Monday, April 16, 2018

When books are important and good: Between Us, by Clare Atkins

I was at a gathering one Sunday recently, and a couple of different people asked me what I'd been reading lately. (As a side note: people at parties who ask what you've been reading -- who just assume that you will have been reading -- are my kind of people). The book that kept coming to mind was Between Us, a recent YA novel from Clare Atkins, whose 2014 release, Nona & Me, I adored.

Between Us and Nona & Me both deal overtly in what could be described as "issues" -- matters that are part of the current dialogue and seek to address the challenges of society. I have a friend who calls these kinds of books Important Books, and commiserates with me on how they often fall flat, leaning on their own cultural relevance rather than on any story itself.

There is a challenge in writing about issues that are particularly now, issues that -- because of the time and place they inhabit -- speak to a very particular moment in our history. The challenge is twofold: first, making sure it is the characters and not the issue itself that speak the loudest; the second, finding the enduring truth that underlies the temporality of this moment in history.

Between Us is a novel that manages to do both, and in doing so avoids the exploitative nature of the story which says, "Now this topic is Important; how can we make it into a book?" Instead, Between Us responds to the characters who represent the people at the very heart of the issue or moment.

The novel is told in multiple viewpoints and voices as it brings together three key characters: Ana, an Iranian asylum seeker at Wickham Point detention centre in Darwin; Jono, a high schooler roiling in anger after his family's breakdown; and Kenny, Jono's dad, who is determined to do right by his new job at the detention centre.

When Ana is offered day release from the centre to attend school, she meets Jono, and curiosity turns into friendship which turns into something more. But Kenny, already struggling to tie strings with his silent, resentful son, is frightened by Ana's contact with Jono. Other employees at the centre have warned him of the dangers of getting close to any of the detainees, and Kenny can't shrug away his feelings of uncertainty as things seem to be slipping out of his grasp.

The three stories -- Ana, Jono, Kenny -- spiral around one another, exploring each character's past as a reference point for their reactions to the present. The individual voices are finely crafted with an empathetic spirit, avoiding any over-easy characterisation or offering facile solutions. There are no exaggerated "goodies" or "baddies" here. Instead, Atkins shines an honest light on the grief of choicelessness, the ongoing pain of past trauma, the struggle to reconcile broken families, and the tension of belonging to two worlds. In Ana's mother, we see a generous but honest expression of PTSD and post-natal depression; in Jono's father, a softer, milder version of similar pain.

Ana, with her appreciation for "beautiful ugly music" and her fierce love for her family, is both sweet and strong, bruised and bold. Jono is equally complex: intelligent and warm-hearted, but hurt and confused, too, letting himself drift into the seemingly uncomplicated distractions of pot and bad company.

However it's the character of Kenny which surprised me the most, and not just because of the inclusion of an adult (parental, at that) point-of-view in a YA novel, but because his character rings very true. It is here that the nuance of Atkins' writing is most clear. Kenny has a fierce love for Jono and wants to protect him from heartbreak, but he has little knowledge of how to do that. He is sad that Jono has not identified clearly with his Vietnamese heritage, but has no idea of how to foster that identity. Kenny sees his primary role as providing for Jono and taking a hard line when Jono misbehaves, and feels powerless to do any more. He is a man dominated by fear based on the racial stereotypes fed to him by others. Yet he has heart, and a good head on his shoulders, providing a complex and genuine picture of single parenthood.

Together, these ingredients make up a story which manages to be Important only as a byproduct of telling a tale built on compassion, honesty, and strong characterisation. It also seeks to offer hope without the need to tie up every loose end in a happy yellow bow, and puts faces and feelings and connection to a moment in the history of the world (and, particularly, Australia) that is more usually characterised by anonymity and a lack of clear information. I hope, one day, that this book will serve as an account of what once was. For now, however, it marks a picture of what is.

Between Us
Clare Atkins
Published January 2018 by Black Inc.
304 pages

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Darkness and beauty in middle grade fiction: Wolf Hollow, by Lauren Wolk

I sat for a while considering the right adjectives to describe Wolf Hollow, and I struggled. It's a dark story in many ways, pinpoint-focussed and stark. At the same time, though, it's gentle, filtered as it is through the eyes and heart of an innocent and hopeful protagonist whose experience is opened for the first time to the brokenness of the world.

Wolf Hollow is a coming-of-age story, but unlike the traditional bildungsroman, which often has the protagonist leaving behind his home and all that is familiar in order to step into adulthood, in this story Annabelle stays in rural Wolf Hollow, the place she knows and trusts. Instead, the journey comes to her in the form of a beautiful bully named Betty. Betty's campaign of cruelty upsets the safe cycle of days in Wolf Hollow, still in quiet shock following two world wars, and sets in motion a series of events that reveals secrets, uncovers dark prejudices, and forces Annabelle to grapple with the ugly realities of life in a fallen world.

The writing is exquisite and the characterisation rich and complex, articulated in the voice of an intelligent, compassionate child who has been raised in a community which, up to that point, has been a bulwark of security and goodness. Annabelle's parents and grandparents are wise, hard-working, and kind, and -- until Betty's arrival, at least -- Annabelle's chief aggressor has been her snippety and graceless Aunt Lily.

The artistry of Wolf Hollow, with its subtle imagery and surprising turns of phrase, makes it worthy of its status on the Newbery list. Lauren Wolk is a poet, and her ability to condense great depth and grace into just a few words is evident in this novel. But while Annabelle's sweet and strong, youthful voice takes the sharp edges off some intense scenes -- memories of war, PTSD, acts of genuinely cruel violence, graphic accidents, and hate speech -- the emotional intensity is undeniable. I wondered as I read: would I actually give this middle grade novel to a middle grade reader?

It was no surprise, then, to find that Wolk originally wrote this story with an adult audience in mind. This makes sense on many levels, and begs the question: why did publishers choose to market it as a kids' book? At the very least, I'd pitch this to a YA readership, as the teen years feel like an age better equipped to look closely at the issues it touches on. Some middle grade readers will be fine, but I'd advise parental guidance to make sure.

Regardless of its marketing and the question around appropriateness for young readers, however, this book is a work of art that tackles big topics through a small but fierce voice, and does so with an accomplished hand. I'll be thinking about it for a long time.

Wolf Hollow
Lauren Wolk
Published August 2016 by Corgi Children's
320 pages

Study questions:

I read Wolf Hollow in conversation with several friends who joined me at The Newbery Project, a little reading initiative I set up as a way to engage with more great children's literature. If you want to join us in our next readalong, head on over. Here are the questions we used in our discussion, which you may want to adapt for a family book club.

1. How many stars would you give this book, and why? Don't hold back!
2. What do you think of Annabelle as a protagonist?
3. Who was your favourite character?
4. Is there a particular moment in the story which stands out to you?
5. Wolf Hollow was originally written with an adult readership in mind. Does this feel accurate to you? Would you share it with a middle-grade reader? Does it deal with darkness in age-appropriate ways?
6. Although the books with several sad outcomes, do you think the tone is ultimately hopeful?
7. Describe Wolf Hollow using only emoji.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Symbolic and devastating: Rain Birds, by Harriet McKnight

'Symphonic' is a good word for this novel, which begins with a leaden calm like that before a summer storm, slowing building in intensity until it roars to a final crushing crescendo and then settles into silence.

But if it is a symphony, it is also a fugue. Two voices begin alone, dance around one another in solitary parallel narratives, then criss-cross and finally unite before falling apart again. The voices belong to two women, both of whom are deeply isolated in their own ways, alone against the world and in an environment which they both love and fear.

Arianna is lost in grief and trauma, trapped by anxiety (and possibly obsessive-compulsive disorder) that is vivid and painfully visceral. Her only refuge is in her work, monitoring a flock of at-risk glossy black cockatoos in Murrungowar National Park. To Arianna, these birds are not merely symbolic harbingers of doom; they are literal, insistent signs of a climate in crisis, and the burden of that knowledge is a breathless weight on her lungs.

Pina is grappling with her own form of complex grief, as she watches her husband's rapid deterioration through early-onset dementia. Her role as carer is an ongoing conflict as Alan slowly becomes a man she cannot recognise and, in turn, Pina becomes a stranger to him. Alan wanders off without warning, lashes out at Pina irrationally, is at once aggressive and paranoid.

There is a quiet, almost gentle horror to Alan's unbecoming, which depicts the true brutality of Alzheimer's. Pina must walk side-by-side with the loss of who her husband once was as well as the loss of who they are together. Her days are a recurring cycle through sorrow to resentment, then guilt and finally shame. While Arianna is trying to escape her past, Pina is unwillingly losing sight of hers.

A third voice, hiding under the layers of the others but bursting forth irrepressibly in the final act, is that of the Australian bush. The bush is quiet and beautiful, yet menacing and powerful. It lingers as a backdrop to Pina and Arianna's stories but its presence is palpable, tied up with Pina's life and Arianna's life work. Like Pina and Arianna themselves, the bush carries with it a deep sense of solitude, at times forbidding and foreboding.

McKnight's writing is spare and understated, managing to be at once unflinching and empathetic. The story is bleak in parts, evoking a crystalline sense of mystery as in the film Jindabyne. It is symbolic and devastating, yet never beyond redemption.

If I were cooler, I'd predict that this one will be popping up on awards shortlists soon. Instead, I'll just clap my hands quietly when it does.

Rain Birds
Harriet McKnight
Published September 2017 by Black Inc.
288 pages

Saturday, August 19, 2017

It's hard to talk about the ones we love the most: Exchange of Heart by Darren Groth

It seems as though the books that grab hold of us the tightest are the ones that are the hardest to write about. This is certainly true of Exchange of Heart, Darren Groth's newest novel for young adults. Even though I'm just a plain old adult, without the blissful 'young' prefixed to the front, this book sits with me in a way few contemporary books have. And I've wrestled for some time with how to write about it because it just feels so much, and it's hard to disentangle myself from the story.

To begin with, Exchange of Heart is set predominantly in Brisbane, and books populated by familiar places and landmarks and journeys are like new friends who instantly become old friends. Then, too, its main character, Munro, is wrestling with an anxiety that is hard to name and, although my experience is different to Munro's, I know this battlefield all too well. Most heart-squeezing of all, though, is the fact that Munro is mired in grief after the death of his younger sister Evie, who has Down Syndrome.

My youngest brother has Down Syndrome, and, ever since he joined our family, I have had these occasional dreams of terrible natural disasters threatening him: volcanoes spewing lava, tsunamis sweeping over everything, earthquakes upending the ground we're struggling to walk on. Always I find myself urgently reaching out to keep hold of his hand, to grab on to him and not let go. Even in my subconscious mind, losing my little brother is one of the most incomprehensibly awful things that could ever happen.

So to see a character grappling with this reality was like a beautiful, heartbreaking kick to the stomach. Munro's grief and confusion is tangible, a living thing that haunts him, taunts him, and threatens to overwhelm him, to rob him of the people who love him best and to sabotage any attempt to begin again. Blessedly, these people also refuse to let him stand alone in the depths of his grief, and it is through their love -- faithful, hard love that patiently makes its way through the walls of trauma Munro has built up around him -- that Munro can begin to see the possibility of healing.

Of course, it takes an international journey and a rag-tag gang of Australians to begin dismantling those walls, and each fresh character bursts into the story like a happy surprise. These are not perfect characters, but they are good ones, drawn in a way that doesn't make a novelty of their personalities or disabilities but, rather, honours them. This book is disability-positive in a very joyful, honest way. It's also therapy-positive and family-positive. In fact, even though it will make your heart squeeze up inside your rib cage, reading this book is a positive experience in itself. And now, after all my wrestling, this isn't even a real review -- just a slightly frantic whirl of feelings -- but I'm glad this book exists and I hope you read it.

Exchange of Heart
Darren Groth
Published July 31, 2017 by Random House Australia
288 pages

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Dark stories to make you brave: That Stubborn Seed of Hope

The short stories that have stayed with me over time are the ones that make me gasp at an unexpected revelation, or sigh when two essentially disparate things (people or ideas or beliefs or understandings or accidents) come together in a way that is both surprising and just right. But my absolute favourite stories are the ones that manage to plumb the depths of human brokenness and this dark world yet still point to a shining glimmer of grace in the midst of it.

So I was a little bit in love with That Stubborn Seed of Hope before I even started reading. The title, pulled from a quote from Bridge to Terabithia (again: LOVE), encapsulates my philosophy of story, and speaks to one of the things I treasure most in children’s and YA fiction. It might stem from the fact that I dined quite heavily on Anne of Green Gables growing up, but I firmly believe that while children and teenagers are forced to look tragedy and heartache and confusion squarely in the face just as frequently as adults, there is often also a beautiful spark of hope intrinsic within youth that promises something more. The best children’s and YA fiction reflects that. While not shying away from grief and grit, it also promises, sometimes in just a whisper, that the story doesn’t end here, that it’s possible to get knocked down and get up again.

That Stubborn Seed of Hope does this admirably. While the stories are unconnected in terms of characters, voice, setting, genre, and events, they are linked in that they stare roundly at something frightening – disease, death, shame, loss – while also offering up a kernel of hope. The voices of Brian Falkner’s characters are alternately cynical, wistful, angry, insecure, bewildered, and even sinister, but there is a warmth to these characters that’s endearing and compelling. "I Am 17" is something like Gregor Samsa meeting Benjamin Button. "The Kiss" reveals a post-apocalyptic Australia -- life, but not as we know it. "Strawberry Lou" is a tiny tale that packs an emotional whallop. "Sins and Griefs" explores blossoming sexuality, otherness, and the longing for belonging. The rest I’ll leave you to discover on your own. I loved each one, but I particularly enjoyed the stories that focus on sibling relationships. There just aren’t enough love stories about families.

In this collection, some of the pieces are funny, others deeply sad. Regardless of outcome, each story offers an emotional gut punch and the reassurance that life is rarely all good or all bad, but usually a little of both at once. The author declares in his introduction that “[w]e can endure almost anything in our lives as long as there remains that stubborn seed of hope.” These stories are a compelling, readable, deliciously-written and ultimately courage-giving testament to that.

That Stubborn Seed of Hope
Brian Falkner
Published July 2017 by UQP
214 pages

Monday, July 3, 2017

Grief, gladness, and a worthy heroine: The Elephant, by Peter Carnavas

As I read Peter Carnavas's The Elephant last month, I constantly caught myself flickering forward in my imagination to a time when I'd share this book with my nieces. Honestly, I can't think of higher praise to offer a book than this.

 Olive, the star of the story, is a true heroine. She's bright, intelligent, and thoughtful, and she just knows that if she works hard enough and finds the right spark of joy, she can scare away the lumbering grey elephant that follows her father around, weighing him down and making him too heavy to see the wonder of the world around him -- or, indeed, the wonder of the tiny world in front of him in his daughter.

Olive explains it to her friend Arthur, whom she likes "most of all because she [can] tell him anything":

"See, my dad has this really big sadness. He's had it for a long time. And I imagine the sadness is like a big grey elephant following him around. That's what I see."

 "Like an imaginary friend?" Arthur asks.

No, Olive tells him, "Like an imaginary enemy."

Arthur is intrigued, and offers Olive a glimmer of hope: if she can fix her dad, he'll be really her dad again. So that's what Olive sets out to do. She's helped in her efforts by her Grandad, who lives with Olive and her father, and helps fill some of the hug-holes in Olive's life. But he's not her dad, and he can't see the elephant. Only Olive can.

Olive's attempts to make her dad happy are told in exquisite phrases, the kind you want to roll around and taste on your tongue. Olive's imagination is vividly alive; she sees "milkshake clouds", a bike that "must have been something wonderful when it was young, when it was alive." Her grandad looks like "a skinny scarecrow, his old straw hat full of holes." Alongside the word-pictures are joyful, beautiful line drawings that add a further layer to the story and help build towards a final gentle surprise.

Olive's story offers a hopeful ending, but it also paves the way for discussions about the loved ones who may not find easy answers for the elephant that dogs them, people who cannot be made happy again. While never using the words "depression" or "grief", The Elephant nevertheless manages to explore these concepts through a story that is beautiful in its simplicity yet never dumbed down. It depicts self-comfort and a believable coping mechanism in a way that's full of gentle revelations. It manages to be childlike but never cloying or saccharine, full of Australian sensibility but universal themes. This book is a rare treasure.

The Elephant 
Peter Carnavas
Published July 2017 by UQP
180 pages
Rating: 9/10

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Belonging and bravery: The Boy and the Spy by Felice Arena

From its first lines, The Boy and the Spy drops readers right into the action. We're swept along with the story's young protaganist, Antonio, as he leaps to outrun a German soldier. The spare, present-tense narration clips along at a rollicking pace that is at once urgent, exciting, and readable.

Antonio is a rota -- an unwanted baby deposited in a wooden wheel tied to the wall of the convent in his Sicilian hometown. The name is a slur that Antonio just can't seem to shrug off; it carries with it the constant reminder of rejection. Antonio's only family is Mamma Nina, a widow who took him into her home. But Mamma Nina is sick, and Antonio worries for her. However, his everyday battles get thrust to the background when Antonio discovers an injured American soldier hiding out in a sea cave. If the soldier is found by the Italian army, he'll be shot. But if Antonio keeps the soldier a secret, is he a traitor to his country?

Inspired by author Felice Arena's family connection to Sicily, the story evokes a rich sense of place. Words in Italian and German, sprinkled judiciously throughout the text but never so much as to slow down a voracious young reader, help build a sense of a multilingual Europe, huddled together in wartime yet separated into allies and enemies. The Sicilian coastline, finely drawn, is almost its own character -- rich and wild and very clearly beloved.

Honest about the darkness, grief, and complexities of war, yet never too gritty or raw for young readers, The Boy and the Spy manages to hit the magical sweet spot of middle grade fiction. It asks thoughtful questions -- Is it okay to lie to save someone's life? -- and deals with ideas of loss and belonging in a way that is warm, kind, and engaging.

It's lively historical fiction with all the charm and adventure of The Secret Seven. What more could a kid want? And it's the perfect jumping-off point for incorporating WWII history into a vivid and compelling English unit. The teacher in me is delighted.

The Boy and the Spy
Felice Arena
Published April 2017 by Puffin Books
164 pages