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: ‘Coming of Age’ at Melbourne Writers Festival

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It was great to be back at Melbourne Writers Festival this year, particularly given there was a series of panels devoted to YA. The panels were grouped under the umbrella of ‘Eye on YA’. I attended ‘YA Superstars’, ‘Coming of Age’ and ‘Fantasy Fiction’. The standout event for me was ‘Coming of Age’.

inbetweendays.jpg‘Coming of Age’, chaired by the champion of Australian YA (and interim chair of the LoveOzYA movement), Danielle Binks, featured Australian authors Claire Zorn and Vikki Wakefield. Danielle began by asking the authors what they were like at 17. Vikki said she failed school, and found she was living an adult life in her teens. It wasn’t until Vikki was in her 20’s that she started to live out her teen years. Claire read an excerpt from a journal she wrote when she was 17. It was both laugh out loud funny and all-too relatable, as her 17 year old self lamented “I just wish someone would love me besides my bloody family”.

Vikki became hyper conscious of her audience when writing her second book, Friday Brown. When she approached her third book, Inbetween Days, she focused hard on what the story was about, rather than the audience. During audience question time, I asked Vikki how she overcame her paralysis while writing Friday Brown. Vikki said she knew if she finished a draft she would have something to work with. Vikki also mentioned during the session that while she had a massive pit of paralysis for a long time, the floodgates are now open and she is working on a horror novel. I was surprised to hear Claire say she wrote The Protected before The Sky So Heavy. At the author signing, I asked her about it and she said she started writing The Protected, but took a break during rewrites to work on The Sky So Heavy. It took Claire 9 years to write The Protected, and 2 years to write The Sky So Heavy.

OneWouldThink.jpgDanielle highlighted that both protagonists in Inbetween Days and One Would Think the Deep feature underdogs, and asked the authors what intrigued them about underdogs. Claire revealed she had a hard time in high school, and felt like a freak show. Vikki said she felt like a chameleon for the longest time, and had no sense of her own identity. She writes about underdogs because she needs to find something in common with her characters. Vikki later said she wasn’t allowed to like the guys who she was attracted to in high school, as her friends determined who she chose. There was one guy in high school who she never told she liked, because her friends wouldn’t allow it.

Danielle asked Claire why she set One Would Think the Deep in 1997. All of Claire’s books are inspired by songs. Claire said she wanted to write about what it was like to lose your idol. She didn’t cope well at school, and felt no one understood her except for Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder. Claire didn’t want to write about the death of Kurt Cobain, because he is still such a prominent figure. She was drawn to Jeff Buckley, as his vulnerable, effeminate persona sat at odds with the hyper-masculine grunge era.

Danielle asked the authors what books they wished they had read as teens. Vikki listed Judy Blume and Robyn Klein. Vikki added that she read The Outsiders by S.E. Hilton as a teen, which was the book she needed. Claire said she wished she read Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell.

Given Vikki didn’t have journal entry to share like Claire, she instead read to the audience a letter she wrote to her 17 year old self. This letter was immensely moving. It included beautiful and empowering words of encouragement, including “every mistake you’ve made will be nose-rubbing material, but you’re used to the smell” and “finally you’ll say things you could never say out loud”. I hope she publishes this letter somewhere.

I thoroughly enjoyed attending the 2016 Melbourne Writers Festival. I was disappointed when I saw that the ‘Writing Diverse Characters’ and ‘David Levithan: Queer YA’ panels were on at the same time. I was even more frustrated once I realised both panels ran for an hour, and overlapped with ‘Fantasy Fiction’ (the latter I had booked a ticket for). I didn’t want to be disruptive/disrespectful and leave halfway through ‘Writing Diverse Characters’ or ‘David Levithan: Queer YA’ panels, so I missed out. Still, the sessions I attended to were inspiring, not just because of the authors and the way Danielle structured the sessions, but for the passion conveyed by the audience through their questions (I am also immensely relieved that there weren’t any up-and-coming authors in the audience who used question time as an opportunity to promote their work. I’ve seen this happen during question time at so many literature events, and every time I get a whiff of self-promotion guised as a question I slink down into my chair and will myself to dissolve). Danielle Binks opened the YA Superstars panel by declaring ‘we are all living in the second golden age of YA’. The number of panels devoted to YA at this year’s MWF attests to the popularity and importance of YA. I hope there continues to be an increase of YA panels at future Melbourne Writers Festivals in years to come. Or, perhaps, a whole festival for YA.

Review: Welcome to Orphancorp by Marlee Jane Ward

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In an Orphancorp, there’s not a lot of physical contact, and the touches we do get usually hurt. Without each other, maybe we’d go through life thinking that hands are just slaps and fists, not for grasping or stroking.

Welcome to Orphancorp is a gritty, first-person dystopian novella following seventeen year-old Miriiyanana Mahoney. Mirii is seven days away from Age Release when she is transferred to a new Verity House. It doesn’t matter to Mirii where she is transferred to, because all of the compounds have the same layouts and the same wardens, known as Aunties and Uncles, who use brutality and humiliation to keep the orphans in line. The Orphancorps buy unaccompanied minors from the state, but they have to release them back into society when they turn eighteen. That is, unless the orphans mess up before they’re due for release, in which case they are transferred to Prisoncorp.

There are only seven chapters in Welcome to Orphancorp, which are listed in descending order, counting down to Mirii’s her release date. Upon her arrival to a new Verity House, Mirii is warned by one of the aunties that she needs to keep her mouth shut in order to make it to her release date. While the novella is structured around the seven day countdown, Welcome to Orphancorp isn’t so much a novel about escape, as it is about survival. Given that Mirii arrives at the new orphancorp in a gag and chains, Mirii’s situation is bleak, but she is by no means a downtrodden pacifist.

Marlee Jane Ward has crafted a complex protagonist and narrator who is both aware of her limitations but is also driven by a need to push back against an institution devoid of compassion whenever a chance arrives. Like the majority of orphans, Mirii has been in the system for most of her life. The orphans are raised amongst themselves, with the majority of older teens made to care for the toddlers. Mirii has proven incapable of looking after the younger ones, so she is assigned to electrical manufacture. The natural inclination for Mirii is to not form any emotional attachment, as orphans can be transferred out to other compounds or sent to Prisoncorp if they have enough infractions.

The novella contains explicit sexual content as well as drug references, but neither is gratuitous. By day, the orphans are bound by rules and hierarchy brutally enforced by the Aunts and Uncles. But once the lights are out, they showcase their skills through black market trades and cling to their humanity and identity through sexual encounters.

Welcome to Orphancorp has echoes of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, as both present a near-future dystopian world that offers little hope of change at a societal level, as the compounds operate within a larger world which has no interest in intervention. The beauty of both novels is the show of defiance the characters can achieve by daring to live.

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Review: ‘Frankie’ by Shivaun Plozza

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I leave my life up to fate for a few minutes and look what happens. If karma’s a bitch then fate is her psychopathic cousin. You know, the one no one invites to family reunions because she makes the little kids cry.

Frankie has been suspended from school and is facing possible expulsion. Her Aunt Vinnie is at her wits end, her best friend Cara is at risk of getting into trouble by association, her cheating ex-boyfriend is going all doe-eyed, and there’s a cop hanging around. Not exactly an ideal time for Frankie to receive a call from a boy named Xavier, who delivers a bitch-slap from fate when he tells her that he’s her brother. The revelation pushes to the surface the traumatic relationship Frankie had with their mother, Juliet, who dumped Frankie at the Collingwood Children’s Farm when she was just four years old. Before Frankie can even begin to make sense of this new family dynamic, Xavier disappears. Frankie needs to find her brother, to figure out what having a brother even means, but can she do that without getting expelled and pushing Vinnie past breaking point?

Frankie is an exciting narrator and protagonist to follow because literally pulls no punches. She tells it like she sees it, and won’t back down from a fight. The narration is filled with brilliant dry one-liners observations and an honest portrayal of what it is to be a teenage girl. A key strength of the novel is the complexity of the characters. Mr Tran is a minor character who has a major impact by the mere act of sitting silently by Frankie’s side while Vinnie goes into bat with the principal. Vinnie, Frankie’s aunt, has been pushed to her limit by Frankie, but can still break right in the thick of an argument with Frankie to crack up laughing at a joke.

Cara is Frankie’s best friend and fearless ally, who also frequents the principal’s office. Cara’s approach is always to defend Frankie first and ask questions later. Cara and Frankie are great characters to follow, so much so that it was a little disappointing when a love interest came on the scene, as I would have been thrilled if focus was on the love between friends rather than romantic love. That’s not to say I wasn’t all misty-eyed while reading poignant moments between Frankie and her love interest, or that romantic love dominated the novel. The banter between Cara and Frankie, their propensity to get each other into trouble, and their similar headstrong personalities that makes them such great friends while also potentially setting them up for epic fights made them an exciting duo to watch. I was greedy to read more of their friendship, and found the romantic love interest came at the expense of the friendship.

The physicality of Collingwood is beautifully entwined with the story from beginning to end. The smells, sights and sounds illicit not only a strong sense of physical place, but also a strong sense of emotional place. From magpies clashing over scraps while Frankie waits outside the principal’s office, to the hum of the drinks fridge in the Emporium being the only sound to break the tense silence between Frankie and Vinnie, to the stench of ‘rotting fruit, Spanish donuts, pigeon poo, baby vomit and hairy-guy odour’ at the Saturday market Frankie really wants to leave so she can find out where her brother is. Shivaun’s evocative world-building is the greatest achievement of the novel.

Frankie is a sharp, raw, hilarious, heartbreaking and uplifting debut.

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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 Interrogation of Ashala Wolf

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“You are the Tribe, Ashala.” I frowned, and he continued. “You were the leader, the glue that held them together. Now you’re gone, it won’t be long before they start squabbling with each other, and leave the safety of the Firstwood. We think it shouldn’t be more than six months until they’re detained. The enforcers here are taking bets on it.”

The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, the first book in an Australian dystopian series by Ambelin Kwaymullina, is set 300 years in the future. All of the earth’s resources have been depleted and the world has been decimated by fires, floods and earthquakes. Some believe the destruction was caused by humanity’s abuse of the environment, but the majority believe those with superhuman abilities are to blame. Along with other laws, The Citizenship Accords is established to prevent superhumans from upsetting the natural balance and bringing about further destruction. All individuals must undergo the Citizenship Assessment after they turn fourteen, in order for the government to determine whether they possess superhuman abilities. Those who are deemed illegal are placed in detention centres.

Sixteen year-old Ashala Wolf has been betrayed by a friend of her Tribe, Justin Connor, and placed in a detention centre under Justin’s watch. Prior to her capture she had heard rumours of secret experiments conducted on Illegals leading to the development of an interrogation machine. Chief Administrator Neville Rose straps her to a machine to forcibly draw her memories out, intent on finding the rest of her Tribe, a group of Illegals who possess superhuman abilities. Ashala doesn’t know who she can trust, and is scared of what memories Administrator Rose will rip out of her mind, but she is determined to find out as much as she can about the detention centre to protect her tribe, even if it means she doesn’t make it out alive.

The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf is narrated by Ashala. She is a natural-born leader, as she is assertive, empathetic and willing to sacrifice her own needs for the good of her tribe. She’s a refreshing female protagonist to follow, as she doesn’t wallow in guilt and is proactively trying to better her situation. Her greatest flaw, as noted by Ember, one of her Tribe, is she always sees the best in others. Her inclusive nature results in being betrayed by Justin Connor at the outset of the novel. Connor is her guard throughout the novel, rarely leaving her side. Despite his betrayal and his presence as her captor and guard, Ashala still takes time to ponder about his physical perfection. While her behaviour is consistent hopeful/empathetic/trusting aspects of her character, her preoccupation with his attractiveness detracts from the intensity of the detention centre, which is vivid and harrowingly conveyed, and the impending interrogation.

I’m normally apprehensive about covers that feature recognisable faces, as I prefer to conjure up my own image of characters based on their appearance and characteristics. However, this cover captures the ferocity of Ashala without appearing melodramatic or detracting from the supernatural elements.

The novel gains momentum once the interrogation begins. The structure shifts, cutting between scenes of Ashala’s tense stand-offs with the deceptively kind-faced Administrator and his subservient staff in the detention centre, and memories of the Tribe and her time in Firstwood. Scenes within the confines of the detention centre are intense, as Kwaymullina deftly creates situations where characters are manipulated right when they think they have the upper hand. The employees of the detention centre all have a great depth of character that feeds into Ashala’s anxiety about recognising friend from foe. Boomers, Skychangers, Rumblers, Firestarters and other superhumans are introduced in the interrogation scenes, but a greater understanding of their capabilities is gradually revealed through Ashala’s memories. Ashala’s memories contain elements of Dreamtime beautifully woven with sensory descriptions of Firstwood. Ashala is viewed as the leader of the Tribe, she is not the only force to be reckoned with. Tribe members including Amber and Georgie have much to offer, but it is the evocative Firstwood that commands attention and continually raises the stakes.

The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf is the first in a series, but works perfectly as a standalone novel. An evocative and deceptive read. The Disappearance of Ember Crow and The Foretelling of Georgie Spider are both available.

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