Review: The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

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Not everyone has to be the Chosen One. Not everyone has to be the guy who saves the world. Most people just have to live their lives the best they can, doing the things that are great for them, having great friends, trying to make their lives better, loving people properly. All the while knowing that the world makes no sense but trying to find a way to be happy anyway.

I was hooked as soon as I read the title, The Rest of Us Just Live Here. Granted, I was already a fan of Patrick Ness after reading The Knife of Letting Go and A Monster Calls (I didn’t include my review of A Monster Calls on my blog, but you can find it on my Goodreads page). The premise of The Rest of Us Just Live Here feels like a homage to the Buffyverse, as it centres around a group of teenage friends who are just trying to survive high school, while supernatural forces battle with the Chosen Ones, aka the indie kids.

Each chapter opens with a brief summary of the goings on of the indie kids and the supernatural elements. The summaries are hilarious (so many hipsters named Finn!), and there are moments when the supernatural elements spill out into the main story, including this gem:

‘Which is when one of the indie kids comes running out of the treeline, his old-timey jacket flapping out behind him. He pushes his fashionably black-rimmed glasses back on his nose and runs past about twenty feet from where we’re all tumbled together. He doesn’t see us – the indie kids never really see us, not even when we’re sitting next to them in class – just crosses the Field and disappears into the opposite treeline, which we all know only leads to deeper forest.
There’s a silent few seconds where we all exchange wtf glances and then a young girl glowing with her own light comes running out of the woods from where the indie kids came. She doesn’t see us either, though she’s so bright we all have to shade our eyes, and then she disappears into the second treeline, too.’

While there are many comedic moments surrounding the battle between the indie kids and the supernatural forces, The Rest of Us Just Live Here also examines the division between teens and adults, which is attributed to the teens being the only ones caught up (whether directly or as witnesses to) the supernatural war. The possibility is raised that adults rationalise the supernatural occurrences away as natural disasters in order to downplay the severity of the situation. It is also suggested that perhaps the adults experienced or witnessed supernatural phenomena as teens, but they have forgotten what it was like to be teenagers. The (possibly willing) ignorance adults have to the teen experience has detrimental effects on the teen characters. What is most heartbreaking is that the damage caused to the 17-year-old narrator, Mikey, and his 18-year-old sister, Mel, is not as a direct result of the paranormal, but of the (direct or indirect) negligence shown by their parents. At no point does the presence of the mental illnesses depicted in the novel feel as a plot device, as each illness is explored and presented in a thoughtful and earnest manner.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here is a highly emotionally evocative read, due, in no small part, to the diverse range of characters and their multifaceted relationship. Arguably, the most poignant relationship is Mikey and his sister, Mel. Their relationship is beautifully understated despite the high stakes they face, through the way in which they observe and react to one another. And while they both have their own romantic interests and personal battles, their relationship is never at risk of fading away to a minor footnote in the novel.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here is a thrilling, hilarious, poignant and heartbreaking read. Patrick Ness is a masterful storyteller.

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Patrick Ness and Jesse Andrews will be appearing in conversation with C.S Pacat at the Athenaeum Theatre on Monday, May 7, as part of the Mayhem series by The Wheeler Centre. Tickets are still available. I’ll be live-tweeting the event.

Review: ‘Small Spaces’ by Sarah Epstein

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I know things aren’t right with me – conjuring up Sparrow today is evidence of that. The worst thing I could do is drag anyone else into my mess, least of all the Fishers. I know I should talk to my parents. I know I need to arrange a session with Dr Ingrid now instead of waiting until June.
I also know I won’t do any of those things.
Instead, I’ll try to figure out how to get a mute girl to talk.

When Natasha Carmody was eight years old she witnessed her gruesome imaginary friend Sparrow lure six-year-old Mallory Fisher away at a carnival. Neither Natasha’s family nor the police believed her, and when Mallory was found seven days later she was mute from the trauma. The Fisher family moved away, and with the help of her stern mother, as well as regular visits to a child psychiatrist, Tash accepted that Sparrow wasn’t real.

Now seventeen, Tash hopes to enter her final year of schooling without incident, so that her parents will see that she is capable of moving away from the seaside town of Port Bellamy, to the city to attend university. Standing in the way of her goal is Rachael, her beautiful and popular former-friend, who was privy to Tash’s childhood secrets. As the final year of school approaches, Tash thinks her greatest fear is for Rachael to use Tash’s secrets as leverage to humiliate and bully her at school. But, the Fisher family return to Port Bellamy, and so does Sparrow. Tash realises that Mallory is the key to unlocking the truth about the dark secret that connects them. Does the gruesome Sparrow exist? Is Tash going mad? Is Tash the gruesome one?

Small Spaces is a stunning, gut-wrenching thriller debut by Sarah Epstein. The first person narrative alternates between ‘now’ and ‘then’ chapters, with the ‘then’ chapters containing transcripts from psychiatrist sessions, as well as newspaper clippings. The novel is cleverly structured, as alternating between past and present not only adds to the suspense of drip-feeding the events surrounding the carnival, but is also atmospheric as it gives a sense of Tash’s increasing anxiety as she struggles to reconcile the past with the present.

A great cast of characters offer moments of tenderness and humour, courtesy of meticulously yet effortlessly crafted character traits and history. Tash is uncomfortable in her own skin, as she muses ‘my haircut is safe, my freckles are obvious and the only hip piece of clothing I own is a vintage E.T t-shirt I found in an op shop. And I don’t even wear it in public because I’m not cool enough to pull it off’. There is an element of tension underlying each of the relationships, ensuring suspicion is maintained throughout. Sadie is Tash’s fearless protector, but has a rebellious streak and confidence that far exceeds Tash’s. Even when they were friends, Tash was intimidated by Rachael, a pretty girl with trendy clothes and plane trips to her grandparents’ house in North Korea. While Tash’s nine year-old brother Tim only plays a minor role in the book, his impact is profound. He is largely oblivious to the family politics, and was too young to remember the events of the carnival. As such, he has been afforded the innocent and carefree childhood Tash never had, which makes Tash protective of him.

Small Spaces is a thrilling read with unrelenting suspense. I couldn’t put it down.

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

Small Spaces will be published on 01 April.

Review: Whisper by Lynette Noni

 

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They call me “Jane Doe.”

              They say it’s because I won’t tell them my real name, that they were forced to allocate me a generic ID. The name is ironic, since there’s nothing generic about me.

              But they don’t know that.

              They could have given me any name, but there’s a reason they chose “Jane Doe.” I hear the whispers. They think of me as little more than an unidentifiable, breathing corpse. That’s how they treat me. They prod, they poke, they badger and tweak. All of them want to coax a response from me. But their efforts are in vain.

             

Whisper by Lynette Noni is narrated by Subject Six-Eight-Four, a girl with monstrous capabilities who has survived internment at an underground compound known as Lengard, for two years, six months, fourteen days, eleven hours and sixteen minutes. Her internment has consisted of the same mind-numbing routine psych evaluations, strength and endurance training and experimental therapy. She believes survival is only possible by maintaining her silence and not trusting any of the Lengard personnel. But, Director Maverick Falon informs her that if she doesn’t comply, she will be eliminated from the program, and given the program is top secret, she knows she will be killed if she doesn’t obey. She is transferred into the care of the golden-haired Landon Ward, whose informal tone and dimpled cheeks causes her to consider the possibility that not everyone at Lengard is as bad as she thinks they are. But, the more she learns about Lengard, the closer she comes to learning its secrets, secrets that could destroy the world if she doesn’t speak out, but if she does speak, she might destroy the world anyway.

When I first heard about Whisper at the 2018 YA Showcase it went straight to my top ten most anticipated YA reads of 2018. I love speculative fiction, and the mention of secret compounds, government conspiracy, and a potential female anti-hero or villain origin story made me all kinds of giddy. I am all for the reluctant imperfect protagonist, who has to struggle to earn her gift (or curse). “Jane” is harbouring a secret so deadly, she only has to utter a word to bring about the destruction of the world. She is wilfully held at Lengard, as she knows she can’t hurt anyone if she is locked away. But she is mistrusting of her wardens, as believes they are either underestimating or seeking to exploit her explosive potential.

At the outset, Jane is apathetic towards her own existence, as she describes her daily routine and the limited people who attempt to interact with her with some degree of detachment. The detachment at times proves jarring, as Vanik embodies the dark side of Lengard, as she describes her “experimental therapy” sessions as two hours of hell where he pushes her to the point of brain damage. Given Jane says that nothing could be worse than Vanik’s experiments, it’s strange that Jane never offers any detail about what takes place during the session. If Jane was apathetic to her existence, then wouldn’t she be able to provide some detail about the session? Or, if this was one part of the day that tore her out of her apathy (as evident by Jane mentioning her fear of her sessions) then would it not be possible that she would relive fragments of the session through nightmares or anxiety-driven thought? Vanik’s role at Lengard made it hard for me to hope for any positive relationship with Falon, Ward or any of the other Lengard staff, as given the regularity of her sessions with Vanik over a two-year period, and the lack of narrative to suggest there was any issue with his sessions, I could only assume the other staff were complicit in the experiments Jane endured, despite any voice of disapproval. The lack of narrative concerning her sessions with Vanik sat at odds with the impact these sessions had on everyone within the compound. This made it hard for me to suspend my disbelief and allow myself to become immersed in the story.

Despite my misgivings about the way Vanik’s sessions were presented, Whisper was still an enjoyable read. While it is the first of a trilogy, Whisper still works as a standalone book, as it answers many of the questions it sets up. There are some great characters in this book, the most notable of which are Cami and Sneak. Cami is a refreshing change from the testosterone-filled evaluators, as she acts as a refuge for Jane, but her connection to the evaluators maintains a point of tension for Jane, as she constantly has to remind herself that no one can be trusted. Sneak lives up to his nickname, in both ability and as someone who is sure to surprise. The special abilities that the characters possess are intriguing, as is the politics of the rival factions, fuelling my anticipation for the subsequent books.

 

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Whisper will be published by Pantera Press on 01 May 2018.

With thanks to Pantera Press for giving all 2018 YA Showcase attendees an ARC.

Review: Untidy Towns by Kate O’Donnell

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I ran away on a Tuesday afternoon in late March. Six pm and I was headed south-west in a train that smelled stale. I had put two hours and however many kilometres behind me. Walking the length of the carriage and back again to stretch my legs, I lurched and pitched with and against the movements of the train. I’d done it now. Right decision. Wrong decision. My decision.

 

Set in the fictional country town of Emyvale, Untidy Towns is a contemporary novel narrated by Adelaide, a seventeen year old who is sick of living her life on other people’s terms. Adelaide drops out of the prestigious school she had been attending under a scholarship and heads back to her family in Emyvale to regroup, to breathe, and to try to figure out what she wants from her own life. Her mother sends Addie to work for her grandad at the Emyvale Historical Society. Addie starts hanging out with Jarrod, and realises he is just as stuck as she is. Addie realises she has to play an active role in her own life in order to find purpose and happiness.

Untidy Towns is a beautifully written novel about family, friendships and forging your own path to happiness. Unsure of where her future lies, Addie finds herself taking stock of her own life. Leaving her prestigious school and returning to the town in which she grew up provides Addie with the opportunity to look at her town, family and friends through fresh eyes. The novel is character-driven, and is therefore reliant on believable and intriguing characters to move the story forward. There is no one single antagonist standing in Adelaide’s way, just as there is no champion waiting to rescue her. Kate O’Donnell has created a collection of endearing and multifaceted characters who propel Addie to take charge of her own life, including her supportive mother who offers a balance of reassurance and authority without ever seeming too controlling, and Adelaide’s extroverted private school friend Mia, whose social confidence compliments Addie’s introverted tendencies but also arguably holds Addie back from becoming an active participant in her own life.

The pacing of Untidy Towns beautifully compliments the major theme of the book of slowing down and taking stock. The novel doesn’t seek to provide answers, but reads as more of an acknowledgement of the intense amount of stress that teens endure during their final year of schooling and the accompanying weight of expectation of a future they are expected to have perfectly mapped out. If this book was fast-paced and filled with plot twists, then it would be contradicting its own message of slowing down and finding happiness in the here and now. The pacing and the structure beautifully aligns with its message – something I only fully appreciated once I finished reading it.

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Review: Ballad for a Mad Girl by Vikki Wakefield

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The gully looks bottomless tonight. Some say Hannah Holt is buried in the gully, her uneasy spirit slipping from crevice to shadow, sniffing for fear, and when she smells it she’ll pull you down by the ankles with her teeth. We all know the stories are spread by grown-ups to keep us away from the quarry, but this is the first time I’ve ever thought about Hannah Holt, or William Dean, before I’ve crossed. I can’t help wondering whether he closed his eyes when he jumped, or met the rocks with them wide open.

Ballad for a Mad Girl is a fantastic genre-bending read. It is part contemporary, part thriller, part murder mystery, part supernatural horror. Just when I thought I was getting comfortable in the direction the novel was going, Vikki Wakefield changed the tempo.

Two years have passed since Grace Foley’s mother was hit and killed by a car. It is not the first tragedy to befall the small country town of Swanston, as teen Hannah Holt mysteriously disappeared twenty-three years prior, rumoured to be at the hands of Willliam Dean. Rumour has it that William hid her body down the local quarry, the same quarry where he would later fall to his death.

The Foley family have moved from the family farm to a house in town, and seventeen-year-old Grace is struggling with the rules her suffocating yet distant father has set, which do not seem to apply to her brother Cody, despite the fact that he is only three years older than her. Everything around her is changing – her friends, her family, her sense of self. She clings to her reputation as the town prankster and record holder for the fastest crossing at the quarry. But after a death-defying crossing goes wrong, Grace finds herself haunted by a ghost, the presence of which brings up a renewed sense of grief for her mother. With her reputation as the town prankster ensuring no one will believe her, Grace is forced to go it alone to uncover why she is being haunted.

Grace is a highly emotionally evocative narrator to follow. She considers herself to be the hero and saviour of her group of friends, which includes Gummer, Amber, Pete and Kenzie.

We were leftovers. Only it didn’t feel that way. It felt like we chose each other carefully, to make sure all our odd shapes fitted together.

Grace is established as an unreliable narrator, as Kenzie argues that she wasn’t saved by Grace when they became friends. Amber and Gummer both question whether they have outgrown their predetermined roles in the group. While offering brief moments of introspection, Grace largely responds with anger and defiance – clashing with and hurting her friends, and upping the ante on her pranks. It would be easy to just be angry with Grace, but at the heart of her rage lies fear that Wakefield has beautifully understated – fear that her friends are moving on without her. While the quote on the back of the book, At this rate I won’t survive high school. I’ll be a dead friendless virgin., gives the impression that one of Grace’s core concerns is not being able to find a sexual partner, the book is more focused on her friendship dynamics, which was a refreshing change. Another layer of intrigue is added to Grace’s character, as underpinning her anger is the looming presence of the ghost, which calls into question whether Grace’s anger stems from her grief, her changing friendships, or from the ghost.

Ballad for a Mad Girl deals with some pretty heavy-handed material, the death of Graces’ mother and the impact her grief has on Grace’s relationship with her friends and family, as well as the horror elements of the ghostly encounters, but Wakefield beautifully crafts the narrative without the novel plummeting to overbearing despair or gratuitous violence or gore. Much of this can be attributed to the complexities of the characters, and also Wakefield’s prose, which is interspersed with beautiful imagery. A cemetery scene filled with gothic imagery exemplifies Wakefield’s masterful craft.

Overhead, hundreds of swallows fly in perfect formation like a dancing cloud, and Maria’s angel gazes down solemnly as I pass. Above the noise of traffic out on the road, I hear the rustle of leaves. But there aren’t enough trees here to make that much sound. It’s voices. A chorus of whispering—real, or imagined, I can’t tell—that only gets louder as I approach the barrier of tape.

 

I loved everything about this book. The multifaceted characters who could say too much and not enough. The blurring of genres. The poignancy and sharpness of the depiction of grief that left me in tears more than once. The grittiness and beauty of the narrative.

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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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