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

neverletmego

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

P8

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

AshalaWolf

“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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Review: ‘The Protected’ by Claire Zorn

TheProtected

‘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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Event Highlights: The Year Ahead in Youth Literature

Last night the Centre for Youth Literature hosted ‘The Year Ahead in Youth Literature’ (aka YA speed-dating) at the State Library of Victoria. With over 70 titles from 15 publishing houses to be presented in 2 hours, each publisher was allotted 5 minutes to promote and celebrate just a slice of their 2016 YA lists. The sold-out event was heavily tweeted (The Centre for Youth Literature have created a Storify of all the Tweets). Exciting times ahead in YAland, with such a diverse array of titles, featuring ghosts, witches, asylum seekers, mental illness, grief, love and a celebration of Australian YA.

Here are just a few of my favourites from the night.

When We Collided by Emery Lord

WhenWeCollided
Pub: Bloomsbury
Pub date: May 2016
Grief, love and bipolar. 17 year-old Jonah is struggling with his family life – his father died suddenly, and his mother has fallen into a deep depression. Vivi is the new girl in town – unabashed and unfiltered. What Jonah doesn’t know, is Vivi recently stopped taking her bi-polar medication.

The Leaving by Tara Altebrando

TheLeavingPub: Bloomsbury
Pub date: June 2016
Six children disappear from a small town without a trace. 11 years later, five of them return.

Promising Azra by Helen Thurloe

Azra
Pub: Allen & Unwin
Pub date: September 2016
Arranged marriage in Sydney. The impact forced marriages have on both the young men and women.

Between Us by Clare Atkins

Pub: Black Inc
Pub date: 2016
Love. Crossed Wires. Set in Northern Territory, two teenagers fall in love. One doesn’t know the other is otherwise incarcerated in a detention centre.

Untitled #LoveOZYA anthology edited by Danielle Binks

Pub: HarperCollins
Pub date: 2016
An anthology celebrating the talents of 10 Australian YA authors, spearheaded by Danielle Binks. This project was announced at The Year Ahead in Youth Literature. You can read more about the anthology, and what inspired its creation, here.

Book of Lies by Teri Terry

Bookoflies
Pub: Hachette
Pub date: 22 March, 2016
Good witch. Bad witch. One is the hunter. One is the hunted.

Untitled Ampersand Prize winning novel by Calanthe Black

Pub: Hardie Grant Egmont
Pub date: September 2016
a 15 year-old stowaway is kidnapped by an alien race and forced to act as their translator.

The Other Side of Summer by Emily Gale

Pub: Random House
Pub date: 01 June 2016
Loved and lost. Magic and realism. The impossible becomes possible.

The Road to Winter by Mark Smith

Pub: Text Publishing
Pub date: 22 June 2016
Set in the near future, where asylum seekers bought and sold at auction. Explores issues of identity and conflict

One Would Think the Deep by Claire Zorn

Pub: UQP
Pub date: May 2016
17 year-old mourning the sudden death of his mother. Set in 1997. 90’s nostalgia paired with contemporary issues.

Frankie by Shivaun Plozza

Frankie
Pub: Penguin
Pub date: 28 March 2016
Frankie is angry. Then a kid shows up, claiming to be her half brother and opens up a past she would rather forget. Then, he goes missing.

The Sidekicks by Will Kostakis

sidekicks
Pub: Penguin
Pub date: 2016
What happens when 3 boys realise they’re not friends, but have to deal with the death of a mutual friend.

The Things I Didn’t Say by Kylie Fornasier

ThingsIdidnt
Pub: Penguin
Pub date: 27 April 2016
Anxiety. Selective Mutism. Love.