Shouty Doris interjects during…Aussie debut novel The Bit in Between!

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Shouty Doris interjects

Doris has joined me today for Aussie author Claire Varley’s debut adult contemporary novel, The Bit in Between, which features two mildly confused twentysomethings trying to nut out identity, destiny and love in the Solomon Islands. We received a copy of this book from Pan Macmillan Australia as part of the blog tour for the book’s Australian release – thanks Pan Mac Aus!

As Doris is shelfside today, you can almost be guaranteed that a spoiler of two will slip out. I try to tell her, but you know how she is. You’ve been warned. But let’s get on.

Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

There are seven billion people in the world. This is the story of two of them.

After an unfortunate incident in an airport lounge involving an immovable customs officer, a full jar of sun-dried tomatoes, quite a lot of vomit, and the capricious hand of fate, Oliver meets Alison. In spite of this less than romantic start, Oliver falls in love with her.

Immediately.

Inexplicably.

Irrevocably.

With no other place to be, Alison follows Oliver to the Solomon Islands where he is planning to write his much-anticipated second novel. But as Oliver’s story begins to take shape, odd things start to happen and he senses there may be more hinging on his novel than the burden of expectation. As he gets deeper into the manuscript and Alison moves further away from him, Oliver finds himself clinging to a narrative that may not end with ‘happily ever after’.

the bit in between

Now I know that I have a blanket policy of disliking romance books on sight – it comes from having a heart of stone, you see – but I do like to give an affirmative response when asked to review new release contemporary Australian books. This is mostly because I like to keep at least half an eye on what many people are picking up when they wander into a bookshop. So while I was interested in the Solomon Islands setting and the sun-dried tomatoes, particularly, I did have a certain sense of trepidation on entering this story, given that it is advertised as a love story of sorts.

I was happy to discover, however, that The Bit in Between is much more a story about relationships than romance. Phew. Oliver and Alison are an unusual pair, who sort of fall into a spontaneous relationship as much out of a shared sense of ennui as anything else. Oliver is a semi-successful published writer who hates what his publisher did to his debut novel, while Alison is adrift after an unsuccessful relationship with an attractive, narcissistic quasi-poet. I will admit that I didn’t particularly warm to Oliver at all throughout the book, but I became quite fond of Alison by the end.

Shouty Doris interjects

I didn’t like Oliver either. He needed a good kick up the backside with a pointy-toed shoe. Lazy sod. Instead of moping about and whinging about having writer’s block he should have spent his time getting a haircut and a real job. A bit of gainful employment and he wouldn’t have to worry so much about his girlfriend leaving him.

And that Alison! What a nincompoop! What on earth possessed her to take a fancy to that Ed character to begin with? And once she’d escaped from his tedious, self-absorbed clutches, why on earth would she go back?! Young people nowadays! It wouldn’t have happened in my day.

Ahem. Hold on there, Doris. I hadn’t even mentioned Ed yet.

Shouty Doris interjects

Well hurry up then. None of us is getting any younger. At my age, I’m lucky if I make it to the next commercial break.

Yes, well. Once the happy pair decamp to the Solomon Islands, the planned setting of Oliver’s anticipated tour de force, we are introduced to two characters who have the potential to be the most annoying creatures in contemporary literature. Rick is a loud-mouthed, thrill-seeking, hard-drinking American working for an NGO, who befriends Oliver and becomes an entrenched feature in the lives of the two Australians. Ed is Alison’s aforementioned ex-boyfriend who arrives in the Solomons unexpectedly and creates a fair bit of havoc (as well as some truly dreadful poetry).

Out of the two, I much preferred Rick. His interactions never failed to provide a bit of comic relief and I particularly enjoyed his plans to make his (as yet unnamed) band a sound to be reckoned with in the Pacific region and beyond. Similarly, his bout of malaria was quite amusing in both its outrageous enactment and the fact that one couldn’t help but indulge in a bit of schadenfreude. Ed, however, was just a pain in the proverbial. I have to agree with Doris, in that I didn’t find the storyline between Alison and Ed convincing at all, especially considering Alison’s personal growth throughout her time helping local women in the Solomons.

Shouty Doris interjects

A waste of space all round – both the storyline and the bloke.

The part of the book that I enjoyed the most was the inclusion of mini-narratives about minor characters – taxi drivers, passers-by, shop assistants – that gave a hint of these characters’ back stories and provided a bit of an interlude during transitions in the main story.

Shouty Doris interjects

I agree. All of the minor characters’ stories were more interesting than Oliver’s; I’ll tell you that for nothing. Even his ending was ambiguous – like the author couldn’t even be bothered to give him a definitive closing sentence. To be honest, I was hoping for the plane crash he was planning on writing.

That’s a bit harsh, Doris.

Shouty Doris interjects

I’d eject my own seat if I was stuck between him and Ed on a plane.

Well, your animosities for fictional characters aside, the ending to the story is quite ambiguous. I suspect that a particular interpretation is somewhat implied, but I was quite happy to deliberately ignore that interpretation and craft a much more satisfying (to me) ending in my mind. I think people will take what they want to out of the ending, depending on how they feel about the characters and relationships overall.

All in all, this was a strange beast of a read. It has elements of romance, social issues, personal growth, destiny versus decision-making, grief, loss, happiness, achievement and just a touch of something that could be magical realism. For all that though, the fact that I only really connected with one of the main characters made the read not all that it could have been. On the other hand, the variety of elements in the story, and the unexpectedness (unlikeliness?) of some of the events will keep readers on their toes in what will certainly be a great pick for those looking for a holiday romance novel with a bit of real life thrown in.

Shouty Doris interjects

Next time, there should be more about the women, who were the only ones doing anything meaningful, and less about silly blokes who couldn’t change a light bulb between them with an electrified light-bulb changing machine. Honestly, men just drag down a good story.

Present company excepted, of course, eh Doris?

Shouty Doris interjects

Definitely not.

Right. Fine.

Ignore the old bird, try the book.

Until next time,

Bruce

A YA Fiction Double-Dip: Bobby Ether and Drawing Amanda…

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G’day folks and welcome to my YA Double-Dip.  I’ve got two YA indie fiction titles for you today (obviously) – Bobby Ether and the Academy by R. Scott Boyer and Drawing Amanda by Stephanie Feuer.  I received a digital copy of both books from the publisher (Bobby via Netgalley and Amanda via Hipso Media) in return for an honest review.  So let’s get cracking!

One minute Bobby is shooting the miraculous winning basket at his school’s basketball match and the next hebobby ether‘s being whisked away by a mysterious woman named Cassandra, with two large men in suits in hot pursuit.  It seems Bobby has a hidden talent – an ability to manipulate the energy in himself and in the outside world, in order to do extraordinary things – but this is the first Bobby’s heard of it!  Before he knows it, Bobby is stolen away from Cassandra by the suited men and taken to The Academy – a boarding school hidden high in the mountains of Tibet, run by monks and teachers with extraordinary abilities.  Bobby tries to blend in and slowly makes a few good friends, but the snooty Ashley and her thuggish sidekicks immediately begin to make Bobby’s life difficult.  And making friends with Ashley’s younger brother Jinx sure doesn’t helped that relationship.

As Bobby learns more about the Academy, he and his friends discover that there is something sinister going on that may reach all the way to the headmistress.  But can Bobby stay out of trouble long enough to uncover the secret? Or will Ashley and her friends always be there to get in the way?

Dip into it for….

…a very original premise.  I’ve not read anything much like this before in YA – the book has a real focus on power coming from the natural energy available within ourselves, as opposed to a paranormal type of talent.  There’s  a bit of focus on meditation and how to unlock the potential within and the monks in the book are a really interesting addition to the overall makeup of characters.  Master Jong, one of Bobby’s teachers, turns out to be quite the (metaphorical) ass-kicking, supermonk by the end of the story and ended up being one of my favourite characters.  The plot is also pretty complex, featuring a shady agency (the Academics) whose motives and intentions for the talented young people they educate isn’t exactly clear, and there are a lot of characters whose true loyalties are shrouded, making it difficult for Bobby (and the reader!) to know who to trust.

There is also a clear (but not cheesy) theme of the strength of friendship and the power inherent in knowing oneself that runs throughout the book, freshening the whole plot up a bit and helping it avoid descending into a teen version of a politico-psychological thriller.

Also, there’s a creepy bald kid with a malevolent ferret. You’ve got to admit, you don’t see that every day.

Don’t Dip if…

…you’re not into plots that take a while to unfold or plots that have a lot of twists and turns and red herrings thrown in.  I also felt that a lot of the mean-girl type bullying from Ashley and her goons was a bit contrived, given the setting (would super-talented kids trained in mindfulness and meditation locked away in the Himalayas (some since birth) really bother with petty schoolyard antics to such a degree?).  Some of the initial action which results in Bobby’s arrival at the Academy, and his responses afterward also didn’t ring true to me.  I can’t really elaborate much, due to potential spoilers, but Bobby’s behaviour didn’t seem in character for someone who had been through a recent personal trauma.

Overall Dip Factor:

Take a risk on something different.  Despite a few flaws, I was drawn in and despite feeling that I should put it down in a few places, I didn’t and was quite satisfied that I stuck with it because I ended up enjoying the adventure of the resolution.  Plus, Jinx is a cool character.  And of course there’s the malevolent ferret.

In Drawing Amanda we follow “Inky” Kahn as he struggles on entering high school afteDrawing Amandar the recent death of his father in a plane crash.  His mother has left him to his own devices and to manage his grief, Inky turns to his artistic abilities.  Amanda is new to school following her family’s migration from Nairobi to New York, and is finding it more than difficult to fit in amongst the various groups at the international school.  When Inky’s best friend Rungs gives him the link to a website developing a new video game, Inky thinks he might have a chance to show his art to a wider audience. Unbeknownst to Rungs and Inky, Amanda manages to copy the link and also logs in to the game-in-development, Megaland.  When Inky starts submitting his drawings for the game, based on his classmate Amanda’s looks, things start to get  complicated.  And when Rungs delves a bit deeper into the makers behind Megaland, it becomes apparent that things are about to get very tricky indeed.  Unless he can convince both Inky and Amanda of what he has discovered, both his friends may be exposed to more danger than either can handle on their own.

Dip into it for…

…a contemporary tale about fitting in, growing up and facing your demons.  This was a nice change of pace from my usual fare because I don’t often read books in the YA category that don’t have some kind of paranormal or fantasy or psychological twist.  This was a very straightforward plot and I enjoyed the simplicity of the story, while also appreciating the various trajectories of character development for the main four characters.  The setting of an international school gave rise to a diverse range of characters and I loved how Feuer managed to seamlessly work cultural and religious backgrounds into the story without making it sound contrived.  I even learned not to show the soles of my feet to a Buddhist if I wish to remain in their good karmic books!

Central to Inky’s character development is the idea of grief and bereavement, and the pressure that can be placed on the bereaved to “move on” and regain one’s former pace of life after a particular period of time has passed.  It was interesting to see this played out with both a male and female character simultaneously in the book, as Inky’s ex-friend Hawk is also recovering from the death of a parent.  The theme of creating one’s identity is also quite strong as Amanda attempts to find a new way of being in a context in which everyone else seems to have already cemented their place.

The underlying plot point about internet safety is played out with a fair amount of realism and Feuer manages to avoid preaching about it, instead demonstrating how easy it is for those who feel emotionally vulnerable to be taken advantage of by someone they think they know.

Don’t Dip if…

…you’re looking for anything particularly fast-paced or with a focus on action or romance.  It aint’ here.

There is however a fair chunk towards the end of the book that deviates from the main story arc and focuses on the main characters’ major assignment for the year.  While this section was interesting in itself, I felt it popped up at a weird place in the story because Rung’s investigation into the Megaland maker had just become exciting and this deviation slowed the pace a little bit.  This wasn’t reason enough to abandon the book by any means, but you might want to watch out for a few asides now and then.

Overall Dip Factor:

This will appeal greatly to kids in the younger YA age group, say 12 to 15 years, because it features very relatable characters and deals with the issues that many kids face when trying to stake out an identity in a crowded social arena.  Also, the story is simple and relevant to anyone who uses the internet for social activities – so I suspect this story will appeal to parents and teachers of readers in this age bracket as well.  In fact, it would probably make a great launching point for discussion in lower secondary classrooms about mindful internet usage amongst young people.

Until next time,

Bruce

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