Christine Howe's writing is so evocative and moving in Song in the Dark, I kept making myself slow down to appreciate it.
This is a difficult to story...moreChristine Howe's writing is so evocative and moving in Song in the Dark, I kept making myself slow down to appreciate it.
This is a difficult to story to read at times because addiction is not an easy topic. But even though Paul's addiction is a key part of the story, it's his responses to it - and the consequences of his actions - that drive the story. And the hope he's going to have the courage to get his shit together.
I really appreciated the story's structure, moving backwards and forwards between the past and now, building a textured picture of Paul's life and what led to 'that' moment: the moment that becomes the trigger for change.
Christine says she wanted to write a story about hope, and she's delivered that for me. The story is powerful and poignant - particularly the relationship between Paul and his grandmother, and what that connection means to both of them.
This is another of those novels that could easily sit on the adult side of the bookstore. As a YA novel, it continues the trend of Australian writers rewriting the rules for how we tell our stories.(less)
My Aussie YA love fest continues. What an awesome read.
This novel works on so many levels. Characters who have quirks but are so grounded in reality i...moreMy Aussie YA love fest continues. What an awesome read.
This novel works on so many levels. Characters who have quirks but are so grounded in reality it's impossible not to connect with them. It's a coming-of-age story but also a page-turner. And it's a love letter to the weirdness of St Kilda - and vintage vinyl records.
Simmone Howell's writing...so witty, beautiful and original. I loved the grittiness and the poetry, and the great dialogue. I loved Sky and all her awkwardness, intelligence and strength, and Gully's sweetness and tenacity.
This was my first experience of Simmone's work. Definitely not the last.(less)
I loved this. Read it in almost a single sitting (stopping only for food). Simmone Howell is right: Dan is an absolute sweetheart. I love that he has...moreI loved this. Read it in almost a single sitting (stopping only for food). Simmone Howell is right: Dan is an absolute sweetheart. I love that he has such little hope of success, but commits fully to every challenge. And yes, I loved sweet little Howard too.
Fiona Wood's writing is sharp and witty, and her characters are so likable and believable. I laughed out loud more than once and enjoyed the way all the emotional strands came together. Like I said: I loved it. (less)
Yeah, yeah I know. I said I wasn't going to rate books any more, only review them. But when you love a book as much as I loved this one, I have to bre...moreYeah, yeah I know. I said I wasn't going to rate books any more, only review them. But when you love a book as much as I loved this one, I have to break my own rule...
I devoured Six Impossible Things only a month or so ago, and was itching to read Wildlife. It more than lived up to expectations, revealing new sides to Fiona Wood's talent as a storyteller.
Fiona's writing is honest, funny and, at times, heartbreaking. And always fresh and enjoyable.
There's a perfect balance here between two coming-of-age stories: Sibylla's lessons about friendship, love, social status and self acceptance; and Lou's more heartbreaking one of loss and finding the courage to reconnect.
I'll confess I had a particularly soft spot for Lou and her ability to make wry (and wonderfully astute) observations, even in the midst of dealing with her grief. And I especially loved her memories of Fred.
The outdoor education camp setting is genius (survival skills and self reliance...these are not just things for the outdoors), and the Othello parallels are a nice touch.
I happily join the circle of love for this book. (less)
This is one of the most original novels I have read in a long time, and has one of the strongest narrative voices - especially in a debut novel.
A teen...moreThis is one of the most original novels I have read in a long time, and has one of the strongest narrative voices - especially in a debut novel.
A teenage girl is sent to England to live with her cousins during a future war that leaves England occupied and its inhabitants at the mercy of (unidentified) foreign soldiers.
The story is not so much about the war, but about the relationships the girl forms with her cousins, and how those bonds change her life forever. I couldn't get this story out of my head for weeks.(less)
Here's another classic example of a novel classed as being for young adults, but which has far more impact for older readers. (I have a good friend wh...moreHere's another classic example of a novel classed as being for young adults, but which has far more impact for older readers. (I have a good friend who is a school librarian - she gives me the best tips on quality young adult fiction to read!)
This is the story of a young boy who is the son of an important German officer during the Second World War. Young Bruno is unhappy when the family is sent to "Out-With", where they live next to a strange village where people wander about aimlessly in striped pajamas. Bored and lonely, Bruno eventually befriends a boy who lives on the other side of the fence, starting a friendship that will have tragic repercussions.
The uniqueness of this book is that the horror of Auschwitz is told through the naive eyes of nine-year-old Bruno, who has no idea what he is really seeing or experiencing. Of course, adult readers know exactly what's going on, even though Bruno doesn't, which adds incredible tension to the story. This one left me a sobbing wreck.(less)
Here in the West, we take our artistic freedom for granted, forgetting that throughout history - and in other parts of our world right now - men and w...moreHere in the West, we take our artistic freedom for granted, forgetting that throughout history - and in other parts of our world right now - men and women have died in the attempt to express themselves honestly through their art.
But, interestingly, there are also artists in our “free” society who censor themselves for fear of the reactions their works may elicit. Our artists may not be physically imprisoned, tortured or executed, but they can be attacked by critics and opponents in ways that deter others from telling the stories they want to.
This week, I read an amazing young adult novel by Sally Rippin, called Chenxi and the Foreigner, chosen for me by the Ink-stained Toe-poker (thanks pal: great pick!). The novel’s theme of artistic freedom is particularly meaningful, because this edition is not the first version to make it into print.
Chenxi and the Foreigner is the story of 19-year-old Australian, Anna, who travels to Shanghai in 1989 to visit her father and study traditional Chinese painting. Struggling to cope with her status as a foreigner, she becomes obsessed with fellow art student Chenxi, who ultimately teaches her life-changing lessons about the nature of freedom, and what it means to be an artist in a culture that forbids non-sanctioned artist expression.
It was one of the earliest young adult novels written by the prolific Rippin, who now has more than 20 books for children of all ages in print. It was inspired by her own experiences as an art student in China, and the people she met there. But nearly 20 years later, she realised she’d sold herself and her readers short.
In the after word in this new 2008 version, Rippin explains she had compromised her original story through her own self-editing, “which is ironic given that this is a novel about artistic freedom”.
She says she was afraid of the parents, teachers and librarians who were the literary gatekeepers of her target market. In that original version, she cut out profanity, sex scenes and “unfamiliar Chinese politics”, for fear her book would be blocked and never reach its intended young adult audience.
She was also not sure she was ready for the potential backlash to her political themes. “I was worried at that time that, if my novel was too obviously political, I might stir up a discussion I wasn’t brave enough to enter into at that age.”
In the new edition, the main character’s name has changed, as has – apparently – the ending. I say apparently because I’ve only read this latest, grittier, version, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s the political context, honesty and realism that make this story so compelling, without being so confronting as to scar its young readers.
The timing of the novel’s re-release this year, when the world’s eyes are on China, might be a coincidence, or a brilliant marketing ploy. Either way, Chenxi and the Foreigner is an excellent novel on several levels: the characters are fascinating, raw and real, and the narrative brings China – and its politics – into sharp focus in a way a detached news report rarely can.
Yes it is challenging, and yes it covers aspects of Chinese politics many young adult readers may be unfamiliar with – and are now likely to explore to better understand Chenxi and his struggles. And isn’t that what great stories should do? (less)
Bulletproof Suzy, by British writer Ian Brotherhood, was not uplifting stuff, but it definitely got me thinking about a few things.
First and foremost,...moreBulletproof Suzy, by British writer Ian Brotherhood, was not uplifting stuff, but it definitely got me thinking about a few things.
First and foremost, this novel has one of the most distinctive narrative voices I’ve read for a while.
The narrative character (actually called Francine, but referred to by all and sundry – including herself – by her street moniker, Suzy) is a tough young woman in a not-too-distant future Britain, living in a cold, poverty-stricken concrete jungle dominated by thugs and violence.
She and her team of “little ladies” are what are known as “Liaison Officers for the Commissioner’s Office”, government-sanctioned stand-over merchants who collect rates on behalf of the local council.
In this future, rates go so high there’s little chance anyone will willingly pay them. “Operation Community Responsibility” is launched – a system where one household is responsible for collecting the rates of another. It invariably fails, and non-government “teams” are recruited to do the dirty work. (Given my current line of professional communication work, I found the concept deeply ironic.)
Suzy’s world is brutal, but she’s adapted to it and is relatively comfortable with her place in it. Unfortunately, things take a turn for the worse when her less violent and best friend Joanne is cruelly murdered and Suzy finds herself the prime suspect.
The majority of the story is set over about 48 hours, during which Suzy and her crew try to get to the bottom of Joanne’s murder and then exact revenge.
The story, even with its bleakness, drew me in thanks to Suzy’s take on the world and her observations of those in it. She’s uncompromising, rarely sentimental, and relentlessly tough in the face of danger. A dark sense of humour helps.
Brotherhood writes like Suzi thinks, making the novel essentially a long monologue, but once you get her rhythm, it’s easy to follow. Her observations are full of profanity and slang (cops are the roz, rozzlings, rozzloiders; a gang from an apartment block called the Cherry basket are Cherroids; certain sensitive body parts are “jarlers”).
Here’s a taste: The door starts going at all hours – this one from the first floor, all sweaty and crimson what with just having rubbed up against Shuggs and his merry cherries, or else one of the other CO teams now operating, that one struck dumb with fear, bearing the tell-tale odour of involuntarily released bodily fluids. Sometimes, if the client has actually suffered physical damage, we’ll be straight out there and then to find those responsible, Shuggs more often than not, and he’s usually to be found with his raggle-taggle collection of buff-fluffed Cherroids in the favoured Maxwell’s Lounge by the river, and it’ll be a few shouts at the door and they’ll be out, swinging whatever is at hand and making light of our being the opposite sex or whatever.
Hardly traditional punctuation, but it works perfectly in this type of story.
Plot-wise, there are muddy politics belying the situation Suzy finds herself neck-deep in, but these are far less interesting than the way she interacts with those around her, and her observations of the deteriorating situation.
This engaging narrative voice is almost enough to get me past my disappointment with book’s ending.
It’s not that I was expecting a happy ending (there’s no hope in sight for these poverty-stricken characters locked into lives of violence), and the story’s bleak resolution certainly fits the tone of the rest of the book.
I think it’s the fact the story suddenly fast-forwards a few years and all those characters who were such a strong part of the rest of the book have all but faded into the background. But then, I guess, that too fits with the transitory nature of Suzy’s world…
Maybe I liked Suzy so much I wanted her to have some level of victory. But maybe her lack of self pity is a victory in itself?(less)
It’s easy to ignore evil when your life hasn’t been touched by it, but what do you do when it has? Do you just walk away or will it haunt you until yo...moreIt’s easy to ignore evil when your life hasn’t been touched by it, but what do you do when it has? Do you just walk away or will it haunt you until you face it? And what if the darkness is in you?
American writer Sang Pak’s debut novel Wait until twilight explores the influence of dark impulses on sixteen-year-old Samuel, an intelligent and intuitive teenager whose world is shaken when he encounters a set of deformed triplets hidden behind closed doors in his sleepy southern town.
One of the hardest things to do in fiction is tackle a complex issue and still deliver an engaging story.
Randa Abdel-Fattah, a Muslim of Palestinian a...moreOne of the hardest things to do in fiction is tackle a complex issue and still deliver an engaging story.
Randa Abdel-Fattah, a Muslim of Palestinian and Egyptian heritage who grew up in Melbourne, has a strong literary track record of tackling the challenging topic of being a teenage girl of Middle Eastern descent in urban Australia.
Her breakthrough first novel, Does my head look big in this?, was a witty and enjoyable story about an Australian-Palestinian Muslim who decides to wear the hijab, and the courage it takes to display her faith.
Her follow up, Ten things I hate about me, was more about cultural identity (rather than religious), in which a Lebanese teenager in Sydney goes to great lengths to hide her ethnicity from her friends.
Now, Abdel-Fattah has gone a step further, using her gifts as a storyteller to present a Palestinian perspective on the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
Where the streets had a name features the likable narrative voice of Hayaat, a teenage girl whose face is scarred from an event we don’t fully understand until almost the end of the novel.
Hayaat is like most teenagers. She wants to be loved and accepted. She wants her family to be safe. She’s learned to live with the restrictions and curfews of the occupation and the bitterness of those around her who have lost homes and land to the Israelis.
Hayaat has no desire to cause trouble, but when her beloved grandmother, Sitti Zeynab, falls ill, Hayaat is convinced the only thing to lift her spirits will be to touch the soil of her village again. So she and her best friend Samy decide to go themselves, to bring back a jar of the precious dirt.
The trouble is, Sitti Zeynab’s village is on the other side of the giant concrete wall built by the Israelis to keep them separate from the West Bank Palestinians. What should only be a trip of a few miles will take Hayaat and Sami a full day, as they negotiate check points, roadblocks, unreliable public transport and Israeli soldiers.
Given the polemic nature of the Israeli-Palestinian situation itself, it’s a near impossible task to write a story about it with polarising people. But while the Abdel-Fattah’s sympathies lie with the non-violent men, women and children suffering under the occupation, she avoids the trap of painting a simple picture of villains and heroes.
This is a human story. It’s an attempt to show the human face of the occupation – on both sides of the wall. Both sides fear and mistrust the other, but – as this novel quietly suggests – there is hope on both sides too.
Hayaat is a Muslim, yet her best friend Samy is Christian and the difference in their faith appears to have very little significance to them or their community: they are all Palestinian and all living under occupation. And, interestingly, the men and women who help Hayaat and Samy the most during their journey (probably because they have the freedom to so) are Israelis, who – openly or otherwise – oppose the occupation.
Abdel-Fattah’s connection to the people and the place in this story allows her to capture the humour, spirit and humanity of a people whose plight is frequently over-shadowed by the violence perpetrated by a few, but ascribed to all.
Sitti, who has suffered the most in Hayaat’s family, also has the greatest capacity to laugh at the situation of her people.
To Hayaat’s sister, who is dieting in the lead-up to her wedding: “A little meat on a woman is nice. Do you want people to look at your on your wedding day and think you had a holiday in Gaza?”
But Sitti also carries the grief of a nation without a status. To the Israeli family who claimed her home as her own: “I’m sorry for what happened to your family and your people, but why must we be punished?”
And finally, it is Sitti who offers her granddaughter a glimmer of hope that one day the Israelis and Palestinians may find a way to live together: “Justice will come when those who hope outweigh those who despair. Hope is a force that cannot be reckoned with, ya Hayaat.” (less)
There’s been quite a bit of buzz in the Australian spec fic scene lately over the recent release of Tallow, the first book in Karen Brooks’ new fantas...moreThere’s been quite a bit of buzz in the Australian spec fic scene lately over the recent release of Tallow, the first book in Karen Brooks’ new fantasy series, The Curse of the Bond Riders.
Brooks is known in Australia as an academic, cultural commentator and young adult fantasy author. Tallow is her latest offering, and the first of her work I’ve read.
Set in a city very much like Renaissance Venice, the novel tells the story of Tallow, an orphaned child raised by a lowly candle-maker (hence the child’s name), who also happens to be the last surviving member of a mystical race long ago banished from the canal city.
The child becomes a teenager and latent talents are revealed, watched from the shadows by men and women who each need the child’s talents for their own ambiguous ends.
The candle-maker and his frequently violent mother go to suffocating lengths to hide Tallow’s true identity, with the resultant consequences often frustrating. But those consequences also create the ever-present tension that continues to build throughout the novel.
The key drivers of the plot aren’t particularly original – an abused and isolated orphan with hidden talents; an ancient mystical religion suppressed by a patriarchal religion; confusion caused by hidden identities – but Brooks manages to deliver them in a fresh and new way.
And while the historical elements and add texture to the story, it’s the fantasy world that provides the hook.
Brooks has a clear talent for weaving elements of traditional Venetian society and politics with the dark, multi-layered fantasy world she’s created. The writing is solid, the storytelling rich with interesting twists, and the mythology is cleverly influenced by not only history, but also the Italian language itself.
Brooks offers several points of view from various narrative characters, which helps keep track of the increasingly layered plot. (Although, Tallow’s changing point of view is occasionally distracting – sometimes first person, sometimes third).
By the end of the first book, Tallow’s world has been turned upside down, and a series of clever twists makes it hard for the young orphan to tell friend from foe.
Much happens in this first book, which ends with a twist that sets the scene for an intriguing second book, assumedly due out this year.(less)