Cut and Run, Run, Run.

The Cut OutThe Cut Out by Jack Heath
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The Cut Out is the best book Jack Heath has written so far. It is a fast-paced, relentless action adventure full of spies, secrets and double-crosses. Fero is a great protagonist. He is wide-eyed, but remarkably adaptable and capable. Quick-witted but green, he is the latest recruit to the Kamauan secret service, known as The Librarians (because they know where to find information about everyone).

Besmari, the country across the border known as the Dead Zone, has been in conflict with Kasmau for as long as anyone can remember. Besmari terrorists have managed to get their hands on a quantity of a deadly virus in an abandoned hospital and they are threatening to wipe out hundreds of thousands of Kamau citizens by blowing it up. In exchange for not doing this they want a Besmari prisoner to be released – but the prisoner is dead. They must get inside and render the bombs and their payload harmelss. Fero is recruited by the Librarians because he is a dead ringer for one of their top agents, Troy Maschenov. His mission? Get into Besmari territory, convince their agents (known as Bankers and Tellers) that he is Troy, and then deliberately expose an undercover Kasmauan agent, Cormanenko, who has gone underground. Cormanenko is the only agent who came out of the hospital alive after a poison gas attack and the Librarians need her kniowledge to get inside and diffuse the bombs.

With nineteen hours of training and a few nifty gadgets, Fero breaks through the border and finds himself in the middle of a political and moral firestorm. Turns out Cormanenko did NOT want to be found, but she does not want innocent Kamauans to die, so she agrees to escape with Fero. There are breath-taking chase scenes, heart-stopping escapes, more than one double cross, and some fantastic spy toys employed throughout. As their mission progresses and changes on the fly, Fero discovers time and again that all it not as it seems, and that he can really trust no-one but himself.

For fear of giving spoilers I won’t go further with plot details, but I can say that there is a sequel, The Fail Safe, planned for 2016.

Jack Heath has really nailed the “feel” of this book. I was “with” Fero all the way and actually gasped out loud a couple of times at various plot points (love it when that happens). This is the kind of story that would translate really well to a short TV series (hello, ABC 3) of three or four episodes. And, I must say, as a librarian, I loved the idea of the Kamau secret service not only using the terms, Librarian and Cataloguer, but also their headquarters being housed underneath an actual library. Unfortunately for me, it was an idea I had harboured myself for a novel – looks like Jack beat me to it!

I recommend this book for anyone 12 and over, and I can’t wait for the next instalment. Go, Jack, go!

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Wonder-Full

WonderWonder by R.J. Palacio

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For me, this book is all about page 270. I can’t tell you what happens, except to say it is a moment that literally made tears spring to my eyes.
R.J. Palacio has written a beautiful story. A story about pain, about love, about hardship, about forgiveness, and a story full of hope.
August (Auggie) Pullman has been an outsider all his short life. Born with life-altering facial abnormalities due to a series of genetic misfortunes, he has been home-schooled by his doting mother, until it is time for Middle School. Now he is enrolled at Beecher Prep and is thrust into the swirling waters of junior high school. Auggie is an engaging protagonist. Not only is he intelligent, he is also witty and courageous. He knows how people react to his appearance, to the very last tic or sideways glance. Many find it hard to look him in the eye, let alone talk to and interact with him. Julian, a boy full of his own importance thanks to superficial parents, is one student who is not prepared to make Auggie’s life easy at school. Julian uses his considerable social influence to directly and indirectly bully and torment Auggie on a daily basis. To his credit, Auggie stands up to this pretty well because he doesn’t really care what Julian thinks of him.
Auggie has a few friends at school by the time his birthday rolls around and his friends sustain him – until he accidentally hears one of them, Jack, speaking badly of him behind his back. It is clear that Auggie values truth and loyalty in his friends most of all, and Jack has to work hard to eventually win back Auggie’s trust.
There are other relationships going through rocky times in this novel. Auggie’s Mum is struggling with his growing independence and not sharing every second of his day, and she struggles with Auggie’s older sister, Via, for similar reasons as Via starts Senior High School. Via has her own problems as her old circle of friends rejects her and she is forced to strike out on her own to find a new group to hang out with. Via is also highly protective of her brother and is there to offer him some good advice about how the politics of the school ground work.
Having the different characters tell part of the story worked well, particularly as the reader is able to see the various conflicts in the novel from different points of view – a point about empathy being well-made without ramming it down the reader’s throat.
Auggie’s resilience, the loyalty of his small group of friends, and his loving, supportive family make this a book with irresistible appeal. When Auggie finally makes it to the school camp that will change everything (a la page 270), we are totally with them, and rooting for Auggie all the way. The ending made me feel happy, and proud of the characters. I can’t tell you, spoilers, but I think it will make you feel that way too.
This book has been a huge hit at my school and across the globe, and now I know why. It teaches the young people reading it that life, even when it feels terrible and there are things about your life you can’t change no matter how much you wish you could, does get better – you just have to give it time and have self-belief. It’s a great message, really well communicated. It’s wonder-ful.
For ages 10 and up.

Clear as day

Are You Seeing Me?Are You Seeing Me? by Darren Groth

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Perry has a brain condition that can cause him to feel anxious or upset in different places and circumstances. He has trouble with people – mixing with them and communicating with them – and sometimes it results in inappropriate behaviours. I appreciate your understanding and patience.”
Perry Richter and his twin sister, Justine, are going on a holiday to Vancouver. Perry is a young man with Asperger-like behaviour and Justine is his principal carer since losing their father to cancer four years earlier. Everywhere they go, whenever they meet new people this is the spiel she gives them in an effort to navigate their way through life’s necessary processes. The trip is a last “fling” before Perry enters Fair Go, an independent living program for people with similar conditions to his. Justine has left her boyfriend, Marc, behind to see how things feel without him – to get some breathing space. Relationships are examined and questioned right through this novel as we see the events unfold from each twin’s points of view. We hear from Perry what he thinks about his sister, earthquakes, sea monsters and their Dad’s passing; Justine tells us about her frustrations with Marc and her love and admiration for her brother and her contempt for the mother who abandoned the family when she and Perry were young.
Justine has arranged for a meeting with her mother, who now resides in Canada. Wanting to reconcile with her children, Leonie is a fragile, guilt-ridden woman who genuinely wants to make amends for fourteen years of radio silence, but Justine is not going to make it easy for her and is determined that Perry will not be hurt. As the novel unfolds, we see Justine is dealing with issues of her own – of control over her own life, of committing to someone other than Perry, and of course about letting Perry find his way. In many ways Perry seems the stronger of the two – because his condition allows him to be removed from “grand” emotional expression.
Perry is a young man of great intelligence who only wants the best for the sister he loves deeply. He knows that she feels obligated to look after him, that he does need someone to help him, but he worries that Justine is losing herself in caring for him all the time. Perry is insightful about other people’s emotions and reactions which enables him to sometimes predict their behaviour – something he says is “only logical” when you look at all the information.
Things come to a head when Perry and his mother have a day together without Justine, and for a moment it seems that all is lost. Everything seems to be turning bad and then a seismic shift of events turns things in a different direction. Earthquake metaphors are used really effectively in this novel – the ground moves under the feet of these characters a few times through the story. The other device Groth uses really well is Perry’s love of action hero Jackie Chan. There is a sequence towards the end of the book (spoilers, so no detail) that is just fantastic. Darren Groth is clearly a Chan fan and he uses it to his advantage really well,
Are You Seeing Me? has a big heart – huge – and it deserves to be read by a wide audience. I look forward to the next book Darren Groth has up his sleeve.
For ages 14 and up.