pianist extraordinaire in the making and music is her thing. For the few weeks that her parents are away on an anniversary cruise, Kiri is home alone and practicing diligently for an upcoming (all important) piano recital and a Battle of the Bands school competition she’s entering in with her crush, Lukas. Kiri’s plan is to blitz the recital and cement herself as a piano prodigy, turn Lukas from her sometimes-ear-lobe-touching band buddy into her proper boyfriend and water mum’s azaleas while the parents are away.

But then Kiri receives a phone call, about Sukey and what she left behind. And then nothing goes to plan.

‘Wild Awake’ is the debut young adult novel by Hilary T. Smith.

Okay – confession. I was not cool enough to know precisely who Hilary T. Smith was before reading ‘Wild Awake’. Apparently, before being published, Smith was the formerly anonymous publishing industry blogger INTERN. I had never heard of INTERN before buzz about ‘Wild Awake’ had me reading bizarre author profiles of this woman who wrote her debut novel while living off-the-grid in cabins, houseboats and caravans and just generally being wanderlost. Seriously, Google Images of Hilary T. Smith and there are photos of her in said off-the-grid cabin with copies of ‘Wild Awake’ strewn all over the place. It’s pretty cool. And, apparently, she had a fairly devout following as the INTERN and people went bonkers-batshit when it was announced her YA novel was being published. And here we are, with ‘Wild Awake’. I may not be cool enough to have been up on the anonymous goings-on of the INTERN, but now that I’m acquainted with Hilary T. Smith I’ve got to say there’s something about this lady and her words … I may be a little wee bit obsessed.

The blurb for ‘Wild Awake’ gives very little away, and that’s probably a good thing. The book should be read in much the same way Kiri Byrd takes midnight bike rides – with that plummeting-stomach feel as you pick up speed going downhill and can barely see what’s right in front of you. The book begins benignly enough, with a set up like something out of a John Hughes film. Piano prodigy is left home-alone while parentals take a cruise … she’s meant to be practicing for her upcoming piano recital, but is also working on a Battle of the Bands set with her friend/mega-crush – coming-of-age/snogging/hilarity will no doubt ensue. Except it does and it doesn’t. Something gets caught in the spoke of Kiri’s wheel when she receives a mysterious phone call from someone who knew her dead older sister, Sukey. Someone claiming to have a bag full of Sukey’s possessions, and does someone from the Byrd family maybe want to come and collect?

With this phone call, Kiri is transported to Sukey’s death four years ago and old wounds are reopened with the bag of Sukey’s old things.

I buckle on the silver shoes and take an exploratory stroll around the room. They fit, which surprises me, and I stand there, teetering, feeling my legs lengthen like a stretched piece of gum.

When Kiri travels to the bad part of town and learns the truth of Sukey’s death, a slow spiral into long-awaited grief is triggered. Kiri starts acting erratically; causing her friend Lukas great concern and irritation, and making his mother (a social worker) think that Kiri is experiencing some sort of mania.

But in the midst of her grief and mounting mania, Kiri meets Skunk: a Hagrid-esque boy of eighteen who offers to fix her punctured bike wheel one night and who she keeps conjuring in moments of crisis. Skunk is a sweet if shy boy, who owns an apple-green guitar he wants to sell and who Kiri discovers takes Midnight Mass bike rides and is in training to be a bike mechanic. 
There’s grief for her sister, panic over the piano recital, burning embarrassment after an incident with Lukas and Kiri spins and spins but holds onto the only calming thing in her new life, Skunk – who she nicknames her ‘love-bison’, sometimes ‘bicycle boy’.

Hilary T. Smith astounds me. Reading ‘Wild Awake’ is much like sitting down to a feast, when words and sentences on the page practically beg to be licked. Example;
 The evening air smells like a pair of old jeans baking on a clothesline, and the sky is the colour of a squeezed peach.

Just: URGH!

After reading I did think that parts of the book were slightly conveniently contrived – the biggest being Kiri’s straight-lace-strict parents leaving her home alone to go on a cruise. But, y’know what? I don’t care. While I was in this book, I was right there riding alongside Kiri in the dead of night, gobbling up Smith’s stellar words and I didn’t care a lick about the loose plot so much as these characters and those scrumptious words.

This is a book about grief that, if anything, reassures readers that there’s no proper timeline or protocol for sadness and missing someone. Sukey died four years ago, but over the course of the book Kiri re-examines the hurt she felt as a 12-year-old who just lost her sister, as well as how she feels as a 16-year-old with a vastly altered view of Sukey and the events surrounding her death.

This is also a book about mental illness, but not as it’s normally explored. Hilary T. Smith doesn’t write an antiseptic, clinical story or paint-by-numbers characters with mental illness. Hers feels much more radical and honest – aided by the fact that adult characters are sparse and not around to be saving grace. I loved that mental illness isn’t necessarily written as something to be conquered or examined to death in this book, rather we read Kiri’s slide into mania and another character battle what he knows to be true with what his instincts tell him. I have read reviews by “concerned adults” on Amazon that the mental illness is not properly addressed in this book, but that’s bollocks. In reality, there is no neatly tied-with-a-bow conclusion or realization to write for mental illness, and I much prefer Hilary T. Smith’s handling of the subject to a lot of other YA authors I’ve read.

Hilary T. Smith also writes an unconventional romance. I admit, after the first chapter with Kiri and Lukas I was preparing the eye-rolls about this ‘golden god’ friend of hers who Kiri lusts after. So, tickle me surprised when Smith writes a far sweeter and appealing love interest in the love-bison;

It’s amazing how well you can get to know a person if you actually pay attention. People are like cities: We all have alleys and gardens and secret rooftops and places where daisies sprout between the sidewalk cracks, but most of the time all we let each other see is a postcard glimpse of a floodlit statue or a skyline. Love lets you find those hidden places in another person, even the ones they didn’t know were there, even the ones they wouldn’t have thought to call beautiful themselves.

So, trying to write this review was really, really hard. All I really wanted to do was groan appreciatively – URGGHHGHGHG – and then thump the book against my chest like some sort of Neanderthal because THERE ARE NO WORDS (ignore previous words). I loved ‘Wild Awake’, and I did fall into obsession with it. I love this author and her words and I just want more from her.


US and Australian covers of Wild Awake 
which hits Australian bookshelves on November 1

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

'Binny for Short' by Hilary McKay

From the BLURB:

When she was eight, Binny’s life was perfect: She had her father’s wonderful stories and Max, the best dog ever. But after her father’s sudden death, money is tight, and Aunty Violet decides to give Max away—he is just too big for their cramped new life. Binny knows she can’t get her dad back, but she never stops missing Max, or trying to find him. Then, when she’s eleven, everything changes again.

Aunty Violet has died, and left Binny and her family an old house in a seaside town. Binny is faced with a new crush, a new frenemy, and…a ghost? It seems Aunty Violet may not have completely departed. It’s odd being haunted by her aunt, but there is also the warmth of a busy and loving mother, a musical older sister, and a hilarious little brother, who is busy with his experiments. And his wetsuit. And his chickens.

It’s all about before and after for Belinda (Binny);

Before Max, and after Max. 
Before Dad Died and After Dad Died. 
Before Aunty Violet Died and After Aunty Violet Died. 

Because there are lots of Befores and Afters in Binny’s life . . .

Before Dad Died, he gifted Binny the perfect puppy, Max, just like a dog she saw in a book once. She loved Max terribly, and he was the best dog. But then dad died, and the family had to move; Binny, her mum, older sister Clemency ‘Clem’ and little brother, James. They moved two times after dad died, and Max didn’t fit into any of their new places – so he went to live with Granny. But then Aunty Violet gave him away, said he was too much trouble for Granny and Binny hated Violet ever since.

But it was After Aunty Violet Died that they inherited her house by the seaside and finally started a proper new life since dad died.

At first, Binny was reluctant to settle into this old house where Aunty Violet’s ghost still lived. But Clem and James settled in right away – Clem when she found her friend Kate, who works at a local cafe, and James when he pulls an old pink wetsuit out of the bin and discovers his love for chickens.

But Binny doesn’t really start settling in until Gareth arrives. He lives in a holiday house next door, and from the first time their eyes lock it’s war for Binny and Gareth. 

Binny swiftly abandoned all her earlier peaceful plans.Battle, then. They would be enemies. They were enemies. No use to consider anything else. She had no problem with that. After all, she had not had a good, tough enemy for months. Not since the last one died.

‘Binny for Short’ is the middle grade book by Hilary McKay. I read the UK version (unillustrated, though the US edition includes drawings by Micah Player).

I absolutely, thoroughly and unabashedly adored this book, and was absolutely delighted to learn that this is just the first book McKay intends for young Binny.

We first meet Binny at age 8, when she is gifted Max the puppy and her father dies. This marks the beginning of the first big shift in Binny’s life, and while she has fond memories of her father and imagines she was very sad after he died (though she can’t remember being as sombre as Clem or throwing tantrums like James did) she more sharply remembers how sad and angry she was when Max was taken away from her. Because even after dad died, Binny had Max and he was the best dog. But then they had to move to a small house Max couldn’t fit in, so they gave him to gran to look after. But then Binny learns that her Aunt Violet decided gran couldn’t look after Max, so she took it upon herself to rehome him with a new family.

When Binny learns to this she is distraught, and so begins many years of missing and trying to look for Max, and her hatred of Aunt Violet (which she lets her know about!). 

Then Aunty Violet dies and leaves her old Cornwall house for Binny (specifically) and her family to move into. Binny wants to refuse any ‘gifts’ from Aunt Violet (especially one she imagines to be haunted by Violet’s vengeful ghost) but the rest of her family look forward to a bit of stability since dad died, and happily move into the house.

And it’s here, when Binny is eleven-years-old, that the story really kicks off. She develops her first crush on a local boat-owner who takes tourists out to view the seals. She finds a new enemy in next-door neighbour boy, Gareth. Clemency settles back into her music, and mum gets a job at the local old people’s home, and she brings James along to charm the little old ladies and admire their chickens. 

Interspersed with Binny and her family’s settling into Cornwall are scenes of Binny and Gareth, somewhere in the very near future, stuck out in high-tide in the middle of a Cornwall beach. A moment that may move them from enemies to proper friends, if they survive . . . 

The book is really a beautifully, third-person rambling narrative about one family’s up’s and down’s in the year their lives start to settle but grief and change occasionally creep in to unsettle things. And for Binny, the constant memories of Max are her trigger to larger sadness.

There’s a lot of beauty and laughter in this novel too, like little brother James who tries to break his high-peeing record on the back fence and requires a behavioural list to abide by; 

They had to keep making new rules for James. 
No taking money from the old ladies. 
No hunting in bins. 
No taking off that wetsuit in shops to show people you are a boy. 
No more stealing seeds from the supermarket. 
In fact no more stealing anything from the supermarket. 
No crabs in your bedroom. Or Binny’s bedroom. 
No tormenting the neighbours.  
No matches. 
No unsupervised hotness of any kind. 

I absolutely loved this family and Binny – she’s a charming character trying to fit into her own skin. She’s attempting to come to grips with a loss that feels like it could be rectified, her burgeoning love for an unkind teenage boy and this fiery need she has to antagonise her next-door-neighbour. She’s quite a character, and I can’t wait to read more of her adventures. ‘Binny for Short’ is actually one of my favourite novels to come out of 2013.


Friday, October 11, 2013

'Golden' by Jessi Kirby

From the BLURB:

Seventeen-year-old Parker Frost has never taken the road less traveled. Valedictorian and quintessential good girl, she’s about to graduate high school without ever having kissed her crush or broken the rules. So when fate drops a clue in her lap—one that might be the key to unraveling a town mystery—she decides to take a chance.

Julianna Farnetti and Shane Cruz are remembered as the golden couple of Summit Lakes High—perfect in every way, meant to be together forever. But Julianna’s journal tells a different story—one of doubts about Shane and a forbidden romance with an older, artistic guy. These are the secrets that were swept away with her the night that Shane’s jeep plunged into an icy river, leaving behind a grieving town and no bodies to bury.

Reading Julianna’s journal gives Parker the courage to start to really live—and it also gives her reasons to question what really happened the night of the accident. Armed with clues from the past, Parker enlists the help of her best friend, Kat, and Trevor, her longtime crush, to track down some leads. The mystery ends up taking Parker places that she never could have imagined. And she soon finds that taking the road less traveled makes all the difference.

Parker Frost (yes, she’s supposedly related to the famous poet) has her future mapped out. Win her school’s Farnetti/Cruz scholarship by getting good grades and being a model student, get in to Stanford, never screw up. This means Parker Frost has never skipped school, handed in an assignment late, snuck out of the house to party with her best friend Kat are told her long-term crush, Trevor, how she really feels.

But then fate brings Parker a journal. A journal written ten years ago by Julianna Farnetti who had a scholarship created in her name, after the tragic accident that killed her and her boyfriend, Shane Cruz. Their high school photos are plastered on a billboard on the outskirts of town, and their horror car crash story is used to put the fear into graduating seniors every year. And it would appear that Julianna was in the same class that Parker currently is a TA for, Mr Kinney’s which requires students write a journal for the last semester before graduation which he then mails back to them in ten years time. Parker finds Julianna’s ten years old journal, and a secret that would amaze her little town.

‘Golden’ is the 2013 young adult book by Jessi Kirby.

I have long been meaning to read a Jessi Kirby book, since her first two ‘Moonglass’ and ‘In Honor’ have come highly recommended. But ‘Golden’ really appealed to me for the mystery interwoven with a YA coming-of-age. Plus, it’s received some stellar reviews. So I gave ‘Golden’ a go and while I didn’t love it (and actually had a few issues with it) I did like it. It was okay. I might try another Kirby book, but hope for better results.

My main issue with the book was that it all felt very thin and insubstantial. And I think the main reason for that is Julianna’s discovered journal and the mystery attached overshadows the coming-of-age elements. Don’t get me wrong – the discovery of a ten years old journal written by one half of a ‘golden’ high school couple who died tragically when Parker was seven-years-old (she can still remember the candlelight vigil held in their honour, and a scholarship has been made to honour them not to mention a massive billboard remembering them) is really interesting. And it’s a gutsy move for Kirby to decide to write about his mystery ten years down the track, and from the perspective of an outsider who discovers this girl’s journal written in the weeks leading up to her untimely death. But for Kirby to justify writing this book from Parker’s perspective and not Julianna’s, she really had to work better on rounding out Parker’s story for me.

For one thing, the people in Parker’s life never felt fully-formed for me. Her best friend Kat is a party girl and natural flirt who boys appear to fall all over themselves for. But she’s also insecure as Parker inches closer to a scholarship and departure for Stanford. For me, there was a lot more working under Kat’s surface but Kirby and Parker never really see her beyond being Parker’s fun-loving friend who is going to miss her bestie when she leaves for college. I wanted to know why she would be staying in this small town instead of trying to break away. I wanted to know what she thought her limits were that that wouldn’t happen. She was only as formed as she needed to be to provide a minor conflict for Parker and that was frustrating.

Then there’s Trevor, a high school Casanova and Parker’s crush since year seven. Much is made of the fact that Trevor has been with just about every girl in school except Parker, who he still tries to woo into the art supply closet. But Parker, good girl she is, has resisted his charms while quietly bemoaning all the girls he’s taken an interest in who aren’t her. I think Kirby tried to make Trevor well-rounded beyond just ‘that cute Lothario’ but she missed the mark for me. He comes out with some pretty pithy and seemingly sincere lines for Parker, but I really wanted her to put the pressure on him and get him talking about why he’s seemingly been with every girl in school and if he’d still be interested in Parker if she hadn’t played hard-to-get. And just to show that I never entirely trusted Trevor, despite Kirby’s attempts to turn him around, I kept waiting for Parker to reach a revelation about Kat and Trevor. She starts out with some jealous doubts when she sees the two of them laughing together in the halls, but she quickly dispels any notions that the two of them could have anything romantic. Except I kept waiting for it. Kirby built Trevor up as a Casanova and Kat as a natural flirt – so I kept waiting for Kat to reveal a hook-up with her best friend’s crush (maybe in retaliation for moving on to bigger and better things without her?) and the fact that there was no real obstacle for Trevor/Parker (minus Parker’s own hang-ups) just didn’t sit right for me.

There’s also a huge missed opportunity for Kirby with Parker’s parents. Her mum starts touching on some tough truths eventually, about how she became pregnant with Parker at a young age and subsequently married her father when that wasn’t really what she wanted . . . the two of them are now divorced and her father (a struggling poet) lives in New York but her mother still feels the barbs of him. I liked when Kirby bought up the mother’s failed dreams as a reasons she puts so much pressure on Parker, but this was left hanging by the end. And the father being away in New York and never interacting with his daughter also felt messy.

But perhaps the biggest thing that didn’t work for me was Julianna’s diary. This girl recounts huge chunks of dialogue (complete with ‘I said’ and ‘he said’) and entire scenes from memory with longing glances and words left unsaid also included. These excerpts did not read epistolary to me, and were quite jarring. And when Julianna’s story interlinks with that of the local hottie who runs the cafe in town, I was eye-rolling quite a bit. 

Life is made of moments and choices. Not all of them matter, or have any lasting impact. Skipping class in favor of a taste of freedom, picking a prom dress because of the way it transforms you into a princess in the mirror. Even the nights you steal away from an open window, tiptoe silent to the end of the driveway, where darkened headlights and the pull of something unknown beckon. These are all small choices, really. Insignificant as soon as they’re made. Innocent. But then. Then there’s a different kind of moment. One when things are irrevocably changed by a choice we make. A moment we will play endlessly in our minds on lonely nights and empty days. One we’ll search repeatedly for some indication that what we chose was right, some small sign that tells us the truth isn’t nearly as awful as it feels. Or as awful as anyone would think if they knew. 
So we explain it to ourselves, justify it enough to sleep. And then we bury it deep, so deep we can almost pretend it never happened. But as much as we wish it were different, the truth is, our worlds are sometimes balanced on choices we make and the secrets we keep.

Having said all that, some stuff I did like. I like Kirby’s writing – she nails inner turmoil and coming-of-age without melodrama. And I liked Parker, and could relate to this slightly nerdy over-achiever who gets to the end of her high school life with not a whole lot of fun to show for it. I liked the atmosphere Kirby wrote around Julianna and Shane’s death, and how it’s gone down in small-town folk lore and urban legend. But a lot more didn’t work for me, and I think that mostly came from the imbalance of mystery with coming-of-age and the secondary characters and deeper stories that fell by the wayside for that small-town mystery to work.


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