Saturday 29 October 2011

REVIEW - 'There Is No Dog', Meg Rosoff (Penguin, 2011)

It turns out that God is a teenage boy, a spoilt brat called Bob, whose whims and urges have resulted in a rather erratic existence on Earth. Only his unassuming assistant, Mr. B, is there to try and clear up any disasters that occur. When Bob falls in love with zoo-keeper, Lucy, how far-reaching will the consequences be for life on Earth?

Bit of an oddity, this one. Not entirely unsurprising given this is Meg Rosoff, and I never know quite what to expect when I pick up one of her books. It can vary between automatic entry to top 5 books of all time (How I Live Now), to 'is that it?' (Just In Case). This one definitely falls closer to the latter, but didn't quite hit the mark in the heart-breaking stakes. But it's just not that sort of book...

I've never come across a YA book quite like this one. It breaks all the rules of the genre (head-jumping mid-page, paragraph, sentence) but gets away with it. Only just, mind. This is down to the skill of the writer - I'm sure I've said this before, but I don't think I've come across an author who can say so much with so few words. Her prose is so intelligent and succinct and I found myself marveling at it at least once a chapter. This involves much eyebrow raising, in case you were wondering.

Hopefully you've read the synopsis as I'm not sure I'll do a great job of explaining it. In short, god is a teenage boy, which explains why earth is so f****d up. Whenever he falls in love, or lust, natural disasters ensue. Or 'sex weather' as it is so brilliantly put.

In this scenario, we get the perspectives from pretty much all the supporting characters - his depressed right-hand pleb, he pet 'Eck' (a sort of furry penguin creature), his sozzled mother, the secret love of his would-be girlfriend's mother. You get the picture. At times, it felt more like I was watching a play rather than reading a novel. You never really get under the skin of any of the characters, but this didn't really matter too much, as it never felt like the sort of book you are supposed emotionally invest in. More like a fable of human nature.

A unique, thought-provoking read. Big ideas. It makes me happy to think of this book creating discussions and debates between teenagers.

Tuesday 18 October 2011

REVIEW - 'Graffiti Moon', Cath Crowley (Pan MacMillan Australia, 2010)

After finishing Year 12, Melbourne teenager Lucy celebrates by embarking on a night of possibilities with her friends. Always on her mind is the possiblity of catching sight the mysterious street artist, Shadow, a boy she has set her heart on, despite never actually setting eyes on him. Instead, her path crosses that of Ed, a guy from a her past she would rather just forget...

And so, my quest to absorb as much Aussie YA as my brain can cope with in the next six weeks continues...

There's been so much contemporary YA from this country that being shouted about at the moment that's it's been tricky to decide what to feast on next. I've been reading and hearing many a positive word about this one. And I have been taking note and listening to these words studiously and have picked up a copy from trusted local library.

The downside of reading good reviews before you actually read good book - RIDICULOUSLY HIGH EXPECTATIONS. I try and I try to wipe away all preconceptions, but they do creep in, those little pesky critters and feast on my objectivity. I've read so much stuff recently that I have adored and I have to admit, this doesn't fall into that catagory. Definitely more of a like that than I love. It ticks all the right boxes, but it just didn't break/melt/ignite my heart in the way I expected it to. Just made it ZING just the teeniest bit.

I didn't really feel a great connection with Lucy from the start. The whole premise of falling for a myth, yes, I can buy that. But telling everyone about it? Would you? Really? I think not. She took this crush a little bit too seriously and comes across and a little bit too naive, which I just couldn't get past. Although I did start to warm towards her closer to the end, especially with her confusion and stress over her parents very confusing, very stressful relationship (a nice little sub plot there too).

Now, Ed, on the other hand... my kind of boy, without a doubt. I love my boy characters who wear their flaws on their sleeves. Man, if I was seventeen again... A great example of a well-rounded, complex YA hero, and I'm pleased the author gave up half the novel to his voice.

I'm a big fan of different story telling devices, and I liked the addition of Poet's little entries to break up the narrative. Although I wasn't that interested in the sub plot between Leo and Jazz (not a big fan of that name either, by the way), they gave us a little more insight into his relationship with Ed, and the book was all the better for it.

Overall, a good story, well-told. Just didn't get me into a emotional tizzy, I'm afraid.

Thursday 13 October 2011

REVIEW - 'Brown Skin Blue', Belinda Jeffrey (UQP, 2009)

Seventeen-year-old Barry Mundy, growing up with no father, a white mother and brown skin, is now a drifter, trying to come to terms with his darkest secret. When lands a job on a croc-jumping river cruiser in the 'top end' of Australia, how can he make sure that his past doesn't determine his future?

Anyone who assumes young adult fiction is all fluff and nonsense (we all know it is anything but, but many do not, or don't really want to know) should pick up this book and get completely lost in it. They really should.

I was a bit worried about starting this - I had the good fortune to attend a recent YA workshop run by the author - she was brilliant - encouraging and really inspiring, but part of me felt I wouldn't be able to completely enjoy the book because I'd been given an insight into the thought processes behind it. Is this a common worry? Anyway, I was being slightly ridiculous, because the writing is so damn good, I had no problem whatsoever getting lost here and had a fair few problems trying to find my way out again.

On the face of it, this is pretty bleak stuff. Barry is the recovering victim of a paedophile, struggling to come to terms with his past as he embarks on his sexual maturity. He decides he need to fill in the blanks of his family history and sets off to discover the identity of his father, escaping into fantastical story-telling when the reality never lives up to what he hopes.

Yes, weighty stuff, I think you'll agree. But as with most of the more serious, thought provoking reads, there is always a heavy dose of hope to get us through the rougher stuff. The balance here is just right - the author doesn't shy away from any of the more controversial material, and so she shouldn't, and Barry's pitch perfect matter-of-fact voice makes this all the more heartbreaking.

I love different story-telling devices and they're used to great effect here. Barry's thoughts on his potential father figures translate into fables reminiscent of those told in his childhood. This adds adds an ethereal layer to the stories, bringing together the themes of memory and fantasy. Just brilliant.

The supporting characters are all skillfully put to good use, fellow lost soul Sally, in particular showing us  how everyone has a story to tell and a secret to hide.

Just such an Australian book (and this is a major compliment, by the way) - the dusty setting, the dialogue, the vulnerability to the forces of nature, the isolation. I could almost smell the muddy river!

Very much recommended for pretty much everyone. In fact, I'm going to change my goodreads rating from 4 to 5 as soon as I've posted this.

Has anyone else read this one?

Thursday 6 October 2011

REVIEW - 'Looking For Alaska', John Green (Harper Collins UK, 2005)

Quiet outsider Miles Halter gets his wish of being transferred to the exclusive, unconventional boarding school, Culver Creek in order to seek out the 'Great Perhaps'. There, he falls under the spell of the equally unconventional Alaska Young...

This is my second encounter with John Green. Last year I picked a copy of 'Will Grayson Will Grayson' (collaboration with David Levithan) off the library shelf and thought it was bloody amazing  - a touch on the schmaltzy side, yes, but it had a feel good ending to beat all others. And it was intelligent, it didn't preach, it didn't patronise. I loved it.

Ok, I'll stop writing about that book and start writing about this book. Needless to say I had high expectations. And for the most part, they were met. Our narrator, Miles, or 'Pudge', as his is christened by his new best friends, it a good narrator - a reliable observer on a steep learning curve with plenty of 'firsts' to experience and plenty of questions to ask. He is likable and ever so slightly on the right side of annoying.

The structure is very clever and introduces an element of mystery - the first half leads up to the pivotal event of the book and the last half depicts the emotional aftermath. The pace doesn't sag and the whole thing kept me guessing (or am I just being a bit thick?). Yep, it ticks all the boxes so far...

HOWEVER, as with WGWG, these teenagers have a touch of the Dawson's Creeks about them - wordy, precocious, a bit....well, irritating, if I'm honest. This sort of pontificating just doesn't ring true as a teen experience for me. I found it very difficult to sympathise with Alaska, for instance, even after her back story is revealed. I'm pretty sure if I went to school with such an attention-seeking little madam then I would have avoided her like the plague. Consequently, I didn't really feel very emotionally involved with the story or most of these characters. For me this prevented a good book becoming a great book.

Right up until the last few pages I was bracing myself for a monumental anti-climax - I just couldn't see where the story could really go. But the last little nugget is brilliant - just keep reading, please. I think this is a book that would definitely benefit from a second read - not because I completely adored it and my life would not be complete without it, but because I think this is a case of the my personal enjoyment of the story improving with a better understanding of it - there are so many themes going on here, that I didn't really feel  their emotional whack until these final paragraphs.

Great writing, great plot, it just didn't grab me in the way I hoped it would. (But maybe it will in the future?)

Can I just mention the cover? I was reading the Harper Collins UK edition and I just loved it. I've discovered I'm a bit superficial when it comes to the packaging but this one is just PERFECT.

Friday 30 September 2011

REVIEW - 'Raw Blue', Kirsty Eager (Penguin, 2009)

Carly has dropped out of her old life - university, family, friends. She spends her nights working as a cook and her days surfing on Sydney's north shore trying to keep her secrets buried. Can the mysterious Ryan bring her back from the brink?

I've read some great things about this book over the last couple of weeks, and have also picked up on the fact that it's a bit tricky to get hold of outside Australia. As I'm currently residing in Brisbane, but only for the next few weeks, I paid a trip to my lovely local library and bingo, a well-thumbed copy arrives for me to peruse.

How difficult is it to review a book that you love? Well, this difficult.

As with all great YA, the voice is just spot-on magical, gets-you-in-the-gut hooked, utterly, utterly convincing and powerful. I don't think I've yet to read a book that has managed to capture that feeling of late-teenagehood so accurately. Even without Carly's horrendous secret, Eager completely nails those feelings of insecurity, loneliness, the desire for solitude, that wobbly feeling when the you know the guy at work fancies you, the wanting of this attention, but running away from it at the same time. Seriously, so many times this book gave me the shivers and took me straight back to being that oddball teenager again.

One of the main characters in this book is the water. It's there with Carly all the time. The passages depicting her experiences on the waves are pretty intense - I know naff all about surfing, and I suspect many who have read this, or are planning to are in the same boat (I'm really, REALLY sorry). But, these pieces of prose, although most of the detailed content goes completely over my head, just make the book...sing. I'm sorry but I'm going to go a bit wanky and up my own arse here, but they have this rhythm and poetry about them and are used to great effect to show the energy of the characters and the situation they find themselves in. She doesn't worry about scaring off any novices, just goes with it, which I think is just BRILLIANT and what great YA is all about.

Ryan, just such a bloke.
Uncomplicated, buy maybe not so much. Possibly my favourite love interest in recent years. God bloody love him.

This whole book feels so honest and instinctive, but is still polished to perfection. At not one point did I feel I was in rambling territory.

Now I just have to go out and buy a copy before I leave these shores...

Wednesday 28 September 2011

REVIEW - 'The Knife of Never Letting Go', Patrick Ness (Walker Books, 2008)

Young Todd Hewitt is the only boy left in Prentisstown. The only boy among men. In Prentisstown, all thoughts can be heard by everyone. There shouldn't be any secrets. Until today, when Todd uncovers the biggest secret of all and is forced to flee...

Ok, first up, apologies - this review might be bit on the long side. It's a big book.

After reading a fair amount of buzz about this over the last few months, I happened to stumble across a near pristine copy in the secondhand bookshop where I work.

It is possibly the most beautiful book I have ever set my eyes upon. 

I won't describe it here, but take my word for it - if you decide to track this one down, you MUST get a hardcover copy. You MUST, I tell you.

Anyway, does the content live up to the packaging? Well, it's long. I don't give a toss about this, as long as it doesn't feel long, as long as I'm not aware that I'm ploughing through a book when I'm supposed to be flying through the pages and before I know it, it's 3 o'clock in the morning and I realise I've not done the ironing, or the washing up, and I've left my contact lenses in. And I don't give a crap about any of the above.

Well, I have to admit, in the first half of the book, I was aware of a little bit of ploughing going on. Just enough to distract me. It is very fast paced at the start and maybe I was being a bit unreasonable, maybe it just set too high a precedent, but I just wanted MORE pace, just wanted Todd to get onto the next bit of his adventure/nightmare. Ok, maybe I'm being a bit demanding.

HOWEVER, oh my lord, in the last half, I was hooked. I initially thought the relationship between Todd and Viola could end up being just a tad contrived, but it was so beautifully written, by the time Todd had really crawled under my skin, you felt every little awkward nuance and realisation with him. Just such brilliant simmering tension. It just bloody well better come to fruition at some point....

And the voice! Very distinct. You never forget that Todd is just a kid. And a very sheltered one at that. His journey and his reactions stay true to his character completely. He is stubborn and frustrated with his situation (not entirely unreasonably, I might add). Originally, the style wasn't as seamless as I would have hoped, but it just grew into the story and helped me fall in love with our protagonist that little bit more.

The plot is ever so slightly genius. Being able to hear other folks thoughts - a conceit that could so easily produce many gaping plot holes and fall straight down them, but no, not even the whiff of a plot hole. Not even the murmuring of the NOISE of a plot hole. Ok, ok, I have just one question - if it is so important that Todd becomes a man, why do they choose to have thirteen months in a year which just prolongs the process? PLEASE answer this question in the sequels I am yet to read, thank you.

So many big themes here - religion, the grass isn't always greener, what maketh the man. Let me just say, food for thought indeed.

Anyway, you might have guessed that I adored this. You'd be correct in this assumption. I hereby solemnly swear to read more dystopian YA in the future...

Saturday 24 September 2011


Ok, I originally intended this to be a review of this year's Brisbane Writers Festival, but, seeing as I only managed to make it to one workshop and one seminar, I feel that limited attendance does not a review make. (However, this is two more visits than I managed last year, so, yay for me).

So, I decided I would quite like to write down a bit about some stuff that I've learnt in the past year. Just an overview of advice from workshops I have attended since I make the foolish/brave decision to start putting pen to paper on a regular basis.

So, it goes with out saying that I really needed some guidance. This won't be a blow-by-blow account of each workshop, as I suspect that won't make particularly riveting reading, but I'll just share a few points that have helped me, both motivationally and in actually honing any skill that I may, or may not have.

Firstly, the best advice I've been given is to allow myself to write a really CRAP first draft. Maybe I'm a bit dense, but this never occured to me before. I remember writing a paragraph back in 2000 and whatever, shutting down the Word document and cringing at the thought of anyone reading such piffle. Now, I have nearly 65, 000 words worth of possible piffle but that really doesn't matter - I now know I could have the capacity to transform it into non-piffle at some stage in the future. The important thing is that it is THERE.

The second piece of advice has, unlike the above, always been an obvious one, for me, anyway. Write something that you WANT TO READ. The whole process has always been so instinctive for me, that I'm not even sure I would have the desire to emulate any particular trend without falling in love with it first. So, yeah, don't follow a trend. Unless you love it. Or you're some sort of super-manipulative machiavellian genius. In which case, I'm sure you'll be just fine.

Finally, I recently read an interview with a young television writer/actor whose advice to budding writers was to attend as many workshops as possible because you never know what gems you might pick up and where they could lead. My first thought was, yeah, well, if you're loaded, then no problem. Money, or lack of it, is a major consideration for me, as with many, I'm sure. I have no formal creative writing qualifications, and I'm not sure I ever will, so I feel like I have to pick the classes I do attend carefully. I was reluctant to go to a YA workshop at the Brisbane Writers Festival as I suspected it would be going over old ground, but I decided to give it a whirl. And a bloody good job I did, because in a 'first paragraph' exercise, I wrote an few short sentences that put a whole different take on an idea I'd been mulling around for ages. Yes, I did do exercises that I'd done previously, and yes, it did go over things that I already knew. But it was enjoyable and inspiring and got me thinking. So, maybe don't attend EVERY workshop going, but don't write it off without very good reason.

So, the title of this post. Well, I still consider writing a risk of sorts. A risk with my emotions and my confidence. But it gets easier the more I do it.

Oh, and write and read EVERYDAY. Everyone says that. And so they should. It's good advice.

Monday 19 September 2011

REVIEW - 'So Much To Tell You', John Marsden (Hachette Australia, 1987, this edition published 2006)

A young girl with trauma in her recent history starts afresh at a new boarding school. Unable to speak to her teachers, doctors or peers, she begins to confide in her journal...
Another week, another John Marsden novel to attach to my person until every page has been devoured. And this is the best one yet. Am I right in thinking this was his debut? If so, my god... In the last year, with all the edgy YA I've been sifting through, I've become used to my heart being broken and my emotions being ripped to shreds on a weekly basis, but this one really takes the prize. How on earth can he pack so much angst and beauty into such a small book?

At first, our narrator appears to be a painfully shy new girl, apparently invisible to her classmates, just an observer with maybe a few more issues than your average fifteen-year-old. What we do learn, as her story is carefully drawn out, is that she is far from invisible.

Th journal structure allows the author to achieve the honesty and the immediacy that I associate with great YA. Even the supporting characters are so well-rounded and believable - in just a few lines, a girl that could have easily taken the role of the standard, one-dimensional bully, becomes a complex individual that you begin to care about.

We never get the full story and there are no tidy conclusions or easy answers here. And that's as it should be. Just brace yourself for the ending...

Even thought this was written nearly twenty-five years ago, apart from the occasional reference to cassettes and tape recorders, this feels fresh and relevant. Vital, even. I just wish I'd read it when I was fourteen.

Wednesday 14 September 2011

REVIEW - 'The Double Life of Cassiel Roadnight' (Harper Collins, 2010)

A lonely teenager, Chap, takes on the identity of a missing boy, Cassiel Roadnight, attempting to satisfy his desire to have the family he has always dreamed of. Is this a case of 'be careful what you wish for?'

This is a great premise and the plot here more than lives up to the promise in the brief synopsis. I really can't tell you too much about it as this would make me a major spoiler spoil-sport, so I'll attempt to keep my trap shut and restrain my keyboard fingers.

What I CAN tell you is this - Ms. Valentine stays very true to the voice of a lonesome, sixteen-year-old drifter, struggling to come to terms with the mysteries of his own past, conflicted through his growing sense of danger of the strange situation he has found himself in and his reluctance to leave his new 'family'.

I love a good gradual reveal and this did not disappoint. Even if you do guess at some of the plot developments before they happen, there are still some genuine surprises (for me, anyway - you may be smarter and more perceptive).

I did feel the first half was too slow, maybe the reveal was just a bit too gradual. The plot starts to really pick up some pace in the last third, maybe to the detriment of some of the supporting characters - the introduction of an ally and confidant in Floyd is great for the plot, but the reasons for his involvement are never adequately explained, and he is accompanied by some pretty MAHOOSIVE, gaping plot holes that I couldn't really overlook.

This has intrigued me enough to examine the rest of Valentine's back catalogue, and that's a good a recommendation as any.

Saturday 10 September 2011

REVIEW - 'The Piper's Son', Melina Marchetta (Penguin, 2010)

Thomas Mackee is twenty-one and struggling to cope with a family meltdown. Turning to his troubled aunt for a place to stay when he has burnt all other bridges, he is forced to interact with the group of friends he abandoned at his lowest point. Can he manage to pull all the pieces of his life back together again?

The companion piece to the excellent 'Saving Francesca', this story picks up on the previously supporting character of Tom. Before he was a joker, loveable, immature, laid back. Here, five years later, he is laid back to the point of being commatose, determined to destroy any ties with anyone or anything hew used to hold dear.

'The Piper's Son' traces how and why this young man came to take such a path of destruction and whether he has the desire to turn things back around again.

I adored 'Saving Francesca', so was itching to find out what happened to these characters. This is a much more complex novel than its predesessor, dealing with adult themes in a challenging and confronting manner - Tom lost his Uncle Joe in the 7/7 London bombings, a loss felt deeply by his unpredictable, alcoholic father, Dominic and his rock-solid but teetering-on-the-edge aunt, Georgie. Two years later, the family still has not recovered, Georgie is pregnant by her ex-boyfriend and they are all preparing for the return of the body of Tom's grandfather, lost to the Vietman war when he was only, like Tom, twenty-one.

Blimey, this is a difficult book to review. Complicated family set-up would be an extreme understatement. Add to that the predicament with Tom's former friends - the Francesca of the original taking the lead in this group. And then there's Tara Finke. The one that got away. Or, in this case, the one that Tom dropped like a hot potato when everything went tits up.

Aaaahhhh! Is that enough back story for you?

Anyway, the surprise here was the use of dual perspective. Not only do we get Thomas's side (naturally) but with also get's Georgie's part of the story. This is a very smart move from Marchetta. Although this is technically classed as YA and Georgie is a forty-two year woman (Thomas couldn't exactly be classed as a teenager here either), but FAMILY is the key theme here, and without Georgie's perspective, this story could be very hollow indeed. You need to give the reader the background to Thomas's story and Tom isn't necessarily the one to give it.

It goes without saying that this author is ambitious but more than meet the challenge she seems to set. Again, such strong voices and powerful set-pieces. The prose is intense and beautiful. The potentially tricky problem of introducing a sex scene into YA is handled with such skill and subtlety, without losing any emotion. Genius!

What else can I say? She's great, the book is fantastic. Read it. (After you've read Saving Francesca). (Although it does work as a stand alone book, so you don't really have to... Only if you want to). (But you really, really should, you know).

Thursday 25 August 2011

REVIEW - 'Winter', John Marsden (Pan Macmillan Australia, 2000, this edition published 2011)

Sixteen year old Winter is returning to her family homestead after being shipped of to relatives following the tragic deaths of her parents when she was four years old. Spurred on by her unease and the desire to uncover a family secret, the prickly Winter seeks to lay claim to what is rightfully hers.

Being one of those English people, I am a relative newcomer to the works of Marsden. This is only the second book of his that I've read, the first being the rather brilliant, rather shocking 'Letters From the Inside'. With both, Marsden delivers an emotional heavyweight in a very slim volume.

Our narrator, Winter, is beautifully drawn. Her narkiness and stubbornness are given a sympathetic edge - I immediately got where she was coming from, why she was acting like she was and I forgave her for it.

The real winner here is the plot. A genuinely intriguing and intelligent mystery surrounding the deaths of her parents that kept my hands glued to the pages from start to finish. A few not-too-obvious red herrings are chucked in to keep us guessing, but the ending does not underestimate the intelligence of the reader. A satisfying romantic element is also there - a must for this reader! Can't really say much else about the book here without ruining it so I'll keep schtum.

Highly recommended. Short, but not-so-sweet. And all the better for it.

Thursday 18 August 2011

REVIEW - 'Just In Case', Meg Rosoff (Penguin UK, 2006)

This is the story of David Case. On the run from fate, which he is convinced is out to get him (and he's not completely off the mark on this one), he changes his clothes, his world, his name.  Meet Justin Case...(do you see what she did there?)..Can he really out run fate?

Now, I really, really, really, wanted to LOVE this book. In fact, I expected to love it. I pretty much took it for granted. Which is unfair, on any book, opening it up, expecting to adore it, when 9 times out of 10, you're just setting yourself up for disappointment.

I like most books I read. I enjoy many. But I love a very select few. And these very select few include three Meg Rosoff books.

I'm a recent convert to Rosoff. In the last six months, upon deciding to pen my first young adult novel, I have made it my mission to immerse myself in all things YA. 'What I Was' was one of the first books I picked off the shelf of my local library and it pretty much had me at hello. It was love at first word... Ok, maybe sentence.

And when I say love, I mean I fell completely in love. A feeling that was repeated when I started both 'How I Live Now' and 'The Bride's Farewell.' I love them for there uniqueness as well as their similarites. But here is not the place to talk about these books. Just trying to put this review in a bit of context...

I really did try to care about David/Justin, but he was a very difficult boy to warm to. Rosoff does an excellent job in creating a very insular world - we inhabit the existence of someone going through a process that most people may struggle to comprehend. And she manages to make his fundamental problem seem a very real concern. How do you make the completely irrational appear rational? Well, she nails it, for the most part.

My main problem with this is the characters; as with our protagonist, they give us very little to hang our emotions onto. Most just seem to drift on the surface of the story, threatening to make an impact but never delivering.  David's parents are apathetic, selfish and generally a bit useless. The only reason for this behaviour that I sould see was to move the plot forward. These characteristics are not put into an appropriate context - would the parents of a troubled teenager be this uncaring? And if this is the case, I need a convincing reason to explain this behaviour.

I had a MAJOR problem with Agnes. A 19-year-old fashion photographer who spots potential in the unique 'Justin' persona, winning his affections, but using him for her own gain. Are we supposed to empathise with her or despise her? Personally, I just thought her downright annoying. We are given her point of view without getting any insight into her personality, apart from the fact that she's a bit of a quirky dresser.  She in neither involving nor sympathetic. And what is an edgy photographer and fashionista doing living in Luton? Not entirely implausible, but never alluded to or explained.

I must mention the point of view, which flicks back and forth between characters, sometimes mid-paragraph. Now, Rosoff has used this technique in other books, but it was so seamless and skilfully done, I have barely noticed. But here, it jars and interrupts the flow of the narrative. Again, annoying.

However, one thing I cannot fault is the prose, her amazing use of language. I don't think I have come across an author who can use so few words to describe so much and create such an impact.

Maybe it's unfair of me to expect so much. All the right components are there, but the characters let the story down, and without them, the rest just doesn't cut the mustard.

Saturday 6 August 2011

REVIEW - 'Speak', Laurie Halse Anderson (2001, Hodder, UK)

Melinda starts high school as an outcast and must survive the year, abandoned by her friends, struggling to communicate with her distracted and warring parents and being eaten from the inside by a horrific secret that has taken her over.

I have to admit, I tend to give issue based reads a bit of a wide berth. I'm not saying this is correct and I'm sure I'm missing out on many a gripping read. But after the twitter furore surrounding the recent Wall Street Journal piece (see my blog post on the matter), I felt it was my duty to delve a bit further into the darker depths of the YA genre courtesy of one of it's main players. And, of course, I'm so glad I did.

Coming from sleepy middle class English surburbia and attending a rather conservative all-girls school in my youth, the American high school experience is such a departure from my own memories, yet, from immortalisation on page and screen, it remains achingly familiar and fascinating all rolled into one.

 'Speak' tells the tale of a young girl in the aftermath of a brutal attack, abandoned by those who are supposed to offer support, struggling to merely exist in her first year of high school. The structure follows the many events that make up a school year; the sporting events, the art projects, the clamour for acceptance, and our narrator watches on, only desiring invisiblity. And for the most part, she gets it, expect from the person she wants to be reminded of the least.

Halse Anderson's characters are spot on; the impatient parents, the disillusioned teachers, the fickle friends. And she never betrays the voice of Melinda, all the more heart-breaking, because the character's wit and intelligence shines through, showing us her potential. The gradual reveal of Melinda's secret is skillfully done, exposing a girl who, at first glance appears to be an introverted girl with self-esteem issues into a victim of a traumatic and horrific act.

My one gripe, and it is a tiny one; why does Melinda have to excel at something to be accepted, or accepted to a certain degree? The world is full of average students, not 'brilliant' at anything, but muddling through, scraping by. Why is it necessary for our heroine to have a hidden sporting prowess? I felt just a little let down by this towards the end. It undermines her quest for normailty somewhat. Can't we just have a heroine who can be heroic and average?

Like a said, minor gripe. This ticks all the boxes, and was a gripping read, which is all you could ask, really. I delayed a day's housework for it. What more can I say?

Thursday 14 July 2011

REVIEW - 'On The Jellicoe Road', Melina Marchetta (Penguin, 2006)

Taylor Markham is an angry and frustrated seventeen year old. Abandoned by her mother several years previously, with only a patchy recollection of her childhood, she only has her distant guardian, Hannah to unwillingly fill in the gaps. That is until Hannah disappears. Leader of the Boarders at The Jellicoe school, Taylor is caught up in the fractious turf wars between The Boarders, the visiting army Cadets and the resident Townies. When she comes face to face with the leader of the Cadets, Jonah Griggs, a fellow lost soul who betrayed her trust in the past, Taylor learns the hard way that she has to let people in if she wants to find out the truth about her past.

I have to just say, condensing that novel into one paragraph was one mammouth task.

First off, I must say this was my second attempt at reading this book. I think this is an important thing to mention, as I suspect many readers may not make it past the first few pages. The severe information overload is overwhelming, with not one, but THREE back stories to contend with and I confess that I didn't feel I had the concentration required to invest in this book and promptly shoved it back in the cupboard to be wrestled with at some point in the future.

But I must urge you, I repeat URGE you to persevere - this has been one of the most rewarding titles I've read in, well, ever. After reading some pretty rave reviews, and considering I'm attending a Young Adult Fiction masterclass next week, run by one Ms. Marchetta, then I figured I should really give it another whirl.

Oh, thank Christ I did. I left me in pieces. Pieces, I tell you! Buzzing and bereft, all rolled into one, absolutely distraught because finishing it meant I would never have the joy of discovering again.

It all hinges on how successful and believable the voice of Taylor is to the reader, and Marchetta nails its completely. I was with her all the way. She is a tough customer, but not without reason. Marchetta carefully peels back the revelations and, for the most part, it was impossible to second guess her.

The corresponding back story, involving a groups of friends in the 1980s, forming bonds in the aftermath of tragedy (yes, I know, more depressing stuff, but stick with it) is perfectly interwoven into the plot, littering hints and clues without giving away the mystery.

The author directly references 'To Kill a Mockingbird' in the text, and the flashback sequences have shades of the classic. From the childlike nicknames (Webb, Fitz, Narnie, Tate) to the dusty setting, I pictured them all in dungarees, chewing on grass, skimming pebbles across the water. A strong image, But I would have like greater sense of time and place in these paragraphs - it was easy to forget they are set in the eighties, and so I felt I lost some connection with these characters.

A minor quibble though. This was a bloody brilliant read. Like any great YA read, it left me with a hankering to relive those days, despite all the drama. Or maybe because of it.

Wednesday 13 July 2011

REVIEW - 'The Bride's Farewell', Meg Rosoff (Penguin, 2009)

Ok, after reading two other Meg Rosoff titles recently, one thing I could predict before picking up this book, with absolute certainty, is that it would be completely, resolutely unpredictable.

Which I LOVE, by the way.

Our young heroine, Pell Ridley, escapes her family home on the eve of her wedding, taking only her horse and tag-along pseudo-sibling, Bean. Together, they head towards the unknown, where no-one, neither the characters, or the reader, have any clue, where they might be headed and what will occur along the way.

If this was a more conventional read, then maybe Pell would come a cropper in the big bad world, realise there's 'no place like home', and return to her well-suited and devoted fiancee.

But, being Meg Rosoff, I should know better than to underestimate the strength and individuality of her core character. Pell is essentially clueless, she has no idea what she wants, maybe a clearer notion of what she doesn't want. But her character develops when she reacts to the circumstances she finds herself and I became enthralled by her stubbornness and determination.

I was transported back to A-level English Literature, transfixed by 'Tess of the d'Urbervilles', and this book definitely has haunting Hardy-esque undertones - the English countryside becomes a character in it's own right, sweeping Pell along in all it's ethereal beauty. Is Pell as tragic a figure as Tess? Well, you'll have to read it for yourself.

And just with 'How I Live Now', Rosoff not only handles the romance, but again manages to squeeze your heart strings until they're at breaking point.

If I was looking for any negatives, I suppose it didn't immediately grab hold of me as was the case with 'What I Was' and 'How I Live Now'. But this is a different beast entirely, commanding more from you as a reader, but rewarding you with so much more in return.

Let's just say, I will be ordering every one of her books in a pristine hardcover a giving them pride of place on my shelf. EXQUISITE.

And, the Hardy comparison is a fair one, by the way.

Wednesday 6 July 2011

A Response to 'Darkness Too Visible': Why Darkness Doesn't Have to be Destructive Thing

On June 4th, 2011, children's book reviewer, Meghan Cox Gurdon penned an article in the Wall Street Journal, criticising the darker aspects in contemporary young adult fiction. The responses to this piece created a tweeting frenzy, with many defending the genre, citing the benefits that outweigh any perceived negative connotations.

Being as aspiring YA scribe, this is a subject very close to my heart so he's a little piece I've written about the article -

Earlier this month in the Wall Street Journal, Meghan Cox Gurdon derided the 'depravity' prevalent in young adult fiction, calling on parents to keep a watchful eye on what their impressionable offspring are reading.

Apparently, it is 'likely that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might never have imagined such extreme measures.'

Mmm...Likely. That's a very vague word to be using in such an explosive context. She has no answer for the more logical argument for the benefits of young adult fiction - that it is a comfort to teens that experience trauma. That it can help them battle their own demons.

Cox Gurdon has a rather fanciful notion of teenagers - innocent children who need protecting, sheltering from such infectious acts. Shouldn't we be giving them a little more credit?

Most are intelligent and capable of making intelligent choices. She speaks for a generation without actually quoting any teenage opinion whatsoever.

But none of this matters. Because 'teenagers don't read young adult fiction at all.' Well, only three out of 18 private school students visiting a bookshop. One afternoon. Apparently.

Now there's a representative demographic sample. And if this is indeed the case, then that makes her whole argument irrelevant. At last! Something we can agree on.

Her recommendation for suitable teenage reading: Fahrenheit 451. A book about censorship. And I'm one hundred percent positive the irony of this choice will be completely lost on Ms. Cox Gurdon.

So, what do you think? Does she have a point? Do I have a point? Does my opinion even matter, being a non-teenage person and not exactly the target market for these books. Please comment...

Monday 4 July 2011

Tips and Tricks From a Freelance Writing Seminar

Offering my own tips on successful freelance writing would effectively be like the incredibly short-sighted leading the blind. So instead, I will offer up a few little gems I picked up whilst in attendance of an excellent Freelance Writing Seminar run by the Queensland Writers Centre.

Thanks to Tiana Templeman, Phil Brown and Amanda Horswill for an very informative evening.

Know Your Market
Your story ideas should match your chosen publication - borrow copies from the library to get a feel for the tone and the house style of the publication.
Know WHEN to pitch an idea - avoid busy production times when replying to emails from freelancers maybe at the bottom of an editor's list of things to do.

Develop Contacts
Attend events and seminars, especially in your chosen field of interest or expertise.
Give out business cards and samples of your work at seminars - follow these up with an email a couple of weeks after the event.
Develop an online presence - a website or blog is essential showcase of your work when pitching ideas.
Join writers associations and relevant trade associations.
ALWAYS be professional.

Pitching Ideas
Make sure you know the correct person to contact.
Use a catchy story title in your subject line when emailing - use block capitals for an eye-catching effect.
Include a short, brief biography as an introduction, providing a link to your website or blog for further information.
Never send more than 5 fifty-word pitches at a time.
Always be succinct - don't waffle.
Remember, the first few words are VITAL.

Excellent advice, I think you'll agree. I for one will attempt to put these into practice over the next few months.