Review: The Loneliest Girl in the Universe by Lauren James

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‘I’ve set myself up for heartbreak – but I didn’t even know it was happening. I thought I was just happy to have a friend, someone to talk to after everyone on Earth abandoned me. I didn’t realise that I could feel this lust for someone I’ve never even seen.’

16 year-old Romy Silvers is the only surviving crew member on-board The Infinity, a spaceship on a predicted 44-year mission bound for Earth II. Romy tries to keep busy by reading the ships manual and NASA-designated homework, writing fanfic of Loch & Ness, and exchanging audio mail with her therapist, Molly. Molly sends an audio mail to Romy, telling her that a superior spacecraft, The Eternity, was launched not long after The Infinity disaster to meet up with The Eternity and help complete the mission. Romy learns that it will only take a year for The Infinity to reach The Eternity. While trying to fathom what it will be like to have physical human contact again after over 5 years of solitude, The Eternity makes contact. Their only communication is via email, and the messages take months to transmit, yet Romy finds herself falling in love with the crew member of The Eternity, J. But as The Eternity draws closer, and she receives strange messages from Earth, Romy must question her new-found reliance on J, and what these strange messages from Earth mean.

The Loneliest Girl in the Universe got off to a shaky start, as while the opening entry from Romy is set up as an action-packed and suspenseful insight into life on the spaceship, it had moments of telling the reader what could happen, which lessened the impact of the following action, for example “I’m abruptly filled with complete and utter fear. The guidance system has crashed. I need to take manual control, otherwise we’re going to be hit by an asteroid within the next few minutes.” Without going into detail, in order to keep spoilers to a minimum, the plot was largely predictable, as there were moments where Romy overstated observations.

This is not to say this book wasn’t an enjoyable read. The structure was brilliant, with the chapter headings highlighting the isolation Romy is experiencing by tallying how many days it has been since The Infinity left Earth, and, in other chapters, fuelling the suspense and anticipation by tallying how far away The Eternity is. The attention to detail with the mechanics of space travel is exemplified in the use of communications, as Romy later explains “transmissions to and from Earth are sent by laser, encoded in binary. An antenna on Earth conveys the laser beams to The Infinity, where a light array picks up the signal and converts it back into letters, images or sounds. The uplink from Earth takes a long time, and apparently video files just aren’t feasible to send. It takes hours for the antennas to transmit them, compared with the minutes required for audio or text messages.” Tech highlights just how isolating life is for Romy, and is poignantly shown as she turns on Google Earth and tries to imagine what it would be like to experience the mundane freedoms we take for granted.

Tech-savvy Romy is a captivating multifaceted narrator. Her anxiety is palpable, which at one point manifests through trichotillomania, and she fights to pull herself out of high anxiety or depressive episodes by focusing on the running of the ship or, at one stage, trying to dance it out. Romy has moments of joy, as she marvels at the thought of seeing Earth II as well as the gratification of pushing herself to excel at maths. It’s refreshing to read a female character whose goals in life are not limited to romance, despite the loneliness she feels throughout the book and the feelings she develops for J. It’s an added bonus to follow a female character where the taboos of menstruation and masturbation are addressed.

The Loneliest Girl in the Universe was an enjoyable read, with well-balanced moments of suspense, horror and romance.

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

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Review: ‘The Hate U Give’ by Angie Thomas

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When I was twelve, my parents had two talks with me.

One was the usual birds and bees. Well, I didn’t really get the usual version. My mom, Lisa, is a registered nurse and she told me what went where, and what didn’t need to go here, there or any damn where till I’m grown. Back then, I doubted anything was going anywhere anyway. While all the other girls sprouted breasts between sixth and seventh grade, my chest was as flat as my back.

The other talk was about what to do if a cop stopped me.

The Hate U Give is a confronting read about the intrinsic racism in police brutality, the accompanying media coverage of the victims, and the power of resistance. When she is 10 years old, Starr’s friend Natasha is killed in a drive-by shooting. In order to protect her family, her mother sends Starr and her siblings, Seven and Sekani, to a bourgeoisie school at Williamson, a predominantly white community where tokenism, ignorance and casual racism are an everyday occurrence. Starr creates a Williamson Starr persona, ‘who doesn’t use slang – if a rapper would say it, she doesn’t say it, even if her white friends do. Slang makes them cool. Slang makes her “hood”’, in order to try and protect herself from racism from fellow students. Williamson epitomises white privilege, through the affluence of the housing and the casual racism of fellow student, Hailey. The depiction of Hailey’s wilful ignorance of racist-fuelled brutality, and her off-handed racist remarks guised as jokes accompanied by her supposed friendship shown towards Starr is hard to read, as it only causes Starr to retreat further into herself and struggle to project the Williamson Starr persona at the expense of living her own truth.

When her childhood friend Khalil is shot and killed in front of her by a white cop, Starr is overwhelmed by the pressure of protecting herself and speaking out. Starr is all too aware of the racist media coverage of police shootings, where the victims are presented as thugs while the police are hailed as protectors who are just doing their job. Social media is referenced throughout The Hate U Give, as both a safe space for Starr to attempt to educate her peers about racist-fuelled shootings and to humanise the victims. During her keynote address at the Melbourne Writers Festival, Angie spoke of how she was motivated to write the novel to humanise victims of racism. The depiction of the shootings of Natasha and Khalil are carefully crafted, as rather than focusing on the physical brutality of the act, Angie draws focus to the shock of the loss of life.

The Hate U Give confronts the ugliness of racism, but manages to perfectly balance the violence and anguish surrounding the shootings with the love of family and the close-knit community of Garden Heights. From the admiration Starr has for her strong and affectionate mother and the passionate relationship between her parents, to the familiarity of neighbours and shopkeepers, Angie Thomas has written a beautiful, harrowing and unflinching Young Adult novel which offers hope through the power of truth, resistance and love.  My heart ached, my mind was opened and I was reminded of the privilege I have as a white person, not just through the depiction of the murder of Khalil, but of the day to day precautions Starr and her family are forced to make to minimise the risk of being gunned down by those who are supposed to protect them. A beautifully written novel I will undoubtedly reread again and again.

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Event Highlight: #LoveOzYA panel at Melbourne Writers’ Festival

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Danielle Binks, Amie Kaufman, Melissa Keil, Ellie Marney and Alice Pung address a full house at the MWF #LoveOzYA panel

With a stomach full of Butterbeer and cheeks sore from smiling at all the wizards running around as part of Harry Potter day at MWF17, I serenely strolled to The Cube room at ACMI for the #LoveOzYA Panel. I shouldn’t have been surprised by the epic line of people waiting to get let in – the #LoveOzYA anthology, Begin, End, Begin, is an extension of the increasingly vocal #loveOzYA online movement, which is a celebration of Australian Young Adult literature. The session was chaired by Danielle Binks, who was both editor and writer for the anthology, and champions Australian YA via Twitter and an extensive list of articles for Kill Your Darlings. Danielle commanded attention through her passion for the YA readership. Danielle revealed that she has a YA novel in the works, although she gave no hint to its genre (had I been feeling less zombie-like from sleep deprivation, I would have asked her to divulge more during the audience Q&A). While Danielle lamented that no Australian works made it into the latest top 10 of Australian Library and Information Association ‘Most borrowed books for young adults (13-18)’, it was clear that the #LoveOzYA panel had assembled to celebrate the diversity and success of Australian YA, which Danielle kicked off by announcing that the Begin, End, Begin is into its second print run.

This was to be the first all-female #LoveOzYA panel, featuring Danielle, Amie Kaufman, Melissa Keil, Ellie Marney and Alice Pung. Danielle introduced each of the writers by reading an excerpt from their short story, before asking each writer about what motivated them to write their story. Ellie said she decided to write a prequel of sorts of her Every series because readers of the Every series kept asking for it, and also as a way of saying thank you to her loyal readers. Melissa Keil approached ‘Sundays’ like a bottle episode, where she wanted to explore characters in one location. Alice Pung spoke of how minority characters are often portrayed in a positive light, in order to avoid politics. This positive portrayal comes at the expense of multifaceted characters, so minorities are frequently presented as tropes. A key motivator for ‘In a Heartbeat’ was to depict multidimensional diverse characters. Before allowing Amie to speak of the motivation behind ‘One Small Step’, Danielle pointed out that Amie submitted her story six hours late because she was getting it fact-checked by NASA! Amie went on to say she was fascinated by the media coverage of the first IVF baby, where community pride was bordering on ownership. Amie also spoke of being on the train and overhearing teenagers talking about planning their university selections and how they were going to navigate their choices with the expectation of their parents.

Danielle invited the panel to speak about why Australian-centric stories are important, before commenting herself on the importance of Australian youth seeing themselves on the page, so they know that they matter and are represented. Danielle also joked about buying cappuccinos as a 16-year old because that’s what Josie Alibrandi from Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta did. Amie joked that she grew up planning her escape, courtesy of John Marsden’s Tomorrow, When the War Began series. Melissa received numerous letters from readers who, until reading her work, hadn’t seen Melbourne streets in a book before, or had not seen Australian terms used.  Ellie commented that, as a teacher, she has noticed common use language in high school has become Americanised, citing “canteen” and “litter” as examples. Ellie later went on to say that if the US titles are the default literary culture in Australia, then we will lose our language, our Australianness. Alice added that we will lose our irreverence, our irreverent sense of humour. US editors complimented Amie on her use of futuristic slang in Illuminae, despite it being Australian slang. Amie added that Illuminae is very Australian-centric, as it is told by refugees.

Discussion moved to the future of Australian YA publishing, with all panellists conveying a sense of hope and excitement about its future, despite the obstacles. Ellie spoke about how ‘Missing Persons’ explores the cultural shift from rural to urban. Danielle noted that displacement is a common theme across YA, with Amie predicting that, in the future, we will see a lot more Australian YA exploring a more diverse outlook of what it means to be Australian. Being on the panel at numerous YA events gave Danielle the opportunity to ask teens what they want to see more of in YA, and the majority of the feedback has been for more representation of the LGBTQI community (this was met with a loud applause from the #loveozya audience). Amie added that while we need more “coming out” stories, we also need to have stories where queerness is not a plot point. A number of the stories in Begin, End, Begin feature LGBTQI characters without the representation being a key plot point, which has meant that some schools have been more willing to include discussion on the texts (although some did request for LGBTQI discussion to be avoided). All panellists were in agreement that the future looks bright, as teens are infinitely more open-minded and accepting than the previous generation, which can only result in an increase of representation of diversity.

Given it was Harry Potter day at MWF (and I spied quite a few Potter-clad people in the audience, which made me very jealous about my lack of Potter merch, tbh), Danielle asked the panel for their thoughts on blockbuster books. She noted that Simone Howell was able to get published by Bloomsbury because of the “mad money” Bloomsbury generated from Harry Potter. Amie argued that reading a blockbuster series doesn’t mean a reader won’t expand their horizons, as ‘this generation went to Hogwarts together and came back looking for more adventures’. Ellie Marney commented on how J.K Rowling’s series was arguably the first to be marketed as a YA cross-over, as the books were published with “adult” covers. While teens are the targeted readership of YA, adults are also reading YA and therefore also contributing financially, which increases the size of the market and opportunity for new voices.

With the session nearly at its close, Danielle invited audience questions. An audience member asked the panellists what advice they would give to writers. Ellie recommended reading across the YA readership, rather than sticking to a particular genre. She also urged writers to write what you want to read, as any attempts to write what you think will please a readership will only fall flat. Danielle added that writers should read everything, not just YA, and not just fiction. She also urged writers not to look down on any readership or genre (as so often happens to YA!). Amie got into a tongue-twister as she said you have to write (not just write about writing, or tweet about writing, or blog about …). Melissa recommended writers seek out competitions and opportunities, as everything you write will make you a better writer. Alice echoed Amie’s sentiment as she urged writers to get the words down on paper, and to not worry about spelling or grammar at the expense of the story. I got tangled up in tweets for a bit, so I missed one of the audience questions, but Danielle spoke about diversity representation in fiction and how there is no monolith experience, as not everybody experiences disability in the same way. Ellie spoke of how far self-publishing has come in terms of technology and user-friendly access, which is giving unprecedented access to new and diverse voices. The final question asked by an audience member was how the panellists stay motivated. Alice said sometimes you don’t have motivation, but you write anyway. Melissa plays with characters by writing scenes that won’t end up in her novel. Danielle offered that day-dreaming is just as much a part of the process as the actual writing, and Ellie mentioned that Cath Crowley has word-free breaks to nurture herself.

The #loveozya panel came to an end and the crowd hurried out to head to the book signing. I would have happily sat for another hour or two to listen to the panellists discuss YA, such was level of their passion and insight. It was equally invigorating to sit amongst the audience, as YA readers have proved time and time again how passionate they are about the readership. This was a great MWF panel, and I hope there are many more like it at MWF18… or a whole festival devoted to YA.

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Event highlight: Melbourne Writers’ Festival – ‘Angie Thomas: YA and Activism’

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‘Today I am here to beg you to change the world’

It’s hard to believe Angie Thomas’ keynote, the first YA keynote Melbourne Writers’ Festival has ever had, was not a sell-out. Angie’s debut novel, The Hate U Give, has been sitting at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list for 26 consecutive weeks. It has been published in over 20 countries and is currently in its 16th reprint. Angie was mesmerising, as she delivered a passionate speech that was equal parts moving, hilarious and inspiring. She often broke from her speech to joke about what her mother would think; she pondered what would her mother say if she saw her daughter addressing a crowd wearing a Gryffindor jumper (I’m pretty sure everyone in the room not only approved, but wanted to ask where one could be purchased), or how her mother would react if she heard her swear (Angie sought permission from the audience before doing so).  ‘Angie Thomas: YA and Activism’ was chaired by Beverley Wang, a journalist, radio producer and host of the popular ABC podcast It’s Not a Race. Wang introduced Thomas by praising The Hate U Give as ‘a Young Adult book that all adults need to read as well’.

‘Today I am here to beg you to change the world’. Angie commanded attention with her opening statement, and held that attention throughout her address. She clearly conveyed her passion for writing Young Adult fiction, as she expressed her belief that young adults have an awareness, passion, and belief that they can change the world. Angie believes adults do not share that same belief as teens, as ‘once we become adults we realise how big the world is’. Acknowledging many of the adults in the audience were Young Adult fiction writers, Angie noted that ‘as writers, you have the power to do just that’ (change the world).

While Angie said ‘books showed me that there was more to the world’, as a teen she struggled to see herself in published Young Adult fiction. Twilight was considered THE Young Adult book, but she didn’t recognise herself on the page, and joked about how her mother would never let her talk to a man that old. Angie joked about how if her name had been called out during The Hunger Games, her mother would have marched right up to the organisers and stopped it from happening. Angie lamented that ‘usually kids like me were the sassy sidekicks … or the wisdom giver’. Angie loves the Harry Potter series, as she identified strongly with Hermione Granger, and viewed Voldemort as a drug dealer and Hogwarts was her community. Angie was thrilled when Noma Dumezweni was cast as Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Because of the absence of representation in YA, she said ‘I didn’t think my life mattered, or lives like mine mattered’. Angie saw herself in hip-hop, a movement, she noted, that was founded by teens. It was a way for teens to have a voice – about their lives, about what mattered. Angie’s heroes were rappers, as it felt like ‘somebody saw me, and they said it mattered’. ‘Hip-hop scared people because it was so raw’. There is a truth to hip-hop that can be confronting. Angie later went on to say ‘true change comes with discomfort’ and ‘I don’t think there’s anything wrong with fear … it’s what you do with it’.

While The Hate U Give has been interpreted by some as a distinctive Black Lives Matter political novel, Angie wrote The Hate U Give as a short story, well before she was aware of the Black Lives Matter movement. She wrote the story in response to a shooting in her town. Writing was the only way Angie knew how to get her frustration out, and eventually turned the story into a novel because, she said, ‘I need people outside of my neighbourhood to see’. She noted that when young victims are placed on the news, they are always made to seem older than they are. Angie wanted her book to be personal, not political, to humanise and show truth behind the headline. ‘Starr is a child. They were children’, she said, and later added ‘why is it that we make them antagonists in their own deaths?’ When Beverley asked Angie about her reaction to having Trump as President, Angie responded by saying ‘I have more hope now than I did before the election … people are speaking up now.’ She reminded the audience that racism is not new, it is just becoming more visible due to social media. The sense of hope and love Angie conveyed was incredibly moving, as she said ‘I know where the power lies, and it’s with the people’.

Angie implored the audience to ‘examine why you do it. Why do you write for young adults?’ This question was framed around an acknowledgment that ‘Young Adult books catch a lot of flak’, and while she jokingly referenced the Handbook for Mortals saga by saying ‘apparently some people see it (YA) as a way to get movies made’, her frustration that ‘people downplay (YA)’ was clear. Angie argued that teens today are ‘more aware, more conscious of things’, particularly due to social media. So, while she acknowledged that many YA writers write for younger versions of themselves, Angie believes we should ‘take ourselves out of it, and focus on who we’re writing for.’

There’s so much more that was talked about during the keynote, as well as the question time afterwards. I feel like I’ve barely scraped the surface. I was focused on Angie for the duration of the event, so I wasn’t aware whether the session was filmed or not. I hope it was. The only lowlight of the event came from an audience member, who asked, in what I interpreted to be a rather aggressive tone, what is worse, to write from your own experience or to write outside your own experience? The frustration in the audience member’s voice made me cringe. Angie was gracious in her reply, as she politely challenged the crowd to ask themselves why they want to write it, and why they would be the best possible person to tell that story. She urged writers to put in the work (do research, consult with relevant groups), to be prepared for criticism, and to LISTEN to and learn from any criticism.

‘Angie Thomas: YA and Activism’ was inspiring, moving, hilarious and full of heart. I’ve been to many MWF sessions over the years. This event will stay with me for the longest time.

 

I finished reading (and loved) The Hate U Give. My review is still to come. I only have the opportunity to attend one other MWF event this year, which will be #loveozya 

Review: ‘Begin, End Begin’ by Danielle Binks (ed.)

The #loveOzYA hashtag was created to promote and celebrate Australian young adult literature. Danielle Binks wrote about the origins of the movement in Kill Your Darlings . Danielle further discusses the origins and intent of the movement in a foreword to Begin, End, Begin, adding ‘It was not born out of patriotism or a rejection of international voices – far from it. LoveOzYA has been about the inclusion of voices. And it has been a movement, as the name suggests, about love.’

Begin, End, Begin contains contemporary, urban fantasy, and speculative fiction short stories, to name a few. A range of themes are covered, including teen pregnancy, sexuality, bullying, and sibling relationships. I’ve reviewed a few of my favourite stories.

 I’m screaming inside my own private little world, stuck inside my suit.

‘One Small Step … ’ had me holding my breath during intense thrilling scenes, laughing  at deadpan humour, and teary-eyed during poignant moments. Amie Kaufman’s sci-fi explores the weight of parental and societal expectation at conflict with the personal growth and choice through the narration of 17-year old Zaida. The world-building feels effortless, and the action and suspense is beautifully complimented by moments of humour and tenderness. I couldn’t help but speed-read through this piece, before going back and re-reading. A brilliantly crafted short story, which left me with a sense of a world that endured before the first page and would continue on long after the last.

9 p.m.
This it how it goes.
       I am standing in a corner, ‘cause I always seem to find myself standing in corners. Not in the centre of the sweaty, heaving dancers, and not in the back sunroom with the stoners and smokers. Definitely not too close to the front door – that would imply that I’m eager to escape, or eager to be seen.

Gabrielle is a playing the role of a supporting character in her own life, as she lives vicariously through her best friends. But, when she sees Cam kissing a girl who is not his girlfriend, Gabe is forced to examine why their relationship is so important to her, and to find a way to forge ahead with her own life. Book reviews are subjective, right? I know that. I’m hyper aware of the prejudices I bring to my own reading. But, from the very first paragraph of ‘Sundays’ I was hooked in; it felt like Melissa Keil had crept into my brain and was rehashing my teenage years. So, on the one hand, you could say I am automatically biased because I relate to the protagonist’s detachment from her own life, but this wouldn’t be possible if not for the almost tangible sensory atmosphere of the party, the way in which the pace is maintained by structuring the narrative in time segments and the banter and bickering between friends.

‘Lucy’s thoughts are so loud she worries the whole bus can hear them.’

The only story in the anthology written in third-person, ‘The Feeling from Over Here’ follows Lucy as she finds herself sharing an eight-hour bus trip from Wagga to Albury with Cameron Webber. With no phone reception to provide a welcome distraction, Lucy is forced to evaluate her conflicting feelings about Cameron. Tozer has created an emotionally evocative story filled with multifaceted characters. There’s no room for cardboard cut-out characters, as even the bus driver delivers nuance in his limited appearance.

It’s hard enough being an outsider, without having to watch something end that you’ve always wanted to be a part of’.

14 year-old Bowie isn’t prepared to watch her brother King disappear out of her life, so she follows him to the pub where he meets up with his friends. When Bowie is spotted by his friends, King reluctantly lets his younger sister tag along for his last night out. Danielle Binks beautifully captures the love and tension between the two siblings, and the shifting family dynamic, as King is determined to break away from the prejudices and pity he has endured living in a small town community, and Bowie struggles to adhere to the invisible sibling boundaries while grappling with impending change. ‘Last Night at the Mount Solemn Observatory’ had me in tears by the end.

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Danielle Binks will be hosting a #LoveOzYa session at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival on Saturday, 03 September. The session will feature Amie Kaufman, Melissa Keil, Ellie Marney and Alice Pung. I’ll put up a recap of the panel, as well as the YA Keynote featuring Angie Thomas.

WOMANIFESTO

Libba Bray

Congratulations.

You have woken the witch that lives deep inside me.

You have removed the slumber chains from the giant of old.

You have handed me a box of matches and no chaperone

And a world made of lies and polyester.

Congratulations.

You have barked up the wrong bitch.

Proclaim it:

I have shucked off the good, southern lady’s cloak,

Of the homecoming court, the cheerleader,

The preacher’s daughter, hands gentled in her lap.

They tied it at my neck with a bow, a Gordian girl-knot,

When I was young and bossy and sure-footed

“For protection,” they said.

Whose protection? I wondered.

Enough.

I have sent that shit out to the dry cleaners

I will not pick it up

They can sell it for a profit from a rack on the street.

From now on,

I’m exposing the raw pink edges of my true skin to the sun.

Some things…

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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”.