A way out of the dark

Turtles All the Way DownTurtles 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

Advertisements

Welcome to Hell

Welcome to OrphancorpWelcome 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.

By George, she’s got it!

GeorgeGeorge 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.

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.

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.

View all my reviews

Thanks for making me a fighter

Fight Like A GirlFight Like A Girl by Clementine Ford

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have to admit up front that I have not always been a fan of Clementine Ford. It’s only in the last 18 months or so, as I have read more by and about her, that I realised how awesome she is – and how courageous. I guess I started taking more notice of her after trying to express dismay about rape culture while sitting around in front of the telly with my son and husband and being pretty much made to feel I should stay quiet. It wasn’t done maliciously, but it was done from a place of male privilege and they just didn’t get it. So I stopped talking about it.
I didn’t understand just how angry I was about how women are treated in our society until I read this book. It’s like it shone a light on all the darkest things I had ever thought and showed them in all their terrible, shining, truth. My favourite quote (amongst many, many amazing parts) comes right at the end :
“If you are a woman living in this world and you are not angry, you are not paying enough
attention.”
That really hit home for me. This book articulates so much about how it FEELS to be a woman living in what is still a stifling patriarchy. As I read deeper and deeper into Ford’s call to arms (and make no mistake that is what this is), I found myself and my experiences in its pages. I think every woman, even the most “privileged” would find something they could identify from their own life in here.
Clementine Ford bravely gives us everything about herself – she is generous and unapologetic and I mentally fist-pumped a number of times as I read some of the things she has come through to be the woman she is today.
When you encounter a young woman who tells you she doesn’t need feminism or doesn’t see the point of it, just give her this book. Urge her to read it, as soon as possible.
Feminism, real feminism, has never been more important. It’s okay to be pissed off and it’s okay to articulate it. If people don’t want to listen, that’s their prerogative, but don’t let them silence you just because they close their ears. This is what I have taken away from this amazing book. Keep talking, keep listening, keep paying attention. And fight like a girl.

It wrecked me!

WreckWreck by Fleur Ferris

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

With Wreck, Fleur Ferris has firmly established herself as one of Australia’s great YA thriller writers. Risk and Black were a little creepier than this offering, but I think with Wreck, Ferris has stepped things up a notch. Tamara is a protagonist who comes into her own as the novel progresses. Her story arc sees her firstly quite timid and frightened, but by the end she is a take-no-prisoners badass. The same can be said of the other protagonist, William Chisel (great family name btw). Bullied by his older half-brother, and more or less ignored by his own parents, William has become a kind of “secret agent” by the time he and Tamara cross paths.
With the mystery of what happened in a boat accident five years ago as its imposing backdrop, Wreck takes the reader on a roller coaster ride with Tamara in the front seat. As the people she loves start being targeted by mysterious men in black, Tamara realises the note in the bottle she found on the beach is the key to the truth about Christian Chisel, the family member whose body was never recovered after that fateful night on the high seas.
I can’t say anymore without potentially spoiling, but this story keeps you in it’s vice-like grip right to the last few pages. I read the last 100 pages in one sitting – and made myself late for work.
It was totally worth it.
Recommended for ages 13 and up.

Sparrow in the wild

SparrowSparrow by Scot Gardner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Regular readers of my reviews know that I am a Scot Gardner fan of many year’s standing. This latest offering, Sparrow, was highly anticipated by me and I was not disappointed. Scot has written a book that will appeal to a younger audience as well as his usual YA readers – especially those who love adventure stories featuring survival against the odds.
Sparrow is still a deeply introspective book, delving into the main character’s past and showing his soft underbelly, but it is equally a first-rate survival adventure story. Sparrow is tossed into the ocean off the coast of Darwin when a survival trip with his fellow juvenile detention inmates goes awry. He manages to make it to shore in one piece, but he is on his own. Avoiding sharks, dodging hungry crocodiles and coping with searing thirst, Sparrow must make his own way in the tropical wilderness.
Through a series of glances back into his past, we discover how Sparrow ended up in juvenile detention. His life on the streets, the network of support he drew around himself, how he managed to survive thanks to his engaging manner and drawing ability. It is clear Sparrow is first and foremost a gentle soul; rendered mute by the trauma of his past, and struggling in a world that has rejected him on a regular basis.
Gardner paints Sparrow convincingly and sympathetically, but never gets overly sentimental which is one of his writing strengths. The tropical north location for the novel is vivid and feels authentic, which makes the story a compelling one. And when Sparrow stumbles across another lone survivor in the wilderness, things just get more interesting. I can’t post any more than than, because I don’t believe in spoilers.
Recommended for ages 12 and up, this is a ripping read.

Asked and answered

Ask the PassengersAsk the Passengers by A.S. King

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ask the Passengers is a really interesting novel. Another dip into magic realism for me, and I am beginning to see the attraction. A.S. King has a light touch, but still packs a punch and her characters are always engaging. Astrid Jones is a girl on the brink of many things: exploring her sexuality; finding her place in the world and her family; and she sends love, lots of love, to the passengers in the planes that regularly fly over her house. King allows us to see some of the passengers, and as Astrid’s love reaches them, their lives change. Not sure if she knows how to love the people she is with, or receive love from others, Astrid is in turmoil. All she wants is not to be categorised as one thing. She likes girls, but she’s not sure if the label lesbian fits her. She spends a lot of time hiding the truth about her doubts and fears from her friends and family, and eventually something has to give.
Astrid can be infuriating at times, but most of the time she is just trying really really hard not to hurt anyone. She doesn’t succeed. At all. And that is what makes this novel move along.
I would recommend this novel to teens aged 14 and up, but readers as young as 12 would enjoy this too.

To the outer limits

No LimitsNo Limits by Ellie Marney

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Harris Derwent is what my grandmother might have called “rough trade”. He’s had a hard life, but he is not hard. He pretends to be harder than he is – and that is why I fell in bookish love with him as I read this novel.
Ellie Marney has taken one of the most interesting characters from her “Every” series and given him the spotlight in No Limits. Harris is back in Ouyen following the climactic events in Every Move. He is hospital recovering from a gun shot wound when he meets Amie, a Certified Nursing Assistant he knew fleetingly in school. Amie and the rest of the nursing staff spend a lot of their time trying to stop Harris’s Dad, Dennis, from trying to get him out of bed and drag him home. Dennis is hands down one of the ugliest and base characters I have ever read. Abusive and drunk most of the time, Harris just wants to be free of him. When Dennis reveals he not only has cancer, but has racked up some huge debts, Harris knows he will be trapped until those debts are paid. Alongside all the fallout from being shot, Harris also has to work out how to get some cash. He is approached by some mates to be part of an ice distribution racket being run out of Mildura.
At first, he wants to say no, but after speaking to Amie’s dad Derrin Blunt, the local police sergeant, Harris is convinced to go undercover as an informant. This decision, and the decision by Blunt to use his daughter as the contact cover (for follow up hospital appointments to exchange information) are where the book really takes off.
Marney’s depiction of Mildura’s drug subculture feels disturbingly accurate. There are no punches pulled here. The language spoken and the scenes described are not for anyone who thinks YA writing should be all sunshine and rainbows. It’s not all dark, but the light shines through the cracks in the deep shadows of the methamphetamine-soaked recesses of the world Harris immerses himself in.
Along the way, Amie finds herself drawn to Harris: first as a concerned health worker, and later as a romantic interest. Harris, for his part, resists because he thinks Amie can do better, that he is bad news. Little by little we see the intimacy develop between them, and it is Marney’s precise writing skill that makes it feel authentic. No-one writes a first kiss like Ellie Marney. When Watts and Mycroft got together in the Every books, it sizzled, and in No Limits Marney doesn’t disappoint. Make no mistake, there is full-on teenage lust going on here, but also remarkable tenderness and emotion too. And when things start to go wrong and the drug boss looks for revenge, we really care about what happens to Harris and Amie.
I devoured this book very quickly. It is a fantastic, page-turning crime story; an insight into a subculture I have no personal knowledge of; a look inside an Indian/Australian family; and a breathless romance too. I hope we see more of Harris and Amie. Maybe “Outer Limits” for book 2?
For ages 14 and up (mainly because of language use, esp for school libraries).