Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Review: Storytime by Jane Sullivan

Literary Journalist Jane Sullivan (who you may know from the Turning Pages column in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald,) spent much her childhood immersed in books. Now, many years later, she has decided to revisit those years and the many books that she read in Storytime, and take a look at how they shaped her to become the adult--and reader--that she is today.

One part memoir and one part literary criticism, this one was an enjoyable read. Full of nostalgia, the volume includes short essays from prominent Australian writers on their favourite books. The author holds nothing back as she admits to the many misconceptions that she made about the books that she read during her formative years. On a more personal level, I was very keen to see how many of the same books I had read as the author. The answer to that question, as it turned out, was not many, though much could be owed to the fact that I grew up in a different era, in an entirely different country. 

Although this one is an enjoyable read and offers a good dose of literary criticism, along with some interesting tidbits (I knew nothing of Lewis Carroll's uh, reputation,) this volume does feel a little self-indulgent in places and the author isn't necessarily kind to all of the books and authors she revisits. However, that particular failing is easy to overlook when examining this unique and honest book as a whole. 

Recommended.

Thank you to Ventura Press for my review copy.

Saturday, 27 July 2019

Review: Paper Towns by John Green

Quentin Jacobson, or Q to his friends, is about to graduate from high school. The path of his life looks pretty set--he'll go to college--but his life derails slightly when Margo Roth Spiegelman the cute and charismatic girl from next door breaks into his bedroom window and takes him on an adventure that is fun and unpredictable. And then Margo disappears.

Over the next few weeks, Q, with the help of his friends, begins to put together the clues as to what may have happened to Margo. And there are certainly plenty of them. (This isn't the first time that Margo has disappeared, nor is it the first time that she has left clues behind.) Along the way, Q makes some important discoveries and soon begins to ask the question--how well can you really know another person, and what does your perception of them say about you?

This one starts out fun, gets a little slow in the middle and then moves toward an unconventional but ultimately satisfying ending. (I didn't find the skipping graduation part particularly fair, or believable, but hey it's a book and it made for some highly entertaining moments as Q and his friends travel toward New York.) Prior to reading this book, I'd never heard of the concept of paper towns, though I found them quite amusing and fitting with the theme of the novel. Like all of John Green's work, there is a good balance between quirkiness and some more darker and realistic themes.

Recommended. 

Friday, 26 July 2019

Friday Funnies (Providing You With the Worst & Occasionally the Best Comics & Memes From the Web)







Thursday, 25 July 2019

Review: Monkey Grip by Helen Garner

It is the early 1970s in Melbourne, a time of great change in attitudes and freedoms, in a city that is both progressive and renowned for the arts, yet still very conservative and clinging to the old ways. Nora is a single mum, living a bohemian lifestyle in a shared house where there is a strong sense of friendship, sexual freedoms and an underlying hint of selfishness that no one ever acknowledges or talks about. And though she is with a different man, she soon finds herself hopping into a relationship of sorts with Javo, a drug addict. Javo loves her, but he loves his freedom more and he's caught in the trap of addiction. Meanwhile Nora has and struggles with an addiction of her own--love.

Reading Monkey Grip felt very much like reading someone's diary. It's episodic and often there isn't a sense of closure. And often we see Nora make the same mistakes when she clearly knows better. So it's a bit like real life, really. Just set in a very different time--after all, this was an era where there were huge sexual freedoms. The contraceptive pill had been invented, but HIV was unheard of. Sexual freedom does not equate to freedom from all emotion though, as Nora soon learns as she struggles to be the perfect, permissive and loving partner to a man who, perhaps, does not deserve her.

Monkey Grip remains one of Garner's best known works of fiction and it is not difficult to see why. There is something about this one that isn't always nice, but it is always authentic.

Recommended.

This book was read as part of the Aussie Author Challenge 2019

Wednesday, 24 July 2019

Review: The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

Romy Hall is just about to begin serving two consecutive life sentences for killing a man. What the jury, and her lawyer, who is funded by the state don't know is that the man she killed was her stalker. And that the crime happened in a fit of rage. She may not be perfect, but she's not the calculating monster that she was made out to be in court. What follows is the experience of being treated as nothing more than a number, who must do as she is told, as she navigates a cruel and unforgiving system that would appear to care nothing about rehabilitating her or anyone else, and that has punishments that lack both logic and humanity. When Romy learns that her mother has died and she cannot get word from the outside world about her son, she realises that she must find a way to escape.

Brutal and confronting, this book offers a very real glimpse into why people make the decisions that they do, and how the American prison system can often be flawed--offering no hope of rehabilitation and removing every last shred of dignity for its inhabitants. It also showcases the back stories of a number of quirky characters who fill the book, some of them good, some of them bad, most of them just people who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. This book is utterly heartbreaking and much like Romy's days in prison, it often goes nowhere.

It is no surprised that this one was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2018, and if it, and the longlisted Sabrina are anything to go by, then the winner must surely be one hell of a good, but heartbreaking book. Ultimately, this one is equal parts frightening and fascinating.

Recommended. 

Monday, 22 July 2019

Review: Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy by Rey Teruero & Bre Indigo

Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women gets modern day makeover in Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy a beautifully illustrated graphic novel, intended for middle grade readers. In this version, the March sisters are living in the big city. Dad's away serving in the military overseas, while their mother is juggling full time work and looking after their four daughters. In a contemporary twist, the Marches are a blended family--Meg is their father's daughter from his first marriage, while Jo is their mother's daughter from an earlier relationship. The pair married when both girls were little, their father adopted Jo and then younger sisters Beth and Amy came along. Oh, and did I mention that this family also happens to be bi-racial?

The story weaves events from the original and gives them an contemporary twist--for example Beth is struck down with Leukaemia rather than Scarlett Fever, while Amy's experiences of bullying at school take a slightly different turn. There are also some contemporary twists in store for Meg and Jo. In this version, Meg's destiny isn't to be a wife or mother, though it takes her a while to see that, while Jo, well I'll be interested to see what readers make of that. Certainly the plot of Little Women gives the authors all the source material they need to make that twist believable. And perhaps even more so when readers meet the character that replaces the formidable Aunt March.

While this book has a strong modern feel, and a strong feminist message at its heart, the story is let down by the fact that this is pushed at the reader at nearly every opportunity, to the point where it feels like it is trying a little too hard to offer readers what is otherwise a sound message about girl power and self belief. 

Recommended to fans of the original, and girls everywhere who need a bit of girl power and a bit of inspiration.

Thursday, 11 July 2019

Review: Making Friends With Alice Dyson by Poppy Nwosu

Alice Dyson has a big year ahead. She is in her final year of high school and the plan is to study, hard. But after an unexpected and slightly strange encounter with Teddy Taualai, the school's biggest troublemaker, which is caught on video and goes viral, Alice finds herself the unwilling centre of attention and with a number of unwanted complications.

This was a pleasing story about the realities of high school, extreme shyness, first relationships and a young woman trying to find a sense of self. I loved that the story was set in the western suburbs of Adelaide, and the depictions of the Adelaide coastline and rail network. Although this is marketed as YA and features characters in their final year of high school, I found that Alice and her friends came across as quite young in places and her narrative voice seemed quite young for her age in the early stages of the book. (Then again, Alice was very shy and this no doubt influenced her outlook on life.) The highly readable and relatable writing style will no doubt make this book a perfect fit for many teens. 

Overall, this is a pleasantly told and relatable coming of age story with a sound message about not judging others by their appearance.

Recommended. 

This book was read as part of the Aussie Author Challenge 2019

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Review: The Boy Who Steals Houses by CG Drews

Sammy Lou needs somewhere to live. Let down by all of the people who were supposed to love and care for him, he ends up homeless and surviving the only way he knows how--by breaking into empty houses, sleeping there and leaving the next morning before he can be caught. Then, one fateful day, he breaks into the house that belongs to the De Lainey's, a big family, full of people who have even bigger hearts. When he is found, each of the De Lainey kids just assume that Sam is a friend of one of the other kids, and he ends up sticking around for a while. However, Sam has some dark secrets from his past, and a brother with a disability who may be in serious trouble, and he knows that this friendship cannot last forever. The De Lainey's will never accept him once they know what he has done ... will they?

This novel was a pleasing read that addresses some serious issues in a way that is relevant to the target audience. In particular, I was impressed with the way that the author addresses the topic of violence, how it can be learned at a young age and how that cycle can be broken. It also raises the question about the difference between violence as self-defence and hitting someone out of anger.

The De Lainey's are portrayed as a busy but loving family and they melted my heart just a little. But where the novel really shines is with it's portrayal of Avery, Sam's older brother who is autistic. The portrayal of Avery is both real and sympathetic and is described to readers in a way that does not talk down to the audience as can so often by the case. (Though I have to admit, I was a bit surprised that he was not in a school or class for kids with special needs.) While I found the initial concept of Sam breaking into houses and never getting caught to be a little far fetched, I was willing to overlook this and other flaws and found myself caught up in the story.

Recommended.

This book was read as part of the Aussie Author Challenge 2019

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Review: Split by Lee Kofman

A strange confession. I have never dreaded writing a book review nearly as much as I have dreaded writing this one. And do not, for one second, think that it is because I hated the book. On the contrary, I loved it. There was something utterly compelling about every one of the autobiographical essays contained with the book. The difficulty with writing this review means saying a good-bye of sorts to a book that has been a solid companion over several days as I slowly devoured the stories within. And I am not sure how I feel about that.

Written by a number of different Australian authors and edited by Lee Kofman, Split is a collection of personal essays of significant endings and their aftermath. Opening with an essay by Graeme Simsion that talks about how he discarded his past self and the possible label that went with it, many of the essays veer into territory that is both heartbreaking and familiar. Virginia Peters talks about her daughter's charismatic but ultimately selfish first boyfriend, while Gabrielle Lord recounts her brief affair in Paris with a man who jumped to the wrong conclusion. Hayley Katzen talks about leaving South Africa and the heartbreaking events that cause her to return, albeit briefly. And then there is Sami Shah's essay on giving up on Islam and the fallout that resulted from it.

These stories are all have imperfect endings. There is not always the sense of closure that the reader might get from fiction, and this volume works better because of it. These stories offer the reader a sense of reality, a sense that everybody has moments where things don't end neatly, or perfectly, and this might just be enough to offer a sense of community--and comfort--to anyone who is suffering and who needs it.

Highly recommended.

Thank you to Ventura Press for my review copy. 

This book was read as part of the Aussie Author Challenge 2019.

Saturday, 6 July 2019

The Book Was Better Than the Film: The Strange Legacy of V.C. Andrews Continues

On July 27 Heaven, the latest V.C. Andrews novel to be adapted for the screen will premiere on Lifetime in the USA. Less famous than Flowers in the Attic, though no less loved by fans of the author, Heaven tells the story of Heaven Leigh Casteel, a young woman who was born in abject poverty and is raised by her loving grandmother, a stepmother who tolerates her and her father, a womaniser and an alcoholic who cannot stand her and blames her for her mother's death. It is notable that Heaven resembles her mother in every possible way, but for her hair. While Heaven's hair is black, and according to her, cursed, her mother was a blonde, and consequently, more attractive.

 Heaven does her best to rise above her situation, trying hard to look out for her younger half-siblings and by working hard at school. She forms a relationship with a middle-class boy from the town. Then the family situation takes a turn for the worse and her old man decides that the only solution is to sell his children. One by one the children are adopted, and Heaven eventually finds her way to a new home. But things are far from wonderful at the home of Kitty and Cal Dennison. There, Heaven suffers abuse at the hands of Kitty (who is her father's ex-girlfriend,) and is then groomed and sexually abused by Cal. At the end of the novel, Kitty dies and Heaven is offered the chance to go and live with her mother's parents, whom she has never met, which leads in to the sequel, Dark Angel.  

V.C. Andrews passed away in 1986.
She published six books in her lifetime.
Published in 1985, Heaven was the second to last novel to be published by V.C. Andrews. The second book in the Casteel Saga, Dark Angel was published just a month before the author passed away from breast cancer. In the years that followed, three more books in the series were published Fallen Hearts, Gates of Paradise and Web of Dreams, each one seemingly more perverse than the last. Certainly, V.C. Andrews never shied away from sexual content. But when she wrote about characters whose sexual awakenings were often born out of tragedy, hurt or neglect, and the confusion that often followed, the focus in these stories turned more to men who used the otherwise innocent characters for pure sexual gratification. Eventually, a lawsuit would reveal the contrast between the earlier novels and the books that followed on from the author's death. The executors of her estate had hired a ghostwriter to continue writing books in her name. We now know that the ghostwriter is Andrew Neiderman, a horror novelist who shared the same publisher and agent as V.C. Andrews. As ghostwriter, Neiderman has published more than seventy novels baring V.C. Andrews' name on the front cover, many of them varying in theme and quality. Over the years, books featuring everything from vampires to early puberty have been published, with each of them sharing a young female protagonist who finds herself in some kind of peril. 

If there was one thing that Andrew Neiderman has brought to the table during his time as the ghostwriter for V.C. Andrews, it is his penchant for bringing her books to the screen. This is no surprise, given the huge success that Neiderman had with the adaption of his own novel The Devil's Advocate, which went on to become a box office success. By contrast, V.C. Andrews did not have a good record when it came to film adaptions. Multiple scripts for a film adaption of Flowers in the Attic were written and never made it to screen, including one by Wes Anderson. In 1986, an adaption was eventually filmed (if you look closely, V.C. Andrews plays the part of a maid in one scene,) and released in 1987. Though Louise Fletcher plays the role of bitter antagonist Olivia Foxworth to perfection, the filmmakers glossed over a number of key details--the poison doughnuts became cookies, the story was set in the 1980s instead of the 1950s and all hints of incest were removed. And then significant alterations to the ending killed not only Corrine Foxworth, but any chance of a sequel.

Meanwhile, Neiderman's reputation for adapting books to screen has gone from strength to strength. In 2006 Rain, one of the ghostwritten VC Andrews novels was made into a successful film on an extremely low budget. Around this time there was also talk of another Neiderman penned series, The Landry Saga being adapted as a TV series. However, this failed to eventuate.

And then in 2014, Flowers in the Attic was adapted by Lifetime, followed by three of it's sequels, Petals on the Wind, If There by Thorns and Seeds of Yesterday. While the adaptions weren't perfect, they were far more faithful to the books than previous adaptions had been. Also, to the annoyance of fans, these would lead to more sequels to the books being penned by Neiderman, Secrets of Foxworth, Echoes of Dollanganger and Secret Brother. Three more prequels are planned for this year--Beneath the Attic, Out of the Attic and Shadows of Foxworth.

Following on from that was a Lifetime film adaption of another beloved V.C. Andrews novel My Sweet Audrina. This almost nonsensical film adaption focuses purely on the antagonistic relationship between Vera and Audrina, and misses a number of key elements from the novels. Following on from its release was a sequel, Whitefern, which was penned by Neiderman and, again, misses some of the key elements from the book. (You can read my review here.)

And now, it seems that Heaven and, in fact, all, of the novels in the Casteel Saga are set to experience the same treatment. For months now, fans have been divided about the adaption, with many expressing concern on the fan page about the casting of a red haired actress for a role where the character's black hair was central to the plot. And then this somewhat troubling trailer was released by Lifetime:



It could just be poor editing, but the trailer suggests that the story transforms Heaven from a frightened and abused young woman into a Lolita type figure, who is willingly seduced by her adoptive father, in turn, causing her adoptive mother to have a mental breakdown. Obviously, this is in stark contrast to the book. It's also gross and not in keeping with the writing of V.C. Andrews. 

If this has not all been strange enough, an incident occurred on facebook recently which troubled me greatly. Basically, ghostwriter Andrew Neiderman lashed out at fans for criticising the film and not giving it a chance before it is even released. In one sense, he has a point--one can only properly criticise a film after they have seen it. On the other hand, fans of the books have ever perfect right not to tune in if they don't want to. For me, it was personally quite disappointing, given that something the ghostwriter said many years earlier on the page had a huge influence on how I write my book reviews and offer constructive criticism. 

In retrospect, the legacy left behind by V.C. Andrews should have been six novels. Instead, what we have is a huge collection of ghostwritten books of varying quality and a whole lot of telemovies. Meanwhile, a fantasy novel penned by V.C. Andrews before she died remains unpublished, while her one and only Sci-Fi novel, The Gods of Green Mountain, remains available only as an eBook. (It has never been available in print.) Whether or not Heaven and the other screen adaptions of the Casteel saga are any good remains to be seen. I will certainly be keeping out an eye.

Friday, 5 July 2019

Friday Funnies



For all the VC Andrews fans out there

Thursday, 4 July 2019

Review: Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

Australian journalist and now author Trent Dalton takes pieces of his life story and shapes them into a tall tale that is as entertaining as it is over-hyped. (Though that last bit isn't really the authors fault.) Set in Brisbane in the mid 1980s, it tells the story of Eli Bell, a kid on the cusp of puberty who has a heroine junkie for a stepdad and his favourite babysitter is a notorious criminal. Add to that a brother who refuses to speak and his interactions with a Brisbane drug dealer that eventually cause him to lose his lucky finger and for his mother to wind up in jail, and the whole thing is one heck of a ride.

Unfortunately, this one didn't hit all the right notes for me, though I very much enjoyed some parts of it. For me it was a book with entertaining bits in it that probably would have been a whole lot more entertaining if I hadn't been told just how much I should enjoy it by practically everyone on the planet and if I hadn't seen it displayed prominently in nearly every bookstore that I've entered over the course of the past year. Consequently, I went into this one with expectations that were far too high and those expectations more or less ruined the book for me. That said, though, if you're looking for an entertaining, and uniquely Australian yarn, this one might just be for you. 

I might pick this one up and read it again once all the hype dies down.

This book was read as part of the Aussie Author Challenge 2019

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Review: Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

Inspired by Johannes Vermeer's beautiful painting, author Tracy Chevalier creates a beautiful work of fiction centred around who the mysterious girl in the painting may have been. Through a combination of research and imagination, Chevalier creates Griet, a young lady who is forced to work as a maid in the Vermeer household after her father is injured in a workplace accident. Sensing that Griet has an aptitude for art, Vermeer develops a friendship with the young woman and she soon becomes his student and muse. But darker forces are at play, first through the less than honourable intentions of one of Vermeer's friends, and then through Vermeer's insistence that Griet pose for him, and wear his wife's beloved pearl earrings. Can she rise above the scandal, or will it ruin her future forever?

Well researched and beautifully told, this story is a pleasurable read. It comes as no surprise that this one has been in print for the last twenty years and has been made into a film--there is something appealing about the quiet beauty that is to be found within the pages. The author's portrayal of Griet, a young woman trapped in an impossible set of circumstances thanks to a man who does not understand the enormity of what he is asking, or what the implications are for Griet, or for his wife.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Review: Impossible Music by Sean Williams

What do you do when music is the biggest thing in your life, but a ministroke leaves you unable to hear? That is the challenge faced by Simon Rain, the eighteen-year-old protagonist of Impossible Music, a brilliant new novel by Adelaide author Sean Williams. The novel opens with Simon hurting and angry, and resisting all opportunities to adjust to his new circumstances. And then he meets G (or George, or George who likes coffee,) a smart, tough girl who is learning to cope with her own newfound hearing loss, and who challenges Simon on a number of occasions. But what ultimately leads Simon on a path toward self-acceptance is an idea. He wants to create a new form of music. Something that the Deaf community can experience, along with the hearing world.

The novel starts off on a dark note, but that is understandable, given the subject matter. Though Simon's circumstances are unusual (he's the thirteenth recorded case in the world of having this type of hearing loss,) the character is drawn realistically, and with empathy. (On that, G is a lot of fun to read about too.) I also very much appreciated the use and descriptions of Auslan in the novel, along with Simon's descriptions of the music that he creates. (Creativity is a huge theme in the book.) However, where the story really shines is through its originality. It subverts from the usual YA tropes to tell the story of an adolescent who struggles with and finds the strength to cope with his newfound circumstances in a way that is original and pleasingly free from excessive sentimentality. This one will probably appeal to readers who are at, or who are advancing toward, the older end of the YA spectrum. 

Highly recommended.

Thank you to Sean Williams for my copy of Impossible Music

This book was read as part of the Aussie Author Challenge 2019