Search This Blog

Friday, February 28, 2014

'The One Plus One' by Jojo Moyes

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

Suppose your life sucks. Your husband has done a vanishing act, your stepson is being bullied and your daughter has a once in a lifetime opportunity . . . that you can't afford to pay for.

So imagine you found and kept some money that didn't belong to you, knowing it would pay for your daughter's happiness.

But how do you cope with the shame? Especially when the man you've lied to decides to help you out in your hour of need . . .

Jess is in hell - Ed has saved her family - but is their happiness worth a lifetime's soul-searching?

Jess and Ed are two very different people, with vastly different problems – in fact, the only thing they have in common is a wicked streak of bad luck. 

For Jess, it’s that she’s a single mum whose unemployed husband left the family two years ago to go and live with his mother, after suffering from a bout of depression which left him unable to work or pay child support. Since then Jess has been looking after their young daughter, Tanzie, and teenage son (who is actually her husband’s from a previous relationship, but Jess now considers Nicky as her own). Jess works two jobs – barmaid at the local pub, and cleaning lady with her best friend. But she’s always skint and living pay-cheque to pay-cheque and just a smidge above the poverty line. When her maths-genius daughter Tanzie is offered a tempting (but still too expensive) scholarship at the local private school, Jess’s money woes start to really impact the family. There’s also extra pressure since Nicky’s recent run-ins with the local bullies, the Fisher family. Nicky dresses alternatively, all skinny jeans and black eye-liner which, in a small seaside town, means he sticks out like a sore thumb and sees him being physically and emotionally abused by the local hooligans. Both Jess and Nicky don’t want Tanzie to go through the same sort of suffering if she enters the local high school next year (her maths obsession will make her a target, absolutely). 

Ed Nicholls made a lot of money when he sold the app he and his best friend created. For a little while he was really successful, particularly when the company went public. And even though he’s divorced, and his model ex-wife keeps stealing from his London apartment (even after the settlement left her very comfortable) he was happy. What made him even happier was when the beautiful, unattainable Deanna from his college days reaches out to him and they start dating. It’s nothing short of a dream come true for Ed to be this successful and have the girl of his college dreams on his arm at the same time. But then Deanna starts showing her true colours – an unstable, clingy girlfriend with serious money woes and bad habits. When Ed decides to finish things with Deanna, she expresses a wish to get back on her feet and Ed stupidly gives her a tip about his company shares … which then leads to a charge of insider-trading, and a deadline for Ed to appear at the police station and be formally charged. 

Jess and Ed don’t know each other, not really. But Jess does clean Ed’s beachfront apartment, and is present on the night he decides to drink his worries away at the pub where she works. 

The next day their lives intersect again when Tanzie is offered a chance to win a cash prize at a maths Olympiad … in Scotland. Ed finds Jess getting ticketed by the cops on the side of the road – Tanzie, Nicky and their oversized hound, Norman, sitting in a beat-up and utterly un-roadworthy Cadillac. Feeling the need to put some good karma into the world, Ed suddenly pulls over to offer them a lift to the Olympiad. 

What follows is a road trip unlike any other.

The One Plus One’ is the new novel from British author Jojo Moyes.

I adore Jojo Moyes. ‘Me Before You’ and ‘The Last Letter From Your Lover’ are two of my favourite books, and I just think she’s fabulous – I hate to see her described as “chick lit” or a “beach read” author because I think that fails to take into account how layered, impressively paced and utterly heart-hurting her novels tend to be. ‘The One Plus One’ is another gem, coming in at 528-pages with a multiple point-of-view storyline that is at once emotionally exhausting and completely engrossing.

I can’t think how else to explain this book, other than to say it’s basically Jojo Moyes presenting these two characters and then just heaping shit on them. I mean, seriously, both Jess and Ed go through the ringer (Jess more than Ed because, as is a big point Moyes is trying to make – being poor means you’re more likely to suffer longer and harder whereas, somehow, mud doesn’t seem to stick to rich people no matter how hard it’s thrown). This is a book of spiralling – just when you think it can’t get any worse for poor Jess, Moyes manages to dig her deeper and deeper into debt and heartache. But Jess is one of those rare, magnificent individuals who’s perpetually optimistic – she’s a wonderful mother and feels the need to keep on keeping on with a smile on her face for Nicky and Tanzie’s benefit. 

Nicky, meanwhile, has a really bleak outlook on life. His mother was a drug addict who left him with his dad, the same guy who abandoned the family two years ago and who Nicky hates to think he shares DNA with. Nicky is being beat-up at school by the local hooligans (the kind of kids who, when the cops come calling round for witnesses, nobody saw anything) and Nicky is just down. Jess and Tanzie are both so worried about him, because life just keeps knocking him down. The first person to really break through to Nicky is Ed, a computer programmer who can sympathise with Nicky’s displacement in life; 

Here it comes, Nicky thought. He wiped at his shoulder, where Norman had left a drool. ‘Everyone I’ve ever met who was worth knowing was a bit different at school. You just need to find your people.’ 
‘Find my people.’ 
‘Your tribe.’ 
Nicky pulled a face. 
‘You know, you spend your whole life feeling like you don’t quire fit in anywhere. And then you walk into a room one day, whether it’s university or an office or some kind of club, and you just go, “Ah. There they are.” And suddenly you feel at home.’ 
‘I don’t feel at home anywhere.’  
‘For now.’ 

The road trip to the Maths Olympiad in Scotland takes a few days because Tanzie gets carsick, so Ed can’t drive over 40MPH. Pretty soon Ed regrets his decision to help this family out and rack up his karma good-points, but the trip becomes an epic experience for all involved. 

‘The truth?’
‘That people like us never get on. We never move upwards. We just rattle around at the bottom, scrabbling over the other people at the bottom like rats in a cellar, everyone trying to keep out of the wet.’

Like with all of Moyes’s books I’ve read thus far, she likes to throw out really outlandish plots that are dependent on chance and circumstance. But as the story twists and turns she brings the story back to the heart of the matter – this is really about two people in vastly awful circumstances who find their way to one another. It’s a very human story that feels very grounded in the present – Jess struggles being from a low socio-economic background as she now sees how her children are being impacted by what they’re lacking, and Ed is a businessman who’s being investigated for a white-collar crime. These are two stories of our times, but I loved how they intersected and crossed over one another. ‘The One Plus One’ is a rewarding, heartfelt read and another gem from Jojo Moyes.


Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Graphic novels and ‘reluctant readers’

My new piece for Kill Your Darlings is Graphic novels and ‘reluctant readers’ in which I talk to the wonderful Adele Walsh (from Persnickety Snark) about how awesome graphic novels are, and why they should be embraced in the modern classroom. 

Giveaway: 1 of 3 copies of 'The Last Shot' by Michael Adams

From the BLURB: 
I glance at my fellow fugitives in the glow of the fire: black-streaked, white-eyed, faces fearful but fierce. Whoever any of us were a week ago, we've now become people we could never have imagined. 
After facing the heartbreaking truth in Shadow Valley, Danby is determined to have her revenge on Jack.
With Jack dead, her little brother Evan and hundreds of other Minions will be free of his control. With Jack dead, she and her friend Nathan will be able to revive thousands more from the millions of catatonic Goners.
But what if she's wrong - about everything?
After Danby confronts Jack on a dying stretch of highway, all of her beliefs are turned inside out. Not only are his feelings for her real, he's working against the clock to save lives and rebuild society. To Danby's horror, it's Nathan who appears to threaten the new order.
With her emotions raging and blood on her hands, Danby has to take a side in a deadly battle that'll decide the future of the world. And as allies become enemies and foes turn into friends, she'll have to embrace methods so dark that the price of survival may be her very soul ...

The very kind people at Allen & Unwin have given me 3 copies of the second book in Michael Adams' 'The Last' trilogy to giveaway! 

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 March 12
I will announce the lucky winner on August 17 

Friday, February 21, 2014

'Grasshopper Jungle' by Andrew Smith

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

Sixteen-year-old Austin Szerba interweaves the story of his Polish legacy with the storyof how he and his best friend , Robby, brought about the end of humanity and the rise of an army of unstoppable, six-foot tall praying mantises in small-town Iowa.

To make matters worse, Austin's hormones are totally oblivious; they don't care that the world is in utter chaos: Austin is in love with his girlfriend, Shann, but remains confused about his sexual orientation. He's stewing in a self-professed constant state of maximum horniness, directed at both Robby and Shann. Ultimately, it's up to Austin to save the world and propagate the species in this sci-fright journey of survival, sex, and the complex realities of the human condition.

Austin Szerba read somewhere that “human beings are genetically predisposed to record history.” So that’s what he’s doing – recording everything that happened leading up to the night he and his best friend, Robby, broke into the From Attic to Seller thrift store and witnessed a few Hoover Boys unwittingly release a plague strain that could destroy the world as we know it. 

Austin is not lying when he promises that within the pages of ‘Grasshopper Jungle’ there are; “babies with two heads, insects as big as refrigerators, God, the devil, limbless warriors, rocket ships, sex, diving bells, theft, wars, monsters, internal combustion engines, love, cigarettes, joy, bomb shelters, pizza, and cruelty.”

But it’s also a book about a third-generation Polish-American boy who’s in love with his girlfriend, while being confused about his feelings for his gay best friend. It’s about his mother who kayaks with little blue Xanax pills and what it’s like to grow up in the small town of Ealing, Iowa. Oh, and it’s about the “Unstoppable Soldier” and 6-foot-tall man-eating praying mantises. 

It’s a history of the end of the world, and a history of this boy’s life so far.

‘Grasshopper Jungle’ is the new contemporary/dystopian/sci-fi/coming-of-age … Kafka-esque young adult novel from Andrew Smith.

In a recent interview with Kirkus, Smith summarized his new book thus; “I think it was my singular intent to write a book that nobody could ever write jacket or flap copy for.” Well, he’s certainly succeeded there. 

I find it really hard to talk about this book without first name-checking the authors Andrew Smith reminds me of. With ‘Grasshopper Jungle’ in particular, Smith has echoes of Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Coupland even Bret Eastn Ellis and you can’t deny the Kafka ‘Metamorphosis’ connection for explorations into homosexuality alongside larger-than-life insects. But I don’t want to imply that ‘Grasshopper Jungle’ reads like a poor imitation of any of those authors – especially when it’s only in certain moments that I got a whiff of them. Like Bret Easton Ellis, Smith has perfectly captured a generational voice for his unsettling examinations of our society’s ugly-glam; 

My mother took an antianxiety drug called Xanax. It was a little blue pill that looked like a tiny kayak. Robbie’s mother took it, too. Our moms were like Xanax sisters, except they didn’t know much more about each other than first names, who their baby boys’ best friends were, and Ealing gossip. 
Kayak and Xanax are palindromes. 
Robby’s mother was named Connie, too. 
It was always fascinating to me how perfect things could be if you just let all the connections happen. My history showed how everything connected in Ealing, Iowa.

Look, ‘Grasshopper Jungle’ won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. There were times when I struggled with it – reading Austin’s incredibly detailed, often waffling but always fascinating first-person interiority alongside this larger-than-life story about larger-than-life man-eating praying mantises … ‘kooky’ doesn’t even begin to describe this book. But I did enjoy it, for the sum of its parts.

I liked that, alongside a rather dystopian ‘end of the world’ storyline, Smith has also written about Austin’s tender-confused feelings for his openly gay best friend. 

Shannon kissed me on the lips at the door of her new old house. 
She kissed Robby on the lips, too. 
Shann always kissed Robby on the mouth after she kissed me. 
It made me horny. 
I wondered what she would say if I asked her to have a threesome with us in her new old, unfurnished bedroom. 
I knew what Robby would say. 
I wondered if it made me homosexual to even think about having a threesome with Robby and Shann. And I hated knowing that it would be easier for me to ask Robby to do it than to ask my own girlfriend.

I liked that Smith so thoroughly, disarmingly, captured the voice of a horny teenage boy while also writing him with infinite nuance in his conflicted feelings. I also really enjoyed his musings about the small town of Ealing, Iowa that anyone who comes from concrete-suburban-small will recognise and smile/shiver over the setting and descriptions of community.

For better or worse, I also got a kick out of the “Unstoppable Soldier” storyline that skyrockets this novel into the stratosphere of WTF? weird. There’s poignancy in that sci-fi tale playing out alongside Austin’s small-town musings; particularly about his older brother who had his leg blown off while fighting in Afghanistan and the casual violence of the local Hoover Boys who call Austin and Robby “faggots” for doing nothing more than hanging out together. 

The storyline is all over the place though, literally. In his recounting of history, Austin goes up, down and sideways – making ‘Grasshopper Jungle’ read more like a history essay that’s written with last-ten-minutes-to-go panic where Austin continually says “oh, yeah, and *this* happened before *that* but to understand you have to go all the way back to *then*…” It’s endearing and authentic, but I occasionally got frustrated. Particularly when Austin also thinks to include things like the bowel movements of his golden retriever in the recounting. 

I tip my hat to Andrew Smith. ‘Grasshopper Jungle’ is an ambitious, out-there mind-tripping young adult novel. It has traces of some wonderful authors, but Andrew Smith is clearly in a league all his own with this one. For some people it will be a revelatory YA-read. For others, it might read like a convoluted genre-mashing mess. For me, Austin’s voice carried the story – in all its tender, banal glory – and I was more than willing to stick with him through confusing sexual feelings and man-eating praying mantises. 


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

'Ms. Marvel' #1 Written by G. Willow Wilson, illustrated by Adrian Alphona.

From the BLURB:

Following the epic events of INFINITY, a 16-year-old Muslim girl from New Jersey discovers extraordinary body-morphing powers and follows in the footsteps of her idol, Captain Marvel, to become the new Ms. Marvel.

Ms Marvel’ is the first issue in a new comic series from Marvel Worldwide, Inc. Written by G. Willow Wilson, illustrated by Adrian Alphona. 

It’s only in the last 2-3 years that I’ve started reading comics and graphic novels. Now I’m invested (okay, obsessed) with the Brian K. Vaughan ‘Saga’ series and willing to read any graphic novel recommendations people want to throw my way. I’ve enjoyed everything from a poignant and dark biography of Jeffrey Dahmer, to charming young adult ghost stories and a swashbuckling tale set in Istanbul. But I don’t read Marvel comics and, until recently, I’ve had no interest in reading anything from the most famous publisher of comics. 

I used to watch the X-Men cartoon as a kid, and I’ve enjoyed those various movie adaptations. But everything else is pretty much over my head. ‘Iron Man’ movies got a chuckle out of me, but I have no patience for the various ‘Spiderman’ reboots and Scarlett Johansson’s photo-shopped poster for the latest ‘Captain America’ movie leaves me seriously unimpressed. I’ve been aware of the Hawkeye Initiative (whereby the pornographic “strong female character pose” full of boobs and butt is replaced with a male superhero character doing the same pose to highlight the sexism) and it’s just made me even less inclined to read the more traditional (macho) Marvel comics.

But then Marvel took a big step forward for diversity in comics, after the aforementioned misogynistic character representation was put in the spotlight, as well as the serious lack of female creators working in the industry. Marvel kicked off the women’s “Characters and Creators” initiative – bringing more women into the industry to portray positive female characters in comics. As part of this initiative, Marvel announced a new addition to the Marvel family, with ‘Ms Marvel’ – aka, Kamala Khan – a sixteen-year-old Pakistani-American Muslim superhero. 

Now, I’m interested. And having read ‘Ms Marvel’ … you should be too. 

Straight up, going into the first issue of this new series I had no previous knowledge of the Ms Marvel legend (Kamala is taking over the mantle from Carol Danvers who was, apparently, the hero of the Captain Marvel series). Doesn’t matter though – I went in cold and didn’t miss anything. 

That Kamala is Muslim is actually secondary to the fact that she’s sixteen-years-old. Don’t get me wrong; it’s amazing that a minority (let alone Muslim!) character is stepping up as superhero in a Marvel comic. And the importance of this was beautifully touched on in a Washington Post article by Sabaa Tahir (a Pakistani-American herself) who said: “As a kid living in an isolated desert town, the most diversity I saw in my media was Claudia Kishi, the Japanese American girl from ‘The Baby-Sitters Club.’ At age 10, or even 15, it would have meant the world to me to see a Pakistani girl portrayed positively, let alone as a comic book superhero.”

But Kamala being Muslim really isn’t a central focus of the story. Actually, author G. Willow Wilson has written some of Kamala’s fellow high school classmates as spitefully “well-meaning”, who seem to only know the stereotyped narrative of Muslim women as oppressed creatures to be pitied. “Your headscarf is so pretty, Kiki. I love that color,” blonde-haired classmate Zoe says to Kamala’s friend Nakia, “But I mean … nobody pressured you to start wearing it, right? Your father or somebody?” Kamala’s friends aptly name Zoe “the concern troll.” 

In the same Washington Post piece, ‘Ms Marvel’ editor Sana Amanat (who is also Pakistani-American) said of Kamala; “She’s imbued with great power and she learns the responsibility that comes with it. That’s a universal story. The fact that she’s female and first generation American, continuously struggling with the values and authority of her parents, gives the story extra nuance, but it’s a universal human story.”

That’s what really makes this new ‘Ms. Marvel’ story so compelling – that Kamala is a young woman who is going to be coming into great power and great responsibility, while also living through the struggles, firsts and wonders of being a sixteen-year-old girl. Well, that’s just marvellous.

Even better is that this ‘Ms. Marvel’ series is a self-aware one. Kamala is a fan of comics – she idolizes the fictional heroes Iron Man, Captain America and Captain Marvel (Carol Danvers) – and this comes to fruition in a rather funny, if bizarre-o, scene in the first ‘Ms. Marvel’ issue, when Kamala is visited by her comic book idols. 

There’s still plenty of fleshing-out that needs to happen in upcoming issues (2 of which I’ve pre-ordered already) particularly with secondary characters. But readers are given a tantalizing cursory glance at a boy called Bruno who has a crush on Kamala, while she is totally oblivious. And her friend Kiki who insists on now being called Nakia and whose father hopes her wearing a headscarf is “just a phase”. Then there’s Kamala’s brother, Aamir, whose commitment to Allah their father thinks is a poor excuse to live at home and not get a job. Kamala’s family and friendship circles are truly interesting and, superhero antics aside, this alone will provide plenty of tension for young Kamala and help in creating a heroine of true emotional depth and conflicting loyalties. 

I only had one complaint about my ‘Ms Marvel’ comic – and that was the Marvel foldout adverts throughout the issue. They’re just really annoying … that is all. 

Kamala Khan was a much-needed addition to the Marvel superhero family. But she’s no token Muslim female for the sake of the publisher’s new gender diversity campaign. With author G. Willow Wilson and editor Sana Amanat directing this new series, Kamala Khan is a fascinating hero in her own right; less for her religious leanings and more for simply being a young woman who is growing up in modern America, who is about to be imbued with incomprehensible power and responsibility. Basically, she’s like every other superhero and this first issue is probably like many Marvel origin stories … that she’s a girl and Muslim both means everything and nothing, but for what it’s worth I’m hooked.


Friday, February 14, 2014

Interview with David Metzenthen, author of 'Tigerfish'


I recently had the great pleasure of reading David Metzenthen’s latest book, since the release of his 2009 award-winning ‘Jarvis 24’.  
Tigerfish’ is a grand book to be reacquainted with Metzenthen, one of the best young adult authors writing male voice today. When Penguin offered me the chance to ask him some questions and pick his brain, I couldn’t very well refuse; 


Q: How were you first published – agent or slush pile?
I was first published through the slush pile and that first letter of acceptance made for a happy day! Like, really happy.

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 both plot and then see what turns up on my walk with my dog. I always have a beginning, and I always think about possible endings as I go.... I think about books for up to a year or two before starting, and that helps plan in my mind!

Q: How long did it take you to write ‘Tigerfish’, from first idea to final manuscript?
It took about three years to get Tigerfish up and about – but the publishers had it for over a year, so normally it doesn’t take that long! I was growing old waiting for it, I will say.

Q: Where do story ideas generally start for you? Do you first think of the character, theme, ending? Or is it just a free-fall?
I think of characters first – no, places! No, anything that seems like a skyrocket of an idea that suggests more and more things... and the idea has to have a meaning to me, like a serious underlying reason to write the thing... a reason that says something about how people live.. or try to live .

Q: So many of your books are grounded in nature – the beauty of the Saint Helena Bay setting in ‘Boys of Blood & Bone’ and Tiff Porter’s love for her country town in ‘Tiff and the Trout’. But ‘Tigerfish’ is very much about characters living in the urban jungle, so far removed from nature (like Ariel who works in a surf shop but has never seen the sea). What prompted you to write something so urban and gritty, and such a departure from your other books?
I wrote about Melbourne because I love it and I fear for it; as it is developing in a typical political style where people are not always looked after first – but political spin is....
I  see Melbourne as a great city of many parts, not all parts wonderful, but many interesting – like shopping centres, because for some people they are refuges, and I wanted to look at what they are, and how they seem to operate....

Q: Melbourne feels like another character in ‘Tigerfish’, and you capture the city so beautifully. I particularly liked, “the wind blows through the place like a vampire spirit on the hunt for body heat.”. You live in Melbourne, so you obviously know the city well – but what suburbs were you most inspired by? Did you go on Melbourne writing excursions to capture the city just so?
 I find the Melbourne of my imagination the most inspiring – when I mix the past with the future and try to drill into its character. I invented this suburb of Templeton, and it’s not any suburb really – but it might be like some. I am a tree hugger and I like trains and things – so Melbourne speaks to, of course! The river/docks/Collins Street... the people... the footy... the winter!!!!!!!!!!!!

Q: You write teen character so well - in 'Jarvis 24' and now 'Tigerfish' it strikes me that your dialogue rings very, very true. What's your secret to portraying teen character so authentically? Do you do a lot of eavesdropping on public transport?
I’m not an intentional eves-dropper, but I like to hear how other people do speak so... but most of my dialogue I just sound out in my head, fast, and then see how it stands up... I don’t worry about too much about slang as it dates everything, and I’ll get it wrong anyway. I look for rhythm and nuance – maybe sometimes I find it!

Q: What’s the appeal in writing for young adults?
I like writing for young people because they’re people I care about; and for some reason I seem still to be able to do it, as I hope story is the essence, and not knowing which jeans are now cool. And for some reason, the stories flow for me, but for adults, I struggle... but I hope to improve.

Q: What are you working on right now, and when can we expect it to hit shelves!?
I have completed a MS on Australians in combat in Vietnam that is at two publishers, I have a picture book coming out with Allen and Unwin called, One Minute’s Silence, and I am working on an outrageous adventure for younger readers that sees my character, George, travel around the world, sometimes by private jet. Dates to be announced!!!!!!!!!

Q: Favourite author(s) of all time?
I like Jack Kerouac; especially On The Road and Lonesome Traveller. Henning Mankell is really good, Hemingway can be great... there are a hundred and fifty (thousand, probably) brilliant writers, but naming them gives me a headache...

Q: Do you have any advice for budding young writers?

Advice to young writers: read/imagine/think...tell a story that matters to you about things that matter to you. Develop your style/listen to yourself, and when your writing looks as good as it can be, go on... then re-write. I like to write slowly and carefully... travel far or near, spend time thinking... walk... listen to everyone  including yourself (hard!)  Only write if you want to do it... because you need energy to finish stuff, and you won’t finish unless you like the story –  writing can feel like torture. Get a part-time job! Find someone really intuitive to read your stuff and make gentle suggestions. Don’t just listen to anyone you don’t trust. Keep your big ideas private until you’ve done the work! Hang in there.

 Tigerfish is now available at all good bookstores.

'Tigerfish' by David Metzenthen

Received from the Publisher 

From the BLURB:

Better in here, they think. Safe and sound. No shocks and no surprises. Twenty-one degrees Celsius all year round.

But outside Sky Point Mall, no one is safe.

Ryan Lanyon lives in a tough suburb.  His brother's a bouncer.  His best mate owns weapons.  Ariel works in a surf shop and has never seen the sea.  And the year that lies ahead is a minefield for them all.

A novel of confrontation, loyalty and love from David Metzenthen, the award-winning and bestselling author of Jarvis 24Boys of Blood and Bone and Black Water.

Templeton is a concrete jungle suburb in Melbourne, full of hard and loyal characters balancing on the poverty line and watching each other’s backs. Templeton is Ryan Lanyon’s stomping ground – he mostly hangs round Sky Point ‘Knifepoint’ Mall with his best friend, sucking up the summer holidays before school starts again and he has to go back to keeping his head down and avoiding a beating from the local bully boys.

Ryan’s dad knows every tradie in town, the ones who’d prefer payment in beer than cash-in-hand. His brother Slate has just got done with a forty-hours-a-week job at the Arcon pipe factory, and has started a bouncer gig that has his family quietly agonizing over the possibilities of king hits and glassings. 

And then Ryan meets Ariel at the Kealoah Surf Store. She’s a country girl whose family lost the farm and are now rebuilding in the big smoke.  She has never seen the sea, and her little sister is struggling to come out of her shell in the big, anonymous city. 

Ryan and his family welcome Ariel and her sister into their tightknit, have-your-back Templeton community, and together they start helping one another to find their feet and a place in this new world.

Tigerfish’ is the new young adult novel from award-winning Australian young adult author, David Metzenthen.

This book reminded me of a favourite TV show ‘Redfern Now’, a drama series that portrays contemporary stories about Indigenous Australians. And while ‘Tigerfish’ is not a story about Indigenous Australians, the connection to ‘Redfern Now’ came from setting – the TV show is set in the infamous and tight-knit Sydney suburb of Redfern. And the same way that that show explores the dynamics of community, however fractured and imperfect, ‘Tigerfish’ and Ryan’s observations of his rough and tumble suburb of Templeton and the city of Melbourne, similarly reminded me of those intertwined stories. 

I feel like Metzenthen’s setting is even more important as he explores a poor community rich in spirit and family/community bonds. It’s by no means a sunshiny, perfect suburb – Ryan is tormented at the local school, and the shopping centre has earned the nickname ‘Knifepoint Mall’ for a reason … but Metzenthen really asks readers not to take things at face value, to dig deeper and scrape away the grime. 

There are lots of beautiful metaphors and thematic explorations for young readers to think about in this book, but Metzenthen doesn’t write them cloyingly or like a prescribed English text. They come in the form of beautiful girl (the aptly named) Ariel; moved from the country with her family after they lost everything, and now working ironically in a surf shop; 

'I don't know anything about surfboards.' She puts her hands in those big goofy pockets and looks me straight in the eyes. 'I've never even been to the beach.' She shrugs, standing under the poster of a guy on a crystal wave. 'I've never even seen the ocean,' she adds. 'Not once. Not in my whole life.' She appears to want to know what I might have to say about that.
I laugh, zeroing in on her face, knowing that this is a freakin' special moment. Already I'm thinking about telling Evan about the new chick at Kealoah who tells me straight-up she's never seen the sea. And he'll like it the way I like it; because a fact like that is a rare thing in a place like this. I feel like kissing the toes of her no-name sneakers that are the colour of plain flour.

Metzenthen won the CBCA Award for Book of the Year: Older Readers in 2010 for ‘Jarvis 24’, which was also written from a young male first-person perspective. And no wonder, when Metzenthen captures it so well, and does so again with ‘Tigerfish’ – all Ryan’s bravado and heart, his secret worries and outward mockeries. He’s quite a tender voice in this rough suburb, and I loved that duality. 

If I had any complaints about ‘Tigerfish’, it’s probably that it is very slow going, and if not for Ryan’s authentic voice drawing me in I probably would have walked away for wondering where the actual story and igniting event was … but if you stick with ‘Tigerfish’ and Ryan, you will be rewarded with a gritty gorgeous story full of heart and anger.


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Let's Talk About 'Speak'

New post is up for Kill Your Darlings, called "Let's Talk About Speak" in which I discuss how wonderful it is that Laurie Halse Anderson's 1999 novel will be turned into a graphic novel.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

'Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant' by Tony Cliff

From the BLURB:

Lovable ne'er-do-well Delilah Dirk is an Indiana Jones for the 19th century. She has traveled to Japan, Indonesia, France, and even the New World. Using the skills she's picked up on the way, Delilah's adventures continue as she plots to rob a rich and corrupt Sultan in Constantinople. With the aid of her flying boat and her newfound friend, Selim, she evades the Sultan's guards, leaves angry pirates in the dust, and fights her way through the countryside. For Delilah, one adventure leads to the next in this thrilling and funny installment in her exciting life.

A little bit Tintin, a little bit Indiana Jones, Tony Cliff's Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant is a great pick for any reader looking for a smart and foolhardy heroine...and globetrotting adventures.

Meet Delilah Dirk – a globetrotting troublemaker, daughter to an English ambassador father and famous Greek artisan mother. Delilah was trained by the best marksmen in France, lived in the jungles of India, the beaches of Indonesia, and a Japanese monastery. She is extremely deadly, capable and chaos-incarnate.

Delilah meets Erdemoglu Selim, lieutenant in the Turksih Janissary Corps (and amateur tea-brewer), when she attempts to steal some ancient scrolls from his Majesty’s palace. Selim is sent to interrogate Ms Dirk, but somehow gets caught up in her (inevitable) escape plan – and even accused of being her accomplice! 

Now Selim finds himself unwittingly along for Delilah’s wild new escapade – stealing from the Evil Pirate and Captain – Zakul (the Terrible). 

‘Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant’ is the first book in a new graphic novel series by Tony Cliff for First Second Books

I have had this book waiting in my TBR pile for months. First recommended to me by Adele (Persnickety Snark) back in 2013, Tony Cliff’s ‘Delilah Dirk’ was named a Publishers Weekly Best Children's Book of 2013 and a Kirkus Reviews Best Teen Book of 2013. And let me tell you … it deserves all that praise, and more. 

Tony Cliff has created an acerbically witty, charming and ferocious heroine in Delilah Dirk – at once an accomplished (ass-kicking) swordswoman, and member to three royal families. She seemingly traipses the world looking for mischief and doing whatever tickles her fancy; whether it be stealing gold from a terrible pirate or breaking into the Great Palace of Constantinople. She’s like a cross between Adèle Blanc-Sec and Indiana Jones – and utterly, utterly wonderful. I also appreciated that Tony Cliff didn’t sexualise Delilah; she’s definitely not the type of comic-book action heroine we’ve seen too much of lately. 

Readers are seeing this story through Lieutenant Selim’s eyes – we meet Delilah at the same time he does, and we hear his conflicting interiority about her actions and his participation in them. Selim is a great sidekick for Delilah; waylaid by a strong moral compass and utterly horrified by Delilah’s easy brutality. They are a great double-act balance, and by the end of the book readers can rest assured that they have the beginnings of a beautiful friendship. 

‘Delilah Dirk’ is also a very exotic, historic story – we traipse with Delilah from 1807 Constantinople (Istanbul) to the wilds of Asian Turkey and a trip over to Greece. The locations are stunningly drawn, and it’s wonderful to get lost in such exotic locales. I can’t wait to travel with Delilah and Selim, wherever her fancies take them next!

‘Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant’ is one of the best graphic novels I’ve read, and easily makes its way onto my favourites list. It’s funny and lushly drawn, Delilah is a worthy heroine and Selim a fantastic narrator. I can’t wait for more adventures with these two.


Wednesday, February 5, 2014

'Bird' by Crystal Chan

 Received from the Publisher 

From the BLURB:

Nothing matters. Only Bird matters. And he flew away.

Jewel never knew her brother Bird, but all her life she has lived in his shadow. Her parents blame Grandpa for the tragedy of their family’s past; they say that Grandpa attracted a malevolent spirit—a duppy—into their home. Grandpa hasn’t spoken a word since. Now Jewel is twelve, and she lives in a house full of secrets.

Jewel is sure that no one will ever love her like they loved Bird, until the night that she meets a mysterious boy in a tree.

Grandpa is convinced that the boy is a duppy, but Jewel knows that he is something more. And that maybe the time has come to break through the stagnant silence of the past.

Entrenched secrets, mysterious spirits, and an astonishing friendship weave together in this extraordinary and haunting debut. 

Jewel was born the day her brother John ‘Bird’ died. On that day, Jewel’s birthday, her Grandpa stopped talking and the whole family became quiet and sad … and they’ve stayed that way for the last 12 years.

Then, on her 12th birthday, Jewel climbs a tree and meets a boy called John. John is African-American, adopted by white parents and obsessed with becoming an astronaut. In Jewel, he finds a kindred spirit, not least of all because in their small Iowa town Jewel and John stick out; 

“You’re not from around here.” 
A little something tightened inside me, like it did every time I got this question, but I was used to it. Mostly. “I’m half-Jamaican, a quarter white, and a quarter Mexican,” I said. 
“Wow,” John said. “I didn’t know people could turn out like that.” 
“And I am from around here,” I said, making sure my voice carried over the crickets. “I was born in the house down the road.” 
John said, “I’m not trying to insult you or anything. I’ve just never met someone like you.” 

But Grandpa becomes convinced that John is a ‘duppy’ – a bad spirit from Jamaican legend. Jewel doesn’t believe such things, but she knows that sine John arrived secrets are coming out, and her sad, quiet family are starting to reflect on their past …

‘Bird’ is the debut middle-grade novel from American author Crystal Chan.

From the very first line, this book had me; 

Grandpa stopped speaking the day he killed my brother, John. 

And by the end of the first page, I was hooked and already a little bit teary; 

… until Bird jumped off a cliff, the cliff at the edge of the tallgrass prairie, the cliff that dropped a good couple hundred feet to a dried-up riverbed below. Bird’s little blue bath towel was found not far from his body, snagged on a bush, the towel that served as wings.

This is a book about wounds that just won’t heal and what happens when loss and guilt get all mixed up in the here and now. It’s about the solace of friendship, and brings to mind that Frida Kahlo quote: “I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do.” Above all else, Crystal Chan’s ‘Bird’ is beautiful.

Jewel is a most intriguing young woman. She’s obsessed with rocks and hopes to be a geologist one day. She’s also struggling in her rural-Iowa town where she sticks out for her Jamaican/Caucasian/Mexican heritage. Crystal Chan herself is of Chinese/Polish descent, and offers up a real gem in the character of Jewel and her explorations into being mixed-race. This particular thread of the story really struck me, especially when you consider that the only other person who would have really understood what it’s like to be Jewel was her brother – John ‘Bird’. But he died, and so Jewel is navigating her childhood without the brother whose death stills casts a pall over the family. 

I loved the friendship between John and Jewel – a lovely balance between the astronomer and the geologist, one so grounded and the other always looking up to the Heavens. I especially liked their ambitions because it means the book is peppered with some interesting astronomy/geology factoids (all of which Chan has gathered on her website). 

In the second-half of the novel the focus shifts back to Bird’s death, and the loss, guilt and blame Jewel’s family have let broil beneath the surface for the last twelve years. I liked the fact that Chan gave the adults in Jewel’s life such complex, heartbreaking backstory … but these were events that happened when Jewel was just a baby and though she’s been living in their aftermath, by the second-half of the novel she’s not as proactive in her own story and turned into a bit of a bystander. And I did wonder if younger readers would pick up on the difficult nuances and revelations of the adult’s story – but at the same time I do appreciate that Chan lets her readers peek into such a complex, strained adult world. 

This is a really beautiful book – but by no means an ‘easy’ book, especially for young readers going on this emotional journey with Jewel. But Chan’s writing is delicate and heartbreaking, John and Jewel are a fabulous pairing and I loved this book about the reverberations of the past being felt in the present. 


Interview with Crystal Chan, author of 'Bird'

Crystal Chan is the debut author of the novel Bird, now available in Australia from Text Publishing. 
This book is so beautiful, and I'm so glad that I was given the opportunity to ask some questions of the very talented author-to-watch, Crystal Chan.

◙ ◙  

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

Agent, kind of. I went to a writers’ conference and submitted my first 20 pages for a critique, and the reader loved my manuscript and wanted to read the whole thing! After that, she put me in touch with her agent and other agents she knew. So that’s how I got my agent. BUT fast forward about a year: I went to another writers’ workshop with this editor, who read the first 50 pages of my second manuscript, which was (then) a WIP, when we went out with my finished, original manuscript, the editor said thanks but no thanks; I want to acquire the WIP I read – I can’t stop thinking about it. So we sold the second manuscript as a first-draft partial, which was crazy process, let me tell you. It just underscored for me how individualized each person’s path to publication really is.

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 let the story evolve naturally, until a certain point – usually midway through, and then I start plotting it out. 

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

About a year and a half.

Q: Where do story ideas generally start for you? Do you first think of the character, theme, ending? Or is it just a free-fall?

It’s a total free-fall – I like that word to describe the process, btw. In fact, for me (and I know this sounds weird) but for the stories I’ve written, the voice just comes to me – I can hear it so distinctly in my mind – and the first chapter is basically writing down what I’m hearing. The subsequent chapters aren’t necessarily like that, but the voice remains strong.

Q: Jewel is half-Jamaican, a quarter white and a quarter Mexican. The boy she befriends, John, is African-American adopted by white parents. You yourself are of Chinese/Polish descent – why was it important to you to write about mixed-race characters and families?

Growing up in a small town in the 80’s, no one around me was bi-racial. No one looked like me, and no one shared my experiences.  In a way, I was lonely and didn’t even realize it – I didn’t know what it would be like to have someone understand the questions I faced…that was so outside my realm of experience that I didn’t even long for it. Until I got older, as in, college-age. They (at writer’s conferences) always say to write the book you wanted to read as a child, and I knew that if I’d had a book like Bird as a child, I would hang onto it for dear life and never let it go. 

Q: John has dreams of being as astronaut, and Jewel wants to be a geologist when she grows up –the book is full of interesting facts about astronomy and geology. I wonder if there were already two areas of interest for you, or did you have to do copious amounts of research when you decided on those ambitions for Jewel and John?

I’ve always loved geological formations, but not in a scientific way. Same with astronomy. So I had to do a LOT of research, which was fun and interesting – and challenging, as I’m not really a scientist, I don’t have a scientist’s mind.

Q: In the book, Jewel talks a lot about ‘duppies’ - evil spirits from Jamaican mythology. How did you first learn about duppies, and what sort of research did you do into their origins?

I first encountered duppies when, after college, I was working as an AmeriCorps volunteer at a college in New Jersey, and one of my interns was from Trinidad. He was totally chill, very laid back – until you got him talking about duppies and ghosts and curses. Then his eyes would get big, his voice would deepen and tense up – you could really tell that this affected him deeply. That was my first encounter with the duppy. But more than that, I just knew that Jewel was part Jamaican, and I found the duppy again when I was researching Jamaican worldviews/beliefs. I did tons of research: books, websites, interviews with Jamaicans, and I explored different belief systems city v. country, etc. I really wanted to get the culture as accurately as I could; I myself have often been misrepresented, and I wanted to be as accurate and respectful as possible.

Q: What’s the appeal in writing for younger readers?

Writing for younger readers isn’t intentional on my part – it’s just the story that comes out. But I do love the fact that kidlit is so family based, and I can really explore the intricacies of family dynamics. Writing for kids really lends itself to that.

Q: Favourite author(s) of all time?

Always hard! Madeline L’Engle, Kate DiCamilo, Kathi Appelt, Neil Gaiman, Adam Rex, Cynthia Kadohata, Angela Johnson, Junot Diaz, Joy Harjo, Sherman Alexie

Q: Favourite book(s)?

Always harder! A Wrinkle in Time, The Tiger Rising, The Underneath, The First Part Last, Blasphemy

Q: Do you have any advice for budding young writers?

Accept whatever emotions come up inside you – don’t push them down or ignore them, even if it’s uncomfortable. Because if you don’t allow yourself to feel anger, sadness, grief, or loss, how can you possibly write about these emotions for your characters?

And write from your heart, always. When you write, remember you’re writing from a special space inside, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Practice telling stories – tell stories all the time. When you’re not telling stories, practice listening to others tell their stories. Because that’s all that writing really is: telling a story.

| More