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Thursday, July 28, 2016

'Women’s Bodies in Speculative Fiction' - Stella Prize Schools Blog

I have a new piece up on the Stella Prize Schools Blog: 

For my fourth Stella Schools Blog guest post, I spoke with Australian YA authors Michael PryorMelina Marchetta, and Ambelin Kwaymullina about the representation of women characters in fantasy YA, and how they approach the issue in their own work.
Also includes a list of recommended YA spec-fic reads which promote body diversity! 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

On women and violence in fiction - Guest post by Ambelin Kwaymullina

On women and violence in fiction

I love a love story. I love first kisses and lingering gazes. I love misunderstandings and shared laughter and a pulse quickening in passion. Or perhaps panic, as our hero holds onto our heroine’s arm just a little too tightly or loses his temper a little too often … wait. This is starting to sound like a different sort of story.  

But it must be a love story, because I’ve certainly read this kind of thing in some romance books or as part of a romantic subplot in books of other genres. I’ve found these tales in novels for adults, and I’ve encountered them too in books published in the Young Adult field. These stories generally end well, with a satisfying ‘happily ever after’. But what if our couple walked off the page and into the real world? Where might the heroine be, one year after that final chapter?

The book contains the clues we need to work it out. The controlling behavior of the hero (although he only acts that way to keep his beloved safe, for it’s a dangerous world and she is poorly equipped to deal with it on her own). Perhaps he even struck her once (but was immediately and deeply sorry, and apologised with an extravagant gift). Besides, he might not have hit her at all. Perhaps there was only the threat of violence, an instinct which he nobly restrained (because that is how much he loves her). And if the weakness she feels in her knees as she gazes up into his brooding features is partly caused by fear – what of it? Drama is part of all great love stories. Besides, small behaviors and one-off incidents are nothing to worry about. Except that that behaviours escalate. And the things our heroine would have run from in the beginning aren’t enough to send her running later, not after she has lost herself a piece at a time.

So where is she, on the one year anniversary of that final scene? Smaller than she was – no. She is exactly the same size. But she hunches in on herself to take up less space in the world. She pulls down a sleeve to cover a bruise on her arm, then laughs about how clumsy she is when she sees you notice. Perhaps you laugh with her. Or perhaps you don’t. There might be something in her eyes that’s starting to worry you. But it’s hard to interpret her reactions when you haven’t seen her in such a long time. She lost contact with you, and all the other people she used to know. But that’s as it should be, because she doesn’t need anyone except her hero. He is the one who is there when she cries, or when she cries out. And he always knows what to do.

I don’t think I was reading a love story, after all.


Ambelin Kwaymullina is an Aboriginal writer, illustrator and academic who comes from the Palyku people of the Pilbara region of Western Australia. She works at the Law School at the University of Western Australia and is the author of a number of picture books as well as the YA speculative fiction series, The Tribe.  

'The Angels' Share' The Bourbon Kings #2 by J. R. Ward

Received from the Publisher 

From the BLURB:

Behind the glamorous facade of Kentucky's most famous family lurks a secret - one that threatens its very foundation . . .

In Charlemont, Kentucky, the Bradford family is the crème de la crème of high society - just like their exclusive brand of bourbon. And their complicated lives and vast estate are run by a discrete staff who inevitably become embroiled in their affairs. This is especially true now, when the apparent suicide of the family patriarch is starting to look more and more like murder.

No one is above suspicion - especially the eldest Bradford son, Edward. The bad blood between him and his father is known far and wide, and he is aware that he could be named a suspect. As the investigation into the death intensifies, he keeps himself busy at the bottom of a bottle - as well as with his former horse trainer's daughter. Meanwhile, the family's financial future lies in the perfectly manicured hands of a business rival, a woman who wants Edward all to herself.

Everything has consequences; everybody has secrets. And few can be trusted. Then, at the very brink of the family's demise, someone thought lost to them forever returns to the fold. Maxwell Bradford has come home. But is he a saviour . . . or the worst of all the sinners?

‘The Angels' Share’ is the second book in a new family saga and contemporary fiction series by J. R. Ward. It’s following on from the events of first book, ‘The Bourbon Kings’ – which is also where the series takes its title name.

I didn’t mind last year’s first book in this new contemporary series from J. R. Ward, who is branching out from her insanely popular romantic urban fantasy vampire series’ ‘Black Dagger Brotherhood’ (the 14th book of which is also out this year), and her gritty angel series, ‘Fallen Angels’. But I was suitably forewarned ahead of my reading ‘The Bourbon Kings’, not to expect a romance. As such, I came away from that first book thinking it had a lot of problems, but had also laid some interesting enough foundations for me to come back for the second instalment … unfortunately ‘The Angels' Share’ is a hot mess. Or, rather, not even a hot mess; as the problems of the first book seem to have carried over and been exacerbated to an almost unreadable point in this second foray. Let me see if I can explain …

Partly why I was keen to come back for round two with Ward’s Bradford Family, was the hopes that the lacklustre semi-protagonist and HEA pairing in the first book wouldn’t pull such a focus in the second. Middle-son Lane and his Sabrina-esque romance with landscape gardener Lizzie was a total snooze-fest in ‘Bourbon Kings’. A lot of their romance was about alluding to their love affair of two years prior, and asking readers to believe that they really were as hot n’ heavy as they kept saying they were.

I was keen, from reading the blurb of ‘The Angels' Share’ that this second book would follow a similar series structure to the Black Dagger Brotherhood, and only allow Lane and Lizzie to pop in for cameos, but would otherwise let eldest and broken brother Edward take the story reigns and so on with each subsequent instalment, alternating character-focus … unfortunately, that’s not the case. Lane still gets majority page-time, and as he’s taken over the declining family business we still get a lot of him. Except this time it’s a lot of him crunching numbers with family lawyers, blackmailing his accountant buddy from New York to keep crunching numbers, and just generally being a snooze-fest. That extends to his still lacklustre relationship with Lizzie – the two of them don’t even get sex scenes, instead they get this;

“When you and I were in my father’s office, I wanted to push everything off the top of his desk and have sex with you on the damn thing.” 
“Yes.” He shrugged. “Depraved?” 
Lizzie considered the hypothetical with a smile. “Not really. Although I actually can’t decide whether that’s erotic or just going to create a mess on the floor that it’s going to kill me not to clean up.” 

.... Yah.
This scene ends, FYI, with Lizzie and Lane having sex (that we don’t read about) on Lizzie’s desk, but not before Lane suggests carefully placing Lizzie’s laptop on the floor instead of pushing it off in the heat of passion. Cue: missionary.

Edward’s storyline from the first book had him in unrequited love with the daughter (and CEO) of a rival business family. But when we first meet up with Edward in ‘The Angels' Share’, there’s no mention of Sutton and instead he’s playing with fire (in a halfway titillating way too!) with his new stable hand, Shelby. Unfortunately this goes nowhere, and Shelby as a character joins the rank and file of about 20 others who don’t really make a whole lot of sense in this series, and roughly 18 of them should probably vamoose off the page …

Look, I know Ward thinks she’s writing Dallas meets Downton Abbey. I get it. She even has Lizzie allude to the fact;

Lizzie looked away, her brows lowering. When her eyes shifted back, she spoke in a soft voice. “Just so you and I are clear, yes, I may be staff, but I don’t need the wake-up call that’s coming your way. I am well aware of the situation this household is in, and if it makes you feel better to play Downton Abbey with me, that’s fine. But it’s not going to change the reality that your ‘modest’ wedding reception is more than you can afford right now. And I’m not ordering so much as a dandelion head without your brother’s permission.” 
Gin felt the branches of her extensive family tree straighten her spine. “Well, I have never—”

But it’s not working here. And her trying to cover all manner of upstairs/downstairs commentary has made for a fractured series in which I don’t end up caring or even liking any of the Bradford Family, I speed-read through the scenes of Master Distiller (I’m not even kidding) Edwin “Mack” MacAllan and wonder what the heck Lane’s NY accountant buddy is even doing here if there’s not going to be an inkling of set-up for him in future books beyond a minor plot-point in ‘Angels’ Share’ …

I only slogged through reading this book (and then speed-reading a far chunk of it) for Bradford sister (and Daisy Buchanan-wannabe) Gin, and her broken romance with family friend/lawyer, Samuel T. Gin had a violent encounter resulting in rape towards the end of the first book, at the hands of the man she convinced herself she needed to agree to marry because Samuel T. wouldn’t have her, and she was running out of money. Gin’s storyline is the only one with high stakes and interest for me, and it’s not that I want to read her being repeatedly abused (the scenes are mostly alluded to in this book, not as graphic as in the first) but it’s also that she and Samuel T. have been set up with believable back-story that’s the only one I’m invested in … in the form of Gin having been a pregnant teenager, giving birth to Samuel T’s lovechild, Amelia, whom Gin seems to have neglected throughout her young life and Samuel T doesn't even know is his.

I was purely reading ‘The Angels’ Share’ in the end, to get caught up on the Gin/Amelia/Samuel T. saga. That’s it for me – and though it was especially unsatisfying in this book (again: Amelia who actually makes sense as a character loses page-time to the likes of accountant buddy, stable hand and Master Distiller) I will probably come back for the third, only in the hopes that their fractured family pull focus, and J.R. Ward at least attempts to correct the course of this train-wreck series.

‘The Bourbon Kings’ series is not good, let’s just put that out there. It’s actually pretty goddam awful … if you like the idea of a Bourbon Family Legacy in the genteel South, then I suggest you pick up Tiffany Reisz’s new book ‘The Bourbon Thief’ for a good bout of mystery-erotica too. Because right now, J.R. Ward’s ‘The Bourbon Kings’ is suffering from a lack of clear direction and an ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ saga-syndrome. It’s refusal to be a romance is also clearly hindering the scope of possibility, and direction for many characters.


Friday, July 22, 2016

MWF and ROMA 2016

Hello Darling Readers!

Have you noticed - I'm slowly getting back into the swing of reviewing things? Yay for me! I have missed updating the blog :) 

Just thought I'd interrupt the (now!) regularly scheduled reviewing to share some good news and events that are coming up ... 

I am very lucky to have FIVE session at this year's Melbourne Writers Festival - I get to chair events for the enviably talented duo of Vikki Wakefield and Claire Zorn, plus two authors you might have heard of - Rainbow Rowell and David Levithan? I get to ask Clementine Ford and Amy Gray their opinions on opinion writing - I think they'll have a few. Myself and Myke Bartlett will talk all about reviewing, and then I'll be teaming up with Sonia Nair for a fun and intense workshop on exactly how to write digital content and get your work published. Phew! 

All details of my MWF session can be found here:

And in other news ... I'm a finalist in the 2016 ROMA - the Romance Writers of Australia Media Award! Two of my Wheeler Centre Notes pieces are nominated this year - “It Takes a Village to Write Romance: The Surprising Rise of Collaborative Fiction” & "By Any Other Name: The Secret Lives of Romance Authors”!

And in extra good news, the third ROMA finalist is yet another Wheeler Centre creation - “The F Word: Romance” panel, featuring the wonderful Kat from BookThingo

Thursday, July 14, 2016

'The Smell of Other People's Houses' by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock and 'Juniors' by Kaui Hart Hemmings

I’m very slowly easing back into my reviewer-groove; but life has been pretty hectic lately, and while I am certainly reading more than ever it’s just hard to sit down and collate my thoughts into halfway decent reviews. But I am trying.

With that in mind, I wanted to try a slightly different tact in discussing these two books that I’ve read and loved. The first was Kaui Hart Hemmings first foray in YA fiction with ‘Juniors’, which I loved so much that it made it onto my 2015 Favourites list! The second was a book I received an advance reader copy of via NetGalley, ‘The Smell of Other People's Houses debut YA novel by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock.

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about these two books, and how much I wanted to write reviews for both of them. But then I realized one of the reasons both these books imprinted on me so much was for their unique placement within the American YA realm, and in particular their distinctive settings. So I decided to write a combo-review, praising both books as marvellously good reads unto themselves, but in particular for these authors writing about teens in corners of America that we don’t normally visit in YA fiction (more’s the pity!) …

From the BLURB:

The Smell of Other People's Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock 
 Alaska, 1970: growing up here is like nowhere else. Ruth wants to be remembered by her grieving mother. Dora wishes she was invisible to her abusive father.Alyce is staying at home to please her parents. Hank is running away for the sake of his brothers. Four very different lives are about to become entangled. Because if we don't save each other, how can we begin to save ourselves?

Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock’s YA debut ‘The Smell of Other People's Houses’ is set at, “the edge of America's Last Frontier,” – Alaska. It’s really more a book of intertwining vignettes rather than a linear, sole-protagonist plot. And I rather appreciated the fact that Hitchcock was telling four different Alaskan teen stories – because the moment I was dropped into this wild landscape, I wanted to read as widely and variedly as possible. The book opens with first character Ruth, detailing her life in Alaska from 1958-1963, an interesting period of the Alaska Statehood Committee and Alaska's Constitutional Convention – but the changes to Ruth’s homeland pale in comparison to a tragedy that rocks and splits her family apart.

Ruth’s story was the strongest for me, if only because she has the most upheaval in her life. But also because the moment I read Hitchcock’s opening Ruth chapter, I was riveted and goosebumping all over the place. I mean, this is a paragraph from the first page;

Sometimes Daddy would bring me a still-warm deer heart in a bowl and let me touch it with my fingers. I would put my lips to it and kiss its smooth, pink flesh, hoping to feel it beating, but it was all beat out. Mama would call him Daniel Boone as she laughed into his bare neck and he twirled his bloody fingers through her hair and they danced around the kitchen. Mama was the kind of person who put wildflowers in whisky bottles. Lupine and foxglove in the kitchen, lilacs in the bathroom. She smelled like marshy muskeg after a hard rain, and even with blood in her hair, she was beautiful.

What I loved about ‘The Smell of Other People's Houses’ was that these stories were not presented as unique or exotic for their Alaskan setting. This is just life, for these teens. This is their world, and it’s much like teen stories the world over – there are have’s and have not’s, teens falling in love and having sex (not necessarily in that order), there’s school and work and family dramas, parties and friendships forged in the fires of hardship. Wild and untamed as the setting might be, what’s wonderful about Hitchcock’s book is the realization that we actually have more in common than not with these Alaskan teens than you’d first think.  

But I do believe a lot of what makes this book really work, is in not presenting this setting through the gaze of an outsider. As indeed Hitchcock is not – she’s a fourth generation Alaskan, with an impressive bio: ‘She worked many years fishing commercially with her family and as a reporter for Alaska Public Radio stations around the state. She was also the host and producer of "Independent Native News," a daily newscast produced in Fairbanks, focusing on Alaska Natives, American Indians, and Canada's First Nations.’ And I love that she just plops readers right into the middle of this landscape and these character’s lives, and it may take a page or two to get your bearings but then you really can’t do much but let the intertwining stories of Ruth, Dora, Alyce and Hank carry you along – even as your occasionally marvel at where their stories are set.

From the BLURB:

Juniors by Kaui Hart Hemmings
Lea Lane has lived in between all her life. 
 Part Hawaiian, part Mainlander. Perpetual new girl at school. Hanging in the shadow of her actress mother’s spotlight. And now: new resident of the prominent West family’s guest cottage. 
 Bracing herself for the embarrassment of being her classmates’ latest charity case, Lea is surprised when she starts becoming friends with Will and Whitney West instead—or in the case of gorgeous, unattainable Will, possibly even more than friends. And despite their differences, Whitney and Lea have a lot in common: both are navigating a tangled web of relationships, past disappointments and future hopes. As things heat up with Will, and her friendship with Whitney deepens, Lea has to decide how much she’s willing to change in order to fit into their world. 
 Lea Lane has lived in between all her life. But it isn’t until her junior year that she learns how to do it on her own terms.

I love Kaui Hart Hemmings’ short stories – love! So I was thrilled when she turned her pen to a young adult book – particularly because when she wrote about youth in her ‘House of Thieves’ collection, they’ve been some of my favorite stories. ‘Juniors’ is more of what marks Hemmings writing so unique and complex – Hawaii setting and concentration on social dynamics and clash of classes. It all comes together in ‘Juniors’ about a teenage girl called Lea who is part Hawaiian, part Mainlander and all outsider. But when she enrols at the prestigious Punahou school and finds herself befriending the prominent West family, Lea’s world is turned even more upside down … Hemmings’ tale of a teen just trying to fit in may sound ho-hum, but the unique Hawaiian setting and complexity of upper-class families elevates it to something so much more and absolutely riveting.

I think this is likely to get compared to E. Lockhart’s 2014 smash-hit YA book, ‘We Were Liars’ – for the beachside setting, complicated romance, and upstairs/downstairs look at teen family dynamics. But they’re completely different, and where Lockhart’s was very much driven by that mystery plot, the beauty of ‘Juniors’ is Hemmings bringing her knife-point characterisation and connections to the YA readership.

Setting plays a big part in this book too, and especially in echoing protagonist Lea’s feelings of not fitting in anywhere – she’s part Islander, part Mainlander and when we first meet her, she’s being plonked into a Hawaiian school and new home, which makes her feel that duology more keenly than ever.

Hemmings is shattering the outsider perception of a care-free, laid-back surfer lifestyle in Hawaii, that most people associate with the island state (and indeed, she ripped that veneer away in her book-turned-movie ‘The Descendants’ too). Reading ‘Juniors’ I was reminded of this line that a character says in one of her short stories from 2005 collection ‘House of Thieves’ – when a young surfer girl sums their life growing up in Hawaii thusly to her friends; “We’re just kids growing up on an island, doing bad things in pretty places.” And that’s very much the underlining thread that Hemmings is picking apart on a larger scale in ‘Juniors’, to great effect.

But I think the big draw-card of this book is the upstairs/downstairs plot, and Lea’s complicated feelings for rich boy, Will West. 

I take a few steps back so he's not towering over me.  
"Don't," he says. "I like how much taller I am than you. I like looking down on you."  
"Impossible," I say, rising up on my toes. "That needs to be earned, and not by inches." 

This is also what Hemmings has always done really well, in writing very tangled webs and relationships in which characters have to balance sacrifices – big and small – to be with the one that they think they want. Hemmings has always explored this beautifully and pointedly in her adult books and short-stories, but the high-stakes translates just as beautifully to these younger characters, if not more so for how much more keenly they feel these sacrifices alongside amplified first times.

I unabashedly loved ‘The Smell of Other People's Houses’ and ‘Juniors’, in equal measure. And I particularly appreciated these two books for presenting a very different slice of American setting, and thus introducing me to US teen voices and experiences not often heard in YA. I definitely have a hunger for similarly diverse setting YA tales now, and also just more from these two exceptional authors.   

Friday, July 8, 2016

'When Michael Met Mina' by Randa Abdel-Fattah

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

A boy. A girl. Two families. One great divide.

When Michael meets Mina, they are at a rally for refugees - standing on opposite sides.

Mina fled Afghanistan with her mother via a refugee camp, a leaky boat and a detention centre.

Michael's parents have founded a new political party called Aussie Values.
They want to stop the boats.

Mina wants to stop the hate.

When Mina wins a scholarship to Michael's private school, their lives crash together blindingly.

A novel for anyone who wants to fight for love, and against injustice.

‘When Michael Met Mina’ is the new contemporary Australian young adult novel by Randa Abdel-Fattah.

Michael is a teenager growing up in Sydney’s North Shore. He gets good grades, has great mates, and parents whom he describes as ‘good people’ – but for most of his life they’ve been ‘angry about almost everything.’ Michael’s Dad is so angry and riled up, in fact, that he’s founded an organisation called ‘Aussie Values’ – rallying a group of like-minded people who want to “stop the boats” and the “Islamisation of Australia”.

Mina grew up in Kabul, Afghanistan. She and her family escaped the war-torn city then travelled to Pakistan, where they were interred in an equally uncertain and unsafe refugee camp, before booking passage on a leaky boat to the safety of Australia. From there her family were placed in a detention centre, where they waited until being granted asylum. That was ten years ago, and these days Mina’s family couldn’t be happier – especially since she’s just been granted a scholarship to a prestigious private school for the next two years.

Michael attends an ‘Aussie Values’ rally, against asylum seekers.

Mina attends the same rally, supporting asylum seekers.

The next time they meet will be at Michael’s North Shore high school, where Mina’s just won a scholarship.

Randa Abdel-Fattah’s ‘When Michael Met Mina’ is a timely and intelligent new contemporary YA novel. In many ways it is a modern Aussie suburban interpretation of ‘Romeo and Juliet’– A boy. A girl. Two families. One great divide. – Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Sydney, where we lay our scene. Because for all that there’s a lot of political examination going on (and I’ll get to that in a moment) ‘When Michael Met Mina’ is also very much a romance. There’s undeniable chemistry when these two meet; and the tension of their two families and conflicting values make for a compelling if rocky love story.

But the political and social underpinnings of the romance is really where this book thrives, and finds unique footing in the Australian YA contemporary landscape.

In many ways it’s rather depressing to think how long this book has been in the making. The first I can remember being aware of such issues as Abdel-Fattah is touching on here, was the 2001 ‘Children Overboard affair’ of the Howard government. I have a friend for whom the rise of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party (1997–2002) was the first he had an inkling of something being not-quite-right in Australian political rhetoric. For teenagers today I can imagine there are any number of events making them hyper-aware of the manipulation of media and empty-rhetoric of politicians when it comes to human rights and asylum seekers. From the deaths of Aylan Kurdi and Reza Berati, to the rise of politicians like Cory Bernardi, or the horrifying images out of war-torn Syria juxtaposed with the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration. Australian teen readers will be very much aware of the background to Abdel-Fattah picking apart these issues, but what’s fantastic is that she’s written characters who are closer to them than many of us can imagine.

Mina being a refugee who arrived with her family by boat, and Michael living in a household with angry parents entering into the political fray – and the book being written in alternate chapters from their perspectives – puts readers closer to these issues than they’ve maybe ever been. And while there are many instances of both Michael and Mina witnessing the wider social ramifications and community reactions, for the most part they are in the thick of the action;

The report ends with the reporter outside a mosque, telling the audience about some people’s fears of ‘creeping sharia’. There’s a shot of the man who’d harassed us in the restaurant. He’s a member of a new organisation that wants to stop the ‘Islamisation of Australia’. There’s a shot of the founder, Alan Blainey. Then there’s some file footage of a group of people at an anti-asylum seeker rally. 
‘But is all this just fear-mongering?’ the journalists asks in the end. 
A bit too late for that. 
I feel like vomiting.

A lot of this book hits uncomfortably close to home, especially reading it as I did in the thick of an election campaign. Pauline Hanson has reared her ugly politics again, for instance, and the ‘Aussie Values’ of Michael’s father hints disturbingly hard at the United Patriots Front anti-Islam, xenophobic rhetoric. Indeed – the very concept of Michael attending an ‘Aussie Values’ rally while Mina wants to ‘stop the hate’ is a reference to the many United Patriots Front and ‘Anti-Racism’ rallies.

What I love though, is how slowly and thoroughly Abdel-Fattah teases out the fact that Michael needs to think for himself, and not just swallow his father’s rhetoric. Mina’s political and worldviews are clear – growing up a kid in Kabul, escaping with her family and ending up in a detention centre – but Michael’s growing up in his father’s household has influenced his opinions for far too long, and meeting Mina is what prompts him to seek truth through connection and reason. 

‘I don’t worry about them,’ he says with scorn. ‘Do they know what I have seen? Do they think they can scare me after what I’ve been through?’ 
‘No, Baba.’ 
'When we arrived in this country we had to learn the differences of this new place and we had to also learn that for everybody we are the difference. I think, Mina, there is something the majority wants us to do in order to be fully accepted, but they never tell us what it is.’

This is a fantastic book with good timing – I can’t think of a better novel for kids to be reading this post-election, especially after a certain xenophobic senator is back front and centre in Australian politics. It’s a book that asks kids to think for themselves, and to look outside their own worldviews and walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. There’s a cracking good romantic subplot here, but the politics playing front-and-centre is what makes this book a thoughtful and intelligent winner.


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