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.

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.

Worse than school?

“There are lots of things worse than school.”

This comment, made by Charlotte, begins an argument between her and Luke’s best mate, Blake; on a day they decide to skip school. It later becomes something Luke ponders more deeply, as he gets to know Charlotte a little better.

In usual Steven Herrick style, ‘the Bogan Mondrian’ is told in a clear, waste-no-words fashion.

Luke and his friends are relatable characters – teens biding their time at school, but preferring to spend a more casual existence away from school. As regular visitors to the principal’s office for truanting and cheekiness, they are nonetheless likeable.

Luke is still coming to grips with life after his father’s premature death from cancer. Charlotte has recently enrolled in the local public high school he attends, though she is clearly from a wealthy background and could attend a costly private school. Even though they live in contrasting worlds of wealth, their friendship evolves as they work through their own personal issues, and occasionally gain support from each other.

That said, it is not always an easy relationship, with aggression and flareups often arising. Luke is uneasy about Charlotte’s homelife, and Charlotte is not very willing to be open and honest with everyone – under attack and often quite aggressive herself.

Other characters woven into the story provide interesting levels of support for Luke, in the absence of his father. Rodney, a petty local criminal, gives Luke a few pointers/things to think about at times, and later in the story, tools for action. Neighbour, Mr Rosetti, also provides advice and amusing banter each time they cross paths. Even Buster (the local mutt that Luke adopts for his walks) has a important place in grounding Luke’s emotions throughout the story.

For Blue Mountains readers, there will be places and names you may well enjoy recognising. On the other hand, you may have to allow poetic licence to Herrick as he tells his tale – with the cultural divide north and south of the highway a bit irksome, and the efforts of the Mr Pakula, the school principal, (seeking out truants himself) a bit questionable. But still the story must be told.

You will find that there are worse things than school; things sadly that some young people face daily. Herrick’s fictional youth tackle these the best way they can – though not always with glowing success. Lots of food for thought and highly recommended reading.

# Those who wonder about the title and cover design can find information on Mondrian here.

## More importantly, after you have finished ‘the Bogan Mondrian’, you can read here the reasons why Steven Herrick wrote this book.

### Shortlisted for CBCA Older Readers 2019.