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Saturday, October 31, 2015

'True Blood' TV series review

Yes, yes – it’s Halloween in Australia (which should be an oxymoron but: capitalism). I can’t bring myself to read any horror-anthologies let alone review any book to theme. But these past few weeks I have binge-watched all seven seasons of True Blood and have things I need to get off my chest, so I may as well capitalise and blog on the apropos Samhain.

I was moved to re-watch True Blood – and so soon after the last season aired in August 2014 – because it was only this month that I finally read the 13th and final book in Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series that True Blood was based on. Dead Ever After was okay, but it really reminded me how amazing that series was in the beginning, and how impressed I was with the early seasons of its HBO adaptation. So I took a little binge-watch down memory-lane …

Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series debuted in 2001 at a time before “urban fantasy” was a recognised genre and Harris’s strange mash-up of vampires, humour, romance and mystery-solving was all but unheard of (though she has credited Laurell K. Hamilton’s early 90’s series Anita Blake in helping to position the Sookie books).

Harris used the Sookie series to explore “otherness”, and that all her books are based in the Deep South of Bible-belt territory added a certain allegory to the explorations of a “disabled” telepath waitress encountering the world of outed vampires and shifters in Louisiana.

Charlaine Harris’s series was extremely popular, even before the HBO adaptation. The first book Dead Until Dark won the Anthony Award for Best Paperback Mystery, not to mention Harris had made a name for herself writing two previous popular and critically-acclaimed mystery series in Aurora Teagarden and Lily Bard.

But I think what really had Alan Ball (of Six Feet Under and American Beauty fame) and HBO sitting up and taking notice of Charlaine Harris’s series was that vampires were back in vogue … Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight hit shelves and made waves in 2005, with the film adaptation due for release in November 2008. But pop-culture was definitely ready for more grown-up explorations into bloodlust-as-regular-lust metaphors. Thus, True Blood premiered on HBO in September 2008 (the CW would release The Vampire Diaries TV series based on LJ Smith’s YA series the following year). And a couple of things happened in 2008 that were note-worthy for the series: one was the Great Financial Crisis, the worst since the Great Depression of 1929, and the 44th United States presidential election was won by Democrat Barack Obama over Republican John McCain.

True Blood definitely revelled in a post-George Bush era, even as the series’ timeline seemed to be set during his Presidency;

Alan Ball took Harris’s “otherness” explorations and more closely aligned them to the fight for marriage equality and gay rights in modern-day America. The series was always praised for this allegory, no matter how over-the-top and fantastical the subversion of using vampires to have the discussion was. This remains a powerful connection in the series, even upon re-watch in 2015 when the Supreme Court has declared same-sex marriage legal in all 50 States. I will say that real-life bigots like Kim Davis seem all the more caricature for how well I can imagine them living somewhere like Bon Temps, gossiping with the likes of Maxine Fortenberry at Merlotte’s about those damn “fang-bangers” and “vampire fuckers.” The only time the show’s gay rights allegory became problematic was in the final season, in a storyline about a vampire virus called ‘Hep V’, the spread of which was meant to mirror the AIDS epidemic. I think by the seventh season the show had become so blood-and-gore over-the-top, that it wasn’t the best place to have serious discussions about the devastation of AIDS, and the long unfair moral/social persecution of its sufferers.

But True Blood really was an exploration of general “otherness” as perceived by society too – and didn’t shy away from discussing race relations in America (a topic that is more relevant than ever before, sadly). Re-watching the show with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between The World and Me ringing in my heart was also really eye-opening, particularly this line: "But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming 'the people' has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy." Thus after watching all seven seasons I decided that Tara Thornton, played by the incomparable Rutina Wesley (next seen on the new season of Arrow as Liza Warner/Lady Cop – OMG!) was one of the show’s best creations.

Tara was a minor character in Charlaine Harris’s book series, but Alan Ball not only gave her a meatier role in the HBO show, he also changed her from white to black – a bold and brilliant move that gifted audiences one of the angriest and most brilliant women on TV. It was just a shame that as the series went on (and indeed, Alan Ball left as showrunner after season five) Tara’s character was left to fall by the wayside in a particularly clumsy vampire-turning arc. I really agree with this Autostraddle article on ‘The Trials, Tribulations & Turning of True Blood’s Tara Thornton’, particularly this assertion: “But as the seasons progressed, and we got to know Tara more and more, a disturbing pattern emerged: the more complex her character became, the more she was punished. As her insecurities were revealed one by one, a supernatural creeper would show up to take advantage of her based on whatever weakness had just been revealed.” That’s very true and was so disheartening that by the end I completely understood why Wesley maybe wanted to leave the series early, or at least have her role drastically reduced.

Ball also chose to veer from the book series by not killing off a minor character by the name of Lafayette (played by Nelsan Ellis – one of the best talent finds of the whole series) by instead giving him a much bigger role and making him Tara’s cousin. Lafeyette would go on to not only explore race relations, but seriously subvert clichés about gay men. Lafayette also had a seriously interesting arc and one of the best, most tragic romances with Jesus Velasquez (Kevin Alejandro) not to mention slowly discovering he was a spirit-medium … but, again, by the last season his character was seriously reduced and his sole arc came down to being part of a love triangle between vampire Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll) and her lover, James (Nathan Parsons) – after being such an interesting and subversive presence, Lafayette was left in the last season to be defined by his sexuality and a half-baked romance. Ugh.

Another minor book character who was given a more integral role in the TV show was Terry Bellefleur (played by Todd Lowe) – as in the books, Terry was a war veteran ravaged by PTSD. He was always an interesting character for Sookie’s being able to see the kindness in his heavy heart. That he also got to play most of his role opposite Carrie Preston’s Arlene, was nothing short of spectacular. She was evil in the book series, but turned into a surprisingly well-developed character in the show, eventually coming full-circle by the finale. Preston was another real great talent find of this series, and she’d go on to make impacting guest appearances in shows like The Good Wife (as the brilliant lawyer Elsbeth Tascioni … and I’m not alone in hoping for a spin-off show with Elsbeth and Kyle MacLachlan’s Josh Perotti happens one day!)

The other characters to tip my hat to in the show are all the villains – the best of which had to be Steve and Sarah Newlin, played with gospel-goodwill enthusiasm by Michael McMillian and Anna Camp as religious anti-vamp campaigners. Denis O'Hare’s Russell Edgington was also a theatrical treat as a thousands-year-old anti-mainstreaming vampire with werewolf flunkies. And James Frain’s turn as the seriously creepy and lonely vampire Franklin Mott was inspired casting. And perhaps one of the downfalls of the finale season was the lack of real bad guys to give the season direction – especially after we’d been so spoiled for core baddies in all other seasons, right from season one’s human serial killer, René Lenier (Michael Raymond-James).

So now I’ve come this far and have yet to mention the “core” characters of book and TV series. *Sigh*. Okay, let’s do this – Sookie Stackouse, played by Anna Paquin.

It’s always the case that the main character of a series inevitably becomes the most annoying, right? Like, there’s an algorithm that proves this I’m pretty sure. They’re the person we spend the most time with, and every new season-arc depends on them doing repeatedly stupid shit to keep finding themselves in perilous situations. The one good thing about Sookie Stackhouse in True Blood though, was that the show seemed painfully self-aware of how annoying she was. I mean, they gifted audiences with this line from Pam De Beaufort (played by the goddamn glorious, Kristin Bauer van Straten): “I am so over Sookie and her precious fairy vagina and her unbelievably stupid name. Fuck Sookie!” She was speaking for all of us then.

Basically Sookie was as problematic in the TV series as she became in the books – and it’s important to note that ‘Dead Ever After’ was released in 2013, while True Blood finished in August 2014 – so by that time the TV audience were as frustrated with Sookie’s trajectory as the book audience were and perhaps fed one another’s displeasure.

Certainly Sookie started out as a bit of a contradiction – she was at once a busty blonde Southern belle, but also a serious outsider in her own community for her telepathic powers. A 20-something virgin wise beyond her years, partly for having a window into the minds of those around her, she was outwardly the archetypal (even quite boring) heroine, but below the surface there was a lot more going on which was a recurring theme of the series as a whole, which also featured shifter characters who were so far from what they seemed.

But Anna Paquin’s Sookie did suffer just as book-Sookie did when her genealogy was revealed to be fairy. This was a confusing storyline, not exactly helped by the conflicting-Disney connotations of faeries that audiences (and Sookie) had to contend with, so different from the Gothicism of vamps and werewolves.

And just as in Charlaine Harris’s books, the faerie storyline rarely worked – but where it was convoluted and just plain lame in the books, in the HBO show it became tacky and laughable;

Sookie’s love-life also became a sore point for book fans, who were all rooting for tall, blonde and Viking Eric Northman (played – deliciously – by Alexander Skarsgård in True Blood) to somehow win Sookie’s heart … even though that was never, ever going to happen with the Sookie Charlaine Harris had consistently presented.

The show found a real winner in Alexander Skarsgård as Eric, not least because he is of Swedish descent and Alan Ball struck gold with the actors’ chemistry opposite Kristin Bauer van Straten’s Pam (Eric and Pam were, in my mind, the ultimate power couple of True Blood, the one true love story of seven seasons).

However; a lot of Eric’s brilliance was a little undone by seventh season showrunner Brian Buckner – right down to a 1980s flashback that suggested for all of Eric’s wonder and astonishment at having developed feelings for the human Sookie, he’d actually had a similar relationship with another human woman called Sylvie. Ugh. The nicest thing I can say about season seven is that it gave us 80’s Eric (plus 80’s Eric and Pam running a videostore). But that’s it … well, and possibly his throne-romp with Fangtasia staffer, Ginger (Tara Buck).

The other vampire vying for Sookie’s heart was Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer, who would go on to become Anna Paquin’s husband in 2010). Look, Bill was always going to be a hard character to portray … he was a dubious first boyfriend in the books, and when his true motivations in loving Sookie were revealed fans pretty much wrote him off. Moyer was given a lot more material to work with in True Blood but as with so many characters in the show, his role became ever more ridiculous – to go from a genuinely interesting Civil War soldier with a tragic turning (and a brilliant evil maker in Lorena, played by Mariana Klaveno – who should be in more, better things) to a vampire-God reincarnation of Lilith (leading to endless Bilith jokes) just covered in fake goo blood. Ugh. It’s weird that his end on True Blood was so tragic, when in the books (according to Harri’s coda) Bill actually became … cool? – a successful video-game developer and King of Louisiana.

Speaking of Lilith … contrary to popular belief, I don’t think the show started going seriously downhill after Alan Ball left. Rather, I think it was Alan Ball’s fifth season Swan Song that left the writers with a heaping mess. This season went seriously off the rails, and probably partly because the show completely diverted from Sookie’s storyline in the book series. As such, Sookie was taken out of vampire politics, just as the vampire politics was bought to the fore by letting viewers see behind the Vampire Authority. Fifth season also seriously dropped the ball by not having more of a focus on Tara’s turning into a vampire, at Sookie’s bequest. That should have been the whole pivot-point for Sookie, but instead became a footnote in the wider political arc.

But back to Sookie’s “precious fairy vagina” … season six saw her paired with a vampire/faerie hybrid who killed her parents, called Warlow. Now, when I first watched this season I remember thinking Warlow was kinda the perfect solution for Sookie – she could become a vampire who walks in the daylight and still gets to eat food, plus Rob Kazinsky is fairly easy on the eyes. But upon re-watch it’s hard not to resent Warlow for taking up a lot of Sookie’s time (that probably should have been spent repairing her relationship with Tara, tbh) and also Warlow’s belief that he somehow owns Sookie is a serious exploration of intimate partner violence, and men who think that what they’re doing is somehow a sick form of love. I really thought Sookie’s parting line to Warlow – “I do not complete you!” – was spot-on too.

Alcide Herveaux was always a step out of time with Sookie in the books, but True Blood became the show that launched Joe Manganiello’s thousand abs and finally saw this fictional pairing happen. But it was pretty “meh” by the time Alcide and Sookie got round to hooking up (and it was so brief). Overwhelmingly what I’m left thinking about the whole shifter storyline (and this goes for Sam, played by the oh-so-loveable Sam Trammell too) was something that Kelly Link and Holly Black mused on at Brisbane Writers Festival this year … that vampires have traditionally read as “aristocracy”, while werewolf/shapeshifters have always been interpreted as “blue collar/working class”. That was so painfully true throughout True Blood – and how all the freakin’ werewolf scenes took place in either a barn or a dive-bar … both True Blood and Twilight (the whole Team Edwards VS. Team Jacob can totally be read as class-warfare) have succeeded in imbedding this unspoken “rule” further into the supernatural lexicon … which is kinda boring. Especially for a show that used vampires to discuss gay rights, they didn’t think to subvert discussions around class divide with these characters who have always been lumped into the same role?

Which brings me to some final thoughts on True Blood … while Charlaine Harris’ book series went a long way to helping create the urban fantasy/paranormal romance genre, there really wasn’t a whole lot of new ground trod in True Blood, though the series started out with the potential to do so much. I still maintain that it was a good show, and the first three or four seasons bought injections of fun back into the horror/slasher TV genre. But in the end it was more the sum of its parts that stand out in memory – characters like Tara and Lafeyette who were more unique and special than the show itself. Even the finale episode, which sees heroine Sookie stake and kill her first true love, Bill – you can’t say that was original either (since Buffy had once done the same to her true love, Angel – though nowhere near as gory).

I’ve heard Alan Ball summarise the show as “the horrors of intimacy”, and that is true. Admittedly, sometimes that intimacy was so ludicrous that it (literally) turned heads, and towards the end it did feel like the show was trying to out-do itself in the extreme-sex stakes … but at the end of the day it was a show about love, and getting your heart ripped out. Sometimes literally. And that’s kinda awesome.

... did I forget to mention Jason Stackhouse? (played by Vinnie Patterson ... I mean Ryan Kwanten!). Look, loveable fool Jason was pretty one-note, but by-golly did Ryan Kwanten play that note exceptionally well! 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

‘Illuminae’ The Illuminae Files_01 by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Received from the Publisher 

From the BLURB:

Kady and Ezra thought their break-up was messy until they witnessed their entire world literally falling apart. Now they're are piecing together what's left of their lives, and their romance, and trying to survive an intergalactic war. An innovatively designed story that's best described as Battlestar Galactica meets 10 Things I Hate About You.

The year is 2575, and two rival mega-corporations are at war over a planet that's little more than an ice-covered speck at the edge of the universe. Too bad nobody thought to warn the people living on it. With enemy fire raining down on them, exes Kady and Ezra - who are barely even talking to each other - are forced to fight their way onto the evacuating fleet, with an enemy warship in hot pursuit.

But the warship is the least of their problems. A deadly plague has broken out and is mutating, with terrifying results. The fleet's AI, which should be protecting them, may actually be their enemy; and nobody in charge will say what the hell is going on. As Kady hacks into a tangled web of data to find the truth, it's clear only one person can help her bring it all to light: the ex-boyfriend she swore she'd never speak to again.

‘Illuminae’ is the first book in ‘The Illuminae Files_01’ trilogy, written by Australian young adult authors, Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff – two of our most exciting LoveOzYA exports!

‘Illuminae’ is a 599-page book of sheer awesomeness, and one of my favourite reads of 2015. Hands down. It’s an epistolary novel written in classified documents, interview recordings, Wikipedia-like entries and other extravagantly detailed materials … to give you some idea of the scope of the thing, let me just say that ship insignia illustrations were done by Stuart Wade, ship blueprint and schematics by Meinert Hansen and movie poster illustration by Kristen Gudsnuk. And to further blow your mind, know that the audiobook has 20 voice actors. Um. Yeah. It’s space operatic-epic and a real triumph of design and story.

And to that story – it is the tale of two teenagers and recent exes, Kady and Ezra who have lived their whole lives on the Kerenza Colony … their very existence was basically illegal, as Kerenza was mining concentrations of a substance called hermium in direct violation of the law, and only able to do so for their remoteness in the galaxy. But it’s why the Battle of Kerenza came about, and Kady and Ezra’s whole lives blown to high hell by BeiTech Industries who were trying to stomp out their competition and contribute to the ongoing but unspoken Stellarcorp War.

But that’s the Unipedia entry of events; footnotes to the bigger, overarching ordeal. ‘Illuminae’ is really all about Kady and Ezra, two teens with no love lost between them who find themselves pawns in the middle of intergalactic corporate warfare … of which they want no part, but find themselves drawn deeper and deeper into this galactic game of cat and mouse.

Y’know how Battlestar Galactica is actually exploring religion and civil liberty … Or, okay – how Joss Whedon’s Firefly isn’t really just an intergalactic-Western? But rather it’s inspired by the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg and the everyday people who are stepped on in the great moments of history, and that it’s even a story of the immigrant experience and outsiders pushed to the fringe by the victors in a war they never wanted any part of? Yep, okay – well, in the same way there is a lot happening beneath the surface of Illuminae.

The universe was here long before you. 
It will go on long after you. 
Do something worthy of remembrance.

On the one hand it is indeed “Battlestar Galactica meets 10 Things I Hate About You,” and a fantastically entertaining space opera with explosions and romance to boot. BUT it’s also an incredibly thoughtful and breathtakingly expansive tale of political intrigue and subterfuge, the chilling parallels for which can be found in the real world … need I remind of America’s bombing an M.S.F. hospital in Kunduz city of Afghanistan? (which seems to have already vanished from the headlines and peoples conscience).

What makes Illuminae a particularly hard-hitting, gut-punch of allegory and action is that we are following two teenagers, Kady and Ezra, in this epic fallout of a battle that has forever changed their lives. These two are so relatable and likeable, both for their messy break-up and steely fortitude in the wake of tragedy and disaster. I understand that Illuminae is the first time Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman have written characters that share their gender – Kristoff of course has written the bestselling ‘The Lotus War’ trilogy with female protagonist Yukiko, while Amie Kaufman is one-half of the ‘Starbound’ writing duo with Meagan Spooner, it’s Kaufman who writes all the male roles in that series. So with Kristoff writing Ezra and Kaufman Cady, ‘Illuminae’ is the first time they’ve written to their own gender, and the results are kind of incredible. Neither Ezra nor Cady pander to gendered stereotypes – neither is the hero while the other a damsel; instead they take turns saving themselves and each other right back, they are each formidable, and it’s especially worth mentioning that they are angry – gloriously, understandably angry.

There’s also a seriously intriguing element of unreliable narration in this epistolary book, when readers are sometimes forced to consider where a document has come from and who has written it with a hidden/public-relations agenda … and then of course there’s that element to the classified documents readers are privy to, which force you to consider why they were not made public in the first place. I actually think a fair amount of the book can be summarised with the George Orwell quote; “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.”

‘Illuminae’ is a seriously impressive coalescence of story and design. And perhaps it is because of how closely aligned the visual and story are, that I kept thinking this was like some sort of graphic novel treat – indeed I’d say that if you enjoy Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga, then Illuminae is the book for you! The narrative is extraordinary, not least for the ways it harnesses the epistolary format to heighten tension, drama and add another layer of intrigue for readers to wade through … it’s actually a novel that has to be seen to be believed.

An absolute favourite of 2015, I can’t wait for the next two books in ‘The Illuminae Files_01’ and I’m just in awe of what Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, two of our best and brightest, have created. The buzz is legit, people – this one is seriously special.



Wednesday, October 21, 2015

AUDIOBOOK: ‘The Time Traveler's Wife’ written by Audrey Niffenegger, narrated by William Hope and Laurel Lefkow

From the BLURB:

Audrey Niffenegger's dazzling debut is the story of Clare, a beautiful, strong-minded art student, and Henry, an adventuresome librarian, who have known each other since Clare was six and Henry was thirty-six, and were married when Clare was twenty-three and Henry thirty-one. Impossible but true, because Henry is one of the first people diagnosed with Chrono-Displacement Disorder: his genetic clock randomly resets and he finds himself misplaced in time, pulled to moments of emotional gravity from his life, past and future. His disappearances are spontaneous and unpredictable, and lend a spectacular urgency to Clare and Henry's unconventional love story. That their attempt to live normal lives together is threatened by something they can neither prevent nor control makes their story intensely moving and entirely unforgettable.

Written by: Audrey Niffenegger 
Narrated by: William Hope and Laurel Lefkow 
Length: 17 hrs and 44 minsUnabridged Audiobook

‘The Time Traveler's Wife’ is the 2003 novel by Audrey Niffenegger, which went on to become a worldwide bestseller and was adapted into a (terrible) 2009 film starring Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams.

There have apparently been several abridged and unabridged audiobooks made of the novel – the book’s Wikipedia page suggests there are four floating around – but I bought mine from iTunes and it’s the William Hope and Laurel Lefkow version, the narrators who also did the first BBC audiobook.

I read ‘The Time Traveler's Wife’ when it first came out in 2003 – I was 16 at the time and such was the buzz around this novel that I broke away from my school set-texts and recreational young adult books to pick this bestseller up. I do remember quite vividly reading it over the summer holidays, and just being utterly destroyed by the ending. Like, I remember periodically crying for a couple of days after I’d finished reading … but also desperately wanting a read-alike that so beautifully mixed this very genre-scifi concept of time travel with the ravages of the heart (I was a very intense teenager).

I was compelled to revisit the book because last year during a Reddit Q&A, Audrey Niffenegger revealed that she was working on two books – ‘The Chinchilla Girl in Exile’ (supposedly due out this year, but I have my doubts unfortunately) and a sort of sequel to ‘The Time Traveler's Wife’, about Henry and Clare’s time-travelling daughter all grown up, Alba DeTamble. I was so freakin’ excited by this news – and the discovery that a 2013 ebook anniversary edition of the book includes a 25-page excerpt of this sequel (sadly though, I’m yet to actually find this elusive ebook anniversary edition?!)

So I wanted to revisit Henry and Clare’s story in anticipation of Alba’s sequel, even though it’s yet to get a blurb or anywhere close to a release date reveal. But I was hesitant going into this ebook, because I did have that memory of my 16-year-old self being positively wrecked by the book.

I was still emotionally drained by the audiobook – such is the crushing power of Niffenegger’s tragic love story – but I got so much enjoyment out of this re-read and listen. William Hope and Laurel Lefkow narrate Henry and Clare’s alternating perspective chapters, and they’re both a complete delight. Hope has that rough bravado of Henry down pat, and he swears brilliantly (there is a lot of swearing in this novel, but in Hope’s biting narration it becomes somewhat poetic). And Lefkow just has this sweet disposition interspersed with Clare’s steely strength … and both narrators seem to have great fun with the material and passion for it, which definitely came through.

When I tweeted that I was listening to this, someone mentioned that the book so unsettled them because Henry as a 30-something time traveler meets his future wife when she’s in single-digits. Yes, this is a big component of the story – that time traveling Henry meets his wife as a young girl and then periodically over her lifetime until their timelines match up. I don’t remember being unsettled by the notion when I first read the book, and was even less so in listening to the audiobook. I think because Niffenegger so communicates the wonder of this love story – without ever making readers question Henry’s intentions towards Clare’s child-self. There is nothing improper happening here. And William Hope in his narration does a fine job of communicating Henry’s interiority in these scenes – wherein he knows how utterly insane this whole thing is, but at the same time kind of magical.

When I first read the book I was consumed by the love story of Henry and Clare and how tragic/magic it was. I had fun revisiting the erotic intensity of their love affair, but knowing that Alba has a book coming up, I found myself really thinking more about Henry’s Chrono Displacement and what it would mean for a life.

Long ago, men went to sea, and women waited for them, standing on the edge of the water, scanning the horizon for the tiny ship. Now I wait for Henry. He vanishes unwillingly, without warning. I wait for him. Each moment that I wait feels like a year, an eternity. Each moment is as slow and transparent as glass. Through each moment I can see infinite moments lined up, waiting. Why has he gone where I cannot follow? 
I can definitely see why Niffenegger would want to revisit this world – particularly in Henry’s daughter who has a very unique relationship with her father that’s out of time … I’m so interested to read Alba’s story, and to catch up with Henry and Clare again. I now find myself desperate to know how Clare fared later in life, and how Alba managed to establish a relationship with Henry in snatches of his history.

‘The Time Traveller’s’ wife was just as magical and heartbreaking as I remembered, but as has been happening a lot with audiobooks, this one opened up new dimensions of the story and had me reconsidering certain plots of the book. I also came away from the audiobook a little frustrated that the film – which had a screenplay written by Bruce Joel Rubin, who wrote the Patrick Swayze film ‘Ghost’ (so how did he get this story so wrong?!) – was so terrible, when there was such great source material. Halfway through listening I actually thought there might still be adaptation life in ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ … but maybe as a graphic novel?! I don’t know – I guess because art appreciation and creation is such a big part of Clare’s life, I got to thinking how great it would be to see this story represented in that way.


Thursday, October 15, 2015

'The River And The Book' by Alison Croggon

From the BLURB:

Combining magical realism and fable, this lyrical tale is the story of a landscape and community destroyed by Western greediness.

In our village we had two treasures: the River, which was our road and our god; and the Book, which was our history, our oracle and our soul. Simbala is a Keeper of the Book, the latest in a long line of women who can read the Book to find answers to the villagers' questions. As developers begin to poison the river on which the villagers rely, the Book predicts change. But this does not come in the form that they expect; it is the sympathetic Westerner who comes to the village who inflicts the greatest damage of all.

‘The River and the Book’ is the new youth literature work from Australia author Alison Croggon. 

This is a thought-provoking and wildly compelling book of magical realism, exploring colonialism, and exploitation of indigenous people by the First World. It’s the story of a village that has a Book which is both oracle & soul – predicting future, answering questions – but when developers come and poison the nearby river, everything changes.

Our protagonist is young woman Simbala ‘Sim’ – part of a matriarchy within her village, of women who can read The Book. But then a stranger comes, a writer, who perhaps has her own best intentions, but they inevitably unravel the Indigenous Culture with corporate greed.

Yes, there are a lot of metaphors and not terribly subtle allusions to Western Imperialism in this short, 136-page book. But I don’t know that the subject of human rights and colonialism, alongside the annihilation of Indigenous cultures can be done light-footedly. And why should it?

This is a book appropriate for readers aged 12+, I’d say – and those young readers will find important, insightful discussion within its pages. That it’s often confronting and uncomfortable reading is one of its strengths. And the proof is in the fact that the book is endorsed by Amnesty International UK, “as contributing to a better understanding of human rights and the values that underpin them.”

Mely asked me today why I keep writing this book. I was surprised by her question, and thought about it for some time. I want, I told her, to tell my story to someone, even if it is only Mely who hears it. Mely pointed out that I could just say it to her, without all the bother of scratching the pen over the paper, and cursing at my mistakes, and having to start again. “I would listen,” she said. “I like to listen to you.”

While it is slow in parts, this book will nevertheless ignite serious discussions for young readers – among them can be investigating tribes that went undetected in the modern world and avoided Westernisation. But there’s also a bit of magical realism fun in here – including a sassy talking cat – and beautiful illustrations by Katie Harnett. A small book with a powerful message.


Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Teens to the Front!

Last week I was involved in a Literary Debate for my old University, RMIT – the event being part of an assignment for current Writing & Editing students who had to come up with the concept, approach those they wanted involved, promote the debate and actually run the event. 

The debate topic was; “Are adults who read YA just BIG BABIES?” and we were kindly invited to choose which side we’d like to be on … and I chose affirmative.

Yep. I chose to play Devil’s Advocate and argue the point that adults who read young adult fiction (and I’m one of them!) are big babies.

Now, those of you who know me will know my true feelings on this topic, because they’re well-documented. But I was moved to debate from the other end of the clickbait for a couple of reasons … and one was undoubtedly the lure of a win-win outcome for me (either my teams wins – YAY! Or we lose and I am not a big baby for reading YA – YAY again!).

Another was the fact that the question posed was not about hating on the books themselves (I couldn’t have argued that in good conscience).

And finally it was the recent revelation of figures shared at The Nielsen’s Children’s Book Summit; “Eighty percent, he announced—yes, 80%—of YA titles, are bought by adults, not young adults, according to Nielsen research. And those buyers are buying those books to read, themselves.” That number kind of shocked me … and not in a good way, because it suggests that teens are not making their way to the books that are meant to be theirs. And why is that? What has happened to YA that teenagers are being led to believe that it’s no longer for them?

In debating this topic I wanted to explore whether or not this book industry trend of teens leaving YA is similar to their mass exodus from places like Facebook – at an estimated rate of up to a million a year! – when one proven reason for this is the fact that it seems like only adults are on Facebook (as investigated by the Washington Post).

It’s a bit of a double-edged sword as I see it; the increase of adults reading YA has undoubtedly helped to make it a global phenomenon and the books hugely successful, but it has also resulted in teens departing the readership. I wonder if there’s a danger in more adults reading YA – and them potentially having a bottom-dollar that matters more – which will see the readership being shaped by them and for them, and increasingly excluding teens (and, yes, I did bring up New Adult for audience consideration in the debate. I know. I know!)

Because here’s the thing – I didn’t attend literary festivals, bookshop or library events when I was a teen. I wasn’t entirely aware of them, and even if I had been I was probably too shy and would have been swayed by the disinterest of my friends to not attend. That only changed in my first year of Uni, when Richelle Mead toured Australia and my Vampire Academy fangirling won out, so I attended a local bookstore event of hers and was BLOWN AWAY. It was a heady combination of close proximity to one of my all-time favourite authors, the chance to get “insider information” on then forthcoming books and just being around fellow fans who could relate to my fervour.

After that I started getting more and more involved in the bookish communities I’d only admired from afar … I even created my own book blog after so long only reading and lurking in the comments sections of other blogs I’d appreciated from afar. I referred to it as ‘my solo book club’ – which I still see as me taking hold of my own fandom and personal interests, and who cares if I turn up to events all by my lonesome? (Of course one of the benefits of choosing to engage with these communities was actually making friends within them – friendships I’m forever thankful for).

During this time I also attended a John Marsden library event, where I cried while telling him how much Checkers means to me, and learnt about a little something then called ‘John Marsden Prize for Young Australian Writers’ (now called ‘The 2015 John Marsden Hachette Australia Prize for Young Writers’) which I entered and came runner-up in.

I’m so happy that I finally decided to engage in a community I’d longed to be more apart of for so long. And I’m still kind of floored by the fact that merely asking to be part of it was all I had to do to get in. But I still remember the teenager I was; too shy and self-conscious to engage, and I know that if I’d turned up to those first few book events and been confronted with only adults and none of my peers, I’d have been put off and retreated back into my safe shell.

Which is why I so love ‘Teens to the Front’ – a concept developed by emerging Melbourne writer David Witteveen. He’s been inspired by the revolutionary 90s counterculture Riot Grrrl movement, specifically Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna and her idea of ‘Girls to the Front’ … suggesting that music gigs could be more female-friendly if men accepted that they could be in the room, but not dominate the room.

Similarly – I believe that adults can be in the readership, but not dominate the readership.
So many organisations already promote this idea as part of their core values, like the fabulous Centre for Youth Literature. I mean; it doesn’t get more ‘Teens to the Front’ than the Inky Awards (which, btw – are announced today!) it’s a literary award voted for by teens, for teens.

Free Comic Book Day’ also allots the morning to families – and All Star Comics in Melbourne has a great courtesy policy they encourage in adults who attend, that if you’re waiting in line and there’s a little kid behind you, do the cool thing and let them go in front … because Free Comic Book Day is all about encouraging the reading of comics, and letting people see that it is a safe, fun and respectful community to be part of.

Brisbane Writers Festival that I attended this year also has a ‘Love YA’ free weekend, which specifies an age-bracket for attendees … I did show up for one ‘Love YA’ session, but I didn’t hang around for the fully-booked Cassandra Clare/Holly Black talk, because it was literally standing-room only and I was happy to give my seat to a teen fan.

That being said – there were some adults in the room who I know were publicists, librarians, teachers, or programmers – and that’s a different kettle of fish, and not who I’m talking about in the context of ‘Teens to the Front’. Because of course adults in the industry should attend teen events – librarians and teachers make the world go round, but they really make the YA readership go round.

And if you’re an adult reader of YA attending events, trust me when I say that’s fantastic – you have every right to read and celebrate whatever the heck you want, and I’m going to quote Libba Bray (always!); “Every time you open a book, it is a strike against ignorance” and it sooooooo doesn’t matter the metadata of that book.

But be cool and let all the teens have their moment with the author. Don’t monopolize question time, and don’t get upset if there are “teen-only” events organised in the future that exclude you. Be supportive of the fact that book events should really include teen panelists to discuss YA books (*cough* OzYa Heroes at Readings on Oct 19 *cough*). 

And just know that it’s not always about you – it’s not that programmers are trying to over-curate events and have only the “right” kind of audience. It’s just not about you, period. It’s about letting teenagers have their own safe space to engage with each other and the books that are meant to be theirs. It’s about showing teenagers how awesome book events can be, that they won’t have their voices drowned out by the adults in the room (whether you do so knowingly or not). It’s about letting teen readers connect with one another and grow their own fan communities – heck, it’s just about letting them have fun. And don’t even get me started on changing ‘YA’ to ‘YAH’ (young at heart) … just, no.

Because we in the book community know that it’s already a fraught enough place for certain voices who don’t always get heard – whether in the books themselves, or at events – teens shouldn’t be made to suffer that hard lesson within the very readership that is mean to be theirs in the first place.

That’s why Teens to the Front; it’s meant to be a reminder that adults can be in the readership but not dominate the readership.

Friday, October 9, 2015

'Inbetween Days' by Vikki Wakefield

From the Blurb:

At seventeen, Jacklin Bates is all grown up. She’s dropped out of school. She’s living with her runaway sister, Trudy, and she’s in secret, obsessive love with Luke, who doesn’t love her back. She’s stuck in Mobius—a dying town with the macabre suicide forest its only attraction—stuck working in the roadhouse and babysitting her boss’s demented father.

A stranger sets up camp in the forest and the boy next door returns; Jack’s father moves into the shed and her mother steps up her campaign to punish Jack for leaving, too. Trudy’s brilliant façade is cracking and Jack’s only friend, Astrid, has done something unforgivable.

Jack is losing everything, including her mind. As she struggles to hold onto the life she thought she wanted, Jack learns that growing up is complicated—and love might be the biggest mystery of all.

InbetweenDays’ is the new contemporary YA novel from Australian author, Vikki Wakefield.

It’s taken me so long to get around to writing a proper review of this book because a lot of crazy things have been happening lately and I’ve found myself getting so busy … I had to come back and do a re-read of Wakefield’s new gem before I could sit down to write a proper review, and in doing so I re-discovered a little slice of literary calm in the midst of my hectic waking life. A novel to take me completely out of myself; enjoying eating up Wakefield’s richly imagined small-town and the complex fighting character of Jacklin Bates – and I’m reminded all over again of what a captivating author Vikki Wakefield is.

‘Inbetween Days’ is about Jack, who has a complicated relationship with her sister and the boy she wants more from. Jack lives in a town that has a ‘suicide forest’, where people frequently go to die, and I particularly adored the town of Mobius – a setting that’s as rich and complex as the characters and impacts on them a lot. Mobius begs the question; what does it do to a town that’s a dead-end (literally) for so many people?

Morning arrived late to our town and night came early; it was ten by the time the sun made it over Pryor Ridge and around four when it ducked behind Mount Moon. Everything in Mobius stretched to reach the light: we built out houses on stilts, our trees grew tall and spindly, our shadows were long.

Now, tell me that little description doesn’t have the ring of Harper Lee to it?

Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer's day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men's stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.

(P.S. – that’s one of my all time favourite slices of writing, from ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’)

This novel has Vikki Wakefield covering a lot of new territory – a real break away from ‘Friday Brown’ and ‘All I Ever Wanted’. For one, she really delves into matters of “romance” which were glancing blows in her first two books – in ‘Inbetween Days’ there’s a love triangle of sorts (a very Vikki Wakefield triangle, to be sure) and I’ve got to say I particularly appreciated reading sexual politics being negotiated by Wakefield’s Jack, a young woman who is piecing together the difference between sexual desire and true intimacy.

I also loved the dynamic of Jack’s relationship to her sister, Trudy, who she has moved in with after dropping out of school. Mim in ‘All I Ever Wanted’ may have had some dubiously strapping older brothers, and Friday Brown had what started as an oddly sisterly-sick relationship with Arden, but in ‘Inbetween Days’ Wakefield really delves into this tricky familial bond with fascinating results;

Trudy lunged. She grabbed my arm and dragged me off the bed. I hit the floor, bellowing. Trudy hauled me up from behind, digging her fingers into my armpits and shoving me along in front of her like a sack of manure. At the bathroom door she gave me one hard shove. While I leaned over the basin, she ran the shower.She elbowed me in, fully clothed, without waiting for the water to run hot.

I loved reading Jack and Trudy scenes – there’s something visceral in Wakefield’s writing them, I can practically taste the adrenaline when they corner each other like that.

But there are also many aspects to ‘Inbetween Days’ that make this a wholly beautiful Vikki Wakefield book. Like, for instance, the writing of marginalised characters from lower socio-economic backgrounds. I think when youth literature talks about ‘We Need Diverse Books’, it’s often racial and sexual diversity that gets talked about the most – but really all kinds of diverse characters are needed, and a rather insidious common portrayal of white middle-class characters often pervades youth lit. Wakefield doesn’t hold to that – she constantly challenges with her books. In all three she has written characters who are struggling – they don’t have a fixed address (like Friday and her mother) or they’re in constant trouble with the law (Mim’s family in ‘All I Ever Wanted’). This is explored again in ‘Inbetween Days’, with drop-out Jack whose regional town is dying so thoroughly that she finds herself without a job … Wakefield’s characters remain some of the truest and most vital to modern Australian young adult literature.

‘Inbetween Days’ is Australian YA gothic. It’s at times bleak and tender, with touches of romance threaded with heartache, all playing out in a town that’s dead and dying. As anyone who has read a Vikki Wakefield novel knows, it’s near impossible to completely summarise her stories; save to say it’s another ‘must-read’ from one of Australia’s best young adult authors writing today.


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