Ahead at all costs

Head of the RiverHead of the River by Pip Harry

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Leni and Cristian Popescu having rowing in their blood. Both parents have been Olympic champions and it seems like nothing can stop a meteoric rise to the top of their sport. Leni is on top of her game, training hard and loved up with her boyfriend, Adam. Cris, however, is flagging. Overweight and inherently lazy, as many 17 year olds are, he wants to keep his seat in the first eight without having to put in the hard yards. As Leni’s star rises and she is made Captain of Boats, Cris loses his seat in the first eight, along with Leni’s boyfriend, Adam, who is also his best mate.
Adam comes up with a solution – he and Cris begin taking steroids to help them regain their places in the eight. After he and Leni break up, Adam becomes even more determined and he and Cris are set on a path that will end in devastation for everyone involved.
Leni becomes attracted to a new boy, Sam, who has also been made Captain of Boats, and she, too, is set on an emotional roller coaster that threatens to derail her rowing ambitions.
I found this novel was set in a world I knew little about growing up (rowing, private schools, drug use), but I still recognised the kids at this school as people I might have known. Leni and Cris’s parents are really well-drawn, particularly her Romanian father, and I found all the characters relatable.
Leni is a great character with believable flaws and believable strengths. She is loyal and committed to rowing, sometimes to the detriment of her other relationships. Cris reminded me of my son – sometimes struggling to find his place in the world and looking for a moment to shine.
This is a great story about friendship, rowing and what is really important in life. Definitely an engaging novel for the young adult reader.
Recommended for ages 15 and up.

Dreams become reality

Footy DreamingFooty Dreaming by Michael Hyde

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this book in a day. I spent the afternoon of Mothers Day totally wrapped up in the world of Noah and Ben, the central characters in this novel. Both boys are at the top of their footy game, playing on opposing teams in the local comp. Noah Davis lives with his parents and older brother, Chris, in the town of Marshall, where he plays for the Mavericks. Ben Meredith, who plays for the Kookaburras, lives with his father and younger sister.
After a racism-fuelled incident on the footy field where Ben tries to stop his racist team-mate, Mark Elliott, from beating up Noah, tensions are high. Out for a training run after the match, Ben happens upon Noah and the two boys begin to do training runs together. Slowly a friendship develops.
Ben’s openly racist father tells him to stay away from Noah because “their type” is trouble, but Ben does not think like his father and finds himself disillusioned by his Dad’s behaviour. Noah is going through a tough time due to his grandmother, a much-loved matriarch, being ill with pneumonia in a neighbouring town.
Throw into the mix a scout from the Bushrangers development squad and his interest in both boys for a spot, and things look set to explode. When Ben transfers from the Kookaburras to the Mavericks after being ostracised and bullied by his team-mates, the scene is set for a re-match of epic proportions. Will either boy get the coveted Bushrangers letter? Will either of them make it off the field in one piece?
I loved the easy language of this novel. The way these boys talk to one another is the way I hear my son’s team talk on the footy field. The grass-roots feel is palpable and it is easy to believe how seriously the small town treats it’s footy. I particularly enjoyed the character of Ms Gillmartin, the school librarian who is a die-hard footy tragic and the maths teacher, Mr Garner, who are both supportive of the boys in their own way. I also really liked footy being used as a metaphor for conduct of life – acceptance, tolerance, working hard, celebrating achievement, friendship and loyalty. I am pretty sure the boys aged 13 and up at my school will love it, but there is plenty for girls here too. Because whilst footy is the backdrop for this story, its central concern is family and relationships and Hyde does it really well.
For ages 13 and up.

The Truest Thing

One True ThingOne True Thing by Nicole Hayes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For those of you who follow my reviews, it will be no secret that I adored Nicole Hayes’s debut novel, The Whole of My World. She had a big job ahead of her to equal the emotional impact and engagement of that first effort – and she has absolutely achieved it.
When I finished One True Thing, I immediately wanted to read it again. Not because I felt like I had missed anything, but because I didn’t want to let the characters go. In Frankie, Hayes has constructed a young woman who is smart, funny, vulnerable and loves Pearl Jam. Frankie is the kind of person I (and I suspect a lot of other people I know) would have wanted to be friends with at school.
Frankie’s mum, Rowena, is poised to be the next Premier of Victoria. We enter the lives of Frankie’s family in the lead-up to the election and the media maelstrom it entails. Gender politics is to the fore here, and Frankie, her brother Luke and her Dad are caught up in it whether they want to be or not. Rowena tells Frankie, they are only words and can’t hurt her, but it is clear the words do hurt. When Rowena is snapped by a photographer having a clandestine meeting with a young man, the press goes wild, making all sorts of insinuations about Rowena’s moral character. In this portrayal of a media happy to brand Rowena a “witch” and other unsavoury things, we see echoes of Julia Gillard’s treatment, and also that of Joan Kirner, by the fourth estate.
As if that wasn’t enough for Frankie to contend with, she finds herself falling for a handsome photographer from her school and feels like she is losing her best friend, Kessie, to a girlfriend she has never met. Secret upon secret builds in this novel, until they start spilling over and then Frankie and her family have to deal with the fallout. Through it all, Frankie stands tall – loyal and feisty to the end. Other standout characters for me were: Kessie, Frankie’s forthright best friend and bandmate; Luke, her loving and funny little brother; and Gran Mulvaney, who endeared me with her love for Frankie and her daughter, Rowena.
This is a wonderful novel, rich in contemporary references, a call to arms for gender equality and a love song to Pearl Jam. Frankie is a girl I will hold in my heart for a long time, because she reached into me and reminded me that it is okay to be vulnerable, that you can come back from heartbreak and that family, is the most powerful bond of all.
I urge you to read it. For ages 13 and up.

A hot new series…

The Burning SeaThe Burning Sea by Paul Collins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Burning Sea is the first in a cycle of six books called The Warlock’s Child. Written by two of Australia’s foremost science fiction/fantasy authors, this novel has a quality pedigree and it will not disappoint. Aimed at an upper primary audience, the story moves at a good pace, with a minimum of set-up, and the momentum continues throughout.
Lowly cabin boy, Dantar, is the son of a respected warlock, Calabras, and his sister, Velza, is a shapecasting warrior. Everyone in Dantar’s family, it seems, is a high achiever – except him. They all serve on the warship, Invincible, where dodging dragons is a daily activity and treachery is a common hazard.
This novel is a great introduction to all the main players in the series.
I will be interested to see how the next volume plays out as this one left the reader with an absolute cliffhanger. Velza, I hope, will figure as much as Dantar and I really hope she has a chance to shine as she has had a really rough time in this installment. No doubt Dantar will prove himself a hero as the bigger story unfolds.
I really liked the idea of the fractured magic and the idea of a mystery around it, and I hope we learn more about that too. If I have one criticism of this book, it is that I found it a little too short – I would have liked to have had a little more about the history of this world painted in for me to have more context. I am sure that all will be revealed eventually and I look forward to reading the rest of the series; eagerly awaiting the publication of volume 2!
Recommended for ages 9 and up.

Pause for thought

The PauseThe Pause by John Larkin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

John Larkin blew me away a few years ago with The Shadow Girl, so I was keen to read this new novel. I was not disappointed.
Declan is a teen who, on the surface, seems to be well-adjusted and living a wonderful life. He has great mates, a loving family and a beautiful girlfriend. There is little to betray what is gong on underneath the surface. When his girlfriend, Lisa, is sent away to Hong Kong, Declan’s world unravels. Feeling depressed and in despair, he makes a split-second decision to throw himself in front of a train – and then time separates. In a “Sliding Doors” moment, one version of Declan jumps, and dies. A warning here, the description of his death is graphic and horrific – there is no glossing over what happens to a body when it is hit by a train. This Declan’s life ends.
The other version of Declan pauses, just for a second and is pulled back by the concerned people on the platform. They call an ambulance and Declan is taken away for assessment. The rest of the novel follows this “other” Declan – through psychiatric evaluation, trying to rebuild his relationship with his shell-shocked family, and coming to terms with how he ended up depressed enough to contemplate suicide in the first place.
This is a “what if” story, and Larkin tells it with humour and humanity. Declan’s parents are flawed, but well-meaning and their relationship gets put under the microscope as much as Declan’s life does. As the months pass by, it is clear that there are things in Declan’s past that have had a greater influence on him that anyone could have imagined, and that there are things that have been swept under the carpet by everyone around him. As the secrets unfold, you wonder how Declan has held it together for so long, and all the reader’s sympathy lies with him, as it should.
I found this an emotional read, particularly having lost a loved one to a similar incident which took Declan’s life, but it is well worth the time. John Larkin has written an important book for young adults: about choices; about love; about secrets; and about looking after yourself – telling someone when you are feeling bad, sad or alone.
I really think this book could save a life, if put into the hands of someone who thinks they have no other options. It is a life-affirming story, dark and sorrowful, but full of hope and light too.
For ages 13 and up – I cannot recommend it highly enough.