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Sunday, November 30, 2014

'Wife on the Run' by Fiona Higgins

Receive from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

A mother's greatest fear... A wife's worst nightmare... What would you do?

When two technology-related disasters hit within days of each other, Paula knows her comfortable suburban life has been irrevocably blown apart. One involves the public shaming of her teenage daughter, the other is a discovery about her husband that shocks her to her core. With her world unravelling around her, Paula does the only thing that makes any sense to her: she runs away from it all.

She pulls her children out of school and takes off on a trip across Australia with her elderly father and his caravan. The only rule is No Technology - no phones, no Facebook, no Instagram, no tablets, games or computers. It's time to get back to basics and learn how to be a family again. It all sounds so simple - and for a while, it is. But along the way Paula will meet new, exciting complications, and realise that running away is only a temporary solution. The past has to be faced before the future can begin.

Fiona Higgins is the author of the critically-acclaimed, bestselling 2012 novel ‘The Mothers' Group’ which I, regrettably, have not got round to reading yet. ‘Wife on the Run’ is her latest novel, and has ensured that I’ll be going back to read her breakout hit.

‘Wife on the Run’ is set in modern-day Melbourne, and follows the increasingly tangled and crumbling lives of the McInnes family. Wife and mother, Paula, has been called to her daughter’s school after a pornographic image is uploaded to Facebook and attributed to her and a friend. Teenager Caitlin is gently told to take a few weeks off school while the scandal dies down, the school scrambles to get the image removed from Facebook and some much-needed cyber-bullying education can be organised for the community.

Paula’s husband, meanwhile, is feeling unloved at home and finds temptation everywhere but with his disinterested wife. Hamish thinks their marriage was sidetracked by their children – Caitlin and Lachlan – and it’s never quite righted itself. So Hamish seeks sexual gratification elsewhere and as close to not-really-infidelity as he can get – cyberspace.

When the virtual world intrudes on the McInnes family, everything is turned on its head. Paula decides to take the kids and her recently widowed father, Sid, on a caravan trip from Melbourne to the top-end of Australia. She needs some time away from Hamish after discovering his online secret, and she also wants to fulfil a life-long road trip dream.

His curvy, intelligent, committed wife.The only girl with a university degree who’d ever agreed to go out with him; all the other chicks had been too stuck-up. Watching them across the room every Thursday night at the trendy pub near the university, Doggo and Hamish had called them the ‘Fig Jam’ girls. An acronym for their attitude – Fuck I’m Good, Just Ask Me. Skinny girls with chambray shirts and plums in their mouths, studying law, science medicine. But Paula had been a standout; her big, open smile, her infectious laughter, a not-so-serious degree. And no tickets on herself, either. She hadn’t thought twice about going out with him.
They’d got together, got married, had two great kids. He’d made the money and she’d run the home.Except now she wasn’t there, for the first time in seventeen years.

‘Wife on the Run’ is an interesting novel – there’s a bit of ‘How Stella Got Her Groove Back’ to it, but the plot trigger is a look into what happens when the virtual world intrudes upon the real, and our false identities are revealed to the world … in fact, the whole novel is an exploration into ripping off the masks we wear, and exposing our true (sometimes ugly) selves. 

I can see a bit of Liane Moriarty in Higgin’s writing – both women have a keen eye for observing the insidious suburban underbelly, and exploring ‘suburban-paradise lost’ through outlandish but oddly believable storylines. I would highly-recommend Fiona Higgins in fact, for anybody who loves Liane Moriarty’s books.

Higgins touches on cyber-sex and cyber-cheating in this book, as well as cyber-bullying and online identity – and all of these grubby online liaisons are being tapped out on the keyboards inside family homes, behind picket fences, along tree-lined streets. Investigations into the virtual contrast beautifully with Paula’s road-trip with the kids and her dad that sees them navigating the far-reaches of Australia: along the Nullarbor Plain and through country townships where fast-friends are made and sausages sizzled.

We actually get two sides to the story in ‘Wife on the Run’, which is told in third person but offers both Paula and Hamish’s version of events. From Hamish we get to read his slippery-slope into a seriously questionable online hook-up, and then we also get to read Paula navigate her hurt and distrust in equally destructive, morally-questionable ways.

It’s odd, but I wouldn’t say Hamish or Paula were terribly nice characters … but I did enjoy spending time with them. Even Hamish whose moral slip-up is truly contentious, I liked seeing things from his perspective. They’re both so flawed, and the stresses they’re under do not bring out the grace in either of them – but I understood how, once they’d started digging holes for themselves, they found it nearly impossible to find their way out. Maybe for that reason I found the ending quite abrupt, because it swings back to following Paula for the climax but I was rather hoping to get Hamish’s final take on things too… he’d been with readers for as much of the book’s journey as Paula, and I really felt the book needed one more chapter following his fall-out to feel properly concluded.

I really loved ‘Wife on the Run’. It’s a rather outlandish book at times, particularly towards the end, but I found Higgins’ investigations into our online moral compass fascinating and revolting, and very appropriate for the times. Paula and Hamish were both fantastically flawed – but I enjoyed reading their unravelling (of both lies and lives) and found myself rooting for both of them, even though neither comes out as hero or villain by book’s end.

4.5/5

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Remembering 'Heartbreak High'


Tickling some serious 90s nostalgia:

I got to write about Heartbreak High for DailyLife - a show that set standard for youth and diverse programming in Australia. 

It was shows like these and so many more that the ABC and SBS are currently creating, that make those budget cuts all the more saddening and maddening. 


Rack off, Tony Abbott!

'A Bollywood Affair' by Sonali Dev

Received from NetGalley

From the BLURB:

Mili Rathod hasn’t seen her husband in twenty years—not since she was promised to him at the age of four. Yet marriage has allowed Mili a freedom rarely given to girls in her village. Her grandmother has even allowed her to leave India and study in America for eight months, all to make her the perfect modern wife. Which is exactly what Mili longs to be—if her husband would just come and claim her.
Bollywood’s favorite director, Samir Rathod, has come to Michigan to secure a divorce for his older brother. Persuading a naïve village girl to sign the papers should be easy for someone with Samir’s tabloid-famous charm. But Mili is neither a fool nor a gold-digger.

Open-hearted yet complex, she’s trying to reconcile her independence with cherished traditions. And before he can stop himself, Samir is immersed in Mili’s life—cooking her dal and rotis, escorting her to her roommate’s elaborate Indian wedding, and wondering where his loyalties and happiness lie.
Heartfelt, witty, and thoroughly engaging, Sonali Dev’s debut is both a vivid exploration of modern India and a deeply honest story of love, in all its diversity.

‘A Bollywood Affair’ is the 2014 debut contemporary romance novel by Sonali Dev.

This novel feels like the romance genre’s break-out hit of 2014. I received the book via NetGalley but didn’t think much of it to bump up on my TBR pile … until I started hearing about it EVERYWHERE. Book bloggers, Goodreads and Twitter were talking about ‘A Bollywood Affair’ to such a point that I felt like I had to read it – and afterwards I joined the legions of romance readers who were singing its praises.

Mili Rathod was married at the age of four to the grandson of a wealthy man in her village. Both bride and groom were children, and shortly after the ceremony the little groom was whisked away by his mother – and Mili hasn’t seen her husband now for twenty years.

But Mili is doing well in her new life working for the National Women’s Centre in Jaipur, so much so that she’s given the opportunity to travel to America and study at a school in Michigan. Mili jumps at the chance, both to further her career prospects but especially because she knows her husband, Virat, is a successful pilot in the Indian Airforce and she wants to make herself worthy enough that he’ll return to her one day.

Samir Rathod is a big-shot Bollywood writer/director, frequently featured in the pages of gossip magazines as much for his good looks as his many famous female conquests. When his brother, Virat, receives some troubling communication from the girl he married as a child, Samir offers to fly to Michigan and get this illegal marriage annulled once and for all. Virat and his wife have a child on the way, and Samir would do anything to help avoid either of them being hurt by this gold-digger. 

But when Samir meets Mili he doesn’t discover the conniving money-grubber he thought he would. Mili is an innocent and strong young woman who sparks his creative imagination and tender side … when he decides not to reveal his true identity, Samir finds himself falling deeper and deeper into both the biggest lie and most important relationship of his life.

The title ‘A Bollywood Affair’ actually doesn’t have a lot to do with the story – yes, Samir is a Bollywood writer/director but that’s such a marginal aspect of the story, and indeed Samir’s own character history. The Bollywood mention in the title is more to signal readers what a romance-ride they’re in for with this book – looking back, it had practically every romance plot thrown in (man falling for his brother’s wife, virginal heroine, arranged marriage, false identities and famous hero). This is an over the top romance, similar to OTT Bollywood storylines. But much like a colourful-kitsch Bollywood film entertains and dazzles regardless of abundance, so too does ‘A Bollywood Affair’ charm and delight even while playing out otherwise cliché romance tropes.

Part of the charm of Sonali Dev’s romance is that it is a unique story – for Western romance readers. Dev beautifully weaves Indian culture and custom into the storyline – everything from family hierarchy to food and cooking is covered – and of course the Indian culture is the book’s backbone. Mili and Virat were part of an arranged marriage, and a big focus of the book is on the fact that Mili comes from a relatively poor village and has very different customs to those of Virat and Samir. Certainly, Mili is dumbfounded when she learns that Samir is a big-shot Bollywood celebrity and has a history of rather scandalous relationships with women – Mili, by contrast, has remained pure for her absent husband all these long years, and is a very sheltered woman: 

Even in her village, she was the youngest girl to have been married. And she had to be the only girl on earth who had no idea what her husband looked like after twenty years of marriage. She has never left her village until she was twenty years old, except for a school trip to New Delhi when she won an essay contest at fifteen. And until she was twenty-four she had never even left her home state of Rajasthan.

Dev plays this out so well – she’s actually saying a lot about the patriarchal makeup of Indian society, even while she herself is writing a far more progressive romance set in this culture. For one thing, Mili works for the National Women’s Centre in Jaipur – a job that is in itself tied into Women’s Empowerment in that country which has a well-publicised issues with violence against women

And of course ‘A Bollwood Affair’ is a far steamier romance than traditional Bollywood films (which famously don’t even show kissing scenes). Mili and Samir are a really interesting pairing – particularly because it’s as much Mili’s kindness and loyalty as her attractiveness that endear her to Samir. This is also a big statement – that the previously superficial, playboy Samir finds something truly remarkable in Mili that moves him to change (rather than Mili’s previous assumption that she has to become more worldly and cultured to appeal to her absent husband, Virat). 

Samir and Mili do spark on the page – she’s challenging and confrontational when needs be, and he reveals a nurturing side around her. It’s a really beautiful, interesting dynamic to read. And there is none of that Bollywood modesty in this book, rest assured – their eventual coupling is among the steamiest I’ve read from this year’s crop of romances.

I will say that – much as a Bollywood film presents high-octane drama to draw a close – the end of ‘A Bollywood Affair’ felt a little muddled at times. Characters fill scenes and talk over one another, storylines bump heads and timeline goes back and forth to the point that I had to read very carefully to orientate myself within the final scenes. But that’s a small complaint in a book that was such an enjoyable read.

‘A Bollywood Affair’ deserves all the praise it has been reaping this year, and with this impressive debut Sonali Dev has cemented herself as the new romance author to read.


5/5

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Disability or superpower? Deaf identity in YA


My new post for Kill Your Darlings is all about Deaf identity in youth literature. Featuring interviews with Christine Keighery and Chief Executive of Deaf Australia Kyle Miers, and discussions of Cece Bell's incredible graphic-novel memoir 'El Deafo'!

Friday, November 21, 2014

'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1' movie review



When Katniss destroys the games, she goes to District 13 after District 12 is destroyed. She meets President Coin who convinces her to be the symbol of rebellion, while trying to save Peeta from the Capitol.

We’re coming into the homestretch with this, the first part of the final movie adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ incredibly popular YA Dystopia ‘Hunger Games’ series (now franchise).


The movie begins some time after ‘Catching Fire’ – Katniss (the luminous Jennifer Lawrence) is physically recovered from her daring stunt during the ‘Quarter Quell’, having used her bow and arrow to direct a current of lightning at the force field that contains the Hunger Games arena, destroying the arena and resulting in her temporary paralysis.

Interestingly though, the opening scene of ‘Mockingjay’ highlights Katniss’s mental state – physically recovered she may be, but ever since she volunteered for the 74th Hunger Games she has been mentally eviscerated. She is suffering from Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), what was coined ‘shell shock’ in the World Wars.

Not helping her mental state is her current location in District 13 – thought to be destroyed by the Capitol during the first rebellion, they have in fact been secretly militarizing themselves underground – and their President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore, with freaky contact lenses) organized to save Katniss, and now she needs to use her to fuel a rebellion against the Capitol. The rebellion needs their ‘Mockingjay’ symbol – for propaganda, and hope (arguably the most powerful form of propaganda). Katniss agrees, but only to save the Victors who remain prisoner of the Capitol and President Snow (creeeeeepy Donald Sutherland) – among them, Katniss’s fellow tribute and Hunger Games ‘winner’ Peeta Mellark (a transformed Josh Hutcherson).

Propaganda does not deceive people; it merely helps them to deceive themselves.
—Eric Hoffer

Let me start by saying that I liked this movie, but I didn’t love it – certainly not as much as its two predecessors. And I think a lot of that comes down to the fact that I wasn’t convinced that it needed to be broken into two parts.

I know, I know – it’s a money-maker and since Harry Potter broke ‘The Deathly Hallows’ and the Twilight Saga broke ‘Breaking Dawn’ into two parts, it was a given that ‘The Hunger Games’ YA adaptation franchise would do the same. But Rowling’s ‘Deathly Hallows’ was a whopping 759-pages, and Meyer’s ‘Breaking Dawn’ came in at 756. Suzanne Collins’ ‘Mockingjay’ was 390, in keeping with the page-count of the first two books. And, if I’m being perfectly honest, the page-to-screen adaptation suffers from injecting filler story that wasn’t in the book … and arguably, didn’t really need to be in the movie.


Most of the filler story is based around strategist Plutarch Heavensbee (in a stunning, bittersweet performance by the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman) and President Alma Coin. There are quite a few scenes included that establishes their political machinations for Katniss as the symbol of their rebellion. Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) is also pushed into the spotlight in this third movie, in an attempt to better round out the love triangle that so captivated readers.

The truth is the best picture, the best propaganda.
—Robert Capa

The political back-story does work, in one sense. It’s a mirror image that harks back to the scenes between President Snow and Gamemaker Seneca Crane (Wes ‘mustachioed’ Bentley) in the first ‘Hunger Games’ movie. They establish that Katniss is still a puppet, even though she’s now out of the arena – and the business of rebellion is as technical and political as Game-making. And while that’s all very fascinating and philosophical, it’s not terribly riveting. Sometimes all that saves the scenes between Plutarch and President Coin is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s captivating, nuanced performance. Injecting Jennifer Lawrence into these moments also works – a scene in which she’s being filmed for a propaganda ad is particularly artful, if only for Lawrence’s comedic timing.

When this storyline of Katniss as the Mockingjay symbol really works, is when Jennifer Lawrence is given a chance to shine in scenes of dramatic tension, rather than political maneuvering. Her visit to District 8 is especially heart wrenching – the camera stays on Lawrence’s face for most of this scene, and no wonder. She is a force to be reckoned with.


Other moments in the film that felt a drag, to me at least (and I will say that many in the audience started to fidget, becoming physically restless towards the end) concerned military operations. Scenes depicting other Districts rising up and joining the rebellion were heart-palpitating and often distressing, but powerful. But scenes in which District 13 carried out military operations felt a little too ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ for my liking. It leaves me concerned/hesitant for ‘Mockingjay Part 2’ … which we all know includes lengthy scenes of such operations.

It's so easy for propaganda to work, and dissent to be mocked.
—Harold Pinter

Something that did impress me in this book were the performances by supporting cast. Aforementioned Philip Seymour Hoffman, but also Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket. She has really made this role her own, and she provides some much-needed comedic relief in an otherwise fairly bleak installment (that’s only going to get bleaker in Part 2). Woody Harrelson continues to prove every nay-sayer (who wanted Robert Downey Jr.) wrong, in his role as Haymitch Abernathy – I love that in this movie, we see how much Haymitch has come to know and respect Katniss.


One cast member who maybe doesn’t shine quite so bright is Liam Hemsworth. He’s given some potentially great scenes to work with, but when he’s opposite Jennifer Lawrence he doesn’t rise to the challenge of her performance, and he often left me feeling cold. Likewise Sam Claflin as Finnick Odair who so impressed me in ‘Catching Fire’ – he seemed to get lost in this movie.


By contrast, Josh Hutcherson is fairly incredible in a very reduced role. He’s undergone a very physical transformation for this movie – he’s clearly lost a lot of weight as the role demanded, and the change is scary. I have to give him kudos too, right when I was whispering “I’m bored” to my seat-mate towards the end of the movie, Josh Hutcherson’s performance pulled me back in with his menacing turn. Costumer designer Kurt and Bart should also be praised for Hutcherson’s wardrobe, which included slick Capitol suits that seemed to physically choke and collar him.

 
Loud peace propaganda makes war seem imminent.—D. H. Lawrence

All in all, I didn’t LOVE this ‘Hunger Games’ installment but I enjoyed it – and mostly because I know where the story is going and I’m keen to race to the end. I mostly loved the scenes of District rebellion – particularly those that were soundtracked to Jennifer Lawrence’s ‘The Hanging Tree’ song (which I understand will not be on the movie soundtrack?! TRAVESTY!) There’s an escalation of violence in this movie that’s different from the killing featured in ‘Hunger Games’ and ‘Catching Fire’ – it’s disturbing and powerful, but most importantly it sends a message that has roots in today’s society, from Syria to Iraq and so much more …. Which is what Suzanne Collins intended in the first place. And maybe it's just the sentiments of the movie that I enjoyed most of all - fire is catching, after all. 

4/5

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

'The Winter King' Weathermages of Mystral #1 by C.L. Wilson


From the BLURB:

Wynter Atrialan, the Winter King, once lived in peace with his southern, Summerlander neighbors, but when the prince of Summerlea steals Wynter’s bride and murders his young brother, Wynter calls upon a dangerous Wintercraig magic called the Ice Heart and marches against Summerlea.

After three bitter years of battle, a victorious Wynter arrives at Summerlea’s royal palace to issue his terms of surrender. The prince of Summerlea stole Wynter’s bride and slew Wynter’s Heir. He wants the loss replaced. The Ice Heart is consuming him. Wynter hopes holding his own child in his arms will rekindle the warmth in his heart before he becomes the monster of Wintercraig legend, the Ice King.

The Summer King has three very precious daughters whom he loves dearly. Wynter will take one of them to wife. She will have one year to provide him with an Heir. If she fails, he will send her to face the mercy of the mountains and claim another princess for his wife. And so it will continue until Wynter has his Heir or the Summer King is out of daughters.

The plan is perfect—except for one small detail. The Summer King has a fourth daughter. One of whom he is not so fond. And she is a fiercely passionate creature, with a temper as volatile as the forces of her weathergift, the power of storms.

‘The Winter King’ is the first book in a new fantasy romance series from C.L. Wilson, called ‘Weathermages of Mystral’. This is a completely new series, separate from her wildly popular ‘Tairen Soul’.

So, I did read the ‘Tairen Soul’ series on the strength of multiple bloggers whom I respect a great deal raving about it. But I wasn't as in love with them as many of my fellow-bloggers, and can honestly barely remember the basic gist of the story even now. But, to be fair, at the time of reading I really wasn’t a fantasy fan. I’d just ventured into paranormal romance and was still tentatively stepping into those reading waters, but found fantasy too ‘out-there’ for me. It would take Melina Marchetta’s Lumatere Chronicles series to turn the tide on fantasy for me, and I’m sure if I revisited ‘Tairen Soul’ I’d have a very different experience. But it’s because I don’t count myself among the legion of ‘Tairen Soul’ fans that I’m sort of surprised by how much I enjoyed (even loved) ‘The Winter King’.

In this first book of a new series, C.L. Wilson presents a Helen of Troy-esque story of young King Wynter Atrialan, whose betrothed was stolen away from him by a Prince of the neighbouring Summerlea territory, who also murdered Wynter’s young brother during his escape with the would-be Queen … cut to three years and a devastating war later, King Wynter is the victor and as part of a peace treaty he is to marry and beget an heir with one of the three famous Summerlea Princesses.

What Wynter doesn’t expect is to find himself wed to a fourth Princess – Khamsin is a weathermage like Wynter, but she has spent her young life hidden away in a castle tower, the ire of her mad King father who blames her for the death of his beloved wife.

The book covers Kham and Wynter’s troublesome first meeting, wedding and the first year of her marriage to the powerful King and her sworn enemy – a year spent as an outsider queen, hated and regarded with great suspicion by all in her new Kingdom, including her husband.

As well as the Helen of Tory initial trigger, the book also reminded me a little of Elizabeth Vaughan’s ‘Chronicles of the Warlands’ for the story of a claimed royal bride having to fit into her husband’s conquering nation, and even start to sympathise with what both sides of the war have gone through.

C.L. Wilson book is still very fantasy – there’s a major story thread about Wynter succumbing to something called his Ice Heart, a complicated magic that I’m going to admit was sometimes over my head (particularly towards the end of the book, when everything comes to a climax). But I really enjoyed ‘The Winter King’ because of the romance aspect in Wilson’s book.

Wynter and Kham were such an interesting pairing, and while they do have a heady dose of love at first sight – it’s cloaked and complicated by their respective political alliances and a marriage seemingly fuelled by diplomacy. They have a lot to cut through until they can start to realise how much of their marriage is built on more than just strategic alliances and peace treaties.

“I hadn't thought you such a faithless coward. You are a princess of the Summer Throne, wedded Queen of the Craig, and my wife. You swore an oath, before a priest and your father's court, to accept my counsel and my care. You swore to offer me all the fruits of your life. And now, you would deny me that which you swore to offer? Do you have so little honor?"
The accusation stole the silver from her eyes, leaving them pure, plain gray filled with shock and dismay.
"I...No! Of course not! I'm no oathbreaker."
"Then come to your bath. Accept my care, as you swore you would. Offer me the fruits of your life, that I may dine once more on peace instead of war.”

There were a few niggling little things that stopped me from giving this book five stars – a seemingly repeated storyline of ‘Kham is sick/injured and needs to have Wynter sit by her bedside’ became somewhat tiresome in the beginning. But I’ll forgive a lot because Kham was actually a very fiery and fierce female protagonist. And even if a lot of the book’s ending got into very complicated (for me) fantasy territory, it carried me all the way through and left me keen for the next ‘Weathermages of Mystral’ book (set for 2015, supposedly about The Sea Lord).

I really – surprisingly – enjoyed this fantasy romance of a conquered Princess finding her way and love in the Kingdom of her victorious husband King. C.L. Wilson ensured I’d be coming back to the world of ‘Weathermages of Mystral’ having enchanted me with this sexy, thoughtful fantasy romance instalment.

4/5

Monday, November 17, 2014

Filling the Jar: Helping Children Heal From Family Violence


I wrote a little something about picture book The Empty Jar - and a crowd-funding campaign that aims to raise $20,000 for the development of culturally sensitive therapeutic resources for children experiencing family violence... read the article here: 


And donate here

Friday, November 14, 2014

'Funny Girl' by Nick Hornby


From the BLURB:

Funny Girl - the much-anticipated new novel by Nick Hornby, the million-copy bestselling author of About a Boy Make them laugh, and they're yours forever...

It's the swinging 60s and the nation is mesmerized by unlikely comedy star Sophie Straw, the former Blackpool beauty queen who just wants to make people laugh, like her heroine Lucille Ball. Behind the scenes, the cast and crew are having the time of their lives. But when the script begins to get a bit too close to home, and life starts imitating art, they all face a choice.

The writers, Tony and Bill, comedy obsessives, each harbour a secret. The Oxbridge-educated director, Dennis, loves his job but hates his marriage. The male star Clive, feels he's destined for better things. And Sophie Straw, who's changed her name and abandoned her old life, must decide whether to keep going, or change the channel.

Nick Hornby's new novel is about popular culture, youth and old age, fame, class and teamwork. It offers a wonderfully captivating portrait of youthful exuberance and creativity, and of a period when both were suddenly allowed to flourish.

‘Funny Girl’ is Nick Hornby’s first new novel in five years – beginning in 1964 and taking us through to present-day 2014 – the lifespan of one British situation comedy called 'Barbara (and Jim)', and the lives of its stars and creators.

I had the best time reading this book. There’s no other way to say it – I loved everything about ‘Funny Girl’, and it often happened that the time spent reading Hornby’s book on the train was among the better parts of my day.

And to explain part of my giddy-infatuation with this novel, I must defer to a Melina Marchetta quote from ‘The Piper’s Son’, when Tom Mackee claims to be a member of the club: “Survivors of childhood subjugation to watching ‘The Bill’.” Because that’s me – my mum was born and raised in the UK and came over to Australia as a teenager. As a result, one-half of my family are firm believers in the superiority of British television. I grew up watching ‘Fawlty Towers’, ‘To the Manor Born’, ‘Absolutely Fabulous’, ‘Birds of a Feather’ and ‘As Time Goes By’ to name a very, very few. I was also obsessed with ‘I Love Lucy’ growing up – a show that my cousin and I used to watch on a daily basis in the afternoons when we were younger (Lucy and the grape stomp remains one of the greatest moments of TV for me) and as a result, I grew up adoring Lucille Ball (‘The Long, Long Trailer’ is easily one of my favourite movies of all time). And this is the premise from which Nick Hornby built ‘Funny Girl’ and the character of Sophie Straw (once, Barbara from Blackpool).

Nick Hornby set out to re-imagine British comedy history, by writing the history of the fictional ‘Barbara (and Jim)' TV series, and likewise a Lucille Ball-esque British TV star in Sophie Straw. The book blends wishful thinking and BBC history brilliantly – and also provides black-and-white photographs to aid the references (so clever, since it stopped me from pausing my reading to do a Wikipedia search for some actors mentioned!).

The book is told in third person, and dedicates chapters to the main-players involved in ‘Barbara (and Jim)’. There’s Sophie Straw herself, who moves from Blackpool to London to chase her dreams of stardom – after working the cosmetics counter for too many depressing months, Sophie stumbles into an audition and meets her tribe. There’s Tony and Bill, the writers, and closeted homosexual friends who are coming off National Service and want to emulate their comedy gods with a TV series of their own:

‘We all love Lucy.’
'Really?’ 
‘We’re students of comedy,’ said Tony. ‘We love anyone who’s funny.’ 
‘Lucy is one of our people,’ said Dennis. ‘Galton and Simpson are our Shakespeare, obviously. But she’s our Jane Austen.’

Dennis is the Cambridge-educated BBC producer – the uneasy go-between the head of BBC light entertainment and this collection of talented writers and performers. Dennis is stuck in a loveless marriage with his cheating wife, when he meets and falls instantly in love with Sophie.
Then there’s Clive – the (and Jim) to Sophie’s more titled character of Barbara. He fancies himself a thespian on the way to becoming a movie star … but so far, he has all of the ego and not quite enough talent to pull it off:

‘What’s she like?’ said Bev. 
‘Sophie? Yes, she’s very nice.’ 
‘You should be with her,’ said Bev. 
There was no wistfulness in her voice. She seemed to be speaking as a television fan, rather than as a lover.
'Do you think?’ 
‘Yes. Can you imagine?’ 
‘Imagine what?’ 
‘You’d be like the Burton and Taylor of the BBC. Everyone would go mad.’
'Do you think so?’ 
‘Well, I’d love it, and I’m lying in bed with you.’ 
It was quite a persuasive observation.

This is Nick Hornby’s first new book in five years – but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been writing. He adapted a screenplay of Lynn Barber’s memoir into the wonderful 2009 movie ‘An Education’ – and that film clearly left quite the impression on him. Not only has he chosen to revisit the 1960s he so brilliantly captured in that movie, but there’s something of an echo between Jenny Mellor (played by the effortlessly superb Carey Mulligan) and Sophie Straw of this novel. It’s in the way that Jenny pined for London and a more interesting life while listening to French records on the floor of her bedroom … but was bitterly disappointed by the realities of her romance with playboy David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard). There’s likewise something to be said for Sophie Straw, who – during the height of her fame – finds herself wondering who “the people” are that she’s trying to impress … is it the mass audiences, the fans? What about making herself happy?
 She began to fear that she would always be greedy, all the time. Nothing ever seemed to fill her up. Nothing ever seemed to touch the sides.

I can also see that Hornby is the better in this novel for his film work (he has also adapted Cheryl Strayed’s novel ‘Wild’ for the big screen, starring Reese Witherspoon). It’s in his biting commentary of fame and self-absorbed actors – often distilled in the character of Clive – and his musings on popular culture, mass “light” entertainment versus high-brow art (something he clearly has an opinion or two about, since he’s long been labelled something of a lad-lit novelist, rather unfairly). But really it’s especially apparent in the dialogue – Hornby has pitched this novel being set in a rather “golden age” of British entertainment, and it certainly feels that way to the reader. These characters are smart and sharp – their dialogue bounds off the page, and even though we’re only ever given occasional summaries of ‘Barbara (and Jim)’ scenes or episodes, it’s completely believable that this TV show is as funny as everyone seems to think it is – because the actors and creators are funny, they ping off one another and camaraderie that fuels creative genius is apparent on the page. The whole book also reminded me of the wonderful ‘Doctor Who’ TV movie about the show’s BBC production, ‘An Adventure inSpace and Time’ – it’s that mix of nostalgia and vitality, of tipping your hat to those who paved the way.

This is also a more thoughtful Hornby novel, particularly when we get to the tail end of the character’s careers and meet them in present-day. But even though Hornby is writing about the improbability of such vital people who lived through the era of change and sexual revolution aging, there’s something scarily relatable to be read here. Indeed, when Sophie muses on the absurdity of her aging, I can see myself wondering the same thing in the future (however distant it may seem to me):

It was absurd that they were getting old, thought Sophie – absurd and wrong. Old people had black-and-white memories of wars, music halls, wretched diseases, candlelight. Her memories were in colour, and they involved loud music and discos, Biba and Habitat, Marlon Brando and butter.

I adored ‘Funny Girl’. It’s a favourite novel of 2014, for sure. And I really can’t think of higher praise than simply reiterating what a joy it was to read – often the best part of my day was spent with Sophie, Tony, Bill, Clive and Dennis. Nick Hornby certainly hasn’t lost his Midas touch – in fact, much like the crew of ‘Funny Girl’, he only gets better with age.

5/5

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Reading Matters 2015



Waaaaaaay back in 2013 I had the greatest time at Reading Matters - hanging with the likes of Gayle Forman, Fiona Wood and Libba Bray. Not to mention the amazing bloggers I finally got to meet face-to-face (like Jess from The Tales Compendium!) 
It was a great couple of days spent talking about books, books, and, oh yeah - BOOKS! 

And now, darling readers, the line-up for Reading Matters 2015 has been announced - and it is grand

Laurie Halse Anderson, Erin Gough, Will Kostakis and Jaclyn Moriarty are just some of the amazing authors on next year's program. 

Early-bird tickets are now on sale, and I've already snatched mine up. 
Yep. I'm that excited!

Friday 29 May and 
Saturday 30 May 2015

Will you be there? 


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

'Burn for Me' Hidden Legacy #1 by Ilona Andrews


From the BLURB:

Nevada Baylor is faced with the most challenging case of her detective career—a suicide mission to bring in a suspect in a volatile situation. Nevada isn't sure she has the chops. Her quarry is a Prime, the highest rank of magic user, who can set anyone and anything on fire.

Then she's kidnapped by Connor "Mad" Rogan—a darkly tempting billionaire with equally devastating powers. Torn between wanting to run and wanting to surrender to their overwhelming attraction, Nevada must join forces with Rogan to stay alive.

Rogan's after the same target, so he needs Nevada. But she's getting under his skin, making him care about someone other than himself for a change. And, as Rogan has learned, love can be as perilous as death, especially in the magic world.

‘Burn For Me’ is the new urban fantasy series from husband-wife writing duo, IlonaAndrews.

The final book in Andrews’ ‘The Edge’ series wrapped up in 2012, and they’re still contracted through to book #10 in the ‘Kate Daniels’ series (due for release in 2017) … with this new ‘Hidden Legacy’ series, Ilona Andrews are contracted for three books, ‘Burn For Me’ being the first.

This has been a most-anticipated book for many Ilona Andrews fans. Much as we love Kate Daniels (even more so since the Kate and Curran pairing was finally realised!) Ilona Andrews are undoubtedly one of the best urban fantasy authors writing today – a new release in this genre from them is most welcome indeed. I was especially excited for the beginning of this new series, because the last ‘KateDaniels’ book was a bit of a disappointment to me and I was looking forward to a shake-up. And while I did love ‘Burn For Me’, I’ve got to admit that I didn’t love this book as much as other readers seemed to…

To begin with: Ilona Andrews love to world-build, and they’re very good at it. But they tend to be more at the ‘fantasy’ end of ‘urban fantasy’, and some of the more intricate details take a while for me to fully comprehend (I don’t think I really understood the Kate Daniels universe until around ‘Magic Strikes’). In the universe of ‘Hidden Legacy’, something called the Osiris serum was discovered in 1863 that brought out one’s magic talents. In this world, magic users are segregated into five ranks: Minor, Average, Notable, Significant, and Prime. And a family with a powerful magic is considered a House when it produces at least two Primes within three generations. For more information, check out the ‘Magic 101’ cheat-sheets on Ilona Andrews’ website.

Our protagonist in ‘Hidden Legacy’ is Nevada Baylor – a young woman who has been running her family’s private investigation firm since the death of her father a few years ago, and her soldier mother was wounded during her last tour. Nevada has low-level magic which allows her to know when someone is lying. When a pyrokinetic man from a powerful house goes AWOL and leaves a trail of destruction, Nevada is forced by his family to find him and bring him home – unharmed – or else lose her family’s business.

I opened a writing app and began typing what I knew about Pierce.
Vain.Terminal fear of T-shirts or any other garment that would cover his pectorals. Deadly.
Doesn't hesitate to kill. Holding him at gunpoint would result in me being barbecued. Whee.
Likes burning things. Now here's an understatement. Good information to have, but not useful for finding him.
Antigovernment. Neither here nor there.
Hmm. So far my best plan would be to build a mountain of gasoline cans and explosives, stick a Property of US Government sign on it, and throw a T-shirt over Pierce's head when he showed up to explode it. Yes, this would totally work.

When one of the world’s most powerful Primes, a man called Mad Rogan offers (insists, cajoles, threatens) to help Nevada bring this criminal to justice she can’t exactly refuse … even when she’s terrified of her attraction to this homicidal, powerful Prime and has to keep reminding herself that he’s not for her.

This isn’t ‘Kate Daniels’, but there are certainly repeated elements in ‘Burn For Me’ that perhaps stopped me from loving this first book and our introduction to this new universe as much as others seemed to. Nevada is a PI, where Kate worked for the Mercenary Guild – both have elements of crime-fighting, whodunit-ing (totally a word). Admittedly Nevada has the weight of her family on her shoulders (mother, grandmother, sisters and cousins) whereas Kate’s story-arc was that she needed to be a loner. Even the love-interests are very similar – both Curran and Mad Rogan are big men and leaders (Curran of The Pack, Mad Rogan of his magic house and various employees).

I even found the romance dynamics to be very similar – Kate objectively appreciate Curran’s good looks in ‘Magic Bites’, she came to the conclusion that he was an egomaniac who collected notches on his bedpost rather than actual intimate relationships and was more trouble than he’d be worth … Nevada likewise is very much physically attracted to Mad Rogan, who lets it be known that he would appreciate a bedroom romp with her but she is put off by his homicidal tendencies, hunger for power and intimidating magical prowess.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love that Ilona Andrews’ are able to revisit the romantic snark they so perfected with Kate and Curren through the new coupling of Nevada and Mad Rogan:

“Speak to me."
"I hate you."
"Okay." Mad Rogan let go of me. "You're fine.”

But part of the reason I loved their ‘The Edge’ series was that it was such a departure from the Kate Daniels romance – it offered varied pairings and HEAs – but with ‘Burn For Me’ the crucial romance element of this urban fantasy series felt too much like a throw-back to the good old days of Kate and Curran’s back-and-forth, will-they-or-won’t-they. Undoubtedly Ilona Andrews do that well – but my point is they’ve been there, done that.

I really did enjoy this first book and I am looking forward to the second in the ‘Hidden Legacy’ series (due in 2015). I am invested in Nevada Baylor and her family – a backstory that is brilliantly established in ‘Burn For Me’. I really like this world of magic Houses, and socio-economic dynamics being dictated by magical ability. It is very clever, and I can see that this is a world that will offer plenty of high-octane storylines.

And I do like that this is a series being built around Nevada and Mad Rogan – I look forward to investing in them, and hope that in future books their romance breaks away from the same-sameness of Kate and Curran’s chemistry. Mad Rogan certainly has an intriguing enough history to make him unique.

I can see why people are loving this book – it offers everything that Ilona Andrews is so darn good at … particularly the snarky romance. But it’s exactly because I felt like Ilona Andrews had plowed many of these dynamics in the ‘Kate Daniels’ series that I wasn’t as taken with this first book – I still enjoyed it, don’t get me wrong, but I thought I’d love it and I just didn’t quite get here.

3.5/5