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Just a quick post in the midst of furiously finishing uni assignments to announce some exciting news …

My very first novel – The Peacock Detectives – has been shortlisted for The Text Prize

&

will be published by Text Publishing!

The Peacock Detectives is a novel for middle-grade readers (roughly ages 8 to 12) about a young girl searching for two peacocks that disappear from the holiday flats next door. Ostensibly a mystery, The Peacock Detectives is really about family, grief and coping with mental illness.

I first started working on The Peacocks in 2012 while I was living in Asia. Huge thanks to the dedicated members of Seoul Writers Workshop and Phnom Penh Writers Workshop for their thoughtful and constructive feedback. Thanks also to all those family members, students and friends (and children of friends!) who read drafts and shared their thoughts.

And of course thank you to Text! I’m incredibly excited about the opportunity to work with this wonderful publisher.

Finally, congratulations to the other three shortlistees – Adam Cece, Sharon Kernot and Brendan Lawley. I’m looking forward to meeting you all in May and reading your work!

Okay, excited post over. Resuming assignments … now.

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peacock artwork by Emma Manning

When I was in high school I thought themes were mysterious secrets locked inside novels, short stories, poems. Discovering them was like solving a cryptic crossword clue – finding a word to fit the boxes but never being exactly sure of the connection between the answer and the question. For a while I relied on teachers or Google to reveal the themes of a novel to me. It has taken probably ten years to wrap my head around what I really mean when I talk about themes – and it has taken teaching ‘theme’ to finally allow me to articulate it.

So. Articulate away then, Carly. What’s a theme?

Theme

  • A theme is a big idea in a novel (or short story, film, poem, play etc).

  • It is a big idea that recurs throughout a novel. Not just once or twice.

  • It is a big idea in the sense that it is broad and abstract: something universal (experienced by everyone) and yet subjective (experienced differently by everyone).

  • It is a big idea in the sense that everyone would – if they had to draw the idea – create a slightly different picture.

  • Some examples of big ideas (i.e. themes) are: love, identity, death.

  • It is a big idea PLUS the author’s interpretation/opinion of that idea. For example: love PLUS/+ takes many different forms and changes over time.

  • A novel is itself a specific example of a theme. A novel is a picture of the big idea. One person’s (the author’s) drawing of what this idea is about.

  • Novels have themes (big, over-arching ideas) and characters, narrative, setting (small, specific examples of themes).

  • Themes are found by looking at these examples (characters, narrative etc) and thinking about what keeps coming up. What are the characters preoccupied with, for example? In Burial Rites, why are there so many mentions of ravens? What sort of theme (big idea) might this be an example of?

Another way of thinking about – and figuring out – theme is to look at plot structure. I like to think about plot as a mountain shape – the story begins at the bottom of the mountain, a problem starts the climb, rising action is the climb, the climax sits at the top, and falling action is the descent. However, when a story comes back down its mountain it doesn’t end up at exactly the same level as it did when it began. This is because, although things go back to normal for the protagonist, it is a new normal. Something has changed – permanently – because of the story, because of the journey she or he has taken.

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In order to decide on the major theme of a novel it is sometimes useful to think about the following equation:

what has changed for the protagonist

+

why

=

theme

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

I first read Burial Rites last year, based on a friend’s recommendation. It was very different to what I was expecting. I think, because Hannah Kent is an Australian author, I was imagining something set in the bush, the outback, the Aussie suburbs. Needless to say, 1820s Iceland was a surprise.

20170326_152622I liked Burial Rites after the first read. I thought the story was interesting, well-paced; I thought the writing was beautiful and crisp. I liked it, but I was not really invested in it. I felt like there was more to it, and that it warranted a second read. I wasn’t, however, planning to read it again. There are so many books on my shelf that haven’t had a first read. In a perfect world, I would love to read every book twice. There is something so different about a second read, but I just don’t have time.

Burial Rites is a Year 12 text, and I happen to be tutoring a few Year 12 students. So it was out of necessity, rather than choice, that I came to read Burial Rites a second time. And after the second read things really started to seep into me. So much so that by the end – knowing exactly how it would end – I was moved almost to tears.

The second read of a novel is where theme really starts to come into focus. Because you know the story you can concentrate on the details – on the description, the characters, the repeated moments, the structure of the narrative. You can highlight and scribble notes in the margins, and begin to see the symbolic shape of the novel rather than just its events.

One of the big ideas that recurs throughout Burial Rites – that starts to become clear during a second read – is identity. The very structure of the novel – told in third person from a number of different points of view – hints at this. So does the main character’s – Agnes – need to tell her story, to let people know who she is, to confirm her own identity.

Identity is a universal idea. Everyone has an identity, and everyone attempts to understand the identities of people around them. It is also a specific, subjective idea. Everyone thinks differently about how to define themselves and those around them. Do we understand identity by looking at physical appearance, by listening to what people say about themselves, or what others say about them?

Trying to understand what Hannah Kent thinks about the theme of identity (her opinion or the value she places on it) is a little trickier. To find out, we can look at how she presents the journeys of her main characters. How they are changed through the course of the story, and what this says about who they are.

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Let’s focus on Agnes. How is she different by the end of the novel to the beginning? Most obviously, she is alive at the beginning and dead at the end. Her physical state has changed. But what about her mental state?

Burial Rites is – in a very large sense – the story of a woman trying to come to terms with the fact that she is going to die. She is preparing for death, getting ready. At the beginning of the novel she is not ready to die. At the end – though she is still terrified of her execution – something has changed. She has made some peace, she has found people who support her, who don’t believe she deserves to die. She has gone from being alone in her death, to being with others.

Why? What was it that changed these circumstances for Agnes?

I would argue that it was the fact that she was able to tell her own story. To show people who she was through action (her hard work on the farm, her care for others) but also through her own words.

So – what has changed? Agnes is accepted, supported, has her identity confirmed by others.

+

Why? Because she was allowed to demonstrate her identity through words and actions.

=

Theme: True identity is discovered through being given the freedom to express ourselves through how we tell our own stories, and through what we do.

Of course, all this is open to interpretation. There is no fixed rule about how to find themes in texts – this post is an illustration of my own personal approach, of an approach that works for me. As long as you can support your own thematic opinions with evidence from the text, anything you say is valid.

Some people feel that by analysing novels we destroy them, draining all the pleasure out of a good story by picking away too closely at the details. For me, however, looking closely at a text (reading it again, highlighting, note-taking, discussing, thinking) adds another layer to my experience that is so much richer. I like analysing novels for the same reason I write about them here on this blog – because it gets me to think deeper, and in thinking deeper I inevitably find something that surprises, inspires or simply changes my ideas. This is a process that I find both enjoyable and important to the way I grow as a person, the way I interact with the world. Searching for meaning in a novel like Burial Rites adds another thread of meaning to my own life. It’s a search that enriches, engrosses, and lasts a lifetime.

Burial Rites is Hannah Kent’s first novel, and is based on the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person to be executed in Iceland. Kent’s latest novel – The Good People – was published in 2016.

My car is full of 90s mix-tapes. Driving in Australia has become an exercise in nostalgia: Rage Against the Machine, Spice Girls, Take That, the Scatman. Each song carries with it a high school memory: a party, a friendship, a boy, a fight. It is a strange form of time travel.

It’s been eight years since I’ve lived in Australia. Eight years since I’ve had a fixed Aussie address, tax file number, bank account. Coming back toimg_20161214_182114 Australia from Southeast Asia creates a kind of reverse culture shock. We are surprised when cars slow down for us at pedestrian crossings, shocked by the seemingly exorbitant price of mangos, and confused by the workings of local government. It’s a tricky transition, but an exciting one. There is the thrill of fresh air, of bird song, of having a backyard that borders the bush. And, of course, there is the joy that comes with reuniting with family and friends.

We’ve moved back to my home town, where my parents still live. We are renting the house across the street from where I grew up, and earlier this year I did a teaching placement at my old high school. In a way it’s like slipping into a parallel universe – the same place, but a very different life. The same birds (kookaburras, king parrots, currawongs), the same trees (gums, pines, wattles), the same mammals and reptiles (kangaroos, possums, blue-tongues). But instead of walking to school I’m driving; instead of studying for SACs and exams I’m teaching for them. I pay rent and bills and (try to) remember to put petrol in the car. Suddenly I’m living a ‘grown-up’ existence in a place where I was always a kid. Needless to say, it’s taking some getting used to.

We moved here for a number of reasons. We moved in such a hurry because university said I had to. Since February I’ve been studying a Master of Teaching (basically a one-year diploma with an extra six months of research tacked on the end). I could write an entire post on this course – on how it’s taken over my life, on the disconnection between theory and practice, on the wonderfully hard-working teachers I’ve met on placement. But, to be honest, I need a break from all-things-uni. Perhaps when it’s all done in mid-2017 I’ll be able to write about the experience with some objectivity.

As busy as it’s been, working as a pre-service English teacher has allowed me to dive back into reading. In the last year – for my teaching placements – I’ve read: Hating Alison Ashley by Robin Klein and 20160429_125519Dragonkeeper by Carole Wilkinson (Year 7); Hatchet by Gary Paulsen and Tomorrow When The War Began by John Marsden (Year 8); Deadly Unna by Phillip Gwynne, Parvana by Deborah Ellis, Private Peaceful by Michael Murpurgo, Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare and Galax-Arena by Gillian Rubinstein (Year 9); The Secret River by Kate Grenville, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Happiest Refugee by Ahn Do, 12 Angry Men by Reginald Rose and First They Killed My Father by Luong Ung (Year 10); Macbeth by William Shakespeare, The Turning by Tim Winton, Animal Farm by George Orwell and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Year 11); The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Life of Galileo by Bertolt Brecht, The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville and This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff (Year 12).

Somehow I also managed to read quite a few non-school books, mostly thanks to the local library. To be honest, I stopped keeping track after a while, but the ones I did write down included The Tiger’s Wife by Tea O’Breht, Dark Places by Gillian Flynn, After the Flood by Margaret Atwood (the sequel to Oryx and Crake), Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell and Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer.

If I had to choose a favourite book for 2016, it would be Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. A novel by an Australian author, set in Iceland in 1829. A little slow moving at times, but very atmospheric. Lovely descriptions of weather and the landscape. There is a compelling mystery at the heart of the story that kept me up late. In many ways, Burial Rites feels simple – a very readable novel about a crime committed, about relationships and place. However, there is a lot left to the imagination, too. The powerlessness of individuals in the face of the law, the relationship between Iceland and Denmark, the impact of religion. This is a novel that cries out to be re-read.

When uni became too much I retreated to my hard drive, and watched Sleeping Sickness (2011, director Ulrich Kohler), Secret Sunshine (2007, Lee Chang-dong), Sound of My Voice (2011, Zal Batmanglij), Narcos (TV series, 2015-, created by Carlo Bernard, Chris Brancato and Doug Miro), Through the Forest (2005, Jean-Paul Civeyrac), Vinyan (2008, Fabrice Du Welz), The Girlfriend Experience (2009, Steven Soderbergh), They Might Be Giants (1971, Anthony Harvey), London to Brighton (2006, Paul Andrew Williams), Mingri Tianya (2003, Yu Lik-wai), West of Memphis (documentary, 2012, Amy J. Berg), Dark House (2014, Victor Salva), The Witch (2015, Robert Eggers), Hunger (1966, Henning Carlsen), Post Mortem (2010, Pablo Larrain), The State I Am In (2000, Christian Petzold), Looking for Mr Goodbar (1977, Richard Brooks), Ravanche (2008, Gotz Spielmann), Miss Bala (2011, Gerardo Naranjo), The Last of England (1988, Derek Jarman), Girls’ Night Out (1998, Im Sang-soo), Old Boy (2003, Park Chan-wook), Whiplash (2014, Damien Chazelle) and Snowtown (2011, Justin Kurzel).

A number of films stood out for me this year (The Witch, Old Boy, Miss Bala, Vinyan, Sound of My Voice, Secret Sunshine, Snowtown). The film that had the biggest impact on me, however, was Blind Mountain (2007), directed by Li Yang. Set in China in the early 90s, Blind Mountain tells the story of a woman sold for marriage to a rural family. The simple setting, dialogue and music – the only soundtrack throughout the entire film is a man’s unaccompanied, guttural singing – highlight the complexity of the injustice this woman suffers. The majority of the film is a series of escape attempts that had me gritting my teeth. The ending is inevitable, and yet still surprising. I was an emotional wreck after watching this, but also aware of the futility of simply assigning blame. Li does a good job of showcasing the pressures that result in such a horrific situation. This is the kind of film that could create conversation and potentially instigate a shift in thinking. Potentially. Not an easy film to watch, but highly recommended.

Now it’s December, and life has finally afforded me some good weather and free time. I’m using it to sit outside, look for platypuses, write, and generally comes to terms with where I am.

So far, so good.

Thanks for reading, and happy new year. Scraps & Fragments will be back in 2017 – see you then!

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Hannah Kent was born in Adelaide. Her most recent novel, The Good People, was published in 2016.

Li Yang is a Chinese director and writer. His first film – Blind Shaft – was released in 2003.

On my first ever trip to Canada I got off the plane in Vancouver – in a dopey, what-day-is-it Valium-haze – and was greeted by a tank of drifting jellyfish. I hadn’t even left the airport and already I knew I was going to like it here.20151216_111352

We flew to Canada from Cambodia last December. The country was a flurry of snow and Christmas lights, and family. In just over a month we ate the biggest piece of apple pie I’ve ever seen in a Vancouver diner, hiked through snow (in snow-shoes) in the Pacific Ranges, and browsed Munro’s Books in Victoria. And somehow – awake in the wee hours of the morning on jet lag and too much Tim Hortons – I managed to watch around 12 films/TV shows and read at least 10 books. Yeah. It was a pretty good Christmas.

Pemberton

20151220_104112A few hours’ drive from Vancouver is the small town of Pemberton – home to bears, the second X-Files movie (The X-Files: I Want To Believe), and a lot of snow. In Pemberton I woke up at midnight to see a snowplow clearing the street. In Pemberton I hiked to a glacial lake where a Whisky Jack bird landed on my hand. And in Pemberton I read The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri.

I bought this novel months before reading it, at the little bookshop in Kampot, along with a collection of Lahiri’s short stories. I found it hard to get into at first, but then I finished it quickly. Like many of Lahiri’s short stories, The Lowland is a novel that moves between20151218_115941 India and the United States. It spans generations of characters, and time is non-linear (in this sense it reminds me of The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy). Unlike Roy’s novel, however, I found it hard to connect with characters in The Lowland – there are perhaps too many different perspectives, interspersed with a lot of politics. There aren’t many narrative surprises in The Lowland, but the writing is beautiful – wonderful use of metaphor, vivid descriptions of place, the smells of food, the heat. A strange book to read in the midst of a snow storm, but a good one.

Victoria

We spent Christmas in Victoria, the largest city on Vancouver Island. Victoria is a playground for squirrels, raccoons and deer (and sometimes, consequently, cougars). There seems to be beautiful, rocky shoreline in walking distance of almost everywhere – the perfect place to sit with a takeaway coffee and contemplate life (or spot seals and 20151221_113647bald eagles). In Victoria I was introduced to hockey, candied salmon, and drive-through Tim Hortons. I was also (re-)introduced to that most excellent Christmas tradition of endless amounts of reading (and film-watching) time.

In Victoria – mostly while on the couch with a heated blanket – I read The Children Act by Ian McEwan, The Gathering by Anne Enright, We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Funny Girl by Nick Hornby. My Boxing Day book – a Christmas present from my boyfriend’s parents – was Nora Webster by Colm Toibin.

This novel was like nothing I’ve read before. Nora Webster is a quiet, character-driven book. At first I was expecting events to thread themselves into a story. Instead, the novel explores all the mundane, everyday moments that help (and don’t help) Nora deal with the grief of losing her husband. It is an almost stream of consciousness style of writing, Virginia Woolf-esque, although the language is less flowery, the prose crisper and simpler. It is very well written. In the background is the larger story of Ireland and the ways in which it comes to terms with its own grief. Even though the plot is not ‘traditional’ there is a sense of resolution towards the end – a climax that is without fanfare but that is real and satisfying. There is something very gentle yet intensely beautiful about this novel. I finished it in just a few days.img_3405

In-between books I explored the (seemingly endless) contents of my hard drive, and watched Brand New Life (2009, director Ounie Lecomte), The Fall (2013-, TV series, created by Allan Cubitt), A Hanging Offense (2003, director Guillaume Nicloux), Claire Dolan (1998, director Lodge Kerrigan), Dogtooth (2009, director Yorgos Lanthimos), Innocence (2004, director Lucile Hadzihalilovic), Kill List (2011, director Ben Wheatley),
Margaret
(2011, director Kenneth Lonergan) and Nenette and Boni (1996, director Claire Denis). The film that has stayed with me the longest, however, was The Lobster (2015, director Yorgos Lanthimos).

Perhaps not quite as strange as Dogtooth, The Lobster is still wonderfully weird and completely compelling. The premise – a dystopian future where people without partners are corralled together in a hotel and forced to find true love or be transformed into an animal of their choice – is both imaginative fantasy and insightful social commentary. Visually it is beautiful and surreal – random animals walk by in the background, a flamingo here, a camel there. It sounds fantastic – the music in the first slow motion hunting scene is magical, and there is something strangely stilted about the way actors speak their dialogue that works really well. The Lobster is weird, thoughtful, shocking and lovely. The kind of film that makes me want to watch more films. Highly recommended.

Pitt Meadows

On the outskirts of Vancouver is Pitt Meadows – a suburb that feels more like a small rural town, home to berry farms, mountains, forests, red picture-book barns, and my boyfriend’s brother and his family. In Pitt Meadows we went for long walks, learned all there is to know about baby zombie alien lizards, and – unfortunately – had a run-in with 20160114_140817some black ice. Miraculously everyone was fine, but after a family trip to the emergency room we spent the rest of our visit indoors, where the kids watched Minions and I read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.

A family epic, over 500 pages long, Middlesex starts in Greece in the 1920s and ends in Berlin in the early 80s. Middlesex is the story of the passing down of a genetic trait that leads to the narrator, Calliope, (later Cal). A first person novel that is also omniscient in style – reporting the thoughts and actions of people the narrator couldn’t possibly know. I’m in awe of the expanse of this novel – of the amount of history and historical detail it encompasses. It did take a while to get into, but by about two-thirds of the way through – when the story finally reaches Cal – I was addicted. I liked the narrative voice, but at times I felt like passages were too wordy. The family history probably didn’t need to be quite so detailed, but at the same time I did appreciate the breadth and depth of this novel. Middlesex completely envelopes the reader for days. A wonderful, overwhelming read.

Vancouver

The highlight of our Vancouver visit was definitely The X-Files forest (a.k.a. the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve), but we did manage to see some other sights. Rabid 20160117_131927raccoons and beaver dams in Stanley Park (no actual beavers), Emily Carr paintings at
the art gallery, and some frighteningly large seagulls. We ate Nanaimo bars on Granville Island and about twelve different types of eggs Benedict in Kitsilano. I also raided my boyfriend’s sister’s bookshelf, and discovered a classic Canadian dystopian novel – Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.

Told from the point of view of a narrator known as Snowman, Oryx and Crake tells the story of a destroyed Earth and a new species – Crake’s children. The novel skips between Snowman in the present – hunting for food in dilapidated shopping malls – and his memories of the past. I liked the world Atwood has conjured in this book – so vivid, recognisable enough to be plausible, different enough to be fascinating. Intriguing exploration of gene splicing and the creation of new species’, as well as consideration of the role of art and the influence of advertising. I wanted a bit more to happen at the end, but I did have to finish it quickly before getting on the ferry to head back to Victoria (and then to Cambodia a few days later). I’m not usually a fan of science-fiction/fantasy writing, but for some reason Margaret Atwood really draws me in.20151220_135805

We ended up staying longer in Canada than we had originally planned. For a number of reasons, but largely because it was so good to be with family. Our time in Canada was a catalyst, I think, for the making of decisions that eventually led us to leave Cambodia for
Australia. I’m at a point in my life when a Christmas spent on the couch with a pile of books is preferable to travel; when New Year’s Eve at home with family and Chinese takeaway is better than bar-hopping and drinking ’til sunrise. Canada came along at just the right time. And from here – in the heat of Australian December – I’m looking forward to our next rainy Vancouver adventure.

Jhumpa Lahiri is a Pulitzer Prize winning author born in London. She currently lives in New York.

Colm Toibin is an Irish novelist, short story writer and essayist. Nora Webster is his eighth novel.

Yorgos Lanthimos is a Greek film director and screenwriter. His next film – The Killing of a Sacred Deer – is due for release in 2017.

Jeffrey Eugenides is an American writer. He is perhaps best known for his novel The Virgin Suicides, which was made into a film in 1999. Middlesex was awarded the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Margaret Atwood is a Canadian author. In addition to Oryx and Crake, her novels include The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin.

This is the first thing

I have understood:

Time is the echo of an axe

Within a wood.

(Philip Larkin)

I ran out of books to read while I was in Australia, so I did something I haven’t done in years – went to the library! I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated libraries quite so much before. There wasn’t a huge selection in the Bright local, but I did find these two.

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Philip Larkin: Collected Poems (edited with an introduction by Anthony Thwaite)

Man hands on misery to man.

It deepens like a coastal shelf.

(-from ‘This Be The Verse’)

It was nice to read a poetry collection for a change; it’s not something I usually do. I chose Larkin because I remembered the line “They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad, they may not mean to, but they do.” I love the rhythm of it, the honesty, the twist of humour. This collection is more of the same.

Larkin is a beautifully quiet writer, and his poems carry so much weight. They feel so close to reality, to the raw truth of human experience. Larkin worked as a librarian for over forty years, and wasn’t interested in fame. I like to think he was reading and writing for himself, for the truth that art allows us to get at and better understand. That’s what it feels, to me, like Larkin is doing in his work: noticing the inherent chaos and sadness in the world, and striving to structure it. To give it meaning, and beauty. He certainly succeeds. His work is piercingly insightful – he doesn’t shy away from life’s difficulties (relationships, age, and death are big themes), and the way he renders them is wonderfully bittersweet.

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-

Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back

A huge and birdless silence. In her wake

No waters breed or break.

(-from ‘Next, Please’)

I found a lot of the poems in this collection very moving. There are touches of humour, but sadness, too. I read this over a bit of an emotional period, and shed a few tears. I finished it in a crowded V-line train carriage on the way to Melbourne.

[W]e should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind

While there is still time.

(-from ‘The Mower’)

Ali Smith: The First Person and Other StoriesIMG_20150831_114851

I gravitated towards Ali Smith because of how much I loved her novel The Accidental. Her writing style in that novel is so different, and there are some rhythms and themes that I really connected with. These stories are also quite unique, but I didn’t connect with them as much (I was surprised to discover that this collection actually came after The Accidental – to me these stories seem less mature, less sure of themselves).

The First Person is experimental: the focus is much more on symbolism, form, and theme than plot. In many ways this is a collection of writing about writing – in particular, about the short story and what it is, what it can achieve. One question central to these stories seems to be about identity (the four quotes that open the collection all certainly point in this direction) – the identity of the characters, as well as the identity of the medium they find themselves in. Smith seems to reach the same conclusion as many other great writers before her (Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield): that identity is fragmented, constantly shifting.

There are a lot of wonderful ideas in this collection: a talking baby; a disturbing package; a conversation with a fourteen-year-old self. I suppose idea-based (rather than plot driven) writing works better in short story form. I did, however, find some moments repetitive, and felt a bit lost in the swirling stream of consciousness style. I think Christopher Tayler sums The First Person up well in this review from The Guardian: “lively and inventive but dreamily absorbed in the protocols of its own making.”

I finished the stories quickly (waiting for a friend at a Kensington dental clinic, in bed, and in the park by the river on a sunny early spring afternoon). Not too many of them stayed with me, to be honest. I might try another novel of Smith’s, next time.

So the overall moral of this blog post … libraries! Don’t take them for granted; like many things, it’s hard to appreciate just how wonderful they are until you don’t have access to them anymore.

Philip Larkin died in 1985. This edition of his collected poems was published in 2004.

Ali Smith was born in Inverness and currently lives in Cambridge. The First Person and Other Stories was published in 2008.

This post contains spoilers.

These two young adult novels were recommended by a friend as research for my own novel. They are wildly different books, and each was really useful (in its own way) to look at from a writer’s perspective. As a reader I enjoyed them both, but Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls has left a more lasting impression on my mind. I’ve read a couple of John Green’s other novels, and have sort of grown used to his writing style. I have never, on the other hand, read anything quite like A Monster Calls.

Paper Towns

John Green has become something of a superstar in the world of young adult literature – his books go straight to the bestseller list, and both The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns have been adapted for film (while I was reading Paper Towns in Australia last month there seemed to be movie posters for the novel everywhere). There’s good reason for this – Green’s writing is intelligent, honest, and a little quirky. And when it comes to theme, Green isn’t afraid to get a bit philosophical. His writing doesn’t talk down to kids, which might go some way towards explaining his popularity with young adults, and also the fear he manages to inspire in some grown-ups (such as Karen Krueger, who was so concerned about The Fault in Our Stars she had the book banned from all Riverside Unified School District middle schools).

Paper Towns may be a little less controversial, but it is just as complex. It tells the story of Quentin Jacobsen’s search for Margo Roth Spiegelman – a girl he has been in love with for years. As kids Quentin and Margo stumbled across a dead body together, and ever since Quentin has felt that they share a special bond. When Margo runs away Quentin expects to be able to find her. The clues she left seem meant just for him, and he is the only one who understands who she really is. Or does he? Paper Towns is a clever examination of how we see others in the way we want to see them, rather than as they really are.

I felt that while Paper Towns is thematically and philosophically very strong, in terms of storytelling it drags a little. I loved the idea of a paper town (a town that doesn’t really exist but is just a sort of map-filler), and the comparisons with Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass are great. However, a lot of the story feels repetitive, and there are a few too many dead ends and red herrings in the plot. I didn’t find myself engaging as much with this as I have with Green’s other novels (particularly An Abundance of Katherines). I wonder if some young adults, particularly those who need a bit of a push to get reading, might feel the same way.

A Monster Calls

I read this short, intense novel so fast it left me feeling like I’d had the wind knocked out of me. A Monster Calls was written by Patrick Ness, but the original idea came from a friend of his, author Siobhan Dowd. Dowd died before she could write the novel, so Ness wrote it for her.

The plot of A Monster Calls is fairly simple, almost fairytale-like in structure, but emotionally complex. While 13-year-old Conor O’Malley’s mother is dying, he is visited at the same time each night by a monstrous yew tree. The monster is at once terrifying and comforting; it tells Conor stories, and its ultimate goal is to get Conor to admit to his darkest fear – not that his mother will die, but that he is so exhausted that he wishes it was over already.

I think what works best about this novel is the way it uses magic realism – the monster is extremely vivid, and the story sits somewhere between painful realism and absolute fantasy. This, in combination with Jim Kay’s incredible illustrations, results in a text that is dark, unique, and beautiful.

I felt that the ending came a bit fast, and I wanted to know more about some of the characters (the bully, for example, who tells Conor eerily – “I no longer see you”). But overall I loved this novel. It felt, to me, like a true piece of young adult literature, and a work of art.

Paper Towns debuted at number five on the bestseller list, and won the 2009 Edgar Award for Best Young Adult Mystery.

A Monster Calls won the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway medals in 2012. Patrick Ness is also the author of The Chaos Walking Trilogy.

I picked up this novel in Bright’s Little Bookshop a couple of weekends ago. I had never read any of Carl Hiaasen’s work before, but (shameless self-promotion ahead) when The Bellevue Literary Review compared my own short story to Hiaasen’s writing I was intrigued. Sick Puppy turned out to be a little different to what I expected (Hiaasen is much more focused on – and better at crafting – plot than I am, for example), but it was definitely a fun read.IMG_20150804_152325

Set in Florida (where Hiaasen is from) Sick Puppy is a sprawling novel, Dickensian in its cast of characters and just as busy when it comes to plot. It is a novel that doesn’t quit, and that, as James Hynes writes in this article for The Boston Review, “resists synopsis.” Put very simply, Sick Puppy is the story of wealthy eco-warrior Twilly Spree’s quest to encourage lobbyist Palmer Stoat to stop littering. Quite a lot of other things happen before, after, and in-between; many of them ridiculous, most of them very entertaining.

As Giles Foden notes in The Guardian, character is secondary to plot in Sick Puppy. This was something I struggled with at times, bouncing from point of view to point of view, never staying with anyone long enough to really connect with them. But the twisting narrative was enough to keep me engrossed, and there are some fantastic (if a little one dimensional) characters. For example, Mr Gash (Hiaasen has fantastic names for his characters), a sadistic hit man who enjoys listening to recordings of fatal 911 calls in his spare time.

There is something a bit Tom Robbins or Kurt Vonnegut about Carl Hiaasen’s writing – the environmental message, the crazy characters. But it’s not quite as good. Sick Puppy is ridiculous, but I wanted it to go further. Hiaasen lacks some poetry of language – the beautiful rolling metaphors of Robbins are absent, as is the very clever satire of Vonnegut. Hiaasen focuses on the thrill of the narrative, resulting in a book that, to me, feels a little tamer and easier to read, but a bit less memorable.

I also wondered, as James Hynes does, if the message in Sick Puppy is somewhat eclipsed by the medium. The environmental themes Hiaasen writes about are, in many ways, overshadowed and lessened by the cleverness of his plot. The characters are interesting, but they are quite black and white in terms of goodies and baddies. And there is not much serious consideration of the complex nature of environmental issues and the politics that convolute things. Then again, perhaps it is not meant to be that kind of book. In the end, the writing is good, and the narrative compelling. I’ll be keeping an eye out in little bookshops for more of Carl Hiaasen in future.

Sick Puppy was first published in 1999, and is Hiaasen’s eighth novel. Hiaasen started out as an investigative journalist for the Miami Herald. His other novels include Tourist Season, Strip Tease, and Lucky You.