Graphic Novel Double Dip Review: Fears and Fantasy Lands…

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You’ll require a nice light, colourful snack to accompany today’s illustrated double dip, in keeping with the theme of dark places and a desire for the light.  Let’s kick off with The Creeps by Fran Krause, being the follow-up anthology to Deep Dark Fears, and which we received from the publisher via Netgalley for review.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

A follow-up to the New York Times best-selling Deep Dark Fears: a second volume of comics based on people’s quirky, spooky, hilarious, and terrifying fears. 

Illustrator, animator, teacher, and comic artist Fran Krause has touched a collective nerve with his wildly popular web comic series–and subsequent New York Times best-selling book–Deep Dark Fears. Here he brings readers more of the creepy, funny, and idiosyncratic fears they love illustrated in comic form–such as the fear that your pets will tell other animals all your embarrassing secrets, or that someone uses your house while you’re not home–as well as two longer comic short-stories about ghosts.

Dip into it for… the creeps cover

…another hilarious collection of unexpected yet deep-seated fears, presented in four-frame comic format.  This edition also features two longer fear “stories” that take up a few pages each.  I had just as much fun with this collection as I did with the first and the real beauty of these collections is that, for many of the fears depicted, I was totally unaware I might harbour such outlandish concerns until they were pointed out in comic form.  My two favourites from this collection were the potential horrible circumstances behind how our favourite plush toys come to be, and the deaf ear that we might unwittingly turn to the suffering of peeled vegetables.  I have included both of these below for your perusal.

Don’t dip if…

…you are the suggestible, anxious type and don’t like the idea of having new, hitherto unconsidered fears worming their way into your consciousness.

Overall Dip Factor

I thoroughly enjoyed this book because it simultaneously provokes laughter and makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.  I read this in one reasonably short sitting, but as with the first collection, it really is the perfect choice as a coffee table book or to leave in a waiting room for the enjoyment of unsuspecting victims.  Highly recommended.

creeps pic 1 creeps pic 2

Next up we have The Wendy Project by Melissa Jane Osborne and Veronica Fish, which is a YA graphic novel we received from the publisher via Netgalley for review.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

16-year-old Wendy Davies crashes her car into a lake on a late summer night in New England with her two younger brothers in the backseat. When she wakes in the hospital, she is told that her youngest brother, Michael, is dead. Wendy — a once rational teenager – shocks her family by insisting that Michael is alive and in the custody of a mysterious flying boy. Placed in a new school, Wendy negotiates fantasy and reality as students and adults around her resemble characters from Neverland. Given a sketchbook by her therapist, Wendy starts to draw. But is The Wendy Project merely her safe space, or a portal between worlds? 

Dip into it for… the wendy project

…a thoughtful and fast-paced graphic novel dealing with themes of grief, loss and the pressure to move on after losing a loved one.  Wendy and her family are involved in a car accident in which her younger brother Michael is killed – although Wendy is certain that she saw Michael fly away from the crash and is therefore still alive.  Understandably concerned, her parents involve Wendy in therapy, in which she is encouraged to keep a visual diary in order to make sense of her thoughts about the loss of her brother.  Despite the heavy subject matter, the author and illustrator have infused this story with magical realism based upon the Peter Pan story.  Different characters, as well as sharing names with characters from Peter Pan, take on characteristics of their fantastical namesakes, culminating in a trip to Wendy’s very own Neverland.  It is through this experience that Wendy comes to terms with who she is now and how her life will change.

Don’t dip if…

…you aren’t a fan of stories based on famous books.  This one does borrow heavily from the Peter Pan narrative, and I will be the first to admit that Peter Pan is one of my least favourite stories (what with Peter himself being the poster boy for man-children everywhere)…but this didn’t put me off as much as I thought it would, and I think the creators of The Wendy Project have achieved a good balance between original story content and content based on the more famous work.

Overall Dip Factor

This turned out to be quite a quick read but one that manages to explore serious themes with some depth despite this.  With a balanced blend of fantasy and real life, the authors have done well to highlight the difficulties that can be faced by young people, and all of us really, in the situation of a sudden bereavement, particularly when, as Wendy is here, there is guilt, be it actual or misplaced, about the circumstances in which their loved one died.  I would recommend this to those who enjoy graphic novels about real life issues told in creative ways.

I am submitting this one for the Colour Coded Reading Challenge 2017 in the final category, because the cover features a plethora of different colours.  You can check out my progress toward that challenge here.

So are either of these your cup of tea (or bowl of nachos)?  Let me know in the comments!

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

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Return to Augie Hobble: Theme Parks, Creative Arts and Life in a Wolf Suit…

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If you are tired of the typical tropes, lackadaisical layouts and predictable plotting of standard middle grade reads, Return to Augie Hobble by Lane Smith will be a breath of fresh air.  We received a copy from PanMacmillan Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Augie Hobble lives in a fairy tale—or at least Fairy Tale Place, the down-on-its-luck amusement park managed by his father. Yet his life is turning into a nightmare: he’s failed creative arts and has to take summer school, the girl he has a crush on won’t acknowledge him, and Hogg Wills and the school bullies won’t leave him alone. Worse, a succession of mysterious, possibly paranormal, events have him convinced that he’s turning into a werewolf. At least Augie has his notebook and his best friend Britt to confide in—until the unthinkable happens and Augie’s life is turned upside down, and those mysterious, possibly paranormal, events take on a different meaning.

Return to Augie Hobble was a package of unpredictability from start to finish.  Augie lives in a reasonably crappy amusement park based on a fairy tale theme and spends his summer sweeping up after guests and being picked on by bored teenage pranksters.  In his downtime, he and his best friend Britt escape to their fort in the woods and attempt to create a Creative Arts project that will get Augie a passing grade.  When Britt leaves on holiday and Augie has a strange encounter with someone in a wolf suit (or is it?), Augie’s life takes a turn for the weird…er.

This book is a bit of a cross between a graphic novel and an ordinary novel, as it is heavily illustrated throughout.  Along with the actual story the reader is privy to Augie’s multiple attempts to create a passable project for his summer school Creative Arts class and these range from cartoons to illustrated stories to photographs.  We also get to see some particularly …. unexpected …scribblings that appear in the notebook.  I use the word “appear” because Augie can’t explain how they got there…although he has a rather shrewd idea.

I won’t try to describe the plot of this story to you because it is twistier than a spring caught in an automated twisting machine – just when you think you can guess where the story’s going – phwip! – something completely unexpected pops up to change things around.  By the end of the book you’ll have vicariously experienced lycanthropism, theft, ghost activity, a genuine cowboy horse chase, gypsy prophesying, time-lapse photography, poltergeisting for the win, agents working on a government conspiracy and festive decorating.  By about two thirds of the way through the book I did feel that I had lost the thread a little because the plot was changing so quickly, but the writing is full of humour (some of it quite dark) and Augie is so relatable that I was willing to forgive a bit of disjointedness in the plot itself.

Presentation wise, this book will definitely appeal to young readers.  The cover design is engaging and the sheer volume of illustrations throughout break up the text beautifully, giving readers of all abilities a chance to evade the monotony of black-on-white text.  I’m not sure that the story will appeal to everyone – it has a unique mix of silliness and seriousness that I don’t think I’ve come across before – but if you are a fan of quirky humour and unbelievable situations then you will definitely appreciate Smith’s style.

Until next time,

Bruce

Remembering the Great East Japan Tsunami and Earthquake of 2011: Hotaka (Through My Eyes)

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Hotaka: Through My Eyes Natural Disaster Zones by John Heffernan and Lyn White.  Published by Allen & Unwin, March 2017.  RRP: $16.99

It would be remiss of me not to review this particular book on this particular date: At 2.46pm on March 11th, 2011 a massive earthquake triggered a deadly tsunami that inundated 560 square kilometres of Japan’s eastern coastline.  The wave also caused major damage at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant.  By the time the final effects of the multiple disasters were tallied, more than 24 000 people are confirmed dead or missing and six years on, hundreds of thousands are still displaced.

The Through My Eyes young adult novel series began with the stories of fictional children living in conflict zones throughout the world and has moved on to include the stories of fictional children affected by natural disasters. We received a copy of Hotaka by John Heffernan from Allen & Unwin for review and here is the blurb from Goodreads:

A powerful and moving story about one boy caught up in the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2011.

When the tsunami strikes the Japanese seaside town of Omori-wan, the effects are utterly devastating. Three years later, much of what happened on that day is still a mystery. As Hotaka sets about convincing local performers to appear at the town’s upcoming Memorial Concert, he finds himself increasingly haunted by memories of best friend, Takeshi, who perished without trace in the tsunami. Then his friend Sakura becomes involved in an anti-seawall movement, and all too quickly the protest gets serious. As the town and its people struggle to rebuild their lives, can Hotaka piece together what happened that day – and let go of the past?

The book begins the morning of March 11th, 2011 with Hotaka and his friend Takeshi on a school trip to the local puppet show.  As the day unfolds and the earthquake hits, the reader is given an idea of how it might have felt to have experienced first the shock of the extraordinarily strong earthquake, the scramble to higher ground and then the chaos and confusion following in the wake of the giant wave.  Rather than dwell on the actual disaster itself, the story soon moves on to three years later, as the residents of Omori-wan try to continue with their lives despite a lack of housing, the mental affects of trauma and an underlying sense of resentment from those who lost much toward those who lost little.

Hotaka and his friends Osamu and Sakura are charged with preparing a memorial concert for the fifth anniversary of the wave that will involve aspects of local culture, with the aim of helping the residents of Omori-wan to let go and move on.  Hotaka discovers that he, of all people, has something that he must let go of if he is to move forward in life, while Sakura – who generally keeps her cards (and her past) close to her chest – is infuriated by government plans to build an enormous sea wall around the town to protect it from future tsunamis.

Events come to a head when Sakura takes matters into her own hands and begins a protest that snowballs to national attention.  As threats from developers and local government start to hit close to home for the three friends, they must decide whether it is worth continuing to speak out for the sake of their town, or instead fall in line with the wishes of the government, as is the usual course of action.

Heffernan has done a good job here of highlighting the difficulties of the townspeople whose lives were irrevocably altered after the wave.  The stress of inadequate temporary housing, the trauma of lost loved ones and the feeling of abandonment are made obvious through Hotaka’s interactions with some of his less fortunate classmates.  The story never veers from the perspective of a young person however, and the kernel of hope that Hotaka and others continue to show lifts the book from becoming depressing at any stage.  The three young protagonists have diverse personalities and characteristics and while their differences do lead to conflict at times, the strength of their friendship pulls them through.

The book includes a timeline of the actual disaster at the end, as well as a glossary of Japanese terms, and overall I think this book would be a great starting point for any young person wanting to read more about this particular disaster in a fictional format.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

Bruce’s Reading Round-Up: Picture Books for the Open Minded…

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Saddle up my friends, because I have four picture books for you today that will open your mind, test your heart and generally stretch your imagination!  Let’s ride on in!

A Perfect Day (Lane Smith)

*We received a copy of A Perfect Day from PanMacmillan Australia for review*

Two Sentence Synopsis:  a perfect day.jpg

As a collection of animals and one young boy go about an ordinary day, they all seem to find the one thing that makes them most happy.  Until, that is, a big hairy bear comes along to spoil the perfection.

Muster up the motivation because…

…this is one picture book that proves that perfection depends entirely on perspective.  The beautiful pastel palette of the illustrations reinforces the gentle unfolding of an ordinary day, made special by the simple things.  Of course, in the second half of the book, things become a lot less perfect – unless you’re a big burly bear looking for somewhere to snack, play and nap of course – and there’s a certain delight in seeing the bear making dirt angels in the flowerbed, splashing in the wading pool, flashing a corn-cob smile and generally enjoying himself in a bearish fashion.  The emphasis provided by the font as bear spends his leisure time inadvertently ruining everyone else’s also contributes to the humour and would be perfect for teaching younger independent readers how to take cues from the text when reading aloud.  The final illustration depicting the animals and little boy inside the house looking out, accompanied by the text, “It was a perfect day for bear,” opens up the text for conversation with little ones about how the other characters might feel.  The edition I have received shows a similar image to that of the last page as its cover and I think this image gives a better sense of the book’s content than the one above.  All up, this is a delightful reading experience that is visually appealing and the perfect choice for sharing a gentle giggle before bed.

Brand it with:

Bears in them there hills; Bear necessities; simple pleasures

Old Pig (Margaret Wild & Ron Brooks)

*We received a copy of Old Pig from Allen & Unwin Australia for review*

Two Sentence Synopsis:  

A grandmother and granddaughter pig share their days and nights in a comforting rhythm of chores, food and relaxation.  When grandmother pig begins slowing down, the two confront together the spectre of a final goodbye.

Muster up the motivation because…

…this 20th anniversary edition classic children’s tale is almost achingly poignant in places and deftly broaches that hardest of topics, the death of a loved one.  As it becomes apparent that Grandmother Pig is facing her final days, the two pigs take solace in spending time together and appreciating the small, simple things in life and the rhythms of each day.  While death isn’t explicitly mentioned, it is obvious that the book is about leaving and leaving behind.  The final illustration, featuring granddaughter pig on her own is awash with hope, and allows the reader to leave the story on an uplifting note.  As much as this story would be a useful tool in gently opening up discussions with young readers about reality of death, it is also a celebration of a life well lived and the connections that we make with those dear to us.  If this book doesn’t tug at your heartstrings and make you appreciate the small moments of joy in the mundane, then you must have a colder, stonier heart than even I do.

Brand it with:

Grief, sensitively handled; quality of life; inter-generational connections

There’s a Tiger in the Garden (Lizzy Stewart)

*We received a copy of There’s a Tiger in the Garden from Allen & Unwin for review*

Two Sentence Synopsis:  theres-a-tiger-in-the-garden

In an attempt to cure her granddaughter’s boredom, a grandmother casually mentions that there is a tiger in her garden.  The resulting, fruitful search is enough to dent the certainty of even the most sceptical of child explorers!

Muster up the motivation because…

…this is the kind of book that will have you doing exercises to expand your imagination.  While the concept of children “discovering” untapped worlds in the garden isn’t new to picture books, the ambiguous ending of this story provides a fun twist.  As Nora and Jeff (her toy giraffe) take a turn about the garden, the illustrations become more and more detailed and jungle-like, blending a sense of magical realism with the richly coloured sense of adventure inherent in nature in all its glory.  The deep greens that permeate most of the illustrations are so lush and inviting that I just couldn’t help plunging on in to this story. Within Nora’s imagination, her grandma’s small garden morphs into the home of butterflies the size of birds, a grumpy polar bear fishing in the pond and some extremely robust (and hungry) plants.  Young readers will love trying to spot the tiger in the earlier pages of the book and there is plenty of visual humour for older ones to notice and enjoy also.  If you have a young explorer in your midst, they will revel in this tale that celebrates things that are more than they seem on the surface.

Brand it with:

Wild green yonder; imagine that; grandma’s secret garden

My Friend Tertius (Corinne Fenton & Owen Swan)

*We received a copy of this title from Allen & Unwin for review*

Two Sentence Synopsis:

my-friend-tertius

My Friend Tertius by Corinne Fenton & Owen Swan.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 22 February 2016.  RRP: $24.99

A WWII code breaker working in Singapore for the British takes a gibbon for a pet.  When the war forces him to leave Singapore, he makes the decision not to abandon his friend, but smuggle him along on the journey.

Muster up the motivation because…

…for one thing, there certainly is a dearth of war related picture books featuring a gibbon on the market, so My Friend Tertius fills that niche nicely. The washed out colour palette is reminiscent of the tropical heat of the southern hemisphere, and there are many historical clues hidden in the pictures for keen-eyed young readers to inquire about – the radio set in Arthur’s room for instance, Arthur’s neatly initialed gladstone bag and the fact that most pictures of people show at least somebody smoking a cigarette.  This was a bit of a strange beast of a tale for me – on one hand, it is fascinating, unexpected and had me immediately questioning the hows and whys of the story. On the other, the picture book format meant that I didn’t get the answers I was looking for. The narrative begins abruptly with a question that presupposes a knowledge of the social context of war generally – that people might have to leave – and the War in the Pacific specifically – that people did have to leave Singapore, with or without their loved ones.  The book has no afterword giving more information about Arthur Cooper and the eventual fate of either man or gibbon, and the book finishes on the rather cryptic statement “He [Tertius] taught me how to love.”  This is cryptic because nowhere in the previous pages of the book is there any mention of Arthur having any particular difficulty with human emotions, so I found myself asking, “How? How did he teach you to love? And why didn’t you know how to love in the first place?!” These questions, as well as my inner pedant’s shock at Arthur’s laissez faire attitude toward animal quarantine issues, meant that this wasn’t a particularly satisfying read for me as an adult reader, and I wonder how it might be received by the upper primary age range for which it is intended.  To be honest, I would have loved to have seen this story told in a chapter book format because I suspect there is so much more to the story than is being shown, and it is a pity not to be privy to it.

Brand it with:

Monkey business; BFFs in wartime; gibbons on the run

Bet you weren’t expecting any of those mind expanding picture books, were you?  I hope there is something here that tickles your synapses and causes you to add it to your TBR pile.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

 

 

An Adult Fiction Read-it-if Review: The Snow Rose…

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If you are looking for something to keep you occupied over the Christmas break – either cosied up in front of a roaring fire or barricaded in an air-conditioned room – then today’s book is definitely one to consider.  I wasn’t sure that I was going to love this one because it’s not my usual sort of adult fiction, but The Snow Rose by Lulu Taylor, which we received for review from PanMacmillan Australia, sucked me in hook, line and sinker.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Kate is on the run with her daughter, her identity hidden and her destination unknown to her husband and family. She’s found a place where she and Heather can be alone and safe, a huge old house full of empty rooms. But it turns out she’s not alone. There are the strange old ladies in the cottage next door, Matty and her blind sister Sissy. How long can Kate hide Heather’s presence from them? And then the newcomers arrive, the band of eccentrics led by the charming and charismatic Archer. Kate begins to realize that she is involved in something strange and dangerous, and the past she’s so desperate to escape is about to find her . . .

snow-rose

Read it if:

*you are a fan of stories that seamlessly blend contemporary and historical fiction in a twisty, intertwined way

*the idea of running away to a beautiful old isolated house sounds like paradise when adulting becomes all too much

*you prefer to organise your holiday accommodation through mysterious, untraceable companies offering employment to single ladies

*the likelihood of you being manipulated by a swindler is directly proportional to the youth, attractiveness, wealth and charisma of said swindler

What an absorbing book I found this to be!  The story turned out to be little of what I expected, but better than my expectations nonetheless.  The first thing you should know about The Snow Rose is that it is not one story, but two (possibly even three, depending on how you look at it) related but separate stories.  The first plotline features Kate, who has run away with her daughter for reasons that are only hinted at in the beginning, but become clear further down the track.  The second, related, storyline features past residents of the house, whose experience appears to be repeating itself with its new residents.  As well as those two main storylines, there are also segues into moments in the present that look to be history repeating, and some focus on the people that Kate left behind when she left.  All in all, this isn’t a basic relationship/finding-oneself type novel, as I expected it might be, but a complex, intricately woven combination of historical fiction and contemporary fiction with a hint of speculative fiction and the briefest of nods toward the paranormal thrown in.

The thing that I found most appealing about The Snow Rose was the fact that Kate, as the main character, seemed to be constantly evolving in her understanding of her bizarre situation and how it came to pass.  At no point was I able to predict how her story would turn out because she is, in some senses, unreliable in her insight into her motivations and the outcomes that she is chasing.  The old ladies that she meets while caretaking at the Big House, Sissy and Matty, provide a balance to Kate’s chaotic situation but also throw in new factors to complicate matters – Are they who they say they are?  What do they actually know about the house’s history?  Can they help Kate find her feet?

I loved the historical sections of the book.  Apart from being an abrupt change of pace from the contemporary sections featuring Kate, the characters in the historical section were so vivid and the events so surprising that I was happy to keep coming back to this time period to see what might happen next.  Like Kate, the main character in the historical plot line, Letty, is also going through some turbulent personal growth.

I suppose there may be some readers of this story who dislike the more bizarre, unexpected elements of it, given that these elements are quite unlikely, but these are exactly what lifted the story above your typical tortured soul story in my view. Kate’s story isn’t predictable.  It is quite unlikely.  There are elements throughout that will have the reader questioning what is real and what is not.  And it’s these characteristics that had me totally absorbed in the lives of the characters.

I’d highly recommend this for readers who want to lose themselves in someone else’s life, because in the coiling plotlines of The Snow Rose, there is plenty of opportunity to do so.

Until next time,

Bruce

Picture Book Perusal: The Building Boy

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Today’s ethereal picture book is for anyone that has ever wished that they could hang on to the essence of someone they have loved and lost.  The Building Boy by Ross Montgomery and David Litchfield isn’t just aesthetically appealing, but also moving and gently hopeful, without tipping into cliche or cheesiness.  In fact, the protagonist keeps both feet on the ground…well, his creation does, anyway…while being whisked away on an adventure.  We received a copy of The Building Boy from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

All at once, it was as if the stars leapt closer.
Grandma grabbed the boy, raising him high above the rooftiles on her head.
She was alive!

The boy’s grandma was a famous architect. Her garden is still full of old building materials. Unwilling to accept she has gone, the boy builds a giant structure from the bricks and girders he finds. And then … Grandma comes to life! The boy is whisked away on an epic adventure across fields, through oceans and atop roofs. But where is Grandma taking him?

Beautiful, thrilling and extremely moving: the extraordinary debut picture book from much-loved author, Ross Montgomery.

The Building Boy by Ross Montgomery and David Litchfield.  Published by Allen & Unwin, October 31st, 2016.  RRP: $24.99

The Building Boy by Ross Montgomery and David Litchfield. Published by Allen & Unwin, October 31st, 2016. RRP: $24.99

I’m not sure if it’s something to do with the soft, moonlit scenery, but The Building Boy certainly cast its gentle and inspiring ambience over this stony reader.  The industrious and colourful endpapers depicting engineering and design drawings give the first hint that this book is about getting things done, but perhaps not in the way you might think.  The first few pages of the story introduce the Boy and his architect granny, while a golden glow running through the illustrations on these pages gives readers a clue about the depth of the relationship between these two characters.  We just loved Grandma’s stylish bobble hat and patchwork skirt, too!

When it becomes apparent that grandmothers don’t last forever, the tone of the book changes into one of slight uncertainty, as the plans that the boy had made with his grandma start to unfold in unexpected ways.  The moonlit vistas perfectly compliment the touch of magical realism that seeps into the Boy’s endeavours and by the end of the book the reader is left with a sense of comfort and a kernel of hope that Grandma’s legacy will live on.

building-boy-page-spread

Clearly, The Building Boy is addressing themes of grief and loss, but the unusual approach to the subject matter makes this the perfect choice for coming at the topic obliquely, focusing on the relationship between the child and his grandmother, rather than the event of her passing. The fact of the grandmother’s death is never explicitly stated, despite it being obvious that it has occurred, which allows for the creative interpretation of how the Boy’s beloved granny continues to inspire him even though she is not physically present. The overall message is a twist on the platitude-ridden “our loved ones are kept alive in our memories”, but the original narrative mechanism thankfully opens the way for the message to be deftly sent without the need to speak the cliche. The lyrical and evocative text also pays tribute to the special relationship between grandparent and grandchild, acknowledging the fact that this inter-generational sharing of activities is often tinged with a special type of magic.

The Building Boy is a celebration of the love and hope shared between generations, of building a legacy and carrying on with one’s dreams even when the inspiration behind them is no longer with us.  I highly recommend this both for its masterful aesthetic and sympathetic, yet imaginative, rendering of a topic that will strike a chord with many children.

For these reasons, we name The Building Boy a Top Book of 2016 pick!

Bruce's Pick

Until next time,

Bruce

 

OzYA, Cults and Suspending One’s Disbelief: The Boundless Sublime…

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the boundless sublime

The Bounless Sublime (Lili Wilkinson) Published by Allen & Unwin, 27 July 2016.  RRP: $19.99

I have a right little firecracker of a story for you today, gratefully received from Allen & Unwin for review.  The Boundless Sublime is a new YA novel by Aussie author Lili Wilkinson, dealing with grief, abandonment, love, vulnerability and coercion.  I was in two minds about this one while reading it, but on reflection, I think Wilkinson has crafted a clever story here that is most believable because to many of us, it won’t be believable at all. I will explain this contradictory statement, but first, here is the blurb from Goodreads:

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.

Having sat on the shelf of a university undergrad completing a major in Studies of Religion, many moons ago, I have already had an interesting taste of the research that has gone into cults, or new religious movements, as they are sometimes called.  I didn’t realise until I’d seen some reviews of this one that it featured cultish content, but once I did know, I was a bit sceptical as to how the author was going to make this an engaging story without it becoming cheesy and unrealistic.

The book opens on a pretty dour note: Ruby is living in a sort of suspended time with her mother after a tragic accident that caused the permanent separation of their family.  Ruby’s mother is practically catatonic, Ruby can’t find meaning in doing the everyday things like going to school and life generally seems to be a pointless, meaningless black hole.  It is from this viewpoint that Ruby interprets the unexpected kindness of Fox, a young man handing out free bottles of water on the street.  She sees him as beautiful, in an almost otherworldly way, and is drawn to his naivety and his seemingly solid grip on his world.

From here, it is only a matter of time – and the painless severing of a few social and familial ties – until Ruby is subsumed into Fox’s social circle and into a community of “like-minded” souls, and the “cult” aspect of the story really begins in earnest.

This book felt to me like it had a few distinctive parts.  Initially, we see the surly, disconnected and generally unlikable Ruby who is so focused on the guilt, grief and chaos of her life that any other viewpoint seems laughably untenable.  Soon after this we see a bit of insta-love or at least, infatuation, as Ruby becomes consumed with thoughts of Fox and sees him as an almost-saviour from her meaningless existence.  Then comes doubting Ruby, who questions her new situation yet lacks the will to act in her own best interests. I won’t say any more than that because one of the best parts of the book, I felt, is the fact that Ruby goes through so many changes in thought process and personality, that the atmosphere of the story is constantly in flux and we just aren’t sure what will happen next.

A number of reviewers have noted that parts of the story seem so ridiculous and unlikely that they couldn’t suspend their disbelief in order to engage with the stories.  On one level, I can certainly see where they are coming from, becuase there were times during the book that I too was thinking, “AS IF!”  I think that in order to appreciate it fully, one has to come at the story from the point of view that none of us thinks that we would ever be “dumb” enough to get caught up in a cult.  Even Ruby has her doubts and eye-roll moments at the beginning.  Part of the power of cults is that recruitment relies on individuals who are vulnerable, possibly suffering under mental illness or at least mental stress, and in a social position from which it is easy (or even preferable) to disengage – and Ruby fits the bill on each of these counts.  Add to that the fact that she is a teenager, without fully developed reason centres in her brain, and the thought of a clever, attractive young girl getting caught up in such a community – and then being unable to find a way to leave it – isn’t such a stretch.

This isn’t meant to be a factual book about cults – it is fiction, for young adults, with crazy romance, teen angst and all of the other things that typify YA, so in that regard I feel I can cut it some slack in the unbelievability stakes.  If you are prepared to come at it with a bit of an open mind and the knowledge that some events will seem a unlikely, then you will find an unusual and pacey tale featuring action, philosophical debate, love, betrayal, crazy gurus, bald-headed children and a second half that pelts toward the finish.

Give it a crack and let me know what you think!

Until next time,

Bruce