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!

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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.

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.

Panic – don’t.

PanicPanic by Sharon M. Draper
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I expected big things from this novel as Sharon Draper is a popular writer in our library. Out of My Mind has been a big middle school favourite this year and I was interested to see how Draper would tackle the meaty subject matter of this book.
I was, in the end, disappointed by both the writing and how the abduction, rape and rescue of central character, Diamond, was handled. This book started out okay – with a group of friends at a dance school preparing for a showcase performance. Two of the girls, Mercedes and Diamond go to the mall to buy new tights and only one of them makes it home. Diamond is enticed away by a smooth talking stranger (Thane English) and finds herself in a terrifying and perilous situation. The reader sees her drugged, tied up and abused by numerous men in the name of video “entertainment”. It is a hard read. Her friends don’t seem too worried by her disappearance at first – perhaps this is an American phenomenon – if this happened here it would be all over social media in a matter of hours.
As well as the abduction of Diamond, the other issue in this book is partner abuse. Layla, a talented dancer, is verbally and physically abused by her boyfriend Donny. Again, there just doesn’t seem to be enough concern from her friends about this. They all talk about what is happening, but no-one seems brave enough to talk to HER about it. Donny is controlling and leaves bruises on her regularly and I found it difficult to believe that even the dance teacher (who must have seen Layla in leotards and dance gear regularly) failed to notice anything.
I got very impatient with this book. Mercedes, Layla,and Diamond speak in what I assume is supposed to be some sort of “street” talk, which sounds forced and ridiculous. Justin, the only male teen (other than the abusive Donny) felt like the only “real” character to me. He is caring, concerned, sensitive, but also struggles to make sense of what is going on both with Diamond’s disappearance and Layla’s abusive relationship. It is interesting to me as I have written about this book as an example of “YA realism” for a Uni essay because it hits a lot of markers present in other realist novels, but overall the effect is more of hyper-realism.
I also found an undercurrent of victim blaming in this novel. It is covert, but it is there, lurking in the background, particularly in relation to Diamond and her conduct and what it has led to.
I was actually asked to remove this book from the library by another library staffer because she had a complaint from a student about the “disturbing” content. I refused, because even an average book about these topics is better than none at all, and there are lessons to be learned from reading this novel. Draper, while not being graphic, does not pull punches in describing Diamond’s ordeal and that is a good thing. There is nothing pretty about rape, nothing attractive about being robbed of all control over what happens to you. In this, the novel excels. The resolution of the Layla/Donny situation is a satisfying one, but the rest of the novel’s conclusion left me shaking my head.
I would not recommend this book if you can find a better, preferably Australian, alternative. Try Stolen: A Letter to My Captor or Hostage as other options.

I would not give this book to anyone under 14 to read, unless you were confident they could handle the subject matter.

Wonder-Full

WonderWonder by R.J. Palacio

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For me, this book is all about page 270. I can’t tell you what happens, except to say it is a moment that literally made tears spring to my eyes.
R.J. Palacio has written a beautiful story. A story about pain, about love, about hardship, about forgiveness, and a story full of hope.
August (Auggie) Pullman has been an outsider all his short life. Born with life-altering facial abnormalities due to a series of genetic misfortunes, he has been home-schooled by his doting mother, until it is time for Middle School. Now he is enrolled at Beecher Prep and is thrust into the swirling waters of junior high school. Auggie is an engaging protagonist. Not only is he intelligent, he is also witty and courageous. He knows how people react to his appearance, to the very last tic or sideways glance. Many find it hard to look him in the eye, let alone talk to and interact with him. Julian, a boy full of his own importance thanks to superficial parents, is one student who is not prepared to make Auggie’s life easy at school. Julian uses his considerable social influence to directly and indirectly bully and torment Auggie on a daily basis. To his credit, Auggie stands up to this pretty well because he doesn’t really care what Julian thinks of him.
Auggie has a few friends at school by the time his birthday rolls around and his friends sustain him – until he accidentally hears one of them, Jack, speaking badly of him behind his back. It is clear that Auggie values truth and loyalty in his friends most of all, and Jack has to work hard to eventually win back Auggie’s trust.
There are other relationships going through rocky times in this novel. Auggie’s Mum is struggling with his growing independence and not sharing every second of his day, and she struggles with Auggie’s older sister, Via, for similar reasons as Via starts Senior High School. Via has her own problems as her old circle of friends rejects her and she is forced to strike out on her own to find a new group to hang out with. Via is also highly protective of her brother and is there to offer him some good advice about how the politics of the school ground work.
Having the different characters tell part of the story worked well, particularly as the reader is able to see the various conflicts in the novel from different points of view – a point about empathy being well-made without ramming it down the reader’s throat.
Auggie’s resilience, the loyalty of his small group of friends, and his loving, supportive family make this a book with irresistible appeal. When Auggie finally makes it to the school camp that will change everything (a la page 270), we are totally with them, and rooting for Auggie all the way. The ending made me feel happy, and proud of the characters. I can’t tell you, spoilers, but I think it will make you feel that way too.
This book has been a huge hit at my school and across the globe, and now I know why. It teaches the young people reading it that life, even when it feels terrible and there are things about your life you can’t change no matter how much you wish you could, does get better – you just have to give it time and have self-belief. It’s a great message, really well communicated. It’s wonder-ful.
For ages 10 and up.