June 17

Moon at Nine by Deborah Ellis

9781760111977Every now and then publishers appear to decide on a ‘theme’ for YA readers. During these times every second book published is about – vampires, teenage pregnancy, or terminally ill teens, etc. Twenty years ago the ‘theme’ was homosexuality in teen boys. This year is the girl’s turn. I think I have read 5 books so far this year with a lesbian relationship at the core, and I have heard of many more recently published, or soon to be released. However many are out there, you can be sure this is one of the best.

Set in Iran during the late 80s, Farrin is attending an exclusive school for the academically gifted. She is lonely and friendless, and very aware of her parents’ political incorrectness. Farrin retreats to an imaginary world of stories where women can be powerful and strong. Then one day Sadira arrives at the school and Farrin’s world is turned upside down. For the first time she has a friend! But in a world where a hug is viewed with suspicion and a kiss is a hanging offence, their friendship quickly becomes the target of criticism. And when the Revolutionary Guard gets involved everything spirals out of control.

As always, Ellis’ research is impeccable. Her writing is authoritative and real, but remains accessible to young readers. The story she tells is confronting, and may be emotionally difficult for some readers. However, just like Parvana, it is a story that needs to be told.

Be warned, the final chapters cover a range of difficult topics – capital punishment, arranged marriages, torture. These are all part of the powerful writing, but discretion is advised for very young readers.

March 17

New Guinea Moon by Kate Constable

resized_9781743315033_224_297_FitSquareIt seems like a long time since I have read a warm fuzzy YA novel. All publishers seem to print now are dark dystopian fantasies, but at least they are a change from all the supernatural romance from a few years before. This book was shoved in my hand last year with the comment ‘you have to read it’. Last weekend I gathered all these together and New Guinea Moon landed on top of the list.

Julie is 16, and like many girls this age, she is permanently fighting with her Mum. In sheer frustration Mum arranges for her to spend her Christmas holiday with her father, who left when she was just 3. Tony (it is impossible to call him Dad) is a pilot flying light planes to the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Over the summer Julie falls in love, not only with the boss’s son, but the whole lifestyle and the magnificent scenery. After tragedy strikes she is forced to leave, promising herself to return as soon as she has some skills to offer this new nation.

Set just before independence in Papua New Guinea, this book takes a serious look at colonialism and the racist attitudes of the expats living in the colony. Some are able to treat the indigenous population with respect and care but most seem afraid of the natives and cover this fear with aggression. Julie manages to get herself into some difficult situations, but she keeps calm and makes a serious effort to understand what is happening, and why.

This is a wonderful entertaining read that leaves the reader with something to think about. Love it!

December 30

Breathing in Colour by Clare Jay

Debut authors, somebody does need to review them, and publishers know that I will, eventually. This one waited longer than usual simply because it seemed overwritten and I kept putting it aside and new reviews arrived. But I am conscientiously trying to clear the backlist, and this one appeared short. So I persevered, and was very glad that I did.

Alida’s life has apparently been on hold since her baby died. She had another daughter, but grief for the lost child overwhelmed everything else. So Mia is off travelling the world, backpacking like so many other young adults. Then Alida gets the call that her daughter is missing. The police in India don’t seem interested, so Alida flies to conduct the search herself. No she has never travelled much, and never been to India, but she does have a mother’s instincts to guide her. Then there is this artist who made friends with Mia just before she disappeared. Can he be trusted?

Jay is a PhD in Creative Writing, and this novel is apparently based on her doctoral thesis. Enough said? Now you understand why the book waited in a box for years. Be warned that it will take patience to get through about the first 100 pages. The plot appears to have little logic and less planning. But eventually Jay lets the story unfold and suddenly it takes off. I read the final third of the book in one sitting, late into the night.

This is an old book now and it may be difficult to locate. But if you can find it anywhere, make the effort and you will be rewarded. Jay definitely sees the world in an unusual way.

 

September 26

On Two Feet and Wings by Abbas Kazerooni

I guess it is only to be expected. The early refugees from Iran and Iraq are now adult, settled and wanting to tell the story of their escape. And those stories are going to be much more real if released as biographies. Look at Mao’s Last Dancer for example. Who knows if a dancer can really write, but certainly he can get published and read. This time it is a California lawyer who is telling the story of his escape from Iran after the Shah.

Abbas was only 9 when the laws changed to allow boys over 8 years old to be drafted into the army. Because his family had once been wealthy and worked within the Shah’s regime, Abbas was sure to be targeted. His only option was to escape to Istanbul and hope for a visa to England. Plans were put in place, but at the last minute, his mother was refused permission to leave the country. So Abbas boarded a plane alone and soon found himself a young man in Turkey. Suddenly he had to decide for himself who to trust, how to survive, and how to deal with bureaucracy.¬†Fortunately, Abbas was an intelligent and inventive young man. He chose his friends well, far better than his father did. His age gained him support, especially when the consul had a son about the same age.

In retelling his story, Abbas may have placed the rose coloured lenses in his glasses, because compared to some of the other stories I have read recently about children alone in the big wide world, he was certainly very lucky. The heartbreak of leaving his parents is clear, and so is the debt this man owes a certain taxi driver and hotel owner.

Regardless of this, it was a good read. Not too harsh for younger children, and that is really a change. Most of these refugee stories are stark and cruel. This one focusses on the goodness of man, no matter where they are found.

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 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.

July 8

Mountain Wolf by Roseanne Hawke

Last year I reviewed Hawke’s novel Marrying Ameera. It was a book I found absolutely shattering, even horrifying. This year she has returned to her Pakistan setting with another tale of child abuse and misuse. This is not a book for the faint hearted.

Radaq is a young man who loves his life in the mountains. He works hard to support his family and although only 15, he is looking forward to marriage to the girl his parents have chosen. This is the way life should be. Then the mountain is shaken by an earthquake and his whole family is killed. Alone and in shock, he is easy prey for a man who claims he will provide him freev transport to the city to find his uncle. The transport is free all right, but instead of his uncle, a life of slavery is ahead. First he is sold to a man running a tea shop, but very quickly his good looks catch the eye of another adult and he is sold on and trained in the art of massage, and ‘whatever’.

This is not a warm fuzzy comfortable read. Hawke is determined to shake up the reader’s world view and make them think. Unfortunately, I don’t think Radaq is as strong a character as Ameera, so the message isn’t as effective. But realistic fiction for young people is a lot more unusual than it used to be, and this is realism in the extreme. The book is short, and that will appeal to modern Australian boys. Maybe it will help them understand those from other cultures that come to live in their neighbourhood.

 

February 26

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

A couple years ago I reviewed a couple of autobiographies of people who had been raised in Sudan and escaped during the ‘troubles’. Both of those stories were definitely not for children because the story was told with unvarnished truth. Nothing was spared the reader. But now American author Linda Sue Park has tried to tell a similar story, but this time in a way that children will understand. Actually, she is telling two stories, one of a young girls whose whole life is centred around walking the miles to the pond to get water for her family, twice a day, every day, with only time for food between trips.

The second story is much longer and complex. Salva was at school when the bombs attacked. His teacher opened the back door and told all the students to run into the bush, and keep running. Assuming his village and his family has been destroyed, Salva runs, and runs, eventually joining a group of refugees that includes his uncle. Together they walk to Ethiopia, well until the thieves strike, then Salva walks alone. In the refugee camp in Ethiopia he finds relative safety, that is until the Ethiopian government decides to send all the refugees home, at gunpoint.

This is really an over-simplification of the story Park tells. She continues the story of Salva into his adulthood, and even up to the present day when Nya and Salva meet. In 120 pages she manages to convey the horror of the Sudanese refugees, and the war they were escaping. But this book is not without hope. It is about the stubborn determination that some people have to ensure that the world is left a better place.

In our privileged world, this is an important book for the shelves. It is not only beautifully written but very accessible to even weaker readers. It may also jolt some of our over protected selfish children towards some social conscience. That is never a bad thing.

 

December 13

Trash by Andy Mulligan

I can’t believe that I haven’t written this review. The book was read months ago and it was packed away with those heading for a new home when I thought, I’ll just double check this review. And guess what, it wasn’t there. Very unusual for one of the best books that I have read this year.

Set in an unknown city in an unknown land, this story is about 3 children surviving in poverty. They make their income by picking through the tip looking for anything that might be resold or recycled. They can’t afford to go to school because to do would take away their time for scavenging. Then one day they find a bag, and what is inside could mean their death, or their brighter future. What do they do? Find the original owner, return the valuables, hand it into the police, or keep everything for themselves. Very quickly they realise that they can’t trust the police. So they investigate where the bag came from and then decide what to do.

This is an exceptional snapshot of life in another place. The news and other media tell us about children who live in poverty, but this book makes you live with them. You cry at their pain, and keep turning the pages as they get into, and out of, trouble. Right from the opening pages where the reader is told about the most common parcels to be found everywhere. Disgusting? Definitely. Enlightening? Well, kind of. Important to understand? Absolutely.

I have seen a few reviews that question the ending. Personally, I don’t think the kids had another choice.

 

June 24

Before We Say Goodbye by Gabriella Ambrosio

1271725280253Wow, what an unusual book! The whole idea is amazing and the way the book is crafted makes it even more powerful. Suddenly suicide bombers aren’t just on the evening news, they are in you head!

One day, that is all that is covered. And a whole stack of lives. The events of that all important day are told from several points of view, and at first the book makes no sense. But gradually the reader discovers what is in Dima’s mind, and inevitable tragedy unfolds.

At first I found there were too many points of view given and the book was actually irritating. However, as time passes, I find that irritation to be a virtue. The writing technique certainly maintains a sense of immediacy. Most authors would have focussed the whole story from Dima’s perspective, and tried to explain why she did what she did. But including the victims stories as well as the organiser’s perspective is important.

I also very much liked the fact that everything happened in a day. Backstory was provided through personal reflective moments within that day, but the story kept moving towards the inevitable.

It also only took a little over an hour to read. That made it feel like a news report rather than a novel. Scary.

This is not a fun book to read, but it is important.