Nevo, found.

Finding NevoFinding Nevo by Nevo Zisin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is unlike any biography I had read before. Nevo Zisin is honest, raw and vulnerable in their telling of their life so far, but this is a book about courage. Courage to accept yourself, courage to trust others, courage to step forward and courage to tell others about your experiences. Nevo was designated female when born (biologically female), but struggled with BEING female in a heteronormal landscape. I heard Nevo speak at Reading Matters 2017 (#YAMatters) and I was prompted to read more about their life after their amazing presentation.
Finding Nevo is written with disarming candour, and a fantastic light touch. This makes it easy to read, as well as an important text in the increasingly diverse YA lexicon. Whilst I came to the book as the mother of an out and proud lesbian, I admit I initially struggled with pronouns – but as I read further things began to make sense to me. I hope many, many people will read this and finish it changed by Nevo’s wit, charm, and quest for acceptance and understanding.
For readers 13 and up.


Shining brightly

All the Bright PlacesAll the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this book primarily because I was preparing for a young adult reading conference where Jennifer Niven was giving a keynote and appearing in some panels. I was aware of comparisons to TFIOS and I had heard a lot about the story from my students, so I thought I owed it to Jennifer to read it. I am so very glad I made the effort.
The opening scenes had me worried – and I was prepared to put it down – until Violet and Finch were thrown together (after Finch had saved her in the bell tower) for the geography project. I loved this device. Making them grow a relationship based on a task they had to perform actually felt realistic to me, rather than the two of them just hanging out because of the bell tower incident.
As it became evident that Finch was bipolar, and that Violet was harbouring huge survivor guilt after a car crash in which her sister died, I was willing the two of them together. I wanted them to save each other.
Finch’s manic episodes force Violet to be part of a world she has been hiding from; to step forward into the light and exist again. As she does this, little by little Finch starts to retreat into himself until he has nowhere else to go. I don’t want to write much more in the way of plot, because I want readers to pick this up and discover it’s magic for themselves. What I do want to say is more to some of the people who have pretty much trashed this novel in their reviews.
Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinions about this book, and not everyone is going to enjoy this story. It can be hard going at times, and there are some who might find it quite distressing. That said, it should be remembered that Jennifer Niven has stated that this novel was born of very real personal loss. This was clearly a way of honouring and processing that. As someone who experienced something similar at the age of 21, I embraced this novel, this tribute, and I respect it. For some to say Jennifer has “copied” other novels is simply untrue and does her a disservice. This is a story told from the heart. Her heart.
Read it, don’t read it. Your choice. But don’t discount it and how it might reach out to just one person who might need it, at just the right time.
Recommended for ages 14 and up.

The future is written

Glory O'Brien's History of the FutureGlory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S. King

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Glory O’Brien is funny, fierce, flawed, and fragile. I love her. Haunted by her mother’s suicide when she was only four, Glory is fighting to become Glory. To find meaning. To discover her path in life.
When she and her neighbour/friend Ellie decide to drink the powdered remains of a long-dead bat with a beer, Glory discovers two things. Her mother’s journals and photographs in the abandoned darkroom; and the power to see people’s pasts and futures. In fact, everyone’s but her own. As well as mundane details like whose Dad was a butcher in 1953 and who will marry who and how many babies they will have, Glory also sees glimpses of a dark and desolate future following a devastating war. As she tries to deal with these flash-forwards, she is also discovering her mother through the books she left behind. This is her look into her own past. There she finds secrets and lies, some of which will impact life as she knows it now.
No spoilers, but this is a fantastic read. I couldn’t put it down – especially the last 150 pages. The writing is wonderful – particularly the dialogue. Glory’s voice is strong and clear.
Long live Glory.
For ages 13 and up.

Good dog, good dog.

A Different DogA Different Dog by Paul Jennings

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is not your usual Paul Jennings fare.
Is it well written? Yes
Does it have characters your care about? Yes
Is it a page-turner? Yes
Is it hilarious and tinged with magic realism? Nope
Is that a bad thing? Absolutely not.
The boy (we do not learn his name) does not speak when in the company of other people. On his own, or with animals, he finds his voice. Rendered mute by the heavy burden of guilt about the death of his first dog, Deefer, the boy is a child who is suffering. The boy’s mother is out of work and she and her son live life on the poverty line. It is cold, it is bleak, but she loves her son.
Trying to win a race to climb a mountain for the $1000 prize, the boy witnesses a fatal car crash on the icy road. Inside the dead man’s van is a dog. The boy rescues the dog and names him Chase. When they are alone, the boy can talk freely to Chase. When he is carrying Chase from the wreck of the car, he tells him “You’re heavy, but you’re not a burden.” This is echoed when we read a flashback to when Deefer went missing and the boy’s mother carried him home. She says exactly the same thing. The ones we love can sometimes be hard to carry, but they are no burden.
I don’t want to populate this review with spoilers, but this story is full of important things. Love, sacrifice, guilt, courage, honesty, justice, persistence, resilience, and most important of all – hope.
This would be a lovely book to read aloud to a class of Year 3 or 4 students, but could also be used for older students too.

The beast of nature

The Beast of Hushing WoodThe Beast of Hushing Wood by Gabrielle Wang

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I loved the writing in this book, from a writing craftsmanship point of view, but I found this novel harder to get into than Gabrielle Wang’s previous novel The Wishbird. Ziggy Truegood is a great character – brave, self-reliant – haunted as she is by precognitive dreams of her death by drowning at the age of twelve. We meet Ziggy as her fateful birthday approaches and at the same time, Raffi and his mysterious grandfather arrive in town. Ziggy is struggling to make sense of her world – the townspeople are fighting and strange things are happening in and around her beloved woods. She finds herself drawn to Raffi and the leopard she sees padding around after him, but she finds herself unsure too – are they related to her dreams of death? Her grandfather, who lives at Gold Leaf Lodge, has good days and bad days and though he is the wisest person Ziggy knows, he can’t seem to help her unravel the mysteries of her life and her visions.
Eventually Raffi and Ziggy become friends, despite her mother’s disapproval, and Ziggy learns of Khalila, the trickster, who has returned to make trouble in Dell Hollow and Hushing Wood. Grandpa tells Ziggy to key to everything is the little jade bottle he gave her, and then Ziggy is caught up in a race to save Raffi and his grandfather, and her town.
This novel has many layers and I think it would be even better on a second reading. Unfortunately I have not had time to do that yet, but I think the nuances of the prose and the nature of the story would resonate more second time around.
It is beautiful and magical and I wish I could say I liked it more – perhaps the second time around.
For readers 10 to 100

Fill in the Gap

Bone GapBone Gap by Laura Ruby

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although it took a while to really get going, I enjoyed this book very much. I am not usually someone who reads a lot of the magic realism/fantasy genres, but this is a book that slowly draws you in, and before you even realise it, you care about the characters and what they are going through. Finn and his brother, Sean, live on a farm in Bone Gap. Both are haunted by the sudden departure of Roza, a Polish girl they took in and cared for when she was hurt and frightened. Finn saw the man she left with, but no-one has ever been able to find out where she went or why.
Finn is obsessed with finding Roza, but he is also held back because no-one believes him when he starts seeing the man who took her back around town. He turns his mind to other things, and starts a sweet romance with Priscilla (Petey) Willis, daughter of the local beekeeper, Melissa. Strange things start happening. Finn hears the corn fields whispering to him, a magnificent black horse turns up in his barn, and he starts seeing the mysterious man everywhere.
At the same time, we see Roza in the clutches of her abductor – a prisoner who is kept in comfort, but also in solitude. She is the classic princess in the tower – without the tower. She is waiting for someone to rescue her – unless she rescues herself first.
I can’t say too much more about the story for fear of giving spoilers, but I CAN say that Laura Ruby has skillfully created a town that is both harsh and embracing, populated with characters who are, for the most part, happy in their part of the world and don’t want to rock the boat.
Petey is by far my favourite character in this book. She is feisty and vulnerable and hardened by years of mistreatment by her peers. And she is smart – probably too smart for Bone Gap – and Finn loves her for it.
The last 100 pages of this book flew by for me, and they are by far the most magical and other-worldly of the book. Bone Gap is definitely an interesting place to visit.
For ages 14 and up.

Very Special

The Special OnesThe 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.

Ball!A thumping AFL history

Play on! : the hidden history of Women's Australian Rules FootballPlay 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.

Japanese Journey

Hotaka (Through my Eyes Natural Disaster Zones #1)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

Singing sparrow

The Bone SparrowThe 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.