July 5

The Dead I Know by Scot Gardner

I have been a fan of local author Scot Gardner for many years now. His writing cuts through all the pretence of adolescent boys and quickly exposes their heart. Several years ago his ‘Burning Eddy’ was nominated for the CBC book of the year, and missed out. I suspect the judges thought the funeral scene was unrealistic. So this year he has been nominated again, and this time I can’t find a fault with the choice.

Aaron is 17 with the weight of the world on his shoulders. His Mam is clearly suffering from dimentia, but if she goes into care he will be totally alone. Almost every morning he wakes from a nightmare to find himself somewhere he did not go to sleep. His sleepwalking can make him travel huge distances and sleep in some very unsavoury beds. Finally kicked out of school, he gets a job at a funeral home where his duties can be summarised as ‘keep your mouth closed and do as you are told.’ Strangely he finds that he likes the work, and his boss. During his first weeks of work it seems like everything goes wrong, but with the security and support of his new job and his workmate, Aaron discovers that he doesn’t have to be completely alone.

I started this book while waiting for an appointment and that was not a good idea. This one demanded to be read cover to cover in one sitting. So that night I finished it. But the story has haunted me ever since.

Aaron is the star of this book. It is truly his story, and his confused, desperate voice is consistent. His changing relationship with Skye reflects his growing strength and maturity without becoming obvious or pedantic. I will admit to skimming through a second time to catch up all the nightmare scenes before reading the final chapters. Perhaps that made the final reveal even more powerful.

Will it win Book of the Year? I have not read all the nominees, so I can’t be certain. But I will say that if the awards are intended to encourage reading among young adults, it will be very hard to beat.


February 26

Me & you by Niccolo Ammaniti

And another book read almost as soon as it was published! This is getting scary. But I am so glad I had a couple of quiet hours to thoroughly enjoy this little treasure from a gifted Italian author.

Lorenzo is 14 and has no friends. He is very happy that way, but Mum worries. So one day when he overhears a group of his classmates planning a week away skiing, he tells his mother he is invited. She gets so excited that the poor kid is trapped into pretending to go away. Instead he plans to hide in the basement of his apartment building with tinned food, and his PlayStation. All goes according to plan, until his older sister Olivia turns up.¬†Olivia needs a place to crash and hopefully find some money for her next hit. Instead Lorenzo’s peaceful holiday becomes an instant lesson in drug rehabilitation.

This is a good book on many levels. This translation is easy to read and still tells the story with power and sympathy. I haven’t read anything quite like it for this target age since ‘Came Back to Show You I Could Fly’ by Robin Klein many many years ago. That book won all kinds of awards, I believe this one is far, far better.

It seems like I have read a few books recently that I could confidently recommend for study and discussion. I would love to see what a literature circle would do with this. Perhaps I’ll get a chance someday.

January 18

Five Parts Dead by Tim Pegler

What must it be like to be the one who survives one of the horrific car accidents that make the news so regularly? This is one of the questions explored by Tim Pegler in this novel for YAs published in 2010. But this question is disguised under layers of history and mystery, so the young reader could even miss the whole point, until it becomes real.

Dan knew it was wrong to get into the car, but his ‘mates’ literally forced him into the back seat. Now two are dead and the third is in a nursing home and Dan is in a wheelchair, at least for a while. But Dan is used to surviving close calls. If he were a cat, five of his nine lives would be gone. Some would call it luck, but Dan is feeling guilt. Dan’s family arrange a change of scenery for everyone. Mum and Dad are bushwalking, with a base camp at an old lighthouse. Not much fun for a guy in a wheelchair. But then Dan starts seeing a strange girl? Is he losing his mind, or have all his brushes with death given him a ‘special link’ with the spirit world? Make up your own mind.

Maybe because I have been reading a lot of fantasy, but I felt this book read very quickly. Dan’s survivor guilt and all the consequences of the accident were not necessarily the whole focus of the story, although they well could have been. Many authors would have used the ghost story as their complete plot development. The historical research was well handled, if a bit convenient, without overpowering the storyline.

This was a very satisfying read.

December 12

Wasted by Nicola Morgan

This surely qualifies as the weirdest book that I have read in a long time. The core idea is strange, the characters are very unusual and the whole plot and backstory is impossible. This book presents itself as a modern adolescent life drama, but I found it to be much more an urban fantasy.

Jack is a young man who refuses to make a decision. Whenever a choice has to be made, he tosses a coin. And I mean for everything. Turning a corner, crossing a road, doing his homework, whatever – a coin makes his choice. Jess has her own problems, deciding a future and finding the money to allow her to do what she truly loves. But she falls for Jack in a big way when they discover their mutual passion for music. Then one fateful night, Jess tosses the coin that could determine whether Jack survives the night. For real.

In many ways I found this book annoying. The whole premise is silly, but without the humorous touch that silly themes need. I really think Morgan was trying to be serious in her writing, she just missed. And then there are the ‘alternative’ chapters that are little more than confusing. Is the reader meant to read one and not the other? That is what the author says, but then later in the book there is a real assumption that the reader either read both, or just the second option. And the two endings!!! Morgan should either make up her mind or stop the book before the end so the reader can work out what happened.

This is one book I could have survived never reading.

December 12

Stresshead by Allayne Webster

Ah the drama of adolescence. Nothing ever goes to plan. Friends come and go with the weather, even a BFF. And you can guarantee that in times of greatest need, even your love life turns to dust. Webster has captured the mood and the pain effectively in this delightful little book.

The book opens the day the year 11 exam results are announced, and naturally that is the day all modern communication in the household dies. In fact life seems to be a total mess. The boyfriend hasn’t texted in days, her BFF is acting strangely, and suddenly Mum has all these strange appointments. Then there is the boring holiday job organised for her at her father’s law firm. That is surely enough to stress out even the most calm and confident child and Dennie is far from that. Somehow she has to keep it all together.

This book has an excellent blend of humour, drama, tragedy and even a few important life lessons. Told in the first person, it is essential that Webster is able to create an effective voice for Dennie, and I for one believe that she has. This is a really good read.

And yes, it is definitely chick lit. The pink cover screams at you. But there is a large group of readers out there that are put off by the glaring pink cover, and for them the publisher’s choice is unfortunate. This book is far better than the cover implies.

June 22

Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley

9780330425780When you read as much as I do, most of the time you finish a book, close it, and think ‘oh well, that’s another one for the list.’ But every now and then you close a book with the thought, ‘Wow!’ Minutes ago I finished a ‘Wow’ book. Yes, my last post was 4 hours ago, and I hadn’t started reading then.

Reading this book in one sitting seems right. The story is told all in one night, a night ‘on the town’ searching for Shadow and Poet two graffiti artists. Lucy and her friends team up with three boys all who claim to know Shadow and Poet and where they hang out. As the night goes on, life just gets more and more complicated, and yet life becomes more and more clear. Confused? You won’t be once you read this, and you have to read this!

I have always loved Cath Crowley’s work. It is a measure of the insanity last year that I never got around to reading this book when it was released. Crowley has a wonderful ear for the adolescent voice, and her characters are rarely caricatures. Lucy, Ed, Shadow, even Al and Bert are good people and their goodness keeps them moving in the right direction. But life isn’t ever that simple, and her writing never trivialises the way her readers feel.

Crowley also has a wonderful talent for portraying sympathetic adults who work with teens. Too many authors dismiss them entirely, or try to pervert them into something dark and evil. Crowley simply treats her adult characters with respect and allows them to help as needed. No evil predator here, just an old man trying to offer a lifeline to a drowning talent.

This book is also shortlisted for the CBCA award this year. Unfortunately I doubt very much it will win. This is a good story, well told, but it takes more than that to win awards.

June 22

Six Impossible Things by Fiona Wood

Six Impossible Things CVR SI.inddTwo more CBCA short listed books to read, and one is in my hands. But first I need to write the review for this.

Dan is a kid with troubles. His dad is gone, his mum is starting out a new business, and she is not very good at it. Part of the whole life reorganisation is a new school, and he hates the whole idea. There is that cute girl who lives next door, but if she ever finds out that he can get into her room through the attic, she will kill him. So there, right off the bat, five impossible things.

This is a book about being a teen. All the worries and day to day hassles that kids face and survive every day. The story is told gently and with humour, maintaining a positive outlook. That is very unusual in YA novels. Most of them prefer to dwell on tragedy and drama.

Shortlisted for the CBCA? I really don’t see why. It is very readable and a lovely story, but not literature. Seriously, once it was finished, I never thought about it again. And now that I am writing the review a couple weeks later, I can barely remember what happened. I don’t see that as award winning material.

But, still it is a nice read.

May 24

You Wish by Mandy Hubbard

9781595142924I can’t remember the last time I didn’t finish at least a book each week. And for the past two weeks I haven’t finished anything!! So for good measure, I finished two yesterday.

Any reader can be forgiven for rejecting this book by its cover. It is so overwhelmingly pink! Absolutely revolting. Is it any wonder that I left it to read until the train trip to the meeting where I had to review it? But once inside, it was a remarkable book.

Imagine if your birthday wishes came true. Literally. Not so bad, but what if your birthday wish as a 7 year-old came true for your 16th birthday. Yes that means that the darling little pony you wanted suddenly appears. Or the lifetime supply of gumballs magically appears in your room. Kayla is the lucky girl who gets all her wishes granted, once each day for two weeks. The real worry is that last year she wished her BFF’s boyfriend would kiss her.

This could easily have been a silly book, not funny, just silly. However, Hubbard takes the opportunity to make this a book about growing up – how our wants, needs and ideas change. She is not beyond poking fun at her protagonist, but Kayla needs it to help her sort out what is really important in her life.

I will admit it was embarrassing to be reading such a pink book in public. And the review committee rejected it purely on the colour of the cover. A few years ago, pink was in, but now this cover seems very childish. I suspect a tween reader will miss the whole point of the novel, really written for the 12-15 age group.

I liked it, but I really should have looked for an ebook edition.

May 5

Darius Bell and the Glitter Pool by Odo Hirsch

resized_9781741757163_224_297_FitSquareAnother book I read ages ago. Over Christmas actually, and it was shortlisted for the CBCA Younger Readers last year. Generally I try to get all the shortlisted books read before August, but last year – well – lots of stuff got in the way.

As with many of Hirsch’s books, this one is pure childhood fantasy. The Bell family is cash poor and asset wealthy and they are existing via a very complicated barter system. But every generation the family must produce a give for the town. In the past this gift has been magnificent, a bell tower, statues, or some other landmark. This year there is literally no money so the gift is going to be very, very different. When Darius, the young boy, find a cave and beautiful pool on the estate, he thinks he has found the answer to the problem of the gift. But as always, life doesn’t always go to plan.

This is a gentle, whimsical book. No danger, no thrills, just people being people trying to manage a difficult life. Positivity and generosity is the theme and virtually everybody who appears possesses these qualities in vast amounts. Problems arise, but then are solved with just a little help from friends.

It must be nice to live in Hirsch’s world.

April 30

Wavelength by AJ Betts

9781921696305_WAVELENGTHYear 12. Your whole future can be determined by a couple weeks in November. Its something I have always had problems with in this country, but sending 18 year olds hurtling towards a stress breakdown is apparently the best way to determine their ability to succeed in uni, career, or anything else life may throw at them.

Oliver is stressed. He has decided that the only career for him is to be a geologist working for a mining company. Quick pay rises, lots of opportunities, the only thing is that he really doesn’t like rocks. Or Chemistry and Physics for that matter. So if you have to get an 80% or more in two science subjects when you don’t like science, that is surely a recipe for stress. Add to it the fact that his mum runs a baking business from home, right next to his room in fact, and Oli is on his way to collapse. Then Mum decides to send him to stay with his father to study for a week. Out in the country with no distractions, what could be better. Well, Oli finds his own distractions, and a lot more.

I liked this little book about the ending of secondary school. During the week covered, Oli learns a lot about what is really important in life, and that is never a bad thing. He makes friends, some of his own age, and many more that are older. He gains an understanding of the frailty of humanity, not everyone makes the right choices every time. He learns to just occasionally think of others before himself, and that can be a hard lesson for anyone.

I do have one little objection. Betts really needed to do a little research about a year 12 Chem or Physics course. Maybe in WA it is different, but the stuff Oli was revising I was teaching to year 10s. That made the whole book lose credibility, and unnecessarily. I may just be fussy, but I think any other readers studying science will have the same issues.

Generally, it was an entertaining read with even more to think about between sessions.