Friday, December 24, 2010

My Picks of 2010

I've been reading a fair few 'best of 2010' type blogs and so I decided to do my own. The following is a list of my picks out of all the books I read in 2010 (not just ones that were published in 2010). I have an ever-growing list of back titles that I need to read and so new releases tend to get pushed back a bit. There will probably also be a few picks for most categories - yes, I am that annoying person who can never have just one choice.

Merry Christmas to all, Happy New Year and Happy Reading.
P.S. Don't be a hater ;)

BEST KIDS BOOK READ IN 2010: The Undrowned Child, by Michelle Lovric & Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O Dell
The Undrowned Child is a real story-tellers story, full of fabulous, crazy characters; original ideas; sly, knowing humour and a love of language and books. An absolute delight. Island of the Blue Dolphins is a heartbreakingly good story of survival. Enduring, moving and the writing is just so good - vivid and descriptive and relentless.

BEST YA BOOK READ IN 2010: Raw Blue, by Kirsty Eagar & This is Shyness, by Leanne Hall
I've mentioned these numerous times in my blog. The first is such a powerful, emotional story, made all the better by the author's restraint. Love the whole vibe of the book. The second was just so quirky and original with such great authetic and witty characters. These two were real winners.

BEST KIDS SERIES READ IN 2010: Septimus Heap, by Angie Sage
I feel like this series stuggled under the shadow of Harry Potter, but it can more than hold its own.

BEST WRITING: Winter's Bone, by Daniel Woodrell
Beautiful and bleak but always riveting. His use of language to evoke setting and emotion is outstanding.

BEST DISCOVERY: Merrow, by Ananda Braxton-Smith
Gorgeous central characters, gorgeous use of language and a sense of the otherworldly that lingers with you beyond the final page. 

MOST PLEASANT SURPRISE: Shiver, by Maggie Stiefvater
A paranormal romance with just that little bit extra to send it from formulaic to a decent read that can stand on its own. Also The Dead-Tossed Waves, by Carrie Ryan. There is some great writing and passages amongst all those zombies and gore.

I CAN'T BELIEVE I DIDN'T READ UNTIL NOW: Looking for Alaska, by John Green & Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt
The second was a real charmer. The first even more so.

MOST UNPUTADOWNABLE: Raw Blue & This is Shyness

BEST CHARACTER: I loved Ree in Winter's Bone. What an awesome, resilient hard-ass. Those two crazy kids in This Is Shyness. Neen & Ushag in Merrow. Practically anyone fantastical in The Undrowned Child.

FAV COVER: Wildwood Dancing, by Juliet Marillier

MOST DISAPPOINTING: Keeper, by Kathi Appelt
My fault, but it just wasn't what I expected. The mermaids weren't even real! No! Mermaids must always be real! Don't hate on me like that! I need my mermaids!

LEAST FAVOURITE: Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli & Evernight, by Claudia Gray
 My own personal taste, but didn't do it for me at all.

MOST ANTICIPATED FOR 2011: The Mourning Emporium, by Michelle Lovric, Lost Voices, by Sarah Porter & Wolfborn, by Sue Bursztynski




Monday, December 20, 2010

The Crowfield Curse, by Pat Walsh

First Published by Chicken House, 2010

It is Winter, 1347. There has always been something slighty strange about William - he was the only one to walk away from a fire that devastated his whole family and he has the rare gift of the sight: the ability to see what exists beyond the edges of the human realm. Since the fire he has been taken in by the monks of Crowfield Abbey and put to work. His life is hard but normal ... until he rescues a trapped hob. And then it begins - a world of secrets and hidden dangers, of encounters with the fay and mysterious travellers. William gradually learns that somewhere in the forest behind the abbey is a grave. And in that grave is a creature Will never thought could exist. But he is not the only one who knows about it. Something else knows, too - something not human.

The Crowfield Curse was another book I've been meaning to read for ages. I thought, from what I've heard and read about it, that it was going to blow me away. It didn't. The premise is great and the time period rich with potential, but the actual story-telling, the writing, did not follow through. I did not find this book particularly original or enchanting, and I was left a little impatient to just get it read and over with.

My main problem was the writing. I have written my own children's manuscripts and had them edited and workshopped and all the rest. I love the process, but it does take time and effort. And when I read a book that is full of everything (technically and stylistically) I have just been told to cut and rework, it does make me go 'huh?' I mainly had trouble with over-use of adverbs, especially when modifying verbs, and way too much filtering (too much thinking and feeling when to show it through action and dialogue would be far more compelling). Some of the descriptions were uninspired. I also felt that the way characters spoke was not altogether fitting with the time period they came from.

Are these things forgiveable, because it is a kid's book? Do they help the younger reader to see and understand? Do children bring fresher eyes to a book and thus these stylistic choices are not as obvious? I can make a few allowances but when they are used so often, as in The Crowfield Curse, then they actually drag the pacing of the story down and just feel like lazy writing.

Not to be misunderstood - I didn't not like this book. There is a nice sense of adventure and mystery, and it doesn't play dumb - characters get hurt and killed and the stakes remain high (although I was never in fear for William). Brother Snail and the Hob are lovely additions. I did get confused trying to distinguish between the other monks, though. Pat Walsh is an archaeologist, and all the detail, especially of the day-to-day life of Crowfield Abbey, was actually the most interesting part of the book.

I'm just left a little unsatisfied - I wanted there to be a greater sense of story. But in the end, I felt like it was just another children's book, with nothing truly individual to set it apart.


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Best Books of 2010

Great post over at Fancy Goods yesterday, the Bookseller and Publisher blog. They have made a fantastic list of all the best 'Best of 2010' book lists, from book stores, newspapers, libraries etc. It's well worth a look.

http://www.fancygoods.com.au/fancy-goods/2010/12/15/list-of-lists-best-books-of-2010/


Pay particular attention to the two Readings lists, under 'Best Children's Books'. Some nice choices - love that This is Shyness is on there. One of my favs this year.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Dark Matter, by Michelle Paver

Published in 2010, by Orion


I love a good horror story – I love that creepy dread-inducing feeling, that idea that something is not quite right. Ghosts are fascinating because there is a whole other story going on away from their haunting of a person or place – why are they haunting it, what happened, is it malignant or just wanting help, how much can it intrude into the present? So I picked up Dark Matter because it looked like a fun scary read, and a nice change from my usual young adult and kids fare.
Jack is in his late twenties – poor, lonely and desperate to change his life. He is offered the chance to be a wireless operator on an Arctic expedition with four others, and leaves a London threatened by war to spend a year at a base in Gruhuken, in remote Norway. At first he is delighted to be useful, away from his stuffy, dead-end life in London, but as, one by one, his companions are all forced to leave, Jack begins to doubt his commitment to staying. Living in permanent polar night, he lives in fear of the sea freezing over, making return and escape impossible. And something is watching him, in the snow – something that oozes malignance. Imagination or reality? Is Jack really alone?
The setting of this book, Gruhuken, is stunning in its untouched isolation, its harshness, its complete submission to the natural world. Paver describes it with astute observation. Her prose is not showy or of astounding beauty – but the world she’s describing is beautiful enough on its own. The darkness, the rare moments of light, the fog, the dark water, the ice caps – they all come alive in Paver’s prose and you can feel Jack’s wonder as he witnesses what it is like to step into this world.
Dark Matter is told in diary entries, something I’m not usually a fan of. It works well here, but it could have been told in normal first person present or past to the same effect. I guess what the diary entries do is emphasise the elements of time and isolation. When you are alone and waiting for someone or something, time can have a good old play around with your mind. And as Jack is alone and his story quite a personal one, the diary-style captures well what he is going through.
I wouldn’t say this story is particularly scary, either psychologically or physically. But I had a great time reading it. For what it is, it works. It does perfectly the is there/isn’t there mood and the feel of being stuck, alone, in this hostile white wilderness and wondering whether you are going to last. I love a good faithful-dog sub-plot, and the one with Isaak added a much-needed emotional grounding. It provided warmth, and at least one other character whose survival we invested in (because obviously, as its Jack’s diary, we know he’s going to last at least through to the end). I also found the rituals that occupied Jack’s day quite fascinating, the every little thing he needed to do to retain normality and ensure that he beat the cold and the environment. It feels real.
Dark Matter won’t have you trembling under your covers. But it is a well told story, with just enough uh-oh moments to keep you turning the pages to the end.

"Moving closer to the edge, I peered down. The water was glassy green, extraordinarily clear. I experienced the feeling I sometimes get when I'm on a bridge or a railway platform. Rationally, you know that you've no intention of stepping off ... but you're aware that you could, and that the only thing stopping you is your will."

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Sky is Everywhere, by Jandy Nelson

Published by Walker Books, 2010

The Sky is Everywhere took me a long time to read. Usually I can finish a book in a few days, but this one I found I could only read bits at a time. I enjoyed it, but it’s not the kind of book that I wanted to rush through, that swept me up and made me keep turning the pages. The subject matter can’t be blamed either – yes, it is quite sad and harrowing, but I’ve read similar books that despite their tragedy still kind of eat away at me and I have to find out more. I didn’t experience that feeling with The Sky is Everywhere, but I still think it’s a worthwhile book with lots of good content about relationships and grief and family dynamics.
The story follows seventeen-year-old Lennie Walker as she struggles to cope with the aftermath/shock of her sister Bailey’s death. Lennie is a bookworm and a band geek and has been pretty happily living in her older sister’s shadow. But when Bailey dies, Lennie must scrape together her own identity away from her sister, deal with family conflict both past and present, and make sense of the conflicting feelings she feels towards Bailey’s old boyfriend, Toby, and newcomer in town, Joe Fontaine.
I like what this book has to say about grief and love and how they are never simple and how they so very often go hand in hand. The book’s strongest point was how Bailey’s death impacted on those family she left behind: Lennie, Grams and Uncle Big. The plot about Lennie’s missing mother is also worked in quite nicely and never feels like an intrusion into the central story – in fact it helps give depth and meaning to what Lennie is going through. Grams and Big are great characters, and you can feel the affection they have for each other – the way they interact is spot on.
Another strength of The Sky is Everywhere is that it is actually pretty funny and quirky, despite the subject matter. Some lovely prose, both physical and emotional, and also some nice lines and dialogue. At times I felt Nelson was being a little too clever and obvious, and it annoyed me, but there is a lovely natural feel to the way most characters speak, and it is refreshing to read.
My least favourite part was the lovey-dovey stuff. The stuff with Toby was fine – I understood it, and it was never over the top. I understood the desperation that led to he and Lennie being drawn to each other. But the stuff with Joe Fontaine I just didn’t get. Sometimes it even strayed into Twilight territory – Joe Fontaine is so gorgeous, his smile, his smile, his smile, he is too cute, too amazing, etc. For someone that is supposed to be the all-consuming love of Lennie’s life, there is a lot of focus on the physical – I never understood just what he did for her, apart from being gorgeous, that made her think he was the answer to all her trouble and pain. I just think it was a little too intense a little too fast. All the Wuthering Heights stuff was also a bit overdone – give all the classic references a rest, I don’t think it added anything to the text. Someone doesn’t know everything about love just because they like Wuthering Heights.
Generally I think Nelson told Lennie’s story quite well, but sometimes I just feel it is a little too much, a little too overdone. I like understated simplicity – it’s just a personal taste. When I have to arrive at my own conclusions, can feel the heart of the novel creeping up on me and gradually sinking in, then I am pulled into the story and held tight. This is not what The Sky is Everywhere is about – it is about huge, all-consuming emotion and how it eats you up. I didn’t feel immersed in it, kind of just whacked over the head. So I wasn’t completely won over, but I still think it is a book that should be read. And the design of it is gorgeous, as well.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Impossible, by Nancy Werlin

Published in Australia by Penguin, 2010


Another book for teens dealing with true love and the supernatural. This one is refreshing in that it is not about vampires or fallen angels or faeries – it has more of a folksy feel, the ‘love’ has been developing since the two protagonists were both kids, and it just feels softer somehow, not so in your face. It is refreshingly different but not entirely successful.

Nancy Werlin’s Impossible concerns seventeen year old Lucy Scarborough and her quest to break a curse that has been in her family for generations. Pregnant by supernatural forces, she must complete three seemingly impossible tasks or fall into insanity. Having seen what the ‘curse’ has done to her mother, Lucy is desperate to prevent it from affecting her and, in turn, her unborn child. It is only the love of her family and childhood friend Zach that give her the strength to fight back and ‘take her destiny into her own hands.’

For a book that revolves around the breaking of a supernatural curse, it is a bit disconcerting that the quest to break this curse only begins well after the halfway mark. For this reason the blending of the real and the supernatural isn’t quite seamless, with a tendency to feel tacked on in parts for the advancement of the story. To me, there is too great a divide between reality and fantasy, and I cannot combine the two without some suspension of belief. Whilst I have problems with some other YA paranormal romance, I think that for the most part you are immersed in the supernatural side straight away, which helps you better step into the shoes of the characters.

In regards to the ‘reality’ parts, characters also spend far too much time thinking through problems and having internal monologues, often to the detriment of the plot, as these thoughts end up being irrelevant. Maybe it does help character development but I just wanted to tell them to hurry up and get on with it.

Werlin’s writing is quite evocative and dreamy, which suits the folksy romantic elements of the book. I love folk songs so it was nice to see Scarborough Fair make an appearance, but I don’t think Werlin tapped into the true potential of it. (Jon Mayhew, in Mortlock, http://bookgrotto.blogspot.com/search/label/Mortlock uses folk songs much better, even if only in quotation/epitaph style).

There are some nice, recognisable teenage love/lust moments between Lucy and Zach and in the last quarter of the book the pacing picks up considerably as Lucy struggles to complete the three tasks. A familiarity between Lucy and her audience, however, is never quite established, and for this reason her story lacks true folksy magic.

Monday, November 29, 2010

2010 INKY WINNERS

The winners of the 2010 Inky Awards were announced last week.
I know I am slow on the uptake but it's been a busy week.
So, just in case you didn't know yet, the winners were as follows:

GOLD INKY: Stolen, by Lucy Christopher
SILVER INKY: Shiver, by Maggie Stiefvater

I have heard so much about Shiver, but always steered clear because I didn't want to read another paranormal romance (often badly written) type thing, but I have heard this one lauded both critically and commercially, so might put it on the Summer reading list. (The cover is gorgeous too - very evocative).

My choice to win the Gold Inky was Raw Blue, by Kirsty Eagar. Loved this book - was one of my fave and best reads of 2010.

I am always so very impressed by The Inky long and shortlists. This is their deal: (from http://www.insideadog.com.au/inkys/index.html )
"There is no other award in Australia that relfects what teenagers want to read. The Inkys are international awards for teenage literature, voted for online by the readers of insideadog.com.au. There are three awards: the Golden Inky for an Australian book, the Silver Inky for an international book, and the Creative Reading Prize, won by a young person for a creative response to a book they love, in any format they choose."


Monday, November 22, 2010

Fallen, by Lauren Kate

Published by Delacorte Press, 2009

I was working as a bookseller when I first heard of Fallen, months before its official release. It was sold to me as the book that heralded fallen angels’ triumphant overthrowing of vampires in YA paranormal romance. Well, Fallen is a solid effort by Lauren Kate, but I didn’t exactly feel like throwing away my fangs for [clipped] wings upon first read. Its main competition was Hush Hush when first released, and I think that book was the better of the two. I haven’t picked up any of the numerous fallen angels stories that quickly followed after these two, and I don’t know if they piqued my interest enough to read on (even if I am being whammed in the face with them every vaguely bookish place I go).
Fallen starts off pretty well, with an unusual, appealing setting, a couple of interesting characters and a swampy, quasi-gothic atmosphere that slowly builds over the course of the book. I could not help but feel, however, that some set-pieces, like the lake and the pool-within-a-church, were tacked on just because the author thought they would be cool. Which is fine, but they need to be intertwined more seamlessly in the story and have more function, rather than just being a pretty place for characters to carry on a conversation.
The development of Luce’s big romance with Daniel was intriguing enough, but once it got into all the lovey-dovey stuff at the end I found myself totally unsatisfied. I really don’t feel we got enough of a connection between Luce and Daniel to justify all those grandiose statements of love. Their star-crossed lover deal has appeal, but we need to have more of why they are drawn to each other time and time again rather than just being told they love each other so much because it is meant to be. LOVE IS NOT BUILT ON HOTNESS AND A SIZZLING LOOK. I wish YA paranormal romance would get this.
Luce has her moments, but a lot of the time I found her to be a wet blanket. This is a problem in a lot of teenage supernatural fiction I’ve read – the female protagonist never really shows enough personality to justify all these ancient, powerful, beautiful creatures falling in love with her. Also a lot of her ‘flirting’ with Daniel and Cam came off as stilted when it really should have been cute and clever.
This book certainly kept me turning the pages, and the idea behind it is a good one. But ultimately Luce and Daniel’s love left me a little cold.



Friday, November 19, 2010

The Three Loves of Persimmon, by Cassandra Golds

Published by Penguin, 2010


Persimmon is a young lady devoted to her florist shop, at the top of the Botanical Gardens Railway Station. She has been disowned by her family for following the flower profession, and although clever and kind, is rather lonely. Epiphany is a mouse who believes there must be more to the world than the confines of Platform One. Each must undergo their own trials of love, heartbreak, imagination and adventure before they can find the place where they truly belong.
I am divided about this book. On one hand, there were moments of such cleverness and loveliness that is just charmed the socks off me. There are some pithy insights about people and the world around us, beautiful moments of both reflection and descriptive prose, and some genuinely delightful, funny lines, particularly from Persimmon’s ornamental cabbage Rose. I love fairytales, and I love what this book is trying to be. I love the innocence of it. I love how every creature, every action, is made to feel important, is never derivative in comparison to something else. There is a gorgeous mix of the quirky and the real.
Yet I feel like that whatever the book is going for, it isn’t quite there yet. I think some parts are overwritten and overstated, which ruins whatever lovely thing the author has just described or had her characters say. Similarly, the way characters speak, the way events play out, sometimes it feels like they are designed to have a particular effect. This insults the reader’s integrity. There is, perhaps, a little too much telling instead of showing. And although this is certainly a unique book, parts feel derivative – a little too sentimental, a little too neat. What I really wanted was just for Golds to let her story breathe – everything is there, it’s just the way she chooses to tell it.
Parts I particularly enjoyed were the development of Persimmon’s three loves – it  is great to see a young adult/children’s author dealing with the idea that love is not always perfect, that it must develop, that it takes many trys with many significant others to get it right. I LOVED the stuff about Walter and the theatre, having a fondness for the theatre and the theatre life myself. Rose was a great character, with many cabbagey intricacies. And the train station setting, especially Persimmon’s florist shop, was gorgeous. The devotion both she and Epiphany have to flowers (both literally and figuratively) is a delight to read.

"This flower's petals were as red as blood and the fold upon fold of them made a mysterious kind of face that was turned towards her and, it seemed to Epiphany, smiling the gentlest, most beautific smile ... Epiphany extended her trembling whiskered nose into the tips of the petals ... she gazed and gazed into the heart of the rose."

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli

Published in 2000, by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House

I think I must exist on a different reading planet when it comes to this book. I have read so many wonderful things about it from other reviewers, and I am well aware of how many awards and accolades it has received. But I just didn't like it. In fact on turning the last page I wished I had never picked it up at all.

That is just my opinion, and my own reading taste. I see and approve of the message it is trying to put across about difference and non-conforming. I love difference. I love novels that deal in magic realism. But I don't think Stargirl does either of these well.

I'm not going to write a review that goes on about all the things I didn't like about this book. I don't believe in entirely negative reviews. I find it similar to when people go on a celebrity's messageboard or something just to hate on them - I always think, why bother? Just move on. So that's what I'm going to do.

But to briefly justify my dislike, the three main problems I had with this book:
1. Stargirl annoyed me to no end. I didn't find her charming, or quirky, and I didn't get her appeal. I actually found her a tiny bit deluded.
2. It is too sentimental, naff and at times cliched for my tastes.
3. Sometimes I feel Spinelli is trying to hard to push the message. Let it breathe on its own. Let people be won over of their own accord.

Once again, just my personal taste. But definitely not my thing.


Friday, November 12, 2010

Wildwood Dancing, by Juliet Marillier

Published in 2007 by Pan Macmillan

Gorgeous, gorgeous book. Really does the fairytale re-telling genre justice. I used to read a lot of adult fantasy in my early and mid-teens and then stopped once I got into YA and children’s books. Wildwood Dancing makes me want to get into it again – it is sumptuous, vividly told and seamlessly incorporates many elements of folklore and fantasy fiction.

Jena, her five sisters and faithful companion, the frog she calls Gogu, live in a crumbling castle on the fringe of a wildwood in Transylvania. They have shared a secret for nine years – the existence of a hidden portal that allows them to travel through the Wildwood to the other Kingdom, on the evening of a full moon. Their father falls ill and must escape the winter cold to regain his health. When he leaves, the girls’ cousin Cezar gradually assumes overbearing control and creates trouble for them. Their secret is threatened and Jena must embark on a dark and perilous quest into the fantastic realms to save the lives of those she loves.

The world of Wildwood Dancing is sophisticated and intriguing. Dwelling among all these fantastic occurrences is the harsh light of reality and a story of a young girl forced to grow up and assume responsibility. This grounding in realism makes the existence of another world both tangible and engaging. Marillier writes with such belief in her story, and with such story-telling prowess, that Wildwood Dancing is one of those books that can be enjoyed by all ages.

The Transylvanian backdrop is stunning, each location infused with a pearly magic, swathed with the silent, watching presence of the moon and the forest and the frost. There is a seamless blend of Romanian vampire lore, Celtic faerie tradition and classic fairytales. The supporting characters, generally fay creatures, are well-drawn. The villain of the story is a complex and layered character, easy to loathe but easier to understand.

Wildwood Dancing is also about love and longing, and Marillier generally does it well. Tati and Sorrow’s relationship has a lovely ethereal quality. Jena’s own love story is played out skillfully; there is a great sense that her and her partner are true soul mates. The fact that we are introduced to him as a frog only makes it more agreeable.  My only qualm was the final scene, the ‘happy ending’. I think this was a teeny bit overwrought and it made me go ‘ick’, but as this is a fairytale I guess I can make allowances.

This is a beautiful book, a sprawling, shimmering work of art. I could find a few things to nitpick – a few moments of twee sentimentality, a bit of draggy prose, some frustration with Jena – but as a whole it is utterly charming. Love the cover as well.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Prime Minister's Literary Awards

The winners of the Prime Minister's Literary Awards were announced today. The young adult fiction winner was Confessions of a Liar, Thief and Failed Sex God, by Bill Condon, and the children's fiction prize was won by Lorraine Marwood for Star Jumps. Confessions concerns the relationship between boyhood's dreams and manhood's desires and Star Jumps depicts the joys and heartbreaks of a farming family as they struggle to cope with the devastating effects of long-term drought.

Well, I lose credibility by saying I haven't read either of these, so I can't comment on whether I agree with the choices! There was some quality competition from the shortlist, in particular Cicada Summer and Tensy Farlow in the kids category, and The Museum of Mary Child in YA. Those are my picks, but I love these awards because they always give me suggestions on what to read next.

The PM Literary Awards celebrate the contribution of Australian literature to the nation's cultural and intellectual identity, economy and life.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Mortlock, by Jon Mayhew

Published in hardback by Bloomsbury, 2010

Mortlock opens with three explorers – Mortlock, Chrimes and Corvis – in an Abyssian jungle, on a quest to find the amaranth flower. The amaranth is the key to eternal life and has the power to raise the dead. Bruised and battered, they eventually find it but its power frightens them and leads them to make a vow: leave it where it is, and tell no one of its whereabouts.
Three decades later and we cut to Josie, a knife-thrower in magician The Great Cardamom’s stage act. We also meet a boy called Alfie, who is an undertaker’s assistant. The two discover they are twins and find themselves caught up in the mystery of the Amaranth and all the grisly havoc it wreaks – including the living dead, the death of loved ones, three terrible aunts who take the form of crows, the evil intentions of the now deformed Corvis and an encounter with a ghastly circus out in the swamp.
Mortlock is a great read. The thing I enjoyed most about it is that it doesn’t demean its intended audience – this is gothic horror for kids, and you know it from the get go. There are many gruesome deaths and macabre scenes and evil intentions directed towards these two kids. It is counteracted with some great scene-setting, a driving pace and some enjoyable, crazy characters – just perfect for this kind of book, and contributing just the right amount to the story.
There are a few problems. I thought the ending could have been a bit more of a grand finale – maybe a bit longer and of a larger scale to suit the scope of the story. The plot and dialogue are at times a bit predictable. I knew how the story was going to turn out long before I read the last pages. Still, it was enjoyable getting there.
As a story of adventure and terror, Mortlock ultimately succeeds. It feels and reads like what it should – a tale of gothic horror. Atmosphere pervades the big set-pieces, like the dank city streets when Josie and Alfie get chased by ghuls; the soggy, swampy marshlands home to Lorenzo’s circus; or the interior of the crow-infested Lord Corvis’ mansion.
I am almost always thoroughly impressed by the kids series Bloomsbury publishes. They are usually stories of creativity and adventure, beautifully designed and packaged and just really good fun (I highly recommend the Septimus Heap series). Mortlock is a great addition.


Sunday, October 31, 2010

Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell

Published in hardback by Sceptre, 2006. 


What a riveting read – I read Winter’s Bone because the upcoming movie (released in Australia in early November) looks amazing, and I’ve heard some really great things about it and about Jennifer Lawrence’s performance (she plays lead character Ree Dolly). I am even more excited for the movie now (isn’t the poster awesome – it really captures the feel of the story too). The writing was exciting and tense and beautiful and strangely heart-warming, even in the bleakest and ugliest of moments.
Winter’s Bone tells the story of Ree Dolly, who sets out through the Ozark Mountain community in search of her dad. He has put their house up for his bail bond and then disappeared. If she fails then her family will be turned out into the harsh terrain. Risking her life, Ree has to sift through the threats, lies and evasion of her scattered and unwilling kin, in order to piece together the truth.
Ree is a great character, whose dogged determination, smart mouth and resilient capability quickly finds its way into your heart. Her relatives and all the people she encounters her are fascinating characters, expertly drawn and unflinchingly portrayed. I really enjoyed the relationship between her and her little brothers.
Atmosphere seeps off every page and the many descriptions of the environment and the weather never get tired. Woodrell has a way of writing sentences that don’t immediately make sense – they are a strange hybrid of metaphor and personification and symbolism and unusual word-pairings. But upon re-reading they always work beautifully and convey exactly how it would be to experience this kind of eerie no-mans land.
The prose and dialogue apparently reflect the dialect of the Ozark community (I don’t know, I’ve never been there). Once again, once you’ve got your head around it is quite beautiful and a pleasure to read. There is a real old-time tale-telling feel to it and it lures you closer and closer into Ree’s world.
Winter’s Bone is, in parts, disturbing, rough, cruel, bleak and gritty. But it is a story and a style of writing with balls. Read the book, and then go and see the film. I most definitely am hooked.

"Ree felt her joints unglue, become loose, and she was draining somehow, draining to the dirt, while black wings flying angels crossed her mind, and there were the mutters of beasts uncaged from women and she was sunk to a moaning place, kicked into silence."

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Raw Blue, by Kirsty Eagar

Published by Penguin, 2009

Loved this book – it has become one of my favourite reads of the year. Once I started reading I didn’t want to put it down. Very deserving of all the praise I’ve seen heaped on it (and what encouraged me to finally pick it up and see what all the fuss was about).
Carly has dropped out of uni. She feels like a disappointment to her parents and moves away, working a monotonous kitchen job so she can devote the rest of her time to what she really loves – surfing. In the ocean, Carly feels like she belongs, and doesn’t have to think about what happened to her two years ago at Schoolies. Except then she meets local boy Ryan, and his presence in her life means she will have to face up to her problems, or let the past prevent her from truly being happy.
This is a great young adult novel that is authentic and involving. It has trauma and anguish but the story and emotion is always wonderfully controlled. There is a quality of self-assurance to the writing – it is clear Eagar knows what she wants to say and has tapped into the best and truest way of saying it. This is not a sentimental book, and that’s because the focus is on Carly’s anger. It  is the anger that provides the fuel for the story – it sets up the pacing, the themes, the prose. Despite all the emotional brevity, Raw Blue feels lean and whipped into shape. There is an urgency to it that is quite addictive – I was drawn in by how far Carly could push herself and let others push her until she just completely cracked.
I grew up with the beach, and I love it, and Eagar too seems to have an obvious affection for the ocean, the surfing culture, and the people who are a part of it. This really shines through in her writing. Personalities are quickly drawn and dominate the pages in much the same way they dominate the ocean. Their nuances, the way they speak, their attitudes – I feel like I know these people. I do know these people. It is fascinating to see these familiar types observed and brought to life so realistically (and fondly, even if they are a total ass).
I just love this book because it really does feel so honest and real – the people and the situations are ones I have come across a million times before. And yet they are never boring or lazy; they are written in a way that makes me come to them with fresh eyes. I also think Eagar has excellently captured how it is to work in a kitchen, or ‘behind-the-scenes’ at a cafe or restaurant. I remember working in a few as a teenager, and I swear I could have transported myself into the pages of Raw Blue and I would hardly notice the difference.
Not a great deal happens in this book, and there is no big climatic moment. Carly just sinks deeper and deeper, and the good things that happen to her are really only distractions in her seeming intent to self-destruct. The last few chapters show the slow re-emergence of hope and recovery. And yet something about the story made me keep turning and turning the pages. I don’t often really come to ‘care’ about characters, but I did with Carly. I think it’s because despite all the crap and moping about, she doesn’t feel sorry for herself – she just gets on with it, using all her anger to drive herself forward.
A last two things I love about Raw Blue – the distinct Australian tone of it, and the fact that it deals with a university-aged teen. It was a refreshing change from YA that revolves around high school, and actually an age group that I feel in fiction often gets overlooked.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

After January, by Nick Earls

First published 1996, University of Queensland Press

A glimpse into a couple of weeks of one boy’s summer – wonderfully evocative, funny and intelligent, and a fine example of how stories don’t have to be about the big things to make an impact.
School is over for Alex Delaney, he’s waiting for his university offer, and the waiting is killing him. This is all After January is. Bring in a girl – graceful, golden-skinned, gorgeous – and let the reader see how it doesn’t always have to be about sex, big declarations of love, and complicated romantic sentiment, for two teenagers to establish a connection and provide that little bit of clarity, of assurance, the other needs.
Alex and Fortuna’s relationship won me over because it felt more like a bond, an attraction that they let grow and develop and didn’t try to make something grandiose out of – they just let it be what it was. All the other relationships running through this book are equally as enjoyable and rewarding.
I love the dynamic between Len and Alex, and I love the relationship between Alex and his Mum and how the way he views her subtly shifts towards the end of the novel. When they talk to each other it feels real, like something I might hear between my brother and my own Mum – constantly taking the piss, but always with affection. I love Alex’s induction into Fortuna’s family, and the fondness she has for her own father. All the characters feel real and familiar, but are never caricatures. They are all a pleasure to read about, and their dialogue sparkles and snaps of the page.
There is a stream of consciousness feel to this book, but Earls keeps it taut and honest. Alex’s observance of and insights into the world around him are a gem – hilarious without being smug, and comfortingly familiar. I think the real winner in After January  is the way Earls makes Alex step back and take a look of himself, but never indulgently, always with a kind of charming self-deprecating knowingness.
There is a leisurely, drawling feel to After January, but still it never drags. It just lures you in to the heat and the haze and the glittering water and the lazy market days and the toast and tea on the back porch. I loved it because these kind of days are familiar to me and Earls captures them in a way that is both affectionate and wistful.
After January is subtle, affecting and gently witty. I highly recommend.

"Potter's itch is just a joke for visiting yuppies. Don't say it to Alex, Dad. Not a day for jokes, hey Big? Not for yours, Cliffie."

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Toymaker on Booklist's Top 10 First Novels for Youth

 The Toymaker, one of my absolute favourite books of the past few years, has been put on the list for Top 10 First Novels for Youth, over at Booklist Online, a book review site run by the American Library Association. I am so pleased it is getting this recognition, because it truly is such an amazing story - beautifully written, wonderfully disturbing and infused with a gothic sort of magic that just makes everything come alive off the page.

It was also put on the shortlist for the 2010 Waterstone's Children's Book Prize, which aims to uncover "hidden talent in children's writing." I've also noticed that there are a fair few covers for it: my personal favourite is still the first one, which is, I think, only for the hardcover version. It captures the feel of what's actually inside the book - something quite delicate but disturbing, something ethereal, something not-quite-right. The latest cover, which I do rather like, kind of looks like a bunch of loons at a circus menacing a wee boy. Eye-catching and clever, but not quite conveying the mood of the first.

Anyway, my point is, I love this book and want everyone to read it, because I think it is wonderful and special and stunning. This could just be my taste in books, but read it anyway ;). I hope Jeremy de Quidt keeps writing because what a book to begin your career with!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Noah Barleywater Runs Away, by John Boyne

Published in hardcover by David Fickling Books, 2010


 Noah Barleywater has the feel of a classic folktale – it is whimsical, witty, full of adventure, works subtly on your emotions and has a rollicking charm. The style reminds me of classic James Thurber or Peter S Beagle, and I bet it would be fun to read aloud with kids.
It concerns eight-year-old Noah Barleywater (great name), who decides to run away from home because he thinks it is easier to deal with his problems if he pretends they aren’t there. After a very unusual trip down untrodden paths and through hostile villages, he comes to a toyshop that in addition to its many wonderful toys, houses a sprightly sort of magic. He also meets the toymaker, who shares his story, his adventures and his sorrows, in the hope of helping Noah understand his own reasons for running away.
This is a story about growing up, growing old and saying goodbye. It does this gently, with both understated and delightful humour; it teases out the narrative and retains an enthralling sense of wonder and imagination. I understand that it is the tragedy Noah must deal with that forms the heart of the book, but I found I was much more taken with all the quirks and strange happenings of the characters and places around him and the wonderful stories the old toymaker had to tell. His story and Noah’s story work nicely together and their interactions are a delight to read.
I am not quite won over by the ‘twist’ at the end. I saw it coming, and I like the idea of it, but I’m just not sure it was worked in as seamlessly as it could have been. Some of the sentimental moments could have been reined in just the tiniest bit, but I think this is just my own preference as a reader and it is probably the right amount for kids.
What I mainly loved was the book’s quirky humour, and the delight it takes in its own silliness. Noah is a likeable hero and the ending played out very satisfactorily. The illustrations are also a nice touch.


"A boy ... a real boy ... he grows old and nothing lies ahead of him but death ... You should never want to be anything other than you are ... Remember that. You should never wish for more than you've been given. It could be the greatest mistake of your life."

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

ttyl by Lauren Myracle

Published by Scholastic, 2004.

I read this because it was mentioned in a blog post about banned books, back in early October. Also because it was the first YA book published in instant-messaging style, and I wanted to see how an author could develop a story through this medium.

On paper it sounds like a great idea. But I didn't like this book. It annoyed me. Am I too old now to find it endearing? Perhaps. But I found the three main characters - 'the winsome threesome' - grating and shallow and sometimes just plain silly (well, I liked Zoe a little bit). Yes, I applaud Myracle for capturing the IM style of writing, and the vernacular of the girls, and for having them talk about sometimes completely random things that I remember typing to my own friends when I was in high school. But I cringe now thinking back to some of those messages, and I cringed when I was reading this book. How they expressed themselves made me feel embarrased for them. The candid nature of the book is supposedly why it originally got banned. It's not that bad, trust me. But it left me with a different sort of unpleasant taste in my mouth.

ttyl's blurb says, 'told entirely in instant messages, this smart, funny novel is about the humour, hangovers, and heartaches of high school, and the friendships that get you through it all.' My problem is I didn't feel the heartache; I didn't feel the emotional brevity of these supposedly 'big' events. The book kind of felt like it was about nothing in particular except a day in the life of a normal teenage girl. Props for achieving that, but a story needs something more. It needs to feel 'bigger' than normal life, and ttyl, in my opinion, doesn't.

For a story about friends, I also didn't feel the close bond these girls had. It takes more than declarations like 'we'll always have each other' and 'we'll stay true blue 4ever' to establish a friendship.

'Will the winsome threesome make it through the year?' Frankly, I didn't really care.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

2010 Inkys Shortlist

The 2010 Inkys Shortlist was announced this morning, and the following are the 10 books up for either the Golden Inky (Australian title) or Silver Inky (international title):
  • Going Bovine, by Libba Bray
  • Swerve, by Phillip Gwyne
  • Raw Blue, by Kirsty Eagar
  • Liar, by Justine Larbalestier
  • Guardian of the Dead, by Karen Healey
  • Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld
  • Shiver, by Maggie Stiefvater
  • The Sky is Everywhere, by Jandy Nelson
  • Stolen, by Lucy Christopher
  • Will Grayson, Will Grayson, by David Levithan & John Green
The winner is voted for online by young adult readers and teenagers themselves (ends about mid-November), so I think it is a pretty accurate representation of what teens like to read. I admit I have only read a few of these, so I must add them to my already teetering tower of 'will get round to it' books. The Inkys are not selected for popularity or 'message', but by quality, diversity and readability. I love them! I can't wait to see who wins. Inside a Dog (website that runs them) is a treasure as well.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt

Published (Australia) by Bloomsbury, 2003

Tuck Everlasting is a short book, easy to read, but it is such a beautiful, charming little tale that I kind of wish I could stay stuck in it forever.
The Tuck family are doomed to/blessed with eternal life after drinking from a magic spring. Ten year old Winnie Foster stumbles upon their secret and the Tucks kidnap her to try and make her see why the spring must stay secret and why living forever is not as much a blessing as it may seem. Meanwhile, a strange man in a yellow suit is determined to cause trouble for Winnie and the Tucks.
I’ve always known about this book, and I’ve seen the movie version, but it still did not prepare me for how amazing Tuck Everlasting is. I feel like it is near perfect, with its flawless prose, structure, style, and subtle themes largely centering around morality.
This is a book that makes you feel like you are there, with Winnie, in her front yard on those stifling hot days, or wandering around the cool woods, or in the homely, ramshackle little cottage of the Tucks. Babbitt’s prose is so delicious that I sometimes had to read passages over and over again because it just rolls off the page so effortlessly. There is a winsome humour and deft capturing of Winnie’s emotions and reaction to a discovery that would surely change her life.
Winnie is an adorable lead character and her interactions with the Tucks are skilfully done. Her awe of Jesse is never overwrought or too sentimental, and yet we get a great sense of the scope of it. For a short book, all the characters feel fleshed out and clearly motivated by their individual wants and needs.
Tuck Everlasting has won quite a few awards and received plenty of praise. Trust me, it is so very deserving. It is touching, superbly crafted and an utter delight.

"You can't have living without dying. So you can't call it living, what we got. We just are, we just be, like rocks beside the road."