28.04.10

Book Review: Loving Richard Feynman by Penny Tangey

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:26 pm

Richard Feynman was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist.  Catherine is a science-loving fifteen-year-old.  Richard helped build the atom bomb.  Catherine’s just trying to survive school.

When your life is falling apart around you, is talking to a dead physicist normal?

Catherine thinks so, but it isn’t until her life begins unravelling that she learns who she can really trust.

In Loving Richard Feynman, her debut novel,  Penny Tangey has revealed that she has a gift for touching on the old with enough of the new that it feels completely fresh.  The narrative takes place as a series of letters that Catherine writes to Richard Feynman, self-consciously at first, and eventually completely openly.  Given that letters and diary entries such a well-worn form of telling a story, particularly in YA, this could have gone badly or just blandly, but having one of the greatest physicists the world has ever known as the focus of Catherine’s unrequitable letters works really well; Catherine learns more about Richard Feynman as she learns about herself, and uses his life and times (as told through biographies and Feynman’s autobiography) as a one-way sounding board for her own angst.

Catherine is such an awesome main character.  It’s still unusual in YA to have a female character that is so unabashedly nerdy, witty, smart and brave.  Catherine’s cousin refers to her in one scene as a “box of nerdish delight”, and this is absolutely spot on.  Catherine is smart, headstrong and hilarious, with enough emotional fragility that she’s still easy to relate to; her insistance that she doesn’t care what others think (inspired by Feynman) is more of a mantra than a verifiable fact.  It’s also nice to come across a teenage female protagonist who isn’t  afraid to indentify – loudly – as a feminist.

Catherine’s school life feels very realistic; possibly particularly so to me as, like her, I went to high school in a small Victorian country town, and the party scene in the paddock is all too familiar.  But the travails and trails are well-referenced here without seeming stale or cliche, which is an absolute boon.

As Catherine’s own life begins to change, she leans more heavily on her imagined relationship with Feynman, only to discover, as she learns more about his life, that he is just as human and fallible as the people around her.  Although the letters begin as a way for her to retreat from her life for a moment to make sense of it, she becomes more self-aware about the relationship she imagines and the ideals she is projecting onto Feynman.  It’s a clever in-text critique of the novel’s own structure, and it drives the narrative smoothly to its crisis point.

Loving Richard Feynman should be read by every current and former high school nerd, and by anyone who loves fresh, funny YA fiction with strong female characters.  Penny Tangey is a writer to watch.

05.04.10

CBCA Book of the Year Short List and Notables Announced!

Posted in Uncategorized at 1:20 pm

The CBCA’s Book of the Year Short List and Notables are now up, and there’s some good stuff on there (although it’s also made me realise I have a lot of reading to do before Book Week at the end of August).

I actually feel a little embarrassed by how few of the books on the short lists I’ve read yet, but that usually seems to be what happens – there’s always a combination of books I’ve read, books I’ve wanted to read and some stuff I’ve just plain never heard of.  There’s often a lot of familiar names, but it’s nice to see some newer ones on there this year as well.  Justine Larbalestier‘s Liar was one of the best books I read last year, hands down.  It was one of those books I read and then proceeded to thrust into the hands of everyone I met, without explanation, just with a “you need to read this!”.  I also recently finished Penny Tangey‘s Loving Richard Feynman, which I adored and will be reviewing here shortly.  It’s Tangey’s first novel and, as an indicator of her work, I think it shows that we’ve got a lot to look forward to from her.  On the picture book list, I loved Leigh Hobbs‘s Mr Chicken Goes to Paris, because how can you not love a story about an internationally travelled, aggro-looking six-foot-tall chicken carcass?

Congratulations to all shortlisted and notable authors and illustrators!

03.04.10

Book Review: Wake by Lisa McMann

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:30 am

Wake by Lisa  McMannFor seventeen-year-old Janie, getting sucked into other people’s dreams is getting old. Especially the falling dreams, the naked-but-nobody-notices dreams, and the sex-crazed dreams. Janie’s seen enough fantasy booty to last her a lifetime.

She can’t tell anybody about what she does — they’d never believe her, or worse, they’d think she’s a freak. So Janie lives on the fringe, cursed with an ability she doesn’t want and can’t control.

Then she falls into a gruesome nightmare, one that chills her to the bone. For the first time, Janie is more than a witness to someone else’s twisted psyche. She is a participant….

I broke one of my sternest personal reading rules with this book.  That rule is, don’t start a new book at bedtime, just in case it’s so good that it makes you stay up all night reading.

And guess what happened?  Yep.  Stayed up all night reading.  Was so keyed up by the time I finished (and possibly a little overly affected by the nightmares and dreamscapes of the book) that I had to re-read an ancient copy of New Scientist cover to cover before I was able to settle down enough to get some minimal shut-eye.

Check out that cover.  It was almost enough to give me nightmares on its own.  I don’t think I’ve seen a cover so perfect for a book as this one is for Wake in a long time.

I really admire what Lisa McMann has done with this novel (which is the first in a trilogy, and I can’t wait to read #2, Fade): she’s taken a paranormal plot that could have gone in a lot of directions, many of them not so great, and turned it into a taut psychological thriller with a deeply sympathetic main character, Janie.  Janie’s experiences of falling into other people’s dreams are frequently genuinely frightening, although the stereotypical sex dreams offer plenty of smirk-worthy material too.  The novel’s tendency to jump around dates and times helps hurry the plot along without coming across like a self-conscious construct.  It also works well to introduce the staggered relationship that Janie slowly builds with a boy in her year level, Cabe, who keeps to himself but seems to be as full of secrets as Janie herself.

I also appreciated that Janie is a main character who comes well and truly from the wrong side of the tracks; her mother is a hopeless alcoholic, and Janie has been teased all her life for being “white trash”.  She’s been working in a nursing home since she was fourteen, saving for college and to buy little luxuries not covered by her mother’s welfare cheque, like food and clothes.  However, Janie’s circumstances aren’t massively played out; she’s quietly accepting of her crappy circumstances, and determined to work around them.  She’s kind of a nice change from angst-ridden middle-class teenage heroines that often populate contemporary YA fiction, without being treated by the author as some sort of lesson in tolerance and class issues.

The only criticism I have of Wake is that the characters besides Janie and Cabe are fairly superficial; on the plus side, this helps keep the plot moving at breakneck speed, and stops the reader from being bogged down in their minutiae , since half the time we’ve gotten a glimpse into their unconscious thanks to Janie, anyway.

Anything else I could share about Wake might end up as a spoiler, so I will conclude by saying that there’s some unexpected plot twists (well, I didn’t see them coming, anyway) that shouldn’t be ruined, and you should pick it up for yourself.