X marks my heart

The Poet XThe Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hot tears of recognition stained my face as I finished reading this in a cafe this morning. Xiomara lives with her twin and parents in Harlem. She is fierce and feisty and has had to defend herself against unwanted male attention, thanks to a early-maturing body, for a long time. Constantly warned by her fervently religious mother about the perils of her own body, X writes poetry to escape and to make sense of a world that constantly tells her to be ashamed of who she is.

When your body takes up more room than your voice
you are always the target of well-aimed rumors,
which is why I let my knuckles talk for me.
Which is why I learned to shrug when my name was replaced
by insults.
I’ve forced my skin just as thick as I am.

X becomes involved romantically with a boy named Aman, who loves her for her words, and her heart, rather than what her body appears to promise. Encouraged by her English teacher, X joins a poetry club at school and finds her tribe; like-minded souls whose emotions spill onto the page just like hers.
The suffocation of Xiomara’s life, under the searing gaze of her judgemental and punitive mother, is palpable. Always being told what she is not allowed to do or allowed to be because she is a girl, X pours her hopes, dreams, frustration and anger onto the pages of her precious leather-bound journal.

And I think about all the things we could be
if we were never told our bodies were not built for them.

Caught kissing Aman one day, X’s life spirals out of control and what comes next for her is devastating, terrifying, and agonising. My heart ached and broke for this wonderful girl, and for her twin brother, as they faced gut-wrenching choices about what comes next.
I held this book to my chest when I finished it, trying to imprint Xiomara and her poetry onto my heart. I didn’t need to; they were already there, and there they will stay. I think this is probably the best YA I have read all year, and possibly WILL BE the best I have read all year. It will take something remarkable to top it.
Highly and enthusiastically recommended. Do not wait. Do not “put it on your list”.

Read it. Now.

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A mark on the heart

The Tattooist of AuschwitzThe Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This account of a Jew forced to mark other Jews as they entered the infamous concentration camp at Auschwitz is one that is deeply affecting. Lale surrenders himself to save his family who live in a ghetto in Czechoslovakia in 1942. He finds himself transported in harrowing conditions to an even more harrowing desintation – Auschwitz. There is much darkness here in this novelised story of Lale’s experiences, but there is also radiant light too. His love for Gita, a woman he falls hard for, sustains and drives him to survive at any cost. Lale becomes a scrounger for the camp – bringing extra food to many prisoners, and making shady deals that are dangerous and vital. The most chilling passages concern the introduction of the crematoriums into the camps, and the descriptions of the clouds of ash raining down remind you of just how barbaric this period in history was. Morris’s style makes for an easy read – meaning that the prose is flowing and natural. nothing flowery, but everything is powerful.
A tale of love, hardship and survival; this novel will force you to turn the page to discover the fate of all the main players. No spoilers here, except to say that all are now dead and gone and I wonder to myself what Lale would make of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers in the camps on Manus Island and Nauru. Would he see them as any different to the camp he was condemned to?
Plenty to reflect on, and wonderful writing to enjoy.

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.

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.

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.

Three Wonders of the World

Auggie & Me: Three Wonder StoriesAuggie & Me: Three Wonder Stories by R.J. Palacio
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This collection of three novellas is a must for anyone who read and enjoyed Palacio’s debut novel, Wonder . The story of Auggie Pullman touched millions and in this book, three of the characters whose lives were affected by Auggie in different ways are the protagonists. After being so moved by Wonder, I was sceptical about reacting in the same way to these stories. If anything, these are even more moving because we are able to see deep into these characters’ minds and emotions.
“The Julian Chapter” centres on Auggie’s nemesis, Julian Albans. In his introduction to this book, Palacio explains this was a story he had to write. Many of the letters he received after writing Wonder were about how mean Julian was to Auggie. Readers wrote asking why he had to be that way. Palacio decided he had better tell them. The story that unfolds lifts the lid on Julian’s home life, and his past. His bullying behaviour in the first book is not glossed over, nor is it excused. What the reader does get is a keen insight as to how this kind of behaviour can happen, and how it can so easily get out of control. We meet Julian’s paternal grandmother, a Frenchwoman who loves her grandson, but doesn’t let him get away with anything. It is she who draws the Auggie saga out of Julian and tells him an unforgettable story that will change him, and the reader, forever. Julian is still not a likeable character – he is spoilt, childish and over-indulged by his parents – but by the end of his chapter there is hope he is becoming a more sensitive human being.
“Pluto” is Christopher’s story. Auggie’s long-standing friend who has moved away, has been affected by his relationship with Auggie all his life. The reader is taken back to the first time Christopher really understood how different his friend is. We see him creating a world that is safe and reliable for Auggie – and we see how hard it has been for him sometimes. It is clear there are moments when Christopher struggles with being Auggie’s mate. He sometimes feels resentment when his mother helps out Isabel and Nate (Auggie’s parents) and then his own family moves away, he resents having to keep in touch with Auggie – when all he wants to do is develop his new friendships and play in the after-school rock band. All the way through this story the one thing that shines through again and again is Christopher’s gentle good nature. He is a kind person and coming straight after Julian’s story it really stands out.
The last story, “Shingaling”, is perhaps the most revealing. Charlotte Cory who, along with Julian, and Jack Wall was asked to befriend Auggie when he started middle school, is living through a time of change. As well as meeting Auggie, she is going through something many girls face – friendship group changes. She talks about the “boy war” that started after the winter break in Wonder – where the boys all took sides for or against Auggie after Jack Wall hit Julian. Charlotte’s best friend, Ellie, has moved on to the “popular” group and now Charlotte is trying to find her way to a new friendship group. There is pressure for Charlotte to declare herself on the “right” side of the war and she refuses to do so, which just makes the girls more agitated than they already are. Charlotte, Ellie and some of the other girls audition for a prestigious dance production at school and Charlotte, Summer (Auggie’s close friend) and Ximena (a “popular” girl) are chosen. These girls don’t have much in common on the surface, but as they talk to each other, they discover there is a lot of common ground. Once the girls learn more about one another, they become friends, although none of them really publicise the fact at school – there is still a political balance to worry about. Charlotte’s journey through the friendship minefield is something MANY readers will instantly recognise. What the reader learns by reading this story is that everyone is struggling with something– in fact that is the overarching theme in all of these stories.
The quote Palacio uses at the beginning of “The Julian Chapter” really sums up what his book is trying to say:
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” – Ian Maclaren.
Every middle school student should read this book, heck, every human being should read this book.
Recommended for ages 10 and up.

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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.

Clear as day

Are You Seeing Me?Are You Seeing Me? by Darren Groth

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Perry has a brain condition that can cause him to feel anxious or upset in different places and circumstances. He has trouble with people – mixing with them and communicating with them – and sometimes it results in inappropriate behaviours. I appreciate your understanding and patience.”
Perry Richter and his twin sister, Justine, are going on a holiday to Vancouver. Perry is a young man with Asperger-like behaviour and Justine is his principal carer since losing their father to cancer four years earlier. Everywhere they go, whenever they meet new people this is the spiel she gives them in an effort to navigate their way through life’s necessary processes. The trip is a last “fling” before Perry enters Fair Go, an independent living program for people with similar conditions to his. Justine has left her boyfriend, Marc, behind to see how things feel without him – to get some breathing space. Relationships are examined and questioned right through this novel as we see the events unfold from each twin’s points of view. We hear from Perry what he thinks about his sister, earthquakes, sea monsters and their Dad’s passing; Justine tells us about her frustrations with Marc and her love and admiration for her brother and her contempt for the mother who abandoned the family when she and Perry were young.
Justine has arranged for a meeting with her mother, who now resides in Canada. Wanting to reconcile with her children, Leonie is a fragile, guilt-ridden woman who genuinely wants to make amends for fourteen years of radio silence, but Justine is not going to make it easy for her and is determined that Perry will not be hurt. As the novel unfolds, we see Justine is dealing with issues of her own – of control over her own life, of committing to someone other than Perry, and of course about letting Perry find his way. In many ways Perry seems the stronger of the two – because his condition allows him to be removed from “grand” emotional expression.
Perry is a young man of great intelligence who only wants the best for the sister he loves deeply. He knows that she feels obligated to look after him, that he does need someone to help him, but he worries that Justine is losing herself in caring for him all the time. Perry is insightful about other people’s emotions and reactions which enables him to sometimes predict their behaviour – something he says is “only logical” when you look at all the information.
Things come to a head when Perry and his mother have a day together without Justine, and for a moment it seems that all is lost. Everything seems to be turning bad and then a seismic shift of events turns things in a different direction. Earthquake metaphors are used really effectively in this novel – the ground moves under the feet of these characters a few times through the story. The other device Groth uses really well is Perry’s love of action hero Jackie Chan. There is a sequence towards the end of the book (spoilers, so no detail) that is just fantastic. Darren Groth is clearly a Chan fan and he uses it to his advantage really well,
Are You Seeing Me? has a big heart – huge – and it deserves to be read by a wide audience. I look forward to the next book Darren Groth has up his sleeve.
For ages 14 and up.

Pause for thought

The PauseThe Pause by John Larkin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

John Larkin blew me away a few years ago with The Shadow Girl, so I was keen to read this new novel. I was not disappointed.
Declan is a teen who, on the surface, seems to be well-adjusted and living a wonderful life. He has great mates, a loving family and a beautiful girlfriend. There is little to betray what is gong on underneath the surface. When his girlfriend, Lisa, is sent away to Hong Kong, Declan’s world unravels. Feeling depressed and in despair, he makes a split-second decision to throw himself in front of a train – and then time separates. In a “Sliding Doors” moment, one version of Declan jumps, and dies. A warning here, the description of his death is graphic and horrific – there is no glossing over what happens to a body when it is hit by a train. This Declan’s life ends.
The other version of Declan pauses, just for a second and is pulled back by the concerned people on the platform. They call an ambulance and Declan is taken away for assessment. The rest of the novel follows this “other” Declan – through psychiatric evaluation, trying to rebuild his relationship with his shell-shocked family, and coming to terms with how he ended up depressed enough to contemplate suicide in the first place.
This is a “what if” story, and Larkin tells it with humour and humanity. Declan’s parents are flawed, but well-meaning and their relationship gets put under the microscope as much as Declan’s life does. As the months pass by, it is clear that there are things in Declan’s past that have had a greater influence on him that anyone could have imagined, and that there are things that have been swept under the carpet by everyone around him. As the secrets unfold, you wonder how Declan has held it together for so long, and all the reader’s sympathy lies with him, as it should.
I found this an emotional read, particularly having lost a loved one to a similar incident which took Declan’s life, but it is well worth the time. John Larkin has written an important book for young adults: about choices; about love; about secrets; and about looking after yourself – telling someone when you are feeling bad, sad or alone.
I really think this book could save a life, if put into the hands of someone who thinks they have no other options. It is a life-affirming story, dark and sorrowful, but full of hope and light too.
For ages 13 and up – I cannot recommend it highly enough.