Under Seige

The Siege of Macindaw (Ranger's Apprentice, #6)The Siege of Macindaw by John Flanagan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This one took me a while to finish – mainly because I had to read other things for work and kept putting it off. As the conclusion to the storyline started in The Sorcerer in the North, this stands up really well. Will is determined to rescue Alyss from the clutches of the corrupt and conflicted Keren, and enlists the help of wily healer, Malcolm and a party of battle-hungry Skandians. A great deal of this novel is setting up for the final battle that will break the siege, including the capture and interrogation of the Scotti general, Machaddish. Will’s best friend (after Halt of course), Horace, rides into the picture too – ready to assist him in not only extracting Alyss from Keren’s tower prison cell, but also in defeating the usurpers.
Alyss gets a little more page time in this storyline and she proves herself to be resourceful and cunning, but also emotionally intelligent. This emotional intelligence is in sharp contrast to Will’s lack of it, and shows why they are so close and their relationship works so well in the field – they have skills that compliment each other. I would like to see more of Will and Horace working together later in the series – their banter is always entertaining, but I REALLY hope Halt comes back into the picture too – especially as Will is maturing and becoming more proficient as a Ranger. I guess I will have to keep reading to see if Flanagan will fulfill my wish!

Who’s your Daddy?

The Boundless SublimeThe Boundless Sublime by Lili Wilkinson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ruby’s little brother, Anton, died in a terrible, family-shattering way – when her drunken father crashed into him with his car. Ruby and her Mum exist in a sorrowful, grey, joyless haze of cigarette smoke and TV dinners – and six months after the funeral things don’t look like they are going to change anytime soon. Well-meaning Aunty Cath turns up to “help” and her loud and bright demeanour forces Ruby into the outside world for relief. This is when she sees Fox, the angelic looking boy who will change her life, for the first time. He hands her a bottle of water and on it is a label: “Boundless Body, Boundless Mind”. Intrigued by this mysterious boy and the cryptic label, Ruby has dinner with Fox and his “family”. Ruby finds herself drawn to these people and their intelligent conversation, revelling in the anonimity and the temporary escape from her grief.
Gradually Ruby starts to tie herself to the Institute of the Boundless Sublime, and when she moves in with them as a Sublimate, her descent begins. I can’t reveal much more, for fear of giving you spoilers. What I will say is that as a twenty year old I read quite a bit about cults – lots of true stories of escape – and this book captures the level of self-talk and rationalisation required to be a “true” devotee really well. It also captures how damaged people can so easily be taken over by such a cult.
Lili Wilkinson has obviously researched well for this novel. It feels like she has lived it – some of the content, the descriptive detail is so visceral I had to stop reading for a couple of minutes to let it sink in. This is a raw, deeply moving and engaging novel. I cared so much about Ruby, about what was happening to her – I wanted to shout out, “No! Don’t do it!” more than once.
There are plenty of twists and turns to keep you on your toes too. One particular twist, towards the end of the book, literally made me gasp out loud because I did NOT see it coming at all. I love it when writing makes me do that! I was absolutely gripped by this story, and I will be pushing it into the hands of as many readers as possible.
Dark, terrifying and heartbreaking, this is a novel that reinforces the true meaning of family, and eloquently champions owning everything in one’s life – the good and the bad, the pain and the bliss – because that is what life really is all about.
Recommended for ages 13 and up

A cursed existence

BlackBlack by Fleur Ferris

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is Fleur Ferris‘s second novel and it is fantastic. Ebony Marshall has been touched by tragedy in her life, losing both her best friend and boyfriend to accidents. Some in Dainsfield think she is cursed, and her nickname, Black, makes her a target for some people who believe she is dangerous. When her latest boyfriend, Aiden, has an unfortunate accident after the formal and ends up in a coma, things take a sinister turn. Family secrets are revealed and Black finds herself caught up in stuff that only belongs in a horror movie. Mystery, suspense, romance, a little bit of horror and violence, and characters you really care about are the features of this book.
Black is feisty and fierce (not in a cliched way) and smart too. Nice to see a girl interested in science as the central character for a change. Ed, the lab technician at the water plant where Black works, (and which her Dad runs) is a fantastic character and a wonderful confidente for Black as she navigates the peaks and troughs of her life in Dainsfield.
As with Ferris’s first YA novel, Risk, the voices of the characters ring true. There is some really authentic sounding dialogue between the kids and between the adults too. This is certainly one of the great strengths of her writing. The other thing Ferris excels in is setting. Dainsfield feels real, especially the forest Black must traverse when inspecting the dams as part of her job. It felt cold, isolated and a little bit creepy as she made her way through it.
I also liked the resolution of the book. There was a real sense of danger and urgency as event played out and like Risk, the ends were tied up, but not neatly. There were enough frayed edges on the ribbon to make it feel like something that could happen in real life.
Highly recommended for ages 13 and up.

A spoilt brat and his best friend

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Harry Potter, #8)Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by John Tiffany

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Loved it. Great to see old friends again (although not as many as I would have liked – Neville, anyone?) and to meet some new ones. Scorpious Malfoy is my new favourite character, bar none. Albus Potter is a sulky ungrateful douchebag – NOT what I expected at all. Initially struggled with the play format, but once I got into the story it didn’t matter anymore.
Don’t want to write too much that is specific (because, spoilers), but highlights include:
1. Draco Malfoy becoming the character I always hoped for;
2. A journey back to Godric’s Hollow;
3. Snape’s razor sharp wit;
4. Ron and Hermione, and Ron and Hermione (read it and you will understand);
5. The possibility of a new generation of novels (yes, I WANT to believe it will happen) featuring these new characters.
Sure, it has flaws, but all great stories do. Sometimes you just have to let yourself be carried along enough to not care about them. I look forward to the promised novelisation of this play, because I think it will read better and allow some more emotional investment in the new characters as well.
I already want to read it all over again.

Risky business

RiskRisk by Fleur Ferris

Taylor and Sierra are best friends, but their relationship can sometimes be a bit of a love/hate thing too. When they are both talking to Jacob Jones in an online chat room, Taylor thinks he will only be interested in Sierra. She is rapt when Jacob gets in touch with her and wants to arrange to meet up. Riley, another friend, encourages Taylor to get out there and grab this guy. Imagine Taylor’s hurt and surprise when she discovers Sierra has been contacted too, and is meeting Jacob tomorrow, straight after school.
Taylor says nothing, and sighs as Sierra runs off to be with her “dream guy”. After a prearranged phone call, to make sure everything is okay, Sierra tells Taylor she is going off on a date with Jacob. And that is the last Taylor ever hears from Sierra.
When she doesn’t come home on Saturday, Taylor’s not particularly worried. She has done this kind of thing before. Taylor’s friend, Callum, who is becoming more than a friend, is the only one who thinks something bad might have happened. Taylor shrugs it off and then 1 day turns into 2 days and the police are brought in after Taylor confesses about what is going on to Sierra’s mum.
Amid the blame, and guilt, Taylor still can’t believe that anything really bad has happened to Sierra – after all, she was all set to meet up with Jacob herself.
After a series of events that I cannot reveal because of spoilers, Taylor attempts to locate Sierra’s abductor herself and, along with Riley and Callum, finds herself in a murky world of internet scamming and lies she never knew.
I found this book to be very believable – especially the jealousy between friends, the denial that something is really wrong, and the developing relationship between Taylor and Callum. The first kiss between Callum and Taylor is exquisitely written and evoked long-forgotten memories in this reader. Fleur Ferris really captures the voice of her characters well, and the details in the story show her background in law enforcement.
Very definitely a cautionary tale, and a fantastic thriller to boot. More please.
For ages 12 and up.

More than ready

Ready Player OneReady Player One by Ernest Cline

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wade Watts lives in a high-rise made up of relocatable homes, that teeters above a dirty grimy 2044 world. Like most people on the planet, he lives most of his life inside the Oasis – a virtual world where he goes to school and socialises. Ten years ago, the inventor of the Oasis, James Halliday, died leaving no heir. Halliday left riddles littered through the Oasis that contain clues to winning the biggest prize of all – complete control of Oasis and Halliday’s huge fortune.
This novel took a little while to get going but, once the rules were established and I allowed myself to become immersed in its world, I strapped myself in and went along for the roller coaster ride.
If you are a child of the 80s, you will find many points of reference here. Games, music, movies, books – the whole 80s zeitgeist is used in so many ways it’s hard to count them all. Everything from the music of Rush, to PacMan, to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, to Family Ties and so much more.
There is great tension created as Wade (as his avatar Parzival) makes his progress through the game and runs up against friends (the awesome Art3mis and the loyal Aech) and enemies (Nolan Sorrento, head of the rival gaming company; Sixers; Shoto and Daito) in his quest to be the first through the third gate in the game. As someone who left “real” gaming behind years ago, it has made me quite nostalgic about the old days of Galaga and Frogger and Space Invaders that were my first video game experiences.
The stakes are incredibly high because if Sorrento and his minions (the scary Sixers) gain control the Oasis will change forever and be unavailable to all but the highest bidders. The fabric of Wade’s society is built around Oasis and reliant on its egalitarian ideals to continue.
It is difficult to say much more without revealing spoilers, but I can say this novel has some great messages to impart about friendship, about knowing people on the inside, about how appearances can be deceiving, and mostly about self-belief and self-worth.
It has been described, accurately, as “Willy Wonka meets The Matrix”. I just loved it, and I can’t wait to see the movie Stephen Spielberg makes of it. He just bought the rights and that is really exciting.
Recommended for ages 13 and up, and especially for children of the 80s.

Getting to know you…

You Know Me WellYou Know Me Well by Nina LaCour

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Even though Mark and Katie have been sitting next to each other in calculus all year, the high school seniors have barely spoken more than a dozen words to each other. One night in a gay bar, at the beginning of Pride Week, their paths cross and neither will ever be the same again.
Katie is on the run from her dream date – terrified it won’t live up to her high expectations – and Mark is out with his best friend Ryan, for whom he feels a whole lot more than just friendship. When they recognise each other in the bar, each is looking for a lifeline, so they grab each other and decide to be friends, on the spot. Katie covers for Mark, whose parents expected him home an hour ago, and Mark helps Katie to stop worrying for a while and just enjoy herself. Mark and Katie have found the perfect friend in each other. They manage to get themselves invited to a celebrity party in the San Francisco hills and from that moment they are firm friends.
Told in alternating chapters from Mark’s and then Katie’s point of view, the novel traces the fallout from Katie’s “runner” from her date with Violet (the woman of her dreams) and Ryan’s fling with Taylor, a guy he picked up at the bar. Katie’s best friend, Lehna, who set up the date between her cousin Violet and Katie, is out for blood and senses her friendship with Katie is changing now Mark is on the scene. Mark’s awareness that Ryan does not reciprocate his feelings is growing, and he is having trouble letting go.
Mark and Katie support each other and back each other up like they have been doing it all their lives – their friendship is fast and very strong. It reminded me of the kinds of friendships that you sometimes find in high school – where you have an instant connection with someone over something seemingly trivial and it leads to a lifelong relationship. While some might scoff, I found this relationship totally believable – the dialogue is fantastic and never maudlin or cheesy.
The relationships are complex, messy, and heartfelt and there is an overriding theme of self-acceptance right through the novel. From Ryan’s reluctance to come out, to Katie’s reticence to let herself be happy, to feel like she deserves to be happy – all the friendships eventually meet up in a wonderful confluence of self-knowledge and genuine connection. Katie and Mark, we realise, will be okay – because they have their friends, and because they have each other, no matter what.
The best part about this novel is that the gay relationships in it are all just relationships. It’s the kind of novel young adults (and many older ones) need to read, to understand that love is love – no matter what.
Highly recommended for ages 14 and up.

My review has also appeared in Magpies Magazine Vol 31, Issue 3, July 2016

Unnaturally affecting

The Natural Way of ThingsThe Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Where to begin? Do I start by confessing that I wept openly for a full five minutes after finishing this novel? Do I add that I am still weepy thinking about it as I write this review? Do I step back from the subject matter (misogyny, gender politics, the nature of violence, self, nature, landscape) and look at it analytically? Or do I leap in with emotions raging and expunge everything this book made me think and feel?
This book is a landmark in Australian literature for me. It is a book that I think every Australian woman should read and clasp to her breast as her own. It is raw, powerful, brutal stuff. But it is also lyrical, dreamy and lush with descriptive language and imagery.
Yolanda and Verla are the last two women to arrive at a facility in the middle of a desert, somewhere in Australia. Women who have been judged unworthy of living in society – because of perceived sexual transgressions – have been extracted and dumped in a dry and baked landscape, surrounded by an electric fence and kept there by two brutal and inept male gaolers, Teddy and Boncer, and their “nurse” – a woman named Nancy. Stripped of their clothes, and other possessions, forced to wear old fashioned tunics and bonnets and shoes, these women work by day clearing boulders and rocks from a road and spend their nights in dogboxes, in filth and degradation. Some cling to each other, some stand up to their captors and are brutalised, and others fall silent and slowly plot their escape or suicide. When the power is switched off and the food begins to run out, the women realise their captors are now jailed along with them. While some battle on as best they can others, like Verla and Yolanda, realise the only way out is to rescue themselves.
Verla, bonded in an unspoken way to Yolanda because they arrived together, starts to hoard toadstools and mushrooms, hoping beyond hope that one of them is a death cap. Plotting in her mind to feed it to Boncer and Teddy and escape this prison. In denial about her fate for about half the book, Verla is a character who slowly toughens up mentally, if not physically. Once she realises she is not going be released she becomes resolute about solving her situation, possibly with Yolanda’s help. Either way, she knows she is either going to kill the men or save the death cap, for herself.
Yolanda is a wonderful character. Feisty, arrogant, she was the only inmate who did not go to the prison willingly. And it is Yolanda who also proves to be the most adaptable of the women. When the Boncer announces that Hardings, the company who run the facility, are “not coming” it is Yolanda who offers to use the rusting rabbit traps on the property to secure a food source for the inmates. A sense of purpose emerges in Yolanda and it becomes her life. Once she successfully traps the rabbits, she feels powerful, and works well in her surroundings to make sure nothing gets in the way of her new-found purpose. When Boncer tries to assault her, she realises he is afraid of her and stands her ground. After all the road-clearing and other physical labour, Yolanda is a ball of muscle and Boncer knows he is no match for a woman with nothing to lose. He backs down and Yolanda’s ascension is complete. Teddy tries to tell Yolanda that rabbit traps are cruel – Yolanda and Verla just “snigger up at him, showing their small grey teeth.” (p.150)
The other interesting character is Nancy – at first the prisoners view her as someone who is privileged, who enjoys the perks of good food and the good graces of Boncer and Teddy, but it soon becomes apparent, especially when Hardings turn off the power supply, that Nancy is as much a prisoner as the rest of them. As Nancy descends into a drug-addled existence, the women realise how weak she is, how reliant on the two men she is, and they see their former selves. When Nancy dies of a drug overdose late in the novel (not a spoiler, there was no doubt for me this was her fate), the women are the ones who take care of her body, washing her and laying her on a stained sheet. They hold a vigil as her body burns, “they see she is only one of them, just skinny bone and sunken flesh, and for the first time they wonder if she has a mother too, somewhere in that little town she came from once.” (p. 271)
“Would it be said they were abandoned or taken, the way people said a girl was attacked, a women was raped, this femaleness always at the centre, as if womanhood itself were the cause of these things? As if the girls, somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves.” (p. 176)
I cannot stress enough that this is not a pleasant book to read, but it is urgent, and compelling, and speaks volumes about the struggle to be female in a world of men in a way I have not read before in Australian contemporary literature. The only novel I can find some common ground with is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Attwood, and that was hard going too. Don’t be put off by the subject matter. Women will feel empowered by this book, men might feel disgusted and afraid for the women they know. These are not bad things. Novels such as this are written to make us question the “natural way of things” and this book does just that.

Recommended for mature readers over the age of 16.

Friends on the side

The SidekicksThe Sidekicks by Will Kostakis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Sidekicks is Will Kostakis’s third YA novel. After The First Third, I had Will pegged as a warm and sensitive YA author – that reading his books is like settling into a comfy corner with old friends and catching up over a coffee. This new novel is so much more than that. It is worldly, it is timely and it captures the complicated world that is teenage relationships and identity really well.
Issac is dead. Drowned after falling/jumping from a boat while intoxicated. The book traces the fallout of his demise by following the three people who knew him best – or thought they did – Ryan, Harley and Miles. Ryan, the swimmer, is the son of the Vice Principal. He and Isaac were very close. Isaac was the only person Ryan confided in – the only one who knew Ryan is gay, that he has a boyfriend named Todd. With Isaac gone, Ryan’s world begins to implode. Harley is the classic rebel and disappears after Isaac’s death. When he returns he tries to make connections with Miles and Ryan but he struggles because Isaac was the thing they had in common. Miles is the nerdy one – the high achiever often teased by Isaac, but devoted to him nonetheless. Miles retreats into himself after Isaac’s death – obsessed with footage he shot as part of a film-making project.
The emotion Kostakis is able to convey through these characters is affecting and rings true. There will be many young people who read this book and readily identify these characters in their own circle of friends and perhaps identify WITH them too. There is an intricacy in this novel that was not apparent in The First Third and it makes this novel a rich and wonderful thing. In light of the growing awareness of LGBTQI issues and the campaign against intolerance, this book is a highly important one in the Australian YA landscape. Read it, then share it with a young person you know. I wish everyone would read this book – it would be a better place for it.
For ages 13 and up

Nothing but net

The CrossoverThe Crossover by Kwame Alexander

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In The Crossover, Kwame Alexander has produced an evocative and heartfelt love song to basketball, and an honest look at sibling rivalry and family conflict. Thirteen year old Josh and Jordan are twin brothers, both immensely talented and members of the same high school basketball team. At 13 years old, they have their whole lives ahead of them, and pushing them to greater heights is their Dad, Charlie, himself a former basketball champion.
As the season progresses, Josh finds Jordan, once his closest companion, drifting away into a relationship with a new arrival, Alexis. Coupled with a sense of abandonment, Josh also sees his father’s health deteriorating and experiences a sense of powerlessness that is palpable.
The structure of this verse novel works really well as it manipulates language to emphasise Josh’s growing loneliness, as well as the excitement and adrenalin-rush of the basketball games he and Jordan play in. In fact, once the story kicks in, one forgets it is a verse novel- and that is a great strength of the writing here.
Some readers struggle with verse novels because of the short form of the text, but I think this really adds to The Crossover, giving it an immediacy and verve that compliments its subject matter.
Recommended for ages 13 and up.