Review: ‘My Sister Rosa’ by Justine Larbalestier

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Rosa is a ticking time bomb.
I don’t think it matters what you call it: psychopathy, sociopathy, antisocial personality disorder, evil or the devil within. What matters is how to prevent the bomb from exploding.

My Sister Rosa is a contemporary psychological thriller by Justine Larbalestier. The YA novel is narrated by 17-year-old Che, who has charged himself with preventing his highly intelligent, Shirley Temple-like 10-year-old sister from hurting anyone. Manipulation and lying became a means for Rosa to explore her sinister tendencies, as she is all too aware of the protection her age and doll-like looks gives her. The parentals, David and Sally, are dismissive of Che’s warnings and accusations in part because they’re preoccupied by their own relationship and hectic business dealings, but also because they believe Rosa is merely a rambunctious 10-year-old girl. When their parents move them overseas yet again, this time to New York City, Che must find a way to contain Rosa in a new environment while also getting some degree of control over his own life.

My Sister Rosa is not solely reliant on the constant presence of a singular psychotic character in order to build and maintain suspense. My Sister Rosa exudes impending and inevitable destruction throughout, which is largely achieved through the way the novel is structured, as well as the overarching theme of control.  The novel is divided into four parts, determined by the list of goals (p25) Che writes every time he is forced to move to a new place:

  1. Keep Rosa under control
  2. I want to spar
  3. I want a girlfriend
  4. I want to go home.

The goals offer some degree of comfort as they are the only consistency Che has. While Rosa has no sense of boundaries and no purpose in her destructive tendencies other than for its own sake, Che relies on boundaries in order to feel some sense of control over his own life and to ensure he is prepared if Rosa brings about a cataclysmic event. While the goals offer comfort, they also leave him frustrated and angry because of his inability to achieve any of them. Che tries to counteract the sense of powerlessness he feels within his family by boxing. Training allows him to lose himself within the momentum and technique, but even that freedom is restricted, as he has promised his parents he won’t progress to sparring.

The first person narrative adds to the tension, as while Che strives to uphold himself as the good son and protector, he is still a fallible human being in desperate search of an identity independent of Rosa. When Che moves outside his own boundaries, or those set by his parents, it not only causes his parents to question is reliability, it also raises the possibility that Che may be an unreliable narrator, which adds another layer of depth and deception.

The only jarring aspect of the novel takes place in Chapter 25. I don’t want to post any spoilers here, so I will only say that the event that happens at the end of Chapter 24 is at odds with what happens at the start of Chapter 26, and at the start of Chapter 27. I’m really keen to discuss this, but don’t want to ruin the book. Please PM me your theories!

My Sister Rosa answers the call for more diversity in YA through the inclusion of people of various ethnicity, religious beliefs, gender identity and sexual orientation. Larbalestier creates these characters without reducing them to a stereotype or trope, arguably because the diversity is not presented as a point of contention. There are sexual references and drug scenes, but there isn’t a hint of gratuity or moral questioning. Rosa’s psychopathic nature is presented in an understated way, as she is depicted as an inquisitive individual who ponders about inflicting pain or death, and any accompanying threat is an indirect afterthought.

My Sister Rosa is an unnerving and thrilling read. With a great mix of characters and an unrelenting sense of impending destruction, the greatest challenge when reading this book was not to devour it all in one sitting. The story stayed with me long after I put the novel down.

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With thanks to Dymocks for the pre-release copy.

 

Review: ‘The Protected’ by Claire Zorn

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‘I’m pretty sure you’re not allowed to wear a two-inch heel to school, Katie.’
     ‘Oh yeah, and where are you going in those Clarks, Hannah? The nunnery?’
      ‘At least I don’t look like a prostitute. And they’re not called nunneries, they’re called convents.’
     ‘You’d know, you’re still going to be a virgin when you’re thirty.’
      ‘You’ll probably be dead before you’re thirty.’

The Protected is narrated by Hannah, who, at fifteen years of age, is struggling to come to terms with the sudden death of her sister, Katie. The novel explores a variety of heavy issues, including anxiety, bullying, and grief. By having Hannah alternate between talking about life before Katie died (school bullying and Katie’s complete unwillingness to intervene due to the risk of ruining her own reputation) and after Katie’s death (Hannah trying to work out where she stands at school due to all her bullies now avoiding her, while also being suspect of approaches of friendship made by a new student, Josh Chamberlin), an emotional balance is maintained which prevents the book from descending into an unrelenting depressive state without compromising on the integrity of the gritty material.

The characters are well-developed and the relationships are complex and realistic. Hannah can’t seem to do anything to garner kinship from her sister, which makes any slither of kindness or understanding from Katie all the more profound. Having said that, Hannah does not compromise her own convictions (or magically gain the ability to overcome her fears) just to appease her sister. Hannah’s parents are, for the most part, hapless and too preoccupied to do what is right to support Hannah, but they do offer moments of tenderness when least expected. Josh is endearing and intriguing, his humour offering much needed comedic relief without putting him risk of becoming a comedic trope. If anything, the only issue I had was the abundance of male characters starting with the letter “J” (Josh, Jensen, Jared.  Okay, there are only three, but I had to flick back a few times to make sure I wasn’t getting confused.)

The complexity of the relationships exemplifies the complexity of grief – it is never a clear-cut process of mourning the loss of an individual, as relationships are multifaceted. Hannah’s experience with grief, and her moments of high anxiety, are delicately depicted. The greatest appeal of The Protected is that it presents an array of issues without providing any singular character or event to neatly resolve them. The ending is one of the most satisfying of any book I have ever read.

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Review: ‘Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean’ edited by Kirsty Murray, Payal Dhar and Anita Roy

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My heart ached. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to write that sentence as often as I did while reading Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean, an anthology comprised of ten short stories, six graphic stories and one play script. As noted in the introduction by Kirsty Murray, the anthology was inspired by protests in Delhi and Melbourne following violent crimes against young women in late 2012 (the women are not named, but they are presumably Jyoti Singh and Jill Meagher). Each of the stories offer a sense of hope, fulfilling the aim to convey “desire to have and do impossible things, especially things that girls aren’t meant to do.” This anthology is a celebration of collaboration, with notes from each of the creators giving insight into the writing and collaboration process. This book needs to be a set text in schools. I’ve reviewed a few of my favourites.

You’ve heard this story. Only this time she didn’t meet a wolf in the woods. There were no woods, no wolves.

‘Little Red Suit’ by Justine Larbalestier re-imagines Little Red Riding Hood in a flood and drought-ravaged Sydney, where 50,000 survivors are crammed together in an underground city. 15-year-old Poppy lives with her mother, while Poppy’s grandmother is one of the remaining few who live above ground in a sealed home outside the city. Grandma Lily is one of the few to afford such privilege (and risk) because she is an engineer, the most valued member of society. When Grandma Lily doesn’t reply to Poppy’s message, Poppy takes it upon herself to go to her grandmother’s house to make sure she is okay.  A suffocating city, dilapidated buildings, electrical storms, and a predatory howl all make for an intense read. With brilliant world-building and a strong-willed, resourceful and brave female protagonist, Larbalestier created an intoxicating atmospheric story.

She was the most beautiful girl in our village, but on that day her head was shaved and she was dressed in sackcloth.

‘Cast Out’ by Samhita Arni, is a confronting read. The lack of power afforded to women and girls, and the futility of any attempt at resistance, is achingly told by Karthini, the young narrator who witnesses multiple instances of girls being set out to sea to die for displaying magic, or simply because they are female. The brutality is unrelenting, as the girls are publicly humiliated and beaten before sent to their doom, while the women who should protect them are shackled by the patriarchy. There is no room for chance of a better future for girls in this land, which is made all the more tragic through Arni’s emotional restraint, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t hope.

These men, they didn’t look like monsters, but the words pouring out of their mouths fouled up my whole world, every morning and every afternoon.

A Gran Sasso Device causes the filthy words to fly right back into a predator’s mouth, as though the words were never heard or never said. But, Melita can’t afford a Gran Sasso device, so how will she get one so she can stop the men outside the teashop from objectifying her and making her feel unsafe? ‘Cat Calls’ by Margo Lanagan is equally uplifting as it is unnerving. To say any more would spoil the story.

As far as superpowers go, it’s a pretty lame one. I haven’t worked out how to use it, you know, to fight crime or save the world. I can’t even use it to save Bonnie.

Vega can go into objects. A bowl. A stone. She is highly self-conscious, having only confided in her best friend Bonnie about her ability. Bonnie is the centre of Vega’s universe. Bonnie is dying. ‘What a Stone Can’t Feel’ by Penni Russon vividly depicts the inadequacies many teens feel when struggling to find their sense of place. It beautifully captures the relationship between best friends and the helplessness Vega feels as she tries to be there for her friend while coming to terms with having to forge her own identity and sense of self worth.

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STRAY blog tour: Book review and interview with Rachael Craw

Back in 2014 I read and reviewed Spark, the début YA sci-fi novel by Rachael Craw (You can read my review here). It was one of the most thrilling reads that I’d read in a while. I interviewed Rachael about writing strong female characters and her writing process (You can read the interview here). Eagerly awaiting the release of Stray, the second book in the trilogy, I approached Walker Books and requested an advanced copy so I could review it. Claire, Rachael’s publicist, kindly supplied a copy and asked if I wanted to be a part of the Stray blog tour, which leads us to where we are now!

It’s important to note that my review is in no way influenced by Walker Books or Rachael.

Review: Stray by Rachael Craw

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Stray, the second book in Rachael Craw’s YA sci-fi trilogy, is set one month after the events of Spark. Aiden has been arrested and is being held in a detention facility. Kitty has thrown herself back into her social life. Evie is conflicted by her desire to hold onto her life – her romance with Jamie, her friendship with Kitty, and working out just what her relationship with Miriam is – and her need to rescue her brother. Stray follows Evie as she struggles with the responsibility she feels she has to find a way to prove Aiden has been deactivated, and the danger she knows she is about to put her loved ones in, in order to prove Aiden is no longer dangerous.

The faced-paced action and fast-pulsed sexual tension that dominated Spark carries through into Stray. But, while Spark was sprinkled with Whedonesque style banter between affable characters, Stray leaves little room for comic relief as Affinity makes its presence known, threatening to rip Evie’s world apart. The Affinity compound is a heart-pounding house of horrors, filled with masked medical teams, mind-splitting telepathic torture and The Executive watching it all behind black glass. Then there’s The Proxy, a complex character who is equally tragic as she is terrifying.

Over the course of Spark, Evie was prone to bouts of fainting due to being unaccustomed to her superhuman abilities, and often required rescuing by her “tribute to nature and science” love interest, Jamie. While Evie is still finding her feet in Stray, she is physically and mentally stronger, and therefore much more exciting to follow. But, this doesn’t mean Evie is any less fallible, as she learns the hard way that nobody is who they appear to be. There are surprising developments to other characters who featured in Spark, but any commentary on this would spoil the thrill of following them on their journey.

While it would have been helpful to have a glossary of the acronyms as a reminder the sci-fi terms explained in Spark, this didn’t detract from the story. Benjamin and Davis could have used with a bit more fleshing out, as they were almost interchangeable characters. Overall, Stray is a tightly-written progression from Spark that climaxes with a bloodied, gut-wrenching finale that promises to leave you looking at the final few chapters through blurry eyes. Shield, the final book in the trilogy, promises to be one hell of a ride.

Stray was published on 01 September. Shield will be published in 2016.
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Interview: Time-frames, Trilogies and Twitter – Rachael Craw on her writing process, the second time around

Congratulations on the success of Spark and on the release of Stray!

Thanks so much Liz, it’s exciting to finally see Stray going out into the world.

You mentioned during our last interview that it took you five and a half years to write Spark. What time-frame did you have to write Stray?

I had one year to write Stray though I did have a pre-existing manuscript to work with. I wrote it in the same year I wrote the first draft of Spark. However, I found it immensely challenging dealing with the rewrite. I wished several times that I had been brave enough to ditch it and start fresh but I was too much of a scaredy-cat. Ultimately I am so pleased with and proud of the final product but I found it was a struggle. In many ways writing the first draft of book 3 has been so much easier because I had nothing to work with. Well, actually, I had 50 pages of an old version of bk3 that I wrote years ago but it was all about Evie living with a character named Gabe who was cut from book 1. She was in Uni and trying to move on with her life. Gabe was her Cooler in the same way Helena is a Cooler for Jamie.  There was an ‘event’ that dragged Evie back into the world of the Affinity Project and back into the path of Jamie. I loved this old version because it was such a dramatic beginning for the reader who would have a face-slapping-Holy-Hell moment when they discovered Evie wasn’t with Jamie at the beginning of the book.

So, I had to dump all that because Gabe no longer exists and the story went a different way. But I’m not a planner so it was much better for me to write without the constraints of a pre-existing manuscript and follow the story’s natural direction.

Did having Spark already published help motivate you during your re-drafting of Stray, or did it put pressure on you?

I found it tremendously distracting having Spark out while working on Stray. It kept pulling my attention away from the work. I felt constantly divided in my loyalties and responsibilities. It’s been a much healthier ride working on book 3. I feel like I will manage it much better once Stray is out.

You’ve joked on Twitter about writing yourself into plot holes. As you were writing Stray did you ever want to go back and make changes to Spark? 

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Ha! Hmmm, that is such a good question. No. I don’t think there’s anything I would really want to change in terms of plot details. I think the constraints of the world in the pre-existing story demand creative solutions and actually forced me to lift my game and dig deep to find pathways to advance the plot. But yes, plenty of plot holes!!! Lots of brain-wracking to fill them in and make it all work.

What prompted you to write and digitally release the short stories, ‘Kill Switch’ and ‘The Black Room’?

The marketing team at Walker Books Australia requested a short story to go out with the promo-material when Spark was being launched and that’s how ‘Kill Switch’ came to be. I really enjoyed writing from the perspective of a Stray and exploring the horrors of genetically induced madness. I wrote ‘Black Room’ by myself when I was working on Stray, as a creative exercise to give me some instinct for Ethan Tesla’s background – he’s a new character you meet in Stray. It also gave me the ReProg room – a sinister interrogation chamber that didn’t exist in the first draft of Stray. That physical environment is almost like a character in the book so writing ‘Black Room’ was a tremendously profitable exercise. I then offered it to Walker to use for promotional purposes and they snapped it up.

Had you always planned to write a trilogy, or did you only come to realise while writing your first draft of Spark that the story needed the room of a trilogy?

I always wanted to write a trilogy because I was a fan of reading book series in childhood. I love revisiting old characters and going on new journeys with them. The relationships deepen, you get to see how characters grow and change over time, how they cope in new challenges. In the same way I loved following Buffy over seven years and Mulder and Scully through years of the X-Files (and now I’m working my way through Supernatural – don’t get me started #WinchesterWife) that commitment to characters draws me back over and over. I love that same experience in fiction also. With the Spark trilogy I had 3 main plots I wanted to explore so 3 books made sense.

What’s your favourite trilogy?

I was a BIG fan of the long running  Trixie Belden Mysteries (rural American teen detective) when I was a tween – there were nearly 40 books in that series. But for trilogy joy I can’t go past Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking. I LOVE.

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Do you read other YA sci-fi novels while working on this series, or steer clear?

I have very little knowledge of sci-fi fiction. It wasn’t a genre I ever spent time in as a reader. However, I have always loved sci-fi films, especially grimy future society in decline built on the detritus of obsolete technology type stories (think Blade Runner). I read a little bit of William Gibson at Uni which I loved but that was about it. I’ve only recently begun to read YA sci-fi but I imagine it’s counted as pretty light as far as the genre is concerned. But I have really enjoyed the Lunar Chronicles and the books by Amie Kaufman & Meagan Spooner.

You’re very active on social media. Do you allow yourself certain times to go on Facebook and Twitter?

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No. I have no restraint. I need an intervention. Save me.

As a writer, what are the greatest benefits of social media?

Getting outside of my head. Engaging with other human beings – even on the most basic level of sharing a laugh, a meme, whatever. It’s a very lonely business, book writing, so Twitter and FB keep me from going full hermit. The best part it is engaging with readers and authors. The YA community is hugely supportive.

You give a mighty roar of thanks to #SparkArmy in the Stray acknowledgements. What is the #SparkArmy?

The term Spark Army was first hurled into the Twitterverse during a fun chat with a bunch of YA bloggers. Kate from Fictional Thoughts coined the phrase first. It became a rallying hashtag for promoting the Spark Trilogy. Kelly from Diva Booknerd and Eugenia from Genie In A Book created a goodreads group under the name The Spark Army and the gals in that group helped to promote Jamie in the Sydney TeenCon Book Boyfriend battle. It’s amazing support for an unknown author like myself, something you think only happens for rockstars like JK Rowling or Casandra Clare. It may only be a handful of people but it’s a beautiful thing. People use the #SparkArmy hashtag for all things Spark related. Please feel free to use it!

You recently sent off Shield, the final manuscript in the trilogy, to your editor. If you were to write another trilogy, what would you do differently?

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I’m not sure I would change anything other than making sure my deadlines don’t clash with book launches. Spark came out on the same day my first draft of Stray was due in. It was a nightmare. This time has been so much better. Other than that I don’t think I would change anything.

Do you have other projects on the horizon?

Right now all of my creative energy is focused on completing the Spark Trilogy but my subconscious brain is ticking away and there are a couple of seeds sending out roots. I will let you know!

 

Stray Blog Tour

September 1
Happy Indulgence | Diva Book Nerd
September 2
Behind the Pages | Cassie the Weird | YA Midnight Reads
September 3
Liz McShane Blog | Imaginary Misadventure
September 4
Fictional Thoughts | Genie in a Book
September 5
Kids Book Review | Books for a Delicate Eternity | Nicole Has Read
September 6
Loony Literate | Book Nerd Reviews
September 7
Striking Keys | Very Dark Horse
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@RachaelCraw | RachaelCraw.com

Review: ‘A Monster Calls’ by Patrick Ness. Inspired by an idea by Siobhan Dowd

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Stories are important, the monster said. They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth.

Equally poignant and heart-breaking, A Monster Calls is a story about opposites – life and death, truth and lies. Thirteen-year-old Conor wakes up from a nightmare at 12:07 to find a monster, formed out of a yew tree, outside of his bedroom window. It is not the monster from his nightmare, but it is a monster nonetheless. By day, Conor is dogged in his determination to maintain a normal home life with his sick mother, but struggles with how students and teachers at school treat him. By night, the yew tree monster tells Conor tales that leave him confused and angered by their meaning, more so when they seem to fail to explain why the yew monster is there at all.

A Monster Calls, based on the idea by Siobhan Dowd, who passed away before she could write the story, perfectly captures the delicacy of grief. Patrick Ness weaves the mythical fables of the Yew tree monster stories with the day-to-day numbing frustration of feeling ostracised by people who, faced with the threat of coming across as insensitive or inappropriate, treat the grieving with heightened artificial sympathy or complete indifference.  

The hard cover edition contains haunting yet beautiful illustrations by Jim Kay that encapsulate the foreboding mood of the story. While aimed at the YA market (13+), this book is an important read, not just for those who have felt suffocated and confused by grief, but also for any reader who appreciates masterful story-telling. The subject matter of A Monster Calls is heart-breaking, but its treatment of the subject matter is beautiful and ultimately full of hope.

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