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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