May 9

A Game of Keeps by Dianne Bates

A-Game-of-Keeps-194x300Books for children with a ‘message’. Why do authors feel they need to ‘teach a lesson’ when they write for kids? As a child I remember hating preachy books, and as an adult, I think I am only worse. So it is little wonder that I have issues with this book.

Ashley is a little girl with a lot of problems. Her mum leaves her alone a lot, and always has. When hungry or lonely she visits an elderly lady living downstairs, but she isn’t very well. What Ashley really wants is her family all together again, but instead she has to put up with Eddie, her mother’s latest. Generally life for Ashley is grim, but when she meets Daisy and Will – a couple from ‘Aunts and Uncles’ – there is a promise of respite. But will they help her fix things?

As an adult I have real issues with this book. Not only is it preaching – stay positive and all will work out in the end – but the ‘solution’ to the child neglect problem is for mum to have a second baby. If she can’t manage her life with one child, how is she going to go with two? And yet that is presented as the ‘happy ever after ending’.

I know many children face these challenges, and I hope this book helps them understand that they are not unique. But really – Bates is better than this.

May 9

Boys are Dogs by Leslie Margolis

9781599906089Changing schools, changing families and changing lives – these are common themes in books written for children. Every changing relationship presents a challenge, and learning to deal with this is an important part of growing up. Margolis has written a book that looks at these problems with an positive attitude and a gentle humour.

With her mother’s changing relationship, Annabelle finds that she is moved from her all-girl school to a co-ed Middle School. Suddenly she has to spend the day with boys! And as the blurb says ‘Middle School boys act like wild animals.’ How does Annabelle cope? Obviously, just like you manage a new puppy, you train them. So begins the challenge.

I have been reading a lot of heavy, dark adult fiction (reviews to follow) and this was a lovely change.  Maybe I don’t read enough younger readers books.

May 9

Nine Open Arms by Benny Lindelauf

resized_9781743315859_224_297_FitSquareIt is always a delight to open a book translated by John Nieuwenhuizen. He has the wonderful skill of translating a book into English that is comfortable for kids to read, but still maintaining the literary quality that made the book worthy of note in the first place. Finding the right word is hard enough in the first place, but taking responsibility for another author’s words is a true challenge.

Nine Open Arms tells the story of a family of nine who are moving again. This time the move is to a small dilapidated house at the far end of the lane. The family is used to moving because ‘The Dad’ is not very good at holding a job. Everything they own can be bundled into a handcart. The house is well away from any neighbours, and looks very strange with doors in the wrong place, stairs leading nowhere, and the rest. Kids being kids, naturally they want to know why.

Raising the family is Oma Mei, their old grandmother. She carries one precious possession with her wherever they move. An old wooden case filled with papers and photos. When she is in the mood, Oma Mei reveals some of the secrets from this case in wild and wonderful stories.

Eleven year old Finn is out to solve these mysteries. She wants to know all the stories from Oma Mei’s case. And she wants to know why the house looks like it does. Little does she know at the start of her search how closely these two stories are linked.

This is a lovely book about family, with all their highs and lows. I have always loved reading stories based on character and narrative, and this one fills the bill.

However, as an adult I read this book feeling the large shadow over the whole story, simply because of the setting. The year is 1937, and the ‘new’ house is near the border between Holland and Germany. What happened to the family just a year later? Will we ever know.

July 16

The First Third by Will Kostakis

9780143568179‘Life is made up of three parts: In the first third you’re embarrassed by your family; in the second, you make a family; and in the end, you just embarrass the family you’ve made’. What a line, and what a theme.

Billy’s family is falling apart. One brother has headed off interstate to live. Mum is dating, and not all the dates work out. His younger brother won’t speak to anybody. And to top it all off, YiaYia (grandmother) is in hospital. Life is falling apart. But then YiaYia gives him her bucket list…and life falls apart a bit further.

This is a lovely, funny family story. A warm fuzzy alternative to all the dystopian fiction written now for YAs. The reader will laugh at Will’s antics, cringe during his first date, and cry with him during the funeral. But supporting Will, and the reader, is a traditional Greek extended family.

This book has been shortlisted for the CBC under the category Older Readers. I enjoyed the book, but I have some question about whether it is really the best book written last year. Nearly half the book is taken up establishing characters and background. It isn’t until Will gets the bucket list that the story becomes something wonderful. For that reason, I don’t think it is outstanding enough to be Book of the Year.

But then I am often wrong…

January 11

Cold Hands, Warm Heart by Jill Wolfson

Review #10 – 94 to go. So far I am well on track to finish the Mad Reviewer Challenge!

Once upon a time nearly every book written for young adults addressed some social issue – drugs, drinking, eating disorders, mental illness, abuse – you name it and there was a book about it. Reality fiction seemed to be all that publishers were interested in. Then suddenly everything changed – now it is supernatural, fantasy, adventure, and sometimes all in one book. This novel seems to turn the clock back, but in a very good way.

Dani was born with a bad heart. For 15 years she has been in and out of hospital, endured more medical tests than you can imagine. The only thing that could give her a normal life is a new heart. But for her to get a heart, some other family has to lose everything. How on earth do you deal with that?

Amanda is a gymnast. She lives for her physical activity, and then one day a blood clot in her brain ends it all. Fortunately for Dani, Amanda’s family generously allows her healthy organs to be taken for transplant.

Now Dani wants to say thank you! But how?

Wolfson has told an important story without pulling any punches. Reviewers who know more about medical procedures than I do have commented about the detailed and accurate descriptions. This is truly reality fiction, a whole lot more real than any reality TV you may see. Running parallel to all this information is the emotional story, both from Dani and Amanda’s family. I challenge anybody to read that last chapter without a tear.

I am not going to say this was my favourite read last year, but I am certainly glad I did.

October 22

Black Painted Fingernails by Steven Herrick

Most teen coming-of-age novels are centred around kids of 15 or 16, just occasionally 18. But this now kids are living at home much longer and that first lash out for independence can often come sometime after their 21st. And that makes a difference.

James is on the road, heading up country for his first student teaching round. Not that he is sure he wants to be a teacher. Life just seemed to push him in that direction and he went along. He is driving with strict instructions to ring his mother hourly or she will worry, and everything he will need for the first week has been organised and listed. Then Sophie asks him for a lift and his whole organised and pre-planned life seems a whole lot less important. Before he knows it he is attending her father’s funeral and meeting the rest of the family.

This is a new age group for Herrick to explore. Most of the rest of his protagonists are sensitive young men about 15 years old. So how does he handle this older character? I’m not so sure. James is a lot less sensitive than Herrick’s norm and much more selfish and self-centred. Sophie is extreme, and she has had a tough life. Somehow I feel that a wimp like James would be more likely to dump her as quickly as possible rather than totally upend his life for her.

Like most road novels, somehow I can’t help wondering what will happen around the corner. Sophie and James are just too different to make a go of their relationship for long.

October 21

Silhouette by Thalia Kalkipsakis

Every now and then one comes across an incredibly talented teen. Most of the time they have worked hard to develop the talent and have a high degree of self-discipline and an awareness of others that is well beyond their years. But every now and then there is one who just knows they are the best thing that has ever happened to this world and no one will convince them differently.

Scarlett is a very talented dancer. She is in year 12 at a specialist dance academy and in a few weeks will be graduated. From there she has her heart set on the Royal Ballet. Her mother is trying to encourage her to broaden her goals, or at least finish some of her homework. But Scarlett knows that she only needs to dance and the world will fall at her feet. Breaking every rule of the school, she auditions for a music video and gets the role. Is this the beginning of the rest of her life, or the end of all her hopes.

Kalkipsakis has written a very clear and consistent character in Scarlett. The girl simply knows that she has forgotten more than any adult will ever know.  The book opens with Scarlett correcting the choreography as set by her teacher. This disregard of adults is continual, and gradually leads Scarlett in to a very ugly place far from her ballet dreams. For this very reason I liked this book a lot. Most authors would go for a cliche resolution that allows Scarlett to dance the lead in the graduation performance. Kalkipsakis comes close, but avoids that pitfall.

Over the years I have worked with heaps of talented teens. Some musically talented, some future sporting heroes, some actors and dancers. Too often the talented ones end up like Scarlett, but with no kind author to pull them back from the clifftop.

September 27

All I Ever Wanted by Vikki Wakefield

I love it when I get debut novels. First time authors are so courageous. They have to be if they are going to get published, simply because they need to stand out from the other manuscripts that must arrive daily at publishers. This book is certainly unusual, so much so that I wasn’t at all sure I liked it for the first few chapters. But I have a personal rule that whatever I start, I will finish. If an author has spent months or years writing a book, the least I can do is spend a few hours reading what they offer.

Mim is the daughter in a very unusual family. Her family has stepped right out of Underbelly. Both brothers are in prison, and but that doesn’t matter because every bully in town knows who her mother is, and is not willing to risk their lives. So Mim has a charmed, independent existence. Like all teenagers, she is not happy. She has established a set of rules that are intended to ensure that she does not end up like her mother, or her brothers. Then one day she is sent to pick up a package and deliver it. Assuming that it is drugs, she doesn’t ask questions. Only while she is on the delivery, the boy she has had a crush on forever stops her, leads her into a alley for a kiss, and steals the package. Suddenly Mim has a serious problem. The boy may be a rat, but he doesn’t deserve what her mother will do to get the package back. Her only choice is to try to get the package back before Mum finds out, and that means she may have to bend or break some of her rules.

This book was absolutely amazing. It was tough, and pulled no punches, definitely not for children. Mim deals with a rough crowd and even she is scared sometimes. But one of the reasons for reading fiction is to safely experience a dangerous world. Looking at the criminal subculture in Australia today is best done with a book.

I have had this book in the reading pile for a long time now. It appears that Wakefield has written a second novel during that time, but it never arrived for review. So the best I can say is – add this one to your collection, and find her second. But read it first before you loan it to others.

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 11

Broken by Elizabeth Pulford

A few years ago ‘stream of consciousness’ was a very popular technique in writing for young adults. Unless handled very carefully, novels written in this style could be confusing and very difficult to read. As more and more young people are reluctant to read today, most will not make the effort to make sense of these. So it was very surprising when I picked up Pulford’s latest novel which is very much in that style, although perhaps a more accurate description would be ‘stream of unconsciousness.

Zara has been critically injured in a motorcycle accident that killed her beloved brother Jem. This is her story of her thoughts and feelings while in a coma. Visitors arrive continually and talk to her and some of their conversations are included along with the replies Zara would make if she could. More important is her search for her brother. Her mind creates her brother’s favourite comic world and she moves through the pages, drawing and erasing as necessary to avoid the bad guys and find where her brother has gone. Intermingled with these passages are memories, sometimes linked to the current visitor, and others of a traumatic experience she had as a child. Zara had only shared this story with her brother. Some memories can not be kept secret.

Most stream of consciousness books used different typefaces for the different voices. This follows that convention, but also moves to a graphic novel format for critical events. Usually this form only goes for a few frames, nothing like a full page. This mixture of media works brilliantly.

Another excellent offering from this wonderful author.