Never EVER change this ending…

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

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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

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

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

Surviving the dark

After the Lights Go OutAfter the Lights Go Out by Lili Wilkinson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Doomsday preppers…riiiight….I was not sure if I would enjoy this as much as Lili’s other novels. Sure, I knew it would be well-researched, and the writing would be impeccable, but preppers? I shouldn’t have worried. From the first page I was drawn in and couldn’t wait to know more. Pru and her sisters, twins Grace and Blythe, live with their Dad in the remote town of Jubilee. In the first pages of the book we see the girls dodging intruders and threats, but eventually learn it’s a drill their father makes them do on a regular basis. Already the reader is made to feel uneasy because Pru is a doomsday prepper, or at least the child of one, and they are not necessarily known for their rational view of the world. Having a possibly unreliable narrator just serves to make the story more interesting. Then, the unthinkable (except for preppers) happens. There is a massive disastrous event and all of a sudden nothing that relies on electricity, or that has circuitry, works. No cars, no phones, no radio, no TV. No electric cooking, etc. To make matters worse, there’s been an explosion at the mine where Rick, the girls’ Dad, works and only a few have survived. The girls are on their own, in their bunker, with only each other to rely on. “Family comes first” their father has drilled into them since their mother left, and the girls are determined to survive, even if it means denying the other people in town much-needed assistance. When someone tells the other townsfolk of the girls’ secret, things take a turn. I will not spoil the rest of the story, but this book is an absolute page-turner. Survival, romance, betrayal, violence, death, redemption – it’s all there and Wilkinson writes her narrative with admirable restraint. There would be a tendancy for someone less experienced to pump up the hyperbole and drama, but Lili Wilkinson allows the drama to develop from small things- things that become huge in remarkable and terrifying circumstances. If you like gritty and realist fiction with a dytopian edge, this is for you.
Recommended for ages 14 and up.

This one has heart

Tin HeartTin Heart by Shivaun Plozza

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Marlowe, the central character in Shivaun Plozza’s accomplished second novel is a fantastic protagonist. Flawed, fragile, but ultimately stronger than she realises, Marlowe is finding her way back into the world after having a life-saving heart transplant. Obsessed with connecting with the family of her donor, Marlowe is frustrating, but also highly likeable. Her mum is a “vegan warrior” who only wants the best for Marlowe, but she also tries to be her friend a little too much. I didn’t enjoy this character as much as I hoped to, but Pip, her wonderfully eccentric and self-confident little brother is an absolute delight. I kind of wish younger kids could get to read Pip too, because he is such a positive character. As such, Pip is a great reflection of Marlowe, who is often down on herself and others much of the time. No matter what, Pip can find the good in almost everything. As Marlowe’s relationship with the sister of her dead donor develops, the reader can see there is disaster looming, and when Marlowe starts falling for Leo, son of the local butcher, there is conflict of epic proportions brewing. No more story elements for fear of spoilers, but suffice to say Marlowe has to confront more than a few personal demons and work on mending lots of fences before the story ends.
Plozza’s writing is heartfelt and her dialogue, as in her debut novel Frankie, is absolutely on point. Leo is a laconic smart arse, but has a heart of gold. Marlowe is trying to break away from her family, but ultimately loves them more than anything. The realities of an adolescent trying to find her place, and settle into it comfortably are familiar, and handled here with aplomb. Highly recommended for ages 14 and up.

You can’t choose your family…

My Sister RosaMy Sister Rosa by Justine Larbalestier

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow. Just wow. This gripped me like no other novel has for a long time. Justine Larbalestier has created a tense psychological thriller that keeps you turning the page, even though you dread what might come next.
Che is the narrator of this tale, a sensitive, troubled seventeen year old who is trapped in a family where his parents don’t understand him, and his little sister, Rosa, understands him too well. Ten-year-old Rosa is malevolent, scheming, manipulative, and looks as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. All her life, Che has been there – to watch over her, monitor her, and prevent her doing anything “bad”. Rosa is a deeply disturbing character, but it seems the only person in her family who really sees this is Che. Sally and David, Rosa and Che’s parents, seem incapable of believing Rosa would do anything truly evil, and Che is left in despair every time he tries to show them what Rosa is really like.
When Che’s family moves to New York for business reasons, Che is yanked away from his Australian support network, and struggles for a while to find his feet. A gym junkie, Che finds his solace in training at a local boxing gym, and it is here he meets Sojourner (Sid), a lean mean fighting machine with killer looks to match her ability in the ring. At the same time, he also starts a friendship with the children of his parents’ boss. Leilani – a girl about Che’s age, and twins Maya and Seimone, start spending a lot of time with Che and Rosa; and it is a relationship that will change all their lives forever. As Rosa becomes closer and closer with Seimone, Che feels uneasy about what Rosa might do to her twin sister Maya. For spoiler reasons I can’t say much more except: strap yourself in because this ride has more ups and downs and gasp-out-loud moments than the biggest rollercoaster.

Things I loved about this book:
* The way Che and Rosa talk to one another – chilling;
* Che and Leilani’s friendship – starts as mutual dislike and ends up fast and firm and true;
* Che’s feeling of displacement in New York, and then his gradual appreciation of its differences to Australia;
* The fact that Larbalestier doesn’t describe Sid as black; or Leilani as Korean – we just find out they are through dialogue (fantastic)
Things I hated about this book:
* That I didn’t write it!

This is a book that will leave you looking over your shoulder, and wondering about some of those kids you knew back in primary school – especially the kids everyone thought were perfect. (shudder).
Highly recommended for ages 13 and up. Very, very creepy.

Unlucky Thirteen

ThirteenThirteen by Tom Hoyle

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

“Thirteen is the last year of childhood….the boy must be killed before he is a man.” – this is a quote from Coron’s Great Book . Coron is the deluded leader of cult known as The People. The cult believes that 13 (evil) male children born at the turn of the millenium (in 2000 AD) must be kiiled in order for their “Master” to retain his powers and annoint Coron as the King.
This is an addled excuse for a novel. I really found it difficult to read as the narrative is all over the place. Adam, the thirteenth boy on The People’s hitlist is not fleshed out enough as a character for me to care about what is happening to him. His best friend, the plucky Megan, is a better character and better written too. Coron is a cliched, sociopath and not that scary. I was continually disappointed in this novel and I really wanted it to work. The premise itself is interesting and the production values of the book itself (with its yellow cover and great page edges) promised way more than it delivered. The ending of the book indicates there is another one to come, but I won’t be bothering.
Don’t waste your time with this one – read Gone or Cherub or Uglies instead, you will find better character development, story arc and genuine suspense.
For ages 12 and up, if you can be bothered.