They’re creepy and they’re kooky…

The EndsisterThe 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.

 

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Buried treasure

Unearthed (Unearthed, #1)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.

Power surge

The PowerThe 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

Blessed release

ReleaseRelease 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.

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

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.

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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.