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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Beyond ableism and ignorance: disability and fiction

My new column for Kill Your Darlings is up:

I interview Kayla Whaley from the wonderful Disability in KidLit blog - and if you haven't already, please do visit.

They do amazing work, and are such an important part of the youth literature community! 

Monday, September 29, 2014

'The Infinite Sea' The Fifth Wave #2 by Rick Yancey

From the BLURB:

How do you rid the earth of seven billion humans? Rid the humans of their humanity.

Cassie Sullivan and her companions lived through the Others' four waves of destruction. Now, with the human race nearly exterminated and the 5th Wave rolling across the landscape, they face a choice: brace for winter and hope for Evan Walker's return, or set out in search of other survivors before the enemy closes in. Because the next attack is more than possible – it's inevitable.

No one can anticipate the depths to which the Others will sink – nor the heights to which humanity will rise . . .

*** This review contains spoilers for first book ‘The Fifth Wave’ ***

When we last left Cassie Sullivan, she’d been reunited with her little brother after storming Vosch’s command centre and discovering her high-school crush, Ben Parish, among a band of human mercenaries who had been brain-washed into believing they were fighting the alien invasion … without realising it was the aliens who had been training them.

But in finding her brother and breaking into the alien command centre, Cassie also lost the one person who had become so important to her since the First Wave hit …Evan Walker. Alien in a human body – Evan was the Silencer sent to kill Cassie, but instead he fell in love with her. Now, for all Cassie knows, he’s dead. Just like her mother, her father – and so many others.

Now Cassie is hanging out with a band of brother soldiers – a severely wounded Ben Parish, her little brother Sam (sometimes called Nugget), Dumbo, Poundcake, Teacup and Ringer (‘Marika’) – a particularly hardened soldier who is sent out to locate a new safe house for her crew. But Cassie wants to stay and wait for Evan – convinced that he’ll keep his promise to her, and return.

‘The Infinite Sea’ is the second book in Rick Yancey’s sci-fi young adult series, ‘The Fifth Wave’.

Between ‘TheFifth Wave’ and ‘The Infinite Sea’, it was announced that Rick Yancey’s first book in this new series would be adapted into a movie. And is it really any wonder? ‘The Fifth Wave’ was always destined for the big screen, when Yancey wrote such an addictive, alien-hordes thriller that was a fairly universally praised crowd-pleaser.

So going into ‘The Infinite Sea’ it’s all but impossible to not start thinking of how this story will likewise translate to the big screen - Chloë Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass, If I Stay) will play Cassie Sullivan amongst a cast of relative unknowns (though Nick Robinson playing Ben Parish was great in The Kings of Summer, and will be an action-hero star by the end of 2015, as he’s also appearing in Jurassic World). Yancey and Susannah Grant will be writing the screenplay (Grant wrote Erin Brockovich) and Columbia Pictures are producing. And as if fans don’t have enough to get excited about with a ‘Fifth Wave’ adaptation, they’ll also be thrilled with this follow-up, which creeps us closer to the trilogy’s finale.

‘The Infinite Sea’ begins on the flipside of ‘The Fifth Wave’ high-octane opener, which saw protagonist Cassie trapped beneath a car on a deserted highway by a Silencer – an alien marksman. In this sequel’s opener readers find themselves in the calm before the storm. Our band of merry humans are holed up in a rat-infested motel, trapped by Ben Parish’s mortal wounds and Cassie’s determined belief that Evan Walker survived the attack and will be coming for her, to meet in this agreed-upon location. Everyone is on-edge, feeling not unlike sitting ducks. And, sure enough, the calm doesn’t last long – as is becoming Yancey’s MO in this series, a moment of peace and quiet for these characters will eventually equal adrenalin-fuelled terror in the coming pages and chapters.

Interestingly though, Yancey keeps swerving and cutting into the drama to make for a few cliff-hanger chapters. And unlike the first book, which saw Ben and Cassie sharing the alternate narrative, ‘The Infinite Sea’ expands to include perspective from Evan, Ringer and even Poundcake.  This alternation heightened tension again and again, but also gave readers a chance to get inside the heads of these tricky characters in a way we wouldn’t be able to if only seeing them through Cassie and Ben’s eyes.

Evan’s chapters are particularly fascinating, as he’s an alien with the memories of his human-half. In this book he reflects on the moment when, as a teenager, he became aware of an ‘other’ occupying his mind;

His body had been augmented in preparation for his awakening. That was the truth the dream of the owl disguised. The secret that the screen memory kept him from seeing and therefore from remembering: While he and Grace and tens of thousands of children like them had slept, gifts had been delivered in the night. Gifts they would need in the years to come. Gifts that would turn their bodies into finely tuned weapons, for the designers of the invasion had understood a simple, though counterintuitive, truth: Where the body went, the mind followed.

A recurring symbol in this novel is ‘rats’ – the young army crew, youngest girl Teacup in particular, are haunted by the rats who scurry in the walls of the motel they’re holed up in. And a few alien characters allude to thinking of humans on this earth as rats – vermin, to be exterminated. It’s a disturbing, and bleak symbol to keep touching on, but an apt one for our humans to be preoccupied with. Even more interesting is that Yancey often parallels the rat discussions against more theological talk around what these humans are surviving for – hope, dissent, love? What hope do these humans have surviving against a far superior race, especially if they are the last humans on Earth? Ben Parish has a particularly poignant soliloquy on his longing for the tardy bell:

“Most ordinary sound in the world. And when all of this is done, there’ll be tardy bells again.” He presses the point. Maybe he’s worried I don’t get it. “Think about it! When a tardy bell rings again, normal is back. Kids rushing to class, sitting around bored, waiting for the final bell, and thinking about what they’ll do that night, that weekend, that next fifty years. They’ll be learning like we did about natural disasters and disease and world wars. You know: ‘When the aliens came, seven billion people died,’ and then the bell will ring and everybody will go to lunch and complain about the soggy Tater Tots. Like, ‘Whoa, seven billion people, that’s a lot. That’s sad. Are you going to eat all those Tots?’ That’s normal. That’s what matters.”

I love that: a teenage boy’s reason for combating an alien-horde is the hope that soggy Tater Tots will again be served. On the one hand it’s flippant and funny – but on the other, Ben Parish totally nails it.

A big drawcard of the first book was Cassie and Evan’s completely wonderful and complicated romance – alien boy falls in love with the human he was sent to eliminate. I think some readers will be somewhat less thrilled with the romance in this book, but as this is the second outing it’s not surprising that Yancey went for deeper explorations into Evan and Cassie’s complexity, rather than skimming over with kisses and puppy-dog eyes (something Cassie makes fun of).

I loved ‘The Infinite Sea’ – and I’m excited that 2015 will gift readers both a ‘Fifth Wave’ movie adaptation and the finale book in Rick Yancey’s addictive, adrenaline-fuelled trilogy. Bring on the alien-hordes, but pray for the tardy bell!


Thursday, September 25, 2014

'Afterworlds' by Scott Westerfeld

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

Scott Westerfeld is renowned in the YA fiction market, this is a perfect blend of contemporary love story and fantastical thriller.

Darcy has secured a publishing deal for her three paranormal books. Now she must find the wherewithall to write the second one whilst she has a reprieve from going to college, thanks to her savvy sister. She has enough funds for 3 years in NY... if she eats only noodles every day.

In the story Darcy has written, the character Lizzie survives a traumatic shooting event only to discover that she has become a phsychopomp; a spirit guide to the dead. But she's not dead.. or is she? With one foot in each world, Lizzie's challenges are somewhat unique. Then there's her hot spirit guide... and all those ghosts that keep appearing... and the 'living' friend she usually tells everything to...

More than all I'd seen and heard. It was coming back to life that made me believe in the afterworld.

‘Afterworlds’ is the new contemporary/paranormal stand-alone novel from YA-genius Scott Westerfeld.

The tagline for ‘Afterworlds’ reads: Darcy writes the words. Lizzie lives them. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Wrong. Westerfeld has essentially written a two-in-one novel. First we meet eighteen-year-old Darcy Patel, who has just signed a six-figure, three-book deal with Paradox Publishers for her debut YA trilogy ‘Afterworlds’ … then in alternating chapters we read ‘Afterworlds’, which is about perfectly normal teenager Lizzie who survives a terrorist attack that leaves her with the ability to see a hidden world beneath our own – the world of the dead.

Sound tricky? It’s surprisingly not – the ‘Afterworlds’ chapters are differentiated from Darcy’s with sold black lines at the top and bottom of the page, not to mention Darcy’s chapters are decidedly contemporary, while Lizzie’s story is very much paranormal romance. Both are told in third-person, but are so different in tone and what they’re exploring that you never, ever get confused as to which world you’re in with each new chapter …

In Darcy’s world, we are bearing witness to a rising new talent in the YA literary world. Darcy is being touted as the new “it” girl of publishing (think Samantha Shannon, Veronica Roth or Sarah J. Maas – all very young first-time novelists who nabbed huge multi-book deals for their debut works) Darcy is so invested in becoming a full-time novelist, that she even defers College for a year to move to New York, home of her publishing house and a city with enough life that she feels sure her creative juices will flow more easily there. Darcy’s first novel ‘Afterworlds’ is to be released in 428-days (her younger sister keeps a countdown) and she has to get through rewrites and edits, and start thinking about plotting the second instalment in the series … but she is the hot new novelist in town, and soon finds herself suckered into the YA writer’s club of NYC. She gets invited to drinks and parties to mingle with the authors she’s grown up admiring – sharing canapés and discussing each other’s new books like it’s no big thing (when she’s squealing inside!). Then she meets fellow debut author, Imogen Gray and soon finds herself swept up in her first ever romance that’s fuelled by creativity and lust in a heady combination that could see Darcy lose sight of why she came to New York in the first place….

Much is being made of the fact that art is imitating life in Westerfeld’s ‘Afterworlds’. He is, of course, at the centre of the infamous YA writers club that Darcy is so awed by. First published in 1997, Westerfeld is the author of successful YA series including ‘Uglies’, ‘Peeps’ and ‘Leviathan’. He’s also married to fellow bestselling YA author Justine Larbalestier … and if you need further proof of his impressive standing in the YA-community, just look at the shout-outs in his acknowledgements: Maureen Johnson, E. Lockhart, Robin Wasserman … not to mention the likes of Holly Black, John Green and Gayle Forman have appeared in spoof ‘attack ads’ promoting ‘Afterworlds’ (and yes, the novel does include a John Green-esque character who’s likewise a YA juggernaut). Westerfeld and Larbalestier have many, many friends in the YA community and are part of many authors’ origin stories – like Melina Marchetta, who has said that the couple offered her their New York apartment as a writing retreat, and it was while staying there that she had the idea for ‘The Lumatere Chronicles’ series (interestingly, there’s an Australian character called Kiralee in ‘Afterworlds’, who I don’t think is Marchetta, but more represents the recent Aussie YA stronghold of the YA writing scene). All of this is very, very fascinating … particularly when Westerfeld gets tongue-in-cheek and somewhat snarky. For instance: Darcy is a little intimidated and annoyed by the ‘debutante’ authors (debut author for that publishing year) who are full of painfully terrible doomsday-advice (like, if your surname isn’t at the beginning of the alphabet for best shelf-placement you may as well be dead!). There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments that those of us on the fringe of the YA community will get excited over:
 “The Printz Award’s that big a deal?” 
“Of course! It’s basically a YA knighthood.”

But, fun as all the inner-workings of the YA community are in this book (and real YA- aficionados will totally gobble up this behind-the-curtains peek Westerfeld is offering into our favourite author’s lives) he’s actually doing many great things in ‘Afterworlds’ that deserve praise – both in Darcy’s as well as Lizzie’s worlds.

For one thing, Westerfeld opens up discussion about appropriation in writing through Darcy’s chapters. Darcy is Hindu – or, her parents are – and in ‘Afterworlds’ she’s turned a Hindu death-god into a love interest for Lizzie.

“It’s just, I wanted to have an Indian guy as the love interest, a guy who looks like Muzammil Ibrahim.” They both gave her another questioning look, and Darcy felt embarrassed and young. “He’s a Bollywood actor, a model, really. He’s the hot guy who was never in the paranormals I read when I was little, you know? But I didn’t want it to be about me wanting him.” 
“You wanted every girl to want him.” Kiralee was smiling again. “So you chose a white girl from California.”

She didn’t do this with any sort of malice in mind, far from it, but she’s still reluctant to let her parents read the manuscript for fear of their response … and when fellow author Kiralee speaks about her own struggles with appropriating Indigenous culture in her bestselling book, Darcy becomes somewhat panicked by her sudden self-awareness. This is so fascinating on a number of levels – for one thing, I think Westerfeld is questioning if he is appropriating Hindu culture by writing an Indian protagonist in Darcy. He’s also, maybe, asking if he’s appropriating LGBTQI culture … because in Darcy’s chapters we read an unfolding romance between her and Imogen – Darcy’s first ever relationship. It’s really tricky, and I commend Westerfeld for putting the question out there, let alone writing both racially and sexually diverse characters in both his stories. I don’t know what the answer is to the question of appropriation that Darcy is grappling with – but I do enjoy her tussling with the question throughout the book.

I will say that Darcy’s chapters, overall, were stronger for me. That comes down to me really, really enjoying the tongue-in-cheek YA writers scenes, and thinking that Darcy and Imogen’s romance was really strong – I was probably more eager to get back to the contemporary chapters than Lizzie’s paranormal ones, and especially towards the end I got a little frustrated having to return to the fictional world of Darcy’s ‘Afterworlds’. But that’s not to say that Westerfeld leaves all of the theorising in the contemporary world – his paranormal story also throws out some interesting questions, particularly around action-hero/damsel-in-distress conventions: 
 I stared at her, my breakfast twisting in my stomach. “He’s not like that.” 
“I’m sure it doesn’t seem that way, Lizzie. Because in every action movie the girl hooks up with the guy who saves her, like that’s supposed to be normal. But in real life it’d be a pretty messed-up way to fall in love, because your emotions go all haywire when you’re getting shot at. Isn’t it called Stockholm syndrome or something?” 
“Um, I think that’s when you fall in love with the terrorist, not the good guy.”

I really can’t get over the phenomenal pacing of this novel. It really is like Westerfeld is conducting a symphony on the page – keeping track of so many players and plots, themes and deeper meanings – and he plays them all beautifully. This is a stand-alone novel (though Darcy has more to write…) and I think it works really well as a one-off. Mostly because I can see how hard Westerfeld must have worked with ‘Afterworlds’, and I can imagine it would have been a gruelling experience he wouldn’t be too quick to rush back into.

I really, really loved this book – a sure sign was that while reading I was getting excited by the prospect of *talking* about this book with other people. Yep, it’s that kinda book.


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

How Outlander is flipping typical TV dramas on their head

Soooooooooo I wrote about the latest episode of Outlander for DailyLife

... most importantly, I got to write a sentence on Sam Heughan's bottom. 
Check it out.
Ye ken? 

Friday, September 19, 2014

By teens, for teens: the Inky Awards

My new Kill Your Darlings column is all about the fabulous Inky Awards from Inside A Dog! 

Jacob (15) from Queensland, is also an Inkys judge this year. ‘Teens are clearly the right choice to judge young adult book awards because these books were written for them,’ he says. ‘Adults judge adult book awards, so it only seems fair and logical for young adults to judge young adult book awards.' 

Voting is now open for the 2014 Inky Awards until 5 October. 
Vote here:  
The winners of the 2014 Inky Awards will be announced on 21 October.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

‘In Your Dreams’ Blue Heron #4 by Kristan Higgins

 Received from the Publisher 
From the BLURB:

Emmaline Neal needs a date. Just a date—someone to help her get through her ex-fiancé's wedding without losing her mind. But pickings are slim in Manningsport, New York, population 715. In fact, there's really only one option: local heartthrob Jack Holland. Everyone loves Jack, and he won't get the wrong idea…. After all, Jack Holland would never actually be interested in a woman like Em. Especially not with his beautiful ex-wife creeping around, angling to reunite ever since he rescued a group of teens and became a local hero. 

But when the wedding festivities take an unexpectedly passionate turn, Em figures it was just one crazy night. Jack is too gorgeous, too popular, to ever end up with her. So why is she the one he can talk to about his deep, dark feelings? If Em is going to get her dream man, she'll have to start by believing in him…

What do you do when you’re invited to the wedding of your previously overweight (now ab-tastic) ex-fiancée and the fitness fanatic trainer he left you for? Well, according to the majority of townsfolk from Manningsport, New York you invite Jack Holland along as your perfect date. Especially if you’re Emmaline Neal – police officer, and German shepherd owner who has been on two dates in three years since Kevin broke her heart and is not above referring to the station’s criminal database searching for a potential petty criminal to act as her wedding date. Because even though Jack Holland is delicious, and divorced (after a very, very messy breakup that included his Southern Belle wife cheating on him) even if he is the local hero after rescuing a car of teenage boys that ploughed into a lake … the fact is, Emmaline doesn’t want Jack Holland’s pity date. 

Jack, meanwhile, would love nothing more than to get out of town for a destination wedding in Malibu as a stand-in, maybe pretend boyfriend. It’s just the escape Jack is looking for, since rescuing that car of drunken teenage boys landed him hero status – something he’s especially uncomfortable with, since one of those boys is slowly dying and still in a coma. Jack’s been having nightmares and panic attacks since the rescue, and taking Emmaline Neal to the wedding of her ex sounds like a great distraction – especially when Jack’s ex-wife, Hadley, gets wind of his hero status (thanks to an interview with Anderson Cooper) and returns to Manningsport in the hopes of rekindling their trainwreck of a marriage. 

What neither Jack nor Emmaline counts on is a surprising but electrifying attraction – especially when it comes at the worst of times. Jack is fighting PTSD, an ex-wife who could double as Blanche DuBois and Em does not want to get her heart broken by another man who is tempted by a skinny, beautiful woman who claims to know what’s best for him.

‘In Your Dreams’ is the fourth book in Kristan Higgins’ addictive contemporary 'Blue Heron' romance series set in Manningsport, and mostly centred around the Holland family who run the Blue Heron winery. 

I really loved this instalment in Higgins’ series. I was a wee bit worried about Jack as our romantic lead, only because much had been made of his good looks and charm in previous books and the last thing I wanted was to read a Mary Sue dude. But it’s quickly established that Jack in this book is suffering emotionally after an impromptu rescue gone wrong, and he’s been wounded in the past by a sour marriage that ended after infidelity. I was surprised but relieved to discover Jack is a good guy who usually finishes last, looks and charm aside, he knows what it’s like when life screws you over. And, actually, Emmaline has the same reaction to Jack that many readers will – thinking he has the perfect life from the outside, but discovering his difficulties and insecurities as they get to know each other… 

And speaking of Emmaline – I loved her. She’s closely aligned to a previous Higgins heroine (and one of my favourites!) Chastity O'Neill from ‘Just One of the Guys’ – a tomboy who didn’t want to change who she was, to attract the guy of her dreams. Emmaline is similar in the tomboy aspect – preferring beer to wine, her police uniform to dresses, she plays hockey and hates doing anything to her hair. I really liked when Hadley came on the scene and Emmaline found both of them fighting for Jack’s affections. Hadley is petite and blonde, a Southern Belle and thoroughly annoying – but next to her Emmaline feels like a gorilla, and wonders how Jack can be interested in her when Hadley is his ex-wife; 

“What if Hadley wasn’t in town?” he asked when she failed to answer. “And what if those kids didn’t … crash? Would you go out with me then?” 
“Well, you were never interested before, so I’d have to say no.” 
“Maybe I could say you were the one who was never interested, whereas I always thought of you as the hot hockey chick.” 
Another snort. Must stop doing that. “You never asked me out.” 
“You never gave me the time of day.” 
“If you were pining for me, you hid it well.” 
He gave her a tolerant look. “I wasn’t pining for you, Emmaline. I did think you were the hot hockey chick. We all do.” 
“Which explains why I’ve had two dates in three years.” 
“Maybe your sweet and gentle personality has something to do with that.” 

Much is made in the beginning of Emmaline’s past relationship with Kevin, her childhood sweetheart turned fiancée who was morbidly obese but left her for his trainer once he started losing weight. I really liked this storyline, if only because it allowed plenty of leeway for Higgins humour, especially around fitness fanatics. And a fitness fanatic wedding is especially hilarious; 

The special memories sharing was more of the same. The marathon when Kevin had to crawl across the finish line just after he lost control of his bowels. The difficult time when Naomi had ruptured her Achilles tendon and could only run seven miles a day. The hilarious time when they were doing an Ironman race and Naomi’s bike had crashed, her shoulder dislocated, and God bless her! She’d just rammed it back into place on a convenient tree, got back on the bike and caught up to Kevin, who of course hadn’t stopped because it was “emotionally important” for him to give this race his all, and of course Naomi understood and supported this.  
“I don’t know,” Em murmured. “I think I’d want someone to stop and call an ambulance for me.” 
“I would do that,” Jack said. “And I’d tell the paramedics to give you extra painkillers.” 

But the Kevin storyline dropped right off once Jack and Emmaline kindled their romance, and if anything I’d have liked slightly more closure to this aspect of Emmaline’s past.

Overall I loved this instalment in Kristan Higgins’ ‘Blue Heron’ series. A non-girly heroine who needs a confidence boost, a seemingly perfect hero whose flaws and insecurities are refreshing and the usual laughs and puppy-awwws fans have come to love from Higgins’ books. This one’s a winner!