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.

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A Sparkling Biography

The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman's Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and DisasterThe Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This biography is as illuminating about the biographer as it is of her subject. Sarah Krasnostein lays herself bare many times in this fascinating account of the life (or lives) of Sandra Pankhurst. Sandra reveals little sections of her life story to Krasnostein, forcing her to piece together all the disparate parts, sometimes filling in the blanks with her best guess. As we travel the road of Sandra’s life with her biographer, we get a definite sense of a person who has undergone terrible trauma herself, and now helps other people deal with theirs, in various ways, as her job.
Sandra is the classic unreliable narrator, sometimes choosing not to include details which Krasnostein later uncovers. The fact that any of it leads to an immensely satisfying conclusion is testament to Krasnostein’s easy writing style and willingness to “go with it” when speaking with Sandra; and to Sandra Pankhurst’s dogged determination to keep putting one foot in front of the other, no matter what.
Drawn to this initially because of the professional cleaning aspect (Pankhurst cleans death scenes, crime scenes and hoarders’ houses for a living), I found myself staying because I cared about Sandra, AND because I felt connected to her biographer who, by her own admission, struggles with the task she has set herself in documenting Sandra’s life.
Sandra’s clients help Krasnostein turn a light on her own life and experiences and the book is the richer for it. This is biography at its finest, despite its flaws -and it has plenty.
I can ignore the chinks in its armour, though, because I found this story compelling. I hope lots of other people do too, because as a tale of triumph in the face of overwhelming odds, it is a testament.

Big Money

MunmunMunmun by Jesse Andrews

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having not read Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, I was not sure what to expect from this Jesse Andrews offering. Having heard a little more about Me and Earl, I am really glad I have not read it yet. This book sounds like a HUGE departure from that one. In the world Andrews has created in MunMun, how much cash you have determines how big you are – literally. The more munmun you have, the more upscale you are. If you have only a few hundred munmuns, you are ten inches tall. if you have 2 million, you are the size of a house or bigger. It is a most disarming premise and difficult to wrap your head around at first. What is clear though is that the smaller people are in peril every day of their lives. Middlepoors and middleriches (the in-between sizes) step on their houses, or worse, their cats eat the Littlepoors. It is a harsh existence and our hero, Warner, and his sister, Prayer, are locked in a struggle to improve their situation by earning more munmuns. Opportunities to do this are limited. The less you have, the less you have access to – and turning to crime, or selling yourself to the bigger citizens feels like the only way to make things change.
This book is a searing satire with is gaze firmly on the USA and the policies of Trump Republicanism. The more is more philosophy of the current presidency, and the willingness to leave the “little guy” behind, despite their beautiful dreams of another life, is to the fore here. The closing scenes of the book are tinged with hope, but only because there is decimation before. I won’t say any more, because I hate spoilers, but this book must be read to be believed. I have never read anything like it, although there are echoes of Gulliver’s Travels in the way the society views those who are not “one of them”. Lots of otherness, lots of things to think about. Definitely worth the effort of bending your mind around this version of the Yewess.

A Wilder ride

Wilder Country (Winter, #2)Wilder Country by Mark Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The sequel to The Road to Winter, Wilder Country is a satisfying read. We continue following the fortunes of Finn and his companions, Kas and Willow, after their battles against the Wilders, led by the repugnant Ramage. It is about six months later and the three have survived the winter using their wits and developing survival skills, avoiding Wilders at every opportunity. As spring arrives, Finn’s attention turns to the promise he made to Rose – to find her baby, Hope. This installment centres on the search for Rose, and the blossoming relationship between Finn, Kas and Willow into a family of sorts.
I found this novel to be grittier and harsher than the first, but I think that is because things are getting tougher all over by this point in the book. Food is scarcer, weapons are used to kill in order to survive; the desperation is palpable now. Despite this, Finn remains a sensitive and caring young man – sometimes to his detriment. Kas is more pragmatic and ruthless and Willow has become an adept hunter, but still very much a little girl at heart.
I am looking forward to the third book in this series because I can see that all the threads will be deftly drawn together for what promises to be an explosive and affecting conclusion. I find all the characters, even the adults, highly believable and sympathetic (except, obviously, the evil and morally bankrupt Wilders) and I can’t wait to see how this all plays out. No more for fear of spoilers, but Mark Smith is doing a great job with these novels. More please!
Recommended for ages 14 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.

Thirsty for more

The DryThe Dry by Jane Harper

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An absolute page-turner from beginning to end, I read this in record time. Jane Harper’s debut is a corker.
Aaron Falk has returned to Kiewarra, his drought-ridden country home town, for the funeral of his childhood friend, Luke Hadler. Hadler’s wife and son were shot and Luke apparently turned the gun on himself in an act of desperation – leaving little baby Charlotte an orphan. A Federal Police investigator, Falk is soon suspicious about the circumstances of the Hadlers’ deaths and begins to poke old wounds in his quest to find the truth. Ably assisted by Sergeant Raco, local cop, Falk begins an off the books investigation that stirs up tension and ill-feeling across the town.
The atmosphere is tense, tinder-dry, and expectation builds as you read your way towards an explosive conclusion. I loved that there were no neat ends pulled together in this novel – some of the denouements are messy, just as in real life. I won’t post anymore for fear of revealing too much more about the plot. Suffice to say, you will not be disappointed in this debut offering from Jane Harper. I look forward to reading many more mysteries of this calibre from her.
Ages 15 and up

Nothing but net

The CrossoverThe Crossover by Kwame Alexander

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In The Crossover, Kwame Alexander has produced an evocative and heartfelt love song to basketball, and an honest look at sibling rivalry and family conflict. Thirteen year old Josh and Jordan are twin brothers, both immensely talented and members of the same high school basketball team. At 13 years old, they have their whole lives ahead of them, and pushing them to greater heights is their Dad, Charlie, himself a former basketball champion.
As the season progresses, Josh finds Jordan, once his closest companion, drifting away into a relationship with a new arrival, Alexis. Coupled with a sense of abandonment, Josh also sees his father’s health deteriorating and experiences a sense of powerlessness that is palpable.
The structure of this verse novel works really well as it manipulates language to emphasise Josh’s growing loneliness, as well as the excitement and adrenalin-rush of the basketball games he and Jordan play in. In fact, once the story kicks in, one forgets it is a verse novel- and that is a great strength of the writing here.
Some readers struggle with verse novels because of the short form of the text, but I think this really adds to The Crossover, giving it an immediacy and verve that compliments its subject matter.
Recommended for ages 13 and up.

A fine bromance

The Way We RollThe Way We Roll by Scot Gardner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Scot Garner is an optimistic person. I know this because no matter what he puts his characters through, no matter how bleak things look for them at the start, he always manages to end his novels with a feeling of hope.
Will, a former private school student and former resident of Garland, is a trolley jockey who works at the local shopping centre. He has just been partnered with Julian, a former juvie from West Tennant. On the surface it appears they are complete opposites and when they brawl in the carpark over a found purse, it looks like their friendship is over before it’s begun.
Of course it’s not, and so begins a bromance of epic proportions. Julian invites Will to leave his “home” under the bowling alley and stay at his place, with his mum, Mandy and brother, Duane. Will moves into the spare room and slowly the boys learn more about each other and worlds collide.
Gardner has written some fantastic characters in Will and Julian. I have a soft spot for Julian. He has a rough, street-smart facade, but he is kind, funny and deep down he really cares about people. Will is troubled, secretive, and estranged from his father, but he is a loyal friend to Julian and also to the rest of the guys in the trolley crew. Mandy, Julian’s mum, is a totally believable adult character. Sometimes the “grown-ups” in YA novels are bit players, but Mandy is full of life and good advice, and love for her boy Julian. Nishi, Julian’s steadfast and perky girlfriend, is also really well-drawn. I want to be friends with her – she’s a keeper.
Make no mistake, this book is not all sunshine and rainbows. There are hard, gritty issues at play here, but the relationship between Julian and Will, and the way it changes both their lives for the better, shows just how redemptive real, true, solid friendship can be.
When the traitorous conduct of Will’s father is finally revealed, you will, I guarantee, shake your head. There is betrayal, love, sadness, injustice and, ultimately, hope in this novel. You will fall in love with these boys and their circle of friends and family, and you will urge them on to bigger and better things as I did.
Show this book to boys 13 and up, and show it to girls 13 and up too. It’s a corker.

On Target

First Person ShooterFirst Person Shooter by Cameron Raynes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“I wake to the fig tree rattling its fruity thumbs against the gutter outside my window and lie there, thinking good thoughts…” p.3
When I read the opening line of Cameron Raynes’s new YA novel, I knew I was in good hands. I could immediately hear that sound and imagine the tree, and I knew it was an Aussie summer. Raynes’s descriptive language in this book is wonderful. He captures so well the inner voice of his protagonist, Jayden, who is constantly battling with a stutter and the bullies and sapped confidence that so often accompany such a condition. Jayden has no stutter in his narrative voice, when he is talking to the reader, at least, and we see a smart guy who never really gets the chance to show it because his mind won’t let him. He describes the worst thing about stuttering as “that horrible moment when a person turns away from me. As if…they can’t bear to look.” The next worst is “the way it makes me look timid and frightened.” (p. 12)
Jayden lives in a town where shard (Ice) is an industry and two families rule the roost. There is a war brewing between these families and the town is worried about being caught in the middle. Jayden’s best friend (and developing love interest), Shannon, is awaiting the release of her mother from prison after her mother, Madeleine, shot her abusive husband. There is a lot of tension surrounding this impending event because the dead man’s brother, Pete, is a psychopath intent on revenge. Pete is a spectre hanging over everyone’s heads because the town knows he will show up when he knows Madeleine is back in town.
Jayden plays first person shooter video games such as Call of Duty, to let off steam. He has a lot of pent up frustration surrounding his stuttering and the unwanted bullying from Thommo, who is related to one of the drug cooking families. These are a big part of his life, to the detriment, sometimes, of things like school work. His father does not approve of him playing them so often, but he also does nothing decisive to stop it either. Both of them are still suffering the death of Jayden’s mum a few years earlier. Jayden’s dog, Charlie, is dying and the way Jayden takes care of him is touching and poignant. His neighbour, Nigel, a veteran, is also dying and Jayden and Shannon take turns looking after his chooks and both visit him regularly. Nigel is the wise man of the piece, offering many pieces of sage advice and has already held his own wake so he could see all the people who are important to him and say goodbye.
From all this, you are probably thinking this book is a bit of a downer. It is so far from it. This is a life-affirming book, a story full of characters to cheer for – especially Jayden and Shannon. Shannon is courageous and caring; Jayden is intelligent and resourceful and they make a great pair. Jayden and Shannon do something that will force the hand of the rival drug gangs, and it sets in motion a series of confronting and life-changing events for both of them. I won’t reveal any spoilers, but if you are anything like me there are tears of rage and sorrow ahead.
If you know anyone who stutters, I would point them to this book – it is certainly a well-crafted depiction of what it is like to deal with a stutter daily, in everyday situations. I think Raynes really captured the feeling of utter frustration of one’s body (in this case your mouth) not doing what you are telling it to do, and how it impacts on the other parts of your life.
This book would be suitable for mature 14 year olds and up.

Simply, marvellous

The MarvelsThe Marvels by Brian Selznick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Brian Selznick won many hearts and minds with his modern children’s classic, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. His unique combination of words and images was a winner, and it was beautifully realised in Scorsese’s film. Hugo. The Marvels is set to become another classic and I sincerely hope someone is looking to film this story for the big screen.
The story begins with images, almost 400 pages of them, and they are magical. Beautifully rendered pencil drawings tell the remarkable history of the Marvel family, from 1766 to 1900. Beginning with Billy Marvel, who survives a shipwreck on the ill-fated Kraken, the tale of a family closely tied to the stage unfolds. Images of angels and fire combine to weave a tale of triumph and tragedy, and a family whose lives truly reflect their surname.
Almost 100 years after the last picture in the story, Joseph Jervis runs away from school and turns up on the doorstep of his uncle, whom he has never met, the enchantingly named Alfred Nightingale. Alfred’s house is a time capsule, held fast in the early twentieth century, and it is clear he wants nothing to do with Joseph or his family. He begrudgingly allows Joseph to stay because his parents can’t be contacted, and Joseph sets out to discover more about his family’s past.
Joseph befriends Frankie, who assists him on his quest to unravel the mystery that is the Marvels, and how they related to his family. As they work their way through clues found in Albert’s house, and at the Royal Theatre where an ethereal painting of an angel adorns the ceiling, the story of the Marvels is pieced together and takes the two friends in a direction neither of them ever expected. The truth, it seems, in stranger than fiction. This is a fantastic story filled with historical detail, visual clues and hints, and engaging supporting characters. I particularly liked Florent, the Frenchman who has known Albert for many years and who makes it his business to watch over Joseph as he gets to know his grumpy, sullen uncle, and Frankie, the feisty, no-holds-barred girl who helps Joseph discover the truth about his family. Selznick has the enviable ability to show a great deal in just one drawing – sometimes more than a whole page of text can show.
Revelations, explanations and emotions collide as the novel moves to its satisfying conclusion. Once the written story is told, Selznick presents another, shorter, picture story to take us to the present day. It is a fitting end to a moving and entertaining narrative.

Heartily recommended for readers aged 8 and up.