Inbetween Days by Vikki Wakefield

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

At seventeen, Jacklin Bates is all grown up. She’s dropped out of school. She’s living with her runaway sister, Trudy, and she’s in secret, obsessive love with Luke, who doesn’t love her back. She’s stuck in Mobius—a dying town with the macabre suicide forest its only attraction—stuck working in the roadhouse and babysitting her boss’s demented father.

A stranger sets up camp in the forest and the boy next door returns; Jack’s father moves into the shed and her mother steps up her campaign to punish Jack for leaving, too. Trudy’s brilliant fa├žade is cracking and Jack’s only friend, Astrid, has done something unforgivable.

Jack is losing everything, including her mind. As she struggles to hold onto the life she thought she wanted, Jack learns that growing up is complicated—and love might be the biggest mystery of all.

So, Inbetween Days is my new favourite Vikki Wakefield novel and, considering how much I love Vikki Wakefield's other novels (check out my review of Friday Brown here), that's saying something. Australian contemporary YA has so many amazing writers, and Vikki Wakefield is up there. She isn't afraid of difficult characters and uncomfortable situations and moral complexity, and her writing is lyrical and beautiful without being inaccessible.

I think something that appeals to me immensely about Vikki Wakefield's work is that it's in-our-world but not-quite-in-our-world. There are things about Jack's life that anyone who has ever been a teenager will easily identify with (especially her insecurity and desire to escape), and her town is one you can imagine driving through on a road trip, but then there are elements that are just a little bit out-of-kilter, just slightly surreal - like the stranger camping by the suicide forest, or the number of tiles in the shop changing. The setting is wonderfully atmospheric. Mobius is like a town in a David Lynch film.

This is definitely one for the older YA reader. In a way, Jacklin and her fierce attitude reminded me of Kirsty Eagar's Summer Skin; Jack, like Jess, is unapologetically herself, but she still makes (many) poor decisions. She is real and raw and insecure and wonderful. The relationships she has with her family and friends are complex and difficult. If you expect characters to be likeable and to behave reasonably, you'll disappointed - but I think the realness and messiness of relationships and family dynamics (particularly between Jack and her mother) are what make this novel so honest and affecting. Also Jeremiah is the loveliest.

Adult readers of literary fiction would enjoy this. I also think it will really appeal to older teenaged YA readers who might have moved on to adult fiction. (It might be a bit confronting for the younger YA reader - it's quite dark, with themes of suicide, and sex is dealt with casually.) It's not straightforward or plot-driven nor does it rely on stock storylines or stereotypes, though it touches on lots of universal themes. Jack's life is dull to her but enthralling to the reader. Her sad, dark, dying town is beautifully evoked. If you can get through all the bleakness, I promise it's heartwarming in the end.

Inbetween Days on the publisher's website.

Iris and the Tiger by Leanne Hall

Monday, April 18, 2016

Twelve-year-old Iris has been sent to Spain on a mission: to make sure her elderly and unusual aunt, Ursula, leaves her fortune–and her sprawling estate–to Iris’s scheming parents.

But from the moment Iris arrives at Bosque de Nubes, she realises something isn’t quite right. There is an odd feeling around the house, where time moves slowly and Iris’s eyes play tricks on her. While outside, in the wild and untamed forest, a mysterious animal moves through the shadows.

Just what is Aunt Ursula hiding?

But when Iris discovers a painting named Iris and the Tiger, she sets out to uncover the animal’s real identity–putting her life in terrible danger.

This book! This lovely, surreal, bizarre gorgeous book! Look at that cover! Read that description! Isn't it just the most splendid thing you've ever seen/read?

If you haven't read Leanne Hall's YA novels This Is Shyness and Queen of the Night, I do believe you are severely missing out and you must address this terrible oversight immediately.

If, however, This Is Shyness and Queen of the Night are a little too Young Adult-y for you, and you want a novel that is Younger Young Adult-y but still has all of the magnificent, surreal goodness of a Leanne Hall novel, you're in luck: Iris and the Tiger is the novel for you. Even though Iris is twelve, and this novel is for readers around her age, older readers will not be disappointed - Iris and the Tiger has adventure and mystery and absurdity and subtlety and will fill you with wonderment, I guarantee it.

If you have read and enjoyed Leanne Hall's other novels, Iris and the Tiger is still the novel for you. If you like stories about girls going on slightly-bizarre adventures, this is the novel for you. If you know a preteen human who likes reading fiction that's a little bit magical, you should give this novel to them. This novel. It is the good weird.

There are so many great things about it: the wonderfully endearing Iris herself, her terrifically bizarre Aunt Ursula, her slightly villainous property-developer parents, the enchanting setting of Bosque de Nubes... and some of the things I loved best are the things I cannot reveal in this review because this novel is so much better when those things are a surprise.

Iris and the Tiger even explores themes like male artists taking credit for female artists' work in a manner that seems totally organic to the story. There's a compelling mystery at the centre of it, and many, many wondrous, imaginative details. I would love to live in a Leanne Hall novel, despite the obvious dangers (there are some terrifying... creatures, I guess?). I'll accept the risks. It's just that magical.

I hope this review gives you a sense of whether it is a novel for you. I was absorbed in the story in a way which is quite rare for me as an older reader. It's fresh and it's gorgeous and it's just A+ younger YA. It's a bit different, but I think there are lots of young (and not-so-young) readers out there who will appreciate it's uniqueness, and the fabulous protagonist, Iris.

Iris and the Tiger on the publisher's website.

The Secrets We Keep by Nova Weetman

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a house burn, but it’s not like anything else … 

Clem Timmins has lost it all – her house, possessions and clothes. Now living in a tiny flat with her dad, she has to go to a new school far from what she knows. 

On her first day, Clem meets Ellie. To fit in, Clem reveals a secret and immediately regrets sharing too much with her new friend. 

How can Clem face everything in her life when all she wants to do is run away?

I enjoyed the beautifully spooky The Haunting of Lily Frost and I loved Frankie and Joely, a lovely contemporary YA exploring female friendship, even more. So I was excited to find out about the release of Nova Weetman's latest novel, The Secrets We Keep. (Nova Weetman is unbelievably prolific. How do people manage a book a year?)

Emily Gale (author of the wonderful Steal My Sunshine) described The Secrets We Keep on Twitter as baby-YA. Which I think is my new favourite label for the reading age bracket known as Middle Grade (which doesn't really mean anything here in Australia, I don't think). It's for 10-14-year-old readers. It's the category of books I most fervently loved as a kid (back when I loved monstrously huge series like The Saddle Club), and I still find really enjoyable and comforting now. (I just read - and loved - Leanne Hall's Iris and the Tiger, a more fantastic story for the same age group.)

Even though it's written for younger readers, The Secrets We Keep tackles some really tricky themes: mental illness, loss, death, grief. It's tactful, it's authentic, it's immensely readable, and something I think would definitely appeal to older primary school kids who like real-world stories. Clementine is endearing, despite her mistakes, and even though a whole lot of difficult, traumatising things happen in her life, the story is ultimately uplifting. The timing of events seems coincidental* but the emotional authenticity of the novel meant this hardly mattered.

The complicated social dynamics reminded me of the difficult friendships between characters in Kate Gordon's Writing Clementine. (I forgot that novel was called Writing Clementine then searched up the name of it... only to remember that Clem was the name of the central character in that novel, too - which might be why I thought of it. Mental illness in the family is another theme that also pops up in Writing Clementine, and is delicately and thoughtfully handled in both novels.) The depiction of being new to a primary school and finding your place when friendship groups seem to already be set in stone is perfect (and agonising). I felt like I was eleven-years-old again.

I'm looking forward to Nova Weetman's next novel, regardless of what she writes next, but I'm certainly hoping for another baby-YA.

The Secrets We Keep on the publisher's website.

* [spoiler] That Clem would confide in Ellie about the death of her mother mere days before the death of Ellie's own mother is slightly too convenient. [end spoiler]

Summer Skin by Kirsty Eagar

Monday, March 21, 2016

*At the Melbourne launch, Kirsty mentioned the title of the novel being from Death Cab For Cutie's Summer Skin. (Which I love. I was quite the Death Cab For Cutie fan when I was seventeen.) Why not listen to it while you read my review? (Crooked Teeth is probably my favourite from that album, however...)*

Jess Gordon is out for revenge. Last year the jocks from Knights College tried to shame her best friend. This year she and a hand-picked college girl gang are going to get even.

The lesson: don't mess with Unity girls.

The target: Blondie, a typical Knights stud, arrogant, cold . . . and smart enough to keep up with Jess.

A neo-riot grrl with a penchant for fanning the flames meets a rugby-playing sexist pig - sworn enemies or two people who happen to find each other when they're at their most vulnerable?

It's all Girl meets Boy, Girl steals from Boy, seduces Boy, ties Boy to a chair and burns Boy's stuff. Just your typical love story.

I have read and loved each of Kirsty Eagar's previous novels. One thing that I especially admire about her work is the way in which she defies genre limitations; each of her novels is distinct, different. Every one of them is brave and original and, of course, very well-written. You never quite know what to expect when another one is published. And that's fantastic. When I found out Kirsty had a new novel coming out, I was very excited.

I was lucky enough to appear on a couple of panels with Kirsty's editor at National Young Writers' Festival last year, and she had advance copies of Summer Skin over which I oohed and ahhed. I may or may not have declared my love for the aforementioned editor when she said "You can keep that". And then clutched Summer Skin to my chest as if I had just discovered the Holy Grail.

I bought myself a finished copy of the novel at the Melbourne launch (held at Readings Carlton - my favourite bookshop in the universe). It was a double launch, along with Justine Larbalestier's My Sister Rosa, which I'm looking forward to diving into once I have a break from uni (all that Law reading has a way of frying your brain, preventing most other kinds of reading). It's always wonderful to get the chance to hear an author speak about their work, especially after having read the novel.

I will warn you that this novel is chock-a-block with sex scenes. When I got that first copy, I went down to the beach at Newcastle and started reading. And then reached one of those... um, interesting... sections, and looked about the beach, paranoid that people would know what I was reading. It felt like what I would imagine reading Fifty Shades of Grey out in public would feel like, which I would only do if every other book in existence had spontaneously combusted. Let's hope that doesn't happen.

Sex scenes. There's a lot of them. The characters are in their second year of uni, and there's sex and untoward language and drinking and smoking and a great deal of questionable behaviour. It's definitely for the older YA reader.

Is it an accurate reflection of the lives of young people? I've been the same age as the characters (quite recently) but I haven't lived in a college at uni. I presume it's an accurate depiction of that life but I couldn't personally relate to the characters on a lot of counts. Which is fine - I can still empathise with the characters even if they're not just like me. The setting reads as authentic, and the events which occur seem consistently realistic; it was easy to become immersed in their reality.

I loved that nothing about the novel was sanitised or minimised (so much drinking!), that the girls in the novel were unapologetic about enjoying sex, and that Jess, rather than being consistently likeable, was difficult and forthright and smart but still sometimes made poor decisions. There was a realism there; nobody is perfect at nineteen (or ever), not even intelligent, political girls. If you, like me, lead a life far tamer than these characters, it's a nice bit of escapism while still touching on issues that are universal when it comes to navigating relationships in young adulthood.

I love that it looks critically at slut-shaming, the misogynistic culture at some colleges (and uni in general), gendered sex expectations and the effects of porn, the all-pervasive impact of social media, women reclaiming their power... I never felt that it veered into being preachy or off-topic. Always relevant to the story. Consistently believable and engaging dialogue. It's not issues-based but it sure touched on a lot of issues. I would love to see a whole lot more feminist issues overtly dealt with in YA - a lot of YA is subtly feminist, but I loved that Summer Skin was so direct and political. (Because, after all, the personal is political.)

My only qualm? I was not a huge fan of Jess's love interest, Mitch. Your mileage may vary. Based on the reviews I've read, a lot of readers unreservedly love Jess and Mitch's relationship. I felt he consistently treated Jess poorly, and while his behaviour was later explained, I wasn't sure his and Jess's relationship ever became healthy. They're both flawed, realistic characters, and their relationship is complicated, but I was still not entirely comfortable with Mitch's treatment of Jess. It really comes down to reader interpretation, and Mitch was not my cup of tea.

Awesome upper YA fiction that I think will find many readers among adults; it's honest and raw and smart. I loved the dialogue, I loved the critical look at hook-up culture, I loved the flawed, unapologetic characters. It's intense. And definitely worth a read.

Summer Skin on the publisher's website.

Guest Review: On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis

Monday, March 14, 2016

Today, I bring you a guest book review from an amazing young writer! Wendy Chen is a writer and student from New South Wales. I met her at National Young Writers Festival last year, after emailing for years. Lately, I've enjoyed reading her thoughtful reviews over at online magazine that reminds me. She's written about Preloved by Shirley Marr and the depiction of minority charactersI Am Malala and the power of education and peaceful protest and Studio Ghibli's Whisper of the Heart and being an aspiring young writer. I thought it would be awesome to have her guest review here on the blog! So: here's Wendy's review of Corinne Duyvis' On the Edge of Gone!

--

Release date: 8th of March 2016

Rating: 8/10 (leaning towards a 9). Thank you to Netgalley and Amulet Books for the ARC.

January 29, 2035. That’s the day the comet is scheduled to hit—the big one. Denise and her mother and sister, Iris, have been assigned to a temporary shelter outside their hometown of Amsterdam to wait out the blast, but Iris is nowhere to be found, and at the rate Denise’s drug-addicted mother is going, they’ll never reach the shelter in time.
A last-minute meeting leads them to something better than a temporary shelter—a generation ship, scheduled to leave Earth behind to colonize new worlds after the comet hits. But everyone on the ship has been chosen because of their usefulness. Denise is autistic and fears that she’ll never be allowed to stay. Can she obtain a spot before the ship takes flight? What about her mother and sister? When the future of the human race is at stake, whose lives matter most?

I loved Corinne Duyvis’s debut novel, Otherbound, for its skilful writing and plot, so I was really excited for this book. The premise immediately hooked me, and I love apocalyptic stories when they are done well. The refreshingly diverse cast of characters was another factor in drawing me in.

First off, On the Edge of Gone’s greatest strengths were its narrative voice and the characterisation of its protagonist. Sixteen-year-old Denise is autistic, which, sadly, is rare to see in YA fiction; so, too, is the author, which is even rarer in comparison to problematic depictions of autistic characters I’ve seen from neurotypical authors in the past. So it was fantastic to read an ‘own voices’ story from the point of view of such a wonderfully constructed character. Her voice – an important element in first-person books and YA – was distinctive and memorable. Whilst I’m neurotypical and couldn’t personally identify with Denise in some ways that were specific to her autism, she was created with so much depth that I was on her side every step of the way, I felt every bit of her pain when she was put in situations or forced to do things that made her uncomfortable, and her vulnerability made her incredibly and personally relatable. Denise is also biracial (Surinamese/Caucasian) and this aspect was also depicted authentically.

The world-building, too, was top-notch. The book is set 20 years into the future, and thus has some updated technology (which were included logically and consistently) but on the whole, the world felt very familiar, which added to the apocalyptic atmosphere and the suspense.

I loved the moral themes that were woven throughout the novel. They felt natural, due to the situation – how do you decide who gets to live and who dies when humanity as a whole is threatened? What makes one person more valuable than another? Issues regarding the very nature of survival also ran throughout the story. Like the best books which do this, there is no overdone preaching or specific take-away message at the end; instead, there are questions that linger with you.

The book was also pleasingly inclusive in the range of characters featured – Black, queer, and Jewish characters, amongst others, are present, and in each case their identities were woven in naturally and felt very true to reality. The side characters were crucial to the storyline, as the thematic focus of the book meant that it centred on their relationships, interactions, and how they dealt with the apocalyptic situation. I connected and empathised particularly strongly with two of the characters, Anke and Max, whom Denise met aboard the generation ship – and there was also some great moral ambiguity in their motives and actions.

Based on these elements, the storytelling in the first quarter of the book was almost perfect. However, there were a few issues that came up later that prevented me from enjoying it completely.

Denise’s sister Iris, whom she spends much of the book looking for and trying to help, didn’t feel fleshed out enough to me. Iris makes some questionable actions throughout the story, and I found it hard to understand or side with her. That said, I thought it was insightful to see such a respectful depiction of a transgender character.

I was also uncertain of my attitude towards Denise’s mother. I felt sympathy and frustration towards her, like Denise did, but there wasn’t enough depth or connection to her beyond that. More backstory may have helped with this.

The final issue was the pacing. Whilst this was fine in the beginning and there was an effective build-up of tension – always enough to keep me reading – the middle of the book felt unnecessarily slow. After that, it sometimes felt like the storyline was going in circles and not moving forward enough. In the last quarter or so, the opposite happened – the plot sped up excessively. The ending could also have used more set-up – there were plot points which tied in that should have been established earlier on.

That said, I’m willing to overlook these more minor issues (pacing is often less of a concern for me upon reread, anyway) and highly recommend On the Edge of Gone. Fans of The Sky So Heavy by Claire Zorn should enjoy this!

Wendy Chen is a writer and student from New South Wales, with a particular passion for fiction, review writing and advocacy. She co-runs the  blog LoveOzYA on Tumblr, and is a contributor at That Reminds Me. You can find her website here.

I'm appearing at Noted Festival Canberra!

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Australian Capital Territorians! Canberrans! I'm majorly excited to be visiting your lovely city for the second year of Noted Festival - a celebration of reading, writing and all things literary, with a commitment to emerging and experimental writing from diverse backgrounds. It promises to be awesome, and I'll be taking part in a few events - I would love to see you there!

You can catch me at these (FREE!!!) events:

The Stella Prize in Conversation at Noted Festival
Thursday, March 17, 2016
5:30pm  7:00pm
Main Hall, Gorman Arts Centre
55 Ainslie Avenue Braddon, ACT, 2612 Australia 
  
The Stella Prize is a major literary award celebrating Australian women's writing and championing diversity and cultural change. The prize is named after one of Australia's iconic female authors, Stella Maria Sarah 'Miles' Franklin.

A panel of Stella Prize representatives will talk about the need to maintain recognition of outstanding women's writing. They will also be announcing the first ACT Stella Schools Ambassador.

(I am really excited about the next one because I get to talk about feminism in YA! And pretend to be an expert!)

AMA: Writing for the Future, Feminism's Place in Writing for Young Adults
Saturday, March 19, 2016
12:00pm  12:45pm
Smith's Alternative
76 Alinga Street Canberra, ACT, 2601 Australia 
  
Expert: Steph Bowe

Steph Bowe is a feminist and an accomplished author of young adult fiction. How does she convey feminist messages to young readers? Why is she compelled to do this and how do they react? Get your questions ready! Bring them in person or tweet them to us @NotedFestival using the hashtag #AskNoted.

Ask Me Anything is a series of panels minus the panel. One expert, one moderator, and a bunch of your own burning questions.

You can't really see me at the next event... you can ask (anonymously!) for advice, and I might respond! Or another of the artists! It's pretty cool.

Artist Triage
Sunday, March 20, 2016
10:00am  3:00pm
Gorman Arts Centre
55 Ainslie Avenue Braddon, ACT, 2612 Australia 
  
Artists: Elizabeth Tien An Flux, Steph Bowe, Sian Campbell, Lex Hirst, Neha Kale, Karen Andrews, Bri Lee, Ben Walter, Elizabeth Caplice, Jonno Revanche, Madeleine Laing, Craig Garrett

Got writer's block? Can't figure out where to pitch that personal essay about the day your first goldfish died? Need help naming a character? Take a seat at our Emergency Super Computer at the Independent Publishing Fair for an anonymous one-on-one consultation: our festival artists are waiting in cyberspace to solve your problem via a live, open chat.

There are so many awesome events on, and I'm incredibly excited to see as much as humanly possible! Check out the full program on their website.

Word Up at the State Library of Queensland: A three day creative writing workshop for young writers!

Monday, March 7, 2016

I'll again be part of Word Up at the State Library of Queensland this year! It's on from April 5 to 7 (9am till 4pm each day), for writers aged 15 to 17, and it only costs $100.

It's an awesome opportunity for young writers, and I'm super excited to be delivering workshops on a couple of the days. (I took part last year, too, and it was heaps of fun.)

Applications close March 14, so get to applying!

Here are the details:
Three jam-packed days of fun, collaborative and informal creative writing, where you can meet 20 other like-minded young people and extend yourself and your writing. Sound good? Then Word up is for you! 

Led by a team of professional writers, this transformative workshop is designed to develop your skills, confidence and ability in creative writing while exploring themes of cultural identity, a sense of belonging, and community. 

Are you ready for Word up? To be part of this three-day workshop series, you need to: 

  • be aged 15–17 as at 5 April 2016 
  • be available for the full period of the workshop series from 5 to 7 April, 9am–4pm each day 
  • be able to travel to and from the workshop each day 
  • fill out an application form

For more details and the application form, check out the SLQ website!
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