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.

I have seen the light

Illuminae (The Illuminae Files, #1)Illuminae by Amie Kaufman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every accolade this novel has had is so well-deserved. What a magnificent experience it was to read this amazing science-fiction-fantasy masterpiece. I cannot believe it has taken me almost a year to get around to reading Illuminae.
The story of Kady and Ezra is truly epic, in every sense of the word. Worlds, and ships, and lasers, and words, and zombies, and mega-computers collide and it is a thrilling un-put-downable ride.
Kady is a feisty, fragile and courageous protagonist and she is matched by the steadfast, flirty and resourceful Ezra. As the novel begins, we learn that these two have broken up – just hours before their world is turned upside down with an attack on the outpost they call home, Kerenza. Fate just keeps pushing them together, although not physically – their contact throughout the book is mainly via comm-link communications and email messages. They end up on separate ships in the rescue fleet and eventually start trying to work their way back to each other.
The back drop to this is a fantastic conspiracy plot. There is an evil corporation, a psychologically damaged AI who seems convinced the best way to save the fleet is to blow people up, and a pandemic biological weapon that has been unleashed and is, little by little, claiming the survivors. Kady hacks into the computer system looking for data that will tell her the truth about what is going on, as AIDAN, the AI, stalks her via video cameras and other electronic means.
In addition, the way this volume looks, is as good as it reads. There are pages of black, with winding white text as Ezra engages in a dogfight in space with enemy ships; AIDAN’s erratic conversations with himself and with Kady are set on the page almost like poetry. It’s a novel like no other I have read. The only one that comes close has been Cry Blue Murder by Kim Kane and Marion Roberts, which tells its story through news reports, police reports and internet exchanges. The best part of this way of writing is that they can suggest swear words and then not have them in the text (by blacking them out “officially”) – thus opening the story up to a wide-ranging audience. Genius.
I cannot wait to get my hands on Gemina, the second instalment. I look forward to another engaging and absorbing journey.
For ages 13 and up.

Winter has come

The Road to Winter (Winter, #1)The Road to Winter by Mark Smith

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book took me by surprise. I was expecting another tired,formulaic dystopian novel and what I got was a well-written, thoughtful and genuinely engaging story populated with vivid and interesting characters.
Finn is a boy living on the edge. After his family, most of his coastal town and indeed it seems Australia, has fallen to a devastating disease, he survives. A loner before the pestilence, Finn has adjusted to his new life with his dog, Rowdy, killing his own food, growing some, and trading with his surviving neighbour, Ray, who grows more veggies and has chooks. Ray and Finn stay out of each others way most of the time, because there is another group of survivors, Wilders, who think they run the place. They treat women (who are rare now as the disease hit them worst) as possessions, tagging them with ID chips to keep tabs on them.
With Finn’s recount of how the disease took hold, and the breakdown of society that followed, Smith has a deft touch. Enough detail to be compelling, but nothing gratuitous either. We understand that Finn has survived with a combination of cunning, stealth and, it must be said, some fortuitous planning by his parents. And I have to say, Rowdy is the PERFECT name for Finn’s dog – inspired writing right there!
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Rose arrives. Nineteen year old Rose is a terrified escapee from the Wilders compound, with a secret I won’t reveal here – but it’s a doozy. She and her sister, Kas, have become separated and Rose believes the Wilders have recaptured her. Begging Finn to help her rescue Kas, Rose wins him over and they set off on a dangerous mission to take her back. The Wilders are in pursuit of Rose, so Finn is left with no choice but to help her – to save himself as well.

I like Finn – he is independent, but vulnerable – with a yearning for his old life characterised by sneaking away to surf.

Something that kept me in touch with my old life. It’s dangerous, not because of anything in the water but because of what’s on the land – who might arrive in town while I’m caught up enjoying myself. But it’s a risk that’s worth taking to stay sane.

With its boy-and-his-dog, a girl appearing from nowhere, and band of rabid testosterone-driven yahoos, this book had shades of Patrick Ness‘s The Knife of Never Letting Go, so if you enjoyed the Chaos Walking series, you might like this one. I am interested to see where the next installment takes us, as our protagonists are in more peril than ever by the end of the story.

Bring on book #2!
For ages 13 and up

Take a breath…

A Shadow's BreathA Shadow’s Breath by Nicole Hayes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Review copy provided by author in exchange for a fair review

Tessa’s life has been pretty crappy for a long time. Her beloved Dad had an undiagnosed mental illness, where he changed almost overnight into a depressed and erratic shadow of his former creative self. He committed suicide a few years ago. Her mum, a sad and lost alcoholic, has a new partner, “the arsehole”, who likes to bash her and abuse Tessa too. She used to draw but the arsehole tore up a year’s work in a rage one day and she has not drawn seriously since.
Finally, after a terrifying close call, her mum finally kicked out the arsehole, changed the locks and is drying out. It’s still all new, but Tessa’s life is turning around. She has a caring boyfriend, a loyal best friend and now her Mum is being motherly after a long emotional absence.
And then the accident happens. Nick, Tessa’s boyfriend, misjudges a corner as they are driving in his car and now they are trapped in the wreckage at the bottom of a gully outside town. Now it’s a true battle of survival.
Nicole Hayes writes great contemporary fiction. The voices of these characters, particularly of Tessa, her mother Ellen, and her friend Yuki ring out loud and true. The story is told by switching back and forth between “now” (the aftermath of the crash) and “then” what preceded the crash. I think this device is used well – to illustrate how this battle for life after a terrible car crash and Tessa’s car crash of a life are equally devastating. It is clear Tessa is emotionally damaged courtesy of her past home life, but we are able to dig deeper into that thanks to the benefit of the “then” mechanism, which then helps us to understand the “now”.
As far as tone goes, I think this is closer to Hayes’ first novel The Whole of My World than her last novel, One True Thing. There is great emotional depth and exploration going on here. I feel like this is a very personal novel for Hayes. Her care in crafting the fragile but resilient Tessa, and the struggling but steadfast Ellen, in particular, is wonderful. I really liked Ellen – flaws and all, because she never gives up trying to get better, and she truly loves her daughter. Tessa is fluttering on the precipice of adulthood, but still has growing to do, and issues to confront as long suppressed memories about her father start to surface.
No spoilers here – I won’t tell you if they survive, or what the memories are – they are yours to discover as a reader. What I will say is that I feel privileged to have read this novel so early, because now I can try my damnedest to promote it to as many young adult readers as possible.
Congratulations Nicole Hayes – it’s another beautiful, true, heartfelt and heartbreaking story to add to the amazing OzYA lexicon.
For readers 14 and up.