Review: Welcome to Orphancorp by Marlee Jane Ward


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.



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


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.


Event: John Marsden at The Wheeler Centre

DSC04739‘To be honest is a revolutionary act.’ – John Marsden

One of my all-time favourite formidable female protagonists is Ellie Linton from Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden. She’s loyal, proactive, proud, brave and, importantly, fallible. The more I think about the Tomorrow series, the more I’m tempted to reach over to my bookshelf and start re-reading the first book, but that would make for a slightly non-existent blog post, so the book will stay on the shelf … for now.

Last night I went to The Wheeler Centre to see John and Lefa Singleton-Norton, the Creative Producer of Express Media, launch the 2014 John Marsden/Hachette Australia Prize for Young Writers (writers under the age of 25 are eligible to enter. You can read more about the prize here while I lament about my age). Lefa introduced John as an author who has sold over 3 million books and has been short-listed for every children’s and young adult prize in Australia. The Patron of Express Media, John has shown his passion for young writers through his involvement with the organisation, as well as personally funding the prize. This year Hachette Australia are also sponsoring the prize, along with support from Arts Victoria, Australia Council and The Wheeler Centre. Here are a few highlights from the session.

When you wrote the Tomorrow series did you have a sense of the enduring readership?

John originally planned to only write one book, but when he came close to finishing the manuscript he realised there was still a lot more to tell. He started writing the second book the day after he finished the first. He felt a sense of momentum when writing the books, saying ‘it all took a life of its own’. The readership grew beyond young adult – a 78-year old woman came to North Rockhampton Library after he had written the fourth book and told him she wanted to him to finish the series so she could read the whole story before she died.

Are parallels between the political climate when you wrote the series, and now?

While writing the Tomorrow series, John felt Australians gave no thought to national security. Since then, he says there has been an ‘artificial frenzy’ of people depersonalised, de-classed and marketed as a threat to Australia. John ‘lost any feeling of pride’ after the Tampa incident. Now, when he sees an Australian flag flying, he wonders what crime is being committed.

John rejects nationalism, pointing out that Australia is rarely mentioned in the series. He did not want Tomorrow, When the War Began to be a book about Australians resisting foreigners, he wanted it to be a book about young people being tested.

The appeal of the Tomorrow series lies in how teenagers deal with being put in exceptional circumstances

John says war is a really powerful vehicle in literature. It gives ‘licence to add extra intensity to every interchange’. The Tomorrow series was the first time he had put characters through a test of physical courage. He enjoyed writing the action scenes – he wrote them quickly, but felt exhausted afterwards.

John is most proud of Checkers and So Much to Tell You, as while ‘not much happens’, the characters reflect on past events.

How did your collaboration with Shaun Tan, The Rabbits, come about?

John came up with the concept of The Rabbits while he was driving home from the airport and looking out at the landscape. He thought about vast spaces of land getting overrun by humans. ‘It’s kind of like a skin disease, in a way,’ he says. John says ‘rabbits are a good metaphor for how humans have invaded and contaminated Australia’.

The Australian bush is a constant presence/character in your work

John says there are ‘tiny, delightful discourses to be made in the bush’. He is currently writing an adult book, which is due for release later this year. It tells the story of a 12-year old street kid from London who decides to commit a crime so he can become a convict and be sent to Australia. Writing from the perspective of a foreigner allows John to look at the Australian landscape from a different perspective.

Your first book, So Much to Tell You, was released to a very narrow young adult market—

John believes Judy Blume opened up the young adult market in the United States. He enjoys writing from the perspective of a teenager because teenagers allow for a more radical and colloquial voice. John initially found it hard trying to write for adults, as he found it ‘hard to break free from the sense of being judged for every word’. He eventually came to the realisation that ‘we all have poetic licence, if we care to use it’.

There is an ongoing battle about writing the way teenagers talk—

Some of the language John used in So Much to Tell You was censored by his publisher. He was told he wasn’t allowed to have a character say ‘fucking homework’, and despite arguments back and forth with his publisher about it, he eventually conceded. He didn’t realise until after the book was published, that the publisher, rather than just deleting the expletive, replaced it, so the dialogue read ‘damned homework’, which made the dialogue sound more artificial.

The young adult market is huge now—

John has stopped reading young adult for himself. He does, however, read novels to his children. He says the Percy Jackson series is the first series since Harry Potter that his children have been engaged in. John found Harry Potter to be ‘one of the most sublime reading experiences of my life’ and his kids lived and breathed every moment of the series. The best children’s books are the ones that adults can love as much as kids.

Why are adults drawn to young adult fiction?

John believes adults are drawn to young adult fiction for ‘the worst possible reasons’. He says there is too much immaturity in our society, and too many adults haven’t grown up. Towards the end of the session, John clarified his point by saying he doesn’t believe adults shouldn’t enjoy reading young adult fiction, but they need to make sure they don’t try to appropriate the young adult experience.

The majority of your novels are written from first perspective. What do you find so compelling about writing this way?

Writing from first person allows John to get to the essence of the character. He says ‘voice is everything to me … If I’ve got the voice, then I’ve got the book’. Writing in first person also allows John to step away from his own life and write from their experience.

Selectively mute characters are motifs that appear throughout many of your books. Was this a conscious decision?

John didn’t pick up on this until a few books in. He says he grew up in a conservative family and society that had no room for differing opinions. He ended up in a psychiatric ward when he was 19, due to emotional repression. John describes it as ‘a transformative experience’, as he was given a licence to express his feelings. He was asked how he felt. ‘It was like this language I had to learn’. He also met a 14-year old patient who didn’t speak when they entered the ward, but by the time they left they were speaking again.

Why do you write from the female perspective?

John feels he has ‘licence to express emotion quite openly’ from the perspective of a female protagonist.

Do your ideas come from students?

Conversations are people swapping stories. If someone tells you something, it prompts a memory of your own experience. John says ‘we all have our own personal library of stories’. We all have significant and powerful stories that stay with us forever. Dementia and alzheimer’s patients lose themselves because they lose their stories.

You have a strong affinity with young people—

John quips ‘there are some kids I don’t like at all’, before saying ‘I respect young people, I think (I hope)’. He feels in today’s society it’s perceived as heresy to suggest that not all young people are beautiful and perfect, but the reality is some young people can be damaged from an early age. ‘How would it sound if you said, “I love 40-year olds?”

What is it that you find exciting about young writers?

Young writers are using language in a richer and more sophisticated way than ever before. Their writing is energised, distinctive and idealistic.

What advice to you have for young writers who are struggling with motivation?

John pours it all out on the page, then goes back and edits. He says ‘the more I write, the less fixing I have to do’. He believes a writer who is confident with language will use it almost effortlessly. He urges writers to ‘walk the language tightrope with their eyes shut’.

What advice to you have for writers looking for stories?

‘Everyone has at least one book in them’. Your own story will be interesting, as long as you are honest about it. Honesty is so compelling in writing because it is so rare in our culture. ‘To be honest is a revolutionary act’.

Audience question: have you ever felt like not writing?

John used to panic when he couldn’t write. Candlebark School has been all-consuming for the past 9 years. He wrote The Year My Life Broke after a lengthy break. His adult fiction manuscript is 117,000 words. John says ‘sometimes we have to recharge’.

Audience question: Dear Miffy was a controversial inclusion in school libraries at the time of its release. If you had written the book today, would you have written it differently?

John believes there were two main issues with the book – swearing and the bleak outlook. He believes the expletives wouldn’t be an issue today, but the protagonist with the bleak outlook would still be problematic. John was motivated to write the book after hearing about a boy who was disfigured after a failed suicide attempt. ‘We shouldn’t shy away from (writing about) people who have no hope’, because that would be ignoring the experiences of these individuals.

 Audience question: what is the mission and philosophy behind Candlebark School?

He believes schools weren’t doing enough to engage boys who are restless, physical and don’t want to sit at a desk for more than 2 minutes a day. ‘The idea that children can be resourceful and look after themselves seems to be an idea that’s lost all credibility’.

Audience question: do you have advice for writers dealing with editorial feedback?

John finds editors less intrusive than they used to be. His editor only made around 3,000 suggestions for his 117,000 word manuscript, and he agreed with 95% of the suggestions. He believes writers need to have confidence in their editor.

Audience question: who are your literary heroes? Do your heroic writers influence your own work?

John can see traces of writers he admires in his own work. He has come to recognise that originality is meaningless and it’s a dangerous concept. As a young adult, he was inspired by J.D Salinger’s ‘contemporary voice that breaks all the rules’. He says Charles Dickens has a rich gallery of minor characters. J.K Rowling has created characters that will be memorable for generations to come (Snape is his favourite). Melina Marchetta is another favourite. John credits Paul Jennings, Morris Gleitzman and Andy Griffiths with reviving the novel for young Australian readers.


Review: ‘Win the Rings’ by K.D. Van Brunt


Win the Rings is a young adult dystopian novel, narrated in first person from the perspectives of two sixteen year old shifters, Jace and Gray. Shifters have the ability to ‘acquire’ non-shifters through touch. Once acquired, shifters take on the physical form, memories, emotion and knowledge of the person they acquired, without losing their own sense of self. Taken by CRACD (Classified Resources Academy Delta, colloquially referred to as ‘Cracked’, a secret branch of the U.S. Army that trains young shifters) at five years of age, Jace is introduced to the reader as a powerful shifter who is both feared and bullied by her fellow cadets. Gray has been on the run with his non-shifter sister, Nia, since he was five years old. He manages to scrape by, by acquiring white-colour criminals and stealing their money. After one of his victims files a police report after realising her bank account has been emptied, Cracked sends Jace to track Gray down.

I found the front cover off-putting, because I personally feel that having a recognisable protagonist featured on a cover intrudes on my interpretation of a characters’ appearance. Having said that, I was captivated by the premise of the book, as described in the blurb, of Jace being ‘the property of the U.S. Army … (who has become) one of its most valuable weapons’.

The alternating chapter narrations makes Win the Rings, for the most part, a fast-paced, enjoyable read. As I was reading a Gray chapter I wondered how the events would effect the following Jace chapter, and vice versa. There was a great contrast of worlds, with the grim regimented military stronghold of Cracked that Jace inhabits add odds with the open-world inhabited by Gray and Nia, where each location presents high risk opportunities for loss or gain.

Jace’s chapters were, at times, frustrating to follow. The reader is often told about relationships and events, rather than shown. I got a sense that this was because there was so much back story about Jace, her relationship with others at Cracked, and the politics and history of Cracked, to cram in. For instance, Jace tells the reader: Once, years ago, I was friends with Max. We survived together at Cracked, but he stopped being a friend a long time ago, as our mutual feelings slipped from friendship to indifference to smouldering hatred. I wanted to see their history, to have a scene played out that showed their friendship dissolving, or, failing that, to see their smouldering hatred played out in a scene, rather than have Max leering in the background. Information, such as the HSK test and the abilities of a shifter, is delivered in bits and pieces in different chapters, which may have been done in such a way as to create suspense, but I found it jarring, as, thinking I had missed information, I found myself going back and re-reading chapters. Probably the most frustrating aspect of Jace’s chapters were references to her vanity. In one scene she expresses disappointment because she feels she is too skinny and flat-chested. In another scene she muses: somewhere in the back of my brain maybe I want to be beautiful, but beauty doesn’t survive well here. At one point she reflects: I’m not sure why I bother with make-up; it’s not like any of the guys around this place would want to have anything to do with me. While her low self-esteem and preoccupation with her image contrasts with other characters’ perception of her as a hardened bully, and would make her relatable to many female readers, I wondered whether other insecurities would have provided greater depth to her character and better matched her environment and circumstance, given she inhabits a place where cadets disappear or are killed. Would body image issues have still applied if Jace was re-written as a male character?

I felt that I learned more about Gray than I did Jace, because there was less back-story, which meant more time was devoted to following Gray and his sister as they tried to evade capture. The strength of Gray’s chapters is that the reader is taken along for the ride, and learns about character relationships as Gray does, rather than being told retrospectively. Gray was an exciting character to follow, with the bulk of his chapters being action packed. The pacing is pretty solid, as is the suspense, as Nia and Gray go from place to place, trying to survive while carving out something that resembles a normal life. It was fun to follow Gray as he acquired the white-colour criminals. There was an underlying suspense with everything Gray and Nia did, whether adventurous or mundane, as I wondered if or when they’d be tracked down.

Overall, I enjoyed reading Win the Rings and read it quite quickly. I wanted to see (not be told) more about Cracked, but I am hopeful this will be explored further in the sequel.  I don’t think the premise of the book was fully realised in Win the Rings but I am hopeful this will be fully developed in the sequel.

My rating:

starstarhalf star



I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author, K.D. Van Brunt, in exchange for an honest review on Goodreads.