Molly and Pim and the Millions of Stars by Martine Murray

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Molly has a strange life. Her mama collects herbs at dawn and makes potions, her father and brothers have gone away, and her house feels like a gypsy caravan.

Molly doesn’t want to know anything about herbs and potions. She wishes she could be more like her best friend, Ellen, who has a normal family and a normal house. But she is also secretly interested in Pim, who is inquisitive and odd and a little bit frightening.

When Molly’s mama makes a potion that has a wild and shocking effect, Molly and Pim look for a way to make things right, and Molly discovers the magic and value of her own unusual life.

This novel is The Loveliest. Sweet and splendid and magical, while still being of-this-world. Molly longs to be as normal as her friend Ellen (who gets muesli bars in her lunchbox and doesn't have a mum that wanders about the woods barefoot, collecting herbs for potions) and this is something I think young readers will definitely relate to (everyone has thought at some point "my family is the weirdest" - eventually you realise everyone's family is weird and that's okay and sometimes even great).

Molly does work out that she's pretty lucky to have her slightly odd mum, but only once something pretty terrifying happens. I don't want to give anything away (I think it's better when stories are surprising), so I'll leave it at that. Even though Pim features in the title (and Pim, with his interesting trivia and perspective of the world, is a great character), he doesn't heavily feature in the book. It's a story about friendship, but most of all it's about Molly learning to appreciate her mum and their strange life. (The fact that her father and twin brothers had mysteriously vanished in Cuba was such an odd but intriguing detail, and one that makes me hope there'll be another book about Molly, in which she finds them!)

There are so many sweet characters (apart from the incredibly horrendous neighbours, Ernest and Prudence Grimshaw), but I especially love Molly's mum, and Ellen (I would be friends with Ellen. She is so nice and sensible). The lovely little illustrations and glossary of herbs and such at the end of the book are a beautiful touch. I really quite enjoyed it, and I would've absolutely adored it when I was ten.

(How splendid is the cover? It's got lovely sparkly bits, in real life - have a look at Cait's review at Paper Fury for some lovely photos of it. Am I overusing the word lovely? That's what this book is. The Bookish Manicurist's painted a gorgeous manicure to match it. And now I'm linking to other reviews, I can't really stop myself: I love this review from a 9-year-old reader, as well as Danielle's thoughts at Alpha Reader on this book and middle-grade fiction in Aus.)

Molly and Pim and the Millions of Stars on the publisher's website

Saltwater Vampires by Kirsty Eagar

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

He looked to the sky, praying for rain, a downpour, some sign from the heavens … But all he saw was the bloated white face of the moon smiling down on him … And the sky around it was cold and clear and black …
They made their circle of blood. And only the moon witnessed the slaughter that followed.

For Jamie Mackie, summer holidays in the coastal town of Rocky Head mean surfing, making money, and good times at the local music festival. But this year, vampires are on the festival line-up … fulfilling a pact made on the wreck of the Batavia, four hundred years ago. If their plans succeed, nobody in Rocky Head will survive to see out the new year.

Saltwater Vampires takes a real historical atrocity (the mutiny and massacre of at least 110 people following the 1629 shipwreck of the Batavia) and reimagines it as vampiric turning ritual ('Vampires did it' makes it seem less awful, somehow). The historical angle is well-executed and intriguing. Most of the story occurs in the present day, and centres around Jamie and his friends becoming embroiled in another terrible vampiric plot centred around the local music festival. It's fun and fast-paced and a little bit outlandish, but there's still a sincerity to the story and the relationships between characters.

I loved the setting - an Australian coastal town over the break between Christmas and New Year - which is antithesis of setting in traditional vampire novels (where it is perennially dark, rainy, misty and thunderous in either a) an old time-y European castle complete with bats or b) a vaguely American small town that has frequent mysterious disappearances). The vampire mythology is consistent and credible - plenty of standard vampire stuff with a few little twists. Vampires are able to see the future in mirrors, which is an absolute torment for them, hence why they don't like mirrors, and the fact that they don't need to breathe allows them to live underwater. If you like your vampires sparkly and sexy, this is probably not the book for you - the vampires are creepy and sinister and really not the kind you want to encounter during an evening stroll.

(An aside: the plan of the vampires in this novel reminded me of the plan of the leviathans in season 8 of Supernatural. Juice = Turducken. Plus, the vampirates in the same season are not entirely unlike the saltwater vampires in this novel.)

The things that appealed the most to be about the novel weren't necessarily the things that were emphasised - the story of Jamie and his friends was what the majority of the story centred around, while I really wanted to find out more about the secret vampire society and the motivations and backgrounds of each of the vampires - like further explanation of Jeronimus Cornelisz's obsession with Lucretia Jans, how people get recruited by the vampire organisation (I'm keen on being pale and running really fast and being able to eavesdrop really well, can I join?), that sort of stuff. So it reads more like a contemporary YA, with vampires and sprinklings of history thrown in.

I'd recommend Saltwater Vampires to younger YA readers (the central characters are fifteen). It's a very enjoyable vampire novel with an interesting historical aspect, that's centrally character-driven - even if you're not a big fan of paranormal fiction, it's still worth picking up.

Saltwater Vampires on the publisher's website.

Afterlight by Rebecca Lim

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Since her parents died in a freak motorbike accident, Sophie Teague’s life has fallen apart.

But she’s just enrolled at a new high school, hoping for a fresh start.

That’s until Eve, a beautiful ghost in black, starts making terrifying nightly appearances, wanting Sophie to be her hands, eyes and go-to girl.

There are loose ends that Eve needs Sophie to tie up. But dealing with the dead might just involve the greatest sacrifice of all.

Dark, thrilling and unrelentingly eerie, Afterlight will take you deep into the heart of a dangerous love story, revealing the otherworldly—and deadly—pull of past wrongs that only the living can put right.

I am like 85% sure Rebecca Lim is not of this world. I don't know how she does it, but she's written a novel about a girl who follows the directives of a ghost and it's somehow believable. Authentic. Ghosts exist. There's these gate-keepers stopping them from getting at us. All of this makes perfect sense. She's got powers, is what I'm saying. I am fully convinced this all could've actually happened. I think this is due to a combination of two things: Sophie's hilarious, unpretentious narration (which reads like a friend telling you what they got up to at the weekend) and the astounding amount of geographical detail (I'd call it world-building but it's Melbourne which I'm fairly sure is not Rebecca Lim's creation - but who really knows, maybe I'm in a Rebecca Lim novel? Disappointing lack of babes/supernatural creatures makes me think this is unlikely).

I stayed up very late reading this novel and it is a very creepy novel and when I went to get a glass of water in the dark, scary night while reading the dark, scary book I was DEEPLY CONCERNED that there would be a ghost in the kitchen and/or outside the kitchen window (for some reason, outside the kitchen window is scarier, I don't know why). Fortunately there was not. But. This book: really, really spooky. (After I finished reading, I had weird, disorienting dreams. Possibly due to this book. Possibly due to the fact I usually have weird, disorienting dreams.)

I cannot believe Jordan Haig is not mentioned in the blurb because he's terrific, he's the most terrific character in the book, I can't believe it. Best love interest in a YA novel I've read in recent memory. It's a definite read-in-one-sitting book (both because it is really short and also because it is really compelling). There are some characters that I expected more development of or some resolution to their story, which makes me hope there's a sequel (for instance, Daughtry seemed underutilized - surely he could've helped out a little more?). I thought, at the very least, Claudia P (the very awful bully) would get some sort of ghostly comeuppance (or would that have been cliché? Possibly). Afterlight doesn't have the same degree of in-depth expansive development as Lim's Mercy series, but it does have the same fast-paced, punchy thrills of The Astrologer's Daughter. I'm just very excited to read whatever Lim writes next, sequel or standalone.

Read it if you like: Underbelly and/or Goosebumps; spooky stories; quick, compelling reads; paranormal romance/urban fantasy/thrillers or any combination thereof. Just read it. I reckon you'll enjoy it.

Afterlight on the publisher's website.

Frankie and Joely by Nova Weetman

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Frankie and Joely are best friends. They love each other like no one else can. But when a summer break in the country brings fresh distractions, simmering jealousies and festering secrets, can their friendship survive? 

It’s the holidays and, together, Frankie and Joely board a train and escape the city and their mums for a week of freedom. But when Joely introduces Frankie to her country cousins, Thommo and Mack, it soon becomes clear that something other than the heat is getting under their skin. As the temperature rises and the annual New Years’ Eve party looms closer, local boy Rory stirs things up even more and secrets start to blister. Suddenly the girls’ summer getaway is not panning out how either of them imagined. Will they still be ‘Frankie and Joely’ by the end of their holiday?

I love novels about female friendship and rural Australia and hot summers, and Frankie and Joely has all of these things. The stifling heat and the dusty middle-of-nowhere town are depicted beautifully. The story is told using third-person omniscient - predominantly from the perspectives of Frankie and Joely, but also offering Mack's, Thommo's and Rory's viewpoints. This is a style of narration that is really difficult to get right, and at times, as POV changed from paragraph to paragraph, I felt at a remove from the characters. The stark differences in how Frankie and Joely view each other and themselves make their perspectives the most compelling - had the story instead been told by only one or the other, so much of the exploration of their friendship would be missing, and it wouldn't be as rich or as nuanced a story. I am always fascinated with the awful characters in stories, so more of Rory's point of view and his particular background and motivations would have been terrific; similarly, Mack and Thommo aren't POV characters for particularly much of the story, and I feel they could've contributed more.

Joely's aunt and uncle are the most sympathetic characters of the novel - there's a scene where the aunt makes scones with Joely which is one of the loveliest in the novel (and made me really want to make and eat scones. Which I might do after I finish writing this). Frankie's desire to be accepted, and her love and care for her off-the-rails mum makes her far more likeable than Joely, whose childishness is at times grating. That said, they are fifteen-year-old characters and, knowing actual fifteen-year-olds (and having been fifteen myself), they're very realistically depicted. I think the pettiness and melodramas and general complexities of intense teenage friendship are well-drawn. The girls communicate poorly and behave like idiots and treat each other badly, despite how important the friendship is to both of them, because they're both dealing with their own issues: trying to deal with family and boy dramas and attempting to work out who they are and who they want to be.

It's an easy, enjoyable contemporary Aussie YA read, which I think will appeal most to younger teenaged readers who can identify with Frankie and Joely and the intensities and difficulties of their friendship. If you liked Kate Gordon's Writing Clementine, I reckon you'll like this one, too (and vice versa).

Frankie and Joely on the publisher's website

I'll be at Loud in the Library at Broadbeach Library on July 12!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

From 1p.m. till 3p.m. on Sunday July 12th, I'll be appearing at Broadbeach library here on the Gold Coast! Here's what the event is all about:

Take over the library with authors Tristan Bancks, Steph Bowe and Brian Falkner. Share pizza and soft drink and find out why they write, how they write and whether you could write books too.

(OF COURSE YOU COULD WRITE BOOKS TOO, is what I'm going to say. Writing books is the greatest and everyone has awesome story ideas if they have a go at it.)

It's for 12- to 17-year-olds! I am always excited about events for teenage readers (and writers) being held here on the Gold Coast, so this is pretty awesome (I'm looking forward to the pizza!).

SO: if you're a teenage reader on the Gold Coast and wondering what to do on the twelfth of July, you really should come along.

You can register on the library website here.

Interview with Kirsty Eagar, author of Raw Blue

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Kirsty Eagar is the Sydney-based author of YA novels Raw Blue, Saltwater Vampires and Night Beach, plus Summer Skin, to be published early next year (!!! I am excited about this). She's won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Young Adult fiction and been shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, the Queensland Literary Awards, the Western Australia Premier’s Awards and a Gold Inky - which should indicate that her novels are pretty terrific. I met Kirsty Eagar at the Somerset Writers Festival in 2011, so I can confirm she is as lovely in real life as she is on the internet.

Being able to ask an author tonnes of questions about their writing process under the guise of it being for my blog - when in actual fact I'm just really curious! - is one of my favourite things about blogging (I hope you love finding out the stories behind stories as much as I do!). Luckily for me, Kirsty took the time to answer all of my very involved questions with really thoughtful, interesting answers - on writing about surfing, reading while writing, exploiting your own fear to create creepy atmosphere, the advice she'd share with herself as a beginning writer, plus more.


Steph: I really love that each of your novels are so different from one another (save for the surfing theme - I'm going to ask questions about that shortly!) - from Raw Blue being achingly realistic to Saltwater Vampires being paranormal with historical elements to Night Beach being a terrifically eerie gothic horror story. So I wonder whether you decide before you set out what genre you'll write the next book in, or whether that's something you work out as you write? Genre-wise, do you favour one over the others? 

Kirsty: Oh, that’s such a good question. I’d love to know how it works for other people. With Raw Blue and Saltwater Vampires, the genre was part of the initial seed idea. It wasn’t that clear cut for Night Beach. In the beginning, I had it pegged as more of a noir thing, more realistic. But when I decided to include art in the plot, everything changed, because I’ve always loved the Surrealists. Also, the house that Abbie’s living in is borrowed directly from real life – an old place we rented. The swaying chandeliers really happened, likewise that place had no hallway (so each room had two to three doorways) and there was a locked door downstairs. So it was probably the decision to use the house that turned the story gothic. (The house’s saving grace was that it also had a great view – blurry photo below is from the balcony at night: moon over the ocean).

On genre: I have no favourite. I found Saltwater Vampires the most demanding to write, though.

Steph: I also love that surfing is a central theme in all your novels, and that it's inextricably tied to the plot of each. How do you manage to continually write about surfing in a fresh way? What first inspired you to write about surfing, and do you think it will continue to be central to your work? 
Kirsty: Before I got published I’d written two novels that almost, but not quite, made it, and I’d given up on the whole idea of getting there. But I couldn’t let go of writing, so I decided to just write something that mattered to me. And surfing has given me all the big things in my life (writing, my husband, a home, a community, daily conversation that forces me to remove my head from my … you get the picture) so it had to be in there. In the beginning I struggled with permission, though. But then I realised that a lot of surf writing is from a male perspective, and tends to be about dominating the ocean, whereas I wanted to write about something quieter – just turning up because you love it. That realisation gave me the way in, and a point of difference.

There’s probably always more to write on it, because the hierarchy in the water is an interesting way to explore other themes, like belonging, for example. That said (she says, climbing down from her high horse) there’ll be no more surf writing for at least the next two books. It’s been good to step away from it.

Steph: In Saltwater Vampires, historical events and characters are interpreted through a supernatural lens - what drew you to writing about the Batavia? Are there any other historical events you'd like to reimagine for a novel? 
Kirsty: I think what made me want to write about it was that it was just such a good story. To this day, Mike Dash’s account of what happened, Batavia’s Graveyard, is probably my favourite work of non-fiction (his writing is brilliant).

Funny, you ask that second question … I’m related to the explorer Emily Caroline Barnett (nee Creaghe) so I’d like to look at her life either in a novel, or creative non-fiction.

Steph: Do you read while you're working on a novel? Does what you're reading vary based on what you're writing and help inspire your work? 
Kirsty: Yes and no. I oscillate between lumpy bursts of intense effort in amongst much longer periods of flat line procrastination. So I’m happy to read when I’m flat lining, but I don’t read at all when things are heating up. I’ll read books related to what I’m doing in a research sense, but I try not to cross over with other fiction. Most of the time, I read pretty widely and there’s no rhyme or reason to it. So I might read a sports biography, and then a YA, and then a horror, and then short stories … What inspires me is when you come across writing so good it smacks you in the eyeballs. It makes you realise what’s possible.

Steph: What have you learnt about writing and publishing that you'd share with yourself back when you first started writing? 
Kirsty: Just. Keep. Working. Set targets and then halve them (annual, monthly, week to week) and keep a record of your hours – it keeps you honest, gives you a feeling of accomplishment, and forces you to focus on the writing. In a business sense, don’t be afraid to ask questions and never be afraid to change things if they’re not working. I think, too, I haven’t always been very mature about handling the post publication side. I let things slide, buried my head in the sand. In terms of interacting with other writers and readers, you should know, Steph, that you have been a role model to me. I very much admire your grace, professionalism, generosity and courtesy. So that’s important, too, focus on the people who are positive.

Steph: Do you outline your novels or make things up as you go along? What's your process like, generally, from idea to finished manuscript? 
Kirsty: It tends to be pretty loose until I finally get a decent first draft down. I don’t outline formally, only because when I’m writing it changes anyway. But I do have a working idea in my head of where I might be going, and a couple of story beats I want to hit. Each chunk of new writing might contain a couple of hidden gems – like a throwaway line halfway through chapter five that you suddenly realise would work well as a scene, and not just any scene, but your opening scene! So what I call a first draft is heaps and heaps of rewrites and a lot of stops and starts. I find that excruciating, and I always tell myself it’ll be different next time, more organised, but it never is.

Steph: Night Beach is incredibly eerie and atmospheric - what were your inspirations? What advice would you give writers wanting to generate creepy atmosphere in their stories? 
Kirsty: Thank you! The art in the story was a big inspiration. I took directly from it in places – so, for example, Dorothea Tanning’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Yes, there’s a point in the story where Abbie’s hair is standing on end like the dolls/girls in that painting, but what I found, the more I looked, was the sense of unease I felt actually came from that door, just so slightly ajar. I drew a lot on the idea of the shadow, too – Jungian psychology and the shadow-self, the unconscious parts of your personality that you don’t acknowledge (so, for Abbie, that might be her sexuality, or residual feelings about her parents’ divorce).

More generally, I am the person who can’t sleep without closing the wardrobe door. I take open stairs two at a time because I’m convinced a hand will suddenly close on my ankle. I haven’t watched a scary movie since I was thirteen; I find them unbearable. So it’s about exploiting your own fears as much as anything else. And my daughters, when they were little, used to come up with some genuinely creepy shit. Also, I was very tired when I wrote that book – it was written between the hours of 10pm and 2am. Being the only one in the house awake meant I could easily scare the crap out of myself!

Steph: There's a lot of really challenging material (to write and to read) in your novels, and very authentic, emotionally honest characters. I think this sort of stuff can be easily mishandled, but everything is dealt with very subtly and realistically. I felt this most especially with Raw Blue. So I wonder how you go about empathising with your characters - are you the sort of writer to whom characters seem very real and drive the story themselves, or do you have to really draw them out and explore the character before being able to write them so authentically? 
Kirsty: Thank you again, Steph. Yes, they definitely feel real and, I think this is important, they also aren’t me – because you’ve got to get your own ego out of the way. Hopefully that happens during the whole write, rewrite, rewrite, feedback, rewrite, rewrite cycle! But, on the other hand, I think you’ve got to be honest. So you’re invested, you’ve risked something. That said, the characters drive it. I will sit with a scene for a long time now, and wait until my initial urge has passed and a second, better, solution arrives, generated by them. But that’s scary, because you’re always worried it won’t come. How’s that for a not very good answer to your question??? :)

Steph: Do you have a perfect reader in mind as you write? Or do you write for yourself? Does it vary from novel to novel? 
Kirsty: The eventual decision to go with one thing over another (because there always seems to be two competing ideas when I’m about to start something new) is made to please myself. But once I’m writing, it is about the reader. I don’t know who they are, though. They’re this floaty presence, holy and humbling. Real readers are the motivation to not give up on a story, because you’ve loved this world and these people and you want someone else to share it with you.

Steph: What are you working on at the moment? (Having now read all your novels, I am in that rather unpleasant state of impatiently waiting for the next book - so I hope it will be out soon!)
Kirsty: Well, that goes from me to you, too, Steph – waiting! The next one (I have to interrupt myself here to say that for a long time I thought there mightn’t be a next one, so it’s really nice to be able to say that, albeit, not very casually!) comes out early next year. It’s called Summer Skin. Despite being a beachy sounding title, as I said, there’s no surfing. It’s a uni novel, set in Brisbane (where I went to uni). It’s a bit out there, and I’m terrified.

Thank you for such astute questions Steph, and thank you very much for having me!!!

Thank you, Kirsty!

Kirsty writes a terrific blog, which is well worth checking out - one of her features, Where the magic happens, is about where writers write, to which I contributed a post, which you can read here (predictably, it features garden gnomes). I am ridiculously excited for Summer Skin - and Kirsty has a little snippet of it up on her blog.

Here's my review of Raw Blue, and more info on Night Beach and Saltwater Vampires (you'll probably see reviews for each of these here soon).

Raw Blue by Kirsty Eagar

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Carly has dropped out of uni to spend her days surfing and her nights working as a cook in a Manly cafĂ©. Surfing is the one thing she loves doing … and the only thing that helps her stop thinking about what happened two years ago at schoolies week.

And then Carly meets Ryan, a local at the break, fresh out of jail. When Ryan learns the truth, Carly has to decide. Will she let the past bury her? Or can she let go of her anger and shame, and find the courage to be happy? 

This is another book I thought I'd reviewed when I first read it years ago. Upon discovering I hadn't, I started doubting whether I'd read it to begin with. (When I was a teenager I read so much half the books fell out of my head.) Once I started reading, my memory was jogged and I knew I had definitely read it: each scene was so vivid in my mind, and I started anticipating the unpleasant parts of the novel before they happened. I found Raw Blue incredibly realistic, uncomfortably so, and very visceral.

It frustrates me incredibly when some babe shows up in a YA novel and fixes the protagonist and their myriad problems, which I think is unrealistic (and doesn't really solve anything: the protagonist hasn't really grown or dealt with their problems). What is terrific about Raw Blue is that Carly very much saves herself. The blurb makes it sound a bit sappy, but it's entirely not; her depression and rage and self-loathing are all well-drawn, and her development as a character is gradual and convincing.

What I love best about this novel and what I think makes it so realistic is the cast of characters, all of whom are well-developed and authentic. They don't all necessarily serve the plot (a few of Carly's co-workers could easily have been merged together, for instance, without the story changing) but they make the world of the novel far more representative of real life, and the myriad people we encounter (sometimes unpleasant) and whose lives intersect ours. In Raw Blue, everyone has a story and a background and things going on in their life (often left unresolved) and the story often meanders as a result, but it's perfect for this book. Of all the characters, Danny is my favourite (a kid Carly meets surfing who has synesthesia and associates people with colours) but I also love Hannah (Carly's salsa-dancing Dutch neighbour).

Carly is a nineteen-year-old character and the novel centres around some very heavy content (always dealt with tactfully, but you may prefer not to read novels in which sexual assault occurs). I'd recommend it to older YA readers and adult readers of YA; this is a prime example of excellent, challenging Australian contemporary YA. (This is a big call, but I'd also say it's the Australian equivalent of Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. It's that good.)

Raw Blue on the publisher's website
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