Review: small things by Mel Tregonning

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small things by Mel Tregonning is a picture book about a boy who feels alone with his worries, but who learns that help is always close by.

There is no dialogue in the black and white story, which works on many levels. Without dialogue, the focus is on the actions and reactions of the boy and those around him. Symbolically, I also interpreted the lack of dialogue to the sense of voicelessness sufferers of depression and anxiety feel. The lack of dialogue also lends itself to the notion that actions, even something as simple as a touch or a hug, can have more of a profound and uplifting effect on sufferers than words might.

The sorrow the boy feels is conveyed through shadows that float up and attach to the boy, which then take away parts of the boy. The shadows convey that worries are always lingering, and after a while they cause the boy’s skin to crack and crumble, but not all hope is lost, as the shadows retreat when the boy reads or interacts. So, while the sorrow the boy is experiencing is life-threatening, there are signs that the sadness can be kept at bay.

The narrative is beautifully balanced, as not only does it convey the boy’s sense of sorrow and how he feels he is perceived by others, it also shows how his angry reactions negatively impact on close friends and family. There is no sense of blame or judgement on the boy, but more so an eventual awareness of the suffering of others. This is exemplified as the boy accepts his sister’s help and then, upon returning to school the next day, sees shadows attached to his classmates. There is also the added comfort that the boy is not alone, as he has friends and family who also have shadows.

This is a beautiful book. It is a moving read, but not bleak. It is perfectly balanced, as it does not attempt to offer any magical fix-it-all solution, nor does it convey a sense of hopelessness. It is the perfect book for those who may be struggling to articulate or understand their own depression, although perhaps not suitable for young children as the images of his cracked and dissolving body are confronting. It is also recommended reading for those who may have a loved one who is suffering, but not understand what they’re going through.

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I don’t usually write reviews on picture books, but I believe small things is such an important resource, for all the reasons listed above. Mel Tregonning took her own life before she finished the book. It’s so sad to think she will never know the positive impact this book will have on so many people. Her family have spoken publicly about her death, as they believe her story “has the power to make this book even more important”.

 

 

Review: ‘One Would Think the Deep’ by Claire Zorn

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Sam fell into a pattern without making a conscious decision. Out of the water he was messed up, he had turned every good thing he had to shit. In the water he was Minty Booner’s cousin and he would take on any wave that rose up against him. Recklessness or measured risk – the hazy space in-between was solace.

In the summer of 1997, 17-year old Sam Hudson catches his mother as she collapses, felled by an aneurysm. Sam hasn’t seen his Auntie Lorraine Booner in 7 years, but she is the only family he has left. Lorraine’s knee-jerk reaction is to ask Sam if his grandmother can take him in, but she agrees to take him in at a push. With nothing but his skateboard and a few random belongings stuffed into garbage bags, Sam trades Sydney for a camp bed in the small windowless spare room at his Aunt’s house on the surf coast. His aunt won’t look him in the eye, and his cousin Shane makes it clear from the outset that Sam isn’t welcome, but Shane’s younger brother Michael ‘Minty’ greets Sam with Labrador-like enthusiasm. Sam is surprised at how easy it was between him and Minty after all this time, but despite his efforts to emulate Minty’s chilled lifestyle, Sam struggles to escape the grief of his mother’s death and his need to uncover the family secret that led to the 7-year estrangement.

Just as she did with The Protected, Claire Zorn perfectly captures the emotional chaos of grief. Sam spends much of One Would Think the Deep trying not to think of his mother, or of the pointlessness of her death. Sam realises he can switch off the anger and sadness he feels while he is out surfing with Minty. But, surfing is not a peaceful and meditative experience for Sam, as time and time again he is dumped and slammed into the ocean floor, salt water burning through his nose and his chest. Sam turns to violence as a desperate means to stop himself from falling into the black hole of grief, and to somehow reassert himself as a strong masculine figure, but each violent encounter brings him one step closer to losing what little family he has left.

Sam struggles with perceived notions of masculinity, which is shown through his struggle to establish a relationship with Gretchen. He is both envious and fearful of emotional vulnerability. The struggle between masculinity and femininity is cleverly explored through 90’s music. Jeff Buckley is referenced throughout the novel. As Claire discussed at The Melbourne Writers Festival, Jeff Buckley’s vulnerable, effeminate persona was at odds with the hyper-masculine grunge era of the 1990’s. The music of Kurt Cobain fills Sam with a powerful yet restless anger, while Jeff Buckley leaves Sam feeling envious, as Buckley presents himself in a raw emotional state without having his masculinity called into question.

Minty’s perpetually cheerful extroverted persona compliments Sam’s reserved introspective nature, but Minty is just as lost as Sam, as he struggles with navigating through family trauma and the pressure of making it as a pro surfer. Minty tries to show strength through grotesque misogynistic behaviour, through objectification of Gretchen and the manner in which he treats his best friend, Ruby. On the one hand, Ruby’s friendship with Minty allows her privilege out in the surf, but Minty keeps her at a distance by sleeping around. Ruby can more than hold her own, both in the water and around Minty and his friends. Ruby has her own struggles to contend with, as she grapples with her indigenous heritage. Claire wrote the character of Ruby in consultation with the Woolyungah Indigenous Centre at the University of Wollongong.

The family revelation was admittedly predictable, but this did not detract from the readability of One Would Think the Deep. The focus of the novel was not so much the events leading up to Sam’s arrival at his aunt’s home, but whether he can reconcile with his past in order to navigate towards a hopeful future. Claire Zorn has once again created a great mix of believable characters. While Ruby may be the only likeable character, it is the fallibility, vulnerability and earnestness of each of the characters that makes them compelling. As with The Protected, Claire does not present a final conclusion for each of the characters, but there is enough presented about the ensemble throughout the novel to indicate how their lives continue on after the final page.

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Review: ‘Eleanor & Park’ by Rainbow Rowell

“The new girl took a deep breath and stepped farther down the aisle. Nobody would look at her. Park tried not to, but it was kind of a train wreck/eclipse situation.

The girl just looked like exactly the sort of person this would happen to.

Not just new – but big and awkward. With crazy hair, bright red on top of curly. And she was dressed like … like she wanted people to look at her. Or maybe she didn’t get what a mess she was.”

Eleanor is the new girl in town who draws attention to herself the moment she steps on the bus, through her curly red hair and mismatched clothes. Park is the boy at the back of the bus who tries to go unnoticed by keeping his headphones on and his head down in a comic. Stuck next to each other for an hour a day, Eleanor and Park slowly, unintentionally and cautiously get to know each other, first through shared comics and mixed tapes, and then through late night phone calls. They fall in love, with nothing and everything to lose.

Eleanor & Park is written in third person omniscient, which is a refreshing change from the abundance of first person YA narratives. Splitting the perspective between Eleanor and Park allows the reader to gain some insight into the mind of each of the protagonists, however by writing in third person omniscient, Rainbow Rowell maintains a sense of distance between the characters and the reader. After all, this novel isn’t a story about absolute truths, nor does the novel offer a neatly rounded conclusion. The focus of Eleanor & Park is on the journey of discovery, of the little steps the characters make to learn more about themselves.

The beauty and power of the relationship between Eleanor and Park isn’t in what they say to each other, but what is left unsaid. The relationship is established through Eleanor (in)discretely reading a comic over Park’s shoulder, and through Park wordlessly lending her a comic for the first time. The timid exchange between the two characters is beautiful to follow, but as their family dynamics are explored it becomes apparent that what is being presented is not only shyness due to inexperience, but fear of reprisal from their respective families. Park is struggling with his sense of identity and what it means to be masculine; having his father constantly compare him to his brother does nothing to ease his anxiety. Eleanor’s mother and her siblings live in the flats with her abusive partner. The abuse inflicted upon Eleanor and her family is confronting, and Eleanor’s sense of helplessness is heartbreaking to follow. The relationship between Eleanor and Park offers them each an opportunity for learn about themselves and find a strength within themselves neither knew existed.

This book has been on my to-read list for a while. Seeing Rainbow Rowell at the 2016 Melbourne Writers Festival prompted me to finally go out and buy a copy.

I was fascinated by the original cover before I even read the synopsis – the simple yet so very intimate image of Eleanor and Park set apart, but joined together by earphones. This edition wasn’t available. Instead, I purchased the UK edition. The design is beautiful, and, similar to the US edition, suggests a distance yet also closeness between Eleanor and Park through the way they are placed on the page. But, as I read the novel I kept looking back at the cover – where was the ‘big and awkward’ girl with ‘crazy hair’? It’s refreshing to read a protagonist who isn’t a super slim blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl, and it felt like this cover diminished, or at the very least undersold, her character.

Eleanor & Park is a quintessential Young Adult novel, as it is all about the journey from innocence to experience, rather than the destination. As such, the ending was perfect. At the 2016 Melbourne Writers Festival Claire Zorn listed cited Eleanor & Park as a book she wished she had read as a teenager, and I can understand why. The characters are beautiful, complex and full of contradictions that make them feel like they could step out of the pages. The novel covers a broad range of issues, including young love, domestic abuse, body image, bullying, gender identity, peer pressure and racism, without seeming forced or heavy-handed. A brilliant read.

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Review: YA Superstars at Melbourne Writers Festival

YA Superstars featured Rainbow Rowell and David Levithan, and was chaired by Danielle Binks. Danielle started off the panel by declaring ‘We are living in the second golden age of YA’, and went on to talk about the dramatic increase in YA titles being published. Danielle pointed out that 80% of YA is read by adults, and asked the panellists if that statistic scared them or affected how they write. David joked that there were many old-looking teenagers in the room, while Rainbow went on to say that many of the books she loves are very difficult to categorise, and that the people who read YA are not hung up on the category (whereas, arguably, critics of YA are).

While the session covered a broad range of topics, conversation was often steered back to diversity in YA. Discussion on the need for inclusion and representation is timely, given proposed same-sex plebiscite. Danielle argued that in order to reflect the lives of teenagers, we need to be diverse, and asked Rainbow and Danielle how their readers have reacted to their depictions of diverse characters. Rainbow is often surprised how diverse characters are entry points for readers of varying ethnicities, gender and sexuality. David offered that writing books with diverse characters can help rewrite life narratives.

When questioned on why they think YA appeals to adults, Rainbow said it’s difficult to take stock of how you’re changing as you’re growing through your teens, and YA allows you to help process and reflect on these changes.

Ever the champion of Australian YA (and interim chair of the LoveOzYA movement), Danielle asked the panellists to recommend their favourite Australian YA titles. David recommended Friday Brown by Vikki Wakefield (he also recommended international titles, including The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon and Kids with Appetite by David Arnold). Rainbow recommended Tender Morsels and Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan.

Danielle invited Rainbow and David to read sections from Carry On and You Know Me Well. I love hearing authors read their own work, as the nuance they bring to their reading can often unravel another layer of meaning. Rainbow and David were fun to watch, as they shared reading roles of characters for both novels, and often interrupted each other to joke and ad-lib.

YA Superstars was a great panel. Rainbow and David clearly enjoyed their time on stage (they also hung around for over 2 hours after the panel to sign books), which is in no small part due to Danielle. Question time was moving, as teens and adults alike thanked the writers depicting diversity in their work and giving readers access to queer voices.

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Review: ‘Shield’ by Rachael Craw

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 I brace and turn. He leans against the pantry. I lean against the counter. Nice and easy. See how relaxed we are, leaning.

Okay, so the quote above doesn’t exactly encapsulate the plot of Shield, but I want to make this review as spoiler-free as possible, and what better way to do it by quoting just one of the few adorably awkward Evie and Jamie moments?

Shield, by Rachael Craw, is the final book in the Spark trilogy (the other titles are Spark and Stray). Evie travels to the claustrophobic Affinity compound. The events of Stray have caused a divide within Affinity, and Evie is not sure who she can trust, and who wants to wipe her out. She is trying to come to terms with the change of her powers, while being forced to re-evaluate her already complicated relationship with her family. Evie runs the risk of being swallowed up by Affinity as she puts her life on the line to try to save the ones she loves.

Evie is a fascinating and fun character to follow. She’s fiercely independent, yet has a strong bond with her aunt Miriam and is protective of her friends. Headstrong, she clashes with many of the characters, which not only shows her determination to forge her own path, but also how much she cares for her friends and family as she clearly places great importance on what they think of her. Evie strives to project herself as cool and calm, particularly around Jamie, but her insecurities spill out through the narration. Craw strikes a balance between poignant, heart-breaking moments and self-deprecating humour.

The relationship between Jamie and Evie is refreshing, as both Jamie and Evie are headstrong and passionate. Evie’s hyper-awareness of her attraction to Jamie is positively giddying.

Jamie steps into the foyer, tall enough to see over the crowd. I experience a brief shutdown: heart, lungs, brain.

While Evie is consistently drawn to Jamie, a desire which is heightened by their genetic mutations, she does not lose herself in the relationship. Evie maintains her sense of self, and doggedly pushes back whenever she feels Jamie is in the wrong. This is not to say she is right every time, but this only adds more depth to her character.

The forbidden love between Jamie and Evie was beautifully, achingly and hilariously written, but there is much more to the series. Rachael has maintained an intense atmosphere throughout the trilogy, and the stakes continue to be raised in Shield. The Affinity compound exudes claustrophobia, through a maze of narrow corridors with low ceilings and small hidden rooms, and the ever-present threat of Reprog and the isolation chamber. The fight scenes are tightly written, with the superhuman elements easy to visualise.

Spark, Stray and Shield are all enthralling reads, owing to a great mix of characters, carefully crafted supernatural elements and a killer plot. While each of the novels deal with heavy-handed issues there is always a sense of hope, which is achieved through the complexity of the characters and the strong relationships they have with one another despite their differences. I thoroughly enjoyed this series, and will undoubtedly revisit the world again.

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With thanks to Walker Books, for providing an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

Review: ‘Coming of Age’ at Melbourne Writers Festival

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It was great to be back at Melbourne Writers Festival this year, particularly given there was a series of panels devoted to YA. The panels were grouped under the umbrella of ‘Eye on YA’. I attended ‘YA Superstars’, ‘Coming of Age’ and ‘Fantasy Fiction’. The standout event for me was ‘Coming of Age’.

inbetweendays.jpg‘Coming of Age’, chaired by the champion of Australian YA (and interim chair of the LoveOzYA movement), Danielle Binks, featured Australian authors Claire Zorn and Vikki Wakefield. Danielle began by asking the authors what they were like at 17. Vikki said she failed school, and found she was living an adult life in her teens. It wasn’t until Vikki was in her 20’s that she started to live out her teen years. Claire read an excerpt from a journal she wrote when she was 17. It was both laugh out loud funny and all-too relatable, as her 17 year old self lamented “I just wish someone would love me besides my bloody family”.

Vikki became hyper conscious of her audience when writing her second book, Friday Brown. When she approached her third book, Inbetween Days, she focused hard on what the story was about, rather than the audience. During audience question time, I asked Vikki how she overcame her paralysis while writing Friday Brown. Vikki said she knew if she finished a draft she would have something to work with. Vikki also mentioned during the session that while she had a massive pit of paralysis for a long time, the floodgates are now open and she is working on a horror novel. I was surprised to hear Claire say she wrote The Protected before The Sky So Heavy. At the author signing, I asked her about it and she said she started writing The Protected, but took a break during rewrites to work on The Sky So Heavy. It took Claire 9 years to write The Protected, and 2 years to write The Sky So Heavy.

OneWouldThink.jpgDanielle highlighted that both protagonists in Inbetween Days and One Would Think the Deep feature underdogs, and asked the authors what intrigued them about underdogs. Claire revealed she had a hard time in high school, and felt like a freak show. Vikki said she felt like a chameleon for the longest time, and had no sense of her own identity. She writes about underdogs because she needs to find something in common with her characters. Vikki later said she wasn’t allowed to like the guys who she was attracted to in high school, as her friends determined who she chose. There was one guy in high school who she never told she liked, because her friends wouldn’t allow it.

Danielle asked Claire why she set One Would Think the Deep in 1997. All of Claire’s books are inspired by songs. Claire said she wanted to write about what it was like to lose your idol. She didn’t cope well at school, and felt no one understood her except for Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder. Claire didn’t want to write about the death of Kurt Cobain, because he is still such a prominent figure. She was drawn to Jeff Buckley, as his vulnerable, effeminate persona sat at odds with the hyper-masculine grunge era.

Danielle asked the authors what books they wished they had read as teens. Vikki listed Judy Blume and Robyn Klein. Vikki added that she read The Outsiders by S.E. Hilton as a teen, which was the book she needed. Claire said she wished she read Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell.

Given Vikki didn’t have journal entry to share like Claire, she instead read to the audience a letter she wrote to her 17 year old self. This letter was immensely moving. It included beautiful and empowering words of encouragement, including “every mistake you’ve made will be nose-rubbing material, but you’re used to the smell” and “finally you’ll say things you could never say out loud”. I hope she publishes this letter somewhere.

I thoroughly enjoyed attending the 2016 Melbourne Writers Festival. I was disappointed when I saw that the ‘Writing Diverse Characters’ and ‘David Levithan: Queer YA’ panels were on at the same time. I was even more frustrated once I realised both panels ran for an hour, and overlapped with ‘Fantasy Fiction’ (the latter I had booked a ticket for). I didn’t want to be disruptive/disrespectful and leave halfway through ‘Writing Diverse Characters’ or ‘David Levithan: Queer YA’ panels, so I missed out. Still, the sessions I attended to were inspiring, not just because of the authors and the way Danielle structured the sessions, but for the passion conveyed by the audience through their questions (I am also immensely relieved that there weren’t any up-and-coming authors in the audience who used question time as an opportunity to promote their work. I’ve seen this happen during question time at so many literature events, and every time I get a whiff of self-promotion guised as a question I slink down into my chair and will myself to dissolve). Danielle Binks opened the YA Superstars panel by declaring ‘we are all living in the second golden age of YA’. The number of panels devoted to YA at this year’s MWF attests to the popularity and importance of YA. I hope there continues to be an increase of YA panels at future Melbourne Writers Festivals in years to come. Or, perhaps, a whole festival for YA.

Review: Welcome to Orphancorp by Marlee Jane Ward

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In an Orphancorp, there’s not a lot of physical contact, and the touches we do get usually hurt. Without each other, maybe we’d go through life thinking that hands are just slaps and fists, not for grasping or stroking.

Welcome to Orphancorp is a gritty, first-person dystopian novella following seventeen year-old Miriiyanana Mahoney. Mirii is seven days away from Age Release when she is transferred to a new Verity House. It doesn’t matter to Mirii where she is transferred to, because all of the compounds have the same layouts and the same wardens, known as Aunties and Uncles, who use brutality and humiliation to keep the orphans in line. The Orphancorps buy unaccompanied minors from the state, but they have to release them back into society when they turn eighteen. That is, unless the orphans mess up before they’re due for release, in which case they are transferred to Prisoncorp.

There are only seven chapters in Welcome to Orphancorp, which are listed in descending order, counting down to Mirii’s her release date. Upon her arrival to a new Verity House, Mirii is warned by one of the aunties that she needs to keep her mouth shut in order to make it to her release date. While the novella is structured around the seven day countdown, Welcome to Orphancorp isn’t so much a novel about escape, as it is about survival. Given that Mirii arrives at the new orphancorp in a gag and chains, Mirii’s situation is bleak, but she is by no means a downtrodden pacifist.

Marlee Jane Ward has crafted a complex protagonist and narrator who is both aware of her limitations but is also driven by a need to push back against an institution devoid of compassion whenever a chance arrives. Like the majority of orphans, Mirii has been in the system for most of her life. The orphans are raised amongst themselves, with the majority of older teens made to care for the toddlers. Mirii has proven incapable of looking after the younger ones, so she is assigned to electrical manufacture. The natural inclination for Mirii is to not form any emotional attachment, as orphans can be transferred out to other compounds or sent to Prisoncorp if they have enough infractions.

The novella contains explicit sexual content as well as drug references, but neither is gratuitous. By day, the orphans are bound by rules and hierarchy brutally enforced by the Aunts and Uncles. But once the lights are out, they showcase their skills through black market trades and cling to their humanity and identity through sexual encounters.

Welcome to Orphancorp has echoes of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, as both present a near-future dystopian world that offers little hope of change at a societal level, as the compounds operate within a larger world which has no interest in intervention. The beauty of both novels is the show of defiance the characters can achieve by daring to live.

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