Say her name with love

My Brother's Name is JessicaMy Brother’s Name is Jessica by John Boyne

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is important. It is raw and real and doesn’t pull any punches. The reactions of the adults are totally believable. Sam is a young boy trying to process his brother Jason’s recent revelation that he is, in fact, a girl. Their parents (mum is an MP with PM aspirations and Dad is…well, a jerk really) react with alarm and incredulity. Sam is confused and doesn’t want to lose his brother. Hurtful words are said, misunderstandings are addressed and then exacerbated, Jason/Jessica is trying to find her way in an increasingly messed up world. Jessica’s Aunt Rose, and her soccer coach, Mr O’Brien, are shining beacons of acceptance and love – and provide great counterpoints to Sam’s parents and schoolmates. I really enjoyed this novel. It’s honest and simple and does a great job. There is hope at the end, and a wonderful sense of the love of these two siblings breaking through all the other stuff and winning the day.
For ages 10 and up.

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Ride the whirlwind

Still Life with TornadoStill Life with Tornado by A.S. King

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A.S. King is one of my favourite US YA writers. She manages to weave fantasy and reality together so deftly you hardly notice it. Sarah, this novel’s protagonist, is a sixteen year old who is floundering. She feels lost, disconnected and uncomfortable in her own skin – so much so that she wants to change her name: to Umbrella. Little by little we see the cracks in Sarah. She starts to encounter other versions of herself, at 10 years old, 23 years old, and finally at 40 years old. Sometimes she is with all three. King lets Sarah, for the most part, push the story along – but there are periodic interjections from her mother, Helen. Helen, an ER nurse who works mainly at night, also reveals herself bit by bit and as we read we realise that Sarah might not be the only family member in crisis. Sarah’s absent brother, Bruce, begins to form in the story about a third of the way in and it is clear his expulsion from the family in contributing to Sarah’s fragile state. I don’t want to say too much because there are so many kernels of wonderful to explore in this novel. Sarah is a great character: sensitive; smart; funny and trying to find the girl she once was; just like her mother Helen. Can’t wait to read the next A.S. King on my list – Dig

When lies become the truth

This Story Is a LieThis Story Is a Lie by Tom Pollock

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What an interesting read this was! Started out as one thing and then took a left turn and became something even better. Taut, suspenseful and compelling; this is a corker of a debut novel. Pollock is writing from a place of knowledge and his portrayal of Peter, in particular, is fantastic. I sympathised with his character straight away and loved his story arc as he becomes someone he never imagined he could be. There are plenty of sinister and shady support characters too, and the parental influences here are terrifying. The ending of this book left me hanging, which was absolutely by design and very cleverly done. I look forward to seeing what else comes from the mind of Tom Pollock. This is a very self-assured and breathtaking debut.

Aces High

All Aces (Circus Hearts, #3)All Aces by Ellie Marney

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is my favourite in the Circus Hearts series so far. Contortionist Ren and card-sharp Zep are a great combination. Both trapped in some way by family ties, looking to make their own way, on their terms, in a hostile world that seems to put obstacles up at every turn. Zep is smart, sexy, sensitive, and – despite having the despicable Angus Deal for a father – a straight shooter. Ren is struggling to prove to her family that circus life is what she wants and is a worthwhile career option. She is also recovering from severe smoke inhalation from a fire; a fire Zep Deal saved her from.
Zep and Ren develop an unstoppable attraction and along the way they put themselves in danger to make sure Angus and the saboteurs from the past two novels, go to prison for a long time.
The beautiful, vulnerable, but resilient Ren and the savvy, handsome, and protective Zep are the best romance in this series yet.
More please!

“To be heard”

Catching Teller CrowCatching Teller Crow by Ambelin Kwaymullina

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This glorious book. This lyrical, mystical, earthy book. I loved it. Ambelin and Ezekial Kwamullina have woven together two different narrative perspectives and made them seamless. Beth Teller, a ghost, is tethered to her grieving father after being taken too soon in a car accident. Her father, a police detective, has been sent to a town to investigate a suspicious fire and death. In the course of the investigation Beth and her Dad meet Isobel Catching, thought to be a witness to the fire. Catching, the second narrator, tells her story in a verse novel style and hers is a strange and compelling tale. As we read these stories side-by-side, we start to see connections in them. Other people in the town go missing, Beth’s Dad starts digging into the town’s past, and unravels a mystery that spans twenty years.
The imagery used in Catching’s story, with connections to animals and the landscape, along with Beth’s emotional attachment to her father, and a growing attachment to Catching, move this story along at a deceptive pace. This is an easy read, but the themes are raw and real and definitely not for a junior audience. I would suggest ages 13 and up would be the way to go here.
Highly recommended reading.

Don’t ban this one!

Ban This BookBan This Book by Alan Gratz

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand it is a beautifully realised middle grade novel about a school council who decides to ban some books, and the girl who stands up to them. On the other hand, it is the story I was in the middle of writing, so…. yeah…..
Ban This Book is a gem. Amy Anne Ollinger discovers the library has removed her favourite book from the shelves (From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler), as well as others. The librarian, Mrs Jones, is powerless against the will of the school council; led by the evangelical Mrs Spencer. I will admit, I read this during Banned Books Week, so it resonated very strongly with me. The themes here would elicit some great class discussion if it was used as a read-aloud text, and Amy Anne is a sympathetic protagonist, particularly for students who find sanctuary in the library and its resources.
I loved the little library that Amy Anne starts, and how the students all manage to find her and gain access to the books the well-meaning, but misguided, adults are trying to keep from them.
Amy Anne develops well as a character, and the reader is in her corner all the way, willing her on.
I don’t want to post any spoilers, but there are lovely themes of family relationships, friendship, sharing, finding one’s voice, and injustice in this terrific little novel.
Ages 10 and up.

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Boy Overboard

A Different BoyA Different Boy by Paul Jennings

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Paul Jennings has done it again. This carefully crafted book has emotional resonance, complexity in narrative, and is wrapped in an engaging and approachable narrative that would suit ages 8 and up. It is a simple story, but adds complexity with alternating points of view. Anton the orphan runs away, somewhat inadvertently, and finds himself a stowaway on a ship to the “New Land”. There he meets Max, a boy who is has his own struggles – with learning and reading and life in general. Max’s mother cares for Anton, planning to adopt him as her own when they arrive at their destination. Then a near-tragedy changes everything. I don’t want to give away anything because I like to be spoiler free, but there will definitely be tugging on the heartstrings as this tale reveals its secrets to the reader.
Absolutely recommended and a lovely companion to the earlier A Different Dog by the same author.

This one has heart

Tin HeartTin Heart by Shivaun Plozza

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Marlowe, the central character in Shivaun Plozza’s accomplished second novel is a fantastic protagonist. Flawed, fragile, but ultimately stronger than she realises, Marlowe is finding her way back into the world after having a life-saving heart transplant. Obsessed with connecting with the family of her donor, Marlowe is frustrating, but also highly likeable. Her mum is a “vegan warrior” who only wants the best for Marlowe, but she also tries to be her friend a little too much. I didn’t enjoy this character as much as I hoped to, but Pip, her wonderfully eccentric and self-confident little brother is an absolute delight. I kind of wish younger kids could get to read Pip too, because he is such a positive character. As such, Pip is a great reflection of Marlowe, who is often down on herself and others much of the time. No matter what, Pip can find the good in almost everything. As Marlowe’s relationship with the sister of her dead donor develops, the reader can see there is disaster looming, and when Marlowe starts falling for Leo, son of the local butcher, there is conflict of epic proportions brewing. No more story elements for fear of spoilers, but suffice to say Marlowe has to confront more than a few personal demons and work on mending lots of fences before the story ends.
Plozza’s writing is heartfelt and her dialogue, as in her debut novel Frankie, is absolutely on point. Leo is a laconic smart arse, but has a heart of gold. Marlowe is trying to break away from her family, but ultimately loves them more than anything. The realities of an adolescent trying to find her place, and settle into it comfortably are familiar, and handled here with aplomb. Highly recommended for ages 14 and up.

Top Gear

Changing GearChanging Gear by Scot Gardner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I see you, Scot Gardner. I see the vagabond in you; the rough and tumble philosopher; the man-boy trying to make sense of the world, even after living in it for years; the raconteur; and someone whose love of this land we call home runs as deep as the roots the trees he walks amongst. I see you because it is all here in this life-affirming, totally disarming novel. Until I finished this book today my favourite Scot Gardner book was The Way We Roll, but now it is this gem. Changing Gear is a triumph of noticing small things and showing how important they are.
Merrick Hilton is eighteen and on the verge of final exams. He exists between two houses, but is loved in both. Grieving the death of his much-beloved grandfather and feeling hemmed in by expectation (his own and those of the people around him), Merrick takes off on his trusty postie motorbike and heads into the landscape.
This is a road trip of self-discovery, and of self-affirmation. As Merrick travels he meets Victor, a long-time wanderer and finds himself drawn to his life of walking and camping as the landscape dictates. Victor and Merrick settle into laconic patter with ease and Merrick finds himself letting go of things he had thought to be important, and learning to value simpler things like a decent cup of tea, succulent sun-warmed strawberries and the companionship of someone with no expectations of him at all.
The questions Merrick asks himself are timeless: am I enough? Am I gay? Will I ever get laid? What comes after school? How do I recover from the loss of a loved one/best friend? His journey (ugh, hate that word, but it applies here) brings him some answers and gives him the courage and tenacity needed to find the rest.
No spoilers here, but I urge you to read this book – if you are a teenage boy, are raising teenage boys, know a teenage boy, or wondered what it is like to be one. My Aussie YA of the year so far, no doubt. Thank you, Scot Gardner, for giving us yourself in Merrick – and Victor – and showing how good writing and compelling characters can help shape confused boys into decent, caring young men.
For ages 13 and up.

Glowing prose

White NightWhite Night by Ellie Marney

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was excited when this book landed at my local bookshop. Anything new from Ellie Marney is always going to be good, but this is great. Still set in rural Australia, in the fictional town of Lamistead, this is a terrific YA realist novel with a message that doesn’t beat you around the head.
Bo is approaching the end of his schooling and trying to decide whether to follow his gut and study subjects that will lead to him becoming a chef, or stay with what is expected and focus on sports and things his Dad will approve of. New girl Rory comes into his life, after being home-schooled forever, and everything gets turned on its head. Not only has Bo fallen hard for Rory, she lives in a community called Eden, which is about saving the planet – and Bo find himself drawn to their message (and Rory). Toss in a family secret that has Bo doubting everything he thought he knew about his parents, a friend going through a rough time at home at the hands of an abusive parent and sibling, and the imminent closure of the local skatepark, and you have the ingredients for an engaging and involving novel that hits all the right notes. The developing relationship between Bo and Rory is believable and sweet, and all the bit players like Sprog, Lozzie and Cam are terrific too. I wrote about this novel as a classic example of YA realism for a Uni essay this year and got 95%. Need I say more! Read it – you won’t be sorry.