Not Always a Happy Birthday

BirthdayBirthday by Meredith Russo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A difficult but worthwhile read. Main characters Eric and Morgan are immediately engaging and you root for them all the way through. Story is told using alternating POV chapters, which works well. Word of warning that there is content here that is confronting: death of a parent; violence and domestic abuse – it puts you through the wringer.
Not a spoiler to say there is a ray of hope at the end, so don’t give up on this one.
However, I would venture to say that this book is at the more adult end of the YA spectrum, so keep that in mind!
For ages 16 and up.

A Transformative Origin Story

Dreadnought (Nemesis #1)Dreadnought by April Daniels
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow. This book is a killer superhero origin story – but it’s so much more than that. It’s about identity, acceptance, fighting transmisogyny, family, friendship – and yes, superheroes. Danny, who has never felt comfortable in her “male” body, gets caught up in a battle between superheroes – which in this world is a regular occurance – and becomes the vessel for superhero powers. As a result of this, she transitions into a female body; and awesome superpowers (like flying) into the bargain. As if transitioning so quickly wasn’t enough of a rollercoaster, April Daniels decides to give her protagonist an aggressive father, a superhero nemesis, and a murder plot to solve!
I loved this first instalment in this series. Can’t wait to see what adventures await Dreadnought in the next volumes!
For anyone who seeks to understand the transgender experience, the good and the bad, and enjoys seeing a superhero become what they were destined to be – this is for you.
Highly recommended. Ages 12 and up.

Ten letters, no repeats

Zenobia July by Lisa Bunker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I loved this book. I don’t want to spoil anything, but if you want a gentle story that lets transgender and gender neutral kids know they are SEEN, read this. Show them THIS. Lisa Bunker has crafted a wonderful, sensitively written story for all those kids who have no-one to tell what it is like to be them. To have to navigate a world and ways of thinking that have never considered them important. Zenobia is a joy, as are her fabulous aunts, and her friend Arli is a revalation in middle fiction. Arli is a beacon for Zenobia and they are someone who shows Zen what real friendship is supposed to be. No judgement, no agendas, just real human interactions. The only low note for me were the “interlude” chapters where we see Zen or Arli through someone else’s eyes. I found these to be a misstep in an otherwise brilliant novel. Quite simply those interlude chapters were unnecessary. Bunker’s writing is good enough to not need that extra exposition. But this is a small quibble.
Just read it. Please.
Suitable for readers 12 and up.

Donut miss this one

Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Lily is about to start 8th grade and is trying to work herself (and the rest of the world) out. Where she fits, where her parents (especially her father) want her to fit, and how she is going to get there. When she goes out to help Dad bring in the groceries she locks eyes with a new boy in the neighbourhood. A boy carrying a Dunkin’ Donuts bag. They smile at each other and Lily’s heart races – until her blustering father who doesn’t like her to be outside the house “dressed like that” forces her inside. Norbert, the boy with bag, has recently moved to Lily’s town and comes with his own set of family hassles, and also wonders where he fits.
Lily and Norbert (Dunkin) become friends and we travel through their story in alternating narrative. Lily is desperate to start taking hormone blockers in the next step to becoming who is she is inside. Her mother is supportive, but Dad is just not on the same page. She is bullied at school and to top things off, the tree she and her grandfather loved to climb together is scheduled to be felled to make way for a community park. Emotions are running high in her family. Then she meets Dunkin and a friendship blossoms.
Dunkin has his share of family stuff going on as well. He is addicted to donuts and iced coffee for one thing. For another his superfit, super-motivated Bubbie is always trying to get him to do some kind of physical activity. Dunkin has anxiety issues, but they start to dissipate a little when he bravely tries out for the basketball team. His superior heigh means he is an instant hit and it seems he may have found a niche. But then he stops taking his medication and things spiral.
Lily wants to tell Dunkin who she really is, her story, but is reluctant to do so when he starts hanging out with the “jocks”. Dunkin’ wants to tell Lily heis secrets, but doesn’t know how and now that guy Phineas is talking in his head all the time making things really difficult at home and at school, and mentally he is on a knife edge.
These two characters are on a collision course that eventually sees them up a tree protesting it’s impending demise. Lily and Dunkin’ are relatable characters – their circumstances as a transgender person (Lily) and someone with a mental illness (Dunkin’) just serves to highlight all their amazing qualities – especially their resilience. Supporting characters, especially Dunkin’s grandmother Bubbie, and Lily’s friend Dare, are also well realised and help to move the story along with their loyalty and support of the protagonists.
A wonderful, affirming, novel for young adults – and even us older adults.
For ages 12 and up.

Grace under pressure

Gracefully GraysonGracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Grayson Sender is in sixth grade at Porter high; lives with his uncle and aunt, and cousins Brett and Jack after losing his parents in a car crash when he was very small. And Grayson knows he’s supposed to be something else. Throughout this novel it is clear Grayson identifies as a girl, but currently lives as a boy. It is something he hides on a daily basis, but when the chance to audition for the part of Persphone in the school play is in the offing, Grayson grabs it with both hands.
When Grayson is successfully awarded the lead, written as a female, things get complicated- for everyone but Grayson who for the first time in a long time, starts to feel comfortable in his own skin. His aunt struggles with the idea of Grayson playing a girl, but his uncle is quietly (perhaps too quietly initally) supportive. Jack, his older cousin, is openly hostile and causes trouble for Grayson at school, which leads to an event that ends up bringing things to a head, and a bid by Grayson for acceptance and acknowledgement.
Along the way there are characters, like Grayson’s teacher Finn, who encourage Grayson to be whoever Grayson wants to be, and others like Amelia; whose friendship with Grayson becomes changeable as the real Grayson becomes more visible. As Grayson becomes increasingly invested in the play there are friends in the play who accept Grayson, which helps Grayson assert the right to explore long-held questions of identity. In conversations with Uncle Evan, Grayson learns that until Aunt Sally put a stop to it (because of what she worried others might think or do), Grayson used to dress up in tutus and dresses and say he wanted to be a girl. This is a revelation for Grayson and shores up the determination to step out of the shadows.
The freeverse poem that charts the night of the play is a great way to explore the emotion of the night and how others finally see who Grayson really is. There is also a lovely letter to Grayson from the ever-amazing Finn. That’s not to say everything is tied up neatly in a bow at the end – far from it. But we are left with a sense that Grayson is finding the path to a new way of being, and that there are a lot of people in Grayson’s corner – even Aunt Sally. It leaves us with the most important thing – hope.
I really enjoyed this gently uplifting novel and it’s pitched perfectly at the middle grade, and edges of young adult, readership.
For the reader who is looking for validation and to be seen, this novel is a great start.

Weekend at Sylvie’s…

The WeekendThe Weekend by Charlotte Wood

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A searing and honest look at women’s friendships and the unseen baggage carried. A mirror that can’t be looked away from, this novel richly deserves its Stella Prize nomination. When I started it I wasn’t sure I would enjoy it as much as The Natural Way of Things and while it is different, there is a familiarity about the care Wood shows in crafting her brittle and flawed characters. Happily, amongst the devastation eventually wreaked, there is a uplift of hope in the final paragraphs, and a show of resilience that all women will recognise. Charlotte Wood is a potent force in Australian contemporary literature. More please.

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Finding her way

The Year the Maps ChangedThe Year the Maps Changed by Danielle Binks

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Review copy supplied by publisher.
Danielle Binks‘s debut novel is wonderful. Written with a light but confident touch, Binks draws on events and places from her childhood to infuse this coming of age story with an authenticity that is hard to deny. Having grown up in Frankston and frequently visiting locations along the Mornington Peninsula myself, it was lovely to see places I knew popping up. Sphinx Rock, Point Nepean, Sorrento and the enduring Farrell’s Bookshop were welcome touchstones all the way through.
Winnifred (Fred) is a clear and affecting character. Still working her way through the grief of losing her mother five years earlier, she struggles with changes happening in her small family. When we meet Fred, her beloved grandfather Jeff is in hospital. With his steadying presence taken away, Fred finds coping with other changes such as her father’s new partner (and her son Sam) even more difficult. Then the Kosovo refugees start arriving.
Fred’s father, Luca, is a local police officer and Fred finds herself caught up in the plight of the displaced people escaping a war zone as her father is volunteering in the safe haven at Point Nepean. As Fred’s life becomes further complicated by the pregnancy of Anika, her father’s girlfriend, she becomes more and more anxious about the fate of the refugees.
The way the author links these events, and the way they are portrayed shows her prodigious writing talent. Binks has commented that this novel was five years in the making, and the care she has taken shows on every page. Not only are the central characters convincingly realised, the supporting characters such as Fred’s teacher Mr Khouri; her friend Jed, and Jed’s mum Vi are great and have important things to add to the story. This would be a useful companion read to something like The Bone Sparrow in a school setting.
There are sad times, confusing times, happy times and most of all, a big dose of hope contained in these pages. I hope this is a huge hit for Binks because I for one can’t wait to read more of her work.
Suitable for ages 9 and up.

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Never EVER change this ending…

This is How We Change the EndingThis is How We Change the Ending by Vikki Wakefield

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book broke me. I was crying halfway through and continued to do so, sporadically, as I read the rest. Vikki Wakefield has built a well-deserved and highly envied reputation as a searing realist fiction author. Her books always have a raw, immediate quality about them and this story, centred around Nate and his family, has an underlying sense of dread and urgency about it not found in the work of many other Australian authors. Living in a cramped, noisy and basic home with his Dad, Dec, his step mum, Nance, and his younger twin brothers, Otis and Jake; Nate is intelligent, and sensitive, but tries his utmost to hide it from everyone, even his best mate, Merrick. His English teacher, the long-suffering Mr Reid, tries to coax some interest out of Nate, but he consistently resists. Nate, Merrick, and many of the other outliers in his town hang out at the Youth, a drop-in centre staffed by the stoic and supportive Macy. When Macy is badly assaulted one night, there is talk of the Youth being closed down; something that adds to the feeling of isolation and despair that pervades Nate’s life. Nate’s mother, who left him with his father when she was an addict, has re-entered Nate’s life, but he can’t tell his Dad for fear of what might happen at home.
This novel traverses Nate’s slow rise from his downtrodden existence through his realisation that options to improve his circumstances might not be as elusive as he first thought. A great range of supporting characters such as Nance, the gentle stepmother (a nice role flip); Benjamin Peros, the world weary student who’s not a student; the cagey, artistic Tash; and the stalwart Mr Reid all show us the good in Nate – and instill hope for his future.
Nate asks Mr Reid why he left a rich school to come and teach in his town:

‘So I could make a difference,’ he says, flatly.
It’s my cue to tell him he did make a diference, but the words get stuck. It’s like hugging Jake – I know it’s what he needs and deserves, but it’s just so hard.
He supposedly has all the answers, so I give him the next best thing.
‘Mr Reid?’
‘Yes.’
‘What it, in an alternate reality, my fatal flaw is actually a superpower? Do I ditch the flaw, or find a new reality?’
He closes his eyes. ‘Thank you, McKee.’
The truth is, I kind of, possibly, maybe, might be starting to give a shit.

There is so much to love in this student/teacher relationship. It hurt my heart to think about it, as someone working in education, when I see kids like this everyday trying to wrestle with their lives. It felt honest, and real.
I want so badly to quote the last dialogue between Nance and Nate from the book’s final pages, but because I don’t believe in spoilers I will end this review here.
Just read this, as soon as you can get your hands on a copy. It’s brilliant.
For ages 14 and up.

Breaking boundaries

Land of Fences (Winter #3)Land of Fences by Mark Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A great conclusion to a brilliant series. Land of Fences retained the momentum of the previous two installments in the Road to Winter trilogy, and delivered everything readers had been hoping for. Revenge, redemption, rescue and revelations are all here. A touch of sadness at the loss of some characters, but also the joy of reunions too. The developing relationship between Kas and Finn was beautifully rendered by Mark Smith, who has a light and lyrical touch when describing them together. The ongoing hardship of the displaced Sileys was also a great plot element – there are definitely parallels to be drawn in today’s cultural landscape, which makes this novel all the more believable (unfortunately). All the threads are drawn together here and while there is not a neat bow tied, all the lines lead to hope and new beginnings. Congratulations Mark Smith – this is a great addition to the #LoveOzYA lexicon, and the series an instant classic. I can’t wait to see what comes next!
For ages 13 and up.

Say her name with love

My Brother's Name is JessicaMy Brother’s Name is Jessica by John Boyne

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is important. It is raw and real and doesn’t pull any punches. The reactions of the adults are totally believable. Sam is a young boy trying to process his brother Jason’s recent revelation that he is, in fact, a girl. Their parents (mum is an MP with PM aspirations and Dad is…well, a jerk really) react with alarm and incredulity. Sam is confused and doesn’t want to lose his brother. Hurtful words are said, misunderstandings are addressed and then exacerbated, Jason/Jessica is trying to find her way in an increasingly messed up world. Jessica’s Aunt Rose, and her soccer coach, Mr O’Brien, are shining beacons of acceptance and love – and provide great counterpoints to Sam’s parents and schoolmates. I really enjoyed this novel. It’s honest and simple and does a great job. There is hope at the end, and a wonderful sense of the love of these two siblings breaking through all the other stuff and winning the day.
For ages 10 and up.