Sam van Zweden




Review: A New Tense, by Jo Day

A New Tense
Image source: JoNoMercyPress

A New Tense (by Jo Day) is a fast-paced novel exploring grief, friendship, and the unavoidable distance created by time – between friends, between loved ones, between places and understandings of self.

After the death of her friend Pete, Laurie moves to Berlin. Life there seems great. Laurie’s in a band, and spends time taking photos and making zines. She’s keeping busy – with massive oceans between her and her grief over Pete’s death, everything is stable. This is all upturned when Laurie learns that her estranged mother has died – she returns to Melbourne for the funeral, staying with her best friend Jones and his family. Jones is acting distant, and Laurie has increasing trouble facing her renewed grief over Pete’s death, with his absence newly apparent in this familiar setting. Through a series of well-placed flashbacks, we learn the circumstances of their relationship and Pete’s death. Laurie must learn to navigate life at home without Pete in it, and learn that each grief expresses itself in new and surprising ways.

Continue reading “Review: A New Tense, by Jo Day”

Review: A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing

People often ask what I’m reading, and it usually opens up a good conversation. I enjoy having the space to verbally sort out what I think, and if the conversation is with a certain type of person, I can be challenged to justify my assertions. It’s too easy to say something on here without questioning why I feel that way – an awful habit for a would-be critic, and one I’m trying to remedy.

Those “What are you reading?” conversations have been difficult ones while I’ve been reading Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. The main challenge comes from explaining the form of the novel.

McBride writes (in this work, at least) in fragmented sentences:

“That long night. Loams my eyes. Burn. Lime it. I’ll do. I’ll. Reach out through it. Catch it before it comes. Quick quick. But it’s gone like a rat. Burrow deep and dark where I cannot go. I have. Nothing against this. No defence at all. But. To fall on the spindle. To be turned into the darkness. To be turned into stone.”

ImageWhy this fragmented, choppy language? I’m not entirely sure. Possibly because that’s what we all feel like inside, especially during times of intense trauma, which is exactly what the story of this book centres upon. It’s a unique and challenging reading experience. As with any formally-experimental work, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is a shock to begin with – I worried that it would never make any sense. But there are two kinds of “challenging” books: those that are simply baffling from beginning to end, and those whose rhythm and logic the reader can fall into step with. By three pages in, it was clear that this novel falls into the latter category.

I’ve touched on form and language first because it’s the most obvious thing that sets the novel apart. It’s what people will notice when they pick it up. However, it’s not the only remarkable thing about the work.

The “Girl” of the story is its narrator, and the story spans her young life, between birth and her young adulthood. The focus of the story is her relationship with her brother (referred to throughout as “you”), who recovers from a brain tumour as a child, but relapses as an adult. The brother’s illness is a looming presence in the Girl’s life. This way of referring to characters with such immediacy (pronouns and very specific labels) – “I”, “you”, “Mammy”, “aunt”, “uncle” – has the effect of pulling everything inwards, almost uncomfortably close.

Family dynamics are explored wonderfully in this novel, in a way that most people will be able to relate to in some way. From the love-hate tension that can only be felt toward your parents, to the nonsensical regression that our siblings bring out in us as adults. Incest is also a major issue explored in the story, and the narrator’s shifting opinion of what’s happening makes the situation all the more confronting.

Sex and sexuality feature prominently, and McBride beautifully considers the many and varied roles it can play in a person’s life. At various times, the Girl uses sex to control people, and uses the powerlessness of sex to escape from the pain of her life. Sex functions here as a tool, and a means to both gain and lose the upper hand. By the end of the novel, being “fucked and hurt” is the point, and the immense sadness of this can be confronting.

I applaud Eimear McBride’s bravery. This is not a safe novel, and doesn’t tell a safe story. As a debut novelist, it’s a brave move. It has paid off.

As a book seller, I’m having trouble conveying the pleasures of this book to people – they open it up and panic at its structure and language. They think they’ll need to be very switched on in order to read it – not so. I hope this review convinces you to pick it up and give it a go – it’s well worth your while.

Review: The Hunger Games Series by Suzanne Collins

I decided to review these books as a whole series, rather than individually. There’s problems inherent to doing the review this way (spoilers and hints, so I’ll try to be a bit veiled about it all), but I felt it was important to give a comprehensive review of the series overall. This is for two reasons – the first being that the series attracts many younger readers (I’ve seen kids as young as eleven buy the series) and there’s so much I think it’s important for these kids’ parents to know about what their kids are reading. The other, simpler reason is that these books can be inhaled in the space of a few days each (for me, a slow adult reader) and their moreish qualities mean you’re unlikely to just read one. You’ll finish the series, whether you like it or not.

The first book, The Hunger Games introduces us to our heroine, Katniss Everdeen. Katniss lives in a world ruled by a dictatorship (headed by President Snow in The Capitol), which has split the realm into twelve districts. Each district specializes in providing a good or service to The Capitol and its wealthy population, while the citizens of each district struggle to live. As a yearly reminder of the districts’ dependence on The Capitol there exists “The Hunger Games”. A boy and a girl from every district are thrown together in a huge arena (it could be a desert, a jungle, anything) and forced to kill one another. The last person standing wins the right to live, and a comfortable standard of living for themselves and their family.

Something about the books really reminded me of the Tomorrow When The War Began series – possibly something about young people and survival; really basic instincts mixed with all that comes with being a teenager. I think my enjoyment of the books came from whatever in me enjoyed the Tomorrow… books.

The murder thing is pretty full-on. Katniss is a reluctant participant in The Hunger Games, offering herself up only to spare her younger sister. So not only is there murder, but it’s less malicious than it is “kill-or-be-killed”. The deaths of “tributes” (district children involved in the games) are described in detail, and the gruesome nature of the deaths and the situations created by the gamemakers to torture the tributes is like something out of a nightmare. It’s really good reading, don’t get me wrong. I loved it, in an awful way. But eleven year-olds reading this kind of thing? Heavy.

Both Katniss and her district partner, Peeta, express their desire to stop being a piece in The Capitol’s games. Throughout the series this plants the seeds of a revolution, earning them very dangerous enemies in some camps and friends in others.

The second book (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) sends Katniss and Peeta back to the arena, and the shift in the tributes’ attitudes to killing one another make for some really interesting, often touching, reading. Of the three books, though, I felt like this second book was the least enjoyable. It was still good, but things certainly picked up again in book three.

Book three (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay) is based entirely on the final show-down between The Capitol and the districts. This book was really quite troubling for me, with themes touching on murder, refugees, the loss of everything that accompanies war, sexual slavery, genetic modification, trauma… The list goes on.

The Hunger Games series is really tricky – it’s not an adults’ series, it’s not aimed at a regular adult fiction-reading audience. But it’s definitely not something for kids on that bridge between children’s older readers and young adult novels. I can’t stress enough the importance of the maturity warning on the third book. If you’ve got kids below, say, fifteen that are reading this book – read it first.

Interestingly, like a other successful YA book series, The Hunger Games has been released with multiple covers. While they haven’t been expressly marketed as “children’s” and “adults'” covers, one is definitely more acceptable for adults to be seen reading. A strange phenomenon, that…

Okay, the political stuff aside…

Like so many great addictive novels (arguably, every novel, but we’ll not get into that now), there’s a love triangle at the centre of the books. Katniss goes into the arena with Peeta, who makes it his business to keep her alive. Back home awaits Gale, her best friend and possible love interest. While reading this a friend asked me if I was “on Team Peeta or Team Gale?” – and I realized it’s the same love triangle we’ve seen in other grossly popular YA novels, eg Harry Potter (Hermione/Harry/Ron) and Twilight (Bella/Jacob/Edward). That’s not to detract from it at all – it’s great reading, and you’ll find yourself emotionally invested in both the boys, torn as to which Katniss should choose. And with the film coming out on the 23rd of March, the addition of some pretty attractive (is that ok? Are they too young to be attractive?) actors as Peeta and Gale, the Team Peeta/Team Gale question will get even harder to answer.

I did find the wrap-up of the series a bit lacking. In a way, Collins has depicted the effects of trauma really well, leaving Katniss scarred both physically and emotionally. However, it also feels like there’s a bit of a need for a “happy” ending after all the horrors of the books, and I didn’t feel comfortable with the ways a few situations were wrapped up. Actually, throughout the books a few things really displeased me as a reader, such as who died and how they went. My emotional reaction to deaths did prove one thing though – I’d become really invested in what happened to those characters. Perhaps Collins is trying to balance this bad (almost too real) stuff by giving readers some happy closure, but after all the shock and trauma it just doesn’t ring true. But really… A unsatisfying final few chapters after three whole books of Awesome isn’t too bad.

Just a quick note: don’t discount these as disposable crap because of their popularity. I have a habit of doing this, and I’m making a concerted effort to not be a book snob. The Hunger Games seems to be the next big thing post-Twilight, and there’s a reason for that. They’re good.

Dead Fishes

Ideas fall from my fingers like dead fish, slapping stinky into an ever-expanding word document a’la shit. Lucky dead fishes make lovely dishes if you know how to prepare them correctly -bring on the editing, say I.

Writing What You Know

“Write what you know!”, that’s the advice. That’s how we end up with a lot of the same characters, and they’re much like ourselves or people we know. “Write what you know” is scary – why would anyone want to read about my life? Disaffected youth – unless you’re an amazing writer or have an amazing twist, surely that’s just same/same, yeah? No, what I know is boring!

Henry James (in “The Art of Fiction“) wrote that “writing what you know” can be almost anything, as long as you’re “one of the people on whom nothing is lost!”. Even so, it feels like I’m writing something pretty imagined or untrue if my experience of a thing only extends as far as having seen it from a distance. For James, this is okay. But he, too, says that writing what you know is the way to go.

For a long time I did this – I wrote the same poem over and over, I wrote characters who were my age and in my relationships. Nothing differed very much – I spent a long time producing similar work. When I broke from this, I swung the other way – writing characters very unlike me, in situations which required a lot of research. Sometimes this worked; some of this stuff I’m proud of. Some of it is also just plain rubbish.

This semester, I have to pitch and submit an extract of “My Novel” (such an optimistic thing to call this nebulous being) for a university subject. I started to plan out a novel about a character I’ve had on the back-burner for some time. He’s a structural engineer who’s obsessed with the possibility that if his buildings aren’t sound, people could die. He’s a solid character, I do like him. He’s based loosely on someone I know (so this would count in James’ definition of “what I know”), and I am interested in writing him, eventually. However, in trying to start planning a novel about this guy, I realised it didn’t ring true. I was writing yet another story I wasn’t sure about, that was trying too hard to be NEW! I realised that by avoiding “What I know” in the strictest sense, of characters like myself or my immediate family, I’ve been denying some amazing material from my own life.

My family history is mostly a mystery to me. It’s a light that shines (dimly) only as far back as my grandparents on Mum’s side, and to my father on his side. Even within that limited space, I have the makings of a novel. It’s a matter of being comfortable with the fact that it warrants writing, and it will make a good story. Deep down I know it will, but I’ve been so afraid of being the stuck, clichéd writer who can only write what they know, that I’ve avoided it and gotten stuck in the other extreme.

I’ve talked to both my parents about writing our story, or some fictionalised semblance of it, and they’re both fine with that. What comes next, I suppose, is about the ethics of writing what you know. This question, I suspect, is much harder to answer.

On a panel called “Mining The Personal” at last year’s EWF, Benjamin Law talked about how he handed everyone in his family a red pen and a copy of his manuscript before it went anywhere. I think this is the most honest approach, and one I’ll certainly be following myself. But how do I wrangle the material in the first place?

What do you think about the ethics of writing (fictional or non-fictional) personal stories?

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