Thursday, April 10, 2014

Miles Franklin longlist

I'm over at Global Comment today doing a survey of the Miles Franklin longlist. I'm interested in your thoughts if you want to share them over there!

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Reading Notes: These Broken Stars

This review covers the 5th and final book of my commitment to tread and review the YA nominee list for the Australian speculative fiction awards - the Aurealis Awards. I beat the prize announcement for once! So this review also contains my pick for the winner, and my prediction as to what will actually win.

What an interesting mix this YA list has turned out to be. Two really good strong-girl magic-based fantasies; two good, if depressing, boy-against-the-deteriorating-world post-apocalypse dystopias; and this surprising little gem - a really satisfying survival-journey narrative set on a strange and frightening planet.

I'll be honest - based on its blurb, this one didn't overly grab me. The central device (boy from wrong side of the tracks meets poor little rich girl, initial conflict and misunderstanding, growing attraction, you join the dots) is extremely well-worn. I may be one of the least romantic readers in existence - indeed, romance is the only main genre that I never read at all - so this trope does not float my boat if that's all the story has to offer. And in the set-up, I thought Tarver (our young military hero) and Lilac (our daughter-of-the-richest-most-sinister-man-in-the-universe) were not much more than creditable cookie-cutter exemplars of the device. I was prepared, in fact, to dismiss this book as a bit of fluff, and not to my taste.

What turned me around was the clever, deft and intriguing way that the authors unfolded the co-plot, which is a mystery / thriller / truly sci fi based adventure. It has conspiracy, aliens, ghosts (or does it?), energy sources, future tech, and mind games, all of which I approve heartily. It had nice little resonances of some truly great sci fi, including what I think, but am not completely sure, was a smoothly inserted homage to Serenity. (If so, double gold star for you, writers :-) It was complex enough without being bewildering, and instead of trying for gotchas, it contented itself with good quality story development, of which I also approve as a narrative choice.

This secondary plot was much more original than the primary romance storyline, and it was through the exploration of it that both Tarver and Lilac rounded out as characters and became relatable and three-dimensional human beings. Lilac's journey in particular in the last quarter of the book felt visceral and real in a way that the romance didn't, quite, to me. I believed in her struggle and her pain and yes, her attachment to Tarver, while remaining sceptical of the Grand Passion bit.

This is, apparently, the first book in a trilogy; I enjoyed this one enough to have a squizz at number two when it comes out, although I wouldn't describe it as a must-read.


So, having read all five of the YA nominees, I think the prize will probably go to either The Sky So Heavy or These Broken Stars, not because I think they are the best or most original of the nominees, but because they both have a red hot go at Big Themes, and speculative fiction awards, more than most, love the big themes.

If I was awarding the prize, though, I'd give it to Fairytales for Wilde Girls. I think it the most interesting, complex and fully achieved book on the list, and the one that's likeliest to stand the test of time.

We shall see!

UPDATE: Wow, I did better than normal! The prize was a tie between These Broken Stars and Fairytales for Wilde Girls. Warm congrats to all three authors.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Reading Notes: The Big Dry and The Sky So Heavy

This double review covers book 3 and 4 of my commitment to try to read and review the YA nominee list for the Australian speculative fiction awards - the Aurealis Awards. 4 down, 1 to go, and the clock is ticking as the prize is announced on Saturday night! I'm going to try to get the last one reviewed and up on Saturday, but we'll have to see how things work out.

The first two Aurealis YA nominees that I read, which I reviewed on Sunday were both fantasies featuring magic, strong but beleaguered female protagonists, and happy (ish) endings. Both were, basically, fun to read; both, although gruesome by patches, were essentially hopeful books.

Little did I know when I randomly grabbed the next two off the list that the mood of my Aurealis reading was about to plummet sharply. Because the two books I'm reviewing here are different kinds of post-apocalyptic dystopias, and both are, frankly, pretty damn depressing reads. This is not a criticism - I'd suggest that any post-apoc worth its salt is going to conjure up a few paranoid sads - but it is something of a reader advisory. Dear Reader, do not follow my example and read these back to back within 48 hours while also fighting off a cold and coping with multiple life stressors. You will be a very, very sad panda indeed if you do. (Ask me how I know...)

It's interesting to me that both of these books feature young male protagonists motivated largely by the need to care for younger male siblings. It's almost eerie, how similar the set-ups are if you consider the four books as two paired sets. The girls got the sweeter end of the deal this time, with the two fantasy heroines, Isola and Ash, emerging into decidedly brighter futures, while the best these bleak sci fi landscapes have to offer George and Fin is the weak sauce of "Not dead yet, and neither's the kid brother!"

Claire Zorn's The Sky So Heavy is a very classic post-nuclear apocalypse story, set in the Blue Mountains and Sydney, and featuring the quest for survival undergone by Fin, his younger brother Max, and their ally Arnold (Noll) and Fin's love interest, Lucy.  The book is pretty scary in all the ways that a post-apoc is meant to be scary - bombs far away, rapid nuclear winter, the failure of essential services, the absent (presumed dead) parents, the rapid loss of access to food, the fear and despair as people turn on their neighbours. It's convincingly chilling in its storyline - well, it does require a small suspension of disbelief to go along with the mere fact of Fin and Max's survival given some of the events of the story, but if you can allow that one gimme, it works. It's not a desperately original story - I felt all through that the tropes and themes were very, very familiar, and the story takes no unexpected turns - but it's extremely well executed, and will freak out unprepared readers quite nicely, I think.

The Big Dry's catastrophe is different - climate change induced drought, leading to various and many disasters, but its story arc is astoundingly similar to that in The Sky So Heavy. The cast of characters are younger here - main protagonist George is 13 and his little brother Beeper is 6, contrasted with Fin and Max's 17 / 12 - and the tone and style reflects this, with simpler language and less time spent speculating on the ways of man and so forth. Indeed, to me, these books illustrate the range of readers targeted by YA - a 9 year old strong reader could manage Dry, while Heavy definitely has an older feel to it. As an adult reader, I found Dry less satisfying, although I acknowledge the craft with which it was constructed and I do think it a very good book of its type. It's just that it felt like it wasn't getting down to business often enough, but as I am not the target audience, that's probably an unfair criticism.

Overall? These are both good books, neither is a stand-out of its type or radically original, but both are worth a read. I'll be giving The Big Dry to my 11-year-old to read, but I'll hold The Sky So Heavy back for a while, I think. Post-apoc is scary, and my own brain has been too tenderised this week to want to inflict that on my kid!

Monday, March 31, 2014

Self inflicted: A play in one act

[after school. the scene is a suburban house, in a moderate state of disarray.]

Nearly-9 year old: Mum! Mum! Come quick! I vomited again!

Me. hurrying to scene of action: Oh no honey, that's awful! I thought it was just a once-off since you haven't thrown up again after yesterday afternoon, but maybe it is a virus ... [pause] E. Why is your vomit blue?

Nearly-9: Oh, I dunno. [thinks] Maybe because I was eating, you know ...


Nearly-9: Oh, just some blue salt I found in a jar in my room.


Me: Salt. YOU ATE BLUE SALT. How much did you -

She: Ahhhhh ... three spoons? Or four?

Me: [sigh] E. That is why you threw up. Salt is an emetic. You should never, never eat that much at a time.

Nearly-9: An eme...

Me: ...tic. "Thing to make you vomit."

Nearly-9, by now thoroughly perky again: Oh wow, that's pretty cool!

[skips off to play]

[mother cleans puddle of chuck from bathroom floor]


Sunday, March 30, 2014

Reading Notes: Fairytales for Wilde Girls and Hunting

This double review covers book 1 and 2 of my commitment to try to read and review the YA nominee list for the Australian speculative fiction awards - the Aurealis Awards. 2 down, 3 to go, and the clock is ticking as the prize is announced in 6 days! I hope to get another double review up on Wednesday, all being well.

These two books are not greatly like one another, but as I read them back to back, I thought I might indulge in a little comparative reviewing, just because I can.

And come to think of it, although the style, themes, voice and tropes are quite different, both are books about strong young female protagonists who are not rescued by anyone (in fact, do a good deal of rescuing themselves), who struggle with difficult, malignant magic, who create affective bonds with friends and lovers on their own terms, and who, despite all indications to the contrary, get their happy (ish) ending.

In other words, both are quintessentially YA fantasy stories - full of moral quandaries, excellent characterisation, and hope in the face of trying circumstances.

Hunting is decidedly the "straighter" of the two as fantasies go - it's a fairly uncomplicated, although not un-nuanced, magical-danger-quest-redemption story, set in a competently realised cosmos that is briskly and efficiently explained.

It revolves around main protagonist, Ash Lenthard, who has a secret to which we are privy immediately but the cast of the book spends an inordinately long time failing inexplicably to grasp. Ash and her posse's struggles to diagnose and then cure the magical woes of their kingdom are not exactly the most amazing or original storyline I have ever read, employing quite a few standard sword-and-sorcery tropes in a way that struck me occasionally as just a tiny bit paint-by-numbers (although having said that, they were all technically accomplished in their delivery).

So that's my main criticism, that the plot isn't incredible or surprising - we are talking a fairly dead run from presentation of problem to standard solution here - but what makes this book so good (and it really is very good) is Host's sure touch with her characters and her dialogue. All the characters in this book are vivid and enormously appealing, and the relationships that unfold between them are immensely enjoyable and authentic. Ash herself is a terrific character, and the relationship that grows between her and Thornaster is simply brilliant. Their banter reminded me of something - something very well beloved - as I was reading it, but I couldn't pin it down until I read Host's own comment on Goodreads and realised - this is fresh, modernised Georgette Heyer, a witty and feminist take on the delights of that dialogue that completely entranced me.

Fairytales for Wilde Girls is a cat of another colour in terms of its style and storyline, and its protagonist, Isola Wilde, is a very different girl to Ash, battling stickier and trickier demons. Whereas Hunting is set in a fantasy cosmos, which enables Host to give it whatever rules she wants, Near does something a little harder to pull off, which is locate Isola in the "real" world but with one foot in an unseen (to most) magical sub-realm. Fairytales is, I think, more innovative in its plotting and perhaps more interesting in its tangled, weirded style, although it does use one enormous gotcha of a plot device that would probably be much more effective if you don't spot it about 1/3 of the way through like I did. (I can't help it, I'm a mystery reader; I'm used to unpicking the clues).

Isola is a great character, as are several of the supporting cast in this story too - I particularly loved Alejandro, Ruslana, Grape, Jamie and Edgar. Isola's strength is of a different type to Ash's straightforward heroics - facing massive internal as well as external pressures, she fights a subtler, but more dreadful, war. In all ways Fairytales is a darker and more disturbing book, and - yes, I think so - a less enjoyable book than Hunting, in that purely reading-for-pleasure way. That is not to suggest that it's a lesser book, because it certainly isn't - I think it's a more complicated achievement in many ways. It requires an emotional effort and investment that isn't demanded by Hunting, that's all.

Overall, these are both extremely good. They're different books for different moods, and it's hard to say one is better than the other per se, because it would depend entirely on your frame of mind. I think Fairytales is more complex and probably more original, but I found Hunting so purely enjoyable in its Heyer-esque frolics that I'm more likely to read it again. Two excellent contenders for the YA prize, and I would not be sorry to see it go to either of them.

Note: I mentioned in my earlier post that one of my motivations for choosing the YA category to read was to scope new books for my almost-11 year old. On balance, I would advise against Fairytales for the tween reader - it really is quite disturbing, and I know that my own almost-11 would find it upsetting. Hunting, on the other hand, is a great choice for advanced readers from that age upwards - any kid that's able to keep up with and enjoy Harry Potter or Percy Jackson would be well able to take this on.