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.

Moving on…

Every Move (Every, #3)Every Move by Ellie Marney

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think this is my favourite of this trilogy. Rachel really gets to take centre stage this time around, and while Mycroft is still there, this is her story I think. Mr Wild, and his nefarious cronies, have pursued Watts and Mycroft back to Australia, and the body count grows quickly as their intimidation campaign steps into high gear. Wild wants the coin Mycroft has and it appears he will stop at nothing – including killing innocent bystanders – to bring the message home.
Mike and Rachel return to Five Mile to visit the family’s former home and Harris Derwent, a good friend of Mike’s, returns with them to Melbourne to “experience” a big city. Rachel is not impressed with Harris – writing him off as a bit of a lunkhead, but he offers to be her personal trainer and she gets to know him a bit better. After her traumatic experiences in London, Rachael is experiencing panic attacks and can’t be held – not even by Mycroft. Harris helps her to work her way back from these issues, by helping to restore her confidence with physical training – and as their friendship develops Watts realises Harris has his own scars to bear.
It’s nice to see Mai’s boyfriend, Gus, pop up again in this novel and to see that he and Mai are inseparable. They are a cute couple and are moving in together. As usual, Mai is resourceful and helpful as ever – I wonder if she’ll get her own series one day?
When Mike is badly injured by Wild’s henchmen in a botched attempt on Rachel’s life, Mycroft, Rachel and Harris head to Five Mile. This is done partly to draw them away from other family and friends, but also to force a confrontation and end the torment once and for all.
As usual, Mycroft has a plan and when Wild shows up in Five Mile to claim his prize Harris and Rachel think all the bases are covered and help will be on its way. And as usual, Mycroft has some twists and turns to send their way that once again put them all in grave danger.
Harris shows what he is really made of during the final confrontation by taking a bullet and his unrequited love for Rachel is evident. Rachel gets into the action too, falling into a quarry to almost certain death.
The story resolves itself well and not no-one comes out of in unscathed, as it should be. This is gripping suspenseful writing that takes each of the main characters on a journey not only of detection and crime-solving, but also a more introspective one – of self discovering and acceptance.
Can’t wait to see what’s next from Ellie Marney.

Suitable for ages 14 and up.

The word is suspense

Every Word (Every, #2)Every Word by Ellie Marney

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Watts and Mycroft are back, this time with a mystery that takes them to London, scene of Mycroft’s parents’ death in a car accident, and a case with many parallels to that incident. This mystery is more complex and sinister than the first, but still believable. Watts and Mycroft come across as such authentic people, it all makes sense. Mycroft is still trying to distance himself from Rachel, trying to protect her, but inexorably drawn to her.

Watts and Mycroft have chemistry, HOT chemistry, but it never gets in the way of the story. I admire the restraint shown by Ellie Marney in not taking things too far too early. It would be easy to do because Marney writes these scenes so well, but she holds off just long enough.

This overseas adventure leaves both Mycroft and Watts with emotional scars, to be dealt with in the next novel, Every Move. I look forward to reviewing it here soon.

Ben’s best friend

When Friendship Followed Me HomeWhen Friendship Followed Me Home by Paul Griffin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you enjoyed Wonder, you will love this book too. The story of Ben, and Flip – the dog who changes his life – is endearing and memorable. Flip is a stray, taken in by Ben and his mum, Tess. Ben’s life is a bit of a roller coaster. He is smart and good at school, but is relentlessly bullied and pushed around. His way of escaping this is through books. Mrs Lorentz, the local public librarian, makes sure Ben has a plentiful supply of educational and escapist literature. It is through the library that Ben meets Halley, the girl who believes in magic. Together they train Flip to be a reading dog, to help other children read, and their bond of friendship is quick and strong.
The relationship between Ben and Halley is wonderful. It has echoes of John Green’s writing, but without the sweet sentimentality of The Fault in Our Stars. Halley is a strong, feisty and loyal friend – and Ben is fiercely protective of her. They find each others flaws and it only strengthens their friendship – with a little help from the delightful Flip.
I loved the fact that Ben’s librarian has such an enduring and positive contribution to his life, and that reading has helped Ben understand people so well. I found Ben’s Aunt Jeanie and Uncle Leo entirely believable as fumbling, unexpected guardians, and Mr and Mrs Lorentz equally as believable as warm, caring and generous carers.
Griffin also brings Flip to life so well I could actually picture him in my mind as a read. Each time I read about Flip “surfing” or high-fiving the kids at reading group I smiled because, in my mind’s eye, I could see it.
I can’t tell you any more about the plot because of spoilers, but I will say that you better have a box of tissues ready as you read this one – great sadness and great joy are contained in its pages. I would love every child over 10 to read this book – it’s just such a wonderful story, really well written. Put it on your Christmas list.
For ages 10 and up.

Everyone gets Lucky

Everybody Sees the AntsEverybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

OMG, I loved this book. By the time I hit page 175 I was on a roll and finished the last 110 pages just minutes ago.
Lucky Linderman is a fully fleshed out, resilient, feisty funny kid. He has borne the brunt of Nader McMillan’s bullying for a long time, and everyone, including Lucky, is in denial.
His dad, Vic, doesn’t know how to be a father because his own father was MIA in 1972 in Vietnam. His Mum, Lori, swims so much (to distract herself) Lucky calls her a squid. Both parents have ignored Nader’s abuse of their son for a disgraceful number of years – until one day Nader leaves a very obvious mark and Vic and Lori’s relationship is pushed to the brink. That day, Lucky and Lori leave for a few weeks in Arizona with Lori’s brother, Dave, and Dave’s wife Jodi.
While in Arizona Lucky has vivid dreams where he speaks to his MIA grandfather, and attempts to rescue him and bring him home. At the same time, mentally unstable Jodi prods and pokes Lucky with questions and accusations, attempting to slot him into some sort of “troubled youth” box. Uncle Dave appears to be the Dad Lucky has craved – until he learns a secret about him that changes his perception. Bit by bit, Lucky starts to confront the awful parts of his life and along the way we see his fantastic dry sense of humour, and also feel his pain. Meeting Ginny, a girl he sees at church with his aunt and uncle, is a turning point for Lucky. She is someone whose life has some parallels with his. Both of them are allowing other people to determine their destiny. Ginny has a plan to change that – and Lucky becomes part of the support network that allows her to do so.
Some of this book is confronting – especially for anyone who hasn’t been bullied before. For those of us who have, we recognise ourselves in Lucky and we are absolutely rooting for him all the way as he takes his life back and gives himself control over what happens to him.
Suitable for ages 14 and up

Lies, damned lies, and half-truths

Mayan Mendacity (Dr Pimms, Intermillennial Sleuth #2)Mayan Mendacity by L.J.M. Owen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Copy provided by publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I started this book with some trepidation. I had read Olmec Obituary and not enjoyed it as much as I hoped I would. Whilst I had been a fan of the story itself (mostly), Elizabeth Pimms was not my favourite protagonist. I am happy to report she started to grow on me a bit in this next novel. Elizabeth is dumped by her feckless boyfriend, Luke, in the opening chapters of the novel, but only after he has informed her he has arranged for her to analyse remains found in a Mayan city. She is devastated, but the readers know she has totally dodged a bullet. Luckily, she now has the remains to focus on, and focus she does. There is also the question of the antagonistic Mai, who we learn could be Lizzie’s half sister. Through her friend Alice, Elizabeth arranges DNA testing – which provides a nice stream of tension throughout the story.
I found the archaeological story in this novel much more interesting than the first – the story of Lady Six Sky was fascinating, and quite riveting. She was certainly a woman to be reckoned with, and not one to cross. I appreciated this part of Owen’s storytelling much more this time around and I enjoyed the writing very much. However, I still struggled to feel engaged by Dr Elizabeth Pimms. The bit-players were the ones I found more interesting. Her sister Sam, driven like Elizabeth, but a little more emotionally intelligent; the increasingly gorgeous workmate Nathan – always there being supportive and nurturing; Alice – the grad student who knows her way around genetic material; Matty -the disabled brother who just wants to look after his big sister. Those characters felt more believable to me, more accessible. Again, it is about little things with Elizabeth. This time she was more or less okay until almost the end of the book; when she gives her family a new games chest – containing classic board games such as Cluedo and Monopoly. Elizabeth has a crisis over giving her family a game of Monopoly:

“Elizabeth had felt uneasy about replacing their Monopoly set, given that its female inventor and patentee Elizabeth Magie had been well and truly Franklined out of her rightful rewards by the patriarchy. The idea that Elizabeth was lining the pockets of the corporation that man-washed Magie from the pages of her own history troubled Elizabeth’s conscience. Nonetheless, the boardgame was a staple of family gatherings, and Elizabeth had been able to use it as originally intended by its creator – to strike up conversations examining the horrors of unrestrained capitalism”

WHAT? Up until this moment, on page 328 no less, we have had no indication of Elizabeth’s rancour against “the patriarchy” and frankly I understood Sam’s frustration with Elizabeth if she used a game of Monopoly to have a conversation about the “horrors of capitalism”. Seriously – the whole tone of the novel changed to preachy and it rankled.
Also, the term “phrenic library” still does not appear in the glossary in the back of the book, which I feel is a major oversight. And, on the subject of that very library, if this library exists in Elizabeth’s subconscious, but under her control as we are led to believe, how the hell does a STRANGER appear in it?
The third novel, Alexandrian Athenaeum, had better have some pretty convincing explanations for that, because if it doesn’t I’m not sure I can go on following Pimms’ adventures. They will just be too far-fetched all together.
Suitable for ages 15 and up.