Singing her praises

Ballad for a Mad GirlBallad for a Mad Girl by Vikki Wakefield

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was a definite departure of genre for Vikki Wakefield and there is a part of me that hates her for it – because she did it so well!
Ballad for a Mad Girl, I found, was a slow-burn kind of novel. We get introduced to the characters quickly, and then we get a chance to know them a bit before things start taking an extreme left turn. Grace is already an edgy girl, and after an “episode” during the pipe challenge (where kids from opposing schools egg each other on to cross a pipe over a gorge) where she almost dies, and wigs out a fair bit, she starts to change. Voices in her head, weird shadows in her bedroom, and physical deterioration seem to be manifestations of something sinister trying to control her. Is she haunted? Possessed? And how does she escape from this downward spiral? Her dad and brother are still grieving for their lost mother and partner, and seem clueless as to how to help Grace. And her friends? All she seems to be able to do is piss them off, or freak them out.
This book reminded me a little of Shift regarding the physical changes in the central character, but it is so much more than that. Grace is a complex person with a lot of baggage and she is compelling to read. I think my favourite character in this novel is Gummer: he starts off as a no-hoper. Stoned out of his brain most of the time, he seems to exist in the periphery of the lives of the other characters, but by the end of this book he has changed too. I would be interested to read more about Gummer, find out about his story. Any chance Vikki Wakefield?
If you want suspense, mystery and feels – this is the book for you.
For ages 14 and up.

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A full and fair exchange

Exchange of HeartExchange of Heart by Darren Groth

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This review first appeared in Magpies magazine, Sept 2017

Munro Maddux is still hurting from the sudden death of his little sister Evie a year ago. It has left its mark on Munro in a number of ways. He has anger issues, suffers from flashbacks and chest pains, and there is a constant ache in his right hand. But the most invasive is the voice he calls the Coyote; the one in his head that comments sarcastically on every aspect of his life, making him miserable. Looking for an escape from everything that reminds him Evie is no longer there, Munro signs up for a student exchange program and finds himself travelling from Canada to Australia.

Munro’s parents have channelled their grief into a charitable foundation in Evie’s memory, raising funds and awareness for Downs Syndrome back in Canada. Munro thinks it’s great, but wants no direct part in it, because everything about losing Evie is so painful for him. His parents see him as lost, rudderless, and agree readily to his exchange student plan in a desperate effort to resurrect the boy he was before they lost Evie. It’s definitely a case of the old adage, “if you love something set it free”.

Once he arrives Munro has to sign up for a volunteer program at his host school, and finds himself placed at Fair Go, an assisted living residence for young people. As he befriends and works with his assigned team of residents, Munro finds that the Coyote is silenced and he begins to find his own voice and sense of identity again. Their achievements become his own milestones and he begins to put his life back together.

This wry, gentle novel has a powerful message about grief and acceptance. It also has a lot to say about how we treat people, particularly young people, we consider to be “other” in our society. The Fair Go residents are all marginalised people, just trying to make their own way in the world; just as Munro is. Blake and Dale, a Downs Syndrome girl and a guy with what might be MND, want to get married more than anything in the world. Not because, as their parents continually worry about, they want to have sex, but because they never want to be

separated. Shah, an Afghan refugee, sleeps most of the day not because he is exhausted, but so he can see his family in his dreams. They, and the other residents: Iggy; Bernie; and Florence, are all trying to realise their potential in a world that often thinks they have none. Munro is looked on as such a case at home, especially by his parents, and he readily identifies with his charges at Fair Go. He sees them, and they in turn see him as no-one else does.

Throw in a typically Aussie host family and temporary brother, some school friends, and a budding love interest, and what results is a highly engaging and heartfelt story, deftly told. Darren Groth’s characters are believable and grounded. There is not a lot of flowery language here, just great storytelling. The relationship between Munro and his Australian host brother, Rowan, was authentic; as were the conversations between Munro and his parents and friends back in Canada. I was also delighted to see an appearance by Perry Richter (from Groth’s last novel Are You Seeing Me?) as a first aid instructor at Fair Go – a nice way to connect the two books thematically without making it a “sequel” as such. This is a really accomplished effort by Groth, and I look forward to seeing it shortlisted for many awards in the coming year.

Suitable for secondary school students from Year 7.

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