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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

What bloggers, vloggers, and podcasters can do to support Indigenous books - final guest post by Ambelin Kwaymullina

This is the final post in a series I’ve been doing to answer questions I’m often asked about what people can do to support Indigenous books (which is to say books written or co-written by Indigenous people). And I’d like to begin this one with a thank you to bloggers, for two reasons. The first is that I am a YA author and without the blog-o-sphere there would be ludicrously few reviews of YA books in Australia (and virtually none of works by Australian YA writers). The second is that I am conscious of the work that bloggers have already done to draw attention to overlooked books, including those by Indigenous and other diverse writers. But I am going to ask you to do more, for the same reason that you started a book blog in the first place – because you love stories, and there is a whole world out there of Indigenous narratives waiting to be discovered.

1.     Review the books! They’ll be harder to find and you probably won’t get review copies in the mail. Works by Indigenous writers are more likely to be published by smaller and specialist presses which do not have the resources of the larger publishers – so sourcing the narratives might well require a trip to the library, borrowing from a friend or spending your own money (if you have some spare!). As to where you can find books by Indigenous writers, here are some suggestions:
a.     Check out the catalogues of Indigenous publishers (such as Magabala Books, IAD Press and Aboriginal Studies Press). Move on from there to looking at other publishers and discovering what Indigenous authors they have;
b.     Take a look at the Blackwords database on the Austlit site;
c.      Find out what Indigenous writing you can access online for free – for example, the Indigenous edition of Westerly, and Writing Black: New Indigenous Writing from Australia.

2.     Read the books and encourage others to do so – take part in book challenges that focus on Indigenous writers, or make a challenge of your own.

3.     Be conscious of how you review and talk about Indigenous books (and indeed books by other diverse writers). I’ve commented on reviewing Indigenous books in a previous post which can be found here (although I think on the whole bloggers do a pretty good job of judging Indigenous narratives on their own terms and not by preconceived stereotypes of what it is to be Indigenous).

4.     Inform yourself about the challenges that face Indigenous writers and diverse writers more generally. Many of the issues in relation to diversity have been highlighted by the We Need Diverse Books campaign in the US and you could start by reading the posts on their tumblr site. As to the challenges facing Indigenous writers in Australia, refer to author websites and interviews – google the names of Indigenous writers and see what we have to say. And take a look at the AIATSIS Guidelines on Ethical Publishing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors and their communities and the ‘Who Owns Story?’ presentation by Indigenous lawyer Terri Janke.

5.     Be proactive. Give space to Indigenous voices (and other diverse voices). Reach out to publishers and writers and volunteer space for author interviews and guest posts. Beyond that, use social media to raise awareness of Indigenous books and commentary by Indigenous authors. If you see a new release, a review, an author interview – like it, share it, promote it!   

Monday, July 27, 2015

Choose Aussie YA - #LoveOzYA readalikes part FOUR

Hello Darling Readers!

Yes! It’s that time when I do another ‘readalikes’ post – yay! (or are you sick of them by now? … Who cares?! I’m having fun!)

This readalikes has a “nonfiction” theme, because YA-nonfiction is having a bit of a moment in Australia and I, for one, am thrilled about it! I was inspired to this topic, partly because Clare Wright got me thinking about it when she gave a talk about women erased from Australian history at Reading Matters, and because I just finished reading Abdi Aden’s memoir ‘Shining: The Story of a Lucky Man’ and my first thought was “this should be required reading in all high-schools!”

So, onwards – !

Wonder by R J Palacio 
Ugly (younger readers) by Robert Hoge

Robert Hoge’s 2013 ‘Ugly: My Memoir’ is being released for a younger audience and I think this is a smashing idea and I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy! I’ve been following Hoge’s career for a while now, and I just love his writing and particularly his commentary around physical-diversity and how important it is to embrace “ugly” in this beauty-obsessed world of ours. Here are two pieces of his that I highly recommend you read: one from The Drum and his Australian story

I also think it’s very clever marketing that his book is orientated to riff off of RJ Palacio’s ‘Wonder’ – which has been a runaway bestseller, and while not technically YA, I know all age-groups have embraced this book (you know you’ve written across generations when they bring out an “adult” cover version). I really hope that an Australian Writers Festival cottons onto the idea to bring RJ Palacio our here and have her and Robert Hoge in a Q&A together – because both their books are sparking much-needed conversations around outward/inner beauty … and because I kinda love that while Palacio just wrote about it, Robert Hoge has lived it and I think their insights into how readers have embraced their messages would be fascinating.

And I’m also a little bit thrilled that Robert Hoge will be at ‘Write Around The Murray’ in September, because I’m also on the schools program, and I am definitely going to sneak into a few of his sessions!

We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo 

Abdi Aden’s book blew me away. I read it over the weekend and was just alternating between snot-nosed crying and fist-pumping joy for this man’s journey. It’s about how; ‘Abdi's world fell apart when he was only fifteen and Somalia's vicious civil war hit Mogadishu.’ It tells of his time spent in a refugee camp in Kenya, and then his decision to go back to Mogadishu in a desperate search for his family … all the way through to his arriving in Australia and the even more incredible journey of resettlement that followed. I read this and my overwhelming wish was to put this book in the hands of every Australian high school student by making it required-reading in schools (and, - hey! If you want to join me in appealing to VCAA, here’s the link!)

I think NoViolet Bulawayo’s Man Booker Prize-shortlisted book is a fitting readalike (even though it’s fiction) because both she and Aden deal so beautifully and heart-breakingly with the pain of leaving your life behind. And because both books are focused on the coming-of-age aspects of resettlement, in many ways (a majority of ‘Shining’ deals with Aden’s life from ages 15 to 17).

Women Heroes of the American Revolution: 20 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Defiance, and Rescue by Susan Casey  

Like I mentioned before, I heard Clare Wright speaking at Readings Matters this year and was really excited to read her YA-version of her Stella Prize-winning nonfiction book ‘The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka’. Her book is quite radical, because it’s butting-up against long-held assumptions about women’s roles in a major Australian historical event – the Eureka Stockade. And, actually, when you put this book in kids’ hands and start them thinking about the wrong history of Eureka, it’s going to send them down the rabbit-hole to think more critically about how women are wrongly portrayed throughout history, and beyond … isn’t that exciting?

So I think Susan Casey’s ‘Women Heroes of the American Revolution’ is an interesting readalike for obvious reasons – because she’s likewise taken an iconic historic event and is asking people to think beyond the oft-studied heroes and landmarks. The difference perhaps being that the women Casey is writing about are somewhat known in American history, just not as well as they should be – whereas Wright’s book is unearthing history that has never been studied, let alone in Australian schools.

Binge by Tyler Oakley 

This one’s a bit of a cheat because both books aren’t out yet, so I can only speculate wildly on their readalike-ness (?)

I have heard David Burton speak though, and read a chapter-sampler of his forthcoming ‘How To Be Happy’ (releasing August 26) and I was so impressed that I booked to attend several of his sessions at Brisbane Writers Festival – which I’m super excited about! Because Burton’s memoir is just what Aussie YA needs right now – a candid exploration into ‘Love, Sex and Teenage Confusion’. There’s been a Guardian article floating around lately ‘Falling Out of Love with YA’ in which the young author has totally legitimate concerns about how so many YA books feel same-same and not too challenging … which, I think, doesn’t translate to YA turning sub-par but rather readers craving more complex stories that aren’t currently being pushed to the forefront of the readership. I think David Burton’s memoir is going to be the book that hits that spot this year.

I like YouTube-star-turned-author Tyler Oakley’s ‘Binge’ as a readalike (releasing October 2015) because he’s one of the (alarmingly) few diverse voices coming out of the vlogging world at the moment – and he is an LGBT+ advocate, so I can only hope that his book will touch on some issues around love, sex and confusion too.

Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen 
Bad Behaviour by Rebecca Starford

I am so far behind in my book reviews this year – suffice to say, I have read ‘Bad Behaviour’, I loved ‘Bad Behaviour’ and I’m very excited that ‘Bad Behaviour’ has been optioned for TV!

So Kaysen’s ‘Girl, Interrupted’ (which was famously adapted into an amazing film of the same name with Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie) might seem like a pretty out-there readalike. After all, ‘Bad Behaviour’ is a memoir about Starford’s teen years at an elite country boarding school with a strong focus on the bullying that occurred there, and ‘Girl, Interrupted’ is a memoir about Kaysen’s life from age 18 living with a bunch of fellow teenage girls in a psychiatric hospital during the 1960s. I’m not suggesting that Starford’s boarding school was exactly like a psychiatric ward … but, actually, kinda yeah.

I also like these as readalikes for the observations around all-female company, and how that can sometimes devolve into anarchy. Neither book may be strictly YA – but I think teens should definitely make their way to them.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

‘Six Degrees’ by Honey Brown

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

Emotion, seduction and passion wind through six intricately connected short stories, where strong Australian women embrace their most intimate desires, and men are more than just their suit and tie.

Apparent strangers are bound together by one tragic event, the effect of which is felt from the urban streets of Sydney to the dusty bars of Western Australia.

Six Degrees uses the allure, the action or the absence of physical connection to explore these everyday character’s flaws, quirks and strengths. For the first time, critically-acclaimed author Honey Brown has made sexual attraction the intriguing hero of each story.

‘Six Degrees’ is the new book from Australian author, Honey Brown. A departure from her usual horror/thriller/suspense writing, ‘Six Degrees’ is a collection of erotic-romantic short stories.

Honey Brown is one of my favourite authors writing today – I’ve loved all of her books so far, particularly for their scare-factor and an often disturbingly subversive underpinning. But I wasn’t actually all that shocked to realise that Brown had strayed from the genre that has made her one of Australia’s greatest new talents since 2009.

One of the reasons I love Honey Brown’s books is that she writes relationships and romance so very well and trickily … all of her crime-thriller book have a focus on relationships. ‘Red Queen’ may have been about a plague-outbreak, but the anchor of that story was a love-triangle between two brothers and a mysterious female survivor who comes to their isolated cabin one night. ‘After the Darkness’ was a crime-suspense novel about a couple who are captured by a killed and then escape, but have to live with their trauma in secret – that story had a big concentration on the changed dynamics of a marriage, after the husband is sexually assaulted in the ordeal. And ‘Dark Horse’ was about two strangers stuck by wild weather on a mountainside, whose attraction leads to revelations about what one of them was really doing in the mountains … so I was pleasantly surprised that in this short-story foray, Honey Brown would be concentrated entirely on the romance genre.

But make no mistake; ‘Six Degrees’ is no less complex for being romance-focused. Honey Brown isn’t “dumbing down” any of her writing for which she has been so celebrated by genre-lovers and critics alike. This short story collection may actually be a fine introduction for anyone who is under the mistaken impression that romance is a ‘lightweight’, fluffy genre of little importance. Au contraire!

In these six stories – loosely connected by the theme of a major/minor crises in all – Brown presents the many complications of the human heart. A man and woman who have never had the right timing in ‘Threesome’ may be about to get their act together, and a girl who witnessed a man’s death in ‘First Time’ finds herself connecting with his distraught son;

‘You didn’t talk too much.’ 
'I think I might have.’ 
‘And I would like to go out with you sometime.’ 
For a kiss that had sadness in it, it was good. It was perhaps the first honest kiss Emma had ever experienced. His lips were soft. No other body part touched her. Maybe it was Keegan’s first honest kiss too, because he pulled back and looked surprised by it.

There’s mostly an emphasis on female sexuality in these stories, and the book feels emboldened for that. Particularly for how Honey Brown explores the facets of attraction and sexual proclivities – her writing embodies honesty and non-judgmental celebration of sex and sexuality;

Sonya spent the rest of her adolescence on the hunt for that, with each new boyfriend (there hadn’t been that many) she had looked into their eyes to see if they might have it in them – the right sort of want, the maturity of wanting. Mostly, though, they wanted sex, no more than that. Or they wanted a girlfriend. It was almost as though they did not see the beauty in sex, the beauty of it. At that first party, against the rendered wall, she’d been given a preview of something better. Adult sex. But, thinking now, she wondered if anything had really recaptured that feeling.

I loved this collection; just as much as I have loved all of Honey Brown’s other books. This is a wonderful introduction to the romance genre for anyone who has never been brave enough to read. Brown’s exquisite prose and complicated stories will surely encourage others to further explore what this genre has to offer. I do so hope that Brown writes more of the like – either way, I will follow her wherever she goes.


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

'The Royal We' by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

Received from NetGalley

From the BLURB:

"I might be Cinderella today, but I dread who they'll think I am tomorrow. I guess it depends on what I do next."

American Rebecca Porter was never one for fairy tales. Her twin sister, Lacey, has always been the romantic who fantasized about glamour and royalty, fame and fortune. Yet it's Bex who seeks adventure at Oxford and finds herself living down the hall from Prince Nicholas, Great Britain's future king. And when Bex can't resist falling for Nick, the person behind the prince, it propels her into a world she did not expect to inhabit, under a spotlight she is not prepared to face.

Dating Nick immerses Bex in ritzy society, dazzling ski trips, and dinners at Kensington Palace with him and his charming, troublesome brother, Freddie. But the relationship also comes with unimaginable baggage: hysterical tabloids, Nick's sparkling and far more suitable ex-girlfriends, and a royal family whose private life is much thornier and more tragic than anyone on the outside knows. The pressures are almost too much to bear, as Bex struggles to reconcile the man she loves with the monarch he's fated to become.

Which is how she gets into trouble.

Now, on the eve of the wedding of the century, Bex is faced with whether everything she's sacrificed for love-her career, her home, her family, maybe even herself-will have been for nothing.

‘The Royal We’ is the new book from authors Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan – also known as the Fuggirls who run ‘Go Fug Yourself’, the comedy blog devoted to fashion and celebrity.

I love the Fuggirls – I’ve long been a fan of their blog, which is more funny than vicious when it comes to celebrity fashion commentary. And I loved their debut novel, a young adult fare called ‘Spoiled’. Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan’s novel writing has been a seamless transition from their blog writing; with all of their wit and sparking humor translating well to fiction. ‘The Royal We’ is not another YA book, instead it’s a chick-lit royal romance … sort of Meg Cabot’s ‘Princess Diaries’ for adults, if you will.

The very clever (American) cover hints at what this story is riffing off of – royal fever, thanks to Kate and Wills. It’s the story of American exchange student Rebecca ‘Bex’ Porter who spends a year at Oxford studying art, where she is share-housed with his royal highness Prince Nicholas … the book covers eight years in the friendship-turned-romance of Bex and Nick. Intriguingly the prologue begins near to their wedding day, with Bex receiving vaguely threatening text messages and anticipating a scandal of epic proportions – then it backtracks to their first meeting in 2007. Bex tells her side of their love-story, occasionally using the framework of an unauthorized biography ‘The Bexicon’ to separate their far messier reality from the fairytale fiction that abounds.

Clever cover aside, ‘The Royal We’ is not a chick-lit rip-off of Kate Middleton and Prince William’s romance. In ‘The Royal We’, Cocks and Morgan have cleverly created an alternate British history for these royal Lyons. Nick is the eldest and in line for the throne – he also has a younger cavorting brother called Freddie, whom the media have dubbed “ginger gigolo”. While their mother is not deceased, there is a tragic tale linked to her, which has very much impacted on the boys’ upbringing and hatred for the press. And there is a family matriarch – Queen Eleanor – who quietly rules over her brood and the nation with an iron fist. Bex, meanwhile, has a twin in sister called Lacey – whom the media eventually dub “racy Lacey” for her antics.

“Right,” Marj said, sweeping in and dropping an iPod in my lap. “In there you’ll find preapproved music for which you are allowed to express a public affinity. Some classical, some pop, some dance, and nobody who’s ever eaten meat in front of Paul McCartney.” She sighed. “That ruled out rather a lot of them.” 
I scrolled through it. “Oh, good, I get the Spice Girls?” 
“Eleanor enjoys the frightening one,” Marj said.

Clearly, Kate and Wills provide some inspiration. But to be honest, most modern European royal families have become more interesting of late, particularly when it comes to their love lives … just this year Sweden's Prince Carl Philip (known to have been a bit of a ‘Playboy Prince’) married Sofia Hellqvist, an ex-glamour model and reality-TV star. Australia remains quite chuffed with our own Mary, Crown Princess of Denmark – who caught the eye Frederik, Crown Prince of Denmark, while at a party in Sydney during the 2000 Summer Olympics. And let’s not forget that the press had a field day with stories that Princess Charlene of Monaco tried to run away on her wedding day. But really, it’s not just modern royals whose love lives have captivated the world. Edward VIII abdicated the throne so he could marry the divorcee Wallis Simpson … and, actually, let’s do forget that in the original hacking scandal of the 90s, recorded phone-calls revealed that Prince Charles wanted to be Camilla Parker Bowles’ tampon. And the Fuggirls love them all – some of their best posts of late have been in the name of royal-watching.

They do clearly take inspiration and research from it – particularly in the milestone trajectories and media stories. For instance, Bex cops a lot of flack over her first jobs out of college – first for a greeting card company and then an art charity. Much in the same way Kate was once ripped apart in the media for having a “frivolous” job as accessories-buyer for Jigsaw. And the complexities of Bex and Nick’s relationship take up a lot of the book’s friction. Nick doesn’t want their relationship to go public, so Bex is left to feel like the “other woman” in Nick’s life. When they do go public the palace offers Bex no help, and she’s left to the media swarm of misogynistic paparazzi camped outside her house and workplace.

But of course most of the book is Bex wrestling with the public persona versus reality – both hers and Nick’s – and trying to never lose sight of herself in the melee.

I loved ‘The Royal We’ – it is hands-down, one of my favorite books of 2015. It’s both charming and meaty, the antithesis of glossed-over royal love stories presented in the media. Bex and Nick make so many mistakes that are at odds with their airbrushed personas, that I loved them instantly. Bex, in particular, is whip-smart and lovely;

“So what now?” Lacey asked. 
“I figured we’d hang for a bit, then send Mom and Dad to the theater.” 
“I mean with Nick.” 
“We’re going to usurp the throne, and invade Switzerland just to be cute,” I said.

It’s quite a feat, but Cocks and Morgan made this royal fairytale into a realistic romance … because they do take some inspiration from Kate and Wills, there’s even a break-up period for them. And I loved that their musings on this were so relatable; 

“I’ve tried not missing you. I’ve tried so hard,” I said, rolling onto my back. “But if it works, it never lasts.” I shook my head. “Sometimes I just wanted to talk to my friend Nick about my ex-boyfriend Nick.”

‘The Royal We’ also has some of the best secondary characters. Freddie and Lacey play out a storyline that reminded me of those spoof wedding photographs that came out after the royal nuptials. And I was somewhat surprised that in a book like this, the only time I felt slightly bad for the real-life inspirations for characters was in Lacey/Pippa Middleton. Lacey is a hard character to like, but so is Pippa Middleton whose pinnacle so far has been having a very nice bum. Remember that party-planning book she wrote? Or that friend she has who thinks it’s funny to wave a fake gun around? How about her axed Telegraph column?

Freddie was one of my favourite characters – and not just because he’s clearly a nod to everybody’s favourite cheeky (sometimes gobshite) royal, Prince Harry. If there is a sequel (and dear god, I’m hoping there is!) I’d love it to be about Freddie. Probably because everybody is waiting with bated breath for Harry to settle down … I want Freddie to get his happy ending too. In ‘The Royal We’ he’s written with such tenderness, his larrikin layers stripped back to reveal a character of quite addictive depth. More Freddie, please!

I loved this book. It has just the right amount of head-nodding to reality, that tickles a reader’s curiosity about what goes on behind the scenes of those carefully calculated royals…

British and American flags bob vigorously as the teeming throng chants, sings, and cheers, at least a quarter of them wearing ghastly paper novelty masks of my face that will dance in the foreground of my nightmares for the rest of my life (matched for creepiness only by the time Nick put one on and danced around in his boxers, just to goad me).

… but this story revels in the messiness of reality, above all else, and presents these modern-day fairytale figures as human and fallible, lovely and funny. This is a favorite of 2015 for me.


Saturday, July 18, 2015

'Go Set a Watchman' by Harper Lee

From the BLURB:

From Harper Lee comes a landmark new novel set two decades after her beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, To Kill A Mockingbird. 

Maycomb, Alabama. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch – ‘Scout' – returns home from New York City to visit her ageing father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, Jean Louise's homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns disturbing truths about her close-knit family, the town and the people dearest to her. Memories from her childhood flood back, and her values and assumptions are thrown into doubt. Featuring many of the iconic characters from To Kill A Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman perfectly captures a young woman, and a world, in painful yet necessary transition out of the illusions of the past – a journey that can be guided only by one's own conscience.  
Written in the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman imparts a fuller, richer understanding and appreciation of Harper Lee. Here is an unforgettable novel of wisdom, humanity, passion, humour and effortless precision – a profoundly affecting work of art that is both wonderfully evocative of another era and relevant to our own times. It not only confirms the enduring brilliance of To Kill A Mockingbird, but also serves as its essential companion, adding depth, context and new meaning to a classic.


‘Go Set a Watchman’ is Harper Lee’s first draft and “parent” novel to her 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.

I liked it. Quite a lot actually. And my liking the book worried me a bit at first. I thought for sure that I was simply being incapable of an unbiased opinion where Harper Lee is concerned. I found a comment left on a Wall Street Journal article about the discovery of the manuscript, and I can concede that it may well apply to me in many ways; “The author and book have been given an exalted status well beyond the quality of the book. People have projected their own opinions about race onto the book.” 

So take that concession as you will – I may well be an unreliable reviewer. 
You have been warned. 

A brief summary of the book, if you’ve been living under a rock ... While (GSAW) was written as the first draft that eventually would turn into ‘Mockingbird’, it is in fact set in Mockingbird’s future when ‘Scout’ – now, Jean Louise – returns to Maycomb, Alabama for her sixth trip home since boarding at a girl’s college in Georgia and then moving to New York. Jean Louise is twenty-six, Atticus is an old man in his 70s and riddled with rheumatoid arthritis to the point that his sister, Alexandra, has had to move in with him to help him cope.

Atticus is still practicing law, and his partner at the firm is young man Henry ‘Hank’ Clinton – orphaned at a young age, he was an old friend of Jem’s, whom Jean Louise long had a crush on and has been dating for a while now, but is putting off his many attempts at engagement. 

Early on in the book we learn (devastatingly) that Jem died rather suddenly at the age Jean Louise is now. Later we learn the reason;

 Jean Graham Finch had brought to the family the heart that killed her son twenty-two years later on the sidewalk in front of his father’s office.

The book is set in Jean Louise’s annual two-week trip home, when she has her eyes opened to Maycomb’s unchanging ways … and while the rest of the nation may be far more progressive and responsive as a result of the Civil Rights Movement, Maycomb – in fact, the entire South – lags behind in its insistence to keep the ‘colored’ population in their place. 

Jean Louise is particularly horrified to learn that Atticus and Hank share the views of the white populace in town – in particular, Atticus’s abhorrence to NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). The novel deals with Jean Louise’s shattered worldview, her loss of the father she had built up in mind and memory;
The one human being she had ever fully and wholeheartedly trusted had failed her; the only man she had ever known to whom she could point and say with expert knowledge, “He is a gentleman, in his heart he is a gentleman,” had betrayed her, publicly, grossly, and shamelessly.

‘Go Set a Watchman’ may not speak as profoundly as ‘Mockingbird’ does on racism, but I won’t let that subtract from my high opinion of the novel. Besides, while she may not deal as deftly with the matter of racism, I do think Lee shares some profound thoughts on racists. A particular triumph of ‘Mockingbird’ was that Lee was able to discern the difference; like in the character of Mayella Ewell, and how she is unraveled to reveal a scared, ignorant girl under her father’s boot-heel. I always found Lee’s portrayal of Mayella to be a more sympathetic one than even some reader’s would allow, and that she encapsulates the very notion that racism is bred from ignorance.

GSAW is told in third-person, where ‘Mockingbird’ was first (though told from Jean Louise looking back at several summers of her youth). I was initially a little thrown not to be inside of Scout’s head … but I finally got to thinking that GSAW’s third-person more easily allows readers to be as disenchanted by Atticus’s turn. That may not have been Lee’s intention as this was her first draft before ‘Mockingbird’ existed, but it came across that way to me at least. It is sad and almost hurtful to read Atticus has turned out this way, but that makes it all the more impacting. And by this point, Atticus has become such a literary hero – such a pillar of justice – that the one removed third-person more easily allows readers to take this hurt on for ourselves, rather than just for how it hurts Jean Louise.

I also finished reading GSAW, having recently been moved to tears by Scottish MP Mhairi Black’s maiden speech to Parliament … it is sad, but may well be the case that Atticus was more weathercock than signpost; “Weathercocks will spin in whatever direction the wind of public opinion may blow them, no matter what principle they have to compromise. And then there are signposts, which stand true and tall and principled. They point in one direction and they say, ‘This is the way to a better society and it is my job to convince you why.’”

One aspect of the novel that I read and particularly enjoyed was Jean Louise’s feminism, or rather – Harper Lee’s. Jean Louise muses on her time growing up;

… and wondered who else in Maycomb still remembered Scout Finch, juvenile desperado, hell raiser extraordinary.

Scout Finch as a rough-and-tumble tomboy was a statement in itself in ‘Mockingbird’, and Lee continues to make similar ones with Jean Louise as a twenty-six year-old woman. There’s a particularly delicious scene at The Coffee (when Aunt Alexandra invites all of Jean Louise’s old schoolgirl classmates round for coffee and gossip) – Jean Louise archly notes the various camps of women, from those who are newly married to the recent mothers. She is withering and wary of them all, and it is a scene that rings like something out of Kathryn Stockett’s ‘The Help’ (oh, I would love Jean Louise to meet Skeeter!), particularly for how many of the women spout their husbands’ views of ‘negroes’ as lore.

Then there’s the fact that Jean Louise is a holdout to Hank’s proposals of marriage. He teases her for not being a more complacent woman who agrees with everything he says … and while it is teasing, there’s a subversion going on too. I will say that Jean Louise and Hank’s exchanges offer some of Lee’s clunkiest dialogue – a lot of “baby” and whimsy that’s hard to slog through at times – but there are still charmingly dissenting statements to be found there.

The feminist push-back in me even wonders if a lot of the criticsresounding dismissal of GSAW stems from the fact that a big focus of the novel is on Jean Louise’s rejection of settling into marriage and babies, and the overall feminist subversion … it is very much a "woman's story". 

Though I would never have thought it before, GSAW got me thinking that there is something rather masculine about ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. The two quiet heroes of the book are men – Atticus and Boo Radley – and Tom Robinson acts, along with Boo, as a symbol of the book’s underlying message. Scout and Jem are very pointedly devoid of much feminine company, since their mother died when Scout was two. There is even a rape trial at the heart of the book, concerning a woman who is very clearly lying. ‘Mockingbird’ is in many ways, a very masculine fare … but then again, most books deemed “classics” or universally praised tend to be. Natalie Kon-yu recently wrote for The Conversation, about how few award-winning novels are actually about women’s stories – the successful literary books tend to feature male characters, and male-centric stories. ‘Go Set a Watchman’ is very pointedly not that.

This book concerns Jean Louise’s disillusionment of her father, her rejection of feminine ideals (mentions of her Aunt Alexandra’s bone corset sort of wallop you over the head for symbolism, but they’re there nonetheless), and turning down a man’s many proposals of marriage. At one point, Aunt Alexandra even muses to Jean Louise;

 Men in this age have turned the Other Woman into a psychiatrist’s couch, and at far less expense, too.

Heck, Jean Louise even tells a long flashback story of getting her ‘curse’ (period) and discovering that a girl in her class was sent to an orphanage when it was discovered that her sister had gotten pregnant by the girl’s father. GSAW certainly has a stronger cast of women than ‘Mockingbird’, if only for Aunt Alexandra being on the scene … and the Finch’s old housekeeper, Calpurnia, features in one of the book’s strongest, most heartbreaking scenes (Jean Louise also pointedly acknowledges that she was raised by a white man and black woman –  again, this felt like Stockett’s ‘The Help’ was somewhat prophetic).

GSAW is far from perfect. One of my favourite articles read in connection to the book was in the New York Times, about Harper Lee’s editor Tay Hohoff – which reveals how much Lee benefitted from her editor’s mentorship and guidance. It’s a great read for offering us a glimpse into this fascinating partnership between editor and author – and got me thinking that the same way ‘Mockingbird’ inspired many to the law, ‘Go Set a Watchman’ may well ignite interest in a lot of would-be editors. It sure is fun to try and imagine where some threads in GSAW carried Lee into what would become ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, and they can mostly be found in Jean Louise’s recollecting the lazy days of her childhood …

“What made you think of Dill?” she asked. 
“I don’t know. Just thought of him.” 
“You never liked him, did you?” 
Henry smiled. “I was jealous of him. He had you and Jem to himself all summer long, while I had to go home the day school was out. There was nobody at home to fool around with.” 
She was silent. Time stopped, shifted, and went lazily in reverse. Somehow, then, it was always summer. Hank was down at his mother’s and unavailable, and Jem had to make do with his younger sister for company. The days were long, Jem was eleven, and the patterns was set:

But you can definitely tell that Lee was improved by Hohoff’s suggestions and patient guidance as GSAW turned into ‘Mockingbird’. Her dialogue needed improving, particularly the Southern-drawl, long-way-round writing that’s so distinctive in ‘Mockingbird’ but was sometimes bloated in here;

 With the same suddenness that a barbarous boy yanks the larva of an ant lion from its hole to leave it struggling in the sun, Jean Louise was snatched from her quiet realm and left alone to protect her sensitive epidermis as best she could … 

I rather loved ‘Go Set a Watchman’ anyway. There are more than a few flashes of the writer Harper Lee would turn out to be, and some paragraphs and lines cut the reader right to the bone;

 The knife hit deep, suddenly; “Jean Louise, your brother worried about your thoughtlessness until the day he died!” 
It was raining softly on his grave now, in the hot evening. You never said it, you never even thought it; if you’d thought it you’d have said it. You were like that. 
Rest well, Jem.

True, ‘Go Set a Watchman’ is no ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ nor is it better. It’s different, as are all of the surviving characters – some for better, some for worse. I think I mostly enjoyed having new words from Harper Lee – more so than from Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch, since we’re not in her head for this portion of the journey. I really did enjoy ‘Go Set a Watchman’ though; a book, I would argue, more about feminism than racism … it’s also about a different sort of ‘paradise lost’ than the journey away from childhood, but is instead about needing to hold long-held beliefs up to the light for scrutiny.

Thank you, Harper Lee – it was a privilege to read you for the first time again, and always.


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