Never EVER change this ending…

This is How We Change the EndingThis is How We Change the Ending by Vikki Wakefield

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book broke me. I was crying halfway through and continued to do so, sporadically, as I read the rest. Vikki Wakefield has built a well-deserved and highly envied reputation as a searing realist fiction author. Her books always have a raw, immediate quality about them and this story, centred around Nate and his family, has an underlying sense of dread and urgency about it not found in the work of many other Australian authors. Living in a cramped, noisy and basic home with his Dad, Dec, his step mum, Nance, and his younger twin brothers, Otis and Jake; Nate is intelligent, and sensitive, but tries his utmost to hide it from everyone, even his best mate, Merrick. His English teacher, the long-suffering Mr Reid, tries to coax some interest out of Nate, but he consistently resists. Nate, Merrick, and many of the other outliers in his town hang out at the Youth, a drop-in centre staffed by the stoic and supportive Macy. When Macy is badly assaulted one night, there is talk of the Youth being closed down; something that adds to the feeling of isolation and despair that pervades Nate’s life. Nate’s mother, who left him with his father when she was an addict, has re-entered Nate’s life, but he can’t tell his Dad for fear of what might happen at home.
This novel traverses Nate’s slow rise from his downtrodden existence through his realisation that options to improve his circumstances might not be as elusive as he first thought. A great range of supporting characters such as Nance, the gentle stepmother (a nice role flip); Benjamin Peros, the world weary student who’s not a student; the cagey, artistic Tash; and the stalwart Mr Reid all show us the good in Nate – and instill hope for his future.
Nate asks Mr Reid why he left a rich school to come and teach in his town:

‘So I could make a difference,’ he says, flatly.
It’s my cue to tell him he did make a diference, but the words get stuck. It’s like hugging Jake – I know it’s what he needs and deserves, but it’s just so hard.
He supposedly has all the answers, so I give him the next best thing.
‘Mr Reid?’
‘Yes.’
‘What it, in an alternate reality, my fatal flaw is actually a superpower? Do I ditch the flaw, or find a new reality?’
He closes his eyes. ‘Thank you, McKee.’
The truth is, I kind of, possibly, maybe, might be starting to give a shit.

There is so much to love in this student/teacher relationship. It hurt my heart to think about it, as someone working in education, when I see kids like this everyday trying to wrestle with their lives. It felt honest, and real.
I want so badly to quote the last dialogue between Nance and Nate from the book’s final pages, but because I don’t believe in spoilers I will end this review here.
Just read this, as soon as you can get your hands on a copy. It’s brilliant.
For ages 14 and up.

Breaking boundaries

Land of Fences (Winter #3)Land of Fences by Mark Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A great conclusion to a brilliant series. Land of Fences retained the momentum of the previous two installments in the Road to Winter trilogy, and delivered everything readers had been hoping for. Revenge, redemption, rescue and revelations are all here. A touch of sadness at the loss of some characters, but also the joy of reunions too. The developing relationship between Kas and Finn was beautifully rendered by Mark Smith, who has a light and lyrical touch when describing them together. The ongoing hardship of the displaced Sileys was also a great plot element – there are definitely parallels to be drawn in today’s cultural landscape, which makes this novel all the more believable (unfortunately). All the threads are drawn together here and while there is not a neat bow tied, all the lines lead to hope and new beginnings. Congratulations Mark Smith – this is a great addition to the #LoveOzYA lexicon, and the series an instant classic. I can’t wait to see what comes next!
For ages 13 and up.

Lost Concentr8tion

Concentr8Concentr8 by William Sutcliffe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

(Recently found unpublished draft from 2016)

I was incredibly disappointed with this novel. The premise held such promise – a society that could be our own right now, treating “troublesome” young people with a cheap medication en masse to keep the peace, then the drug is taken away suddenly and there are riots in the streets. The story’s focus then becomes a group of friends who take a low-level government employee hostage – because they can.
I guess part of the reason for writing this book was to show that medicating children, stifling their emotions, is a rollercoaster to nowhere, and Sutcliffe has captured that well, but I wish there was MORE. This felt like lazy writing to me and I kept hoping there would be more to it. Like some other reviewers, I was not “gripped” by this story at all, and I really had to force myself to finish it so I could review it properly. Concentr8 is full of cliches, lots of swearing and not much else. A genuine disappointment from an author who is capable of so much more.
Suitable for mature readers 14 and up (mainly because of the swearing – there’s a LOT of it)

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!

Three of a Kind

Take Three GirlsTake Three Girls by Cath Crowley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an interesting book. There are three distinct voices telling the story, and we see events unfold from a number of perspectives that only enriches the experience. Clem, Ady and Kate are thrown together as part of a “wellness” program exercise and discover things about each other that ends up binding them together in deep, meaningful friendship. Each girl has her own baggage, and each commits herself to steadfast support of the other two.
Gender politics, sexual identity and finding one’s own path are the overriding themes here, with each girl having to make difficult and far-reaching choices about her life.
Not sure I personally would have given it CBCA Book of the Year (2018), but it certainly deserved a nomination, and it is a novel I would recommend highly for readers aged 13 and up.
There is power in this story, for everyone.

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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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.

The Darkest Night

Nevernight (The Nevernight Chronicle, #1)Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this after reading Jay Kristoff, Amie Kaufman‘s Illuminae and Gemina and I was not sure what to expect. I had heard this was very different, but I did not realise HOW different until I read the first chapter. This book, centred around the complex Mia Corvere and her quest to become an assassin, is full of bloody action, shady characters, and a pace that never lets up. If you like your fantasy full of swords and sweat, this is for you! Couple that with fantastic character development and shadowy powers over darkness and you have an amazing read. I can’t wait to read Godsgrave because this certainly left me wanting more. Won’t write more for fear of spoilers, but I highly recommend this first book in the Nevernight Chronicles.
Due to some language and mature content I would suggest ages 15 and above.

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.