Review: Starry Eyes by Jenn Bennett

Starry Eyes by Jenn Bennett

Published by: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 9781471161063
Released on: June 1 2018

Read: April 2 2018

starry

This is only Jenn Bennett’s third contemporary young adult novel, and it’s clear she is on board with the current trends. Starry Eyes includes diversity of ethnicities and offers sex-positive representation in an organic and unpreaching way. MC, Zorie, is a serious astronomer and photographer, and it’s terrific to see the blend of science and art drive the plot and characterisation.

The romantic storyline is based on miscommunication, but fits in perfectly with the personalities of the two love interests. Zorie is a planner – anxious and tightly strung. Her comfort zone relies on safe, predictable and routine. When Lennon stands her up at Homecoming, then disappears and doesn’t talk to her when he returns, Zorie hides her heart-break and embarrassment behind silence and denial. Lennon is presented as a mysterious goth, a boy with wild parents, and his loner reputation allows him to walk away from Zorie with apparent ease.

But we don’t know the truth of Lennon, because everything is through Zorie’s narrative voice, which is funny and self-aware. She is constrained by her inability to be spontaneous, and she is constantly second guessing her thoughts and her actions, especially around other people. But she is also generous, smart and loyal. A flawed, sympathetic girl, and readers will love her from start to end.

Going ‘glamping’ with the popular crowd is certainly well outside her comfort zone, but Zorie finds herself talked into it by her step-mum, Joy, who reminds her to be careful not cautious with her life. Her decision is also spurred on by discovering her father is cheating on Joy, and by the sudden re-appearance of Lennon, who is still treating her with disdain. Zorie desperately wants her life to go back a year in time, and can only obsess about where everything went wrong. Imagine her surprise that Lennon is invited too, and suddenly the trip takes on an extra dimension of stress and torture (of course Lennon is gorgeously fit, and the only one who knows what he’s doing–such a turn on!)

Fortunately this summary only covers the first part of the book. The rest is the hiking trip (which goes gloriously wrong), and its aftermath, and Bennett doesn’t skip any details. We are given the highs and lows, and laugh and cry along with Zorie, as she re-connects with Lennon, and explores her own boundaries and feelings. It’s a terrific journey of self discovery and a little bit survival, when the rest of the crew abandon Zorie and Lennon to find their own way through the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. I can’t wait to see the full sized maps, attributed to Lennon in the book—my kindle didn’t do them justice at all.

Thankfully Zorie and Lennon spill their secrets long before the end, and we are witness to their very healthy and joyful intimate encounters (all off-page, I assure you), and what’s really good is how Zorei expresses herself sexually. She’s funny and clumsy and honest. It’s adorable, really. Lennon proves to be a person she can trust, and their love is clear.

One aspect of the novel that takes us out of the bubble of Zorie and Lennon is the sub-plot involving Zorie’s dad, ‘Diamond Dan’. His cheating had  repercussions for the whole family, but notably his relationship with Zorie. I am interested that in the father in her previous book, Approximately, Alex, was one of the best I have read, and here is Dan, an unapologetic womaniser, who refuses to own any his bad behaviour, and is prepared to risk his relationship with his daughter. I wonder if Bennett has been shocked and upset by some of the #metoo revelations and has found a way to present a part of that in this book.

Thanks to Simon & Schuster and Netgalley for the advanced copy of Starry Eyes. I loved it so much, and recommend it highly to young adult readers who love realistic contemporaries that allow the romance to build slowly. Lennon and Zorie have known each other forever, so their relationship is founded on friendship. The hiking and bushwalking means we think about nature, about getting away from our devices, and of course, offers a bit of danger that challenges Zorie’s instinct to shut herself away. There are lessons here for all of us. Already released in the US, Starry Eyes is out in Australia and the UK on June 1.

New Release Reviews: April to May 2018

Once again I try to encapsulate some of my reading into reviews over a couple of months. None of these are Australian, but that’s because I want to do a post for them separately.

April Releases

Sam & Isla’s Last Hurrah by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Allen & Unwin ISBN: 9781760293857

samilsaWe’ve been done this road before with David Levithan and Rachel Cohn, but Sam & Ilsa’s stories are a bit darker than Nick & Norah’s, Dash & Lily’s or Naomi & Ely’s (just remembering how much I love all these ‘couples’). Here we have twins who are about to lose access to their grandma’s much adored apartment, given she’s sold it. This is their last party in the unit, and they both want it to be a success, a goodbye, a final hurrah. But the thing is, they have different ideas of what that perfect night looks like, and of course, it ends up being something neither of them expected.

Throughout the dual narrative we learn much about their backstories, and how important they are to each other. It doesn’t mean they think the other is perfect—far from it. Ilsa knows Sam struggles with perfectionism, OCD and depression. Sam knows Ilsa thinks he is the favoured child, the one who gets all the attention, and their rivalries and attempts to prove they know what’s best for the other make for amusing and unpredictable reading.

The other guests at the dinner party provide the entertainment. While the book only spans the one evening, we have many flashbacks, so the plot never slows down or becomes repetitious. We are always moving forward to a revelation, and to self-discovery, and the beginnings of the rest of their lives. It’s sobering and insightful, even though the execution is not always successful. The guy with the sock puppet is confusing, and the worry that Sam’s anxiety threatens to overwhelm him, endangers what should be a fun party.

This is very much of story about teenagers on the cusp of great change. They are very self-aware, but still young enough to make  bad decisions. I appreciate that these authors write inclusive books and don’t pander to their audience. It’s a sophisticated read that I loved a lot.

More than We Can Tell by Brigid Kemmerer

Bloomsbury Children’s Books ISBN: 9781408885079

moretell

Last year Brigid Kemmerer released Letters to the Lost, and there we met Rev, sidekick and best friend to MC, Declan. It has been excellent that we only had to wait a year to read his story in More Than We Can Tell. I read this for the first time back in October, and had to re-read it just now because, seriously that was over 100 books ago. I loved it even more this second time, and was able to absorb a lot more details, and consider the messages more carefully. This is a well constructed plot with terrific messages for all teenagers.

We knew that Rev had his secrets and a tragic backstory. Learning more about it now makes for an emotional journey for readers. He is matched by fearless Emma, his romantic interest. We are given both points of view and are happy to see them meet outside a church on a day that has been tumultuous for both of them. As strangers, they swap parts of their pain, and it’s interesting to note how astute Emma is. It’s this directness and ability to really see Rev that captures his interest. For her, it’s the way he lovingly treats her dog, and that he challenges her assumptions.

Kemmerer brings a number of different issues into each of their separate lives—Rev gets Matthew, a new foster brother, un-trusting and silent. Emma gets an online troll and a dismantling marriage. These impinge on their time and thoughts, so when they meet up, they find themselves sharing more, and caring more. It’s a lovely slow organic relationship, built over time, and with words.

I liked the way Kemmerer explored the notion of females in an online gaming community. Emma is a game designer, interacting with a diverse crowd, but she remains a flawed sixteen year old—self-absorbed and unwilling to ask for help. Her  distress when everything goes pear shaped seemed a little hysterical initially, but reading it this time, I was more aware that she is unable to contact her nearest and dearest, and acts out of desperation, not selfishness.

Rev’s torturous soul is hard to watch. He lives with shame and the continual thought that he will turn into his despised father. The character of Matthew helps him realise how absurd this is, and of course, Declan is also there to keep him grounded. That bromance is such a positive representation. We need more strong male partnerships in YA, and this is not the first time Kemmerer has created generous boys who treat all people with respect. I applaud her for that. But mostly, I recommend her books because they offer strong plot lines, with real characters, and they make us think.

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

Hardie Grant Egmont ISBN: 9781405291460

poetHere is a verse novel about slam poetry, so the style of writing utterly suits and indeed reflects its subject matter. American-born, but of Dominican heritage, Xiomara and her twin brother Xavier try very hard to live an authentic life with a mother hell-bent on forcing religion and religious lives on them. While Xavier pretty much keeps his head down and hides all his secrets, waiting for a time when he can leave, Xiomara is much less passive. Her sharp tongue and biting wit ensures she is always in her mother’s sights.

This is a glorious novel of insight and power. Xio’s poems challenge our assumptions about body image and identity. Her constant questioning of the status quo is revealing and welcome. She doesn’t deserve to be treated the way she is, and she stands up for herself and eventually triumphs. I highly recommend this to both public and school libraries to be read by all teenagers.

 

In Search of Us by Ava Dellaira
Hot Key Books ISBN: 9781471406515

search

While this is a family story of mother and daughter, it’s also the stories of two girls on the brink of adulthood. Angie’s present-day story is told alongside her mother Marilyn’s, in the nineties, the same age as Angie. We see the reasons why Marilyn has made the decisions she has, at the same time we see the repercussions for her daughter. The locations are different, the social landscape different, but what remains the same is the search for meaning, for love and for connection.

The prose is beautiful, and the social commentary sharp. As the stories weave around each other, both girls capture our hearts and our sympathies. It’s a really strong novel.

May Releases

The Wonder of Us by Kim Culbertson
Walker Books ISBN: 9781406377170

wonderusThis is a terrific travel story, so anyone who has traveled around Europe, or who would like to, will appreciate the way the author uses landscape and history to reflect the inner turmoil of two girls who are trying to salvage a friendship. Both want to re-connect after a year apart, but are their differences too great now?

Abby, always a quiet geeky girl, is transfixed by the history, mythology and culture she discovers when Riya brings her to Europe for their ‘grand tour’. Riya, richer and more worldly, wants more than anything to show Abby the places she has only ever read about. But she also has secrets and a stubborn streak. They are also accompanied by Riya’s older, bossier and annoying cousin Neel, and he often interrupts or distracts them from sorting our their issues. There is also a diversity of ethnicity and social status. A book is only enriched by such inclusive consideration.

This story of a crumbling friendship is helped along by the trip, and we cheer for the pair of them to start communicating more, and to find ways to compromise, rather than ways to snipe and fight. I had a good time with it.

The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green
Penguin Books ISBN: 9780141375397

smokethieves

In many ways, this follows a very familiar path traversed in the paranormal genre. We are situated in a country that is ruled by a fearsome and loathsome king whose brother is trying to overthrow him with serious repercussions for the general populace of all the surrounding countries. Rebels and spies are everywhere trying to infiltrate, set to betray. Luckily, our band of heroes have wide range of skills at their disposal, which they need to survive.

But in other interesting ways, it’s quite different. Our five protagonists spend the majority of the book apart, and not all totally committed to the cause. There is the beginnings of a same-sex attraction, and I can count the number of these in fantasy novels for young adults on one hand (ok, lately, maybe two).  The secrets discovered are horrifying in nature, and increase the urgency of our main characters’ actions. By the end, they all have their purposes, some separate, some with another, but the set up for the next book is strong and appealing.

Some of the violence is graphic, and unfortunately, all too easily dismissed as war-time behaviour. However, I engaged with this plucky group, and was happy to travel these somewhat predictable but generally exciting paths with them.

 

 

 

 

Review: A Date with Darcy by Tiffany Schmidt

A Date with Darcy (Bookish Boyfriends #1) by Tiffany Schmidt

Published by: Amulet Paperbacks
ISBN: 9781419728600
Released: May 1 2018 (US)

Read: April 28 2018

datedarcy

There is much to love about this witty, charming book which offers positive representations and a diverse cast of characters. Our heroine is the clumsy but clever Merrilee who is starting at a (posh) new school, with her best friend Eliza and sister Rory, only to embarrass herself a million different ways on the first day alone. Readers are cringing and laughing and crying at her antics and their repercussions, but we are also warming to her generous and loyal heart.

Schmidt’s attempts to parallel the contemporary story with classics mostly works. I found the first half wherein we follow a Romeo & Juliet narrative not as successful as the second half where we track Darcy and Elizabeth. Merrilee’s impulsive leap into love with the first boy who makes eyes at her is a good introduction to her, and it allows readers to settle into the rhythms of the story. However, the love interest is waay too unrealistic and his attempts at wooing just not plausible at all.

It’s hard to talk about the book without spoiling. However, I enjoyed all of Merrilee’s musings and attempts to fit in and not cause trouble, but also to stay true to her beliefs. The roles of the adults were varied and some were helpful, and others were a hindrance, which is also believable.

It seems this is going to be a two book series, and I understand we will next follow the adventures of younger sister, Rory. But I really hope we also get Eliza’s story too, because she is a most intriguing character. Here she is sidelined to Meri’s wingwoman, and cast in the role of worrying and cautioning. But I really think there’s a lot more to her than that.

There were lots of other issues explored, including privilege and making assumptions about other people (looking at you, Fitzwilliam Darcy), women in politics, and parental expectations (they only do it because they care). I also enjoyed Meri’s personal growth, and how she learnt to stop comparing her life to a book, and starting living the moment, and making her own choices.

A Date with Darcy is lots of fun and recommended for readers who like their contemporaries lighter and more romantic than issued-based. Initially, lots of characters are introduced which is confusing, but eventually they separate into individuals who all contribute to the storylines. It is heavy on the kissing (& more), but it’s not graphic or exploitative. The love interest is well developed and quickly became my favourite character. He is so swoony. The ending is satisfying, and leads nicely into the next book. Thanks to publisher, Amulet and Netgalley for advanced copy. A Date with Darcy is out on May 1.

Review: Now a Major Motion Picture by Cori McCarthy

Now a Major Motion Picture by Cori McCarthy

Published by: Sourcebooks Fire
ISBN: 9781492652380
Released: April 3 2018 (in the US)

Read: April 16-17 2018

majormotion

A quality contemporary young adult novel successfully combines a number of converging issues, as well an engaging set of characters and a plot that burbles along evenly. Now a Major Motion Picture starts off as one type of book, then evolves into another and along the way, readers are persuaded to think about several timely matters. McCarthy also manages to infuse the story with meta references, which blends inter-sectional and inter-textual themes effectively. Best of all, the novel is never dragged down by its weighty concerns, managing to balance the heaviness with a strong sense of humour and self-awareness.

Initially, Iris’s resentment at being sent by her father to the set of the film production of her late grandmother’s very popular fantasy trilogy, basically to serve as babysitter to her younger brother Ryder, makes us believe this will be a family drama in which Iris grows as a character, learns things about herself and reconciles with her family dysfunction. And it is that. But it’s also her love story, her guilt story, and her connecting to her past story. Little brother Ryder is pivotal to the family drama, but he is also a connection to the larger world—his attempted kidnapping by a crazed fan of grandma Thorne’s novels has soured Iris’s love for the books, and her parents too. It’s hoped that the film might relieve Ryder of his nightmares, and Iris of her guilt in her role in the kidnapping, but it’s going to take a lot more to solve the problem of their emotionally manipulative father, and their absent mother.

Ireland stands in for the fantasy locations, and it’s in this landscape that Iris finds some peace, and of course, a boy who challenges her self-perception, and her hostile attitude to her grandmother. There are two potential love interests, but this quickly becomes a non-issue, thankfully, and while tensions run hot and cold between our two love-birds, they soon become emotionally connected to ensuring the film gets made, and this bond, as well as their mutual concern for Ryder, means they look out for each other, and make suitable sacrifices to prove their love.

A lot of the story revolves around the adaptation of the book into the film. We are reminded of real life scenarios like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, sometimes literally on the page. The constant crossing boundaries of what is real and what is fictional, creates an additional layer of meaning, and fans of these texts will either love it or hate it. There are always so many compromises necessary when adapting a text, and McCarthy seems to have a genuine understanding and I found these sections authentic. She deepens it when the fans intrude into the filmmaking process, and the duality of their passion is again believable and often frustrating. They love the work so much, they actually become a barrier to the production because they fear too many changes, they don’t like the chosen cast, and their viral exploitation of social media impacts on financial resources. McCarthy includes all this seamlessly through the plot, and it never feels like a rant or a plea.

However, there is a soapbox element, which is forgivable because it’s such an interesting and relevant issue. The director of the film, Cate has longed to adapt the novel because it spoke to her as a young female at film school. McCarthy shows us how hard it is for women directors to get their chance, and it’s really moving how much of a role model and mentor Cate wants to be for Iris. Her discussions about feminism, power and political games guide Iris eventually, but along the way, we see how much Cate has put on the line for this film. Her depiction is sympathetic and once again, very timely in our climate of positive change for women and society at large.

Iris navigates this story as a flawed character. She is unhappy, resentful, and full of self-doubt, particularly in relation to her own dreams of becoming a full time musician. While it seems like there is a lot going on, the different issues are all related and converge neatly with Iris gaining much insight into her family’s past, ensuring Ryder is given the opportunity to follow his dreams, and securing the film’s future. Her own happiness is well deserved, and McCarthy does well to not solve all her problems too quickly or conveniently. There’s still a way to go, with her father, the fans of the novel, and her own musical journey. But we leave her in a happy place.

Thanks to Sourcefire Books and to Netgalley for advanced copy. Now a Major Motion Picture did come out in the US a couple of weeks ago, and here in Australia, I urge you to keep an eye out for this complicated, feminist novel. Recommended to readers who like their contemporaries involving and messy. The secondary characters are diverse, and all treated well, with strong backstories. The interplay between the film and the book are familiar to readers who spend time creating their own fantasy cast for a hypothetical movie. It asks passionate fans to reconsider how they use social media, and is often the case, challenges people to always try to be kind. I really enjoyed Iris’s quest.

Review: Amelia Westlake by Erin Gough

Amelia Westlake by Erin Gough

Published by: Hardie Grant Egmont
ISBN: 9781760127152
Released: 2 April, 2018

Read: 12 January, 2018

amelia w

Both Will and Harriet attend posh Rosemead Grammar, but their experiences couldn’t be further apart. While Harriet has embraced the opportunities—prefect, tennis champ, debater, and all round suck-up, Will is insouciant, subversive, anti-social and all out revolutionary. Their narratives voices are day and night, light and dark, enthusiastic conformist versus crusading rebel. Gough sublimely moves from Will’s angry, cynical tirades to Harriet’s entitled privilege, giving readers insight into an elite school environment where the reality of day-to-day learning butts up against the façade that is presented to the world.

The posh school is a familiar trope to readers of YA. While some books show staff who are caring and hard working, at Rosemead, we are confronted with sexism and casual discrimination. Of course, Will fights against it, while Harriet finds ways to excuse and to defend. We just know that this pair will clash, and it actually happens early on, their battle of wits snarky and flirty (even though they don’t know the other is gay) and the subsequent journey is deliciously fun as well as thought-provoking.

Not only are we privy to the ins and outs of the school, we are also given glimpses into the family lives of our two protagonists. Will’s parents have separated, and she and mum have downsized to an unit in the centre of Sydney, multicultural, loud and vibrant. Her father has moved to Perth, and we learn that Will’s fear of flying is a road block to seeing him. Flight is a constant metaphor weaving though Will’s storyline, and of course, it ties into Harriet’s plot as well.

Harriet’s parents are mouth surgeons, hardly ever home but exerting an unrealistic amount of pressure on Harriet’s academic, sporting, and social life. The number of balls she is juggling is evident in her near panic attacks at the mere suggestion she might drop even one. She’s a hot mess, basically, but incredibly focused and task-oriented.

Whereas Will represents the ‘woke’ young person, engaging in social justice issues and politics, Harriet stands for the sheltered innocent teenage Australian who has been encouraged to believe hard work and aligning herself with the ‘right’ people will bring rewards and happiness. Her many protestations of I didn’t know sound genuine, but we want to see action from her, and real change, and of course, we do and she does. It’s a terrific transformation, and part of the reason why Will falls for her, and hard.

Look, I have barely talked about the plot points at all, but just know Amelia Westlake’s attempts to highlight injustice and discrimination are inspiring and bring unexpected results. The girls discover their true friends, and by the end, there’s a sense that they have made a difference, and have not just stood by and let bad things happen. This is a positive message for young people–that they can help to make the world a better place. They also find each other, and there’s everything lovely about the acceptance of girls loving other girls.

Yes, some of the situations are over-the-top and maybe a little too contrived, but readers of contemporary teen novels will be happy to be swept along by the clever plot, the engaging characters and the joyous love story. Another quality #LoveOzYA novel. Out now in Australia.

 

New Release Reviews: January to March 2018

I have read lots of books that have come out in the first three months of this year. I am going to write short sharp reviews of those I enjoyed and those I can see a place for in libraries for young people.

January

harperThe Harper Effect by Taryn Bashford Pan Macmillan ISBN 9781760552091 AUS

Actually came out in the last week of December but could have been easily overlooked in those first and last weeks of the year. Harper’s tennis career is well developed. She’s a talented player, and her journey to make it to the elite level rings true. Her new coach offers advice that would be welcome for any teen willing to listen. Her family life is also complicated, but she is well supported by loving parents. The love triangle with Jake and Colt doesn’t devolve into the disaster it could have. Harper’s preference comes through quite early, and although there is some miscommunication with both boys, it’s resolved quite easily. Harper does behave foolishly, but she is only 16, and is inexperienced in romance due to all her training and travel. I thought she learned from her mistakes, and always tried to be better. Taryn wrote about the importance of seeing sporty girls in fiction, and her comments are valid and interesting.

The Cruel Prince by Holly Black Hot Key Books ISBN 9781471407031 the cruel prince

This was on my highly anticipated list, and it didn’t disappoint. Jude is a worthy hero, and her attempts to sort through the twisted politics of the faerie world in which she finds herself, is absorbing and unpredictable. We know she acts for her family, and this loyalty to them is well plotted. Holly Black loves to play around with tropes and stereotypes, and readers will need every bit of their faith in Jude to see her through this first ‘folk of the air’ novel. All the characters are fully realised, but none of them are easy to categorise. We are never sure who stands with Jude or who is against her. It’s a delicious dilemma to face because the tension runs high, and the climax is very satisfying. Of course, we are left wanting more. We wouldn’t want it any other way.

February

btweenusBetween Us by Claire Atkins Black Inc Press ISBN 9781760640217 AUS

Beautifully written, richly diverse, nuanced and credible, this authentic tale has many layers and yet avoids sounding like an ‘important lesson we should all read’. That’s not to say it isn’t important. It is. That’s not to say we shouldn’t all read it. We certainly should. But we should read it because it is engrossing, and compassionate, and full of contemporary insights. Young people are given a glimpse into life in a detention centre, and older people will be asked to see issues from a modern teenager’s point of view. It’s challenging for all readers. Ana’s fears, Jonno’s vulnerabilities, and Kenny’s distress are all understandable. Atkins has done all her research well, and the story of these two young people struggling with identity, politics and relationships will open eyes and hearts to their plight. It’s really good.

Tin Heart by Shivaun Plozza Penguin Random House tin heartISBN 9780143786276 AUS

Marlowe has just had a heart replacement, and while that is enough for anyone to deal with, she also has to content with a vegan-warrior mother taking on the local butcher, and a younger brother, who creates an inspiring costume every day, and must be protected from bullies and bigots. Returning to school means she must speak up for herself and find new friends, and that’s a big ask for an introvert, partly obsessed with the person who died and gave her their heart.

Plozza has created a sympathetic main character, whose actions reflect her dismay at how little she can control her life. She becomes braver, and more confident, and yet some of her actions have negative repercussions, and Marlowe has to own up to some mistakes, and seek forgiveness from people who she has let down.

A poignant story about finding a way through the complexities of life.

endsisterThe Endsister by Penni Russon Allen & Unwin ISBN 9781741750652 AUS

Utterly charming, and thought-provoking, this family drama transports five siblings from country Australia to urban London, when their parents receive news of an exciting opportunity. Each child reacts differently, and the multiple viewpoints allow readers to experience a wide range of emotions.

Eldest siblings Clancy and Else are our dominant travel guides, in first person narrative whereas 6 year old Sibby’s voice is third person. There are actually two more brothers, twins Oscar and Finn, who are, for the most part, interchangeable and silent. Not only do we have access to the children’s thoughts, we are also privy to the conversations of two spirits who still reside in the London house. Sibbi’s ability to see and feel them affects her emotional state, and we watch a vibrant happy child transform into a sickly one. A mystery develops about why they are still haunting the place, and the children’s involvement opens up secrets and a long lost history that is both poignant and compelling.

Russon’s story explores the notion of family and belonging, and is pitched perfectly at readers aged between 9 and 12. There is a strong sense of location, the contrast between rural Australia and hectic London described through sights, sounds and smells. It’s very visceral and layered.

March

The Date to Save by Stephanie Kate Strohm Scholastic savedateISBN 9781338149067

A book with an odd but compelling style called ‘oral history’, that needs time to settle. Readers will have to contend with many narrative voices, and the interplay between each varying opinion and agenda. To say too much about the plot would spoil the big reveal that happens at about the halfway point, but much can be said about its humour, style and messages.

First of all, it is very funny. The snarky humour spreads throughout the book, as characters contradict each other, defend themselves, and blurt out secrets. It is all very high school. But there is also a satirical element to the humour, and it’s almost as if the author is cheekily taking aim at some of the stereotypes and tropes of YA fiction, even as she is writing one. The story in complicated and layered, and that the resolution is pulled off so satisfactorily, it’s a testament to a clever, organised author, who has clearly spent time, ensuring threads tie together neatly.

The messages are ones we continue to need to hear. We should be kind to each, and try not to be judgmental about people’s choices. The author comments on sibling rivalry, ambition, loneliness and persistence. She argues we need to realise it isn’t bad to ask for help, nor is getting support from your peers. We all have value, something to contribute, and our individual gifts or talents help balance and increase community and society. I loved hearing these positive messages while being entertained and challenged.

If I Tell You by Alicia Tuckerman Pantera Press ISBN 9780646961255 AUSif i tell you 2

While there are several queer teen books set in Australian cities, there isn’t much set in rural towns, and If I Tell You is very much a book about being an outsider in a close community, and finding the right time to reveal who you really are. Tuckerman’s depiction of Alex’s conflict and fragile self esteem is authentic and strong. She has known for a while that her mother, particularly, will struggle with a lesbian daughter. Her standing in the CWA, her strong faith and family values will not allow for such a gap in her understanding of the way people ought to be. I found her narrow mindedness extremely difficult to accept, to be honest. Alex is emboldened by the arrival of the charismatic Phoenix but unfortunately her depiction is just a little too manic pixie dream girl, and I was a little disappointed by the way the plot unfolded in the last section. It isn’t even a gay trope, it’s a basic coming-of-age scenario I thought YA was well past. Having said that, it is handled with care and careful sensitivity. I think this story will resonate with readers because of its compassionate portrayal of first love.

Review: Miles Away from You by A B Rutledge

Miles Away From You by A B Rutledge

Published by: HMH Books for Young People
ISBN: 9781328852335
Released: March 20 2018 (In the US)

Read: February 8 2013

miles

Okay, so judging by the reviews so far on Goodreads, this is a polarising book. Those who read and view it within the journey-to-find-yourself trope have enjoyed Miles’s voyage to Iceland, and discovered a flawed yet sympathetic character, who (as is the way) makes plenty of mistakes, shows himself initially to be selfish and horny, and whose letters to Vivian (which form the narrative framework) offer poignancy, insight and truthful anger.

Others who read it through a political and social lens, express deep hostility and rage. This is becoming a very familiar reaction – readers offended on behalf of marginalised communities, at the way they are being erased. They are then blasting the author for causing this offense, and I am starting to find myself reacting against these loud calls for these books to boycotted or banned. Sometimes the reader identifies with that particular identity and justifiably call it ‘triggering’. But nobody forces anyone to read anything, so if  a story about a black M2F trans teen who attempts suicide, falls into a coma for 18 months, and is unable to speak for herself to refute Miles’s accusations and memories, then I say this is not the book for you.

I guess my review is written in response to some of these unhappy readers.

Their main argument revolves around the central plot being hinged upon cis white characters whose narrative is dependent on someone ‘lesser’ dying. While Miles is far from cis, he is white, and some would argue privileged and entitled. Interestingly, his identification as demi-sexual also causes angst. Apparently he objectifies other characters way too much, to be demi. I struggle with this concern, because Miles also throws around the terms ‘pan’ and ‘queer’, and his two mothers run programs for LGBTQIA youth, which is how Miles meets Vivian. He constantly proves he is open-minded, open-hearted, and falls for both boys and girls. I understand that the main characteristic of ‘demi-sexual’ is that a person must have an emotional connection before there is sexual attraction, and it’s true that Miles often refers to other characters by their physicality and his attraction to them. Yet, those who he actually makes out with, are all people with whom he has an established bond. All right, so I can’t explain the situation with the French backpacker. But if I accept Miles’s own defence (the sight of two girls making out turns him on), I can sort of see his point of view.

But with every mistake Miles makes, it only becomes clearer how real he is. He is selfish about Vivian’s situation. He is angry at her for her last actions. He is angry she remains in a coma 18 months later, and that  her parents refuse to let her go. He is angry at himself for not noticing, and not being there on the day Vivian made the attempt. He is also in obvious need of some intimacy, a connection with another person, so he’s constantly searching for that. Anybody who argues that he is not traumatised by his situation is misreading his portrayal. He is deeply bereft and completely stuck. While the trip to Iceland helps him to process her situation, Miles remains troubled, and so of course, he is troublesome.

Landscape is obviously a key aspect of the novel. Iceland is remote, alien, but as he befriends Oscar, and develops familiarity with Reykjavik and the surrounding countryside, his confidence grows, he becomes more at peace with how his life now is, and it’s exhausting to watch him try to maintain his rage at the injustice of everything Vivian went through.

There is way more to the legal ramifications of her situation too, but readers can learn that for themselves. What you should know is that Miles’s journey is far from easy, and he fights all the way. While I understand people’s anger about Vivian being used as a prop, there’s also the consideration that statistics show suicide rates are very high in the trans community. Surely we can also argue another point of view: that readers learn more about the plight of under represented communities and can develop empathy and awareness of their situations, and when faced with it in their own lives, they might be better equipped to act more compassionately. This is what books can do – highlight social inequality and the unfairness of the world for us to learn to do better to improve it.

Some of what Miles says about and to Vivian is distressing. But he is grieving and so twisted about her, it’s not surprising that he directs some anger toward her. So yes, if hurt people acting out, and taking ages to recognise their own faults is something that would enrage you, stay away from this book.

I found it lively, fast-paced, and unpredictable. Thanks to publisher HMH Books and Netgalley for advanced copy. Recommended for people who like their contemporaries angsty and controversial. The sex talk and discussions about trans issues are direct and confrontational, and Miles is always thinking about touch, intimacy and closeness. The contrivances of some plot points are hard to ignore, and there is a skeevy character who preyed on a very young man. It’s a tough read, with an open, but mostly satisfying conclusion.

 

 

 

 

Review: In Sight of Stars by Gae Polisner

In Sight of Stars by Gae Polisner

Published: Wednesday Books
Released: March 13 2018 (in the US)
ISBN: 9781250143839

Read: November 9 2017

sightstars

Klee Alden has been very badly messed up since his father’s death. In trying to repress his despair and grief, naturally he makes things worse, and the first chapter sees Klee reacting to a situation in a dangerous and harmful way. When he wakes up to find himself in the ‘Ape Can’, a mental health facility for young people, we can see it’s going to be a long journey for him.

The story cleverly uses flashbacks and hallucinations to reflect Klee’s troubled state of mind. As the story progresses, and Klee starts to stabilise the narrative becomes less dream-like, and more direct. Secrets are revealed slowly, and we are led through the past eight months of Klee’s life, slowly and deliberately. Some of it is very hard to read, but Klee himself is a likeable character, one that readers want to see improve. We also want to know what’s the centre of his incredible melt down.

We also see the difficult relationship he shares with his mother, and there’s a girl Sarah who is impossible to decipher. We only have Klee’s very biased view of her, and in this sense, he is somewhat unreliable and misled. The other secondary characters have very small, but significant roles—best friend from his previous life, Cleto and current therapist Dr Alvarez who both only want the best for this terribly traumatised boy. I very much enjoyed meeting Sister Teresa Agnes, who may or may not be a figment of Klee’s impressionable mind. Her wise words and quirky ways challenge Klee to look at himself and others in new and enlightening ways.

I love the role Art plays here, and it’s been a recurrent theme in several YA books I have read recently. Art as therapy, as a way to connect with parents, and as an avenue to discovering identity—these are all valid and positive representations of the way can be utilised to great effect. Klee’s art work is very much an integral part of who he is, and that developed from his close bond with his father. The connections are well developed and make for a well crafted novel.

This novel is intense and recommended to those readers who are prepared to go to the depths of despair with characters before pulling themselves out, who like male narrators falling for girls, who show them how to be better, and who appreciate that mental illness is not always something to be cured.

Copy was provide by publisher, via Netgalley and read with thanks. In Sight of Stars will be out (in the US) on March 13.

Review: Truly, Wildly, Deeply by Jenny McLachlan

Truly, Wildly, Deeply by Jenny McLachlan

Published by: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 9781408879740
Released: March 8 (UK) April 1 (AUS)

Read: December 17, 2017

TWD

What Jenny MacLachlan has done here is nothing short of brilliant. Her provocative protagonist challenges us to re-think all our assumptions and misnomers about disability, friendship, and love. Annie has cerebral palsy and her brisk, exuberant attitude to life is a beautiful slap in the face to all young people who moan about how tough they have it, how much school annoys them, and about how much they don’t have.

Annie’s excitement about attending secondary college is refreshing. She wants to take advantage of every opportunity thrown her way. She makes friends like a boss, argues literature with a passion, and grabs hold of life tightly and with joy.

Let’s talk about Fab for a moment. He matches her for passion and enthusiasm. His motto, ‘life’s too short for embarrassment’ even catches Annie off guard. Yes, she is determined to be seen for herself, not her twisted legs or limps, but Fab’s flamboyant declaration that he wants her ‘to be his girl’ startles her, and she denies her mutual feelings and fobs him off.

While we accept Annie’s surface explanation of her decision to be friends, we also see how much hurt she causes. Annie’s growth as a character parallels her understanding of her selfishness, and her grand gesture is balanced perfectly with a realistic and honest discussion of relationships and expectations. When they finally begin to communicate, their feelings for each other can evolve naturally, and the open ending is welcome and strong.

While I have focused on the romantic aspect of the plot, be aware there is a lot more going on. Annie’s friends each have their own journey, and I particularly enjoyed Annie’s conversations with Jackson as they travel to and from school by train. His own love story contrasts with Annie’s, and his frankness with her is pivotal to her choices. Such a great thing to see—a platonic boy/girl friendship.

Annie’s mother is a loving support, although her own doubts about Annie are realistic and understandable. Fab’s Polish family offer a glimpse into his life—not always easy, but always loved, and Miss Caudle, their English teacher is exactly the teacher you want for this pair. I love the representations of adults and young people alike.

Truly, Wildly, Deeply is highly recommended for readers who love their contemporaries full of diversity, wit, and positive messages. Annie makes many mistakes, but she owns up to them and makes better decisions. Thanks to publisher and Netgalley for a copy of this book for review which will be out in the UK on March 8, and here in Australia on April 1.

 

Review: Far From the Tree by Robyn Benway

Far From the Tree by Robyn Benway

Published by: HarperTeen (US) Simon & Schuster (AUS)
ISBN: 9781471164330
Released: January 2018

Read: December 10 2017

Robyn Benway’s latest novel, released at the end of last year in the US, was announced as the 2017 National Book Award winner, and it’s a very worthy choice. It has arrived here in Australia in paperback with an adorable cover that is yet again impossible to sell to boys. I realise a story about adopted siblings might appeal more to females of course, so why should they even bother with a gender neutral cover? But it’s a story about belonging, and finding yourself, and this is something in which all teenagers can invest and engage. Oldest sibling, Joaquin is authentically depicted—foster homes upbringing, trust issues, unable to bring himself to believe he deserves a happy home life—is a character who would be easily identifiable by any male teen reader.

Each sibling narrates the story: Joachim, middle child Grace, and youngest Maya. It’s told with thoughtful consideration, and is an emotional book that rings with authenticity. While the two girls were adopted, Joachim wasn’t, and this contrast in their upbringing is only one aspect of their lives that is explored with sensitivity and dignity. Grace’s pregnancy and Maya’s crumbling family situation allow these characters to be seen as flawed, yet trying to be better. The parents and carers of these children are also doing their best, and are presented, in turn, as supportive, confused and some times, apologetic about their actions. It’s all very real.

The best person for me though, is Rafe. Honest, generous and funny. His support and care for Grace is admirable, and could show boys how they should treat the girls in their life.  I highly recommend this family drama for readers who prefer little romance, who like their contemporaries challenging and thoughtful, and who want closure (yes, it’s nicely tied up pretty conveniently).