Review - Begin. End. Begin: A #LoveOzYA Anthology

***Warning: spoilers ahead!***

Welcome to my new book blog! Each month, I will review an awesome Aus YA book that has lingered in my thoughts long after the last page.

Note: Most of the books I talk about will be contemporary realist stories written by women, featuring bold and unabashed female/queer characters, and exploring themes of sexual fluidity, cultural diversity, connection to nature, small-town life, mental health, family and community (with the occasional space robots and talking animals thrown in!).

So here goes! For my first book review, there could be no other choice but the groundbreaking Begin. End. Begin: A #LoveOzYA Anthology, published in May 2017 by HarperCollins and edited by Danielle Binks. It features stories by a diverse group of Australian authors, including Amie Kaufman, Will Kostakis, Alice Pung, Michael Pryor, Melissa Keil, Ellie Marney, Lili Wilkinson, Gabrielle Tozer, Danielle Binks and Jaclyn Moriarty. Definitely a winning combination!

Reading Begin. End. Begin is like being wrapped in a fluffy blanket on a winter’s night with a soothing cup of tea. True to its #LoveOzYA tag, the book is an ode to love in all its forms. Each short story is heart-warming, thrilling, funny and true. Below I've included a mini-review of the individual stories. 

One Small Step – Amie Kaufman

“…it’s a small world up here, and she’s my very best friend.”

One Small Step is a wacky account of life on a human-inhabited Mars. It follows the antics of Zaida (“The very first Martian. That’s me. Hi”) as she mulls over her options for university courses back on Earth. Zaida is seventeen, and with all of Planet Earth invested in her future, she must choose a course worthy of a celebrity (no pressure). But unfortunately for Zaida, travelling to Earth also means leaving Keiko, her best friend (and secret love), behind.

Amie Kaufman's story brims with humour, suspense and a refreshing nonchalance about girls kissing girls. The story zigzags back and forth in time, from ‘Before’ to ‘Now’. The ‘Before’ paints a picture of Zaida’s lived experience, from the digital diary she begrudgingly records each day and shares with Planet Earth, to her own inner world where she yearns for Keiko’s love.

The ‘Now’ depicts Zaida’s race to save Keiko from a near-death experience while conducting a routine inspection of the airlocks. Confronted with losing Keiko forever, Zaida finally reveals her true feelings. She is surprised and thrilled to learn that Keiko feels the same way (totally saw that coming!). The story ends with the possibility of adventures yet to be had in faraway places…together. Naww.

I Can See the Ending – Will Kostakis

“Whatever you’re doing, it’s not subtle.”

 I Can See the Ending is an honest portrayal of how relationships ebb and flow, and the passion and tumult of first love. Adam is just an ordinary guy – aside from his supernatural ability to see the future. He's also got the hots for cool, unapologetic Nina, who works at the local juice bar. But when Adam and Nina finally share their first kiss, Adam is jolted into their future together – and it’s enough to break his heart.

Will Kostakis has such an awesome sense of humour, and this story doesn’t disappoint. It’s funny, quirky and at times awkward, in a first-kiss-fumble, flee-in-fear kind of way. I love Adam’s self-deprecating tone: “I don’t usually consider my abject failure as a human being in geography class (that’s what maths is for).” (Adam, I can totally relate to that.)   

I Can See the Ending is the only hetero love story I’ve read by Kostakis, though it does include a mention of Nina’s gay dads (points for normalising same-sex parents). It’s fun and entertaining, but it also unearths some philosophical gems about seizing the moment and the impermanence of life and love – as pointed out by the wisest person in the story, Adam's mum.

In a Heartbeat – Alice Pung

“Anyhow, we were pretty smart, we used protection and all that. Most of the time.”

In a Heartbeat is a raw, amusing letter to protagonist Kim’s unborn baby. When sparks fly between Kim and her friend’s cousin Luis, it doesn’t take long before she and Luis “engage in some self-selected extracurricular activities”. When the reality that she’s pregnant sinks in, Kim is determined to keep the baby – but Luis’ parents forbid Kim and Luis from seeing each other. 

What I enjoyed most about this story is the strength and sassiness of the main character. In Kim, Pung has created a feisty young girl who embraces her sexuality but also wants to be recognised for her intelligence, as any girl should: “Although Luis was really, really smart, the thing that made me fall for him was that he could recognise that I was, too.” 

When it’s clear that Luis will be not be involved in parenting, Kim is confident that she can raise a child without his help, just as her own mother did when her father left. I’ve read a few Aus YA books about teen pregnancy recently, and what stands out about this one is its exploration of single parenthood as a desirable outcome. It’s so important to represent the diversity and complexity of family units in Aus YA, and In a Heartbeat captures this really well.

First Casualty – Michael Pryor

“Maybe it was something about the nature of the game, or maybe it was who I was playing it with.”

First Casualty is a delightful rendition of Year 12 schoolies-meets-space-expedition. In a futuristic world, Damien advertises for someone to share costs on the “traditional post-graduation planet-hopping tour”. That’s how he finds Tekura, a straight-up, free-spirited soul with a strong moral compass. Ethics and morality are put to the test when Damien and Tekura discover a ship filled with Palmeenee – war refugees – in need of safe passage.

Michael Pryor’s writing style is satirical, punchy and entertaining. I really enjoyed the futuristic quirks of the story, like the fact that Damien is an “Implant Intolerant Person” who can’t access information via an implant but relies on a “doodad”. Classic. 

However, what I appreciated most about First Casualty is its pro-refugee message. With Damien and Tekura’s refugee rescue mission thwarted by government bureaucracy, Pryor unpacks the political agenda of the government as the age-old Us versus Them dichotomy. The Palmeenee have strong correlations with present-day refugees hoping to settle in Australia, and the absurd rhetoric we use around refugees as criminals and job stealers. Fortunately, these views are dismissed as downright stupid in this story. 

Sundays – Melissa Keil

“Yeah, so maybe we are a wee bit invested…Claire and Cam are the closest thing any of us have to a gravitational centre.”

Sundays is a realistic portrayal of the struggle to understand your place in the world. Gabrielle or Gabe is a self-confessed dork who feels like she’s floating aimlessly towards adulthood. Luckily, she can always depend on her friends to ground her in reality. But when it emerges at a party that Claire and Cam, the core of the group, have broken up, Gabe is devastated.

Told in present-tense time segments from 9pm to 4am, Melissa Keil’s story follows the progression of a single night. It builds the solid foundations of a friendship group and pulls them apart, as Gabe faces the reality that she can no longer depend on “the only people…who are supposed to be rock-solid and unbreakable."

With humour and melodrama, Sundays delves into the pivotal role friends play in establishing your sense of identity and belonging in the world. It presents the challenge of finding yourself independently from your friends: a dilemma many teens face on the brink of finishing school. Secondary to the plot is the sexual chemistry between Gabe and Lou, which sparks in Gabe a sense of hope for the future. The last line of the story is simple but profound: “I take Lou’s hand again, content for the moment with breakfast and possibilities.” 

Missing Persons – Ellie Marney

“I’ve exchanged pink dirt and leaf litter and swollen blues skies for this.”

Missing Persons explores the hardships of moving to the city when you’ve grown up with open skies, paddocks and trees. When Rachel attends her first day of high school in Melbourne, she meets quirky Mai and the strangely magnetic Mycroft. Rachel is upset about the move, but as she gets to know Mycroft, she finds moments of happiness and connection that she didn’t anticipate.

In this familiar country-kid, big-city scenario, Ellie Marney captures the cobbled alleyways, secret cafes and tramways of Melbourne with an authentic style. Yet through Rachel’s eyes, these sights and sounds are jarring and overwhelming: “…there’s no space to move, and I can’t see the sky, and everything gets this pickled-in-aspic feeling.” 

Overall, Marney's Missing Persons unearths what it means to reestablish your life outside of your comfort zone. While Mycroft is a reassuring presence in Rachel’s new life, her yearning for home is what propels the plot forward, and the story concludes with a tone of wistful sadness.

Oona Underground – Lili Wilkinson

“I am not the wisecracking sidekick in this story. I am the ogre, the dragon, the wicked stepmother.”

Oona Underground is a magical tale of adventure, friendship and romance. Meg is devoted to the magnanimous Oona, her childhood friend and (secret) true love, similar to One Small Step. So when Oona announces her wish to venture down the drains and seek out the legendary Witch Queen, Meg accompanies her. Together, they stumble upon the Witch’s Ball, risk death by spiders and face their destinies.

After reading Lili Wilkinson’s contemporary realist novel Pink, I was intrigued to read this story, which borrows from surrealism and fantasy. I really enjoyed the way Wilkinson interweaves real life with the fantastical, slowly building a world that’s more and more bizarre.

In many ways, Oona Underground is like a fairytale, with both characters embarking on a quest to find their true loves (who just happen to be female). I appreciated the fact that Meg and Oona embark on the quest together as equals, rather than one character needing to rescue the other, as is common in fairytales. The kiss that Meg and Oona share at the end is super sweet.

The Feeling From Over Here – Gabrielle Tozer

“It’s just her, Cameron Webber and six hundred kilometres of highway.”

The Feeling From Over Here is one of my favourites in this collection. Lucy is catching the overnight bus from Canberra to Melbourne, when to her horror, she finds herself confined for eight hours with Cameron, a boy she once really, really liked – until he mocked and humiliated her in front of his so-called mates, the school bullies.

Gabrielle Tozer presents a clever and uncomfortable conflict in this story. What do you do when confronted with your bully? Is an act of bullying irredeemable? Tozer digs deep into these questions by presenting both Lucy and Cameron’s perspectives on what happened. With good reason, Lucy is fierce and unforgiving about Cameron’s treatment of her, and I was silently cheering for Lucy throughout the story. And yet, after understanding how Cameron ended up with a bad crowd at school, I felt sorry for him, too. 

Similar to Sundays, the story is told in present-tense time segments over a single night. The conclusion is open-ended, with the possibility of Lucy and Cameron seeing each other again, but no promise of a romantic relationship. I'm really glad that Lucy sticks to her principles, but also gives Cameron a chance to redeem himself. Tozer presents a positive message here that any relationship must be based on mutual respect. At the same time, she suggests that forgiving others makes you stronger. 

Last Night at the Mount Solemn Observatory – Danielle Binks

“Bowie, you’re never happier than when you’re being his little sister.”

Last Night at the Mount Solemn Observatory is an introspective glimpse into the unspoken bond between a sister and brother, and the simplicity of small-town life. Fourteen-year-old Bowie loves her brother more than anyone, and communicates with him in sign language as easily as breathing. But King is eighteen and about to embark on a round-the-world adventure. On the eve of the trip, Bowie follows King and his friends to one of their secret hide-outs, where they contemplate the future. 

Danielle Binks' writing style is enchanting, immersing you in the expressive world of Bowie and King in the fictional town of Orianna. Because King is deaf, the way he interacts with the world is different to other people. Luckily, he has a group of friends who are so emotionally in tune with each other "that they are fundamentally and completely quadrilateral".

Told in present-tense over a single night, Last Night at Mount Solemn Observatory depicts the group's last hoorah at the abandoned observatory on top of the hill. Visiting the observatory is a rite of passage for local teens, and there's something touching about the fact that Bowie's first visit there is perhaps King's last. Overall, this story is a rare gem that abounds with sibling love and unbreakable friendship – so much so that tears welled in my eyes at the end!

 Competition Entry #349 – Jaclyn Moriarty

“No messing around with the past! You will interfere with the space-time continuum!”

It's no surprise that my all-round favourite story in the #LoveOzYA Anthology is Jaclyn Moriarty's Competition Entry #349. When I was in high school, I loved Moriarty's novels, Feeling Sorry for Celia (2000), Finding Cassie Crazy (2003) and The Betrayal of Bindy Mackenzie (2006), so I was super excited to read this story. 

In Competition Entry #349 , Moriarty tells a tale of hilarious moral panic, as a young girl (unnamed) tries to discover why her crush, Noah, hasn't asked her out yet. She embarks on an unconventional quest, travelling back through time to the moment when she and Noah first kissed. Along the way, she uncovers a USB thief, the whereabouts of her sister's locker key, and the colour of a logo artwork causing a rift between her parents...but she completely misinterprets Noah's behaviour.

With wacky humour, mischief and mayhem, this Back to the Future-like scenario plays out in the form of a competition entry to the Time Travel Agency™. The protagonist describes how her school excursion to England in the 1600s completely backfired, instead transporting her to her own home, two weeks earlier. The story twists and turns in hilarious ways. After the protagonist hears her past-self laughing with Noah in her bedroom, she decides it's no wonder Noah never asked her out, because her laugh "sounded like a falling cockatoo"!  To her horror, she also discovers that when Noah left the house that day, she said goodbye to him with her family's traditional farewell: " 'Don't call us! We'll call you!'...And I shoot the air with imaginary cowboy guns." Oh the hilarity. This story is a must-read! 

*** Thanks for reading my first ever book review! More to come next month! :-) ***