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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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.

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

Unnaturally affecting

The Natural Way of ThingsThe Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Where to begin? Do I start by confessing that I wept openly for a full five minutes after finishing this novel? Do I add that I am still weepy thinking about it as I write this review? Do I step back from the subject matter (misogyny, gender politics, the nature of violence, self, nature, landscape) and look at it analytically? Or do I leap in with emotions raging and expunge everything this book made me think and feel?
This book is a landmark in Australian literature for me. It is a book that I think every Australian woman should read and clasp to her breast as her own. It is raw, powerful, brutal stuff. But it is also lyrical, dreamy and lush with descriptive language and imagery.
Yolanda and Verla are the last two women to arrive at a facility in the middle of a desert, somewhere in Australia. Women who have been judged unworthy of living in society – because of perceived sexual transgressions – have been extracted and dumped in a dry and baked landscape, surrounded by an electric fence and kept there by two brutal and inept male gaolers, Teddy and Boncer, and their “nurse” – a woman named Nancy. Stripped of their clothes, and other possessions, forced to wear old fashioned tunics and bonnets and shoes, these women work by day clearing boulders and rocks from a road and spend their nights in dogboxes, in filth and degradation. Some cling to each other, some stand up to their captors and are brutalised, and others fall silent and slowly plot their escape or suicide. When the power is switched off and the food begins to run out, the women realise their captors are now jailed along with them. While some battle on as best they can others, like Verla and Yolanda, realise the only way out is to rescue themselves.
Verla, bonded in an unspoken way to Yolanda because they arrived together, starts to hoard toadstools and mushrooms, hoping beyond hope that one of them is a death cap. Plotting in her mind to feed it to Boncer and Teddy and escape this prison. In denial about her fate for about half the book, Verla is a character who slowly toughens up mentally, if not physically. Once she realises she is not going be released she becomes resolute about solving her situation, possibly with Yolanda’s help. Either way, she knows she is either going to kill the men or save the death cap, for herself.
Yolanda is a wonderful character. Feisty, arrogant, she was the only inmate who did not go to the prison willingly. And it is Yolanda who also proves to be the most adaptable of the women. When the Boncer announces that Hardings, the company who run the facility, are “not coming” it is Yolanda who offers to use the rusting rabbit traps on the property to secure a food source for the inmates. A sense of purpose emerges in Yolanda and it becomes her life. Once she successfully traps the rabbits, she feels powerful, and works well in her surroundings to make sure nothing gets in the way of her new-found purpose. When Boncer tries to assault her, she realises he is afraid of her and stands her ground. After all the road-clearing and other physical labour, Yolanda is a ball of muscle and Boncer knows he is no match for a woman with nothing to lose. He backs down and Yolanda’s ascension is complete. Teddy tries to tell Yolanda that rabbit traps are cruel – Yolanda and Verla just “snigger up at him, showing their small grey teeth.” (p.150)
The other interesting character is Nancy – at first the prisoners view her as someone who is privileged, who enjoys the perks of good food and the good graces of Boncer and Teddy, but it soon becomes apparent, especially when Hardings turn off the power supply, that Nancy is as much a prisoner as the rest of them. As Nancy descends into a drug-addled existence, the women realise how weak she is, how reliant on the two men she is, and they see their former selves. When Nancy dies of a drug overdose late in the novel (not a spoiler, there was no doubt for me this was her fate), the women are the ones who take care of her body, washing her and laying her on a stained sheet. They hold a vigil as her body burns, “they see she is only one of them, just skinny bone and sunken flesh, and for the first time they wonder if she has a mother too, somewhere in that little town she came from once.” (p. 271)
“Would it be said they were abandoned or taken, the way people said a girl was attacked, a women was raped, this femaleness always at the centre, as if womanhood itself were the cause of these things? As if the girls, somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves.” (p. 176)
I cannot stress enough that this is not a pleasant book to read, but it is urgent, and compelling, and speaks volumes about the struggle to be female in a world of men in a way I have not read before in Australian contemporary literature. The only novel I can find some common ground with is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Attwood, and that was hard going too. Don’t be put off by the subject matter. Women will feel empowered by this book, men might feel disgusted and afraid for the women they know. These are not bad things. Novels such as this are written to make us question the “natural way of things” and this book does just that.

Recommended for mature readers over the age of 16.

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.

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.

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.

A Great Vintage

Going VintageGoing Vintage by Lindsey Leavitt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lindsay Leavitt has written a little gem. Going Vintage has a great style that really captures the inner voice of a teenage girl without being sappy or patronising. Leavitt also manages to impart a little wisdom without being preachy or ramming it down one’s throat, which is where many other writers of YA or children’s lit fail.

Central character, Mallory, is likeable and sympathetic – she has been cheated on by her boyfriend who also has an online girlfriend. After she breaks up with Jeremy, Mallory finds a list written by her grandmother when she was Mallory’s age and it inspires her to try living “60s style”. To do this she disconnects from social media, her moblie phone and her computer. The consequences of this, at school , at home and in her friendships and relationships are more far reaching than she could ever have realised. Mallory’s sister, Ginnie, is her partner in this experiment and proves to be a feisty, strong and steadfast friend too. As the days roll by, Mallory discovers secrets and talents about herself and those around her. The dumping of technology changes her life, not just her love life, and everything becomes harder and challenging. Her parents are fighting and her Mum is secretive, Jeremy is begging her to take him back, Ginnie is looking for her first steady boyfriend, Mallory’s grandmother seems to be pushing her away and then there is Oliver, Jeremy’s cousin. His funny, gorgeous, hipster cousin. Where does he fit in to all of this? Mallory has had a tendancy in the past to quit when things got the better of her, will she quit this time?
As usual, no spoilers, but I can guarantee you will enjoy this tale of romance, family and life choices. A great book for girls who are trying to find out who they are, and for boys who want to know those girls better!
For ages 12 and up.

Two weeks well spent

Two Weeks With The Queen (Cascades)Two Weeks With The Queen by Morris Gleitzman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Colin Mudford’s brother, Luke, is dying of cancer. As Colin struggles with this knowledge, his parents decide to send him to relatives in the UK to protect him from the tragedy to come. This suits Colin because he has a plan – a plan to get Queen Elizabeth II to offer him her physician to treat and save his brother.
Things go awry when no reply is forthcoming. Colin decides to take things into his own hands and he sets off to a top London hospital to bring their top doctor back to Australia for Luke. After he is escorted from the premises, Colin spots Ted, a man in his late twenties, crying on the kerb. Colin tells Ted his story and Ted offers to help Colin. The two form a wonderful friendship that helps Colin acknowledge his feelings about Luke and also helps Colin learn the joy of helping others. Ted’s partner, Griff is in the hospital suffering from HIV/Aids and the prognosis is not good. Through Colin, the two men are able to keep seeing each other, even after Ted is bashed by a group of homophobic thugs.
I will not reveal the ending, but tissues will be required. I have read this book 4 times now and I still cry every time.
This was Gleitzman’s first novel and it’s a ripper. Whilst the setting (the 80s) might be a little dated, the themes of acceptance and tolerance still resonate, and in a way that most kids would easily understand.
Spend Two Weeks with the Queen. You won’t be sorry.
Ages 11 and up…