The Boundless Sublime by Lili Wilkinson

Screen Shot 2016-08-15 at 11.13.51 amSynopsis:

Ruby Jane Galbraith is empty. Her family has been torn apart and it’s all her fault.

The only thing that makes sense to her is Fox – a gentle new friend who is wise, soulful and clever, yet oddly naive about the ways of the world. He understands what she’s going through and he offers her a chance to feel peace. Fox belongs to a group called the Institute of the Sublime – and Ruby can’t stay away from him. So she is also drawn in to what she too late discovers is a terrifying secretive community that is far from the ideal world she expected.

Can Ruby find the courage to escape? Is there any way she can save Fox too? And is there ever really an escape from the far-reaching influence of the Institute of the Sublime?

A gripping YA novel about an ordinary girl who is unsuspectingly inducted into a secretive modern-day cult.

Review:

Cults conjure up images of secrecy, brainwashing and abuse. It’s this strange world The Boundless Sublime dives into with gusto, complete with an enigmatic and chilling leader in ‘Daddy’. Swift and engaging, this was a story I found it hard to drag myself away from.

In the Institute, Wilkinson has created a disturbing secret society where people are ‘reborn’ and all connections to their old life lost. There are endless rules to follow, keeping members in line, downtrodden and fearful. Wilkinson’s writing was captivating. Once I started reading The Boundless Sublime I couldn’t stop and, when I did have to put the book down, was wondering where the story would turn. Given the length, I was impressed this high tension and swift pace didn’t waver. I also loved the fact Wilkinson went beyond life at the cult towards the conclusion.

Despite my enjoyment of the writing style and fascination with Ruby’s time at the cult, I found it hard to really connect with her. Compared to her time at the Institution, the introduction to Ruby’s life before felt rushed. While I understand her grief may have lead her to felt the Institute was her only option, I found it difficult to fully believe she could have been caught up so quickly. Perhaps if there had been a little more exploration of Ruby’s previous life, that emotional understanding would have been more apparent.

While I enjoyed the twists and fast pace of the conclusion, it left me a little unsatisfied. Everything felt too easily resolved and in many ways I found that completely unbelievable. I’m sure many people who have gone through similar situations might have to live without any of the closure Ruby found. Similarly, I’m sure it would take much longer to re-adjust to normal life again, with associated emotional and psychological issues.

In The Boundless Sublime, Wilkinson has created a truly captivating cult, where terror simmers beneath the facade of health and clean living. Although I had some issues believing elements of the plot, I found this book incredibly compelling and a much darker exploration of human nature than I had imagined.

Sounds like: Sexy Sadie || The Beatles

Thank you to Allen & Unwin for providing a copy of the book for review.

The Boundless Sublime is out now (RRP $19.99).

Holier Than Thou by Laura Buzo

Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 9.37.07 pmSynopsis:

From the author of Good Oil, this extraordinary, bittersweet novel portrays a slice of Australian city life through an unforgettable girl named Holly who is navigating the nuances and complexities of being in her early 20s.

‘What do you want, Hol?’ Abby looks into my eyes. ‘I … I want to know that I’m using my powers for good and -‘ ‘You want to make a dead man proud.’ ‘Whoa!’ ‘You want to put bandages over severed arteries that really need to be sewn shut. You want the moral high ground.’

Holly Yarkov has a boyfriend who is a gift from the universe. She has a job that fulfils her even as it wears her down. She has a core group of friends from high school. And she has a layer of steel around her heart that is beginning to tarnish. Just as she is reaching for a future she can’t quite see, Holly is borne back into the past by memories of her beloved father, and of the boy-who-might-have-been…

Grief and longing run like veins of quicksilver through this beautiful novel, at once gloriously funny and achingly sad.

Review:

Sometimes a book comes into your life at the perfect moment and so beautifully captures something you’re feeling; an emotion you can’t even put into words. Holier Than Thou is that book. I’m still struggling to even comprehend why I loved it so much. Everything about it just felt so raw and relatable. Not everyone is going to have the same experience, but I know I couldn’t have picked a better time to read this.

Throughout Holier Than Thou past and present intertwine in the most beautiful way, providing explanation for Holly’s slowly eroding armour. As a teenager, Holly watched cancer consume her father. This experience would shape many of her future relationships, with a tough edge to her personality for protection. While I’ve never experience anything similar, I instantly connected with Holly and her reluctance to open up to new people. I’m fairly open, but only with those I trust and until that point, I can hear myself being abrasive with people and pushing them away. I think my  instinct to be cutting in sarcasm stems from my fear someone won’t like me, that I’ll be hurt.

The exploration of post-high school friendship was poignant and something I’m sure many could relate to. Those friendships you promise will last forever but sometimes just can’t necessarily last the distance. Stepping away from people who’ve shaped your life for so many years is in some ways terrifying, as is leaping into new friendships. Holier Than Thou characterised this struggle so beautifully. I also loved the parallels between Holly’s relationships with Liam and Nick.

Although I’ve tried my best, I really can’t fully explain my depth of feeling for Holier Than Thou. Real and raw, it’s a book I will be revisiting again and again.

Sounds like: Landslide || Fleetwood Mac and Heavy Load || Free

Blog Tour: Q&A with Randa Abdel-Fattah

randaAbdelFattah-682x1024-2Today I’m pleased to welcome Australian author Randa Abdel-Fattah to The Unfinished Bookshelf. I really enjoyed both Does My Head Look Big in This and her latest release When Michael Met Mina. Randa’s books explore contemporary political and religious issues with such thought and depth. I highly recommend checking out her work.

As a journalist, I am always pleased to see political issues I’m passionate about explored in the books I read. Why do you think it’s important for young adult fiction to explore issues like those covered in When Michael Met Mina?

Because racism isn’t something that we should confine to academic or media discussions. It is a lived experience, a fundamental part of many people’s everyday lives, something they negotiate and struggle against and I think it’s so important that young people have their stories validated and that those who are born into the privilege of whiteness understand that privilege and what it means for their life chances and experiences compared to racialised minorities.

Do you think political and social issues should be explored more in young adult fiction? 

Yes definitely. Political and social issues are the stuff of life including young adults’ lives. We shouldn’t underestimate young people or seek to ‘protect’ them from the realities of the world.

Michael grows a lot throughout the book and feels a lot of conflict about challenging the views of his parents. How important do you think it is for young adult books to explore growth and to show teens it’s possible to form your own views? 

I think everyone is capable of change and growth. But not everybody is capable or willing to change. I think it’s important to understand that change is hard, that there are structural forces bigger than ‘willpower’ that block people from having the courage to ask questions about who they are and what they believe. But racism can’t be dismantled unless people are confronted and provoked to think.

How much research went into When Michael Met Mina and how long did it take you to write? 

I based my book on my own fieldwork, my own work with refugees, stories from friends, and information from refugee advocates. It took about two years to write.

Has your writing or writing process changed at all with each book you’ve written? 

No doubt. I grow and learn with each book. My process hasn’t changed much but I think that my handling of issues like race is more nuanced, critical and complex now, reflecting changes in my own politics.

What do you hope readers take away from When Michael Met Mina

Never stop questioning and reflecting on what you have, who you are, and what you know and don’t know.

What books left their mark on you as a reader and a writer?

Too many to do justice to! Some books which had a profound impact on me as I wrote WMMM are White Nation (Ghassan Hage), Against Paranoid Nationalism (Ghassan Hage), The Politics of Emotion (Sara Ahmed), Black Skin White Masks (Fanon).

What projects are you currently working on? 

Rest. Haha. I just finished my Phd. And I wrote WMMM during my Phd. And I’m about to have a baby. So my project is ‘how not to work’, or ‘how to take time out’….(Although I am working on the film screenplay of Does My Head Look Big In This? which is due at the end of the year so maybe rest is not the right word after all…)

This Q&A is part of the When Michael Met Mina blog tour. 

Read my review of the book here and follow the other stops using #Michael4Mina.

Blog Tour: When Michael Met Mina by Randa Abdel-Fattah

Screen Shot 2016-06-10 at 5.08.30 pmSynopsis: 

Before Mina, my life was like a completed jigsaw puzzle but Mina has pushed the puzzle onto the floor. I have to start all over again, figuring out where the pieces go.

When Michael meets Mina, they are at a rally for refugees – standing on opposite sides.

Mina fled Afghanistan with her mother via a refugee camp, a leaky boat and a detention centre.

Michael’s parents have founded a new political party called Aussie Values.

They want to stop the boats.

Mina wants to stop the hate.

When Mina wins a scholarship to Michael’s private school, their lives crash together blindingly.

A novel for anyone who wants to fight for love, and against injustice.

Review: 

It’s hard to explain just how much I’ve changed as a person in the five years since I finished high school. There’s the obvious confidence boost which comes with making it through the minefield of university assignments, landing a challenging job and ‘adulting’. But there’s been a massive shift in all my political and social views as well. To some extent I think that is only natural as a journalist, but much of it also has to do with realising I don’t have to believe the same things as my parents. When Michael Met Mina is one of the only books I’ve read which so beautifully captures this transition into independence.

Set in Sydney, When Michael Met Mina unfolds as two worlds collide. Mina and her mother fled Afghanistan and arrived in Australia as refugees. After being held in a detention centre, the family moved to Sydney’s western suburbs. But Mina has won a scholarship to an exclusive North Shore school, which means moving across the city. It’s here she meets Michael, whose parents have founded Aussie Values, a political party which shuns the idea of multiculturalism. They hold very different views, but are forced to work together when a school project and Aussie Values throw them together.

Most Aussie readers will recognise this as an incredibly topical book. Immigration wasn’t the main feature of the latest federal election campaign, but it’s still undoubtedly a major political talking point. And it’s emotive. I’ve reported on Reclaim Australia Rallies as a journalist and it’s clear both sides of this debate feel incredibly passionate about their position. Both sides are given a voice in When Michael Met Mina, but Abdel-Fattah respectfully explored why Aussie Values’ views are misguided. Regardless of the topic, I’m thrilled to see political issues being explored in YA. I wish there had been more books like this around when I was in high school.

My favourite element of When Michael Met Mina was the way Abdel-Fattah explored Michael’s uneasiness and confusion about changing his political views. There’s a safety in having very solid beliefs and for Michael, this certainty in his views, and his parents, is shattered when he meets Mina. She also has strong, firm values. The difference is her values are reflective of personal experiences, where Michael simply doesn’t question what he’s been told his whole life. I adored the exploration of Michael’s growth in this respect because it relates to so much more than just views on immigration.

Aside from a thoughtful exploration of topical political issues, When Michael Met Mina is just an incredibly easy book to fall in love with. Both Michael and Mina are very relatable and I adored their blossoming relationship. Once I started reading, I just couldn’t stop. Every character in this book felt so real and the dialogue and pacing were spot on.

Thoughtful and moving, When Michael Met Mina is the best political YA book I’ve read. But its beauty lies in the fact it isn’t just about the issues. With wonderful characters, this is a book you can instantly get lost in. Stop the hate and start reading.

Sounds like: Give Peace a Chance || John Lennon

Thank you to Pan Macmillan Australia for providing a copy of the book for review.

Read a Q&A with author Randa Abdel-Fattah here and follow the other blog tour stops using #Michael4Mina.

The Big Lie by Julie Mayhew

Screen Shot 2016-07-01 at 12.08.24 pmSynopsis:

A startling coming-of-age novel set in a contemporary Nazi England.

Jessika Keller is a good girl: she obeys her father, does her best to impress Herr Fisher at the Bund Deutscher Mädel meetings and is set to be a world champion ice skater. Her neighbour Clementine is not so submissive. Outspoken and radical, Clem is delectably dangerous and rebellious. And the regime has noticed. Jess cannot keep both her perfect life and her dearest friend. But which can she live without?

The Big Lie is a thought-provoking and beautifully told story that explores ideas of loyalty, sexuality, protest and belief.

Review: 

It’s always fascinating to consider how the world would look if history had taken a different course. But parallel histories aren’t something I’ve really read, especially not in young adult. The Big Lie explores a modern Nazi regimen with a delicate brutality, picking away the state secrets to expose the horror at the heart of society.

This was not a book that was easy to start reading, but for all the right reasons. The world Mayhew has crafted was so complete and so alien that it took me a while to understand the kind of society Jessika was living in. But then I was completely absorbed by this cruel and hideous regimen. I loved reading the historical notes at the end of the book, explaining just how much 2014 Nazi England had been based in fact. It’s shocking really, that some of the worst aspects of this imagined society weren’t fictional.

I would describe The Big Lie as a feminist novel. While the themes are subtle, the very absence of any choice for women and the very defined roles they adhere to highlights the need for the moment.  Mayhew also explores diversity in sexuality, something Jessika really struggles to understand in herself as being anything other than heterosexual is not an option in the Nazi society.

One of my favourite elements of The Big Lie was the discussion around personal beliefs, perception and how both can be so easily shaped by authority. Instead of looking at this suffocating society from the outside knowing the benefits of freedom, The Big Lie transports audiences to the other side. Jessika and her peers are taught to despise the rest of the world, told the Nazi invasion of England saved the country from its leaders. Reading this book made it so easy to understand how narrative shapes the way we see the world, even in democratic societies. We’re influenced by the media, government and our families. Knowing this, it’s easy to understand why Jessika never questioned the world around her.

Beautifully written with an emotional punch, The Big Lie is an alternate history which relies on devastating truths. Questioning the impact of authority and its intrusion into daily life, The Big Lie is a thrilling and captivating read.

Monthly Wrap: June (2016)

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You may have noticed things have been a little quiet around here lately. The last few months I’ve been taking a little unofficial break from blogging and trying to fall in love with it again. A few months ago I finally started taking medication for my anxiety and for a while there I wasn’t really in the mood for reading anything, despite feeling like a whole new person.

Instead, I’ve been watching some great TV and my favourite movies, catching up with friends and family on a little holiday and reading just for fun. If you’re in Australia I’m sure you’ll have also heard about this little election campaign that’s been running which has also kept me swamped at work.

I’m slowly getting back into blogging. I’m reviewing again (sometimes) and getting back to my favourite blogs and Twitter chats.

I haven’t talked about my anxiety publicly before, but a few weeks ago I wrote a piece for work because I felt it was time to speak out (partly inspired by the lovely Kristen Bell). You can read it here.

What I’ve been watching:

I just finished re-watching the first season of Veronica Mars and fell in love all over again. The characters, the mysteries, Veronica’s sass. Everything in this show is absolute perfection.

Last night I watched Finding Dory, which was the best antidote to an overwhelming week at work. If you need a delightful and fun movie to watch, I can’t recommend this highly enough. Absolutely brilliant!

Two of Australia’s best dramas have returned to TV, so I will no doubt spend July hanging out for every new episode of Love Child and Offspring.

Books read since last wrap-up:

Solitaire by Alice Oseman

The Crow Road by Ian Banks (review)

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

The Big Lie by Julie Mayhew (review to come)

Faithful Place by Tana French

When Michael Met Mina by Randa Abdel-Fattah (review to come)

The Book of Broken Hearts by Sarah Ockler (review to come)

Also on the blog:

I reviewed Louise O’Neill’s stunning Only Ever Yours

The Brits hit contemporary crime drama out of the park with Cuffs

I finally reviewed The Anti-Cool Girl, one of my favourite reads last year

Another British crime drama stole my heart

I discussed my conflicting feelings about Me Before You and representation of disability

On Screen: Me Before You

Generally I try to avoid the ‘it’ books everyone is raving about, but when the movie adaptation comes out I end up caving. I ignored Me Before You for most of the year, despite the super-sized hype and seemingly endless stream of reviews and Instagram shots. But what did grab my attention was the snippets of criticism I started seeing on social media.

I haven’t read the book and I’m not going to, so I can only judge the movie adaptation, but I must admit I went into the cinema with very low expectations and disapproval in mind. Watching it left me feeling pretty conflicted so I wanted to try and sort out my thoughts in this review. It’s going to include plenty of spoilers, so if you haven’t read the book/watched the movie and don’t want it ruined, don’t keep reading.

Alex Bailey/Warner Bros

Alex Bailey/Warner Bros

If you’re not familiar with the plot; wealthy, adventurous finance mogul Will becomes a quadriplegic after a traffic accident. Despite having no formal training or any experience as a carer, Lou is hired by Will’s family to act as a companion and, it is later revealed, reverse his decision to end his life through euthanasia.

I don’t want this review/discussion to be entirely negative so I will say I loved Emilia Clarke as Lou. She was so warm and bubbly and has the most amazingly expressive eyebrows I have ever seen. There were quite a few aspects of her personality I loved; her open and friendly nature, eccentric dress sense and loyalty. But Lou was also very sheltered and naive. I guessed she was about 20, but was shocked when it was revealed she was 26.

Lou’s stupidity when it came to caring for Will angered me. She was hired despite having no experience of caring for anyone, let alone someone with serious medical conditions. Lou doesn’t even bother to read the comprehensive document about Will’s medical needs, leading to him falling seriously ill at one point. But the fact she was hired at all shows she’s not the only one incapable of making the right decisions in this film.

I found the trip to the races utterly ridiculous. I can’t believe Lou didn’t research accessible parking options and ignored the advice from Will’s nurse about parking near a patch of mud which the wheelchair becomes bogged in, leading to extreme embarrassment for Will. I was absolutely fuming when Lou refused to listen to Will’s concerns about eating at a restaurant, making a scene despite his asking if they could leave. There are also issues around the holiday to a tropical island, but if I continue to nitpick everything this discussion will be endless.

Many other people have written about the problems in this film much more eloquently than I’m able to. Basically, I’m concerned by the message this film sends about disability. Will’s decision to commit suicide sends the message life isn’t worth living with a disability and I feel that’s dangerous. I’m able-bodied so I don’t feel like I have any authority to comment, but I’ve read the opinions of people who have a disability and when they’re raising issues with content, I think we need to listen. I also question why a quadriplegic actor was not cast. There’s an argument movies need well-known faces, but surely people can’t become more well-known unless casting becomes more diverse?

Even a year ago I probably would have loved this book and wouldn’t have understood the criticism. But I’ve changed so much in that time and have become much more concerned with how my actions and words impact those around me. I want to understand why this film is problematic and I want to continue the conversation with people who haven’t seen the issues. I don’t want to condemn anyone who enjoyed this book or the film, but I don’t think the very valid concerns raised by so many can be ignored.

Despite my anger at aspects of the plot, I enjoyed a night with some of my best friends escaping reality. Don’t avoid Me Before You, but if you watch it do so with representation in mind.

Further reading

‘I’m not a thing to be pitied’: the disability backlash against Me Before You

Me Before You: life disability and ‘inspiration porn’