I had a great (IMHO) review all planned out for this novel. Unfortunately, inspiration struck just as I was falling asleep, so that review has been go...moreI had a great (IMHO) review all planned out for this novel. Unfortunately, inspiration struck just as I was falling asleep, so that review has been gobbled up by my subconscious and try as I might, I can’t seem to recover that pithy first paragraph.
So apologies for the following review, which is going to be scrounged from memory.
A novel that successfully explores a captor/captive narrative from both sides is a difficult thing to achieve, particularly when it’s a story that involves the development of understanding, or sympathy, between the parties. Whether you want to label this Stockholm Syndrome, or human empathy, or lust, or risk-taking behaviour – writing about how such a situation could arise in a realistic and sensitive fashion is a heavy undertaking. In Hostage Three, Nick Lake achieves this with limited success.
The story is related from the viewpoint of Amy, who has embarked on a round world sailing trip with her father and step-mother when their yacht is seized by pirates off the coast of Somalia. It’s established early in the novel that Amy – while extremely wealthy and privileged – is wrestling with some demons in the form of her mother’s suicide, her poor relationship with her father and his subsequent remarriage.
Amy views herself as unremarkable. A talented musician, she’s given up the violin after her mother’s death, and her prevailing attitude toward her life and future is one of apathy. When the story opens, she’s got herself some facial piercings, lit a cigarette in her final exam in order to be deliberately removed from it, goes clubbing – but it’s clear that these actions stem largely from a desire for her father’s attention. Initially wary of the suggestion of a family holiday, Amy realises it’s an opportunity to secure some of his time and goes along with the plan with some tentative hope beneath her sullen façade.
Enter the Somali pirates, or Coast Guard, as they call themselves.
What Lake does most successfully with this novel is juxtapose Amy’s life of material comfort and ease with that of the Somalis’ daily struggle to survive. Credit where credit is due, Lake does a good job of explaining how piracy has become a business, a way of life, and the pragmatic, transactional approach many of the pirates take to their work. This isn’t merely for the benefit of the reader; as Amy herself gradually gains insight into the Somalis’ lives, she begins to understand, if not sympathise with their situation. Being caught in this mental quicksand of being a hostage while relating to her captors is further complicated when Amy starts to feel an attraction to young translator, Farouz.
It could have all gone horribly wrong here, and I’ll admit I experienced a moment of knee-jerk “ugh” the first time Amy mentions checking out Farouz’s body or whatever, fearing that the story was going to launch into some kind of star-crossed-love mawkishness. And while a relationship of some kind does develop here, it’s important to note that neither Lake nor Amy try to convince the reader that this is “love”. It’s always clear that this is an intense, unstable situation involving a character who cannot entirely trust her feelings.
Despite this, I found the execution of Amy’s emotional journey somewhat lacking. It wasn’t quite enough to pull off the scenario the novel presents convincingly.
I can’t help but compare Hostage Three to Stolen by Lucy Christopher, where the main character’s mental and emotional arc was all too vivid and believable. In Hostage Three, I never quite felt Amy’s psychological trauma was communicated as strongly as necessary to make the story work. Although the story is related in her words, there’s a distance from Amy, and connecting with her emotions is vital to invest in the conflict. In theory, I feel like I understand what Nick Lake was attempting to convey. In reality, it just wasn’t there for me.
Amy’s growth, including the development of her relationship with her father, her comprehension of who her mother was a person, and working through her feelings of guilt and regret are slightly better handled.
However, probably the strongest elements of the novel are in Lake’s portrayal of life in Somalia through the characters and their stories. Farouz recounts how he came to be involved with the coast guard, including fragments of a harrowing escape from Mogadishu and the cost of his survival.
Despite the risk of this becoming a story about how a rich white girl learns a valuable life lesson from the less-fortunate, Lake avoids this by taking care to balance this story between the characters. On the surface, it’s Amy’s story, yet it becomes more than this as it unfolds and concludes. Though I found the execution of Hostage Three’s central premise hit and miss, it has piqued my interest in picking up his Printz-winning In Darkness. (less)
The good? The concept. I thought the central idea behind Crewel, returning to the roots of the word “...more2.5 stars
In a word, I found Crewel inconsistent.
The good? The concept. I thought the central idea behind Crewel, returning to the roots of the word “spinster” and the mythology of weaving, was interesting and strong. Albin’s spinsters have the ability to manipulate and repair the weave of their world (the “weave” being the individual strands making up the physical world and the people in it, entwined with the constant flow of time). Weaving is a highly specialised skill requiring particular finesse, and Spinsters are accorded a level of privilege and prestige in the world of Arras, despite the fact that they live effectively cloistered in Coventries and are controlled by the governing Guild.
That said, the execution is hit and miss. Albin’s particular take on time and matter and how they can be manipulated is intriguing, but not explored very deeply . This is light science-fiction and as such the worldbuilding assumes a degree of reader buy-in that not all will be able to extend. (When you start messing with time, I start asking questions, and Crewel doesn’t give a lot of answers). However, if you’re willing to suspend some belief and take Albin’s world as she presents it, Crewel’s premise is both inventive and engaging.
Adelice has been trained from a young age to conceal her weaving ability by her parents, who have reservations about the governance of the world they live in. Ostensibly crime, poverty and disease-free, Arras is nevertheless a tightly controlled society in which women have little agency and few rights. Segregation of the sexes is widely practiced (at least, partially – Adelice lives in a sector where all children are female, though there are plenty of adult males living there). Travel is severely restricted – reserved for mostly male officials. Food is rationed. Reproduction is regulated. Women who do not exhibit weaving ability are expected to marry, and their employment options are limited.
However, due to an unconscious slip during routine testing, Adelice reveals her skill and is forcibly removed from her home to become a Spinster. For me, this where the inconsistency begins. Adelice informs the reader that they come for them at night, vaguely sinister figures who remove girls from their homes under cover of darkness. However, she later explains that girls dream of becoming Spinsters – coveting a life of luxury and status. This doesn’t compute for me. Why remove girls at night in such an intimidating manner if most of them view it as a privilege, something to strive for?
After a futile attempt at escape, Adelice is transported to the Western Coventry, unsure of the fate of her mother and sister. Following a short incarceration, during which she grieves over the traumatic circumstances of her removal, Adelice bounces back rapidly. Before long she’s whisked away to the Coventry’s high tower, plied with luxuries, training with the other Eligibles and singled out by a vindictive Spinster, Maela, and the creepy Ambassador Cormac Patton.
Because of course, Adelice isn’t just any old prospective Spinster, she’s Super Special.
And of course, there are Hot Guys.
Strangely, Crewel reminded me in places of The Selection. This is another novel where “purity”, beauty, clothing and make up are given a peculiar amount of attention and almost disproportionate page time. The Spinsters are required to wear dresses and stockings, to be pandered to by personal stylists and domestic staff, to be occasionally squired about by Guild dignitaries as arm decorations at official functions. They are also required to maintain “purity standards”, since Spinster’s abilities are allegedly tied to their virginity. All the while, they’re also apparently ensuring weather, food distribution and the day to day operations of life in Arras run smoothly – though Albin provides minimal detail on how the Spinster’s orchestrate this round the clock. Further, Adelice undergoes something of a transformation - in the hands of her aestheticians she’s a vision of beauty. While I can appreciate that this is part of the world Albin is building, one built on illusion and facades, I’m also perplexed by the amount of time spent on the minutiae of the Spinister’s accoutrements. Comparatively little time is spent on the daily work of the Spinsters, how they operate the looms and manage their considerable responsibilities.
Oh, wait, I’m not really. Not when Adelice has the burgeoning attentions to two young men to consider.
To be fair, Crewel gains momentum in the second half and the complexity of Arras becomes more interesting. The stakes are raised as Adelice discovers just what nefarious deeds the Guild are capable of, and the potential of her own abilities. Complex ethical questions are hinted at – though mostly brushed over – and Albin uses her secondary characters to challenge and criticise the restrictive world of Arras, including their enforced notions of gender equality, sexuality and free will.
But ultimately, I’m left feeling underwhelmed by Crewel. It’s not a bad book, but I feel much of its potential was left untapped. The big reveal at the climax of the novel is clever, and the ending makes the promised sequel enticing, but Crewel also falls into some familiar tropes. While I appreciate Albin’s efforts to imbue Adelice with distinct personality – she’s tenacious and sarcastic – she’s still something of a super special snowflake, a concept I’m thoroughly tired of. A little more clarity around the finer points of weaving and the structure of Arras wouldn’t have gone astray either.
It’s an interesting novel, but ultimately, an uneven one. (less)
At just over 170 pages, Black Helicopters is a complex and dense work of literary fiction about terrorism.
The novel is constructed of carefu...more3.5 stars
At just over 170 pages, Black Helicopters is a complex and dense work of literary fiction about terrorism.
The novel is constructed of carefully layered vignettes of the past and present, bound together with an overarching chess metaphor, narrated by fifteen year old Valley “Valkyrie” White, suicide bomber.
This is a challenging, bleak novel that is often uncomfortable to read. In order to comprehend how Valley has arrived in her present role as a weapon, Woolston endeavours to show readers how her journey through the intervening years has shaped and influenced her mission. Valley and her brother are raised in an atmosphere of paranoia, hidden from the world by their father, who inculcates in them a deep suspicion of Those People and the black helicopters. While Valley’s brother, Bo, is eventually awarded more freedom and able to follow his father into the outside world, Valley must remain secreted, a piece of her father’s plan yet to be actioned. When her father dies, Valley understands that she is able to take up where he left off; that she can set in motion his final message.
Valley is a compelling, yet chilling narrator. Her rage is palpable in the text, in the brief, brutal scenes of violence she endures. But she is also controlled, single-minded in her drive to see her assignment fulfilled. Unlike her brother, who integrates with the group that take Valley and Bo in, Valley remains focused and separate. In Wolf, she senses an opportunity to make her move, and as he notes, she is a player willing to make sacrifices.
There is an extraordinary amount to be unpacked from Woolston’s novel; it’s a book that would withstand multiple readings, each one revealing a new facet of the complex story. There’s a lot to be discussed in terms of how Valley is subject to coercion and control (and how in turn she manipulates and controls), how she is treated as a female, how conspiracy and distrust are normalised and inform her narrow world view. Valley’s body and its treatment – as a weapon, as currency – and how she comes to be Valkyrie, dissociated from her own image, could be unravelled at length. Yet Woolston leaves much of this to the reader; there’s a considerable requirement for interpretation and analysis of the text beyond what’s explicitly stated on the page. To this end, Black Helicopters has an ambiguous conclusion, left open for readers to define, with some hints throughout the novel.
Black Helicopters is a dark and disturbing novel, distilled to its most intense form. But perhaps most importantly of all, Valley’s is not a dystopian, post-apocalyptic world. It’s next door to our own, a disquieting glimpse of a possible reality. (less)
Darkwater is a languid, atmospheric novel about murder and coming of age in 1970s Australia. It draws much of its strength from Blain’s use of setting...moreDarkwater is a languid, atmospheric novel about murder and coming of age in 1970s Australia. It draws much of its strength from Blain’s use of setting; she paints an authentic and vivid picture of life in that time: summer days swollen with heat, the tick of ceiling fans through the interminable school hours, front doors left open and unlocked, skateboarding and joints under the underpass.
It’s an accurate rendering of a different time, and Blain’s attention to detail is notable, though I do wonder why she chose to place the story at this point in history. Possibly because it mirrors Winter’s own position on the cusp of innocence and naivety to something more self-aware. Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch makes an appearance, along with environmental activism and local politics muddied with money, markers of a community undergoing change and churning with unrest. Or maybe it’s the less sophisticated approach to crime investigation that lends itself to the story, perhaps a contemporary setting would have significantly curtailed the process, preventing the mystery of Amanda Clarke’s death from drawing out like languorous summer evenings.
In Darkwater, Winter chronicles how the discovery of Amanda’s body impacts her small, suburban world. Winter is an observer, recording the reactions and changes she notices around her as the community attempts to come to terms with the tragedy. Younger than Amanda’s core group of friends, Winter is on the periphery of things, writing down what scraps of information she can glean, attempting to piece together a picture of what really lead to Amanda’s body floating in the river.
None of the characters feel particularly close, as if by setting the story some time ago, a distance with the reader has been preserved. Even Winter, who narrates in first person, feels somewhat aloof at times. Perhaps this was the point, to keep the focus firmly on the shocking event that rocks the community – but Amanda is also a shadowy figure. We’re given second-hand glimpses of her through other characters, but we never become close to her. We see her through the lens of envy, lust, adoration or frustration. We’re given insight into a home life that is substantially less charmed than it outwardly appears. Yet she isn’t a dynamic character in the story; she’s a figure, a symbol, a catalyst for the ripples that spread out through her hometown.
The central mystery itself – in all honesty – I didn’t find terribly compelling. While the question of who killed Amanda hangs over the story, I thought its most powerful scenes were those depicting the small moments between Winter and her friends, Sonia and Cassie. In these, Blain captures the awkwardness of adolescence, the fumbling of the characters as they navigate their way through crushes, drugs, sex and death. It’s handled frankly and with a distinct lack of melodrama – Blain presents these events as realities of life, not as fodder to shock.
The resolution of the mystery felt a little like it fell back on convenient plot points – the seeds of who the perpetrator is and how it will be revealed are planted fairly obviously. That said, I get the impression that the crime itself is not strictly the point of the story, but rather its effects on those surrounding it. Blain shows how the insidious creep of prejudice and paranoia drives people apart, how suspicion and grief unravel relationships and families.
Blain’s writing has a slightly lulling quality about it, or maybe it was the lethargy of the setting seeping through. The pacing is sedate, focused on character development more than action, but there’s a note of disquiet that keeps the story engaging. The technique of opening the majority of the chapters with a “Fact” or “Theory” from Winter’s notebook initially seemed intriguing, but it did grow tedious after a while.
Darkwater is a quiet story, steeped in mood and atmosphere. While the pacing and logic of the plot are not without flaws, it’s an candid depiction of one girl’s coming of age in a time of tragedy and social change.(less)
I wanted to like this book so much more than I actually did. I mean, look at that cover! I know I’m not supposed to judge a book by its co...more*heavy sigh*
I wanted to like this book so much more than I actually did. I mean, look at that cover! I know I’m not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but I can’t lie, that gorgeous art and the blurb had me thinking this would definitely be a REY-BOOK.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t quite for me.
To start with the good: I loved the setting and the historical context of the novel. By choosing to set The Mimosa Tree during the final years of the Cold War, against a back drop of the anti-nuclear movement and the very palpable tensions of the international arms race, Preto frames Mira’s internal conflict with an interesting external parallel. When Mira’s very real fears and sense of impending disaster on a global scale are pre-empted by a tragedy much closer to home, the setting and political climate take on a symbolic significance.
As for the not-so-good, here’s where I confess I’m a monster with a heart of stone: Mira’s family tribulations did nothing for me. I’m sorry. The cultural and generational dissonance between Mira and her family is interesting, particularly when it comes to her relationship with her father. Yet despite the truly sad things that happen to Mira’s family, I had no emotional investment in these characters. The novel feels bloated, weighed down and slow with scenes that establish how the family functions internally: the relationships between Mira’s mother and aunts, her parents, their world view, the fact that Mira is attending university. This is all important, particularly in terms of understanding Mira as a character, but it’s all too long and dense. The opening chapters meander through interminable scene-setting, recounting the minutiae of conversations and the drinking of copious cups of coffee.
The tedium is broken somewhat by Mira’s commencement of university and gradual establishing of relationships with Felicia and Harm. It’s here also that we see Mira’s connection to alternative youth culture of the 80s, particular in the music she listens to (Goth, New Romantic, alternative rock etc) and the social movements around her (anti-nuclear, resistance to US foreign policy etc). Combined with and in response to her family circumstances, Mira engages in risk-taking behaviour and drug use, becoming drawn to the apparent freedom of Harm’s lifestyle, romanticising his choices. (Personally, I completely fail to see Harm’s appeal.)
But as much as this is a story about family, death and struggle to define identity – which are all strong themes – I feel they were explored with varying degrees of success. Mira’s safety map, the motif of the mimosa tree, and the atmosphere of catastrophe are effective, but the pacing is weak. It’s a patchy novel: powerful at moments, but unengaging in others. Unfortunately, I think I like the idea of this story much more than the story itself.
* * * * * * Not a review (yet), but if you want to check out the New Romantic/Goth/alternative 1980s playlist hop on over here or here.
I don’t know about you, but for me, every iteration of the “Next Big Thing in YA” hoopla now comes with attendant alarm bells.
I am wary of hype; worn weary by hyperbolic accolades and extravagant marketing campaigns that vary from the invasively viral to the downright obnoxious. It all starts to seem like a lot of unabashed snapping at the heels of the Previous Big Thing in YA – (whether it’s warranted or not) – a desperate attempt to replicate its success, or at the very least to sop up the remaining interest in the latest trend. Call me cynical – (you’d be right) – but I am suspicious of hype. So much of it seems manufactured now, the product of heavily orchestrated, militant marketing strategy; rather than a groundswell of genuine grassroots enthusiasm among readers.
But I will concede defeat to The 5th Wave.
There was an obvious marketing push – though arguably it was clever and far less offensive than other campaigns clogging up the blogosphere – but it has also been accompanied by critical acclaim and strong reader reaction.
Then there’s the fact that I read The 5th Wave and I thought it was pretty darn brilliant.
I still don’t like applying sweeping statements of annexation to books, like YA is ground to be conquered and previous successful books are targets to be taken out. I don’t think this book is necessarily The Next Anything. But I do think that it’s an intelligent and gripping apocalyptic/sci-fi novel and Rick Yancey deserves ALL the high fives.
Alien invasion stories are nothing new. This is well-trodden ground since War of the Worlds; even Stephenie Meyer had a crack. The trope speaks to a very primal instinct for survival, as well as serving effectively as allegory for the human condition, or metaphor for political manoeuvring and current events. We read alien invasion stories not necessarily because we believe in the possibility of extra-terrestrial hostilities, but because it sets up a scenario that speaks to our fundamental urge to examine and define our own existence.
In The 5th Wave, Yancey uses the premise of an alien onslaught on Earth to develop the themes of humanity, survival in the face of desolation, and “otherness”. ‘Humanity’ is a word that appears frequently throughout the novel in various contexts and on different scales, but the question overarching the book drills down to a very personal level. What does it mean to say that a person has humanity? Can it be lost? And can it be gained?
The framework of The 5th Wave, using primary first-person narrators interspersed with secondary, third-person points of view, provides readers with a wider lens through which to examine Yancey’s concept of invasion. The novel written firmly in only Cassie’s perspective would still have made for an entertaining story, (more on Cassie soon), but the narrower angle would have somewhat stifled the true brilliance of The 5th Wave, which lies in solving the jigsaw of the plot. Like all puzzles, some pieces are more easily connected than others: astute readers will anticipate certain twists. But it’s the way the segments of the novel snap together that keep it compelling: the constant hypothesising that accompanies the reading, the uncertainty of whether you’re right or not, the dread that your suspicions are correct.
In Cassie, Yancey captures the essence of The 5th Wave: the sense of utter isolation and dread balanced with the tenacity of hope. Cassie is rendered in shades of snark, fear and determination. There’s an immediacy and authenticity to her voice that keep her story engaging, even when chunks of it are delivered via flashblacks. She’s an accessible character, without any of the strength of her personality having to be diluted or her flaws glossed over.
Yancey uses moral ambiguity to excellent effect in all of his main characters: Cassie, Evan, Zombie, Ringer. The question of whether they are “good” or “bad”, and whether or not these are mutually exclusive concepts as far as the characters’ actions and motivations are concerned, maintains tension in the story. By challenging readers’ perception of the characters, we get to the crux of the novel, that is – what is humanity? What does it mean to be human?
Interestingly, while the story could be perceived by some as taking, or even perpetuating, a problematic and imperialistic stance on the idea of the “other”, one that’s steeped in discriminatory doctrine – I’m not convinced that this is the case. I think there are enough clues in this novel to expect a deeper exploration of the issue of “othering” in subsequent instalments. Since the characters themselves display ethical gradation, I would be surprised if Yancy left the idea of “us” and “them” in such oversimplified terms. Rather, I think he’s only just scratched the surface of what’s going to be examined in this series.
As to the titular fifth wave, and what it comprises of, I think Yancey’s concept is frighteningly plausible. Not plausible in terms of an extra-terrestrial invasion, but in terms of tactics employed (trying very hard to avoid spoilers here). Sadly, we have more than enough historical and current evidence of indoctrination (view spoiler)[and use of child soldiers (hide spoiler)] in conflicts around the world, including genocides and so-called ethnic cleansing. There is no shortage of examples of systematic desensitisation and exploitation(view spoiler)[ of children (hide spoiler)] as a tool of hostilities. In this sense, The 5th Wave is a complex, thought-provoking novel; a high-concept premise layered with relevance to our current reality.
Of course, The 5th Wave asks for a certain amount of suspension of belief from the reader, particularly in the climactic action scenes and some of the more convenient plot developments. I’m more than willing to do this for a good story, and for characters I’m invested in. Mileage will vary as to how much you buy into to the denouement and the choices that lead the characters there; I found it no hindrance at all, so entrenched was I in the characters’ predicaments.
So, consider me a fan. I don’t know what Rick Yancey has in store for us in the follow-up, but I am so on board for it.
An advance reader copy of The 5th Wave was provided by Penguin Books Australia via Netgalley.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Few books manage to make me feel this way: cut open and broken and completely overcome.
It’s difficult to talk about K...more“Love doesn’t always look nice.”
Few books manage to make me feel this way: cut open and broken and completely overcome.
It’s difficult to talk about Kuehn’s debut in detail without revealing significant plot points; and I do feel this is a book best experienced as it is structured, that is, allowing the story to unwind from Andrew/Win gradually. His narrative is one of violence and blood and glimpses in between shadows, trauma layered deep in shame and visceral pain. His story emerges in fragments between the past and present, reality and dreams, relentlessly gaining clarity until its devastating climax.
Kuehn has written a brilliant novel. It is confronting, yet empathetic. Heartbreaking, but affirming. It’s not an easy story to tell - Kuehn delves deep into disturbing places – but it is compelling and evocative. Through the use of rich imagery, the symbolism of chemistry and Win’s distinct cognition, Kuehn has written a novel that spurns straightforward classification. It seems to be one thing, but becomes another – not because Kuehn is being purposefully evasive or coy, but because this is the story that is true to Win. We read it as he experiences it, as it emerges from the recesses of his mind and body: raw, dark, and animal.
There are various forms of conflict in the novel, but the central source is from within Win himself, and what he believes to be inevitable. The present day thread of the story deals with Win’s acceptance of his imminent change: that his Ego and Superego will be devoured by his ferocious Id, that what is at his core is monstrous. It’s this internal wrestling of what a person believes themselves to be, and what they want to be, that forms the crux of the novel. For Win, his deep-seated convictions give this battle an element of finality, that his metamorphosis is not only brewing, but inescapable.
For all its twisting decent into horror, Charm & Strange is a compassionate novel, and while it doesn’t offer all the answers, it does extend a glimpse of hope. Even more than that, it provides a voice of understanding. And for readers who can connect with Win’s experience, the importance of this can’t be overstated. Much has been made of “darkness” in YA, but (to paraphrase Patrick Ness), “not engaging with darkness in fiction is abandoning teens to face it alone.” Charm & Strange is an important book because it offers support and solace to those who may feel beyond reach.
Kuehn’s writing is strong – she has created a complex, challenging novel in beautifully rendered language that is compelling and true to Win’s voice. There is a depth of emotion and pain articulated in the story without it feeling forced or consciously manipulative.
The novel tackles serious content respectfully, while being authentic to the experience of its teenage characters, who are flawed and complicated. Although not a lengthy book, Kuehn develops her characters well, choosing to show (rather than tell) the reader who they are through powerful scenes and flashbacks. There is a lot covered here, even outside the central premise of the novel, much of which Kuehn chooses to allude to rather than explicitly state. This is particularly effective in the early stages of the novel, where the reader needs to tease out the meaning from passages that seem to take a nebulous form between contemporary and paranormal.
Charm & Strange is an intense novel, darkly psychological and unsettling. It takes the reader on a troubling journey, and arrives in a profoundly moving place.
An advance reader copy of Charm & Strange was provided by the publisher via Netgalley. (less)
Gale’s first YA novel is a blend of the contemporary and historical, entwining the stories of fifteen year old Hannah, her mother Sara, and grandmothe...moreGale’s first YA novel is a blend of the contemporary and historical, entwining the stories of fifteen year old Hannah, her mother Sara, and grandmother Essie.
Steal My Sunshine deals with one of the darker aspects of Australia’s history: the forced adoption of children born to unwed or ‘wayward’ girls, often at the coercion of churches, hospitals and adoption agencies. This practice of removing babies against the mothers’ will, or ‘institutionalised baby farming’, went on for around five decades. Apologies to those affected have only been issued since 2010 (commencing with Western Australia) and most recently in 2013 on behalf of the Federal Government.
There’s an element of mystery in the unwinding of Hannah, Sara and Essie’s story. The relationships between the three women are fraught; tense with resentment and unfulfilled yearning. Hannah, who’s already trying to navigate her parents’ separation, school, her crush and a complicated relationship with her best friend, begins to uncover Essie’s history, sensing that it holds the key to the family’s conflict.
Essie gradually reveals her secret, piece by piece. These sections are related via flashbacks, and what is unearthed in these scenes is truly harrowing. Even with the knowledge that Gale is only providing a glimpse of the horror endured by these girls, it’s enough to make for compelling, albeit grim, reading. Though Essie’s portions of the novel are comparatively brief compared to the contemporary storyline, they pack a punch.
Gale’s novel is a heartfelt coming of age story that tackles the themes of redemption and forgiveness, internalised pain and the far-reaching effects of trauma. Particularly noteworthy is her skilful hand with crafting realistic relationships between the characters. There’s a touch of romance in this story – but mostly it’s about family, and learning to heal the wounds of the past. (less)
“If a girl punches someone, she’s crazy. If a guy punches someone, he’s dealing with his feelings. He’s normal.”
I have to thank several friends for r...more“If a girl punches someone, she’s crazy. If a guy punches someone, he’s dealing with his feelings. He’s normal.”
I have to thank several friends for recommending Skilton’s debut recently; without their encouragement to pick it up, Bruised might have been quietly sucked into the black hole of my growing TBR list.
Bruised is an insightful novel about a girl’s journey to redefine her sense of self in the wake of a traumatic incident. While suffering PTSD as a result of a diner hold-up, Imogen is compelled to confront what she believed to be fundamental truths about herself. Considering herself responsible for the gunman’s death, Imogen struggles to reconcile the reality of the event with her own expectations of herself.
In some ways, Bruised reminded me of Elizabeth Scott’s Miracle, in its thought-provoking take on PTSD and the way it impacts self-perception. By failing to act when she believes she should have, Imogen’s sense of worth is undermined. The construct of herself as an empowered, disciplined and strong young woman is challenged by the fact that she froze under pressure, which drives a desperate need to prove herself. Under the weight of what she perceives as a failure, Imogen begins to pursue an increasingly self-destructive path in an effort to redeem herself. She wants a real fight, a chance to do-over the moment her mind, body and training betrayed her.
Skilton’s characterisation of Imogen and the depiction of her internal conflict is effective: its sharp and visceral, and Imogen’s disillusionment is believable. Imogen passes through a broad emotional spectrum, and this progression is developed organically. Skilton is unafraid to push Imogen into some dark places emotionally, essentially stripping her back to a state of mental vulnerability and raw instinct, before allowing her to slowly reconstruct her life.
This reconstruction is not only within Imogen, it’s also necessary in her core relationships: with her parents, her brother, her friends, and with Tae Kwon Do. Then there’s the boy who was also at the diner the night of the hold-up, the one person Imogen feels is able to relate to what she’s going through, and the burgeoning attraction between them.
I felt the most successfully handled relationship development was that within Imogen’s family. She is emotionally distant from both parents for different reasons, and sees her brother as responsible for her estrangement from her former best friend. Skilton tackles each of these dynamics realistically, and I enjoyed the manner in which they progressed and their issues were addressed, particularly between Imogen and Hunter. Their sibling bond felt genuine, yet believably complicated.
Most of all though, hats off to the author for allowing her teenage girl main character to respond to conflict in such a physical way. Imogen spends a considerable portion of the novel looking for an opportunity to test her ability to fight, a rematch of sorts. This quest leads her to make some poor choices (understandable in her situation), and also to try to get Ricky (her co-witness of the hold-up) to fight her. Imogen’s insistence on having someone engage in an no-holds-barred physical fight with her is not something commonly seen in YA, but Skilton navigates it well, addressing not only Imogen’s need, but Ricky’s reluctance to hit a girl, or be beaten by one.
If this novel lost me a little, it was in the way some of the plot threads/conflicts were resolved. While I enjoyed the openness of the ending, and the place where the author left Imogen, I felt a couple of the closing scenes were a bit twee in their delivery, and not necessary to communicate that the characters were in a positive space.
That said, the novel is tight and engaging. Although flawed, Imogen is a sympathetic protagonist with a compelling struggle. The romance and friendship subplots complement the story, while keeping Imogen’s internal journey front and centre. She develops as a character, yet there’s integrity to the way she is written; Imogen grows, but her core beliefs and strengths are not transformed, just adjusted. I appreciated Skilton’s dedication to Imogen in this way – allowing Imogen to keep those fundamental elements of her personality and principles. This is especially evident in the way the novel handles various attitudes towards sex. Skilton presents the characters’ perspectives without judgement or commentary – respecting the diversity of their experiences and choices.
Bruised is an accomplished debut novel about navigating physical and psychological trauma, and the challenging of self-worth. It’s a respectful and knowledgeable portrayal of martial arts, relationships and the journey of a teenage girl to redefine her inner world. (less)
Dirty Little Secrets is a book that I had to let percolate for a while before reviewing. If I’d written this review based on my initial post-reading r...moreDirty Little Secrets is a book that I had to let percolate for a while before reviewing. If I’d written this review based on my initial post-reading response I think it might have been quite different in tone and content. Having allowed time for my thoughts to settle, however, has resulted in a more holistic view of the novel as opposed to a knee-jerk reaction to the ending. Because what initially felt shocking now seems exactly right for this story. I think Omololu not only made a bold, confronting choice; but that she made one that successfully communicates the traumatic nature of Lucy’s situation.
Compulsive hoarding has garnered increased attention over recent years thanks to the saturation of rehabilitation-style reality TV. I’m not here to argue whether this is exploitative rubbernecking or genuinely helpful, but I do think that the majority of such coverage – initially at least – is presented in such a way as to shock or disgust. Montages of squalor are packaged together so as to elicit a sort of slack-jawed horror in the viewer; it’s telegraphed quite plainly that we should feel something because it isn’t “normal”. But more on this later.
Lucy’s mother is a compulsive hoarder. Outside, their house looks like most of the others on the same street. Inside, it’s choked with detritus: stockpiled clothes, decades worth of newspapers and magazines, abandoned crafts, plastic containers, rotting food. The house has fallen into disrepair and is being consumed by a small mountain of junk and filth. This is their secret from the outside world. And when Lucy’s mother dies amid the chaos, she decides to make sure that secret remains hidden. It’s up to Lucy alone to conceal the truth about their life.
The key to understanding just how high the stakes are in this story lies in being able to see them from Lucy’s viewpoint. The decisions she makes throughout the novel need to be considered in the context of the life she has lived up to that point, glimpses of which Omololu provides through flashbacks and memories. Further, she juxtaposes this with the life that Lucy wishes for, by incorporating interactions with her schoolmates, her best friend, her crush, and her siblings. This isn’t just some passing embarrassment that Lucy is worried about, rather, she fears that revealing the truth will cost her the future she longs for. While she had previously determined to stick it out for the remaining years until she could leave home and put her mother’s hoarding behind her, now she’s racing against the clock to stop everyone finding out what’s really been going on.
Making the shift into Lucy’s mindset is what made this novel click into place for me – and Omololu facilitates this by having the reader experience Lucy’s progression of emotions throughout the day. It’s a short novel, and one that takes place over a short period of time, but Omololu keeps the movement of the plot tied to Lucy’s mental state as she moves through various stages of processing her mother’s deaths and the repercussions thereof. There’s a clear sense of rising urgency in the novel, as the clock is ticking on Lucy’s window of opportunity to prevent her mother’s hoarding from becoming fodder for local gossip.
And that’s where public reaction comes into the equation. Whether or not the response Lucy fears is realistic is not really the issue here. The fact is, it’s real to her. The outpouring of revulsion she expects from people is the driving force behind her actions in the story. Whether or not Lucy is cognizant of the fact that her mother’s hoarding is an illness, it’s overshadowed by her fear of the public’s perception. The possibility of empathy or understanding is all but drowned out by the expectation of disgust and humiliation.
This is not an book easy to summarise without significantly spoiling it, but it’s worth bearing in mind that this isn’t an in depth analysis of the psychology of compulsive hoarding, but rather how it affects a hoarder’s family members. Omololu gives us some insight into the reasons why this situation has come about, but the novel is more concerned with how it has impacted Lucy’s life – both physically and emotionally. In that respect, it’s a compelling book – showing the extreme pressure that Lucy has lived with and has shaped her as a person. And this is powerfully portrayed in the ending of the novel, which crystalises years of fear and stress into a haunting final scene. (less)