Review: The Dangerous Art of Blending In by Angelo Surmelis

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The Dangerous Art of Blending In by Angelo Surmelis was equal parts heartbreaking, hopeful, and brutal. I knew it was going to be an emotional one from the start, but it really has you feeling all of the things from the very first page. It’s so heartfelt that I couldn’t even put it down while I watched Evan’s complicated and ruined life unfold. This isn’t easy or lighthearted YA, but it’s so so needful. It’s full of art and abuse and the agony of hiding your true self from the world after people who should love you prove they don’t. Get yourself some chocolate before reading this, trust me.

The story centres around Evan Panos: son of Greek parents, artist, anxious and shy nerd, and very gay. Which is completely unacceptable to his family. He can’t even show them his art, let alone tell them he likes boys, and his life is a maze of trying to avoid confrontation with his abusive mother and his father who won’t step in. It’s all Evan can do to stay afloat, even though the boy he’s always loved could help him. Or ruin him if things got out. Either Evan loses the truest and best parts of himself in an effort to appease his terrible mother, or he finds a way to fight back.

The domestic violence parts are so heartbreaking, but very well written. Evan’s mother engages in a lot of psychological abuse too, leaving Evan feeling worthless as she calls him “wicked and sinful” for doing anything from not being the perfect Greek son, to doing art, to having his hair wrong. He truly does believe he’s unworthy and ugly and evil…until he gets a friend who refuses to let Evan think like that. Which I think is really important! The book steered away from any “love cures and saves” tropes, but it did underline the importance of being told again and again that you are worth something and that’s crucial for Evan believing in himself enough to fight back.

Evan is honestly the sweetest boy too. He’s an artist, but has a very low opinion of his work, and he always draws back from attention. But he’s just so unfailingly sweet and kind and the way he lights up when people are nice to him is beyond heartbreaking. I told you. Prepare to have your feels ruined. Also it’s really important that the book also showed the effects of a lifetime of abuse for Evan. He’s anxious and depressed and has PTSD and the book really highlights those aspects.

Evan’s relationship with Henry is also super sweet. Slow at first! And then tumbling into something faster. I do wish Henry had just had a little more deepness as a character, because we’re introduced to him as Evan’s childhood BFF, so they have history and we don’t “learn” as much about Henry as I’d have liked. But they were supportive and great together. Bless.

Also I appreciated the delving into Greek culture. The author is Greek and you can really tell as the writing covers Greek food and religion and family dynamics.

The pacing isn’t super fast, but in a good way! You can get see Evan’s life and it makes you feel like you’re in the story — from visiting his school to getting donuts with his dad, to the heart-in-the-mouth feeling of watching Evan try to avoid a run in with his unstable and horrible mother.

Basically The Dangerous Art of Blending In is an excellent story you really need to get your clammy paws on. It takes a very personal and #ownvoices look at what it’s like to be a closeted gay Greek teenager and it’s full of brittle agony and fragile hope.

P is for Pearl by Eliza Henry Jones

P is for Pearl is the first YA novel by Eliza Henry Jones. She has been acclaimed for her debut novel for adults, In the Quiet. 

Thanks for speaking with Boomerang Books blog, Eliza.

Where are you based and what are your interests?

I’m based on a little farm in the Yarra Valley of Victoria. I love gardening – particularly growing and preserving our own food. I love knitting, yoga and have two horses that I compete a little bit in dressage. I also adore reading,

Could you describe your writing process?

I’m a very haphazard writer – I write fast in big chunks and then will take time away from the story to percolate ideas. Sometimes I’ll be really happy with the idea for a story, but the characters won’t fit. Or sometimes the characters will be really vivid, but it takes me a while to find a story for them.

How are you involved in the literary community?

I’ve never been asked this question before! I’ve taught creative writing at community centres, judged quite a few short story competitions, spoken a festivals, libraries and bookstores and do my best to support other writers by buying books and requesting them at libraries. I have also worked briefly as a bookseller and interned at a publishing house. I think the most important way I’m involved in the literary community is through being a reader – readers are the lifeblood.

What is your experience of being part of writers’ festivals?

I love it – writing and reading are generally quite solitary activities and there’s something so magical about being part of an event where everyone comes together to celebrate their love of stories.

I wrote In the Quiet quite quickly and without a lot of expectation. It’s the easiest story I’ve ever written – it just flowed. It’s narrated by a woman who’s recently died, watching her family on their rural horse property. It’s not sci-fi or fantasy or anything like that. She’s just watching and reflecting and hoping.

My other novel, Ache, is focused on the recovery of an unconventional family after a bushfire ravages their community.

I’ve also written quite a few short stories and articles – most of my writing deals (in various degrees) with trauma and grief.

How has this led to having your YA novel, P is for Pearl (HarperCollins) being published?

I’ve written a manuscript every year since I was fourteen – that’s a lot of novels! Pearl was the story I wrote as a sixteen year old and then tucked away in a drawer because I was convinced it wasn’t good enough. If I hadn’t had my adult fiction titles published, I’m not sure I would’ve had the confidence to go through my old stories.

What genre within YA fiction is it?

P is for Pearl is contemporary YA fiction.

What is the significance of the title?

The title has gone through some changes since I was sixteen (back then it was called Wade’s Point – bit boring, hey?!). P is for Pearl fits it perfectly – Pearl is Gwen’s middle name and it symbolises her grabbling with who she actually is versus who she thinks her mother wanted her to be.

Could you introduce your major characters to us …

Gwen is the main character in P is for Pearl. She doesn’t realise it, but she’s still recovering from the trauma that her family went through years ago. She’s obsessed with running and is often confused and feels conflicted about what she should be feeling.

Loretta is Gwen’s best friend. She’s fiercely intelligent, fiery and protective.

Gordon is Gwen’s other best friend. He’s quiet, funny, very artistic and often bickers with Loretta as thought they’re an old married couple.

Ben’s the new kid in town and Gwen’s crush – clever, kind and insightful, he’s intrigued by Gwen but also distracted by his own family secrets.

What is the importance of the setting?

Setting is very important in all my novels. P is for Pearl is set in a small (fictional) town on the west coast of Tasmania. The rugged coastal landscape is crucial to the plot.

Who have you written this book for?

Eliza Henry Jones

I wrote this book when I was sixteen and – if I’m honest – I wrote it for myself. It was a cathartic book for me to write. Reworking it into the novel it is now, I wrote it for young people who perhaps are grappling with what mental illness looks like and how to reconcile the reality of the people you love experiencing mental illness.

I know P is for Pearl is very new, but have you received any responses that have particularly resonated with you from early readers?

I’ve had people getting in touch to tell me that the family and representations of mental illness really resonated with them – which means a lot to me.

What are you writing at the moment?

I’m working on my next adult fiction novel.

What books are you reading at the moment (or recently)?
At the moment I’m reading Penelope Lively’s Life in the Garden and absolutely adoring it.

Thanks Eliza and all the best with P is for Pearl.

Eliza’s website

Review: Everless by Sara Holland

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Everless by Sara Holland is a gorgeous fantasy where time is, literally, money. And you know what really captivated me?! The plot twists! Holy wow they did not stop coming and I was constantly surprised, which is exactly what I want from a novel. The imagination behind this book is superb and I will definitely keep my eye on this author in the future!

The story centres around Jules Ember, who lives in Sempera where you can draw blood and turn it into coins that count as money. Ergo the rich can live forever and the poor die so young. (It’s such a fascinating world!) Jules father is one of the unlucky ones caught deep in debt and poverty, his life nearly drained just trying to stay alive, so Jules decides to go work in the Everless estate, which is run by the infamous and filthy rich Gerling family. Fun part? She used to work there as a child but she and her father were forced to run away after an accident no one can know about. But if Jules goes back, hopefully no one will recognise her and she can earn enough to keep her father alive. But Jules ends up discovering her family is more entwined with the Gerlings than she knew, plus she stumbles over her childhood crush…now betrothed to a princess. But even putting her feelings aside, Jules knows there’s more to herself, this princess, and the gnarly old queen then meets the eye. And she’s running out of time to find out why.

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I totally loved the premise, with time-turning-to-money! It’s clever (although I have seen it in the movie In Time) and interesting to read about people who can measure their life spans and what they choose to do with that information. I also loved how the world building was really caught up around this, with lots of the language translating to time-references, and society functioning more on blood coins. It was super impressive how beautifully the world was crafted.

Jules was a very admirable heroine. She wasn’t my favourite person ever just because she was very very GOOD. But I still loved her curious streak and how she wouldn’t let other people tell her “what was best”. Jules took charge of her own fate and THAT is what I love to read about in YA!

The plot twists at the end just came so thick and fast. The villain reveals were so very good. It’s brimming with morally grey characters and mind twisters and I love ending a book feeling betrayed and elated at being successfully tricked!

It actually had a marvellous focus on female friendship too. Which is something that I’m sorely in need of. Jules befriends a ton of the other servants at Everless, and ends up working for the queen-to-be, who treats her so well and they actually end up being epic friends, despite the class difference. Seeing complex females on every page just made my day.

The romance is very very slight, too, in case you enjoy books that focus on mysteries over romance. I think it was well done, but Jules was not here to be distracted by a boy. (Go her.) Her childhood sweetheart was charismatic but clueless and Jules was also shadowed by his older brother, Liam, who her father’s always told her to steer clear of. And Jules has an excellent reason to hate him, as you’ll find out.

Basically Everless is definitely the fantasy you don’t want to let slip through your fingers! It’s built on an interesting and wonderfully crafted world and full of characters you’ll definitely root for. Some of the tropes are a little overdone in there, but it still brings epicness to the table.

Birds in Flight – Picture Book Reviews

There’s something about birds in books that literally makes my heart sing, whether it be the pleasurable sense of freedom they so naturally possess, or their resourceful grit and determination, or their cheeky personalities that are just so loveable, or all of the above. Here I share some astounding picture books that soar with beguiling and triumphant goodness.

Bird to Bird, Claire Saxby (text), Wayne Harris (illus.), Black Dog Walker Books, March 2018.

The story of one bird, one seed, one tree.” We follow this enlightening path as a bird inadvertently helps to create a sapling with the drop of a seed, and that older, fallen tree thus serves many a use, finally being carved into the shape of a bird for a little boy to treasure forevermore.
A gorgeous collaboration between author and illustrator brings life to life in this tale of the journey of one tree. With an essence of Bob Graham’s perceptual and consequential nature, Claire Saxby writes her circular narrative with a similar gentle, poetic style and light repetition. Wayne Harris’ illustrations carry the story forward in a flawless sequence of artistic beauty, combining texture, movement, light and vivid colour with every page turn. Never feeling a dull moment, the story sets intrigue whilst subtly weaving important discussion themes around timber harvesting, usage and recycling, convicts, wool looms, and wood carving. It also acknowledges historical changes through time without ever losing focus on the tree and its transformations. Bird to Bird; a beautiful, thoughtful tale for primary-aged children, reflecting the value of nature, sustainability and art.

Bird Builds a Nest: A Science Storybook about Forces, Martin Jenkins (author), Richard Jones (illus.), Walker Books, March 2018.

Explaining science to preschoolers is not always easy, or fun. But here in Bird Builds a Nest, nonfiction expert Martin Jenkins (Fox in the Night and The Squirrels’ Busy Year) writes a fascinating and entertaining account of a bird experimenting with forces and the concept of pushing and pulling. The book is written with easy-to-follow dual narrative, one of Bird’s story building her nest, the other of smaller print, factual text describing each concept in simple terms.
Bird’s first mission as she awakes is to acquire her morning meal. By applying a force towards her, Bird attempts to ‘pull’ a big, strong worm from its tunnel. Her hunt for twigs is not always straightforward; she hasn’t got enough force to ‘lift’ the weight of the larger sticks. With trial and error, fetching and carrying, pushing and pulling, Bird manages to find suitable materials to successfully build her nest.
The illustrations by Richard Jones are both playful and artful with their mixed-media and mixed-technique sharp, contemporary style and modern colours. Bird Builds a Nest is a witty, clever and sweet approach to the science in nature and the everyday forces used all around us. This one will ‘pull’ little ones in, for sure!

Gary, Leila Rudge (author, illus.), Walker Books, PB, November 2017.

Originally published in 2016, Gary by Leila Rudge returns with his own paperback edition. This story, awarded Honour Book in The Children’s Book Council of the Year Awards 2017, never gets tired, no matter how many outings or roads it travels. We still love this tale of a passionate racing pigeon (with a difference) driving this adventure story home with his boundless grit and determination.
Recounts from the other pigeons’ expeditions, and his scrapbook collection of mementos, give Gary a sense of place in the world despite only knowing his own backyard. Then one day he mistakingly falls into a travel basket and is taken a long way from home. But how could Gary feel lost when he had already studied the city from back to front? How will he find his way back to the loft? Gary’s adventure concludes with a little ingenuity and a whole lot of inspiration.
Rudge’s sensitive and dynamic narrative beautifully marries with her character’s accepting yet curious personality. Her illustrations are equally as charismatic and layered with their warming tones, mixed collage and pencil drawings of maps, souvenirs and adorable racing pigeon outfits!
Gary is a sweet, charming story of passion and opportunity, challenging one’s own abilities and never giving up on one’s dreams. Children from age four will be dreaming to accompany Gary on his adventures time and time again.

Biographical Non-Fiction Picture Books

I was never much one for history, preferring even today, to live and learn vicariously through faction. Fortunately, thanks to the talents of some remarkable picture book creators, biographical accounts of famous and not so famous people literally come alive, enhancing history in the most beguiling way. I am elated to share some of the non-fiction picture book standouts available today and to admit, I am richer for them.

Little People, Big Dreams Series by Isabel Sanchez Vegara  and Various Illustrators

There are about ten books in this fascinating illustrated series spotlighting some of history’s most notable female figures in arts, science, aviation, and commerce. From Frida Kahlo and Amelia Earhart to Marie Curie and Agatha Christie, each beautifully crafted book presents the story of these women from their childhood to their most well-known achievement.   Vegara’s narratives are sincere and informative without being overtly florid or overloaded with facts and each book contains a pictorial time line of the featured woman at the end allowing readers to match their story with actual dates.  The common theme that you can be whomever you wish to be and do whatever you wish to do, is what makes this series so attractive for young readers, and older ones thirsting for a sense empowerment. An absolute inspiring joy to collect and cherish.

Quarto Group UK February 2016 – March 2018

Continue reading Biographical Non-Fiction Picture Books

Review: The Trauma Cleaner

The Christmas–New Year break contains but two priorities for me: to rest and to read books.

Strangely, given its slightly heavier subject matter, Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner: One woman’s extraordinary life in death, decay & disaster was one of the books I was most keen to read at this time.

In truth, I was attracted by both the concept and the cover art. The former is that the book is the biography of Sandra, whose work concentrates on cleaning premises that range from sites of hoarding to crime scenes. The latter is the simple but sharp contrast between a white background and slightly wrung bright orange plastic glove. On a semi-gloss cover that could, arguably, be wiped down with a wet cloth if needed.

While trauma cleaning is in and of itself a macabrely fascinating concept (Krasnostein quickly explains that it is a little-known but necessary business for crime scenes and the like—police and other emergency services aren’t there to clean up), Sandra’s story is even more so. Before she was a trauma cleaner, Sandra was, as the blurb explains, ‘a husband and father, drag queen, sex reassignment patient, sex worker, businesswoman, trophy wife …’

So yeah, there’s a lot to this tale.

The book’s first lines are actually the lines on Sandra’s business card, stating that ‘excellence is no accident’ before listing the types of services she offers. These include hoarding, methamphetamine lab, and death-scene clean-up, as well as odour control.

All the endlessly fascinating things that happen in the shadows and that provide insights into humanity. If this book shows us anything, it’s that these situations are but the extreme manifestations of the issues of loneliness, depression, anxiety, and more that we all grapple with at one time or another. Sandra included.

As Krasnostein writes: ‘Sandra knows her clients as well as they know themselves; she airs out their smells, throws out their weird porn, their photos, their letters, the last traces of their DNA entombed in soaps and toothbrushes. She does not, however, erase these people. She couldn’t. She has experienced the same sorrows.’

Adopted and then abused by her adoptive parents and trying to come to terms with being transgender at a time when it was even less accepted than it is now (if it even is now), what Sandra has gone through is soul-searchingly sad.

Seriously, the book’s opening chapters made me wonder how she survived much less triumphed over her childhood, and I can only imagine how confusing and difficult and stressful it would have been facing a lack of acceptance as well as medical scrutiny when trying to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Not to mention the fact that Sandra underwent all of this around the time of HIV’s arrival. It’s also heart-swellingly impressive just how much she’s managed to make of her life, rebuilding it time and again.

Krasnostein notes that Sandra is immaculately dressed at all times. And that she’s also accompanied by an oxygen tank to help her manage a respiratory condition that is exacerbated by the kinds of dusty, fume- and mould-laden environments in which she works. Trauma cleaning is brutally physical work: ‘See, people think “cleaning” and that you need a bucket of water and a cloth … We need crowbars, spades, rakes, a sledgehammer …’ Sandra explains.

At 260 pages, this book is of average length, but is so accessible and I read it so quickly that those 260 pages felt short. I still have questions. For instance, Krasnostein writes that she first encountered Sandra at a forensic support services conference. I wondered immediately what prompted Krasnostein to attend one. And I wanted to know more detail about Sandra in general—she so utterly fascinated me.

But I’m similarly conscious that there were many rabbit warrens Krasnostein could have gone down. Each life within Sandra’s life just about warrants a book of its own, so it would have been an unimaginably herculean task for Krasnostein to contain the tales to one book. Which she did well, giving mostly equal airtime to key times in Sandra’s life: her childhood, moving out of home and marrying, grappling with her gender and sexuality, careers she’s had, violence she’s endured, loves she’s lost, and how she’s had to repeatedly rebuild her life and finances multiple times.

My only criticisms of the book are that there is too much of the author in it and the text suffers a little from overwriting and thesaurus syndrome. While I’m sure Krasnostein felt a strong personal connection to Sandra’s story, Sandra’s story alone was so rich and compelling that it really needed to stand alone. Likewise, there were times when it felt like prose was over-explained. The story itself was so strong it could have been told matter-of-factly. Likewise, Sandra’s memory loss and subsequent unreliable narration were referenced too often. They just needed to be mentioned once at the beginning and left at that.

But these are small quibbles about what is ultimately an ambitious and refreshingly different book. Sandra’s is a little-told story that warrants greater attention and respect. I hope to read some follow-up articles or books about her—I get the sense she has many more incredible lives to lead and many more stories to share.

Tennis & The Harper Effect

The Harper Effect has caused even a non-tennis aficionado such as myself to develop an interest in tennis, particularly in the lives and commitment of tennis players. The Harper Effect (Pan Macmillan Australia) is Taryn Bashford’s debut YA novel. It has already had an ‘effect’, I can’t get it out of my head …

Thanks for speaking with Boomerang Books blog, Taryn.

Thank you very much for having me 😊

As a debut novelist, how were you able to acquire a publishing contract?

My book deal came about after I had a few fingers in pies, and a couple of them came up with plums 😉 I had entered the Varuna House Publishing Introduction Program which was run in conjunction with Pan Macmillan. I was one of the winners which meant I got to stay at Varuna House for a week and work on my manuscript with a mentor. However, at the same time, Curtis Brown, a literary agent in Sydney, took me on board. I had submitted my novel to them some months before, following a meeting at the CYA Conference in Brisbane. They sped up the process so that I didn’t have to wait for the residency before knowing if Pan Macmillan would publish my novel. I got to use that residency for the second book instead, as Pan Macmillan offered a two-book deal.

Where are you based and how are you involved in the YA literary community?

I’m based on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. Although we’re far from Brisbane, I belong to the SCBWI and attend meetings down there whenever I can. I enjoy meeting people there, and particularly sharing what I’ve learnt on the road to publishing. I also attend meetings of the SCBWI sub-branch on the Sunshine Coast for similar reasons. It’s great to share experiences, stories and talk all things books. I also put together a writing group after meeting various writers at Varuna House or at conferences like Brisbane’s CYA Conference. We all live in the local area, so it was meant to be! We meet regularly to critique each other’s work and we also support each other in all aspects of the publishing and writing process.

Which well-known professional tennis player do you most admire and why?

I’d have to say Serena Williams because her recent media activity about sport being a way of empowering girls is very close to my heart. Research shows this to be true, and it also shows that girls in sport have much better self-esteem and better body images of themselves. This is so important now that our teens are exposed to photoshopped images of movie stars, actresses and singers – and can never hope to be that perfect.

What tip to playing better tennis can you give us?

You’re probably better off asking my brother that question. He’s the tennis star in our family. However, having been a part of his journey, I believe the key differentiator to being a great tennis player and being a brilliant champion tennis player is how you play the mind game. This is evident in The Harper Effect too when Harper falters, but put simply, if you don’t believe in yourself, and if you don’t have that instinct to win whatever it takes, or have mental tools to help you deal with losing a point, then you’ll often choke when the pressure turns up.

Why have you written a YA novel about tennis? Why tennis rather than another sport?

The Harper Effect was first written when I was 14 and my brother had recently won Nationals at Wimbledon and then won a scholarship to the Nick Bollettierri Academy in Florida. At the time, tennis was a big deal in our house. Obviously, I’ve re-drafted the novel several times since then, and my focus was on highlighting teens that go above and beyond the norm, and contrasting that with the fact that they’re still teens. This means they’re making mistakes, still wrangling with teen issues like boyfriends and sibling rivalry and school, but they’re on a world stage so the consequences of bad choices are often greater.

I’m really impressed with how you incorporated this into the novel, but could you also tell us here something readers should know about the lives of professional athletes, particularly tennis players. It sounds like such a struggle and sacrifice.

I’m glad you got that message. The world of any professional athlete is not glamorous, even if it seems that way on TV. If you read Andre Agassi’s biography, Open, this is again highlighted. The training, sacrifices, focus and hard work are all needed every day and that’s tough, but then the rewards if you make it big are massive. I’m talking specifically of tennis when I say that. Some sports are not as lucrative, but I believe the highs of winning, of travelling, of breaking records and proving yourself, are worth the hard work and having to sacrifice that beef burger 😊

What is the significance of the title, The Harper Effect?

The effect that Harper has on Colt is an important part of the plot. She draws him out of himself so that he’s less robotic in his tennis and he becomes more ‘human’ in his personal life. This in turn helps his game. The effect she has on him is also that his ‘mental game’ improves – he’s able to stay strong and face the pressure head on. Harper’s effect on Jacob and Aria are less admirable, but her actions do result in Aria spreading her wings and going on to bigger and better things in Rome, and to Jacob having a wake-up call about his drinking and the need to grow up and leave behind his childhood.

Could you introduce your major characters to us …

Harper Hunter is a 16-year-old tennis player who’s just turned professional and is struggling with the extra pressure that puts on her game. This results in her coach of 5 years dumping her, and telling her she doesn’t have what it takes. Harper has been on the junior circuit for five years by now. As a result, she’s missed a lot of her childhood and it’s meant her sister and best friend, Jacob, someone she’d fallen in love with, have become romantically involved. It’s this situation that shows Harper at her weakest, because she’s yet to learn how to deal with the situation in a mature way and so she makes some bad choices. It’s through her understanding of Colt and his life, and through helping him, that she grows up enough to eventually make the right choices in her life.

Aria Hunter is her sister. She’s another high achieving teen but in the music arena. Her dream is to go to the Sydney Conservatorium with her boyfriend, Jacob. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but ultimately, she gives up her dream after Harper betrays her. Luckily, she finds a bigger dream to chase.

Colt is the 17 year old tennis pro who becomes Harper’s mixed doubles partner and training partner. He appears to be a cold, closed-off person at first, but we learn that it’s because he’s hiding some family secrets in order to make it in the world of tennis. His personal issues affect his game, but it’s Harper who helps him to the other side of an ocean of choices.

Jacob is Harper and Aria’s next-door neighbour. They’ve been friends since kindergarten. With Harper on tour from a young age, their friendship trio was tested, and he becomes romantically involved with Aria. Then he realises he is with her in an attempt to get back a piece of Harper, the girl he’s truly in love with. He’s also somewhat spoilt by his neglectful parents who tend to buy his happiness with money and gifts. This impacts his personality as he’s used to getting what he wants. When he can’t have Harper, he truly goes off the rails.

How could Harper and Aria’s parents have predicted their passions when they named them?

The girl’s names are more an extension of the parent’s interests and loves before they were born. Their mum is a music buff, and so she got her choice for their first child. Their dad was a high achieving tennis player and was keen to name his child after his tennis idol. In my mind, he got his choice since he’d not got it for the first child.  In the end, the girls reflected their namesakes – I guess I could’ve swapped them over to confuse things!

What’s your favourite colour and what is the significance of purple in the novel?

My favourite colour is cerulean blue. It’s just so pretty and makes me feel relaxed when I see it. Purple is significant in the novel because it represents different things as the characters grow up. At first, it represents their childhood and that’s represented by the Purple Woods where they spent most of the childhood playing games and just being kids. The Purple Woods then become part of what helps Harper deal with her on-court pressure. She’s told by her coach, Milo, to go somewhere in her mind where she feels relaxed and happy and somewhere that has a calming effect on her. Purple Time is then born. It helps Harper to win. But when she loses Purple Time, after everything back home goes wrong and the woods no longer represent that happy and safe place, it shows that she’s grown as a player as she no longer needs Purple Time to win. She is able to find the resources within herself to deal with the pressure.  As we near the climax of the novel, we find Jacob is still lost in the Purple Woods, unable to leave them behind. He’s got a way to go before he grows up. Harper, on the other hand, no longer wishes to be there. She understands it’s time to leave them behind and face the world as an adult. Aria has spread her wings and flown to Rome, so she has also let go of her childhood.

What happened at the launch of The Harper Effect? 

Launch of The Harper Effect (Noosa News)

I had an amazing time at the official launch of The Harper Effect on the Sunshine Coast. One of my hopes for my book is that teens and in fact people of all ages are inspired to both chase their dreams (sporting or not), but to also stay in sport and even achieve professional levels in sport. So I put together a panel of young elite athletes as examples of real life Harpers. I wanted the audience to see that no matter their dream, these girls were living proof that with hard work and dedication, self-motivation and focus, you can achieve what you set out to. I’m also very keen to give our teens new role models in our literature. Instead of giving them images of beauty to live up to, let’s give them sporty, confident and successful heroines in books to look up to. The panel were living and breathing role models too.

For whom have you written this book?

The book was dedicated to my brother. He played the professional circuit before becoming a professional tennis coach. He coached young players like Amelie Mauresmo and Marcos Baghdatis, who were at the time in their teens. While The Harper Effect is not based on him or his experiences, as the story is completely fictional, the facts and details that I learnt from him are an important part of the authenticity of the setting of the novel.

I know it’s only just been published but have you received any responses that have particularly resonated with you from readers?

Yes, the main ones being that everyone loves Colt and Milo and that the tennis part of the book surprised them. Many readers found the setting of the world of professional tennis to be very interesting. They reported that they looked at the play at the recent Australian Open through new eyes. That was very gratifying. They also felt inspired to follow their dreams or meet their goals.

What books are you reading at the moment (or recently)? 

I’m currently re-reading Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You The Sun. She is one of my favourite American YA writers. The book before that was Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride. I’ve not come across a Margaret Atwood book I don’t love 😊 Looking at my list (I keep a list that highlights my thoughts on the books I’ve read, and I also make a note of the publisher), the book before that was Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief – also a re-read because his writing is so dense you need to re-read it so you don’t miss any of his gorgeous phrasing!

Thanks for your thoughtful responses, Taryn and all the best with The Harper Effect.

Thank you very much. And all the very best to you too.

Taryn’s YouTube channel

Just a Little Bit of Love – Picture Book Reviews

There are a few ‘love-ly’ events about to reward us with their heartwarming presence, including Valentine’s Day, Library Lovers’ Day and International Book Giving Day. Yep, they all fall on the same day: February 14. So what better way to help your children fall, or continue to fall in love with books than to share one, buy one, borrow one or give one away. Here are a few with the themes of friendship, hope, compassion, and of course, love to make your hearts sing with an abundance of warmth and affection.

The Poesy Ring, Bob Graham (author, illus.), Walker Books, November 2017.

The perfect book to share this Valentine’s Day; a beautiful story of love, hope and the power of destiny. Graham’s poetic text alluringly ties in with his moving line and watercolour illustrations that sweep and navigate in succession across the pages. And aptly so. This is a story of the boundless journey of a symbol of love – a golden ring, inscribed with “Love never dies”, beginning its adventure with heartbreak in Ireland, 1830, and reaching its timely fate as a cherished jewel in New York City, 1967. Bound in a meadow for many a season, accompanied by many a creature and unknowing passers-by, the ring then finds its path to the bottom of the sea, only to be eventually discovered once more to where it meets its ultimate destiny. Graham’s touching account grips the heart and mind with his ponderings of one of life’s magical mysteries. The Poesy Ring is sure to win the affections of primary-aged children and rekindle fond memories for any adult who has ever been in love.

Ash Dresses Her Friends, Fu Wenzheng (author, illus.), New Frontier Publishing, February 2018.

Here is a gorgeous story of making connections; where loneliness is turned into fulfilling bonds. Author / illustrator Fu Wenzheng’s text explores the relationship between internal feelings and outwardly behaviour, with a character that reveals a change from sadness / being quiet to contentment / sharing with others. Wenzheng also showcases her talents with her multicultural and textural print and watercolour illustrations that emanate a beautiful Chinese flavour of pattern and dual-tone red and grey. The book’s theme is around sharing and helping others through generous and creative gestures. This is demonstrated by Ash, a shy, azure-winged magpie who discovers her immense satisfaction in tailoring clothes and other textiles for her new animal friends with her patterned material. And the love she receives in return is even more rewarding. Ash Dresses her Friends is a physically small book wrapped with big-hearted and indulgent goodness that will help young ones to open themselves up to loving friendships.

Fox & Moonbeam, Aleesah Darlison (author), Narelda Joy (illus.), Wombat Books, September 2017.

This sumptuously detailed picture book with its lush, digitally mastered illustrations and richly emotive text shows nothing less than a grand sense of faith and courage. Gerard Fox serves as a clock winder in the Queen’s palace. This unfulfilling job is only endured, for the moments he has time away he breathes in life through his violin-playing occasions in the park. Mademoiselle Moonbeam Lapin, famous ballerina, lives the high life of travel, glamour and lights, yet her heart is empty. The pair, upon meeting, lead us to a satisfying ending showing them both shining from the inside out. Darlison‘s narrative is thoughtful and provocative, luminously balancing with Narelda Joy’s intricate, layered collage in a traditional Victorian England setting. Fox & Moonbeam contains a wonderfully perceptive concept of entrusting in a friendship, but particularly in the self-belief and courage to be able to follow your passions and achieve your potential. Encourage your primary-aged children that it’s their ‘time to shine’!

What’s Your Favourite Colour?, Eric Carle and Friends (authors, illus.), Walker Books UK, February 2018.

What a brilliant explosion of diversity, flamboyance, life and love in this colourful book of art! If ever there was a time to appreciate all the colours of the rainbow, to accept and embrace our different preferences and what makes us happy, it’s right now. Eric Carle invites all his friends to choose, illustrate and describe their favourite colour in this glorious collection of artwork, poetry, and poignant little stories. Carle explains his love of ‘yellow’ for its challenge when mixing colours, but also for the yellow sun. The shades roll on, with Bryan Collier’s ‘blue’ awakenings opposite a collage of his little girl amidst blue balloons. Mike Curato paints a substantial picture of his favourite colour ‘mint’. ‘Purple’ reminds Anna Dewdney of her love of her old purple polyester trouser suit, and peacocks in her garden! In total, fifteen award-winning author/illustrators grace the pages with their marvellous textural, dramatic, effervescent and nostalgic pieces. One of our very own, Marc Martin vividly pops with his flock of magnificent watercolour crimson rosellas – his favourite colour is ‘crimson red’. A childhood photo and short biography of these diverse contributors complete this celebration of individuality coming together to form a colourful rainbow. What’s Your Favourite Colour? is beautiful, inspiring and mesmerising for any age.

 

Review: Afterward by Jennifer Mathieu

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Afterward by Jennifer Mathieu is an intensely brutal story about the aftermath of being a kidnapping victim. This is not a light read by any means, but I appreciated the book tackling the topic with care and respect and aimed at a Young Adult audience. Epically done. And it is absolutely and definitely here to make your heart bleed a little. It also felt really true to teen voices and experiences and I was super impressed by that.

The story follows two narrators, Caroline and Ethan, and how their lives are accidentally entwined over a kidnapping. Ethan was stolen when he was just a little boy and then years latter, Caroline’s autistic little brother Dylan was taken as well. But it didn’t last long and both boys were rescued soon after. Yet Dylan is still completely traumatised and Ethan has years of abuse to work through. He and Caroline only meet because of their connection to Dylan…but something sparks between them. Caroline wants to know exactly what happened to Dylan and Ethan would love a friend who doesn’t treat him differently. They start playing music together as the look for healing and answers…or revenge.

It really delves into a lot of psychological aspects of trauma and recovery. I totally appreciated how it explored how the mind will work and respond to these things, with selective amnesia for instance. It made the book seem extremely real and the writing was perfect around it. We only get the barest few flashbacks of the time Ethan spent kidnapped, which packs a serious emotional punch. (And also keeps the book non-graphic, which I understand since it’s geared at a teen audience.)

The storyline focuses mostly on characters than actual plot. Ethan is extremely smothered by his newly-reunited loving family and he’s absolutely chaffing at it, but also feels so guilty for it. He wants to find out what normal means, but he has no idea how to even start. He feels so deeply broken by what happened to him too. The story was slow as they went to and from therapy sessions and Ethan worked at a froyo place, and Carolin and Ethan built a tentative friendship around playing music in the garage. But the emotional layer is what you’re here for.

It is dual narrated by both Ethan and Caroline. They both had fantastic and very different voices which was amazing! Caroline’s so complex and kind of the “bad girl” because her home life is pits. But she is secretly sweet and caring and the absolute loveliest to her little brother. She’s definitely the “bad girl with a heart of gold” trope and I couldn’t get enough. Ethan is completely sad and tragic and I ached for him and his conflicted emotions and feelings. He’s extremely traumatised and his character development is amazing, but painful. Caroline’s little brother, Dylan, doesn’t get as much page time but I loved that they represented his autism really well (although unfortunately there were undercurrents about calling Dylan “broken” because of his autism that was completely unnecessary.)  I loved how fiercely Carolyn loved and helped Dylan though!

The whole story was really addictive, kind of like watching a flaming plate spin out the sky and hit you. It’s a quite book, though, but there’s a constant undertone of sick dread that makes you desperate to know how these characters end up. I also loved the focus on friendship instead of romance, because wow, these characters all needed to heal.

Afterward was definitely an amazing, but quiet book. It was heartwarming and heartbreaking and realistic which made for a deeply amazing story, even with the horror of what happened to these kids.

Valentines Reading – Picture Books with Heart

Whether it’s about love unrequited, lost loves or welcoming new love into your heart, this collection of new children’s book releases are sure to melt your Valentines resolve.

Unrequited Love

I Love You Stick Insect by Chris Naylor-Ballesteros

Side-splinteringly silly, this jocularly illustrated romance features Stick (a stick insect) and his infatuation with the most beautiful stick insect he has ever laid eyes on. He immediately launches into a reverie of what ifs with his newfound love despite Butterfly’s repeated proclamations that it’s ‘just a stick’. Readers merrily hurtle along with Stick and his runaway imagination until he finally twigs his embarrassing mistake. Eye-catching candy that will tickle the funny bones of 2 – 5 year-olds.

Bloomsbury January 2018

Valensteins by Ethan Long

Valentine’s Day may seem an unlikely celebration for monsters and ghouls yet young Fran has other notions. He sets his heart on creating a pretty, pink paper heart for which he receives cutting ridicule. His vampish friends fear that Fran might be in love, that icky, gross, mushy, kiss-on-the-lips emotion that they frankly all find ‘terrifying’! Fortunately, for Fran, he turns the other bolted cheek and remains true to his real feelings. Despite its monochromatic overtones and comically Goth characters, Valensteins oozes charm and meaning, showing young readers that real love is about what you feel in your real heart. This is a lovely expression of being true to your feelings and creating meaningful relationships.

Bloomsbury January 2018

Continue reading Valentines Reading – Picture Books with Heart

5 Unexpected Books in 2017

We’re well into 2018 now, and in the process of setting new reading goals for the year I’ve been thinking about my varied reading success last year. Here are 5 unexpected books I read in 2017.

Most anticipated read
My most anticipated release and read of 2017 was A Column of Fire by Ken Follett. Being a loyal reader of the Pillars of the Earth series, I was keenly awaiting the third in the series and coming in at more than 750 pages, it was an impressive tome. While it was greater in scope than the others in the series, it was a great read.

Most disappointing read
I’d been savouring my signed copy of Prince Lestat by longtime favourite author Anne Rice for ages, delaying the gratification and joy I was sure would ensue from the first page until the last. Unfortunately when I finally picked it up to read last year this wasn’t the case.
This is the 11th in the Vampire Chronicles series and the plot contains chapters from different vampires as they begin to face a crisis threatening their kind. I should have been thrilled to rediscover favourite characters again, but the cause uniting them was a complete bore. Such a shame.

Long overdue
I don’t mean overdue library books here, but a book I should have read long before now. For me, this was Past the Shallows by Australian author Favel Parrett. Set on the coast of Tasmania and dealing with themes of grief, this is a coming-of-age story about brotherhood. Shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 2012, it’s a haunting and often sad story, but it’s also a very quick read so I don’t know why it took me so long to get to it.

Least favourite book
My least favourite read of last year was Artemis by Andy Weir. Main character Jazz is living in a settlement on the moon and I just didn’t care about her or what she was doing. The attempted humour fell flat and the plot was uninteresting. It  clearly lacked the humour and interest of The Martian – one of my favourite books in 2014. If I didn’t know the novel was by Andy Weir, I would have stopped reading early on.

Taught me something new
The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin was one of my favourite books last year and I still think of her theories several times a week, almost six months after reading her book. You can take the quiz for free and determine your own tendency, you’ll be either an Upholder, Obliger, Questioner or Rebel. I’m an Obliger and learning that helped me understand myself and others better and I highly recommend it.

Review: Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Saenz

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Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Saenz was such a heartbreaking and darkly beautiful book! I really truly loved it. I actually am a big fan of this author already, really loving his books of Aristotle & Dante Discover The Secrets Of the Universe and also The Inexplicable Logic of My Life! When I realised I hadn’t read this older book of his, well…that had to be fixed as soon as possible. It’s such a brutal story about the deep trauma of mental illness, abuse, addiction, and the pain of being unwanted. Basically go into this one stockpiled on chocolate and tissues because you’re going to need it.

The story follows Zach who’s in a rehab centre but doesn’t remember why. Except he’s pretty much choosing not to remember why. Terrible and dark things have happened to him but he does feel safe in this centre where everything is regulated and there are therapists who care and he has roommates who maybe have even sadder lives than he does. It’s a really deep look at depression and how it can spiral into addiction. Zach has to figure out if he’s truly hiding from his past, or if there’s something he really has to remember to help fix this situation.

The ending is such an emotional roller coaster and was absolutely glorious. I’m so pleased that a book can be about darkness, but also mix some light and hope in amongst the sadness. It’s the perfect combination of both.

Zach was an easy character to relate to and feel your heart break over. The rehab facility he’s in takes people of all kinds of addiction but he’s there specifically for his alcoholism. I actually was worried the amnesia story line would be tedious, but it’s more like suppressed memories. He’s very vocal about the fact he doesn’t want to remember. And any time we see glimpses of his path, wow kid, we understand why you don’t want to remember. He had a rough go of it. This book is seriously here to kick you in the feels.

I also loved how Zach wasn’t a passive character, even though the story really only takes place in a rehab facility. The pacing is really quite spot on and it was equal parts interesting to see Zach in therapy or talking to his friends or just listening to his thoughts and perspective of the world. It’s such a close and personal POV that you can’t help but be Zach, which I think is super impressive writing skills.

Meeting the secondary characters and learning their stories was also super emotional. Rafael was definitely my favourite and almost a surrogate dad for Zach by the end…although definitely not willing to stop pushing Zach to help himself. Because rehab is not just about being helped — you have to do the work too. At one point, Rafael writes Zach a note and it says something about girls cry but then he crosses it out and says boys cry. I loved this. It’s okay for anyone to show emotion and tears and heartbreak and it’s so important that the book spoke about it.

Last Night I Sang to the Monster is definitely the kind of story that packs a punch. It’s not a “nice” book and it’s going to lay out the darkness of abuse, addiction, and super deep depression. It’s messy and the characters make bad decisions. But the ending was perfectly balanced and it told such an important story.

Top Reads of 2017

I’m a little late with this… but, better late than never. The year of 2017 was rather busy for me and while I didn’t do much blogging, I did a lot of reading. I may not have managed to keep up with all the new releases that I wanted to read (I still have a few key ones on my to-be-read stack), but I did get around to enough of them to do my annual top reads list.

So here goes…

PICTURE BOOK

I didn’t read all that many picture books this year. Both my kids have out-grown them. I keep telling them that you’re never too old to enjoy picture books, and I hope that one day they will return to them. But for the moment… I’m just reading them myself. So I’m not reading as many as I used to. My favourite for 2017 is…

The Fix-It Man, written by Dimity Powell, illustrated by Nicky Johnston

I defy anyone to read this book and not tear up. It’s about a young girl and her dad, the Fit-It Man of the title. He can fix anything and everything, and she relies on him to do so. Until… Mum dies. And things are not so easy to fix anymore. This is not a situation Dad can repair on his own. It’s going to take the two of them together. This is such a lovely book, that says so much, even with pages where there are no words. Dimity Powell weaves this story with grace and gentleness, supported by gorgeous, whimsical illustrations from Nicky Johnston.

KIDS BOOK

I write kids’ books. So I read a lot of kids’ books. And I have a clear favourite for 2017…

Bronze Bird Tower by Carole Wilkinson

This is the sixth and final book in the amazing DragonKeeper series. Full of adventure and heart, fantasy and history, it is an absolute joy. Tao, former novice monk and now DragonKeeper, and his dragon Kai complete their journey of discover begun two books earlier. I read it with mixed emotions. I loved it, but was so sad that there will be no more in the series.

YA BOOK

Tough competition for 2017. Real tough! I read LOTS of amazing books, and even so, I didn’t get around to Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner’s Unearthed or Release by Patrick Ness or The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman. They’re still in my to-be-read stack. So keep that in mind. I’m going to start this section with two honourable mentions…

Gap Year in Ghost Town by Michael Pryor

Teenage ghost hunters in Melbourne! Quirky, charming, exciting and utterly delightful, it is a perfect balance of character interplay and engrossing story. I adore the Melbourne setting, which had me going “Oh, I know where that is” almost every chapter. It is thoroughly contemporary and yet manages an old-school charm as well. I love Pryor’s take on what ghosts are – it makes them kinda sad, but also really frightening when necessary. I feel there is so much potential in the characters to go further. I’m desperately hoping there will be more books about Anton, Rani and the other ghost hunters.

Harlequin’s Riddle (Book 1 of the Tales of Tarya) by Rachel Nightingale

This book weaves together the Commedia dell’Arte form of thearte, bits of history and fantasy into one of the most original ideas I’ve seen in a long time. Mina has an amazing talent for storytelling, which means so much more than she realises. Leaving her small town, she sets off with a troupe of travelling actors in the hope of finding her missing brother, who left with a similar troupe ten years earlier. Ahead of her, is adventure and intrigue as she discovers that her storytelling ability can lead her to the amazing realm of Tarya. I am so looking forward to the remaining books in this trilogy.

But top spot goes to…

Pride by Lazaros Zigomanis

Luke Miggs lives in Ulah, a small town that loves its football. When the mysterious Adam Pride literally walks out of the night to join the local team, everything changes. Ambitions are kindled. Dreams are chased. Choices are questioned. And the past is revealed. This book is not just about football. It’s about small-town life (its ups and its downs). It’s also about friendship and choices and racism… and the past refusing to stay buried. Vivid characters, and an intriguing story, make this an absolutely gripping read.

GROWN-UP BOOK

I don’t read a huge number of grown-up books. I tend to be VERY choosy and stick with books from writers I’m friends with, writers whose work I know and love, and books recommended to me by people whose opinions I value. Also, keep in mind that Just Another Week in Suburbia by Lez Zig (alternate name for Lazaros Zigomanis, author of Pride) is still on my to-be-read stack. Having said that, I have a very clear favourite for 2017…

The Book Club, by Alan Baxter

Call it a short novel or a novella or whatever you want… I call it brilliant! It is tense, imaginative, edge or your seat stuff that is hard to put down. Without giving away too much… it’s about a man whose wife goes missing. She simply doesn’t come home from book club one night. Not willing to leave things to the police, he investigates and discovers that it was no ordinary book club that his wife belonged to. I love the way Baxter reveals the characters’ twisted back-story, then weaves it into the main plot of the club and disappearance. I read this is 2017, and it’s still buzzing around in my head a month in to 2018.

NON-FICTION BOOK

As a writer of educational books, I read a lot of non-fiction for research. But I also read a bit off my own bat. Interestingly, I didn’t read anything that was published in 2017… it was all older. So, my favourite non-fic book written prior to 2017 but read in 2017 is…

Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out (2014), by Susan Kuklin

This is a book of interviews with and photographs of transgendered young people. It’s very common for people to dismiss or ridicule or fear or even hate people who are different. Books like this promote understanding. And once you understand the difference, and understand that people who are different are still people, and that they have hopes and fears and dreams just like you… well, it gets hard to dismiss or ridicule or fear or hate. And that’s why this book (and others like it) are so important. Quite apart from that, this book is also a really fascinating insight into the lives of six interesting and diverse people. This is the sort of book that really should be on the shelves of every high school library.

ANTHOLOGY/COLLECTION

I love short stories, but for some reason didn’t actually read all that many of them in 2017. But out of the collected works I did read, this is my favourite…

Begin, End, Begin, edited by Danielle Binks

This book is the result of the #LoveOzYA movement and features some of this country’s best YA writers. Such a variety of styles and genres and topics… and every story in this anthology is a gem. My personal favourites are Lili Wilkinson’s hauntingly beautiful tale of drain exploration, “Oona Undergraound”; and Gabrielle Tozer’s bus trip story of the past being revealed and understood, “The Feeling From Over Here”.

OVER ALL FAVOURITE

Very difficult decision, but I’m going with Alan Baxter’s The Book Club. As I said, it’s still vivid in my memory. And even now, I can feel my heart begin to race and a niggle of panic at the back of my mind as I recall those first moments when the main character realises that his wife is missing.

WRITING

2017 was another good writing year for me. I had three new You Choose books released (Creepy Crawly Chaos, City of Robots and Footy Fever), as well as a bunch of school readers. And I spent the year working on a new series of kids’ books called OTHER WORLDS. The first two, Perfect World and Beast World are coming out on 26 February.

A big part of my writing life revolves around speaking about writing. In 2017 I did 161 individual sessions that included festivals, school visits, library visits and promotional tours. You can read about some on my experiences in these blog posts:

And to cap it all off, my story in The X-Files: Secret Agendas was nominated for a SCRIBE AWARD and I won an Honour Award at the KOALAs for You Choose: Alien Invaders From Beyond the Stars. I couldn’t attend the awards ceremony, so I sent them this schlocky alien abduction vid, the making of which I enjoyed way too much…

Catch ya later, George

PS. Follow me on Twitter

Between Us by Clare Atkins

Thanks very much for speaking to Boomerang Books blog, Clare. Your two YA novels Nona and Me and Between Us are memorable, thought-provoking and ‘uncomfortable’ in the best way. I learn and am changed by them.

Thank you! I don’t think I could ask for any better feedback than that as an author.

Where are you based and how are you involved in the YA literary community?

I’m based in Darwin. There are a few YA writers up here who I see at events and workshops. I also travel to Sydney fairly regularly, mostly for TV scriptwriting work. There’s a YA author meet-up there, which I attend when I can. I’ve also met lots of YA writers through speaking at writing festivals. I can’t speak highly enough of the supportive, fun and vibrant community – YA authors are the best!

How has your television scriptwriting enhanced your novel writing?

TV writing has taught me a lot about structure, flow, characterisation and weaving multiple story strands together. I wrote both my novels as a kind of hybrid, in which each segment or chapter is really a scene that needs to move the action forward. And I am very comfortable writing dialogue – my books probably have slightly more than average.

Your first novel, Nona & Me (Black Inc), achieved critical acclaim. I reviewed it for the Weekend Australian here.  How were you able to describe this Aboriginal experience in the Northern Territory with such authority?

I don’t know about authority but I definitely did thorough research and consultation over a couple of years. I was also living in Yirrkala, the community in the novel, at the time. I interviewed many community members, both in the mining town and Aboriginal community, and worked closed with a wonderful Yolngu cultural advisor and teacher called Merrkiyawuy Ganambarr-Stubbs. Without her advice and feedback I don’t think I could’ve written the novel.

To what does your title, Between Us (Black Inc), refer? Which came first, your title, the story or something else?

I am interested in the spaces between people and how, in the absence of knowledge, fear or love can fill the void. I liked that the title had a number of interpretations. Between who – Ana and Jono? Or Jono and Kenny? Or Kenny and Ana? And is what is ‘between us’ holding us together or pushing us apart? The characters came first – I wanted to explore characters representing different eras of immigration in Australia and was excited about having a character – Jono – with my own cultural background.

What is the significance of the cover? 

The cover is based on some photos I took in Darwin during the wet season. The moody skies up here during storms are breathtaking, both beautiful and ominous at the same time, as I hoped the novel would be too. I sent the photos to the publisher who forwarded them to the cover designer. I liked the phone lines as a visual reference to both connection and distance; one of the ways Jono and Ana are able to connect is on the phone. And birds are a repeated motif in the novel – a symbol of freedom, a point of connection and a link to memories for Jono, Kenny and Ana.

How does Between Us differ from Nona & Me? Are there any similarities?

I think I’ve experimented a lot more in Between Us. I wanted to push myself as a writer. Nona & Me was my first novel and whilst I played with structure it was still in prose from a single point of view. Between Us is from three different cultural perspectives and incorporates sections of verse. And whilst Nona & Me was a personal exploration of Indigenous politics, Between Us focuses more on immigration and multiculturalism.

Clare Atkins

How were you able to access information about life inside a detention centre and then form it into fiction?

Weaving real life stories into fiction is my favourite thing to do. It takes a lot of research – this time around three years worth. A lot of the interviews had to be ‘off the table’; people were happy to talk but didn’t want their name attached to the book in case it caused trouble for their jobs or visa applications. I have spent time inside Villawood as a volunteer helping to run activities for kids, and visited asylum seekers in Wickham Point. I also worked with an Iranian cultural advisor, Shokufeh Kavani.

You’ve written from several different viewpoints in Between Us, even from an adult character’s perspective. Could you introduce us to your major characters?

How have you differentiated between their voices?

Jono is a half-Vietnamese, half-Australian sixteen year old boy, who has had a rough time lately. His mum walked out, he got dumped by his first real girlfriend and his older sister has just moved away to Uni. He feels like he’s been left behind with his Vietnamese father Kenny; the two of them have a volatile relationship at best. Jono starts the novel in verse – he’s in a depressed state and can only take in the bare minimum. Then he meets Ana…

Ana is a fifteen year old Iranian asylum seeker who is only allowed out of detention to attend school. She desperately wants to be a ‘normal’ teenage girl, but her life inside is far from standard. Her mum is pregnant, her little brother is desperate to get out and run, and her mum’s boyfriend is stuck on Nauru. Ana’s voice is initially curious and passionate and determined.

Kenny is Jono’s father. He was sponsored out to Australia by his older sister, Minh, who arrived with the first boatloads of Vietnamese refugees. Kenny has just started work as a guard at the detention centre where Ana lives. Kenny is confused by the various thoughts and feelings swirling around the issue of asylum seekers. His voice is informed by his Vietnamese culture and his insider’s perspective as both a guard and as Jono’s father.

Which character would you like to write more about?

I’d like to write more about Kenny. He’s such a multifaceted character who has access to so many different worlds. He’s Vietnamese but has now spent almost half his life in Australia. He’s a father but is still working out life himself. He’s the brother of a boat person who now guards asylum seekers. I love that he is complex and confused and flawed but very real.

I was excited by your changing use of verse in the novel. Could you share what you’ve done?

I wanted to use verse to convey emotional state. When you’re depressed it is hard to communicate or connect to the outer world in more than short bursts or impressions. It was a bit of an experiment – I’m excited that you liked it.

You mention Australian hip-hop band The Hilltop Hoods. Why this band?

I spoke to some Iranian young people who talked about Iranian rap and hip-hop and how political and dangerous it can be. I looked for an Australian equivalent as a point of connection for Jono and Ana. Hilltop Hoods takes me back to my early twenties so I suppose I had an existing affection for them. I liked that they are sometimes political but can also be playful – they have a freedom that Iranian hip-hop artists don’t have.

In the novel you’ve referred to other literary texts such as The Outsiders, The Rabbits, The Simple Gift and Home in the Sky. Why these books?

They are all books and authors I love and admire. They also feed into the central themes of the novel about insiders and outsiders, culture and colonisation, connection and distance, freedom and belonging.

Why is the novel a powerful forum to alert people to the plight of refugees and those in detention centres? What would you encourage your readers to do next?

I think the best stories in any medium are the ones that start a conversation. I hope that the novel allows readers to gain a new perspective through vicariously experiencing life behind the barbed wire fence. Empathy and understanding are the foundation of social change. What readers do after that is of course up to them, but I’d be thrilled if they discussed it, attended a rally, wrote to a politician, visited someone in detention, volunteered, talked to someone they otherwise might not, or voted differently…every bit contributes to reframing an ‘issue’ as something human and personal and important…

What books are you reading at the moment (or recently)?

Books that I’ve enjoyed lately include Kirsty Eagar’s Summer Skin, a smart YA romance that looks at modern hook-up culture with a feminist slant, and The Good Girl of China Town, a bravely honest cross-cultural memoir about Jenevieve Chang’s experiences as a dancer in Shanghai’s first burlesque club.

Thanks for your insightful answers, Clare. I’ve learned even more! All the best with Between Us.

Thank you!