Ishmael and the Hoops of Steel

It’s time for Ishmael’s last two years of school. He has actually survived years of bullying and teasing, due to the ‘loser’ tag his surname Leseur has blessed him with, and now, even has a small band of buddies to see him through the tough times.

‘Ishmael and the Hoops of Steel’ is the final of the Ishmael books written by Michael Gerard Bauer. And it’s probably one of the funniest. It is easy to empathise with Ishmael and his friends as they negotiate the problems faced in the final years of their schooling – the things they do and say are totally believeable and easily recognisable. Even if you haven’t read the earlier books, it’s a tale that’s easy for the reader to follow and to yearn to support Ishmael’s honest endeavours to survive.

The ups and downs of normal teenage life and strife are woven through Ishmael’s senior school story. His newfound love, extracted to New Zealand by her father’s work (just after their first kiss), troubles Ishmael. The loss of his dream girl haunts Ishmael for some time. But then there are other things he needs to worry about; as school demands, high teacher expectations and the needs of his friends claim his attention.

Through it all, Ishmael is lovable and laughable – so much, that my family wondered what I was chuckling about as I eagerly turned each page. Probably not a book to read on the train – perhaps I recognise too many students’ ways in these characters?

Gerard Bauer has captured much of the essence of the last years at school – trying to balance school, friendship and the ‘finessing’ of your own self esteem. Though Ishmael and his friends, (Razzman, Ignatius, Scobie and Bill) sometimes negotiate their final years with the skill of a sumo wrestler in a fine ballet performance, they triumph in so many other ways – just as many senior students surprise both themselves and their teachers in the final resolution of their school years. (Well, if the Razzman can get a handle on Hamlet, then there’s hope for everyone, right?)

Michael Gerard Bauer also has lots to share with his readers and those who aspire to write successfully, as he certainly models what he says:

‘Write for yourself first and foremost rather than an audience. Write the story you are passionate about – the one that makes you laugh, or cry or moves you in some way, not the one you think you should write just to get published…Your task is to make your reader feel that anytime they are reading your story, it is the only one that matters. ‘ (Part of an interview with Michael Gerard Bauer on We Love YA blog – read the whole interview here )

Much of Ishmael is a reflection either from his own personal experiences, or as a former teacher, those observed at school. Maybe that’s what makes it all so good? I suggest hooking up with ‘Ishmael and the Hoops of Steel’ soon to judge for yourself… (And if you haven’t read the previous books, try them out too!) 

## Whether Ishmael  and the Hoops of Steel takes out the CBCA Older Readers Category will be announced in the coming weeks. What do you think? 

N.B. If you haven’t read the previous Ishmael books, check out this video where Michael Gerard Bauer explains how some of his characters come about, and ways the distinctive voices of his characters develop:

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 , 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?

10 Little Insects – Davide Cali

When I first heard of ’10 Little Insects’ at a recent CBCA conference in Adelaide, I thought it would be fun to read. I didn’t expect to be sitting and giggling as I moved through the pages – much to the mirth of my family, on a glum Saturday afternoon.

From the first pages of this new graphic novel, to the very end (which I almost missed…) there was a lot to keep you laughing and musing about along the way. In this whodunnit mystery, we follow the trails of 10 insects invited to Tortoise Island for a variety of curious reasons. Each ‘guest’ has come along with a different expectation of a weekend at an exclusive, but mysterious mansion on a secluded island.

Unfortunately, one by one, they meet an untimely death – reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’ (or ‘Ten Little Indians’ as it was released in the US). Of course they attempt to solve the mystery of individual deaths along the way, but as in any good Agatha Christie novel, the crimes aren’t solved completely till the very end; in an extremely humorous way.

’10 Little Insects’ was launched in Australia by Nicki Greenberg, a very clever Australian writer and illustrator, with an affinity for graphic novels. You can read her comments from the launch, and thus understand why she was the ideal candidate to launch the book in Australia. Read her comments carefully, especially when she implores:

“…try, if you possibly can, to slow down just a tiny bit. Linger a little in the wonderful lush landscapes of the island and the fabulous interiors of the mansion. Enjoy the clever use of space in the page layouts, the colours and textures, and the complex blocking required to portray so many characters’ interlocking conversations.”  (Nicki Greenberg,

And since Nicki spoke so eloquently and effusively about this book, there is little more I can say – except to recommend your read this, whenever you get the chance… then read it again to pick up what you missed (either in the clever illustrations of Vincent Pianina, Davide Cali’s punctuating text) the first time.

Do you enjoy graphic novels? or are they something new you are yet to explore?  are you like me, and would like to compare them with the original (if they are an adaptation)? or would you just prefer to take them at face value?

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Brothers – ‘When We were Two’ – Robert Newton

Dan’s had enough and takes off from home – the trouble is Eddie, his younger brother has decided to tag along too. What is he to do? Turn around to take him back? Send him back to a cruel and aggressive father – the one he is fleeing from himself?

Eddie is determined and refuses to go back anyway. So to make tracks , Dan has to encourage the marching activity Eddie loves, put up with his incessant chatter and humour him with stories and imaginings. And thus they march away from their old life in Gunnedah.

Along the road (to the distant Port Macquarie), Dan has to have his wits about him, as they encounter different people with different levels of interest in the pair. Dan is wary of the many of the adults they meet on the road; including one who shows an uncomfortable interest in young Eddie. (Eddie is a little slow following a childhood accident; Dan is hugely protective of him.)

Robert Newton has blended some endearing characters in this tale, and he takes you alongside on their march, with both humorous events and soulful accounts of the boys’ past. Each step they take becomes a triumph, as they overcome lots of hurdles along the way – both physical and mental hurdles, and you really want to cheer them on towards their goal.

Eddie is as delightful, as Daniel is dedicated – a terrific team of two. A group of would-be soldiers also finds Eddie endearing, when the boys join their march over the mountains to join up for the Great War. Together they become an interesting band, as Eddie’s childlike antics brings out the true nature of the men and boys around him, as they all move towards their own goals.

There are many changing moods in ‘When we were two’ – among them are periods of determination, anxiety, confusion, sadness and happiness. Dan and Eddie are searching for their lost mother, on a journey away from the past, towards an unknown future. It is the strength of their brotherly love and dedication that spurs them on, and it is indeed…

‘A powerful, heart-rending story’…

N.B. Shortlisted for CBCA Older Readers award. Is this one the winner?

the Dead I Know – by Scot Gardner

“In a curious way, I felt unburdened by the lack of hair. Something stirred in the pit of my belly and I wondered if the late Mrs Carmel Gray would like my shirt and my JKB tie and my new haircut. I wondered if I would be in the same room as the body. I wondered if I would smell the dead. Touch the dead.”

Aaron has just arrived to begin a new job. His new employer, John Barton, has already sent him to the barber, provided him with white shirts, a tie and measured him up for a suit! And Aaron has quietly accepted all this happening to him.

Strangely, the world he enters suits Aaron’s personal demeanour. He is told to watch and say nothing; so that’s what he does – he watches and observes. And he learns from John Barton, as he mimics the tasks he needs to perform at the funeral parlour, an unusual occupation for a teenage boy.

Back in his own personal world, things are less ordered and far more chaotic. He lives with Mam in a caravan park, as they have for many years, but things are changing. Often now, he has to rescue the burnt remains of Mam’s cooking, keep on the lookout for Westie and occasionally he finds himself waking in the strangest locations, pinned down by those who try to rouse him from his nightmares.

Little insights to Aaron’s past are revealed as the story progresses, but only as slowly as he cares to reveal details to the new people in his life. I love the way Mr and Mrs Barton deal with him, gently guiding and occasionally pushing him in certain directions. They are understanding adults, who avoid pressuring the somewhat troubled teen, without being too intrusive and making a subtle difference. This contrasts with those he sees at the hospital when his Mam has a broken arm. They feel she has others needs, and pressure him, but Aaron stands firm refusing further tests for her.

The Barton’s impudent and inquisitive daughter, Skye, asks many of the questions we would like to ask, and makes many wild assumptions also. Mostly, Aaron humours her, though occasionally she strikes a nerve. Piece by piece we discover more about Aaron’s life.

Scot Gardner has created another interesting world in ‘the Dead I Know’, and is able to portray the development of friendships across generations in a realistic manner. The quiet fondness of the Barton family for Aaron is accepted, though there is a slight sense of awkward reluctance from Aaron – a little reminiscent of when young Daniel begins to work for Eddy, an 89-year-old Dutch woman in ‘Burning Eddy’. (This book was on a previous CBCA shortlist in 2004)

‘The Dead I Know’ takes us into a different world, where death is all around, and the struggles of life are reduced to family memories and funeral services. Aaron fights past demons, at the same time as dealing with family concerns, and we are able to empathise with his quiet considerations of what is best to do for everyone concerned. Yet he faces his own shadows and personal doubts.

Have you read…?

Have you started reading any of the books nominated for the CBCA Older Readers Awards for 2012? The list includes several past winners – Ursula Dubosarsky, Michael Gerard Bauer; past shortlist nominee – Scot Gardner; and authors noted in other literary awards, for both young adult and adult books – Bill Condon and Andrew McGahan, new to YA awards, Robert Newton.

The list below (from the CBCA website) includes links to publishers’ websites for enticing summaries about each book.




Michael Gerard

and the Hoops of Steel


A Straight Line to my Heart


The Golden Day


The Dead I Know


Ship Kings: The Coming of the


When We Were Two


# Which one would you give the top award?


Revisiting the past? The Golden Day.

goldendayUrsula Dubosarsky’s new book, ‘the Golden Day’, has both echoes of Picnic at Hanging Rock and memories of the sixties in its tale. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed it.

A small class of young girls spend the day with their teacher, Miss Renmark, on a brief excursion to a local park – there to “go out into the beautiful Gardens and think about death”. The tale begins on a normal sort of day, in a girls school – the day that Ronald Ryan was hanged in Melbourne in 1967.

What happens on that day was to haunt the girls, 11 in total, from that day forward. And to remain a mystery, it seemed.

Indeed the tale itself is haunting, told by Dubosarsky from the point of view of young impressionable girls, so that the reader is never really sure of the whole truth behind a mysterious disappearance on that fateful day.

Who is Morgan, the draft dodger poet they meet in the park? And why is Miss Renshaw so entranced by him? Should they trust him as they venture into the hidden caves along the foreshores of Sydney under his guidance? What could they have done differently to avoid the tragic outcome of the day? Would they ever know what really happened?

‘The Golden Day’ is a well-crafted mystery – reflective of true events that happpened around the time it was set – as author Ursula Dubosarksy indicates in a final note, referring to disappearances of Juanita Nielsen, school girl Samantha Knight and another Mossvale school girl murdered in 1962. And as Sonya Hartnett comments on the inner book flap, this tale is one that ‘when its’ gone, you can’t stop thinking about it’.

‘The Golden Day’ has a dreamlike quality, but you still wonder what is the dream and what is meant to be the truth – and vice versa. Read it and see for yourself…

N.B. Now shortlisted for CBCA Older Readers Book of the Year Award 2012.