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Belle's Bookshelf

"With a dreamy far-off look, and her nose stuck in a book..."

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What Maisie Knew
Henry James
My Friend the Enemy
Dan Smith
Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages
Guy Halsall
The First Third - Will Kostakis When I was little - I think about seven or eight - I spent my pocket money on a key ring with a little book attached, for a Mother's Day gift for my mum. On the front was a picture of a mumma cat with her two kittens. Inside, I wrote a story about a mum who got angry with her two kids and then felt bad about it. I was totally creative (or so I thought) and gave my characters names that were one or two letters off my own family's. I proudly showed my gran - my mum's mum."Why did you change the names?" she exclaimed. "It's bleedin' obvious it's you."I was a teensy bit crushed. But she was right. It was bleedin' obvious it was us.Which is pretty much how I feel about The First Third.Will (short for William) Kostakis is a Sydneysider with Greek heritage. He grew up with his mum and two brothers (according to the acknowledgements of The First Third - which also suggest his mum is looking for love). As he mentioned at the Penguin Teen Live (PTL) event I attended a few weeks ago, he has an absent father, which contributed to making him incredibly close to his grandparents - his yiayia in particular. Judging by the story he told at PTL that inspired The First Third, he finds his grandmother's poor English skills and attempts to interact with unsuspecting retail workers hilarious. He also has a gay best friend with cerebral palsy. People confuse him with another Greek Australian writer, Christos Tsiolkas.Bill (presumably William) Tsiolkas is a Sydneysider of Greek heritage. He grew up with his mum and two brothers. His mum is looking for love. He has an absent father, and has grown up incredibly close to his grandparents - his yiayia in particular. He finds his grandmother's poor English skills and attempts to interact with unsuspecting retail workers hilarious. He has a gay best friend with cerebral palsy. His surname is Tsiolkas.I know they say to write what you know, but this just seems a bit much to me. I felt uncomfortable reading this with the knowledge that it was so heavily autobiographical. Like the author was somehow taking advantage of the people in his life. Now, they might not feel that way at all, but it's just the impression I was left with.This was especially troublesome in regards to the treatment of his mother and grandmother. They were frequently the butt of WBill's jokes - with his mother's looks in particular subject to demeaning remarks, such as she looked like a "reanimated corpse" after a night at the hospital, or that in her underwear "her body frowned". I don't think the writer intended to be sexist - in fact, there's a nice speech in there on feminism by Sticks, the main character's best friend. But it oddly came in response to another character's mention of "dropping" a girl. Apparently, that's misogynistic. Now, unless there's some history to being "dropped" that I'm not aware of, it's really not sexist. It's slang for breaking up with someone and can be (and is) applied to both sexes. It's not a gendered term. Repeatedly disparaging the female body, however? Pretty damn offensive. So while it was nice to see an explicit, positive discussion of feminism in a Young Adult book, this was seriously undermined by the problematic undercurrent of much of the novel's humour.On the subject of humour, a lot of it was just plain unfunny. Early on in the book, Bill and Sticks head to Melbourne, and Sticks comments about the city, "I get the feeling that it's trying too hard to make me love it." I couldn't have said it better myself. The comedy in this book felt forced in many places, like the author was trying way too hard.Kostakis was actually at his best when he forgot about attempting to be funny and just let his story flow. At its heart, this is a touching tale that centres around something I think pretty much everyone can relate to - the fear of losing loved ones. I know it got me all weepy just thinking about it. The importance of family, and the unbearable idea that they might not be around forever, is an admirable theme and was one of my favourite parts of The First Third.I also loved that Kostakis featured multiple gay characters and a character with a disability and treated them with respect. There was no tokenism and they weren't just there for added drama. They were well-rounded and important parts of the story. If only I could say the same for the treatment of the female characters.The First Third is a good book, but for me it was not great. The potential was there, and if certain parts of the novel were stripped back - especially the forced humour - it could have lived up to it and been amazing. As it is, I'll be interested to see what Kostakis does next.I received a review copy of this book from the publishers.For more of my reviews, check out Belle's Bookshelf------Ready for a readalong with Eleanor, Mandee, Mel and Melanie.