Toffee – sweet & hard

“I like the idea of being

sweet and hard

a girl with a name for people

to chew on.

 

A girl who could break teeth.” Toffee.

When Allison flees from home and seeks refuge in a shed (in what she thinks is an abandoned home) her life takes an unexpected turn. The home is where Marla lives – an elderly woman, lonely, confused and neglected by her family.

Written as a verse novel, ‘Toffee’ (by Sarah Crossan) is physically easy to read, but somewhat hard to deal with – it raises issues about family violence and elder abuse/neglect. However, each of these is slowly and softly revealed, as we learn about Allison’s family situation and her feelings about those she left behind. There are also parallel revelations about Marla’s family.

Gradually Allison becomes ‘Toffee’, gaining a feeling of safety. She is slowly accepted in Marla’s home, as Marla thinks she is her friend from the past. For Allison, a new identity and friendship are welcome; especially given the comforts of Marla’s home, where her father’s ways can be forgotten.

Along the way, Crossan shows the complications of life for both Allison and Marla…

Allison longs to have a normal family life, and can’t understand what tips her father’s moods. Is she to blame? Should she be a better daughter?

Marla also longs for a happy family life, and the life she remembers from long ago. At times, she is forgetful and confused, which Allison/Toffee learns to manage.

What does it mean to be ‘family’? What are real friends meant to be like? Who can you trust? These are some of the ideas explored in ‘Toffee’, as Sarah Crossan* shows that not all family situations are reliably the same.

In this video, Sarah outlines why she likes to write verse novels like Toffee – made up of a “series of snapshots” for the reader, rather than the “film” version of a prose book.

*Other books by Sarah Crossan include ‘Apple & Rain’ and ‘The Weight of Water’

** Sarah Crossan is currently the Irish Children’s Laureate for 2018-2020.

 

What does family mean to you?

Do money and wealth lead to happiness?  (consider Lucy’s situation)

What do you really value in life?

Recommended 13+

Past the Shallows

After reading Favel Parrett’s There Was Still Love, I had to find ‘Past the Shallows’ (which I had somehow missed in 2011). This was her debut novel, though she had quite a successful writing career before then.

Just like in ‘There Was Still Love’, the settings and experiences in ‘Past the Shallows’ are beautifully captured, so the visit to the southern region of Bruny Island is well-worth the journey. In fact, the coastal setting and the ocean are significant ‘characters’ within the story.

Three brothers, Joe, Miles and Harry live a troubled existence in this remote location following the tragic death of their mother. Joe has left home and thus, Miles is the one who is commanded to help on his father’s fishing expeditions, while Harry, the youngest is left to his own devices.

For his brothers, the chance to surf is a breakaway from their sad lifestyle, even though the area they surf is tough and unforgiving. Harry, who fears the ocean finds his escape once he discovers Jake and his owner, the reclusive George. Though we might fear a solitary man living in an old rundown cottage, (and maybe Harry should also) George provides a grandfatherly influence in Harry’s life.

As Favel Parrett carefully discloses details about the Curren family’s past, we grieve for their losses and rejoice in the precious snippets of family love they knew. Each of the boys has something to remember, learn from and live through. Is there hope?

Just as their remote location has both grim and beautiful aspects, so too do their lives. There is both joy and sorrow in this tale, with the bond of brothers a strong element. And there will be both laughter and tears as you read this one.

The Tell

“A tell is a sign a person gives out, accidentally, when they are trying really hard to keep something a secret, and I just happen to be an expert…

I don’t know why or how exactly, but I seem to have a gift for reading the tells.” Rey Tanic, 14 year old. (p.11-12, the Tell)

Rey (Raze to his friends) has a few other instincts which he can’t really explain – although he thinks it may have something to do with his family heritage as the son of mafia boss. He has something to tell his father when he next visits him in prison – but what is it?

When he gets an (unscheduled) visit sooner than he expected, Raze is unsettled by his father’s behaviour – even after he raises his issue.

Rey struggles with the wealth and trappings which are the proceeds of the family business (fine possessions, mansion home and attendance at a private school), and does NOT want to follow in his father’s dark footsteps. While a lot has been hidden to him in the past, Rey uncovers many grim details as he gets older.

‘The Tell’ raises questions about family heritage – are we destined to repeat the actions of our parents? Is it in Rey’s genes to follow the violent family business, like his older brother, Solo? At times, his moods and actions make him think so. And what can a kid do to make a difference?

I see my face in deep shadow, eyes glittering like diamonds, the resemblance to my father never stronger. (Rey angered by abuse Candy has faced.)

Candy. Ids. The best part of Rey’s existence is spent with these friends, making street art in the inner city of Sydney – friends with their own struggles. Each of them is somewhat alone with these, but will they share and find support together? Have a peek at this trailer to get a feel for ‘The Tell’:

In ‘The Tell’, Martin Chatterton tosses Rey around in some wild and threatening situations – in jail, followed by criminal thugs, and even hiding in a police officer’s attic (unknown to him). It is action-packed, exposing the dark underworld Rey hopes to escape. The reflections of his father Rey finds within himself make us ponder how it will all end – like father like son? or can he break the mould?

Recommended 13+

Van Apfel Girls – Why are they missing?

My daughter commented the other day about how many new books she had read recently were now using flashbacks and multiple viewpoints*. This may have related to the genre she has been reading (several crime and mystery stories), but I certainly reflected on this comment as I read ‘the Van Apfel Girls are Gone’ – flashbacks are crucial.

The story itself reflects back to “the long hot summer of 1992, the summer the Van Apfel sisters – Hannah, beautiful Cordelia and Ruth – vanished…” (Blurb on the back cover)

Told by one of the girls’ friends and neighbours, Tikka, it is a tale of pondering, wondering and wishing. What if Tikka had…? What if people had noticed…? What if friends and neighbours had…?

Twenty years after the girls went missing, Tikka returns to her family home to be with her older sister, Laura, who has tragically been diagnosed with cancer. Also told from the point of view of an eleven-year-old girl, it provides a young viewpoint, as remembered by Tikka.

Together and separately, Tikka and Laura think about the events leading up to the girls’ disappearance, and the seeds are sown for the reader to contemplate what actually happened – and why. The recollections of others are also finally laid out for Tikka and Laura to ponder.

In spite of the title, you are never quite sure what happens to the Van Apfel girls, but there are lots of dim, dark secrets revealed along the way. Some of the nuggets of information are cleverly hidden in the story (while others may be distractors) so that you are never quite sure what will happen next, or what is the real impact of (several) people keeping observations to themselves.

# Does this story leave you with all the answers?

## How does this story make you feel about keeping secrets?

Recommended 15+

# Nominated for the Indie Book Awards 2020 for the best Australian books published in 2019 – category Debut Fiction.

* She was recently reading ‘See What I Have Done’ by Sarah Schmidt and ‘the Secret of the Tides’ by Hannah Richell.

Running from the Tiger

Life is different for some people. Not everyone experiences the glossy happy family life which is often portrayed in many books and movies. Sometimes it is just SO hard.

Ebony lives a simple life with her family – with her Mum and Dad and 2 younger sisters on a small property. They aim to be self-sufficient and eke out an existence with their own produce as Dad’s meagre income often falls short of their needs. As the eldest in the family, Ebony bears the burden of many chores and the brunt of much of her father’s anger.

At school, she is a loner until a new pupil arrives in her class. Teena instantly befriends Ebony, and together they come to trust each other and share deep secrets – while battling those who make life hard along the way.

The issues Running from the Tiger exposes are tough ones, which not everyone might feel comfortable with, but Aleesa Darlinson has raised them in an authentic way. So, who should read this novel about domestic violence, bullying and the need to take a stand against these wrongs?

As a story published by Empowering Resources, it could well help victims realise the power they hold within themselves to create change in their own world. It could also open the eyes of others who suspect situations of abuse to ways in which to support victims. Reading can also build empathy for the situations of others, without necessarily having to experience situations in real life.

Be prepared (get the tissues out) for a sad ending, though it is one filled with some optimism.

*** *** ***

To cheer you after this, read another book from Empowering Resources, You’re Different, Jemima! This picture book sees energetic Jemima thwarted in her many attempts to please her teacher at school. Cleverly illustrated by Karen Erasmus, this delight shows how it is important to be true to your own personality, and how sometimes events can change the way you wish them to be and then you can remain true to yourself.

See more books at the Empowering Resources website – books with purpose:

Stories are so important. We each hold so much knowledge and can empower others, through storytelling, so they may learn from our words and feel our support.

You can make a difference. By reading one of our books to yourself or a loved one, you can harness the courage to initiate meaningful conversation that will change someone’s life.

Is it important for readers to deal with, or be exposed to, difficulties others face in life? Or are these stories only meant for those struggling?