I have been a big fan of Australian author Glenda Millard’s work ever since Templar published A Small Free Kiss in the Dark, which was then followed by the outstanding Kingdom of Silk series, published by Phoenix Yard, which has become possibly my all-time favourite book series (I talked about it here, here and here) so it was with great delight that I found out that new publisher Old Barn Books were going to bring Glenda Millard’s latest YA novel, The Stars at Oktober Bend, to the UK. When the book made its way to me, the note from publisher and Old Barn Books co-founder Ruth Huddleston was full of promise for another captivatingly lyrical tale:
And lyrical it was. How to describe a book like The Stars at Oktober Bend? It isn’t easy, to say the least, because the best writing, the writing that makes one’s heart sing, is also often the one we want to keep quiet about, keep close to our hearts, infused into our souls, like our most precious secrets. That is how I feel about Glenda Millard’s writing.
This is the story of two young people, Alice and Manny, who both carry traumatizing yet very different burdens from their pasts, and how their lives collide, bringing joy, tragedy and ultimately salvation. Told in their two voices, both unique and heart-wrenchingly honest, they carry this tale full of sadness at times yet fundamentally full of hope. Alice’s distinctive narrative voice is the tour de force of this book. Trauma has left her almost unable to speak, and her words now “come out weird” but her head is full of words and so she writes, often instead of talking:
my desire is
to be understood
my soul is filled
but when I open myself to
set them free
on my lips (32)
The purity yet bluntness of her words is utterly beautiful and mesmerizing, and it is through this lyricism that we learn the true horror of her past, a juxtaposition that is built so perfectly by Millard that it will leave readers breathless. Yet Alice is never defeated:
i am alice
still i am
There is so much that could be said about The Stars at Oktober Bend; about family, about redemption, about what one calls home. But I think it is a book that needs discovering on one’s own terms. I know it sounds like a cop out of a review, but as I said above I feel the need to hold tight of some of my feelings, and the feelings that will rise out of the pages for you will be different from mine. Two things I will say however: 1. It took some effort for me to get into it. Alice’s syntax takes a while to get used to, but DO NOT let that put you off (I hope it is clear at least that I am not disappointed I persevered!) . 2. I held my breath (figuratively mainly, but also literally at some points) through the last few chapters, the intensity of emotions they carried was so strong.
It is incredibly powerful, haunting, spirited, joyous. Like all of Millard’s work, it is a story that makes you feel. Don’t let it pass you by.
I was delighted Ruth agreed to write a few words about The Stars at Oktober Bend and Old Barn Books.
OLD BARN BOOKS: THROWING AWAY THE RULEBOOK
by Ruth Huddleston
I sometimes think of small, independent publishers as being like the beautiful weeds insisting on growing up through the cracks in the pavement. Opportunistic, determined, disturbing the careful symmetry of the agreed order of things. Over and over again it happens that companies grow, become bureaucratic, to the point where they make sense to accountants (publishing as a business does not generally make sense to accountants), then head into the upper atmosphere, throwing off showers of creative sparks who can no longer fit into the system. These little sparks seed elsewhere, bursting with the primal need to create.
Old Barn Books is just one of many tiny startups of recent years and, like others, is benefiting from the democratization of visibility offered by the internet, but mostly from its ability to find opportunities in the gaps not profitably exploited by larger companies.
Being led by your heart, coupled with an inability to envision the world via Excel spreadsheets, leads to a rollercoaster ride where freedom and fear exist in equal measure. So why do we all do it? It’s a cliché, but we do it because we believe in what we are doing. We love our artists and authors, we are moved by their work and we are sure that somewhere out there are people who will feel the same way. All sorts of people – from tiny babies to grandmothers, and people like us, who can be five different people in one day. We started Old Barn books with board books and picture books for younger children, but we love great writing as well as great artwork, so why not follow the wordless communication of DOG ON A TRAIN and BEE AND ME with the beautiful poetry of THE STARS AT OKTOBER BEND?
Of course, there are a myriad of reasons why not – the main one being that the rules of publishing say an imprint known for one kind of book can’t publish a different kind. So here are the reasons we threw away the rulebook to bring this Australian novel to a UK readership:
Alice’s voice – she struggles to speak in everyday situations, but her feelings come through clearly in her poetry;
Manny’s story – you can sense that he’s still stunned by his experience, but not embittered;
The spaces left between, where we build our own picture of events;
The sweep of the narrative, reflecting the flow of the river at Oktober Bend.
The novel handles all the big questions with the lightest of touches:
family relationships, the sense of belonging and the need to find our place in the world (even if, and perhaps especially if, that place is outside the ‘norm’). Strong emotions are delicately drawn; goodies and baddies, held up to the light, emerge in a kaleidoscope of colours.
As with all good stories, the themes are universal and open to personal interpretation. There’s no reason why this is particularly a novel for teenagers except that they are probably the people spending more time thinking on these great themes than those of us who’ve hit on a course and are gritting our teeth and hoping that it all works out. Ultimately, as with all good stories, there’s a redemption of sorts.
The book probably sounds ‘heavier’ in the telling than it is when you’re under its spell and the world of Alice and Manny is one in which there’s a great deal of beauty. I don’t really want to say much more as I’m conscious that I sound like a ponderous professor. This is not a book for ponderous professorial types. And if you hate erratic punctuation and unreliable capitalization (not to mention people who start sentences with conjunctions), you will really need to make an effort to relax into Alice’s stream of consciousness. I promise you it will all be worth it!
Ruth in her own words …
I grew up in a state boarding school for children with all sorts of physical and mental challenges, including varying degrees of sightedness and hearing loss and conditions such as the results of thalidomide or muscular wasting diseases. My parents were among the first to be specialists in the field and in the beginning had to create their own materials and in many cases devise specific teaching methods for each individual child. My father ran old printing presses and I still love that smell of ink and paper. Later, I studied languages but always secretly wanted to go into publishing. It just seemed impossible to get in (I failed all the typing tests at temp agencies, despite going to night school). It wasn’t until a trip to the 1989 Moscow Book Fair with the SYP that I worked out that Foreign Rights welcomed people with languages. I joined Templar Publishing to work in the international sales team and stayed there for 21 years. It was a terrific time. Many of us were there together for all that time and we grew up together, inventing the business as we went along, building lifelong friendships, experiencing success and failure and sometimes being unable to work out which was which. Ultimately, we sold the business and I left to do something completely different. I never intended to start publishing again, but one day my husband, the photographer David Ellwand, woke up and declared that he was going to start his own list. I said I would help him out for a couple of months, but the lure of great projects now has me in its grip. The joy of discovery and the satisfaction in helping an artist or author find their audience are what gets me out of bed every day. I hope you enjoy our books. Each one is a quiet groundbreaker.
Thank you so much Ruth for taking the time to write this, and for bringing The Stars at Oktober Bend to the UK.
The Stars at Oktober Bend is published by Old Barn Books and it out now.
You can purchase a copy here
Source: review copy from publisher