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Monday, May 18, 2015

'Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda' by Becky Albertalli

Received from the Publisher 

From the BLURB;

Straight people should have to come out too.

The more awkward it is, the better.

Simon Spier is sixteen and trying to work out who he is – and what he's looking for.

But when one of his emails to the very distracting Blue falls into the wrong hand, things get all kinds of complicated.

Because, for Simon, falling for Blue is a big deal . . . It's a holy freaking huge awesome deal.

‘Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ is the debut young adult novel from American author Becky Albertalli.

I mean, how does a person look when his walls are coming down?

I will admit that I was a bit torn about this book when I first read the blurb. On the one hand: gay protagonist is a big YAY in YA because we do have a diversity problem. On the other hand … I was a bit so-so on the emphasis of coming out in the blurb. It seemed to suggest the book would cover overtly familiar territories of LGBTQ+ narratives, instead of moving beyond to storylines in which homosexuality is the norm and being gay isn’t the most interesting thing about a character.

It took me a while to finish ‘Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ – mostly because I didn’t want it to end and I was rationing my reading to prolong the enjoyment. Albertalli’s debut is absolutely going down as one of my favourite books of 2015 – because what I thought might be quite a reductive narrative, was in fact rather subversive in walking a tightrope between normalcy and individuality.  

Simon Spier is our sixteen-year-old protagonist who is gay, but hasn’t yet told anyone except for an anonymous online friend called Blue – who is also gay, and attends Simon’s high school. The book kicks off with one of Simon’s classmates discovering his private messages to Blue, and working out his sexual orientation … information this classmate uses to blackmail Simon into getting into the good graces of Simon’s beautiful friend, Abby. This incident triggers Simon having to tackle the topic of “coming out” head-on, and sooner than he feels comfortable.

Albertalli sucked me into the story from the first page – when we meet Simon between a rock and a hard place. From there she absolutely had me in Simon’s corner, and wrapped up in his saga of blackmailing and the mystery of Blue, carried along on this pitch-perfect narrative voice that’s both humorous and nervous, self-assured and insecure.

I loved how smart ‘Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ was – and the big ideas that are explored. The very fact that it’s a “coming out” book is interesting in itself – at one point Blue and Simon (communicating via email) talk about how they know their respective families will probably be accepting and supportive when they tell them they’re gay, and they know they have it a lot easier than gay men did twenty or thirty years ago … but it’s still a big deal; 
 Once you come out, you can’t really go back in. It’s a little bit terrifying, isn’t it? I know we’re so lucky we’re coming out now and not twenty years ago, but it’s still really a leap of faith. It’s easier than I thought it would be, but at the same time, it’s so much harder.

A few days ago I watched a great documentary called ‘Gaycrashers’, in which Australian comedians Joel Creasey and Rhys Nicholson visit this small country town to tackle the homophobia there by putting on a comedy show. There was this wonderful moment when a worker at a timberyard said he had no problem with gay people, but it seemed to frustrate him that they “needed” all the fanfare and their own day with Mardi Gras, when heterosexual people don’t have anything like that … to which Nicholson rightly pointed out, every day is heterosexual day. I thought that was really interesting, in the context of ‘Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda’ – when Simon and Blue talk about wishing that everyone had to ‘come out’ with whatever their sexual orientation, because it shouldn’t be an awkwardness only experienced by gay people.

I also loved this book because Simon isn’t perfect, and that made him more relatable. He’s actually a pretty crappy friend at times – the book has a pretty great supporting cast for Simon, with two friends called Nick and Leah who he’s known since he was a kid, and a six-month newbie to their group, the ever-perky Abby. There’s a subplot about Leah having a crush on Nick, who has a thing for Abby … and Leah feeling ousted from their group when the two boys seem to favour the more conventionally feminine Abby over Leah’s snarkier, darker outlook. I totally related to Leah, and felt frustrated with Nick and Simon for the way they treated her. I loved Leah’s story (and I’m really hoping that Albertalli has a book in store for her!) especially because in some ways it mirrored Simon’s – who at one point worries that he’s not the boy his parents wanted (assuming that being gay makes him less masculine), well Leah no doubt feels the same way when comparing herself to the “girlier” Abby. I just loved this over-arching theme that in high school, we always feel like we’re not the best versions of ourselves.

It’s strange, because in reality, I’m not the leading guy. Maybe I’m the best friend.

Becky Albertalli’s debut novel is kinda brilliant. It’s subversive and heartfelt, funny and intelligent with a protagonist to fall head over heels for, a mystery romance to leave your heart thumping and interesting discussions about sex and sexuality that make it a must-read book of 2015.


Friday, May 15, 2015

'Batgirl Vol. 1: The Darkest Reflection' by Gail Simone, Ardian Syaf, and Vincente Cifuentes

From the BLURB:

As a part of the acclaimed DC Comics—The New 52 event of September 2011, Barbara Gordon is finally back as Batgirl!

The nightmare-inducing brute known as Mirror is destroying the lives of Gotham City citizens seemingly at random. Will Barbara be able to survive her explosive confrontation with this new villain, as well as facing dark secrets from her past? A new chapter in the riveting adventures of Batgirl continue in stunning fashion, with script by fan-favourite Gail Simone and stellar art by superstar Ardian Syaf! This volume collets issues 1-6 of Batgirl, part of the DC Comics—The New 52 event.

‘Batgirl Vol. 1: The Darkest Reflection’ was released in 2012 – written by Gail Simone, with art and illustrations by Ardian Syaf, and Vincente Cifuentes.

May 2nd was Free Comic Book Day – a glorious event, the purpose of which is in the title! And regardless of that word “free”, I always end up spending a fair amount of cold, hard cash whenever I get a lazy day to just browse at my favourite Melbourne comic book store – All Star Comics. It was while browsing that I came across the rebooted ‘Batgirl’ Volume 1, and was intrigued – particularly by a written proclamation from the New York Times calling it a must-buy series.

Anyone who reads my blog regularly will know that I’m still feeling my way into the wonderful world of comics. I live for ‘Saga’, love ‘Rat Queens’ and have become most recently obsessed with ‘Lumberjanes’. But I’ve been with these series pretty much from their inception, and as such I know the genesis of these series’ and universes. The only “traditional” series I read regularly is Ms Marvel, but only since Kamala Khan has taken over the mantel – so even in that series, I felt like I was starting from day dot a bit, with this revolutionary new superhero.

‘Batgirl’ I am far less familiar with the entire canon, and as such was wary to start reading. The Batgirl I know is Alicia Silverstone’s Barbara Wilson/Batgirl from the 1997 film ‘Batman & Robin’ which I understand is kind of widely despised by the fandom … but I would have been 10-years-old when that film came out, and I remember really enjoying it, particularly for the younger characters of Silverstone’s Batgirl and Chris O'Donnell’s Robin.

But taking a quick look at this Volume 1, I really liked how fierce Batgirl looked – that she wasn’t wearing a skimpy suit, and that the series had a female writer. I also remembered reading some recent articles about the rebooted ‘Batgirl’ when it was first announced, that DC were actually working to make her appealing to young, female fans … of course there’s been more recent controversy over one of the ‘Batgirl’ variant covers, depicting ‘The Killing Joke’. I’m not even going to pretend to be knowledgeable about the seriousness of the controversy, or how the variant cover depicts a particularly troubling moment in the Batgirl canon. All I know is that DC and the cover artist – Rafael Albuquerque – were receptive to the criticism, and pulled the variant. This response to what sounds like a legitimate complaint from female fans, impressed me enough to give Batgirl a try.

Going into Gail Simone’s ‘The Darkest Reflection’, I did some quick research and found that this was the beginning of a rebooted ‘Batgirl’ Barbara Gordon (that’s Police Chief Gordon’s daughter, yes).  I turned to Bitch Media for a brief history of Batgirl (I swear, another reason why I avoid the DC/Marvel comic book series – the canon does my head in) this Gail Simone series was rebooted in 2011 and then seems to have been poorly neglected, until recently when it was announced that DC were rebooting it yet again to appeal to an even younger female audience.

Anyway. ‘The Darkest Reflection’ reboot of this Barbara as Batgirl has a beginning in ‘The Killing Joke’ (the same 1988 storyline that the controversial variant cover was based on, yes) in which Ms Gordon is shot by The Joker, and consequently paralysed when the bullet hits her spine. In ‘The Darkest Reflection’ Barbara is not wheelchair-bound, seemingly thanks to a mysterious miracle, and that’s where this new series kicks off – with Barbara back in the bat-suit and feeling her way back as a crime-fighter for Gotham City.

In Volume 1 she faces-off against two villains – Mirror and Gretel – both of whom force Barbara to confront the new sense of fear instilled in her by The Joker’s bullet. I found this series to be quite dark and gritty, and no wonder when this version of Barbara is borne out of home invasion and partial paralysis. Ardian Syaf and Vincente Cifuentes’s artwork is full of flying blood and terrified screams, shattered glass and brutal fists – it’s visually visceral, and Batgirl’s fight scenes are particularly balletic (since that’s her hinted background) and while they sometimes stray too close to sexualisation, there’s unmistakable power there nonetheless.

In Volume 1, you really get the sense that Barbara has something to prove – to herself, and her vigilante alter-ego. She’s also trying to forge a new normal with her father, Chief Gordon who is still walking on eggshells and fears for his little girl, especially since he’s had a taste of the worst that can befall her. But really it’s Barbara’s struggles as Batgirl in the aftermath of The Joker’s attack that makes this new series so fascinating – we see Barbara questioning her strength, and having to accept that in some fights she just can’t win with brute strength and quick fists, instead having to rely on her wits.

Barbara’s relationships also bring an interesting dimension to this series. There’s Alysia – her bubbly new roommate (who, I’m sorry, is destined to die or be attacked at some point, I can just feel it – my hope though is that it won’t be a sexualised in any way, since Gail Simone is the one who coined the term "Women in Refrigerators" to describe those repeated attacks). 

Dick Grayson (Nightwing) and Bruce Wayne (Batman) also have appearances in this rebooted Batgirl. Barbara alludes to her complicated history with these two men – one as her first crush, the other as her mentor – and how complicated it has become since the attack and her recovery. I really hope that Nightwing becomes a prominent character in the story, not so Batgirl can play side-kick to him (because she doesn’t need to, she’s got the bad-guys under control) but the hints about their past and her romantic feelings for him are intriguing.

All in all I really enjoyed Volume 1 of ‘The Darkest Reflection’. I can’t say that I’m bursting to go out and pick up every volume I can get my hands on (not like with ‘Lumberjanes’, which I dropped $60 on – picking up issues #6 to #13 because I couldn’t wait for Volume 2 to come out!) but I’ll pick up Volume 2 ‘Knightfall Descends’ if I happen to see it on shelves and am in the mood.

I must say, now having read Gail Simone’s Batgirl and done some research into the canon … I think Barbara Gordon as The Oracle, when she’s wheel-chair bound, appeals to me more – particularly because there’s emphasis on her relationship with Dick Grayson/Nightwing.

All in all, I think what I most took away from reading ‘The Darkest Reflection’ is that I want to find more of Gail Simone’s stuff to read, and maybe I’ll pick up the new-rebooted Batgirl if I see it.


Sunday, May 10, 2015

'Lois Lane: Fallout' Lois Lane #1 by Gwenda Bond

From the BLURB:

Lois Lane is starting a new life in Metropolis. An Army brat, Lois has lived all over—and seen all kinds of things. (Some of them defy explanation, like the near-disaster she witnessed in Kansas in the middle of one night.) But now her family is putting down roots in the big city, and Lois is determined to fit in. Stay quiet. Fly straight. As soon as she steps into her new high school, though, she can see it won’t be that easy. A group known as the Warheads is making life miserable for another girl at school. They’re messing with her mind, somehow, via the high-tech immersive videogame they all play. Not cool. Armed with her wit and her new snazzy job as a reporter, Lois has her sights set on solving this mystery. But sometimes it’s all a bit much. Thank goodness for her maybe-more-than-a friend, a guy she knows only by his screenname, SmallvilleGuy.

‘Lois Lane: Fallout’ is the first book in a new (though in many ways, established) young adult series from author Gwenda Bond.

I have been so excited for this book, ever since the blurb/concept was first announced – a young adult book based in the DC comic book universe of Metropolis and Superman, but focused on a teenage Lois Lane. SO. MUCH. YES. And now that I’ve read ‘Fallout’, I’m thrilled that it managed to live up to my hype.

Now, I wasn’t a fan of The WB/CW television series ‘Smallville’ when it aired. I tried, and I only watched the first season and wasn’t hooked enough to ever revisit it. HOWEVER, growing up I was a huge fan of ‘Lois & Clark: The NewAdventures of Superman’ with Teri Hatcher and hunky, hunky Dean Cain. I also quite liked the 2006 film ‘Superman Returns’ with Brandon Routh … at least I liked it so much more than colour-bland (everything bland, really) Zack Snyder’s ‘Man of Steel’ from 2013 (and to that – ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’ looks stupid).

Having said all that – I think anyone can pick up ‘Lois Lane: Fallout’ and come to the story with some level of cultural osmosis about the Superman series, even if they’ve never been interested in the comics or watched any of the adaptations. Bond touches on only the big, basic plot points of the Superman origin – there’s no feeling of *wink, wink – nudge, nudge* to make the comic-uninitiated feel left out.

In this new series, Lois Lane is a 16-year-old army brat whose family – mother, younger sister and decorated General father – are finally settling in one place for longer than a couple of school terms, since her father was offered a permanent position in the budding city of Metropolis. As an army brat who has always been on the move (which is a good thing, because she has a tendency to attract trouble wherever she goes), Lois doesn’t exactly have many friends. Except one – in the virtual world, Lois chats with a mysterious boy who goes by the handle ‘SmallvilleGuy’ and who first reached out to Lois after she posted a story online about seeing something out of the ordinary in the skies above Kansas.

When she starts at this new high school, two major events shape Lois’s path in this new town – she’s offered a position on a student newspaper and youth spin-off to the Daily Planet, and she stumbles across a serious case of bullying that’s being ignored by school administrators.

‘Fallout’ follows Lois on her first investigative piece as she tries to take down a group of gamers who call themselves ‘Warheads’ and have a Hydra-mind mentality when it comes to virtual and real-world bullying of fellow classmates.

I really loved this book – especially because Gwenda Bond made sure that the most important aspect of this new series isn’t how interesting Lois is in relation to Superman, but rather how she’s interesting (and pretty kick-butt) in her own right. Readers get to see Lois’s genesis story, in a way, and it’s incredible that we’re present when she gets bit by the journalism bug and starts researching real-life heroes like pioneering journalist Nellie Bly who inspire her to do good by seeking out the truth to expose corruption and injustice;

SkepticGirl1: We protect people, see what other people miss. We don’t need anyone to look after us

And while readers know exactly who that boy is she’s chatting to, SmallvilleGuy doesn’t steal the show – rather, he’s a fairly subtle hint of background romance and even somewhat of a sidekick to Lois’s intrepid reporter.

I opened the silver lid of my laptop and typed in my secret fourteen-character alphanumeric password. After it was accepted, I opened the chat window and put in the next code.He was there waiting, or at least it looked like he was. The second I logged on to my chat account, invisible to anyone else, I saw his handle. Before I could type a greeting, he did. 
SmallvilleGuy: I expected to see you on the news, the first girl ever kicked out of a Metropolis high school on her first day. I was going to tell you I was impressed. But a job?

I have seen a few reviews that liken Bond’s Lois Lane to Veronica Mars – and I can definitely see the comparisons and book-appeal for the VM fandom. But ‘Fallout’, and I’d suggest this entire Lois Lane series, isn’t nearly as dark/gritty as Veronica Mars was – there’s no murder, but both Veronica and Lois are quick with the quips and the young women are marshmallows, deep down. I think a more apt comparison – particularly for the hard news aspect – would be to another TV show, this time from the 90’s called ‘Press Gang’. I would say that Lois is much more aligned with character Lynda Day from that show … and if you don’t know what the heck ‘Press Gang’ is, do yourself a favour and YouTube!  

Bond also does well to fill up and flesh out Lois’s world with family and the friends/enemies she’s making at school. Her relationship with her father is especially interesting in that he’s both taught his daughters how to take care of themselves (with sneak-attacks to teach them tae kwon do and the like), but he’s still an over-protective father who struggles with letting his girls trust themselves and do their own thing.

The general world-building in ‘Fallout’ is also superb, particularly because it’s very much set in the comic-book world of Metropolis, but in modern day. Of course it is – when Lois is friends with Clark Kent/SmallvilleGuy via online chatroom, and she’s taking down a group of bullying online gamers. So we get some pretty hilarious references to geekdom pop-culture in particular, like Dire Wolves and this hilarious suggestion that John Green’s Nerdfighters have penetrated the culture to become a legit high school tribe;

The Nerdfighter contingent would have been identifiable by the fact that half of the table was reading (or more likely re-reading) one of their favourite author’s books – alternately laughing or weeping, depending how far in they were – even if a few weren’t also wearing T-shirts featuring him and his brother, along with tiny video cameras for making their next vlogs beside their trays.

I also just loved that Lois is dealing with something as relatable and serious as school bullying in this book – there’s some hints that there’s a bigger something going on in Metropolis (and I’m crossing my fingers that future books introduce the Luthor family!), but it’s great that Bond has Lois dealing with real-world issues.

I really loved this book, and I can’t wait to read more in this new young adult series. Lois Lane is a fantastic character to explore retroactively in her teenage years, and to that I especially love that author Gwenda Bond is letting her grow into herself away from the Superman legend. I could see this series having serious longevity, and sure SmallvilleGuy and all his baggage could come into play down the track … but for the meantime I like the idea of getting to know Lois in her own right.


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

'The Lovely Bones' by Alice Sebold ... revisiting books you thought you hated

From the BLURB:

The Lovely Bones is the story of a family devastated by a gruesome murder -- a murder recounted by the teenage victim. Upsetting, you say? Remarkably, first-time novelist Alice Sebold takes this difficult material and delivers a compelling and accomplished exploration of a fractured family's need for peace and closure.

The details of the crime are laid out in the first few pages: from her vantage point in heaven, Susie Salmon describes how she was confronted by the murderer one December afternoon on her way home from school. Lured into an underground hiding place, she was raped and killed. But what the reader knows, her family does not. Anxiously, we keep vigil with Susie, aching for her grieving family, desperate for the killer to be found and punished.

Sebold creates a heaven that's calm and comforting, a place whose residents can have whatever they enjoyed when they were alive -- and then some. But Susie isn't ready to release her hold on life just yet, and she intensely watches her family and friends as they struggle to cope with a reality in which she is no longer a part. To her great credit, Sebold has shaped one of the most loving and sympathetic fathers in contemporary literature.

‘The Lovely Bones’ was the 2002 novel by Alice Sebold.

When ‘The Lovely Bones’ came out it was an instant bestseller and one of those word-of-mouth books that seemed to be everywhere. I read this book when I was 15, and I hated it.

I remember hating it, quite vividly – getting to the last page and wanting to chuck it across the room I was so disappointed. I even remember that my hating stemmed from a belief that there wasn’t enough “justice” in the book (which, I know, is a very 15-year-old thing to think) and being frustrated by the magic realism elements, particularly around a scene towards the end, which involves a “spectral possession” of sorts.

So why did I revisit this book that I hated? A couple of reasons – like that I recently picked up a debut novel called ‘Everything I never Told You’ by Celeste Ng that reminded me of ‘The Lovely Bones’. They’re two very different books, but they share a core plot about the death of a young girl and the repercussions on the family … Ng’s opening line even reminded me of Sebold for cutting to the very heart of the matter: Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. Compared to Sebold’s:

My name is Salmon, like the fish. First name: Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.
I really loved Celeste Ng’s book, so started to wonder if I’d likewise enjoy ‘The Lovely Bones’ upon re-reading ….

Then I stumbled across another book with a similar premise again. ‘Boo’ by Neil Smith, the blurb for which goes: “When Oliver 'Boo' Dalrymple wakes up in heaven, the eighth-grade science geek thinks he died of a heart defect at his school. But soon after arriving in this hereafter reserved for dead thirteen-year-olds, Boo discovers he’s a 'gommer', a kid who was murdered.”
This also intrigued me, and again got me wondering if I should revisit ‘The Lovely Bones’.

And, finally, I do believe that sometimes you can read a good book at the wrong time. Whether because you’re not in the right headspace, or you’re just not open to the enjoyment … there are a myriad of reasons why, some of which were highlighted for me in re-reading ‘The Lovely Bones’.

Upon re-reading this now, as a 27-year-old feminist (and not the 15-year-old who thought “feminism” was synonymous with “lesbianism” and scared of such implications) something that struck me in ‘The Lovely Bones’ was Sebold’s focus on male violence against women. She wrote a very grotesque and frightening rape scene that’s all the more powerful because it is no-holds-barred horrifying. I now know that Sebold’s 1999 memoir ‘Lucky’ is based around her being brutally beaten and raped when she was 18-years-old, and how that one event transformed her entire life. Susie’s rape and death at the hands of Mr. Harvey occurs in the opening chapter – it’s quite a visceral punch to reader’s guts, but apart from being a very real depiction of an event that happens with far too much frequency in our society, the horror of that moment really propels Susie’s vengeance throughout the rest of the book. 

Sebold’s focus on male violence against women – sadly, Mr. Harvey’s character could have been inspired by countless men – is by no means subtle, it’s a powerful point she makes again and again. I don’t know what my reaction to this aspect of the story was as a fairly sheltered 15-year-old (probably along the lines of “that would never happen to me,”) but when I started re-reading this, the news was reporting on the terribly tragic death of 17-year-old Masa Vukotic, who had been randomly stabbed to death while out walking close to her home – in broad daylight. As I write this review, the news is focused on Ms. Vukotic again, this time because another teenage girl was recently sexually assaulted by a gang of men while walking home by herself … to which the local mayor responded; "I always have encouraged women not to walk alone, to have someone with them at all times, because that in itself is an invitation for someone to take advantage of you.” This reminded the public that after Ms. Vukotic’s murder, a Homicide Squad Detective said; "I suggest to people, particularly females, they shouldn't be alone in parks - I'm sorry to say that, that is the case.”

There is a second storyline in the book about a boy Susie had a crush on – Ray Singh, and a strange girl called Ruth Connors who Susie “touched” as she was leaving earth, so becomes inextricably linked to her in death. I was very anti-fantasy as a teenager, and had yet to discover the joys of magical realism (not until I read Isabel Allende in Year 12 would I be schooled), so this aspect of the book always frustrated me … the flights of fantasy in heaven I could live with, but Susie’s spectral connection to Ruth and her clinging to the boy she wanted left me cold.

Upon re-reading I’m still not entirely convinced of Ruth’s role in the book – but I loved that Ray remains in Susie’s sights. Again, it’s a heartbreaking facet to the age and way in which she was murdered that she still clings to the fantasy of Ray, like he’s a poster of a famous pop-star hanging on her wall – forever unattainable. I also appreciated Ray’s background as a British-Indian, which initially brings a touch of racial prejudice to the case, which certainly still resonates.

I also really loved the Salmon family, particularly that Susie’s parents handle her murder in very understandable if destructive ways. The person who really keeps it together is Susie’s younger sister, Lindsey – a strong character who initially frustrated me for all the ways she gets to live when Susie doesn’t. But a big realisation upon re-reading this book 12 years later is that ‘The Lovely Bones’ isn’t really about Susie – it’s about her family. If I felt frustrated by the injustices in the book, or Lindsey’s getting to live when Susie doesn’t – well, that’s kinda the whole point. Susie is our narrator, but she’s barely a character in the traditional sense. She is a bystander to the life she didn’t get to live;
 At fourteen my sister sailed away from me into a place I'd never been. In the walls of my sex there was horror and blood, in the walls of hers there were windows.

I may have been wrong about the book - but the 2009 Peter Jackson film is still a pretty awful adaptation ... even while Saoirse Ronan is near perfect as Susie and I don't hate Mark Wahlberg as her father. But the script is awful.

I cried buckets re-reading this book. It’s a real testament to Sebold’s deft hand that in a story so full of sorrow, the moment she wrung the most tears from me was one of profound joy:
 At Evensong one night, while Holly played her sax and Mrs. Bethel Utemeyer joined in, I saw him: Holiday, racing past a fluffy white Samoyed. He had lived to a ripe old age on Earth and slept at my father’s feet after my mother left, never wanting to let him out of his sight. He had stood with Buckley while he built his fort and had been the only one permitted on the porch while Lindsey and Samuel kissed. And in the last few years of his life, every Sunday morning, Grandma Lynn had made him a skillet-sized peanut butter pancake, which she would place flat on the floor, never tiring of watching him try to pick it up with his snout.
I waited for him to sniff me out, anxious to know if here, on the other side, I would still be the little girl he had slept beside. I did not have to wait long: he was so happy to see me, he knocked me down.

I’m so glad I revisited ‘The Lovely Bones’. I’ve grown up a lot since I first read this book aged 15 – my new experiences bought a sharpened reading and powerful understanding to the tragic story of Susie Salmon. Now I’m wondering what other books I need to give a second chance to …


Sunday, May 3, 2015

'The Shameless Hour' The Ivy Years #4 by Sarina Bowen

From the BLURB:

The girl who’s had everyone meets the boy who has no one.

For Bella, the sweet-talking, free-loving, hip-checking student manager of the Harkness men’s hockey team, sex is a second language. She’s used to being fluent where others stutter, and the things people say behind her back don’t (often) bother her. So she can’t understand why her smoking hot downstairs neighbor has so much trouble staying friends after their spontaneous night together. She knows better than to worry about it, but there’s something in those espresso eyes that makes her second guess herself.

Rafe is appalled with himself for losing his virginity in a drunken hookup. His strict Catholic upbringing always emphasized loving thy neighbor—but not with a bottle of wine and a box of condoms. The result is an Ivy League bout of awkwardness. But when Bella is leveled by a little bad luck and a downright sinister fraternity stunt, it’s Rafe who is there to pick up the pieces.

Bella doesn’t want Rafe's help, and she’s through with men. Too bad the undeniable spark that crackles between the two of them just can't be extinguished.

‘The Shameless Hour’ is the fourth book in Sarina Bowen’s contemporary New Adult romance series, ‘The Ivy Years’.

Readers met the protagonist of ‘The Shameless Hour’ a while ago, Bella had a particularly big role in third book ‘The Understatement of the Year’ as the occasional hook-up and best friend of closeted hockey player, Michael Graham. Upon first meeting Bella, some readers probably formed opinions of her. She likes sex, and isn’t ashamed of that – furthermore, she loves hockey and hockey players and she’s shared her bed with a few of the Harkness team.

When we meet Bella in ‘The Shameless Hour’ she’s still her carefree, cheeky and sexy self – if a little bruised over Graham’s rejection of her (regardless of his sexuality, it still hurts) and his blissful coupling with John Rikker. It is in this mind-frame that she stumbles across her handsome neighbour, Rafe, who is drowning his sorrows in a bottle of champagne on their House doorstep.

Turns out Rafe’s girlfriend had been cheating on him, as he found out on the night they were meant to share a special birthday celebration …. Unbeknownst to Bella, Rafe is a virgin and he was planning to lose his virginity to his long-term girlfriend Alison. Sharing tales of their heart-wounded woes, Rafe and Bella fall into an easy camaraderie and eventually into Bella’s bed. And though the seeming casualness of the hook-up bothers Rafe (whose Ma taught him better than that), miscommunication leaves Bella thinking that Rafe wants nothing more to do with her.

Though she feels an intense attraction to Rafe, Bella refuses to mope over their fleeting moment. Instead, she keeps on enjoying herself just fine … until an encounter with a Harkness frat leaves her hurt, humiliated and staring down an all-too common campus assault that shakes her confidence to the core.

There’s an endorsement quote for this book which I just love;

“The Shameless hour is a gift to any girl or woman who’s ever been slut-shamed. It’s magnificent.”
   Tammara Webber, New York Times bestselling author of Easy and Sweet

That’s it. Right there. Sarina Bowen’s book is goddamn brilliant on a lot of romance levels – Rafe and Bella are both complex and intriguing characters in their own right, but when they come together their heat and easy camaraderie makes them truly enjoyable characters to read and root for. The sex scenes are steamy, the build-up even more so … but all the sexy stuff aside, Bowen’s ‘The Shameless Hour’ is a commendable romance because she flips gender roles in her protagonists and confronts slut-shaming head on.

I wouldn’t call Rafe a “beta” hero, but he is a virginal hero to Bella’s sexual confidence, which in itself is a refreshing flip. Bella gets whispered about by some hockey girlfriends, and is aware of her “reputation” in the close-knit Harkness sporting community. But she doesn’t give a shit. In a scene with her GP, Bella asserts control over her sexual health and talks freely about her sexual appetite. I loved her. And I loved Rafe for her – especially after a certain reference he made …

“Why? Who was he?” 
“Never met him before. But some rich dude in a fancy suit. Your basic nightmare.” 
I let out a hoot of laughter. “Rafe? Did you just quote When Harry Met Sally to me?” 
His gaze slid into mine, and a slow smile began to overtake his face. “I might have. My mom really likes the chick flicks.” 
Then comes Bowen’s portrayal of the fallout of sexual harassment on campus. I finished reading this after Amy Schumer’s brilliant takedown of rape culture through a ‘Friday Night Lights’ parody, and it was kind of great that between reading ‘The Shameless Hour’ and seeing Schumer’s skit go viral, there was just so much material tackling this subject which was once barely on society’s periphery.

Sarina Bowen does tackle Bella’s harassment in a myriad of tender and thoughtful ways. It really made me heart-sick to read the funny and confident Bella shrink into herself because of what happened to her; 

The people around me were oblivious – tapping on their phones or talking to friends. What I wouldn’t give to go back in time just a few days. I wanted to be oblivious too – to walk around campus like I owned the place. But now I didn’t know what to do with my eyes whenever we approached someone. Harkness was a small school, and even the people I didn’t know looked familiar.
Every time we passed someone, I looked down at my shoes. And I couldn’t help but wonder, Have you seen the picture? Have you read the caption?

In Bowen’s ‘The Understatement of the Year’, two gay hockey players don’t want to be defined by their sexuality, and I think Bowen carries a similar message in ‘The Shameless Hour’. Bella doesn’t want to be seen as a victim after her assault and harassment. It’s a powerful message to be sending, particularly to the romance community for whom these truly gritty explorations rarely form the basis of plot.

I also loved a secondary character in ‘The Shameless Hour’, Bella’s next-door-neighbour Lianne who has an Emma Watson-esque storyline as an actress (from a famous fantasy franchise). The same way Watson went under-the-radar at Brown University, Lianne has similar hopes at Harkness. I really hope we get her book soon;
 Lianna shook her head. “I finished kindergarten in a regular school. After that, my mother dragged me to whichever continent she thought would amuse her most. I had private tutors. And then I worked all the way through high school. The only people I saw every day wore capes.”

Sarina Bowen’s ‘The Ivy Years’ is one of my favourite series. They’re sexy and titillating to be sure, but Bowen is tackling big stories in this series too and I love her for it.


Monday, April 27, 2015

'The Understatement of the Year' The Ivy Years #3 by Sarina Bowen

From the BLURB:

What happened in high school stayed in high school. Until now.

Five years ago, Michael Graham betrayed the only person who ever really knew him. Since then, he’s made an art of hiding his sexuality from everyone. Including himself.

So it’s a shock when his past strolls right into the Harkness College locker room, sporting a bag of hockey gear and the same slow smile that had always rendered Graham defenseless. For Graham, there is only one possible reaction: total, debilitating panic. With one loose word, the team’s new left wing could destroy Graham’s life as he knows it.

John Rikker is stuck being the new guy.
 Again. And it’s worse than usual, because the media has latched onto the story of the only “out” player in Division One hockey. As the satellite trucks line the sidewalk outside the rink, his new teammates are not amused.

And one player in particular looks sick every time he enters the room.

Rikker didn’t exactly expect a warm welcome from Graham. But the guy won’t even meet his eyes. From the looks of it, his former… best friend / boyfriend / whatever isn’t doing so well. He drinks too much and can’t focus during practice.

Either the two loneliest guys on the team will self destruct from all the new pressures in their lives, or they can navigate the pain to find a way back to one another. To say that it won’t be easy is the
 Understatement of the Year.

‘The Understatement of the Year’ is the third book in Sarina Bowen’s New Adult romance series, ‘The Ivy Years’.

‘The Ivy Years’ has fast become one of my favourite romance series, ever. Sarina Bowen hasn’t simply set her New Adult series inside an elite American college, she’s using that microcosm setting to explore serious issues – sometimes ripped from the headlines.

From first book ‘The Year We Fell Down’ which featured a disabled heroine, to second book ‘The Year We Hid Away’ with a plotline that echoed the Jerry Sandusky/Penn State sex abuse scandal. Latest and fourth book ‘The Shameless Hour’ even deals with slut-shaming and the rape culture on college campuses. Third book ‘The Understatement of the Year’ focuses on the inherent machismo in the sporting culture at school, by introducing an openly gay player to the Harkness hockey team.

John Rikker has transferred schools after he was intensely bullied by his teammates for his sexual orientation. There are those who welcome him to the Harkness team, and the odd teammate like his previous who are unimpressed with his transfer. Then there’s Michael Graham who is so thrown by Rikker’s appearance on his team, that it sends him into a hate-spiral. Because Graham and Rikker knew each other once, and they certainly both know Graham’s biggest secret that no amount of casual sex with enthusiastic female freshmen can keep buried … Graham is gay, and as a teenager was in a relationship with Rikker.

I loved this book. Rikker and Graham had such seemingly insurmountable odds stacked against them, that were all the more heart-wrenching because they stemmed from Graham’s fear and self-loathing. But is it any wonder Graham is so fearful – when satirical newspaper ‘The Onion’ highlights the absurdity in the sport’s lack of diversity with a headline like “Report: NHL Actually Has Had Hundreds Of Openly Gay Players For Years.” Being an Australian, I must admit I’m not exactly up on the NHL – but I believe it remains the only league without representation, when the likes of basketball player Jason Collins and Michael Sam from the NFL are openly gay players. The lack of representation is something that Bowen absolutely touches on, like in this scene between Rikker and team manager Bella:

She chewed her lip. “Yeah, in the movies, the athlete wins the big game, right? And then he cries at the press conference and reveals to the world that he’s gay.” She put a hand over her heart. “And the team is, like, ‘we love you just the way you are!’”
“I’m pretty sure that movie hasn’t been made yet.”

And Graham is even more spooked to start confronting his own sexuality when he sees the way some of his team treat Rikker. For his part – and an overarching theme that Bowen touches on again and again – Rikker doesn’t want his sexuality to be the most interesting thing about him;

I usually left early, quitting while I was ahead. It wasn’t exactly healthy, the way I still felt like I was apologizing for myself half the time. But there was no road map for being me. I was operating under the vague assumption that if I played really great hockey this season, things would just get easier. My teammates might accept me as a true friend, rather than That Gay Guy who can make tape-to-tape passes. 
Because everybody loves a winner, right?

I loved that while Bowen touched on the big issues in this book, Graham and Rikker’s is ultimately a sexy as hell love story. For all the turbulence of their affair, Bowen pays readers back ten-fold in the romantic peaks. They are now, quite possibly, my favourite of all the romantic pairings in ‘The Ivy Years’.


Friday, April 24, 2015

AUDIOBOOK: 'Slam' written by Nick Hornby, narrated by Nicholas Hoult

From the BLURB:

'There was this time when everything seemed to have come together. And so obviously it was time to go and screw it all up.'

Sam is sixteen and a skater. Just so there are no terrible misunderstandings: skating = skateboarding. There's no ice. Life is ticking along nicely for Sam; his Mum's got rid of her rubbish boyfriend, he's thinking about college and he's met someone. Alicia.

Then a little accident happens. One with big consequences for someone just finding his way in life. Sam can't run (let alone skate) away from this one. He's a boy facing a man's problems and the question is - has he got what it takes to confront them?

Written by: Nick Hornby
Narrated by: Nicholas Hoult
Length: 7 hrs and 17 mins
Unabridged Audiobook

‘Slam’ was the 2007 contemporary young adult novel from Nick Hornby, and I’ve been meaning to read it ever since Hornby said this very intelligent thing about YA books:

“I see now that dismissing YA books because you’re not a young adult is a little bit like refusing to watch thrillers on the grounds that you’re not a policeman or a dangerous criminal, and as a consequence, I’ve discovered a previously ignored room at the back of the bookstore that’s filled with masterpieces I’ve never heard of.”

I always feel like hugging that quote.

So, ‘Slam’ is Hornby’s first and only young adult book to date – but now that I’ve read it (via listening on audiobook) I’m really crossing my fingers that he writes something else for this readership because ‘Slam’ was just so darn good.

It’s hard to pinpoint what I love most about Nick Hornby’s books. I’ve read most of them and most recently fell head-over-heels in love with his 2014 book ‘Funny Girl’ – and now that I’ve read his YA offering in ‘Slam’ I can safely say that a real strength in his writing for younger audiences is that he brings a lot of his adult sensibilities over. ‘Slam’, without giving too much away, is all about teen pregnancy from the perspective of 16-year-old father-to-be Sam Jones. Like with most of Hornby’s books, we first meet our protagonist from a place of “WTF have I done?!” and the rest of the novel is an attempt to untie the knots of their lives.

I must admit – I went in a little sceptical of a “teen pregnancy” book from the perspective of the teen father. Even as I count Angela Johnson’s ‘The First Part Last’ (which is on the same subject) as one of my favourite books of all time. What’s great about ‘Slam’ is that Hornby brings no preaching, tick-the-boxing “sorting teen problems” feel to this book. Hornby and Sam both know what a monumental fuck-up this is, and Sam is suitably terrified – especially because the men in his family have a history of repeating this particular mistake, and he’s well aware of the repercussions. This repeating of history also means that Sam sets himself up to be a better father than his own, who is uneducated and wholly uninterested in helping to raise his son.

I also wonder if part of my loving ‘Slam’ so much was the audiobook itself … it is narrated by actor Nicholas Hoult, who had a break-out role in the movie adaptation of Hornby’sAbout a Boy’ playing Marcus Brewer. Perhaps because of Hoult’s previous affiliation with the Hornby universe, he seemed perfectly suited to narrating Sam’s story – more likely though is just that Hoult is a fine, fine actor and as such a grand audiobook narrator. There’s real vulnerability in Hoult’s reading, even as he also hits those comedic marks perfectly. Because of course, this being a Nick Hornby book there are a lot of laughs interspersed throughout the quite weighty topic of teen pregnancy – from Sam’s conversations with an imaginary Tony Hawk, to the dreams he has of the father he will grow into.

There are many differences between a baby and an I-Pod. And one of the biggest is, no ones going to mug you for your baby. 

I loved ‘Slam’.  This is a really tender and funny portrayal of what happens when a teenage boy desperately wants to take responsibility for one of the biggest mistakes (and loves) of his life. Nick Hornby has long been a beloved writer of adult fiction with tricky characters butting heads against God-awful situations, and I was thrilled to discover that his YA turn is a similarly evocative exploration. Narrated by a young Nicholas Hoult (circa 2007), Sam’s voice shines through in all his earnest, shit-scaredness.