Review: If We Were Us by K L Walther

If We Were Us by K L Walther

Published by: Sourcebooks Fire
Released on 1 June 2020
ISBN: 9781728210261

Read on: 5 – 6 May 2020

I really enjoyed this romantic, boarding school story. It was light, and while our dual narrators mostly focus on teenage drama, and somewhat frivolous stuff, for example, dresses for prom, and spending time with friends, there is enough serious material to engage readers on a deeper level.

Sage and Charlie are best friends forever. So much so that almost everyone expects them to wake up and love in love. Both of them know that’s never going to happen – Sage is secretly in love with Charlie’s twin brother Nick, and Charlie is deeply, deeply in the closet. When Luke arrives, there’s a bit of a stir in the group of friends – good looking, personable, popular – which girl will snag him?

The boarding school setting is as you’d expect – elite, preppy and mostly rich kids. There are many characters to indicate the many friends Sage and Charlie have, and how many girlfriends Charlie has, and while they serve the purpose of offering a range of opinions about each other and the entanglements of romantic interludes, they really are just backdrops to our focused four.

Walther doesn’t explain everything either. Readers have to keep up with Sage’s breezy monologues, and Charlie’s intense regime of academic excellence, student leader, sporting commitments and getting together with and then quickly breaking up a string of beautiful peers. He’s quite exhausting, and as the story progresses and we watch the way he struggles with his attraction to Luke, we understand why he maintains so many commitments. Sage’s secret romance with Nick also seems like it’s a hot minute from disaster, and we’re not surprised when everything is turned on its head.

It is so easy to engage with Sage and Charlie. Their loyalty and love for each other is infinite. Even though they think they are keeping secrets from each other, they’re really not. They know each other too well. They are observant and keep a protective eye out. It’s a fascinating bond, and when Sage loses everything to keep Charlie safe, and Charlie realises what Sage has done for him, they are truly insightful moments for these kids, and we sympathise and cheer them on.

Talk on the review sites mention the terrible ways Charlie treats his girlfriends, and subsequently Luke. But Walther does a good job of showing us why he is so fearful about his sexuality. Nick too develops beautifully as a character. He has to come to terms with a lot about both Sage and Charlie, and his forgiveness is everything.

But Luke is the character that stands out for me – brave, resilient, extraordinarily strong. He puts up with a lot from Charlie, and it’s important that he draws a line on the treatment and holds his ground. But since predominantly, this is a romance novel, the grand gestures are predictable, and readers aren’t required to deal with too much angst or darkness.

Thanks to Netgalley and Sourcebooks Fire for the advanced copy. Recommended for readers who like books that focus on romance and friendships more than social issues and commentary. It doesn’t try to be more than it is, however, there’s some thoughtful conflict in there among all the typical high school hi-jinks. It’s funny too, so it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Highly satisfying conclusion. If We Were Us comes out on June first 2020. [Can I just add that watching these kids group hug and engage in absolute no social distancing seems weird in these current circumstances? Wonder if we’ll be given books set in this time in a year or so? Or will it just be a small blot on the year that was 2020? Who knows.]

Review: Four Days of You and Me by Miranda Kenneally

Four Days of You and Me by Miranda Kenneally

Published by Sourcebooks Fire
Released on 5th May 2020 (In the US)
ISBN: 9781492684138

Read 05 – 06 March 2020

So far, Miranda Kenneally has focused on teen novels, depicting young sporty women, exploring their family, friendships, and love interests with the Hundred Oaks series. Four Days of You and Me signals a departure, and it’s an interesting direction. The structure and style of this new book is constrained and controlled and often requires readers to fill in a lot of gaps.

We meet up with our two protagonists, Lulu and Alex once a year, for four years, on the same day, May 7, which is basically the end of the American school year. Lulu is 15 when the novel starts the same as her arch-enemy Alex. The sparks between the two of them, as they duke it out over patches of land, class elections and being stuck together in an escape room are strong and fiery. They clearly have feelings and are attracted to each other, yet they are also stubborn, independent humans, and their on and off again romance will keep readers engaged and laughing.

Lulu has two best friends: Cousin Grace, and Max. They too struggle with crushes and gossips and are just as integral to the plot. They support Lulu, just as she supports them, through bad decision-making, heartbreak and cheer each other on through triumphs. Lulu is a passionate graphic novel creator, and keen green activist. Alex desperately needs a baseball scholarship because his family won’t be able to afford to send him to college. These different agendas butt up against each other, so this relationship is born of hard work and compromise.

But we don’t only see these characters once a year. Within each May 7 chapter, we also flashback to other pivotal days through that one year, meaning readers have to stay on their toes to keep up with all the events that have happened. As I previously mentioned, they also must fill in missing gaps and join the dots. It’s good to challenge readers and make them work for their rewards, and there are plenty of happy times and smexy times too (but not too graphic or exploitative). I have no hesitation in giving this to a 15 or 16-year-old.

We observe the obligatory moments in any teen’s schooling life – dances, formals, camps, and class trips. There are several important secondary characters, who help to keep the stories bubbling along, as well as developing the teens as authentic and realistic. These are all flawed kids who make mistakes, but that makes them easy to connect with on a number of levels.

Thanks to Sourcebooks Fire and Netgalley for the advanced copy. I have kept my review deliberately vague because it is good for readers to watch the growth and development for themselves. The novel tries to capture the way teens obsess and crave something one year, that seems so unimportant the next. Initially, there are boys for whom Lulu has no time because of their immaturity and nonsense, but who gradually become an important part of her friendship circle. Recommended for readers who like the angst of long term, will-they-won’t-they, and watching characters grow up in front of their eyes. The romance element is very strong, as are the friendships, and family drama to a lesser extent. Some sexual references are included, and Kenneally has always been sex positive and direct. The satisfying resolution is open, yet we leave our college-bound young men and women in a optimistic place. Four Days of You and Me is released on May 5, 2020.

Review: Unscripted by Nicole Kronzer

Unscripted by Nicole Kronzer

Published by Amulet Books
Released on 21 April 2020
ISBN 9781419740848

Read: 5 – 7 February 2020

This is a timely release in terms of the #metoo movement. Although protagonist Zelda is not sexually abused, there is a lot of misogynistic behaviour which is ignored by others, to the point where Zelda’s self-doubt and second-guessing leads to her keeping secrets and avoiding others while she blames herself for what’s happening to her. Her path from passive sufferer to outspoken survivor is a trip worth going on, not least of all because of its fresh backdrop.

Zelda is a wannabe comedian. She’s been invited to be part of a highly sought-after improvisation camp, where young people from all over the US congregate to learn from professional comedy writers. Zelda is joined by her brother Will, his (recently declared) boyfriend Jonas, and meets other girls, self-named The Gildas, Sirena, (who loves) Emily, Hannah and Paloma. It is these friends who make it possible for Zelda to finally open up and confess her treatment by the objectively gorgeous, but aggressively narcissistic Ben.

The story takes place over the two-week period of improv camp. Zelda is excited to be chosen as one of the varsity team (Ben’s ‘top’ group of course), but as time passes, and the boys, most especially mentor and leader Ben treat her in vile and underhanded ways, she starts to wonder whether she is talented at all, or if she is only picked because they need a girl (to play all the undesired parts, such as the dead prostitute, the nagging girlfriend, and so on). She is not given any platform to perform her own material, nor is she allowed to criticise the teams’ choices of her roles. It’s pretty terrible to watch, particularly when, in private, Ben shows a different side, one which is focused in on Zelda as a potential sexual conquest.

Zelda’s innocence explains why she puts up with this treatment for as long as she does. Ben is gorgeous and can be charming, so it’s fortunate Zelda is also introduced to another group of boys from the neighbouring Scout camp – Jesse, Murph and Ricky—who show her the ways boys can and should behave. At all times, these young men are thoughtful, careful, and responsible. Jesse is also attracted to Zelda, and his manner is respectful and compassionate. She spends as much time with him, walking trails, helping the younger scouts, as she does with Ben, and the disparity in attitude could not have been more extreme.

As well as the romantic plot line, the comedy thread is interesting, and it seems clear the author has a lot of insight into this world. There are many stories of the way female comedians have struggled to break into the industry. Misogyny apparently begins early when people are just starting out. The camp managers themselves display appalling judgement when confronted with Zelda’s claims of mistreatment, and this is familiar to those of us who have watched the way society and the media have vilified some victims of organisations like the Church or individuals like Harvey Weinstein.

By the time we observe Zelda’s exposure of Ben, her triumphant performance on stage, and honest discussions about being attracted to Jesse, we have seen how much she has been put through, and how much she persisted, and we cheer her on with applause and laughter.

Thanks to Netgalley and Amulet books for the advanced copy. It’s out in the US on April 21st and here in Australia in June. Check release dates for other countries. Highly recommended for anyone looking for a thoughtful yet fun exploration of the way girls can be marginalized and made to conform to expectations. Zelda often reflects on the other Gildas, aware of how much harder it might be for them – as black women (Sirena and Paloma), as lesbians (Sirena and Emily) and as an albino woman (Hannah). It’s a small but significant conscious acknowledgement of one’s own privilege. As just mentioned, there is great diversity and inclusivity, and honest discussions about sex and trust. I found it an extremely engaging and welcome narrative, as well as a lovely romance.

Review: Yes No Maybe So by Becky Albertalli & Aisha Saeed

Yes No Maybe So by Becky Albertalli and Aisha Saeed

Published by Simon & Schuster
Released on 4 February 2020
ISBN: 9781471184666

Read: 24 – 25 December 2019

Yes No Maybe So is a thoughtful novel that encompasses a broad range of topical issues, wrapping them in a deliciously cute romance that will appeal to fans of Simon versus the Homo Sapien Agenda, which let’s face it, is practically every living teen on the planet right now. Albertalli’s novels reflect the concerns and celebrate the inclusiveness of this generation, and Aisha Saeed’s contribution to this one will ensure it continues.

Basic plot is simple, but effective. Socially awkward, Jewish white boy, Jamie fears public speaking which is does not bode well for his dream of becoming a politician. Maya, an American-Pakistani Muslim girl, finding herself at a loose end for the summer, for a variety of awful reasons, is encouraged (more like blackmailed) into canvassing for Jordan Rossum, the democratic candidate for her local district election. Her reward at the end? A car. Jamie and Maya were best friends at childcare, over 10 years ago, and when their mothers reconnect and push them together, only one really is keen – Jamie. Maya is on board for the car. Not that she tells Jamie that. Unfortunately.

Slowly, over the summer, they begin to share their fears, but not only that, as Rossum’s campaign gathers momentum, their optimism grows that they might be contributing to a brighter future. They also develop feelings for each other as they reconnect and support each other through family and friendship breakdowns. As you would imagine, they both make terrible mistakes towards the end, hurting each other. But of course, we know once they sit down, hash it out, and actually take some risks, everything will be okay.

Look, it’s adorable.

But more than, it’s a call to arms. Albertalli and Saeed break down American’s political system into digestible chunks that will inform and entertain young readers. Other countries don’t have the exact systems of the US, however, connections can be made and parallels drawn, so that readers can see how corruption and power make it almost impossible for marginalized groups to be heard. The authors are having none of that. They make it clear that individuals can all do his or her (or their) bit to defeat racists, bullies, homophobes, or whoever else stomps on the rights of others. It’s inspiring stuff, and it never sounds preachy. The two main characters always feel like teenagers—awkward, powerless, and prone to impulsive acts and words—so their insights and observations feel true. They genuinely realise that helping local communities, uniting under a common belief despite differences, and working towards a single purpose is uplifting and exciting.

There are many complications that aren’t even touched on here. Messy family situations, the role of the media and the lasting impacts of social media, the additions of terrific animals, and the eventual realization of strong feelings make Yes No Maybe So an engaging and triumphant reading experience. I have no doubt any teenager will love its message and the way the message is delivered.

Thanks to Netgalley and Simon & Schuster for advanced copy. I believe it’s out everywhere on February 4th. Highly recommended for contemporary book lovers, who enjoy well developed characters bumbling around trying to be their best selves. Who love inclusive stories that don’t shy away from tackling big subjects, but in a readable manner that isn’t heavy handed. I found it really hopeful and loved the way it presented options for teenagers who might be feeling overwhelmed by the constant barrage of negativity offered by mainstream media outlets.

Review: Infinity Son (Infinity Cycle #1) by Adam Silvera

Infinity Son by Adam Silvera

Published by Simon & Schuster
Released on 14 January 2020
ISBN 9781471191565

Read 9 – 10 January 2020

Adam Silvera has built a strong following of fans due to his diverse characters and strong writing. His gay boys express feelings, have genuine, complicated lives, and his plots are original. So far, they have all been situated in contemporary settings, although the magic realism aspects of They Both Die at the End should have clued us into his interest in writing a broader range of genres.

There is no doubt that Infinity Son is fantasy, superhero and magical. Readers are dropped straight into this alternate world and have to do the hard work figuring out the rules and the state of the nation (hint: it’s not good). There are many elements that will be familiar – social media platforms are integral, as are the boroughs of New York, and the political manipulation of the public to allow those in power to retain and increase their control.

However, once terms like, ‘celestials’, ‘spectres’ and ‘The Blackout’ are thrown around, we quickly realise we aren’t in Kansas anymore, Dorothy! Silvera has created a world where some people come into their powers, usually because of a genetic family line, and manifest in recognisable ways—telekinesis, flight or healing—but they can also be in the form of magical creatures’ powers—hydras, phoenixes, or dragons—and the range of ability and power is explored with great detail.

But of course humans once again prove we can’t have nice things because ordinary jealous people decide to experiment with actual magical creatures’ blood and create the ability to become powerful through consuming these ingredients, and the world is divided between those who believe it’s okay to kill these beautiful beings for human desires, and those that don’t.

Emil and Brighton, twin brothers, very different, both longed for powers when they were young, but now, turning 18, it’s only Brighton who still wishes and believes they will manifest. Emil just wants to survive a world that is increasingly violent and uncertain. He observes the disintegrating society with disquiet and fear, while Brighton uses every opportunity of chaos to build his social media influence. Silvera sneakily comments on our growing addiction to everything virtual, and it’s not a pleasant reflection on us at all.

The narrative drive develops quickly and we have barely come to come up for air, as Email and Brighton are continually pushed to their limits, and most telling of all, the growing divide between their reaction to the events that consume them. It transpires that they look at the world through completely different lenses, and it’s also very clear that they do have each other’s backs and continue to rally for each other, even when everything descends into even more madness.

The concluding chapters are very thrilling and not everyone is safe. Another aspect to this novel is the large number of secondary characters who become important and all have their own personalities and agendas. This means it’s difficult to tell who we should be cheering for, and who will live, but this also serves to create a real community who may or may not survive. If we invest in these people, we might find ourselves not very happy at all. Be warned, the cliff hanger ending will infuriate. I don’t know why I believed this was a duology, but it’s not. There will be (at least?) three books.

Thanks to Netgalley and Simon & Schuster for the advanced copy. I found it compelling, but also a bit confusing. Everything happens quickly, and I kept hoping for more downtime to reflect on events and wanted them to have more time to plan. But alas, not to be. Also, the romance elements are small, but of course, who has time to fall in love with the fate of the whole world nearing crisis point. Recommended for readers who love LGBTQIA characters fitting into the world order, and who can help save the world. There are a lot of magical and mystical elements and gorgeous creatures who need rescuing. The brothers’ love for each other is highly visible, but that also foreshadows a darker conclusion that will be spotted by keen speculators. Infinity Son is due out today.

Ten Books One Decade

Putting myself out there to share my highlights of a decade of reading #loveozya novels. These were originally posts on my Instagram and Litsy feeds from Dec 28 to Jan 6.

Tenbooksonedecade

2010

I cannot remember 2010. I was working in a secondary boys’ library and had already been there for 4 years. Enough to feel comfortable. I remember @childrensbookdaily had talked me into returning to uni to complete a Masters of Ed. ‘We need to update our degrees’. Sigh. I only got through one semester because I knew taking on the role of Qld Judge for the #cbcaawards would mean I would be reading (and not much else). I read over 400 books that year, and nearly as many the following.

Melina Marchetta’s return to the world of Francesca and her buddies completely bowled me over—emotional nuance, messy family, and the story of Tom. Shockingly real. I could have picked Marchetta for about four of my years, so it’s only right she’s my first pick of the decade.

2011

While The Piper’s Son didn’t win OR category, my pick for 2011 did. It would be remiss of me not to select at least one Scot Gardner book. His writing over the last 15 years reflect much of the change in YA trends. His male protagonists are often lost (literally), certainly flawed, but always deserve the opportunities to put their lives in order. I especially appreciate that romantic love isn’t a major concern and that friendship, identity and family are strong and welcome features of Gardner’s themes.

The Dead I Know features Aaron, a young man looking for a role model, searching for answers, and the simmering thread of violence is always lurking, ready to pull him into a darker world. Luckily his apprenticeship with John gives him the sense of security and stability he needs. Big shout out to Sparrow (2017) and Changing Gear (2018), which both challenge toxic masculinity norms.

2012

My oldest son slacked his way through Year 12, and I spent the year carting him to gymnastic training and events, choral and orchestra rehearsals and performances, and I took a deep breath after judging for two years, stepping down from reading over 80 #loveozya novels to only 29. Jaclyn Moriarty released a fantasy novel that started the quirky, original warm-hearted series, The Colours of Madeleine which I completely embraced.

Her two lovely main characters, Elliot and Madeleine, swapping letters through a tear between their two worlds, show feisty tenacity, kindness and courage. They are clever novels seemingly light and witty, but that are actually and ultimately multi-layered and terrifically insightful. Her work continues to speak to ordinary people with extraordinary imaginations and startling inner lives. I love everything she writes.

2013

Confession Time: I didn’t read The First Third until 2017. After I read The Sidekicks. After I had conversed with Will. After I left my boys’ school library, where I had pitched it and promoted it. All I can say to 2013 me is what the hell? I didn’t miss the hype. I watched it receive both critical and popular acclaim. All my peers lauded it and the kids loved it and when I finally read it, I accepted its greatness. The First Third is a perfect blend of humour and emotion. Will treats his audience with respect, and he does not pander or preach.  Will is a person of many opinions and a marketing acumen I envy. His stories are authentic, his style is his own, and I can’t wait to see what else he has for us.

Special mention to my other favs: Wildlife by Fiona Wood, Life in Outer Space by Melissa Keil and Girl Defective by Simmone Howell.

2014

II went back to study part-time in 2014. My younger son completed Year 12 at the same school as me, both pressures making it a difficult time. Probably the reason why I only read about 24 #loveozya novels. Having said that, I actually predicted 5 of the 6 OR shortlisted books that year (#humblebrag), so there’s that.

The Protected explores grief in exquisite and infinite sharpness. Hannah’s pain is raw and real. Conversing with her dead sister Katie creates unbearable connection. Her parents’ absence is understandable, yet also unforgivable, and it’s astonishing the relief we feel when Hannah starts talking to Anna. Josh’s appearance brings much needed sunshine to what is in essence of story about confronting death and accepting loss. Claire Zorn is an assured, master storyteller. I hope we don’t lose her entirely to the picture book genre.

Other favourites of 2014 include Intruder by Christine Bongers, Are you Seeing Me? by Darren Groth and Tigerfish by David Metzenthen.

2015

This was my most difficult year professionally. I found myself without a job in August, just in time to sort my youngest son into Calvary basic training a week before his 18th birthday. That and study kept me from despair and trauma. Finding a new job after turning 50 seemed an impossible dream. I only read 18 #loveozya novels, but the highlight was Fiona’s third book in the aptly named Six Impossiverse trilogy, Cloudwish. There was something elusive and mercurial about Van Uoc’s inner voice, such a contrast to her external presentation – wild versus compliant, risky versus accepting, bold versus quiet. She’s a rare find.

Just as important as Fiona’s writing skills, is the fierce support she offers other Australian authors and to the YA community at large through her thoughtful examinations of books and trends. She promotes diversity and inclusivity, and I have gained insights every time I hear her speak.

Other notable mentions of 2015 for me are A Single Stone by Meg McKinlay, The Flywheel by Erin Gough and Lili Wilkinson’s Green Valentine.

2016

I found validation and purpose this year when Pauline from Riverbend Books asked me to read for RSO. I will be ever grateful for her confidence in me. I continue to read for this amazing service – I mean come on; someone asks me to read YA! #luckyandgrateful I also completed my MEd (Knowledge Networks and Digital Innnovations) while I started the process of becoming a supply/relief teacher.

This was a tough year to pick from the 36 novels I read. Three high quality stories, all exploring grief over the unexpected tragic loss of a loved one, could easily have been the one, but two authors have already had other books highlighted (demonstrating their mastery), but on top of that, Cath Crowley’s Words in Deep Blue also focused on books! And bookshops! And the power of words! And included swoony Henry! So, winner. I love this book so much.

The other two excellent #loveozya novels for me in 2016 are One Would think the Deep by Claire Zorn and The Sidekicks by Will Kostakis.

2017

If I thought 2016 was a difficult year to pick a best book, 2017 has been even harder. I read 45 #loveozya books through my ongoing association with RSO and was able to spend significant time looking after other people’s lovely libraries. This made me realise that being able to share my love of teen novels was still something I wanted to do. But I was also asked to speak at several network meetings, PD events, and I started to believe that I would be able to fill my time valuable by helping other library staff. I started applying more seriously for full time work, but also started to formulate a possible plan b. And was less stressed, less anxious.

But back to the wonderful books of 2017. How do I pick between some of the amazing books that were released this year? I could easily select any one of ten books, and if you want to see them all, go here. I made a ridiculous number of lists, two specifically related to Australian YA.

The book I ultimately chose, Because of You by Pip Harry rates highly for a number of reasons. I am going to go back one of many ravs about this book to try to explain… Harry’s inclusive and diverse cast of minor characters carries a subtle message about stereotyping and judging others. The tone is warm and gentle, but the subject matter is harsh and uncomfortable. However, readers aren’t made to feel pity or guilt. Instead they are inspired by the way individuals rise to the challenge to help others… It’s an astonishingly powerful story.

2018

In a year of Lenny (Book of Everything), Merrick (Changing Gear), and Ana and Jono (from Between Us), it is the protagonist of The Learning Curves of Vanessa Partridge who stays with me most of all. I apparently read 49 #loveozya novels this year, helped by me judging the Young Adult category of the Qld Premier’s Literary Awards. Vanessa’s intellectual curiosity about her sexuality and her navigation through unwanted advances was a highlight. The novel also covered environmental issues, parental mental health, and authentic friendships. I loved every complicated, messy thing about it!

This year I returned to a library on a part time basis. It was a perfect re-introduction back to school, and I settled into a rhythm of juggling a number of roles—I haven’t really mentioned my active involvement in CBCA Qld, and this year, I took on President of the Branch, in a year where we hosted the Shortlist and Winner announcement functions. I really fluked it in, because Jenny Stubbs’s team did the work, and I got to be the front line of the credit taking. Seriously, Qld achieves way beyond its means in these spaces. Such a great year!!

2019

This was a tough year – health issues, death of my dad, and returning to work full time meant I was often stressed. However, some new good things happened too – Rhianna Patrick (@ABCRhi) invited me to be a regular on her radio book chat panel and that has been such good fun. Another year as Qld Branch president, a trip to Canberra for the National CBCA conference and judging the Qld Lit Awards kept me involved in kids’ lit while school encouraged me to learn more about coding and programing (eek). There were fewer YA novels released, but more MG, and I have many opinions about that.

This is How We Change the Ending represents Vikki Wakefield’s contribution to YA this decade. Starting with her debut novel. All I Ever Wanted in 2011, all five novels reflect a genuine representation of Australian teens—their desires, their fears, and their triumphs. Her latest sub-verts our expectations and challenges us all to listen to the teens in our lives and support them to find their best selves.

I also completed loved It Sounded Better in My Head by Nina Kenwood.  

So farewell to the short-sighted twenty-teens. May we all save the planet in the twenty-twentys!

Review: We Used to be Friends by Amy Spalding

We Used to Be Friends by Amy Spalding

Published by: Amulet Books
Released on January 7, 2020 (in the US)
ISBN: 9781419738661

Read: December 28 – 30, 2020

Amy Spalding is a great author. I have read almost all of her lighter, romantic comedies such as Kissing Ted Callaghan (2015) and The Reese Malcolm List (2013), and always enjoyed her fully developed characters and those awkward but often hilarious scenarios that were easy to relate to. Her latest novel We Used to Be Friends, takes a more serious approach to what is often treated as a sub-plot in many YA contemporaries—the friendship between two teenage girls.

James and Kat have been friends forever. But it’s easy to see right from the start, that they are very different people—James is a runner, introverted committed to her five-year plan. Kat is outgoing, popular, living day to day. Her mother died a few years back and her older brother is now away at college, and she just wants the best senior year experience she can have. James, an only child, is the offspring of high school sweethearts and as we start the novel, everything is about to unravel.

We read Kat’s story from the beginning of senior year, right through to leaving home for college. Arriving home after summer break, Kat’s boyfriend confesses to cheating on her ‘because (he) was bored’… and …’it meant nothing’… Dumping him will result in huge changes, including meeting a vivacious girl (so, actually I am bi? Okay then), changing lunch tables and broadening her social circle.

But before we meet Kat, we hear James’s narrative voice. And she begins at the end. She is about to head off to her chosen college, her friendship with Kat is over, and as she leaves her house with her father, she asks if they can drop in to visit mum before we go… what the? It’s all topsy‑turvey. And from there, alternately, we are with Kat as she moves forward to the end of senior year and move backwards with James to the beginning.

I felt more sympathy towards James’s plight, but feel I received more information about Kat’s. Clearly the backwards timeline didn’t satisfy as much especially because there’s a strong sense of anxiety growing as we get closer to the disaster that occurs to completely overwhelm her. Kat’s acceptance of her true sexual orientation and of the new woman in his father’s life never feel as tumultuous as James’s situation. As well, as is reflective of James’s nature, her voice is starker, more direct and not as emotional. Whereas Kat shares and shares (and shares).

There are many gaps in a narrative like this, which I very much appreciate and admire. It’s the author’s skill that allows readers to follow the threads and fill in spaces, and I like a book that keeps me actively engaged. While some might not want to work that hard, rewards are there for people who persist. Of course, my bug bear is again on display—a book like this is much better as a print copy. I wanted to flick back through James’s section when I finally reached Kat’s versions, and sometimes it was impossible to find the corresponding bit (Did James talk about prom? It’s a crucial element of Kat realising how far she and James had lost their way, and I wanted to review James’s input, and no amount of searching took me there).

Thanks to Netgalley and publisher for this advanced copy. Highly recommended for readers who want more depth about non-romantic relationships. While both girls’ love interests play a part, the focus is on the breakdown of James and Kat’s inability to reach out to each other when their own world view shifts significantly. It’s a mature read, with discussions about sex and underage drinking at parties. Bisexuality is representative positively, and diversity is strong and convincing. We Used to be Friends is released in the US on January 7. I hope we see it here in Australia soon.

Best Books 2019

I have read 180 mostly young adult and middle years fiction books (so far) in 2019. I have cut those down to a list of 24 (how? I do not know). See picture above. The most important concerns that were felt in the YA community this year seem to be #ownvoices and positive representatives of rarely seen or heard minority groups. I believe I have included excellent examples of these, including How We Roll, How it Feels to Float, and Ghost Bird. I seem to also have a bias toward LGBT stories (too many to list), and am happy to see an increasing number of books for younger teens.

I then whittled that crazy long list down to only 5. Look, on any given day, it could have been a different five. I cast my eye over my choices now, and I find myself second guessing decisions. So basically I loved them all a lot.

Three of them are squarely contemporary YA, and reflect a range of intensity — from full on gritty realism (This is How We Change the Ending) through to happy, flirty romance (It Sounded Better in my Head). Call it What you Want fits neatly between these two #loveOzYA books, developing strong social issue story lines as well as a realistic love story. All of these books demand that their protagonists confront some very harsh truths about themselves and the choices they make, and organically allow them to navigate their own way through. I hope they find readers who will not only identify with their anxieties, but who will also be able to conquer some of their own life stresses. Reading is both therapy and escape.

To Night Owl from Dogfish represents my growing interest in books for 12 to 14 year olds. Honestly, they are the largest audience for my school library borrowing, and seeking out the full range of genres for them, to try to cater for every different reading taste, has become a priority and a godsend. These readers are so appreciative of efforts to provide them with accessible and satisfying material. There is much job affirmation to be gained from what might seem to be a chore (but clearly isn’t). Anyway, it is a funny warm novel, developing a terrific friendship between two unlikely girls. Their care and support of each other shines through their scrapes and sulks. The fact that it is written entirely through emails, text messages and a variety of other epistolary means, challenges this age group initially, but I have only heard glowing reviews from students. It’s a really enjoyable read.

I cannot make a list of favourite reads without including a new Marchetta. Those of us who started way back in 2004 with Saving Francesca have been waiting patiently for Jimmy’s story, and The Place on Dalhousie lives up to all expectations. A slim, tight novel, Marchetta nails what she always does best: creating complicated, messy families from air, bringing them together even when (especially if) they don’t want it. So much laughter is here. But also a feeling of nostalgia for people gone. It struck me with all the feels, but that is typical of this author. Her writing seems to tick every one of my reading boxes.

I wonder if next year we will be showered with more climate novels–not in the dystopian, set in the near future scenario–but in the right-now, it’s happening and what can be done situation. It seems highly likely given it’s the number one concern for teenagers across the world. And of course, it’s not only young people facing up to an uncertain future, it’s all of us.

Review: Chasing the Shadows (Sentinels of the Galaxy #2) by Maria V Snyder

Chasing the Shadows (Sentinels of the Galaxy, #2) by Maria V Snyder

Published by: HarperCollins
Released: November 18 2019
ISBN: 978148925276

Read: November 1- 3 2019

This is a really great second book. It doesn’t feel like filler, or as if we are being dragged along waiting for the third book. Lyra/Ara continues to grow as a character, and as ‘the chosen one’, as do other characters who support her. This is especially true of people like Officer Radcliff, Niall’s father and Chief of Security, who develops into a kind-of second father to Ara. Elese, Beau and the other guards and crew soon have personalities and quirks and of course, we learn more about Niall, the boyfriend, and readers will love that we don’t see any romantic angst between them. The focus remains squarely on the obstacles they face created by Jarren to keep them isolated on Yulin with the Protectorate and the DES believing they are all dead.

Ara’s snarky narrative voice sets a cracking pace, and even when we are being brought up to speed with the events of the previous book, Navigating the Stars, it’s fast and concise. But this is still a long book because in order to develop Ara’s new gifts organically, Snyder cleverly sets up a number of layers so that there are plots within plots, and we are kept busy figuring out the meaning of the terracotta warriors all the way on the other side of the galaxy, Ara’s struggle with the physical training in her new role as a security guard, not to mention wondering where the murdering looter, Jarren has hidden himself. We know it’s only a matter of time before he makes an appearance, and the whole team must be ready to confront that reality.

Snyder’s books follow a certain path, and it’s all good. There’s a feisty female lead who is self-depreciating while still having the most power in the room at any given time. She brings together a group of loyal supports who have her back, but never let her forget her humble beginnings. When she starts to speak of weird conspiracies and displays talents no one should have, they shrug off the unusual nature because they quickly learn that to ignore what she says leads to bad things happening. In this case, Ara is a beacon of hope. Her ability to navigate the Q-Net is their salvation. While she stays a few steps ahead of Jarren most of the time, nothing is ever too easy. This is very important in a suspenseful novel: readers have to feel tension and anxiety and truly worry that at any moment one of the good guys could die. Snyder is a master at balancing this fine line.

Thanks to Netgalley and HarperCollins for the advanced copy of Chasing the Shadows. If you read Navigating the Stars this book will be obligatory reading. If you have enjoyed any one of this author’s other books, you might like to try this sci-fi mystery mashed up with an Indiana Jones treasure hunt. Recommended to other readers who like their heroes snarky and generous, and who enjoy original ideas about how the Earth connects to other life on other planets. The romance is solid, yet sweet, and the action thrilling. Chasing the Shadows is out everywhere on November 18.

Review: Sick Kids in Love by Hannah Moskowitz

Sick Kids in Love by Hannah Moskowitz

Published by Entangled: Teen
Released: November 5 2019
ISBN: 9781640637320

Read: October 14 – 15 2019

I have been reading Hannah Moskowitz’s quirky yet entirely authentic novels since her debut Break, in 2010. To see that she is now with a publisher who can give her more exposure is terrific. She writes beautifully with both humour and insight, and I hope loads of people read this, and then go back and find her other, shall we say, less conventional but more challenging, novels.

Sick Kids in Love will probably pick up The Fault in Our Stars and Five Feet Apart readers. I read a review that said exactly that. And it does fit into that trope. Both Ingrid and Sasha suffer from chronic pain, and their lives are to some extent, bound by their condition. Their very different family lives also play a role in how much their diagnoses control them, but at its heart, it’s a story about risk.

We see a lot about chance. Isabel often muses on the coincidence of meeting Sasha. She also thinks about destiny and fate, and of course, about the way her mother chose to leave rather than stay for the long haul. Ingrid’s father, a doctor, might seem to be the ideal parent for a child who suffers from Rheumatoid Arthritis, but in fact he has developed into a medical administrator who is in denial about how much Hannah needs in terms of support and acknowledgement, and a confrontation between them is inevitable.

Sasha, in comparison, seems to be surrounded by love and support. But lately his father, seeing a new woman, is leaving Sasha to care for his younger siblings more and more. Sasha remembers how much his parents were around and present for him, and he is dismayed that his younger brothers and sisters are not getting that same attention. So, both Isabel and Sasha dealing with parental issues, builds and develop a stronger connection.

Of course, it is attraction that initially brings them together. Meeting at an infusion clinic, their flirting is adorable, funny and real. Having decided a long time ago that a romantic relationship is not for her, Isabel is in real trouble when their second chance encounter turns into a thing. But her healthy friends sometimes make her feel less, and connecting with Sasha who knows what it’s like to have limitations, appeals to her lonely self. Their honest discussions about having an ‘invisible’ illness are a strong element of the book, however, of course, they do keep a few secrets, so that eventually there is miscommunication and conflict before it is all resolved with a high degree of satisfaction.

I loved this book a lot because all the characters are depicted with flaws, they make many mistakes but always try to do better. The adults are just as important as the teen characters, and the story has layers of complications that never seem unrealistic (although one particular coincidence was a niggle for me). Thanks to Entangled Teen and Netgalley for the advanced copy. It appears that it will be available in Australia this month as well, and I am going to seek it out for my library. My older students will love it. Recommended for readers who look for in-depth narratives with several issues all vying for attention, and who appreciate a mature relationship that develops between the romantic leads. It is not exploitative or graphic, instead offering a loving and accepting depiction. Sick Kids in Love will be out on November 5.