Review: Suzy Zail – I Am Change

I Am Change
Suzy Zail

Lilian’s life has been mapped out for her by her mother. Attend school until she gets her first period, and then drop out to marry and raise babies. But Lilian wants more. She’s smart, why shouldn’t she go to school like the boys? Why would she want to marry? She wants more in her life, even though she is poor.

I am warning you now, this novel is not a comfortable or comforting read. I found myself thinking about it while I should have been working, and worrying about Lilian. I even dreamed about it, that’s how powerful this novel was. I wanted Lilian to succeed, even though I knew that it was very unlikely that she would.

I remember that when I requested this novel I was hesitant because I didn’t know if a city born author could do justice to a village born girl’s story. But Suzy Zail has written a powerful, painful novel from the input of 30 girls who have been through many, if not all, of the horrors depicted in the novel.

I recently went to an author talk by Isobelle Carmody (swoon!) where she talked about how it’s impossible to really define an age bracket for novels because everyone is at a different reading level. I’d say this is an adult novel, just as much as it is a young adult novel. It depends whether the reader is able to cope with the trigger warnings for rape, female genital mutilation and domestic violence.

I found it confronting and difficult to read. I recommend that you buy a copy and contemplate how lucky so many women are – and how many girls aren’t lucky enough to become women, because it is pure luck that they survive being given less food than the boys, having their genitals removed and birthing babies constantly year after year.

Walker Books | 1st August 2019 | AU$19.99 | paperback

Review: Gena Showalter – Firstlife

Firstlife
Gena Showalter

Prynne Asylum is the home of underage children that won’t do what their parents want them to do – whether it’s getting married or Choosing the right Second Life provider. Tenley’s been tortured for longer than she thought was possible, but she’s determined not to Choose Myriad or Troika. The two realms are determined to get her on their sides though – and she might die anyway.

How dumb can one girl be? It’s clearly obvious which side she’s going to pick. Oh boo hoo, your boy toy isn’t from the same place. Oh no! You might war with your parents for forever! Get over it! Choose based on what you see, not what people tell you. She’s all about being strong and kicking people in the balls (literally and figuratively) and then she’s just bowled over by good old Killian because he smells good.

Let’s not forget the inclusion of a weird psychic, and a suddenly discovered clause that that means that Ten isn’t her parents’ meal ticket any more. Oh, and the fact that Ten can recover from basically any injury (and so can the other humans) within the space of what seems to be hours. She ends up dying at least twice, and then she’s brought back. So really, who cares? I couldn’t get attached.

Ten’s pretty obsessed with numbers, but honestly I think it’s a load of bunkem. Any number can be special if you would like it to be! I’m personally quite fond of the number 13 because everyone says it’s unlucky. But I could equally choose 11, because it’s the first double digit prime number, or 2 because it’s the only even prime number. Tenley’s form of swearing is to say ‘zero’ to herself!

I waded my way through quite a lot of this novel before I gave up and read the synopsis on GoodReads for it, and the following two novels. 1 star – I didn’t finish it, don’t bother.

Review: Nicola Yoon – The Sun is also a Star

The Sun is also a Star
Nicola Yoon

Natasha will be deported before the day is out – but she’s willing to try anything to stay in America. Daniel happens to save her from being hit by a car, but he has his own life changing interview to attend. This novel is a story of how unexpected coincidences and fate can come together in just a single day.

Normally I would be irritated by a novel trying to cram too much importance into a single day. I thought to myself at the beginning of this one that I didn’t have much tolerance for the interspersed chapters from Natasha and Daniel, as well as the other randoms they happen to run into! But it grew on me, and in the end I was satisfied. I kept wanting to know the next coincidence to happen.

While I saw the ending coming, it was also very satisfying in a way that ‘Five years from now’ was not. It’s ok for people to drift apart! Even the epilogue was ok – I would have been ok with it not happening either. This book ended in a way that *Startalk* left me wanting. What’s wrong with an ending that isn’t roses for everyone?

I also read Everything, Everything a while back, and enjoyed it so when I saw this one I thought it could be a good distraction. I borrowed it through my local library’s eBook BorrowBox. Normally I hate reading on my phone, but in this case, it was convenient. I also saw a copy of it in a local (Greek) bookstore! I’m giving it 4 stars – I’m a little sad that I don’t own it, but I’m not going to rush out to buy it any time soon. Maybe if I saw it in a garage sale or similar.

Review: Brigid Kemmerer – call it what you want

call it what you want
Brigid Kemmerer

Maegan was a straight A student until the pressure of her perfect family got to her. She’s not their good girl anymore. But netither is her sister – pregnant and home from college unexpectedly. Paired with Rob who would rather fly under the radar until he graduates, can the two get over their prickly and worn edges to succeed?

Rob is a lovely tortured character determined to be miserable. If only he wasn’t quite so, charming? about it? I’m not quite sure what went wrong, but his character just didn’t sing true for me. Maegan on the other hand I could understand, but ultimately it ended up being more about her sister. And the romance between Rob and Maegan was sort of off I guess. They go from kissing to having her shirt off almost instantly as far as I can tell. No, I’m not ok with that, even in a YA novel. It seems like their family circumstances caused them to skip forward in time and not in a good way.

The ending of this was disappointing. It skipped forwards in time in such a way that I didn’t really believe in what happened. Also, the librarian? Really? Because no-one saw that coming… I wanted to shake Rob and Maegan half the time. And the rest of the time I wondered what on earth they were thinking.

I know that Kemmerer can produce novels that are far more intriguing and powerful than this one, so I found myself underwhelmed. How many normal teenage readers are going to be able to empathize with a multi-million dollar embezzling father?  Rob’s character is tortured and lonely and I entirely wanted him to succeed. What I did like was the way he couldn’t reconcile his own feelings about his father not being an asshole, with his father, well, being an asshole. Things just are never as simple as they seem.

The origami cover image leaves me pretty cold as well – neither of the two main characters are into it, and the pastel pink is just average. I connected more with Toffee (also published by Bloomsbury), and that was written in verse! Kemmerer, I’m not impressed. Please write the sequel to A Curse So Dark and Lonely ASAP instead.

Bloomsbury | 1st July 2019 | AU$16.99 | paperback

Review: Audrey Coulthurst & Paula Garner – Starworld

Starworld
Audrey Coulthurst & Paula Garner

Sam’s a withdrawn artist with one best and only friend in the world. Somehow Zoe, a popular cute girl, enters into Sam’s universe through one of Sam’s paintings. Sam and Zoe aren’t sure they’ll be friends, but together they can escape into another world outside their complicated families.

The *star talk* of Zoe and Sam’s fantasy world together didn’t actually set me on fire (pun intended). I was more interested in their complicated emotions and cute ways of showing they cared. For example, Sam’s mom packs her a lunch in foods that are colour coded and divisible by four (which I personally find a very odd manifestation of OCD – but who am I to judge?). Then they share and make crazy flavour combinations.

Look, I’m not sure whether this novel was trying to take too much on or not, but there was certainly a whole range of things going on (so many that I wondered that it had to be set up like that – as in, I’d never expect a situation like this in real life). There’s Sam, with her Aspergers and OCD mom, and then there’s Zoe who is adopted with a severely intellectually disabled brother. Too many themes in one novel? Oh, and then add some true artistic skill and a queer angle just for good measure.

That being said, I liked this novel. Mainly because it had me ugly crying at one point, and it was JUST SO SAD. Sam, my heart broke with yours. Not as relate-able as perhaps Our Chemical Hearts or the dangerous art of blending in, but still good. If I had one teensy complaint, it would be that the ending left me feeling cold and empty. That’s what keeps me from giving this five stars, despite the emotional wreck that it left me in.

Walker Books | 1st July 2019 | AU$24.99 | paperback

Review: Sarah Crossan – Toffee

Toffee
Sarah Crossan

Allison has run from the burning, and has run so far that she’s no longer herself. She’s Toffee, and she lives with Marla. Marla isn’t herself either. Can Allison find her way back, or does she even want to?

This is the first time I have forced myself through a book of poems / short sentences. It looks like a thick, impressive book, but every page only has a couple of sentences on it. I found that while I connected with the characters, I just didn’t find it as immersive as a ‘regular’ book.

I really liked the way Allison and Marla interact. Allison’s character is so self-aware, and at the same time, so oblivious. Seeing inside her mind and having her own feelings and background exposed was really confronting and believable. I’ve never read any of Crossan’s other novels (and I probably won’t, if they are in poetry format), but I’d consider it from the strength of her characters.

There should be a trigger warning attached to this novel for domestic abuse and burn scars. I don’t think ‘mental health’ really covers dementia either. That being said, this novel is more than that. Friendship? Yes. Parenthood? Also yes. But in terms of closure and answers and completeness, it’s not satisfying. I need to know what happens to Allison’s dad and whether she survives.

I’m divided on whether this should be worth three or four stars. I feel like it was very good, because I got into the story, and I loved Allison and Marla. But then again, I felt cheated by the format and while the ending was good, it wasn’t quite enough. Read it, and let me know what you think.

Bloomsbury | 17th June 2019 | AU$14.99 | paperback

Review: Sarah Hopkins – The Subjects

The Subjects
Sarah Hopkins

Daniel is a teenage drug dealer on his way to jail. But suddenly he is granted a reprieve – he is taken to a facility purpose built to treat people like him. When he enters into The Contract with Dr. J and starts taking classes with the enigmatic Helen and smart PW Daniel’s emotional thresholds are going to change. But the story is narrated by the older and more worldly Daniel who knows just how things will play out.

I requested this novel because it reminded me of another that I had read with a similar concept – delinquents taken to a bush setting and let loose to sort themselves out. But this novel is nothing like that. Daniel is guided without having known he was guided, and treated without having really known what was wrong. His search for a descriptor of what is wrong with him seems futile when his friendships are changing him.

I loved how the author was able to get inside the teenage boy mind and draw out a painful expose of what growing up looks like, without having to rely on the traditional narrative of high school and families. By putting her ‘vulnerable’ characters in a courtyard with pear trees Hopkins makes the characters, not the setting, the core of the story. We know that the teenagers must be some sort of program, but we don’t work out until the very end what it actually means. The author really crafted this carefully until the ending just sprang on me.

Over-prescription of medication, and diagnosing young children with mood and mental disorders is a growing problem. Ritalin seems to be the magic bullet against children who can’t sit still. Instead of talking about the problem we can throw drugs at it to fix it. As someone who takes daily medication to keep myself sane and sociable, I fully admit that psychoactive drugs have their places in society. But I agree with this novel’s ultimate offering in that we should be careful who we trust to do the right thing (and who benefits from it financially).

I can’t recommend this novel, but I’m not sure why not. This novel left me with a very strange feeling in my mouth. In fact, it reminded me a lot of ‘Some Tests’, a novel I never finished reviewing because it was too weird to even keep reading. I’m trying to think of who might enjoy this novel, as I’m certain that someone, somewhere would enjoy it. It is quite brilliantly written, even if the style didn’t suit me.

Text Publishing | 4th June 2019 | AU$29.99 | paperback

Review: Helena Fox – how it feels to float

how it feels to float
Helena Fox

Biz has her Posse, her mum, her siblings, her best friend and her dad. She doesn’t share her thoughts with anyone. But how can she process her feelings of kissing her best friend or noticing the new boy? Biz floats, not letting anything in – but that means that she’s adrift with no anchor.

How does one little book pack so much in? It approached mental illness, uncertain sexuality, physical disabilities, single parents and adopted grandmothers. Oh, and siblings and hobbies and FEELINGS. I had high hopes for this novel just from the pretty cover and the blurb. The blurb resonated with me without me even realizing why.

It’s so hard to review this novel without giving things away. There are so many things the reader assumes at the beginning that turn out not to be true. It’s not simple or clean, it’s messy and dark and confusing. Go into this with expectations of brilliance, but don’t assume anything about the plot.

My one teensy complaint was the use of photography (and SLR film cameras) to once again allow the protagonist to ‘express herself’. What redeemed this common expression media was the way that Biz started having her photographs talk to her and show her dad in them. Now that’s a nice way to show character development/progression!

Normally I would also complain about the writing style being a bit of stream of consciousness and too flowery, but somehow it worked. I sunk into Biz’s consciousness and didn’t come out for another 372 pages. I kept telling myself I’d take a break after this next chapter… and the next one… I could not put this novel down, and once I finished it, I really wanted to read it again.

I’m lending this novel to a friend who needs this in her life right now, But then I’m going to get it back, and read it again. This is a staggeringly good debut by Helena Fox, and I can’t wait to read what she publishes next. I can’t thank Pan Macmillan enough for sending me this to review. Why are you still reading my review? Go out there and buy a copy. You won’t regret it.

Pan Macmillan | 23rd April 2019 | AU$17.99 | paperback

Review: Orlagh Collins – All the Invisible Things

All the Invisible Things
Orlagh Collins

It’s time for Vetty to move back to London, 4 years after her mother’s death. Living in her childhood home is difficult, but what is worse is no longer seeing eye to eye with Pez, her best friend. Have Pez and Vetty changed too much to be friends anymore? And can Vetty be honest with herself and everyone else about who she likes?

What I really liked about this novel was that the main character wasn’t automatically understood by everyone around her. Nor did she automatically know whether to shave or how to behave with other teenagers. Being a teenager is all about not knowing yourself yet and having to experiment and experience life, and Vetty gives a window into that world. Collins does a fantastic job of communicating Vetty’s insecurities in a way that still lets her be a person.

Despite Vetty’s mother dying, Vetty isn’t too put upon by her dad in terms of having to look after her little sister. I found their interactions to be strangely touching and very realistic. Discussing safe sex with your little sister isn’t really something many teenagers look forward to! I did expect more in terms of grieving from Vetty though. Losing a parent is a major life trauma.

Hmm, I’m not sure about the title of this one. What invisible things are we talking about? I tend to think of invisible things as imaginary things such as fairy tales and fantasies. You won’t find those here. I guess the secondary story line with Pez’s addiction is a hidden and private problem? I’ve not yet come across a fiction with this particular addiction, so there’s something new on offer here with that too.

I can’t believe the final school year subjects these UK kids can choose! Photography and History? Not a trace of math or simple English? Only three subjects. And it appears to be a bit optional whether you do it or not. I complain about the Australian system, but I guess at least we get a few more well rounded students.

This novel ended too soon for me. I felt so-so about No Filter (3 stars due to its luckluster romance), but this one looked promising. Indeed, I really enjoyed it. Complicated story line with multiple plot points and an actual fear of someone dying or something really bad happening? Tick. 4 stars from me, and I’d consider a reread (except Beautiful Broken Things gets first dibs).

Bloomsbury | 1st April 2019 | AU$14.99 | paperback

Review: Clare Strahan – The Learning Curves of Vanessa Partridge

The Learning Curves of Vanessa Partridge
Clare Strahan

Vanessa loves playing her cello and working hard at school to please her father. Her mother is unreachable – but at least she has her older brother for company. But she’s having fantasies about Dar, the guy she’s known for ages. Can Vanessa reconcile being a ‘good girl’ with wanting to grow up?

This is a sex-positive novel that doesn’t shy away from the fact that young women feel like sex just as much as young men are often depicted as doing so! It’s ok for Vanessa to feel like having sex, and it’s ok for her to have feelings for someone and touch herself. I think that this should probably be categorized as a young adult novel, but honestly teenagers the age of Vanessa (15 years) are probably going to be having similar feelings.

One of the best things about this novel was that it is set over summer, so it doesn’t make a huge difference as to what the country is of the person reading it. One thing that irritated me about this book (and it was quite minor, really) was that sometimes Vanessa would say things, and then would clarify that she didn’t actually say them! I wanted to shout at her to say the real things she was feeling! But the fact that she didn’t say them made her a more believable and honest character.

This don’t just have themes of teenage sex, it does also look at environmental activists and divorce. Yet the author doesn’t seem to be tackling too many themes at once – I don’t think I could have dealt with Vanessa having social anxiety or something else as well – her life is complicated enough as it is. This is a protagonist that some of the minorities can empathise with, even if her family is rich enough to have a mansion!

I received this novel for review a long time ago, and read my ARC as soon as it came in the door. Then I neglected to review it. So I read it again! And I’m giving it 4 stars the second time. I think it’s a really valuable and powerful novel that should be bought for secondary schools and teenagers worldwide.

Allen & Unwin | 24th April 2018 | AU$19.99 | paperback