gordon_writing clementineIt’s her first day of Grade Nine and Clementine Darcy is struggling. Her brother, Fergus, disappeared into his room a year ago, dropping his family, job, and life behind him. Her sister, Sophie, is always angry, and her friends at school seem to moving in a different direction and leaving her behind.

The one hope she has of understanding how her previously charmed life has fallen apart so entirely is to take the philosophy class that had helped her sister so much when she was in school. Perhaps, the great thinkers of their age can make more sense of Clementine’s life than she can. However, Ms Hiller is not an average teacher. Rather than expounding upon the complexities of Foucault or discussing the ideas of Alain de Botton, she asks her class to write.

Kate Gordon’s novel starts with quite a beautiful premise. Clementine is lost. She knows herself better than most girls her age do, and better than some people ever will. Who she doesn’t know are the people around her. Sophie seemingly has it all, but she’s nowhere near as happy as Clementine. Fergus, her wonderfully irrepressible brother, doesn’t talk anymore – or do much else for that matter. Her friends are suddenly all about the boys. With Ms Hiller’s philosophy class, Clementine is hoping to change all of that. While she wants someone to explain everything to her; however, the class teaches her that she needs to reach out and search for answers herself.

For a novel made up entirely of letters to a teacher, Ms Hiller is a curiously absent character. She steps in twice at pivotal points in Clementine’s life, but doesn’t change anything on either of those times. Despite the fact that Ms Hiller is the catalyst for Clementine to really examine her life, keeping her absent from the story emphasises that the only person who can affect change is Clementine herself.

Writing Clementine tackles that difficult teenage time when everything is changing so fast that it no longer makes sense. Anyone who has been through it will recognise some part of their younger selves in this inspirational novel; anyone who is going through it will probably relate to a lot of the emotions Clementine is feeling.

While this doesn’t read as an ‘issues’ novel, it does take a good, hard look at a lot of the problems affecting Australian teens. Ranging from trying to be yourself in this increasingly media-driven world, to sexual assault, and depression, Writing Clementine doesn’t baulk at the realities of life. It does tackle those truths with careful consideration, offering plenty of hope but never going with the easy way out.

Writing Clementine is a lovely, insightful coming-of-age novel that explores some difficult teen dilemmas but manages to stay light-hearted. With an array of lovely characters and a large dose of emotional truth, this is a sweet story that’s not too fluffy.

Writing Clementine – Kate Gordon

 Allen & Unwin (July 2014)

 ISBN: 9781743316634

sullivan_ShadowboxerJade Barrera is having a bad day and it’s about to get worse. Nursing a hang-over and a black eye from the previous night’s MMA fight is nothing compared to breaking the nose of Hollywood action star Tommy Zhang. If Jade has any hope of redeeming herself, she’s going to have to pick up her training in Thailand and wait until things blow over.

Mya is used to escaping into her sanctuary, the spiritual forest, a place that she and other children alone could find. That was until her guardian, Mr Richard, discovers how to enter the mystical realm with Mya as his guide. His plans for her and the forest are becoming increasingly sinister and, when Mya is drawn into his attempt to kill a man, she knows that she has to escape.

Shadowboxer is the first young adult urban fantasy novel from acclaimed sci-fi author Tricia Sullivan. She has developed a richly layered dual world in which our reality lies alongside the mythical Himmapan forest of Thailand. Told alternately from Jade’s and Mya’s perspectives, Sullivan weaves these very different stories into one.

At first Shadowboxer has an incongruous feel to it. Jade is quick to anger and even quicker to turn that anger to violence. She’s a fighter both in and out of the ring, constantly on the defensive and looking for openings with anyone that upsets her. Mya is calm and less sure of herself. When confronted, she looks to escape, not to fight back. Rather than asserting herself in the physical world, her serenity allows her to open a doorway into a spiritual world. The differences in these stories complement one another; Jade’s world adds the action while Mya’s raises the questions that move the plot along. As the novel progresses, everything begins to balance out. Jade calms down, becoming more open to spirituality, and Mya realises that taking action is sometimes necessary.

The world building is wonderful. Not just the Himmapan forest but the atmosphere of the fights and MMA training, the oppressive heat and pollution of Bangkok, and the cultural richness of America. The story is told by those who usually stand in the margins. Jade is of Dominican Republic descent, Mya is Burmese, and both are female. They carry the story perfectly, neither conforming to any stereotype and both making decisions that push the plot forward.

Shadowboxer is a sumptuously layered novel with complexities that would appeal to fantasy aficionados. Never travelling the path most taken, Shadowboxer blazes its own trail. For a new take on a spectacular traditional myth, a wonderful set of characters, and brilliantly drawn insight into the world of MMA, this is a must-read.

simpson_Apocalypse coverThe world has ended with the coming of the Rapture and those who did not make it to Heaven wander through Earth’s wasteland, trying to survive the demon-infested nights. Sam, a half-human, half-demon, has recovered from the wounds the Archangel Michael inflicted on him but not from the loss of Aimi, the angel that he loves.

He spends his time protecting the innocents left on earth, while trying not to reveal what he is to them. It can’t last, however. The final battle looms ever closer and Yeth, Sam’s hellhound, has been missing too long. If Sam has a chance of finding his mother or joining the battle of the Apocalypse, he will need Yeth by his side.

The Rapture trilogy holds together really well. The world is built on biblical mythology and stays faithful to it throughout all three books, while weaving in its own unique legend. The characters grow, but remain true to their origins. The promise of the first book is realised in the last. Sam’s part in the war is creative in a way that I wasn’t expecting; his mother is brought into the novel finally and more of the ideas of Heaven and Hell are explored.

Like Rapture and Tribulation, the first two books in this trilogy, Apocalypse starts with a fast pace that barely lets up until the big finale. Fans of Simpson’s amazing actions sequences won’t be disappointed by the last instalment. The battles are bigger, the enemy more powerful, and the humans more desperate than ever.

Though the major scenes in Apocalypse don’t disappoint, there are several places that feel like old ground being covered. Human groups yet again don’t want Sam to play with them, Sam is still trying to toss-up between his human and demon side, and it isn’t fair that Heaven has all these cruel rules. Sometimes when an entire book centres on one character the emotions and thoughts roil in circles, not bringing anything fresh to the table. Apocalypse definitely suffers for this. Having had Sam primarily on his own in Rapture and Tribulation, he really should have had Yeth and Grace around for most of Apocalypse. Admittedly, this opinion is partly selfish. Grace and Yeth were my favourite characters and they were woefully under-utilised in the final and arguably most important novel.

Despite these issues, the big questions that everyone wanted answers to are resolved perfectly and the trilogy is tied up neatly, leaving behind few loose ends. Anyone who loved Sam and felt for his plight in the first two books will savour the last one. Apocalypse is a bitter and sweet end to an imaginative trilogy.

Apocalypse – Phillip W. Simpson

Arete Publishing (February 14, 2013)

ISBN: 9781301931378

Terril_all our yesterdaysFor months Em has been locked in a cell with only a mysterious drain and the voice of the boy she loves to focus on. Sometimes that voice is screaming in pain, but mostly it’s saying things that still make her laugh in this bleak, concrete prison. Time, however, is running out for them, unless they can find a way to steal some back.

Marina is used to getting the things that she wants, but not the people. Her parents have long since given up on using her as anything but a communication device in their increasingly acrimonious marriage. It seems as though James, the boy she loves, will always think of her as a little sister while his new friend, Finn, is increasingly encroaching on their time together. All of that was yesterday though. Today Em is on her way and, if her plan works, any hope Marina has with James will be shattered beyond repair.

The premise of All Our Yesterdays is not new; if you could go back and kill someone evil before they did anything evil, would you be able to? It is the kind of question with so many grey areas that it can be explored over and over again and, with an amazing ensemble of characters, Cristin Terrill has brought an exciting, fresh twist to the concept. Rather than the evil being a generic, unspecified individual, he is someone that the two main characters know well in both his pre and post evil stages.

The strongest aspect of this novel is its moral ambiguity. Rather than evil being absolute, it is treated as a spectrum. Good isn’t a cut and dried concept either. Both good and evil are paths that the characters choose, often unwittingly. There’s depth and complexity in this notion that translates surprisingly well to the novel without slowing it down.

The continuity of timelines is clear and well-thought out, making what could easily be a baffling novel into something that flows with ease. Em’s character is not quite so consistent. From the outset her goal is to kill James, making the future world a better place. Though she must know that it may come down to her, she’s woefully unprepared for it, not even keeping up her fitness levels when she has ample opportunity. The fact that she’s torn about killing her former best friend is the core of this novel. Without it, the story would lose not only its suspense but its humanity. That she throws away every chance she has of completing her quest without analysing or changing her behaviour, however, weakens an otherwise compelling character.

All Our Yesterdays is told from both Marina and Em’s perspectives in the present and future. This would usually bother me, but Terrill’s writing is strong enough to draw you in, and her characters are so wonderfully imagined that their voices are very different. Marina is wealthy and self-centred but unsure of everyone around her. Em is sure of Finn but not of her future or his. In their own ways, they’re both desperate, vulnerable, and addictively readable.

All Our Yesterdays is wonderfully written, cleverly plotted, and emotionally wrenching. From the first few chapters I really didn’t think that I would enjoy it, but it really draws you in, snaring you so that putting it down is unbearable. According to Terrill, this is the first book of a duology, so there’ll be one more in the series. Even though I devoured the first book, I don’t know how I feel about a second. The ending to All Our Yesterdays was absolutely perfect: unexpected but exactly what the novel had been building towards all along. It stands so well on its own that, bittersweet and forlorn as the ending may be,  a sequel seems superfluous, but I’ll be reading it anyway.


 All Our Yesterdays – Cristin Terrill

 Bloomsbury (September 3, 2013)

 ISBN: 9781408835197

Joelene_tnJoelene Pynnonen reviews The Family.



the-family1The Manzoni family is moving. Having compromised their cover in the witness protection program yet again, they’re running out of second chances. This time they’re headed to a small town in the French countryside for the fresh start that they need but don’t necessarily want. Despite having betrayed the Mafia kingpin they once called a friend, the Manzoni’s can’t let go of their previous life.

Giovanni (Robert De Niro) initially takes up writing as a way to relive his glory days, but soon gets caught up in trying to sort out the town’s problem with brown water. His daughter, Belle (Dianna Agron), spends her time brutally beating the people who cross her and trying to seduce the substitute math teacher. His son, Warren (John D’Leo), introduces the principles of mob life to the school; launching a coup against the kids in charge whilst lying, stealing and defrauding his way to the top. The family matriarch, Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), spends her time covering up her husband’s crimes when she’s not too busy blowing up local grocery stores.

If you’re in the mood for something serious, Luc Besson’s The Family is definitely not it. If you’re trying to find an offbeat comedy to watch with a group of friends however, don’t go past this one. I’m not someone who follows directors, but Luc Besson has not failed me yet. There’s something about the way he mixes humour into the violence in The Family that makes it surprisingly fun to watch.

Now, I’m not pro-violence, but every character in the film manages to pull off their own brand of destruction, which is what sells it. The actors are thoroughly in tune with their characters and whole-heartedly embrace all of their criminal tendencies. Belle takes after her father, delivering swift and brutal punishment to those who oppose her. Warren is more like his mother, analysing the situation and choosing indirect means to achieve his goals. If the family members were all brutal in the same way it would become farcical. Personalizing those traits lends plausibility.

Despite the film’s casual brutality, the Manzoni family are devoted when it comes to each other. Belle and Warren take time out of their day to catch up on what their sibling is up to. Giovanni helps Maggie out when she’s not making progress with an uncooperative plumber, while Maggie keeps the authorities from finding out about said help. The disparity of the family together to the family in society is both disturbing and hilarious.

Overtly and gleefully violent, this isn’t a film for younger viewers. The actors’ performances are focussed and wonderful across the board. Generally it’s a silly, fun and messy film; but the character interactions and cheerfulness of it make it work.

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