Butterfly, Sonya Hartnett

You wonder as you read ‘Butterfly’, if Sonya Hartnett is reliving some of the angst of her own teenage years.

Her characters are authentic, the self-judgement of Plum makes you squirm as you identify with it, and the desire to be accepted echoes that of most teens rather well. That she has placed the story at a time when David Bowie was a pop idol, and there was no hint of computer technology (Plum’s dream birthday gift is “a teeny-weeny television inside a silver ball with little legs”), makes this seem even more feasible.

Whether or not this is the case, Hartnett has created a candid observation of the many rituals of the teen years, and the judgemental nature of adolescent relationships. She also challenges our expectations of adults to behave in appropriate ways, as she leads Plum into a friendship with neighbour, Maureen, at a time when she is extremely vulnerable – on the cusp of adolescence.

Plum experiences the usual highs and lows of the teen years, at the mercy of her friends’ comments, and lovingly teased by her older brothers. A confrontation she is destined to negotiate arises due to her eldest brother’s particular friendship with Maureen, and one which challenges all her concepts of relationships with family, friends and adults in her life.

Is Plum able to metamorphose into a beautiful butterfly? Will her beautiful neighbour really ‘begin show her how to fly’ as the blurb implies? A book that is both enjoyable and one that will make you nod your head, sadly, as it explores and reflects some of the intricacies of teenage life.

Marty’s shadow

This novel can often be a painful and heart-wrenching read.  The final scenes are not for the faint hearted, so don’t choose this book if you want a nice read in front of the fire with a box of chocolates! 

Marty’s Shadow is the story of two brothers, Marty and Jack, who mostly fend for themselves in a small country town.  Their mother has left seven years ago and it is clear she is never coming back.  Their father comes home only on weekends, or rarely at other times, as he tries to get work where he can.  Their father is a complex character.  He is often cruel and brutal, but can be tender and is capable of feeling guilt at his neglect and rough treatment of the boys.  He tries to spend time with the younger brother Jack, but is totally disengaged from his older son.  We only find out why later on.

Jack tries to lead a normal life in the town, going in school plays and joining a sporting team, but Marty is a loner, extremely troubled and disturbed.  His persona is of a tough country kid who loves pig hunting and guns, but deep down there is a mystery about him.  He becomes more and more troubled by voices and half memories of something terrible that has happened in the past.  The Shadow of the title is two things, Marty’s dog, Gwab, who is always at his side, and, more horribly, the voices and nightmares that drench his dreams and then his waking thoughts. 

As the book develops we get inklings of what his memories have repressed, but the darkness of the story is lightened by his relationship with an Iranian girl, Nariah.  She has problems of her own from the small town prejudice towards her immigrant family, so they are drawn together.  One of the most beautiful scenes is when Nariah invites Marty to her place for a meal, and they eat in their backyard.  Her father has created a little Persian oasis of a garden, and her mother has created an oasis of care and lovingly prepared meals.  Marty is nourished by the love and warmth he has never experienced from his own family.

Things are looking up, but take a turn for the worse, as Marty tries to help Nariah deal with the cruel tricks played on her family by some of the town’s boys.  Violence escalates and all ends in a confronting final scene.  Just before this Marty finally realises what he has been suppressing all his life.  He lashes out from his place of pain and ends up hurting those he loves most. 

Marty is not a loveable character, but Heffernan makes us care about what happens to him, and we are given inklings of hope that he might find some healing in his future life.

The ghost’s child

I always approach a new novel by Sonya Hartnett with a combination of excitement and apprehension.  Every novel by her is different and you know you are in for an intense experience.  The same is true for ‘The Ghost’s Child’, however, this time it is a more mellow novel with less disturbing overtones. ‘The Ghost’s Child’ is a fable of obsessive love and love lost, which includes fairy tale elements.

This is the story of how a young and mysterious child comes into the house of an old woman, Maddy, and she tells him the story of her life.  It opens with the most beautiful and poetic prose, deceptively simple.  Maddie begins her story in an everyday style but soon elements of magical realism are introduced as she describes the “nargun “, a frightening bush creature that lonely Maddy takes as her friend.

Maddy starts to tell how she began a life-long quest which her father set her: “what is the world’s most beautiful thing?”.  Much of the first part of the story is taken up with her travels all over the world with her adored father to find the most beautiful thing.

The answer to Maddy’s quest seems to be that this beauty does not reside in a thing but in a person, the feral boy, Feather.  Maddy comes home from her travels as an adult and falls obsessively in love with this ethereal being, a boy of the sea and the wind, who doesn’t want to be confined.  She says of him “He was a kestrel, an eel, a lacewing.  He begrudged nothing else in life but his life belonged absolutely to him.  This is how wild things are.  This is why I loved him in the first place”.  We know right from the beginning that this love will be doomed as Feather is too restless to ever be satisfied with one person in one place.

This is a novel written for no particular age group and wasn’t published as a young adult novel.  Adults will enjoy its poetic and lilting prose and its bittersweet conclusion.  Young adults will enjoy it if they are particularly literate and willing to persist with its lyrical, sometimes slow pace.  It is a book worth reading again to truly appreciate its qualities.

Leaving Barrumbi

‘Leaving Barrumbi’ is the third in a series about the Barrumbi kids set in an Aboriginal community in north Australia. In this book, Dale and Tomias have to leave their community and go to boarding school in town. 

The boys are sent off with much advice in order to cope with their new lives.  Dale is a white boy who has been brought up Aboriginal.  He is told to “Sitdown, quiet. Make that good decision” and his friend, Tomias, an Aboriginal boy, is advised “learn that Big English”.  These pieces of advice are appropriate for their very different personalities.  Dale is spontaneous and completely impulsive, ruled by his emotions.  He has a huge shock when he is told at the school to keep the rules and sit still. Tomias, on the other hand, has real potential as a student and in leadership.

As the story progresses, the boys’ previously close relationship suffers when Dale finds he is unable to keep the rules and constantly gets into trouble.  He can’t understand why he isn’t treated as Aboriginal and is unable to go on special “blackfella’s” field trips. Tomias is pulled into Dale’s trouble against his will.  To make things worse, Dale begins a friendship with one of the school’s troublemakers, as they spend a lot of time in detention together.

Disaster seems to be looming for Dale, but the book goes into a different direction.  Dale’s positive qualities of passion for ‘country’, and his understanding of Aboriginal ways and customs, helps him to resolve many difficult issues. In the end,Dale’s knowledge of Aboriginal dreaming and his cleverness at surviving in the bush, enables him and Tomias to make a positive change in both the school and its surrounding environment.

Leonie Norrington has lived in both white and Aboriginal communities and her knowledge of these cultures is obvious in the telling of this story.  The story includes Kriol language and understanding of bush tucker and tracking, Dreaming stories, and a humorous and generous insight into the cultural differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

Love like water

‘Love like Water’ has created much controversy from being chosen as one of the Young Adult award winners, not because it isn’t a marvellous book, but because it seems to be in the wrong category.  This novel was published as an adult novel and some booksellers and reviewers, including myself, feel that it belongs in that category.  It is the story of three people in their 20’s, two women and a man, who are searching for love and meaning, and who move to Alice Springs, trying to find these things in the red heart of the country.

This novel reads like an adult novel, with adult themes and pacing.  The three main characters have had many relationships, and all need healing from their past.  Cathy is the main character, a country girl from North Queensland who is grieving after the death of her fiancé.  Margie, her flatmate, is a good time girl from the city looking for love.  Jay is an Aboriginal DJ, looking for a new start, away from his city job and meaningless life.

The central part of the story is the love affair that develops between Cathy and Jay, a black and white love affair which is bittersweet and memorable.  It is here that we see the truth of the title – love is like water, healing and life giving, but not something you can hold onto.  As Cathy says “I think love is like water.  But it’s like a whole lot of other things too…it’s like food, like air…it can be like…a bushfire…like a river that flows between two people who trust each other”. Cathy and Jay’s relationship has no fairy tale ending, but the time together brings both of them some healing and increased understanding of each other.

In many ways the main character in ‘Love like water’ is Alice Springs itself.  The town and its surrounds are described with a great feeling for “country”.  We get an authentic Aboriginal understanding of the extraordinary natural beauty of the place, in contrast with the tragedy of many of the lives of its inhabitants. As one character says of Alice Springs “The Centre is a good place to centre yourself, as they say.  I tell that to most of the people who come out here”.

Meme McDonald has written a mature, compassionate and wise novel about adult love that will be appreciated by the adult reader or a literate senior student.  Her knowledge of aboriginal society and groupings, both in city and country is insightful.

Pharaoh: the boy who conquered the Nile

‘Pharaoh: the boy who conquered the Nile’ is a highly entertaining and well researched book about one of the first Egyptian pharaohs.  The Egypt of this book is in a time well before the familiar one of the pyramids, painted tombs and elaborate mummy cases.  It is set around 3000 B.C., a much more primitive time when agriculture is only quite recent and the great power of the Middle East is Sumer and the great city of Ur.

We meet Narmer, the younger brother of the King, who is destined to be pharaoh, and is called The Golden One.  We already scent trouble when we come across the jealous older brother, who hides his feelings behind a smooth and distant exterior.  The town they rule is Thinis, on the banks of the Nile.  The residents think that their city is the height of civilisation, but this is their limited vision, and only a visiting trader from Ur will teach Narmer otherwise.

The story gains pace when the visiting trader comes to share his wares and brings with him an unusual and intriguing assistant.  This person is always hidden behind many layers of clothing and speaks very softly, but Narmer comes to understand that these layers hide a horrible facial disfigurement.  However, Narmer is strangely drawn to this assistant, not knowing that these two people, the trader and his helper, will soon save his life. 

Narmer’s jealous older brother, Hawk, tricks him into going hunting for hippo, knowing that a vicious crocodile awaits him.  Narmer is terribly damaged and almost killed by the crocodile.  He is no longer The Golden One, heir to the throne, and decides to go travelling with the trader and leave his native land.

Jackie French gives a fascinating account of travelling in the ancient near east and living in the city of Ur, cultural centre of the world of its time.  The book ends with Narmer, returning with his wife, to his home town with all that he has learned, including bronze tools and irrigation.  With these, he is able to unite all the towns of the Nile and begin to build the great nation of Egypt.

This book will be enjoyed by late primary as well as junior high school readers, but also by students of ancient history, for its accurately researched picture of a very little known time in history.

Black Water

Black Water is the story of Farren Fox, a boy who lives on the Southern Victorian coast in a fishing community called Queenscliff.  The novel is set during World War I, and as in Metzenthen’s previous book “Boys of blood and bone”, the savage effects of war on the lives of those both fighting and waiting at home are seen vividly.

Farren has lost his mother two years ago and his brother Danny is at Gallipoli “giving the Turks a belting”.   Farren and his father, Tom, head out each day to risk their lives in the often treacherous waters near the fishing village to earn their livelihood.  Before long, tragedy strikes in Farrens’s life again, as his father is killed in a fishing accident.  The reader begins to wonder how much more Farren’s life can take, as next, his brother Danny comes home from Gallipoli damaged in mind and body.  This book begins to live up to its title “Black Water”.

However, not all is hopeless.  The town’s people rally round to help the brothers in subtle ways.  Kindnesses are offered in unexpected places. The boys develop resilience and a positive attitude to their bleak situation.  Excitement is provided when they take on Souki, a feral child who is a survivor of a shipwreck.  Humour and resourcefulness come to the fore as the boys provide for themselves with fishing and rabbit hunting and take time to search for a fabled buried treasure in the sandhills.

This novel has a superb feeling for place.  The ocean in all its moods is ever present and the village is an authentic picture of a community in World War I Australia.  You end this novel with a strong feeling of hope and the knowledge that Farren and Danny will be survivors.

Reviews for Readers

reading-teddy.jpgThere are many places to find reviews on Young Adult literature, so we thought we would share a few with you. If there are any fabulous sites you come across, please pass them on in the comments section.

Inside a Dog? is a great site for current info. on YA fiction. It features reviews, first chapters of new releases, competitions and quizzes and each month or so there is an ‘author in residence’ who writes blog posts about their style of writing. There are also various audio downloads, so check it out some time soon.

YARA Online is dedicated to teenage/young adult readers and features reviews of novels written by Australian and overseas authors. Audio titles are also included and we have a section devoted to verse novels from around the world. You can add your comment or read those of other teen readers.

Fiction Focus provides a blog commenting on new YA fiction, as well as providing a link for YA authors’ websites.

Read Alert is another website dedicated to YA readers, with lots of breaking news items about the world of literature. You will find out about the latest award winners, authors in the news, and visits or workshops planned by authors, at both international and local levels.

Nominees for CBCA Awards Older Readers 2008

cbclogosm.gifAfter a lengthy judging process, the following books have been nominated this year for the Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards in the Older Readers category:

Source: CBCA See also Notable List for other selections for 2008.

  • French, Jackie – Pharaoh: the boy who conquered the Nile
  • Hartnett, Sonya – The ghost’s child
  • Heffernan, John – Marty’s shadow
  • Mcdonald, Meme – Love like water
  • Metzenthen, David – Black water
  • Norrington, Leonie – Leaving Barrumbi

Keep watch here for reviews. Add your own comments, if you have read any of these books already.