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Friday, September 12, 2014

Interview with Christie Nieman, author of 'As Stars Fall'



It was my great pleasure recently, to read Christie Nieman’s contemporary YA debut ‘As Stars Fall’. I was really excited for this book for a few reasons – new voices in Aussie YA are always, always a wonderful thing, Christie is exploring a very emotional and recent event in Australian history and I knew of Christie as one of the editors behind a favourite anthology book of 2013 ‘Just Between Us: Australianwriters tell the truth about female friendship. I loved ‘As Stars Fall’ so much, that I jumped at the opportunity to ask some questions of this fresh new voice in Australian youth literature.

Q: How were you first published – agent or slush pile?
A strange third option actually. I had no agent but, through a project I was already working on with Pan Macmillan as one of five editors of an anthology (Just Between Us, 2013), I was able to have the Children’s Publisher there look at my whole manuscript without waiting to go through the slush pile. But I don’t know how much difference that connection made in the long run – earlier drafts of the manuscript had already managed to get through a couple of slush piles with the first 50 pages and a synopses, so I was fairly confident it would be able to do that again, and nothing will make a publisher go with a book except if they like it and think they want to sell it – so essentially I just cut out a step. I honestly believe that if your slush pile submission is professional and clean and engaging, it will get to the next stage, it might just take a bit longer. I think there is a horror of the slush pile, but personally I haven’t found it to be the dead end that myth and legend would have had me believe.

Q: Are you a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’ - that is, do you meticulously plot your novel before writing, or do you ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ and let the story evolve naturally?
Both! I alternate between the states. I will usually start from a fragment that came out of nowhere but seems to hold something interesting of character and theme. Then I will go away and think and plan around that, usually with ‘concept’ high on the agenda and the characters supporting it. Then I will write according to my plan until I hit a brick wall that you can’t see in a plan, only in the writing. Then I will switch back to some free writing to see what solutions come out of it, and then go back to planning from the new bits.

Q: How long did it take you to write ‘As Stars Fall’, from first idea to final manuscript?
This is a bit embarrassing. The first fragment for this story happened twenty years ago. It contained the characters that went on to become Robin and Delia, and a bird being in a strange place – a place it shouldn’t really be – and there being some undescribed connection between the two girls and the bird. Then I went off and had fun in my twenties, and wrote other things, and earned a living, every now and then checked in to try and write bits of the story; but all the while the story resisted being worked on. And then about six years ago I met an endangered Bush Stone-curlew. And the bird in the fragment got its character and its meaning and it drew the whole thing together. I pretty much threw out everything I already had, and started collecting thoughts about ecology and life and death. I am a bit of a binge writer – I have to set aside a bank of time rather than little bits every day – so I had to work in casual jobs for months to save up enough money to stop work and spend a month writing, and then go back to work to save up for another month etc. So there are a few different answers to the question: 1) twenty years, 2) six years, or 3) probably about a year and a half of serious full time work.

Q: Where do story ideas generally start for you? Do you first think of the character, theme, ending? Or is it just a free-fall?
Rarely the ending, but often anything other than that. There always has to be a concept/theme in there somewhere for me – something I’m writing about – but often that will be suggested to me by a particular situation, or a character, or even a setting.

Q: I’ve called ‘As Stars Fall’; “a tender morsel of a novel, a ‘Silent Spring’ for young adults that also explores dramas of the heart in the wake of nature’s tragedy.” I’m wondering what sort of research you did, both for the environmental and psychological aspects of the book? From impact of bushfires on wildlife, to the human trauma associated with bushfires?
Getting this right was really important to me. I’m so glad you made the association with ‘Silent Spring’. The way that Carson’s work builds a kind of accessible bridge from the real work of scientists to the community – communicating in an engaging and insistent way those things that are the responsibility and concern of all of us, but which are so often left in the hands of people with vested interests, or those who are too busy working on it to talk about it – this was one of my main aims also (albeit through a different form and with a different audience). At one point I went back to university to study environmental science and management for a semester, and I learned so much in that six months – about the world around us, and about how we know the things we know, and about observational science – and it was there that I first came across the ecological concept of ‘disturbance’, which got me thinking about the processes of trauma, and how those complicated processes are the same across the whole spectrum of life, including human life. It is something that binds us to the rest of the natural world, rather than separates us. But I absolutely wanted to get the science right. My husband has a science degree and is a science communicator too, so his brains got heartily picked. And much of my research-thanks goes to Cassia Read, an ecologist who really understood the book and its intentions, and was more than just a safety net with fact-checking, but brought together her intimate knowledge of the science with an artistic sensibility to make connections I wouldn’t have been able to make on my own. She also found me the most appropriate reading material for the subject: I got good at reading science papers! I also did a lot of reading about trauma psychology and complicated grief, both related to, and unrelated to, bushfire. And I have known people who have suffered traumatic stress, again both related to, and unrelated to, bushfire. And I think as a human of a certain age I have had experiences which have cultivated an understanding of the strange landscape of complicated grief – its pit-traps and ladders and psychological tricks and magical thinking. And from my own personal experience I have found that a sense of kinship with the rest of the natural world can be incredibly helpful in those moments.

Q: You are an award-nominated playwright, and I was just wondering the differences and similarities between writing a play to be performed, and a novel to be consumed in solitary?
The main difference I think is the fact that a novel is a whole and complete thing – everything that will form the art of it is there on the page: in the words, the punctuation, the chapter- and section- divisions – the writer has a great deal of control; whereas a script is only part of the final art. Scripts are exciting because they rely on communicating with other artists who will contribute to the final piece – directors, actors, designers. Much of a script is you talking foremost to the director, and then to the other artists, those people who will mediate your vision to an audience; it is only in the dialogue or very specific plot-required action that you are speaking directly to the audience yourself as you would in a book. So you really have two levels of audience. And you have to respect the other artists who will be involved, even without knowing who they will be. You have to give them room to be artists, to let them interpret and present a moment in a way that works on the stage, rather than being too specific and didactic on the page – the page doesn’t matter. Having worked in theatre myself, I’ve seen the way that directors and actors draw great big red lines through paragraphs of overly-controlling stage-directions that are ‘telling them what to do’. This is a thing that I think transitioning writers often find challenging, that relinquishing of control, that handing over of decisions. It is quite an art to write something that is a skeleton, but that is also complete enough to communicate everything it needs to communicate. Whereas, in a novel, you are the director, the actors, the set-designer, the sound-person and the composer all at once. It’s a heady sense of power. It’s also more work. They are both incredibly satisfying in very different ways.

Q: There are three protagonists in ‘As Stars Fall’ – we get Robin’s first person narration, and then siblings’ Delia and Seth are told in third person. Who was the hardest to write, and which character’s voice or story came most vividly to you?
I think Robin’s was the easiest to write because her voice just natters along quite easily: essentially she’s having a conversation with you, the reader, so really, I just had to listen in. Whereas with Seth and Delia, it was like I was writing them – their internal worlds – almost without their permission: I had to get inside their experience more in order to convey it to the reader, whereas with Robin, she was quite happy to tell you about it herself. I suppose Seth’s internal world came most vividly to me, but I suspect that’s because such vivid things are happening to him.
But now, when I read the story back over, I find it is Delia’s voice that really sings to me – and that is strange as a writer, because it was with her voice that I took the most strictly technical approach: I came to writing up many of Delia’s sections later in the process and so I was trying to quite artificially differentiate her voice: I tried a particular grammatical modification in the prose, and I was never quite sure if it was entirely successful until I stepped right back. Perhaps that’s why I respond so well to those sections – because I’m able to come at them more with the experience of a reader. Ach, who knows!

Q: What’s the appeal in writing for younger readers?
I actually don’t really think about that too much when I’m writing – I know in writing classes in school you’re taught to think of your audience, and in fact when I did Year 12 we actually had to state specifically on the front of our writing pieces who our target audience was, but I have essentially found that a fairly useless exercise. Perhaps thinking of writing for an audience full stop can be useful to get that performative aspect that writing needs to have, but actually defining beyond that, I think that’s for publishers and marketing people. I think writers just write for other people, and people, no matter their age or interests, and really complicated and different. I think that sometimes the definition of ‘a particular group’ makes all the two-dimensional assumptions that anything targeted at ‘a particular group’ makes – the assumption that everyone is the same. I think assuming everyone reads something the same way is death for good writing – good writing relies on complicated reactions. I do however, seem to want to write teenaged characters. And I think the appeal there is that non-adult characters haven’t yet constructed and applied their comfortable adult personas. There is a lot of human truthfulness at the heart of a teenager, and when you couple that with the trying-on of various ideas of adult behaviour and personality, you can get something very dynamic, and more than that – something that can actually critique the way we run our adult societies. That’s why I think YA is for everybody, teenaged and adult alike. We are all just our teenaged selves adapted, in the best way we can manage, to adult society.

Q: What are you working on right now, and when can we expect it to his bookshelves? 
Gah! Okay, there’s an easy answer and a difficult answer to that. Easy answer: I’m working on another anthology, following on from the one mentioned earlier. I’m again editing with my co-editors, and also contributing a piece myself. And it will hit the shelves next April, all things being even. The difficult answer is that I’m working on another young adult novel which wades into the murky depths of belief systems, and the sometimes detrimental effects certain belief systems can have on young minds. The crystal ball on that one is coming up a bit murky itself on the question of bookshelves and hitting. So stay tuned.

Q: Favourite author(s) of all time?
Margaret Atwood, Colm Toibin, Sonya Hartnett, Helen Garner, Henry James, A.S. Byatt, David Malouf, Daphne du Maurier, Philip Pullman, Margaret Mahy, Margaret Drabble, Ian McEwan, Kate Grenville, Lynne Reid Banks, Catherine Jinks, and did I mention Margaret Atwood? Oh, and Margaret Atwood.

Q: Favourite book(s)?
Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood. The Heather Blazing, Colm Toibin. Butterfly, Sonya Hartnett. The Millstone, Margaret Drabble, The Changeover, Margaret Mahy. The Cement Garden, Ian McEwan. Dark Places, Kate Grenville. Eye to Eye, Catherine Jinks. The Amber Spyglass, Philip Pullman. The Children’s Book, A.S.Byatt. My Cousin Rachel, Daphne du Maurier.

Q: Do you have any advice for budding young writers?
My only advice would be real world advice, and it is this. Money is important. Having a way to earn a living needs to be thought about. I didn’t think about it, I just thought about writing in this dogged dreamy way, and I think because of that I have spent much of my time working in low paid jobs which you need to work at A LOT just to pay bills, and which don’t buy a lot of other time to spend writing. I also think that if you can have a good and interesting part-time job that pays the bills but which also feeds the writing with experience – yours or other people’s – even better. That said, writing gets good when one apprentices oneself to the craft – and perhaps that can’t be done when one is chasing another career at the same time. There are examples of great writers who have managed it both ways, I suppose. Oh dear, talked myself out of giving solid advice. So I guess the answer to your question is: no, unfortunately, I don’t. Oh wait, actually, I do. Write. And also important: take feedback – but not all of it.

'As Stars Fall' by Christie Nieman

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

In north-eastern Victoria, bush-covered hills erupt into flames. A Bush Stone-curlew escapes the fire but a woman studying the endangered bird does not.

When Robin's parents split up after the fire, her mother drags her from the country to a new life in the ugly city. Robin misses her dog, her best-friend, the cows, trees, creek, bushland and, especially, the birds. Robin is a self-confessed, signed-up, card-carrying bird-nerd. Just like her dad.

On the first day at her new school, Robin meets Delia. She's freaky, a bit of a workaholic, and definitely not good for Robin's image.

Delia's older brother Seth has given up school to prowl the city streets. He is angry at everything, but mostly at the fire that killed his mother.

When the Bush Stone-curlew turns up in the city parklands next to Seth and Delia's house the three teenagers become inextricably linked. Soon their lives are circling tighter and tighter around each other, and the curlew.

The book begins with a curlew watching a bushfire rage: 

The light was strange. The darkness was a deep red, and there was a thickness between the stars.

There is a human caught in the “stinging air”, and the curlew watches on as the human is,
 “Taken away. Bought forever to the stars.”

Thus begins Christie Nieman’s debut Australian YA novel, ‘As Stars Fall’.

From the beginning alone, readers will know that they are about to go on a somewhat harrowing journey made no less painful for the poignancy of Nieman’s masterful words. I was not surprised to discover that Christie Nieman is in fact a playwright, even being nominated for a Green Room Award for her play ‘Call me Komachi’. She sets the stage for this novel so beautifully – beginning with a scene many Australians will be familiar with. Even if you’re not someone who has found themselves and their town ravaged or threatened by bushfire, the summer seasons in Australia are often marked by a tragedy we are all too familiar with. Watching the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires on the TV, visiting the eerie memorial to the 2003 Canberra bushfires, I’ve even heard first-hand accounts of the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires from my dad, who was a police officer at the time and sent to direct fleeing traffic. Nieman’s book begins from the point of view of a curlew bird watching the flames come, and then alternates to the perspective of a human woman about to be swallowed up by the fiery monster – it’s a viscerally frightening scene made even more so for the calm beauty of Nieman’s words, describing something so sinister and mindless.
 

From there, we are introduced to three main players. There’s first-person narration from Robin Roberts (cruel parents), a country girl who has moved to the city with her mum – leaving behind her beloved Murramunda after fires ravaged the land.

Robin meets and reluctantly befriends a strange girl at her school called Delia … whose mother was the human that the curlew bird was watching in the beginning, being consumed by a firewall.
 

Delia and her brother Seth’s chapters are in third person, perhaps a reflection of the disconnection they feel, living in the fallout of their mother’s tragic death. A lecturer, their mum was in the bush doing research on the bush stone-curlew – the very same bird that Delia notices Robin idly sketching during detention one day.
 

Robin is, in fact, a “bird nerd” feeling unsettled in the concrete city jungle, partly because she misses the variety of birds. When Robin, Seth and Delia discover a bush stone-curlew in nearby parklands, the discovery binds them together ever tighter.
 

Christie Nieman really needs to be commended – she’s clearly done a lot of research into the psychological impacts of bushfires, particularly on teenagers. Delia and Seth are coping in their own, very different ways. For Delia, it’s throwing herself into her mother’s research on the curlew and looking for connections and glimpses of fate in the wake of her loss. For Seth, it’s choosing oblivion with the drug ‘angel dust’, and many of his chapters read like wading through the smoky haze of his subconscious and self-hatred.
 

Robin is also feeling the impact of the bushfires, but mainly in the displacement of home and the fractures she’s felt in her family;
 


But two months ago, when the fire came through, all the birds disappeared. Dad said it was worse than any fire anyone had seen in decades. He said we were lucky that we’d had all our sheep up in the top paddock: we hadn’t lost any, not like some of our neighbours. The fire was fast and hot, which is bad. It killed someone, some woman up in the hills, not a local, right on the fire track where Dad and I used to go to collect wood. It was in all the papers. And the fire stripped so much of the landscape that only days after it went through, there were absolutely no birds left.  
I should have seen it as an omen, the birds all leaving like that. They left first, and then Mum and I left for the city a few weeks later. And I haven’t been back since. I don’t even know if any of them have returned.

I really loved that Nieman went into the range of loss for these characters – particularly because their pain is so viscerally connected to nature. This is really a recurring theme in the novel, as Nieman explores the side-by-side affects of disaster on both humans, nature and wildlife;
 


And that’s the complicated thing about disturbance. It’s a natural part of an ecosystem. It compels life, it changes life, it makes like dynamic. It makes an ecosystem what it is, and it makes us who we are too. But it can be dangerous: give an ecosystem, or a person, too much disturbance, and it can drive them past their point of no return. 

I did occasionally feel quite cold towards Seth and Delia, but only because they felt deliberately distanced from readers with their third-person narration. Compared to Robin’s voice – vibrant, sometimes combative, a little bit cheeky – Delia and particularly Seth’s chapters were harder to get through. I appreciate that this was deliberate, and a way for Nieman to communicate just how disconnected the siblings are after the loss of their mother, but it was my response to their chapters nonetheless.
 

‘As Stars Fall’ is a tender morsel of a novel, a ‘Silent Spring’ for young adults that also explores dramas of the heart in the wake of nature’s tragedy. Christie Nieman is bringing something very different to contemporary YA, and I can’t wait to see what she writes next.


4/5

Sunday, September 7, 2014

'Guy in Real Life' by Steve Brezenoff


From the BLURB:

From the acclaimed author of ‘Brooklyn, Burning’ comes ‘Guy in Real Life’, an achingly real and profoundly moving love story about two Minnesota teens whose lives become intertwined through school, role-playing games, and a chance two-a.m. bike accident.

It is Labor Day weekend in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and boy and girl collide on a dark street at two thirty in the morning: Lesh, who wears black, listens to metal, and plays MMOs; Svetlana, who embroiders her skirts, listens to Björk and Berlioz, and dungeon masters her own RPG. They should pick themselves up, continue on their way, and never talk to each other again.

But they don't.

This is a story of two people who do not belong in each other's lives, who find each other at a time when they desperately need someone who doesn't belong in their lives. A story of those moments when we act like people we aren't in order to figure out who we are. A story of the roles we all play-at school, at home, with our friends, and without our friends-and the one person who might show us what lies underneath it all.

It’s a pretty typical night for Lesh Tungsten (his mum is a big Grateful Dead fan), he’s spent the night at a heavy metal concert with is best friend Greg, watching one of their favourite bands, and now he has a belly full of alcohol and the long walk home to puke his guts up. But while stumbling his way homeward bound he crashes into a girl on a bike – a beautiful, hippy girl wearing an odd long skirt and with her gold-white hair streaming around her. Even in his drunken, sorry state Lesh is struck by her beauty and commitment to alternative swear words – fiddlestick! He thinks that’s the last he’ll see of the mysterious girl …

Svetlana’s favourite sketchbook was ruined in the encounter with the drunken metal-boy last night. But it’s alright, because she has copies of her precious gamekeeper log – complete with drawings of the fabulously frightening monsters she and her friends encounter while playing their fantasy tabletop role-playing game (RPG). It should be the last time she thinks of that wretched drunkard boy, until she returns to school and spots him eating in the cafeteria. To avoid an unwanted amorous encounter with the son of her family’s friends, Svetlana decides to use the metal-boy as a distraction and dine with him … whereupon she learns that his name is Lesh and he isn’t so vile.

Lesh can’t quite believe that beautiful bike girl – real name the lip-bitingly sexy Svetlana – sat with him, let alone had a conversation with him. Admittedly, it was to avoid a fellow senior (and seeming lap-dog) named Fry, but Lesh will take it. Especially since his parents have recently grounded him, and Lesh is finding room confinement so awful, he’s turned to playing his best friend Greg’s ridiculously stupid and geeky multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG). Lesh is currently playing as an ogre – a boring, stupid, smelly ogre in this stupid boring online game. But, actually, since his second encounter with Svetlana, Lesh can’t stop thinking about her … that’s the excuse he’ll go with, if he gets caught out making a character in this online game who looks just like her (in elf form) named Svvetlana.

‘Guy in Real Life’ is the new contemporary YA novel by American author Steve Brezenoff.

This was such an interesting book, particularly for being a YA romance. I’d certainly say it’s unlike any other contemporary romance I’ve ever read, and that’s one of the book’s biggest strengths. It’s alternately narrated in first-person by Lesh, Svetlana and Lesh’s elf character creation ‘Svvetlana’, as she navigates the online game he’s playing. The book is really interesting for observing the teen worlds of role-playing (reminiscent of ‘Dungeons and Dragons’) and online game-playing (akin to ‘World of Warcraft’), but it’s real heart and soul lies in Lesh’s explorations into his feminie side when he enters into the online domain as female Svvetlana … and how confusing that is for him.

I started reading this book the same week that the news story broke about feminist video game critic, the fantastic Anita Sarkeesian, receiving a number of murder threats that resulted in her fleeing her home – further highlighting the reality behind the online misogyny she discusses in her YouTube show. Perhaps for that reason I found myself wishing that Brezenoff explored more the online harassment women experience online in MMORPG’s – particularly because Lesh was in a really interesting position to comment on it. As it is, there were one or two disturbing scenes that touched on the sexual harassment and brutality against women and they were fascinating and disturbing. Lesh observes his friend Greg playing the online game, and at one point stalking a female character (though it’s not clear if the actual person playing her is male or female), killing her, and then waiting for her resurrection to kill her again;

“This is lame,” I finally say after the next cold-blooded murder. I wonder why this girl doesn’t just log off, come back later. Go have a snack, talk a walk, whatever. Certainly this murderous d-bag I call Greg Deel wouldn’t stand here for that long, waiting for the resurrected elf to present herself for murder again. 
Maybe she was enjoying it too. 
“Don’t be a homo, Tung,” Greg says. “We’re not actually murdering a girl repeatedly. We’re messing with some faggoty noob who has no idea how to play his class. Any rogue should be able to rez, vanish, sprint the hell out of here without my killing him again.” 
“Her.” 
“Him,” he says. “This is not a girl. I promise. There are no girls on the internet.”

I really, really loved this book – I got suckered into it so quickly, not unlike Lesh being unwittingly sucked into the online game. Brezenoff has done a marvellous job of teasing out Lesh and Svetlana’s real and fantasy worlds – in the real world Svetlana adores Björk, dragons, drawing and sewing, and is the black sheep in her all-American family of soccer fanatics who can’t understand why she doesn’t reciprocate the affections of Fry, the son of their oldest friends.

Lesh, meanwhile, has two parents who work all the time to put food on the table. He’s trying to deal with his raging hormones that alternate between fantasizing about beautiful, strawberry-smelling Svetlana and metal girl Jelly, whose belly-button ring sends him to distraction. He loves heavy metal, but his time as the good, loyal and morally righteous Svvetlana has him feeling shame and wondering if the next step after game-playing as a woman online is turning to drag in real life.

If I had any other complaints about the book, it’s that a character who is only revealed at the very end felt interesting enough to have perhaps warranted a fourth narrative. But that’s a minor complaint, and I think that character still served an important service that spun back around to highlighting the online/offline abuse of women.

I loved ‘Guy in Real Life’. It’s the first YA book I’ve ever read (though I’m not claiming there are none others out there) that so beautifully explores these fantasy-created worlds that many people live in, and the disconnection between who we are online and who we wish we were offline. Brezenoff touches on sexism and misogyny, and through Lesh’s creation of Svvetlana he really excels at having his male character walk a mile in a woman’s shoes. Outstanding, and a favourite novel of 2014 for sure.

5/5

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

How to buy books for young adults


'"Excuse me, where are the boys’ books? I’m looking to buy for a 16-year-old." 

This is what sparked my idea for the latest 
Kill Your Darlings column. 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

'Like No Other' by Una LaMarche



From the BLURB:

Fate brought them together. Will life tear them apart? 

Devorah is a consummate good girl who has never challenged the ways of her strict Hasidic upbringing. 

Jaxon is a fun-loving, book-smart nerd who has never been comfortable around girls (unless you count his four younger sisters). 

They've spent their entire lives in Brooklyn, on opposite sides of the same street. Their paths never crossed . . . until one day, they did. 

When a hurricane strikes the Northeast, the pair becomes stranded in an elevator together, where fate leaves them no choice but to make an otherwise risky connection. 

Though their relation is strictly forbidden, Devorah and Jax arrange secret meetings and risk everything to be together. But how far can they go? Just how much are they willing to give up? 

In the timeless tradition of West Side Story and Crossing Delancey, this thoroughly modern take on romance will inspire laughter, tears, and the belief that love can happen when and where you least expect it. 


There’s a storm raging across New York, and at a Brooklyn hospital two teenagers from vastly different worlds are about to collide.

Jaxon is sixteen-years-old and currently sitting by his best friend’s bedside, after Ryan attempted to jump a fallen tree branch with his skateboard and got a broken arm in the process. 

Devorah is also sixteen, sitting in a waiting room with her pious brother-in-law, Jacob, awaiting the premature birth of her first niece. As the generators power on, Devorah becomes increasingly worried for her eighteen-year-old sister Rose as she goes into labour; their parents are out of town visiting a sick aunt, and it’s down to Devorah to be her sister’s strength. 

But when Jaxon and Devorah – two perfect strangers who couldn’t be more opposite – get into the hospital elevator, they have no idea what fate has in store for them. The elevator stops and throws them into darkness – stuck, as the storm outside cuts power to the hospital. 

Forced to keep one another company, Devorah only remembers that the boy in the elevator is very tall, and black and she’s breaking ‘yichud’ by even just telling him her name – because her Jewish religious law says she cannot speak to men outside her family and unchaperoned … never mind that her family really wouldn’t want her talking to someone who is so very secular.

Devorah, Jaxon learns, is a Hasidic Jewish girl who lives practically next-door to him in Brooklyn … except she’s from the Hasidic community of Crown Heights. When he can’t contain his shock at this revelation, and Devorah replies with a snappy; “What? We all look the same to you?” he feels himself falling harder and faster for this girl than he ever has in his not-so-illustrious romantic history. 

And even though the two of them part ways after an elevator rescue – they both conspire to meet again, each intrigued by the other and consumed by the need to see where their attraction may lead … 

‘Like No Other’ is the new contemporary young adult novel from American author Una LaMarche. 

This book has been on my radar for a while now – after that gorgeous cover came out (illustration by Michael Kirkham) and the story promised some much-needed diversity in YA. I went into this book with extremely high-hopes … and by about 10 pages, I was relieved to discover that each and every one would be met. Because I knew after those 10 pages, that ‘Like No Other’ was going to be a deserving hit. 

The story begins on August 28 and ends on September 22 – and in that timespan we get alternate chapters told from both Jaxon and Devorah’s point of view. And even though it’s a relatively small slab of time for these characters, I was surprised that the whirlwind romance they enter into feels no less raw and vivid for being so condensed. Indeed, the page starts igniting with sparks from the moment of Devorah and Jaxon’s fateful meeting;

She stands up and takes a step toward me, and as the light filters down through the hole above us, like artificial moonlight on a movie set, I can really see her eyes for the first time, big and gray flecked with shimmering hints of sky blue, like someone bottled that moment when Dorothy steps out of her black-and-white farmhouse and into Oz. 
That’s the moment I know I’m in trouble.

But even though Jaxon and Devorah both tell their sides of the story, make no mistake that the real protagonist of ‘Like No Other’ is Devorah. She’s the one who goes on the bigger hero’s journey, and of the two of them she’s the one who most needs her world shook up, and her foundations rocked by Jaxon.

From our first meeting Devorah, readers will suspect that this is a girl who will not be tamed. Indeed, while reading this book I had many goosebump moments from LaMarche’s words, never more than when Devorah is witnessing the birth of her niece; 


I want to stand up and burst into applause – people do it for all kinds of lesser miracles: when a pilot lands a plane, when a pre-schooler bangs tunelessly on a piano; when sweaty men manage to throw a ball into a metal hoop, so why not now? Why not for this miracle? There is life in this room. A new life. And I saw it happen. 

Readers will then be surprised to discover that Devorah is considered to be the very definition of ‘frum’ (very pious) by her family and friends; she’s top of her class, respectful, modest and shuns technology and the secular world in a way that even her peers consider extreme (indeed, Devorah’s young brothers hide iPods and magazines). But, after her sister’s marriage and now her pregnancy (and only at the age of 18!) Devorah has to acknowledge that she’s scared of what the next two years will bring – when she’ll have to leave her education behind and her parents will go to the matchmaker to find her a husband. Devorah can quietly admit to herself that she’s not ready for that life, but it’s meeting Jaxon that causes her to start questioning the reasons why… 

Back in July I read 'Invisible City' by Julia Dahl, a murder-mystery set inside a Hasidic Jewish community of Brooklyn. From reading that book I was already familiar with a few traditions, and in particular the patriarchal system. Una LaMarche really must be commended for how tenderly she portrays this community and questions it – yes, through the character of Devorah she is critical of many aspects of how this community operates, but she never does so in a disrespectful way. In the acknowledgments LaMarche thanked a group of women – “I dove into ‘Like No Other’ knowing that the book would be doomed if I didn’t give Devorah a real, vibrant inner voice, family life and community, and I am forever indebted to the women who told me their stories so that I could tell hers.” That respect and attention to detail shines in the text, and young readers will be both captivated and forced to question the foundations of the community while still acknowledging Devorah’s deep love and respect for it. A hard balancing-act, but LaMarche does it.

Though Devorah’s is very much the larger character arc (purely for needing the most change in her life) Jaxon is a no less wonderful protagonist. Particularly because LaMarche touches on so many relevant racial tensions in this book; indeed, the horrible events surrounding Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri were playing out while I read the book, and highlighted the importance of continuing to campaign for diverse voices in YA such as LaMarche’s Jaxon: 

It’s funny; I forget sometimes how I might look to other people. I could be reading ‘The Great Gatsby’ on the 3 train, or walking down the street listening to a podcast on my phone, or coming out of my orthodontist’s office with Invisalign braces feeling like the biggest nerd on the planet, but some people don’t notice anything but an almost-six-foot-tall black man. After Trayvon Martin got shot in Florida, Mom wouldn’t let me wear a hoodie for six months. 

‘Like No Other’ was also a great book for teaching me so much. About the Hasidic Jewish community, of course, but LaMarche also highlights some pertinent historical markers that I never knew about – like the Crown Heights riot of 1991, when tensions between Hasidic Jews and the Crown Heights black community boiled over. This book has been praised for its diversity, and I do think it’s entirely deserving: 

“How does it feel to be a minority?” I ask him as we pass a big store called Judaica World. 
“Fine,” he says – the only answer that a privileged white kid can give to that question without getting a beat-down. 

I loved this book, and it’s going down as one of my favourites of 2014. It’s a tough book, even while cloaked in the very romantic story of Devorah and Jaxon. LaMarche is writing a deeper tale of star-crossed lovers, one that discusses racial and religious tensions, feminism and independence – an absolute triumph for Una LaMarche.


5/5


Like No Other is being released in Australia by Penguin Books Australia. Available from September 24. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

'Isla and the Happily Ever After' by Stephanie Perkins


From the BLURB:

From the glittering streets of Manhattan to the moonlit rooftops of Paris, falling in love is easy for hopeless dreamer Isla and introspective artist Josh. But as they begin their senior year in France, Isla and Josh are quickly forced to confront the heartbreaking reality that happily-ever-afters aren’t always forever.

Their romantic journey is skillfully intertwined with those of beloved couples Anna and Étienne and Lola and Cricket, whose paths are destined to collide in a sweeping finale certain to please fans old and new.

Isla has been in love with Josh Wasserstein for most of her high school life – though it takes a trip to the dentist and heavy medication for her to get up the nerve to have an actual conversation with him.

That conversation takes place at Kismet, a café around the corner from their respective New York apartments – and the fate aspect of that is not lost on Isla. You see, she and Josh actually attend the America School in Paris, so she has plenty of opportunities throughout the year to talk with him (and, actually he once commented on their mutual love of Joann Sfar – so there was that, their most significant exchange … until now). While still slightly high on dentist meds, Isla strikes up a conversation with Josh when she spies him at her favourite café drawing in his ever-present sketchbook, and because it’s Josh (!) and she’s feeling brave she can’t help but flirt with him … and be mortified the following morning when she remembers snapshots of their exchange.

Her best friend, Kurt, assures Isla it couldn’t have been so bad. But she’s not so sure Kurt really understands – partly because he’s on the autism spectrum and has a hard time reading people’s emotions – and partly because he’s borne witness to all the insignificant exchanges between her and Josh over the years (as Kurt also attends the America School) but he wasn’t there to properly catalogue the Kismet event.

Sure enough, when School’s back for the year Isla feels her connection to Josh has strengthened (and that fate is still playing a part, when she finds herself assigned to Josh’s old room from last year).

Something is happening between her and her crush-from-afar, Josh Wasserstein – they have a connection, and as they both start building on their Kismet encounter, the more she’s convinced that Josh can feel it too.

‘Isla and the Happily Ever After’ is the third and final book in Stephanie Perkins’s romance YA series that started with ‘Anna and the French Kiss’, continued with ‘Lola and the Boy Next Door’ and will finally end with Isla and Josh’s story.

I was really nervous to read this book. ‘Lola and the Boy Next Door’ came out in 2011, a year after ‘Anna and the French Kiss’ … but ‘Isla’, although announced as the third and final book around the same time that ‘Lola’ came out, took three years to get here. Stephanie Perkins has been very open and honest about how hard this book was to write and explained the hold-up (which sounded like a combination of all the worst things that can happen to an author – writers block, lack of confidence and sheer exhaustion). Perkins also teased fans that this book would not be all smooth sailing for Isla … and that warning, coupled with the knowledge that this was her hardest book to write, was a little nerve-racking as a reader and fan. I didn’t know how Perkin’s creative struggle would translate to the finale of one of my favourite contemporary YA series…. But I can say, with hand over my heart, that Stephanie Perkins has done it. She has given fans the most wonderful of endings to this series.

It took me a while to get into this book, however. Probably down to a few niggling reader-worries going in, but I found myself starting to read ‘Isla’ and then putting it down … picking it up for a few pages, and then putting it down. I wasn’t getting hooked, initially, but once the story took us back to Paris (and the original setting of ‘Anna and the French Kiss’) I stayed glued to that page.

So, the book begins with Isla having her ‘Kismet’ moment with Josh (while high on meds, admittedly) – fans will recognise Isla as the few years younger pupil at the America School who Anna figured out was crushing on Josh, one of the boys in her group of friends. For the reason that Isla stretches back to the first book, it’s easy to fall into sympathy with her one-sided crush on the beautiful Josh Wasserstein (son of a senator, artist- extraordinaire and bad-boy of the America School who is always on his third and final warning);  

The next few days are unsettling. 
Josh is aware of me. 
Whenever he enters a room, an unmistakable mass of chaotic energy enters with him. It rattles the air between us. It buzzes and hums. And every time we surrender – every time our eyes meet in a flash of nerve – a shock wave jolts throughout my entire system. I feel frayed. Excited. Unravelled.
 
I both really loved the melodrama of ‘Isla’, and sometimes it bugged me (but only slightly). Look, a lot of the appeal of YA lies in the fact that it’s all about firsts – and the heightened emotions surrounding them. But so much of ‘Isla’ is about falling hard and fast – I mean, it’s like a piano falling on both Josh and Isla’s heads. And I loved that, I really did – but at one point Josh shows Isla a panel from his graphic novel memoir and he’s included a drawing of the two of them, and the thought-bubble ‘salvation!’ above his head. Moments like that made me chuckle, and I don’t think that was the intended reaction.

But I did love Josh and Isla. They feel like a couple straight out of a Cameron Crowe movie (I’m looking at you, Lloyd Dobbler!) they’re this perfect combination of sweet and heat – and, speaking of, Stephanie Perkins writes a seriously good sex scene that’s commendable for being about female satisfaction, without venturing into inappropriate smut. It was refreshing to read something so frank in contemporary YA.

My confession leaves him stunned. 
“There’s no story,” I say. “I saw you one day, and I just knew.”Josh stares at me. He looks inside of me. And then he kisses me with more passion than he’s ever kissed me with before.

I also really liked Isla's friendship with Kurt - who is on the autism spectrum (what was once called Asperger syndrome), though I did think they had a lot of problems with their friendship towards the end of the book that I don't feel were given proper page time. The Kurt/Isla friendship also had echoes of Sibylla and Michael's friendship (perhaps minus romantic undertones) from Fiona Wood's marvellous 'Wildlife', but I think Wood handled that friendship better than Perkins did in the end.

While I was worried that Stephanie Perkins’ struggles with writing this book would show through in the final product, I was actually surprised at how it helped shape Isla’s story. Anna and Lola’s romantic struggles were a mix of physical and emotional struggles – Anna had Etienne’s girlfriend to contend with, Lola had her current boyfriend at the time, and a long history with the Bell’s as her roadblocks. A lot of Isla’s struggles in coming together with Josh are internal, they’re her own hang-ups that she needs to conquer (though she tries to make out physical obstacles as her excuse, readers know better). I feel like that’s a reflection of what sounded like Perkins’ internal struggles to write this book (like her lacking self-confidence). Then there’s the moment when Isla offers some harsh editing critiques of Josh’s very personal graphic memoir – I feel like that was a little author moment creeping in, commenting on how hard (but necessary) it is to hear those criticisms. I really liked that Isla’s hang-ups were about her confidence, and overcoming something in herself – that was so interesting and relatable to me.

I also loved that we’re back in Europe with this book. I liked the San Francisco setting in ‘Lola’, but a lot of the fun in ‘Anna’ came from the Paris setting. This time we’re back at the America School in Paris, but there’s also a jaunt to Barcelona that I absolutely adored because I’VE BEEN THERE! and it’s one of my favourite cities in the world. I particularly liked the description of Antoni Gaudí’s Catalan modernist architecture (which is like something out of a dream) and cathedral Sagrada Família:

It’s a monster. 
It wants me to cower. It wants me to weep. It wants me to save my soul from hell. Gaudí started work on this church in the late nineteenth century, but it won’t be finished for at least another decade. It stretches twice as high as the tallest cathedrals of France. It looks like a fantasyland castle – wet sand dripped through fingers, both sharp and soft. Bright construction lights are everywhere, and workers are tinkering around its massive spires in dangerously tall cranes.


  


‘Isla and the Happily Ever After’ is the finale fans were hoping for. Isla and Josh are the perfect way to finish this series, and fans will absolutely squeal in delight when we get to catch up with Lola and Cricket, but especially Anna and Etienne.

4.5/5