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 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 27

One Thousand Hills – Remembering Rwanda

One Thousand HillsFor Pascale, life had a predictable routine which included regular chores at home, regular teasing by his older brother and a pattern to the week. As a child in Rwanda, life was simple, but set in a loving and supportive family. He knew the happiness of running around with his friend, Henri; the pestering of a (lovable) little sister, Nadine, and the warmth of his loving parents.

But things were set to change, as events with catastrophic impact on the country of Rwanda ignited.

James Roy has set his novel ‘One Thousand Hills’ in April 1994, in the days leading up to, and during, the first of 100 days the genocide in which eight hundred thousand Rwandans were slaughtered. Through the eyes of Pascale, we view some of the horror and the impact of civil strife on innocents – innocents who are caught ‘hiding or running in fear’ when they should be running around in the playful games of childhood.

Through the voice of Pascale, we slowly learn of the whispers and hushed tones that alert him to something being amiss. His neighbour, Mrs Malolo released her chickens, explaining to them:

We can’t take you with us… I hope you lay your eggs somewhere peaceful and safe.

Things were even noticeably different at church on Sunday, in what was usually a joyous occasion in the week. The sermon was ominous, and afterwards people were less cordial to one another. ‘An uncomfortable heaviness hung in the air.’ Pascale notes. He also noted glances and nods  between his parents, as if there was something secret they were sharing.

As a 10 year old boy, the explanation of events Pascale is able to give is cloudy, fragmented and incomplete. Interjected in between these descriptions, however, is the record of counselling sessions with Pascale as a 15 year old – a 15 year old dealing with a traumatic past. But waht we read is enough to imagine the horrific times.

The ugly divisiveness of cultural differences between the Hutus and Tutsis of Rwanda is introduced in several ways, including the tearful break-up of his teacher, Miss Uwazuba and her boyfriend – ‘A Hutu Romeo and a Tutsi Juliet’. Many others with whom Pascale had friendships within his village Agabande, end up rejecting him – and slowly, with increasing uneasiness, he begins to understand the radio news about ‘crushing the cockroaches’.

In ‘One Thousand Hills’ James Roy tackles an enormous event in world history, in partnership with Noel Zihabamwe, who actually lived through these events as a ten year old. Their reasons are clear:

We wanted to tell this story because we believe it’s only by understanding the terrible and tragic events of the past that we can prevent similar events happening again in the future. (Author’s Note)

A challenging read. While ‘One Thousand Hills’ is not a happy tale, it reminds us of a bleak part of world history which has had far-reaching consequences (including two decades of unrest in neighbouring DR Congo, which have cost the lives of an estimated five million people) – something we cannot simply brush aside or ignore.

Sometimes we need to take on challenging reads like this, or those listed below. What do you think?

Further reading

Rwanda genocide: 100 days of slaughter (BBC News) explains more.

For an older (biographical) perspective on Rwanda, read:

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’?

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)

 

June 2

Guest post: Laura G. – the Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks

frankieIntriguing and unique.

The fascinating novel, The disreputable history of Frankie Landau-Banks, has a great sense of adventure and mystery through out the narrative.

E.Lockhart has intrigued the reader, by the use of many exquisite language techniques and devices, allowing the reader to weave into all the corners of the main character’s mind, wrapping the reader into the novel. E.Lockhart uses her unique writing techniques to capture the reader from the beginning, by leaving a trail of evidence to the wild events that evolve within the book.

The novel follows the American high school experience of wallflower, Frankie Landau- Banks, and her metamorphosis into an independent, powerful woman. An engaging read, strongly recommended for the teenage reader.

five-star-rating

Fabulous, Laura – sounds like another great novel from the author of We Were Liars – previously reviewed here.

February 8

Write about what you know…

dietIn her first novel for young adults, Tamar Chnorhokian does exactly that; the Diet Starts Monday is set in Western Sydney and involves the mix of cultures you might expect to find there.

Zara (or Zaruhi, as her Armenian family wants to call her) is a typical western Sydney teenager, except for the fact that she is a size 22 girl with a crush on the hottest guy at school. Because of this, she decides yet again, to go on a diet – but with renewed determination this time, as the Year 12 Farewell looms at the end of the year.

Privy to Zara’s thoughts and anxieties, we can identify with her body image angst, and empathise with the things that trigger her poor eating habits. There are also little hints about what her friends think of her dieting efforts, and her fixation on Pablo Fernandez (after all he already has skinny girlfriend, and, what about his gross habits?).

There are times when you want to shake Zara back to her senses, and make her realise that as she loses weight, she is also losing the respect of her long term friends, Carmelina, Ramsi and Max because of how she is now behaving. I know I was also waiting for her new ‘friends’, Pamela and Holly, to turn around and trip her up on her self-discovery journey. And how was she now treating her own family?

The voices and characters in TDSOM are quite authentic, and the places they go are also real. As a member of Sweatshop, Western Sydney Literacy Movement, this is precisely what Tamar aims to do – to be real and provide an authentic reflection of the community she knows:

SWEATSHOP believes the best way for Western Sydney communities to identify issues that affect them, take control of how they are portrayed and perceived and build alternatives is through literacy.

(Tamar) was one of the original members of The Sweatshop Collective and has been collaborating with Michael Mohammed Ahmad since 2006. Tamar identifies strongly with her Western Sydney community and her Armenian background. [Sweatshop, Western Sydney Literacy Movement]

In an article in the SMH just before her book launch, it is clear how close to Tamar’s heart Western Sydney is:

I wanted to write a positive representation, because there are only negative representations in the media. Where I live, there are wonderful things that happen there, that is the thing I wanted to talk about.

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/my-secret-sydney-tamar-chnorhokian-20141126-11to2k.html#ixzz3NpAX7qmw

Readers should easily be drawn in to The Diet Starts Monday (we all know that phrase) and will be keen to find out what happens over the HSC year for Zara and her friends. Writers will be impressed with the example set by Tamar as she sets our her commitment and contribution to Western Sydney literacy and literature development in this novel.

What might you change in TDSM to reflect the area you live in and the personalities you know in your school and community?

August 20

Life as you know it?

incredibleMichael is a typical school boy living in the suburbs of Western Sydney. For him, life has a rhythm and routine which is closely bonded to his older brother’s. That is until tragedy strikes, and he decides that:

‘my life isn’t my life any more: It is like a movie, it’s the place where I enter the scene again and again and everything is different.’

From the time that Michael regains consciousness after the accident, his thoughts are fragmented. Indeed the nature of Felicity Castagna’s book, ‘the Incredible Here and Now’, is that it, too, is a whole story slowly pieced together. Gradually, chapters reveal little insights into the lives of people in Michael’s world, as the picture develops describing his life with family, school and his mates, and how life can suddenly become distorted and troubled.

Without his older brother, Dom, the form of Michael’s life has changed. At home, his mother grieves and (has) ‘slipped out of our lives’. His father, though acting calm and together, ‘walks (him) to school for the first time since I was 10’. In his own way, Michael disconnects from school and other aspects of his old life. He constantly wonders ‘how can someone be there one day and not the next?’

However, ‘the Incredible Here and Now’ is not a sombre tale, but a thoughtful one. As a coming-of-age story, we are taken through the neighbourhood streets where Michael is growing up and dealing with the first throes of love and conflict. Through his eyes, the tapestry of different immigrant lives are illustrated; with their particular features and foibles. Teenage lives are interconnected not only through school, but through sport and other hangouts.

Castagna’s little vignettes capture many different things about Michael’s family, friends and acquaintances. For most people around him, life goes on as before – but how can things remain the same when someone important is lost from your life. Castagna also captures the differing cultures which permeate Michael’s life, and the unique mix of his neighbourhood. This will provide some ‘aha’ moments to those readers who can identify with some of the locations described, and an interesting insight to others from different social backgrounds.

Teen readers will also love the short chapters which collect the thoughts of Michael fairly concisely. As he dips in and out, his thoughts seem somewhat fragmented but are also part of the whole – as he attempts to deal with his now fragmented world.

The Incredible Here and Now does not tell us how to deal with the loss of a family member. Neither does it come up with a solution to everyday teenaged angst. What it does is provide great realistic fiction which should appeal to many teenage boys; they could easily identify parts of themselves in many of the characters, and the situations in which they act.

In Felicity’s words, The Incredible Here and Now:

… is about being an absolute insider in a place you know as well as the back of your own hand. It’s a young adult’s novel told through the eyes of Michael whose life changes dramatically in the summer he turns 15. Michael knows everything about the community he lives in and through his stories, he lets the reader in; to the unsettled lives of his family members, the friends he meets in the McDonalds parking lot at night, the swimming pool where he meets the one girl who will acknowledge he’s alive and the classmates who spend their mornings drooling at the Coke Factory on their walk to school. (Source: the NSW Writers Centre, Felicity Castagna Talks Writing a Sense of Place, http://www.nswwc.org.au/2013/05/felicity-castagna-talks-writing-a-sense-of-place/)

# The Incredible Here and Now was shortlisted for this year’s CBCA awards, and the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards 2014 – and is Felicity’s first novel.

March 25

After ‘Fault in our Stars’… Zac and Mia!

imageZac is condemned – to spend an insufferable number of days, confined to a room, in the cheerful company of his mother. Not that he hates his mother’s presence – he just hates that she feels she has to be here. Or that he has to be here. But that’s what the medical system recommends. For treatment of his disease. And Zac accepts this.

Mia, on the other hand, resists. In the room next to Zac’s, she shouts, argues with her mother, and plays Lady Gaga on repeat, repeat, repeat.

Confined to his room, Zac wonders about the girl next door. Why is she so angry? Why does she argue with her mother? Why doesn’t she realise that the odds of her survival are so much higher than others on the ward? He knows all this – he has spent plenty of time googling for that kind of statistic. And her stats are good…

A.J.Betts  spent quite some time with kids in hospital. That fact is obvious. Her story is woven with mundane but realistic facts about living and dying with cancer. Without being boring, she tells of the ‘day-to-day’ experienced by families impacted by serious childhood illness, and the different ways they might cope.

Some have compared ‘Zac and Mia’ to ‘the Fault in Our Stars’. Some reviewers have criticized it as a copy, but having been written around the same time in a different continent it simply relates a similar focus – of young people dealing with cancer.

Having read and enjoyed both, and investigated the timing etc. needed to publish a book, I would say to the reader just ENJOY BOTH stories, since they have unique qualities to share. Zac and Mia do not go through the same therapy programs (as Hazel and Augustus). Zac and Mia finally meet after talking on Facebook and through hospital walls! Under different circumstances, their paths may never have crossed.

Strangely, the differences in their lives is what draws them together. The support Zac has in his family and friends is sadly lacking, for much of the story, for Mia. Their sameness is the struggle they face with a potentially lethal disease.

Zac and Mia is a thoughtful story, filled with astute observations and discreet comments from an author who has spent time on a hospital ward, supporting young adults in dire times. There is lots to absorb and think about – especially for those trying to understand some of the struggles faced by teen cancer patients.

A little bit extra:

In weeks to come, there will be a list of other books for those who have enjoyed  both ‘the Fault on Our Stars’ and ‘Zac and Mia’.

For those who can’t wait, there is another book worth reading – This Star Won’t Go Out’ by Esther Earl. This is a real life journey, said to have inspired John Green’s story, ‘the Fault on Our Stars’ – this video introduces Esther’s book. (Comments here from John Green and Esther’s sisters.)

That there are a number of books with a focus on young adults with life threatening illnesses at the moment is probably more a reflection of the openness of the medical profession, and more education from the media, than duplication or copying of an idea. What do you think?

March 9

Before and After – ‘After’ by Sue Lawson

afterCJ is sent to stay with his grandparents in the countryside. It is in the middle of the school year. He is not happy. Neither are they.

Life in the country is also quite different from the city life he is used to. There’s a lot of different jobs to do on the farm. Many different animals to get used to. And then, there’s a whole lot of new ‘animals’ and other stuff to adapt to at a new school.

The trouble for CJ (Callum) is that the town of Winter Creek knows more about him than he does. Nobody has told him anything about his background. What is worse is that Jack Frewen knows a whole lot more about him than he would like him to know. On top of this, Callum also has aspects about his recent past that he would like to forget – if only his nightmares and daytime flashbacks would allow him.

Sue Lawson has packaged some great characters into ‘After’. Why? Because they are realistic and believable. They could be your best mate, your worst (bullying) enemy, or your long lost grandparent. Look left or right, Jack or Ella or Tim may be one of your schoolmates. Nic or Benny may be much like your best friend. Or least, someone you know at school.

Since Callum strives to be a loner at his new school – private and solitary, it is interesting that along the way, he buddies up with Luke; a ‘special’ boy at school, victim of taunts and teasing. Someone who used to be someone great until….

Callum’s quiet acceptance of all that is dished out to him at school, bubbles under the surface through most of the story, at a time when he is struggling with why his mother has sent him away. He doesn’t dob on those who bully him. He doesn’t want to talk about his past. He doesn’t want to sort things out with his mother or his grandmother. How many of the people you know at school and work might be feeling much the same? [Quietly troubled.]

Events traipse along in ‘After’, loosely connected along a line of sporting and school activities. Favours and favouritism raise their heads, as old alliances are paid out with blind acceptance of the way things just play out in a country town. But Callum’s arrival begins to challenge the old order. And some, like Jack Frewen, aren’t happy about that.

Old hurts, anger, blocked memories and misinterpretations are some of the key things Callum has to deal with – which becomes clear to us as we move between the ‘Before’ and ‘After’ elements of this story.  Little by little, bits of Callum’s past are revealed – many of which are new to Callum himself. When some are revealed in an antagonistic manner, how will he react?

‘After’ is a story of hurt, rejection and reconciliation. A story of contrasts and differences.  A story of acceptance and friendship.

What do you think?

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See: http://www.suelawson.com.au/books/young-adult/ for more.

* For more great books by Sue Lawson see: http://www.suelawson.com.au/books/young-adult/ – including ‘Finding Darcy’, ‘Allie McGregor’s True Colours’ and ‘Pan’s Whisper’.