Mirage by Somaiya Daudis a gorgeously lush story of rebels and body-doubles, inspired by the author’s Moroccan heritage and set amongst the stars. I actually didn’t realise it was sci-fi when I picked it up, but I was so excited and enthralled when I realised we were not only getting Moroccan-based culture and traditions — but also droids and tech and spaceships! I definitely hope this is the first of many books like this!
The story is told by Amani, who is a dreamer and poet on a small moon in a smaller village. She’s just turned eighteen and is receiving her special tattoo that marks her as an adult, when horror strikes. The traditional ceremony is interrupted by droids who scan all the girls’ faces but only take one: Amani. She’s whisked away into space, kidnapped by the brutal Vathek regime, and brought before their cruel and nasty princess…whose face has a startling resemblance to Amani’s. It turns out Amani is going to be used as a body-double. If there’s some place too dangerous for the princess to be, Amani will step in. Her life will be at constant risk, but failure to comply means her family’s death. She feels hopeless and trapped, tortured by Princess Maram, and lonely so far away from home. But her new life is full of glittering privileged and Amani learns to walk like a queen, be around the gorgeous prince she’s “supposed” to marry, and also accidental stumble on the hint of a rebellion and she could, quite possibly, stoke those flames…
What really stood out to me was the incredible world-building! It was perfect in every way, rich and luscious, weaving in myths and customs along with descriptions of their clothes and food! I loved the brief beginning chapters in Amani’s home village, where she’s preparing for her ceremony. And her respect and admiration for her family, plus her love of all things magical and poetic, was so sweet.
The contrast of going to the viciously lavish imperial courts was also so well done! When Amani gets there, and learns to live as Princess Maram, she has so much change and development. I did want a little more from the girls’ relationship, but it ended up being sparse as Amani would get whisked off to play body-double and didn’t actually spend much time with Maram. The two are such contrast though! Maram is snarky vinegar and Amani has such a sugar soul…although she’s determined, clever, and not about to be walked over. It’s nice to see soft, feminine protagonists, who are still strong and complex!
The plot follows a lot of being whisked around the courts and deception and quiet scheming. I did think there’d be more assassin attempts?! But the ones that were in there were chilling! There’s plenty of politics and pain and betrayal.
Mirage is definitely a story to look out for! It’s absolutely gorgeous world building will sweep you right off your feet, and you’ll soon become entranced in this world of gorgeous gowns and royal balls, while wars and conquering rage in the background, and a girl just tries to stay alive and decide if what she’s willing to risk for her people.
You’re most welcome and thanks so much for having me.
What is your background and where are you based?
I’m based in Melbourne. I lived in Greece as a child but came to Australia as a non-English speaking migrant at around eight years old.
My work background is mostly journalism. I was a reporter at various newspapers (five years at the Herald Sun) and then a communications strategist for the union movement for five years. Since having kids I have had to take a step back from that sort of high-octane work.
How involved in the YA literary community are you?
I first became aware of the LoveOZYA community through author Nicole Hayes. I was a member of her writing group and as my manuscript progressed she spoke to me about where she thought it might fit and how wonderful and supportive people were.
I love reading YA, especially Australian YA, and following other writer’s journey on social media. I’ve found the LoveOZYA community inspiring and vibrant. I love being a part of it. There’s a real effort to support each other and this makes the sometimes insecure life of a writer easier. We celebrate each other’s wins and commiserate with difficulties.
Stone Girl (Penguin Random House) is a searing, unforgettable story. Could you tell us about the protagonist Sophie and the symbol of a ‘stone girl’?
As I write my second novel I realize that I’m interested in the triggers and experiences in life that change as. What needs to happen to transform a person from one thing to another? As a journalist, reporting straight news, I would be stunned by the things people did and wonder how they grew from a kid into this adult. What forms their decision making and choices?
Stone Girl follows Sophie’s life from 12 to 16 years old as she becomes someone society typically judges, despises and ultimately dismisses. The persona of Stone Girl is her survival mechanism in a world where there’s no one to rely upon but herself. Sophie soon comprehends her place and makes a number of decisions about who and how she must be in response. It’s about resilience. She toughens up, she becomes Stone Girl, and this is both positive and negative.
Hardening herself, especially against adults, serves to both protect her and isolate her because stony self-preservation cuts both ways. She doesn’t trust anyone. Doesn’t ask for help even though she often desperately needs it. Her Stone Girl persona is what she uses to hide her vulnerability. When she lifts her chin against the world then she can shut out the things that have happened to her. She uses her anger to protect her. But in the end, it’s what she does with the Stone Girl facade that makes this a story of redemption.
Most of us have a mask we wear in order to fit in and protect ourselves. It just happens that Sophie has to wear hers 24 hours a day.
Could you tell us about some significant other characters?
Gwen is one of my favourites. Girlfriends have been the backbone to my life. They’ve saved me many times over, from my sister to the besties I’ve known over the years. I love the closeness and trust that grows between some women. The friendships in the homes Sophie moves through are formed as fast as they must be abandoned but in Gwen, Sophie finds a true ally. It’s a friendship that underscores everything else. It doesn’t just disappear because there’s a love interest.
I think of it like an old western when there’s a shoot-out and friends protect themselves by standing back to back. Gwen and Sophie bond in the knowledge that, despite appearances, adults actually have no idea what they’re doing.
Spiral came to me when I was at the Varuna’s Writer’s House. I knew Sophie needed someone, possibly a love interest, but I couldn’t figure out who would be strong enough break through to her.
Then, as I strolled through Katoomba, Spiral’s form became clear. I saw what he looked like, his motivations and that, like Sophie, in a world of broken promises, he too needed someone to trust.
Writing about Spiral was fun, especially at first. He’s gorgeous! A fiery and enigmatic character that I was drawn to completely – his name serving as prophesy.
I’ve always loved books with gritty honest characters that both shock and charm and I try to write this way.
How did you create such authentic experiences in the homes Sophie had to live in and her spiral into such terrible situations?
This is fictional novel but I have borrowed heavily from my time as a teen growing up in group homes.
I tried to write the real story but felt unable to. Fiction freed me up and images and events appeared quite clearly to me; the rooms, the feelings, the flavor of being of being someone who lived that way. I put myself easily into Sophie’s shoes.
When I lived in the homes there were many younger kids and I’ve thought about them so often since. Sophie is how I imagined one life.
You’ve made drug-taking very appealing at times, e.g. chapter 22? How did you weigh up the risk of including this?
The truth is that before drugs destroy you, they feel good. That’s the trick. That’s why people keep taking them. If I pretended they were terrible all the way though then this would not be the realistic trajectory of addiction. It could be dismissed and then this would not be a true cautionary tale. Protectionism is not helpful for most teens, especially when you consider the type of world we live in right now.
How important is Sophie’s racial background to the story?
Her racial background and her estrangement from her Greek family contribute to her feeling of dislocation. She doesn’t belong there. She has no family here. She must let go of the past and carve her own way through the world.
Like Sophie, I grew up in Greece and left family behind. My Greek heritage and the memories of leaving my first home have significantly contributed to who I am today and I found it quite cathartic to include this in Sophie’s life.
What does she learn about family and others?
When she first goes into the homes Sophie is hopeful that she will once again find family, either with a social worker or with her Baba. However this is not to be. Sophie soon understands that in a world where the only constant is change, she can only rely on herself.
With the kids in the homes there’s a unique bond that makes them a kind of family – albeit temporary.
Could you explain what turned her situation around towards the end of the novel – and why have you chosen this form of redemption?
The fight to survive that carried Sophie through is her saving grace. I actually didn’t know how it was going to end until three or four drafts in. I just kept thinking, this is not the story of a victim. And finally I realized what had to happen.
Kids in care, people with addictions and the homeless are either viewed with pity or fear and I wanted to show how we should never underestimate anyone. People are amazing! They want to survive and many can achieve much given a chance.
You thank God in the Acknowledgements. Why have you done this?
Doing something you love, answering a calling to the self, which is what writing feels like to me, can mean many sacrifices in other areas of life. Financial, physical, mental; you turn yourself inside out. I found myself praying more. Especially after writing I feel quite close to ‘God’. This isn’t in a religious way but more a universal spiritual one.
Who would you particularly like to see read your novel?
Everyone. I need to fund my next novel.
But seriously, I guess if I was choosing readers based on getting the message across then I’d hope people from the world that deals with kids like these. Social workers, kids in care, etc.
I’ve also loved the responses I’ve received from those who are surprised about this world. I would like there to be a common understanding about the fact that hundreds, if not thousands of kids live this way right now in Australia. A public conversation about kids in care could finally bring change to this difficult, misunderstood and largely ignored section of Australian society. That, for me, would be a dream come true. I’d love to know that others wouldn’t feel the way I did when I was living in government care in the early 1990s.
Have you already had any memorable responses from readers to Stone Girl?
A redit post my husband put up went viral and I was shocked and amazed by the response. Social workers, lawyers, ex homes and foster kids from around the world commented and it solidified what I had always suspected. Despite the fact we don’t often acknowledge the plight of kids without parents, the situation matters to many. It’s a private pain. Or a job they really care about. Or they don’t know how to help someone… Some of them contacted me after reading Stone Girl, sending quite heartfelt messages. As an author, this is the best feeling in the world.
Putting aside the issue of kids in care, I wrote this book because gritty subjects, love at ‘the edge of a cliff’, characters living dangerously is what I find interesting to read. I’ve been floored by the generous reviews so far, especially those where people say they couldn’t stop reading. The number one reason for writing a fictional book has to be entertainment, doesn’t it?
This was the first review I received and I remember the relief I felt. Rob at Lamont Books really got what Stone Girl was about.
Wow! This is a must read novel for older teens, but a word of caution – it is definitely a YA title aimed at teens 15 years and older.
It took me back to my school days reading Go Ask Alice, which I found totally confronting, but at the same time an educational and inspirational cautionary tale. Stone Girl is certainly that as it takes us on Sophie’s downhill journey through institutional care as a ward of the state from when she is 12 until she is 16.
It is written with a real understanding and depth of character, as it is inspired by the real life experiences of the debut author, journalist Eleni Hale. Many dark topics are covered including death, poverty, heartbreak and substance dependence. But shining through the story is identity, survival, resilience and ultimately a coming of age empowerment.
I will not give the story away but suffice to say you cannot help but be swept along by the incredible Sophie, as the world continues serving up crap to her. She often stumbles and is so very nearly broken, but we continue to hold out hope for her throughout the story.
Stone Girl will change the way you look at the homeless, and hopefully enlighten young minds as to the plight of wards of the state.
This is a brilliant debut, but as it does contain extreme language, mature themes and substance abuse, it is suited to older teens, 15 years and up.
How can we protect young people and help if we encounter someone in a situation like Sophie’s or someone at risk?
From memory and for reasons I can’t really explain, kids in care seemed to be treated differently, like no-hopers. I don’t know if it was the way we dressed or looked. Maybe we were too loud or other times we seemed too quiet and uncommunicative. I just know that people changed towards you once they knew you were a kid who lived like that. From cops, to teachers, to people on the street, I was often hyper-aware of being a ‘lesser other’.
So in terms of talking to them in an encounter, simply show respect even if you don’t understand them, hold your judgment before you really know them (perhaps after as well) and don’t assume the worst.
Also important is to support the organizations set up to help them such as the ‘Make It 21’ campaign that seeks to extend support from 18 years old to 21. This could lessen the shocking number of government kids who end up homeless, drug addicted and/or mentally ill.
It’s really hard to get through to someone like Sophie once they hardened up. They guard strictly against pity and judgment. The communication channels are nearly closed. Improving their experiences in the ‘system’ is obviously an important way to avoid their slide into the margins of society.
I don’t have all the answers for this – I don’t think anyone does – but talking about it publically is a good start. Don’t let their lives be our society’s dirty secret any longer. Let their issues matter the same way that other’s kid’s problems are discussed regularly in public forums.
What are you writing now?
I’m writing the sequel to Stone Girl. What happens after you leave the home system and your support is cut off? What will Sophie do now that she is out in the world and responsible for herself in every way? She has no family and must scrape together the money she needs to live. Where will this new fight for survival lead her?
Look we all secretly like to sing the Lion King lyrics, “Oh I just can’t wait to be kiiiing” when no one is listening. Because it would be very nice to wear a crown. Agreed? Agreed. Until we accidentally inherit one, however, we can make do by admiring gorgeous crowns on YA book covers. And also reading the books so we’re not just judging books by their covers. (Although that’s kind of fun, I’m not going to lie.)
Honestly this cover is super flawless, with it’s gorgeous dusky colour scheme and that crown that is so entrancing and yet is a symbol of oppression and devastation. Theo’s nation has been conquered by an evil tyrant, and now she’s a tortured captive princess in her own castle — and on special occasion she’s forced to wear this crown of ashes that makes a horrible mess over her face and clothes to remind everyone she’s worth nothing. But secretly? She’s planning assassinations and rebellions.
THE CRUEL PRINCE by Holly Black
This is only one of my favourite reads of this year, but the faerie queen herself: author Holly Black! This is about backstabbing royals and cunning plots and a prince who is poisonous…and also a little bit tragic.
Our heroine, Jude, is a mere human in the vicious and gorgeously deadly faerie world…and the crown might be up for the taking.
FURYBORN by Claire Legrand
This is about two women’s lives, but it’s set milleniums apart, which is a twist I hadn’t read before! It features one girl, an assassin who’s past might not be as boring as she imagined.
And a queen, who made a deal with an angel and has to prove herself through terrifying life-threatening trials to prove her powers are under her control. Or are they?
THREE DARK CROWNS by Kendare Blake
And of course we can’t forget this one! The story of triplet sisters who have been raised differently and separately until they’re 16 and will make the fight for the crown. One is raised by a poisonous, cunning household of poisons and snakes. Another in the forests, who can control beasts and minds. And another who has the elements under her thumb with a simple wish. But what if they don’t all want to be enemies?
STARS ABOVE by Marissa Meyer
A quick swap from the normal fantasies over to this sci-fi! It’s actually a short-story collection from the Lunar Chronicles world to give you that last taste of Cinder & Co before the series ends! And the cover is just gorgeous and gives us a hint of what’s going to happen to the now-returned Princess Selene and where the ex-Princess Winter will end up. Plus it just is such a fairy-tale cover! With the crown on a pillow, like a glass slipper waiting for it’s chosen one.
Books featuring sisters are so important and totally winning! They can also remind you why you long for a sister or why, if you already have real-life sisters, that fictional siblings are usually way cooler. Or way more prone to starting the apocalypse. Who can say! It’s always exciting to find out.
Tiffany is reeling after the death of her mother when her estranged father agrees to take her in — and turns out he has 4 daughters already. This is pretty intense for Tiffany to firstly lose her mother who she loved so much and then suddenly become insta part of a very strictly religious and big family. Things are anything but smooth, with her new dad turning out to be super controlling and her sisters ranging from annoying to mean. Except the sister-bonds that form as the story progresses are so good! And I loved how this book focused on family.
CARAVAL by Stephanie Garber
This is one of the best books of ever, full of a magical game that you have to be careful not to be totally sucked in and entranced by. Scarlett escapes her abusive father and travels to play the game of Caraval…except she’s also looking for her lost little sister, Tella, who might’ve bet too much into this game and be in serious trouble. Not only does it feature sisters who’ll do anything for each other, the plot is so twisty. You can lose days of your life in exchange for a dress and the master of the game could be anyone…even the boy you might be falling for?
TO ALL THE BOYS I’VE LOVED BEFORE by Jenny Han
It’s always a good time to cheer over this old favourite because the finale came out last year and this year, we’re getting a Netflix movie adaption! Also this features the three Song sisters, narrated by Lara Jean, and she has a snarky little sister Kitty and a very rule-orientated strict older sister, Margot. They are all super close, but that doesn’t mean they all agree. And I love how the sisters are pivotal to the plot, while Lara Jean accidentally has all her (private, aka: no one can read these) letters sent to her childhood crushes.
THE CRUEL PRINCE by Holly Black
Nothing like a fae and knights and sword story to get your heart beating faster! Jude and her twin sister are swept into the faeries realms after their parents are murdered by a fae, but he decides to take them in and raise them…which obviously is going to create a huge tension when your new dad is your old dad’s murderer. Plus the world is full of backstabbing and poisonous fey plots and intrigue and Jude is doing her best not just to keep up, but to succeed her. She wants to be a knight. And if that means teaming up with the nasty Prince Cardan…maybe she just might do it.
Summer Bird Blue by Akemi Dawn Bowman
This is a pretty hard-hitting story about two sisters who are super close…until one of them dies in a car crash. Then Rumi is sent to Hawaii with her aunt while her mother spends some time grieving alone, which absolutely devastates Rumi as now is when she needs her mother the most. She really struggles in Hawaii, hating everything and scared she’ll lose the ability to create music like she did with her sister. It features the most adorkable boy next door, gorgeous scenery, pineapples and surfing, an ace-spec queer protagonist, friendship and healing.
More information on this and the other shortlisted books will be available soon on an online CBCA platform.
Ideas for the English Classroom
Four types of writing are used in the novel 1. Writing in the voice of each protagonist 2. Wellness Journal entries (italics) (Students could analyse differences in voice from both these types of writing) 3. Wellness Worksheets 4. PSST – the source of cyber bullying
Wellness Journals give further insight into the three protagonists as they describe how they’re feeling; as well as what they think about the other girls. This gives another perspective. Read a selection of these entries.
Students write three journal entries from the point of view of Iris, Clem’s twin sister, or another character.
Wellness Worksheets Complete one of these e.g. self-esteem scale, page 147; Lou Reed’s song Perfect Day page 218; letter to future self, page 428.
Read other novels by these authors.
The Secret Science of Magic by Melissa Keil (Hardie Grant Egmont)
The Secret Science of Magic was longlisted for the Indies awards. I reviewed it for the Weekend Australian.
This novel has an equally strong male and female voice.
Ideas for the Classroom or Library
Magic Joshua is a magician who is trying to grain Sophia’s attention. Sleight of hand and, particularly, timing are the magician’s most important tools.
Students could try to replicate some of Joshua’s magic tricks in reality or using technology.
Playing-card optical illusions, pages 30, 40
Igniting a paper rose, page 82
Showing a Doctor Who Christmas special on a vintage movie projector, page 110
These tricks culminate in an illusion at school, where Joshua makes the school disappear.
Use Plotagraph (which creates a moving image from a single still graphic image) in Adobe Photoshop or other tools to demonstrate this or another magic trick.
Drama Sophia is forced to take Drama. The class studies All’s Well that Ends Well, page 74 – a prescient play title for this novel. Read the play.
Read other novels by Melissa Keil: Life in Outer Space and The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl
Several places are mentioned to show that this novel is set in Sydney, including ‘Sydney eats’, page 106, a group that feed the homeless. Meredith also helps them by running a Street Library, pages 69,121,222.
Meredith believes: ‘Books can save anyone. If they’re the right ones.’ page 164
Ideas for the Classroom or Library
Poems for each other Nola gives a poem to Tiny and vice versa. Read Nola’s poem for Tiny, page 97, and Tiny’s poem for Nola, page 133. In pairs, students write poems to give each other.
Writing Group The writing group at the homeless shelter tries the following activities, which students could do also.
Writing a group story using the Dada, Surrealist technique where each person writes a line and passes it on to the next person to write the next line to see where the story goes, page 108.
Use a ‘real-life media story you pick out to start your own story … Write it as a sequel, action adventure, poem, dialogue’, page 110. Only allow 20 minutes max.
Open Mic Night: Eddie performs his poem ‘Clean’ about his father’s death, pages 171,177. Students could write and perform their work, including poems, at an open mic night or similar event. (Read The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo about a girl who writes heartfelt poetry and performs at a poetry slam.)
To Kill A Kingdom by Alexandra Christo is the swashbuckly and deliciously dark pirate adventure we’ve all been waiting for. It’s got hints of a Little Mermaid retelling, with more nods to the original Hans Christian Anderson tale than Disney ever did. This is full of sirens who eat princes’ hearts and enchantments and runaway royalty and enough snark and banter to have you smirking in your seat.
The story follows two narrators: Lira, a siren who eats princes’ hearts and whose wicked mother is getting between her and the throne. And also Elian, who’s very opposed to his royal heritage and wants to be a pirate, riding the world of the murderous sirens that claim so many innocent lives each year. Their stories entwine when Lira is cursed to wear human legs until she can prove her loyalty to her people…and the perfect way to do that would be to kill Elian. Except Elian is on a quest to find a way to stop the siren queen forever and when he rescues a “mysterious” girl lost at sea — he has no idea who he’s truly making alliances with.
The characters just stole the seawater for this one! The dual narration is perfect balanced, with each character stealing the show as soon as they’re on page. He’s hunting her and she’s hunting him, which is obviously the recipe for a perfect romance. This is enemies-to-lovers at its finest! It wasn’t rushed or awkward. It was seriously such perfect fun to see them go from distrust to distant admiration to snarking at each other to “accidentally” “saving” each other’s lives. Lira’s denial of having feelings for him (hey, she’s a wretched evil siren, remember?!) was completely adorable. I also loved how they both had soft sides, even though they’re warriors here to fight in the seas. Lira is super sweet and protective of her little siren cousin. Elian is quite soft and kind to his crew, despite being a “pirate”. And his sass and banter levels were off the charts.
I also loved how it portrayed the sea! It fully makes you fall in love with it. I mean, yes the sea in this book is full of murderous dangers, like sirens and mermaids and monsters, but the vivid and lust descriptions made me understand why Elian couldn’t leave the sea to claim his birthright of the throne. The lure was there! I could see the gorgeous settings, taste the salty sea, and absolutely lose myself in the world. There’s actually quite a lot of world to explore, and even though the book is small, it takes you a variety of places with excellent world building. There are kingdoms and mountains and palaces with cursed queens. I found the description was perfectly balanced — not info dumps, but enough information to set you up in this diverse and intriguing world.
I particularly appreciated the amount of banter! It kept me smiling the whole time as Elian and Lira sparred words and gradually fell for each other. The secondary characters also had their quips too!
“If the necklace is that precious,” I say, “we should have just killed Tallis to get it.”
“You can’t just kill everyone you don’t like.”
“I know that. Otherwise you’d be dead already.”
To Kill A Kingdom is a lush and vicious book that will lose you in its winsome adventures of death and curses, love and magic. It was perfectly written and exquisitely told, face-paced and entrancing!
Now we all know they say “don’t judge a book by its cover”…but honestly, who doesn’t!? Plus covers tend to give us a great idea of what the book is about, which is helpful if you’re looking for a swashbuckling pirate adventure or a cute fluffy romance with, preferably, plenty of ice cream and cuteness. So today we’re going to amiably judge some covers on YA books that feature knives and swords! It’s very popular and honestly makes for a stunning visual. And will these books deliver the tales of adventure and war that we’re longing for?! One must just read them all and find out. (Excellent life plan. Do please go for it.)
This is a fantastic YA staple, really, as it just celebrated it’s 10th anniversary! It’s a sci-fi story starring a boy who can’t kill and a girl not from this planet. It’s one of those heartbreaking ones so the knife is A+ of a visual for how your feels are going to be stabbed. I also love how it features a world where all your thoughts can be heard! Talk about freeeaky.
This is a very brand new book with a southeast Asian setting, featuring Kyra who’s a novice of a religious group who bring justice to the clans. Their knives are actually a bit sentient and tell them things, which is fascinating! Everything goes wrong for Kyra, though, when her leader is murdered, so she steals the knife and takes off to find justice.
This just came out this May (!) which is super exciting and I can attest to how stunning a book this is! Now I realise the squid thing is holding the sword at this point, but believe me: this contains pirates and princes, sirens and sea witches. It’s a fantastic dark Little Mermaid retelling about a prince who wants to kill a siren and a siren who accidentally falls for him. Hate-to-love at its finest!
This is an epic fantasy about murderous angels and vicious queens. It’s told in two parts about two women, a hundred centuries apart, and how their lives not only connect but really rely on each other to tell the tale! A queen and an assassin! With unheard of powers and strengths.
Can’t help but mention a Cassandra Clare book in the infamous Shadowhunter world! Her latest series is a whirlwind of adventure and dark magic, featuring Emma who wants to find her parents’ murderer and Julian, sole carer of his younger siblings and desperate to keep them altogether when the Clave wants to rip them apart. As they dig into the murder mystery though, things get out of hand very fast with secrets coming out that no one should ever know. Also features a swoon-worthy forbidden romance!
A purely fantastic tale of a witch’s monster, called a “Heartless”, who has no choice but to serve her mistress. Zera longs for her freedom and will do anything to get it, even when her mistress sends her to kill the crown prince and take his heart, in order to control the upcoming war. Zera, part monster with a hunger for raw organs, has no qualms doing this…until she accidentally might be falling for the prince. It’s a fairy tale gone wrong and deliciously captivating!
Tyler Johnson Was Here by Jay Coles is such a heart-wrenching (and important) read. It definitely hits hard and it’s such a vital book for everyone to be reading, especially in this day and age, where police brutality and racism are huge topics in the USA. It’s the type of story that needs to be told again and again until the world changes. Possibly stock up on some tissues and chocolate before you start though.
The story follows Marvin Johnson, who’s brother Tyler goes missing after a fateful party that neither of them would usually attend. Marvin is ruined with worry for his brother, who’d been pulling away in the weeks earlier and not sharing everything with his twin like he used to. And when the cops aren’t interested in helping much, Marvin takes the search into his own hands. With police brutality being a terrifying theme in his life, Marvin fears for the worst…and then a video is leaked online showing his brother being murdered by a cop. Tyler isn’t missing: he’s dead. And no one cares about justice unless Marvin fights tooth and nail for it.
The book focuses on police brutality, but it also delves into the “everyday” parts of racism in the USA. I cannot comprehend how it would be to live like these black teens have to live. When Marvin is going to a protest his mother literally says don’t have anything in your pockets, not even a phone, so he can’t be mistaken for being armed. And another time, Marvin and his friends are nearly arrested for buying food at a store, just because they’re black and the clerk thought they might shoplift. Being Australian, this is mind-boggling to me and a good eye-opener for what life is like for other people. I felt the devastation on every page of this book about kids who don’t deserve this blatant racism. You can really feel the author’s heart and emotions in the writing.
It does mix hope with the sadness though. I’m glad that’s in there. I can imagine this book will be so important to so many, and it’s important that it has room to cry and be angry and be encouraged. It also features a boy, Marvin, who is not afraid to cry and will be emotional…and that’s such a good dialogue to open up in YA too!
The story features so many other great things! There’s a cast of interesting and complex characters, including Marvin’s friends and a girl he meets, Faith, who helps him try to find Tyler and sticks with him when things grow dark. Marvin is also trying to get into a good college while all this is happening, and there’s a lot of talk about mental health and grief and learning to move through sadness and not lay down and give up.
Tyler Johnson Was Here is definitely the book that will leave you thinking, which is exactly what books are supposed to do. Start discussions and spark fires in people! This is a book with a tumultuous and heartbreaking journey, told in a raw and emotional voice.
I Have Lost My Way is the latest book by the famed Gayle Forman and it definitely doesn’t disappoint! It features her typical “set in 1-day” timeline as well as packing an emotional punch full of angst, change and emotion. It’s the kind of book you chew through in one day but keep thinking about it for a long time after.
The book follows 3 narrators: Freya (a singer who’s lost her voice) and Harun (a closeted quiet boy who’s broken his boyfriend’s heart) and Nathaniel (neglected and disillusioned with the disappointing world after an accident). The book follows them as they all meet in New York City, actually…they meet because Freya tumbles off a foot-bridge and lands on Nathaniel’s head, gives him a concussion, and then ropes a nearby Haran into helping them to hospital. Harun recognises the famed-Freya-singer and wonders if hanging around with her will somehow get him his boyfriend (who loves her music) back. And Nathaniel feels all his paths in life have folded to a close…and then he meets these two strangers who help him and stick with him, even when they could’ve left.
I loved Forman’s previous books,If I Stay and Where She Went, so I was super excited for this new one. I Have Lost My Way tugged at those heart strings and also incorporated such a complex and interesting cast and plot into such a small amount of space!
I really liked how the “told over one day” plot was handled. It was short and powerful and I got so so attached to these characters after just seeing them over one day! However the romance in these 1-day stories always does feel a bit rushed…although I liked that Nathaniel and Freya weren’t spouting any “destiny” lines…they just liked each other and were keen to see where it would go. It was instalove but not cliche! And they were so cute!
It’s written so their backstory comes in 1st person chapters, but the bulk of the book (set in the present day) is written in 3rd. I liked this unique formatting and storytelling style and I think it worked well for the book. I thought Harun’s narrative didn’t slot so easily with the others, but he was still such a winning character and I was just as invested in his life.
A quick glance at the characters?!
FREYA: She’s a rising-star singer who suddenly can’t sing. It could be medical?Or nerves? But she just stops being able to sing and she’s contracted by an austere man she can’t disappoint and she’s scared people will forget about her if she never sings again. Fame only lasts if you’re giving to your audience after all. She feels so lost with all of this and the pressure is crushing her. She’s also biracial/Ethiopian and her culture plays into her music loves a lot.
HARUN: He’s very gay and very closeted being from a strict Muslim family that he loves dearly and doesn’t want to disappoint. A lot of his narrative is wrestling with what he knows to be good and true vs what he knows his parents would do if they found out. He has an amazing black boyfriend, James…but who doesn’t want to be Harun’s shameful secret anymore. Then Harun agrees to do something his family wants that is…not good for him. And things with him and James turn sideways really fast. When the book begins he’s just broken his boyfriend’s heart and is totally lost and alone.
NATHANIEL: He is the most mysterious of the bunch and grew up really secluded and neglected with a father who was very childish and never took proper care of him. As a kid, Nathaniel found that exciting…as an older teen? He feels overlooked, unwanted, and forgotten. He ends up in New York City after a tragic home event and he feels like his world is collapsing around him. He’s very depressed and finding Freya and Harun kick-starts him out of a downward spiral. He’s also so very soft and kind and also starving so they spend a lot of the book feeding him. As they should.
It’s definitely got the emotional edge I’ve come to expect from Forman books! I was super caught up in the story and just wanted to know if something (or anything!) would work out for these characters who were so lost and also stuck in their own mire of aloneness.
I Have Lost My Way is an amazing story that takes a lot of twists you won’t expect. It deals with grief and loneliness and isolation and how important it is to confide your struggles with people you love and trust.
Neverland by Margot McGovern is part homage to the famed Peter Pan tale and part a story of mental illness and learning when to let go and when to hold on. I’m a huge fan of Peter Pan, so I was excited to see the influences swetp through this (although it’s not so much a retelling as just lots of references). Kit calls her childhood-island-home “Neverland” and it’s been converted into a mental illness type hospital for kids at risk. The entire book is about mental health and it can get pretty dark at times, and it’s about facing your monsters.
The story follows Kit Learmonth has had a pretty tumultuous childhood. From parents who didn’t really take care of her, to struggles with health, to an overactive imagination which she often retreats into instead of facing her past. After a suicide attempt at her boarding school, she returns to her childhood island home, nicknamed “Neverland”, where her favourite uncle runs a lowkey psychiatrist hospital for kids who aren’t quite sick enough for a mental institution but who definitely aren’t coping in the real world. The island functions as part school, part hospital, and there’s plenty of chances for the teens to sneak around the laws and enjoy the wonders (and self-invited dangers) of the island. There are some definite illegal nighttime adventures, as well as the more above-board sailing, school, and close friendships. Then Kit meets a new resident: Rohan. He’s very quiet and charming and Kit falls to his friendship…except he might be more sinister than he seems. All the while her suppressed childhood memories are poisoning her inside and out, while she prefers to “play Peter Pan” where life will all turn out okay so long as you keep flying and don’t deal with your problems. That…isn’t going to work out, Kit.
I did so like the setting with the island vibes with a dash of mystery and adventure! Although I didn’t find the island completely believable because it seemed extremely well funded (who could afford to send their kids here?!) but at the same time extremely badly supervised! The amount of times the teens sneaked off to drink and do drugs was downright impressive. Welcome to fairyland as well. But I do think it’s nice to acknowledge that it’d be great of there were places like this for at-risk teens! They definitely needed help and support and the island did provide them with a chance to help themselves…if they chose.
It also explores different types of mental illnesses. I felt it did it quite well. Kit, the narrator, has depression and she severely self harms. Her friend (with benefits) is Alister and he’s a psychopath. Then Gypsy has a severe eating disorder and is recovering from a bad relationship. It doesn’t exactly diagnose Rohan but he had a lot of underlying issues going on. It also portrays therapy in a positive light! We get to read about therapy sessions and some coping mechanisms and some really gritty conversations etc. It definitely attempts to deal with diagnoses instead of just dishing them out.
Kit’s also really big on telling verbal stories too. This is definitely one of her coping mechanisms: tell a story and avoid the real world! Not…healthy, um, Kit. But I did like the magical feel it gave the book, which is definitely a solid contemporary, but with Kit talking about faeries and selkies and Peter Pan, it just added that layer of enchantment to the story.
Kit herself was an interesting character, who definitely spent a lot of the book growing. She makes a sheer bucket-ton of mistakes and a lot of the time she’s downright awful as she battles her own illness and the denial of how serious it is to cut herself. The psychology behind why she did what she did was very clear, even though it was difficult to feel for her when she was so mean to her loving uncle and caring friends. But it’s so important to explore this “unlikeable” part of mental health, because it DOES affect those with it so so much and it’s a topic that needs unpacking.
Neverland is definitely a story that is part fun and whimsy, part darkness and warnings. It’s not a light read by any means, although I think it does show sunshine through the darkness.
An exciting thing about books is that they can cover such a variety of lengths of times! Some take place over years. Others weeks. And still, the very special and few others, just a mere days or hours. It takes talent to tell a whole story that fits into a 24 hour period, so today I want to list some Young Adult books that were written about one-day-in-the-life-of their respective protagonists!
I HAVE LOST MY WAY BY GAYLE FORMAN
This is a brand new Forman book (out just this month!) and it’s set over one day in New York City. It covers 3 protagonists who all feel like their lives are folding in and how they meet and how they support each other. Freya has just lost her voice and this is super bad news for an upcoming rising star singer. Harun is hiding the fact that he’s gay from his conservative Muslim family and he’s just broken his boyfriend’s heart. Nathaniel has been neglected all his life by unfulfilling parents and now he’s taking a last journey into the city to carry out a plan that will change him forever. The three have a fateful meeting (aka Freya falls on top of Nathaniel and knocks him out) and they set out across the city together for one fateful day of change.
LONG WAY DOWN BY JASON REYNOLDS
This one doesn’t just take place in one day, it actually takes place over one elevator ride downstairs! How incredible is that right?! It seems mind-bending that it could actually work, but trust me it really does! The story follows Will whose brother has just been shot and he’s taken his brother’s gun to go get revenge. But as he rides the elevator down, ghosts of his past enter and share their stories. All the people who get on the elevator have been affected by gun violence and the more they talk to Will, the more he realises this hate cycle is absolutely not going to fix anything. This book is in prose and it’s heartwrenching. An absolute must read by an acclaimed author!
SAM AND ILSA’S LAST HURRAH
This story takes place over one evening where Sam and Ilsa host a “last” dinner party to celebrate the finishing of school and how their lives are about to diverge and change forever. They’ve always hosted really interesting dinner parties (inspired by their eclectic grandma) and each invites three people and doesn’t tell the other who’s coming. Adds a lot of spice. However for this fated party, the mix of people soooo do not mesh. Sam’s ex is there as well as his new crush, a random boy he met on the subway. Ilsa’s snarky best friend comes to cause havoc and a boy Ilsa’s planning to set Sam up with…but who turns out to only speak through a sock puppet!? As lasagna fails and there are black outs and bitter secrets leaked…the twins learn a lot about each other and maybe to stop trying to meddle in each other’s wants and dreams. It’s co-written by the famed David Leviathan and also Rachel Cohn, the same duo that brought us Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares!
Ellie Marney’s new YA novel, White Night (Allen & Unwin)has an authentic Australian feel. It is warm-hearted with a welcome edge of rawness. Male protagonist, Bo, is a triumph, with his blend of masculinity, compassion and love.
Where are you based, Ellie, and how do you spend your time?
I live near Castlemaine, in north-central Victoria. I usually spend my time writing or reading! But I also have four kids, and a couple of day jobs, so life can get pretty busy.
How are you involved in Australia’s YA community?
In 2015, when the ALIA lists came out and OzYA was barely a a blip on the radar, a group of lit sector professionals – authors, librarians, booksellers, bloggers, publishers – got together to form the #LoveOzYA movement, to advocate for and promote Australian YA, and I was lucky enough to be at that first meeting. I’ve never really stopped flag-waving for OzYA since then!
Oz YA is thriving but why do there seem to be few Australian novels written for males at the moment?
I actually think Australian YA caters pretty well to males! There are plenty of great YA books written by male YA authors, or featuring male protagonists. But I also believe it’s good for boys to broaden their horizons (and maybe learn something new) by reading books with female protagonists, or written by female authors – I certainly encourage my boys to pick up books by authors of all stripes, with a range of protagonists. We don’t seem to worry so much about girls reading books written by men, or focusing on boys – Harry Potter, for instance – which makes me think it’s a bit of a double standard.
Could you tell us about your other books, particularly your very popular ‘Every’ series?
The Every series is based around the question of ‘What would a contemporary teenage Sherlock Holmes be like?’ (or as the tagline says, ‘What if Sherlock Holmes was the boy next door?’) and is my most popular series to date. People liked my take on Young-Sherlock-and Girl-Watson-in-Melbourne so much I wrote a companion novel, No Limits, which I self-published last year – Harris Derwent, one of the secondary characters in the series, had his chance to shine in a darker-edged story about drug crime and high-stakes romance in regional Australia.
Now this year I’m releasing White Night, and in a few more months, Circus Hearts, a 3-book YA romantic crime series set in a circus – the first book, about a teenage trapeze artist and an apprentice strongman on the run from a terrible crime, will (if all goes to plan!) be out in September.
What is the significance of the title of your new novel White Night?
It refers to a a number of things actually – I’m glad you asked! White Night is the name of the lightshow festival that the students in the book want to stage to raise funds for their local skate park; it’s based on the worldwide festival of lights that has taken off so well in Melbourne. But ‘White Night’ also has darker connotations: in the Jonestown Peoples’ Temple cult, the name was a code for the ‘revolutionary suicide’ practise runs that Jim Jones forced all his followers to perform to prove their loyalty.
But also – and this is a little Easter egg for readers! Because my brain is funny like that – there are a lot of references to the Sleeping Beauty story in White Night. The names of the characters (Bo and Rory – in the old legends, it was Prince Beau and Princess Aurora), the idea of a handsome suitor who rescues a damsel from a tower (in this case, an ideological tower) which is surrounded by greenery… So White Night is a play on the old references to a ‘white knight in shining armour’. I liked threading little bits of the story into the book, and flipping the idea too, with a headstrong princess who sort of rescues herself…
Could you tell us about your major characters, Bo and Rory, including their relationships with their parents?
Bo is sixteen, and focused on footy, friends and family – his dad, Aaron, his pregnant mum, Liz and his younger brother, Connor. Bo’s parents are strict but fair, and he feels like he’s cruising along – except for some nagging concerns about what he’s going to do at the end of high school. Rory, on the other hand, has no plans, because her life isn’t lived in a conventional way – she lives in Garden of Eden, an off-the-grid radical environmentalist commune with a very alternative family arrangement. This is her first attempt at real high school and ‘outside’ life, and when she meets Bo, the two of them rub up against each other in curious, life-changing, spark-creating ways.
I think I’d better leave it there – if I give too much away, I’ll be sharing spoilers!
Which of Bo’s school friends would you like to write about further?
Hm, that’s a hard question! Bo’s best mate, Sprog Hamilton, starts out as a total bogan footy bloke and then evolves to have so many layers – Sprog has a wonderful story arc, and I do love Sprog as a character. But Bo’s other friend, Lozzie D’Onofrio, is equally lovely – and maybe has a lot more backstory to explore… I’d happily write about either one of them!
You’ve mentioned the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in White Night. What environmental messages do you want to share?
When I was researching White Night I read an incredible book: The World Without Us by Alan Weismann – it poses the thought experiment of how would nature recover and go on if all the humans in the world just disappeared overnight? That book was mind-blowing and fascinating, and threw out lots of amazing and terrifying facts about the impact of human beings on the planet. I’d love more young people to think hard about the environment and contribute ideas for solutions to some of the problems – it’s their planet too, and I think young people have much to give on this issue, considering they’re so invested in it. We just need to start listening, and acting on their ideas, before things get too urgent.
Oh, that book is so great! Every single one of my sons has read The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan, which is the first book in the Ranger’sApprentice series. That series… It’s so good! And it seems to really appeal to my kids, especially the idea of being a boy (like Will) with an older male mentor (like Halt) and learning all the survival and craft skills necessary for living on the land. I just thought it was a natural fit for Bo and Connor’s story, with echoes of what it’s like being a young boy growing up and searching for male role models.
What have you been reading recently?
I’ve actually been so immersed in writing I haven’t had much reading time – but when I’ve had a break, I’ve been reading Obsidio by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff (O.M.G. that whole series is so incredible!), LIFEL1K3 by Jay Kristoff (I have an ARC! Yes, it’s just that good, I had to steal it from the Allen & Unwin offices!) and also a few books I’m reading for #LoveOzYAbookclub – Gap Year in Ghost Town by Michael Pryor, and Valentine by Jodi McAlister.
And of course, I often grab a romance read when I’m tired or flat – I love Penny Reid, Sarah Mayberry, Kylie Scott and Sarina Bowen. Those ladies bring all the feels!
Thanks very much, Ellie, and all the best with White Night. It will no doubt find a wide and appreciative readership.
Thanks Joy! I hope people enjoy it, and thank you so much for having me to visit!
White Night by Ellie Marney is a slowly uncoiling tale of highschool and first-love and lowkey cults and the realisation that growing up is very out of your control. I will always and forever be in love with Marney’s writing, and her Sherlock Holmes retellings, Every Breath, Every Word, and Every Move, are some of my absolute favourite Aussie literature. White Night definitely doesn’t disappoint, with a good serving of Australian outback life and the complications of falling for a girl in a cult.
The story follows Bo Mitchell, who is just a typical boy, although slightly internally warring between wanting to please his dad and be a footie star and…well, he also loves to cook. His life consists of the drudge of highschool and farm chores, amongst a backdrop of his mates who love to mess around, and are currently on a fundraising rampage to save the local skate park. But then life shifts a little as a new girl comes to school: Rory Wild. She’s from a local self-sustained closed community that believes humans are ruining the world and they just want to live in peace in their gardens. Rory tiptoes into school searching for something more and while she’s met with hostile bullying for her wild clothing and weird mannerisms and beliefs, she does find Bo. And Bo falls a little bit in love with her free and unhindered way of living too…until he learns what sinister things are going on under the surface of this supposed “Eden”.
It was definitely a book I couldn’t look away from! The pace at the beginning is rather meandering and quiet (but always interesting) but by the end, you have this sick feeling rising and just keep flipping pages wondering if it’ll end in your worst nightmares.
Bo’s narration is a fantastic collision of contrasts. He’s torn between being super blokey to please his farmer dad, and his slang is very typically your outback Aussie, but he also likes taking care of people and he’s interested in food and organic things. He’s so open minded! And this was really refreshing to read?! WE get this 16-year-old boy who’s realistic and makes mistakes and has messy reactions to family strife…but underneath it all he’s the driving force of his own character development. SUCH good news.
Bo also meets this super nice girl called Rory who’s part of a local self-sustaining hippy community. Rory was homeschooled but she decides to try school and Bo becomes besotted with her. It’s slow and sweet and there’s so many “will they/won’t they” moments and I loved their relationship.
The community is called “Garden Of Eden” and it was really interesting. At first it seems such a harmonious and idealistic place, very calm and nice, and everyone was so welcoming…but the further the book progresses the more you see the cultish undertones. The community grows their own food. Uses solar. Makes pottery and weaves and makes anything they actually need. Rory is fantastic person who’s equal parts whimsical and free-spirited, but also realistic and full of deep and complex feelings. You can’t help but root for her to have a good life…even if that might not be the one she’s living now?
The book isn’t a raucous action/adventure, but I did love the quiet feel. There’s lots of school, pottery making, conversations, frolicking about in gardens, bike rides, etc. etc. Bo had family drama, but it wasn’t life-or-death so I wasn’t too strung up about it. I loved his bogan friends, particularly Sprog, who is presented first as a total clown and potential low-life…but he actually has ambitious and ends up picketing the council for a chance to keep the local teen hang-out of the skate park open. His character development was so good I really wish he got his own novel!
White Night is a fantastic story from a not-to-be-missed Aussie author! The ending is a slow build up of intense excruciating feelings and the writing is just delicious and so engaging.
The 2018 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards shortlists have just been announced. I’m enamoured of literary works across ages but am here featuring the books in the two youth shortlists because I’ve already read them all. And I’ve read them, not just because I chaired the judging panel of the Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature with insightful co-judges Robin Morrow and Tohby Riddle, but because these are books worth reading.
The Patchwork Bike by Maxine Beneba Clarke and illustrated by Van T Rudd (Hachette Australia)
The Patchwork Bike is a stunning, ground-breaking picture book; an exuberant fusion of words, colour and texture. It has already won a CBCA Honour book award and I’ve mentioned itseveral times on the Boomerang Books blog.
The Elephant by Peter Carnavas (University of Queensland Press)
The profound theme of a child grieving for a parent is told in finely crafted words and images, with simpatico black and white line drawings.
Blossom by Tamsin Janu (Omnibus Books for Scholastic Australia)
Tamsin Janu has been shortlisted twice in the Patricia Wrightson category this year. Blossom is an exciting, original novel set seemingly in the real world but with subtle sci-fi content. It brilliantly alludes to the plight of aliens and refugees.
Even though very young, Tamsin Janu is an old hand at the NSW PLA. Since her first novel Figgy in the World co-won the Patricia Wrightson award a few years ago, her two subsequent Figgy books (all set in Ghana) have also been shortlisted.
Tamsin Janu will be speaking in Strathfield, Sydney, on Saturday 7th April at an IBBY event.
A timely and thoughtful dystopia set in the near future when bees have become extinct. It is engaging for children as well as being a fine piece of writing. The issue of domestic violence makes it most suitable for older children.
Bren MacDibble is also shortlisted as Cally Black in the Ethel Turner Prize.
A consummate thread of magic realism, including a golem creation, runs through this novel to diffuse the horror of the important and harrowing issue of child trafficking. I reviewed it for The Weekend Australian here.
I hope it is the beginning of a trend but there are a couple of excellent Australian YA psychological thrillers around. It reminds me of former glory days when Victor Kelleher’s inimitable Del Del was published.
Margot McGovern’s Neverland (Penguin Random House Australia) is an invigorating, assured debut which blends fascinating, yet threatening, fantasy tropes; and elements from Peter Pan, into the risk-taking activities of Kit and some of her fellow ‘Lost Ones’.
Thank you for speaking with Boomerang Books Blog, Margot.
My absolute pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Where are you based and what is your background?
I’m from Adelaide and recently moved back after living in Melbourne and Perth for a number of years. I always wanted to be a writer and was accepted into the BCA writing program at Flinders University after finishing school, then continued on to do a creative writing PhD. I moved to Melbourne while finishing my thesis and worked for a (now defunct) cycling magazine. After graduating, I went part-time at the magazine to try my hand at freelancing and start work on Neverland. When my husband’s job then took us to Perth, I switched to writing full-time and also joined the book blogging community (although my blog’s been a tad neglected since my daughter was born last year).
What is the significance of the title Neverland?
My protagonist, Kit, is seeking a way back to the magical childhood of her memory; however, the harder she tries to relive that time, the more distorted and nightmarish her memories become. So with the title, I wanted to evoke the sense of a dream-like place that may or may not be real and remains just beyond reach. The story pays homage to J. M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy and I was very taken with the way Barrie describes his Never Neverland as a place we forever yearn for but can never return to: ‘On these magic shores children at play are forever beaching their coracles. We too have been there; we can still hear the sound of the surf, though we shall land no more.’
How does the cover hint at the treasures inside?
I’m still pinching myself over the cover! It was designed by Chista Moffitt and the beautiful illustrations are by Eveline Tarunadjaja. Kit’s romanticised childhood memories are based on the stories and myths her dad invented about the island where she grew up and the illustrations represent key symbols in those stories.
Why have you set the story on an island?
There were a few reasons. I wanted to reference to Barrie’s Never Neverland and to give my characters a place where they could take a time out from the wider world. But I also wanted to isolate Kit within a specific geography imprinted with layers of memory and story. And then, because the narrative is about a girl renegotiating her relationship with her past, I wanted a landscape where I could mix in some of my own nostalgia, and being a beach kid, an island seemed a fitting choice.
Could you tell us about Kit, Doc and some of your other characters?
I have a soft spot for so-called ‘unlikeable’ and unreliable narrators, and Kit reflects that; she’s prickly and self-destructive. But she’s also deeply vulnerable—a character in crisis who is trying to figure things out but making mistakes along the way.
Her uncle and guardian, Doc, is almost the opposite. However, he was forced to grow up too quickly and is consequently quite reserved. He and Kit were once very close but there’s been a lot of miscommunication between them and they’re struggling to salvage their relationship.
Doc’s looked after Kit since her parents were drowned in a sailing accident when Kit was ten. He’s also a psychiatrist and has turned their small family island into a boarding school for troubled teens. Among the students at the school are Kit’s two best friends, Alistair and Gypsy, and a new boy named Rohan who shares Kit’s desire for make-believe.
Your main characters are about to leave school. Is this the age group of your intended readers?
The story is very dark in places and and deals with suicide, self-harm, and mental illness, so I was aiming for the upper end of YA.
Neverland has some important underpinning themes and issues. Could you share any of these.
The original idea for the story grew out of a sense of misplaced nostalgia. I was feeling apprehensive about the future and decided to comfort myself by rereading Peter and Wendy, which I’d loved as a kid. However, the book was much darker and more violent than I remembered and I started thinking about how, in times of uncertainty and upheaval, we often yearn for a romanticised version of the past and how this kind of nostalgia can prevent us from finding a way forwards.
I was also interested in the idea of who gets to tell a story, and what is reframed or omitted in the telling—and particularly in the fact that historically, women’s voices have often been silenced or ignored and their roles diminished. So I wanted to write a story where a young woman is forced to question the mythology of her world and her place within it.
How have you paid homage to other authors and literature in your plot, setting or characters?
In the months before I started working on Neverland and while I was writing, I reread a lot of old favourites—Peter and Wendy, Treasure Island, The Odyssey, The Great Gatsby—and the story, in part, grew out that process of rereading, so it felt important to give those texts a place in the manuscript. They helped inform the story’s key themes, but also gave Kit a library to draw on as she struggles to find her voice and a way to tell her story. Then because nostalgia, and particularly a nostalgia for stories, is such an important part of the narrative, I looked for opportunities to work in little references to other favourites as well.
What have you enjoyed reading recently?
Well, now you’ve opened a can of worms! I’ve been reading some incredible home-grown YA: Tin Heart by Shivaun Plozza, The Centre of My Everything by Allayne Webster, Untidy Towns by Kate O’Donnell and Take Three Girls by Cath Crowley, Simmone Howell and Fiona Wood. Also, The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert from the US. And for something completely different, I’ve gone back to Daphne du Maurier (an old favourite) to read The House on the Strand and absolutely loved The Radium Girls by Kate Moore, even though I cried most of the way through.
I can’t wait to get lost in your next work. What are you writing at the moment? Would you write Kit’s dad’s Kingdom by the Sea as a companion piece – perhaps with illustrations?
That’s an interesting idea (especially the illustrations part), but Kit’s world feels closed to me for the time being. That said, I loved working on the thread of magic realism in Neverland, so I’m taking that a giant leap further and currently working on a YA urban fantasy with mythological roots.
Thanks Margot, and all the best with Neverland. Your next books sounds just as fascinating.
Small Spaces is such a riveting, scary story, I was worried that I would still be reading when night fell. I was still reading … but had to keep going even though I knew I would be terrified. Congratulations on your stunning thriller, Sarah, and thanks for speaking with Boomerang Books blog.
Thanks so much! It’s a pleasure to be here.
Where are you based and how are you involved in the YA literary community?
I live in Melbourne, which has a thriving bookish community. There are always so many fantastic events, book launches and meet-ups happening, and I try to get along to as many as I can because I always come away feeling more connected and inspired. I’ve also been involved with the online YA community for the last decade, which is how I’ve met some wonderful critique partners and writing buddies, as well as participating in online conferences and pitching contests. Facebook groups and Twitter have been a fantastic way for me to connect with other kidlit writers and readers, not just in Australia but internationally.
What is the significance of the title, Small Spaces?
For Tash, the protagonist of the story, it’s a very real phobia stemming from incidents that happened to her as a child. But from the opening lines of the novel it’s clear that it also refers to Tash’s psychological state and whether she can trust her own mind – the small space inside her head. In broader terms, it’s a reflection of how we all can sometimes feel isolated, lonely and vulnerable in our own small spaces, and forging connections and trusting others can often be challenging and scary.
You’ve used a distinctly Australian setting. Where is it set and why?
The story is set in two fictional locations – the small coastal town of Port Bellamy, and the rural area of Greenwillow and Willow Creek – which are about an hour’s drive apart on the NSW mid north coast. When I’m brainstorming a novel, I picture scenes very cinematically and start writing before I know exactly where the story is going to be set. Then I have to stop and start researching areas that tick all the boxes of my fictional setting and can feasibly accommodate all the major plot points and any secondary locations that are referenced in the story. I was born in NSW and wanted to set a story there, and having visited the mid north coast a number of times, it really helped me narrow things down, and became the perfect setting for the story.
Could you introduce your major characters to us …
Tash is seventeen and in her final year of school, craving independence and planning her future at an interstate university. But earning her parents’ trust is difficult because of childhood behavioural issues that seem to be cropping up again. Sadie is Tash’s best friend, the one who knows her best and her fiercest ally, trying to help Tash navigate through her phobias and unsettling memories. Two of those unsettling memories return in the form of Morgan and Mallory Fisher, a brother and sister who shared a disturbing day at the carnival with Tash nine years ago during a summer holiday at her Aunt Ally’s house. And then there’s Sparrow, Tash’s imaginary friend from childhood who looms heavily throughout all aspects of the plot, past and present.
Why have you given Tash an interest in photography and Morgan a gift in the visual arts?
This stems from my own creative background and the design degree I completed at university which included both visual arts and photography. I knew I wanted Tash and Morgan to collaborate on a project that played into the themes of the novel, and art was such a huge part of my life when I was a teen. It came very naturally to give Tash, Morgan and other characters in the story a creative outlet to express themselves.
Could you tell us about the ‘Now’ and ‘Then’ structure?
As soon as I started writing, I knew a large number of flashbacks would be required to properly explain what happened in Tash’s past. But I didn’t want to tell all of these in the passive past-tense voice of Tash recollecting them, because I felt this would dilute the tension and affect the pacing. Instead, I wrote these chapters in present tense using Tash’s childhood voice so the reader can see how things played out in real-time through her eyes. I also introduced therapy session transcripts and newspaper articles written in a clinical tone, so readers can form their own theories about what happened based on other evidence that isn’t skewed by Tash’s point of view.
As you wrote, how were you able to lay out the plot without giving too much away?
It wasn’t easy! I really had to think about the order I wanted snippets of information revealed because of how the past and present chapters feed into one another. There was a lot of shifting scenes and chapters around, and I had a large colour-coded plot outline which I’d lay out across my desk to give me a clear overview of what was happening and where. I had to pare back scenes and dialogue in revisions so as not to be too obvious, but at the same time reveal enough so that readers wouldn’t become frustrated about the storyline being too vague. It’s a real balancing act, and some days I cursed myself for choosing such a complicated narrative structure.
Without causing you to give away spoilers, which part of the plot, characterisation or symbolism was difficult to resolve?
I found the climax the most challenging part to write – I wanted it to do so many things while at the same time be fast-paced and absolutely gripping. I think endings are always tricky – they need to feel completely satisfying for the reader while tying up all the loose threads and illuminating the story’s themes. I never start writing a story until I know how the ending is going to play out. Then my challenge is figuring out how I’m going to get my characters there.
Carnivals and funfairs are some of my favourite locations in literature. They’re supposed to be fun but often are the opposite. What is so creepy about these places and what gives them (particularly derelict ones) such potential for horror?
I think for me the crowds and bustle of a busy carnival always poses the threat of a lost child, or the potential for someone to be swallowed up by it all before their companions even notice they’re missing. There are so many nooks and crannies to lurk and hide in! The noisy rides and all the squealing is so distracting and jarring, and there’s always exaggerated character art leering at you everywhere you turn. Carnivals are a bit too much of everything all at once, which makes us feel a bit queasy and disorientated. Derelict places add a whole other layer of creepiness because they conjure up ideas about ghosts and dead things. Plus, they’re deserted, so if anything bad happens, nobody’s coming to help!
What sort of movies do you watch?
I don’t read a huge amount of science fiction, but I absolutely love watching sci-fi movies! I also love anything with zombies, ghosts or aliens. I’m a big fan of bingeing a good Netflix series, and mostly enjoy intriguing supernatural shows like Stranger Things and The OA. I also love Nordic crime thrillers. I have a tendency to lean towards darker content.
Who have you written this book for?
It might be a cliché, but I definitely wrote this book for teenaged me. This is exactly the sort of story I was craving when I was a teen but had difficulty finding – something twisty and gripping, but with characters my age and themes I could relate to. I loved Christopher Pike’s books but struggled to find them in my school library and local bookshops (which was my whole world since the internet and online shopping didn’t yet exist), so I read a lot of adult crime and horror novels in my teens. But many of those stories were a hard slog with themes and situations that were very adult. I wrote this novel for teen readers who enjoy thrillers and creepy stories, but want characters and situations they can see themselves in.
What books are you reading at the moment (or recently)?
I recently finished The Dry by Jane Harper and Wimmera by Mark Brandi, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed, especially since I am working on another suspenseful mystery set in a small Australian town. I’m currently reading two #LoveOzYA novels: The Fall by Tristan Bancks and Untidy Towns by Kate O’Donnell. My favourite genres to read are contemporaries, thrillers and domestic noir, and I have Sarah Bailey’s Dark Lake and A.J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window next up on my reading pile.
Thanks for your illuminating answers, Sarah and all the best with Small Spaces (Walker Books Australia) and your next book.
Thanks so much, Joy. Great questions! I’ve really enjoyed answering them.
Boomerang by Helene Dunbar was one of those beautifully written books that sort of creeps up on you. I can’t even stop thinking about it! It was actually also quite stressful, because there’s lots of complicated relationships going on here and you can’t help but panic a little hoping it all works out. It’s about messy kids and messy feelings and the heartfelt angst of brokenness. Definitely a book I’d recommend in a heartbeat!
The story is about Sean Woodhouse who’s returning home after 5 years of being “kidnapped”. Except he wasn’t kidnapped…he ran away from a neglectful mum and found an old loving couple who took him in and kept him safe. He fell in love with the boy nextdoor and he liked his new life. But something happens and Sean realises he has to go home. He’s #1 goal is to see if he can get use of his college fund and then leave again, but things get messy as his mother has changed and is a good person now and his whole town treats him like this poor rescued child. He’s torn between staying and going. Staying may be the “right” thing to do, but there will be brutally heartbreaking consequences if he doesn’t go.
The tension is the top thing I’ll rave about for this one! It had me so hooked I couldn’t do anything but keep reading. You just desperately want to know if Sean will stay or go, and as things escalate with the boy he left behind, Trip, who has a terrible life and needs Sean to come back…you just don’t know what the right choice will be.
I also liked that it was this “missing child” story, but with a twist. Admittedly I have read this twist before, but not for a while! And it was done SO well. And it was bittersweet knowing how much Sean needed to be loved, and that’s why he ran, but all the while his true family and childhood friends thought he’d been murdered. Imagine living with that?!
I also adored the love interest, Trip Marchette. He’s the boy next door and Sean’s childhood crush, but it’s complicated. It’s messy and their feelings for each other are unnamed and sometimes their relationship is downright poisonous. Trip’s abused by his uncle, but won’t leave. And Sean gets caught up in his own self-righteousness of not understanding the situation. I got hair-tearingly frustrated at BOTH of them. But madly wanted it to work out.
There is a little love triangle, which I found a huge drawback, except that it was really well written! Sean, back at home now, meets Emery who is absolutely lovely and dynamic and complex. It was hard to be mad at her for stealing Sean’s attention, when she was a fantastic person! It added another layer of tension to the story too, wondering if their relationship would unfold or if Sean wouldn’t lose focus of what he came home to do.
I also appreciated the diversity! There’s no labels, but most of the characters would probably identify as queer, plus Trip has dyslexia and it was portrayed so well.
Boomerang is seriously the kind of book you can’t put down! It’s complex and really unpacks thoughts about consequences and actions, what love means, and the difference between selflessness and selfishness. The pacing will keep you glued to the page and the characters will make and break your heart.
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?
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.
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?
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!
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.
Thanks very much for speaking to Boomerang Books blog, Clare. Your two YA novels Nona and Meand Between Usare 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.
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.
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.
Love, Hate And Other Filters by Samira Ahmed is combination of a cute fluffy romance and a very personal look at racism and hate crimes. The book really discusses a lot of issues going on in today’s world, especially the blind aggression and hate immigrants and Muslims can receive when they’re just trying to live their lives! It’s also an #ownvoices story, which means you can really feel the author pouring their heart and experiences into the story. It definitely pays off!
The story follows Maya Aziz who is a Muslim Indian-American teen who loves documentaries and film and deeply wants to study it in college. Only problem: her parents have other plans. Most of which include finding a good Indian husband and studying law or to be a doctor. Maya’s dreams keep conflicting with their plans and, to make matters more tense in the family, she also has a very deep and secret crush on a boy at school — who’s decidedly not one her parents would ever approve of. She gets caught up going on an approved date with Kareem, who honestly is really nice…but, her heart is still with Phil. And when their causal hangouts turn into him really caring about her and her dreams…which side is she supposed to pick?
A big part of Maya’s life, and also the plot, is a discussion on the repercussions on terrorist attacks. When a really terrible attack happens in a nearby city, Maya’s Muslim family receives a ton of hate and it’s super scary and really makes you think as you read. And while the plot is absolutely tackling heavy topics, it does balance it out with Maya’s romantic indecision and her movie and film references as she pursues her passion.
I’m not a huge movie buff, so admittedly a lot of the references were lost on me. But I loved that Maya HAD a goal and was definitely going to pursue it! It made her a really driven character and totally admirable. Also I haven’t read many books with characters who love being behind a camera, so this was new!
Maya herself was complex and interesting! She was definitely very torn between wishing her parents were happy with her, but hating the life they’d planned out. (She can’t handle tons of jewellery and high heels and the idea of being a lawyer. Nooo. Leave her with her movies please.) There’s a lot of tension and problems between her and her parents too.
The peek into Indian-American culture was amazing! I love how the writing utilised the 5-senes to make the scenes really pop off the page. The food was so good I practically wanted to eat my copy.
The story itself is also pretty short and sweet. Like a cupcake! It has some brief scenes from the terrorist’s perspective too, which keeps you guessing and also keeps an ominous presence in the background.
Love Hate And Other Filters is definitely an important and topical discussion that’s really good to read and think about! It’s cute and mushy at times and also discusses the ripple effect of hate crimes and how deeply it can change and shake innocent people’s lives.
Geekerella by Ashley Poston (Penguin Random House) is a contemporary Cinderella story told by both Danielle (Elle) as the Cinderella character and 18-year-old actor, Darien Freeman as her potential love interest.
Elle’s father had established ExcelsiCon cosplay before he died. Elle now lives with her stepmother, a wedding planner, and stepsister twins Chloe (who is nasty) and Calliope (whose attitude towards Elle may be softening). Elle works part-time at the Magic Pumpkin food truck with Sage, who also makes costumes.
Darien is a former soap actor who is now starring as Prince Carmindor in Starfield, the new movie version of a cult sci-fi show. He is actually a fan of the show and wants to ‘do the fandom justice’ even though Jessica, his female co-star is really only using it for publicity and as a stepping stone to an academy award career. Jess thinks that Daren is cute, ‘equal parts dorky and sexy’. They are supposed to be dating.
Darien wants to do his own stunts, is a ‘pretty boy’ swamped by fans, but is actually vulnerable and a bit shy. His overbearing but distant father is his manager; Gail, is his slightly older, inept but caring minder; and Lonny his new bodyguard.
Without having met him, Elle despises Darien. She doesn’t realise that he is the person who contacted her through the phone she inherited from her father and is now texting constantly. At the same time, her blog posts against Darien playing the role of Carmindor go viral. When they meet in person they despise each other.
The plot builds to the cosplay convention and ExcelsiCon ball. Elle’s parents had been the king and queen of cosplay – her father dressed as the Federation Prince, Carmindor, and her mother as beautiful Amara. Elle decides to attend the ball and Sage alters her father’s costume for her. But Chloe, as ugly-natured stepsister, steps in and steals the Amara silk dress and glass shoes for Cal to wear to the ball and ruins Carmindor’s coat.
Subplots about leaked details about the Starfield movie, Darien’s stalker and interference in Darien and Elle’s texts add intrigue.
This reimagined fairy tale about hidden and mistaken identities is great fun. Its premise of the famous guy yearning for an unknown girl is also explored in the equally engaging Unrequited by Sydney writer Emma Grey about a girl pursued by the famous lead singer in boy band.
Words on Bathroom Walls by Julia Walton is a beautiful and heartbreaking story about schizophrenia. It’s brutally honest and so so good. It does hesitate to show you a realistic portrayal of mental illness, and skips romanticising it at all. An absolute emotional roller coaster too! Plus there’s a lot of baking in here, so I suggest settling down to read with a packet of biscuits. You’ve been warned.
It follows the story of Adam who’s just been diagnosed with schizophrenia. He’s participating in a drug trial to try and help him and he’s writing his experiences in a journal for his therapist. He knows his delusions aren’t real, but they still follow him everywhere — everything from weird mob bosses and naked guys to a beautiful and timid girl. They seem real to him and they’re nearly his friends. But now he’s starting a new school where no one knows about his illness and he’s desperate to make it work, especially when he meets a very fierce and smart girl that he likes. But it’ll only work out if the trial drug doesn’t fail.
I loved the open discussions about mental health and schizophrenia. Schizophrenia (like any mental health condition) is a huge spectrum and I really enjoyed reading about this portrayal. Adam was very brutally honest about his condition. He’s also scared of it, but is doing his best not to be. And his hallucinations were really varied and he knew they weren’t real but he wasn’t always convinced. There was a lot of singing and some mafia guys with guns and a naked man, and Adam’s really fond of his hallucination named Rebecca who is quiet and sweet and warns him of danger.
Adams thinking isn’t always correct or good. He often calls himself “crazy”. But I think it was realistic…he’s 16 and just wants to handle school and make things work with his mother and stepdad and also maybe get a girlfriend. He’s honest, but his view of the world can be problematic. You’re with him on this roller coaster of a drug trial and falling in love for the first time and growing up.
It’s told in letter-format. It reminded me a bit of Perks of Being a Wallflower and Adam’s voice is so clear and strong. I did wish there’d been more description instead of Adam just relaying what had happened, but I still thought the format was very fitting for the book.
Maya and Dwight are two of the friends Adam makes and they are amazing. Definitely secondary-characters that shine! Maya is like logical and not squishy and will eat your cookies and study hard and be a very cute and friendly robot. I LOVED HER. (She’s also Filipino.) And Dwight was like this intense super-nerd who was super-pale and super-talkative and basically adorable. I also loved the inclusion of supportive and epic parents, particularly for Adam.
This is the kind of story that will definitely play with your emotions and leave you thinking. Adam’s viewpoint is so raw and obviously life is not going to go perfectly and the drug might not be the miracle they’re all counting on. You’re heart will probably be thundering at times and it might rain on your face.
Daughter of the Burning City by Amanda Foody was dark and murderous and magical. So basically everything a good book should be. I’m in absolute awe of the world building, the dynamic characters, and the finale plot twist that totally caught me off guard! This was just incredible and I highly recommend it!
Why aren’t all books full of murder and magic. I ask.
The story is set in a moving carnival called the Gomorrah Festival. It features Sorina who is an illusionist and “freak” because she was born with no eyes but instead has magical powers. Her illusions are so real that they can basically have lives of their own and she calls them her family. Then one gets murdered which, as you can imagine, shouldn’t be possible for a person who isn’t even real. Sorina teams up with the local charming but cocky gossip-worker named Luca to try and solve the mystery, that might be more deeply imbedded in the festival’s history than she originally thought.
The setting was so exquisitely described and detailed! I totally felt I could see and taste and smell Gomorrah. It explodes off the page with kettle corn and liquorice cherries and smoke from the permanently burning and walking city. It’s definitely the kind of setting I’d love to visit.
The plot was deliciously twisty and rich. There are conspiracy theories and murder mysteries! I loved the sort of genre mash-up of having an epic fantasy setting, but mixed with mysteries and whodunnit vibes, not to mention there’s religious tension in the background and people with wicked magical skills. And of course you have all the carnival and performance shenanigans and dramas. Exciting.
But the characters absolutely stole the show. (Har har, excuse the pun.) I adored them all. Sorina was amazing! She’s an illusionist, adopted by the proprietor of the carnival, and she is so incredibly powerful. Imagine making people up and then having them come to life and actually function as people. She loved her little made up “freak” family so much. I also loved how relatable Sorina was with her dedication to her family, her want to please her father and become Gomorrah’s next master, and her panic attacks and tears that made her so human.
And Luca was equally magnificent. He was entirely snarky and wore horrendous waistcoats that Sorina never let him live down and he trades in gossip and mysteries. He also asexual which was so refreshing to see on page! I loved how devious and cunning he was, and their relationship was slow burn and fraught with uncertainty.
The writing was also a piece of marvel. I couldn’t put the book down! Plus it really utilised the five-senses to make visually stunning words and paragraphs.
Basically if you are looking for a deliciously wicked story of magic, mystery, and mayhem…Daughter Of The Burning City is for you. It’ll totally capture your heart and your imagination and probably make you crave popcorn, but where exactly is the downside in that.
Christmas is a great time for plum pudding and tinsel and muted panic about trying to find the right gift for everyone. So the best and most logical option is obviously to just buy everyone you know a book. And what could be better than an Aussie book!? It goes really well with plum pudding. Total guarantee.
Today I want to list some really great Aussie Young Adult books that have been published in 2017 and might suit someone in your family’s fancy. Or just, you know, gift it to yourself. Christmas is a time for giving after all. (Even to yourself, shh, this is fine.)
BEAUTIFUL MESS BY CLAIRE CHRISTIAN
This is definitely one of my new all time favourite books and it’s about two teens struggling with depression. It involves slam-poetry and a kebab shop and healing and learning to accept you’re not broken, but rather love yourself and let other people help you on your journey. Gideon is an absolute sweetheart and you’ll adore Ava’s determination not to collapse under her grief.
THIS MORTAL COIL BY EMILY SUVADA
This is a brand new book that’s just hit the shelves and it’ll hit all your sci-fi cravings SO well. It’s about a dystopian world where a virus is wiping everyone out, and a genius scientist’s daughter is suddenly left alone after her dad is kidnapped by a dark organisation. Catarina has to crack the code to release the antidote to the world, with the help of a super-soldier named Cole and her own intelligence in science and technology. Definitely features lots of guns and running and small explosions.
GAP YEAR IN GHOST TOWN BY MICHAEL PRYOR
This book is just downright hilarious, so if you’re looking for something that captures Australian wit and humour — like just drop everything and buy this book. Probably buy it for yourself too. It’s just so so funny. It’s about Anton who’s family is a long-line of ghost hunters. They help them move onto the afterlife as quietly and calmly as possible…until a girl from the “elite” British branch comes over and tries to shake things up with her sword and more violent but effective way of controlling ghosts. Mysteries unravel about the different ghost-hunting groups and there’s an extra spiteful rise in malevolent spirits. Except swords and bucket loads of coffee and quips in the face of death and a lot of ghosts.
NIGHT SWIMMING BY STEPH BOWE
This is such a sweet and lovely contemporary set in a small outback Australian town where Kirby is set for a boring existence until the most beautiful new girl moves into town. Kirby’s best friend, Clancy, immediately is ALL eyes for this new girl (options are limited okay) and Kirby promises to help play matchmaker…but the problem is she’s falling for Iris too. The book is the actual cutest thing and features quirky writing and goat soap and delicious Indian food and a protagonist who adores books which is, quite frankly, relatable.
QUEENS OF GEEK BY JEN WILDE
Now this book is set in the USA, but it features 3 Australian teens who travel to a supercon to embrace all their nerdy glory. It swaps points-of-view between Taylor, who is an anxious booknerd with autism, and Charlie, who is a bisexual indie movie star trying to ditch a horrible ex-boyfriend (also, unfortunately, a costar) while she crushes hard on a local youtuber. The book takes place over 3 days and it’s full of action and amazing character devleopment and tons of pop-culture references. It’s super fun and you’ll root for Taylor and Charlie to get their dreams and speak up to their crushes. Definite must-read for all nerds and geeks!
Where are you based and what is your current role, Darren?
I live in Vancouver. My current role is husband, father, provider and fiction scribbler.
How involved are you in the YA community?
Not as much as I used to be when I was a teacher. My 16 year old twins keep me connected to today’s kids, though.
Could you tell us a little about your early books?
Well, they’ve all disappeared, sad to say. However, I’m proud of them and each one was notable in its own way. My first novel, The Procrastinator, got my first personal, positive rejection (still one of the very best feelings I’ve ever had in my career); my second novel, Most Valuable Potential, was shortlisted in the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards; my third novel, The Umbilical Word, secured my wonderful literary agent; and my fourth novel, Kindling, picked up my first contract with a major trade publishing house (Hachette).
Thank you for your kind words, Joy. The protagonists of AYSM are twins, Justine and Perry Richter. Justine is smart, well read, neurotypical and the sole carer of her brother. Perry is smart, sensitive, neurodiverse and hopeful of “freeing” his sister. Perry makes three appearances in the new novel, Exchange of Heart. It was a real treat to connect with him again.
What is the significance of the clever title of your powerful new novel Exchange of Heart?
Exchange of Heart captures what this novel is all about, both literally and thematically. There’s a lot to unpack; it makes sense at a surface level then becomes deeper and richer the further you delve into the story.
Why is this book important?
Like all good fiction, I need to have told a good tale in order for the work to be assigned any importance. If readers feel I’ve told a good tale then there is some food-for-thought that can be discussed. PTSD in young adults, treatment of the intellectually disabled, use of the R-word, mental health of refugees, among others. In some ways, Exchange of Heart is a political YA novel. I embrace that label.
Could you tell us about your complex major character, Munro Maddux?
I love Munro. I think he’s the best character I’ve ever put down on the page. So many qualities about him that I admire – his honour, his tenacity, his nuance, his care. I love his wounded heart. Unlike many other characters I’ve written, he’s not an open book. He’s not ‘all the feels’. That’s very commendable in this day and age.
Who is the Coyote?
The Coyote is less a ‘who’ and more a ‘what’. It’s a voice in Munro’s head that’s constantly at him and it’s the most debilitating symptom of his PTSD-infused grief over the loss of his younger sister, Evie. Why Coyote? In North American First Nations/Aboriginal lore, Coyote represents ‘trickster’ medicine; it is a deceiver, not to be trusted. It was the perfect motif for Munro’s nemesis.
What is the significance of the “-er” words?
I was actually looking to create something self help-ish that was a bit cheesy. And the students of Sussex High, Rowan in particular, see it that way. In Munro’s case, though, his ‘er’ word – ‘better’ – was right on the money.
You have a cast of minor characters who help create the assisted-living community setting. Who most pulls at your heart and why?
It changes every day! Today, I’ll say Bernie because she seeks to protect her fellow Fair Go residents from discrimination and oppression. We need more Bernies in the world!
What would you like to see change or improve for those in assisted-living communities in the near future?
The programs that served as inspiration for my fictional Fair Go – Youngcare in Australia and Bittersweet Farms in the US – are wonderful examples of what is possible with assisted living. If there is one thing I would like to see in all situations of supported care, it is residents having a say in their work, their play, their passion, their collaboration. Generally, having agency in their lives.
Having lived and been flooded in Brisbane myself, your descriptions of place such as Walter Taylor Bridge and South Bank resonated strongly. Where is a significant place in Brisbane for you?
There’s a few. Mum and Dad’s house in Mitchelton. Milpera State High, where I taught for almost ten years. Lang Park (I still can’t call it Suncorp Stadium). My grandmother’s house in Hawthorne which, sadly, no longer exists.
The Tolstoy quote, I felt, summed up Exchange of Heart perfectly. The love of others is the catalyst for Munro to forgive himself and heal. Picnic at Hanging Rock is a fascinating story for me, not the least of which for its commentary about the treatment of the intellectually disabled.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
The 2017 Queensland Literary awards shortlists have recently been announced. They are a good reflection of the quality of current Australian writing.
The Qld Premier’s Award for a work of State Significance and The Courier-Mail 2017 People’s Choice Queensland Book of the Year show an exciting cross-section of Qld authors. The University of Queensland Fiction Book award category is also notable this year for its Qld authors such as Nick Earls with Vancouver, Ashley Hay with A Hundred Small Lessons and Melissa Ashley with The Birdman’s Wife.
My particular interests are literary fiction, children’s and YA so I’ve read all but 1 of the 15 books in these 3 categories. In the Fiction category, authors Heather Rose and Nick Earls have already been scooping awards in this year’s NSW Premier’s Literary awards. I’ve previously reviewed Hannah Kent’s The Good People for the blog.
Wendy Orr is shortlisted for the Griffith University Children’s Book Award and I learned at the Brisbane Writers Festival this weekend that she also lives in Qld. Dragonfly Song has already been awarded a CBCA Honour prize this year. And I believe that Richard Yaxley, whose YA novel This is My Songis shortlisted, is based in Qld.
In the Griffith University Young Adult Book category, two books in particular have been generating attention in other awards. The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon was shortlisted for two international awards: the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize; and then it went even higher to win an Honour Book award in the CILIP Carnegie Medal. It has received Australian commendations as well, including an Honour prize in the CBCA awards. I reviewed it for the Weekend Australian. Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley won the Indies award and was also an Honour book for the CBCA. I also reviewed it for the Weekend Australian.
Australian literature for young readers in the past few years has been particularly strong in the YA novel and children’s picture book categories. The QLA Children’s shortlist shows a turnaround towards novels for younger readers. Hopefully this is the beginning of a renaissance in Australian children’s novels.
Definitions of Indefinable Things by Whitney Taylor was a real hidden gem for me! I was not expecting to fall so in love with this book, but I totally did! It was absolutely emotional, feelsy, hilarious, relatable, and so so beautifully written and concluded. The characters were complex and I laughed so hard I actually had to stop reading for a moment and collect myself.
The story follows Reggie, who has depression and is struggling really hard and keeping herself safe from feeling too much by layers of loneliness and sarcasm. Then she meets Snake Eliot while they’re both getting depression meds at the chemist. Snake is charming and incorrigible and they mutually hate each other in way that also means love. However their relationship, tentative and budding as it might be, is complicated when Reggie learns that Snake is about to be a 17-year-old father. He’s not in love with the girl he accidentally got pregnant — but what’s the point of Reggie investing in him if he’s going to be swept up by his soon to be kid? Or is refusing to feel, to act, to be anyone the way she wants to live her life?
It’s about depression — a really honest and brutal view of it. Depression is different for everyone, it’s a spectrum just like literally every mental health issue out there. But I really felt this book GOT IT. It’s also really gut-punching, because it features people who don’t believe depression is real. Reggie’s mum says out right that Reggie’s depression is “her being selfish” and that’s something a lot of mentally ill people struggle with: not being believed. The book incorporated that beautifully and brutally. And yet it’s also hopeful! This book actually underlined things that help depression are: medication, therapy, strong reliable friendships, finding you’re not alone, taking care of yourself, and time.
Reggie is an unlikeable person and I loved her. She’s so caustic and witty, and even though her depression cut her off from feeling, I loved how she was slowly melting her brittle shell to have feelings for Snake. I can’t even with how much I adore Snake. He’s this completely vainly grungy beautiful boy, an indie budding film-maker, and someone who wants to know how the best way to live is and what’s the point and how to feel. He completely stole my heart!
It’s actually a love triangle, which I normally hate — but this proves any trope can be done amazingly. Snake and Carla got pregnant in a one-night-fling and they aren’t in love…and then Snake meets Reggie and he loves her so much and so hard but she knows he’s going to be unavailable eventually because he’s about to have a kid. So much pain. At least 9 buckets of angst. The difference is: this triangle is right out in the open and no one is intentionally manipulating other people’s feelings. Plus everyone was complex and interesting. Carla and Reggie’s slowly growing friendship was AMAZING. I just want to cheer for girls in books who are complex, interesting, relatable, struggle, make mistakes, are witty, powerful, and suffering.
Definitions of Indefinable Things is a roller coaster with one of the most real, gritty, and honest examples of depression. It’s full of tears and acidic wit and tentative kisses and teenagers just trying to find their place and meaning in the world. It perfectly capture mental health, growing up, falling in love, and trying to move forward even when it hurts. An exquisite work of literature that I can’t love enough.
It’s turning out to be the year of the most glorious Wonder Woman and no one’s complaining! In honour of Leigh Bardugo’s upcoming book Wonder Woman: Warbringer(which is just released and it’s so exciting!) I’m putting together a list of other superpowered YA novels that you can gnaw on while you get your hands on the famed Wonder Woman novel.
There’s nothing quite like reading about superheroes to make you realise what your future career goals should be. Now just go fall in a vat of toxic waste or get bitten by a very special spider. You’ll be good to go.
STEELHEART BY BRANDON SANDERSON
This trilogy centres around a fallen USA, where those with superpowers are rather evil and like to conquer and destroy the humans. David is just your average regular nerd, who’s also good with a gun, and would like to stop the evil superhero (villain?) who murdered his father. David teams up with the mysterious Reckoner superpower-killing team — even though they pretty much do not want him around. His next step is to try not to get killed from (a) his team, and (b) all the psychotic superpowers blazing around.
I really adore this book, particularly because it’s funny! David is witty and dorky and the plot moves at a cracking pace with plenty of action. And the superpowers are really unique and doubly interesting.
V IS FOR VILLAIN BY PETER MOORE
Superheroes are pretty cool and all that, but what about villain origin stories?! This stars Brad, who’s just a puny little worm in the shadow of his superpowered older brother. Brad is pretty smart, but since he can’t throw cars around or save screaming civilians, he’s pretty much a nobody. He ends up being caught in an undercurrent of criminal activity and has to decide which who are really the “good guys” and who is truly corrupt.
C’mon! Villains! And this is such a classic super villain vs hero story line that it was a real pleasure to devour. Also quite fun with lots of dialogue quips and fantastic explosions.
ZEROES BY SCOTT WESTERFELD
This is a collaboration project by three authors, Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan, and Deborah Biancotti. And it follows the point-of-views of 6 kids with powers in a world where they have to hide them. The team of six has recently been busted apart but are now slowly clawing back together at the insistence of Scam, who hears voices that tell him what to say to make people happy. Which is a handy power but also gets him into a lot of trouble.
The exciting part about this series is definitely how interesting and creative the super powers are! From controlling crowds, to seeing through other people’s eyes, to being forgotten instantly — the book is so creative!
Okay so these are actual comics and not novels of prose, but I had to include them since they’re some of my favourite comics ever! Ms. Marvel is all about Kamala Khan who has extraordinary skills (like shrinking and growing at will) who’s also just a teenager trying to do well in school, please her family, and also save the world. They’re fantastic because they’re so funny and relatable + superpowers. Of course.
I’m holding out hope for someone like Leigh Bardugo to write a novel-formatted story for Kamala or for her to get her own movie! It’s high time we had more diverse teens saving the world between homework and teaming up with the famous Avengers we all know and love.
The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein definitely caught my heart! It’s a gorgeous and lush 1930s frolic in Scotland and it was so atmospheric and intriguing with such winning characters that I couldn’t help but be obsessed by it! It’s also a prequel to Code Name Verity, although you don’t have to have read it in order to enjoy The Pearl Thief. While Code Name Veirty is about Julie Beaufort-Stuart’s life in the British army — The Pearl Thief follows her as a 15-year-old back home in Scotland trying to solve the mystery of a murdered man and missing pearls. It’s all castle ruins and rivers and kilts and ancient artefacts and a lot of delicious tea.
The story starts with Julie being involved in a nasty accident — that she can’t remember at all. She wakes up in hospital with amnesia over what happened and she’s trying to piece together who hit her on the head and left her to nearly die before she was rescued by kind travelling folk, Euan and Ellen. Since her family is selling their estate, Julie’s summer is turning out to be all about archiving the ancient artefacts of the old family manor and saying goodbye — but there’s been a murder. And she desperately wants to know who attacked her and if it’s connected to her grandfather’s missing pearls.
I actually listened to the audiobook and may I just say THE AUDIO IS ABSOLUTELY GORGEOUS. It’s all Scottish accents and the most beautiful narration ever. All the much recommend. I think I fell into love with Scotland and can’t get up.
Honestly this is just a really well-written story. For me it was like revisiting an old friend! And it was just so perfect being around Julie Beaufort-Stuart again, particularly since her brother, the dashing and cheerful Jamie, is here too! Jamie is so sweet and basically an adorable dork. Yes, adorkable.
And do you know what I’m really impressed with? It’s how delightfully feminist this book is. Julie is a powerful character. She’s totally flawed and privileged and often doesn’t even know it and makes mistakes because of it…but she wants to learn and be better. Plus she is all about femininity and being empowered. She doesn’t ask permission — she does things. And I also loved how she was queer but never once saw herself as “broken” because of it, which was so refreshing to read in a historical fiction. Basically I just left this book feeling so happy because Julie was witty and could shoot a gun and wasn’t afraid to get mucky and was terrified of ghosts and LOVED BEING PRETTY and kissed whoever she wanted. And Julie’s surrounded by equally fabulous and powerful female role models, like her mother and grandmother, and they take 0% shenanigans too. I’m just so in awe. Usually I avoid historical fiction because of having to wade through pits of feeling inferior — but nooooot so here. There are sexist characters and the world isn’t sugar-coated into an “ideal land”, but it’s just NICE SEEING WOMEN BE PROUD OF THEMSELVES.
I also loved how the book handled the travellers! Although it made me so furious at how horribly they were treated. They’re called “tinkers” by the locals, (basically Scottish gypsies) and they’re abused and railed against at every turn. I love how Julie becomes friends with Euan and Ellen.And quite frankly Euan is the sweetest of ever and Ellen was a piece of frosty ice and absolutely amazing.
I enjoyed the lazy summery pace of the plot. Although quite frankly it was the setting I was monstrously in love with!All old castles and manors and beautifully described rivers of pearls. The writing is just SO GOOD that every scene somehow was lush and delicious and I felt like I was there, taking my summer in Scotland.
If you like historical fiction, mysteries, and feminists — The Pearl Thief is calling to you! It’ll take you on a beautiful adventure through Scotland until you feel like you just dropped into the 1930s! There is hilarious banter and an ending you absolutely will never guess.
Pip Harry is the author of three Australian YA novels, I’ll Tell You Mine; Head of theRiver, an unflinching look at elite school rowing,and now, Because of You which gives insight into people living on the streets.
Where are you based and what is your current role, Pip?
Currently I am based in steamy Singapore, where my family has been living for the past 18 months on an expat adventure. I had an earlier stint here when I was six years old … it’s changed a bit since then! I love the warm weather, the proximity to Asia for quick trips to exotic destinations and the food is so good. Satay, noodles, chilli crab, dumplings, I could go on!
How involved are you in Australia’s YA community?
I’m actively and passionately involved in Australia’s YA community, even from my Singapore outpost! Through the #LoveOzYA movement – which aims to promote local content to local readers – I’ve been swept up in support and love for Aussie YA. Wherever possible I review or promote other #LoveOzYA releases. We are one big YA family.
Could you tell us about your earlier books?
In 2012, I released my debut novel, I’ll Tell You Mine, about a goth teenager sent to a strict girl’s boarding school. In 2014, I followed up with Head of the River, about siblings competing in the high stakes annual school rowing race and putting it all on the line to win.
Why is your new novel Because of You (UQP) important?
It’s important because it offers younger readers the opportunity to understand and emphasise with the daily struggles of street people. Many teenagers have little or no contact with the homeless community, except perhaps walking past them on the street, but this book tells their stories, reminds readers that it could happen to any one of us, and offers hope for change.
Could you tell us about your major characters, Tiny and Nola?
Tiny, 18, is sleeping rough and has fled her rural town for the city. Nola, 17, is drifting through her final year at school, unsure of her path in life or her friendships. When Nola is assigned to do 20 days of mandatory community service at a homeless shelter’s creative writing program, the girls meet and form a friendship that will change both their lives.
You have a cast of minor characters who help create the community setting. Who most pulls at your heart and why?
One of the things I loved most about writing Because of You was the supporting cast of characters. The one who captured my heart was Meredith, who runs the Street Library. I love her belief that “books can save anyone, if they’re the right ones,” and her passion to bring stories to the streets.
My son cooks burgers for the homeless in Sydney. What would you suggest ordinary Australians do for the homeless?
Does he? That’s so fantastic! There is so much ordinary Australian’s can do to lend a hand in the homeless community, from serving food in soup kitchens to supporting creative workshops or offering your time and skills in other ways. Check out govolunteer.com.au for opportunities in your area.
What hope do you see for Australia’s homeless in the near future?
It’s easy to get discouraged about the homeless crisis when tent cities are being dismantled and figures for homelessness are rising. But my hope is that we can take national action to end homelessness in this country through supporting our homeless organisations and investing in affordable, stable and permanent public housing.
Why have you incorporated Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief and Cath Crowley’s Graffiti Moon into Because of You?
Those books are incredible and they’re written by Australian authors I admire, so I wanted my characters to read and adore them too!
What have you been reading recently?
I’ve been reading the chilling, ghostly Ballad for a Mad Girl by the brilliant Vikki Wakefield and I’m in awe of the backwards narrative in Everything is Changed by Nova Weetman. I really liked the passion and rawness of Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur.
Thanks very much, Pip, and all the best with Because of You.
One of the best parts of reading is disappearing into other countries and cultures — preferably with a little magic on top. So what could be better than epic fantasy that’s inspired by South Asian cultures?!? Today we are going to peruse some delicious young adult novels that take a detour from the repetitious medieval British settings!
REBEL OF THE SANDS BY ALWYN HAMILTON
This is a swashbuckling, sharpshooting, magical adventure set in a world that rings of the Arabian Nights folklore! It fits an interesting combination of guns and magic and deserts together that feels super unique. Plus there is sass. So much sass. Amani is an excellent marksman who wants adventure and decides to escape across the deserts with a mysterious foreigner.
It contains rebellion, deserts, djinn, and other monsters that lurk beneath the sands. Not to mention a shoot out on a moving train because this is like THE WILD WEST meets ARABIAN NIGHTS and it’s exciting.
POISON’S KISS BY BREEANA SHIELDS
Set in a mythical fantasy kingdom that resembles India, this story is about a girl who is a visha kanya — her kiss is death. Marinda obviously it not doing well in the love life factor, but she’s doing anything and everything to keep her sickly little brother alive. Which means working for a cruel boss who uses her as a weapon. But then she meets a boy in a bookshop and starts to wonder if she can get out of her brutal and murderous career path.
The world is pretty lush and vivid, with gorgeous descriptions, and has basis in Indian folklore.
THE STAR-TOUCHED QUEEN BY ROSHANI CHOKSHI
This features a fantasy-inspired Indian society where a girl, Maya, is cursed to fulfil a marriage of death and doom. Which is kind of a turn off for a lot of guys, it seems. However she ends up in a political marriage with a strange boy who rules a kingdom that is magical and definitely not what it seems. We’re taking on a whirlwind journey where myth becomes life. Roll out the demon talking horses, magic trees, and worlds controlled by a single thread!
This book’s definite strength is its lush and melodic writing style. It spins the story with beautiful prose and a slower pace to match the carefully unfurling magic.
THE WRATH AND THE DAWN BY RENEE AHDIEH
This is an absolutely gorgeous retelling of the tales of Shahrzad who told the 1001 Nights stories to the Sultan to stop him killing all his wives. The book takes a magical twist to the tale and there are monsters and curses here that lurk in the shadows. Shazi is the most epic of protagonists who is here to stop the boy-Sultan’s rampage…except things are definitely more than they seem and he’s harbouring secrets that change everything.
I also will totally admit that the food descriptions in this book?? They slay. They are so darn delicious that I just wanted to eat the book.
Vicarious by Paula Stokes is definitely a wild ride with dark undertones! It’s a high-stakes thriller where 18-year-old Winter has to find out who murdered her older sister. And, why. It’s not graphic at all, but it definitely stays in the “dark side” and deals with topics more suited for older Young Adults. It keeps up quite the action pace and packs a lot into a 320-page story! You won’t be pausing much for breath for this one, while you see what Winter, with her badass fighting skills and brutal past, will do to find her sister’s killer.
Basically Winter works for a company that specialises in this technology that allows people to have stimulated thrills from the comfort of their own home. Things like diving with sharks, skydiving, or having sex with movie stars. People like Winter will go out and actually do the thrills, recording on their special ViSE headsets. While that’s the premise of the story, the actual stunts Winter pulls for her job don’t feature all that much. She’s mostly trying to figure out what happened to her sister and unravel the mysteries that start building up around her past, especially in the blocks of time she doesn’t remember. Someone is definitely after the tech and may do anything to get it.
Now the book isn’t graphic or explicit, but it is set against a backdrop of clubs and drugs. Winter was a child prostitute, stolen from Korea. She’s been rescued by Gideon who acts as her boss and older brother, while she and her sister Rose work as stunt girls. That’s just the backdrop though, and it doesn’t go into details. But you definitely see and feel the PTSD Winter has from her brutal and terrifying past.
Winter was such an interesting character! She holds onto a lot of her Korean roots, but is very eager to also fully immerse herself in America. She’s taken a new name (her Korean one being buried along with her terrifying memories of the past) and the book discusses a lot of mental health issues. Winter’s PTSD plays a huge part in the story too.
I also loved her relationship with her co-worker, Jesse! Winter isn’t sure she’ll ever be ready for a boyfriend, and Jesse doesn’t push, but he definitely likes her and their friendship grows into something strong and dependable. Jesse is super sweet! And also super badass. Although Winter doesn’t exactly need any saving (she’s epic with knives and martial arts), it’s epic to see them work together to solve the murder mystery.
The thriller aspect is really quite full on. I spent most of the book suspecting everyone of being a shady killer, and when Winter has black-outs in her memory, it just thickens the plot. I looove it when books turn into high-stake guessing games, so this was a solid win here! We get to piece together clues and suspect the worst as Winter unravels the story.
It also features a super diverse cast, which is amazing. Winter and Rose are obviously Korean. And Jesse is biracial and Mexican. It’s amazing having a full cast of featuring diverse characters were their culture is part of them and interestingly explored.
Vicarious is definitely a good thriller to pick up if you don’t mind the dark side. It’s an interesting story that’s easy to stay engaged with. I personally preferred the fighting scenes to their forays into clubs and technology experiences, but it was full of plot twists and sci-fi elements and lots of very sharp knives.
When it comes to starting a new book series, sometimes we bookworms scare ourselves with how many we start but don’t finish. There can be a lot of books, okay?! A series that stretches over four books can be quite daunting. Which is why some authors are lovely and kind and have given us the beautiful gift that are: duologies.
Duologies contain two books, which is great because (a) less commitment, (b) less time spent waiting for more sequels, and (c) no middle-book-series-blues! They’re concise and get the entire story told over two volumes, and we love them.
In case you want to try a simple duology but don’t know where to start: HERE! I will help by listing some absolutely amazing ones.
THIS SAVAGE SONG & OUR DARK DUET
This duology by VE Schwab must be one of my favourites in all the world. It centres around a Gotham-like world (sans Batman) where monsters and violence reign supreme, and two factions within the city war for rulership and safety. A monster-boy, August Flynn, who plays the violin ends up going to school with the opposition’s sharp and cutting daughter, Kate Harker. They develop and unlikely friendship before they end up on the run for their lives.
The story is all about monsters vs humans, and asks questions like “what truly makes a monster”. It talks about acts of violence and consequences and it’s just altogether fascinating. Definite 5-star reads!
SIX OF CROWS & CROOKED KINGDOM
This two are a follow up from Leigh Bardugo’s famous Grisha trilogy. You can read this by themselves though! The are set in the lush world of the Grisha and Ravka, where a young mastermind con artist named Kaz Brekker is putting together a crew to take on an enormous heist. They have to break into an high security ice palace and steal back a boy and a magical formula. Kaz is ruthless and clever, and his crew is a knot of complex and terrifying teens.
The beauty in this series is firstly the complexity of the plots (heists!) and then secondly in the gorgeous characters and how dynamic and interesting they are. You can’t help but become invested after just a few pages!
THE GIRL FROM EVERYWHERE & THE SHIP BEYOND TIME
This is about a time travelling ex-pirate ship that contains a father and his daughter who can manipulate time. They have to find the perfect map, however, and the father is on the constant look out for one that might take them back to his dead wife. They get caught up in Hawaii in the 19th century in a heist!
Nix is such a fabulous and winning heroine and you can’t help but root for her and feel her worry and pain as her father tries to change history…because if he does that, will Nix cease to exist?
THE CROWN’S GAME & THE CROWN’S FATE
This is a fantasy duology set in Russia, in a world were the tsar has magicians who work for him. But there can only be one and two teens, Vika and Nikolai must compete for the place to work for the royalty. It’s a really amazingly beautiful and visual series, with not so much “duels of magic to the death” but inventive magical creations to show who’s the most powerful. The two’s rivalry relationship is compromised by growing affections towards each other and also to their mutual best friend, Pasha. Who also just happens to be the next tsar.
It features high stakes, marvellous writing, and plot twists at the end that will leave you reeling!
Thanks for being interviewed by Boomerang Books Blog, Steph. Where are you based and what is your current role?
I’m based on the Gold Coast, but I was born and raised in Melbourne. I write Young Adult novels and visit schools to give talks and run writing workshops.
How involved are you in Australia’s YA community?
I read more Australian YA that probably any other category! And I recommend it heartily to everyone, every chance I get. Australian YA is wonderful both to read and as a community to be part of – I have always found YA writers and readers incredibly supportive and welcoming.
Could you tell us about your earlier books?
My debut novel, Girl Saves Boy, is about a girl saving a boy from drowning, the secrets they both keep and all of the events that ensue, including garden gnome theft and lobster emancipation.
My second novel, All This Could End, is about Nina, a girl who robs banks with her psychopathic parents and younger brother – and accidentally takes hostage a boy she knows in a bank robbery that goes horribly awry.
It’s the first time I’ve really felt comfortable writing about a lot of things that are very close to my heart – I drew on my own life a lot writing this novel, and wrote about things that I think are important to represent in fiction for young people.
I was inspired to write Kirby dealing with her grandfather’s dementia after someone in my own life was diagnosed with dementia, which is something that so many people deal with. And even though the novel covers a lot of heavier things – including mental illness and being estranged from a parent – there’s still a lot of humour and lightness. It’s a novel that’s hopeful.
Kirby is gay but the focus of the novel is not on her coming out; that’s just one aspect of her life and who she is, and is normal and accepted, as it should be. The country town where she lives is not a homogenous place, because Australia is diverse, and I wanted to represent that – so characters some from a variety of cultures and backgrounds. I aspired to write individuals; no real person is defined by one aspect of themselves, and people rarely fit clichés, so I wanted my characters to reflect that.
I wrote Night Swimming as the novel that would have been a comfort to me as a young person, who often felt anxious and out of place and awkward, and who struggled with my sexuality and my race and so many other things. And I hope that other young people will find the novel uplifting. I hope that it resonates.
Who are the major human (and animal) characters?
Kirby, our awkward/adorable protagonist, who has a pet goat, is a carpentry apprentice and loves her family and her town more than anything. She wants nothing to change in her life, and – unfortunately for her – suddenly everything does.
Clancy, her best friend, who is obsessed with musical theatre and longs to leave town, move to Sydney, and become a star. Instead he’s stuck working in his parents’ restaurant. He continually comes up with ridiculous money-making schemes and insists on Kirby being his partner-in-crime.
Iris, new girl in town and the love interest of both Kirby and Clancy. Her parents open a restaurant across the road from the restaurant belonging to Clancy’s parents, sparking a bit of a rivalry. She plays the mandolin, is the most brightly dressed person Kirby has ever met, and makes a lot of puns.
Stanley, Kirby’s pet goat, son of her first pet goat, Gary. Likeable, charming, sophisticated. Not a regular goat, a cool goat. Best character in the book.
You have a cast of minor characters who help create the community setting. Who is your favourite and why?
Kirby’s cousin Nathan is my favourite of the secondary characters – he’s a bogan and a bit of a dag, but he’s a very affable, endearing character. (And he, and Kirby’s friend/Nathan’s girlfriend Claire, were the same age as me when I wrote this – about 21. So if I lived in the town, I would be friends with them – that’s probably why I wrote them to be so likeable.)
I really enjoyed the humour in the story. Could you share a little?
Thank you! Clancy is the biggest source of humour in the story – probably because he is so unapologetically and ridiculously himself, and Kirby is willing to be a sidekick and go along with his absurd plans. His Cane Toad Removal Specialists scheme is one of my favourites.
Why crop circles?
I love The X-Files. I love conspiracy theories around aliens, though I don’t believe them – they’re entertaining. And I love the idea of bored teenage kids in country towns making crop circles.
I also wanted to explore the way that things that are pretty uneventful (i.e. some crops getting flattened) can explode into a huge source of gossip and intrigue when there’s not much else going on (i.e. in a small town).
I really enjoyed 1984 and Animal Farm as a teenager, and so many young people study George Orwell books at school. And because they’re classics, older people have read them, too. So a love of George Orwell books is something that Kirby has in common with her mum – who she’s very different from, in a lot of ways.
Were you talking to Gabrielle Tozer while you both were writing your new books? You’ve both mentioned The Very Hungry Caterpillar! What were some of your favourite books as a child?
The Very Hungry Caterpillar is such a timeless classic – I adored it as a kid, and I think anyone who read it as a child loved it. I remember wanting to create stories way back when I was reading picture books – probably before I actually understood the words. I loved Where The Wild Things Are, and the Charlie and Lola series, and The Lighthouse Keepers’ Lunch.
As a slightly older kid, I loved massive series – The Saddle Club, Babysitter’s Club, Enid Blyton’s books, just anything with a whole lot of books I could collect and obsess over. My favourite Australian books as a kid was Deborah Abela’s Max Remy Superspy series. I always wanted to be a spy.
I started reading YA when I was about eleven – my first favourite YA novel was On The Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, and it’s still one of my favourites now (I could not possibly name a single favourite novel these days – I would have to give you a top ten).
What have you been reading recently?
I’ve been reading lots of Australian YA, including:
Vikki Wakefield’s Ballad For A Mad Girl which is an incredibly creepy novel about a girl being haunted by a ghost – that’s still very authentic and magnificently written (like everything by Wakefield).
Paula Weston’s The Undercurrent which combines sci-fi and action in a future, dystopian Australia and manages to be both enjoyable escapism and politically relevant and thought-provoking, which is quite a feat.
Mark Smith’s The Road To Winter which is a really haunting dystopian novel that’s ultimately hopeful. It’s reminiscent of Claire Zorn’s The Sky So Heavy but with a deadly virus as the apocalyptic event rather than nuclear winter. I’m excited for the sequel.
And I just finished Begin, End, Begin, the #LoveOzYA anthology, which was all kinds of wonderful. My favourite story is the one by Jaclyn Moriarty, because it features a time travel agency and a hilarious protagonist.
Thanks very much, Steph, and all the best with Night Swimming.
Thank you for interviewing me! Always a pleasure to ramble about books!
Royal Bastards by Andrew Shvarts was one of my most anticipated reads for 2017 and it absolutely did not disappoint. It’s full to bursting with sassy dialogue, bloody action scenes, and the most complex and amazing characters of ever. There’s so much love-and-hate relationships that just kept me flipping pages as fast as my eyeballs could gobble the words. And when I finished? I sit in anxious anticipation for hopeful future sequels. Please. I beg. I have needs here.
It follows the story of Tilla, who’s a bastard of a great lord who may or may not be brewing a rebellion. Tilla’s more into sneaking about with her half-brother the stableboy, exploring tunnels, and getting into mischief, so war is not her concern. Until she eats dinner with the visiting crown princess and accidentally saves her life from a murder attempt. Then they’re on the run with a group of unlikely local bastards who don’t get along all that well. But they miiiight just need to change that if they want to survive.
Honestly, the sass levels were what won my heart. When a book starts with two siblings bantering amiably about the snobby royalty, I know I’m in for a winning story.
The cast was quite large, but everyone was interesting and complex. They all had personalities and backstories, complexities and fears and venerabilities. And we’re not introduced to them all in a heap, so that was helpful. I can barely even pick a favourite! I adored our narrator, Tilla, who is (quite frankly) badass. She’s equal parts awkward and fierce, and she’ll do anything for her friends. Her half-brother, Jax, is a big dork and I couldn’t help but fall in love with him too! Their sibling relationship is THE BOMB and they’re so there for each other (also there to make fun of each other, but ya know…sibling love). Miles is the nerdy bookworm who gets understimated when he really really shouldn’t be. Zell is a warrior from the clans and totally Closed Off And Emotionless™ but secretly a big squish. And lastly Lyriana is the wizard princess who will nuture plants to grow and also smite her enemies really viciously if they mess with those she loves.
I loved the plot with the threats of wars, the betraying parents, the teens growing into weapons and strengths while they traverse through the forest in order to save the princess. (Although let’s be real here: the princess saves herself in this one.) The book gets gritty, which I wholly appreciated, because what’s an epic fantasy without high stakes and wild action scenes of blood and stabbing?!? I LOVED THIS.
I also really loved the writing style, which was abnormally modern for an epic fantasy. It was consistently modern though (with the characters using phrases like “badass” and “sucks” etc) so it didn’t feel out of place or jarring. And it made me connect to the story far more, because the jokes were ones I’m familiar with.
Overall, it was fun and exciting and kept the sakes high! Do NOT think your favourites will be safe! I think Tilla is one of the best, most winning YA protagonists of 2017, with her badassery and her sassery. It combines stabbing with explosions and powerful magicians, and adds in characters who fairly leap off the page with their shenanigans. I’m such a fan.
I was very disappointed to miss hearing you at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, Gabrielle. What did you talk about and what did you particularly enjoy about your sessions?
I’m disappointed I missed out on meeting you too, Joy. It was a crazy-busy week, and we obviously both had full dance-cards! As for my Festival talk: I have a theory about teenage audiences –10% of them love writing, and really want to be there. 20% are readers, so they’re happy to be there as well – that means 30% of the room are ‘interested’. 40% are pleased to be missing out on classwork, and if they enjoy the talk that’s a bonus. I put them in the ‘open’ category. That leaves 30% of the room at various degrees of active resistance to listening to what I have to say. I figure I’ve already got the ‘interested’ top 30%. The ‘open’ 40% can be persuaded. But it’s those tough nuts in the bottom 30% – the ones who don’t want to be there – who I want to crack. So my talk is directed at them. I talk about what I was like when I was at school (bad), and I read out extracts of my year 11 report (very bad), which generally sends a gasp through the room. I then explain that I’m a professional liar these days because I’m paid to make up stories, but I add that they shouldn’t judge me too harshly because actually, everyone lies. The fun part is when I ask them to put their hand up if they’ve told a lie that morning, and most of the room puts up their hand (including teachers). I then explain that lying isn’t always bad, because it utilises a particular type of thinking called ‘divergent thinking’ which is important for creativity. I take them through a technique I use called Nine Squares – which is divergent thinking made easy – and explain how they can use it for good (coming up with ideas), instead of evil (telling lies). One of the things that I particularly loved about my sessions at the Festival was when teachers came up to me afterwards and said they’re now going to incorporate Nine Squares into their classroom lessons. And when a group of boys walked up to me and said they thought writing sucked, but they’d each bought a copy of my book for me to sign anyway. Well, that right there felt like success to me.
What a great turn around with those students, Gabrielle! Where are you based and how are you involved in the YA literary community?
I’m a Melbourne girl, and work a couple of days a week at Readings books in Malvern. I’m lucky enough to have made a fantastic group of friends in the Melbourne YA writing community who I’ve met through talking at Festivals and school visits – Fiona Wood, Cath Crowley, Emily Gale, Nova Weetman, Kim Kane, Bec Lim, Chrissie Keighery, and Simmone Howell are all people I catch up with regularly. I’ve also become great friends with some Sydney writers (again through Festivals) and catch up with Kirsty Eagar, Melina Marchetta, and Will Kostakis whenever I’m in their neck of the woods.
I’ve really enjoyed the originality of your novels, Gabrielle. Could you give our readers a brief overview of each?
That’s gorgeous of you to say so, Joy. Thanks. My first YA book was ‘Beatle Meets Destiny’ which was about a superstitious boy called Beatle, who meets a girl called Destiny in unusual circumstances, and wonders whether she’s ‘the one’ – only problem being that Beatle already has a girlfriend. My next book was, ‘The Reluctant Hallelujah’, a crazy road-trip type adventure between a group of 5 teenagers who have never met each other, but who have to drive (unlicensed) from Melbourne to Sydney in order to deliver the body of Jesus Christ to his next ‘safe house’. Some people were put off reading it because they thought it would be thrusting religion down their throat – it wasn’t. It wasn’t about religion at all (despite the fact that Jesus Christ Himself featured as one of the characters). In fact, it was an exploration of the themes of trust and selflessness, and I loved writing it because I felt like it was such an original concept. My third book was called ‘The Guy The Girl The Artist and His EX’. It follows four characters (again, who don’t know each other) who are all impacted on by the real-life theft of Picasso’s ‘Weeping Woman’ from the National Gallery of Victoria by the Australian Cultural Terrorists in 1986. My newest book is called, ‘My Life as a Hashtag’. It centres on a girl called MC who feels like everything is going wrong in her world, so she vents anonymously against one of her best friends on-line, only to watch, powerless, as her rant goes world-wide viral a few weeks later.
As with your other titles, I greatly admire My life as a hashtag (Allen & Unwin). How does this differ from your other books?
‘My Life as a Hashtag’ is a much more linear novel. It’s ‘straighter’. It’s told from the perspective of looking back over the past year, running straight through from beginning to end, whereas with all my other books I’ve always liked playing with structure. I wanted to have a more tried-and-true structure for MLAAH, because there were a number of important issues I wanted to explore, and I felt like a linear structure would help give clarity to the concepts I was wanting to examine.
What issues did you raise in the novel?
There are a number of themes I wanted to look at: the issue of social media and how teens negotiate it; family break-ups; the identity of self; the politics of boys in female friendships; on-line trolling; the fact that once you post something on-line, you have no control over what people do with it; sibling relationships; ‘blocking’ and being ‘blocked’; and watching a party unfold on social media, when you’re not invited.
How did you create such a strong feeling of dread?
Creating a strong sense of dread was one of the ‘balances’ we worked hard to get right. I say ‘we’ because my editor and publisher were instrumental in pushing me to go further, and pulling me back when I went too far. I wanted there to be a sense of dread, but I also wanted a lightness throughout the book, otherwise the story would have been too grim. The sense of dread is created partly by telling the story from the perspective of the narrator looking back over the past year, which gives the reader the sense that something momentous has happened which the narrator is now reflecting back over.
This novel is very current, especially about social media. How do you know what teens are saying/doing?
The irony of me writing a book where social media is one of the major focuses, is that I’m not on Facebook, I’ve only recently started getting the hang of Twitter, and I’m still nervous about posting photos on Instagram. So technically, I don’t know what I’m talking about! However, as it turned out, my lack of knowledge ended up being to my advantage, because I didn’t make any assumptions about how teenagers use social media. Instead, I interviewed a number of them about how they approach it, the politics of posting, and how they deal with it emotionally. One of the things that I found interesting was the fact that they engage with it differently from even twenty somethings, creating something of a ‘generation gap’ between teens and people who are only a few years older. With respect to the teenagers I interviewed, I was astonished by some of the things they revealed to me (to the point where some them didn’t want to be thanked in the Acknowledgements – they’d rather remain anonymous). Through my research, I learnt about a thing called the secret Tumblr diary, which parents definitely don’t know about, and even friends aren’t privy to. If a teenager has a secret Tumblr diary, it’s the place they go to find a safe (and secret) community with others who are struggling with, say, their sexuality, body image, gender or friendship issues. I found the concept of the secret Tumblr diary both alarming and comforting. Alarming, because if, for example, they’re anorexic or bulimic, there are girls (overwhelming this is a girl issue) called Ana (pro-anorexia) or Mia (pro-bulimia) who give tips on how to purge (vomit) effectively. But comforting because this is where they go to speak to likeminded individuals if they aren’t sure if they’re gay, or trans, or are trying to reconcile other confusing feelings or issues inside their head.
What tips have you learned about successfully using social media while researching and writing this novel?
I learnt that if you want to get the optimum ‘likes’ on Instagram, you have to time your posts for when everyone is most likely to be on-line. Generally a Sunday afternoon is a good time. Definitely NOT a Saturday night.
Have you ever started any trending posts?
No. I think a trending post would be quite difficult to manufacture, and the stuff that goes viral is so random, it’s almost impossible to pick.
What does the cover represent?
I adore the cover and think Debra Billson did an outstanding job. It’s a photo from an Instagram post, taken the night MC and one of her best friends Anouk have a massive falling out over a boy called Jed. The title and my name are written in a font which has graduated colouring, mirroring the logo of Instagram. It’s so funny to watch adults pick up my book and ask me what the cover represents, whereas teenagers pick it up and instantly recognise it as Instagram.
MC and her friends are studying Jasper Jones and Harvest in English. Why did you choose these two books?
‘Jasper Jones’ by Craig Silvey is a current school text that has as one of its themes the idea of rumour and innuendo and assumption of guilt. ‘Harvest’ by Jim Crace is set back in the middle ages when stocks in the village square were a form of punishment. Both books – even though they’re both set in an earlier time – have parallels with today’s internet culture: the public shaming, innuendo and rumour, where society makes judgments on people without having the full facts – often without even caring what the real facts are. So long as someone can be the scapegoat, everyone’s happy.
What books are you reading at the moment (or recently)?
I’m one of the judges for the Readings Prize for Adult Literature, so I’ve been reading plenty of new Australian fiction lately. Some of the ones I’ve personally loved (which may or may not make it onto the long or short list) are, ‘Skylarking’ by Kate Mildenhall, ‘The Lost Pages’ by Marija Pericic, ‘To the Sea’ by Christine Dibley, ‘From the Wreck’ by Jane Rawson and ‘The Good People’ by Hannah Kent. So much great Australian fiction at the moment – we’re really experiencing a heyday. The other book I really want to read is, ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by George Saunders which I’ve heard amazing things about.
I loved Skylarking and The Good People but you’ve given me even more books I must read, Gabrielle.
Thank you for your very generous answers, Gabrielle, and wishing you great success with My life as a hashtag and your other books.