Hearts like a lion’s

ROARROAR by Samantha Lane

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you love AFLW, and the spirit behind it, this book is for you. Sam Lane has done a great job of slipping behind the scenes in this book that profiles some of the marquee players and some who are not, with equal vigour.
The first chapter, which outlines how the AFLW competition finally happened, is the most journalistic in the book. The rest of the book is so much more engaging and resonant. It shows just how diverse the players and coaches are in this brave new world and celebrates them all. I loved reading about Kirby Bentley (who I did not know much about at all, despite the fact that for a while she played for Melbourne – oops); her family, her home town and her road to playing AFLW for Fremantle. And reading about AFLW Crows coach Bec Goddard; her commitment to the game, and her hopes for the future, broke my heart as I read it already knowing that she has had to walk away from her greatest passion because she could not earn her living from it as she wanted to.
The thing that comes through most is that these women, and one man – Craig Starcevich – have been treated pretty shabbily by the AFL, who are happy to ride the wave from the surge of interest in the women’s competition, but are bloody miserly with the money to help it grow properly – not just in terms of player pay, but also in terms of development, coaching and scheduling. I really hope the AFL can sort itself out on these issues, because the other thing that is CRYSTAL clear is that all the AFLW personnel featured in Roar love the game. The highs, the lows, the injuries, the wins and losses – they love it all and just want to be a bigger part of it. Sam Lane’s book is, as the great Robert Murphy is quoted saying on the front cover: “A powerful and timely call to arms.” It certainly is.
Recommended for all footy lovers, and those who want to see the AFLW grow into what it should be.

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Americus the Beautiful

AmericusAmericus by M.K. Reed

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Americus is one of the best graphic novels I have read in recent years. I have been meaning to read it for nearly five years, so I am glad I finally managed to catch up with it today. Set in the ficticious town of Americus, the plot centres around a young guy, Neil, who has just started high school in the US (Year 9) and his life. Neil and his best friend, Danny, are ardent fans of a book series called The Adventures of Apathea Ravenchilde (a thinly veiled Harry Potter lookalike). Danny’s mum is, in the Australian vernacular, a God botherer. She takes it upon herself to “save” Danny from the satanic evils of witchcraft by tearing up the latest installment in the series in front of the local public librarian and then sends Danny to military school so he won’t risk being exposed to the wickedness Americus’ public library. Parents, town officials, school management and the kids square off against one another in various combinations as the fight for the right to read starts a battle for the ages. Neil is a perfectly pitched character – embarrassed by his own mum’s fussing, but grateful for her support when he needs it most; awkward around most people, but starting to find his tribe by the close of proceedings. I loved every page of this fantastic book. There is plenty to say here, and clearly the writer is firmly on the side of reading freedom, but there is room for discussion with young people around the issues this raises. Karma is handed out to all – and the ultimate irony of Danny’s banishment by his mother when he writes to Neil about what he is reading is sweet perfection.
An instant classic and suitable for ages 12 and up.

Top Gear

Changing GearChanging Gear by Scot Gardner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I see you, Scot Gardner. I see the vagabond in you; the rough and tumble philosopher; the man-boy trying to make sense of the world, even after living in it for years; the raconteur; and someone whose love of this land we call home runs as deep as the roots the trees he walks amongst. I see you because it is all here in this life-affirming, totally disarming novel. Until I finished this book today my favourite Scot Gardner book was The Way We Roll, but now it is this gem. Changing Gear is a triumph of noticing small things and showing how important they are.
Merrick Hilton is eighteen and on the verge of final exams. He exists between two houses, but is loved in both. Grieving the death of his much-beloved grandfather and feeling hemmed in by expectation (his own and those of the people around him), Merrick takes off on his trusty postie motorbike and heads into the landscape.
This is a road trip of self-discovery, and of self-affirmation. As Merrick travels he meets Victor, a long-time wanderer and finds himself drawn to his life of walking and camping as the landscape dictates. Victor and Merrick settle into laconic patter with ease and Merrick finds himself letting go of things he had thought to be important, and learning to value simpler things like a decent cup of tea, succulent sun-warmed strawberries and the companionship of someone with no expectations of him at all.
The questions Merrick asks himself are timeless: am I enough? Am I gay? Will I ever get laid? What comes after school? How do I recover from the loss of a loved one/best friend? His journey (ugh, hate that word, but it applies here) brings him some answers and gives him the courage and tenacity needed to find the rest.
No spoilers here, but I urge you to read this book – if you are a teenage boy, are raising teenage boys, know a teenage boy, or wondered what it is like to be one. My Aussie YA of the year so far, no doubt. Thank you, Scot Gardner, for giving us yourself in Merrick – and Victor – and showing how good writing and compelling characters can help shape confused boys into decent, caring young men.
For ages 13 and up.

Proof of Life

LIFEL1K3 (Lifelike #1)LIFEL1K3 by Jay Kristoff

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started this book, but I knew I was in for a wild ride – it’s never boring with Jay Kristoff at the helm. Lifel1k3 is everything is promises on the cover – and more. Twists and turns abound – if you think you know where it’s going, keep reading; you’ll find yourself exclaiming words like “no way!” or “WHAT??” often as you speed through it. I don’t want to say too much about the plot because, spoilers, but I CAN say that this novel is about love and loss, identity and idealism, and turns the 3 laws of robotics on their head – more than once. The characters, particularly Lemon and Eve, leap off the page and bind themselves to you, and robot sidekick Cricket is a cracker too.
Just get your hands on it before too many people can give too much away to you. It’s a ripper.

P.S. May 2019 is waaaaaay too long to have to wait for a sequel, but if it’s as good as this one, then I guess it will be worth it!
Ages 14 and up.

X marks my heart

The Poet XThe Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hot tears of recognition stained my face as I finished reading this in a cafe this morning. Xiomara lives with her twin and parents in Harlem. She is fierce and feisty and has had to defend herself against unwanted male attention, thanks to a early-maturing body, for a long time. Constantly warned by her fervently religious mother about the perils of her own body, X writes poetry to escape and to make sense of a world that constantly tells her to be ashamed of who she is.

When your body takes up more room than your voice
you are always the target of well-aimed rumors,
which is why I let my knuckles talk for me.
Which is why I learned to shrug when my name was replaced
by insults.
I’ve forced my skin just as thick as I am.

X becomes involved romantically with a boy named Aman, who loves her for her words, and her heart, rather than what her body appears to promise. Encouraged by her English teacher, X joins a poetry club at school and finds her tribe; like-minded souls whose emotions spill onto the page just like hers.
The suffocation of Xiomara’s life, under the searing gaze of her judgemental and punitive mother, is palpable. Always being told what she is not allowed to do or allowed to be because she is a girl, X pours her hopes, dreams, frustration and anger onto the pages of her precious leather-bound journal.

And I think about all the things we could be
if we were never told our bodies were not built for them.

Caught kissing Aman one day, X’s life spirals out of control and what comes next for her is devastating, terrifying, and agonising. My heart ached and broke for this wonderful girl, and for her twin brother, as they faced gut-wrenching choices about what comes next.
I held this book to my chest when I finished it, trying to imprint Xiomara and her poetry onto my heart. I didn’t need to; they were already there, and there they will stay. I think this is probably the best YA I have read all year, and possibly WILL BE the best I have read all year. It will take something remarkable to top it.
Highly and enthusiastically recommended. Do not wait. Do not “put it on your list”.

Read it. Now.

A mark on the heart

The Tattooist of AuschwitzThe Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This account of a Jew forced to mark other Jews as they entered the infamous concentration camp at Auschwitz is one that is deeply affecting. Lale surrenders himself to save his family who live in a ghetto in Czechoslovakia in 1942. He finds himself transported in harrowing conditions to an even more harrowing desintation – Auschwitz. There is much darkness here in this novelised story of Lale’s experiences, but there is also radiant light too. His love for Gita, a woman he falls hard for, sustains and drives him to survive at any cost. Lale becomes a scrounger for the camp – bringing extra food to many prisoners, and making shady deals that are dangerous and vital. The most chilling passages concern the introduction of the crematoriums into the camps, and the descriptions of the clouds of ash raining down remind you of just how barbaric this period in history was. Morris’s style makes for an easy read – meaning that the prose is flowing and natural. nothing flowery, but everything is powerful.
A tale of love, hardship and survival; this novel will force you to turn the page to discover the fate of all the main players. No spoilers here, except to say that all are now dead and gone and I wonder to myself what Lale would make of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers in the camps on Manus Island and Nauru. Would he see them as any different to the camp he was condemned to?
Plenty to reflect on, and wonderful writing to enjoy.

Glowing prose

White NightWhite Night by Ellie Marney

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was excited when this book landed at my local bookshop. Anything new from Ellie Marney is always going to be good, but this is great. Still set in rural Australia, in the fictional town of Lamistead, this is a terrific YA realist novel with a message that doesn’t beat you around the head.
Bo is approaching the end of his schooling and trying to decide whether to follow his gut and study subjects that will lead to him becoming a chef, or stay with what is expected and focus on sports and things his Dad will approve of. New girl Rory comes into his life, after being home-schooled forever, and everything gets turned on its head. Not only has Bo fallen hard for Rory, she lives in a community called Eden, which is about saving the planet – and Bo find himself drawn to their message (and Rory). Toss in a family secret that has Bo doubting everything he thought he knew about his parents, a friend going through a rough time at home at the hands of an abusive parent and sibling, and the imminent closure of the local skatepark, and you have the ingredients for an engaging and involving novel that hits all the right notes. The developing relationship between Bo and Rory is believable and sweet, and all the bit players like Sprog, Lozzie and Cam are terrific too. I wrote about this novel as a classic example of YA realism for a Uni essay this year and got 95%. Need I say more! Read it – you won’t be sorry.

A Sparkling Biography

The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman's Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and DisasterThe Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This biography is as illuminating about the biographer as it is of her subject. Sarah Krasnostein lays herself bare many times in this fascinating account of the life (or lives) of Sandra Pankhurst. Sandra reveals little sections of her life story to Krasnostein, forcing her to piece together all the disparate parts, sometimes filling in the blanks with her best guess. As we travel the road of Sandra’s life with her biographer, we get a definite sense of a person who has undergone terrible trauma herself, and now helps other people deal with theirs, in various ways, as her job.
Sandra is the classic unreliable narrator, sometimes choosing not to include details which Krasnostein later uncovers. The fact that any of it leads to an immensely satisfying conclusion is testament to Krasnostein’s easy writing style and willingness to “go with it” when speaking with Sandra; and to Sandra Pankhurst’s dogged determination to keep putting one foot in front of the other, no matter what.
Drawn to this initially because of the professional cleaning aspect (Pankhurst cleans death scenes, crime scenes and hoarders’ houses for a living), I found myself staying because I cared about Sandra, AND because I felt connected to her biographer who, by her own admission, struggles with the task she has set herself in documenting Sandra’s life.
Sandra’s clients help Krasnostein turn a light on her own life and experiences and the book is the richer for it. This is biography at its finest, despite its flaws -and it has plenty.
I can ignore the chinks in its armour, though, because I found this story compelling. I hope lots of other people do too, because as a tale of triumph in the face of overwhelming odds, it is a testament.

Big Money

MunmunMunmun by Jesse Andrews

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having not read Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, I was not sure what to expect from this Jesse Andrews offering. Having heard a little more about Me and Earl, I am really glad I have not read it yet. This book sounds like a HUGE departure from that one. In the world Andrews has created in MunMun, how much cash you have determines how big you are – literally. The more munmun you have, the more upscale you are. If you have only a few hundred munmuns, you are ten inches tall. if you have 2 million, you are the size of a house or bigger. It is a most disarming premise and difficult to wrap your head around at first. What is clear though is that the smaller people are in peril every day of their lives. Middlepoors and middleriches (the in-between sizes) step on their houses, or worse, their cats eat the Littlepoors. It is a harsh existence and our hero, Warner, and his sister, Prayer, are locked in a struggle to improve their situation by earning more munmuns. Opportunities to do this are limited. The less you have, the less you have access to – and turning to crime, or selling yourself to the bigger citizens feels like the only way to make things change.
This book is a searing satire with is gaze firmly on the USA and the policies of Trump Republicanism. The more is more philosophy of the current presidency, and the willingness to leave the “little guy” behind, despite their beautiful dreams of another life, is to the fore here. The closing scenes of the book are tinged with hope, but only because there is decimation before. I won’t say any more, because I hate spoilers, but this book must be read to be believed. I have never read anything like it, although there are echoes of Gulliver’s Travels in the way the society views those who are not “one of them”. Lots of otherness, lots of things to think about. Definitely worth the effort of bending your mind around this version of the Yewess.

They’re creepy and they’re kooky…

The EndsisterThe Endsister by Penni Russon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This novel is utterly charming, and equally unnerving. Penni Russon’s writing is deft, with a light touch. That is not to say it is lightweight, rather it is lyrical and beautiful to read. In the very first paragraph, where we meet four-year-old Sibbi, this lilt of language is to the fore:

Shadows of gum trees grow long across the paddocks. Light is low and syrupy. The light of time shifting: day into evening, summer into autumn.

The reader is immediately transported; they can picture the golden, oozy quality of the sunlight with the gum trees casting long shadows, and know they are in rural Australia. The landscape is very important in this story – firstly in Australia and later, when the family moves, in England. It is closely tied to the family, their fortunes and their feelings.
When the struggling Outhwaite family inherit a large, old, creepy house in London, they move – some of them reluctantly – to take possession of it, looking for a new life and a new home. What they don’t know is that the house contains something sad and angry. Something kept secret for years, and little Sibbi seems to know what it is. Resident ghosts Almost Annie and Hardly Alice observe the family and occasionally interact with them, worrying from the sidelines if they will be safe from whatever is in the locked attic room.
We see the action in this novel through the eyes of several family members: Sibbi, who is lost and sad; Else, who is trying to find out exactly who she is; Clancy, who loves nature wherever he is, and makes an unexpected connection with the fabulous Pippa; and the ethereal Almost Annie and Hardly Alice, who have been with the house a long time. We also see Mr and Mrs Outhwaite failing to cope with change, particularly Mrs Outhwaite, and the drain this imposes on the rest of the family, especially Sibbi and the twins Oscar and Finn, who are often afterthoughts in family life.
This book deals with real emotions and dilemmas in a situation that becomes increasingly ominous, as Sibbi keeps repeating “I know what an endsister is”, and starts to fade away before her family’s eyes. No more details, because I don’t do spoilers, but this book has a great story arc, with a slow build and a deeply satisfying conclusion. I loved it – you will too.
For ages 12 and up.