August 9

Feeling – Yellow

Life certainly isn’t rosy for Kirra. At school, she is at the mercy of the ‘in’ crowd, at home her mother is drowning at the bottom of a gin bottle and her father won’t offer her a place to escape – even though he still lives close by. In a small coastal town, Kirra faces more than her fair share of challenges in those troubling teen years.

Throw in a ghost who wants her to avenge his murder, and you have a perplexing tale to piece together.

In her debut novel, Megan Jacobsen weaves a clever story which, while dealing with issues like bullying and family dysfunction, is compelling and believable.

Though many of the characters are a bit cliche,  (like the nasty but beautiful in-crowd) ‘Yellow’ will speak to you, and have you wondering about your day-to-day actions and how they impact on others. Kirra’s thoughts reveal how bad life is for her, and how complex life can be for some people. Sorting out who your friends really are is something many teens struggle with, and Kirra’s actions reveal how difficult life is for her.

You may wonder at some of her actions (is she really type to hurt an innocent animal? can a ghost impact your thinking?), but then, there is a lot that is relatable for teens.  There are also lots of twists and turns to keep you wondering in this tragic but challenging tale. How will it end for Kirra? Read it and see!

Yellow is one of this year’s CBCA Shortlisted Books. Will it win?

July 19

Off the edge? ‘One Would Think the Deep’ – Claire Zorn

Yet another year of nominations for Claire Zorn – this time for a story (One Would Think the Deep) set in 1997 in a small coastal town, where surfing is a major activity.

Sam once lived in Sydney with his mum, but following her untimely death, he moves north to live with his mother’s estranged sister and her family. Though once family ties were strong, it is hard for Sam to adjust to this different lifestyle and struggles to deal with the changes as he mourns his mum.

In his new ‘home’, Sam’s cousin Minty is idolised as the next surfing champ, and as Sam reconnects with his cousin, he too is introduced to the world of surfing and all its challenges. The highs and lows of Sam’s life are echoed in his attempts to conquer the waves. His friendships also have their highs and lows, with events from the past impacting on his behaviour as he tries to find his way.

Situations in which Sam finds himself make you feel for him as he deals with his losses, but his choices make you want to shake him to his senses. Will he make the most of what he still has? Can he overcome the difficulties he has been dealt? Who will be able to break through to him of he won’t really reveal some of his troublesome thoughts?

This is another authentic story from Zorn, though I think I liked ‘the Protected’ more. Is that simply because of the way Sam made me feel? Is it good that Sam made me react to his choices?

After you have read ‘One Would Think the Deep’, for some interesting reviews from others, visit Inside a Dog. And here is part of a review from the State Library of NSW:

One Would Think the Deep has a potent emotional heart, great characters and beautiful writing. Built around gorgeous evocations of surfing and the sea, it is driven by wonderfully evoked characters and an empathetic exploration of masculinity. Source: http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/one-would-think-deep-claire-zorn

Now consider if OWTTD gets your vote for the Young Adult CBCA award this year. Comments?

June 7

Big questions – the Honest Truth

Your friend has gone missing, and you have finally worked out where he is heading. The trouble is, you think he doesn’t want to be found. And he is trusting you not give him away. What should you do?

For most of his life, Mark has been battling to stay alive. When his cancer returns, he decides he wants to do what he wants to do – and not be dictated to by others such as doctors. In other ways, Mark is lucky – he has loving parents, a great friend in Jessie, and a loyal dog. These are his supports – but he has had enough. He wants to be a normal kid, but how can this happen if you spend your life in and out of hospital?

‘The Honest Truth’, by Dan Gemeinhart, is a gentle but emotional tale, dealing with big questions – of life and death, friendship and promises. It will have you in tears; then in the next minute, pondering what YOU might do if YOU were Mark’s friend.

For those who have loved books like ‘the Fault in our Stars’, or ‘Zac and Mia’, this tale presents the thoughts of a terminally ill protagonist who fights to achieve a personal goal. It intersperses these with the thoughts of his friend Jess, and how his parents deal with his choices. How this occurs, and the impact his disappearance has on others, make for a moving story with a powerful message about some of the important things in life.

A closing quote from the Honest Truth states:

“What Jessie said wasn’t a lie. It was just a better kind of truth.”

How this fits with the story is for the reader to discover; just like understanding “the mountain was calling me”, and why. Recommended read.

July 20

One wish – Cloudwish

cloudwishCloudwish comes from the creative mind of Fiona Wood, who won the CBCA Book of the Year (Older Readers category) award in 2014 with Wildlife. Her earlier book, Six Impossible Things, was previously reviewed here. So it is no surprise to see her latest novel among the CBCA shortlist for 2016.

While Cloudwish is a school story, with much of the usual angst and issues facing young teens, it has so much more to offer.

What is life like for a young girl, whose parents are Vietnamese refugees with high aspirations for their clever daughter? A scholarship to a prestigious private school  may seem the answer, but Van U’oc Phan faces struggles daily as the realities of her school life and home life contrast immensely and harshly.

With shades of Laurinda (by Alice Pung), Cloudwish is a wonderful portrayal of how different cultures may either mix or clash in our multicultural Australian society, and the extra struggles faced by children of immigrant families. Like Lucy Lam in Laurinda, Van moves between 2 worlds, and faces the challenge of fitting into both worlds. Poverty and privilege, blending in or maintaining a low profile, meeting parental expectations or following her own dreams – these are some of the issues for Van to deal with. Mix in a little magic and the fun begins.

References to Jane Eyre (Van’s role model?), Sylvia Plath and IB studies will strike a chord of recognition for many student readers. They also make it clear that Wood has worked in a school and indeed, she has tutored students from non-English speaking backgrounds (like Van) for many years. (See the SMH article, Working with a young Vietnamese-Australian girl inspired the author’s latest novel for more interesting details aout Fiona).

Cloudwish is a great read, and possibly, a relaxing contrast to the authors Van (and our own students) studies and admires!

February 21

Capturing magic

nnestLife is not easy for ‘Little John’. His little sister is dead, his mother is in mourning, while his dad drinks away the money which is meant to pay their rent. Feeling mistakenly responsible for Raelyn’s death, John works hard by his father’s side in his tree-felling business during the summer.

While at a job for a wealthy community member, Mr King, John discovers Gayle – a young girl, perched in a tree on the property, who brings forth a beautiful birdsong. Gayle has also been noticed by the property owner, Mr King, who conspires a deal with John to get her to sing to him – so that he can ‘capture her voice’.

Tragically, Gayle is a foster child in a spiteful family – they have even renamed her, and so ‘Little John’ is drawn to protect her. At the same time, John is tempted by the offer from Mr King (to encourage Gayle to ‘sing for him’).

The struggles faced by both the children and adults in the story are realistic and thought-provoking. There are many decisions John needs to make – with sometimes conflicting outcomes.

Mixed in with this, is the mystery of Gayle’s songbird qualities – and her tale of longing to remain in her ‘nest’ for when her parents return for her. Ultimately, after she is left to sing for Mr King, Gayle loses her songbird skills, and we are left to ponder what happened. Further tragedy occurs, and John has to consider the outcomes of some of the choices he has made over the summer.

February 10

Taking a stand – ‘The Beauty is in the Walking’

the-beauty-is-in-the-walkingDoes the title of a book ever keep you wondering all the way through? Does it capture you more, or less, than the book cover?

I admit that I picked this book up based on the reputation of the author. Australian author, James Moloney has over 40  books for children and teenagers in his writing swag, along with a collection of literary awards. But the title had me puzzled.

It is only gradually that the reader is introduced to the narrator, 17-year-old Jacob O’Leary, who seems to be an average teenager – looking for friendship, his own status and love. What makes Jacob unique is his cerebral palsy (CP).

The Beauty is in the Walking shows how this impacts his daily life, his own thinking and his family’s expectations of him. Also, though he has a strong circle of friends, he is sometimes the victim of bullying. And of course, at times, even these friendships can be fickle and changeable when under pressures such as final exams and outside influences.

Set in a fictional country town in Queensland, the story raises issues about outsiders, racism, fitting in and the adolescent search for romance, against the mystery of a series of violent crimes. Jacob shows strength, determination and commitment when he beleives that the police have accused the wromng person for the shocking crime that has impacted the whole community.

At the same time, he begins to question, with the help of his outspoken English teacher (Mr Svenson) and friend, Chloe, the limited opportunities set out for him after he completes Year 12. He struggles with the plan his parents have set for him (to remain in Palmerston in the family business), against the changing perception of his own potential.

Students will identify with the angst felt by Jacob, as he ventures timidly into his first romantic relationship. They will feel his pain as he deals with his mother’s protective nature, intensified since his older brother, Tyke, has left home. And older students will understand the difficulties and anxieties faced in the final days of high school. (Though students in NSW schools may question the timing of some end-of-year events)

Jacob has a lot to prove – to the community, his parents, his teachers and himself. With determination he will try – can he succeed in his ‘walk’?

August 11

History meets fiction

I thought of Micky – there was nothing useless or dirty or stupid about him. He was funny and worked hard. He was smart too. Actually he was just, well, normal. And that man on the television, Charles Perkins, spoke better than half of Walgaree.

freedomThis quote comes from Sue Lawson’s book, Freedom Ride; a fictional tale tied into the real events of the 1965 Freedom Rides which occurred in NSW. (Their aim was to draw attention to the poor state of Aboriginal health, education and housing.)

In Lawson’s book, we are introduced to Robbie – a teenager in a fictional (but representative) country town in NSW. Through Robbie’s eyes, we quietly see the subtle segregation that was ‘accepted’ in Australian history. Naturally, Robbie’s youthful views are his family’s views, but these are slowly adjusted as he critically observes the practices and beliefs of different adults around him.

With little previous exposure to the plight of Aborigines in his community, Robbie only begins to question community values when a holiday job sees him working side-by-side with Micky.

Historic events litter the tale, setting it in a real time and place in Australia. For a brief history about the time in which it is based, see BTN Freedom Ride

Was this how things really were in country towns in the 60’s? Some would argue this was not the case. But Sue Lawson has taken a pocket of humanity to illustrate the racist attitudes which promoted the Freedom Ride movement. Many who lived in similar locations would agrue that these emotions were not rampant in their mind’s eye – but for those suffering racist taunts and restrictions, it would have felt this way.

An interesting tale to put young adults in another person’s place and time in history.

July 27

Moving on – but sisters forever

protectedAlmost 12 months after her sister’s accident, and with a court case looming, Hannah is still struggling. But she is not alone – her mother drifts aimlessly about much of the time and her father has also lost his spark, sustaining both physical and emotional injuries. This is much as you might expect when a family loses a sister/daughter.

Hannah, however, must continue her journey as a school student, facing the many trials and tribulations of adolescence.

Strangely, in some ways, life is easier at school without her sister. Before the accident, Hannah was bullied at school, with little help from her older sister, Katie. In fact, Katie’s presence often made things worse, as Hannah failed to develop the same standing at school, and Katie failed to lend any sisterly support. (Should Hannah feel guilty about this?)

The enjoyable part of Claire Zorn’s writing is how she captures place and time. Set in the Blue Mountains, the school and social situations in the Protected ring true. As with the Sky So Heavy, her characters are authentic, move about in real places in the community, and some act as thoughtlessly as egocentric teenagers sometimes do.

However, Hannah doesn’t have to struggle alone all through the book, and there are ultimately different degrees of healing for the family. Quirky little inserts (lists, goals, likes and dislikes) hint at the sisters’ relationship, differences between them and add the flavour of sibling intimacy. Thus, some of the situations will make you squirm, while others will have you cheering on the efforts of those who aim to help.zorn2

So, the story probably isn’t new (reflect back to the Incredible Here and Now, a male perspective), but the way in which it unfolds is real and believeable. Since people react to loss in many different ways, it is valuable for us as readers to take the time to step into someone else’s shoes; which indeed we can do as we read the Protected.

Congratulations to Claire; just like the Sky So Heavy in 2014, the Protected has been shortlisted for the Older Readers CBCA awards in 2015. (For a little insight to the author, you can read: Claire Zorn, author of The Protected, answers Ten Terrifying Questions)

 

July 17

Deceiving book covers – Zebra Forest

zebra_forest_cover-330When Zebra Forest was first shown to me, I was attracted by the cover – but it gave little away about the story beneath. That said, this debut novel by Adina Gewirtz is an intriguing and thoughtful novel about family relationships, and the shaping of our memories.

Annie B. and her younger brother Rew live with their grandmother. They know little about their past – not even their mother’s name, and assume their father is dead. Their unusual family setup is accepted by their local comunity – even school fails to worry should they not turn up regularly, as Annie takes on tasks for her brooding grandmother.

As summer vacation approaches, eleven year old Annie is suddenly confronted at home by a prison escapee, and all her understandings about her family history are shaken, as she and Rew and Gran are taken hostage.

Who is this escapee? How will they, as hostages, deal with their situation? And what will it mean for their family – this threat, this intrusion on their day-to-day existence? Will anyone notice their absence?

Perhaps one of the tragic points hidden in Gewirtz book is the fact that there is little intrusion or investigation when Annie and Rew don’t appear at school; and there is little community concern for Gran – an elderly person repsonsible for the care of 2 young children. Is this a reflection of society today? Or would there be more concern for the family held hostage by a convicted murderer in reality?

Is this just poetic licence explaining away family isolation? What do you think? Could the events of Zebra Forest happen in real life? If so, what should we do about it?

Here’s a book trailer introduction to Zebra Forest: