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.

Advertisements

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.

 

Buried treasure

Unearthed (Unearthed, #1)Unearthed by Amie Kaufman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved Unearthed. Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner have produced a ripper sci-fi/fantasy adventure novel that is clearly the beginning of a new series or trilogy. Ameila (Mia) and Jules are thrown together on planet Gaia – both searching and both in over their heads. Mia is a scavver (scavenger) who strips artifacts from off-world planets to get enough money to buy back her enslaved sister. Jules: son of infamous Dr Elliott Addison, an archaelogist who discovered a secret that nobody wanted to listen to, is on a mission to proves his father right and to stop humanity blowing itself up. The story is told in alternating chapters, from either Mia’s or Jules’ point of view, which works well and the perspective changes at just the right moment each time.
There are echoes of Indiana Jones and The Fifth Element running through this story, with plot twists, puzzles, danger and double crosses at every turn – but this is no copycat tale. Mia is clever, feisty, tenacious and vulnerable; Jules is smart, noble, nerdy and brave and the relationship that develops between them as the novel progresses is natural and believable.
The puzzles Jules and Mia have to solve are tricky and engaging, and the world they find themselves in is well-drawn. Gaia is a fascinating place.
The worst part about this book is knowing we have to wait for the next one because, oh boy, does it leave you on a MASSIVE cliffhanger!
I hope the next book in this series drops soon – I can’t wait to get my hands on it.
For ages 13 and up – it’s a corker.

Power surge

The PowerThe Power by Naomi Alderman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was an entertaining novel with a winning premise. I loved the idea of women having a latent power that is awakened in them, changing the social dynamic – and everything else connected to it. I also really liked the way Alderman shows that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely (thank you, H. Kissinger). So, this is not really a novel about gender (although it kinda is), it is more about power, the nature of power, and what HAVING (or not having) power does to people.
I thought the end came a little too quickly, it felt a bit rushed, but the last line is an absolute killer. Amusing and full of despair at the same time – can’t tell you because, spoilers, but it’s a real beauty.
Definitely worth a read – it’s sci-fi, spec fiction, and thriller all rolled in to one, with some astute observation thrown in. Favourite character? Jocelyn, without a doubt. She struggles with everything and still manages to shine, in my opinion., Everyone else is out for what they can get – Jocelyn just wants to fit in and have a peaceful life – what’s not to love about that? Favourite quote? It’s right towards the end, when Allie (a major character with HUGE potential that isn’t realised) is talking to the voice in her head, trying to work out which “side” to choose as things escalate between men and women and the people who have a vested interest in them fighting into perpetuity:

What can I tell you? Welcome to the human race. You people like to pretend things are simple, even at your own cost. They still wanted a King.
Allie says: Are you trying to tell me there’s literally no right choice here?
The voice says: There’s never been a right choice, honeybun. The whole idea that there are two things and you have to choose is the problem.

I know, right? Woah.

For ages 15 and up

Blessed release

ReleaseRelease by Patrick Ness

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s no secret to regular readers of my reviews that I LOVE Patrick Ness’ writing. The prose in Release is just sublime. Ness just gets better and better and this latest novel, a magical, heartfelt tale with a hard edge of realism, is as good as it gets.
Central character, Adam Thorn, is having a HUGE day. His former flame, Enzo, is leaving town; his best friend, Angela, makes a big announcement; Adam’s brother, Marty, makes an even bigger announcement; Adam’s boss, the greasily repugnant Wade, is sexually harrssing him; and Adam is trying to work out if he is in love with current flame, Linus. All the action in this story takes place over the course of a single day and it’s NEVER boring.
And if all that wasn’t enough, there is a second parallel storyline concerning the ghost of a murdered local girl rampaging through the forest and town looking for answers, for peace. Her journey and Adam’s are similar – they are both trying to find where they fit in and trying to move on from things that are holding them back.
I really like Adam as a protagonist. He is funny, sensitive, and well-liked by his peers. He also has an amazing best friend in Angela. She is probably my favourite character in this story. She loves Adam fiercely, and is always in his corner, and he in hers, no matter what. She has his back and her family is the family Adam wishes he has. Big Brian Thorn – head preacher at The House Upon the Rock evangelical church – is a proud and prejudiced man. Adam has hidden his true self from his parents for a long time and the revelation of who he really is, is a pivotal moment in the novel. When Big Brian finds out Adam is gay (and hopes he can pray the gay away) he tells Adam

“You have no idea how much I work to love you.”

Ouch. Adam tells his father how he feels about Angela’s family:

“…they’re my family. They love me. They are who I go to when things are hard. That hasn’t been you for years, Dad, and do you really never wonder whose fault that is?”

This is a novel about a small town, but it’s full of BIG emotions, BIG decisions. It’s a triumph. Read it. Just. Read. It.
Ages 13 and up.

You can’t choose your family…

My Sister RosaMy Sister Rosa by Justine Larbalestier

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow. Just wow. This gripped me like no other novel has for a long time. Justine Larbalestier has created a tense psychological thriller that keeps you turning the page, even though you dread what might come next.
Che is the narrator of this tale, a sensitive, troubled seventeen year old who is trapped in a family where his parents don’t understand him, and his little sister, Rosa, understands him too well. Ten-year-old Rosa is malevolent, scheming, manipulative, and looks as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. All her life, Che has been there – to watch over her, monitor her, and prevent her doing anything “bad”. Rosa is a deeply disturbing character, but it seems the only person in her family who really sees this is Che. Sally and David, Rosa and Che’s parents, seem incapable of believing Rosa would do anything truly evil, and Che is left in despair every time he tries to show them what Rosa is really like.
When Che’s family moves to New York for business reasons, Che is yanked away from his Australian support network, and struggles for a while to find his feet. A gym junkie, Che finds his solace in training at a local boxing gym, and it is here he meets Sojourner (Sid), a lean mean fighting machine with killer looks to match her ability in the ring. At the same time, he also starts a friendship with the children of his parents’ boss. Leilani – a girl about Che’s age, and twins Maya and Seimone, start spending a lot of time with Che and Rosa; and it is a relationship that will change all their lives forever. As Rosa becomes closer and closer with Seimone, Che feels uneasy about what Rosa might do to her twin sister Maya. For spoiler reasons I can’t say much more except: strap yourself in because this ride has more ups and downs and gasp-out-loud moments than the biggest rollercoaster.

Things I loved about this book:
* The way Che and Rosa talk to one another – chilling;
* Che and Leilani’s friendship – starts as mutual dislike and ends up fast and firm and true;
* Che’s feeling of displacement in New York, and then his gradual appreciation of its differences to Australia;
* The fact that Larbalestier doesn’t describe Sid as black; or Leilani as Korean – we just find out they are through dialogue (fantastic)
Things I hated about this book:
* That I didn’t write it!

This is a book that will leave you looking over your shoulder, and wondering about some of those kids you knew back in primary school – especially the kids everyone thought were perfect. (shudder).
Highly recommended for ages 13 and up. Very, very creepy.