Echo Mountain

As I delved into family history and considered the troubles my ancestors dealt with, I was also reading ‘Echo Mountain’, and then reflected on what many people faced in the years of the Depression when they lost their jobs and livelihoods.

Set in times of economic troubles, Ellie’s family moved to the mountains for a simpler, more manageable life. Life on the land. But life is harsh. And then tragedy strikes.

Though Ellie is the middle child and youngest daughter, she shoulders many of her family’s troubles. While her sister Esther does her fair share of housework (which she seems to like) it is Ellie who has to complete a lot more ‘yardwork’ since the accident.

Fortunately, she is an outdoors kind of girl, a trait once encouraged by her father. That, and her desire to find a cure to bring her father back to health, leads her to tracking down Cate, known in the mountains as a hag or witch, but also a healer.

With Cate’s instruction and guidance, Ellie uses skills well beyond the normal ability of a 12-year-old girl to heal. But it is not just her father she works to heal – a broken family, a broken woman and wild mountain boy become critical parts of her story.

The circumstances which brought about each person’s life-difficulties are carefully woven into this tale from Lauren Wolk, an award-winning American poet and author. (Her previous novel, ‘Wolf Hollow’, won a Newbery Honour in 2017.)

She provides a good insight into life in the Depression years, as the family battles to make ends meet – building, hunting, fishing and bartering goods with other mountain folk. The tasks Ellie is required to do may have some feeling squeamish, while in awe of her determination and intelligence. The skills of others in the story creating intricate wooden carvings and musical instruments are also something to be discovered along the way (I actually wish there were some illustrations of these).

Ellie learns a lot simply by doing things. There’s something for all of us in that. And there’s something for lovers of historical fiction and family stories in ‘Echo Mountain’.

Do you test out your own ideas just by doing what you think should work (like Ellie)?

How far would you go to help a member of your family?

Do you think we should always accept what we are told about different people?

Recommended 10+

Our Chemical Hearts

Henry – at 17 has never had a real girlfriend. Lola – had a fling with Henry, but then moved on to a relationship with Georgie. Murray – comical crazy over-the-top Aussie friend is thrown into the mix. (Maybe he’s a good drawcard for Australian YA readers?)

Then, the elusive Grace turns up in their senior years of high school. Lola thinks Grace is competition for Henry. Muz (Murray) thinks she may be a zombie, werewolf or worse. But Henry is enamoured – he thinks.

When they are teamed as editors of the school newspaper, Henry and Grace have to spend more time together and things evolve. But Grace has an unexplained past – one she seems unwilling to reveal to Henry.

In ‘Our Chemical Hearts’ Henry is a somewhat gentle teenager – up till now, not too worried about what others think of him – until he meets Grace. Then, as he tries to understand a little bit about her, he finds himself in the throes of his ‘first love’. Grace, hurt by recent losses, is hot and cold in the relationship which confuses him and he digs deeper.

“I fell asleep… thinking of Grace Town and how, if people really were assembled from pieces of the universe, her soul was made of stardust and chaos.” (Is this Henry experiencing true love?)

Krystal Sutherland has a great story in this debut novel. There are moments of laughter and tears (I did both) as Henry and Grace search to understand each other, find their hearts and ultimately, themselves. Cute vignettes are exchanged between Henry and Grace (in texts, notes and letters) and funny (maybe over-the-top) quips from Murray and Lola add a friendly flavour to this touching and relatable tale.

# ‘Our Chemical Hearts’ is due for movie release sometime in 2020 – why not get to know the characters and read it before then?

## Why are there fish on the cover? (Maybe Ricky Martin Knupps II knows?)

The Last Days of Us

Some stories touch your heart – is that why you like them?

For me, there are so many touchpoints in this novel – identifying with loss of a sibling, road-tripping and typical working out ‘who you are’ as a teenager.

All this comes about as Zoey’s life crashes into oblivion following the tragic death of her brother. Unable to cope, she spirals away from her friends as they try to help her, and away from parents dealing with their own grief. Fortunately, a wakeup call (finding herself passed out at the wheel of her car) and an invitation to join her ex-boyfriend on a road-trip pulls her back into reality – a little.

Her plan is to get back with Finn, her ex, even though Cassie, her best friend is also coming on the trip.

As they travel from Adelaide to Melbourne with Finn’s cousins, Zoey works through memories and actions of the past. This is mainly generated by the questions and taunts of Finn’s super attractive but sullen cousin, Luc – Mr Grumpy she calls him.

Drawn together by the road-trip, it seems they have a little more in common as time progresses and they learn about each other. The trip itself is buoyed along by Luc’s effervescent younger sister, Jolie. It seems no-one else is too bothered to plan, so she guides their itinerary.

Along the way, Zoey begins to see things differently, and events lead to an exploration of friendships and family relationships – her old friends, her new friends and different family dynamics around her. It’s an emotional story (tissues please).

‘Losing a loved one is the hardest thing, and I think it changes a person forever.’ Author ,Beck Nicholas, in Acknowledgements, p.333.

It certainly changed Zoey. Now is she ready to change again?

Will she win Finn back? Can she do that to her best friend, Cass?

And how long can she put up with Luc’s brooding behaviour? Will she just do that to appease her newfound friend, his sister, Jolie?

More importantly, can past mistakes finally be forgiven?

# NOTE: The copy I read was a ‘dyslexic friendly’ book, which I personally found difficult. From what I have read, I can see that the font used could help somewhat. However, why hasn’t the publisher used left alignment for the text?  since justification of text removes prompts required for a dyslexic friendly style.

Hear me – Being Jazmine

‘Being Jazmine’ is the third book featuring Jazmine Crawford – part of the Invisible series by Cecily Paterson. That said, it was also a good read as a stand-alone title.

This story challenges readers to put ourselves in the shoes of someone else, as Jazmine struggles with the demands of high school. She is finding it increasingly hard and very, very tiring.

Alongside the usual teenage angst, she faces a change to her family life as her mother remarries and they plan to move out of her old family home. Even though it’s been five years since her father died, and even though her mother’s boyfriend is really nice, it’s a hard and unfathomable adjustment for Jazmine.

Even with good support from her school friends, certain school teachers and her grandmother, Jazmine still finds it all a bit too much. Why is she so tired all the time? How is she meant to accept this new phase of her life? With the added complication of being deaf, she feels caught between different worlds and the expectations of family and friends.

This story is one to make you think about the things we often take for granted, and things we don’t really see clearly. It highlights the importance of having understanding adults – parents, teachers and grandparents in particular. A book about belonging (or not), and seeing things from the perspective of others.

Recommended 12+

# Other titles in this series are Invisible and Invincible

Derek Dool Supercool (Younger readers)

With so many great YA books about, it’s not often I pick up and review something for younger readers. However, I have just chuckled my way through the first book of ‘Derek Dool Supercool’ series – ‘Bust a Move’.

Young readers will love Derek, as he tries to convince everyone else at his school that he is as cool as he thinks himself. Especially if he can win the dance-off at Rutthill’s school disco!

Even though Derek often has other kids laughing at him (they get points if they doink him on the head in their handball games), and he is on permanent litter duty at lunchtime, he somehow still believes he is the COOLEST, FUNNIEST and most HANDSOME kid at school!

This book is full of fun characters – including Derek who’s ego is bigger than most, his “friends” Booger and Big Denise, and his arch-enemy, Carmichael Cruz. Author Adrian Beck brings them all to life through their over-exaggerated actions and emotions. We learn little things about them in short sections within the story – e.g. how Booger gets his name.

Characters Big Denise, Derek and Booger from the back cover.

Add to this wildly entertaining illustrations from Scott Edgar, and you have a great book for a relaxing but fun read. Even the text and page layout are enjoyable. Words jump out at you. Dad Jokes appear. And special characters, Gilbert and Gertie, make sarcastic comments about what is likely to happen in the story.

This is probably a book for 8+ age group, but who’s going to stop anyone older investigating what younger readers are laughing about? A fun book for the family/class to share.

# The good news is that Derek, Booger and Big Denise return in ‘Derek Dool Supercool – Going Viral’ book very soon! 

the Definition of Us

What are your friends like? Do they talk, act and think the same as you? Or do they have a few quirky differences in their personalities?

In ‘the Definition of Us’ it would seem that Florence, Jasper, Andrew and Wilf have little in common, except that they attend the Manor Lane Therapy Centre. Each of them has their own problems and idiosyncracies, so why would they even think to do a road trip to Wales together?

It is when their therapist, Howard, goes missing without warning that they decide to track him down. How could he leave them without notice or explanation? Especially Florence, since she is facing a critical anniversary at the time, and is in need of his support to get through the weekend.

They want answers. They want distractions. They want to get away!

Each of the quartet has their own reasons for needing therapy, and while they are an unlikely friendship group, their shared goal (to find Howard) brings them into some interesting situations. As individuals, they respond differently to the events which happen, but together they rise above the challenges they meet along the way – eventually.

At crisis times, they are even able to provide some sort of reasoned therapy for each other, in the absence of Howard!

Author, Sarah Harris, has developed a fun but thoughtful way of looking at several mental health conditions; even if events are somewhat questionable at times. YA readers should identify with many of the issues within the group and should appreciate the ideas expressed by each individual.

(Even if you don’t have such an issue yourself, there may be food for thought about how others around you feel – though they may hide their own realities.) 

Florence is particularly likeable, with her love for words emitting strong emotions, and her observations seemingly narrating the story. However other characters, like Andrew, also have a lot to say:

“It’s not funny. You think I’m just one big joke. You call me names and put me down but I’m not a robot. I do care. I spend a lot of time trying to understad people because I want them to like me… Why does no-one ever try to understand me?” (Andrew, p. 101, found after he ran away from the group on the freeway)

‘The Definition of Us’ pries into the hidden lives of Florence, Jasper, Andrew and Wilf to make us question what is really ‘normal’ – and make us think about how we treat others and ourselves.

* Do you always have to conform to the expectations of others?

** How can we know our true selves? and the true selves of others?

*** What is ‘normal’ anyway?

Available as ebook.

Promise Me Happy

Nate wonders what really makes people who they are. Is it determined at birth, or is it a result of how you are raised? Either way, things are not looking good for him. His dad is abusive, his mother is dead and he’s just finished 18 months in juvenile detention. Now he is off to some unknown location to stay with some unknown family member – his uncle, his mother’s brother.

It’s like he has completely shut down in juvie, and can’t see anything positive ahead – especially when he first meets his uncle, Mick. Neither Nate or Mick are lovable characters when we first meet them – in many ways, they are alike.

As Nate slowly explores his uncle’s community and the people within it, he begins to recollect happier times with his mum and a personal connection with the local environment. Quirky characters like Gem and Henry cross his path, and his thoughts start to move outside himself. They are authentic characters and you will love them both for different reasons.

Nate sees Gem as unique, and more beautiful inside and out than any other girl he has known. Henry is an eccentric little 8 year-old, who provides a bit of local knowledge to Nate, and at times, some unwanted companionship – till he grows on him. Even his relationship with Mick moves well beyond its gruff beginning.

However, encounters with the local tough guys test his self-control, and he begins to wonder again, if he is destined to follow in his father’s footsteps, unable to control his anger.

‘Promise Me Happy’ by Robert Newton is a great journey which makes you wonder about the ways people deal with confrontation, being different and how people can react when someone important leaves their lives. Keep the tissues handy, but feel happy that you have been on the journey with Nate in the end.

What is it like to lose someone close to you?

In what ways can we deal with our grief and remember the important things? to keep our emotions in check?

# ‘Promise Me Happy’ is on the 2020 CBCA Longlist for Older Readers

## Robert Newton also wrote When We Were Two (which was awarded the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Young Adult Fiction in 2012) and Mr Romanov’s Garden. His other books can be found here.

### Available as an ebook.

Collaborative writing: Take Three Girls

How great is it to get a book which is written by, not one, but three renowned authors!

‘Take Three Girls’ deals with the complexities of teen life, set mainly in a boarding school situation, but dealing with many of the day-to-day issues for young adults, wherever they are.

Focussing on three girls – Clem, Kate and Ady, it weaves their lives together – in spite of some strong differences among them.

Clem, a previously competitive swimmer, is struggling to come back to her part in the elite school swimming team after injury. Quiet Kate is trying to determine where her future lies – is it in an academic or musical direction? And Ady, who is not a boarder, is dealing with where she stands, as her family begins to struggle both financially and personally, for the final years at St Hilda’s private school. What choices will they each make?

The weft of the book begins with the school’s wellness program, which ties them together as partners. As it aims to have students consider things (like identity, self-image, friendship and bullying), the story reflects issues which may well arise for many teenagers.

The warp happens when online sledging appears via vicious social media posts, aimed at girls at St Hilda’s – and ultimately, including the names of Clem, Kate and Ady. (Who is behind it, and how can they deal with it?)

There are parts of the book which will be confronting for some readers – particularly the PSST posts. Some of the situations in which the girl find themselves are not wonderful either, and their choices are not always ideal. But this is not Pollyanna, nor is it set in Pollyanna days. Today, teenagers are susceptible to anonymous cyber-bullying. Schools are not perfect places. And so, this book is both gritty and challenging, as it explores these issues and:

friendship, feminism, identity and belonging. (from the blurb on the back cover).

As already noted, it is also a collaboration between three talented Australian authors – Cath Cowley, Simmone Howell and Fiona Wood – and is soooo well done.

You might expect it was a hard thing to do. However, each of the authors has stated how much they enjoyed their part in writing the book. That the book is so complete reflects this, and it sounds like a fabulous thing to create together.

# For more discussion on the collaboration, and how they worked together, see this post from Writing NSW which followed ‘Take Three Girls’ winning Book of the Year in the CBCA Awards 2018.

## Recommended 15+

### Available as an ebook.

Between Us: Barriers

Ana lives in a detention centre in Darwin, having escaped her home in Iran, and initially being transported to Nauru. From Wickham Point Immigration Centre, she is able to attend school, but that is about all. No freedom. No hope. No life.

On her first school day, a new guard (Kenny) feels sorry for her and tells her to look out for his son (Jono) if she needs help. Kenny later regrets doing this, as other guards warn him the refugees will take advantage of anyone they can – in their eyes, the asylum seekers do not deserve any special treatment.

Jono is quite taken with Ana, and does befriend her, even after he finds out about her refugee status. Disinterested in school, but interested in Ana, he creates a lot of anxiety for his father. Kenny tells him to avoid Ana, even though the impact of her friendship is a mostly positive one, so the conflict (and distance) between father and son grows.

Set in an actual detention centre, Wickham Point (now closed), ‘Between Us’ addresses the difficulties and misunderstandings which exist around many asylum seekers. In his naivety, Jono occasionally upsets Ana with his insensitive comments and actions, but he does try. Ana is caught between two worlds, with some freedoms at school that she has not experienced for a while, though her family’s refugee status is never far from her mind.

Wickham Point Immigration Detention Centre

In ‘Between Us’, Clare Atkins does a wonderful job raising the issues which confront asylum seekers – their mistreatment, misunderstandings, cultural conflicts and lack of human rights. This is a sometimes gentle, but then confronting tale. (Ana’s home flashbacks are particularly gruesome.)

It contrasts the lives of Ana and Jono as they both deal with normal adolescent issues, which are also tinged with cultural and family expectations, and societal blindness to their personal problems. It doesn’t paint a pretty picture, but makes you think.

Raw but real. Insightful but challenging. Highly recommended read.

Also good for group/class discussion – don’t let that put you off!

Winner, CBCA’s 2019 Book of the Year for Older Readers.

CBCA’s 2019 Notable Book of the Year for Older Readers.

iBBY Australia’s 2020 Honour Book for Writing.

# Available as an ebook.

It Sounded Better in my Head

It’s Easy Being Teen. Right? Not always…

Natalie has never been one of the beautiful girls at school, and for much of her teen years has suffered with chronic acne – which has caused her to be very withdrawn. Fortunately, she does have 2 close friends (Zac and Lucy) and so she looks ahead to sharing her post-school future with them.

As they await their Year 12 results, all things seem to unravel when Natalie (who tells her story) is faced with the news of her parents impending divorce. At the same time, she begins to feel like the third wheel when Zac and Lucy ‘hook up’, adding another layer of angst for Natalie.

Natalie voices a lot of her problems – but in her head – she doesn’t say them out loud. We know how she’s feeling and what she would like to say, but she lacks the confidence to follow through. This, of course, leads her to some places and situations where she would rather not be.

There are other relationships for Natalie to negotiate in this, the last summer before university, when she experiences a number of firsts. She tries to rise above her personal insecurities, while her safe world crumbles around her…

Filled with authentic characterisation, this is a great debut novel from Nina Kenwood, and has already won the 2018 Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing. It is also one of the nominees for the 2020 Young Adult Indy Awards.

* Do any of Natalie’s thoughts echo what you have sometimes thought or experienced?

** Can reading help us to empathise with others who may live different lives to our own?

*** Here’s Nina’s website – all very new.

**** Available as an ebook.