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Wild Awake
Hilary T. Smith
Understanding Exposure: How to Shoot Great Photographs with Any Camera
Bryan Peterson
The Sky So Heavy - Claire Zorn The Sky So Heavy is a story of disaster and survival; of human nature in a time of darkness and desperation. In the wake of a catastrophic nuclear event between unnamed countries, Australia is plunged into a nuclear winter with devastating repercussions. Alone in their Blue Mountains home, brothers Fin and Max Heath struggle to cope as cold and darkness descend, sickness sets in, and food and water run scarce. As supplies dwindle, the fabric of their suburban neighbourhood begins to deteriorate into suspicion and paranoia. Seemingly abandoned by the authorities, their small community is left to face starvation and illness unaided, and hope of rescue becomes increasingly dim. From the beginning, Zorn delivers a strong, relatable voice in Fin. There’s an immediacy to his narration, a believable edge of wryness to his tone as he describes his ‘whiter than a loaf of Tip Top’ suburb in the Blue Mountains, life with his father and step-mother, his crush on neighbour Lucy Tennington. Throughout the novel the choices Fin makes become increasingly difficult, with complex consequences. The decisions Fin makes begin to affect him emotionally, as he attempts to reconcile how his personal system of ethics has been skewed by the disaster. The issue of survival at what cost is compounded when Fin and Max join forces with Arnold Wong and Lucy Tennington, and head towards Sydney in the hope of locating Fin’s mother. Faced with the brutal realities of the outside world, there are no simple choices. Much of Fin’s growth as a character is directly related to his companions: Max, the brother he’s fighting to protect; and Lucy, the girl who can protect herself. But most interesting of these relationships is that between Fin and Arnold. The resident outsider at school, Arnold was bullied and Fin is complicit in this. While it would have been easy to paint the interactions between these characters as Teachable Moments, Zorn carefully avoids this by refraining from any cheesy messages or unrealistic reconciliation scenes. Rather, she presents them as interesting counterpoints to each other: Arnold with his faith and personal tragedy, Fin with his guilt and doubt. Zorn is matter of fact about the racism and prejudice of their world, without excusing or glossing over it. The most interesting aspect of The Sky So Heavy was, for me, the clear parallels between the post-nuclear event world Zorn depicts and current issues. If you’re familiar with recent Australian politics (and let’s face it, if you live here its fairly unavoidable...) the questions raised in TSSH will have ring of familiarity:‘It’s like those people out in the ration line complaining about people from over the border taking their share. They have to believe that we’re greedy, ‘cause the idea that we were actually left to starve is just too awful.’“Border security” (heavy, sarcastic quotation marks) is a major subject of the novel. Inner Sydney has been divided from the outer suburbs, with those on the inside receiving a measure of relief from the fallout. Those attempting to cross the border and seek refuge within the city do so at risk of death. By placing Fin and his companions in the role of refugees, and the not-so-subtly uttered sentiment that they should “go back where they came from”, Zorn’s novel takes a shot at the present fear mongering and moral dubiousness accompanying the issues of foreign policy and asylum seeking. The Sky So Heavy is a solid, compelling novel of survival and hope. The questions it raises are not easy, nor are the answers. While not unrelenting bleak, this is a confronting novel in it’s portrayal of a country sunk into physical and moral darkness. You may like this if you liked:Tomorrow When The War Began by John MarsdenAshfall by Mike MullinDays Like This by Alison Stewart
Once Was Lost - Sara Zarr I am a big fan of Sara Zarr’s work (see: Story of a Girl and How To Save a Life), particularly the quiet emotion that permeates her strong, character-driven stories. Once Was Lost is no exception. For a novel that deals with questions of faith, Zarr approaches the subject matter with accessibility and lack of agenda. Sam’s struggle with belief is relatable because it’s anchored in very human emotion and circumstances: while a small community is shaken by the disappearance of a young girl, Sam’s own family is grappling by her mother’s alcoholism and her father’s increasing distance, absorbed into his work as Pastor. Sam also doesn’t quite see herself as belonging; she’s “Pastor Charlie’s daughter” the one who doesn’t get invited to parties, the one everyone is “good” around. With with her mother’s DUI and subsequent admission to rehab, Sam becomes even more alienated from her peers, unable to confide in them and disclose the true nature of her mother’s absence. Sam struggles to reconcile the concept of a loving God with the widening spaces within her family and the devastation wrought by Jody Shaw’s disappearance. As the community draws together for support and comfort, Sam finds her grasp on her faith slipping. Questioning what was once a constant in her life causes a hopelessness to settle into Sam’s thoughts; without the anchor of belief in God, how does she interpret and navigate the world around her? Once Was Lost addresses the question, from Sam’s perspective, of whether doubt and belief can coexist in her world. It’s handled in a subtle, tactful, manner – this undoubtedly a book about faith and religion, but there are themes here that will resonate with a wider audience than those who subscribe to a belief system similar to Sam’s. The relationships in the novel, between family and between friends, are particularly well drawn and nuanced. Sam’s growing isolation, exacerbated by her father’s preoccupation with his congregation, echoes the sense of alienation often experienced in adolescence: Sam isn’t quite sure where she fits in, if she is the person she had always thought herself to be. Then there’s the emotional impact of Sam’s mother being in rehab, and what this means after years of glossing over her alcoholism, and her father’s apparent inability to see his daughter’s emotional struggle. As with Zarr’s other novels, there are no absolutes and not necessarily all the answers. Her characters experience, feel, live with palpable emotion; but they don’t necessarily behave or make the choices the reader would expect. I love that Zarr has enough respect and faith in her characters to write them this way, allowing them to be thorny and complicated, while keeping them close to the reader, making their conflicts real and relatable. Once Was Lost is a quiet, moving novel – rich with authenticity and meaning – that addresses a complex issue in an approachable and balanced manner. And maybe one day I will get around to reviewing Sweethearts..
Northanger Abbey - Jane Austen, Marilyn Butler, Claire Lamont Time for a re-read!Four for you, Mr Tilney, you go Mr Tilney.

The Lost Girl

The Lost Girl - Sangu Mandanna Hmm.. I'll have to think on this one. I loved the concept and the storyline, but something about it - particularly the climax - didn't gel for me.
The Vale Girl - Nelika McDonald review to come.
All This Could End - Steph Bowe 3.5 starsOnce again, Text has crushed it with the gorgeous (and relevant) cover art - though you may have to take my word for it that it’s much more lovely in person than in a Goodreads thumbnail. The Pretty family are bank robbers, in the old-fashioned balaclava-wearing, gun-toting, vault-emptying style of heists. They move from town to town, never staying long in one place, lead by the Pretty matriarch: the mercurial and restless Sophia. Nina and her younger brother Tom were born into a life of crime and duplicity, but Nina is counting the days until she can legally flee the nest and live on her own terms. Nina is increasingly uncomfortable with her mother’s twisted moral code masquerading as Robin Hood style philanthropy, yet she’s also aware that she’s complicit in Sophia’s criminal agenda. The whole family is. And family, according to Sophia, is everything. Bowe takes an attention-grabbing concept (bank robbing family and their life on the road) and anchors it firmly in a deconstruction of dysfunctional families. The story switches back and forth between Nina and Spencer, both of whom are dealing with complicated home lives. Nina, craving the normalcy of life off the lam, and Spencer, navigating the emotional fallout of a family tragedy, both feel like outsiders in their own way. Nina has never been able to build real friendships; Spencer is awkward and a bit of a loner, besides his best friend Bridie. When their paths cross, Bowe sets in motion a chain of events that – we know from the prologue – will end in disaster. Bowe uses third person omniscient narration, and as such it’s her authorial voice that comes across most clearly. All This Could End is quirky, dryly humorous and a little bit tongue-in-cheek without belittling the concerns of her teenage characters. Because where Bowe excels is in writing authentic, believable characters attempting to navigate their transition into the adult world. The on-the-cusp sensation of adolescence is captured beautifully, with all the soul-searching and questioning of identity it entails, without waxing angsty. Nina and Spencer find in each other someone they can open up to – to an extent; Nina at least has secrets she can’t reveal. While the two main characters develop a relationship, romance is not a substantial part of the plot. Bowe shows the burgeoning closeness between Nina and Spencer, the tentative nature of their attraction and a few endearingly awkward moments as they manoeuvre towards each other, while remaining firmly focused on what this means for Nina and the choices she will have to make. All This Could End is fundamentally about the relationship between Nina and Sophia (and between Sophia and the family as a whole), and how it alters as Nina begins to comprehend the extent of her mother’s solipsism. Bowe handles the complexity and ambiguity of Sophia’s character well, and Nina’s confusion over whether her mother is a bad person or not is developed throughout the course of the novel. Sophia has an ability to justify her actions and obscure her selfishness that plausibly explains Nina’s difficulty in resisting her mother. While Nina initially seems somewhat passive, outwardly complying with her mother’s whims and actions, it’s clear to see how this is necessitated by Sophia’s manipulative nature. By choosing to wait it out until she’s eighteen, Nina is also picking her battles, opting for what seems to be the most failsafe method of escaping her mother’s hold. The missing piece here is Paul, Nina’s father. While Nina, Sophia and (to a lesser extent) Tom’s motivations and actions are clear and well explored in the novel, Paul’s reasons for adopting, pursuing and raising children in a life of crime with his wife remain vague. Bowe references Paul’s love for Sophia, and makes a passing comment on his upbringing, but this never feels sufficient to substantiate his choices. Sophia’s abuse of her role as a parent goes a long way to explain her influence over her children; yet Paul’s willing participation in Sophia’s schemes is the weak link in the story. It’s hard not to ask at least once while reading the novel why he’s never resisted or questioned their lifestyle. The pacing of the novel, while understandable in terms of the plot, is uneven and I would have liked to have seen some aspects of the story expanded on. Bowe lingers over certain scenes, then truncates periods of several months. I get this: Bowe is establishing her characters before thrusting them into the climax – but I felt some development of the story was abbreviated for the sake of the finale and extended epilogue. I might have felt more for that epilogue had I been able to spend more time with Spencer and Nina’s relationship as it progressed, and how they subsequently grew as individuals. That said, All This Could End was a refreshing take on familiar themes. Bowe appreciates and writes knowledgeably about the experience of being a teenager, with a slightly offbeat, conversational charm, a balance of humour and sensitivity. Definitely one to watch.
Hostage Three  Export - Nick Lake I had a great (IMHO) review all planned out for this novel. Unfortunately, inspiration struck just as I was falling asleep, so that review has been gobbled up by my subconscious and try as I might, I can’t seem to recover that pithy first paragraph. So apologies for the following review, which is going to be scrounged from memory. A novel that successfully explores a captor/captive narrative from both sides is a difficult thing to achieve, particularly when it’s a story that involves the development of understanding, or sympathy, between the parties. Whether you want to label this Stockholm Syndrome, or human empathy, or lust, or risk-taking behaviour – writing about how such a situation could arise in a realistic and sensitive fashion is a heavy undertaking. In Hostage Three, Nick Lake achieves this with limited success. The story is related from the viewpoint of Amy, who has embarked on a round world sailing trip with her father and step-mother when their yacht is seized by pirates off the coast of Somalia. It’s established early in the novel that Amy – while extremely wealthy and privileged – is wrestling with some demons in the form of her mother’s suicide, her poor relationship with her father and his subsequent remarriage. Amy views herself as unremarkable. A talented musician, she’s given up the violin after her mother’s death, and her prevailing attitude toward her life and future is one of apathy. When the story opens, she’s got herself some facial piercings, lit a cigarette in her final exam in order to be deliberately removed from it, goes clubbing – but it’s clear that these actions stem largely from a desire for her father’s attention. Initially wary of the suggestion of a family holiday, Amy realises it’s an opportunity to secure some of his time and goes along with the plan with some tentative hope beneath her sullen façade. Enter the Somali pirates, or Coast Guard, as they call themselves. What Lake does most successfully with this novel is juxtapose Amy’s life of material comfort and ease with that of the Somalis’ daily struggle to survive. Credit where credit is due, Lake does a good job of explaining how piracy has become a business, a way of life, and the pragmatic, transactional approach many of the pirates take to their work. This isn’t merely for the benefit of the reader; as Amy herself gradually gains insight into the Somalis’ lives, she begins to understand, if not sympathise with their situation. Being caught in this mental quicksand of being a hostage while relating to her captors is further complicated when Amy starts to feel an attraction to young translator, Farouz. It could have all gone horribly wrong here, and I’ll admit I experienced a moment of knee-jerk “ugh” the first time Amy mentions checking out Farouz’s body or whatever, fearing that the story was going to launch into some kind of star-crossed-love mawkishness. And while a relationship of some kind does develop here, it’s important to note that neither Lake nor Amy try to convince the reader that this is “love”. It’s always clear that this is an intense, unstable situation involving a character who cannot entirely trust her feelings. Despite this, I found the execution of Amy’s emotional journey somewhat lacking. It wasn’t quite enough to pull off the scenario the novel presents convincingly. I can’t help but compare Hostage Three to Stolen by Lucy Christopher, where the main character’s mental and emotional arc was all too vivid and believable. In Hostage Three, I never quite felt Amy’s psychological trauma was communicated as strongly as necessary to make the story work. Although the story is related in her words, there’s a distance from Amy, and connecting with her emotions is vital to invest in the conflict. In theory, I feel like I understand what Nick Lake was attempting to convey. In reality, it just wasn’t there for me. Amy’s growth, including the development of her relationship with her father, her comprehension of who her mother was a person, and working through her feelings of guilt and regret are slightly better handled. However, probably the strongest elements of the novel are in Lake’s portrayal of life in Somalia through the characters and their stories. Farouz recounts how he came to be involved with the coast guard, including fragments of a harrowing escape from Mogadishu and the cost of his survival. Despite the risk of this becoming a story about how a rich white girl learns a valuable life lesson from the less-fortunate, Lake avoids this by taking care to balance this story between the characters. On the surface, it’s Amy’s story, yet it becomes more than this as it unfolds and concludes. Though I found the execution of Hostage Three’s central premise hit and miss, it has piqued my interest in picking up his Printz-winning In Darkness.
Burial Rites - Hannah Kent “They will say ‘Agnes’ and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there.” On 12 January, 1830, the last instance of capital punishment in Iceland occurred when Friðrik Sigurðsson and Agnes Magnúsdóttir were executed in Vatnsdalshólar in Húnavatnssýsla, for the murder of two men. While often painted as “monstrous”, a cold-blooded murderer, a figure of Lady Macbeth style ruthlessness - the truth is that there is a dearth of factual information about Agnes Magnusdottir. While the instrument of her execution – a broad axe – has been preserved, little is known about the life of the woman sentenced to death, and publicly beheaded. (A third person was also convicted: Sigridur Gudmundsdottir, whose sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment).“They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine.”Burial Rites is the product of a ten year quest to uncover what remains of Agnes Magnusdottir’s life. Instigated by an exchange visit to Iceland after high school, Hannah Kent spent the ensuing years absorbed in intense archival research, examination of primary sources and retracing of Agnes’ steps from her birth to her final resting place. Kent called the result a “speculative biography”, a weave of fact and fiction, and her own “dark love letter to Iceland.” While Burial Rites presents the question of whether history has misrepresented Agnes, the novel does not necessarily demand sympathy for her. It does, however, offer a more empathetic, albeit ambiguous, portrayal of a woman condemned – and an attempt to understand what circumstances might have led to her conviction in a double murder. The result is an exquisitely beautiful novel. Kent’s prose is rich and clear, rendering the melancholic, claustrophobic atmosphere of the Icelandic winter and Agnes’ impending execution in evocative language. Agnes herself, awaiting death and exiled at the farm of a minor public servant, emerges from the pages vividly.“Those who are not being dragged to their deaths cannot understand how the heart grows hard and sharp, until it is a nest of rocks with only an empty egg in it. I am barren; nothing will grow from me anymore. I am the dead fish drying in the cold air. I am the dead bird on the shore. I am dry, I am not certain I will bleed when they drag me out to meet the axe. No, I am still warm, my blood still howls in my veins like the wind itself, and it shakes the empty nest and asks where all the birds have gone, where have they gone?”Kent writes with a kind of graceful maturity, a depth of emotion that befits the subject matter. This a story about a woman facing her imminent death, a woman with one final opportunity to speak her truth, and Kent captures the desperation, isolation and grief of Agnes with stunning clarity. The book is interspersed with Agnes’ inner monologues, and these sections are the most vivid; pouring forth in a steam of raw psychological pain and striking imagery. Though she spent much of her life employed as a servant and a period of her childhood as an orphaned pauper thrown on the mercy of the parish, there is evidence to suggest that Agnes was also an intelligent and highly literate woman. And this is the version of Agnes that Kent chooses to portray; beneath the hard and icy veneer of a woman reviled and silenced, she is compelling, passionate and astute.While living and working alongside Jón Jónsson and his family, fragments of Agnes’ story begin to emerge. As she confides in Tóti, the young assistant priest commissioned to reconcile her to her fate and to God, Agnes’ version of events takes shape as the remaining days of her life pass. Through this gradual unwinding, Tóti and the family come to confront the idea that the truth may not be all that it seems. While we already know how Agnes’ story ends, it’s this suggestion of dissonance between public opinion and her personal reality that fuel the novel’s tension. Burial Rites suggests that truth is open to interpretation, and is rarely as straightforward as commonly perceived. Fear, gossip and hatred twist the idea of Agnes into something horrifying and loathsome; an opinion no doubt perpetuated by the pervasive social, religious and sexual politics of the time. To this end, Kent’s novel faithfully depicts life in 19th century Iceland, and is immersed in historical detail without the narrative being weighed down or bloated. It is clear that care has been taken to accurately represent the conditions of Agnes’ world, to reconstruct the framework of her life with as much integrity as possible. The gaps in historical record, which Kent has fleshed out with fiction, fit seamlessly within the broader context of time and place, resulting in a story that respects its origins. We cannot know the entirety of Agnes Magnusdottir’s story, but Burial Rites asks us to remember her, if not reconsider how history may have buried her own truth with her body. Knutur Oskarsson, who accommodated Hannah Kent during part of the writing and research of the novel, stated: “I do believe that the execution of Agnes is still an unhealed wound in Iceland, in the history of Iceland.”Burial Rites is a respectful and moving acknowledgment of that wound; a reminder that Agnes Magnusdottir’s voice once existed, even if it was lost to time.
The Shadow Girl - John Larkin Winner of the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards 2012 (Young Adult)
Bay of Fires: A Novel - Poppy Gee I just want to know if Grumpy the Cat is okay! Is that too much to ask?
Golden - Jessi Kirby Objectively, there's nothing wrong with Golden; in fact there's a lot to commend, as many positive reviews point out. But there's something so... sanitised and slightly wish-fulfilment-y (I know that's not a word) about this book. I guess I prefer my realistic fiction with a little more grit, some dirt. This is an account of young adulthood I don't really connect to - Parker's issues didn't resonate with me and Julianna's story felt (dare I say it) too sentimental and affected for my taste. Please bear in mind that this is more quick personal opinion than a critical review of the novel. I can see why many people enjoyed this story. But I confess I felt a rather "boo-effing-hoo" over Parker's "I've never broken the rules, I'm such a good girl, waa waa" predicament. I know, I'm a grinch.

The Mimosa Tree

The Mimosa Tree - Antonella Preto *heavy sigh*I wanted to like this book so much more than I actually did. I mean, look at that cover! I know I’m not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but I can’t lie, that gorgeous art and the blurb had me thinking this would definitely be a REY-BOOK.Unfortunately, this wasn’t quite for me. To start with the good: I loved the setting and the historical context of the novel. By choosing to set The Mimosa Tree during the final years of the Cold War, against a back drop of the anti-nuclear movement and the very palpable tensions of the international arms race, Preto frames Mira’s internal conflict with an interesting external parallel. When Mira’s very real fears and sense of impending disaster on a global scale are pre-empted by a tragedy much closer to home, the setting and political climate take on a symbolic significance.As for the not-so-good, here’s where I confess I’m a monster with a heart of stone: Mira’s family tribulations did nothing for me. I’m sorry. The cultural and generational dissonance between Mira and her family is interesting, particularly when it comes to her relationship with her father. Yet despite the truly sad things that happen to Mira’s family, I had no emotional investment in these characters. The novel feels bloated, weighed down and slow with scenes that establish how the family functions internally: the relationships between Mira’s mother and aunts, her parents, their world view, the fact that Mira is attending university. This is all important, particularly in terms of understanding Mira as a character, but it’s all too long and dense. The opening chapters meander through interminable scene-setting, recounting the minutiae of conversations and the drinking of copious cups of coffee.The tedium is broken somewhat by Mira’s commencement of university and gradual establishing of relationships with Felicia and Harm. It’s here also that we see Mira’s connection to alternative youth culture of the 80s, particular in the music she listens to (Goth, New Romantic, alternative rock etc) and the social movements around her (anti-nuclear, resistance to US foreign policy etc). Combined with and in response to her family circumstances, Mira engages in risk-taking behaviour and drug use, becoming drawn to the apparent freedom of Harm’s lifestyle, romanticising his choices. (Personally, I completely fail to see Harm’s appeal.)But as much as this is a story about family, death and struggle to define identity – which are all strong themes – I feel they were explored with varying degrees of success. Mira’s safety map, the motif of the mimosa tree, and the atmosphere of catastrophe are effective, but the pacing is weak. It’s a patchy novel: powerful at moments, but unengaging in others. Unfortunately, I think I like the idea of this story much more than the story itself. * * * * * *Not a review (yet), but if you want to check out the New Romantic/Goth/alternative 1980s playlist hop on over here or here. * * * * *Fremantle's covers are so pretty..

Charm & Strange

Charm & Strange - Stephanie Kuehn “Love doesn’t always look nice.” Few books manage to make me feel this way: cut open and broken and completely overcome. It’s difficult to talk about Kuehn’s debut in detail without revealing significant plot points; and I do feel this is a book best experienced as it is structured, that is, allowing the story to unwind from Andrew/Win gradually. His narrative is one of violence and blood and glimpses in between shadows, trauma layered deep in shame and visceral pain. His story emerges in fragments between the past and present, reality and dreams, relentlessly gaining clarity until its devastating climax. Kuehn has written a brilliant novel. It is confronting, yet empathetic. Heartbreaking, but affirming. It’s not an easy story to tell - Kuehn delves deep into disturbing places – but it is compelling and evocative. Through the use of rich imagery, the symbolism of chemistry and Win’s distinct cognition, Kuehn has written a novel that spurns straightforward classification. It seems to be one thing, but becomes another – not because Kuehn is being purposefully evasive or coy, but because this is the story that is true to Win. We read it as he experiences it, as it emerges from the recesses of his mind and body: raw, dark, and animal. There are various forms of conflict in the novel, but the central source is from within Win himself, and what he believes to be inevitable. The present day thread of the story deals with Win’s acceptance of his imminent change: that his Ego and Superego will be devoured by his ferocious Id, that what is at his core is monstrous. It’s this internal wrestling of what a person believes themselves to be, and what they want to be, that forms the crux of the novel. For Win, his deep-seated convictions give this battle an element of finality, that his metamorphosis is not only brewing, but inescapable. For all its twisting decent into horror, Charm & Strange is a compassionate novel, and while it doesn’t offer all the answers, it does extend a glimpse of hope. Even more than that, it provides a voice of understanding. And for readers who can connect with Win’s experience, the importance of this can’t be overstated. Much has been made of “darkness” in YA, but (to paraphrase Patrick Ness), “not engaging with darkness in fiction is abandoning teens to face it alone.” Charm & Strange is an important book because it offers support and solace to those who may feel beyond reach. Kuehn’s writing is strong – she has created a complex, challenging novel in beautifully rendered language that is compelling and true to Win’s voice. There is a depth of emotion and pain articulated in the story without it feeling forced or consciously manipulative. The novel tackles serious content respectfully, while being authentic to the experience of its teenage characters, who are flawed and complicated. Although not a lengthy book, Kuehn develops her characters well, choosing to show (rather than tell) the reader who they are through powerful scenes and flashbacks. There is a lot covered here, even outside the central premise of the novel, much of which Kuehn chooses to allude to rather than explicitly state. This is particularly effective in the early stages of the novel, where the reader needs to tease out the meaning from passages that seem to take a nebulous form between contemporary and paranormal. Charm & Strange is an intense novel, darkly psychological and unsettling. It takes the reader on a troubling journey, and arrives in a profoundly moving place. An advance reader copy of Charm & Strange was provided by the publisher via Netgalley.
Out of the Easy - Reader, I loved this book. I adored Sepetys’ debut, Between Shades of Gray, and had been eagerly awaiting her follow up novel. I was not disappointed. Sepetys’ commitment to impeccably researching her subject matter shows, and she brings 1950s New Orleans to life on the pages of Out of the Easy. I really enjoyed Sepetys’ take on class and social stigma in Josie’s story. As the daughter of a prostitute, and in the employ of shrewd Madam Willie, as a cleaner, Josie is keenly aware of the limitations society would put upon her. Savvy and streetwise, Josie dreams of getting out of New Orleans and attending Smith college, while at the same time being conscious of her allegiance to her Mother. When a mysterious death occurs, Josie finds herself drawn more deeply into the underbelly of the Quarter, and her plans for escape and a future of her own making at risk. Sepetys excels at crafting nuanced, believable characters, and this was the highlight of the novel for me. These are flawed, realistic people and they bring the story to life, make you care about what happens to them. Josie herself is relatable: a resourceful, strong teenager who also experiences self-doubt and fear. The plot necessitates Josie questioning her conscience and her choices, and the conflict feels real. Some readers may have preferred to see a story that deals with prostitution handled through the perspective of the women involved directly. By framing the narrative through Josie’s perspective, it could be argued that it is inherently biased, and the agency of those characters is denied. I respect that opinion, although I don’t share it. What felt important to me here was that the story be true to Josie’s experience and voice; the lens through which she views the world. I think Sepetys succeeds in this. Josie’s narration and opinions are influenced by her past, and I think it’s conveyed without disrespect to the other characters. In fact, I believe the opposite is true. So much about this book worked for me: the clear, vivid setting, the strong characterisation, the complex relationships and questions of family and loyalty. And I can’t wait to see what Ruta Sepetys writes next.
Steal My Sunshine - Emily Gale Gale’s first YA novel is a blend of the contemporary and historical, entwining the stories of fifteen year old Hannah, her mother Sara, and grandmother Essie. Steal My Sunshine deals with one of the darker aspects of Australia’s history: the forced adoption of children born to unwed or ‘wayward’ girls, often at the coercion of churches, hospitals and adoption agencies. This practice of removing babies against the mothers’ will, or ‘institutionalised baby farming’, went on for around five decades. Apologies to those affected have only been issued since 2010 (commencing with Western Australia) and most recently in 2013 on behalf of the Federal Government. There’s an element of mystery in the unwinding of Hannah, Sara and Essie’s story. The relationships between the three women are fraught; tense with resentment and unfulfilled yearning. Hannah, who’s already trying to navigate her parents’ separation, school, her crush and a complicated relationship with her best friend, begins to uncover Essie’s history, sensing that it holds the key to the family’s conflict. Essie gradually reveals her secret, piece by piece. These sections are related via flashbacks, and what is unearthed in these scenes is truly harrowing. Even with the knowledge that Gale is only providing a glimpse of the horror endured by these girls, it’s enough to make for compelling, albeit grim, reading. Though Essie’s portions of the novel are comparatively brief compared to the contemporary storyline, they pack a punch. Gale’s novel is a heartfelt coming of age story that tackles the themes of redemption and forgiveness, internalised pain and the far-reaching effects of trauma. Particularly noteworthy is her skilful hand with crafting realistic relationships between the characters. There’s a touch of romance in this story – but mostly it’s about family, and learning to heal the wounds of the past.
Wildlife - Fiona Wood “..my heart is its own fierce country where nobody else is welcome.”“Q: And who the hell do I think I am?A: I have no idea.” The long-awaited companion to Wood’s much-loved debut, Six Impossible Things, does not disappoint. Wildlife is a beautiful and bittersweet novel of heartbreak and healing, friendship and betrayal; an achingly authentic portrayal of coming of age against a backdrop of the Victorian wilderness. Where there was a certain light-hearted buoyancy that tempered the issues explored in Six Impossible Things, Wildlife has an emotional resonance and depth that befits both the maturation of the characters and the themes of the novel. This is a story that navigates the complexities of grief, sexuality and (not) fitting-in, written with a perceptive grasp of how the teen characters internalise and process these events. The writing is a blend of lyrical and astute, laced with the raw longing and heady desire of heartbreak and burgeoning attraction. Related through the dual perspectives of Sibylla and Lou, Wood weaves a narrative of loss and love, gradually entwining the lives of the two girls as they learn to survive in the wild. “Greatest pain in the world: the moment after waking. Remembering again as consciousness slaps my face in the morning’s first sigh. Nips fresh the not-healed wound. Clubs its groundhog self into my brain, a new sharp bite, a new blunt instrument for every single day of the week. Grief has so many odd-value added features. You’d laugh.” Using the setting of an outdoor education program, Wood places her characters into a heightened environment – here, life is distilled, concentrated down to its fundamental elements. In one sense, it’s survival in the physical world, stripped of outside influences and support networks. In another, it creates an incubator that intensifies and tests allegiances. This concept of habitat and isolation from external factors serves to pressurise relationships, forcing them to either evolve or disintegrate. “Sometimes I think I see you, Sibylla, but then you get all blurry about what people think about you… The only person you should be is yourself. You can’t control perception. All you can control is how you treat someone else.” Into this amplified reality, Wood mixes envy and manipulation, referencing the novel’s Othello motif in the dynamic of Sibylla and Holly’s friendship. The longevity of the relationship and the tenuous balance of power that both girls have grown accustomed to is challenged when the limelight suddenly falls on Sibylla. With this new attention, the roles they occupy within the school’s social order are shifted, presenting opportunity, confusion, and a catalyst for the toxicity of their friendship to emerge. It’s an insightful portrayal of the insidious creep of jealousy and cruelty, the way lines between friend and enemy can be obscured by years of shared history, and the complex nature of female friendships. Within this framework, Wood also addresses perceptions of beauty and popularity, particularly as it relates to the hierarchy of high school. The concept of Sibylla’s beauty and how it is viewed and acknowledged by the characters is handled particularly intelligently; Wood has smart, interesting things to say about self-image and change, and the frequent dichotomy between the way we see ourselves, and the way others see us. Wildlife is frank in its depiction of sex and desire – in both the physical acts and feelings, and in attitudes towards sexuality. Anyone who thinks YA shies away from candidly portraying teen girls’ responses to sex needs to read this book, because it’s handled openly and positively, even while it acknowledges the negative messaging and misogyny that saturate mainstream media. Wildlife is refreshingly honest, addressing the imbalance while remaining true to the characters – who are complex, fallible, three-dimensional. But most of all, I loved the achy ambiguity of the relationships, the palpable sense of yearning that accompanies reality when it doesn’t quite match the characters’ expectations. Wood has a keen grasp of how it feels to be in this emotional limbo, and it comes across raw and compelling in her writing. It’s like being fifteen all over again – exposed, vulnerable, yet brave - tasting the world for the first time and being surprised that the sweetness can be laced with the bitter. A novel about testing new realities, survival and nine-letter words, Wildlife is utterly gorgeous.