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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Event highlight: Melbourne Writers’ Festival – ‘Angie Thomas: YA and Activism’

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‘Today I am here to beg you to change the world’

It’s hard to believe Angie Thomas’ keynote, the first YA keynote Melbourne Writers’ Festival has ever had, was not a sell-out. Angie’s debut novel, The Hate U Give, has been sitting at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list for 26 consecutive weeks. It has been published in over 20 countries and is currently in its 16th reprint. Angie was mesmerising, as she delivered a passionate speech that was equal parts moving, hilarious and inspiring. She often broke from her speech to joke about what her mother would think; she pondered what would her mother say if she saw her daughter addressing a crowd wearing a Gryffindor jumper (I’m pretty sure everyone in the room not only approved, but wanted to ask where one could be purchased), or how her mother would react if she heard her swear (Angie sought permission from the audience before doing so).  ‘Angie Thomas: YA and Activism’ was chaired by Beverley Wang, a journalist, radio producer and host of the popular ABC podcast It’s Not a Race. Wang introduced Thomas by praising The Hate U Give as ‘a Young Adult book that all adults need to read as well’.

‘Today I am here to beg you to change the world’. Angie commanded attention with her opening statement, and held that attention throughout her address. She clearly conveyed her passion for writing Young Adult fiction, as she expressed her belief that young adults have an awareness, passion, and belief that they can change the world. Angie believes adults do not share that same belief as teens, as ‘once we become adults we realise how big the world is’. Acknowledging many of the adults in the audience were Young Adult fiction writers, Angie noted that ‘as writers, you have the power to do just that’ (change the world).

While Angie said ‘books showed me that there was more to the world’, as a teen she struggled to see herself in published Young Adult fiction. Twilight was considered THE Young Adult book, but she didn’t recognise herself on the page, and joked about how her mother would never let her talk to a man that old. Angie joked about how if her name had been called out during The Hunger Games, her mother would have marched right up to the organisers and stopped it from happening. Angie lamented that ‘usually kids like me were the sassy sidekicks … or the wisdom giver’. Angie loves the Harry Potter series, as she identified strongly with Hermione Granger, and viewed Voldemort as a drug dealer and Hogwarts was her community. Angie was thrilled when Noma Dumezweni was cast as Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Because of the absence of representation in YA, she said ‘I didn’t think my life mattered, or lives like mine mattered’. Angie saw herself in hip-hop, a movement, she noted, that was founded by teens. It was a way for teens to have a voice – about their lives, about what mattered. Angie’s heroes were rappers, as it felt like ‘somebody saw me, and they said it mattered’. ‘Hip-hop scared people because it was so raw’. There is a truth to hip-hop that can be confronting. Angie later went on to say ‘true change comes with discomfort’ and ‘I don’t think there’s anything wrong with fear … it’s what you do with it’.

While The Hate U Give has been interpreted by some as a distinctive Black Lives Matter political novel, Angie wrote The Hate U Give as a short story, well before she was aware of the Black Lives Matter movement. She wrote the story in response to a shooting in her town. Writing was the only way Angie knew how to get her frustration out, and eventually turned the story into a novel because, she said, ‘I need people outside of my neighbourhood to see’. She noted that when young victims are placed on the news, they are always made to seem older than they are. Angie wanted her book to be personal, not political, to humanise and show truth behind the headline. ‘Starr is a child. They were children’, she said, and later added ‘why is it that we make them antagonists in their own deaths?’ When Beverley asked Angie about her reaction to having Trump as President, Angie responded by saying ‘I have more hope now than I did before the election … people are speaking up now.’ She reminded the audience that racism is not new, it is just becoming more visible due to social media. The sense of hope and love Angie conveyed was incredibly moving, as she said ‘I know where the power lies, and it’s with the people’.

Angie implored the audience to ‘examine why you do it. Why do you write for young adults?’ This question was framed around an acknowledgment that ‘Young Adult books catch a lot of flak’, and while she jokingly referenced the Handbook for Mortals saga by saying ‘apparently some people see it (YA) as a way to get movies made’, her frustration that ‘people downplay (YA)’ was clear. Angie argued that teens today are ‘more aware, more conscious of things’, particularly due to social media. So, while she acknowledged that many YA writers write for younger versions of themselves, Angie believes we should ‘take ourselves out of it, and focus on who we’re writing for.’

There’s so much more that was talked about during the keynote, as well as the question time afterwards. I feel like I’ve barely scraped the surface. I was focused on Angie for the duration of the event, so I wasn’t aware whether the session was filmed or not. I hope it was. The only lowlight of the event came from an audience member, who asked, in what I interpreted to be a rather aggressive tone, what is worse, to write from your own experience or to write outside your own experience? The frustration in the audience member’s voice made me cringe. Angie was gracious in her reply, as she politely challenged the crowd to ask themselves why they want to write it, and why they would be the best possible person to tell that story. She urged writers to put in the work (do research, consult with relevant groups), to be prepared for criticism, and to LISTEN to and learn from any criticism.

‘Angie Thomas: YA and Activism’ was inspiring, moving, hilarious and full of heart. I’ve been to many MWF sessions over the years. This event will stay with me for the longest time.

 

I finished reading (and loved) The Hate U Give. My review is still to come. I only have the opportunity to attend one other MWF event this year, which will be #loveozya 

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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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: Maladapted by Richard Kurti

Maladapted

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Science created him.

We created him.

Now we have to use him.

 

Revelation

He will destroy everything that makes us human … He must be uncreated.

 

The following review contains spoilers.

Cillian is the sole survivor of a terrorist attack on a packed Metro train. He carries his father out of the wreckage, but rather than imparting final words of love, his father uses his final breath to utter the word ‘Gilgamesh’. How did Cillian survive the attack when everyone around him died? What is Gilgamesh? Images of Cillian carrying his father out of the wreckage go viral, and Cillian finds himself on the run without really knowing who he is, or who he should be, running from. Tess is a survivalist, having joined Revelation after the death of her family. Like Cillian, she is also a sole survivor of an attack. Revelation sends Tess to make contact with Cillian, forcing her to re-evaluate her own belief system. With both characters displaced from their home and any sense of family or security, they must either join forces or do what they’re each programmed to do.

Told with a third-person omniscient narrator, Maladapted is an action-packed story set in the futuristic Foundation City. Themes of connectivity and temporality are explored through various forms of technology, including gun-building apps, security bots and encryption tabs. Foundation City is an aspirational city where everything is temporary, as pop-up shops and cafes evaporate on a daily basis. Unfortunately, much of what the reader learns about the ever-shifting Foundation City is through exposition, rather than showing characters experiencing temporality.

The plot of Maladapted races forward at the expense of character development. There was little reason for Tess to have any internal struggle with her allegiance to Revelation, as the religion is presented as nothing more than an extremist group from the outset, with their mantra,While we Breathe, We Trust,  furthering the cliché of mindless/brainless disciples. The only element of suspense is achieved through the possibility of Tess either killing Cillian or being killed by Revelation. Cillian is a lone genius, who shifted schools every few terms before finding a place at an academy for gifted students, and eventually securing a scholarship at the age of fifteen. Like many fifteen-year-olds, his greatest stressors in life are dating and finishing assignments on time. Both Cilllian and Tess lack depth, and serve as tools to move the plot along, presumably because there is so much story to cram in. It’s only once Tess and Cillian are inside Gilgamesh that Maladapted gains depth and feeling, as passive anecdotes of the city and the politics of religion versus science give way to the experience of their time in Gilgamesh.

I really wanted to like this book, as it had so many elements to make for a great read, but the abundance of exposition and lack of depth of character made it a hard slog. Maladapted is the first book in a series, so here’s hoping the second book has room for greater character development.

 

With thanks to Walker Books for providing a complimentary copy in exchange for an honest review.

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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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