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)
Sometimes books just speak to you, and this one basically climbed into my ear and shouted.
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“The last thing I see before falling asleep is t
...moreSometimes books just speak to you, and this one basically climbed into my ear and shouted.
* * * * *
“The last thing I see before falling asleep is the Kali painting on Skunk’s wall. Her blue-gold body is draped in equal parts flowers and severed heads – as if beauty and horror were interchangeable and what matters most is trusting in the dance.”
When it comes to what we talk about when we talk about mental illness, Wild Awake is a full-throated, primal shout in a sea of polite murmuring. It is a painful and joyous cry, unapologetically discordant, demanding to be heard. It begins with a phone call and ends with a view; in between it is a burst of cacophonous music that sounds like nothing else, and somehow exactly as it should.
When I sat down to write this review, I debated whether or not to lead with mental illness; because Kiri wouldn’t. Kiri doesn’t see the world or herself in terms of illness and wellness. The parameters of her world are not rigidly defined, they are yielding and permeable, allowing the real and the unreal to flow freely and spill over into each other.
This is less a novel about being mentally ill than it is about simply being, and understanding how to be.
So I could open with the writing: the words I want to crawl into, curl around, taste, savour. I could talk about how reading this novel is sometimes like limping over shards of glass in its incisiveness, sometimes like sinking into a lucid dream. As Kiri’s mental state unfurls against a backdrop of midnight bike rides, music, death and love, Smith articulates how it is both terrifying and seductive, and how it is possible to find something beautiful buried at the heart of so much pain.
Or I could talk about the characters: sharply drawn and as real as if they breathed within the pages, emerging from Smith’s prose fully formed and vital, beating with energy. About Kiri’s voice, the layers of humour and sadness and the insistent, urgent rhythm of her hypermanic spiral.
Or the vividness of Kiri’s world, a setting that’s as much a part of her as it is a physical place, streets and buildings made familiar with the passing of each page. The world that is carved out between Kiri, Skunk, Doug and Sukey and the spaces their memories and emotions inhabit.
But if you are looking for a straightforward, redemptive (and arguably reductive) narrative about mental illness that includes “affix Label A here” and “insert Medical Intervention here” and “cue Closure here” you might be disappointed in Wild Awake. This is simply not that book.
Wild Awake is not overly concerned with naming and defining things, rather it’s about experiences, how beauty and horror manifest in different lives, and how people respond and internalise them. Yet nor is it a flippant novel, glossing over the pain and fear that often accompany mental illness. And neither is it a prescriptive novel, assigning one viewpoint or choice in a blanket message. Instead, it is about uniqueness of experience, how no one will see the world exactly the same as another person, no one will hear exactly the same music as they go about their lives, everyone chooses a slightly different path.
“People like to think everything can be explained by chemistry.”
There is a telling line in the novel – during a conversation about whether Toilet Duck or Windex is more trustworthy – that references the tendency to attribute various human experiences to chemistry. This mentality informs much of our current dialogue around mental illness and medication, and our apparent need to reduce these to tangible terms we can easily understand. We call it a “chemical imbalance”, we say “you wouldn’t criticise someone with [insert physical illness] for taking medication..” in an effort to justify and explain. This is not inherently wrong, but it is a limited, narrow view through which to approach the subject of mental illness. It’s part of the story, but not the whole; just one position on an entire spectrum of interpretation.
It’s difficult to talk about life-affirming novels without spouting clichés, but there is something validating about Wild Awake without it voiding the very real grief and darkness it contains within.
“It’s just a thing,” it seems to say. “It’s just a thing and you will be okay, whoever you are, whatever it is you feel.” And there is something very brave, and beautiful, about that.(less)
”On the night of my eleventh birthday, Vivienne told me that I was cursed. It was her gift, she said. When she was gone the Brown women’s curse would...more”On the night of my eleventh birthday, Vivienne told me that I was cursed. It was her gift, she said. When she was gone the Brown women’s curse would pass to me and, if I ever knew which way death would come, I could run hard in the other direction.”
Seventeen-year-old Friday Brown is a runner. Her whole life has revolved around escape: moving from town to town with her Mother, never staying too long in one place, abandoning the past and trying to outpace a cursed future. After befriending a strange boy called Silence, Friday falls in with a group of street kids lead by charismatic matriarchal figure, Arden. When they end up in an outback ghost town, Friday must challenge everything she believes to be true about family, and fate.
Friday Brown was easily my most anticipated release of 2012. It will also likely be my favourite. I had high expectations, and Vikki Wakefield exceeded them. As much as I loved All I Ever Wanted, in Friday Brown Wakefield’s style has developed and deepened, resulting in a novel that is thematically resonant and complex.
Something Wakefield does beautifully, with both All I Ever Wanted and Friday Brown, is write perceptively about the concept of identity and its fluid state in young adulthood. Mim (of All I Ever Wanted) and Friday are both teenage girls who question and redefine themselves – Mim through the challenging of her rigid system of rules, Friday through the stripping away of everything she believes has given her life context. Without her mother, without the stories she has grown up with – who is she? When the only family she has ever known is taken away, does she know herself at all?
This idea of discovery, of identity as evolving rather than static, overarches the narrative. Friday, who eschews forming relationships due to the accompanying responsibility, is also a vulnerable character who has an inherent need to belong. Initially reluctant to forge meaningful connections with others, she is drawn to the sense of envelopment in Arden’s patchwork family. However, as the full extent of Arden’s manipulative nature is gradually exposed, Friday begins to reclaim herself and determine her own path.
There is a recurring motif of duality and comparison threaded through the Friday Brown; the novel itself is broken into two sections, ‘The City’ and ‘The Dust’, to form the whole of Friday’s journey. This tendency to contrast is repeated in various forms: the mother-figures of Vivienne and Arden, the fug of stale, recycled air in a car and the first breath taken in the outback. Vengeance and mercy, harshness and love. The truth versus a truth. And ultimately, good and evil. The entire story builds to a moment of definition for Friday, a power struggle not just between characters but also within herself, a moment of choice with irrevocable consequences.
Yet this is far from a simple novel. It’s complex and layered, unflinchingly honest in its portrayal of grief, homelessness and the abuse of power. The characters are flawed and contradictory, not always sympathetic. They are, however, compelling. It’s the relationships that fuel the tension of the novel - the shifting allegiances, fragile bonds of trust, sense of family and the undercurrent of manipulation. Wakefield crafts the relationships carefully, and it’s the authenticity of the connections, and the emotional investment in them that her writing inspires, that drives the novel to its powerful finale.
There’s an almost gothic element to Friday Brown, particularly in the second half of the story that unfolds in the ghost town of Murungal Creek. There’s a pervasive unease to the scenes that take place here, shadowed by Friday’s curse and the mounting tensions among the group, pared back both physically and emotionally. It’s also here that Wakefield’s imagery and use of the elements as symbolism come to the fore, in a tense, heart-wrenching conclusion.
Honestly, I’ve been intending to review this book for a long time, but each time I opened the document I end up just staring at a blinking cursor. I was overwhelmed by the desire to say everything, and not knowing how to express anything. I love this book that much. I still think about it. About Arden. About Silence. About Friday. About home and family and questioning everything you ever believed about yourself.
It’s beautiful and devastating, and I highly recommend it.
If Finnikin of the Rock was a story about a divided and displaced nation’s journey towards healing thei...more(Scroll down if you'd prefer the tl;dr version)
If Finnikin of the Rock was a story about a divided and displaced nation’s journey towards healing their collective psyche, Froi of the Exiles is about a people broken apart by hatred, the wound in their history left to fester, and seep suspicion and fear into the cracks between them. A faceless, malevolent presence in Finnikin of the Rock, this is Charyn’s unveiling as more than simply “the enemy” of Lumatere. It’s an insight into a land burdened by suffering and grief, and the darker side of human nature.
While Finnikin of the Rock covered more ground in one sense of the word, with a quest that lead its characters into the far corners of Skuldenore, Froi of the Exiles is a novel on a vaster scale in several ways. This story is more complex, with an intricate web of a plot, and it unfolds new dimensions to Marchetta’s fantasy world and the resident characters. Froi of the Exiles plumbs depths of the world only hinted at in Finnikin of the Rock: the detail is richer, each small element is vital and serves a larger purpose in the whole. The themes are pushed further, and by extension the characters are more nuanced, forced to develop in often unexpected, yet organic, ways.
Given the serpentine nature of the plot and the level of intrigue present, at times this is a difficult story to keep hold of. It twists sharply, resists being pinned down, turns in surprising directions. Yet it never feels loose or uncontrolled. There was always a sense, as I read, that Marchetta was driving this story exactly where it needed to go, regardless of how difficult a course she charted. The entire story is characterised by a sense of weight and momentum, that it’s being inexorably drawn to some powerful, inevitable conclusion.
This is an extraordinarily strong book, and probably one I’ll have to read again to fully appreciate the intricacies of the plot, but I believe that its greatest power lies (as with Finnikin) in the characterisation and relationships. Marchetta does not go easy on her characters, providing them with convenient justifications for their actions or plot developments that open up handy loopholes. Instead, she forces them to wrestle their inner demons, with all the brutality and desperation that hand to hand combat entails.
Which brings me to Froi. (Froi!) For those who have read Finnikin of the Rock, you’ll be aware of the fact that Froi attempts something abhorrent in the first book. So it speaks to Marchetta’s skill as a writer that she is able to develop this character - his shame, his humanity, his convictions - in such a way that makes him deeply compelling. There are plenty of easy roads Marchetta could have taken in bringing Froi back as a main character, effectively glossing over his backstory. But I think that would have taken away from the thematic power of the novel, and been disingenuous to the character himself. Instead, by exploring the darker side of Froi’s nature, she creates a character so conflicted, and so authentic, it actually makes me ache.
”Although a voice inside had chanted to stop that night, Froi would never know if he would have. And he wanted to know. He wanted to say the words, ‘I would not have gone through with it.’ But he’d never know and that was his punishment.”
That passage punches me in the gut every time, and it’s small moments of crystallised thought such as this that make Froi’s growth throughout the novel, redefining the terms on which he lives his life, so real and heartbreaking.
But it’s not only Froi that Marchetta is unafraid of putting into morally ambiguous and unsympathetic positions, flaws exposed. Almost every character in the novel has to fight for something, has some excruciating internal journey to travel. Lucian, Beatriss, Trevanion, Lirah, Gargarin, amongst others – all carry with them some kind of pain, and have been or must go through something that will alter them irrevocably. While not always (if at all) providing tidy resolutions, there’s something rewarding about accompanying these characters on their journeys. There is a redemptive nature to their growth, and an acknowledgement that people are rarely all good or all evil, and all are capable of both inflicting pain.
And then, Quintana. Oh, Quintana. I’m not sure there is a character I’ve felt so fiercely about recently. She is my spirit animal. Neither clichéd fantasy princess or “kickass heroine” in a physical sense, Quintana is an alloy of contradictions: vulnerability, humour, grief, rage, intelligence, insanity. She’s tenacious and a little bit feral. She’s passionate and cold. And though this is largely Froi’s story, the chemistry of these two characters, the way they crash together on the page, is pretty captivating.
I won’t brush off the fact that this isn’t a light book, in terms of the content. Be warned that there’s all manner of brutality in this story: rape, torture, infanticide – Marchetta takes Froi of the Exiles to some very dark places. Reader thresholds for this type of subject matter will vary, naturally, but I feel it’s worth mentioning that it didn’t read gratuitously to me. The inclusion felt purposeful, important to the story being told.
On the other hand, it would remiss of me not to note that this book worthwhile things to say on the issues of religious tolerance, racism and cultural prejudice. Just as she does not flinch from showing both the repugnant and the admirable in her characters, Marchetta also shows the cruelty humans are capable of, along with their capacity for forgiveness and absolution.
Underpinning this very involved and intense novel, however, is the very human desire to belong somewhere. To have a sense of home, of family, and connection. And that this can sometimes be found in the most unlikely of places.
tl;dr: This book is a beautifully complex, emotional wrecking ball. It’s brilliant.
P.S. Thank goodness I held off from reading this until now. I think a year long wait for Quintana of Charyn might have completely cracked me.
* * * * * I can't even, people. I just finished and everything hurts.
Among my Goodreads friends, Code Name Verity seems to fall very clearly into two categories: "Not for me" and "True love 5ever!". There are actually v...moreAmong my Goodreads friends, Code Name Verity seems to fall very clearly into two categories: "Not for me" and "True love 5ever!". There are actually very few people I know who sit in between these.
When I first attempted Code Name Verity, I thought I was Camp A. Upon second attempt, turns out I'm Camp B. Which actually isn't all that surprising considering my love of war history, unreliable narrators etc.
I think I like Elizabeth’s Scott writing more with each of her books. When I started out, I felt like I was missing something. I enjoyed the first boo...more I think I like Elizabeth’s Scott writing more with each of her books. When I started out, I felt like I was missing something. I enjoyed the first book I read (Love You, Hate You, Miss You), but I didn’t quite understand the reverence with which Scott’s name was met in parts of my circle of reader-friends.
Since then I’ve read most of her books, recently finishing Miracle, and I need to say: I get it now.
I’ve previously commented on the brevity of Scott’s novels and the sparseness of her writing, but I’m going to reiterate my appreciation of it now. Perhaps because I read Miracle on the heels of another contemporary YA that dealt with complex issues, the sharpness seemed even more apparent when compared with the latter’s florid, dramatic prose. Tellingly, Miracle was the novel I felt more skilfully handled its subject matter, and the novel that I ultimately found the most moving. Scott’s ability to exercise to restraint in her writing seems to have the effect of distilling her stories into the most potent, concentrated form. In 224 pages, she packs a powerful punch to the emotions.
In my opinion Scott has always written authentic teenage voices, and in Miracle she retains this accessible tone even in light of her main character’s extraordinary circumstances. Megan is the eponymous “miracle”, the sole survivor of a plane crash who walks away from the wreckage with only superficial physical injuries. It’s a premise with the odds stacked against it, requiring considerable reader buy-in, yet this doesn’t result in alienating readers from Megan. Rather, Scott anchors Megan’s story in familiar things – family, friends, school, community – creating a relatable frame of reference through which to explore Megan’s PTSD.
While Megan emerges from the tragedy physically unscathed, the mental and emotional trauma she sustains and the repercussions thereof are the focus of the novel. Scott’s treatment of the subject of PTSD is unflinchingly frank, and you can read more about why that is here. Scott lays bare the realities of Megan’s situation, handling with particular honesty the way it impacts the people around her, and the confusion, frustration and isolation it results in. Of note here is the choice Scott has made in the way Megan’s PTSD manifests – in withdrawal and detachment – meaning that Megan’s actions are not always necessarily sympathetic. Throughout the novel, Scott doesn’t shield the reader from Megan’s difficult thought patterns, her anger or disconnection. And I applaud Scott’s decision, for challenging ideas about PTSD and for the integrity of her portrayal. I think this goes a long way to promoting understanding of an anxiety disorder that does not necessarily present in a uniform manner. Sufferers of PTSD may have vastly different experiences, and Scott draws attention to this fact through Megan’s story.
Miracle has a cast of strong, well developed secondary characters that add dimension to the plot, and to Megan herself. By contrasting diverse characters with a “small-town mentality” (whether that’s perception or reality), Scott prompts discussion around judgement and acceptance. This is most notable in Margaret and Joe, and how their experiences with prejudice, marginalisation and grief assist Megan in confronting her own issues, and reconnecting with her world.
(On a related note, can I just state for the record that I think Scott is a master of chemistry? She can get me genuinely invested in character relationships without a single stomach pterodactyl in sight.)
Given the topic, Miracle is not exactly a book with universal appeal, although I’d argue that there are nuances to the story that would have widespread resonance. However, for anyone interested in a powerful and honest depiction of PTSD and the problematic nature of labelling (both negatively and positively), I would recommend this compelling, candid novel.
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This book punched me right in the FEELS. Review to come..(less)
It wasn’t that long ago that I thought I would be writing you a break-up letter. A terse, thanks-...moreWhy We Got Together by Reynje
Dear ‘Why We Broke Up’,
It wasn’t that long ago that I thought I would be writing you a break-up letter. A terse, thanks-but-no-thanks, it’s-not-me-it’s-you-now-kindly-get-lost note. I can be acerbic when I’m annoyed and there it is, the admission, the honest truth that I thought you would annoy me.
It makes me wonder why I buy books sometimes, whether it’s truthfully the book itself I want or the simple act of acquisition I crave. Is it the words I tell myself I need, or just the covetousness that accompanies a rush of cover-lust? There you were on the shelf, distinct and red and beautiful - a waxy-covered, solid weight in my gluttonous hands. I will have this book, I thought, and I took you home.
But the longer I left you on my shelf the more I resented your smug presence. If ever a book could be self-satisfied, I thought it would be you. Your illustrations, your thick paper, your heavily-blurbed back cover lush with accolades. Everything about you from your painfully hip cover typeface to your “novel-by and art-by” declarations started to grate on me. This book, I told myself, is trying to be something. This isn’t a book, it’s a pre-packaged hipster experience, it’s something to be seen with, it’s something that wants to tell you what’s cool and how you should feel about it. Well, excuse me. I see enough of that on the city streets, I don’t need your judgement on my bookshelves as well.
So, I ignored you. Pushed you to the bottom of the stack, threw you over for other books time and time again. Occasionally, as I ran a searching finger down the column of spines I’d pause at yours. I’d feel guilty for owning a book I didn’t want to read, then assuage it by telling myself it was just that I wasn’t in the mood to read about intellectualised misery or the painful disintegration of a relationship.
Until one day, I was.
That’s not to say that I liked you from the first page, because I didn’t. I was wilfully resistant to your efforts at charm. I didn’t like Min’s stream of consciousness narration. I didn’t like the way you interrupted the dialogue in awkward places with “is what she said” or “is what you said.” I didn’t like the contrived quirkiness of the characters and the quaint turns of phrase. I didn’t like your “witty” banter that sounded so pleased with itself. I didn’t like Min’s habit of constantly referencing films and directors and actors. Alright, I get it, okay, enough – Min is different, Min is cool, Min is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl that doesn’t really exist. I just didn’t like you.
Until suddenly, I did.
You crept up on me, somewhere in between the pages of softly-coloured illustrations and vignettes that form Min’s letter. Item by item, with each relic dropped into the box, I fell for you. As Min and Ed’s story telescoped down to its fragile and bitter heart, I was drawn in. I found Min in those dashed down anecdotes and I knew her. I knew this person who wanted so desperately to be something but thought herself nothing. And I saw in her story another hurt, another bad decision, another break-up that ended in a pile of photographs and mementos on fire in the backyard, in a moment of youthful drama and heartbroken pyromania. I saw the thing that was cherished and coveted and cost nights of crying to sleep, the thing that wasn’t worth it, that didn’t work, but hurt all the same. All the moments that were never quite right, but were still precious; all the reasons it was prolonged and not put down, put behind, put out of its misery like it should have been. The thing you think you want with everything you have, until its too late and you lose more than you have to give.
And damn you page 335, for twisting up my chest until I cried ugly tears and felt all over again what it is to get hurt like a kick in the solar plexus. To feel so diminished and bereft and empty of everything worthwhile. To know that deep down you were right but that doesn’t make it hurt any less, doesn’t take away that some of it was good, some of it was special.
‘Why We Broke Up’, I admit that I judged you before I really knew you. I thought you were pretentious and insincere and I was determined to hold everything I possibly could against you. But I’ve read you now and I can’t. I can’t not like you, you stupid book, because I think of kind of love you even though you stomped on my freaking heart and made me cry in public.
I don’t think I can write a review for this book. I feel neither equipped, nor inclined, to make an evaluation of A Monster Calls based strictly on it...moreI don’t think I can write a review for this book. I feel neither equipped, nor inclined, to make an evaluation of A Monster Calls based strictly on its literary style and merits. (Therefore, if you’re looking for an analysis of the plot, characters etc – you will be better served with another review).
So I’m writing a response instead. Or, I will attempt to.
I have a difficult relationship with books that deal with the subject of death and grief.
Occasionally, I find a book that is moving and resonant - and I will both love it and feel jealous of it, for being able to articulate things I never could. Books that somehow translate raw emotion into words, that create a mirror out of ink and paper, reflecting back things I know to be deeply true and real (to me, at least).
Then there are the books that make me feel like my emotions are being traded on, manipulated, cheapened. Reducing it to fuel for an angsty teen plot line. Presuming my tears can be bought for the cost of a $19.95 paperback.
I can distinctly recall watching a film recently and walking out completely dry-eyed and practically spitting with rage at the distinct feeling that grief was being commercialised on. That such an incredibly personal experience and the accompanying emotions could be held to ransom by an overwrought, histrionic movie.
Yes, I took it personally. Because it was personal.
A couple of months before I turned fifteen, my father died. It was sudden, an accident. We’d had dinner as usual. He was working nights and left soon after. I hadn’t said goodbye to him because I was annoyed about something. Less than two hours later, he was dead. I could tell you exactly what clothes I put on after my brother told me I had to get out of the shower and get in the car. I could tell you exactly which Renoir print hung in the white, soulless room we were herded into at the hospital. I could tell you, word for word, the first thing my Mother said after we were given the news.
What I can’t tell you is what happened after that. Well, after a time, things came back into focus. But there is a great chasm in my mind that covers the rest of that night and the following days and weeks, as if my brain realised I couldn’t bear it and filled that space in with darkness so I wouldn’t see any of it.
Now, it feels almost like a presence, something that has grown with me in a strange, symbiotic way over the years. Mostly, these days, it’s a shadow, lying quiet and dormant, but making itself known by shading my memories, colouring the way I speak and act all this time later. At other times, it is a thick, solid wave, filling up my body so that I’m afraid to speak, terrified that I might unleash a torrent I can’t stop. That I might be overwhelmed, suffocated, drowned in sadness.
I strongly believe that grief and death are deeply personal things that no one experiences in exactly the same manner. And I suppose that this is why some book and film interpretations make me so upset, that they somehow think they can package up the experience and present it to you, neat and orderly. ”Here is the sadness you ordered! Here are the steps you will pass through! You should cry.. wait for it…now!” The reality, I believe, is so much more complex than that. So, when people tried to reach out to me, touch me, say “I know how you feel,” – I wanted to lash out at them. To scream that they had no idea what I was feeling. All I wanted was silence. Someone close by, not to interpret my pain, but to bear witness to it along with me.
A Monster Calls is many things - beautifully written and stunningly illustrated amongst others. But what struck me the most about this book is that it was so terribly honest. It bravely spoke of things that are often harboured in our deepest, darkest centres – far under the surface of our outward manifestations of pain. The things that are kept locked away by fear. Things that go unuttered because we worry that saying them aloud might make them real, and somehow define us in some horrible, irrevocable way.
Although this book did make me cry at it’s conclusion, I think in this case it was partly out of relief. The ideas expressed in this book, and very words uttered by the monster, allowed a weight to come sliding off my shoulders. I felt as if a personal truth had just been recognised and validated, in a very tender, respectful manner. Permission to accept that the thoughts I had pushed down as shameful and selfish, were just that: thoughts. Just one or two thoughts out of the millions I have had, but ones that I chose to hold on to and punish myself with for years.
I have not read another book that expressed so much understanding of what this is like. I have not read another book that felt this empathetic – it doesn’t just acknowledge your pain, it is a shared experience.
A Monster Calls is a special book, one to be absorbed, internalised and held very, very tightly.
I hope that it others are able to connect and love this book, to feel it leave an indelible print on them once the covers are closed.
I know that I did.
Again - apologies for the overly personal tangent this review took. But I'm afraid I simply couldn't find a way to write about this book without my own experiences seeping in. (If time lends me some objectivity, I might come back here and edit to make this a little more helpful.) (less)
I was up until the early hours of this morning devouring this, and I feel... emotionally bludgeoned and completely wrung out. Will attempt to review w...more I was up until the early hours of this morning devouring this, and I feel... emotionally bludgeoned and completely wrung out. Will attempt to review when I have (a) slept and (b) regained some objectivity.
”You are very loved.”…”You need to work harder at loving yourself.”
I hardly know where to begin this review. The difficulty arises partly from too few hours of sleep, partly from overcompensating for the fatigue with too much coffee, and partly from the emotional contortions this novel put me through. It has left me feeling limp and bruised, and completely ill equipped to write objectively.
I say this with considerable respect for the novel, which was beautifully written: I both loved it and hated it at the same time. I found it compelling, I couldn’t put it down, and yet it was deeply, almost relentlessly, painful to read.
The narrative opens with Holly unceremoniously losing her virginity to the popular Paul, someone she barely even knows, let alone likes. Her mother died six months ago, and Holly is numb, closed off to feeling.
Strasnick’s prose is sparse and raw, and Holly’s numbness comes across clearly. Initially, there is something quite automaton about the way she narrates. She describes an afternoon run, listing the directions and streets by rote, as if anesthetizing herself with methodical attention to detail.
As the story progresses, and Holly’s clandestine relationship with Paul triggers a series of choices that will irrevocably impact her life, it is as if Holly’s pain is bleeding out onto the paper. Strasnick tears away layers of Holly, exposing the unresolved grief and destructive thought patterns inside. While Holly has a certain hardness to her character, a streak of snark, the glimpses of her feelings of unworthiness are stomach-twisting to read.
”Holly.” The way he kept saying my name over and over made me feel so totally small. “You’re not my girlfriend.”
Watching Holly think and talk about herself was both real and horribly relatable, for me. Her inner dialogue of comparison to others (in particular, to Saskia), that they are more deserving of love, more deserving of happiness, was heartbreaking. It made me think of how, inevitably, we compare the insides of ourselves with the outsides of others. Holly initially sees Saskia as different, the perfect, blonde, willowy “other” - while in reality their lives could be reflections of the other, both fractured, and complex.
In addition, there is a dark and unsettling undercurrent to the evolution of Paul and Holly’s relationship, which is intensely difficult read to at times. Yes, Holly does make poor choices. But this would hardly be a story about grief and pain and loss if she didn’t. I felt that Strasnick’s portrayal of a teenage girl, and her failure to deal with the death of her mother, was strikingly honest. It doesn’t make for pleasant reading. It is sad. It is hard to swallow. But I felt it did reflect the untidiness of real life. The way not all mistakes can be rectified. The powerful ramifications of small decisions.
This story is undeniably heavy, for all its pared back, minimalist style. I connected with the book on a personal level, chest aching and tearing up through certain passages. And yet, I’m not sure how I feel about it. Conflicted, I guess, unable to decide to between loving it and not being able to bear it's brutal, bittersweet honesty.
Ultimately, I have to admire the bravery and integrity with which Strasnick has written this lingering, difficult story.
4.5 stars (Brace yourself for the gushing - apparently my brain was having a fire sale on similes and adjectives.)
Books like this make me feel so grat...more4.5 stars (Brace yourself for the gushing - apparently my brain was having a fire sale on similes and adjectives.)
Books like this make me feel so grateful that I am a reader.
Imagining that I was born without a propensity for reading and/or taught to love it tends to put me in a panicky tailspin, at the thought of all the characters, places and emotional experiences I would have missed, had I not been so inclined to pick up a book whenever possible.
And as far as emotional experiences go, this one was like a small wrecking-ball swinging though me.
”His mind was flooded.
He’d seen pictures of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and that’s how he felt. His life was now underwater and, even if the tide somehow receded, everything that he had was now damaged beyond repair.”
“I’ll Be There” is a powerful and unsettling read, particularly throughout the early descriptions of Sam and his younger brother Riddle’s life on the road with their mentally unstable father, Clarence.
Told in third person omniscient, the story at first feels slightly detached, as if the reader is being held at bay to watch as the characters and plot unfold. However, this particular style is employed to great effect as the characters each form a thread of the story, pulling tighter and tighter into a delicate snare of words; a little noose constricting around the heart.
Honestly, there were parts of this book when I had to shut it and remind myself it wasn’t actually happening, because I felt like I was trying to breathe with a weight on my chest. I wanted to reach into the pages and make everything okay.
When Sam encounters Emily Bell at a college-town church, they experience a moment of connection which will change the direction of their lives. From this point, and through his contact with Emily and her family, Sam begins to become visible after a lifetime of remaining unseen. He begins to form connections, experience a part of life he has never known. Juxtaposed with Clarence’s mounting paranoia and lurking menace, the tension ratchets up steadily. Small, tender moments are incised with sharp shadows of foreboding.
The gradually interlocking sections of the story, while gritty and harsh, are also shot through with something kind of.. magical. (Which, judging from reviews, will either sit well with you... or it won’t).
I don’t mean to infer that this is magical realism – this story is nothing if not all too possible in terms of Sam and Riddle’s brutal childhood – but there is something almost fable-like in the way it is written. (If I think of a better word, I’ll come back here and edit).
Stylistically, the book reminded me in parts of the 2006 film ‘Stranger Than Fiction’, in terms of the narration and the sense of overarching purpose, the fragments that snap together to form a fractured, yet beautiful whole. Personally, I really liked the slightly whimsical element to story that tempered the darker themes and events.
The plot did take a direction I was not expecting, but once I had adjusted to this particular choice I settled in and let the story take me where it would, strictly realistic or not. (I find that I’m prepared to suspend my belief on a case-by-case basis – generally, this is illogically determined by how much I love the characters and the writing.)
Due to the style of the prose, and the spare dialogue, we never get completely close to the characters. We don't exactly live in their world, or walk in their shoes. Instead, we are shown small snapshots and glimpses into their lives. In spite of this, I still felt heavily invested in them. If anything, the fleeting insights into Riddle’s thoughts, his drawings, Sam’s attempts to keep his brother protected and Emily’s tenacious hope had me in a kind of chokehold, and I grew to love them.
I would like to have seen more of the interactions between Sam and Emily. The way in which their connection was described was well suited to the overall tone and style of the book (alluded to, rather than explicitly spelled out) – but I kind of wish Holly Goldberg Sloan had given them more on-page moments and dialogue. Regardless, the portions of the book where they were together and their respective feelings were tender and bittersweet.
One of the elements I particularly loved was the use of colour throughout the story. I am intrigued about the recurring orange motif, the colour appearing with increasing frequency throughout the climax of the novel. Beyond the possible significance, which I’m still wondering about, it also ties in beautifully with the cover art.
I wish I could be more articulate about why I loved this book so much. The writing, deceptively simple, yet quietly and devastatingly expressive, has left me feeling woefully inadequate to the task of reviewing it.
All I can really say is that reading 'I'll Be There' was an experience both painful and precious. It’s exquisitely written, moving, harrowing, heartbreaking.
And I loved it.
If I could sum up I’ll Be There with a picture, it would be this one (from tumblr). Dark, beautiful, hopeful:
Full disclosure: This review has little to no objectivity. It’s barely even a review. The whole experience of reading Good Oil was so fraught...more 4.5 stars
Full disclosure: This review has little to no objectivity. It’s barely even a review. The whole experience of reading Good Oil was so fraught with nostalgia and personal resonance that any ability I had to critically analyse it was chucked out the window before I’d even finished the first chapter.
”Bottom line is – I can’t run my own race. I’m constantly checking what’s happening in the other lanes.” ~ Chris
”Oh, well. Love is pain. Or is it beauty is pain? I wouldn’t know about the latter, but the former makes my sternum ache.” ~Amelia
Reading this book was like opening a long forgotten photo album, catching glimpses of the ignored past pressed in between sheets of paper. Many of the scenes could have been lifted from the adolescence and young adulthood of myself and my friends – and probably countless others - there was a closeness to my own reality here that made the intertwined stories of Amelia and Chris both laughing-so-hard-I’m-crying funny and stomach-twistingly painful.
Good Oil does a beautiful job of bringing back what it’s like to be 15 and 21, with searing authenticity. As an adult, it’s easy to brush aside teenage emotions as incredibly self-involved and of little consequence in the grand scheme of things. You know the ones I’m talking about. Being so horribly in love you can feel it in your elbows. Desperately earnest and trying to carve out your place in the world. Awkwardness that stalls your tongue and trips up your feet. Feeling disconnected from the lives your peers are leading. The kind of feelings dismissed in later life with a good-natured, indulgent eye roll. Good Oil treats these moments of growing up with sincerity, and respect for how real and all-consuming they are at the time.
Buzo certainly makes her characters stand under direct lighting – there’s no concealing their flaws, or flattering angles here. Everything is laid bare and the characters’ decisions and behaviour are open to scrutiny in all their various shades of grey. But what Buzo masters is showing that nobody is exempt from messing up, and that “good” people are just as capable of inflicting hurt or making dubious choices as the “bad.”
In this respect, Chris is one of the most realistic embodiments of a 21 year old male I’ve yet seen in a young adult novel. I believed every word of his messed-up, self-loathing, conflicted voice and the emotional flagellation he put himself through, or sought to drown in alcohol. He would have been a character easy to dislike, but Buzo also shows his intelligence, humour and kindness – flashes of the person he is capable of being.
And Amelia, oh Amelia, some of her pages were so difficult to read because her voice was so raw and bursting with the passion and frustration and anxiety of fifteen. Her awkwardness felt achingly familiar. I wanted to reach into the pages and assure her that things would change – that eventually she would feel like she fit into her own skin and her own life.
It’s hard to distance myself enough from this book to gain the necessary perspective to discuss things like plot and character arcs and pacing and so on. It read like pieces cut from real life, all rough edges and blurred lines and crushing honesty. Chris and Amelia and the supporting cast were less like characters than people you would walk by down the street, or had figured somewhere in your past.
I can’t my put my finger on exactly what feeling this book conjured as I read it – but the closest I can think of is homesickness. The complex tangle of nostalgia and yearning, and the realization that life rarely works out the way you think it will. The small fragments of realism (the drive from Sydney to Newcastle, drinking James Squires’, part-time checkout jobs, sneaking into the pub, PE with no showers afterwards, Augie March, families that drive you crazy… I could keep going here) pieced together a story that I absolutely believed and completely broke me down. The ending is quietly powerful and wrenching, and it lingered long after I closed the book.
Gush and awe aside – some parts of the story did feel a little awkwardly placed, for example, the recurrent them of Amelia’s aversion to her parents’ smoking. While it illustrated part of her character, I felt it occasionally came across a little heavy-handed. Minor matter of personal taste though, I guess.
Good Oil is probably best summed up with the quote from the back cover: “A story that’s real and warm and just a little bit heartbreaking.”
Every so often a book comes along that I have an intense, visceral reaction to. ‘Stolen’ is definitely one of those books. I read it rapidly, entangle...more Every so often a book comes along that I have an intense, visceral reaction to. ‘Stolen’ is definitely one of those books. I read it rapidly, entangled in the narrative, and when I closed the book I felt like someone had just delivered a sound, steel-cap booted kick to my chest. I just sat there feeling winded, trying to come up with a word for exactly what I was experiencing. In the end, I’d say I felt bereft. Shaken, disturbed, yes, but also a strange yearning for something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
Written in the form of a letter from 16 year old Gemma to her captor, Ty, ‘Stolen’ is a powerful book, recounting Gemma’s experiences as she is taken from Bangkok airport to the Australian outback.
It is a testament to the skill of the author that as a reader you are compelled to run such a gamut of emotion, one that closely mirrors Gemma’s mental journey. Perhaps even to the point where you feel what Gemma feels as she, arguably and subject to your interpretation, develops Stockholm Syndrome. I found myself relating to and grieving for a person who committed a terrible act. Discovering empathy for a character who is deeply troubled and unstable. Treading the thin line between love and obsession. Sanity and insanity. Gentleness and evil.
The story takes you through panic and fear. Anger. Hurt. Confusion. Denial. Revulsion. Compassion. Manipulation. Trust. Attraction.
And then it flips all of that on its head and asks you to question everything you feel. Is it real? Or were you and the narrator manipulated? What is fitting justice for a criminal who’s strange and twisted logic you have almost come to understand? It is a complex, beautifully conceived novel that lingers long after the final page. I found myself thinking about the characters for days afterwards, and analysing my feelings about the ending.
I also need to mention how much I adored Lucy Christopher’s use of the setting, her portrayal of the danger and unique beauty of the outback. Almost a character in its own right, Christopher really captured the vastness of the landscape, while also heightening the claustrophobic sense of isolation of being, literally, in the middle of nowhere.
Of course, this won't be a story for everyone. It's troubling, challenging, but ultimately moving and thought provoking. A definite favourite. (less)