The Endsister by Penni Russon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This novel is utterly charming, and equally unnerving. Penni Russon’s writing is deft, with a light touch. That is not to say it is lightweight, rather it is lyrical and beautiful to read. In the very first paragraph, where we meet four-year-old Sibbi, this lilt of language is to the fore:
Shadows of gum trees grow long across the paddocks. Light is low and syrupy. The light of time shifting: day into evening, summer into autumn.
The reader is immediately transported; they can picture the golden, oozy quality of the sunlight with the gum trees casting long shadows, and know they are in rural Australia. The landscape is very important in this story – firstly in Australia and later, when the family moves, in England. It is closely tied to the family, their fortunes and their feelings.
When the struggling Outhwaite family inherit a large, old, creepy house in London, they move – some of them reluctantly – to take possession of it, looking for a new life and a new home. What they don’t know is that the house contains something sad and angry. Something kept secret for years, and little Sibbi seems to know what it is. Resident ghosts Almost Annie and Hardly Alice observe the family and occasionally interact with them, worrying from the sidelines if they will be safe from whatever is in the locked attic room.
We see the action in this novel through the eyes of several family members: Sibbi, who is lost and sad; Else, who is trying to find out exactly who she is; Clancy, who loves nature wherever he is, and makes an unexpected connection with the fabulous Pippa; and the ethereal Almost Annie and Hardly Alice, who have been with the house a long time. We also see Mr and Mrs Outhwaite failing to cope with change, particularly Mrs Outhwaite, and the drain this imposes on the rest of the family, especially Sibbi and the twins Oscar and Finn, who are often afterthoughts in family life.
This book deals with real emotions and dilemmas in a situation that becomes increasingly ominous, as Sibbi keeps repeating “I know what an endsister is”, and starts to fade away before her family’s eyes. No more details, because I don’t do spoilers, but this book has a great story arc, with a slow build and a deeply satisfying conclusion. I loved it – you will too.
For ages 12 and up.
Unearthed by Amie Kaufman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I loved Unearthed. Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner have produced a ripper sci-fi/fantasy adventure novel that is clearly the beginning of a new series or trilogy. Ameila (Mia) and Jules are thrown together on planet Gaia – both searching and both in over their heads. Mia is a scavver (scavenger) who strips artifacts from off-world planets to get enough money to buy back her enslaved sister. Jules: son of infamous Dr Elliott Addison, an archaelogist who discovered a secret that nobody wanted to listen to, is on a mission to proves his father right and to stop humanity blowing itself up. The story is told in alternating chapters, from either Mia’s or Jules’ point of view, which works well and the perspective changes at just the right moment each time.
There are echoes of Indiana Jones and The Fifth Element running through this story, with plot twists, puzzles, danger and double crosses at every turn – but this is no copycat tale. Mia is clever, feisty, tenacious and vulnerable; Jules is smart, noble, nerdy and brave and the relationship that develops between them as the novel progresses is natural and believable.
The puzzles Jules and Mia have to solve are tricky and engaging, and the world they find themselves in is well-drawn. Gaia is a fascinating place.
The worst part about this book is knowing we have to wait for the next one because, oh boy, does it leave you on a MASSIVE cliffhanger!
I hope the next book in this series drops soon – I can’t wait to get my hands on it.
For ages 13 and up – it’s a corker.
The Power by Naomi Alderman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This was an entertaining novel with a winning premise. I loved the idea of women having a latent power that is awakened in them, changing the social dynamic – and everything else connected to it. I also really liked the way Alderman shows that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely (thank you, H. Kissinger). So, this is not really a novel about gender (although it kinda is), it is more about power, the nature of power, and what HAVING (or not having) power does to people.
I thought the end came a little too quickly, it felt a bit rushed, but the last line is an absolute killer. Amusing and full of despair at the same time – can’t tell you because, spoilers, but it’s a real beauty.
Definitely worth a read – it’s sci-fi, spec fiction, and thriller all rolled in to one, with some astute observation thrown in. Favourite character? Jocelyn, without a doubt. She struggles with everything and still manages to shine, in my opinion., Everyone else is out for what they can get – Jocelyn just wants to fit in and have a peaceful life – what’s not to love about that? Favourite quote? It’s right towards the end, when Allie (a major character with HUGE potential that isn’t realised) is talking to the voice in her head, trying to work out which “side” to choose as things escalate between men and women and the people who have a vested interest in them fighting into perpetuity:
What can I tell you? Welcome to the human race. You people like to pretend things are simple, even at your own cost. They still wanted a King.
Allie says: Are you trying to tell me there’s literally no right choice here?
The voice says: There’s never been a right choice, honeybun. The whole idea that there are two things and you have to choose is the problem.
I know, right? Woah.
For ages 15 and up
Release by Patrick Ness
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It’s no secret to regular readers of my reviews that I LOVE Patrick Ness’ writing. The prose in Release is just sublime. Ness just gets better and better and this latest novel, a magical, heartfelt tale with a hard edge of realism, is as good as it gets.
Central character, Adam Thorn, is having a HUGE day. His former flame, Enzo, is leaving town; his best friend, Angela, makes a big announcement; Adam’s brother, Marty, makes an even bigger announcement; Adam’s boss, the greasily repugnant Wade, is sexually harrssing him; and Adam is trying to work out if he is in love with current flame, Linus. All the action in this story takes place over the course of a single day and it’s NEVER boring.
And if all that wasn’t enough, there is a second parallel storyline concerning the ghost of a murdered local girl rampaging through the forest and town looking for answers, for peace. Her journey and Adam’s are similar – they are both trying to find where they fit in and trying to move on from things that are holding them back.
I really like Adam as a protagonist. He is funny, sensitive, and well-liked by his peers. He also has an amazing best friend in Angela. She is probably my favourite character in this story. She loves Adam fiercely, and is always in his corner, and he in hers, no matter what. She has his back and her family is the family Adam wishes he has. Big Brian Thorn – head preacher at The House Upon the Rock evangelical church – is a proud and prejudiced man. Adam has hidden his true self from his parents for a long time and the revelation of who he really is, is a pivotal moment in the novel. When Big Brian finds out Adam is gay (and hopes he can pray the gay away) he tells Adam
“You have no idea how much I work to love you.”
Ouch. Adam tells his father how he feels about Angela’s family:
“…they’re my family. They love me. They are who I go to when things are hard. That hasn’t been you for years, Dad, and do you really never wonder whose fault that is?”
This is a novel about a small town, but it’s full of BIG emotions, BIG decisions. It’s a triumph. Read it. Just. Read. It.
Ages 13 and up.
My Sister Rosa by Justine Larbalestier
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Wow. Just wow. This gripped me like no other novel has for a long time. Justine Larbalestier has created a tense psychological thriller that keeps you turning the page, even though you dread what might come next.
Che is the narrator of this tale, a sensitive, troubled seventeen year old who is trapped in a family where his parents don’t understand him, and his little sister, Rosa, understands him too well. Ten-year-old Rosa is malevolent, scheming, manipulative, and looks as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. All her life, Che has been there – to watch over her, monitor her, and prevent her doing anything “bad”. Rosa is a deeply disturbing character, but it seems the only person in her family who really sees this is Che. Sally and David, Rosa and Che’s parents, seem incapable of believing Rosa would do anything truly evil, and Che is left in despair every time he tries to show them what Rosa is really like.
When Che’s family moves to New York for business reasons, Che is yanked away from his Australian support network, and struggles for a while to find his feet. A gym junkie, Che finds his solace in training at a local boxing gym, and it is here he meets Sojourner (Sid), a lean mean fighting machine with killer looks to match her ability in the ring. At the same time, he also starts a friendship with the children of his parents’ boss. Leilani – a girl about Che’s age, and twins Maya and Seimone, start spending a lot of time with Che and Rosa; and it is a relationship that will change all their lives forever. As Rosa becomes closer and closer with Seimone, Che feels uneasy about what Rosa might do to her twin sister Maya. For spoiler reasons I can’t say much more except: strap yourself in because this ride has more ups and downs and gasp-out-loud moments than the biggest rollercoaster.
Things I loved about this book:
* The way Che and Rosa talk to one another – chilling;
* Che and Leilani’s friendship – starts as mutual dislike and ends up fast and firm and true;
* Che’s feeling of displacement in New York, and then his gradual appreciation of its differences to Australia;
* The fact that Larbalestier doesn’t describe Sid as black; or Leilani as Korean – we just find out they are through dialogue (fantastic)
Things I hated about this book:
* That I didn’t write it!
This is a book that will leave you looking over your shoulder, and wondering about some of those kids you knew back in primary school – especially the kids everyone thought were perfect. (shudder).
Highly recommended for ages 13 and up. Very, very creepy.
Wilder Country by Mark Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The sequel to The Road to Winter, Wilder Country is a satisfying read. We continue following the fortunes of Finn and his companions, Kas and Willow, after their battles against the Wilders, led by the repugnant Ramage. It is about six months later and the three have survived the winter using their wits and developing survival skills, avoiding Wilders at every opportunity. As spring arrives, Finn’s attention turns to the promise he made to Rose – to find her baby, Hope. This installment centres on the search for Rose, and the blossoming relationship between Finn, Kas and Willow into a family of sorts.
I found this novel to be grittier and harsher than the first, but I think that is because things are getting tougher all over by this point in the book. Food is scarcer, weapons are used to kill in order to survive; the desperation is palpable now. Despite this, Finn remains a sensitive and caring young man – sometimes to his detriment. Kas is more pragmatic and ruthless and Willow has become an adept hunter, but still very much a little girl at heart.
I am looking forward to the third book in this series because I can see that all the threads will be deftly drawn together for what promises to be an explosive and affecting conclusion. I find all the characters, even the adults, highly believable and sympathetic (except, obviously, the evil and morally bankrupt Wilders) and I can’t wait to see how this all plays out. No more for fear of spoilers, but Mark Smith is doing a great job with these novels. More please!
Recommended for ages 14 and up.
Nevernight by Jay Kristoff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I read this after reading Jay Kristoff, Amie Kaufman‘s Illuminae and Gemina and I was not sure what to expect. I had heard this was very different, but I did not realise HOW different until I read the first chapter. This book, centred around the complex Mia Corvere and her quest to become an assassin, is full of bloody action, shady characters, and a pace that never lets up. If you like your fantasy full of swords and sweat, this is for you! Couple that with fantastic character development and shadowy powers over darkness and you have an amazing read. I can’t wait to read Godsgrave because this certainly left me wanting more. Won’t write more for fear of spoilers, but I highly recommend this first book in the Nevernight Chronicles.
Due to some language and mature content I would suggest ages 15 and above.
Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I am the first to admit, I was ready to find fault with this book. After all, we have been waiting for a long time for a new book from John Green and his mental health struggles are well-documented. I was worried he had lost his touch. Boy, was I wrong. I think this is the book John Green has been working towards all his life. His anxiety disorder has informed and nuanced this book and makes it a brilliant, revealing and insightful read. Aza is a realistic and sympathetic protagonist and the support cast of characters feel flawed and true too. Aza suffers from chronic anxiety which manifests itself in a germaphobic way. She is obsessed with contracting a C. diff (Clostridium difficile) infection and even goes as far as swilling hand sanitiser around in her mouth to prevent it. Everyday life is a constant struggle for Aza as she veers between seeming to be like everybody else, and succumbing to her toxic self-talk.
Daisy is Aza’s patient and loving best friend, and she is believably drawn by Green. Star Wars mad, and fiercely supportive of Aza, Daisy reminds me of my best friend in high-school; sometimes it was like us against the world – just like it is for them. Daisy is honest with Aza, and she needs that honesty to help her stay connected to the real world. Davis, the other major character, is wonderful. I was wary of another romantic relationship in a John Green novel, but this one is very different to his others. It’s raw and real, and Davis and Aza stumble and trip their way to mutual understanding through late night text conversations, which I felt was right on the money for them both.
There is a mystery (Davis’ missing father) to be solved, and Aza has a lot to deal with as well.
John Green’s first-hand understanding of anxiety shines through, and his writing is better than ever. When Aza and Daisy find themselves in a sewer tunnel, Aza asks Daisy to turn off her torch:
‘Turn it off. Nothing bad will happen.’ She clicked off her light and world went dark. I felt my eyes trying to adjust, but there was no light to adjust to. ‘Now you can’t see the walls, right? Can’t see the rats. Spin around a few times and you won’t know which way is in and which way is out. This is scary. Now imagine if we couldn’t talk, if we couldn’t hear each other’s breathing. Imagine if we had no sense of touch, so even if we were standing next to each other, we’d never know it.
‘Imagine you’re trying to find someone, or even you’re trying to find yourself, but you have no senses, no way to know where the walls are, which way is forward or backward, what is water and what is air….You’re just stuck in there, totally alone, in this darkness. That’s scary. This’ I said, and turned on the flashlight. ‘This is control. This is power There may be rats and spiders and whatever the hell. But we shine a light on them, not the other way around….This’ I said, turning off my light again, ‘is what I feel like when I’m scared.’ (p.263)
For those of you who swore you’d never read another John Green novel, give this a go. I think you’ll be glad you did. I know I am.
For ages 13 and up
Welcome to Orphancorp by Marlee Jane Ward
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book is one I had been wanting to read for some time and I was not disappointed. Ward’s depiction of a world where children are a commodity to be bought, sold and treated as merchandise is chilling and brilliantly realised. Mirii is a damaged and defiant protagonist. Having survived as a child of the industrial, government-sanctioned orphanage, Mirii is weeks off turning 18: the age where she will be released into the outside world to fend for herself. Within Orphancorp Mirii has used her time to educate herself (as much as the system will allow her to – an ignorant slave is easier to control than an educated one), and to refine her tattooing skills so she has something to keep her alive when the time comes. When Mirii meets Vu, and finds herself in a mess of trouble not all of her own making, it looks like she might not even make it out of Orphancorp alive.
This is a raw, gritty and wholly affecting novel. There is disturbing violence, perpetrated against children by adults, and by children on each other. It’s a dirtier Hunger Games in many ways. Damage and despair are all around Mirii – from the erratic and aggressive Freya, to the sensitive and wide-eyed Cam, and of course Mirii’s lover, Vu; there is always a sense of oppression and sadness. That does not mean this novel is without hope – all the characters, even the very damaged Freya, have a vision of what they want their lives to be. For some it’s just to survive to “ageing out”; for others it’s reconnecting with friends and loved ones on the outside; but everyone has something they are clinging to. Just as we all do in our own lives in some way.
I can’t wait to read the sequel, Psynode.
Recommended for ages 14 and up – mainly because of the violence.
George by Alex Gino
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This might be the most important book I’ve read this year. I have no idea what it is like to be transgender, but I like to think that if a child ever came to me with questions about it, I could show them this book to help them find their voice. George knows she is a girl, she just doesn’t know how to tell those closest to her the truth. Everything in this story is straight from the heart, but not in a cloying, saccharin way. Alex Gino’s gentle, engaging tale is sweet and sour in all the right places. George is a wonderful character and the reader will want nothing more for her than to get her wish to be accepted, and acknowledged, as a girl. George’s best friend, Kelly, is an absolute peach – I want her for my best friend – and George’s brother Scott is a surprise package of the best kind.
George’s journey, while specific in its detail, is a universal story of identity, self-esteem and self-acceptance. I can’t wait to share it with all my students.