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?

October 24

Twins – Are You Seeing Me?

GrothTwins think and act alike, right? Even fraternal twins do many things the same, right?

Yes, to some degree. I can speak from personal experience of fraternal twins who would often pick the same birthday cards for relatives, and scheme together against the other siblings in the family – often in their own personalised language.

However, as many twins (both identical and fraternal) scream – they are still individuals! The twins in ‘Are You Seeing Me?’ are certainly individuals – both of whom scream for different reasons…

Perry screams when his world gets out of hand. At times when he is faced by the unfamiliar, “Perry has trouble with people – mixing with them and communicating with them – and it sometimes results in inappropriate behaviours.” 

This is the spiel that Perry’s sister regularly rolls out to explain her twin brother’s unusual behaviour. As his twin, she is determined to protect him from the judgemental gaze of others. When Justine screams, however, Perry isn’t the cause – it’s the interfering concern of others, like her boyfriend, Marc.

In ‘Are You Seeing Me?’ much of the journey for Perry and Justine takes place as they travel to Canada, to seek out their estranged mother, Leonie. She left the twins in their father’s care when they were 4, unable to cope with twins – especially since Perry has a ‘special needs’ tag. Unfortunately, in their nineteenth year, Perry and Justine are left alone as their doting father dies of cancer.

There is also an emotional journey for them as they attempt to re-establish links with Leonie – and she has much to learn about Perry. A chance for her to re-connect.

I love the characters Darren Groth has created. They are authentic and believable. The communication between Justine and her father occurs through a diary he kept from birth, and it provides her strength, understanding and support as she strives to support her brother as he tenuously begins to negotiate the adult world. Perry’s comments and insights provide a ‘look inside’ as he struggles to find independence and ‘free’ his sister of her twin commitment.

Finding out that Groth’s own twins were the inspiration behind this book cements the authenticity and appeal of this book. While it has been aligned to Mark Haddon’s ‘Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’, it tells a completely different tale. The relationship of twins shows how the Autism Spectrum Disorder impacts the whole family – and how they adapt and deal with it.

Groth proudly speaks of this in ‘A Dad’s Gift to his Neurotypical Daughter’, which is a very interesting prelude to the novel.

Groth’s tale is funny, informative and optimistic. The bond between Pez and Just Jeans is so lovable, it is a great tale for teens to enjoy.

N.B. I am also looking forward to reading ‘Kindling’, an earlier book by Darren Groth – which also deals with autism.

February 18

It’s Black and White – audio with print book, too.

Night-Circus-UK-coverThe ‘Night Circus’ begins with an unusual delivery – a 5 year old girl delivered to her estranged father. It sets the tone for a tale filled with magic, mystery and strange happenings – nothing in this story is fully explained, at first.

Celia’s father is no ordinary father but a master magician. He claims however, that his trade is not in creating illusions, but in performing real magic. As her father’s daughter, Celia becomes involved in a high-stakes competition set up between Prospero and his long term rival – a magician know only by the mysterious name Mr A.H. The challenge is to prove whether magic is innate, or whether anyone intelligent person can develop the performance with skilful teaching by a master.

‘Let the games begin!’

Throughout the story, a major character is Le Cirque des Reves. This is no ordinary circus, since it arrives unannounced, without any fanfare and is setup from nightfall to dawn. Inside its black and white structures, spectators are treated to intriguing performances, theatrical stunts and out-of-this-world experiences unmatched by any other – all of which are intricately described and embellished beyond your imagination. In spite of the circus having no known schedule, a dedicated band of followers (reveurs) manages to anticipate and herald their arrival.

There are other significant characters who also anticipate the arrival of the circus and its entourage, as Morgenstern cleverly mixes the story together. In doing so, she has developed many intriguing characters and histories, in her debut novel – as well as some intriguing inventions for the circus itself.

However, this was one story which was a little difficult to follow in the audio version, as the chapters skipped from one time period to another, although the voices hinted at change. So it was great to jump into the print version from time to time, where it was much easier to track these time changes.

The book trailer below gives a hint about the style of the book – old worldy, black and white, circus focus with a bit of mystery, magic and love woven through:

 

 

Morgenstern also mixes an array of colourful characters and scenarios in her magical tale. Celia is not the only talented illusionist, as she is in competition of course with the dark and intriguing Marco, Mr A.H’s protégé. The history of her father (Prospero), the conception and development of the circus, and its impact on people are facts which are teased out at an agonizing pace. In a world of mystery and illusion, there is little that is really as it first seems. Many in this world are performers, and all is not always as we first see it.

It was easy to get caught up in the circus world, to suspend belief and engage in the battle for magical supremacy, even though you felt there was no chance of a happy ending – especially if you have empathies for both Celia and Marco, and the circus family. In this story, it is hard to decide who is the victim or villain, hero or heroine – or is it? A recommended read for you to puzzle over.

In this article from the HuffingtonPost, reviewers speak of the differences in reading and listening to the Night Circus – what do you think are the main differences?

Which way would you prefer to experience a book?

Or in which order would you try? Book? Audio? Movie?

July 31

Creepy and Maud – just creepy

creepyChosen as one of the CBCA Shortlisted books but I can’t see why.

The characters were a bit ‘creepy’ and unrealistic for me – maybe the author was in for shock value.

I usually review the all CBCA books for my blog, but this will be a short one, as I have a rule: if you can’t say something nice then don’t review it…

 

What do you think? I am missing the point?

May 12

Mothers’ Love? – the Light between Oceans

What would you do if a baby washed up in a boat, accompanied only by her dead father? Would you wonder what had happened to her mother? And if you lived on a remote island housing a vital lighthouse, how would you go about reporting the lost (and found) baby?

Add another complication – you are a young couple who have faced the loss of several babies before they had time to even be; the last being stillborn just a few weeks previously. Is the baby perhaps a gift from God? Why was she alone in the boat with a dead father? Perhaps her mother had also perished?

Tom and Isabel live a solitary life as lighthouse keepers. Together they decide on a path which is always destined for sorrow and trouble. By the time they have their regular visits to and from the mainland, Lucy has well and truly become part of their life. Isabel’s parents, who live in on the mainland welcome their only grand-daughter with open arms, convinced of course that she really is their flesh and blood. And Lucy delights all who see her. How can they change the course of action they have slipped into by caring for baby Lucy?

This is an amazing debut novel for M.L. Stedman – told with gentleness and mystery. It succeeds in getting you to change your point of view, depending on whose story you are reading at the tim, without making you feel you have deserted one of the other characters. There are many different perspectives from which they can all be judged, as Stedman reveals the inner workings of each person in the tragic turn of events.

And as a reader you can sympathise with each one: Tom the solitary returned soldier; his wife, Isabel grieving several miscarriages; Isabel’s parents who have lost their sons to war; and of course, Hannah, who has lost both a husband and a child.

Though set in a fictional coastal community, the Light Between Oceans represents what life might have been like for those performing essential duties along our coastlines in times gone by.

As the author states: “The plot of THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS isn’t based on personal experience, other than to the extent that it’s set in Western Australia, where I’m from, so the landscape and weather hopefully have an authentic feel” ( comments from a GoodReads forum about her book). The setting describes the isolation of this part of Australia (and the lighthouse even more so), heightened even further by its post war time period. The tale reflects things which might occur in relationships when life doesn’t always give people what they want.

The impacts of war, isolation and loss are some of the key issues Stedman weaves into this tale of several tales, and the reader is left guessing, never quite sure of the final outcome. While the pace of the story has been criticised by some, it really just echoes the way things would have been before communications were so instant, and gives the reader time to consider how different things might have been in the past.

Movie options have been discussed, and the book has recently won the Indie Awards for a Debut novel. For more about M.L.Stedman see: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/interview-ml-stedman-20120322-1vkty.html

What did you think of the book?

November 12

Oh, my darling – Divine Clementine

Clementine has had a fabulous relationship with her aunt, Stella – who is only 10 years older. But one fateful day she sees her groovy aunt smashed by an oncoming bus, right in front of her.

For some, funerals are a place to farewell a loved one – for Clementine, Stella’s funeral launches her into a rage against life. Nothing seems to make sense anymore, and she dives into great depths of depression. She no longer sees the need to  conform to any of the world’s standards, or connect in any way to her school, friends or family.

After the funeral, Clementine joins her mother and grandmother at Stella’s, collecting and sorting though Stella’s things for memorable items. A crazy quilt, a favourite jacket and some of Stella’s diaries are among the items collected by Clementine. Unfortunately, the diaries reveal a lot of things that Clementine doesn’t know about her aunt – and many things her mother had protected her from.

As a result, Clementine dives even further into herself and fails to consider why her mother made the choices she did regarding her aunt. Within herself, Clementine has a lot to deal with – the betrayal of those close to her, her own great sorrow with the loss of her aunt, and the goodhearted but clumsy attempts of her friends, as they try to pull her out of the depression which follows.

‘Divine Clementine’ is a debut novel for Hayley S. Kirk. She deals realistically with problems that many teens could face, as illness and death challenge the solidity of families, and the voices in the story are genuine. What do you think?

 

July 22

Love? ‘A Straight Line to my Heart’ by Bill Condon

Not sure what I expected from this book, but it was a fun read. I liked the (believable) characters, but maybe I’ve reading too much YA lately and expected more action…

I loved the portrayal of Tiff’s family, which is not your typical ‘parents-and-2.5-kids’ type of family. I also thought the introduction of a love interest Davey was clumsy – but hey, maybe that’s real life!

Reggie, Tiff’s adopted grandfather, was adorable and sensitive – even though he was no pushover. And even Tiff’s relationship with her ‘stepbrother’ Bull was pretty special; as was her developing relationship with his girlfriend, Zoe.

So, I guess I loved the characters, but wanted them to more than live an average life in the week I visited Gungee…

However, there are many other readers, commenting on http://goodreads.com , who have loved ‘A Straight Line to My Heart’. They love the genuine characters, the ‘Aussieness’, and are able to ‘take Tiff’s hand’ as she navigates the precious time of beginning to find herself after school is over.

And indeed, I also got involved with the trials and tribulations Tiffany faced – especially with the tender moments and comments she shared with Reggie. Condon’s story grabs you in with real people, a mix of funny and sad situations, and connects you with Tiff’s family. He certainly grabbed me with his opening lines:

“There’s nothing quite as good as folding up into a book and shutting the world outside. If I pick the right one I can be beautiful, or fall in love, or live happily ever after. Maybe even all three.”

# Makes you wonder whether he was talking about his book, or the power of books to take us into other people’s lives, if only for a very short time. What do you think?

July 16

My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece

Once upon a time, Jamie had twin sisters – but that was before the bombing. Since then, the fairytale has changed, and his family has become disjointed.

Now, his mum lives in London; while he and his sister (Rose’s twin) live with their alcoholic father – with Rose’s cremation urn on their mantelpiece.

‘My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece’ is told from the perspective of 10 year old Jamie, as he struggles to settle into a new school; dealing with bullying issues and the impacts of the family’s horrendous past. Clearly, Dad still struggles with the loss of a child; and Rose’s twin, Jasmine, reveals her own issues along the way.

Jamie is ever-hopeful that his mum will return,  and take family life back to normal. In the meantime, one of his only friends at school is Sunya – a girl with Muslim heritage.  It is hard for Jamie, in his childhood innocence, to understand why this might be a problem for his father to deal with.

So Jamie hatches a plan – one which will bring Mum back to the family, even though she already seems to have missed some of the most important family events in the last year. Jasmine is reluctant to get on board with his plans, but may be convinced to help out. And what about Sunya – will she understand that Jamie is not like his father? and would her parents also forgive Jamie for his father’s intolerances?

Lots of issues are reflected in this tale – told without driving to a fairy tale ending. It’s a well written debut novel for Annabel Pitcher – I’m just not sure about any of the cover images I’ve seen yet. Will they grab the audience they need?

Engaging, sad, reflective. What do you think?

March 14

Aiming for 80 – Wavelength by A.J.Betts

wavelengthYou have to feel for Oliver: he is trying to study hard for his final high school exams, he knows what he wants to do after school and his precious sleep is being broken as his mum begins her morning muffin preparations. Combine that with 2 younger siblings, whose care he is semi-responsible for since his dad left, and friends who cruise effortlessly in their study, it seems, with their tutor’s help – it’s little wonder that he is anxious about achieving his goal mark. This is the focus of ‘Wavelength’ by A.J.Betts

Mum’s solution: send Oliver to his Dad’s for time out before his exams. The trouble is, along the way to his dad’s for his study break, he loses his bags; he arrives penniless, bookless, without his mobile phone and rather upset. It doesn’t help that he’s had little to do with his dad in recent years, and that for some reason, he can’t seem to get on the right wavelength with Emma, a girl where his dad works, who seems to hate him on sight.

After this auspicious arrival, all sorts of things seem to act against Oliver and his chances for successfully studying to achieve the magic 80 for entry to uni. What can he possibly do? Has he lost his last opportunity to succeed? Why is he even in this crazy situation? Doesn’t anyone understand?

‘Wavelength is authentic, entertaining, with astutely perceived details and some excruciatingly funny rude bits.’ Sun Herald, 13th March, 2011.

Readers should be able to identify with the intensity of Oliver’s frustrations, laugh at some of the situations that arise, reflect on all that happens in the story – to ponder what’s important in life. Betts has provided real characters in this story, and paints a vivid picture of how focussed students might get on a particular goal, and how life often throws something quite unexpected at them along the way.

Many adults write for Young Adults – has A.J.Betts written in an authentic voice for some of the youth of today? Do you identify with any of the characters? Is life like this? If so, has Betts made a point to you?

N.B. you can view this book trailer as a preview:

May 7

My Big Birkett – Lisa Shanahan

mybigbirkett.jpgGemma Stone is convinced that it is a bad thing to chuck a Birkett. She describes it this way:

“In my family, when anyone rides the wave of their emotions, we say they’re chucking a birkett. When the emotion drives out all common sense, we say they’re chucking a big one. The telltale signs are: flaming cheeks, shortness of breath, bulging eyes and a prolonged illogical outburst.”

Gemma is trying to keep her temper in spite of all the things that are complicating her life. These include falling in love with the coolest boy in school, dealing with her sister Debbie and her bizarre wedding plans, and dealing with Raven de Head, the town bad boy who has a crush on her.

The whole novel has a dramatic feel and would make a wonderful play. Lisa Shanahan, the author, trained as an actor at University of Western Sydney and taught school drama. She begins by introducing us to Gemma’s sister, Debbie, and her wedding plans. In something resembling ‘Muriel’s Wedding’, Debbie wants a wedding with all the trimmings. This includes Gemma wearing a sequinned and feathered swan costume, as the flower girl, along with trimmings like ice sculptures, and serviettes in the shape of origami birds.

However, the main action occurs at Gemma’s school where she is having a crush on Nick, the rich and handsome one that all the girls want. He, of course, hasn’t noticed that she exists. On the other hand, someone else has noticed her – Raven de Head, who comes from the wrong side of the tracks.

To get Nick to notice her, Gemma joins the school play which is to be a performance of the Tempest. This is when art starts to resemble life. Nick plays the shallow Prince Ferdinand, Gemma is Miranda and Raven De Head unwillingly takes on the role of the monster, Caliban.

Gemma has to choose between Nick and Raven. In the course of this, she goes to Raven de Head’s home for dinner, where she receives the shock of her life and is jolted out of her safe middle class existence. Raven’s home is completely dysfunctional. His father and mother live on welfare, one brother is in jail, and two others are delinquents. Their family solve arguments by violence, and Gemma is shockingly caught in the middle of one. One scene is portrayed so realistically that it is painful to read. I made myself keep going, but wanted to put the book down. Of course, after this Gemma wants nothing to do with Raven or his family.

In the end, Gemma makes the right choice but I will not give that away! It climaxes with Gemma chucking her own birkett at Debbie’s wedding. It is a hilarious but very moving scene. This book is highly recommended for its wisdom and humanity.