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Friday, July 21, 2017

An Interview With Vikki Wakefield


My guest today is Vikki Wakefield, award-winning Aussie YA novelist whose recent novel Ballad For A Mad Girl I discovered in my goody bag at Reading Matters and reviewed here. I first met Vikki when she visited my school along with authors Adrian Stirling and Tim Pegler, courtesy of the Centre For Youth Literature and Adele Walshe, the head honcho. She had only one novel under her belt at the time, All I Ever Wanted, but she impressed our students no end with her talk and computer images of the drawings she does while thinking about her stories. Every copy of All I Ever Wanted was checked out immediately after the talk! She tells me she hasn't done sketches for this one, but sent me a photo of her "mood board" , which I have posted below. It's nice to know that Vikki is a fellow "pantser" in her writing(a plotter is someone who plans out their story meticulously ahead of time, eg J.K Rowling and my friend Alison Goodman, a pantser does it "by the seat of the pants", eg Vikki and me!)

Ballad For A Mad Girl is a lovely piece of Gothic fiction which I have passed on to my Gothic fiction-loving niece Dezzy, and is Vikki's first speculative fiction. I hope her publishers will submit it for next year's Aurealis Award for speculative fiction, where it is likely to make the shortlist. 

Without further ado, here is Vikki! 






Let's start with an obvious question: where did the idea for Ballad For A Mad Girl come from?

It was a very different book in the beginning and it only started to come together when I found several boxes of old research papers. Many years ago I used to save stories based on urban legendsーI would try to trace more modern incarnations back to their origins to see how stories (passed through generations) had changed. I read through the entire box and got lost in them. That was when I first knew I wanted to include supernatural/horror elements and the story began to evolve from straight contemporary into something else.
Each of your books is different. For example, this one is Australian Gothic, the last one was about some characters who fix up an old drive-in cinema, your first one was humorous ... Will you be trying something different each time, or would you like to do a bit more of the same?

Someone once said most writers tell the same story, over and over, and to some extent I think that's trueーmy books are all similar in tone and underlying themes. On the other hand, they're quite separate from each other, too (in plot, character, language and structure). So, while I do attempt to write a unique book each time, when I'm rewriting there's a centrifugal force that pulls my stories in a similar direction regardless of my intentions. (It's probably a combination of instinct and fascination that makes this happen.) I can only promise I'll write many more YA books, but I never know what they are until they're finishedーthankfully, the YA readership is pretty open to writers who work this way.
You have mentioned in our chats on Twitter that the pipe in this novel was based on a real one not far from where you live - and that you had played on it as a child. Were there ever any "pipe challenges" or was that strictly fiction?




Yes, the pipe is real. There were no pipe challenges (as in time trials) but crossing the stormwater pipe was a rite of passage and it did sort the 'brave' from the 'scaredy cats'. I moved away from the suburb I grew up in but I've since moved backーnow I live very close to the old quarry where I used to play as a kid. When the area was developed the landscape changed dramatically and I assumed the pipe was no longer there. I only re-discovered it recently while I was walking my dog, and it reminded me of the foolish things I did to impress my friends (and enemies). I ended up rewriting the first chapter of Ballad for a Mad Girl to include the pipe crossingーit seemed like the perfect scene to begin a story about overcoming fear.




How much, if any, of this novel is inspired by where you grew up?

I grew up in the outer northern suburbs of Adelaide (the setting of All I Ever Wanted). Swanston and Möbius (from Inbetween Days) are inspired by the country towns I've lived in (places where everyone knows everybody's business and old feuds are generational), and my characters are loosely based on people I knew growing up. I have my setting in mind long before I understand my characters well enough to write about them and, because I write about teens on the verge of adulthood, I find my own teen experiences are the greatest source of inspiration.
Small town life is very different from city life. Do you think any of your characters would ever live somewhere else? (At one point, your heroine, Grace, says that her friend Kenzie is likely to succeed outside)

Kenzie is the most determined to succeed, but Grace is the restless oneーshe's more likely to move on than any of her friends. I think she would chase the original dream. I see her leaving Swanston while the others stay. 
This is a murder mystery as much as a supernatural story - did it take a lot of plotting before you got started?

Not so much before I got started (I tend to plan fairly loosely, leaving plenty of room for discovery), but once the first draft was complete it took a while to plug the plot holes I'd created. It meant cutting a few sub-plots and tightening the structure until the threads came together. As someone who doesn't rely heavily on plot, I found it challenging to allow plot to reveal character rather than the other way around. I was also aware there were two distinct reader perspectives in this storyーthat of the believer, and the non-believerーand I wanted to make sure both were validated. It was tough to find that balance; it taught me how to step away from the story and let go of my own convictions.
Actually, what is your writing process - plotter or pantser? Details, please!

I plot in my head (and that can take up to a year of doodling and daydreaming) but once I start writing I make it up as I go. Nothing ever goes to plan. I don't find the essence of a story until I'm well into my second or third draft (I edit as I write, so a draft takes forever), but I've learned to be patient. It comes when it comes. And by essence, I mean the premiseーI think the premise is for the writer, not the reader, because it's the underlying belief that holds the tension in a story. 
Grace has some very loyal friends, even though she scares them for a while. Who, if any, is your favourite? (I have to say, I'd like friends like Kenzie and Gummer!)

Gummer is lovely, and he's based on a real person, so he was easy (well, not easy, but true) to write. Kenzie is the friend who does the best she can, but when she falls in love she can't help but give a piece of herself to someone else. Grace doesn't handle that well (and she knows), but she tries to make up for it. She's a difficult friend to haveーGummer and Kenzie are the antidote, but they're both so grounded they were never potential main characters. They wouldn't have such a compelling story to tell. 
Is there an Australian book you've read recently that you have wished you had written? (Or just admired)

There are so many I admire! The most recent Australian YA book I wish I'd written is The Stars at Oktober Bend by Glenda Millard. I love all her work, but Alice's voice is particularly enchanting and Glenda's commitment to it is masterful. I also loved The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Lagunaーanother voice I found utterly compelling from start to finish.
Finally, are you working on anything right now?

I always have two or three projects on the go, whether they're in the daydreaming stages or slowly taking shape on the page. I tend to concentrate on whichever story calls loudestーI'm working solidly on a YA novel from the perspective of a sixteen-year-old boy right now, but I have a middle grade novel in the works too. Aside from writing novels, I recently spent a month working with illustrator Dan McGuiness and a group of SA primary school students on a progressive book. It's called 'The Carisbrooke Creek War' (theme: gender equality) and it'll be published in The Advertiser newspaper during  the last week of July.

Vikki's mood board


And here's where you can buy it on line! It is also available from Amazon.

Thanks for dropping in on The Great Raven, Vikki! 

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Laws Of Magic - Steampunk Rules!



The Laws Of Magic is a series of six steampunk novels by Aussie YA novelist Michael Pryor. Michael Pryor is a wonderful writer anyway, but I think these six books are his masterpiece. They are witty and exciting, with barely a stop for breath. And the worldbuilding is amazing. I discovered them several years ago, when the first novel, A Blaze Of Glory, first came out.

How can you not love a book that begins with the sentence,"Aubrey Fitzwilliam hated being dead"? Tell me that doesn't draw the reader right in!

The series is set in an alternative universe Edwardian England, except it's called Albion and the royal family is not the one we know. Magic is a part of everyday life. Even the technology is based on it. In one scene the hero, Aubrey, sneers at going out to see a sleight-of-hand artist on stage, because it's probably just ordinary magic, not sleight-of-hand at all. 

And someone is planning huge-scale death magic for his own benefit, and the best way to get that going is by starting what, in our universe, is known as World War I.

Fortunately the world has Aubrey Fitzwilliam, his friend George and Caroline, the girl Aubrey adores. 

But Aubrey is starting from behind. He's a magical genius, but stuffed up an experiment in death magic he was trying before the novel began and consequently is - well, technically dead. He is having a hard time keeping his soul from leaving his body. 

However, Aubrey, Caroline and George have plenty on their plates while Aubrey is trying to find a way - literally! -  to keep body and soul together. As the series goes on, the Great War begins and they need to focus on stopping the villain. 

I love all the characters in this series. George is the calm and competent one who keeps Aubrey from going overboard. He likes cooking; in one of the novels, when the characters find themselves in a place where they can live their fantasies, George's fantasy is to be cooking for lots of people. Caroline is the kick-ass young woman who manages to fight anything from a villainous human to a dinosaur in her elegant costume. (And yes, there are dinosaurs in the second novel, Heart Of Gold, which is set in Lutetia, this world's version of Paris).

That's another thing. In this Edwardian era, women may not yet have the vote, but they can be scientists or famous artists or explorers or whatever, and nobody thinks it's odd. The women in Aubrey's family are all strong, including his grandmother. No wonder he likes his women - or woman - strong and intelligent. But George too finds a strong, intelligent girlfriend, Sophie, a trainee journalist. 

And the books are funny, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. I lent a copy of Blaze Of Glory to one of our students, who told me her mother had come running to find out what was going on when she was reading it; it was just the girl laughing out loud. 

One other thing: Aubrey is oddly like Miles Vorkosigan in personality, if you can imagine Miles as tall and more or less healthy(if you don't count the fact that he's technically dead) and living on one planet instead of travelling through space. In fact, I asked the author and he did agree that he is a fan of the Vorkosigan saga. 

So, if you like Miles Vorkosigan and can imagine him in Edwardian England instead of out in space, this series may just be for you! Even if you don't, read these anyway - they will keep you chuckling through the dullest day! 

And here is where you can buy them!

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Matters Arising From The Identification Of The Body by Simon Petrie.Sydney: Peggy Bright, 2017



I bought this from the author as he was staffing the Peggy Bright Books table at this year's Continuum convention. Peggy Bright Books is one of Australia's many small presses that specialise in speculative fiction. Because the big presses in this country are mostly sticking to Fat Fantasy Trilogies, it's up to small press to publish science fiction.

I like hard SF and I like crime fiction. Simon Petrie, a physicist, knows his science and is an enthusiastic reader and writer of crime fiction - in his case, SF crime fiction. Usually it's humorous, but this one is utterly serious. 

Guerline Scarfe is a forensic psychologist living on Titan, where there is a colony. Her latest case: a girl who has gone out into Titan's freezing, lethal atmosphere and pulled off the helmet of her spacesuit. Why would a well-balanced girl with no particular reason for committing suicide do so? And why in that particular manner? As Guerline says, it's a nasty way to die. 

Guerline Scarfe is determined to find out, no matter how many people are trying to stop her, some in lethal ways. That, of course, is a standard trope in crime fiction, but no less enjoyable for it. And it is a very good piece of writing and I will be reading the next one if I get the chance. 

My only two gripes with this are as follows: firstly, the title. I have a copy and kept forgetting it. Something shorter and simpler next time! Please! Secondly, there were some scenes which told us about the heroine's background, but didn't really move the story forward. However, I'm going to assume that these will play a more important role in the next book.

Still, a well-written piece of crime fiction in a believable world. I finished it in about two sittings and I only took that long because I had other commitments. 

Buy it at Amazon, here,  or from the Peggy Bright web site here.  The publisher web site also offers the ebook edition. 

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Just Finished Reading... Ballad For A Mad Girl by Vikki Wakefield. Melbourne: Text, 2017


I received this book courtesy of Text Publishing, in my Reading Matters conference goody bag. I was a bit surprised, because it was a very new book, just published this year. I think Text has been doing a huge promo for this book; I saw a number of reviews on Goodreads whose authors mentioned they had received it in a giveaway. Of course, those might have been eARCs, or even just ebooks, but this is a print copy and there were several hundred attendees at the conference. That's a lot to give away, and not even proof copies! 

So I thought it deserves a review of sorts, even a chatty, informal one like this - and I hope to do a more formal version for January Magazine, which really prefers to review books published recently, so I can't review CBCA shortlisted books for them. It will probably  end up on next year's CBCA shortlist anyway, and I'm betting it will be on the Aurealis shortlist too, if not the Ditmars. 

So, what is it about? In a small town called Swanston(I'm guessing in South Australia, where the author lives)is a girl called Grace Foley. Her mother was knocked over and killed by a car a couple of years ago, and the family - Grace, her Dad and her brother Cody - moved from their farm into town, where they are still grieving.

Grace does pranks for her friends. Currently, she is grounded for one of them, but being grounded doesn't stop her from responding to a text message persuading her to do something called a "pipe challenge." 

Swanston - or Swamptown, as the kids call it - has a gorge nearby, crossed by a pipe. Teenagers have been going there forever and students from the state secondary school are competing with those from the private school next door, Sacred Heart. The challenge involves getting safely across the pipe in record time. Grace holds the current record. 

But this time, something strange happens on her way back. She doesn't remember what it was, but for a short time she has been seeing something different from her friends - something very different. 

Soon, Grace realises that she has become possessed. She finds herself bruised for no obvious reason, the gentle, placid dog is snarling at her and she is drawing pictures in art class of a girl who disappeared twenty years ago. She was believed to have been murdered by a boy who apparently stalked her and looked in through her bedroom window, but there was not enough evidence to convict him. However, he had jumped into the gorge a year later and died. There is a ghost who is possessing Grace, one who won't go away until she has found out what happened and the ghost has had justice. 

But it isn't just a ghost story. It's about Grace and her friends, and how she learns to move on, and acknowledge she hasn't treated them well in recent months. It's about her family and coming to terms with what happened to their mother. They feel responsible because they didn't worry when she was late coming home. 

Oh, and there is a twist near the end, so please don't do the DNF thing. Read and finish! Even if you are annoyed with Grace! She is annoying, but there are reasons - and she admits that she has been doing the wrong thing by her friends. (Which is no excuse for what one of her friendship group does to her)

It is interestingly like CBCA shortlisted novel Yellow in some ways. Both books are set in a small town, where everyone knows everyone else and anything you say is likely to be all over town in a short time. Both have a ghost in them and both have something dreadful that happened over twenty years ago, and a heroine who is investigating it. But this one is scarier and the heroine is under much more pressure to solve it, because the ghost won't go away till she does, whereas in Yellow, she just has to keep away from the phone booth from which she hears the ghost boy's voice, and she does for a while. And unlike Yellow, which was set in the 1990s, this one is set well and truly in the present day, where kids all have their own phones instead of relying on adults, where anything that happens is all over Facebook and you can be hurt when you're unfriended on Facebook by a lifelong friend. Grace only has to google information about what happened during that tragedy twenty years ago, instead of having to read old newspapers. 

And both have a twist at the end.

But to be honest, I prefer this one to Yellow, though that one was good. If you've read these two books, what do you think? 

Saturday, July 01, 2017

CBCA Shortlist #5 and #6: Captain Jimmy Cook Discovers Third Grade And Dragonfly Song



So, as I have read these two nominees a long time ago, and reviewed Captain Jimmy Cook and interviewed the author of Dragonfly Song, I thought it might be best to simply give you the links. Of course, I wasn't thinking of them as shortlisted books at the time! 





So, what did I think? Captain Jimmy Cook was great fun. There has since then been a sequel, Captain Jimmy Cook Discovers: X Marks The Spot. I have given them both to a book loving younger family member, Eden. Eden is in Year 2, but reading at a much higher level. However, the story themes do appeal to even a good reader who is about Jimmy Cook's age.

Dragonfly Song is set in the ancient Minoan civilisation and follows the adventures of a heroine who is suffering elective mutism, as she becomes a bull dancer. Unlike in Mary Renault's The King Must Die, in which the youngest member of Theseus's team is fourteen, these bull dancers are twelve or thirteen - and they actively compete for the honour, while those in The King Must Die are tributes who believe they are going to be thrown to a monster. Those in Dragonfly Song train and exercise and the best are chosen to go to Crete for the bull dance. 

The youth of the dancers in Dragonfly Song makes good sense. Children are far more flexible than adults; just check out those "women's" gymnast teams at the Olympics, made up of kids who can't be much beyond primary school, some still in primary school. If you live in Australia, you've probably heard of the Flying Fruitfly Circus, a team of child acrobats who do the most amazing feats. In fact, my school used to have a Circus program for our EAL students, many of whom were asylum seekers with dreadful memories who needed a chance to play. After only a few weeks, they performed for their schoolmates and they were wonderful. So, yes, children being bull dancers works for me.

Likewise, the behaviour of the bulls. Wendy Orr knows about these animals, having spent twenty years on a dairy farm with her husband. She says that sometimes the "tame" bulls are more dangerous than wild ones, because they know what to expect and can't be as easily fooled.

But look, why not just go and read both posts? I think these are both strong books. One of our students who read Dragonfly Song said she loved it. That has to count for something! 

CBCA Shortlist #4: Mrs Whitlam by Bruce Pascoe. Magabala Books, 2016




This is in the Younger Readers category of this year's shortlist. Younger Readers books vary from picture storybooks to books that most people would consider YA, but this short book is only eighty pages long and definitely falls in the middle grade category, though the heroine is in her teens.

Marnie is a horsy girl, incidentally Koori(the author is Koori and the imprint exists to publish indigenous work). On the very first page, the grief-stricken mother of a schoolmate who has died offers her the girl's horse, Mrs Margaret Whitlam, aka Maggie, a part-Clydesdale, begging her to take the animal off her hands, because it's just too much to look at her and remember. Oddly, it isn't because the late Vicki died in a riding accident, but I guess if you had to look after, feed and exercise a huge part-Clydesdale every day, you couldn't help remembering. 

Marnie is thrilled to be the owner of such a gorgeous horse - and I have to say, Maggie is the sort of horse I would have loved to have had as a horsy child, reading pony novels by the Pullein-Thompson sisters, if I hadn't been living in a flat, a long way from pastures and stables... She is huge and cuddly and loving. And before the novel is over, she has also been heroic. What's not to love? 

Luckily for Marnie, she is able to keep Maggie at the local riding school, where she hangs around and helps out, a good thing, as horses are expensive!  (That, of course, was something I never considered as I put away my pocket money for a horse...). The riding school owner is a wise older man who knows everyone in the district, including the apparently snobby girl who makes Marnie unwelcome at the pony club, but who has her own troubles. 

The reader is introduced to Marnie's large, cheerful family, and I feel sure that in a book for older readers it would be interesting to read about them, but they come and go and suddenly the book is over, with Marnie potentially an item with the school hunk, a surfer and a terribly nice, kind boy, who helps her out in a rescue. 

Really, not a lot happens or has time to happen, but I imagine horse-loving girls in the later years of primary school will drool over Maggie the horse. I know this middle-aged teacher-librarian did. 

Will it get far in the CBCAs? Hard to tell. I have only read two of the other contenders. One is the wonderful Dragonfly Song by Wendy Orr, and that is a book I think really belongs in the Older Readers category, not sure why it's with the Younger Readers. The other is Captain Jimmy Cook Discovers Third Grade. That one is good fun, in a Diary Of A Wimpy Kid style, but not really, in my opinion, awards material. However, I'm not one of the judges. Possibly the YABBA Awards, which are voted on by children, yes, but the CBCA Awards are judged by adults.

If there was a Morris Gleitzman Once novel on the list this year, it would be very likely to win, but the next book in the series, Maybe, is still cooking... There is a Holocaust novel by Robyn Bavati which I really should get, as our students love their Holocaust fiction and there's no new Morris Gleitzman book yet. Mind you, Gleitzman's hero, Felix, has survived the war and now has other troubles in post-war Poland. 

Still, let's see how this horse story goes over!

Thursday, June 29, 2017

CBCA Shortlist #2: Yellow by Megan Jacobson. Melbourne: Penguin, 2016




"Yellow" is the nickname of Kirra Barley, given to her because of her unusual eye colour, by her father, whose nickname is Lark, because in his teens he used to lark around a lot, nothing to do with the bird. Actually, there are a number of characters with nicknames in this book and Lark is the only one whose real name we are never told.

But Kirra's surfer father, a genuine dole bludger, has run off with the Avon lady, or at least, the door to door cosmetics seller, only a couple of months ago, and set up a home only three blocks away, which is not good in such a small town, where everybody knows and gossips about everybody.  Kirra's mother, Judy, has been living at the bottom of her gin bottle ever since, though it turns out later that it isn't only Lark's betrayal that has caused it. To tell you more would be spoilers.

Kirra's home troubles are bad enough, but she also has bullying troubles at school, with girls who are supposed to be her friends, but are the local Mean Girls. She finds herself being befriended by the school Bad Girl, Willow, who doesn't care what anyone thinks of her and gives the thumb to whatever or whoever she doesn't like. She teaches Kirra a lot and helps her confidence.

Then, one day, she answers a ringing in a telephone box that was supposed to have been removed years ago, and finds herself talking to the ghost of a teenage boy who died twenty years ago and claims to have been murdered. In return for her help in bringing his killer to justice, he will help her overcome some of her problems, though only with advice, of course, since how much physical help can a ghost give from the afterlife? The boy, who calls himself Boogie, has been unable to move on and is going crazy from loneliness.  

Really, it's a story about life in a small town on the coast, where everyone has been living for  the last couple of generations, never moving out, which gives it a faint flavour of Back To The Future. It's the story of a girl who learns to overcome the bullies and make real friends and help her mother. The fantastical elements are a bonus, but not, repeat not, a tacked-on element. They belong. 

I began to suspect who Boogie was when Kirra was talking to the town librarian, a nice old lady who remembered everyone from her parents' generation. I was a little disappointed that Kirra's research in the old newspapers was interrupted abruptly and never resumed. But there was a reason for it. 

And it was made clear that things - and people - aren't always what they seem. 

Interesting that it was set in the 1990s. A number of "contemporary" books have been set in the 1980s and 90s recently. I suppose it does help if the characters can't go on line to do research or make an urgent phone call with their own mobiles; in one scene, Kirra is wondering if the whole Boogie thing was set up by the bullies using their parents' mobile phones, because this is before teens had their own. And, as in Back To The Future, the parents had to have been there in a certain era.

Did I like it? Yes. I finished it more or less in one sitting. It's easy, comfortable reading. Do I think kids would like it? Perhaps. I think they might prefer Frankie. This one is a bit preachier than Frankie: "Be yourself! Don't believe people are what they look like!" And so on. 

We'll see how it goes over when I return it to the library. 

CBCA Shortlist #3: The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon. Hachette, 2016



Subhi is a refugee. Born in an Australian permanent detention centre after his mother fled the violence of a distant homeland, life behind the fences is all he has ever known. But as he grows, his imagination gets bigger too, until it is bursting at the limits of his world. The night sea brings him gifts, the faraway whales sing to him, and the birds tell their stories.

The most vivid story of all, however, is the one that arrives one night in the form of Jimmie, a scruffy, impatient girl who appears from the other side of the wires, and brings a notebook written by the mother she lost. Unable to read it, she relies on Subhi to unravel her own family's love songs and tragedies.

Subhi and Jimmie might both find a way to freedom, as their tales unfold. But not until each of them has been braver than ever before.


Oh, dear, what to say? It is so very sad! The author says in the afterword that she wishes this book didn't have to be written, that the story and characters are fictional, but the issues aren't. It's true, too. We read about it every day in the papers, whatever we can still get, since the government has threatened prosecution to anyone who has worked in these places and spoken out about them. You know - "fake news"? All I can say is, I didn't vote for them!

And the thought of a child actually born in one of these places is truly awful.

But for Subhi, it's all he knows. He makes the best of his situation. When the human rights advocates come to inspect the camp from time to time, the inmates know they will get a decent meal or two, and Subhi pretends it's for his birthday. His imagination frees him and one day a girl from Outside, whose mother has died and father is grieving with her, smuggles the Outside into the camp, along with hot chocolate and a book written by hand by her beloved mother, with the fantastical story of the bone sparrow she wears around her neck, given to her by her mother just before she died. Because of all the moving around she has done, Jimmie hasn't had time to learn to read, so she asks Subhi, whose English is fine(born there, remember?) and who can read, to read it to her. The story he reads is a part of the narrative, a sub-narrative about Jimmie's ancestors.

The characters are drawn with care and love. There is even one decent camp guard, Harvey, who looks after Subhi when he needs it and fills a rubber pool for the children in the hottest weather. When it's time for Subhi to have his say about a tragedy that had occurred, he knows he will have to involve Harvey, who witnessed it, but Harvey lets him know it's the right thing to do.

And there's a rubber ducky, the Shakespeare duck, which makes snarky comments from Subhi's pocket, in his imagination. This brings a little much-needed humour to an otherwise terribly sad story.

It rather reminds me of Morris Gleitzman in style, sort of Boy Overboard and Girl Underground meets Once. If you liked those books, you will find much to like in this one. I believe the kids will like it too. I'll be recommending it.

Meanwhile, I can only hope that this year's CBCA shortlist has at least two books with some real humour in them(I know there's one, Words In Deep Blue); for this one, stock up on the boxes of tissues!
 

Friday, June 23, 2017

CBCA Shortlist #1: Frankie by Shivaun Plozza.




Once again I'm making my way through the shortlist, at least the Older Readers. I've just finished this one and borrowed Yellow by Megan Jacobson. Of course, I read Dragonfly Song ages ago, when I got it for reviewing - check out my interview with the author here! Waer by Meg Caddy is currently out, but no rush. I have The Bone Sparrow and Words In Deep Blue, by the wonderful Cath Crowley, on my iPad - I'm keeping the latter for dessert, though I've started it. I suspect I'm going to need it after some depressing stuff. I could be wrong. I hope I am. But every year the CBCA choose at least two or three depressing titles for their shortlist. That said, kids often like depressing books. I've even been asked for them!

What to say about Frankie, a debut novel that has already scored its author a place on the shortlist and an invitation to be a GoH at the Reading Matters conference this year?

It's set on the grubbier side of Collingwood, a formerly working class suburb of Melbourne which, AFAIK, is becoming more gentrified than the novel suggests. But then, I don't live there, and I did once live in St Kilda, which has large numbers of people living in poverty, yet has house prices that reflect its location next to the sea. Go figure. Collingwood is near prettier parts of the city, not far from the river and has the Collingwood Children's Farm, which features in the novel as the place where the heroine was abandoned by her drug-taking, irresponsible mother, at the age of four, to run off with her current boyfriend.

So. Frankie is Francesca Vega, daughter of the irresponsible Juliet Vega, in Year 12 at the local secondary school, but on an indefinite suspension because she broke the nose of a nasty boy with a hardback Works Of Shakespeare. She won't tell anyone what he said to earn the assault, not even her best friend, Cara, or her loving aunt Vinnie, who has brought her up since that abandonment - and whom she has disappointed time after time.

And one day, a fourteen year old boy called Xavier arrives in her life and tells her he is her kid brother, well, half brother. And suddenly Frankie's life in her aunt's Kebab Emporium has changed for good. Xavier is someone she can care about, a gifted artist who wants to make her happy. He's also in big trouble. Huge trouble! He owes money to people who are likely to take it out of his hide. He is a thief. But he is her kid brother and when he disappears she has to go looking for him, with the help of Nate, a boy who looks like Shia LaBeouf and to whom Xavier owes money. Fortunately for her, he's a burglar...

It's good, no question about it. The grubbiness of the area is well described, though I should reassure any readers from outside of Melbourne that a visit to Smith St will give them plenty of restaurants and other such treats, not land them in the middle of drug deals the minute they get off the tram,  and that it's not far from very pretty places by the river, such as the above mentioned children's farm. But it makes you feel the dirt and despair of the heroine's living space - in fact, her own home is about the only one in the book that isn't filthy and broken down and even that is a sort of shabby place above the shop.

Frankie's family, such as it is, seems to be unlucky from the start. Apart from her mother, her uncle is deservedly in jail and even her decent aunt has had bad luck with the men in her life. But Vinnie wants better for her niece and is frustrated that Frankie apparently won't help herself get out of the kebab shop into university.  

The characters are well drawn. Frankie has the right kind of snarkiness to make the reader like her, and she cares, really cares, about a younger brother she has met only three times, not under the best of circumstances, to make her risk her own future to find him. 

Her friend Cara is just the sort of person we all want for a best friend, who,is always in her corner, and when they hang out, sometimes doing unwise things such as drinking Vinnie's vodka, you still get the feeling of two very intelligent young women. 

Nate, the young burglar, is maybe a little too good to be true, and when the obvious attraction blossoms, you do have to wonder what kind of a future there could be for them, given his lifestyle and where he is living(a squat)and the fact that he hasn't really any other options at this stage. 

So, did I like it? Absolutely! I think the girls will like it too - in fact, the Year 8 girl who borrowed it first enjoyed it very much. I got through it quickly and easily. There's plenty of meat for class discussion if, like my school, you're looking for a new class text, for, as it might be, Year 10. 

Would I read it again? Possibly not. A matter of personal taste and it doesn't, for me, have the sweetness of Will Kostakis or Cath Crowley's books. But again - personal taste. And I suspect that anyone who can score a shortlist and a festival appearance on a first novel has a strong career ahead!