This book has something sorely lacking in YA fiction - a protagonist who is overweight. But while her weight does (realistically) lead to snap judgments from people and bullying, there is SO much more to her (e.g. a love of dance, an awesome relationship with her Dad) and it's wonderful to read her portrayed in such a positive light. The other protagonist, Jack, struggles with some typical teen boy issues of "why am I compelled to do shitty things when I want to be a good person?" and some not-so-typical issues including a rare neurological disorder that renders him unable to recognise faces. It's a love story, but it's much more than that. It's about how we judge each other, and how we maybe *should* judge each other.
I was so unsure how to review this. As a whole, or individual stories? 5 sentences each? Just the highlights? In the end I went with 5 sentences overall plus 2 for each story. But the short version is: read it!!!!
I loved this book. An amazing selection of stories, and while there are some in genres I wouldn't normally enjoy (SFF, I'm looking at you!) each story had something to keep me reading and was very well written. Putting Jaclyn Moriarty's at the end was a great move for me, because she's my favourite author so it was like a reward for finishing or something - the dessert after the meal. Short stories are underrated and especially good for young readers who can squish one in on the bus on the way to school or between homework and netball or whatever. An excellent opportunity to find yourself a new favourite author (or 10).
One Small Step... The first girl born on Mars reveals the pressures of being a part of history, while trying to save her best friend/crush. Not something I'd ordinarily pick up but there were so many fascinating things to think about in this story and I've found myself recommending it many times since reading.
I Can See The Ending Another cool premise, where a teen psychic witnesses his own divorce and must work out why it's worth falling in love anyway. Great characters and believable relationships, in what is ultimately a story about finding joy and taking risks.
In a Heartbeat Teen pregnancy makes for a simple, often cliched story, but it's the execution that makes this shine. The main character's relationship with her own mother is depicted in wonderful detail for a short piece, and for me as a white reader, reading a somewhat familiar plot with an unfamiliar cultural background made the story fresh.
First Casualty Another sci-fi, which is not my cup of tea, but a great example of how alternate or futuristic worlds can be used to to explore social issues in our world. For anyone familiar with Australia's asylum seeker policies, this will leave you despairing over politics and the immoral behaviour of people with power.
Sundays Straight-up romance isn't really my thing either, but this wasn't bad. There's something very relatable about teenagers pinning their worldview of relationships on "that" one couple, and how something simple can trigger all kinds of anxieties about the future.
Missing Persons A contemporary for anyone who has ever had to move away from home. I didn't find this a particularly memorable story, but I could relate to the main character and the settings were very well established.
Oona Underground This is a bit of an odd one, where magic realism is used to help two friends realise that their love for one another is more than platonic. I found myself drawn into it like the characters were drawn into the maze underground.
The Feeling From Over Here A contemporary that I really enjoyed, with a very straightforward premise - 2 people with a history get stuck next to one another on a very long bus ride. There's an important lesson here, about how good people can do horrible things and the long-term impact our words can have on others.
Last Night At the Mount Solemn Observatory This is another that is character driven rather than plot driven, as a girl struggles to say goodbye to her older brother before he begins his adult life away from the family. Again, I wouldn't list it in a "best of the year" or anything, but it's a sweet story that doesn't rely on romance, which is rare in YA fiction.
Competition Entry #349 Time travel which doesn't change the past or make heros - instead, the main character gets to go back for ten minutes at a time to witness her first kiss and work out what went wrong. Everything I love about Moriarty in condensed form, this is quirky, well-thought out, clever and fun.
The Impossible Story of Olive in Love is about the other side of invisibility: when it's not a superpower, it's a pain in the ass and a lonely one at that. Olive is cursed to be invisible to all but her true love, which means for seventeen years she's been mistaken for a ghost, an imaginary friend, the wind and any number of excuses people make up to explain away the impossible - until she meets Tom, who can see her. It's a cool premise and the strength of this book is the plot, which explores interesting ideas and relationships. Unfortunately, the weakness is the characters, especially Olive, who often behaves and speaks in horrible ways and whose only excuse is "it's hard to be me". I could relate to Olive's predicament, but not to Olive herself, and it's hard to enjoy a book where the protagonist is so unlikable.
Frankie by Shivaun Plozza This is an excellent debut about a girl who is nothing like me and yet who I was able to empathise with deeply. Francesca Vega is an ordinary teen trying (and often failing) to be a good person, when a younger brother she didn't know existed arrives on the scene. Frankie has the benefit of an aunt who loves unconditionally, but she struggles to maintain her self-worth in the face of rejection by almost everybody else, including her mother. She is a raw, realistic character who faces the world with her chin angrily up, and my heart broke for her more than once. The story is believable, the relationships are complicated and the writing is top notch - I highly recommend.
Talking It Over by Julian Barnes This isn’t a new book (it was published in 1991) but I’ve had a first edition hardback sitting on my bookshelf for a couple of years and thought it was about time I opened it up. Barnes is as talented a writer as I remembered, but the story itself didn’t grab me. It’s a love triangle, but that’s not really the point: Barnes writes to play with language and themes, to demonstrate mastery of a variety of voices, and to critique society through dry humour. He achieves all of this, and I stuck with the book long enough to be enchanted. That said, I didn’t relate to or particularly like any of the characters (and frequently wanted to punch Oliver) and it took me a lot longer to read than most of what I’ve been choosing lately.
Surviving Haley by Brenda Baker NB: This is Brenda Baker’s debut novel, published just before she and I “met” online and became friends and critique partners.
It’s a decent effort, probably a 3.5-star work, and a quick read. I found the core family of Lauren and her parents very deftly drawn and it was refreshing to find a book that considered the “other” side of eating disorders, i.e. compulsive overeating and binge eating. I’m not usually a reader of “Christian” books, but I didn’t find this overly preachy or moralistic. Many of the minor characters were used to introduce other important issues, but unfortunately these weren’t explored in any detail and the story ended without telling us what happened to them. Likewise the love subplot: what was there was good, but it’s what was missing that pulled the book down.
It's been a long time since I've done a 5 sentence review. I do have two to include later tonight in another post, but the month of April also included reading 4 books that are still in the development stages, so I thought I'd take this opportunity to comment on what beta reading is like, some of the pros and cons, and how you can become involved as a reader or a writer.
What is beta reading? Beta reading, like "beta testing" anything, involves reading something that is pretty well developed but not quite ready for publication, in order to give the writer feedback. A beta read is not the same as an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) of a book that will more or less remain unchanged. ARCs are for reviewers and booksellers to make a judgment on, for the sake of other potential readers. Beta-reading is for readers to become part of the editing process, to help the author ensure their characters are well-developed, plot holes are filled and kinks are ironed out.
Nor is it the same as a first draft critique. Books often go through dozens of drafts before they're put in a reader's hands. For me, I have a team of writers who read along chapter-by-chapter each week and offer me feedback as I'm developing the story. This is when the drafts are rough, bits of earlier chapters change (affecting the plot) as they're reading based on their advice, and spelling/punctuation/grammar mistakes and typos haven't been caught. That team puts up with a lot of sludge; they're angels. Then there's an "alpha read" where the reader will get a finished draft, but books still need a lot of work. Alpha readers find what works and what doesn't, what's worth keeping and what can be cut out. They give big picture feedback on content, characters and themes.
When a book is semi-polished and has run through a few clean-ups, it's ready for a beta read. There, readers catch mistakes or places where it still doesn't quite "work"; they tell the author whether their book is ready to be submitted (to agents, publishers or self-publishing) or if there's something that stands out and really needs to be fixed soon.
Why be a beta reader? Free books! Also, you get to be involved in the process of creating a book, without coming up with your own story ideas and writing them. It's pretty cool to be able to affect the final outcome of a story and have your opinions taken into account, especially if you also end up on the acknowledgments page. Have you ever finished a book and thought "that was great, but it would have been better if X didn't happen" or "I wish there had been more of Y's thoughts and feelings in that part" or even "wow, great book but terrible ending"? The best you can do with that after a book has been published is write a detailed review. But when you're beta reading, authors want your criticisms, the more specific the better, and you can nitpick as much as you like.
Sometimes a book will have a few beta readers at once (such as the April "beta swap" I completed last month) followed by a group discussion about it. This is a little like being part of a book club where the author of the book joins in the discussion. The round table discussion is priceless for writers and (I find) enjoyable for readers as you get to chat with others and share opinions. If you're a writer, an added bonus of beta reading is often a one-for-one trade off with another writer, where they'll critique your work in exchange for your feedback on theirs.
Why submit my book to beta readers? As writers, constructive criticism is how we grow. When you've been writing and re-writing for a long time, it gets hard to look at your story with fresh eyes. Even regular critique partners or writer's groups can bring their understanding of your characters from past drafts in to what they're reading, if they've been working with you for more than one or two edits. Beta readers are a great way to get "overall impressions" feedback while you still have time to do something with it and make necessary changes. And unlike family or friends, their feedback isn't influenced by what they think of you or what you're doing, and they know your genre well because they're choosing to read the book, not the work of a person they care about.
What's the downside? When you finish reading a published book, you can go on with your life, read something different, and think about the book as much or as little as you like. While no one can force you to give your feedback, with a beta read it's understood that you will take the time to really think about what you have read and articulate that for the author. Also, if you dislike the book, there's a stronger sense of obligation to read to the end - although as a writer, being told where you stopped reading and why can be incredibly valuable in and of itself. I do find that when I've been reading to critique for a long time, it gets harder to get lost in a new book without that "red pen" voice in my head as I read. The reading process itself also generally takes quite a bit longer.
There's also the problem of different people with different opinions. A writer has to work out which suggestions to take on board and which to dismiss, and finding a majority consensus can sometimes be tricky, especially if you don't have that round table discussion where beta readers can listen to each other's thoughts and take the opportunity to agree or disagree.
Should I pay for a beta reader? There are readers out there who will offer their services for a fee, which is understandable given the time it takes them. However, before hiring one of these paid beta readers, you need to ask yourself what skills or experience they can offer to make their feedback worth more than a free reader. If I were to spend money on a reader, personally I would look for a professional editor and ask for a structural edit or manuscript assessment, rather than a paid amateur. But that can also be a matter of budget. Some paid beta readers will offer a sample, where they read the first few chapters for free and send their feedback, so you can decide based on that whether it's worthwhile going ahead. Ultimately it's up to you, but be aware that you can find beta readers without opening your wallet if you look hard enough and are willing to give up some of your own time in return.
Do I still need to hire an editor after a beta read? It depends. If you are pursuing traditional publishing, that is, submitting to an agent or publishing company, I would say no. Publishing houses hire editors after they have accepted a manuscript, and they will do this regardless of how many changes it went through before landing on their desk. A manuscript assessment service might be worthwhile, but I wouldn't suggest paying for a structural edit, copyedit or line edit. On the other hand, if you intend to self publish then yes, spend the money on a qualified editor. Beta readers are great, but they don't give you the line-by-line feedback that you need to make your book shine.
How can I get involved in beta reading? There are numerous ways to find writers or readers for your unpublished manuscript. Websites such as betabooks are specially designed for alpha and beta reads, and other writing communities such as scribophile often have groups to set up novel exchanges between writers in a similar genre. Social media can also be a great way to make those connections - I recently saw another writer on twitter post asking for YA authors to exchange manuscripts with, and from there it was as straightforward as DMing my email address. If you're interested in beta reading and don't have your own writing to exchange, one tweet and you'll likely find yourself inundated with requests from eager and grateful writers.
Tell me about your recent beta reading experience There were 4 of us, devoting a week per book to reading, followed by a group discussion at the end of the week. The quality of writing was varied, with one manuscript easily as good as a published book and another needing a lot more clarity on the major plot points and intentions of the writer. I was able to read on my phone at night while breastfeeding my baby, or in the car waiting to pick my son up from school. All of my feedback was met with appreciation and I got to read some good stories. I have a clear sense of where to take the next draft of my book and what the major changes need to be, but I still felt very encouraged by the kind words of the other readers and their interest in my work.
I can't review their books for you, partly because I don't have permission from their authors and these are unpublished works, but also partly because if the books are published at some point, they will change! And that, really is the beauty of beta reading. Much like teaching, I get to not only see someone grow, but be a part of that.
A Tangle of Gold by Jaclyn Moriarty This is the final instalment in a fantasy trilogy by one of my favourite authors. It tied up all the loose ends nicely and I was impressed by the complexity of Moriarty's world building and the ideas she expressed in this trilogy. In A Tangle of Gold there was less entwining of science and magic, but history played a much bigger role. I was a little disappointed with this book when comparing it to the earlier two, as I found certain aspects predictable (e.g. the "twist" regarding Madeleine) or unbelievable (e.g. Ko's actions and speech at the end). But I would recommend it anyway, and I still finished reading with that dual satisfaction and sadness that there was no more.
Not If I See You First by Eric Lindstrom This is a book with a disabled protagonist whose story is not about disability, but about love, loss, friendship and forgiveness. However, her disability (blindness) is also impossible to ignore as it affects everything from running on the school track team to how she knows a friend has texted. This balance gives Lindstrom room to raise social issues (such as racial discrimination, or disability in sport) without coming across as a PSA. I loved the realism and emotion in this book and the strength of the character voice. Highly recommended.
Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh It was easy to know I'd enjoy this because I find the blog amusing. Much of the book content comes directly from there, with only a few new pieces. A quick, fun read. Brosh takes the everyday and makes it entertaining by wearing her quirks with pride. This is nothing a school or uni would study on literary merit, but great for something light and relatable.
One year ago, I went to church and made small talk with some friends. I smiled, commented that I was feeling tired with my husband away for a couple of days, and chatted about my week.
One year ago, I went home and babysat a friend's three young children as they played with my two. I assured her that it would be no problem at all and to enjoy her afternoon at a niece's bridal shower.
One year ago, I read stories to my kids and tucked them into bed, checking on them twenty minutes later to ensure they were asleep. I knew their dad would be home in a few hours and they were safe until then.
One year ago, I lay on my bed and thought about what I had thought about several times that weekend: the space in my garage ceiling that could be used as an anchor point, the dog's leash and broom that I could fashion together into a tightening loop and place around my neck before kicking away a chair. I thought about the sheer exhaustion I felt from fighting for what seemed like nothing. I thought about how stupid I had been to get pregnant, how it would be a much easier decision if I wouldn't be essentially killing a baby as well. And again, I thought about how my children would be safe, asleep and unaware, until their father arrived home in a few hours.
Then I did the smartest thing I've ever done. I sent a text message. Three, actually. One was to my sister, who knew how my depression had been worsening and who had been trying to help from afar as much as possible. She called me immediately to talk and distract me until I wasn't alone anymore. One was to my husband, who knew I was unwell and I thought deserved some warning of just how bad, and what he might be coming home to. He tried to call, but was on a train travelling through the countryside and kept hitting black spots. He sent messages instead, begging me to hang on. The third was to a friend, my pastor's wife, who replied with "we're coming over to sit and pray with you". After sorting out babysitters for their own kids, they arrived at my front door and didn't leave until after my husband arrived home at 1am.
I remember feeling guilty that I was taking so much time and energy from these people. I remember moving from thoughts about suicide and imagining failed attempts, to the thought but I wouldn't actually go through with it. I remember outwardly downplaying how bad my mental state was while inwardly chastising myself for being melodramatic and making good people feel unnecessary worry. I remember thinking and saying but on some level, I can't possibly be serious, because if I was, I wouldn't be telling people about it. I know you'll stop me.
The friends who sat with me talked and prayed, offered to let me sleep, listened to anything I wanted to say, and told me they thought it was time for a hospital admission. When my husband arrived home, they stayed another half an hour to share with him some of what had been happening and to make a plan for the coming few days, to ensure I wasn't alone. He and I stayed up another two hours, talking. I don't even remember what about. The following morning, my husband returned to work, my pastor looked after my daughter, and his wife K accompanied me to the doctor. My sister was driving the 3 1/2 hours from her place to mine.
I explained to my doctor that the depression was getting worse and I had been feeling suicidal. She told me that, ironically, suicidal thoughts were a possible side effect of my medication, but we could increase the dose. As I sat there quietly agreeing, K jumped in. "No," she said. "I don't think you understand. She contacted me last night because she had a plan." My doctor's demeanor immediately shifted and she wrote out a referral for the private hospital I'd looked up, then told K not to leave me alone until I was safely admitted somewhere. She said, "it's not your fault; you are sick. You can get better. Most people who kill themselves warn people beforehand. It might be a day before or a month before, we don't know, but most people tell someone. You have to take it very seriously and go to the hospital." I was surprised at her statement about warnings. It contradicted my own thoughts that I must be making this up, because if it was real, I wouldn't be sabotaging my ability to attempt it. But in a strange way, it gave me peace. People were listening. People were making decisions, so I didn't have to anymore.
My husband left work after an hour, unable to concentrate, and told his boss he was needed at home. K drove me 45 minutes to the nearest city and talked to different staff members at hospitals. She refused to give up when a shortage of beds meant driving to three different hospitals and taking up her entire day, from 9am to 6pm. I told her how strange it was to feel like I was fine, I was kidding myself, this was a weird mistake that had got out of hand, but then another moment consider whether I could sneak out of the house at 3am and walk in front of a truck on the highway. She made a point of mentioning the latter to a nurse, explaining that she was worried to take me back home when I talked like that. Finally, I sat alone on a bed that felt as hard as the floor, in a room with white walls and smooth edges, locked windows and no power points. The nurses had searched all my bags and removed a dozen things they thought could be dangerous, then left me with exhaustion and my own twisted thoughts.
What followed was the hardest year of my life to date. Three hospital admissions, totaling seven weeks. Medication increases that eventually took me to eight times the dose of antidepressants I was on a year ago today. Psychologist appointments weekly or fortnightly depending on how much better I was doing at a given time. Close to $5000 on psychologist appointments, around $400 on medication, $6000 on private hospital gap payments and health insurance excess. Not to mention the PHI premiums, the babysitting, the petrol to travel to all these things, or the possible income lost. There is help out there, and I am glad it is available, but I can't help but wonder if I would still be here today were I not a married middle-class woman with wealthy, supportive parents.
That year, horribly difficult though it was, also brought me to where I am now. Last week I finished another novel draft - many, many months later than I had hoped when I began it, but I FINISHED. I know the editing process is ahead, but I'm excited rather than exhausted by the prospect. In September, just hours after my husband saw K at her son's birthday party, we texted her to announce the birth of our daughter. I now have a six month old baby with a gummy grin that can melt anyone's heart, a baby that still felt like a theoretical idea back when she was inside my body and I wondered if I could bear to kill her. A few weeks ago I said goodbye to my son on his first day of school, my elder daughter on her first day of preschool. I celebrated another wedding anniversary with a man who loves me more than any rational human should, and he grew closer to our kids as he became their primary carer for periods. My sister came to stay and helped me decorate a Christmas cake, then we sprinkled fake snow from Santa's boots. I have not cut or burned myself once in 2017, and that's a bigger achievement than I know how to express.
When I think back on it all, I do return to that old thought. But am I really depressed? Did I just want more attention? Would I ever have actually tried it? I can't know the answer for sure, but with the clarity of hindsight, I know that I was definitely very unwell, barely functioning. I can see that recognizing how wrong a thought is does not mean it had no power over you. Trying to ensure that thought never translates to action doesn't mean you didn't think it. It just means that you reached out for help before it was too late.
This time last year, I sent a text message. I do not regret it. And I am writing today, sharing this with unknown people on the internet, because I want them to feel like they can send a text message if they need to. Even if they doubt themselves and feel dissociated from the thoughts they sometimes think. Even if they're tired and they don't know if they want to fight on for another week or month or year or however long it might take to get better, if such a place exists. Even if they worry that they've been burdening the same couple of people and might lose a friendship. Even if they're afraid of what comes next or who might know. Send the text. Please.
A year ago today, I made the smartest decision of my life.
I'm adding a sixth sentence, because this is really about two books at once.
It's interesting reading Zusak's work "backwards" and seeing how much he has developed as a writer between his Wolfe brothers trilogy and The Book Thief. The strength of these books is definitely Cameron's voice and the fullness of his character. He is a rough, working class kid with a good heart and love for his family that shines through. Underdog was a slower, coming-of-age type book without much of a clearly defined plot, whereas Fighting Rubén Wolfe uses an illegal amateur boxing competition as the vehicle to explore brotherly love more deeply. This kind of raw but positive sibling relationship is rare in modern YA, and a pleasure to read. I did find bits of purple prose, over explaining and more boring sections, but overall these were a worthwhile read and I'll likely pick up #3 soon.
This is a collection of anecdotes from talented writers about books that have been significant to their lives in some way. There is a huge variety, both in the kinds of books mentioned and in the ways they impacted people. I loved it (I think my favourite was Will Kostakis's account of how he was "made" by a book which he hated and put down after 6 pages). This could be an excellent resource for teachers whose classes may be studying one of the books mentioned, a book by one of the authors or illustrators who contributed, or text types such as anecdote and creative non-fiction. Bonus points for all royalties donated to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.
And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini
I loved Hosseini's previous books and was excited to read this one. On the sentence and paragraph level, I think his writing is stronger than ever. As for the overall book, I'm undecided - it's more a collection of character-driven stories that are connected by one or two strands than a cohesive novel with everything contributing to the one plot. There are a lot of life stories to sift through with a LOT of minor characters (usually someone's children or grandchildren) to keep track of. However, each major character was beautifully drawn and Hosseini really delves into the positives and negatives of the human experience, as well as the strengths and failings of individuals.