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."

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Paranormalcy, by Kiersten White

Published by Harper Collins, 2010

Evelyn wants to be a normal teen with a normal life (whatever normal passes for in the literary world). Instead she works for the International Paranormal Containment Agency and uses her ability to see through supernatural’s glamours to help monitor and control all those bad-ass vamps trying to get their sexy on. When she finds herself linked to a faerie prophecy that promises death and destruction to the paranormal world, everything she knows is called into question and she must find a way to make sense of her world. So much for normal.
Despite Paranormalcy’s slight deviation from the usual set up, this is very much a paranormal romance. The guts of it involves Evie’s longing for Lend’s ‘normal’ life and her worry that their conflicting worlds will stop them from being happy together. I am so pleased that Evie isn’t a total wet blanket when it comes to love and lust – that she has a bit of spark and can give as good as she gets. She is a cute character, easy to go along with. I love that White lets us see her and Lend’s relationship actually develop. They go through the whole awkward flirty, cutesy stuff instead of just falling all over each other with unparalleled declarations of love. That being said, I didn’t really care all that much about them ending up together. We get the attraction but something is missing from the dynamics of their relationship – maybe it’s the angst, maybe it’s the tension, but something just wasn’t there.
Apart from Lend’s water spririt Mum, I also wasn’t feeling the love for any of the supporting characters. I think maybe because they don’t get a chance to develop, or they just aren’t around enough to make me care what happens to them. Reth was the best developed out of all, and we’re kind of made to not like him. I didn’t even care all that much for Lish, and she’s a mermaid, my absolute favourite.
I also found it hard to immerse myself in the plot. The book itself is an easy and fun read, and original in its premise. But as to actually what goes on, and how it unfolds, I just didn’t get sucked in, I didn’t feel anything. I think maybe this is because of Evie’s character, the way she is written, and the overall tone of the book. As I said, it is light-hearted and fun, and a welcome relief from the often bland and depressing protagonist voice of other YA paranormal romance - but it also makes it hard to really take anything seriously, maybe because Evie doesn’t.
I enjoyed Paranormalcy (even if the title is a bit awkward). It’s definitely worth having  a read. But it didn’t seduce me, like the back cover promised it would.

Monday, October 4, 2010

This is Shyness, by Leanne Hall

I sometimes post reviews over at this blog, CAE Book Groups, and my most recent post was for This is Shyness, by Leanne Hall.

I absolutely just adored this book, and encourage everyone to go out and pick up a copy. It is so quirky, original and fun, with the kind of beauty reserved for those nights just like the book describes - the nights that you don't want to end, that are so perfect for the feelings and emotions they capture, that almost feel like another time and place. That was my experience reading This is Shyness, and I love Leanne Hall for writing something so unique.

The full review is here: This is Shyness. Like I said, I didn't read the gazillion other entries for the Text Prize (which, by the way, is a fabulous prize that all emerging writers should look into entering), but I can't help thinking they definately picked the right winner for this one.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Raw Blue wins Victorian Premier's Literary Award

Earlier this week the winners of the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards for 2010 were announced. The prize for Young Adult Fiction was won by Kirsty Eagar, for her novel Raw Blue.

I've noticed this book popping up everywhere so I think now it definately has to go on my reading list. That it is based around beaches and surfing also makes it pretty irresistible. At least to me.

I also noticed that the prize for an unpublished manuscript by an Emerging Victorian Writer was won by Peggy Frew. I remembered the name vaguely from the Age Short Story Award, and upon checking I found she won it in 2008. I think it's so fabulous to see emerging writers keep going with their work and building on the momentum and just getting their stuff out there.

Who's read Raw Blue? What did you think?