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Saturday, February 27, 2016

'The Woman Who Stole My Life' by Marian Keyes


From the BLURB:

Stella Sweeney is back in Dublin. After living the dream in New York for a year - touring her self-help book, appearing on talk shows all over the USA and living it up in her 10-room duplex on the Upper West Side - she's back to normality with a bang. And she's got writer's block.

Stella wants a clean break as she didn't exactly leave New York on a high. Why is she back in Ireland so soon? Who is it who keeps calling? Stella wants to get back to being the woman she used to be. But can she? And should she?

‘The Woman Who Stole My Life’ was the 2014 contemporary novel from bestselling Irish author, Marian Keyes.

Keyes has been a prolific, bestselling author since her 1995 debut – but I’d never read anything of hers before ‘The Woman Who Stole My Life’. I went in not knowing much (that blurb is really quite bare), but I’d been hearing a lot about this book since 2014 so was moved to give her a try.

What the blurb leaves out (one of the many things) is that this is story within a story, sort of – spliced between protagonist Stella Sweeney’s current life predicament, trying (unsuccessfully) to write a follow-up to her bestselling book, having moved home from New York with her tail between her legs after a humiliating event she’d rather not discuss … then we’re privy to small extracts from her book, titled ‘One Blink at a Time’ and the real-life catastrophe that prompted its being written. Because not so long ago Stella – once happily married with two older children – woke up one day dead tired, with tingling in her extremities. Next thing she knew, she’s being rushed to hospital as her body slowly starts shutting down … because Stella has a one-in-a-million disease called Guillain-Barre syndrome, a nerve inflammation that sees her entire body shutting down and effectively keeping her entombed and unable to move.

Stella recounts her time in ICU, only able to blink her eyes (left/right for yes/no) as her form of communication. Her family barely keep it together; her son Jeffrey becomes increasingly angry for her being sick, her daughter Betsy becomes Biblical and her husband Ryan just seems hopeless. The one bright spot in her day become neurologist (and someone Stella’s previously been in a car accident with) a doctor called Mannix Taylor, who devises a system of communication with her through blinks.

So, that’s the basic premise – how a beautician from Dublin found herself with a one in a million syndrome that kept her a prisoner in her own body, went on to become an author sensation, writing about her ordeal and recovery … and then lost it all and found herself divorced, and living back in Dublin.

I initially found a lot of Jojo Moyes and Liane Moriarty to Keyes’ story – not so much in tone or style, but substance (and, yes, the obvious comparison is to Moyes’s ‘Me Before You’ about a quadriplegic – but they’re really vastly different). Rather, I found connection in how Moyes, Moriarty and Keyes all seem to start with this premise of “what would you do?” It’s what grounds even their more outlandish storylines – by having them happen to thoroughly ordinary, relatable women that prompts the reader to wonder, “what would I do in that situation?”

But ‘The Woman Who Stole My Life’ is a 531-page book, and by the midway point I found myself looking around for … substance. By that point in a Moyes or Moriarty book, usually, all cards were being laid on the table and an ominous tumbling towards ending would be underway. Not so with Keyes and this book – by the midway point I was keeping my fingers crossed for more meat and angst, more oomph to the story which to that point had been careening along nicely and keeping me enthralled. But it was also a bit too cutesy. I kept waiting for Stella to really hit her lowest-lows, but it never felt like she quite got there. The Guillain-Barrè syndrome was awful, to be sure, but once I realised it wasn’t the whole basis of the story – that there was supposedly more heartbreak in store for Stella – I kept waiting for it to hit, but it never did for me.

Fair warning though: the woman of the title (who steals Stella's life) doesn't really make an appearance until the last third or so of the novel, and is only alluded to before then ... which felt underwhelming and threw the pacing off a little bit for me. 

There’s romance here too, but it doesn’t have the edges and depth I was hoping for either. Again – it was cutesy. And I even found myself more interested in how Stella’s (then) husband was coping with her being in ICU, partly because it was funny, but also because it hit more closely to that “what would you do?” launching off point;

Her face cleared, then she looked almost angry. ‘You fancy him.’ 
I don’t. 
‘You’d better not,’ she said. ‘You’ve got a good husband, who’s killing himself to keep everything going. You know he went out to buy tampons for Betsy?’ 
Christ. Would I never hear the end of how Ryan had gone out to buy tampons for Betsy? It had become like a tale from Irish mythology. Great deeds done by Irish men: Brian Boru fighting the Battle of Clontarf; Padraig Pearse reading the Proclamation of Irish Independence on the steps of the GPO; Ryan Sweeney buying tampons for his daughter, Betsy.

I admit; I enjoyed myself while I was reading this (though partly I think because I literally got to halfway through this 531-page book before realising it was veering away from the heft of story I’d been hoping for going in). Keyes’ humour is definitely charming, but I though it sometimes detracted from the real meat of the story and cushioned her opportunities to hit the story a little harder. But that’s obviously Keyes sticking to what her readers expect from one of her books, so I’ll admit this might just be me going in as a newbie.

I would read a Marian Keyes book again, with the right “huh, what would I do?” storyline hook – but for the most part I think I’d prefer to stick with my favourites, Jojo Moyes and Liane Moriarty.

3/5

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

'Magic Stars' Kate Daniels #8.5, Grey Wolf #1 by Ilona Andrews


From the BLURB:

Novella set in Kate Daniels world...

Derek Gaunt has no family and few friends. Scarred, solitary, he is the lone wolf who separated from his pack. When those close to him are murdered, he’ll stop at nothing to hunt their killer through magic-drenched Atlanta.
 

Soon Julie Olsen joins him and what begins as revenge turns into the race to save the city. Their search puts them against powers they never imagined and magic so old, it predates history. It may cost Derek his life, but there are things for which even he would risk everything.

This novella from Ilona Andrews (#8.5 in the ‘Kate Daniels’ universe, also called book #1 in a new ‘Grey Wolf’ series – INTRIGUINGLY!) I read it in an hour and now I just have to share my thoughts because, … I think this is one of my favourite pieces of writing from Ilona Andrews. Like, ever.

First off: everyone by now should know that I’m a huge Julie fan, and have been ever since she kicked some serious butt in her own short story in ‘An Apple for the Creature’ anthology. I have also been a long-time Derek and Julie shipper, probably from the time of book #3 ‘Magic Strikes’ when she didn’t care that he was scarred. And sure, teen Lothario Asciano poses some interesting tension in Derek and Julie’s dynamic, but I know who the HEA should be for Julie when she’s of an age.

‘Magic Stars’ is a delicious slice of suspense and character revelation, wrapped in an action-adventure for Julie and Derek to go on when they find themselves investigating the same mystery from different sides.

I would say that if you’re a huge ‘Kate Daniels’ fan, you need to read ‘Magic Stars’ as a priority. There are a few hints about what Julie has been doing in talking to Roland, which was quickly revealed in last book ‘Magic Shifts’. There are also revelations about Julie’s awareness of her shifted relationship with Kate. Both of these crumbs have no doubt been sprinkled in this novella in a lead-up to bigger revelations in 2016’s ‘Magic Binds’, but they’re particularly delicious to read from straight from Julie’s perspective.

This book though, is really about Julie and Derek. Julie is sixteen, mind – so it’s not a romance … it goes deeper than that. We see how comfortable they are with each other, the trust that’s there when Derek doesn’t think he can rely on anything in this world, and the foundations that have already been laid for a future *something*. It’s really special to read, and just has me desperate for Ilona Andrews to give Julie her own spin-off series, that she continues to prove she can more than handle.

There’s definitely a hint here that giving Julie her own series would require her to first go down a dark path … but reading how strong a bond she has with Derek, I trust that he could bring her back from the brink of anything. And goddamn, do I want to read the heck out of that!

5/5

Monday, February 22, 2016

'Iris and the Tiger' by Leanne Hall

Received from the Publisher 

 From the BLURB:

Twelve-year-old Iris has been sent to Spain on a mission: to make sure her elderly and unusual aunt, Ursula, leaves her fortune–and her sprawling estate–to Iris’s scheming parents.

But from the moment Iris arrives at Bosque de Nubes, she realises something isn’t quite right. There is an odd feeling around the house, where time moves slowly and Iris’s eyes play tricks on her. While outside, in the wild and untamed forest, a mysterious animal moves through the shadows.

Just what is Aunt Ursula hiding?

But when Iris discovers a painting named Iris and the Tiger, she sets out to uncover the animal’s real identity–putting her life in terrible danger.

‘Iris and the Tiger’ is the new novel from Australian author Leanne Hall, a magnificent middle-grade magical-realism marvel.

Let me begin my review of Hall’s ‘Iris and the Tiger’ by quoting another book. ‘It’s the things you read at the age you are now which stick. Books crow-bar the world open for you.’ Said to a 12-year-old girl on her birthday, in Katherine Rundell’s beautiful novel, ‘Rooftoppers’.

I love that quote, and the epitome of it is surely in Leanne Hall’s ‘Iris and the Tiger’ which, though labeled as Young Adult, is really a little bit closer to this marvelous readership called Middle Grade (8-12 years, generally). Because I love middle grade literature, and I’m excited to see it grow in Australia where it’s often ignored (I use the example that many State Premier’s Literary Awards don’t recognise children’s literature as a separate category, and often lump it with YA or overlook it completely). But I see nurturing this middle grade readership in Australia as incredibly important, and intrinsically linked to the #LoveOzYA campaign in many ways – this idea that children who grow up reading Australian kids’ books will become teenagers who read Aussie YA, and then adults who read Australian literature.

In recent years, the creation of The Readings Children’s Book Prize (celebrating works of published fiction, written for children aged 5–12) has been an incredible step in recognizing and celebrating this important children’s category – and I’ve written in the past about how brilliant a Prize it is. Particularly that Aussie children and their families now have one more institution to guide them towards quality middle grade fiction – something akin to the prestigious Newbery Medal in America.

I do see middle-grade fiction on the rise in Australia – not just because of the creation of the Readings Children’s Book Prize, but publishers like Hardie Grant have recently adapted their unpublished manuscript prize, the Ampersand, to include MG as well as YA titles. This is an indication and acknowledgment that the more sophisticated YA becomes, likewise the more complex MG has to become to keep up with readers, and to keep enticing readers – and that’s also why I love the fact that one of Australia’s greatest YA daughters in Leanne Hall (of ‘This is Shyness’ and ‘Queen of the Night’ brilliance) has turned her pen to a novel for younger readers with her third book.

‘Iris and the Tiger’ is the tale of 12-year-old Iris – the daughter of greedy parents who send her on a mission to visit her dying Great Aunt Ursula in Spain, purely for the purposes of ascertaining the quality of their inheritance when she croaks. But when Iris arrives she finds herself in the middle of a mystery around a painting titled ‘Iris and the Tiger’, which sets her off on a mission to uncover the painting’s true subject – no matter the danger to her own life.

The magical realism of ‘Iris and the Tiger’ is borne of the surrealism in the paintings that hang at her Aunt Ursual’s Bosque de Nubes. Though eventually the strangeness of the paintings that Iris encounters seem to leak into the real-world and the goings-on of her Aunt’s strange and fantastical life …

A painting hanging nearby flickered. It showed an underwater scene, a rush of water, bubbles and waving water plants. There were two pink legs in the lower right corner. The legs kicked – once, twice, three times – before swimming out of view, beyond the edges of the painting. One second they were there, the next they were gone.
 
‘Iris and the Tiger’ has a little bit of mystery and suspense, and explores the cultural shake-up for Iris who befriends neighbor boy Jordi. But what makes this novel a real jewel in the crown for young readers, is it’s awakening of magical realism. It’s such a beautiful genre, but one that children rarely encounter the nuance of in the middle grade readership, which tends towards contemporary or fantasy but rarely a blend of the two.

She pictured a golden head with golden eyes and pricked ears, somewhere in the house. A striped body prowling down the curling staircase, out the front door and into the forest. Tail flicking as it moved beyond the edge of the painting and out into the real world. The tiger, doing exactly as it pleased, not caring in the slightest about the rules that should have kept it on the canvas.
 
I really commend Leanne Hall for bringing her magical realism touchstone to her first foray into middle grade. In her YA novels – ‘This is Shyness’ and ‘Queen of the Night’ – she adapted that magical realism to an urban setting with fantastically wicked results. In ‘Iris and the Tiger’ I loved that she was using art and surrealism to introduce younger readers to this beautiful genre – it kind of reads like the first time someone sees a Dorothea Tanning painting, and they’re just cracked open with all the possibilities. I also really appreciated Hall’s setting her story in Spain – it’s an ode to the rich Latin American origin and history of fabulism, and I envision young readers growing up to one day read the likes of Isabel Allende, Laura Esquivel, Gabriel García Márquez and so many more, and thinking back on their first encountering the genre with Leanne Hall and ‘Iris and the Tiger’.

This is a very special book, by a vibrant Australian author. I love that younger readers get to experience the writing of Leanne Hall, and I especially love that ‘Iris and the Tiger’ will also surprise and delight older readers alike. I loved this book – from that gorgeous Sandra Eterovic cover-art, to the story within that certainly ‘crow-bars the world open for you.’ 
Just – stunning.

5/5

Friday, February 19, 2016

'After You' Me Before You #2 by Jojo Moyes


From the BLURB:

Lou Clark has lots of questions.

Like how it is she's ended up working in an airport bar, spending every shift watching other people jet off to new places.

Or why the flat she's owned for a year still doesn't feel like home.

Whether her close-knit family can forgive her for what she did eighteen months ago.

And will she ever get over the love of her life.

What Lou does know for certain is that something has to change.

Then, one night, it does.

But does the stranger on her doorstep hold the answers Lou is searching for – or just more questions?

Close the door and life continues: simple, ordered, safe.

Open it and she risks everything.

But Lou once made a promise to live. And if she's going to keep it, she has to invite them in...

‘After You’ was the 2015 sequel to Jojo Moyes’s 2012 bestselling book, ‘Me Before You’.

It’s some 18 months since Will Traynor committed assisted suicide, ending his life that saw him as a successful business and sportsman, but that took a drastic turn after an accident left him a quadriplegic. Louisa ‘Lou’ Clark was his companion and care-giver for six short months; six months in which she fell in love with Will, struggled with his decision to end his life and was inspired to expand her own small world because of the fire he lit in her.

But it’s hard to live life to the fullest when you’re still grieving – and somewhat angry at the person whose life changed yours, but still decided to end his own. Lou, we discover, did as Will instructed and lived for herself … for a little while, at least. But she grew exhausted and lonely, and the further she got away from memories of Will, the more she finds herself doubting everything they had and she’s become.

I went straight to Paris and simply didn’t go home, giddy with the freedom, with the appetites that Will had stirred in me. I got a job at a bar favoured by expats where they didn’t mind my terrible French, and I grew better at it. I rented a tiny attic room in the 16th, above a Middle Eastern restaurant, and I would lie awake at night and listen to the sound of the late drinkers and the early morning deliveries and every day I felt like I was living someone else’s life.

When we catch up with Lou again, she’s living an uneventful half-life in the London apartment she bought with money Will left her. She’s working a dead-end waitressing job at the airport, and her family are worried for all the ways she’s letting life slip through her fingers again … but then a terrible accident, and an unexpected visitor conspire to turn Lou’s life around again.

So, I was really reluctant to read this book. Hence, why I didn’t pounce on it when it was released last year. ‘Me Before You’ was my first Moyes book, and I loved it. I was obsessed with it, and couldn’t stop thinking of Lou and Will for days after that book wrecked me … and when I heard Moyes was writing a sequel (not just a novella catch-up shortish story, but a proper 416-page book!) I didn’t want to read it. I thought ‘Me Before You’ was perfect as-was, and I hesitated to read Moyes revisiting this story – I was worried that it wouldn’t be anywhere near as good, or I’d find no point in revisiting. Thankfully though, I had no reason to worry. Moyes has as many important themes and bruises to discuss and poke at, and Lou is in a riper place than ever for a reflection story/journey.

I love the fact that this is Moyes looking at grief, and the fact that there’s no guidebook or expiry-date on missing someone. This is something Lou struggles with – both for how short a time she knew Will, she wonders if she’s ‘allowed’ to have this depth of feeling and missing for him;

“Did I imagine it all, Nathan? Sometimes I think I’ve made what happened between Will and me so much bigger in my head. Like how can I have loved someone that much in such a short time? And all these things I think about the two of us – did we actually feel what I remember? The further we get from it, the more that six months just seems like this weird … dream.” 
There was a tiny pause before Nathan responded. “You didn’t imagine it, mate.”
 
But it’s also Lou struggling to ‘live life to the fullest’ like she learnt to do with Will – but that becomes hard to do with the drudgery of life and needing to support yourself, and when just living day-to-day while grieving is a task in itself. Suddenly all those wisdoms Will imparted seem impossible to fulfil.

There is a little romance for Lou in this book, which is something else she has to tackle through the lens of grief and guilt. But there’s a bigger story in here too, about another unexpected way the memory of Will ‘intrudes’ on Lou trying to live her life and move on … when this arc revealed itself I did a little internal eye-roll at the cliché of it, but Moyes pulls it off with aplomb by infusing a grittiness to the questions this character and story throws up. I also appreciated that there was an aspect to it that connected to what happened to Lou as a young woman, when she was raped while out partying one night. All of this really grounded the story, and bought new dimensions to Lou’s new life and growth for me.

I also loved that Lou’s family have their own dramas playing out – her mother has taken a feminist school course, and her father is feeling threatened by the woman his wife is suddenly becoming after decades of steady marriage.

I shouldn’t have held out so long to read this sequel. I’m glad that watching the trailer for the movie adaptation of ‘Me Before You’ prompted me to revisit Lou’s world, because ‘After You’ was absolutely fulfilling and a phenomenal read. I did love that Lou got another little romance here, but there’s bigger things happening in her life that made me even think I’d like to revisit her for a third time round …

5/5




Wednesday, February 17, 2016

New genre #LoveOzYA posters!

Hello Darling Readers,

I am really excited to share a new crop of #LoveOzYA posters with you all … these posters have been in the works for quite a while now, and they really came together thanks to one person in particular – Shivaun Plozza. She’s not only author of the forthcoming #LoveOzYA book ‘Frankie’ (which Melina Marchetta sings the praises of, FYI) but she’s a very talented graphic designer who put these posters together based on my ideas, and I’m just so grateful to her!

You’ll note that these FOUR posters are not the same ‘Readalikes’ format as the first two in the #LoveOzYA-inspired series. This time around I wanted to let Aussie titles set the agenda, and have a poster entirely dedicated to only OzYA books.

Click here to download the #LoveOzYA posters! 

These posters based around genre were inspired by Adele Walsh (from the Centre for Youth Literature, who also sits on the LoveOzYA committee with me) – Adele noted that teenagers don’t really care about genre-labels, they’ll be more interested if you pitch a book just by explaining it in terms of; “intergalactic space war!” So these are genre/non-genre posters, trying to mimic the way teenagers actually recommend books to each other.

... you'll also note that the posters cite the website 'loveozya.com.au' which is COMING (very) SOON! 

As always there will be titles and authors that I’ve missed – and I’m so sorry for that! I am trying to recommend as many authors as possible, and not double-up on author-recs by having their books appear on more than one poster … but I’m going to fail and I totally own that. My apologies – there are just too many awesome Aussie YA books!

But never fear, because I have ideas for future posters – the next one I have in mind is to team up with the awesome Michael Earp, and create poster/s based on his great ‘Australian LGBTQ YA’ tumblr. I just need to find another kind graphic designer willing to make those for me :) watch this space!

In the mean time, I hope you like these FOUR (!) new posters.  
And thank you again to lovely Shivaun!


 

 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

'Summer Skin' by Kirsty Eagar

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

Jess Gordon is out for revenge. Last year the jocks from Knights College tried to shame her best friend. This year she and a hand-picked college girl gang are going to get even.

The lesson: don't mess with Unity girls.

The target: Blondie, a typical Knights stud, arrogant, cold . . . and smart enough to keep up with Jess.

A neo-riot grrl with a penchant for fanning the flames meets a rugby-playing sexist pig - sworn enemies or two people who happen to find each other when they're at their most vulnerable?

It's all Girl meets Boy, Girl steals from Boy, seduces Boy, ties Boy to a chair and burns Boy's stuff. Just your typical love story.

‘Summer Skin’ is the new young adult novel from Australian author, Kirsty Eagar.

Fair warning: when I love something I like to talk about it and examine it from all angles. I really loved ‘Summer Skin’, so prepare for a long, loving review …

First I’m trying to think of how to describe this book and what happens, plot-wise, when I don’t actually want to give too much away. Also that there’s isn’t really much to give away that the blurb doesn’t already beautifully summarise, like with this pithy one-liner that I think is just pure fucking poetry: a neo-riot grrl with a penchant for fanning the flames meets a rugby-playing sexist pig. Or how about feminist commentator Clementine Ford’s endorsement, that explains ‘Summer Skin’ is: a keen look at modern day intimacy in a hook-up culture. You already know all you need to entice you to pick up this smart, sexy YA read.

So instead I want to tell you about ‘Summer Skin’ by going back to 1975 – the year Judy Blume’s ‘Forever’ was first published. I love this page about ‘Forever’ on Blume’s website, where she explains the kernel of an idea for what would become, without a doubt, one of the most important books in young adult history: My daughter Randy asked for a story about two nice kids who have sex without either of them having to die. She had read several novels about teenagers in love. If they had sex the girl was always punished—an unplanned pregnancy, a hasty trip to a relative in another state, a grisly abortion (illegal in the U.S. until the 1970's), sometimes even death. Lies. Secrets. At least one life ruined. Girls in these books had no sexual feelings and boys had no feelings other than sexual. Neither took responsibility for their actions. I wanted to present another kind of story—one in which two seniors in high school fall in love, decide together to have sex, and act responsibly.

Pretty radical notion, huh? Writing about two teenagers who have sex and don’t die. But that was radical back in 1975, when young adult literature (and especially American YA) had to have moralistic undertones – and when it came to sex that was meant to be abstinence is best.

Fast forward to 2016 and Kirsty Eagar’s ‘Summer Skin’ is adding new layers and nuances to a discussion Blume started 41 years ago. In this book, Eagar is talking about sex and sexuality, pleasure and politics in a way that’s taking Aussie YA literature into a new and daring stratosphere, and it’s absolutely worth celebrating.

‘Summer Skin’ runs quite the sexual gamut – exploring everything from young women who are sexually degraded by men, to sex being used as weapon or revenge, and the pressure women feel to have sex though it’s often divorced from feeling and pleasure … there’s even discussions in here about how pornography has impacted the way in which young people view sex today – as more performance than pleasure, and the impact of its dangerous unrealism;

If high school was all about whether or not you’d give it up, uni seemed to be about nothing but giving it up. Suddenly, inexplicably, the rules changed, and – bam – you were Adult-with-a-capital-A. There was no means to the end, there was just the end, just sex, and you pretended to keep up. Sometimes Jess had felt it, the flaring of her own appetite, but she’d rarely let herself go. Too busy performing.

This book is also built on discussions and dichotomies of sexism and feminism – not running just as an undercurrent, but an in-your-face refreshing statement not to be messed with or overlooked. Indeed, the book is about Unity Girls versus Knights Boys on college campus – and through them these discussions are made manifest. The Knights Boys in particular are beautifully portrayed in their truth and – it must be said – Neanderthal ways. And if you don’t believe me, know that ‘Summer Skin’ made me think all the way back to 2012 and a particularly disturbing story about a drinking scandal, near-death of a teenage girl and unearthed misogyny at St John's College at the University of Sydney. These boys Eagar is writing about, and the society they belong to, absolutely exist and she’s chilling in her scarily accurate depictions.

There’s also a perverse beauty to Eagar exploring these topics, because she is such a marvellous author for detail. I found myself marking so many pages in this book, just because her descriptions took my breath away for their vividness;  

… widening his stance as if experiencing a sudden and significant surge in ball size, speaking in the drawl used by guys who are fluent in Brah.
 
I also want to celebrate this book for its grey-areas and sexiness – because ‘Summer Skin’ is both sensuous and subversive, scathing and scintillating. And this, in itself, is making a statement in YA as big as Blume’s ‘Forever’ did – as Eagar’s protagonist Jess enters into something steamy with her antithesis, Knights Boy, rugby player, Blondie Brah – Mitch. And their relationship is hot – something which is still not as prevalent as it should be in YA. Honest depictions of sexual desire and pleasure (particularly emphasis on female pleasure and self-pleasure) – it’s still a radical thing to find in YA.

Blondie held the can there, just out from her breast, until she looked at him. And when she did, his eyes were so intense that she released his wrist. She gasped when he pressed the can to her nipples, first one and then the other, but then he replaced it with his mouth, sucking each nipple in turn, his hands supporting her, and Jess closed her eyes, her breath catching. She arched her back.
 
As someone who reads a lot of romance, I can tell you that ‘Summer Skin’ is up there with the best. But I do want to say that I still consider this book to be young adult – even for its college campus setting and abundant sex. I have no problems with people bandying the label ‘New Adult’ around – but I will say that I absolutely believe teenagers (boys and girls alike) should find their way to ‘Summer Skin’ and embrace its many messages, particularly around sex-positivity and politics.

Kirsty Eagar has long been one of Australia’s most daring and rebellious YA writers, dating back to her powerful debut ‘Raw Blue’. ‘Summer Skin’ is more brilliance and fearlessness from this Aussie favourite, and I absolutely applaud Eagar for elevating such conversations around modern romance in our young adult literature.  

5/5 

Friday, February 5, 2016

‘Mothers & Others' edited by Natalie Kon-yu, Christie Nieman, Maggie Scott, Miriam Sved and Maya Linden


From the BLURB:

'When are you having children?' 'Why didn't you have another child?' 'Well, I guess that's your choice, but...'

They are questions asked of women of a certain age all the time. Beneath them is the assumption that all women want to have children, and the judgment that if they don't, they'll be somehow incomplete. And that's only the beginning...

Being a mother, or not being a mother, has never been so complicated. The list of rights and wrongs gets longer daily, with guilt-ridden mothers struggling to keep on top of it all, and non-mothers battling a culture that defines women by their wombs.

In this collection of fiction and non-fiction stories, Australian women reflect on motherhood: how it should be and how it really is. Their stories tackle everything from the decision not to have children to the so-called war between working and stay-at-home mums. Including special contributions by Rosie Batty and Deborra-Lee Furness, the stories explore every topic from infertility and IVF, to step-parenting and adoption, to miscarriage and breastfeeding, child meltdowns and marriage breakdowns, as well as giving a much-needed voice to those who won't ever be called 'Mum'.

Mothers & Others: Australian writers on why not all women are mothers and not all mothers are the same’ is the 2015 anthology collection of stories from editors Natalie Kon-yu, Christie Nieman, Maggie Scott, Miriam Sved and Maya Linden. This is the same writers group – turned editorial team – who put out one of my favourite 2013 books: ‘Just Between Us’, an anthology all about female friendships.

I adored ‘Just Between Us’, not only for the calibre of female authors assembled – but more for the honest explorations into dynamics, which are so often misconstrued and misunderstood or just missing from all forms of fiction and storytelling – the female friendship. I mean; there’s a reason the Disney musical ‘Frozen’ was seen as groundbreaking for being a film in which the sister’s friendship takes precedence above all else, and is the true heart of the story. For much the same reason, ‘Mothers & Others’ is a groundbreaking and heart-warming tribute to the many facets of motherhood, which – upon reading the offerings from 28 marvellous writers – you quickly realise, is often lazily presented elsewhere as nuclear, one-dimensional and untrue. This anthology absolutely delivers on its promise, as it; ‘holds a mirror up to the most romanticised, demonised and complex roles women play: those of mother or non-mother, and daughter.’

There’s a quote from a Jodi Picoult book called ‘Vanishing Acts’ that has stayed with me, and I don’t know why; “There is a reason the word belonging has a synonym for want at its centre; it is the human condition.” But it revibrated with me while reading certain non-fiction stories from particular writers in this anthology, those especially who have long and illustrious careers writing about the topics of family, relationships and belonging. What fascinated me was their non-fiction writing about their changed circumstances, and how this has impacted on their writing or will inform their future stories, no doubt.

The book opens, for instance, with a non-fiction story from Alice Pung – an incredible Australian author known for her memoir writing, who has explored topics around her family’s fleeing the killing fields of Cambodia to settle in Australia in ‘Unpolished Gem’ and the heartstrings of family versus her need for independence in ‘Her Father's Daughter’. Her short story ‘The New Grandparents’ explores both familiar and new terrain as she moves into a new phase of her life as a first-time mother, suddenly bringing a sharper understanding perhaps, to all that she has written about in her memoirs;

Almost three and a half decades later, their firstborn – a child they named after the girl in Lewis Carroll’s book, because they thought Australia was a Wonderland – is having her firstborn. They didn’t know whether they would survive the war, let alone get to this lucky point in life. 
   The New Grandparents’ by Alice Pung

New York Times Bestselling author Liane Moriarty has been very open about the reasons so many of her female characters have tackled fertility issues and the crushing blows of miscarriage, IVF-treatment or faced the possibility of never having children. ‘Three Wishes’, ‘What Alice Forgot’, and ‘The Last Anniversary’ have all featured characters struggling to get pregnant, or worrying that it’s too late for them. 'The Hypnotist's Love Story' also featured an especially intriguing female character who had to come to terms with being dumped by her partner, and consequently losing the connection she had established with his young son, whom she’d helped raise for a time. Moriarty has spoken about how her own real-life struggles with these topics influenced her writing, and most recently I was listening to a Sydney Writers’ Festival podcast of her 2015 appearance, in which she talked about the many female readers who reach out to her with thanks or anger for hitting so close to home on these topics. In her non-fiction story ‘The Childless Side of the Room’, Moriarty reflects on a gym class in which a guileless female instructor (and new mum) asks her class to split the room according to parents and non-parents (to highlight how well the parents – battling busy schedules – still find time to fit in fitness, apparently). Moriarty, though now a mother of two, finds herself reflecting on how her past-self would have taken to such battle-line instruction when she was at her lowest point of infertility and struggles to conceive. It’s a gut-wrenching, open-bruise sort of short story – a confessional and an olive branch to any woman going through what Moriarty came out the other side of. And it’s a refined understanding of how these topics can still lay so close to her heart that they’re recurring themes and explorations in so many of her books, even years after she gave birth to her two children;

My main memory of that time is the way I always had to hold myself: stiffly, carefully, as if I were a tall glass of messy emotions that might break or spill at any moment. And still, the shame, the everlasting shame, because all this was my fault: because I was so old; because I’d taken too long to start trying; because I’d messed it up, buttercup.  
   The Childless Side of the Room’ by Liane Moriarty

Melina Marchetta returns to ‘Mothers & Others’, having contributed the brilliant fictional short story ‘The Centre’ to the first anthology – but this time Marchetta is offering up a non-fiction and very personal slice, in a story titled ‘Of a Lesser God’. Here, Marchetta writes a letter to her child – ‘B’ – whom she has recently adopted, as she details the first year of their lives together. Given that Marchetta has built a career writing groundbreaking YA books about identity and displacement – a recurring theme from her contemporary ‘Looking for Alibrandi’ to high fantasy and ‘Finnikin of the Rock’ – there’s something incredibly touching here, to read her sharp insights and understanding translating so preciously to this new life she’s building for herself and B.   

Although I’m a bit greedy and want you all to myself, I also don’t want you to spend your life wondering where you came from, whether your birth parents loved you, who you look like. I understand the importance of identity. I’ve been writing about it most my life. 
   Of a Lesser God’ by Melina Marchetta
Deborra-Lee Furness – actress and ‘Adopt Change’ ambassador – also has a more academic and insightful non-fiction story in here about her path to motherhood. She cites the Convention of the Rights of the Child, United National treaty and the fact that 157 million children are without family (according to UNICEF) – in explaining why she’s campaigning so hard to make adoption easier in Australia and the rest of the world, for all families.

It’s important to note that these stories are not all non-fiction – five are fiction, and one in particular from Maxine Beneba Clarke titled ‘Paint’, will have you racing to pick up her phenomenal short story collection ‘Foreign Soil’ if you haven’t had the pleasure of reading it already. And not all these stories are about the mother-side of motherhood. Estelle Tang’s non-fiction piece ‘Motherland’ is about her being a child far away from home, having moved to New York – specifically examining ‘migrants mothers and children in the work of Colm Tóibín, Maxine Beneba Clarke and Roxane Gay.’
… the distance I put between us by moving overseas has shown me that we are not one entity, but two distinct individuals. Does that seem obvious to most people? It wasn’t to me, not for a long time. And now that I’m looking back at how in thrall I was to her, I’m surprised that I don’t feel more lost or damaged now that out relationship is attenuated. Many of my thoughts – casual or radical or laboured – are what my mother taught me. 
   Motherland’ by Estelle Tang

Coming into ‘Mothers & Others’ I’m one of the “others” (and that title is so tongue-in-cheek, I think, reflecting and perhaps criticising the way women who don’t fall neatly into the first are so often “othered” as a consequence) – regardless, I related hard to every single story within its pages.  Sometimes rather viscerally – as YA author Simmone Howell writes about turning to books to discover “what kind of writer-mother would I be?” in her short story ‘Writing Gully’ (an allusion to her wonderful YA book ‘Girl Defective’, which features the memorable and sensitive young child character called Gully). In this, Howell was investigating the balancing of writing and motherhood. But it got me thinking of the ways books have educated me on the intricacies of this side to life, I’d only ever had experience with as a daughter.

I became a novelist because I had a child. 
   The Mother Lode’ by Geraldine Brooks
    
I find that I’m not so strange to think that it’s through art and books that my understanding of mothering and motherhood has also been shaped – and I find it so fitting that Geraldine Brooks is in here too, offering a non-fiction story called ‘The Mother Lode’ (like Howell, exploring the connection of art and motherhood). I had just shared Brooks’ ‘The Year of Wonders’ as my #StellaSpark, you see, and in particular I remember being a teenager reading that book and being made to feel such a visceral connection to Anna Frith grieving for her children. This line from the book still haunts me; “My Tom died as babies do, gently and without complaint.”

That is, I realise, the gift of ‘Mothers & Others’ too. True, everyone could come to ‘Just Between Us’ and see facets of themselves and their lives – after all, we’ve all had and been friends, surely? Men and women alike? But some may think ‘Mothers & Others’ is less accessible – again, I think of that room being split in Moriarty’s story, of parents and not. But it’s not the case, and not just because these writers are so accomplished and poetic, to have opened a vein and bled (as Ernest Hemingway would have applauded.) There is universality here – yes, partly because even if you’re not a parent you are somebody’s child – but it’s deeper than that. These stories delve into instinct and love, mistakes and do-over’s, fractured lines, family ties and a loss so awful but does not lessen love or title. There’s more universe here than you may think.

5/5