July 30

Spoiled by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

I promised myself that I would review at least 4 books every week until I get caught up. During the weekend I got involved watching the Olympics, so not a single review go written, although a book did get finished. So now at work while I am waiting for a science experiment to do what it is supposed to, I am writing reviews.

Molly has recently lost her Mother to cancer. She has been living with her grandparents, but they really are not prepared to raise another teenager. It seems like all her problems are solved when it is revealed that she is actually the biological daughter of Hollywood heartthrob Brick Berlin. But life is never what it seems. The transition from small town/farm to Hollywood is too much. Life takes a turn for the better when Brick’s daughter Brooke offers to help. Or does it?

This book is so 15 year old chick lit that it is not funny. Half of the content is fashion advice, the other half is tips on how to become popular. On the surface this is the biggest waste of time ever. Sure to appeal to a large audience, but almost certainly anyone over the age of 18 will hate it. At least that is what I thought when I put it down.

But strangely the story keeps coming to mind. I will admit that even while reading it, I got caught up in the drama. However, why is it that I can remember this so clearly even though it was read months ago.  I am too old to worry about adolescent fashion. This book apparently has a lot to say about setting priorities and judging friends.

Two months ago I dismissed this as a bit of froth and bubble marketed for the fashion conscious tween. Now I am not so sure.

July 30

Dead, Actually by Kaz Delaney

When you are a teen, living outside the popular crowd can be worse than death itself. This book will certainly change your mind about that theory. Sometimes being haunted is worse than death.

Willow is an average girl, not pretty, not popular. In fact she actively discourages popularity, preferring to maintain a quiet independence. But then she is first on the scene at a car accident. One would expect nightmares, but really the continual presence of the dead queen of the A-list group, or at least her ghost is driving Willow slowly mad. The only way to get rid of JoJo is to actually find out for herself what caused the accident and seek justice for JoJo. That proves to be a lot easier said than done.

This book is a lot of fun. For once you can believe the blurb, especially when it claims to be wickedly funny, not necessarily laugh out loud, but more a smirk of amusement. Certainly JoJo, and inevitably Willow, get caught in situations beyond your wildest imagination. And isn’t that the essence of comedy?

Dead, Actually will never be called literature. It won’t expand your mind, or even cause you to think about even once after you turn the last page. But reading isn’t always about literature. Sometimes it is nice simply to be entertained.

July 22

Juggernaut by Adam Baker

In April I reviewed a superb futuristic thriller, Outpost, the debut novel from Adam Baker. At about the same time Baker’s second novel arrived for review and reluctantly I had to make it wait its turn. A few weeks ago it finally came to the top of the pile.

The setting, Iraq 2005. A team of mercenaries is sent into the desert in search of Saddam’s lost treasure. It seems that it was hidden in secret valley inside a mountain. Satellite pictures can locate the valley, but the team will need all their survival skills to get there. Naturally they have competition. They expect that and are prepared. What they are not prepared for is the army already in the valley protecting the gold, and something even more important.

I am not a keen military student and to my mind the first half of this book is far too tactical and technical to be of much interest. Who carried what weapons and flew which helicopter – I really couldn’t care less. But on reflection maybe the dry start is intended to add to the tension once the real story is revealed. Certainly I felt the real story began after the gold was found and prepared for evacuation.

What I never expected was that this book was really a prequel to Outcast. The first book really avoided the question about the origins of the virus, totally logical considering the isolation of the refinery. But now we have an explanation and what a story it is.

Hopefully Baker will leave this story alone now. We don’t need to know what comes next.

July 22

The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

Once again I am reviewing book 2 of a series. This time, however, book 1 was highly recommended to me last year so it was already in the box waiting its turn. I will admit that I was very happy to have book 2 at hand when I turned the last page of book one on Friday.

The story so far: The polar ice caps are gone and all that water has gone into the sea. With the destruction of most of its cities, America is now run by individual warlords continually fighting for territory. For a while China sent peacekeepers to maintain order, but before too long they were driven out by these warlords. Now the average person survives trying to avoid all the different marauding gangs of ‘soldiers’. Any encounter is likely to result in death for most and destruction of whatever home, farm or village that they may have created.

Mahlia was lucky enough to survive one encounter with the Army of God. She lost her right hand, but was rescued before she bled out. Her rescuer was a young boy known as Mouse and they become ‘family’. When Mouse is later ‘recruited’ by another band of ‘soldiers’, Mahlia knows that she must try to rescue him. Tricky, but fortunately she has one powerful friend willing to help, and Mouse is taken to the drowned city of Potomac Orleans where Mahlia was born and raised. She knows her way around.

This is a book about friendship against the odds. Tool and Mahlia are both outcasts from proper society, but together they find they can change the world. This vision of the future of humanity is bleak, but Bacigalupi brilliantly keeps his story hopeful and positive. So many dystopian novels for young adults lose their vision and become action/adventure stories. This book, like the first in the series, manages to keep the vision intact while the pages are turning.

And it is a page turner. I read it all in one day!

July 22

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

Another dystopian novel! But about a year ago this book was highly recommended to me. So highly that I actually went out to a bookshop and parted with money for a copy. When my review queue and backlog is somewhere between 50 and 100 books, it is almost unheard of for me to buy a book. And you can imagine my husband’s reaction when I walk into the house with more books. However book 2 in the series arrived in the normal way, so I finally had the excuse I wanted to dig out this one.

Bacigalupi is an American author and his story is set in North America after the polar ice caps are gone. Ship Breaker is set on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, now well north of New Orleans. In fact I think that Orleans becomes the name of any city that exists below sea level, like Manhattan Orleans. The US no longer exists. It appears that the government fell apart as the climate changed and warlords took over different areas. The average person lived by scavenging, digging through destroyed cities and machinery for resources suitable for recycling. Nailer is part of a light crew, kids who are small enough to crawl through old ships for copper wire and other metals that can be sold for reasonable profit. Heavy crews move through the ships later, breaking them up to recycle the steel.

But then one day Nailer discovers a modern clipper wrecked on the coast. What is more, there is a member of the crew still alive. Everyone wants her dead. Dead bodies don’t cause trouble, but living ones do. Nailer is unwilling to turn her over to his father, who murders for fun, and escapes with the girl into the wilderness. She claims to be the daughter of a wealthy swank and promises a great reward if he helps her get home.

What an incredible book! Bacigalupi has thought everything through and made this story of the future feel almost prophetic. The savagery of the gangs motivated by alcohol and drugs is really only an extrapolation of a Saturday night in any city. The new economy is also an extension of the social divisions appearing in the West currently, the very wealthy, the very poor who struggle for existence and a few in the middle who try to run between the two groups.

Thought provoking and solid adventure all in one story. Fantastic!

July 22

Secrets of the Henna Girl by Sufiya Ahmed

Obviously the flavour of the week, month or even year is Pakistan and/or Afghanistan. It seems like almost one in five books that arrive for review are set somewhere in that area or follow the story of refugees from the area as they attempt to build a life for themselves in the West. I know I have at least half a dozen more in the review queue. This time our protagonist is a young girl born in England of Pakistani parents.

Zeba is just like every other girl in her class. She studied hard to do well in year 12 in the hope of receiving an offer for university. As a reward for her exam success her parents arrange a family holiday to visit the extended family in a village in Pakistan. Almost as soon as she arrives the real reason for the holiday becomes obvious. Zeba is expected to marry her cousin. She has no choice in the matter. The wedding will be celebrated within a few months. The fathers have agreed.

This plot is very similar to a book I read last year by Roseanne Hawke. Although the two books are very similar, this one is much gentler on the reader. Ahmed gives the reader hope all the way through. Zeba’s grandmother is a very independent woman, unusual in that culture. Her aunt lives in America, and there is always hope of escape there. Zeba never seems truly alone, and even manages to reconcile with her parents before the end.

This was a very enjoyable read. The problem is that I am not sure that it should have been enjoyable. Somehow Zeba’s experiences never felt quite real. Perhaps this is because Puffin has recommended this book for 13 and above. For these younger readers the story needs to be gentler and more positive. To my mind that makes the book simply too unreal to be really effective.

July 15

The Mask of Destiny by Richard Newsome

The final book in a trilogy, what can you say. You are either going to love it or hate it. If you have read the previous books, you know exactly what to expect and if you haven’t then you can’t expect book three to make any sense at all.

The world’s wealthiest teen, Gerald, and his friends Ruby and Sam are off again chasing the secret of the third casket in order to solve the mystery and save the world, in spite of all the adults that are meant to be looking after them. This time they are off to Paris, but everything should be fine since arch-villain Sir Mason Green is safely locked away. But that would make a boring adventure story. Instead the friends end up dodging all kinds of assassination attempts as they try to solve the final puzzle.

Newsome has settled into a nice style. Yes you have to set aside any sense of realism. This is an adventure after all, and anything has got to be possible. But it is still a great pageturner, and for kids that is high praise indeed. This series will reward those willing to dedicate the time to read the 1000+ pages.

But how does a trilogy become a series? I just checked the website and found that book 4 is due for publication in September!

July 15

By Light Alone by Adam Roberts

SciFi – good and bad. The line between is so thin that it is invisible to some, especially publishers. Most publishers and authors feel that scifi reading needs to be larger than life and way ‘out there’. But classic scifi aficionados¬†know that the best scifi is almost real, but with a scientific twist on reality. And this is one of the best.

Look around the world today. The rich/poor divide is getting wider all the time. Those with wealth are able to protect it and keep it circulating among themselves and the poor are struggling to keep food on the table. The middle class still exists, but how many of them are really in service industries that effectively make the rich richer. Now extrapolate this financial model forward another century. And then the scientific twist? What about a genetic mutation that converts hair to a photosynthetic food source. On the surface this prevents hunger in the impoverished classes. All they need to do is let their hair grow and lie in the sun for a few hours each day. To all appearances this would be a wonderful humanitarian gesture. But how would the economy manage if survival depended on idleness?

This is the real story contained in this book. The plot covers the kidnapping of the daughter of a wealthy New Yorker and the impact on the family of this kidnapping and the daughter’s eventual return. Roberts uses this story to draw a portrait of a very frightening and hopeless future. Maybe some readers would argue the word hopeless. Certainly this book warns us all about the dangers of the new classes in society.

I’ll be thinking about this book for a long while.

July 12

Night Beach by Kirsty Eagar

I met this author last year at a conference, and I will admit that I wasn’t really impressed. But then I read her latest book and was stunned. The book was finished weeks ago, and for a very long time it preyed on my mind. The review didn’t get written for weeks simply because I wasn’t sure what to say.

Abbie is a young lady who is obsessed. She is going to study art simply because art gives her life meaning. She looks at a painting and the artist speaks to her. She is also fascinated by the sea and surf. But mostly she is obsessed by Kane, and now he has come home. Somehow, though, he has changed. There is a shadow around him that only Abbie can see and it is changing him, not for the better. What can Abbie do?

This is a very subtle supernatural romance. None of the vampire/angel/were that most authors go for. No Abbie’s romance is being destroyed by the shadow. And just what is that shadow? Ahh – that you will have to work out for yourself. And be warned, this book is far more like a classic gothic horror than most that are on the market now. Parts of it are just plain scary for anyone with a bit of imagination.

Who would I recommend this for? Well, it would need a confident reader willing to contribute some imagination in their reading. The picture isn’t completely drawn out so the reader has to fill in the gaps.

Oh, and good internet access for looking up works of art is also important.

July 12

Grace Beside Me by Sue McPherson

Sometimes a book just waits for the right time to be read. Next week I am beginning a unit on Indigenous Australian culture and how it has been effected by the Europeans. This little treasure rose to the top of the reading pile and as soon as I opened it, I knew it was exactly what I needed to read.

Fuzzy Mac is a very lucky girl. She has lived with her Nan and Pop since her mother died of a drug overdose many years ago. They are raising her well, grounded in her culture, connected to her land, and yet still a part of a neighbourhood of eccentrics. Living near the Snowy Mountains means that her town is populated with families from all over the world, and these wonderful people make up the story. Yes there is a traumatic event in Fuzzy’s life during this book, but the support of these friends and her family help to keep her firmly grounded and positive.

Kids who are used to the big action packed blockbuster movies or the page turning adventure stories will avoid this book like the plague. It is quiet, peaceful, just look inside someone else’s life. This is a book for those who like a real story, not too confrontational with a positive ending. Personally, I wanted to go to that New Year’s Party at the end of the book!

What I liked best is the subtle telling of Indigenous history. The scene during the Sorry speech will help many children understand why that event was just so important. And it may explain why the Opposition reply speech is never mentioned. The family stories about war heroes and the mission friends make these historical events significant to Fuzzy, and the reader. As a teacher, I can only applaud the discussion about Lola and Ned.

There is a very good chance I am going to be reading bits of this aloud over the next few weeks. Then maybe the kids will get a chance to read it for themselves.