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Monday, September 28, 2015

'How to Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Sex and Teenage Confusion’ by David Burton

From the BLURB:

A funny, sad and serious memoir, How to Be Happy is David Burton’s story of his turbulent life at high school and beyond. Feeling out of place and convinced that he is not normal, David has a rocky start. He longs to have a girlfriend, but his first ‘date’ is a disaster. There’s the catastrophe of the school swimming carnival—David is not sporty—and friendships that take devastating turns. Then he finds some solace in drama classes with the creation of ‘Crazy Dave’, and he builds a life where everything is fine. But everything is not fine.

And, at the centre of it all, trying desperately to work it all out, is the real David.

How to Be Happy tackles depression, friendship, sexual identity, suicide, academic pressure, love and adolescent confusion. It’s a brave and honest account of one young man’s search for a happy, true and meaningful life that will resonate with readers young and old.

'How to Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Sex and Teenage Confusion’ is Australian author David Burton’s debut.

I read this book ages ago and then didn’t know what to do about how much I loved it. Writing a review was hard, and the words I tried to put down didn’t adequately express how much I loved the book. And then I went to Brisbane Writers Festival, and attended an ‘in conversation’ between David and fellow memoirist, Robert Hoge that just blew me away for how candid and funny he was – that reiterated for me just how special ‘How to be Happy’ truly is … and still, I struggled. So just know that this review will probably end up expressing only a miniscule fraction of my admiration for David and this book of his, which won the 2014 Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing. Sorry – I tried, but this really is one of those books and authors that I’m just going to end up telling you to read and attend any of his appearances because there’s something special here that you’ve just got to discover for yourself. Anywho.

The book opens thus;
 I don’t know how to be happy. 
Yeah, sorry. Awkward. 
Okay, let me rephrase. I don’t know how to make you happy. But I have a pretty good idea what would help. Trouble is, my tops sound fairly lame. It’s like when you ask someone about the secret to losing weight and then answer ‘eat well and exercise’. 
True, but profoundly unhelpful.  

And right there is how I got totally onboard with this brutally honest and funny memoir – because David’s “endgame” as a memoirist is really to just put the ugly truth down on paper. To put into a book all the things he went through – two brothers with Aspergers, bullied at school, worried about a self-harming friend, his own spirals into depression and anxiety not to mention all the teenager years of sexual confusion and hormonal whirlpools.

At one point David remembers his dad giving him a copy of John Marsden’s ‘Secret Men’s Business’, a 1998 non-fiction book for teen boys that touched on everything from leadership responsibilities to masturbation (a revelation for young David Burton at the time – hilariously). But what he especially remembers about this book crossing his path was just his astonishment at somebody writing these things down and sharing them – being candid with teenagers about such topics (remember, Burton is a Millennial and his childhood was a pre-Internet one!). That’s what ‘How to be Happy’ does too – through the “character” of David he explores his own fumbles and foibles in such a charming and self-deprecating way that it’s quite disarming for a reader, but then the moment comes when you do realise that these things being discussed are still somewhat taboo in society (particularly honest discussions around mental health) and there is real bravery in David putting them on the page, sharing his story, stripping himself bare.

One aspect in particular is his sexuality. A socially awkward teen who didn’t fit into society’s “machismo” stereotype of a sport-loving, rough-tumbling manly man, David discovered his voice through the self-expression of drama class … and then struggled with what it meant that he was drawn to inherently “feminine” pursuits and activities. He assumed he was gay (a common epithet shouted at him by school bullies too) – and this becomes a fascinating time for current self-reflection, as he does address the narrow gender definitions, which so confused his teenage self (and that still permeate in society today). But David’s lusting after several female classmates does eventually clue him into the fact that he is heterosexual, but now equipped with a unique and accepting view of sexuality and gender fluidity.

The other big focus of the book, which is retold so tenderly, is David’s mental health, and that of his family – for his brothers’ unique Asperger view of the world, as well as his family’s history of depression. This is where David reminded me of the late, great YA author Ned Vizzini – who wrote with such biting honesty about depression in his characters (drawn on his own experiences). In ‘It's Kind of a Funny Story’ for instance, which began with the eerily accurate line “Its so hard to talk when you want to kill yourself.” David has similarly in-your-face honesty when writing about his depression and anxiety, that I found to be both moving and vital.

I also loved the tender heart of the book, a celebration of the friendships formed and trials overcome – and also for the little things that actually become importantly intrinsic to who you grow up to be. That is, I loved David paying tribute to what he grew up loving – an acknowledgment of the stories, fandom’s and connections he made that have had lasting influence on him (particularly considering he’s had a career in theatre!).

Mary and I discovered Harry Potter together, which, in terms of major life events, is almost as important as YOUR ACTUAL BIRTH. Lunchtimes regularly involved rushing to the library to pore over the latest instalment in Harry’s adventures and attempting to make predictions about upcoming books. We would also discuss Star Wars, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Discworld and Doctor Who at length. We were nerd soulmates. 
There are few reasons I would ever wish to be a teenager again, but I could be persuaded if it meant rediscovering all of these stories again for the first time and finding my unabashed passion for them.
And finally – I can’t stress this enough – ‘How to be Happy’ is funny. Bitingly, embarrassingly, genuinely – FUNNY. This sort of humour surely only comes when we’re forced to reflect on our teenage selves and suddenly see the joke that was so hard to laugh at, at the time of adolescence. This book is gold, and if I could I’d make it mandatory reading in schools … or, maybe, not in schools but mandatory under-the-covers with a torchlight, late into the night reading for all those teenagers wondering why they feel this way, when will it get better and does anybody understand me? For those teenagers I’d like to gift them ‘How to be Happy’ – because David won’t claim to have all the answers, but he’s been through the trenches and written about it in all his embarrassing teenage glory. 


Wednesday, September 23, 2015

'The Singing Bones: Inspired by Grimms' Fairy Tales' by Shaun Tan

 Received from the Publisher 

From the BLURB:

A unique and alluring art book showcasing Shaun Tan's extraordinary sculptures based on the timeless and compelling fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm.

In this beautifully presented volume, the essence of seventy-five fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm is wonderfully evoked by Shaun Tan's extraordinary sculptures.

Nameless princes, wicked stepsisters, greedy kings, honourable peasants and ruthless witches, tales of love, betrayal, adventure and magical transformation: all inspiration for this stunning gallery of sculptural works. Introduced by Grimm Tales author Philip Pullman and leading fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes, The Singing Bones breathes new life into some of the world's most beloved fairy tales.

‘The Singing Bones’ is the new Shaun Tan book, inspired by Grimms' Fairy Tales.

Author Philip Pullman (‘The Golden Compass’) provides the foreword and reflections on Tan’s work; essentially summarising the paradox that his three-dimensional creations are “superb at representing two-dimensional characters.” And he’s absolutely right. Fairy tales are in many ways all about didactics – intended for instruction. The Three Little Pigs is, arguably, about how half-arsing a job may provide short-term enjoyment but choosing the hard slog will have longer-lasting not-being-eaten-by-a-wolf rewards. Pullman explains that, ‘Fairy tale characters have very little character, only characteristics.’ But Tan’s sculptures somehow breathe life into the moralising tales; he conjures mystery and imagination from a single image.

‘The Singing Bones’ actually reminds me somewhat of Chris Van Allsburg’s classic ‘The Mysteries of Harris Burdick’ – the 1984 picture book of seemingly random, unrelated illustrations accompanied by a title and a single line of text (which compels readers to create their own stories). In much the same way that Allsburg took a snapshot of an unknown, mysterious tale and encouraged readers to fill in the blanks – Tan’s work is going in the opposite (but still fascinating) direction, by providing a snapshot from a well-known fairy tale and encouraging readers to remember the stories for themselves, or to go forth and investigate the lesser known fairytales … and I do believe that ‘The Singing Bones’ will go down as a classic in much the same way as ‘The Mysteries of Harris Burdick’ has.

Some of Tan’s chosen fairytales are fantastically creepy and delicious, like ‘The Boy Who Left Home To Find Out About Fear,’ which begins; “The boy went to the gallows, sat down beneath it, and waited until evening came.” The accompanying sculpture is equally, eerily unsettling – as beautiful and beastly as the words themselves. A particular favourite of mine was ‘The Maiden Without Hands’; for its disturbing title but surprisingly beautiful accompanying story and sculpture – it was one of the many examples of a narrative surprise, and a lesson in not presuming to know the tale before it’s told.

Jack Zipes (a retired American professor whose career was based around studying the evolution, social and political role of fairy tales) provides an introduction to the Brothers Grimm, and how they ‘made their way into the world.’ Having read Kate Forsyth’s marvellous novel ‘The Wild Girl’ a couple years ago, which is a fictional account (based on true history) of how the Brothers Grimm collected their tales during the Napoleonic Wars (and emphasises women’s contributions to their tales), I found Zipes’s history equally fascinating. Particularly when he gets into the 1970s feminist movement impacting the illustration and adaptation of the fairytales. And like Pullman, I really appreciated his unique incite into Tan’s interpretation of The Brothers Grimm: ‘All Tan’s sculptures estrange us and beckon us to gaze and think about moving them, to discover how they have been made, and why they have been drawn from the Grimm’s tales. They have been taken out of one world and installed in another setting.’

Tan’s author’s note tells us that all of the sculptures photographed within are between 6cm and 40cm tall, and primarily made from papier mâché (though other materials used include: wood, bronze patina, wax, fabric, pepper, nails, blossoms … you get the idea. The man looks at the natural world and sees potential for art in everything.) 

‘The Singing Bones’ is destined to be another Shaun Tan classic. It’s a gift of storytelling narration, setting new precedent for illustration and interpretation of the fairytales you only think you know so well …


Saturday, September 19, 2015

'Dumplin'' by Julie Murphy

Received from the Publisher 

From the BLURB:

Willowdean Dickson (Dumplin', to her mum) has always been at home in her own skin. Her thoughts on having the ultimate bikini body? Really, the criteria is simple. Do you have a body? Put a swimsuit on it.

But life as Willlow knows it is about to change, and when this happens she suffers an unaccustomed, and unwelcome, attack of self-doubt. In an effort to take back her confidence, she enters into the local Miss Teen Blue Bonner beauty pageant.

With starry Texas nights, red candy suckers, Dolly Parton songs and a wildly unforgettable heroine – Dumplin' is guaranteed to steal your heart. And send you out to buy that bikini!

‘Dumplin'’ is the second stand-alone contemporary young adult novel from American rising star, Julie Murphy (whose 2014 debut was ‘Side Effects May Vary’)

“Eff Your Beauty Standards” was a hashtag coined by Tess Holliday back in 2013 – Tess being a body positive activist, feminist, all-round awesome lady, world's biggest plus-sized super model and this year she was on the cover of People magazine. Oh yeah, AND I’VE MET HER! But I mention her here because in reading ‘Dumplin'’ I was moved by this idea that Julie Murphy’s book is basically a YA-ode to “Eff Your Beauty Standards!” – and that’s goddamn awesome.

Because let me just say, that when we talk about ‘We Need Diverse Books’ probably one aspect of that grassroots movement that doesn’t get talked about more often is an acceptance of all different body types and physical diversity, and the promotion of positive body activism. I think Tess Holliday has been a great activist on this front, as has blogger Jes Baker (‘The Militant Baker’) and Australian author Robert Hoge who, if you haven’t yet - please watch his Australian Story and read his words on how important it is to embrace “ugly” in this beauty-obsessed world of ours (especially because the definitions of “beauty” are so narrow and restrictive).

There has really been a body/beauty positivity movement growing bigger and bigger, even in the last five or so years. And this year we have Julie Murphy’s ‘Dumplin'’, which is just the most beautiful young adult crystallization of this message – “Eff Your Beauty Standards!” love who you are. And, honestly, I couldn’t think of a better book or author to gift this message to teen readers.

The book is about 16-year-old Willowdean Dickson who, when we meet her, is a big girl already brimming with body confidence. She says completely rad things like;

I say the pants are to blame. I don’t like to think of my hips as a nuisance, but more of an asset. I mean, if this were, like, 1642, my wide birthing hips would be worth many cows or something.

And also …
 If living in my skin has taught me anything it's that if it's not your body, it's not yours to comment on. 
… not to mention …

It's not that I don't like new people. It's just that, in general, I do not like new people. 
Basically – she is an amazing individual and I don’t care that she’s fictional, because we are totally best friends.

And then Willowdean (‘Dumplin’ to her beauty pageant-obsessed mama) suddenly finds herself crushing hard on fellow Harpy’s Burgers & Dogs employee – and all-round dreamboat – Bo Larson … who starts to reciprocate the crush right back.

Suddenly Willowdean is thrust into a relationship with her dream guy, but far from being on cloud nine, she suddenly feels self-conscious. Her insecurity at being on Bo’s arm (and worrying that everybody is wondering what he sees in her), manifests in her sabotaging their relationship and her friendship with Ellen Dryver – her best friend in the whole world and the only person as obsessed with Dolly Parton as Willowdean is.

Running beneath Willowdean’s burgeoning insecurities is the memory of her aunt and surrogate parent, Lucy – who was obese and has died recently. While Willowdean is still mourning the loss and coming to terms with the emptiness in their home and her life, Willowdean’s mama throws herself into the Clover City Miss Teen Blue Bonnet Pageant … which gives Willowdean a brave idea to win back her confidence, and maybe win back the guy and her bestie too?

I loved this book. It’s smart and sassy, and Julie Murphy’s underlying message of loving yourself and embracing your own beauty standards is a great one, brilliantly communicated through the whip-quick character of Willowdean.

What I haven’t loved so much has been some of the mainstream reviews of the book, which are reductive and infuriating. Kirkus for example, summarised it thus; ‘a confident fat girl confronts new challenges to her self-esteem.’ And ended with; ‘In the end, it’s more liberating than oppressive, with bits of humor and a jubilant pageant takeover by beauty rebels to crown this unusual book about a fat character.’ Wow, Kirkus – way to miss the point and play into the fat-shaming by reducing an awesome, multi-layered teen like Willowdean to ‘a fat character’ … because, FYI – she’s more than her weight.

Thankfully though, those reviews that have missed the point are in the minority – and especially amongst teen readers, ‘Dumplin’’ is hitting a high-note – the word-of-mouth is insane, and overwhelmingly positive. Which just goes to show that the YA readership has been waiting a long time for someone as amazing as Willowdean, and an author as clever as Julie Murphy to introduce her to us.

This is a favourite of 2015 for me.


Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Interview with Fiona Wood, author of 'Cloudwish'

Q: Where did the idea for Cloudwish first spring from? And did you already have Vân Uoc’s story in mind when you were writing Wildlife?

Vân Uoc’s story was bubbling away while I was writing Wildlife. I took a long time naming the character – the translation of her name is the book title, Cloudwish. Her story wasn’t fully developed, but I knew she would be the protagonist. I liked the idea of taking a very minor character and saying, have a closer look, she has an interesting story, too; and taking a smartarsed jock (Billy Gardiner), and showing that he’s more complicated that he looks; and suggesting that these two characters might have a lot more in common than is immediately apparent.

And I wanted to use Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte as a reference point for the story. Vân Uoc calls Jane the quiet girls’ hero. Jane is a character judged by some within her narrative as being insignificant because she has no money or status or ostensible power, but she’s magnificently strong. Like Vân Uoc, she is relatively unprivileged in a world of privilege, but at every point she prevails. Vân Uoc lives her life by the credo: What would Jane do? She can’t always manage to do what she thinks Jane would do, but she gets better at it as the story progresses.

The magic story strand was suggested by a gift from Simmone Howell to me, and to Cath Crowley, of little glass tubes with slips of paper inside them. As soon as I held that object in my hand, it was asking to have a story told about it.

Q: Your first two novels – Six Impossible Things and Wildlife – were both written in first-person. I wonder if you can talk through your decision to change Cloudwish up and write in third-person?

In Cloudwish, I use the third person to note in a formal way that I am writing a character with a cultural and ethnic background that is not my own. It’s something that readers might not even notice particularly, but it was important to me to keep that in mind throughout the writing process. My point of departure was as a respectful, observant outsider. I wasn’t writing from inside a lived experience. Often, writing fiction, you’re not. You do take on imaginative tasks that are outside your experience, but as someone from a majority culture writing about a character from a minority culture, respect, research, and asking for advice and feedback from people within the cultural group were integral to the job.

Q: Vân Uoc has probably jumped to the top of my list of all-time favourite protagonists in Aussie YA … She’s the daughter of Vietnamese refugees who arrived in Australia in 1980, and she brings such an important and unique perspective that’s rarely explored in YA. I wonder how did you go about researching Vân Uoc’s Vietnamese background, to portray her experience as the daughter of refugee parents?

Vân Uoc was in part inspired by my now seven-year involvement in a volunteer tutor program, Friday Night School, where my student, and many other students, come from the Vietnamese Australian community. So I’ve seen over a number of years the particular challenges that students have in cases where their parents have sought refuge and settled in a new country, and the children’s understanding of the local culture and language exceeds that of their parents. At the same time there is an understandable expectation within families that the culture of origin is respected and adhered to. Living with two cultures provides a great richness, but also a frustration when two sets of expectations differ and sometimes collide. And I’ve seen the strong love and respect that children have for their parents, and the understanding of the bravery of their parents in looking for a new home. I also interviewed Vietnamese Australian people outside the tutor program, and did the usual desk research. But I wouldn’t have taken the character on if it weren’t for being part of the tutor program.

Q: I also love Alice Walker’s quote at the beginning of this book, from her 2014 Sydney Writer’s Festival appearance. I wonder if you can speak more about what Walker was saying, and how that influenced/helped you in writing Cloudwish from a cultural perspective that’s not your own?

To me, that quote is about empathy, which is not simply projecting yourself into an experience that is superficially just like your own; it’s about seeing a deeper commonality in the human experience. It’s an invitation to look more carefully and to understand how connected we are. Majority groups aren’t always so good at doing this. Minority groups have always been expected to do it, for example, to engage with texts that feature predominantly white characters. The character of Vân Uoc is the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants. She negotiates two languages and two cultures, and she’s a typical teenage girl living in Melbourne. I have such a strong sense of books and reading connecting us across time and language and cultures. Because Jane Eyre is an important book for Vân Uoc, it was a serendipitous delight to read Alice Walker saying that she, too, had loved and related to the character of Jane Eyre. I was about to deliver Cloudwish here and in America when I read the article that included the quote; it was the last thing I added to the manuscript before pressing ‘send’.

Q: There’s been some talk lately that teens are “over” romances. I, personally, don’t believe that and I love that Cloudwish is all about Vân Uoc’s very complicated romantic feelings for Billy Gardiner (made more complicated by some magic) … you’re not writing strictly romance here, but what do you think is driving teens to reject the romance genre right now?

I love writing the romance story strands in my books and I don’t think that teen readers are rejecting romance, as much as just pushing back against romance that is gratuitous to the narrative. I can imagine that if it seems like an arbitrary add-on, as though it’s a box that has to be ticked, then it probably won’t be well received. For me romance is always a subset of identity, it’s not the main driver, but it’s an important part of someone finding out who they are. One of the ways you do that is by finding out who you are in different roles, and relative to other people, and how your decisions and actions affect other people. Romantic relationships are great places to investigate those things in fiction. (Also I asked a big group of teenagers yesterday if they were over romance, and got a resounding ‘no’ in answer to the question.)

Q: I love that your books are all interconnected and feature students from Crowthorne Grammar … how many more books in this universe do you plan to write? … which is a round-about way of asking WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON NOW AND WHEN CAN WE READ IT?!?!

Thank you – I love coming across characters that migrate from book to book as a reader, too. To me it plays into the notion of a suspension of disbelief and an immersive reading experience in which the fictional world is ‘real’. There are more books in this world, for sure, but the next thing I’m working on is the book that Cath Crowley and Simmone Howell and I are writing together with the working title, Friends Anonymous.

Q: Your books are now available in America – what has the response been to them over there? And have you had any funny reader-interactions (especially around your being Australian?)

There’s been a really good critical response to both books. Wildlife was published first, in 2014, and Six Impossible Things has just come out recently. It was definitely a highlight when Wildlife was reviewed very favourably in the New York Times Book Review, and a great honour that both books have been Junior Library Guild Selections. There are no funny reader interactions that come to mind, but lots of lovely reader reviews and responses. An occasional person will mention the slang or food being a bit different, and readers have been intrigued by the outdoor education setting of Wildlife. I’ve had a great experience with my publisher, Little, Brown, as far as keeping the Australian settings and language intact. I hear people saying that the US requires big changes for the local market, but that hasn’t been my experience. 

Q: You’re a big supporter of the #LoveOzYA movement – so I wonder if you could share your top 3 favourite Aussie YA books?

There are so many fabulous #LoveOzYA books and writers, I feel really proud of our community. When I was first creating a story for Dan Cereill, these four books made me think, yeah, this is where I want to work: Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta, Notes from the Teenage Underground by Simmone Howell, Chasing Charlie Duskin by Cath Crowley and Feeling Sorry for Celia by Jaclyn Moriarty.

'Cloudwish' by Fiona Wood

From the BLURB:

For Vân Uoc Phan, fantasies fell into two categories: nourishing, or pointless. Daydreaming about Billy Gardiner, for example? Pointless. It always left her feeling sick, as though she'd eaten too much sugar.

Vân Uoc doesn't believe in fairies, zombies, vampires, Father Christmas - or magic wishes. She believes in keeping a low profile: real life will start when school finishes.
But when she attracts the attention of Billy Gardiner, she finds herself in an unwelcome spotlight.
Not even Jane Eyre can help her now.
Wishes were not a thing.
They were not.
Wishes were a thing.
Wishes that came true were sometimes a thing.
Wishes that came true because of magic were not a thing!
Were they?

‘Cloudwish’ is the new contemporary young adult novel from Australian author Fiona Wood.

In case you don’t know by now, I’m kinda obsessed with Fiona Wood and her books. From her first ‘Six Impossible Things’ to the sublime ‘Wildlife’, Fiona has fast become one of my all-time favourite authors, and now with ‘Cloudwish’ she’s gone and written one of my all-time favourite Aussie YA characters in Vân Uoc Phan (whose name translates from Vietnamese to the ‘Cloudwish’ of the title).

Vân Uoc is the daughter of Vietnamese refugees who arrived in Australia in 1980. She lives in a housing commission flat and attends the prestigious Crowthorne Grammar (the pivot-point of all Fiona’s books thus far) on a scholarship. She’s fiercely smart and a quiet dreamer, and one boy – Billy Gardiner – has been occupying her dreams a lot lately. A freeform creative writing exercise and a glass vial with the word ‘wish’ inside sparks something in Vân Uoc though, something powerful and magical …

Vân Uoc is one of the most interesting characters to come out of Aussie YA. Her perspective as the daughter of Vietnamese immigrant parents who rely on her for English-translation in social situations alone makes her intriguing – and absolutely speaks to an article that fellow Aussie YA author Sarah Ayoub wrote recently; ‘Still looking for Alibrandi: migrant teens deserve their own young adult fiction.’ It’s also the fact that Vân Uoc feels so much pressure on her shoulders to get good grades and embark on a worthy career to make her parents proud, and fulfill the wish that saw them settling in Australia in the first place – to give their daughter the best life possible. And she’s an interesting character to be exploring the current state of Australian politics – particularly our abysmal treatment of asylum seekers – to see this through the eyes of a young person who comes from a side of this debate that makes it hit so close to home;

… I wish I hadn’t read the article about the fucking government’s new legislation on boat people how dare they how dare they stand in the fortress the high places the towers of privilege stamp down rain down reign down on the people who can’t find the first foothold in the green water floating drowning the soft sand the sand too far too far far far below never making it to shore they are no different from us us and then us is them we are them …  

And at the heart of Vân Uoc’s intrigue is that she’s coming from a place of diversity. Not just racial, but that she’s from a somewhat lower socio-economic background trying to fit in as a ‘scholarship kid’ at Crowthorne Grammar – that alone sets her apart in Aussie YA right now. And I appreciated that Fiona Wood wrote her with such tenderness and deep respect for her community – the fact that the book is written in third-person alone (when ‘Six Impossible Things’ and ‘Wildlife’ were first) is partly because the author didn’t want to appropriate that voice. I was also not surprised to learn that she worked very closely with the Melbourne Vietnamese community to get the story and character just right – that authenticity and deep respect shines through in this book, and lifts the story.

And the story itself is just beautiful – very much inspired by Jane Eyre (whom Vân Uoc is quite obsessed with). It’s a story that I’ve heard Fiona Wood refer to as a celebration of ‘quiet girls with big thoughts’, those people who fly under the radar but if you pay them a little attention they will floor you. There’s the sweetest dash of romance to this tale of Vân Uoc and her crush on the elusively cool Billy Gardiner, helped along seemingly by a little magic … it’s another one of Fiona Wood’s romances that I want to celebrate; and makes me want to put her books into the hands of boys and girls everywhere.

‘Exactly when did I go from being invisible to being visible?’ 
This was his cue to say that he’d gradually been noticing her over the last year or so – he hadn’t wanted to be obvious in his attentions, but he knew by now that, though quiet, she was smart; though shy, she had a sense of humour; though not a self-promoter, she was a dedicated, passionate artist … 
Billy smiled. ‘It was that class – the first week back, when the visiting writer came. The one with the pink hair?’ 
Vân Uoc stopped dead. It took a huge effort to retain her cool, but she managed it. Just. ‘Yep. Yep, I remember. So, what was it that made you notice me?’ 
Billy nodded and looked into the middle distance as though he was trying to replay the scene in his mind. He looked puzzled. ‘It was like you suddenly had a spotlight on you.’ 
‘So, just to be clear: it was a sudden thing more than a gradual thing.’ 
'Can’t answer that – because who knows what’s been going on subliminally and for how long? Am I right?’ 
God, of all the annoying times for him to become reflective. ‘Billy, just concentrate on that particular class – what else did you notice about me, if anything?’ 
'The best way to put it, I guess, is that it was just blindingly obvious that you were the most interesting person in the room.’ Billy smiled the Doritos smile. ‘Apart from me.’

I loved this book. I’ve already re-read it twice and have found new things to love in the re-reading. It’s just one of those books that burrows deep – and I want to gift it to everyone, but since I can’t physically do that I’ll take my platform here and just say please read it – you'll thank me later.


Monday, September 7, 2015

'Dietland' by Sarai Walker

From the BLURB:

The diet revolution is here. And it’s armed.

Plum Kettle does her best not to be noticed, because when you’re fat, to be noticed is to be judged. Or mocked. Or worse. She works answering fan mail for a popular teen magazine, and is biding her time until her weight-loss surgery. Only then can her “true life” as a thin person finally begin.

But when Plum notices she’s being followed by a mysterious woman in colorful tights and combat boots, she finds herself falling down a rabbit hole into the world of Calliope House, a community of women who live life on their own terms. Reluctant but intrigued, Plum agrees to a series of challenges that force her to deal with the real costs of becoming “beautiful.” At the same time, a dangerous guerrilla group begins to terrorize a world that mistreats women, and as Plum grapples with her personal struggles, she becomes entangled in a sinister plot. The consequences are explosive.

Part coming-of-age story, part revenge fantasy, Dietland is a bold, original, and funny debut novel that takes on the beauty industry, gender inequality, and our weight-loss obsession from the inside out — and with fists flying.

Dietland’ is the debut novel by American author Sarai Walker.

I had never heard of ‘Dietland’ before Sarai Walker was announced in the author line-up for this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival (MWF). And then as the Festival dates drew closer – the whispers started … a little bit of chatter over Twitter, people tittering in bookshops, that bold grenade-cupcake cover suddenly appearing in my Instagram feed. That word-of-mouth buzzing about a book was starting to spread, and I couldn’t ignore it. Especially not when book-recommending aficionado Kate Cuthbert raved, and MWF Festival Director, Lisa Dempster, likewise added her adoration.

And here’s yet another reason why I love Writer’s Festivals – they introduce you to authors you may never otherwise discovered, were it not for the overwhelming enthusiasm and celebration of their ideas and language. And it seems Australia is particularly enamoured with Walker’s ideas outlined in this fictional novel, as she also spoke at Sydney’s ‘Festival of Dangerous Ideas’ (FODI), in a talk called “Radical Fat Acceptance: is it time to accept that fat is fine?”

Because that’s essentially the idea being discussed in ‘Dietland’ – a book that Alice Sebold calls “devious, subversive, delightful.” It’s all about Alicia ‘Plum’ Kettle, who goes by her nickname for its plum/plump connotations … Alicia is the name she’ll wear when she is thin, because she will be soon – after a dangerous surgery will shrink her stomach down to the size of a walnut and leave her in a perpetual state of hunger. Plum has not been made to hate her body – her mother (albeit, a thin woman) – has always loved and supported Plum, and particularly loves that she resembles the earlier generations of Kettle women. No, society has made Plum hate herself. The billboards of thin, happy women and the men who abuse her in the street, the college boy who broke her heart and the ‘Baptist Plan’ weight-loss company who savaged her esteem as a teen.

But when we meet Plum, change is in the air. The intriguing opening line of the novel goes;

It was late in the Spring when I noticed that a girl was following me, nearly the end of May, a month that means perhaps or might be.

From there Plum is gifted a copy of the book ‘Dietland’ which dismantles the weight-loss industry and our fat-shaming society. She is welcomed into a feminist collective living out of a New York house called Calliope … and she meets a vigilante cosmetician working in the bunker of the same teen magazine where Plum herself works, imitating the Editor’s voice in email correspondence with troubled young female readers.

But at the same time as Plum’s life is turning around, a world-wide terrorist network working under the name ‘Jennifer’ is delivering vigilante feminism to the corporations and individuals who deserve it. Rapists are being thrown from airplanes, a British tabloid newspaper is being forced to feature more male anatomy and a hit list ‘dick list’ is circulating of who’s next …

‘Dietland’ is a smart, funny thriller that will make you mad. Your blood will boil and your heart will race, as much from the disarming and inventive plot as the subversive truth behind it.

When the cocks started appearing on page three, there were immediate protests from media watchdog groups, from parents and government ministers, who claimed the photos were indecent. Many newsagents began to keep the Daily Sun behind the counter, lest anyone be offended. Some of them refused to sell it at all or even touch it. The circulation dropped by half during the first week. In media surveys, men said they were too embarrassed to read the paper. “I’m not gay,” said a man who was interviewed. The CEO knew cocks were bad for business. Breasts she could get away with. Women knew their place, but with men it wasn’t as simple.

Walker says she got the spark of an idea for ‘Dietland’ after watching the film ‘Fight Club’, and wishing there was a similar story in which women can get just as mad.  Reading ‘Dietland’ you can still see the ‘Fight Club’ connections, but it must be said that there’s more depth and breadth to what these women are railing against, than Palahniuk’s anti-consumerist ideas. Everything is covered from rape culture to slut shaming, the porn industry and Hollywood ideals of beauty. All filtered through Plum’s extraordinary transformation and coming-of-age from a woman who buys into the weight-loss industry’s wish to “make women smaller” and “take up less space” to someone who sees the world for what it really, patriarchally is.

In college, my roommates, four thin girls, all friends of mine, were fond of saying “Do I look fat?” just like that girl had said. Sometimes they would pose the question to me, not seeing or caring that when they said “Do I look fat?” they were really saying “Do I look like you?” It was assumed that no one wanted to look like me, not even me.

This book does read like a thriller – as running alongside Plum’s first-person narrative are snatches of vignettes detailing the vigilante feminism of the mysterious collective ‘Jennifer’. This plays out on a worldwide stage, and eventually filters back down to Plum’s life in New York City in a twisting, turning story that will leave you guessing.

‘Dietland’ is fabulous. I kept shaking this book in my hand as I read it, as though to emphasise the “YES! YES! YES!” of my inner-thoughts as certain ideas were thrown up on the page; sometimes articulating what I’ve always known, while other times reminding me why I should still be angry. I want this to be made into a film! Please? I can already picture Cara Delevingne as the quirky and mysterious white-rabbit character of Leeta, who first leads Plum down the Dietland rabbit-hole (which may be a weird choice – but Cara speaks very openly now about the destructive modelling industry she was once apart of, and those eyes of hers are very Che Guevara-distinctive!).

Really – I just want to hand this book to all the women I love and tell them to read it and see for themselves … it’s remarkable and radical, and one book I think I’ll keep coming back to for years to come.


Another reason I love Writers Festivals? Getting to meet authors and thank them for writing bloody great books! 

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