Bleakboy and Hunter Stand Out in the Rain by Steven Herrick

Saturday, August 23, 2014


Some things are too big for a boy to solve. 

Jesse is an eleven-year-old boy tackling many problems in life, especially fitting in to a new school. 

Luckily he meets Kate. She has curly black hair, braces and an infectious smile. She wants to ‘Save the Whales’ and needs Jesse’s help. 

But they haven’t counted on Hunter, the school bully, who appears to enjoy hurling insults at random. 

With Hunter’s catchphrase ‘Ha!’ echoing through the school, something or someone has to give. 

But will it be Jesse? Kate? Or is there more to Hunter than everyone thinks? 

An inspiring and funny story about the small gestures that can help to make the world a better place.

I think Steven Herrick writes with a great deal of insight and subtlety, so I was really looking forward to reading Bleakboy and Hunter Stand Out in the Rain. I strongly recommend both Cold Skin and The Simple Gift (the only other Herrick novels I've read so far) - extraordinary verse novels with tough subject matter delicately handled, very powerful. They demonstrate beautifully the meaningfulness that can be achieved even when words are used economically.

Bleakboy and Hunter Stand Out in the Rain is written in prose rather than verse, and for a younger audience than other Herrick novels I've read, and it's both funny and thoughtful. I think it will really appeal to kids in upper primary school. It's positive and uplifting - a lovely little story with lots of nice messages, about environmental conservation and charitable causes (it's very message-dense). The story is told from the perspectives of both Jesse, who is well-meaning and quiet and a bit eccentric (he talks to a poster of Jesus that he refers to as Trevor, as his parents are atheist - the family dynamics are rather amusing), and Hunter, who is the school bully but gradually revealed as an endearing character - his interactions with the elderly man he befriends were some of my favourite in the book. As someone who was a bit eccentric and very thoughtful as an eleven-year-old, I really identified with Jesse, but both characters are likeable and authentic.

It's definitely a feel-good sort of novel, and one I think 9-12-year-olds will love, and anyone older who likes heartwarming stories about saving whales and making friends and the various awkwardnesses of being eleven.

Bleakboy and Hunter Stand Out in the Rain on the publisher's website.

The Sky So Heavy by Claire Zorn

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

For Fin, it’s just like any other day – racing for the school bus, bluffing his way through class and trying to remain cool in front of the most sophisticated girl in his universe. Only it’s not like any other day because, on the other side of the world, nuclear missiles are being detonated.
 
When Fin wakes up the next morning, it’s dark, bitterly cold and snow is falling. There’s no internet, no phone, no TV, no power and no parents. Nothing Fin’s learnt in school could have prepared him for this.
 
With his parents missing and dwindling food and water supplies, Fin and his younger brother, Max, must find a way to survive in a nuclear winter … all on their own. 
 
When things are at their most desperate, where can you go for help?


I love apocalyptic stories set in familiar locations, and the fact that The Sky So Heavy is set in Australia really added to the realism for me, though it explored something entirely foreign (thankfully). Though I'm not familiar with the Blue Mountains, they make for an amazingly atmospheric setting, a great sense of isolation and fear. Though it's an apocalyptic novel it lacks melodrama, and it explores the motivations and emotions of the central characters beautifully. It's about ordinary kids facing an extraordinary situation, a terrifyingly believable one. (I find fictional stories about nuclear war a lot scarier than fictional stories about zombie apocalypses, largely because zombies don't exist in our reality. I mean, I hope.)

Though the novel opens with a flash-forward to a particularly thrilling point in the story, it's not a novel of non-stop thrills - I think the strengths of the novel lie in the way characters are developed as the story progresses, as they are shaped by their circumstances. After the flash-forward, the story returns back in time to prior to the (shall we say event?) event occurring, these opening scenes a little clumsy in that way every apocalyptic story is - Everything was perfect... until! Dialogue is flippant and the impending threat of nuclear war is quickly set up - once everything is established, it's an enthralling read. Some decisions by certain characters (very difficult to avoid major spoilery spoilers here) are difficult to believe, but that probably reflects the reality of extreme situations - people behave in irrational ways. Fin has an authentic and endearing voice, a kid just trying to look after his brother. I think this novel will appeal to teenagers of any gender.

The Sky So Heavy is accessible and thought-provoking and relevant, an enjoyable read. Well worth a look if you're after another frighteningly realistic apocalyptic novel to read after you've finished the Tomorrow When the War Began series.

The Sky So Heavy on the publisher's website

Replica by Jack Heath

Saturday, August 9, 2014

'Whose body is that on the table?' I ask. 
She stares at me, as though the answer is obvious. 'It's yours,' she says. Before I have time to scream, she types a command on the keyboard. My consciousness whirls away like storm water down a drain. 

Chloe wakes up to find all her memories have been wiped. And the only person who knows what happened is a teenage girl who looks and sounds exactly like her. 

Who is she? And what does she want? 

Chloe is running out of time to discover the truth. But she's in even more danger than she realizes, and nothing is as it seems . . .

An awesome possible-near-future sci-fi novel with a fantastic premise and lots of killer twists. It's very, very difficult to talk about Replica without accidentally revealing any of these twists (and I hate to be a plot spoiler, I do) but I will say things that are pretty clear from the outset: it's a novel about a replica of a teenage girl, created via 3D printer with silicone skin and a consciousness downloaded as open-source software - technological details that ground Replica in our reality. Replica raises lots of interesting questions about the nature of consciousness and what makes us human. I love thinking about the possibility that I am a robot, or in the Matrix, or that we're all aliens (I use the excuse that I'm imaginative and a writer but I'm actually just a bit odd) so I found this premise immensely engaging. It's set in Canberra but nothing feels overtly Australian about it. Without being horrifically spoiler-ish, I love that for once there's a non-hetero romance in a YA sci-fi/thriller novel - I want to see more of this!

The ending is of the open variety, clearly set up for a potential sequel with a lot of things left unresolved. I am not a fan of endings that spell it all out for the reader and tie up all loose ends - I like to both write and read endings where it's up to the reader what happens next. That said, as much as I love open-ended stories and concise novels, there are things I would've loved to have seen explored further and in more depth - it's a very plot-driven novel and while characters are authentic and believable (Narrator Chloe is realistic and likeable and complex), there's a necessary economical use of detail at times to maintain pace. Between the nefarious organisation and the conspiracies and the robotic clones it was difficult to get to know Chloe's family and friends as well as I'd like (as a reader of primarily character-driven novels) so I'm really looking forward to a sequel.

Replica has an amazing concept and a terrifically intriguing opening scene, and it's stacked with thrills/twists/action that means it's probably inadvisable to start reading it at ten p.m. if you'd like to be asleep at a reasonable time. If you like sci-fi, action, mystery, thrillers or some combination thereof, it's definitely worth a look. Robotic replicas, you guys. How could you not want to read this?

Replica on the publisher's website.

Interview with Jack Heath

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Jack's latest novel Replica is a thrilling and thought-provoking sci-fi novel (with a super creepy cover - check it out) about a robotic replica assuming a teenage girl's life. My review is forthcoming! In the meantime, I had a chat with Jack about writing Replica, potential sequels, writerly regrets and the benefits/pitfalls of having a replica (I'm currently manufacturing Clone Steph/Steph 2.0 to write my novels for me while I eat cheese toasties and read sci-fi novels*).

I'm interested in the process of writing Replica, which is science fiction in a way that's very much based in our reality. What were your sources of inspiration? Was there a lengthy research process before you started writing? Was it difficult to decide what real-life technology to include, and where to embellish? (It seems a novel weighted towards real-life technology, but then that's the magic of fiction: things that sound real versus things that exist are often entirely different.)
Jack: I usually start with something preposterous – time travel, thief who can walk through walls, et cetera – and then try to include as much real-life science as possible to make it convincing. In this instance, I didn't even have to set the book in the future. It is possible, today, for a teenager to build a mechanical duplicate of herself, thanks to 3D-printing, open source artificial intelligence software and other real-world developments. But fooling her friends and family with the duplicate is another story. I think in real life, Chloe 2's cover would be blown as soon as she opened her mouth. Still, in ten years, who knows?

Your first novel was published when you were a teenager, so you've been writing professionally for almost a decade. Has your writing process or style evolved with subsequent novels? Is there anything you wish you could go back and change about earlier novels?
Jack: I used to structure my books around action scenes – the plot was just a series of flimsy excuses to get Ashley Arthur from one explosion to the next. These days I usually focus on realisations; each chapter reveals a little more of the truth to the main character, and plants some more misleading clues for later revelations. (If that sounds dull, rest assured that I still cram in as falls-from-great-heights as I can.) I also focus much less on how things look, and much more on how they feel. But the only thing I'd change about my earlier books – leaving aside the fact that some were not profitable and arguably shouldn't have been written – is that Agent Six has a slightly preachy monologue at the end of The Lab which now makes me wince.

Replica features lesbian characters without that being the central focus of the plot, which I think is awesome - and realistic (as realistic as a novel about robotic replicas can be). Was that a conscious choice you made, and what inspired it?
Jack: The lesbian element actually started out as a plot consideration. If one of the characters had been a boy and the other a girl, readers would immediately suspect they had a romantic past. (In the immortal words of Avril Lavigne, "Can I make it any more obvious?") Making both characters female kept the suspense going a little longer. At first, that was my only goal, but later a copy editor mentioned how thrilled she was to see such a positive gay relationship in a sci-fi YA novel. It hadn't occurred to me that for most LGBT protagonists in YA books, the main conflict was a struggle with identity and acceptance, rather than a struggle with, for example, teams of ruthless soldiers with high-tech weaponry. (Of course, Replica is all about identity too, but Chloe's sexual orientation is the least of her worries.) After that, I tried to make her relationship even more prevalent and positive, so readers would get something which was otherwise missing from the genre.

You've written two series and a couple of stand-alone novels: Do you prefer one over the other? It is easier to write novels with characters and settings already established, a familiar world? Is there any possibility of a follow-up to Replica?Jack: I spend so much time on plot and sensation that world-building and character development are usually left by the wayside in the first draft. They're often still pretty bare in the published version. I love writing sequels, because I know the characters better, and I have a more solid sense of the world they inhabit. I don't have to spend so long wondering, "What would Chloe do in this situation?" because I've seen how she coped with similar ones. Having said all that, I'm not good at writing series – just sequels. I always take it one book at a time. I'm really keen to write Replica 2: The Replicationing – I have a new story for Chloe to find her way through, a new cast of characters for her to meet and a new setting for her to get lost in – but I can only do it if Replica 1 is a success. You could argue that a book has value even if no-one reads it (a tree falling in the woods type debate) but as I mentioned, I've spent too much of my life writing sequels to books which didn't sell.

Replica is set in Canberra, and I'm not familiar with particularly many YA novels set there: Is there any particular reason you chose Canberra? What do you think it offers as a setting that makes it unique to other Australian cities?
Jack: I've travelled extensively, but Canberra is the city I know best. I went to primary school, high school and university in this town. Setting a book here feels natural to me, but with Replica, I thought it would feel natural to other people, too. Canberra is a small town, so characters can bump into one another unexpectedly without the coincidence feeling forced. The political/espionage side of the plot, meanwhile, would feel forced if it took place anywhere else in Australia. Having said all that, the language has been sanitised for the UK market and then resanitised for the USA market. In the construction site scene, a UK copy editor circled "bobcat" and wrote in the margin, "Is that an Australian native animal?" So while Canberrans will find a few familiar landmarks, no-one from outside the ACT will feel like they've had a holiday here after reading the book.

Imagining if a replica of yourself was created. Would you be able to peacefully coexist with a robot walking around with your face? Would that be an awesome prospect or a terrifying one? (I imagine a replica of myself would be a great friend, but maybe that's the sort of thinking that would result in my replica killing me and assuming my identity.)
Jack: How easily I could coexist with a replica would depend entirely on his temperament. If it were much like mine, we wouldn't get on. I'd think he was a selfish, lazy nincompoop. But if he were happy to go out and do school visits, TV appearances, radio interviews, book signings and so on – while I stayed home and wrote – it would be a beautiful friendship. Jackbot could be my public face, while I became a recluse. (In fact, Replica came about partly because I was overwhelmed with my life, and I wished I had someone to take over for a while.)

--

You can read a preview of Replica and find out more about the novel at jackheath.com.au.

*The first Jack Heath novel I read was Third Transmission five years ago (here's the review, as written by baby fifteen-year-old Steph - I have been keeping this blog a long time, it seems) which was stellar but sadly seems to be no longer in print. THIS OFFENDS ME. In keeping with the themes of Third Transmission, I should perhaps travel back in time and prevent it from going out of print. Maybe I should just send the clone through time, instead, in case all my atoms are destroyed or something. Time travel: it's pretty dangerous.

The Astrologer's Daughter by Rebecca Lim

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Avicenna Crowe’s mother, Joanne, is an astrologer with uncanny predictive powers and a history of being stalked. Now she is missing.

The police are called, but they’re not asking the right questions. Like why Joanne lied about her past, and what she saw in her stars that made her so afraid.

But Avicenna has inherited her mother’s gift. Finding an unlikely ally in the brooding Simon Thorn, she begins to piece together the mystery. And when she uncovers a link between Joanne’s disappearance and a cold-case murder, Avicenna is led deep into the city’s dark and seedy underbelly, unaware how far she is placing her own life in danger.

I've spent five minutes looking at synonyms for 'surreal' but none of them quite fit this novel - 'whimsical' is too flippant and 'absurd' doesn't sound complimentary and 'dreamlike' belies the sinister aspects. The Astrologer's Daughter leans towards the incredible and the extraordinary without ever stepping right over into paranormal. There are parts of it that feel not-quite-realistic. The astrology is detailed and authentic (or at least authentic-sounding - I wouldn't be able to tell). Joanna, for a character that never actually appears, is utterly fascinating. There is a surreal aspect to this novel but it is still very much cemented in our reality: the city of Melbourne is a beautifully evoked setting, drawn with much affection.

It is not quite like any other YA novel I have read, a fabulous mash-up of genres. The plot is beautifully constructed but not at the expense of character development. There is resolution but there also isn't resolution. I thought it was leading towards something but then it ended in another way entirely - it ends in very thrilling fashion, all the same. I think if you are looking for a novel that is refreshingly different - complex and curious and a bit not-of-this-world - this is maybe the novel for you. I really enjoyed it.

The Astrologer's Daughter on the publisher's website.

Writing Clementine by Kate Gordon

Thursday, July 17, 2014

You said we could write anything we wanted. The first thing that came into our minds. Blue fish, red fish, green fish...

Clementine Darcy is floundering. She wants to be the kind of fish who swims to the swish of her own fins - upstream, not simply carried along by the current.

But she is finding the swirling waters of school and home difficult to navigate: her friendship group is splintering, her brother Fergus won't leave his room, her sister's life is not as perfect as Clem thought...and then there's the New Boy, who is dapper and intriguing, but hiding secrets of his own. Clem is desperate for everyone - including herself - to be happy, but she discovers that her idea of helping doesn't always work as well as she imagined.

Can Clem be the girl she wants to be? Will she learn to accept that there are things she can fix and things she cannot? Will she find a way to know the difference?

Writing Clementine is such a beautifully endearing story. I loved the use of Tasmania as a setting, as I have in Kate Gordon's other novels. Clementine has many of the aspects I love about contemporary Australian YA, including a very genuine voice and the multi-faceted issues of growing up being handled deftly, including Clementine dealing with her brother's mental illness, relationships with her long-time friends shifting, and romantic interests as well as super unpleasant advances. Clementine's friends Cleo and Chelsea-Grace I found to be unpleasantly realistic (I dug my fingernails into my palms a little bit, thinking I know these girls) but they, too, were shown to have depth - growing up and figuring it out, same as Clementine (it is so much easier to resort to 'the protagonist is righteous! these girls are just mean, two-dimensional bimbos!' None of that cliche business here).

I tend towards being an impatient reader these days, wishing for every author to be more concise (so many books to read! So little time!), and Clementine was short but still powerful. I loved that Clementine was a bigger girl without it being a thing - she is happy within herself. I loved that the truly creepy and gross Sam from Grade 10 wasn't allowed to get away with his awful behaviour. I loved the steampunk society, and that the love interest was so not traditional YA - he's odd and old-fashioned and adorable. Clementine is fourteen and tends towards naivete, and things are wrapped up very neatly and positively - if you like your endings happy with your protagonist's wishes being fulfilled, this is the book for you (is that a spoiler? I think you can tell it's an ultimately happy book from that pretty cover). It is realistic but mostly steers away from darkness (her brother's mental illness, for instance, is not dealt with in depth - it's an outsider's view). An easy read, in the form of a letter, with a very charming narrative voice.

Heart-warming and humorous, with a very sweet romance at the centre, Writing Clementine is a lovely read and one that I think preteens and younger teenage girls will love.

Writing Clementine on the publisher's website
Kate Gordon's website

Interview with Kate Gordon: Writing Clementine Blog Tour

Monday, July 14, 2014

So thrilled to be interviewing Kate Gordon for the blog tour for her newly released novel Writing Clementine! It's a beautifully endearing and very charming contemporary YA novel about Clementine, trying to figure out who she is and negotiate life at school and with her family (My review is coming shortly; I'm still trying to decide which synonyms of splendid to use).

Here's Kate's bio, because it is fabulous:
Kate Gordon lives in Hobart, in a mint-green cottage, with her husband, her very strange cat, Mephy Danger Gordon, and a wonderful little girl who goes by the name of Tiger. Kate dreams that one day she and her little family will live in another cottage, by the beach, with goats and chickens. In the meantime, she fills her house with books, perfects her gluten-free baking technique, has marvellous adventures with Tiger, and she writes. 

And onto the interview!

You've written both paranormal fiction (Thyla and Vulpi) and contemporary YA fiction (Three Things About Daisy Blue and now Writing Clementine) - are there any significant differences in your process when writing in these two different genres? Do you prefer one or the other?
Kate: I think I feel more comfortable writing contemporary YA – not that it’s not as hard, and not that I don’t love writing spec fic, it just feels as if it comes more naturally. And I guess that informs my process, too. I tend to write much more stream-of-consciously (is that even a word?), when I’m writing realistic YA. It’s much more structured when I write spec fic, and I actually do some planning (NOT like me).

Clementine gets involved in a Steampunk Society in Writing Clementine, which is just terribly cool - have you considered writing a steampunk novel?
Kate: Ah, egad, no. And not because I don’t adore steampunk. It’s one of my favourite genres – that’s why I sneakily worked it into Clementine. I just feel woefully inadequate as a writer when I even consider writing it. It’s the same with high fantasy. I love it, but then I read Tansy Rayner Roberts and I think, nope, I could never do that. I read Michael Pryor or Gail Carriger or Ben Chandler and I just feel like I’ll never have a millionth of their talent. I’ll leave it to the masters. Doesn’t stop me spending hours Googling pretty steampunky things, though!

You live in Tasmania and often write novels set there: What do you enjoy about writing Tasmanian settings? Do you think they offer something different to stories set in mainland Australia?
Kate: I do. I’m ferociously proud of my island, and I think it makes the best setting for stories, purely because of its uniqueness. There’s nowhere on Earth quite like Tassie, and it’s largely unknown in much of the world. I’ll never forget being on a bus between Launceston and Burnie when I was a teenager and hearing an American say that they were surprised there were people in Tasmania – they thought it was uninhabited. I write about Tasmania so people can learn about it and love it like I do, and because I want teenagers here to see their own world reflected in art. There was almost no literature set here when I was young. I want young people of Tasmania to know that the place they’re growing up in is awesome.

In Writing Clementine, Chelsea-Grace and Cleo are the most hilariously horrific friends (and Sam from Grade 10 is the worst), but Clementine tolerates them - do you find it easy to channel the feelings and motivations of being fourteen? Do you use real-life experiences?
Kate: I do. And it’s funny that you say that Chelsea-Grace and Cleo are horrific. They’re two of my favourite ever characters. Chelsea-Grace is, I think, my favourite character from all my books. I don’t think they’re horrific friends. I think they’re just working out how to be, same as the rest of us. Sam, on the other hand, is a total wally. I loved writing him because I hated him so much, and also because it allowed me to take revenge on so many boys from high school who were exactly like him! Some of his lines are verbatim from things boys said to me and my friends in school. I know I won’t get in trouble, though. I doubt those boys read (*cue evil laugh*).

What inspired you to become a novelist? Any particular books, teachers, experiences?
Kate: Two words: Steven Herrick. I’d always loved writing and creating stories – I made up stories long before I had the ability to write them down. But when Steven Herrick visited my school, it was the first time I’d ever met a real-life author. And he seemed so normal. He was very encouraging to me and made me believe I could do this thing. Also, I had a phenomenal English teacher, Mr Wilson, in high school. He challenged me and never allowed me to accept second-best for myself. He instilled a work ethic in me that I’ve never lost. Also, I worked for a few years in a high school. I’d never considered writing for teenagers before that, but it made me want to write books that they would want to read!

You're a really prolific novelist - practically a book a year - and I'm wondering: Are you super disciplined? Do you have a writing routine? Do you advice for other writers who would like to be similarly productive (i.e. me)?
Kate: I have a two-year-old who only sometimes naps during the day, and often not for very long. I have to be disciplined, otherwise nothing happens. I also had a full-time job before becoming a mum. I forced myself to get up at 5am each day to write. Now, I write 1500 words a day, no matter what, no excuses. If Tiger doesn’t nap, I write when she goes to bed. If she goes to bed late, I write first thing in the morning. It happens, one way or another. And they might not be good words – they probably aren’t. but they’re words and once they’re there I can make them better later. A story doesn’t exist if it’s just inside my head. At least once it’s there, on the page, it exists.

Imagining you could travel back in time to visit your younger self without tearing the fabric of space-time and imploding the universe, what advice would you give your sixteen-year-old self about writing and life?
Kate: I’d tell her that she’s doing just fine. I’d tell her that her best is good enough, and not to strive to be perfect all the time. I’d tell her that life is for living, to laugh often, and to never stop believing in fairies.

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Here's Writing Clementine on the publisher's website.

Kate's lovely website and blog.

Some great guest posts by Kate here on my blog: on inner ages, being raised by books and her editing secrets!
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