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.

Advertisements

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.

Hannah the Heartbreaker

The ProtectedThe Protected by Claire Zorn My rating: 5 of 5 stars I read this book in 3 hours. It’s that good. Hannah’s sister Katie is dead. Killed in a car accident in which Hannah’s dad drove, and Hannah was a passenger, the accident happened almost a year ago. With a court case approaching the pressure is on for Hannah to remember what happened in the accident. But she can’t. Or won’t. Hannah’s mum spends most of her days in bed,m not talking to anyone. When she does venture out an argument with Hannah’s dad usually ensues and it is a miserable existence for all of them. We learn that Hannah has been bullied ever since starting high school 3 years ago and that Katie was not the sister she should have been. In fact, Hannah’s life was a living hell and Katie was a bystander – not bullying, but not standing up against it either. Through a series of flashbacks we learn just how horrible Hannah’s life was – until her sister died and everyone started treating her differently. Hannah is one of the most hearbreaking characters I have read in reent years. She is gentle, sensitive, intelligent and good listener, but also timid and socially awkward. As I read about this girl who is not understood by anyone in her family I remembered the teasing I faced in my early high school years – about being the tallest, the one with the biggest boobs, and the nickname that stuck right up until year 12, FA (Fat Arse). Hannah doesn’t reach out to her parents for help, because she knows that nothing they can do or say is going to make a difference. She wants to break free of her isolated life, but can’t because she is held back by her memories of Katie and the accident. Hannah felt very real to me and Claire Zorn writes her perfectly. The way she talks, the way the other characters talk, feels authentic. Anne, the school counsellor, is wonderful – the right mix of concern and warmth, without being schmaltzy and Mrs Van, Hannah’s next door neighbour is a peach. Josh, the developing love interest, is great but he was a little Augustus Waters for me at first. He got better as the novel went on and seemed a perfect foil for Hannah in the end once his posturing was over. This is a great book for anyone who has experienced the pain of not quite fitting in, and the tiny fluttering joy of finding someone who wants to stick around and help you find a niche. This book has been long-listed for the 2015 Inkys and I am confident it will be on the shortlist – you read it here first. Suitable for ages 13 and up. Highly recommended.

This Door Leads to Mystery and Adventure

The Door That Led to WhereThe Door That Led to Where by Sally Gardner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Firstly, let me admit that I had not read anything by Sally Gardner before this book. Secondly, I ask myself the question : why did I leave it this long?
The Door That Led to Where is fabulous. A time-slip/mystery/friendship/fantasy/realist novel that defies being categorised (obviously), and holds the reader right to the very end. Gardner’s characters are top-notch. You become invested in them without even noticing it is happening – until you read the last few pages with tears in your eyes.
AJ and his mates, Slim and Leon, are as close as brothers, and they are always in some kind of trouble. When AJ’s mum manages to get him an interview for a baby clerk position at a law firm she used to clean for, it seems that AJ’s life might finally be turning around.
And turn around it does, but in ways that AJ could not possibly have imagined. It is revealed early on that AJ is a Dickens aficionado, and this certainly helps him to navigate 19th century London when he unlocks “the door” of the title. He revels in the new environment and becomes deeply involved in the goings on, on the other side of the door.
There are mysteries to be solved – on both side of the door – where is Leon? What happened to AJ’s father, who was the previous holder of the key to the door? What is Mr Baldwin, a partner in the law firm AJ works for, up to?
Added to all this is the wonderful relationship AJ has with “Auntie Elsie” who lives in the same block of flats as AJ and his family. When he leaves the family flat because he can no longer stand living with his mother, Elsie becomes a grandmother figure and they look after one another. I loved this relationship and seeing it develop. The story straddles the two time zones really well – in a believable way (at least for me) – and never gets bogged down in the scientific “jargon” that so often accompanies a story like this one. Whilst it is definitely rooted in the 21st century, this is really, in essence, a mystery story that just happens to span 150 years. AJ, Slim and Leon become different people as the story progresses (or become who they were meant to be) – and they way the three end up really sat well with me. I am hoping there may be a second book in the works as there were a couple of loose ends not tied up – I think this could be a really engaging series if that was to happen.
Because there is some swearing in the text, I would say this is recommended for ages 14 and up, but if you have a mature reader who would cope with some fruity language as part of the plot (not gratuitous) I would say 12 and up. Now, to find the next Sally Gardner to read!

Cry Blue Murder

Cry Blue MurderCry Blue Murder by Kim Kane and Marion Roberts

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this thriller/mystery novel. I decided to read it because the word of mouth reviews from my students were all very positive. Kane and Roberts use lots of interesting devices to keep interest high including police interview transcripts; newspaper reports and of course the email relationship between Celia and Alice.
Hallie Knight is missing and Celia and Alice are connnected by their concern about her whereabouts and fate. Celia goes to a school in Hallie’s neighbourhood and Alice has friends who know Hallie, but Alice herself is at boarding school in Mildura. The two girls strike up an online friendship bound by their interest in the case. It soon transpires that whilst the girls have different family situations, there are also similarities too and they quickily becomne firm friends.

When Hallie is found after several weeks, the mystery only deepens as she describes her abductor and the police try to track him down.

All the while, Alice and Celia grow closer, bonding over the circumstances and details of the case, as well as sharing the innermost workings of each other’s lives. As the police narrow-in on their prime suspect, Alice and Celia start making plans to meet up in person and turn their friendship into a going concern as Alice has been allowed to come home from boarding school for good.

I can’t say anymore as it will be full of spoilers, but I can tell you I saw the ending coming from miles away. This is more due to my wide expereince of crime thrillers rather than any flaw in the narrative, and I completely understand how swept up and involved younger readers would become in this story. Alice and Celia are likeable characters and you are quickly drawn into their developing friendship.

The ending is satisfying, however, and I look forward to the next offering from Kane and Roberts, particularly if it is in this genre. I would love to see this made as a series by someone like ABC3. I would certainly watch it, even knowing the outcome, because I think it would make fantastic television.

Highly recommended for ages 13 and up, and especially for girls who love their emails and online chatter.

I like what THIS Tony Abbott has to say

FiregirlFiregirl by Tony Abbott
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Tom is in Year 7 at Junior High in the US. He shares everything with his best friend, Jeff – except his crush on Courtney. Tom fantasises about rescuing Courtney from all sorts of situations and is always trying to impress her. Into their lives walks Jessica Feeney – a new girl like no other they have met before.

Jessica has survived a terrible fire, which left her with horrific scars. Some kids, including Tom’s friend Jeff, cant’ even look at her without feeling sick and disgusted. Rumours start about Jessica’s involvement in the fire, especially when she reveals her sister died as a result of it. Tom, who lives next door to Jessica, soon discovers that al is not as it first appears. As he gets to know Jessica he learns some scars go even deeper than burns. Tom’s friendship with Jessica makes Jeff jealous and impresses Courtney. During a class president campaign, Tom learns a lot about himself and his classmates – and what is really important. He learns what true strength and courage are all about. Jessica only stays at Tom’s school for 3 weeks, but knowing her changes Tom forever.

Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Not as creepy as you might think…

Creepy and MaudCreepy and Maud by Dianne Touchell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was confronting for me. I can’t go into details here, but it was heartbreaking, insightful and very close to home. I loved Creepy, and the object of his obsession, Maud, but at the same time I ached for them. For their youth, for their hearts, for their minds. Dianne Touchell really lives inside the heads of her characters, which is amazing and disturbing. There are not a lot of players in this story – there is mainly just Creepy and Maud – and their parents. No-one, except Creepy and Maud (who are in separate houses), is communicating with anyone in this book – I found that unnerving. That both sets of parents could talk so much without SAYING anything real to one another, or to their children was a tragedy to me. Even Nancy, the psychiatrist that Maud sees, cannot adequately communicate to Maud’s parents the depth of Maud’s problems. Until the very end….the tiny note of hope at the end of the book was something I will cling to for a while.
Creepy and Maud certainly captures the obsessiveness of teenage love, how sometimes it can eclipse everything else in your life and consume you. It should be noted that there are elements of self-harm in this book that some readers may find hard to take.
Recommended for ages 14 and up.

Nothing But Net…

Ishmael and the Hoops of SteelIshmael and the Hoops of Steel by Michael Gerard Bauer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Michael Gerard Bauer’s last Ishmael book sees Ishmael and his mates Scobie,Razz, Bill and Ignatius in their last 2 years at St Daniel’s College. Smarting from his breakup with Kelly Faulkner, Ishmael is determined to make his mark on the last 2 years of school. Miss Tarango, their favourite teacher, again features and the boys undertake a massive challenge for her – to WIN the College Cup. None of them feel they are good at much at all, and the way these four (and various members of their house) plot and scheme their way through the competitions has to be read to be believed. Along with that, there is romance, tragedy and concussion – not to mention kissing your best mate’s girl. No spoilers, but I can tell you that you will smile while you are reading this book. I did, often. It’s got it all! I also found myself laughing out loud in the teachers’ staff-room at the boys’ antics. Bauer’s teenage boys are drawn from real life – I felt like I knew every one of them, and loved them all the more for that. Razz, in particular, reminded me of a boy I went to high school with – heck, they all did. I have quite an abiding affection for this novel. Don’t just think this is a novel for boys though – I think girls will enjoy this just as much, and maybe even more, than the boys. Give it a go – you won’t be sorry!