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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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”.

 

 

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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