Review: Turtles All The Way Down by John Green

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Turtles All the Way Down by John Green is such a highly anticipated novel of 2017 and it absolutely astounds with it’s incredible story. It’s so John Green-esque with the metaphors, quirky characters, and copious amounts of existential crises. I also appreciated the raw and personal approach to OCD that definitely makes this book a standout.  Turtles All The Way Down is about mental health and missing persons and sad rich boys and friendship. I couldn’t be happier with it!

 

The plot was really amazing! I found it on the slow side, but still thoroughly excellent. I loved that it wasn’t rife with cliches or annoying tropes, which was refreshing and just made the book more heartfelt. It was real and that makes all the difference. It’s not really a “detective” story as such, but Aza is curious about the mission millionaire because she used to know his son, Davis. She does a bit of digging…although to be honest most of her “investigative work” is on Davis. How adorable.

Aza was an amazing protagonist! She is extremely quiet. She hardly ever talks and she’s very much locked in her own head. I appreciated that spoke little and listened a lot, and the diving into her complex and messy thought process that’s coloured by her mental illness was interesting and so respectfully portrayed.  She’s obviously extremely intelligent. All John Green’s characters always are?! I love how “pretentious” they are because I was like that as a kid…hello #relatable. Let’s talk about the stars and metaphors and what poetry means and the infinite possibilities of death and life. The sheer amount of knowledge these kids spew out is just refreshing and perfect to me.

The anxiety/OCD was really brutally and honestly talked about. I do wish the term “OCD” had been used because labels aren’t things to be scared of and it would’ve honestly helped smash more stereotypes. A lot of people won’t know that Aza has OCD because it’s not on page (but John Green talks about it a lot in his vlogs and such). This isn’t the cliche portrayal of OCD either. It’s more about the anxiety of thought-spirals, the repetition to the point of endangering yourself, and the fixation on things you know aren’t a problem but you can’t stop thinking they are. You are not watching someone with OCD, you are experiencing what it’s like to have OCD while reading this book. And that’s so important.

The romance was absolutely super adorable! I loved Davis immediately. He’s rich and always thinks everyone pays attention to him solely because of his money. He’s not good at small talk either and will dive straight into complex conversation (he’s amazing) and he is the sweetest big brother. His dad is missing and so his life is tangled and sad and complicated. I loved how he and Aza slowly rekindled their childhood friendship. It’s the cutest romance, but slow and cautious and fraught with indecision and the complications of Aza’s OCD and Davis’s grief.

I loved how deep the story was too. It just wants to talk about huge matters, and some of the metaphors were extremely intense. The book feels layered and I think you could get more out of it each time you reread.

And since it is, in fact, a John Green novel…I was gut-punched with severe emotions at the end! I hated (in the best way!) and loved it simultaneously and think it was written perfectly.

I think Turtles All the Way Down is an absolutely deep and existential book that really discusses minds and who we are. It’s sad and it’s not sugar coated. There’s no messages that you need to be fixed to have a good life. Your mental illness isn’t ALL of you, but it is some of you. I really appreciated this book and its messages and its beautiful prose.

Anybody can look at you. It’s quite rare to find someone who sees the same world you do.

Review: Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy

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RAMONA BLUE by Julie Murphy is a heartfelt and beautiful coming-of-age story. It’s about growing up, discovering your sexuality, and swimming and eating a lot of delicious food. (Particularly different ways to eat your eggs, which is quality content.) I think it touched on a lot of applicable and poignant themes that a lot of teens will struggle with or relate to. And the character cast was so excellent it just took the story from being on a flat 2D page to exploding into real life.

The story follows Ramona Laroux, who is quite poor and quite unusual. She has blue hair and is super tall and she lives in a trailer park and she honestly can’t see her life ever going anywhere. Her older teen sister is pregnant and Ramona has no money for college. She wants to leave town but…she doesn’t. She has some great friends here and she honestly is too scared to want more. Then her old childhood friend, Freddie, returns to town. Ramona is still exploring a label for her sexuality, unsure if she’s lesbian or bi or pan, and as chemistry sparks between her and Freddie it opens up a lot of discussions about the fluidity of sexuality. But ultimately: is Ramona going to take charge of her own life or just let it take her?

The characters are definitely the shining glory of the book! It’s very very character driven and has quite a huge cast that all leap off the page with diversity and personality. Most of the secondary characters are queer too and the love interest, Freddie, is black. At first I was a little overwhelmed by the amount of secondary characters but they quickly became real and solid people in my mind and I enjoyed the banter and the escapades. (They literally steal into someone’s backyard to swim at some stage.) I must admit I love Saul who’s favourite audience to his shenanigans was….himself.

I think the discussion on sexuality was very important! Ramona identifies as queer but not quite sure what label she has. She kisses and loves girls but she also is fiercely attracted to Freddie. I loved their romance and also the fact that Ramona isn’t going to stop loving girls or “straighten out” because of Freddie. I think it’s an important thing to discuss fluidity and I feel the book does it respectfully.

I also highly appreciated all the food in the book since wow do these characters have excellent taste buds and enjoy their delicious snacks.

The book also takes us to a large variety of settings which was exciting and fun! Ramona and Freddie start swimming at the local pool and there’s plenty of visiting houses and cities and delicious diners. I think it’s important in contemporaries to showcase a variety of settings to keep the plot moving. And the pacing was a bit on the slow side, but still captivating, with how strongly the characters lead the plot.

RAMONA BLUE is a summery story that deals with a lot of deep issues. It has real and honest conversations and it’s poignant and well written with characters you can root for and no black-and-white answers to all of life’s questions. You have to discover them for yourself!

Katherine Rundell, Wisher & Explorer

London-based writer Katherine Rundell has sprung into prominence with her children’s novels in recent times. She has just written two more books and one is a sumptuous Christmas picture book, One Christmas Wish, illustrated by Emily Sutton (Bloomsbury). It draws on many nostalgic and loved Christmas images, such as being with family and decorating the tree.

One Christmas Wish begins on Christmas Eve with Theo sorting out the Christmas decorations. He finds four unexpected and dilapidated pieces: a rocking horse, a robin, a tin soldier and an angel. His parents are out working and his new babysitter has fallen asleep with her phone but Theo sees a shooting star and wishes to not be alone. The four decorations seem to come to life and offer to help Theo with whatever he needs. However, the decorations all need something themselves, such as the robin remembering how to sing and the soldier needing someone to love and protect. The heart of Christmas is reached when they find a nativity scene in the town square and Theo’s Christmas wish comes true soon after.

The illustrations invite you into the scenes, particularly those with full bleeds to the pages’ edges such as in Mrs Goodyere’s cosy room where she teaches the robin to sing Away in a Manger and the snowy wood where Theo and the others search for feathers to replenish the angel’s wings.

The Explorer (illustrated by Hannah Horn; published by Bloomsbury) is Katherine Rundell’s other new book and it is a rollicking adventure for primary children set in the Amazon after Fred’s small plane crashes. Two girls about his age, Con and Lila, and five-year-old Max also survive. They rescue a baby sloth, raid a bee-hive, make a raft and find a map. They resolve to venture to where the X on the map is located. Disconcertingly, there are signs that someone else has lived in the jungle too.

There is some depth in the narrative, particularly as the children undergo rites of passage. Even though their existence is difficult, at times Fred seems pleased not to be living a humdrum life: “At school, it’s the same thing, every day. I liked that it might be all right to believe in large, mad, wild things.”

The Explorer is inspired by Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea, and these two novels do share a similar sense of adventure and freedom.

Katherine Rundell also wrote Rooftoppers, which was one of my top novels for children in 2013 (along with Kirsty Murray’s The Four Seasons of Lucy McKenzie). Rundell has published a couple of other junior novels, including the acclaimed The Wolf Wilder (Bloomsbury, 2015).

Interview with Cameron Macintosh – Max Booth Future Sleuth

Cameron Macintosh’s debut children’s fantasy sci-fi series for middle graders, Max Booth Future Sleuth, is a mind-bending, time-warping fun adventure about a boy and his robo-dog sidekick on a mission to uncover the truths about ‘ancient’ artefacts (Are the ‘80s really that ancient?!). The first book to send us looping back and forth between time zones is Tape Escape. Set in 2424, it is a comically suspenseful story that sees Max and Oscar in all sorts of strife, following the theft of the valuable, all-encompassing, legendary David Snowie-archived cassette tape from the hands of a maniacal musicology nutter. Certainly one to goggle over (or google if you’re under 20), for its fascinating reflections into technological history and advancements.

Big Sky Publishing

With a background in editing and writing educational texts, Cameron coolly strode his way into the world of children’s fiction. Thanks for sharing your writing journey and Max Booth insights with us, Cameron!

Firstly, please tell us a bit about your writing journey and how you came to write for children. What’s the best part of this career choice?

My writing journey has been very long and slow, but worth every twist and detour. Like a lot of writers, my journey started as a primary school kid. In my case it was writing rambling rhyming stories that weren’t nearly as clever as I thought they were at the time! I didn’t seriously think writing could be a career option until I enrolled in the RMIT Professional Writing and Editing course and found work as an editor out of that – in educational publishing. It took a few years, but I eventually used my contacts as an editor to leapfrog into writing educational texts. I’ve been happily doing that since 2008, but it wasn’t until 2016 that I made the much longed-for leap into mainstream trade publishing when Big Sky Publishing offered to take on the first Max Booth book.

For me, the best part of writing for kids is that it’s a licence to let your imagination run wild, and to revisit ideas that added extra levels of magic to your own childhood. I also get a lot of satisfaction from knowing that, in a small way, I’m part of an incredible community of writers, teachers, librarians and parents who are passionate about encouraging kids to develop a love for reading.

Congratulations on the releases of your latest books in the exciting Max Booth Future Sleuth series, Tape Escape and Selfie Search! What was the experience of writing this series like for you? What themes are at the heart of these stories?

Thank you! It was a very different experience writing each of them. I started the first book, Tape Escape, about four years ago as an attempt to branch out from educational writing. It was three years before the wonderful people at Big Sky offered to take it on, so I’d been living with it for quite a while. That was probably a good thing, because the story had time to find its feet and go through several drafts and workshops with my wonderful writing group.

The second book, Selfie Search, was a very different experience – I’d pitched Max Booth as a potential series, and Big Sky wanted another book to follow it up fairly quickly. I’d already written four or five mini-synopses for future titles, so much of the plot was already in place. And obviously, the characters and world of the story had already been set up in Tape Escape, so it wasn’t too hard to put it together in the space of a few months.

The themes of the books include technology, family, friendship and historical discovery – a strange mix but somehow they seem to work together!

I loved the whirlwind time warp of recollecting the past and imagining the future. Where did the inspiration for these books come from? Were you a hard core sci-fi / fantasy fan as a child? Is there something about time travel that steered you towards this angle? How much research went into plotting accurate facts in technological history?

The initial inspiration came from a visit to Naples and Pompeii, where I encountered all sorts of objects that had survived the devastating eruption nearly 2000 years ago – mostly everyday, domestic items like crockery and hair combs. My fascination for these objects started me wondering whether similarly mundane objects from our own lives would be so interesting to future generations. All I needed was a character with that very fascination (hello Max!) and I was off and running.

Oddly enough, I wasn’t a huge sci-fi or fantasy fan as a kid, apart from Star Wars and Monkey Magic (if they count!), and a few one-off books. But over the last few years I’ve found that speculating about the shape of the world over the coming centuries seems to unleash lots of sparks for story ideas.

In terms of research, the main thing I need to be sure of is that the dates line up correctly for the 20th and 21st century objects Max investigates in each book. I also need to scratch a little deeper for some of the objects because each book ends with a factual spread about the main item Max investigates, giving basic information about its history and how it works.

How have you found the feedback from your readers so far? What have they loved the most about Max Booth? Is this what you had hoped to achieve?

It’s been very encouraging so far. Most importantly for me, they’ve enjoyed the humour, and have liked Max’s robo-dog, Oscar. I’ve also had feedback that readers have liked the future gadgetry, and that parents have found the stories a useful springboard for conversations with their kids about the technologies they grew up with. That’s really pleasing too.

Dave Atze’s illustrations are humorous, energetic and befittingly shrewd. What was it like collaborating with him? Were there any surprises along the way?

You’ve really summed up Dave’s work perfectly. It’s such a treat to work with an artist who has such an intuitive feel for characters and sci-fi settings. His illustrations are really funny too. In terms of the collaboration, I’d included lots of suggestions in the manuscripts. Between Dave, the publisher and myself, we whittled them down to the most important ones, and Dave pretty much took the reigns from there. He nailed the ideas really quickly and we really didn’t need to do a lot of to-and-fro.

The biggest surprise for me was seeing these characters come to life so closely to how I’d imagined them. There was definitely some kind of telepathy going on!

What is your favourite technological device from the past, and what do you think it might be in the future?

My favourite device from the past would have to be my Nintendo Game and Watch game (Popeye!) from the 80s. For the uninitiated, Game and Watch was a series of simple hand-held LED games that were seriously addictive, and are now quite collectible.

My favourite future device will be a scalp-massaging bike helmet – can someone please invent one soon?

What would be your dream time zone for writing be?

It’s not very romantic, but I sometimes wish it was the early 90s again – where we had the benefit of decent word processors without the distraction of the internet! Failing that, an attic in a French castle in the 1880s would be okay too – as long as I can bring a heater and a massage chair.

What projects are you currently working on? What can your fans expect to see from you in the ‘not-too-distant’ future?

I’m currently working hard on the third Max Booth book, and having a lot of fun with it. I won’t say too much about the plot, except that in this one, it’s a very low-tech item that Max is investigating.

There’s also an almost-finished YA novel that I’ll get back to when Max is off the desk, and I’ve recently started plotting a book for adults – I think it’s a crime story, but who knows, it’ll probably end up morphing into sci-fi!

Where can we learn more about you and your books?

Until Andrew Morton writes the biography, the best place to start is probably my website: www.cameronemacintosh.com.au. I’m also on Facebook as ‘Cameron Macintosh, author’ and Twitter @CamMaci99. The Max Booth books are available at www.bigskypublising.com.au.

Thanks so much, Cameron, for discussing your writing journey, past, present and future! 👦🏼 🐶 📼

It’s been a lot of fun, Romi. Thanks a billion for having me!

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

Super (not so) Scary Halloween Reads

If you haven’t already consumed your friends or scared the pants off yourself after reading Romi’s recommended Halloween reads,  then whip out your witch’s hat and strap on your bat wings; here are a few more scary reads guaranteed to bring out the ghoul in your little monsters.

Scream! series by Jack Heath (Dimity’s perennial Halloween favourite)

This is a seriously spooky series of stories for middle grade readers. All types of whacky scary and wonderful; youngsters will devour these offbeat tales beginning with The Human Flytrap, progressing to The Spider Army, The Haunted Book and finally slithering to The Squid Slayer. This series gets better and better the more involved you get. Spine chilling tension focuses on a different member of a team of four young sleuths and erstwhile mystery magnets who live in the creepy town of Axe Falls, a place teeming with unusual, nightmarish realties and reoccurring reasons to scream, often.

Josh, his sister and their friends encounter weird creatures and endless dubious going-ons, which they have to battle violently against in order to survive.  This series promises un-put-downable excitement and thrills guaranteed to increase the heart rate of 8 – 14-year-olds. The first book will have you screaming well into the night! Highly recommended.

Scholastic July 2015

Continue reading Super (not so) Scary Halloween Reads

Review: This Is Going To Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor

I have a terrible habit of carefully selecting a new book—often one that’s been sitting on my bedside table for some time—to read on longhaul flights, only to be distracted by a shiny new book at the airport while waiting to board. I invariably end up rather guiltily but compulsively buying said distracting book and squishing it into my backpack.

Adam Kay’s This Is Going To Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor was one such impulse airport purchase. I was loitering in a bookshop in Heathrow airport waiting for the airline to announce from which gate the first of my interminably long flights to get back to Australia would depart. (Why they couldn’t announce it more than 30 minutes before the plane left, I don’t know. Surely they knew where an A380 was going park. But I digress.)

I get to call myself a doctor these days, but I’m of the non-medical variety because my family is genetically, pathologically squeamish. That doesn’t stop me gravitating toward books that are about not so much gruesome medical details as the experience of what it’s like to work a medical doctor’s job.

This Is Going To Hurt features, as the subtitle suggests, excerpts from diaries Kay kept during his years navigating the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) junior and slightly more senior doctor positions. (He’s long departed the medical world to be a writer and comedian—presumably much more fun jobs that still manage to leverage all that hard-learnt knowledge.)

And it is, to be concise: achingly insightful and funny. I read the book non-stop during my flights, foregoing sleep and new-release movies for it, closing it up only briefly to ingest airline food, and only then because space and awkwardness temporarily prevented me wielding both a book and cutlery. The book is ab-clenchingly hilarious, although the best bits—of which there are many—are probably not entirely suitable to discuss on this family friendly blog, or simply require a little more context than I can provide.

Essentially, the book provides a glimpse into the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed junior doctor experience. Specifically, how nothing could quite prepare (Adam) Kay for the NHS’ bureaucratic efficiency slash inefficiency: ‘Day one. H [his then-girlfriend whose identity has been protected] has made me a packed lunch. I have a new stethoscope, a new shirt, and a new email address: [email protected]. It’s good to know that no matter what happens today, nobody could accuse me of being the most incompetent person in the hospital,’ Kay writes. ‘And even if I am, I can blame it on Atom.’

But his email address is trumped by that of his friend Amanda Saunders-Vest, whose hyphen they spelt out: [email protected].

This Is Going To Hurt also outlines the kinds of truth-is-stranger than fiction moments Kay frequently experienced, such as receiving an all-staff email about ensuring all samples were sent to the lab, stat. What prompted the broadcast was a psych patient who had been transferred to the respiratory ward with pneumonia. He’d been discovered scavenging and ingesting sputum samples the previous day.

There are some slightly more serious undertones to the book too.

The book blurb says: ‘Welcome to 97-hour weeks. Welcome to life-and-death decisions. Welcome to a constant tsunami of bodily fluids. Welcome to earning less than the hospital parking meter. Wave goodbye to your friends and relationships…’

This Is Going To Hurt shows the slow unravelling of Kay’s relationship and documents myriad missed family or generally fun occasions through unending work commitments and last-minute emergencies. Also, I learnt from this book that (in the UK, at least) all junior doctors change hospitals on precisely the same day every six or 12 months—on what is known as ‘Black Wednesday’. I *think* this happens in Australia every January. ‘You might think it would be a terrible idea to exchange all your Scrabble tiles in one go and expect the hospital to run exactly as it did the day before,’ Kay writes. ‘And you’d be quite right.’

One review I read of This Is Going To Hurt (or rather Kay’s related show, which draws on much of the same material), mentions that the reviewer spent the first 40 minutes laughing and the next 10 crying. That’s an accurate summation of what I experienced.

Kay’s penned an open letter (in what could possibly be considered a rethink of the equivalent of an epilogue) to the Secretary of State for Health at the book’s end. Its opening sentence discusses how a Harvard Law professor once suggested we should seal the nuclear codes in a live human’s heart. The thinking was that if the president wanted to wipe out a bunch of people from a distance, he first had to cut open and likely kill one person up close and personal. Likewise, Kay argues, the Secretary of State for Health should truly comprehend what junior doctors are subjected to in terms of punishingly gruelling hours, comparably low pay, and terrifyingly enormous responsibility.

Apart from wondering how Kay found the time or energy to keep these diaries along the way, but eternally grateful that he did, I wholly recommend reading This Is Going To Hurt. It’s relevant even to those of us based outside the UK because the experience—and the pressures—is undoubtedly transferable.

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Review: Now I Rise by Kiersten White

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Now I Rise by Kiersten White was a brilliant, dark, and brutal sequel to And I Darken. I always get a bit nervous that a sequel won’t live up to the first book: but this one slayed. Literally and figuratively.  Lada has never had any chill, but in Now I Rise, she basically has less than none. The book is a complex twist of wars and sieges, of triumph and loss, and it has so much character development that it just shines.

The story picks up where And I Darken left off: With Lada charging back to claim the Wallachian throne and become Prince, and Radu is still with Mehmed, pining for a love he will never be given until he ends up in the midst of the siege of Constantinople where he could very well die for his loyalty to Mehmed. It’s full of wars and battle and follows the siblings as they grow apart but severely miss each other, and also realise that Mehmed isn’t the golden perfect boy they always believed.

The characters are really the stand-out for this series! They are both clever and cunning, and Radu goes about it in an intellectual way while Lada uses force and brutality. Lada will cut her way to the throne and she empowers women and refuses to be underestimated, although she has to fight for every grain of respect.

Meanwhile Radu is just over here being small and perfect and pure. I absolutely adore him. He’s the kind of character who is so fiercely loyal and determined, but also hopelessly used by people he trusts — and it breaks your heart! I wanted more for Radu. He deserves better. But also his planning, cunning, and ability to never fail is absolutely astounding. I also thought his character development was stunning and well crafted.

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The book features a lot of the terrors of war and the price you pay to succeed. Either by capturing a city (for Mehmed’s forces) or getting a throne (for Lada and her rogue men). I love how it contrasted two types of battles! It’s not graphic with the gore, but it definitely makes sure you know this isn’t a pretty picnic. I also liked how it contrasted the two religions of Christianity vs Muslim. There’s no “good vs bad” here, as both religions are going to war for their Gods and thinking they’re doing the “right” thing…no matter how many innocents get slain in the way. I think religion is important to talk about in YA, so I’m glad the book focuses so much on them!

One of my favourite things too is how Radu and Lada thought of each other. They’re like half worlds away and they’re so DIFFERENT as people…but the spend a lot of time going: “Oh I miss [insert sibling here] but they don’t need me.” Both of them. Thinking this. They are silly little goats and I wish they’d work together!

I also appreciated the history of the settings! It’s not a 100% accurate historical retelling, but it is about Mehmed II and the fall of Constantinople. There are plenty of actual historical figures in the book, even if a lot of them have had some creative-license changes! So you can go in expecting to learn a bit, but also know this is a loose retelling. (Especially since Vlad the Impaler is actually a gender-swapped Lada.) And the details of the sieges and clothes and the first canons ever made were all stunning and just made the book so lush with details.

Overall, Now I Rise is a stunning sequel of stabbing and the darkness of humankind, all wrapped up in brilliant writing and winning characters! It has the kind of ending that leaves you screaming for the next book (um, how do we wait for next year…) and I’m desperate to see how it’ll all turn out. It’s fantastic and captivating and full of political and emotional intrigue.

Shakespeare Saving Lives

I’m more than slightly hesitant to admit that I’ve never really liked Shakespeare. Mostly for the same reasons I don’t really like poetry—there is greater depth and elaboration that requires the brains and requisite patience I don’t possess in order to unpack the prose.

So it unsurprisingly took having Shakespeare Saved My Life recommended to me a few times before I finally picked up a copy. What finally sold me on reading the book was that it was about an academic’s life-changing in-prison teaching program. That’s something I’m definitely interested in.

I’ll preface this blog with the spoiler that even after reading this book—good though it was—I still don’t really like Shakespeare. But I do have a vastly greater appreciate of his—or her, depending on which ‘who actually was Shakespeare?’ theory you adhere to—prowess.

I also have an appreciation for—or rather despair of—prison systems around the world. Rehabilitation and educational opportunities are crucial, but unpopular with taxpayers, so programs like Laura Bates’ are few, far between, and constantly up against the wall.

Apart from having to navigate massive university teaching loads as a junior academic not yet able to secure tenure, Bates had to navigate prison bureaucracy and puzzlement. The Shakespeare-teaching program was actually the first of its kind, so Bates had to undergo standard prison guard training to learn to handle situations lest she find herself smack bang in the middle of a riot. If she wanted in, she was essentially told, she could have in, but the prison guards were unlikely to be able to or even have time to get to her if or when things went south.

And, as she wrote: ‘I quickly learned that it wasn’t the noisy ranges but the quiet ones—eerily quiet—that I needed to worry about.’

‘Female on the range!’ was the primary catcall in her initial visits. Over time, though, that changed to the more accepting ‘Shakespeare on the range!’

That’s not to say things went entirely smoothly. The term ‘gunned down’ referred to bullets of liquid-y products like urine, semen, and faeces. And there was plenty of bureaucratic farce, not least relating to the bulletproof vests the guards and Bates were instructed to wear to ‘protect’ them. As one guard said: ‘If we fall over in them things, we’re like a turtle on his back. [Freaking] dumbasses in Central Office!’

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Shakespeare Saved My Life centres around Bates, a newbie academic who stumbles across the power of teaching Shakespeare to prisoners. On the prisoners’ part they, despite the apparent chasm of time and life experience between them and Shakespeare’s tales, are able to relate to and learn from the texts.

They’re also able to translate the texts into terms even I can digest. Take, for example, this foreword to Hamlet: ‘Tell me if this has ever happened to you: Your uncle kills your father and marries your mother as he steals your inheritance. Your good friends try to trick you into your grave, but you trick them into theirs instead…When it’s all said and done, you kill your crazy girl’s brother and he kills you—but not before you finally kill your uncle. It was a rough month, to say the least.’

The star pupil and inmate is Newton, who is as intelligent as his moniker suggests. He’s also apparently the rotten-est of rotten eggs. When Bates met him, Newton had spent a record 10 years in ‘the SHU’ (read: isolation). But upon reading his thoughtful text interpretations, Bates quickly went from ‘I can’t work with this one’ to ‘there’s something incredible about him’.

‘It seems like you can spend time on just about each passage and come up with three different conclusions,’ Newton says at one stage. Hear hear. Although in my case, it’s more likely that I struggle to come up with a single interpretation of any given passage.

His insights into Shakespeare are simultaneously greater than any I’ve ever previously encountered and also more linked to real-life. He also absolutely adores Shakespeare: ‘When it comes to literature, Shakespeare is the equivalent to 2-Pac in the rap industry, Led Zeppelin in the rock industry, Michael Jordan in the world of basketball, or Muhammad Ali in the world of boxing. He is the man!’

I can’t say I’ll ever feel smart enough to like Shakespeare, but I heard myself going ‘huh’ a few times while reading Newton’s insights into them. If that’s the closest I’ll get to accessing, understanding, and actually enjoying Shakespeare, then it’s A-Ok with me. And if Shakespeare is helping people who are incarcerated, and therefore helping rehabilitate them ready for release into the community, then it’s doubly A-Ok so.

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10 Vampire Years On

While my staple diet of books consists primarily of non-fiction books about what’s messed up with the world and how we can possibly mitigate the issues, every so often I need to take a break from the all-too-real difficulties and escape into someone else’s figments of imagination. Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy series is one such escape for me—a series I’ve followed and re-read with a mix of shame and shamelessness.

So I met the announcement of a 10th anniversary edition of the book that kicked off the series—one that contains some side stories Mead’s long wanted to tell that will answer questions many readers have—with slightly giddiness. Then I promptly commenced a countdown until its release.

‘Vampire Academy worked—far better than I’d ever expected,’ Mead wrote of the series’ initial success. ‘I’d fallen in love with the Romanian myth of two races of vampires, and I became obsessed with visualising how they’d create societies within our society. I’d read countless books about kickass heroines but never about how they became that way. What did they do while they were young? How did they temper a reckless nature with doing the right thing? And of course, there was the romance piece: just a tiny flicker of an idea about a girl in love with her mentor and the fallout that ensued.’

Yeah, that whole tempering of a reckless, youthful, badass heroine nature is definitely intriguing and explains in part why the books have been the successes they have been.

So how does the anniversary edition hold up, some 10 years on from the original publication?

Pretty well, methinks.

The bulk of the book is a reprint of the original, which I enjoyed re-reading once I got over the surprise that the book contained this reprint. In truth, it’s savvy repackaging of existing content to revitalise sales and I was completely suckered by it.

Still, its latter pages contain the promised short, arguably deleted chapters or chapters that could and should, with hindsight, have appeared in the original text. Whether Read had them in her back pocket or wrote them in response to the questions she is most frequently asked I don’t know. What I do know is that it was great to gain even slightly greater insight into the plots and characters.

The stories cast light on some enduring mysteries, such as how did Christian’s parents turn into strigoi, what running away from school was like for Lissa and, most pressing of all: what did the elusive, poker-faced Dimitri truly think of Rose.

My favourite of the new story additions was one that focused on Dimitri and Rose plus a—of all things—forbidden treasure hunt. Think seniors engaging in an elaborate scheme to obtain items of importance from various staff members, snaffling them out from under the staff members’ noses all the while in constant danger of discovery and detention. Yep, it was good fun. And not entirely unlike a cut-down version of an escapade you’d see in Harry Potter.

Overall, the new chapters feature yet more of the snappy banter we’ve come to know and love:

‘Hey Rose, welcome back. You still breaking hearts?’

‘Are you volunteering?’

His grin widened at the thought of the permanently detention-ed Rose’s efforts. ‘Let’s hang out sometime and find out. If you ever get parole.’

Not to mention how her battle cry gave her away during those training sessions with Dimitri: ‘Would it really have made a difference if I’d been quiet?’ Rose asks. Dimitri thought about it. ‘Probably not.’

Oh, and some overheard conversations courtesy of Roses and Lissa’s psychic connection: ‘…Christian—who I could hear…telling some kid it was impossible to make a manatee out of a balloon…’

Basically, the Vampire Academy anniversary edition is most of what we already know plus a little bit more. My only constructive criticism of it is that I’d have loved it to have included more new stories—the ones it includes are a good taster, but they’re just that. Fans like me who continue to hanker after the now-wrapped-up series are always going to be hoping for more.

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Monstrous Mayhem – Picture Books for Halloween

Forget the spook and gore this Halloween! Try obtain the element of surprise with humour, fun and interactive giggles. Combined with themes on friendship, belonging, and challenging emotions, that’s what these brilliant picture books for young kids are all about.

This first one comes highly recommended for an entertaining, inspiring and innovative book experience. The Scared Book is cleverly constructed to communicate a range of emotions and strategies with its audience…literally! Author Debra Tidball uses leading language in her role as the animated, ‘scared’ book with dramatic statements, questions and invitations to help console its fears. The truth is, the book simply cannot tell its story without the assistance of its readers to disarm those pesky monsters protruding from its spine.

From requesting interaction to scratch a tingle, to rub away goosebumps, blow away giant butterflies, then flick, trample, shake and fan the last remaining remnants, the book is able to get some relief. Whilst helping to calm it down from all the excitement, the book is in fact providing some useful strategies for its readers to deal themselves with feelings of anxiety, fear and self doubt. And successfully, the book ends with a vote of encouragement and praise that readers can be proud of.

Kim Siew’s illustrations are certainly kooky, but in the most vibrant, energetic and guileless way. Preschool aged children will no doubt be better off having experienced this highly pleasurable book, becoming intrepid saviours in relinquishing The Scared Book’s, and their own, fears over and over again.

Hachette Lothian Children’s Books, September 2017.

Ok, the title sounds scary, the concept sounds scary, but I Just Ate My Friend by Heidi McKinnon is downright hilarious. And by the look of those huge saucer eyes and stunned expression, the monster on the front cover is far from menacing.

Perhaps a little too impulsive, the speckled yellow egg-shaped beast is distraught at the fact that his good friend is now gone…because he ate him. So he searches for a new friend, only to discover the creatures he greets meet him with rejection after rejection. Whether they feel he is too big, too small, too scary or too slow, the monster feels hopelessly dejected. He reflects on his impulsivity, until a new friend emerges. Could this be a match made in heaven?!

Preschool kids will crack up with the joviality of the scenes and the sharp-witted and repetitive one-liners of the text. The cartoon-style, textured and bright characters on black backgrounds bring a sense of playfulness to the book’s ‘dark’ humour. I Just Ate My Friend is the perfect, quirky book that has the power for valuable discussion on friendship, belonging, and the possible effects of instant gratification, as well as being a fun resource for role play and definite repeat reads.

Allen & Unwin, July 2017.

The dialogue between narrator and Little Monster is utterly delightful in Sean Taylor’s I Want to Be in a Scary Story. When the toothless, purple monster requests to be the star of a scary story, he gets a bit more than he bargained for. The narrator sets him up at every turn, creating far more frightening scenes than the little mite can handle. But don’t worry, young readers will find them, and Little Monster’s reactions simply hilarious. Conversing further with the narrator, the monster decides he should do the scaring…on second thoughts, maybe a ‘funny’ story would be better! Fed up with his trickery, Little Monster finds a way to give the narrator the comeuppance he deserves…and it’s frighteningly funny!

Text and illustrations coincide clearly in identifying scenes between conversation and ‘in the story’ moments with the use of plain and coloured backgrounds consecutively. Speaking parts, which are gorgeously candid, are also colour coded, furthering interaction with readers whether taking turns or reading independently. Jean Jullien’s artwork is perfectly bold yet child-friendly with its thick line work and strong statement colours, adding the element of drama without the frightening factor. Preschoolers will revel in the spooky (but much more amusing) shenanigans of sabotage in I Want to Be in a Scary Story – just in time for Halloween.

Walker Books UK, September 2017

Information Overload – Informative Kids’ Books

If reading is the fount of knowledge and knowledge is power, then this list of informative kids’ books contains enough intellect to keep your youngsters gasping in awe for days, weeks, even years! Prepare your minds to be boggled.

The Awesome Book of Animals – The World’s Most Awesome Facts in Pictures by Adam Frost

Can you name the first animal to have babies in space? I can now! I promised this book to my nephew, who is ga ga for it, but it’s so good, I wish I could keep it on my own bookshelf. Crammed solid with truly jaw-dropping, disgusting, hilarious, weird and wacky facts, this paperback compendium is easy to read and flick through allowing young readers to absorb an astonishing amount of info very quickly. Brilliantly illustrated and thoughtfully arranged with enticing titles, The Awesome Book of Animals is a 20 out of 10 from me! Check out Frost’s other awesome titles of discovery, here.

Bloomsbury Children’s Books October 2017

Continue reading Information Overload – Informative Kids’ Books

Review: The Art Of Feeling by Laura Tims

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The Art of Feeling by Laura Tims must be one of my new favourite contemporaries ever! It perfectly balances humour, heartbreak, and teenagers with disabilities and I couldn’t be more fond of this entire (but totally too small!) excellent little book. I laughed! I wanted to cry! I got entirely invested and think it deserves all the love an recognition. I will also write a review to convince you, because I am kind like that.

The story follows Sam, who was in a devastating car accident that killed her mother and left her with a severely damaged leg. She now walks on crutches and is in constant pain. Her family is falling apart around her: with a brother who’s constantly high, a very depressed father, and a sister who’s trying to throw everything out that reminds them of her mother. But then Sam accidentally saves a boy at school — Eliot, who is a pretentious and adorable intellect who feels absolutely no pain. Unfortunately this is more dangerous than a “super power” as people initially think. And he constantly gets into problems where he’s bullied or accidentally hurts himself and never knows. He’s not an “easy” person to befriend, but he and Sam click instantly. They’re both smart, quick-witted, and prone to covering up their heartache. If only Eliot doesn’t do something that gets him killed before senior year is out.

I loved the contrast of feeling-too-much-pain versus feeling-none-at-all. Both are disabilities and definitely under-represented in YA! And the disabilities aren’t background noise. Sam constantly walks with crutches and clearly states that this is part of her. It doesn’t define her, but it still is her and it’s not to be ignored. It did show the ableism of the world reacting to her, but it was a really powerful and uplifting disability representation and I’m pleased!

The book was also downright hilarious. The humour was on point, I tell you! I laughed only about 50 x million times.

“That is the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen,” says Eliot. “When did you take it out of the dryer?”
“It’s my dog,” I grumble.

It also featured the Meyer-Briggs personality types! If you have no clue what they are, it wouldn’t hinder your enjoyment of the story. But basically Eliot likes to “type” people and he gets it so eerily right that he can literally predict their movements. It also gets him into a lot of trouble. But it was just so different and interesting to include these and I loved the analyses of personalities!

The romance was absolutely the best. It’s no insta-love. These two fight quite a lot and I’d honestly guess (though it’s not explicitly stated) that Eliot is asexual. They’re both awkward around the idea of feelings, but still have them most definitely and assuredly. I loved Eliot’s attempts to be romantic and yet he has like 2% social skills so it always goes hilariously. He is a cinnamon. I definitely shipped these two and rooted for them to get over their insecurities and commit to telling each other their feelings!

Sam was such an admirable and relatable protagonist. Like her inner-monologue and snarky banter were the best alone, as well as she’s just doing her best to be a remarkable person when her friends literally say she is a piece of bread. (Hey they meant it well…but yet.) The dry wit and Sam’s practical but often sad view of the world made the book so enjoyable to read.

The story also has really high stakes. There’s a mini-high-school drug ring and a super complex bully and then there’s Eliot who could like accidentally direly hurt himself any moment. The themes of manipulation and bullying are very strong. And also Sam’s mother was killed in a hit-and-run and she desperately wants to know who did it…but is blocking the memories due to the trauma.

The writing is super clever. It wraps foreshadowing and plot points together in such incredible little bows. I just bow to the set up.

If you are a fan of contemporaries, cute dogs, intelligent characters, and FEELINGS = then The Art of Feeling is for you. The characters and clever writing won me over and absolutely stole my heart. It’s complex, deep, and well written. I also love the trope of the girl protecting her delicate boy and I am here for anything this author ever writes.

Dr Boogaloo and the Girl Who Lost Her Laughter

Lisa Nicol’s debut children’s novel is Dr Boogaloo and the Girl Who Lost Her Laughter, a charming, unpredictable story about Blue, a girl who can’t laugh and is trying to remedy this.

Thank you for speaking with Boomerang Blog, Lisa.

And thank you for blogging me. It’s blogging exciting to be here.

Where are you based and what is your background?

I’m in Sydney and have a background in documentary and TV. I also do copywriting and write for an educational publisher.

What sort of music do you like and do you play any instruments?

What sort of music don’t I like might be an easier question to answer. There’s not really any types of music I don’t get into. Well except Opera and music that involves men dancing in long socks with bells attached. Struggle with that a little.

Basically I like good music. And a lot of bad music too come to think of it! I just like music.

A lot.

But I don’t play myself.

I think Dr Boogaloo & The Girl Who Lost Her Laughter is my love letter to music. It expresses all my pent up love which I can’t express by playing an instrument. Kitchen dancing keeps it in check most of the time but sometimes it just needs to come out.

What have you learned about the importance of music?

I believe humans are musical beings. It’s an intrinsic part of who we are. We need music.

What led to you writing a children’s novel?

I started writing for children when I had my own. I kept getting ideas for books and when they slept I would rush upstairs to the attic and try to write. Unfortunately all my children were terrible sleepers so my output is hardly prodigious. Hard to write a book in 45 minutes. But I’m on a roll now!

Could you tell us about ten-year-old Blue, her horrible mother and some other characters?

 Ah the lovely Blue. I’m very fond of Blue. She has a quiet strength and she tries to keep her chin up no matter how hard things get. She’s not one to complain – unlike her awful mother. Blue’s mother is somewhat self-obsessed. She thinks having a daughter who can’t laugh is an absolute bummer! It’s ruining her life and simply must be fixed. If not she plans on shipping her off to a boarding school in Switzerland somewhere. One of those ones where they don’t come home in the holidays. Costs a bit more but well worth it obviously, under the circumstances.

Now, let me introduce you to the wonderful Dr Boogaloo and his glorious wife Bessie. They run The Boogaloo Family Clinic of Musical Cures. You may not have ever thought of music as medicine but according to the Boogaloos, music can cure anything!

Of course, you need the right dose of the right music. No point listening to a jive if you’re in need of some boogie-woogie, and you can’t just substitute a hum for a chant, or an opera for a ballad, or a toot for a blow. Absolutely not! Musical medicine is an exact art. And it’s extraordinarily complicated. The way Dr Boogaloo explains it is this – everyone has their own tune but sometimes, for one reason or other, we get all out of tune. We lose the beat, you might say. Unfortunately, your tune is just like your fingerprint. No two are the same. Which is why fixing tunes is SUCH a tricky business!

Dr Boogaloo describes Bessie as the magic in his wand and it’s true they are a great team. Dr Boogaloo reminds me a bit of a brand new pencil – he’s very straight ahead – which is perhaps not what you would expect for a musical doctor. Bessie on the other hand is a little more eccentric. She reminds me of a rainbow caught up inside a tornado. Bessie looks after the Doctor’s instrument collection which is so enormous they keep it in a shed about as big as an A380 aircraft hanger.

I particularly enjoyed Blue’s introduction to the Snorkel Porkel Crumpety Worpel Laughter Clinic. Could you tell us about how people enter it and about some of the Laughter Detection Tests?

Well entry is via a giant slide with a vertical drop that would make your nose bleed – hence the need for padded pants to avoid a really good buttock burn –followed by the the tickle machine which helps sort out the wheat from the chaff in terms of laughter issues. Then, once you get past the lobby guy who has a seriously good aim when it comes to snot olives, you’re off to the testing rooms. They are very thorough at the Snorkel Porkel. There are not many places they won’t venture to ensure an accurate diagnosis. Can we just say, strange animal farts, blooper reels, hula-hooping cats in bikinis, Youtube videos of epic fails and a gentleman called Gassy Gus who can blow up balloons with his bottom! You did ask!

Music is important in your novel but what about colour?

Well Blue’s mother has a thing for colour. She goes through colour ‘phases’. You can probably guess what ‘phase’ she was in when she named Blue ‘Blue’. At this point in time, she’s in a white phase. Phases generally involve a lot of shopping, redecorating and pouring over paint charts. Blue is finding her mother’s white phase particularly challenging. Absolutely everything in the house is white so even finding the fridge can be quite tricky. There’s a lot of falling over the couch, that sort of thing.

Could you tell us about the role of musical imperfection?

Well I can only tell you what I’ve learnt from my time at The Boogaloo Family Clinic of Musical Cures but according to Dr Boogaloo, imperfection is an essential ingredient in any musical cure. One of the many musicians who work’s regularly at the clinic is a Canadian called Neil. He’s famous for the perfect bum note or loose string and exactly when to drop one in. Quite a skill.

Have you paid homage to any other authors in your plot, setting or characters?

Not authors so much but songwriters and songs seem to be scattered about the place. That’s my silly love thing again. You don’t need to get the musical references to enjoy the story – I’m sure most of the kids won’t – but if you’re a music fan reading to your kids, hopefully they might amuse you. Some are obvious, others not. For example, Blue’s globetrotting, game-hunting father sends her a pair of high heels covered in diamonds. There’s even diamonds on the soles! And of course Bessie would name her pet pygmy pocket possums after some of her favourite singers – Dolly & Makeba. Tupelo trees, weeping songs, I’m wearing my musical heart on my sleeve I’m afraid….

Are you planning anything special for the book launch?

Of course. Blue’s mother’s favourite – bubbles. And my favourite – music. We have Gramophone Man coming along to play some very old tunes on his steam-powered turntables. That should give most people’s musical immune systems a jolly good boost before the silly season begins.

What are you writing about now or next?

My next book is called The Crumples of Shambolstown. It’s about some very crumpled folks who live next to some very Crisp folks. A gang of Crumple kids venture into Cripsville and things go very, very wrong. It’s a crumply thriller!

What have you enjoyed reading recently?

The Midnight Gang by David Walliams.

Wonder by R. J. Palacio.

A lot of Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz.

Anything else you’d like to add?

No, I’m pooped.

Thanks Lisa, and all the best with Dr Boogaloo and the Girl Who Lost Her Laughter.

YA Books About Writers!

Stories about characters who write are a special sort of bookish-inception. And we love it, c’mon just admit it. So today I’ll be listing some delicious Young Adult books that have characters who write in them! They might inspire you to keep working on your own novel and also give encouragement that all writers, whether real or fictional, spend most of the time staring out the window and crying to ice cream. It’s normal. We’re doing great.


FANGIRL BY RAINBOW ROWELL

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Perhaps this is one of the most iconic stories about writers, because HELLO. It’s Rainbow Rowell! Author extraordinaire! Fangirl is about Cath who is newly at college and also a very enthusiastic and popular fan-fiction writer.

She has to struggle with the questions is fanfic “real writing” and defend her beloved fandom and keep up with her huge following for her book plus handle college plus try to cope with severe social anxiety.

 

ELIZA AND HER MONSTERS BY FRANCESCA ZAPPIA

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This is actually mostly about a comic book artist and writer named (surprise) Eliza! She’s actually very depressed and withdrawn and her life is all about drawing the next comic strip for her online book which has exploded into the most massive fandom ever. She’s so famous online, and yet in real life no one knows who she is. Then she meets a boy at school who is a selective mute and has severe anxiety. She discovers he writes fanfiction for her comics….but he has no idea who she is. Does she sacrifice her anonymity and tell him? Or just enjoy having a friend for the first time in forever?

 

BEAUTIFUL MESS BY CLAIRE CHRISTIAN

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This is a fantastic novel about anxiety and depression and follows the dual-POV of Ava and Gideon. They’re both struggling to stay afloat: Ava dealing with the death of her best friend, and Gideon with a life of sever anxiety that’s lead him down some dark paths. But Gideon is into slam-poetry and writes the most beautiful words and lyrics and preforms them.

He and Ava also begin writing letters to each other to build their friendship so the level of word-love in this book = MAXIMUM.

 

WORDS ON BATHROOM WALLS BY JULIA WALTON

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This book is written as a diary by Adam, a 16 year old boy with schizophrenia who’s trialling a new drug. He refuses to talk to his therapist so he writes his daily experiences instead. The journal is raw and beautiful and painful as he tries to fit into a new school without revealing his heavily-stigmatised illness. He’s desperate to have a “normal” life as he falls for a girl and makes friends. But the trail of hallucinations never seems to leave. Are they growing again? This book is absolutely excellent and definitely with break a few heartstrings.

 

OUR CHEMICAL HEARTS BY KRYSTAL SUTHERLAND

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This is a super bittersweet tale of Henry, who is an absolute hilarious dork, and finally gets his dream to run the school newspaper. He’s avidly into writing although gets hugely distracted by his co-editor, a very mysterious girl who walks with a cane and seems 0% interested in being friends with anyone. He gradually coaxes her into friendship and discovers some demons you can’t fight for your friends or lovers. It’s a very poignant story with some dark, messy themes, but parts are also hysterically laugh out loud! The balance is very well done.