The Special Ones by Em Bailey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I loved Em Bailey’s Gold Inky winning Shift and I have passed it on to many students as a creepy thriller recommendation. When I started reading The Special Ones I wasn’t sure it was going to live up to Shift. I had very high expectations.
This novel is a slow-burn. The first half is basically mood setting, drawing you in to the characters’ lives and investing you in their welfare. Then BAM! things take off and it doesn’t slow down. Bailey uses different characters’ voices to great effect in the second half of the book and I found the last 80 pages or so absolutely compelling. One of the things I found refreshing about this book was the lack of swearing, sex, or romantic angst. It was just a tautly written thriller with some relationship undercurrents.
The book begins inside a cult. We meet Esther, Felicity, and Harry. Harry has been out into the world searching for a new “Special One”, a Lucille. A Lucille, because the Felicitys and Lucilles here change sometimes. The old one is sent away to be “renewed” and another is chosen, “collected” and made to remember their past as one of the Special Ones. Harry goes back and kidnaps the new Lucille and then her “remembering” begins. This is the world Esther lives in, and she is our narrator. To the reader, it is clear that this is a cult run by a faceless leader who issues instructions to his followers, who live in a farmhouse, by computer. The Special Ones communicate with followers in the outside world via an internet chat room, and they manufacture clothes and objects to sell online to their followers.
The novel traces Lucille’s indoctrination and “verification” as she accepts that she is Lucille, and not Sasha. She becomes a fully-fledged Special One and that’s when things start to get creepy. Little by little things start to change within the house, and then Harry is sent away for renewal – something that has never happened before. Before long, Esther is sent for renewal too – she leaves the cult. I can’t tell you any more because of my no spoiler policy, but I can say that there will be tears of sadness and tears of triumph before you finish reading.
This story starts off slowly, with attention to detail. You get lulled into the rhythm of the Special Ones’ life and that’s what Bailey wants – because then she delivers shock after shock. I gasped out loud once or twice reading this one – maybe you will too.
For ages 13 and up.
Play on! : the hidden history of Women’s Australian Rules Football by Brunette Lenkić
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book is a must-read for new and existing fans of women’s AFL. It has indeed been a “hidden history”, but Lenkic and Hess have dragged it into the light for all to see and enjoy. I knew there had been women’s exhibition matches during WWI and WWII, but I was not aware that such matches had been going on since the 1850s! It was fascinating to read of the football games played by rival factory teams in Perth – and to see just how big a role Western Australian women have played in women’s football. My assumption had always been a Victorian phenomenon, with some links to South Australia, but I discovered in these pages just how national the game really has been for a long time. The struggle to have a seriously regarded and recognised competition for women has been going for almost as long as AFL has existed.
It was also wonderful to see all those names who are now becoming so familiar through the new AFLW, like Susan Alberti, Katie Brennan, Nicole Graves, Melissa Hickey, Daisy Pearce, Tayla Harris, Debbie Lee, Lisa Hardeman, et al – and read of their passion and drive to make our game accessible for all.
A great addition to our sporting lexicon.
Hotaka by John Heffernan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is the first in a new series of Through My Eyes, this time focusing on natural disaster zones. Hotaka is a boy growing up in the coastal town of Omori-wan in Japan. In 2011 this town, and many others like it, fell victim to an earthquake, followed by a devastating tsunami. I can remember watching the footage of this event on television at the time and the book captures well the desperation of those who were trying to escape the wall of water and debris that flattened the town. This is just the beginning for this novel, as we then meet Hotaka and his friend Osamu a year later as the town prepares to hold a memorial concert one year after the disaster.
Hotaka is haunted by the memory of his friend, Takeshi, who did not survive the tsunami, and his friend Sakura is struggling with her own set of demons. Sakura is set on opposing a controversial sea-wall development, and her struggles threaten to endanger herself and those around her.
I found this story very engaging – the characters themselves were very sympathetic -and it was especially satisfying to read a female character who was strong, yet fragile; confident, but insecure. Sakura was fantastic to read, and I enjoyed the relationship that developed between her and Hotaka as the novel progressed. The way the children use social media to expose the issues and promote their cause was a great device, and showed how powerful things like YouTube and news blogs can be. It was also interesting to read about the struggles of real citizens to rebuild their lives after such a disaster. John Heffernan has clearly done a lot of research for this story and he has told it with care and attention to detail. There are some similarities to the plight of the people of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to be drawn here too.
The one objection I had was to some of the language the Japanese children used in the book. Some of what they said was a bit too “Aussie” for me – but perhaps that was to make the story a little more accessible for an Australian audience.
Even so, it’s a small quibble about what is otherwise a terrific story. I am looking forward to reading the rest of the series as it emerges.
For ages 12 and up
The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book broke my heart as I read it. It is as much an indictment on our nation’s treatment of asylum seekers and refugees as it is a novel about a friendship that defies all the odds.
Subhi is a child of detention. Born in a detention centre somewhere in outback Australia, he has no mother or father any more. He survives by the good graces of other detainees and the favouritism of a “Jacket” named Harvey. Subhi has a vivid imagination – at times it is the only thing that keeps him sane – and he imagines the surrounding countryside is a stormy ocean. Some of the imagery in this novel is just beautiful, and it has to be to make us want to stay with Subhi in this nightmarish place. One day Jimmie speaks to Subhi through the fence and they become friends – connected by the magic of reading and stories. The connection Jimmie and Subhi feel is real and very deep – and eventually it becomes the difference between life and death.
Zana Frallion’s novel is lyrical, and sweet, and terrifying, and heartfelt, and most definitely needed in the Australian literary landscape. This would make a wonderful companion read to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas as there are some similarities, but also plenty of differences for discussion.
Whilst the children in the book are quite young, this novel is absolutely more suited to readers 13 and up. A must-read.
Illuminae by Amie Kaufman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Every accolade this novel has had is so well-deserved. What a magnificent experience it was to read this amazing science-fiction-fantasy masterpiece. I cannot believe it has taken me almost a year to get around to reading Illuminae.
The story of Kady and Ezra is truly epic, in every sense of the word. Worlds, and ships, and lasers, and words, and zombies, and mega-computers collide and it is a thrilling un-put-downable ride.
Kady is a feisty, fragile and courageous protagonist and she is matched by the steadfast, flirty and resourceful Ezra. As the novel begins, we learn that these two have broken up – just hours before their world is turned upside down with an attack on the outpost they call home, Kerenza. Fate just keeps pushing them together, although not physically – their contact throughout the book is mainly via comm-link communications and email messages. They end up on separate ships in the rescue fleet and eventually start trying to work their way back to each other.
The back drop to this is a fantastic conspiracy plot. There is an evil corporation, a psychologically damaged AI who seems convinced the best way to save the fleet is to blow people up, and a pandemic biological weapon that has been unleashed and is, little by little, claiming the survivors. Kady hacks into the computer system looking for data that will tell her the truth about what is going on, as AIDAN, the AI, stalks her via video cameras and other electronic means.
In addition, the way this volume looks, is as good as it reads. There are pages of black, with winding white text as Ezra engages in a dogfight in space with enemy ships; AIDAN’s erratic conversations with himself and with Kady are set on the page almost like poetry. It’s a novel like no other I have read. The only one that comes close has been Cry Blue Murder by Kim Kane and Marion Roberts, which tells its story through news reports, police reports and internet exchanges. The best part of this way of writing is that they can suggest swear words and then not have them in the text (by blacking them out “officially”) – thus opening the story up to a wide-ranging audience. Genius.
I cannot wait to get my hands on Gemina, the second instalment. I look forward to another engaging and absorbing journey.
For ages 13 and up.