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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

'To All The Boy's I've Loved Before' by Jenny Han

From the BLURB:

LARA JEAN keeps her love letters in a hatbox her mother gave her. They aren’t love letters that anyone else wrote for her, these are ones she’s written. One for every boy she’s ever loved.

When she writes, she can pour out her heart and soul and say all the things she would never say in real life, because her letters are for her eyes only.

Until the day her secret letters are mailed, and suddenly Lara Jean’s love life goes from imaginary to out of control.

The Covey family are extremely close, especially since the death of their mother a few years ago. Now it’s dad and his three Song girls (their Korean mother’s maiden name) – youngest is Kitty, middle is Lara Jean and eldest Margot keeps the family in line. But when Margot leaves for her first year of college in Scotland, the family are thrown into upheaval. Not least because before leaving home, Margot breaks up with her beloved boyfriend Josh who lives next door and has become so much apart of their family.

Now it’s up to Lara Jean to keep their daddy and Kitty in line, to be the responsible oldest sister. But it’s hard when everyone has depended on Margot for so long, and when Josh’s new single status has Lara Jean remembering that she liked him first, but stepped aside when he admitted his feelings for Margot.

Life becomes complicated when some private letters of Lara Jean’s are mysteriously sent – worse yet, they’re love letters. Lara Jean wrote five letters to the five boys she has loved (from afar) in her life. Josh is one of them, and in the fallout she can barely stand to be around him. Another is Peter Kavinsky – the most handsome boy in school who stole Lara Jean’s first kiss, and has since been linked to her former friend (now frenemy) Genevieve ever since.

When Peter reads his letter he’s both insulted and insulting – telling Lara Jean that while she’s “cute, in a quirky way” he’s not interested in her. But when Lara Jean and Josh’s relationship becomes even more strained by her secret, and Genevieve dumps Peter for an older boy, the two of them come up with a plan to fake a relationship and try to make their respective crushes/ex’s jealous.

‘To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before’ is the new contemporary young adult novel from YA queen, Jenny Han. It’s the first in a duology, with ‘P.S. I Still Love You’ set for 2015 release.

I was really, really hesitant to read this novel. I absolutely loved the first two books in Han’s ‘Summer’ series – ‘The Summer I Turned Pretty’ and ‘It's Not Summer Without You’ – were brilliant, but final book in that contemporary YA trilogy ‘We'll Always Have Summer’ was absolutely awful. I actually still have a bit of a reader’s grudge against Han for making me fall in love with those characters only to do a complete character assassination in the finale. So, like someone who has been bitten once, I went into ‘All The Boys I’ve Loved Before’ intrigued by the premise and adoring the cover (diversity!) but wary of this author I’ve been burned by in the past … but I can safely say Han hooked me again, and this book is now a favourite of 2014.

Lara Jean Song Covey is a quite shy, awkward and inexperienced 16-year-old. Han finds a perfect pitch for her, so she doesn’t come across as a Bambi-eyed contrived Mary Sue but an endearing homebody with a penchant for baking and scrap-booking (I could see a lot of my high-school self in Lara Jean). Lara Jean lives the wild side vicariously through her friend Chris, a slut-shamed young woman who has a million stories to tell and is whispered about by their classmates;

Chris isn’t the kind of friend you call every night or have lunch with every day. She is like a street cat, she comes and goes as she pleases.

Han’s first-person narration is really quite beautiful and easy to fall into. Lara Jean has such a lot of history in this town, and connections to so many of her classmates that she brings up old anecdotes about kids she used to hang out with in elementary school;

It’s funny how much of childhood is about proximity. Like who your best friend is is directly correlated to how close your houses are; who you sit next to in music is all about how close your names are in the alphabet. Such a game of chance.

I really loved Han’s scene-setting and getting to know the Covey family, particularly the close relationship between the Song girls. Han’s light touch with discussions of being biracial is also refreshing (Lara Jean grouses that she has a strict “Asian characters only” Halloween costume rule now, after so often being mistaken for a Manga character).

The drama with the love letters and Lara Jean’s old crush on Josh is teased out slowly, but hits like a cyclone when Peter Kavinsky gets involved and comes up with a fake relationship plan for him and Lara Jean (with a warning that she shouldn’t fall in love with him in the process).

Halfway through class he sends me a note. He’s drawn spiderwebs around the edges. It says, I’ll be on time tomorrow. I smile as I read it. Then I put it in my backpack, in my French textbook so the page won’t crease or crumble. I want to keep it so when this is over, I can have something to look at and remember what it was like to be Peter Kavinsky’s girlfriend. Even if it was all just pretend.

Readers will know where the story is heading from a mile away, but it’s still a fun journey to get there. Though I will say Han does what she did with Jeremiah and Conrad in ‘We'll Always Have Summer’ – ensuring the “love triangle” isn’t all it’s tangled up to be, not when Josh is so dull and wishy-washy compared to charismatic and sweetly charming Peter. If I have any other small complaints it’s probably about the slut-shaming and double-standard sexism that’s sparked in the last half of the book, but is left frustratingly unexplored (doubly annoying because Chris seems such a perfect character to get to know better at this point, when Lara Jean gets a taste of the sexist shaming Chris goes through on a daily basis).

‘To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before’ is the first book in a duology, with second book ‘P.S.I Still Love You’ set for 2015 release. There’s no information about that second book, and I’m a little bit concerned about venturing into another contemporary YA finale of Han’s … but ‘To All The Boys’ does leave off on a bit of an emotional cliffhanger, not to mention Margot and Josh still have a story in them that could make for an interesting second instalment. I’m totally invested in the Song girls dramas now, so will definitely be coming back for more. ‘To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before’ is just plain fun, a YA contemporary that’s good for the soul and had me up until 2AM to finish reading. Highly recommend this book that’s definitely a favourite of 2014 for me.


Sunday, May 25, 2014

'The Borrower' by Rebecca Makkai

From the BLURB:

In this delightful, funny, and moving first novel, a librarian and a young boy obsessed with reading take to the road. Lucy Hull, a young children's librarian in Hannibal, Missouri, finds herself both a kidnapper and kidnapped when her favorite patron, ten- year-old Ian Drake, runs away from home. The precocious Ian is addicted to reading, but needs Lucy's help to smuggle books past his overbearing mother, who has enrolled Ian in weekly antigay classes with celebrity Pastor Bob. Lucy stumbles into a moral dilemma when she finds Ian camped out in the library after hours with a knapsack of provisions and an escape plan. Desperate to save him from Pastor Bob and the Drakes, Lucy allows herself to be hijacked by Ian. The odd pair embarks on a crazy road trip from Missouri to Vermont, with ferrets, an inconvenient boyfriend, and upsetting family history thrown in their path.

But is it just Ian who is running away? Who is the man who seems to be on their tail? And should Lucy be trying to save a boy from his own parents?

I am a firm believer in this sentiment laid out in one of my all-time favourite books, ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’: 

That’s what I love about reading; one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you onto another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It’s geometrically progressive – all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment. 

This is true. It happens to me, quite often. Most recently I found a new favourite book after becoming a wee bit obsessed with another new favourite book. I read Carol Rifka Brunt’s ‘Tell the WolvesI’m Home’ in April and I’m still thinking about it (lusting after it, more like) even now, so long after finishing. So, naturally, I went trawling the Internet for interviews with Brunt and read reviews of her book in the hopes that someone would write; “Oh, if you loved ‘Tell the Wolves I’m Home’, then read _____ next!” And then I came across a goldmine – a 2012 article in which Carol Rifka Brunt talks about her six favourite books. Jack. Pot. 

One of the books on Brunt’s list is ‘The Borrower’, the 2011 debut by Rebecca Makkai, which Brunt described thus: “Take one well-meaning librarian, one possibly gay 10-year-old boy, and one road trip across the country, and you have the wonderful and witty story of The Borrower. The moral ambiguity of so many of the decisions made along the way was what kept me thinking about this book long after the last page.” 

Sold. I went straight to my library and borrowed ‘The Borrower’ and now I’m so grateful for that geometric progression that brings good books to their rightful readers.

‘The Borrower’ is about Lucy Hull, a twenty-six year-old librarian working in Hannibal, Missouri (a pseudonym town name she is borrowing for the purposes of this confessional retelling). Lucy is the daughter of a Russian immigrant father who, by his reckoning, escaped Stalin and the KGB to start a better life in America where he’s now probably involved in the Chicago Russian mafia to varying degrees. Lucy is a little bit aimless and rudderless, having grown up the daughter of a revolutionary, now her biggest ambition is not to be perceived as a librarian cliché as she works the children’s room basement at Hannibal Public Library. 

The book begins with a prologue (Ian Was Never Happy Unless There Was a Prologue) in which she tempts readers by saying: “… for Ian, the boy I stole, because regardless of who the villain is, I’m not the hero of this story. I’m not even the subject of this prayer.” 

So begins Lucy’s recounting the before and during of a terrible crime she committed. But first she wants to explain what led to her rash decisions, her criminal offence. For this, she needs to tell us about ten-year-old Ian Drake – a story-time regular whom the head librarian refers to as “that little homosexual boy” and who Lucy enjoys nurturing with book recommendations. Ian is a voracious reader and a real character, the library is his sanctuary and he brightens Lucy’s day. But then Ian’s home life is revealed to Lucy when his evangelical, anorexic mother comes in to give her a list of unsuitable books her son is not permitted to check out (nothing to do with wizards and magic, none by that Harry Potter fellow etc) instead she wants Ian to read books with the “breath of God” in them. This, naturally, grates on Lucy’s librarian sensibilities and the First Amendment. When she discovers that Ian’s parents are so concerned by his homosexual tendencies that they start sending him to a mega-church who promises to “hate the sin, love the sinner” and guide youth back to heterosexuality, Lucy about reaches a breaking point. 

I remember wishing – even then, before things started to happen – that Ian could have been there, front row or backstage, watching Shakespeare and falling in love and seeing the universe open up for him. I could put a book in his hands, but I couldn’t take him by the ankles and dip him headfirst in another world. And for some reason, I knew even then that he needed it. 

Lucy isn’t an unreliable narrator. If anything, she’s a self-conscious narrator. She’s very quick to admit that she might have been putting her own misgivings and past experiences onto Ian’s home life – projecting onto his family a cruelty that wasn’t really there. Even with these hesitancies of Lucy’s, readers can add two and two together and see that Ian started to feel stifled and reached his own breaking point when his access to books – to the worlds and adventures and characters he must surely have felt were family – was denied, he started devising an escape plan … one that involved kidnapping his favourite librarian for the adventure of a lifetime. Add to the evidence that this is a kid who read (and loved) ‘From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler’… 

This merciful twist on what has become a very frightening reality – kidnapped children – is what gives the book such charm. That, and the sheer joy that comes from reading Lucy narrate her story as someone who has lived her life in books. So, again with the self-consciousness, she often has little asides with the reader about structure and character motivation, will poke fun at her spiralling life through children’s book alliteration 

Anyone who’s heard this kind of story before, the kind where someone does something rash and throws away everything she has, will be looking for what I was running away from. Because surely I was running away from something, too. Surely I must have been deeply dissatisfied with my life. Or I had a failed and embarrassing affair, or I didn’t want to face that I was subconsciously in love with Rocky, or I felt like a fake because I was, believe it or not, illiterate. Yes, there you go. I was an illiterate librarian, who needed to run away because I’d stolen money from Rocky after he broke my heart by having an affair with Loraine.  No. There was nothing. I wasn’t at a boiling point; I’d just been simmering along. 

‘The Borrower’ is such a fantastic book for book-lovers to read. Particularly children’s and young adult aficionados – and not just because Ian is ten and Lucy a children’s librarian, but because Rebecca Makkai pays such respect (and name-drops) all those authors we read growing up who shape our outlook on life and so impact us. It’s a wonderful read for bibliophiles too, because Lucy has such faith in books to save us – to save Ian – and that’s the most glowing prayer of all. 

I loved this book. I loved Lucy’s self-awareness in telling of this brief time when she was the protagonist (villain or hero maybe, protagonist definitely) in young Ian Drake’s life. The reader has this hope, like Lucy, that Ian will turn out okay. That he’ll continue to be nurtured and guided by the books and authors who will have kinder words and teachings than his parents and that his life’s adventure is just beginning. I so loved reading Lucy’s brief but impacting presence in Ian’s life. ‘The Borrower’ is a new favourite book, and one I’ll be recommending as fervently as I’ve been spruiking ‘Tell the Wolves I’m Home’. 


Rebecca Makkai has a new book coming out this July, called 

I'll definitely be reading it! 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

'Calypso Summer' by Jared Thomas

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

Calypso Summer is a story told by Calypso, a young Nukunu man, fresh out of high school in Rastafarian guise. After failing to secure employment in sports retail, his dream occupation, Calypso finds work at the Henley Beach Health Food shop where his boss pressures him to gather native plants for natural remedies. This leads him to his Nukunu family in southern Flinders Ranges and the discovery of a world steeped in cultural knowledge. The support of a sassy, smart, young Ngadjuri girl, with a passion for cricket rivalling his own, helps Calypso to reconsider his Rastafarian façade and understand how to take charge of his future.

Calypso is fresh out of high school and working at Henley Beach Health Food shop where his boss likes him to really put on the Rastafari and do a Bob Marley impersonation (good for sales, he says). One day his boss asks if any of Calypso’s people have secret Aborigine remedies they could sell in the Health Food shop, for a price.

Wanting to please his boss, Calypso goes to his mother who sends him to Nukunu auntie in the Flinders Ranges, to learn healing remedies that he can maybe bring home to sell. But while there Calypso finds that the family are in the middle of land-owning discussions, he meets a Ngadjuri girl called Clare and starts to feel a connection to his past …

Calypso Summer’ is the debut young adult novel from Jared Thomas, and winner of the black&write! Award from the State Library of Queensland.

‘Calypso Summer’ starts out slow – we meet Calyspo and his cousin, Run, whose mooching on Calypso’s couch after heartache leaves him lazy. Calypso recently finished high school and had dreams of working in a sports store (being a Usain Bolt and Michael Jordan fan, Calypso knows all there is to know about Puma and Nike sportswear) but nobody would employ him, a half-white half-Nukunu man with dreadlocks and a penchant for Rastafari culture. For a little while it looked as though no one in Adelaide would give Calypso a job, until he stumbled into work at a video rental store which owner Gary then turned into a Health Food store – where Calypso’s exotic looks helped sell everything from potent corn to healing crystals.

Calyspo sets the stage for readers and while it does read as slow-burn, the set-up is important for the transformation Calypso undergoes throughout the book. Knowing about his employment history, we learn how hard it was for Calypso and how depressed he felt having to turn to Centrelink, even though he knew he was a capable and willing employee. So when his Health Food boss, Gary, suggests Calyspo asks ‘his people’ for healing Aborigine bush medicines to sell in the shop, we understand why Calypso goes above and beyond and reaches out to his estranged Nukunu to learn about these recipes.

Except Calypso ends up learning a whole lot more, about his family and the land they call home, about his mother and why she lost touch with his Aunty Janet … but above all, Calypso learns about himself.

When Calypso arrives in Port Germein, one of his uncles notes that; “you’re here but you don’t understand what being here means yet.” And the whole book becomes about Calypso and his family addressing this issue, teaching Calypso what being here means. It’s a really beautiful thought, especially because Calypso has been so disconnected from his past and his mob for so long. At one point early on, he remembers a school excursion to Tandanya, the National Aboriginal Cultural Institute in Adelaide.

I knew Tandanya, I’d been there on a school excursion. In the gallery there were all of these surfboards that an artist had put his designs on, patterns from his mob. I could tell that even some of the white kids thought they were deadly. And then this fella taught us things about Aboriginal Australia, pointing to a map of the continent and explaining how there are hundreds of different language groups with different cultures. Then he explained how the didgeridoo comes from just one small part of the country in Arnhem Land. Then he played the didg. He was deadly and I felt good to be a Nunga that day until we were riding back to school on the bus and Kelly Simkin said, ‘Well that was different, I was expecting to just see drunk Aborigines.’ Everyone laughed. Some of them looked straight at me when they laughed too and I was so angry I felt like flogging ‘em.

That’s such a heartbreaking scene, but it’s one that I’m sure many Aboriginal children can relate to when their culture collides with current stereotypes and ingrained racism. It goes to show what Calypso is up against, why he’s taken on the Rastafarian identity instead of his Aboriginal one.

There is a romance in the book, when Calypso meets Clare – a young hairdresser with a love for cricket and her Ngadjuri background, who also helps Calypso find his true identity. The love interest is a nice balance to a quite intense story, and is likewise a good remedy for Calypso’s somewhat lonely life.

This is a really great book for anyone to read who would like to know more about Aboriginal culture. Jared Thomas covers a lot of history for Calypso and readers – from learning about ‘The Dreaming’, to discussing native land titles and the exploitation of the First People’s histories (in the book it’s called, “taking away” which is a hard but true summary).

The earth, the moon and the stars are round and time goes round in a circle. Our past, present and future are all connected to each other. What we did yesterday affects today, and what we do today affects tomorrow.

Jared Thomas has so perfectly captured the voice of young Calypso – a young man torn between cultures but blind to his own identity. It’s a book about family, above all else, and coming to the realisation that to go forward you have to first look back.


P.S. - I wrote about the wonderful publishing house Magabala Books back in April, for Kill Your Darlings 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Fault in the Cult of John Green

New column up on Kill Your Darlings

Nerdfighters, stop looking at me like that! 
I love John Green. I love Hazel Grace and Augustus. I'm just eye-rolling over the media's adoration of him as the saviour of YA (because - hey! - we don't need saving) 

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Movie review: 'The Fault in Our Stars'


Hazel and Gus are two teenagers who share an acerbic wit, a disdain for the conventional, and a love that sweeps them on a journey. Their relationship is all the more miraculous given that Hazel's other constant companion is an oxygen tank, Gus jokes about his prosthetic leg, and they met and fell in love at a cancer support group.

*** Don’t read if you haven’t read the book.

But if you haven’t read the book you totally should because HOW COULD YOU NOT HAVE READ THE BOOK***

This past Wednesday I was lucky enough to be invited along to the Melbourne Central Hoyts advance screening of The Fault in Our Stars – thanks to those lovelies at Penguin TeenAustralia. This was pretty huge, because TFiOS (as it’s affectionately known) isn’t widely released in Oz until June 5, and the audience was made up of booksellers and bloggers which lent a great feeling of YA-nerdiness and camaraderie … though ‘camaraderie’ might not be quite the right word. Majority of us had obviously read the book – snot-snivel-cried through the book, more like – and were probably all wary of being emotionally wounded by the beautiful tragedy that is John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars bought to life on the big screen.

The Actors

Perfection. That’s the first word that comes to mind when I think of the casting for this film – absolute perfection.

I already knew Shailene Woodley could hold her own with contemporary YA movies, since she shone as Aimee in the adaptation of Tim Tharp’s book The Spectacular Now.  But as Hazel Grace Lancaster, Woodley really outdoes herself – she’s refreshing and real, bringing strength to the character that was so vital and tender. What I love most about Woodley though is that I can’t quite put my finger on what makes her so damn compelling … she’s just very real, it doesn’t feel like she’s acting at all because she lives the character so much. Hazel looks sickly – the oxygen tank she carries everywhere, her measured walk and pale complexion – but Woodley has made sure that Hazel’s witty humour rings true, and the occasional voiceover reveals how thoughtful she is, and brave, constantly thinking about her imminent death and the destruction she’ll inadvertently cause to those she loves so dearly.

Ansel Elgort as Augustus Waters wasn’t as sure-footed in the beginning for me, and no wonder. Elgort has the hard task of playing the boy of many fan’s dreams – Augustus ‘Gus’ is too good to be true, and I imagine that’s hard to cast let alone play. At first Ansel Elgort sounded too much like John Green for my liking - Augustus Waters’s dialogue could have been interspersed with any of Green’s VlogBrothers videos. Particularly the “it’s a metaphor” scene (which I didn’t love in the book either) – the whole time I just kept thinking how much Green’s voice was coming through a little too loud and clear for my liking. But then John Green fell away and only Augustus was left – Elgort eventually shrugged the character on and he fit as well as that lovely, worn brown leather jacket he sported throughout the movie. He’s baby-faced and charming, with a smile to rival Heath Ledger’s in his hey-day. Elgort also plays the character with a natural easiness that riffed beautifully off of Shailene Woodley’s Hazel Grace. And of course the highest compliment for Elgort’s performance was that he’d made the audience love him so much as Augustus that the end hurts all the more.

Nat Wolff as Augustus’s best friend Isaac. I don’t really have a lot to say about him, actually. He was good, and funny – I laughed at lots of his scenes. But I think he got overshadowed by all the other talent in the movie. I think he’ll have more opportunities when he headlines the adaptation of Green’s Paper Towns.

The other stand-outs for me in this movie were the adults – Willem Dafoe as cantankerous author Peter Van Houten, the incomparable Laura Dern as Hazel’s mother and True Blood’s Sam Trammell as her father. These three were also perfectly cast, and in roles that are all about complimenting the teen stars, they did a marvellous job. Laura Dern got the first tears out of me in her role as a perpetually positive mother of a dying child. Sam Trammell was so good and nuanced, and as my friend Adele (aka Persnickety Snark) pointed out, his most moving scene was all conveyed in a single look (he was so good, in fact, it made me realise how poorly utilised he is on True Blood). And Willem Dafoe knocked it out of the park as Van Houten – he’s vile, but brings a tenderness to the role better than was written in the book even.

The Soundtrack

Ed Sheeran, Birdy, The Radio Dept., Ray LaMontagne … the music fit perfectly, and was also perfectly understated. The songs were never the focal point, but rather nice window dressings to important scenes. I’m definitely buying this movie soundtrack.

The Adaptation

In some ways this is the closest book-to-movie adaptation I’ve ever seen, and that was both a good and not-so-great thing. I will say that the screenplay writers, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, clearly wanted to hit all the fan’s favourites and they did just that. Every line you love is in this movie, rest assured. The biggest cut I can think of is the stuff about Augustus’s dead ex-girlfriend (probably for the best) but otherwise it feels like all 318-pages were pretty much put into the movie. Some choices were really smart for how they chose to convey them – like Augustus and Hazel texting each other, and writing emails – it was communicated visually and very well indeed. But there weren’t many surprises in the film, I will say. It was so true to the source material (right down to using the book cover typeface in the credits) that you could pretty much follow scenes by the chapters in the book. I’m not saying that’s a tragedy (heck, in a book-to-movie adaptation that’s a good mark to hit) but I feel like they treated the book a little too preciously. The real enjoyment came from watching the actors breathe life into those characters, rather than the fact that the movie was such a straight-up, page-by-page tribute to Green’s book.

The Location

The trip to Amsterdam is filmed beautifully. I particularly liked that director Josh Boone (who’s next going to direct a Stephen King adaptation for the big screen) paid attention to the little details of the city – sometimes the camera is trained on rooftops rather than the picturesque canals. And even though the city becomes a character in itself, and a mighty pretty one at that, Boone still kept close-ups of Woodley and Elgort even when he had a gorgeous backdrop he could have got lost in. The filming inside Anne Frank’s house is particularly marvellous (though I still think that’s a funny place for a first kiss).

The Feels

I cried. I sat next to the lovely Kimberley Santos (aka Pop Couture) who really cried. During certain scenes I cast my eye around the darkened cinema and saw people blowing into tissues, wiping tears away with their sleeves and doing under-eye swipes. Of course I cried. But I wasn’t sad by the end of the film, the same way I wasn’t deeply depressed by book’s end. Because Shailene Woodley’s Hazel and Ansel Elgort’s Augustus Waters were so vivid and gorgeously realised, because their love story was so beautifully re-told … and because their story isn’t about cursing and hating your fate, but being thankful for what you are given, no matter how little or too late.

The Verdict

Fans will be thrilled. The book will find a whole new audience. Every John Green novel will probably be seeing the big screen in due course (Paper Towns is already being slated for 2015 release). I thoroughly enjoyed it, and embraced the feels.

Thank you to Penguin Books Australia and particularly Penguin Teen Australia for inviting me along to the screening! 

(Word of advice: watch Penguin Teen's 'Survival Guide' for watching the TFiOS movie!)

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

'We Were Liars' by E. Lockhart

Received from NetGalley

From the BLURB:

A beautiful and distinguished family.
A private island.
A brilliant, damaged girl; a passionate, political boy.
A group of four friends—the Liars—whose friendship turns destructive.
A revolution. An accident. A secret.
Lies upon lies.
True love.
The truth.

So, at the beginning of my ARC (received via NetGalley) there’s a note to the reader from Beverly Horowitz, Vice President and Publisher of Delacorte Press. And I think what little Horowitz says about this book and the plot is kinda perfect, and the ideal way to summarise (without really summarising, but more importantly not giving anything away) about this book.

The beautiful Sinclair family on a windswept private island, 
four friends who are unconditionally loyal to 
one another, 
a lot of witty banter, 
and desperate true love.  
Also …  
family secrets, 
a terrifying accident, 
and many golden retrievers.

Horowitz goes on to say E. Lockhart’s new young adult novel is “a dazzler. It’s suspenseful, literary and romantic. It’s a modern, mazelike suspense story…” and that’s exactly right.

The Sinclairs are a Kennedy-esque American family; good democrats who can trace their lineage back to the Mayflower. There are three Sinclair daughters who have spawned several cherished Sinclair grandchildren.

Seventeen-year-old Cadence ‘Cady’ Sinclair Eastman is the oldest (and most beloved) Sinclair grandchild. She lives in Vermont with her single mother (her father walking out on the family not so long ago) but in the summer they travel to Beechwood Island. Windmere House is her grandfather’s imposing property, and she looks forward to summer every year when she can return there and reunite with her cousins – Johnny, Mirren, and Gat, the Indian-American son of her aunt’s partner. They are The Liars.

We do not believe in explicit displays of distress. Our upper lips are stiff, and it is possible people are curious about us because we do not show them our hearts. 
It is possible that we enjoy the way people are curious about us.

I became a fan of E. Lockhart after reading her Printz Honor book ‘TheDisreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks’ – an utterly unique and darkly funny young adult novel about a (now) infamous young woman who shakes up the old boy foundations of her boarding school. I thought that book had set a pretty hard benchmark for Lockhart, but I can say with complete confidence that ‘We Were Liars’ comes pretty darn close to surpassing even the brilliance of that book.

Told with lashings of King Lear and twisted fairytales, ‘We Were Liars’ is a haunting novel that touches on greed, memories and the bonds of friendship. It’s a little bit beautiful and a little bit terrifying all at once.  

I changed the course of her life. I changed the fate of the family. The Liars and I.

And the writing is superb. Some of Lockhart’s sentences are downright luscious and lyrical, perfectly capturing the magnificence of youth and especially first love;

We looked at the sky. So many stars, it seemed like a celebration, a grand, illicit party the galaxy was holding after the humans had been put to bed. 
Lockhart’s story is so immersive and guttural – it’s a tall order asking readers to go on this journey with Cady, but it’s also an immensely readable page-turner.

I also loved that this is a book that praises youth and treats it with such tenderness. Cady and Gat especially feel so strongly for one another, and though they’re young Lockhart doesn’t treat them as anything other than soulmates – understanding perfectly how important this time is for young people, and how all those ‘firsts’ so imprint on them. I also appreciated that Lockhart gave shout-outs to some of her favourite YA authors, including Jaclyn Moriarty (an author Cadence has been reading all summer).

This is easily a favourite book of 2014.
haunting and visceral,
full of poignancy and sugary sweetness
everyone should read this.


Saturday, May 10, 2014

'The Taking' The Taking #1 by Kimberly Derting

From the BLURB:

A flash of white light . . . and then . . . nothing. 

When sixteen-year-old Kyra Agnew wakes up behind a Dumpster at the Gas ’n’ Sip, she has no memory of how she got there. With a terrible headache and a major case of déjà vu, she heads home only to discover that five years have passed . . . yet she hasn’t aged a day.

Everything else about Kyra’s old life is different. Her parents are divorced, her boyfriend, Austin, is in college and dating her best friend, and her dad has changed from an uptight neat-freak to a drunken conspiracy theorist who blames her five-year disappearance on little green men.

Confused and lost, Kyra isn’t sure how to move forward unless she uncovers the truth. With Austin gone, she turns to Tyler, Austin’s annoying kid brother, who is now seventeen and who she has a sudden undeniable attraction to. As Tyler and Kyra retrace her steps from the fateful night of her disappearance, they discover strange phenomena that no one can explain, and they begin to wonder if Kyra’s father is not as crazy as he seems. There are others like her who have been taken . . . and returned. Kyra races to find an explanation and reclaim the life she once had, but what if the life she wants back is not her own?

Kimberly Derting’s new young adult paranormal series ‘The Taking’ has a pretty cool premise. Sixteen-year-old Kyra Agnew gets into a fight with her father one night after a softball game, gets out of the car in a huff and sees a blinding light before – nothing – she wakes up the next day behind a dumpster and no memory of how she got there.

Except when Kyra makes her way home she’s horrified to see an unfamiliar man in her house, and when she goes to her neighbour boyfriend’s house for help, she’s doubly horrified to find Austin’s12-year-old brother now looks exactly like him; Tyler appears to have aged five yeas overnight. And that’s when the police and Kyra’s parents are called – because she hasn’t been gone overnight, she’s been missing for five years.

It is a very cool premise, and would be highly original … if it weren’t for the fact that stories of vanished/returned individuals who haven’t aged a day since they were last seen are kind of a dime a dozen at the moment. And, by comparison, Derting’s YA take on the RipVan Winkle story doesn’t hold up against TV and adult counterparts.

I don’t know if it’s news stories like that of the three women found alive in a Cleveland house-of-horrors after they were missing for ten years (or Austrian woman Natascha Kampusch who went missing in 1998 and was found in 2006) but there are lots of stories at the moment about people vanishing/dying and then coming back not having aged a day. French TV show ‘The Returned’ (based on 2004 French film ‘They Came Back’) is about a small mountain community whose dead start returning, not having aged a day in all the years they’ve been gone. ‘Resurrection’ is a very similar American TV show that’s based on a 2013 book by Jason Mott that’s also called ‘The Returned’ (but has no affiliation with the French TV or movie), and is about a world-wide conspiracy of missing individuals returning home not having aged a day since their disappearance. HBO show ‘The Leftovers’ is based on Tom Perrotta’s 2011 book about what happens when 2% of the world’s population just vanish into thin air one day. Safe to say: there are plenty of books and TV shows out there right now exploring this “what if?” and the fact is, Derting’s ‘The Taking’ doesn’t hold up against them.

I’m speaking more from having watched the French TV series ‘TheReturned’ which I really got into last year and highly recommend. That shows follows the repercussions of returned dead on a number of individuals in a small mountain community – some of the most interesting stories are about a young man who comes back to find that his girlfriend married someone else after he died, and they raised his. But the most popular story was about twins – one who died as a young girl, and returns to find her twin sister now as a young woman. These were some really intense, deeply fascinating stories about what would happen if those we’d loved and lost came back to us.

He reached out and brushed a piece of hair from my forehead. “Agnew Field. They named it after you.” 
I jerked back, away from his touch and away from his words. 
Suddenly I knew – knew – it was wrong. 
All of it. Me and Tyler. Being here at the school. The fact that they’d named the field I’d once played on after me. In memorium ... like I was dead.

Derting’s ‘The Taking’ is probably mostly lacking because of Kyra. She’s actually quite hard to like – from the moment we meet her she’s being stupidly stubborn about following her boyfriend to college instead of accepting one of the incredible softball scholarships a number of colleges have offered her. When we first meet her she’s jumping out of her dad’s car in a huff and walking into a field in the middle of the night to prove her stubbornness on the matter … not exactly the best first impression to make on readers.

The other reason Kyra and ‘The Taking’ are hard to stomach is the feeling that Derting is writing a very prescribed-YA book. There is a BIG focus on romance in ‘The Taking’ – the “spin” being that Kyra was in love with her across-the-road neighbour, Austin, since they were kids but when she returns she still looks 16 while Austin is now 21 and in college he started dating Kyra’s best friend. Meanwhile Austin’s little brother (12, the last time Kyra saw him) is now 16 and she feels drawn to him, and when Kyra comes back after five years Tyler pursues her in a very serious way. Now, that’s all fine a good – but while Kyra is learning some seriously freaky things about herself (she should be 21, but dentist X-rays indicate she hasn’t aged a day in five years and her father turned into a conspiracy-nut while she was missing) but she seems more preoccupied with Tyler’s courtship of her. Things get more interesting when the Government step in to investigate Kyra’s return, but there’s a lot of lovey-dovey snooze-fest to wade through to get to that high-action.

Derting’s writing isn’t great either, and not exactly suited to this storyline that needs a balance of nuance and action. She has a tendency to write superfluous information and tell, not show;

“Robby!” the woman yelled, and the boy’s head whipped around. 
“Gotta go,” he whisper-told me as if we’d developed some sort of bond and I required an explanation.

Her romance writing is also sometimes clunky, like when Kyra muses on Tyler’s bookish ways;

It made me wonder how he’d treat a girl. You know, if he cherished her the way he cherished that book.

It was a real limp to the end for me, reading this book. My interest waned halfway through and it was only because I’d come so far (hoping things would get better) that I pushed myself to the end, even though I probably zoned out for a good portion of the lead-up to the finale. I don’t think I’ll be returning for more in ‘The Taking’ series, unless I read some seriously stellar reviews of the second book.


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