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Thursday, May 20, 2021

'A Thousand Crimson Blooms' by Eileen Chong


'A Thousand Crimson Blooms' is the latest poetry collection from Australian writer Eileen Chong, published by University of Queensland Press.

This collection is a layering of time and longing. It exists in a liminal space between memory and the present, one triggering the other and then reverberating back to the here and now - before reaching again and deeper into history and poignant memory.

Chong writes with an absolutely sublime touch; precise words and sentences that I can only imagine were painstakingly curated, read feather-light on the page; Denouement of days:

And then sometimes that sparsity screams with a much deeper meaning. Almost skittering a sentence, swerving as though the pain is too deep to linger; I was angry. She was ashamed.

There's so many threads and themes throughout this slim collection, it's amazing what Chong has managed to pack in - and again with that interplay of light touch and staccato hurt. The one that I found spoke to me profoundly was the turning points of mother/daughter relationships, motherhood and infant loss, miscarriage. These are heavy topics and Chong really opens herself up on the page in truly cathartic ways, full of grace.

My mother cannot
craft in art what she never saw in life.

I thought this collection was superb. I always feel better for welcoming poetry into my reading, and sitting with Eileen Chong and this book was a very special experience.

Monday, May 17, 2021

'Kate in Waiting' by Becky Albertalli


From the BLURB: 

Contrary to popular belief, best friends Kate and Anderson are not codependent. Carpooling to and from theatre rehearsals? Environmentally sound and efficient. Consulting each other on every single life decision? Basic good judgment. Pining for the same guys from afar? Shared crushes are more fun anyway. 

But when Kate and Andy's latest long-distance crush shows up at their school, everything goes off-script. Matt is talented and sweet, and Kate likes him. She really likes him. The only problem? So does Anderson. 

Turns out, communal crushes aren't so fun when real feelings are involved. This one might even bring the curtains down on Kate and Anderson's friendship.

‘Kate in Waiting’ is the new stand-alone novel from American YA author, Becky Albertalli. 

This is actually Becky’s first stand-alone novel not connected to the ‘Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ or ‘Simonverse,’ and not a co-written YA novel like she’s most recently done with Adam Silvera and Aisha Saeed. Truth be told, I really had to cast my mind back to the last Becky books I read because, eh, I was pretty lukewarm on ‘The Upside of Unrequited’ (truly, I can barely even remember the storyline now) and the last time I dipped my toes into the Simonverse was ‘Leah on the Offbeat’ that for whatever reason, failed to spark joy for me. 

I am happy to report that I’ve had a very different reading-experience with ‘Kate in Waiting’ which I found to be a joyous and cathartic, theatre-kid *squee* and hug of a YA novel.

It tells the story of best friends Kate and Anderson who’ve just come back from theatre-camp (summer-camp, I assume) where they each developed a major crush on a lovely Georgia local boy, Matt who was a vocal coach and a year older than them. This is actually pretty standard for besties Kate and Anderson to crush on the same boy – Kate internally even muses that a crush isn’t fun if she and ‘Andy’ aren’t into the same one. Their other best friends Brandie and Raina think this codependent-crush situation is unhealthy, and they may even be proven right when *the* Matt Olsson of their summertime crush is the new kid in town, whose mother also happens to be long-lost best friends with Kate’s Mum … 

Throw into the mix an upcoming school musical of Once Upon a Mattress that every theatre-kid is vying for a part in, and you have a jam-packed year for protagonist Kate. She and Anderson agree to set parameters to their crushing, since it’s now being played out in real-time in a way they’ve never experienced before when Matt joins their friendship group. Kate’s also adjusting to the idea of life next year without her big-brother Ryan around, who’ll be off to college. And she’s got lapsed childhood friend and ‘F-Boy’ (jock, semi-slutty dudebro) Noah Kaplan inexplicably in drama class with Anderson and Matt, and trying out for the school musical who is convincing Kate to help him get stage-ready. 

I was about 10 or 15 pages into ‘Kate in Waiting’ when Becky was setting the stage and for a brief moment I thought; “Oh, no.” There were just so many moving-parts and people, and semi-touched on backstory (like; that as a junior, Kate was ridiculed by ‘F-Boys’ and ‘F-Girls’ for performing a song from the movie musical Ella Enchanted and the online bullying left her scarred, particularly around performing and auditioning). For a brief moment I thought; “too much.” But then something just … clicked. I stopped noticing the effort Becky was putting in, and just got swept up in the intricacies and in-jokes of this little band of theatre kids whose personal lives are maybe on the cusp of becoming as interesting as the drama-world they often play-act in. 

It’s very hard, to write that degree of minutiae and layering and make it look seamless. So that you do stop noticing the effort, and appreciate the effortlessness is takes. Classic example is the secondary character of Raina, who is a Trans girl. There’s no long, protracted and inherently tragic back-story to Raina; Kate touches on a period of transition when they were younger and Raina first came out, and certain ‘F-Girls’ tried deadnaming her … to which Raina replied by wearing an Elsa from Frozen t-shirt and channelling the Ice Queen to give herself strength. Raina in present-day has a cis-male boyfriend who is adorable and loving, and … that’s it. Simple. Deceptively so. 

Becky does it again by occasionally alluding to a favourite Kate and Anderson movie, the animated Tangled – and the fact that Noah Kaplan, ‘F-Boy’, ex-childhood friend, and across-the-way-neighbour at Kate’s Dad’s house, bears a striking resemblance to Flynn Rider of the movie. This is subtle, but it comes back again in sweetly powerful ways. As do allusions to another favourite; ‘Pride and Prejudice’ which takes on a very clever mimicking of Kate and Noah’s evolving friendship, playing with high-school archetypes. 

Anderson and Kate are the stars of the show though, and even the ‘inciting incident’ of Matt moving to town isn’t so much the spotlight, as it’s a way for Kate and Anderson to figure out how they’re going to grow together (or apart?) as they get older, emotions get serious, and relationships get more complex. I could totally see ‘Kate in Waiting’ being told entirely from Anderson’s POV (and actually; I would *totally* love a ‘Midnight Sun’ version of this novel, told entirely from Andy’s perspective) but I guess there’s still a sting there from the backlash Becky received for writing queer-male romances as a cis-woman (and her having to ‘out’ herself, or deciding to – as a way to explain how she came to her stories, as a way to work herself out. I totally get it.) so I likewise get why she maybe didn’t want to make Anderson the protagonist … and there is something built into this story of Kate having to learn to step aside and be truly happy when someone else has the spotlight and gets the final curtain-call that is profound and takes this to a deeper place too. 

Overall; this novel was heart-warming, and it’d get a thunderous round of applause and standing ovation from me, maybe with an extra WHOOP and whistle for the extra adorable story of Kate and Noah that had my heart aflutter. 


Thursday, May 13, 2021

'Wild Sign' Alpha and Omega #6 by Patricia Briggs


From the BLURB: 

In the wilds of the Northern California mountains, all the inhabitants of a small town have gone missing. It's as if the people picked up and left everything they owned behind. Fearing something supernatural might be going on, the FBI taps a source they've consulted in the past: the werewolves Charles Cornick and Anna Latham. But Charles and Anna soon find a deserted town is the least of the mysteries they face.

Death sings in the forest, and when it calls, Charles and Anna must answer. Something has awakened in the heart of the California mountains, something old and dangerous - and it has met werewolves before.

The last 'Alpha & Omega' (Charles & Anna) book we got was 'Burn Bright' in 2018, and I think reading this sixth instalment in their spin-off series I really felt that lag ... but I seem to be one of the only ones; everyone else is raving about 'Wild Sign' and particularly ~that ending~ (which I shall get to).

'Wild Sign' on the surface, is offering a tantalising bit of insight and history to one of Patricia Briggs' most controversial characters - mate to the Marrok, Leah. We learn how Bran and Leah came to be mated, under the strangest of circumstances and hardest of times for both of them - and we also learn that some malevolent evil *thing* has likely just awoken, and is calling to Leah again. Bran sends Charles, Anna and berserker werewolf Tag to go and investigate as this awakening has seemingly coincided with a mysterious disappearance of a colony of humans, with heavy Roanoke vibes - from land that Leah once lived on, and not owns but has now returned to in many many years...

This is the central whodunnit to 'Wild Sign' that Charles & Anna need to investigate, with "henchman" Tag tagging along. One of the side-effects of this strange magic ~something~ is a play around with memory and time, so the investigation sees Anna occasionally thrown back into the past when she was an abused werewolf Omega at the hand of her old and sick pack. This offers an interesting contrast and character-development; to see the old Anna alongside the new - who has been mated and nurtured by Charles for these many years.

But I still read Charles & Anna as overly careful with one another. On the one hand I appreciate this - Briggs is an author who treats trauma with the weight it deserves, and just as in 'Mercy Thompson' there are abuses and events from protagonist's pasts that they carry with them, always. They're never forgotten, only reformed in each new situation and with the passage of time. But alongside this were a couple of moments when Anna kept something - relatively minor, admittedly - from Charles, when she didn't confide and tell him. Similarly there was one or two instances when Charles knows that Anna is wary of him and his choices, or else he knows she's trying to protect him (by locking down the mate-bond) and this has the opposite effect to what she intends, but he doesn't tell her for fear of hurting her feelings ... And I just found that slightly ~odd~ that even now, after all this time and how far they've come, that Anna and Charles can still be so cautious around one another and lack that communication.

Maybe that's just me. Anna - like I said - is a survivor, and Charles has gone for many centuries on his own as an active outcast from most of werewolf society, who had to fear him in order to stay in line. These are effectively two 'broken' people now navigating the world together (and - sure - there's no tension if there's no room for growth, I get it!). But I think it's also the lag in book-releases for this series that makes me feel that way? I always tap back in (in this case, after a 2-year break between books!) expecting us to be further along in this epic love story relationship, and then little stuff like this reminds me; "Ohhhhh, okay. No. We're still in relationship infancy here."

In terms of other characters, I was also kinda disappointed here? Tag is great and funny, but I feel like we only got surface-level stuff with him. I was also really bummed that werewolf Asil didn't feature much at all in this book, and after he was sort of in the middle of the whodunnit in 'Burn Bright' and betrayed by a fellow pack member. I *love* Asil, he's one of my faves and a character I'd genuinely love to read a spin-off series for (like; knowing how much of Asil's character is built around the tragedy of losing his mate long ago, ~imagine~ if a new mate-bond called to him!?! ... though I admit, this could also be my pining for a story similar to 'Blood Challenge' book by Eileen Wilks, and the Benedict/Arjenie relationship.)

Bran and Leah really seemed primed to be at the centre of the 'Wild Sign' story too, but once again Briggs veers away from going too deep with these two - seemingly determined to keep Bran mysterious and ruined - and so they barely feature. I can't say I'm such a Leah fan (who is?) or overly invested in finding out her backstory, but I was kinda bummed when 'Wild Sign' failed to overly deliver on fleshing out her character in the here and *now* overly, and the tantalising bit at the end felt very tacked on. I know Briggs has said that Bran is too hard a character to spend much time with - he's too old and all-knowing, temperamental and it wouldn't work to dig deeper there for his mystery overall, but ... give us *something!*

And now finally - that ending that I've seen a bunch of people get excited over. Ummmmm. Again - is this ~just me~ who pulled the "meh" face throughout it all? <spoiler: highlight to read> 
Look; Samuel is still one of the biggest disappointments in this series, to me. From where he started - in this tragic and intriguing love triangle with Adam and Mercy - to the complete cop-out of Briggs saying "oh yeah, he had an old fae flame who was his actual true-love and now she's back in his life! Yay!" Samuel is the epitome of after-thought. So it almost makes 100% sense that he appears in the freakin' epilogue here and with another convenient "Oh yeah, Ariana and I had a kid and we can't keep it for ~reasons~ so now I'll be Uncle Samuel and you can raise this kid for me, Charles & Anna. Peace-out!" Like ... WHAT?!? Confession: I also 1000% forgot his mate's name was Ariana and what she was all about. That's how little impact Samuel has had on this series since Briggs effectively wrote him out. And also how little I care for any fae storyline or character. So: MEH. <end spoiler>

Am I excited for the next instalment in this series (that'll probably come in 2-3 years?) Sure! Absolutely! Do I still love these characters and want to keep hanging out with them? Yes! But do I need a *little* more give-and-take in the development overall? Heck yeah.

(I'm yo-yoing on this one, I know)

Saturday, May 1, 2021

'New Animal' by Ella Baxter


From the BLURB: 

A stunning, heartbreakingly funny debut novel from a brilliant new literary voice. Sex, death, grief, running away…only one of these makes Amelia feel like a new animal.

It's not easy getting close to people. Amelia's meeting a lot of men but once she gets the sex she wants from them, that's it for her; she can't connect further. A terrible thing happened to Daniel last year and it's stuck inside Amelia ever since, making her stuck too.

Maybe being a cosmetician at her family's mortuary business isn't the best job for a young woman. It's not helping her social life. She loves her job, but she's not great at much else. Especially emotion.

And then something happens to her mum and suddenly Amelia's got too many feelings and the only thing that makes any sense to her is running away.

It takes the intervention of her two fathers and some hilariously wrong encounters with other broken people in a struggling Tasmanian BDSM club to help her accept the truth she has been hiding from. And in a final, cataclysmic scene, we learn along with Amelia that you need to feel another person's weight before you can feel your own.

Deadpan, wise and heartbreakingly funny, New Animal is a stunning debut.


Okay. Full-disclosure; I would *not* have read this book were it not for the recommendation of Jaclyn Crupi at the Hill of Content Bookshop absolutely ~raving~ about it. I trust Jaclyn, she hasn't led me astray yet.

And yet - and yet; I looked at this cover and that blurb ("... a struggling Tasmanian BDSM club" HMMMMMMMMMM) and thought; What am I getting myself into?! Surely this is just an Australian Sally Rooney (complete with baffling BDSM segue) attempt, a somewhat hodge-podge New Literary.

Well, well, well.

I was wrong. I judged a book by its cover (and an admittedly terrible blurb) and were it not for word-of-mouth, I'd have missed out on one of the most refreshing and eclectic reads I've come across in years. A book that absolutely terrified me for the author's sheer authenticity and audacity of voice.

'New Animal' is about grief and loneliness, self-absorption and absolution. We find ourselves with Amelia, a brittle but brilliant protagonist on the worst day of her life; when the sudden loss of her mother seems to send her catapulting even further into the wilderness of her loneliness, and compulsions for fleeting connections. Around her is a Tasmania like I've never read before, a character unto its own strange self - amidst a cast of characters who are so wildly wonderful, I absolutely loved holding them close for the span of a sparse 240-pages.

What is this like?! Who does Ella Baxter remind me of? Sally Rooney comparisons will abound and that's okay if it brings people in. But I actually think the fact of a family mortuary business heralds a wonderful connection to the writing of Alan Ball and 'Six Feet Under'. It's not even the purely cosmetic connection of death-business; it's more for the beauty and absurdity that Ball and Baxter seem brilliantly able to unearth in life itself. Grotesque grief, carnal normal and pitch-perfect deadpan delivery.

I'll also say that Baxter's book would be for anyone who loves Caitlin Doughty and her non-fiction books, but especially her YouTube channel "Ask a Mortician".

I absolutely, wholeheartedly loved this book. I gorged myself on it and then wanted to go off and read absolutely everything Ella Baxter has ever put into the universe ... And the fact that it's just *this* - this one triumphant and intimidating debut novel - elicits both excitement and frustration. This is someone who writes in a fever, without fear or favour. And I'm just in awe.

Read it read it read it.
Forget the blurb and the cover.
It's a wild ride but it's worth it.

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