As Stars Fall by Christie Nieman

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A bush fire, and its aftermath, links a Bush-Stone curlew and three teenagers experiencing loss, love and change.

The fire was fast and hot ... only days after it went through, there were absolutely no birds left. I should have seen it as an omen, the birds all leaving like that.

Robin is a self-confessed bird-nerd from the country, living in the city. On the first day at her new school, she meets Delia. Delia is freaky and definitely not good for Robin's image.

Seth, Delia's brother, has given up school to prowl the city streets. He is angry at everything, especially the fire that killed his mother.

When a rare and endangered bird turns up in the city parklands, the lives of Robin, Seth and Delia become fatefully and dangerously intertwined ...

An intricate love story about nature, grief, friendship and life.

As Stars Fall is beautifully written, and a novel that I think will appeal to both older teenagers and adults. Not just the adults who already love YA (of which there are many! I guess I am one of them now?), but adult readers who prefer literary novels or who might previously have dismissed YA. It's a very 'literary' YA and doesn't fit what one might expect of a 'typical' YA novel. It's contemporary but it has a distinct other-worldly edge, mixing the real and surreal well.

Seth is a character whose actions make him incredibly difficult to like, and both he and Delia's perspective are told in third-person, making them feel more distant. Their sometimes questionable behaviours are made credible by their previous experiences - Seth's behaviours are pretty much consistently terrible, but his loss is explored very well. Robin's first-person narration is engaging and immersive, and while each of the central characters are well-developed, she is the most likeable.

It's described as a love story in the blurb but I wouldn't regard it as such, and if you come into it expecting that to be central you'll be disappointed. Similarly it is very slow-paced - if you're expecting something which develops quickly, you won't find that here. It's evocatively written and luxuriates in detail, including detail about the Bush-Stone curlew. It has a great deal of depth and atmosphere but not a lot of action until the very end. It's a story that's predominantly about grief.

I think this is an intriguing and original contribution to contemporary YA literature in Australia, and I'm very much looking forward to what Christie Nieman writes next.

As Stars Fall on the publisher's website

Cooper Bartholomew is Dead by Rebecca James

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Cooper Bartholomew's body is found at the foot of a cliff.


That's the official finding, that's what everyone believes. Cooper's girlfriend, Libby, has her doubts. They'd been happy, in love. Why would he take his own life?

As Libby searches for answers, and probes more deeply into what really happened the day Cooper died, she and her friends unravel a web of deception and betrayal. Are those friends - and enemies - what they seem? Who is hiding a dangerous secret? And will the truth set them all free?

Cooper Bartholomew Is Dead features a lot of things I love in fiction: multiple narrators! morally suspect characters! mysterious deaths! people who are not as they seem! events told in non-chronological order! I was very much looking forward to reading it after having read Beautiful Malice, Rebecca James' debut. (I've also had a lot of people recommend Sweet Damage, published last year. So that's on the to-read list.)

Rebecca James writes really terrific psychological suspense, and Cooper Bartholomew Is Dead is no exception. I think it has more nuance and depth than Beautiful Malice - while in her debut she depicts a manipulative psychopath brilliantly, no-one is truly evil in Cooper Bartholomew Is Dead which makes it feel more authentic, more like it's happening to people you might know. It's told from four perspectives - Cooper's (pre-death, clearly), his girlfriend Libby's, his best friend Sebastian and his ex-girlfriend Claire - so we get an opportunity to see events from various points of view. Sebastian and Claire are both unsympathetic (and incredibly suspicious), but why they're so awful is realistically explored. We jump between 'Then' - the events leading to Cooper's death, which focuses on his growing relationship with Libby - and 'Now' - the effects of his death on Libby, Claire and Sebastian. Having the story told from multiple perspectives adds a certain three-dimensional quality to the world of the novel, and allows for all the central players to be well-developed and the dynamics between them conveyed beautifully.

The central characters are university-aged, so I don't know if it strictly fits the definition of YA. I'd recommend it to both older YA readers and adult readers who enjoy YA and/or psychological suspense. In terms of content: Everybody is drinking, all the time! It feels like almost every scene. There's also quite a bit of drug use (speed and cocaine) which is not really deeply explored but gives you a sense of the social culture of the 'cool kids' in this town. If these kids were real people I'd be concerned about their livers. There's sex scenes, and a death (spoiler!). It's not hugely different to a lot of YA. Even in Beautiful Malice, though the characters were high school students they had a huge amount of freedom and behaved like uni students.

I loved the twist (I guessed it a lot earlier than it was revealed, but that's probably because I watch a lot of Poirot and Miss Marple and I'm an investigative genius), though of course the greatest twist of all would have been that Cooper Bartholomew was not actually dead. Despite Cooper being dead from the outset, he's a very likeable character. Potentially there could be a sequel: Cooper Bartholomew Is Not Actually Dead And He's Living Happily Ever After With Libby. I'd read it! If you like mysteries, page-turners, gritty teen dramas and/or romance, you'll like this.

Cooper Bartholomew Is Dead on the publisher's website

My interview with Rebecca James

On being a young writer

Monday, October 20, 2014

Being a writer is such a weird profession, with a huge chasm between the hopes/expectations/romantic ideals of what being a capital-W Writer involves and the reality of the thing. Which is not at all glamorous. It's mostly hard work and uncertainty and awkwardly fielding questions about how much money you earn at every social event for the rest of your life.

It's hard to tell whether my experiences of being a writer are specific 'young writer' experiences, or things that affect new writers regardless of age. I think anyone who dreams of becoming a writer, at any age, has a concept of what being a writer will be like and finds the reality of it to be something else entirely. I dreamt of being an author from the age of seven. My childhood was consumed by writing. I got a book deal age fifteen, and my debut novel, Girl Saves Boy, was published the next year. It was thrilling and surreal to see my novel on the shelves of a bookshop, but the actual publication day felt totally normal - there was no real transition to feeling like a proper writer.

I wrote a guest post about my experiences as a young writer and what I've learned along the way, for the Writers' Bloc blog. They're celebrating young writers (under the age of 31) with a series of posts in October, so well worth a read! You can read the rest of my piece here.

(Sidenote: The editor of Writers' Bloc is the lovely writer and book blogger Sam van Zweden, who interviewed me on her own blog way back in 2010!)

Interview with Rebecca James, author of Cooper Bartholomew is Dead

Friday, October 17, 2014

Rebecca James' debut YA novel, Beautiful Malice, was an international publishing sensation, selling in 52 countries. Her third novel was released this month, Cooper Bartholomew Is Dead. It's terrifically gripping - I read it all in one sitting. Spoiler: it's about Cooper Bartholomew being dead (even though it opens with Cooper's death, we actually get to know Cooper pretty well... as Rebecca says, it's a backwards mystery. Okay, I should probably stop talking about it. I might genuinely spoil it. More info on it here).

I was on a panel with Rebecca at Somerset Writers Festival in 2011 (There's a photo of that panel in this post, where we appear very solemn, obviously because we were being serious thoughtful writer types. My blog is very helpful for remembering things - including my polka-dot dress phase). As well as being a sensational writer she is lovely in real life. So it was terrific to have the chance to interview her about Cooper Bartholomew Is Dead, her writing process, genre (NA vs YA) and her publishing journey!

Steph: In Cooper Bartholomew Is Dead, we get to see the story from four different perspectives - primarily Libby's (Cooper's girlfriend), but also Cooper's, Sebastian's (Cooper's best friend) and Claire's. Each of these characters are  well-developed, but there's also a wide cast of secondary characters with similar authenticity - what made you decide to write the story from four different perspectives, and how did you manage to develop distinct voices and characterisation?
Rebecca: When I started writing this book and started thinking about the characters involved I quickly realised that it would be more interesting and satisfying to include all four perspectives. One event can be described so differently depending on who's telling the story. It's one if the fascinating things about human beings  --- the way we all see things from our own point of view, the way we're all the centre of the story. Having the four different voices, each with their own individual take on the situation, allowed me tell four versions of the same story --each of them equally valid.

It's always hard trying to make different characters have different voices and I'm very glad to hear you think I've succeeded in this. First of all, I guess, I just try and exist in each characters head as I write their scenes. I try to think and feel as I imagine they might feel. In a more practical way I try to vary sentence length, dialogue tics, vocabulary, things like that. 

Steph: The novel is also incredibly suspenseful and well-constructed - do you plot your stories out before writing them, and do you have any specific strategies for generating suspense and increasing tension in a story? Do you have any advice for people wanting to write suspense?
Rebecca: Thank you. After many years of saying that I'm a a complete panster I've come to realise that's not entirely true. It's not that I've been fibbing all this time, it's just that when I wrote my first published book, Beautiful Malice, I had no idea what was going to happen from page to page, scene to scene, and I think I decided then and there that "This Is How I write." But when I wrote my second and third books (Sweet Damage and Cooper Bartholomew Is Dead) I definitely had a rough outline of the plots in mind before I even started. I even wrote a synopsis for Sweet Damage. (I altered it dramatically, but still, I don't think I can claim to have been completely winging it.)  My plots are very loose and unstructured -- major plot points always change, unexpected things always happen -- and there are certainly no spreadsheets involved, but I do have a general story arc in mind before I begin.  

Hmm. How do I create suspense? I'm afraid I don't have any brilliant or insightful answers to this. I write quite intuitively, I think, ploughing on without thinking too hard about the mechanics behind it all. If I have to stop and think about it though, I guess suspense is all about withholding information, tantalising the reader with different possibilities and clues, forcing them to turn another page and then another so they can find out what happened or is about to happen. 

Steph: The central characters in Cooper Bartholomew Is Dead are university students, a bit older than traditional YA characters (I suppose you could call it New Adult Suspense?), and it's a novel I can imagine being read by both older teenagers and adults. Do you have a specific age range or reader in mind as you write? Is fitting into a genre or subgenre something you consider at all?
Rebecca: Since getting a publishing deal with Beautiful Malice I do think about what category I'm writing for, yes. I have to because I'm contracted to write YA books for Allen and Unwin. I couldn't really write a book about a middle aged man contemplating a career-change for example. (Well, I could I guess, but they probably wouldn't publish it!) So, yes, I think about the category in that I consciously keep my characters young. Having said that, in both Sweet Damage and Cooper Bartholomew is Dead my characters are in their late teens and early twenties which makes them a bit older than many traditional YA characters, as you noted. 

But Allen and Unwin publish my work as YA fiction, so I guess it still qualifies! (Maybe when and if NA becomes more firmly established in Australia this might change? I don't know.) In any case kids and teenagers like to read up, so an older teenager who is finishing High School may well be very interested in a story about young people moving out of home, starting university, getting a job, falling in love for the first, second or third time. (I know I certainly would have been!) I try not to get too hung up on categories and publishing definitions. I suppose I trust that I can leave that side of things to the professionals? Some reviewers have called my work NA fiction, others upper YA, some people describe it as crossover fiction. I don't mind how it's categorised, I try to concentrate on writing engaging stories. 

Steph: You mention on your blog that you started writing Cooper Bartholomew Is Dead in 2009, and you've published two novels in the meantime, so I imagine it was a challenging novel to write - what was your process like for this novel, and how did it change and evolve over that five year period? Were there any particular inspirations for this novel?
Rebecca: I started writing Cooper Bartholomew is Dead  after I'd finished writing Beautiful Malice but before I'd sold anything to a publisher. When I sold Beauitful Malice I also  sold Cooper Bartholomew is Dead as the second book in a two-book deal. Sadly, when I handed the first draft of Cooper B in to my publishers I got a very lukewarm reaction. I was told it needed a lot of work. I was shattered. Deflated. I cried for a day or two and then had a bright idea! I'd dump Cooper and work on something else. (This something else eventually became my second book, Sweet Damage.) 

Easy peasy! I promised to have the new book done in two months. Ha! Sweet Damage took two years and in hindsight, dumping CooperB was a crazy decision. I now know that it always seems easier to start something fresh. The new shiny idea always looks so glittery and tempting. Problem is the new shiny idea soon becomes the difficult book, the work that needs a major restructure and a good polish. There's simply no getting away from the fact that there is hard work involved. 

Steph: Your debut novel, Beautiful Malice was published in a whole lot of countries and there was a great deal of hype around it, which is what I think a lot of aspiring (and published) novelists dream of, but obviously there's a huge amount of pressure. What was that experience like for you, and did it make writing your second and third novels more challenging, with that level of expectation and scrutiny?
Rebecca: It was very exciting to have my first book sell all over the world but in all honesty it wasn't an entirely positive experience. I think my reaction had a lot to do with my own fears and my own (common, I think, among writers) feeling of being a fraud. (Surely I was just an imposter dressed up in a fancy writer's costume?) 

For a long time I worried that I'd been given more than I deserved. I suddenly had a lot of unexpected attention (not all of it positive)  that I really wasn't ready for and hadn't in any way anticipated.  And all the time I was afraid of seeming ungrateful, afraid of feeling ungrateful. It was a strange time and I learned a lot. About people. About publishing. About myself. 

Steph: Imagining you could travel back in time and meet your slightly-younger self without tearing the fabric of the space-time continuum and what-not, is there any advice you would share with her about writing and publishing?
Rebecca:  If I could go back a few years and talk to myself when I was just selling Beautiful Malice to publishers I'd have quite a lot to say.  I'd definitely tell myself not to feel guilty or ashamed of success. I'd tell myself to ignore online negativity and unkindness, to let it wash over me. I'd train myself not to be terrified of attention and not to take it all too seriously.  

I'd also tell myself to grow a thicker skin and not to feel too intimidated: all writers feel slightly fraudulent. I'd explain that publishing is a very fickle industry, that there will be highs and lows, times when writing will seem like the worst job in the world, days when it will seem like the best. I'd stress the fact that, ultimately, it's the work that counts --  which is a good thing, because it's the only part the writer can control. 


Thanks, Rebecca! For more info on Cooper Bartholomew Is Dead, check it out on the publisher's website (you can read an excerpt! You will almost definitely want to read more!)I also love Rebecca's blog - she writes very honestly and insightfully about being a writer and her experiences. And she twitters!

Why I'm not impressed by remarkable youth

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

People are always so impressed when young people accomplish great things. 

If you do something cool and you happen to be a kid, the attention isn’t focused on whatever cool thing you’ve done, but on the fact that you’re a kid. You are a writer / musician / smartie at just 16! 

Take 17 year-old Malala Yousafzai, who last week was announced as the joint recipient and the youngest-ever winner of the Nobel peace prize. Although much of the media attention was focused on Yousafzai’s numerous achievements and successes, just as many people were preoccupied with her youth. Riding on the back of this sentiment, the the New York Magazine ran an article in which famous writers and actors were asked what they were doing at age 17. “Malala Yousafzai was winning the Nobel prize: “What were you doing, you unremarkable young person, you?”

My latest piece for Birdee Mag, on why you shouldn't feel like a failure if people your age accomplish amazing things, and why remarkable kids should be acknowledged for their accomplishments, not their age. You should read the rest. If you want.

P.S. It's exam season! Hence, my sudden month-long blog absence. I have lots of good stuff coming up though; lovely authors I've interviewed and so many wonderful new books I've read lately to tell you about. I hope you're having a good October!

Interview with Pip Harry, author of Head of the River

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Pip Harry is the Sydney-based author of YA novels Head of the River (a novel about competitive rowing that I loved despite being an entirely un-sportsy human) and I'll Tell You Mine (a novel about a rebellious goth girl that I loved despite being an entirely un-rebellious human who wears a lot of florals). Pip's also a freelance journalist and has worked in magazines (which I imagine is very much like it appears in all those romantic comedies about women who work in magazines - very glamorous, of course - but I may be incorrect). 

She seems like a very adventurous and cool sort, as evidenced by the fact that there's a picture of her skydiving on the About page of her website. (Perhaps that's what I need for my About page. I would never in a million years go skydiving, so I'll have to photoshop it.)

I'm terribly excited to have the chance to interview her, about her tricky journey to publication, advice she'd give to aspiring authors, whether writing can be taught, her writing process and how she relates to her characters, and how her own experiences shaped Head of the River.

Steph: Head of the River beautifully evokes the experience of highly competitive school rowing and was inspired by the years you spent rowing and coaching schoolgirl crews. Did you use a lot of your own experiences in the novel? Was the process of writing the novel made simpler by your familiarity with what you were writing about, or was there still a lot of research involved? 

Pip: I went back in my mind to all those cold, dark mornings in the boat and the endless drills and backbreaking kilometres pulling on an oar. And in case I had forgotten anything, I organised a refresher ‘ride-along’ with Melbourne Girls Grammar, shadowing some of their senior crews on a bike very early one morning along the Yarra River. I also attended some regattas in Sydney and went to the Head of the Schoolgirls on the Barwon – madly scribbling notes on every last detail! I did fall into the Yarra River once, and I used that experience for one particularly humiliating scene with Cristian. In terms of the medical and performance enhancing drug research – that wasn’t anything I was familiar with, so I spend quite a bit of time talking to medical experts and hitting up Dr Google for advice.

Steph: Your background is in journalism, so I'm wondering whether writing non-fiction articles professionally helped you in writing fiction, whether that translated across. Do you think being a journalist has shaped you as a YA author? Or the inverse: Do you think being a YA author has now shaped you as a journalist?
Pip: I’d like to think my non-fiction and fiction writing flowed into each other seamlessly, but they’re actually very different beasts. My creative writing has taken a lot longer to develop and come to fruition than my professional journalism, which took off early in my 20s and came much more easily. I do think my journalism work has made me very well equipped for deadline meeting, structure and taking strong edits and criticism without crying. I don’t think being a journalist has shaped me at all yet as a YA author– but perhaps I will one day write a killer YA book about my time as a celebrity reporter!

Steph: I loved your debut, I'll Tell You Mine, almost as much as I loved your sophomore novel. Did you find writing a second novel easier or more challenging once you'd had a novel published and experienced the process of your novel being out in the world? Did your writing process or expectations of yourself change?
Pip: Awww, thanks Steph! I took forever to write I’ll Tell You Mine. I stopped and started and doubted and nearly chucked it for another shiny idea. It felt so personal and drawn from the deep. Head of the River was also a personal experience, but one that was faster, more directed and more supported. I got a grant for the book from the Australia Council, so I had the incredible luxury of time and a quiet space to go for it. That said my first draft of HOTR was absolutely shocking! But I knew I had to plough through and get it down, and I had set myself a deadline to deliver it to my publisher Kristina Schulz before she went off on Maternity leave. A baby is the best motivator for book delivery. For I’ll tell you Mine it was the arrival of my own first child, Sophie, who spurred me into action and got me an agent!

Steph: Do you find it challenging or easy to create characters that are currently experiencing the various highs and lows of being a teenager? Are your characters and their voices something that come easily to you? Some writers say their characters take over the story - is that the case for you, or are there things you consciously work on to make them authentic?
Pip: I find is so easy to go through the hormonal, adolescent highs and lows. I’m not sure what that says about me. But perhaps it’s just that teens are having human experiences and emotions, and they are the same things I’m wrestling with as an adult too – love, family, pressure, friendships, ambition…all universal and not age-related. The good characters totally take over the story and have their own life-force! Like Vasile, the father in HOTR. He was so fully formed in the first scene – the way he spoke, moved, everything. All there.

Steph: You mention on your website that you took a university creative writing class when you turned thirty, returning to writing fiction after years focused on journalism. Do you think that writing can be taught, and would you recommend writing classes to other writers?  Was there anything in particular you learnt that really shaped you as a writer?
Pip: I don’t think writing can be entirely taught. You need to have a talent, a curiosity and a way of observing the world that’s got to be there to begin with. But I do believe writing can be honed, shaped and directed. And writing courses are brilliant for meeting other writers and just exploring with your voice. I learnt during my study that I had something to say as a fiction writer– and that I needed to keep on with this punishing and at times difficult journey!

Steph: You had quite a difficult and lengthy path to publication, with novels you wrote much earlier than I'll Tell You Mine not finding publishers. You've now published two well-received YA novels with UQP. What advice would you give other writers who want to become published, about writing and the publishing process?
Pip: I was the most frustrated unpublished fiction writer around. I tried so hard to make my stories cut through and get some attention and it was just a series of closed doors and polite nos. If I could whisper in the ear of someone like me – someone struggling to get published – then I would say: ‘Press on. Believe in yourself. You will make it to the end and the end is so beautiful and fun.’ But I would also remind them there’s such an element of luck. It takes just one person to love your work for it to become a book. So, make your story the best it can be, let it go out to the right people and don’t be afraid to try again, and again. I have four unpublished novels in my bottom drawer that all have a little sparkle, but not the overall gleam.

Once you are published, it’s still hard, but you have more people on your team to pull the oar with, weather the rough water and get your boat across the line. (sorry, I couldn’t resist a parting sporting analogy!)


Thanks, Pip! For more about Pip, Head of the River and I'll Tell You Mine, check out Pip's website.

The Protected by Claire Zorn

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Hannah’s world is in pieces and she doesn’t need the school counsellor to tell her she has deep-seated psychological issues. With a seriously depressed mum, an injured dad and a dead sister, who wouldn’t have problems? 

Hannah should feel terrible but for the first time in ages, she feels a glimmer of hope and isn’t afraid anymore. Is it because the elusive Josh is taking an interest in her? Or does it run deeper than that? 

In a family torn apart by grief and guilt, one girl’s struggle to come to terms with years of torment shows just how long old wounds can take to heal.

The Protected covers well-worn Young Adult territory: a mysterious death that has devastated a family (the circumstances of which are gradually revealed), parents without the capacity to actually parent, a troubled outsider working through grief with the aid of a kindly counsellor, a nice empathetic boy showing up. The subject matter could lean towards melodrama or predictability, but it doesn't - Hannah's voice is genuine, and there's a real credibility to the story. The emotions of the characters and the family dynamics are written with subtlety, and it's easy to become absorbed in Hannah's story.

I really enjoyed Claire Zorn's debut The Sky So Heavy, a very thought-provoking dystopian that's now made a bunch of shortlists (deservedly so). The Protected is similarly thought-provoking, and though both are set in the Blue Mountains, The Protected is very much grounded in our reality.

There's a real complexity and authenticity to the relationships within the novel, especially in the relationship between Hannah and her sister, Katie, who has passed away pre-novel and with whom Hannah had a very difficult relationship. Now, after Katie's death, she feels conflicted. The narrative jumps between the present and the past, Hannah's memories of Katie and being bullied and the lead-up to the accident. Hannah's bullying and Katie's behaviour are at times teeth-grindingly (pretend that's a word, it's the best way I can think of to describe it) awful, and Hannah is a sympathetic protagonist - so it's wonderful when things begin looking up for her, and people are kind (namely the school counsellor and Josh).

Even though Hannah's parents are consumed by grief, they are present in the novel, and Hannah's mother in particular is very well-portrayed. Hannah's parents were as real and as easy to empathise with as Hannah herself. The Protected is ultimately hopeful but it is a very dark and sad novel - focusing on bullying and devastating grief - so perhaps not one to pick up if you're after a light read. Good for a cry. I'm very much looking forward to what Claire Zorn writes next.

The Protected on the publisher's website
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