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Monday, June 30, 2014

I'm off to Japan!

Hello darling readers,

Just a little note to say I am leaving for Japan today, so the blog will be on a short hiatus for two weeks. 

Take care while I'm gone, and if you follow me on Twitter or Instagram you'll probably see some pictorial evidence of my travels (which is also proof that I am capable of leaving my reading-nook for extended periods of time). 


Sunday, June 29, 2014

Interview with Eli Glasman, author of ‘The Boy’s Own Manual To Being a Proper Jew’

I actually read Eli Glasman’s ‘The Boy’s Own Manual To Being a ProperJew’ a few months back, when the publisher kindly sent me a review copy. I fell in love with the book after one chapter, and by the last page I’d decided I simply *had* to talk to the author of this gutsy coming-of-age novel. 
 The Boy’s Own Manual’ also got me thinking about LGBTQI books in Australian youth literature (or, the lack thereof) and was partly the inspiration for my writing an article about this for the upcoming 19th edition of Kill YourDarlings. I interviewed Glasman for that piece, and will be sure to post links when Issue #19 is released next month! 
 But until then, here he is – the author who will no doubt be appearing on any number of Australian literary shortlists in the coming months – Eli Glasman!

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

Slush pile, I guess. My third short story was published in Sleepers Almanac, which is the annual literary magazine that Sleepers Publishing run. So, I’d worked with Louise before and she knew my writing.

I wanted to work with someone whom I’d worked with before. And I greatly respected the novels that Sleepers Publishing released. So, I sent it through to them. She got back to me very, very quickly. Which was great.

Q: Are you a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’ - that is, do you meticulously plot your novel before writing, or do you ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ and let the story evolve naturally?

Both. I’m fairly structured with the plot and fluid with the prose. On a syntax level, I find it produces stilted prose to be too structured. I make sure to let myself go entirely, allowing for every idea, line of dialogue, point of description to come onto the page without filter. Then I’ll edit the prose appropriately.

However, if I do this without a direction, the prose will meander and I’ll actually find myself focusing on the plot, rather than the sentences themselves. And the prose become forced, repetitive and solely functional. Rather than having the sense of fun and warmth I try to achieve.

Another element is that once the characters are ‘alive’ and I know them well enough much of the prose snowball based on their wants and needs. For instance, with this novel, I knew that I wanted certain elements based on something I’d planned – such as, say, a point in the character’s development, but I needed to allow the character to reach that point organically.

So, if I wrote an exchange of dialogue I think worked and Yossi was feeling angry by the end of it, I needed to ensure he remained feeling angry for a realistic amount of time. And if/when he calmed down it needed to happen naturally, say because of something someone said, or simply because of the passing of time. This approach avoided drastic chops and changes in the character’s emotional state.

So, the novel unfolded organically in that sense, however I still had a solid idea of where I wanted the characters to go. And even if I forgot about what I’d planned as I was writing, the characters would often end up there on their own, so to speak.


Q: How long did it take you to write ‘The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew’, from first idea to final manuscript?

It took me seven months. I can’t take too long to write a novel. The writing kind of takes over my life for a while and I need to get it all down while it’s still fresh. It’s not that I lose ideas, it’s that I lose emotional connections I’ve made with the potential of what the novel can be. I like to write with that thrill.

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?

Free for all, I guess. I work in periods of obsessions, which can go on for years. I have certain themes, ideas and character types, which I will explore in every angle I can through a series of works – be it short stories, novels and recently, blog entries – until I feel I no longer have anything to say about it.

I’ve been writing since I was a kid, however I only focused seriously on getting published a few years ago. So, for me, the work that is getting published now is a continuation of the work I’d been doing for a very long time. So, it’s difficult to pinpoint how a story emerges. I’ve had several in mind for a number of years, which will one day reach the page. But right now, they’re a jumble of ideas, themes, characters and even descriptions and lines of dialogue. A large part of the initial stages in the writing process is just about clearing all that up so it makes sense.

Q: Were you drawing a lot on your own experiences with regards to Yossi’s religious devotion and teachings? His school life was so fascinating, and meticulously explored.

I was, most definitely. I love drawing on memory when I can and I certainly enjoyed thinking back to my school life. I would devote evenings to simply remembering things.

In one of my blog posts, I talked about how I stopped believing in God and living the religious lifestyle, yet that I still miss believing in God. It’s just, for me, being an atheist isn’t a choice.

So, it was nice to be able to exercise some old beliefs, which I am no longer able to experience. That was one of the major enjoyments of writing this novel for me.

Q: What’s the appeal in writing for young adults?

The intimacy of the genre. I love the intensity and honesty of teenage relationships.

Q: What are you working on right now, and when can we expect it to hit shelves!?

I’m writing a novel about a young man with Crohn’s Disease who is trying to deepen his relationship with his mother, who suffers from bipolar. The novel explores the manner in which each of their illnesses isolate one from the other.

I wish I knew when it’ll hit the shelves! I try not to think too far ahead when I’m writing, or I get anxious about it. But hopefully not too long.

Q: Do you have any recent great reads to recommend?

Holy Bible, by Vanessa Russell, and What Was Left, by Eleanor Limprecht and Inheritance, by Balli Kaur Jaswal. And not just because they’re Sleepers novels, it’s because they’re awesome.

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

Focus on learning the craft.

A publishing house is a company that produces books. They can do a number things in house and for other things they outsource. The writing of the books themselves, is something that they outsource. If you wish to be the one they outsource to, you will need to be able to do something they can’t do in house – namely write fiction. So make sure you understand this craft through and through. You are hoping to present yourself as a freelancer, an expert. So become an expert.

If any of the elements of writing fiction, such as character development, plot structure, dialogue, syntax are things you don’t understand, learn about them through writing and reading and talking to others about the craft. You don’t want to be learning on the job once you start to get published. Because if you do bad work and it does get published, it will be by your name forever.
This time right now, before you get published, is extremely important. It is the only time you will truly have to learn this craft without any expectations placed on by others.

And secondly, share your work! Language is a tool of communication. It was never mean to sit inside our heads and fester. Gauge how others respond to your writing. It is one of the best ways to learn the craft. Get used to getting criticism. If you’re in this for the long haul, you're going to have to get used to putting your work out there eventually. So, start now.

'The Boy’s Own Manual To Being a Proper Jew' is published by Sleepers Publishingand available in all good bookshops from July 1

‘The Boy's Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew’ by Eli Glasman

Received from the Publisher 

From the BLURB:

Yossi, at seventeen, feels as though his homosexuality makes him less of a Jew. Living as he does in Melbourne’s Orthodox Jewish community, he has a lot to hide. When non-religious rebel Josh turns up at school, Yossi is asked to look after him, and while Yossi educates Josh on the ancient traditions of their race, Josh does some educating of his own. Through their relationship, Yossi learns to see the laws of Judaism in a very new light.

But when he and Josh are caught kissing in the bathhouse, Yossi’s life takes on a dramatic new turn, and he can ignore his new reality no longer.

The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew is full of heart and human blundering, as a family gradually learns to accept the parameters of its faith, and how to work around them.

For lovers of Melbourne, drama, and romance, and for anyone who remembers teenage or thwarted love, this is a page-turner.

Yossi is seventeen-years-old and lives in Melbourne’s biggest Jewish suburb of Caulfield. He attends Beth Dovid high school and is among their most spiritual and dedicated students. His mother died of bowel cancer when he was very young, and now there’s just Yossi, his father and older sister, Talya – a close family, and Yossi is especially preoccupied with making his father proud of him.

Yossi is also gay, and would give just about anything not to be.

When a new student arrives at Beth Dovid – blonde haired, blue-eyed Josh Davies – Yossi is tasked with showing him around campus and familiarising him with the school’s traditions. But Josh has his own troubles at home, and isn’t particularly interested in the spiritual side of education, and can’t fathom why Yossi is so preoccupied with it.

Little does Yossi know that meeting Josh will push him into examining his homosexuality and figuring out where it fits into his faith.

The Boy's Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew’ is the debut young adult novel by Australian author Eli Glasman, and the first YA title from independent Sleepers Publishing.

It’s been a topic of discussion in the YA world for a while now that the way gay characters are being written is changing for the better. Mainly because ‘coming out’ stories aren’t so prevalent, and more and more we’re actually reading gay characters for whom being gay is not the most interesting thing about them – it’s just who they are. Take American author Tim Federle’s ‘Better Nate Than Ever’, for example, the book was given an ‘extreme caution’ (really?) label because "homosexuality is presented as normal and natural in this book” – which rather flattered Federle. In Will Kostakis’s 'The First Third' the protagonist’s best friend Lucas is gay, and has cerebral palsy – and Kostakis recently wrote a fantastic blog on why it’s a bit saddening when readers tell him they like Lucas because he’s not “over-the-top” gay.

The reason it’s so great to read books in which characters being gay is not a focus is because it’s feeding into the very reason why diversity (whether it be sexual, racial, disability etc) is so important – to create familiarity, normality and empathy. But just because there’s a change for the better, please don’t think that is synonymous with ‘enough’ – because there’s still a serious lack of diversity in YA, as has been a hot topic of discussion particularly in 2014.

This all leads me to Eli Glasman’s debut YA novel, ‘The Boy's Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew’. Yes, it’s a coming out story but one that desperately needed to be told on two counts – one because it’s an Australian YA coming-out story, and two because it’s a coming-out story about a young man questioning his homosexuality alongside his Jewish faith.

Aussie YA deserves credit for many things, but like all other youth literature communities we don’t do diversity terribly well (yet!)– particularly when it comes to writing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, and intersex (LGBTQI) characters. And while it might seem like an obvious place for questions of subversion to spring from – young adult stories centred around homosexuality and faith are also fairly few and far between. Enter Eli Glasman’s ‘The Boy's Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew’ – one of the best YA novels I’ve read in 2014, and if it wasn’t on your radar before, then I predict it will be in the coming months when it no doubt appears on a slew of Awards shortlists (watch this space!).

Yossi is a young man full of faith, who takes his spiritual education very seriously. He lives in a mostly Jewish suburb of Melbourne, and his father is likewise a very devout man.

I’d lived in this house my entire life. I belonged here. My place was amongst Jews, keeping alive traditions that were centuries old. I couldn’t imagine a life where each day bled into the next with nothing more to punctuate existence but payday and a piss up on the weekend. A life with no God, no holy days, no prayers, no significance to food or clothing.

It’s no wonder then, that when Yossi can no longer deny his homosexuality he has to start soul-searching and trying to figure out where his faith and sexuality intersect. Even if that means questioning his religion, and thinking critically about the very rules that guide all aspects of his life;

‘So, yeah,’ I went on. ‘I’m gay. But I was also born a Jew. Neither being gay nor being religious are choices for me. I’ve been both for my whole life.’

I loved this book on all fronts. I loved that it’s set in Melbourne and the little details that Glasman writes to sharpen the Caulfield setting are wonderful – like Yossi’s family being part of the Lubavitch sect, their synagogue an exact replica of leader Lubavitcher Rebbe’s synagogue in New York. And I especially loved Glasman writing about Judaism, letting readers into this world that many won’t be familiar with. He doesn’t write Yossi’s life like a theology lesson, but rather lets readers in on the less familiar terms and traditions, like – a tzitzit is a traditional woollen undergarment, and you’re not allowed to sit on the same level as a siddur, a prayer book – in such a way that is both respectful and fascinating. Glasman is also able to write easy insight via the character of Josh, who is less preoccupied with spiritual traditions, and needs Yossi to explain things like kashering dishes – purifying them (and if non-kosher food touches them, you have to re-purify them).

I particularly enjoyed reading the rigors and rituals because it was Glasman establishing just what Yossi is up against in grappling with his homosexuality;

I knew that there was only sin in acting on my impulses, not simply in being the way I was. And yet, just having these terrible feelings made me feel like less of a Jew.
And this is the other reason I loved the book. Eli Glasman says on his website that he’s not gay, but someone very close to him has been through the struggles of ‘coming out’. I think I knew this, even before clarifying via Glasman’s FAQ page – because he writes Yossi’s first-person story with such tenderness and patience, beautifully portraying his grappling between religion and faith, personal enlightenment versus religious doctrine;

‘When you’re gay, your sex life is on trial. All of a sudden you are being judged for what you do in the bedroom. But Judaism sees sex as a private thing between the two people involved, and God.’

Glasman really highlighted a parallel for me too, between Yossi’s accepting his homosexuality alongside his faith, and his becoming a young adult who thinks critically and independently instead of letting school, religion and family do the thinking for him.

I also loved the character of Josh, whose presence in Yossi’s life is really part of the impetus for his questioning everything around him. I do love a rebellious teen, and Josh was a great shake-up for Yossi who I enjoyed reading for his own complicated back-story too:

‘Bloody hell,’ Josh whispered heatedly. ‘You can’t let a book tell you how you’re allowed to have sex.’

Eli Glasman is a daring new author who is much needed in Australia’s youth literature scene, and ‘The Boy's Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew’ should be on everyone’s must-read list. Here is a gutsy coming-of-age story that tackles internal and external battles of faith and sexuality with infinite tenderness and witty aplomb. Trust me when I say you should meet Yossi, and keep an eye on Eli Glasman.


Wednesday, June 25, 2014

'Shimmer' The Rephaim #3 by Paula Weston

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

Gaby thought her life couldn't get more complicated.

She's almost used to the idea that she's not the teenage backpacker she thought she was. She can just about cope with being one of the Rephaim—a 139-year-old half-angel—whose memories have been stolen. She's even coming to grips with the fact that Jude, the brother she's mourned for a year, didn't die at all.

But now Rafa—sexy, infuriating Rafa—is being held, and hurt, by Gatekeeper demons. And Gaby has to get the bitterly divided Rephaim to work together, or Rafa has no chance at all.

It's a race against time—and history. And it may already be too late. 

*** Contains spoilers of second book in the series ‘Haze’ ***

When readers last left the world of ‘The Rephaim’ it was on a roller-coaster ride of mixed emotions: elation and devastation, cliff-dangling and hip-hip-hooraying.

Gabe/Gaby had just discovered that her twin brother, Jude, was alive. She and Rafa tracked him down only to discover he had suffered the same memory loss as his twin (who he also believed to be dead), and all of them still had a ways to go in discovering why Gabe left the Angel Garrison and Jude his Outcasts all those months ago – and who, exactly, wiped their memories clean so they couldn’t retrace their steps.

But Rafa and Gaby also discovered something else recently – a farm in Iowa belonging to a family who have seemingly been tracking the Rephaite for a number of years, who believe them to be abominations and want to see them wiped out. This Iowa community had gone so far as to design and build a magical room that was somehow able to hold Rephaite prisoner … and in the wrong hands, it could be lethal.

Gaby and Rafa also learnt that she and Jude have a cousin in Jason – the affable, curly-haired teenager from Pan Beach who has stolen the heart of Gaby’s friend, Maggie. Not only has Jason managed to keep his being a Rephaite secret from head of the Angel Garrison, Nathaniel, but he’s also been keeping an even bigger secret in the form of 12-year-old Dani, a little girl who can somehow see the future and is connected to the Rephaite in a most peculiar way….

‘Haze’ ended with the reunion of twins Gaby and Jude, a new source of information in Dani and the devastating battle that took place on the Iowa farm … resulting in the deaths of many humans, and the imprisonment of Rafa and Garrison loyalist Taya, in a room that has them trapped with Hellions.

Not to exaggerate, but it feels like I’ve been dangling over a cliff for the last 12 months, anticipating this third book in Paula Westons’s ‘The Rephaim’ series. And now ‘Shimmer’ is here I can safely say it was well worth the wait … but don’t expect to be let off the edge of that cliff anytime soon.

With Rafa and Taya imprisoned and at the mercy of Hellions, Gaby & Co. head to the Angel Garrison to all but plead for help. If they’re to have any chance of rescuing those two, they’ll need an army behind them and there just aren’t enough Outcasts to mount a successful attack. So Gaby and Jude are asking Nathaniel, for help – and waiting uneasily with the rest of the Garrison while he makes a decision. I so loved this set-up because it’s really the first time we’ve seen Gaby on her own, without the safety-blanket of Rafa. Sure, she has Jude now – but he’s got a lot more catching up to do filling in the pieces of his memory-loss. So, driven by a determination to rescue Rafa, we really get to see Gaby take shape as a leader in these trying times. Not only does she have to try and be diplomatic with Nathaniel and Daniel – leader and right-hand-suck-up of the Garrison – but she’s also got to keep loose-cannon, Mya, of the Outcasts in check and make sure the foot-soldiers from both sides don’t kill each other while they plan an attack against real enemies, the Hellions. It’s a volatile situation, and Weston navigates Gaby through it beautifully.

It’s also a situation that allows readers to get better acquainted with a few secondary characters who have sparked out interest in the first two books. The Garrison and Outcasts reveal their true colours during this highly emotional time, even more so because many of them are learning that Jude is alive – it’s even more fascinating seeing how characters react to him. The Outcasts treat Jude as their leader, and he seems to pick the mantle back up with easy aplomb. Many in the Garrison still feel the sting of his betrayal, and worry what it means that once-loyal Gaby/Gabe is back in cahoots with her deserting brother.

Two secondary characters I really fell in love with in ‘Shimmer’ are Micah and Daisy – they were on the periphery in ‘Shadows’ and ‘Haze’, known only as two of Gabriella’s closest friends, who were also close with Jude and Rafa before they abandoned for the Outcasts. In ‘Shimmer’ they’re fleshed out a lot more, Micah especially reveals a crushing back-story that speaks to the very tragedy of these Rephaite:

‘How does that fit with the lecture Daniel gave me about Nathaniel teaching the Repahim to “control the lustful desires,” of our fathers?’ 
‘Ah, now, see, there’s doctrine and then there’s reality. And it’s not realistic to think a bunch of supernatural beings eternally trapped in adolescent bodies with adolescent urges are going to keep their pants on.’

This is also the first book that readers are properly introduced to Jude – and now I can see why he’s already amassed quite a fanbase! But it was probably Daisy who intrigued me most of all – it’s been hinted in the past that she had a whopping big crush on Jude, and harboured a deep hatred of Mya for putting thoughts of desertion in his head in the first place. In ‘Shimmer’, after the initial elation of learning that Jude is alive, readers are then able to see her revert back to past grievances with Gaby’s charismatic twin. I guess I really loved Daisy because, even though she is very much secondary in this book, Weston builds enough intrigue and back-story to have me craving more and wishing (hoping, finger-crossing!) that this series won’t end with fourth book ‘Burn’ in 2015, that we’ll get a Jude spin-off (or short stories?) … and all because Weston masterfully leaves breadcrumbs to his connection with characters like Daisy;

‘Daisy,’ Jude says quietly. ‘Do you know where she is?’ 
‘Wow. It’s been a while since you used that look on me.’ 
‘What look?’ 
‘The one that says: “Daisy, don’t let me down.” That stopped working the day you followed Mya out the door.’ 
She doesn’t look away and neither does Jude. I shift my weight, force myself to stay out of it.

I also really loved Daisy because I could relate to her motivations. While everyone else is very firmly entrenched in their Garrison or Outcast camps, Daisy feels torn between her friendships and loyalties, and a craving for a sense of belonging;

‘We could’ve used you and those twin-sided sais in Iowa,’ Jude says. 
Something crosses Daisy’s face – regret? ‘I’m not like you: I like having a home. Not all of us can get away with defying Daniel.’

I think ‘Shimmer’ is setting up much more of the Angel politics and the long-game ending for book four. There’s also plenty of action (fist-thumping, lip-splitting, sais-wielding action!) but I really loved the down-times in this book too, when we get to know the secondary characters better and see Gaby and Jude handle themselves in this new/familiar environment.

And, of course, it wouldn’t be ‘The Rephaim’ series without some seriously sizzling romance. You guys – I can’t even with this book. I’ll only say that the fans will be very, very happy indeed.

Paula Weston has done it again. ‘Shimmer’ is another stellar instalment in this, the best Angel-themed paranormal series I’ve ever read, and it’s so much heart-palpitating fun that I don’t even mind being led back to that cliffhanger rock-face again for the ending.


Monday, June 23, 2014

'Head of the River' by Pip Harry

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

It's the most elite school sporting event in the country. Nine rowers, 2000 gruelling metres and one chance for glory in the ultimate team sport. Sit forward ... ROW. 

Tall, gifted and the offspring of Olympians, superstar siblings Leni and Cristian Popescu are set to row Harley Grammar to victory in the Head of the River. 
With six months until the big race, the twins can't lose. Or can they? 

When Cristian is seduced by the easy route of performance-enhancing drugs, and Leni is suffocated with self-doubt, their bright futures start to fade. Juggling family, high expectations, study, break-ups, new relationships and wild parties, the pressure starts to build. 

As the final moments tick down to the big race, who’ll make it to the start line? And who'll plummet from grace?

Two days after Head of the River and Harley Grammar is subdued at morning assembly; instead of singing ‘We are the Champions’ and back-slapping the rowing stars, the entire school is in a state of mourning for an unnamed but seriously ill student. 

Meanwhile, Leni Popescu is in her own state of mourning and recovery after an accident. She’s at once scared for what her injury will mean for her rowing career, and worried about the same student her schoolmates are keeping vigil for.

Jump ahead and it’s six months to Head of River – back to where it all began. 

Leni and Cristian Popescu are rowers for Harley Grammar and part of a proud rowing family. Leni and Cristian’s mum and dad were Olympic rowers – their dad a silver medallist and part of the Romanian eight, while their mum won gold as stroke for the Australian pair. Their parents met on the dance floor at the athlete’s bar at the Olympic Village in Seoul, and their dad migrated to Australia to wed their mum after a long-distance romance.

After years of gruelling early-morning starts, pulls on the ergo machine and fighting tooth and oar for a place on their respective crews, Leni and Cristian are getting ready for Head of the River – a Victorian rowing regatta that is the oldest continuous schoolboy (now girls too) rowing event in the world, dating back to 1868. To win Head of the River is to be a hero for your school. For Leni, especially, it’s a way to kick-start her Olympic rowing career. 

But for Cristian, training for Head of the River this last year has been nothing but a prolonged soul-crushing. He’s not fit enough, as his coach revels in reminding him. A new boy, Sam, from the American school in Singapore has been at Harley Grammar for only a few months and rowing even less than that – but he’s being praised as a natural, and is breathing down Cristian’s neck for his spot on the first crew.

Through alternating chapters, we’ll see the six months leading up to Leni and Cristian’s Head of the River – the obstacles they face, mistakes they make and lessons learned through blood, sweat and Yarra River water.

Head of the River’ is the new contemporary YA novel from Australian author Pip Harry.

I have been excited for this book ever since I interviewed Pip Harry back in 2012, and she mentioned that her next book was going to be; “a YA novel which focuses on a brother and sister who are training for the Head of the River rowing regatta.” I was so in love with this idea for a number of reasons: the main one being how rare Aussie, contemporary YA sports novels (with male and female protagonists!) are these days. Another big reason for the excitement was the focus on rowing: because I was a rower. For one year of high school I donned a zoot suit, about killed myself on the ergo machines and participated in regatta after regatta after regatta. I’m not saying I was a good rower (my coach often yelled at me via her megaphone as she rode her bike along the bank that I had to “keep my head in the boat”, because I had a tendency to look at the passing scenery. What can I say? I’m more of a dreamer than a rower). So I felt an instant connection to this book.

Head of the River is one of the most prestigious school sporting events in Victoria. The event started out (back in 1868!) as a duel-style race between Melbourne Grammar and Scotch College on the Yarra River – and has now broadened to include boys and girls’ heats, and inter-school rivalries like you’ve never seen before. It is a big bloody deal, and Pip Harry has written about it brilliantly – blending the history, pride, and competitiveness beautifully with the very relatable stories of an ambitious sister and her down-trodden brother.

Pip Harry actually really plays around with gender roles in this book. It’s sister Leni who is the gung-ho competitor with her sights on Head of the River cup and a career, like her parents’, as an Olympic rower. It’s so refreshing to read a young female character with this kind of bull-headed drive. Sure, a big character arc for Leni is learning that it’s as much her friendships in the boat that have to matter as winning, but I loved her determination and machismo; 

In the middle is a cut-out of the Head of the River cup, which I’ve coloured in with gold pen. I want it so badly it hurts. I like to touch the cup with my hand and imagine my bow girl going over the line first, thousands of people screaming on he banks of the Barwon River. Thinking about it gives me goose bumps. There’s a quote posted up that I think about during training: ‘Pain is just weakness leaving the body.’ 

By contrast, Cristian feels constantly dwarfed by his sister’s rising star. He’s not as good (or passionate) as Leni and their parents when it comes to rowing, and he feels the constant pressure to keep physically fit – particularly because he has a problem with temptation and portion control. Cristian is also seriously hung-up on one of Leni’s fellow rowers, a petite dancer called Penny who Cristian seems to continuously humiliate himself in front of; 

‘It won’t be the last time you screw up,’ she says. ‘Dad and I lost plenty of races.’  
‘But you won plenty, too.’  
‘Sure. But in rowing, you’ve got to learn to take the rough water with the glassy pond. Otherwise it will break your heart. Now show me your hands.’ 

But, as hinted in that opening chapter, stormclouds are gathering for brother and sister Popescu. Cristian’s negative self-image is leading him down a seriously dangerous path, and when Leni gets closer to the boy trying to steal her brother’s place in the boat, it causes a rift in their family. 

Speaking of family, Harry explores the Popescu dynamics beautifully and it was something else I really related to. Their father is Romanian, and migrated to Australia to marry their mother – the kids sometimes feel embarrassed by his European attitudes and poor English-language skills, and even after so many years of living here their father still feels the brunt of being a ‘foreigner’. I loved the second-generation explorations, and just the fact that the family were so close – it was a double-edged sword in that Leni and Cristian really want to make them proud, but that put added pressure on them too.

I’ve also got to say that Pip Harry has the private school scene down. I attended a private all girl’s school, and I must admit that part of my wanting to be a rower was because I thought that particular sport had a certain cachet to it that I didn’t have otherwise, being from a very blue-collar, working-class background that was so different from many of my peers. I just thought Harry captured that world so damn well. In one scene particularly; 

Instead of standing with the other parents drinking from plastic champagne glasses and eating dainty chicken sandwiches, my parents are tinkering with boats. They’ve been tinkering with boats my whole life. Dad’s adjusting the height of a rigger. Mum’s oiling a squeaky seat wheel. Dad’s the Harley Grammar boat caretaker, so he fixes, tunes and cleans all sixty boats in our fleet. 
Mum has a smudge of grease on her cheek and she’s dressed in cargo shorts and an old T-shirt. I feel an itch of embarrassment. The other rowing mothers have white teeth and done-up hair, Broome pearls and designer jeans. The dads wear polo shirts and aviator sunnies. They carry long lens SLR cameras and the 'Saturday Age'. 

Yep. That about sums it up. 

‘Head of the River’ is a compelling and thoughtful contemporary Australian YA sports novel – that it has a brother and sister protagonist who don’t conform to gender stereotypes is also deserving of praise. But ‘Head of the River’ is also compulsive reading – with a plot that catches you like a crab and pulls you under. I loved it.


Saturday, June 21, 2014

‘How to Say Goodbye in Robot’ by Natalie Standiford

From the BLURB:

New to town, Beatrice is expecting her new best friend to be one of the girls she meets on the first day. But instead, the alphabet conspires to seat her next to Jonah, aka Ghost Boy, a quiet loner who hasn't made a new friend since third grade. Something about him, though, gets to Bea, and soon they form an unexpected friendship. It's not romance, exactly - but it's definitely love. Still, Bea can't quite dispel Jonah's gloom and doom - and as she finds out his family history, she understands why. Can Bea help Jonah? Or is he destined to vanish?

‘How to Say Goodbye in Robot’ was the 2009 young adult novel by Natalie Standiford.

My decision to read this book was based almost entirely on stars. Star-ratings, that is, as opposed to any one particular glowing review. Because it seemed to me that while many people love this book, they couldn’t quite articulate why that was the case. Clues about the synopsis were vague (even the blurb offers little in the way of plot) but I persisted in seeing this distinctive pink cover (and, I’ve gotta admit, catchy title) popping up on ‘recommended reading’ lists everywhere I went. So I finally caved and bought the book, read the book, loved the book … and now completely understand people’s inability to wholly summarise Natalie Standiford’s quirky-tender novel of friendship.

Beatrice’s father is a college professor, so her family (consisting of herself, her mum and dad) move around a lot following his tenures. Beatrice thinks her latest new town will be more of the same, though perhaps more painful as she’s now joining a class of seniors who have all known each other since they were in kindergarten. There’s no reason for Beatrice to expect her stay in this town (the last, before she whisks herself away to college – hopefully in New York) no doubt she’ll make friends with the blandly popular girls, coast along in her classes and maybe attend a few pep-rallys. Except that on her first day at the new school she is assigned an assembly seat next to Jonah, otherwise known by all his long-serving classmates as ‘Ghost Boy’ … and Beatrice finds her life will never be the same.

Over a shared love of the fantastically kitsch and quirky late-night Night Light radio program, Beatrice and Jonah become close friends. Even while others look on in wonder and scepticism that long-time weird classmate has found such a normal friend. Jonah got the name ‘Ghost Boy’ after his young classmates decided to pretend he was dead, and come back to haunt them all as a ghost (oh, hilarious! The casual cruelty of primary-school kids).

In Jonah, Beatrice discovers a friendship that runs deeper than lust and ‘like’ – is not clouded by sexual attraction but a deep understanding of the other person, the finding of a soul mate.

There’s quite a lot going on, story-wise, in this book. But it’s hard to explain all the various threads without making them sound like a rotten jumble of yarn when, in actuality, the way Standiford lays them out in almost vignette style is rather masterful. There’s a thread about Beatrice’s increasingly erratic mother, obsessed with chickens and for some odd reason not at all coping with their latest house move. Then there’s the back-story about Jonah’s family, his deceased mother and brother. The plot is laid out by the months of Beatrice and Jonah’s senior year, and each connects to the over-arcing story with breaks in between for the scripts of the Night Light radio program (and the curious cast of characters who call the host for a chat). I don’t want to make it seem like there is no plot or ‘action’ to the story – there is, and it comes to a feverish climax that will leave some reeling – but the way Standiford teases out the story in an ebb and flow is quite something to read.

Beatrice is a fantastic protagonist. The title comes from a distraught comment made by her mother, about Beatrice’s muted emotions, after the death of a gerbil they knew for only a few hours. Beatrice is at once outwardly robotic, while internalising and worrying – she’s a cool kid on the outside, hectic within and a joy to read;

“Why did you say you were from Iceland?” Walt said. “That was kind of weird.” 
I hesitated, acutely aware of the blankness on my face, the stiff way my head moved. But Walt had asked and so I had to answer, to complete the task. That’s what robots do. 
“I don’t know,” I said. “I heard this thing on the radio once. On the BBC. They said some scientists had studied everybody in the whole world and found that the happiest people on earth are hairdressers in Iceland. I guess that little fact got stuck in my brain somehow and decided to pop on out on its own.” Searching circuits for relevant data, I thought to myself. Stupid robot dork. 
“Hairdressers in Iceland? Really?” Walt said. 
“I swear.”

I did love this book, but I now understand people’s reluctance to delve into the story too much, lest new readers be denied the satisfaction of being pulled under by Natalie Standiford’s quirky-tender novel. Be like me and discover it for yourself.


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