Posts Tagged ‘young adult’

Yo. I have reviews of Vikki Wakefield’s All I Ever Wanted and Anna Funder’s All That I Am up at the Wheeler Centre’s VPLA page. Both great books, though someone at the Wheeler Centre must think of me as a very, er, all or nothing person.

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Guys, this is a Cancer Book.

First up, I do not like to read Cancer Books. I do not like to read Horrific Car Accident Books. I do not like to read Conceived to Provide a Bone Marrow Transplant for Her Sister Books. Blurbs like the one currently gracing the hero area of Jodi Picoult’s homepage:

Edward Warren, twenty-four, has been living in Thailand for six years, a prodigal son who left his family after an irreparable fight with his father, Luke. But he gets a frantic phone call: His dad lies comatose, gravely injured in the same accident that has also injured his younger sister Cara.

… I do not like. Before you get huffy with me, I have enough experience of family members having cancer for you not to be able to get shitty with me because you think I’m being insensitive. (It’s fine to dislike my general surliness, though.)

Obviously, it’s not about the cancer. My aversion to Sickness Books is something different that I think a lot of people can probably identify with. A friend of mine was recently watching some Disney movie or something that made her cry, and her mother asked her ‘Why would you watch something that makes you cry?’ I can understand that lack of comprehension about others’ culture-consumption choices. But for some reason, I like watching movies that make me cry. (I also like real-life, self-made situations that will make me cry, such as the present moment, in which I am downing the dregs of a double shot of Talisker while listening to the Dario Marianelli soundtrack to Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre. P.S. I pre-schedule these blog posts, just so you know I don’t routinely drink spirits before 11 am.) But I don’t enjoy or seek out books that seem guaranteed to elicit the Tears of Estelle. For some reason, I just can’t stand it. I feel so manipulated and sad and alone when I read those kinds of books.

However, John Green co-wrote one of my favourite YA books of the last few years, Will Grayson, Will Grayson. He is just excellent at writing teenagers’ voices that feel authentic, and with a lot of unforced, totally natural-sounding humour. His characters are super memorable and delightful. It is only with this kind of writing prowess that you can convince me to read your Sadness Book That Is Also Ubiquitously Advertised By Urban Poster (I never promised you that I was not a snob). You possibly also know of John Green, either from being one of his 1.2 million+ Twitter followers or seeing his Vlogbrothers videos or whatever.

Hazel Grace Lancaster is a 16-year-old with thyroid cancer. It affects her lungs, so she needs an oxygen tank at all times, and she’s at time painfully aware that she has ‘fat chipmunked cheeks’ from treatment. But she’s intelligent and hyper-engaged: she talks casually about psychologist Abraham Maslow and her favourite author Peter Van Houten. (Also, she agrees with me that ‘cancer books suck’, so there.) At the suggestion of her doctor, she begins attending a support group for children with cancer, held in the middle of a church, or ‘Christ’s sacred heart and whatever’. It quickly becomes apparent that this isn’t a Traditional Cancer Book. As the members of the group each share their feelings, Hazel explains, ‘Like, I realize that this is irrational, but when they tell you that you have, say, a 20 percent chance of living five years, the math kicks in and you figure that’s one in five…so you look around and think, as any healthy person would: I gotta outlive four of these bastards.’

That’s Hazel’s voice: matter-of-fact and whip-smart. I fell in love with her immediately. Someone else does too; Augustus Waters is a dude with a ‘low, smoky, and dead sexy’ voice, who shows up to support group. He’s got a touch of the too-verboses, but he’s hot and has an eye for Hazel, so he’s okay in our book. Augustus and Hazel build a friendship edged with the knowledge that one of them is unlikely to live very long. As Hazel puts it, they’re ‘learning to live with one foot in the grave’.

This book is amazing for so many reasons. The ones I want to list don’t even sound that amazing, but they just are. For one thing, Hazel’s parents are both present and loving, palpably devoted to their daughter while also being their own people (think of all the YA books you love where one or both parents are absent, or awful, or stupidly daffy, or…). Hazel’s dad: ‘Really…I wouldn’t bullshit you about this. If you were more trouble than you’re worth, we’d just toss you out on the streets.’ For another, while love interest Augustus is very charming, he’s not the most interesting person in the book; nor is there a sense that Hazel wouldn’t be who she is without him.

The book’s title comes from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves’. (Note: Even this one line makes me tear up now. Like Lev Grossman, I’ll cop to crying over this book. Like, copious weeping in public kind of crying. Like telling a co-worker on the tram to ‘Please just go away, I’m just crying right now’ crying. My friend’s mum would not be impressed.) In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Green explained that his experience as a chaplain to children with life-threatening diseases drove him to write this book. Green said, ‘I found myself really unfulfilled by the answers that are traditionally offered to questions of why some people suffer and why others suffer so little’. The Fault in Our Stars is a tectonically moving, humbling result of that experience, and as good a reason to overcome snitty book prejudices as any.

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November 30, 2010

Just a little peep from me: a review of Kirsty Murray’s India Dark on Radio National’s The Book Show.

Also, something a bit novel. If you’d like to read a book with me, and hear me discuss it with some special guests (very special guests!), get cracking on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned. I’ll be reading it for the Kill Your Darlings Culture Club podcast. Believe me, you want to read this book. It was Fitzgerald’s sophomore book, and it actually features a scene in which one of the characters refers to his first, extremely successful, novel, This Side of Paradise. It’s just like staring into a tortured soul. Seriously. The podcast airs on Tuesday December 14. Get thee ready!

In Aida Edemariam’s Guardian profile of Christos Tsiolkas that ran over the weekend, she enumerated the numerous garlands laid at Booker-longlisted The Slap‘s door. Among them is Colm Toíbín’s favourable descriptor: ‘reminiscent of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Don DeLillo’s Underworld‘. As Edemariam notes, this is rather naughty, ‘as it is produced [in the UK] by an imprint he co-runs and [he] has been friends with Tsiolkas for years’.

As much as I’d like to be someone who regularly smashes a few cans with Cormac McCarthy while trading fusillades in a competitive round of ‘Imagine the Worst Apocalyptic Future Possible’, or the possessor of a personal epistolary trove that will be raided after my death for examples of Daniyal Mueenuddin’s handwriting, the truth is that I haven’t really had to deal with having that many people who have written books.

The recent publication of young Melbourne (via Byron Bay and Adelaide) writer Daniel Ducrou’s novel The Byron Journals has propped a stick in those works, however, because I’ve read the book, and I know him.

What to do? Even having disclosed this, I know that when I read something complimentary about an author’s work that has been said/written by someone who knows them, there’s always a small part of my brain that goes, ‘Yeah right, you goddamned BFFs’. Needless to say, I’m therefore on the alert not to produce anything like Nicole Krauss’s over-the-top blurb of David Grossman’s To the End of the Land (not that, to my knowledge, those two writers know each other). Here’s a quote from Krauss’s blurb, ganked from Alison Flood’s Guardian piece about it:

“Very rarely, a few times in a lifetime, you open a book and when you close it again nothing can ever be the same. Walls have been pulled down, barriers broken, a dimension of feeling, of existence itself, has opened in you that was not there before. To the End of the Land is a book of this magnitude,” [Krauss] writes. … “And she doesn’t stop there. To read the book, she says, “is to have yourself taken apart, undone, touched at the place of your own essence; it is to be turned back, as if after a long absence, into a human being”.

I hope to steer clear of anything approaching that level of praise – about anything, actually, not just Dan’s book. But knowing you are unlikely to be moved by anything positive I say (‘goddamned BFFs’), I’m just going to have to forge ahead regardless, because I’ve laid it like I’ll play it.

***

‘I think I was born into the wrong city,’ says Andrew, as he buckles up. ‘Definitely the wrong family.’ He’s on a plane with his mate Benny, and they’re escaping Adelaide for Byron Bay. As comments go, it’s casual, but the sentiment is warranted. Andrew’s got plenty of cash from his dad, whom he caught having sex with one of his young students. As well as being cashed up, he’s recently been beaten up – a legacy from someone who wanted to convey a message about his mother’s work as a criminal defence lawyer.

Anxious but attracted to the sound of music at a house party, he joins in on a drummers’ jam, translating what he knows of classical music to the spontaneity of the gathering. His gaze falls easily on Heidi, a girl with a lazy but confident manner, and a drummer named Tim compliments him on his drum solo. But back at his digs, Richie, who lives next door to Benny in Adelaide, Richie prods Andrew about his mother: ‘it seems to take a special breed of person to do that kind of work.’ Andrew returns fire, and the two are soon brawling; and Andrew is soon without a place to stay.

Andrew takes his necessaries – phone, wallet, pot – and scouts out the house from the party the previous night. Tim lives there; as does Jade, pouting and scantily clad; and Heidi. With his new housemates, Andrew falls into street drumming for money. And with Heidi, he quickly falls into lust, consummated early in the warm Byron water. But Heidi is unpredictable: she explodes when he tells her he’s from Adelaide, too, not Melbourne, which he’d lied about to avoid a topic that clearly caused her pain. And music isn’t the only way of life here; once Tim finds out that Andrew’s mother is a lawyer, he cuts Andrew into the household’s marijuana operation in exchange for her legal assistance.

Byron Bay is a byword for escapism, sunshine and renewal. In The Byron Journals, people take phone calls by frangipani trees; they watch surfers from low dunes made of powdery sand. On his first plunge into the ocean, Andrew feels ‘baptised by the silence and the purity of the water [,] cleansed of his past and his future’. The drugs he takes for the first time in Byron give him new dimensions of feeling, and the excitement of sex binds him to Heidi. But the place is Janus-faced: it also breeds dissolution and stagnation. The Byron Journals isn’t winkingly ironic about this duality, but genuine in its affection and unflinching in depicting the limbo-like existence led by many of Byron’s inhabitants.

Good intentions and mistakes go hand in hand, and Andrew, who wants to be nothing like his parents, gets to grips with both. Andrew is gently ablaze with difficult feeling and eager youth. What we see as an unconsidered rush headlong into a relationship with the troubled Heidi and the drug-drenched activities of his new friends, he sees as preferable to the hell of home. So much, in fact, that he’s willing to go along with a dangerous plan – a plot turn that I didn’t really buy. However, the avalanche of complications teaches Andrew that the hell other people have made for you is often nowhere near as bad as the hell you can make for yourself.

The Byron Journals has been a few years in the making, having been shortlisted for the 2007 Australian/Vogel Literary Prize and the 2008 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for an Unpublished Manuscript, and it shows. The prose is relaxed and effective: beautiful yet matter-of-fact. The dialogue in particular is lifelike: character-apt and unfussy.

The Byron Journals is a love letter to Byron: the surf, the love, the freedom. It’s also a witness to the irrevocable passage of carefree youth, which bestows, sometimes violently, gifts that resist understanding. At the end of the book, Ducrou gives us a fitting coda: an urgent, impressionistic swell of music that seems to come both from within Andrew and from without, accompanied by fragments of his time in Byron – the crazy ones and the perfect ones side by side. All these things being, for the moment, irreconcilable, but nevertheless lingering in the air.

It’s lucky that I’m usually a pretty dilatory blogger. If I blogged about everything straight after I read it, I wouldn’t have anything to write about during the run-up to the Emerging Writers’ Festival. I’m currently preparing to launch 16 books at the 15 Minutes of Fame book launches, so I’ve been reading, yo, but this ain’t no spoiler zone. Instead, you may have noticed that I’m trawling through the books I read over the summer (a noticeably long time ago now – brrrrrr).

When I’m in need of a gear switch, I often read YA, so Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games was the first book I cracked open at the airport. Needless to say, its action-themed front cover brought me plenty of ribbing from my (serious, boring, closed-minded, God I need new) friends. And truly, in their defence, actually, I hate this cover and much prefer the stark US cover, whose golden bird struck in the tail feathers with an arrow is a far more powerful image.

The Hunger Games is set in a dystopic future North America, now called Panem, which is divided into twelve Districts and the ruling Capitol. In punishment for having risen against the oppressive government, the twelve Districts are each forced to select two of its children every year to participate as ‘tributes’ in The Hunger Games, a televised survival contest from which only one child will emerge alive.

Katniss Everdeen is a sixteen-year-old girl who lives in the worst part of District 12 – nicknamed the Seam. Her mother is severely depressed and barely functional, so it’s up to Katniss to support them and her 12-year-old sister Primrose by selling the fruits of her illegal hunting and gathering. Hardened and rational about her chances of being chosen as one of District 12’s tributes, Katniss is aghast when Primrose’s name is drawn, and in a radical and long-unseen gesture, volunteers herself instead.

Published in 2008 (the final book in the trilogy, Mockingjay, is due out in a matter of months), The Hunger Games is definitely a book of its time. While its reality television setting has the potential to seem cringeworthy and too ‘now’, Collins investigates its moral conflicts thoughtfully. In particular, she portrays with vividness the complicity of regular people in grotesque societal practices. Heartbreaking, too, is the class divide that Collins has posed in Panem – children can barter another entry in the name draw for a portion of food, which inevitably means that the children of the wealthy are much safer than those who are struggling.

Of course, none of this would work if the characterisation was weak, and Collins has a winning protagonist in Katniss. This teenager is an Andromeda figure without the promise of a Perseus, but fortunately, she’s also a heroine in no need of a saviour. Katniss defies the role of sacrificial lamb to her people’s powerlessness, and plays the game by her own terms. She’s canny but compassionate, and her humanity is something she refuses to trade for her mere life.

There are a couple of places where the dialogue is too glossy, and the darkness underpinning the book’s concept occasionally – and a bit oddly – disappears, but The Hunger Games is still engrossing and rich. It’s impossible not to feel that The Games are but a small part of a much larger and more oppressive system, and Katniss’s major rebellion at the book’s end promises that the scope of the sequel, Catching Fire, will explore this greater territory. Can’t wait.

The last time I read a book that made me cry, well, I never said I wanted to read a book that would make me cry, did I, what I said was I wanted to read a book about a place where everyone can hear what other people think and so you never have time alone, everyone knows everything about you, and you can hear what animals think (and what dogs have to say isn’t very interesting, they want to poo and eat all the time).

I guess in some ways, what I wanted was what I got, cuz The Knife of Never Letting Go is about a place called Prentisstown where there aren’t any women, the whole populashun is made up of men, and they can all hear each other’s thoughts in a loud jangly Noise that crawls across the book’s pages in funny fonts that I’d try to show you if I knew how. There are only 147 people in Prentisstown and they’re all waiting for some reason for young Todd Hewitt, the last of the kids, to become a man.

Cuz there’s a secret hiding, even in the Noise of the town, that Todd knows is dangerous cuz one day Ben and Cillian, the only family he knows, tell him to get out of Prentisstown and Todd’s shocked, he hadn’t even known there was anywhere else but Prentisstown in the world, and so off he goes with his dog Manchee (‘Poo, Todd. Poo. Poo’).

But being able to hear other people’s thoughts is just a type of power, and we all know that where there’s power there’s someone who wants all of it, so before long the people of Prentisstown are searching for him, searching through all of a world we find out is just a new version of the one we know, and there’s preshus few places to hide when people know what your thoughts sounds like, have heard them every day of your life since you were born.

I love this book. I love the way the writer uses the Noise to show the best and worst parts of everybody, from the keening love of a child whose Noise just says daddy daddy daddy to the clamour of the Noise of hundreds of men drowning in sorrow and regret and confushun and remorse, and best of all I love the heartbreaking and thoughtless loyalty of Manchee and I love the way secrets become so powerfully difficult in Noise and yet The Knife of Never Letting Go is about hope, it’s about how tho’ we as individuals and as humanity have made mistakes how it’s worth every terrible fight to fix them.

And then there’s the cliffhanger, which is something else.

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January 18, 2010

I’m as little physically intrepid as it is humanly possible for a person to be. I do not like rollercoasters. I do not like to change hairdressers very often. God forbid that I go on some kind of orienteering foray of an afternoon. And I detest horror movies. A girl like that needs to get her kicks from somewhere, and I am lucky to be able to satisfy my minimal urges for life’s tasty variety through…can you guess? Books? Oh, you’re so smart. Let me buy you a drink.

You may scoff, but if you don’t think that words can help you can swim in adventure straits, then you haven’t read Crime and Punishment. Or Memoirs of a Bugatti Hunter. Or Liar by Justine Larbalestier. Reading this book is like walking a tightrope. I’m not saying it’s some kind of literal safari or anything. But Liar is certainly a masterful exercise in maintaining reader tension: it’s tight, then lulled, then tight again, all the way to its extraordinary end. And even then, I wasn’t quite sure whether I was off the ride yet.

My father is a liar and so am I.
But I’m going to stop. I have to stop. I will tell you my story and I will tell it straight.
No lies, no omissions.
That’s my promise.
This time I truly mean it.

‘Telling the Truth’: such is our introduction to Micah Wilkins. She’s a liar, and we’re duly warned. So we stick with her through all the stories she tells, and there are a lot. Micah starts off with the time she perpetuated the fiction that she was a boy at school. Then, she tells you about her half-black, half-white family, which includes a strange branch of reclusive folk on a two-hundred acre farm. There’s her brother, Jordan. And there’s Zach, her boyfriend. Two pages in, though, and Zach is missing. Three pages, and Zach is dead.

The death of a young boy is a tragedy anywhere, but in a high school, it’s a trigger. Even at a progressive high school like the one Micah attends, the news is a spritzer pill in a glass of water. Zach’s ‘real’ girlfriend, Sarah, is surprised that he had anything to do with Micah, as is everyone else. Micah is a ‘freak’, a loner. The tacit avoidance Micah usually countenances in her school days becomes full-blown hostility as people begin to suspect she had something to do with Zach’s death. But some of the people around her realise that there’s more to her than strangeness and untruths, and as all this unravels, so too do Micah’s stories. ‘I haven’t been entirely honest,’ she says. Perhaps the liar is becoming a truth teller? If so, then who is Micah really?

In Micah, Larbalestier has created a character whose reliability is inversely proportionate to her appeal. Excruciating though Micah’s physical and psychological instability is for her, she is also a deeply fascinating and vital character. The danger with a book focused on the dichotomy of truth and lies is the potential prioritisation of a moral axis of some kind, but we’re never in any danger of that in Liar. Sensitive exploration of the adolescent spikes of identity is what we get instead. Identity is a popular topic in young adult fiction, and it’s well explored here, with fantasy, metaphor and reality holding hands. Micah is a rustling, sparking ball of falsehood and confusion in the midst of youth’s mysterious hot heat, which Liar evokes superbly. Larbalestier shows how the distinction between reality and fantasy becomes moot in that context, because thinking and feeling is just that difficult, alien and animal. It’s this insight and compassion that makes Liar a riveting, supremely put together book about the addictive utility of saying things that are not true.