Review – Zac and Mia – A J Betts

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***BOOK GIVEAWAY*** DETAILS AT END OF POST

As I’m sure you all know, each year Text Publishing awards the Text Prize for young adult and children’s fiction. You can read more about that here.

This prize, now in it’s sixth year, is awarded to unpublished manuscripts and has thus far unearthed the following titles.

2008 – Richard NewsomeThe Billionaire’s Curse 

2009 – Leanne Hall – This Is Shyness

2010 – Jane Higgins – The Bridge

2011 – Myke Bartlett – Fire In the Sea

2012 – AJ Betts – Zac and Mia

and recently announced 2013 – Diana Sweeney – The Minnow, which will be published in 2014.

Zac and Mia, published yesterday, is a book about bravery. Not clean, gleaming, heroic bravery, but a kind of snotty, enduring, isolated bravery found in hospital rooms, in late nights, in long drives and in making the best of every good moment – knowing that they’re going to be tempered with some pretty crap ones. It’s also about love.

I’ve heard this described as ‘sicklit’ which I think perfectly sums up this new genre (when did cancer become a whole genre??) of books about teenage cancer sufferer/survivors. There are already some great names in there – John Green for one with The Fault in Our Stars. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again here, that the best of these are by authors (such as Green, and now AJ Betts) who aren’t afraid to write it real. Authors who aren’t afraid to make their characters real (sometimes obnoxious, sometimes hilarious, sometimes devastating) teenagers. They’re not heroes just because they got sick. In fact there’s a great scene in Zac and Mia where Zac receives an award that he feels is undeserved and only awarded out of sympathy. It’s a wonderfully truthful and awkward moment which is the perfect catalyst for his subsequent rage.

Mia storms into the book nothing but rage. Our first introduction to her is her rage pounding through the walls into Zac’s hospital room. It’s her rage that pulls him from his sickness and into the present. It’s her rage that contrasts everything, shining a blinding light on the unfair, the underprepared, the unfinished. Zac knows that her chance is better, that she’s one of the lucky ones. But Mia doesn’t feel lucky, she feels alone, broken. And then Zac taps on the wall of her hospital room. He says ‘trust me’.

The relationship that grows between these two is beautiful. There’s a great balance of highs and lows in the book. Sickness is woven into each part of the narrative, and its interesting to see how the different character react to their own sickness, and to the sickness in each other. It’s interesting to see so many views on life, on living. It’s interesting, in so many ways, and it’s wrapped in a fragile love story between two characters who in all honesty would probably have never given each other the time of day if not for that single tap on a thin hospital wall.

But the wind steals the words from my lips and tosses them away. I’m glad they’re gone. AJ Betts writes with an enviable ease. There is a perfect balance between country and city, sick and health, fear and bravery on each page and in every interaction. None of the characters are wasted, and in reality it feels as though we are invited into a much larger world than the page count might suggest. As you might expect from a genre named ‘sicklit’, there’s a reasonable dose of tragedy, and of unfairness. There’s plenty of hope though and more importantly plenty of chances and choices.

I think you have to be brave to write a book like this. To write it without overt, condescending sympathy. And to be brave enough to write the moments that are funny, or grotty, or filled with rage, alongside those that are brave and heroic. It’s a book that is well deserving of a prize, and is likely to win many more.

***GIVEAWAY – Thanks to Text Publishing, I’ve got a copy of Zac and Mia to giveaway to a First Impressions reader. If you’d like to win* simply post a comment below telling me why you’d like this to be the next book on your reading list.

*Winners must be from Australia or New Zealand, although of course I welcome comments from anywhere on the blog! I’ll pick a winner within 7 days and will then get details and a postal address.

Interview – Jack Heath

Jack-Heath-Ash-Peak-cropped1I don’t often do interviews on the blog, but I recently saw that Jack Heath is crowdfunding his next novel through Pozible and it seemed like a good chance to ask some questions about that process, which I thought you might like to hear the answers to.

Jack is a pretty driven guy. He began writing his first novel at 13 and it was published when he was only 18. Since then, he’s gone on to write a bunch of successful YA action novels including The Lab, Money Run and Hit List. He’s on the board of the ACT Writers Centre, and I’ve worked with Jack in the past so can also vouch for him being a nice guy to boot. If you’d like to know more about Jack and his books you can check out his website here.

Jack’s new book Ink, is a YA action thriller that he’ll be writing and funding through a Pozible campaign.

Every day, Lukas is forced to swallow an empathy supplement. Without it, he wouldn’t feel guilty about the incident.

He works deep underground, digging up metal ore to fuel the six billion 3D printers on the surface. Now that anyone can print any object, the only viable industry is ink. 

When Lukas is abducted by an insane surface-dweller, he’s left in a desperate situation. He doesn’t know what his captor wants, but he knows he has 72 hours until the drug wears off – and he’s afraid of what he’ll do…

You can support the project for varying rewards (not the least of which is knowing that you’ve played a major part in the publication of a book), watch the book trailer, and even download a free short story if you check out the campaign here. I highly recommend looking at crowdfunding projects whenever they cross your path, I always feel like it’s pretty amazing to be a part of making someone’s dream come true, and I’d like to think that maybe one day the same thing will happen to me!

So I was curious about the whole project, wondering what this means for books, for authors and for this book specifically. Jack kindly agreed to do a quick Q&A for me, check it out below, and then jump over to Pozible and check out the project too.

Why did you decide to crowdfund this project?

Ink will appeal to a very specific kind of reader – the kind who enjoys sci-fi just as much as crime, and who likes young adult fiction but also enjoys pushing boundaries. Those readers are going to love it, but the only way for a traditional publisher to turn a profit is to sell a lot of copies, and that doesn’t work with such a limited audience. Crowdfunding enables me to sell things other than the book – access to the work in progress, naming rights to characters, posters, VIP launch tickets and more. This way, the book is economically viable and the readers get more enjoyment out of the process, both before and after publication.

Do you think there’s a difference between crowdfunding books and other types of projects? Or is the difference more a broad arts/business type divide?

Investment has always been a huge part of both the art world and the business world – crowdfunding is just a new isotope of an old element. But raising funds for a book is a little harder than for some other projects, since the costs aren’t widely understood. Most people know about printing expenses, but they don’t think about the costs of hiring copy editors, typesetters, proof readers and cover artists. Even if I successfully raise $5,000, I don’t expect to make much profit in the long run. I’m doing this because I want to tell the story.

Are you concerned that people will judge the book harshly because it’s not distributed by a publisher? How different is crowdfunding to self-publishing?

Online retail has made self-published books much more accessible than they used to be. I’ve bought more self-published books in the last two years than in the previous ten combined. I think so long as Ink becomes a high-quality book – well written, well copy-edited, with professional cover art – the readers won’t care that there isn’t a traditional publisher backing it.

How do you market something like this? Do you think there’s a further reach or more limited reach for the product overall?

My marketing strategy is as follows. Step One: write a great book (so as readers like it enough to buy it for their friends). Step Two: never turn down an opportunity to talk about it, in public or private. Step Three: produce plenty of blog post and videos in the hope of getting noticed by more potential readers. This is basically the same strategy that I’ve always used. Without a traditional publisher I can’t get the book into brick-and-mortar retailers, which limits the reach, so I’ll have to work harder than usual – but I think it will be worthwhile.

Do you think that people will continue to buy the book once it’s published, or are you essentially pre-selling to the intended audience?

I predict a brief flurry of sales in the weeks following publication, but unless something spectacular happens, it will then fade into my backlist. That’s not a bad thing. The old must make way for the new. As long as the investors and the first group of customers enjoy it, everything else is gravy.

Do you think that this sets a precedence for publishers to try to get authors to ‘prove’ themselves via crowdfunding? You can see a similar debate on the Veronica Mars Kickstarter project here.

A growing number of publishers are purchasing the rights to successful self-published books rather than taking on the upfront costs and risks associated with producing new books. I think that’s a short-sighted strategy, since it removes from the process almost everything traditional publishers are good at, but there’s not a lot I can do about it.

I don’t think Ink sets a precedent, since it’s not the first book to be crowdfunded, but I do think any publisher who asks authors to crowdfund their books is giving away all their power. An author who can run a successful crowdfunding campaign will get their advance from the readers and may decide they don’t need a publisher at all. I should also add that being good at crowdfunding doesn’t necessarily equate to being good at writing, so asking authors to prove themselves that way would be a very inefficient method of finding the diamonds in the rough.

Are you going to write the book regardless?

I think so. I’m so in love with the story that I can’t imagine not writing it. But if I don’t meet the target, I’ll have to sell it to a traditional publisher, which might take a few years – and they’re likely to want to dilute the story so as it appeals to a broader audience. Having more readers isn’t a bad thing, but Ink has the potential to be completely unique. I’d hate to miss that chance, so I really hope I hit the target.

If you think I’ve left any major questions out, feel free to leave them in the comments below and I’ll see if I can talk Jack into answering them as well.

Zac and Mia – Blog Tour

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You might have heard on the twitterverse that I’ll be participating in a blog tour for the 2012 Text Prize Winner ‘Zac and Mia’. I loved this book, and will be posting a review next Thursday as a part of the tour, where one lucky Australian or New Zealand reader will have the chance to win a copy of the book. Thanks Text!

You can check out AJ’s website here.

The tour kicks off next Wednesday (when the book is actually published) so if you want to follow along you’ll be able to do so at the following blogs. If you’d like to win a copy of the book, check out my review next week and I’ll be picking a commenter to sent a copy to.

Wednesday 24th – ALPHAReader

Thursday 25th – First Impressions (that’s here!)

Friday 26th – Kids’ Book Review

Saturday 27th – The Tales Compendium

Sunday 28th – Writing for Children

Monday 29th – YA Midnight Reads

Tuesday 30th – VeganYANerds

Wednesday 31st – Obsession With Books

Thursday 1st – inkcrush

Review – Girl Defective – by Simmone Howell

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First up, exciting news! I’m going to be part of an upcoming blog tour for the 2012 Text Prize Winner AJ Betts. Her book Zac and Mia is due to be published later this month so I’ll be reviewing it and giving away a copy of the book to a commenter (from Aus) on the blog. Stay tuned for more details…

In recent reading, after losing my copy of Girl Defective underneath the couch and then finding it again, I stayed up to the wee hours of the morning yesterday/today finishing it. I LOVED it. It was exactly the kind of book that I would have read a thousand times over as a teenager, daydreaming of the romantic/tortured/artistic life I would one day lead. In my imaginings I would have been Nancy, a free spirit drifting along on some romantic idea, but in reality I was probably more like Sky, except not as cool.

The point, I suppose, is that in this book Simmone Howell has created characters that you want to know, that you want to be. They’re exciting, slightly odd, very loveable and all just the right amount of lost. You’ll wish that each and every one of them was in your life.

There’s fifteen-year-old Sky, the narrator. The girl who hasn’t yet found her people. Oh how fifteen-year-old Bec would have related to this. I know this because I’m thirty, and still collecting ‘my people’ as I go. She’s a misfit who doesn’t realise how great she is. She’s on the cusp of discovering EVERYTHING – her identity, her passion, her sexuality. It’s an exciting, hormone driven time and Sky is in the middle of the hurricane.

There’s Gully, Sky’s lovably odd younger brother. Or Agent Seagull Martin as he goes by on the official reports. Gully is obsessed with investigating the world from underneath his pig snout mask. For him, assessing the latest appearances in the Martin family (Detective ‘Evil’ Eve, and tragic Luke) is just as important as investigating actual criminal activity (the mysterious Brickers who have been vandalising the neighborhood).

Sky’s investigating too, the mystery behind the sad looking girl on the posters on the walls. Her investigation leads her to a much darker place, where silver scarved, lonely eyed girls cry for recognition from the depths of the ocean. It leads her to Luke, who is searching for the truth behind a sister that he didn’t know. It leads her to Nancy, her glamorous older friend who seems to hold the secret to living in the palm of her hand, but whose cracks are starting to show. It leads her to Quinn, to her mother, to her father, and finally back to herself.

This is a coming of age story where everything and nothing matters all at once. The hormones are so strong that you’ll find yourself fifteen again, looking wildly for that compass to stop the world from spinning out of control around you. It’s brilliant, and messy and real, set in a place that everyone will recognise even if you’ve never been there before.

Audiobooks (or, How I Got My Hands Back)

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As anyone else with a tiny person would know, most of the time your hands aren’t free to do things. Sure, there’s ‘falling-asleep-on-my-lap-time’ where I can gently reach around and try to get some work done on the computer, but there’s not an awful lot of time where all of my limbs are available for things like walking from one room to the next. My days are carefully planned forts where I can reach everything I might need from beneath my sleeping child.

As he gets bigger though, there’s more playing on the mat time than there used to be. Mostly because he can hold his head up now so things aren’t quite as frustrating (although there’s always that just out of reach rattle to really drive him crazy). We work our way through endless hours of dancing (with me holding him), nursery rhymes (me moving his limbs), books (together on our tummys or him on my lap), toys and so on. But recently I’ve discovered the beauty of audiobooks.

These are not lazy because a. I’m right there with him, b. we still read an awful lot of paper (board) books and c. it is actually an important time for him to learn to just chill out on his own, with me not too far away.

I’ve got and have listened to a fair few audiobooks. My old job at The Little Bookroom saw me spending hours each day in the car, and audiobooks were a great alternative to dodgy radio, particularly on the longer trips. And I remember as a kid (when audiobooks were cassette tapes, or in my case even some on record!), loving that time in the afternoon when my nanna and I would sit in front of the fire and I would listen to that entrancing storytellers voice weave tales of far away from our crackly old speakers. The storyteller of my childhood sounded (I’m sure, although I can’t guarantee the trustworthiness of this memory) a lot like Neil Gaiman, and so as a result my own personal favourite from the audiobooks I own is his unabridged reading of ‘The Graveyard Book’. If you haven’t heard it I highly recommend that you have a listen – I wish he would record all children’s audiobooks.

But for my tiny person, a recent addition to our collection has been ‘Olivia’, the audio collection read by Dame Edna Everage. I can’t even tell you how high my heart leapt when I put this on the speakers and he gave a delighted chuckle (this is a new sound for him and I am obsessed with it). I suspect that at for months some of his delight came from the discovery that the red box only inches from his head was capable of producing such a variety of sounds (and light if the ipod screen was lit up). But his joy at listening to these five tales (of a nice, short picture book length, just right for four-month-old attention spans) has only grown as this storytime has become part of our nightly routine.

Dame Edna is actually a perfect choice as narrator. Her tone is ideal for little ears catching on all new sounds and is appealing enough that other distractions fall to the wayside, for a little while at least. Piano punctuates the story where the illustrations would have, adding another level of sound for those little listeners. And if you have the book all the better, it’s a great time to read along together with the music in the background.

I’m loving this new part to our routine. It reminds me of really happy moments from my own childhood and I hope that one day he can say the same thing.

You can also hear an exert from the book here.

Review – My Life as an Alphabet – Barry Jonsberg

my-life-as-an-alphabetThere’s a chapter in this book about the death of a child because of Cot Death. As a new mum, had I known that before I started reading it, I probably wouldn’t have. Which would have been a real shame, because this is an absolutely wonderful book, and the joy I got from reading it by far outweighed that sick/new mum feeling that I get whenever someone mentions SIDS.

Candice Phee is one of the strangest characters I’ve encountered in a while. But she’s strange in a good way (particularly if you’re a reader). She’s got a lot of friends (if you ask her, but not so many if you ask everyone else). She has a fish called Earth-Pig Fish (whose name would have just been Earth-Pig but she didn’t want to be responsible for the resulting identity crisis). She has a friend (who reciprocates the friendship) who is Douglas Benson From Another Dimension (that one’s pretty self explanatory really). She makes people laugh without having any idea how she’s doing it. And this is the story of her life, told through the 26 letters of the alphabet.

My Life as an Alphabet is everything that you want a book to be, and I do mean everything. It’s funny – like, laugh out loud and read-the-funny-bits-to-the-person-next-to-you funny, strange, clever, sad, thoughtful, whimsical, and mature. Friendships are formed. Lives are saved. Letters are written.

This is one of those books in that genre that is squeezing it’s way out between junior fiction and young adult. Think Angel Creek and When You Reach Me. It’s the genre that deals with characters just at the peak of adolescence, but with just enough leftover naivety that they believe that magic can happen. And sometimes by believing it, perhaps it can.

I love this genre, because as an older reader it becomes less of a story about every day events and more of a fable – a reminder of unflinchingly looking to the future and knowing that it would all work out. There’s so much hope in books for this age. Even the sad chapters (such as the one mentioned at the beginning of this review) are taken in the matter-of-factual stride that 10-12-year-olds seem to possess.

I finished My Life as an Alphabet and I wanted to read it all over again. Barry Jonsberg is a gem.