The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli

IMG_3114Title: The Upside of Unrequited
Author: Becky Albertalli
Publication Date: 11th April 2017
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 336
Format: Paperback | Purchased
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Rating: ★★★☆☆
Summary (from publisher): 
Seventeen-year-old Molly Peskin-Suso knows all about unrequited love-she’s lived through it twenty-six times. She crushes hard and crushes often, but always in secret. Because no matter how many times her twin sister, Cassie, tells her to woman up, Molly can’t stomach the idea of rejection. So she’s careful. Fat girls always have to be careful. Then a cute new girl enters Cassie’s orbit, and for the first time ever, Molly’s cynical twin is a lovesick mess. Meanwhile, Molly’s totally not dying of loneliness-except for the part where she is. Luckily, Cassie’s new girlfriend comes with a cute hipster-boy sidekick. Will is funny, flirtatious, and just might be perfect crush material. Maybe more than crush material. And if Molly can win him over, she’ll get her first kiss and she’ll get her twin back. There’s only one problem: Molly’s coworker, Reid. He’s an awkward Tolkien superfan, and there’s absolutely no way Molly could fall for him. Right?

My thoughts: I really loved Becky Albertalli’s debut, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, and The Upside of Unrequited was one of my most anticipated releases of 2017. Unfortunately, I didn’t love this as much as I thought I would. I struggled to connect to the characters, and ultimately didn’t find it as charming as Albertalli’s previous novel.

While characters were diverse on page (a variety of sexual orientations, including pansexual, bisexual, and homosexual; characters of colour; mental illnesses were also brought up), it felt forced and unnatural. Diversity is important, but if it’s just for the sake of checking a box, is it genuinely contributing to a more diverse literary landscape? I think part of the problem was that Albertalli spent so much time creating a diverse cast of characters, she forgot to add strong characterisation (which is something that she did so well in Simon), and characters ended up being defined by their marginalisation, instead. Molly doesn’t seem to have any interests outside of developing 27 crushes over the course of her lifetime. What does she do, aside from obsess over boys and hate herself for being overweight (and drink alcohol, even though she’s not supposed to because she is on ZOLOFT)? I do not know. Reid is described as ‘nerdy,’ but it feels like mainstream nerdy things were picked – Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, World of Warcraft – and only ever really mentioned in passing.

I disliked Cassie with the fiery passion of a thousand suns, so I guess that counts for something. As Cassie is a Very Terrible Person and Molly… is unable to define herself outside of other people, Cassie frequently uses her sister as a means to an end. Por ejemplo: she publicly embarasses Molly by telling the story of Molly vomiting (in public) during their bat mitzvah (while wearing a microphone) to charm Mina, the girl she likes. She decides to force Molly into a relationship with Will, Mina’s best friend, so she doesn’t have to sacrifice spending time with her girlfriend to hang out with her sister. She seems to begin every sentence to Molly with, ‘no offence, but…’ To quote Todd Jacobsen, offence taken, Cassie. OFFENCE. TAKEN (you know what was offensive? Avril Lavigne’s Sk8er Boi on a list of terrible noughties tunes).

There was also no compelling plot – it was legitimately just Molly’s quest for a boyfriend. In fact, it felt like Twilight without the vampires. The story follows Molly gaining self-confidence, but that only happens when she gets a boyfriend. It kind of insinuated that a person isn’t complete without a partner, or adds some kind of self-worth. I get that this book was supposed to empowering for the overweight teenage girls, but as someone who was an overweight teen (and is an overweight adult), I can promise I would’ve taken the wrong message away had I read this as a teenager.

I would’ve liked to see some tighter editing (it’s kimchi folks, not kimchee). An extra star added for a brief cameo from Simon, because I really do love that book. Despite this book not being for me, I will definitely check out Albertalli’s future work (because Simon, guys).

 

 

Something to Say

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Title: Something to Say
Author: Various
Publication Date: 7th November 2016
Publisher: Morrison Media/Frankie Magazine
Pages: 240
Format: Paperback | Purchased
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Rating: ★★★★☆
Summary (from publisher):
A collection of funny, rude, clever, cute (and sometimes sad and sweary) stories from the first 12 years of frankie magazines. With witty words from some of our favourite frankie writers, including Benjamin Law, Helen Razer, Marieke Hardy, Eleanor Robertson, Rowena Grant-Frost and Mia Timpano.

My thoughts: Either I’m very bad with money, or frankie is very good at marketing. Regardless of which way you look at it, I spent $25 on an anthology of pieces previously published in a magazine I’ve been reading for the last eight years. This didn’t stop me from enjoying this book very much – I read frankie because the writing is razor-sharp and bitingly funny, and this book is pretty much a ‘greatest hits’ collection.

Anyone who has read this blog before knows that I’m a sucker for good book design, and this case is no different. The book features gorgeous illustrations by Ashley Ronning (whose work I had been following previously, and I was BLOWN AWAY to realise that she had contributed to this book), and is beautifully presented.

The pieces are clever, well-written, and quintessentially Australian. They vary in length, covering a variety of topics including (but not limited to) cats, depression, periods, and even the school principal who objected to the lyrics ‘kookaburra, gay your life must be.’ I frequently found myself laughing out loud (awkwardly, and in public, as promised on the cover) and tearing up (also awkwardly, and in public, and that was not promised on the cover). My personal favourites were Sam Prendergast’s ‘A Sorry Tale,’ and ‘Say Hello to my Little Friend’ by Jo Walker, although it should also be noted that my suspicions that Rowena Grant-Frost is a kindred spirit have grown since reading this collection. Despite having 20+ authors contributing to this anthology, there is a uniform feel to the pieces – something that I can only describe as ‘frankie’ (I’m sure fellow long-time readers of the magazine will agree). It’s quirky, kind of daggy, and a little bit sassy. Simultaneously, each contributor seems to have an original voice, talking about whatever happens to take their fancy. It’s a fine line to walk, and frankie does it so well.

I would recommend this to a frankie super-fan, or someone looking for a light read. Should you wish to own your very own copy of Something to Say, you can purchase it via the frankie shop or Readings.

Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke

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Title:
Foreign Soil
Author:
Maxine Beneba Clarke
Publication Date: 29th April 2014
Publisher: Hachette
Pages: 285
Format: Paperback | Purchased
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Rating: ★★★★☆
Summary: In Melbourne’s Western Suburbs, in a dilapidated block of flats overhanging the rattling Footscray train-lines, a young black mother is working on a collection of stories. The book is called FOREIGN SOIL. Inside its covers, a desperate asylum seeker is pacing the hallways of Sydney’s notorious Villawood detention centre, a seven-year-old Sudanese boy has found solace in a patchwork bike, an enraged black militant is on the war-path through the rebel squats of 1960s’ Brixton, a Mississippi housewife decides to make the ultimate sacrifice to save her son from small-town ignorance, a young woman leaves rural Jamaica in search of her destiny, and a Sydney schoolgirl loses her way. The young mother keeps writing, the rejection letters keep arriving…

My thoughts: I don’t often read collections of short stories – I like to get really invested in a story, and I find it easier to do so with a full-length novel – but I really loved Beneba Clarke’s memoir, The Hate Race, and thought I’d check out this collection. I’m glad I did, because this book is an absolute gem. The stories are character-driven and well-paced.

You’ll forgive me if my review seems unbalanced – I know I should focus on the collection as a whole (as you would a volume of poetry), but there are some stories that stick out in my mind more than others, and I do want to gush about them because I walked away from them with a heavy heart (in the best way possible). I think great literature is literature that makes you think, and Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil has definitely done that.

Australian media isn’t exactly known for its diversity and inclusiveness – Beneba Clarke has mentioned before that winning the Victorian Premiere’s Unpublished Manuscript Award was instrumental in her securing a publisher, if that’s any indication (given the quality of the short stories, I can only imagine the reason why it got rejected so many times was a fear that audiences wouldn’t connect to characters of colour) – so I appreciated that Beneba Clarke gave a voice to people who aren’t often heard.

One thing that is obvious is Beneba Clarke’s abilities (and experience) as a slam poet. She relies on cadences of the voice to tell her stories, and this comes across more effectively in some stories than others (as to be expected). For instance, I struggled quite a bit with the story Big Islan, which was written entirely in Jamaican patois. I struggled to connect with the stories that were accent-heavy, and I didn’t feel that narrating in an accent added to the story (Big Islan, David), given that Beneba Clarke has such a knack for dialogue that that alone gave me such a strong sense of place. Given that the stories followed characters living in London, Sydney, Melbourne, Mississippi, Jamaica and the Sudan (to name a few), this was no easy feat. Nevertheless, I appreciated what Beneba Clarke was trying to do with this device.

My favourite stories were Shu Yi, The Stilt Fishermen of Kathaluwa, and Aviation (which, I understand, is a new addition to the edition I purchased), although Beneba Clarke has an ability to create stories around characters you seemingly have nothing in common with, and make you care about them desperately (and given that the longest story in this collection is around 50 pages… again, no easy feat). The only story in the collection that is even remotely autobiographical is The Sukiyaki Book Club, which references earlier stories in the collection and seemed to document Beneba Clarke’s own struggles in getting published.

Much like The Hate Race, it will be impossible to walk away unaffected by Foreign Soil. With a voice unlike any other, Beneba Clarke is an author who makes me excited for the future of Australian publishing.

Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth

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Title:
Carve the Mark
Author:
Veronica Roth
Publication Date: 17th January 2017
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 468
Format: Paperback | Purchased
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Rating: ★★★☆☆
Summary: Cyra is the sister of the brutal tyrant who rules the Shotet people. Cyra’s currentgift gives her pain and power — something her brother exploits, using her to torture his enemies. But Cyra is much more than just a blade in her brother’s hand: she is resilient, quick on her feet, and smarter than he knows.

Akos is the son of a farmer and an oracle from the frozen nation-planet of Thuvhe. Protected by his unusual currentgift, Akos is generous in spirit, and his loyalty to his family is limitless. Once Akos and his brother are captured by enemy Shotet soldiers, Akos is desperate to get this brother out alive — no matter what the cost.
The Akos is thrust into Cyra’s world, and the enmity between their countries and families seems insurmountable. Will they help each other to survive, or will they destroy one another?

My thoughts: Please note that this review contains spoilers.

I was hesitant to read Carve the Mark, if only because I’m still mad about Allegiant. I took Divergent at face-value and liked it for what it was: a book that was born out of the dystopian craze, that didn’t demand much of me, and that was based around a society that wasn’t really structured logically (even within its world), but was nevertheless entertaining. The next two books kind of devolved and became nonsensical, but Allegiant was really scraping the bottom of the barrel.

But this review isn’t about the Divergent series, it’s about Carve the Mark. Let’s move on, shall we? It’s set on a distant planet called Thuve, which is inhabited by the Thuvhesit and Shotet people. They are at war with one another (well, kind of – that wasn’t entirely made clear…) and seem to enjoy kidnapping one another’s children.

As the story is set in space,  I went into this thinking it would be an Illuminae/ These Broken Stars-type book. Aside from a few references to the stars, spaceships, and looking at planets from a distance, this really could be set any where, any time. I would’ve liked to see the setting developed a little more, because there really are very few YA/NA novels that I’ve come across that are set in space (which I personally find to be a cool concept), and why bother setting it in space if you’re not going to make use of it? The world-building in general was underdeveloped, so it took me awhile to wrap my head around this world and how it worked.  There were multiple planets mentioned, but I couldn’t understand why they were inhabited by different groups of humans, and the planets were often name-dropped once and then never mentioned again. Humans are blessed with “currentgifts” – there is a current that runs through the galaxy – but it is never explained how the current came to be, how it gives people their gifts, or what the currently is, exactly.

If you liked the fast pace of Divergent, please be warned: this one is incredibly slow-moving. Good Lord, the pacing. The beginning is bogged down with back story – Akos’ chapters start when he is fourteen, Cyra’s when she is six – but the back story is something that could’ve cleverly been worked into the story, rather than being tacked on at the beginning. The action is quite sparse – just when you think the pace is picking up, it dies down again. Even at the climax of the story, I was still left feeling underwhelmed.

I would’ve liked to see a villain who is three-dimensional – and there were hints of it there: Ryzek is terrified of pain, he hates Cyra because she was responsible for their mother’s death, he was terrorised by his father – but it wasn’t developed enough. The end was result was a leader who was cruel and brutually violent because he could be. Akos and Cyra are compelling enough protagonists, but nothing to write home about. Of all the characters, I actually enjoyed Isae the most, and would’ve loved to see more of her (here’s hoping she’s a major player in the second book…). Yma, the double-crossing queen that she is, was also another favourite of mine.

This comes down to personal preference, but I also hated that Akos’ chapters were in third person, while Cyra’s were in first person. It pulled me out of the story, although it was one of the only ways in which Cyra and Akos’ voices differed. I just would’ve liked to see more uniformity across the board (all in third, or all in first person).

If you’re expecting something startlingly original or a book that has got a lot of depth to it, this book isn’t going to be the book for you. Is it a perfect book? Definitely not. It did, however, provide me with a few hours of light entertainment on a Saturday afternoon, for whatever that’s worth.

Cover This Classic #1

As you may know, I am a sucker for good cover design. It’s why I own so many copies of Austen novels (and why I have so many more on my wishlist). So, a new feature was born: Cover This Classic, where I talk about book design. Please note: I am not a graphic designer, and cannot talk about the technicalities of book design (beyond what directions an editor may give in a book design brief). I am only here to babble over good lookin’ books.

First up: the Penguin Gothic Classics, designed by the ever-brilliant Coralie Bickford-Smith and released in 2008.

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I’m pretty sure that most (if not all) of these are now out of print, which is disappointing because they are stunning. How were these covers created, you ask? Well, according to Bickford-Smith:

After experimenting with a few different processes I came up with the idea of using cyanotypes. It’s an early photographic process using light sensitive paper to make – literally – blueprints. They have a fantastic ethereal texture to them, which was ideal for the ghostly tales.

My favourite thing about Bickford-Smith’s designs is that they appear so simple, and yet so effective. She does a really good job of being able to draw a reader’s eye to the book, and capturing the essence of the story. This is evident in what is my favourite of Bickford-Smith’s designs, the Clothbound Classics edition of Emma. If it seems weird that a simple motif of a chair would be my pick, ask an Austen fan.

My favourite cover in this series is either Wilkie Collins’ The Haunted Hotel or Vernon Lee’s The Virgin of the Seven Daggers, what’s yours?

The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke

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Title: The Hate Race
Author:
Maxine Beneba Clarke
Publication Date: 9th August 2016
Publisher: Hachette
Pages: 272
Format: Paperback | Purchased
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Rating: ★★★★★
Summary (from GR): ‘Against anything I had ever been told was possible, I was turning white. On the surface of my skin, a miracle was quietly brewing . . .’

Suburban Australia. Sweltering heat. Three bedroom blonde-brick. Family of five. Beat-up Ford Falcon. Vegemite on toast. Maxine Beneba Clarke’s life is just like all the other Aussie kids on her street.

Except for this one, glaring, inescapably obvious thing.

My thoughts: This was an enthralling, compelling, complex, heartbreaking read. I grew up a few suburbs away from where Maxine did, and I can honestly say that the level of casual racism she experienced still exists today. Beneba Clarke tries to explain how a lifetime of racial slurs and taunts can slowly accrue, wearing the person down (‘This is how it changes us. This is how we’re altered.’).

Beneba Clarke’s voice is clear and simple, reminiscent of a child’s voice. It fits, given that she primarily covers her school years. The voice drives the emotional punch that this memoir delivers, reminding the reader that childhood is a time of innocence, or rather, it’s supposed to be. ‘Maxine, you are a very, very nasty little black girl,’ the mother of Beneba Clarke’s childhood bully informs her when she tries to stand up for herself. This is balanced against the familiarity of childhood, little rituals and moments that all Australian children can relate to – picking out a birthday cake from The Australian Women’s Weekly cake book,  and gathering tadpoles in ice cream buckets at the local creek. I can remember doing all of those things at one point during my childhood, and it made Beneba Clarke’s childhood experiences all the more confronting.

I found the simple refrain of ‘this is how I tell it, or else what’s a story for’ (occasionally a variant of it) to be particularly powerful; simultaneously a reference to her Afro-Caribbean heritage, and a reminder that these anecdotes were chosen with a purpose: to tell a story about growing up as a person of colour in a white society.

This is a powerful memoir, and I would recommend it to everyone. Masterfully written, this is a book that reminds us who we should not be. You cannot read this book and not be affected by its writing. I walked away from it with a sense of shame, and an overwhelming desire to do better.

Have you read The Hate Race? Please leave a message in the comments so we can discuss! I’ve been dying to talk to anyone and everyone about this book.

 

 

The Fifth Letter by Nicola Moriarty

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Title:
The Fifth Letter
Author:
Nicola Moriarty
Publication Date: 20th February 2017
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages:319
Format: Paperback | Purchased
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Rating: ★★★☆☆
Summary (from GR): How do you know if your friends actually like you? Joni, Deb, Eden and Trina try to catch up once a year for some days away together. Now in their thirties, commitments have pulled them in different directions, and the closeness they once enjoyed growing up seems increasingly elusive. This year, determined to revive their intimacy, they each share a secret in an anonymous letter to be read out during the holiday. But instead of bringing them closer, the revelations seem to drive them apart. Then a fifth letter is discovered, venting long-held grudges, and it seems that one of the women is in serious danger. But who was the author? And which of them should be worried? The Fifth Letter examines the bonds of women’s friendship groups, and the loyalty and honesty they demand, along with letting go of relationships that once seemed essential but are now outgrown.

My thoughts: I’m a huge fan of the Moriarty sisters (Nicola is the younger sister of Liane and Jaclyn), and I was so excited to see that Nicola was publishing another book. She has a really distinctive voice that has a certain quirkiness to it. The Fifth Letter is an easy read – I finished it in an afternoon – although it has darker undertones that give it more of an edge than your average chick lit novel (I hate to compare to one of her sisters, but think Liane’s Big Little Lies, although not as extreme). This could’ve so easily entered psychological thriller territory (and I’m a little disappointed it didn’t).

We get the story as a flashback, with Joni recounting the story to a priest, and present day. I’m not sure how I felt about the talks with the priest – I personally would’ve preferred the story without them, but that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with Moriarty’s writing. Moriarty skillfully weaves her story, surprising you with a new twist every few chapters. Each character’s secret is played close to the chest and when the final reveal comes, everything makes sense. Unfortunately, I found the identity of the fifth letter-writer and her reasons for doing so quite far-fetched, and probably the most unbelievable element of the plot.

I would’ve liked to see a little more character development – Deb, Eden and Trina didn’t feel as fleshed out as Joni did. That said, there was a really nice relationship between the four of them, one that anyone who has had a friendship that has lasted a lifetime would relate to. I related to Joni and her attempts to keep her friendship with her high school group alive, because balancing adulthood with maintaining relationships isn’t always the easiest thing in the world – life gets in the way. As can be expected in a book about female relationships, there was a lot of gossip and drama, but it felt realistic and true to character. I do think the dialogue alternated between being a little wooden and a bit cheesy – this isn’t something that Moriarty had a problem with in previous novels, so I was a bit surprised by it.

All in all, this one’s a great summer read – it’s light and easy, and one you’d probably enjoy lying on the beach.

Subscription Box: The YA Chronicles

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Hello! This post is well overdue, seeing as I got this box a couple of days before Gemina was published (no, I haven’t read it yet. Yes, I will eventually).

The premise of book subscription boxes has always intrigued me, but I’ve always been a bit apprehensive about signing up for one. For one, I’m kind of a picky reader, and spend forever agonising over whether or not I should read a book (yet somehow, I always manage to buy a lot of books). The whole point of a book subscription box is to surprise the subscriber, and I’m kind of nervous about the idea of not knowing what book(s) I’m getting.

When I saw the YA Chronicles advertising their Gemina box, I immediately signed up for it. While I was enamored with Illuminae like most of the book blogging community, but thought it had lots of potential and was interested in where it was going. I liked that I knew what book that I was getting, and I was also super excited to support both Australian authors and an Australian business (side note: one of the founders of the YA Chronicles is a friend of a friend of mine, and for the past year I’ve been told to support the YA Chronicles – three birds with one stone!).

So, what came in the box?

  • A copy of Gemina signed by the authors;
  • A letter from the authors;
  • An Illuminae bookmark and an author poster from Allen & Unwin;
  • A Gemina tote bag and Illuminae microfibre pouch
  • A schematic print of the Heimdall ship.

Is it worth buying a subscription box? Well, for me – no. While it was cool to receive a signed copy of the book and a little letter from Amie and Jay, I’m not sure I’d bother subscribing again, if only because I probably won’t be using any of the trinkets that came with it. I can’t justify spending $40 on a signed book (as much as I’d like to…). I’m sure if you’re an avid collector of all things fandom, you’ll adore receiving a subscription box from the YA Chronicles (I’m just less fangirl and more boring adult than I thought I was, and that makes my heart sad).

 

 

Wishlist Wednesday #9

Wishlist Wednesday is a weekly feature hosted by Pen to Paper. Post about one book per week that has been on your wishlist for some time, or just added (it’s entirely up to you), that you can’t wait to get off the wishlist and onto your shelves.

I have spoken many times about how much I adore The Folio Society’s Austen collection. Well, they’ve just released their edition of Persuasion so… get ready to hear a little more about it.

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‘Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch-hall in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage.’ With the opening of Persuasion, we appear to be in known Austen territory: the empty-headed Sir Walter, whose only reading is the Baronetage (mainly the page about himself), promises familiar delights. Yet the atmosphere of this book is as different from Austen’s earlier works as autumn is to spring. Anne Elliot is haunted by her past mistake in turning down her first love, Frederick Wentworth, due to pressure from her family – misplaced persuasion. But a financial calamity will put her, unexpectedly, in the way of a second chance. Jane Austen’s last finished novel, Persuasion shows her at her most moving, powerful and mature. As C. S. Lewis wrote, ‘It is, in a sense in which the other novels are not, a love story.’


 

If you’re not an Austen fan, Persuasion is the book I recommend reading after Pride and Prejudice. It is not ‘light, bright and sparkling’ like Pride and Prejudice – it is a lot more mature, and you can often find it on autumn reading lists. Austen died in the midst of editing it, so it isn’t as polished as her other works – but out of all of her novels, Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion have a fairly similar structure. It’s also the most beautiful love story – sure, Wentworth can be a bit of a jerk, but that man can write a letter.

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Bound in metallic cloth with a matching slip case, and featuring gorgeous colour illustrations, I think I would be terrified to crack open this edition – it is far too beautiful (… and expensive) to be ruined by my clumsy self. It won’t stop me coveting The Folio Society’s Austen collection though.