Review: Catherine Bruton – No Ballet Shoes in Syria

No Ballet Shoes in Syria
Catherine Bruton

Aya, and Mumma and Moosie are waiting for dad to appear to continue on with their lives. But he’s lost, and without him the family is adrift in an alien world. Aya is the one looking after Mumma and Moosie and helping them claim asylum – but is there time for her own ballet dreams as well?

I loved Moosie! Aya’s interactions with him really brought her to life for me. Her friendship with Dotty made me feel a bit ambivalent, because Dotty made me feel angry in a way – how inconsiderate she is, and how nice Aya is in comparison. But I’m sure Aya wasn’t nice all the time either – what 11 year old can do that all the time?

I admit that I didn’t like the title. There were, in fact, ballet shoes in Syria. That’s how Aya learned to dance after all! And she managed to find ballet teachers in most of her stopping places on the way to Europe too. I liked how although she had natural talent, we saw her working really hard as well.

I did particularly like the full circle of Aya and her new ballet teacher’s lives. I guess I can’t say more without giving one of the major tear-jerking plot points away. It’s scary to draw parallels between fleeing the Nazi invasions and fleeing war torn middle eastern countries.

It must be so difficult being an asylum seeker. At least in Britain they’re allowed out into the community – in Australia we lock them up behind barbed wire and turn their leaking boats away. It is amazing the way humans can treat other humans so poorly. We should be asking refugees what makes them so resilient and resourceful.

This middle grade novel fits a niche that I think will resonate well with grade 5 and 6 readers. If you’re looking for a slightly more teenage version of this novel, I could suggest When Michael met Mina or even You Must Be Layla (again, quite middle grade). These are not strictly refugee novels, but have similar issues of being different for reasons you can’t change. 3 stars from me, and 4 stars for its intended audience.

Nosy Crow | 5th August 2019 | AU$14.99 | paperback

Review: Caroline Bond – The Forgotten Sister

The Forgotten Sister
Caroline Bond

Cassie hasn’t thought about the fact that she was adopted. She’s been happy with her adoptive family up until this point. But are they hiding something from her? And if they are hiding something, is it for her own good?

You know, you’d think that fiction characters, particularly those that have adopted children, would learn to be more open about things. Every time I get a side conversation being held between parents I automatically think that something is going to go wrong – and unfortunately that’s normally the main plot point of the novel, just as it is here.

I found the inserts from Cassie’s dad quite distracting, and I didn’t feel like they added anything to the story. It could have equally been told from Grace’s (the mother) perspective and not lost anything in my opinion. I did like Ryan’s perspective, and Erin’s though. Overall, I could have just had the novel told to me from Cassie, Grace and Leah’s perspectives if that meant that their characters and motivations were a little more fleshed out.

I found Leah a bit… intense? And thus I found the ending quite unbelievable. I could have done without it, actually. What is with novels wanting to add a little post-script to a perfectly good novel? I didn’t find it heartbreaking or tear jerking, perhaps because I could never think of Leah anything other than a bit crazy. Going through the Foster Care system is enough to drive anyone mad! In fact, another novel I read recently was about that – Stone Girl.

This novel left me feeling a bit ambivalent, which I guess means it’s a 3 star. Not terrible, but not remarkable either.

Allen & Unwin | 3rd June 2019 | AU$29.99 | paperback

Review: Brendan Reichs – Nemesis

Brendan Reichs

Every two years Min is murdered on her birthday – but she finds herself alive again soon after, with no evidence of death left. An asteroid is approaching earth though, and weird things keep happening that might wipe out human kind. It’s good thing she has Tack by her side – and maybe the stranger Noah as well?

This novel was very, very slow and I considered giving up on it about half way through. Min and Noah are like two magnets that kept changing polarities. Oh, and then when the perspectives started changing I started feeling very irritated. Just stick with a side guys! Noah, please get over yourself, I get that you might have anxiety, but I don’t think you’re really convincing me with your character consistency.

Ok, something I really struggled with was the ending of this novel. Noah’s personality basically completely changes – and I had no idea why. Min stays her own awesome self as far as I can tell. I also really don’t get how what they think is happening could happen. I really can’t say more without giving away the twist.

This novel reminded me a little of The Maze Runner – but I think people actually die in that one! I have the second novel in this series waiting for me on my bookshelf at home, but I’m not sure I’m going to wait that long to read it (since there is an eBook copy available from my local library). I’ll give this one a healthy 3 stars, bordering on 4. I’m just not convinced about the ending.

Review: S E Grove – The Waning Age

The Waning Age
SE Grove

Natalia has lost her empathetic little brother after a wayward comment at her workplace insults the wrong person. She’s also got a huge bounty on her head after she embarrasses a bunch of Fish. Fish are people who don’t have feelings, and also don’t follow society’s rational norms – they’re killers. Natalia is pretty sure she doesn’t have feelings left either – but she’s determined to get her brother back.

The premise of this novel is interesting. When children get to the age of 10 or so, they lose their ability to feel things. So then at high school they are taught society’s rules and norms for how to behave. Somehow people’s brains have switched off the pathways to being empathetic for others. It’s a cool idea! I’m not sure how biologically possible it is at this point though.

I’m not sure how I felt about the execution of this novel. Calvino’s essay responses add a bit of variety, but ultimately it is Natalia’s journal that carries the plot. The journal entries left me feeling like there was a lot more to be said. Now, if that was a deliberate idea on the author’s behalf, because of course Natalia doesn’t ‘feel’ things anymore, that’s ok. But I needed something more to connect me with the characters.

None of the characters I cared about died, and nothing bad really seemed to happen to them. Bad things were threatened, and people did die, but they weren’t really important. I was too sure the whole time that Natalia would win. And that ending with where Cal ends up? Isn’t that just too convenient? All those coincidences just seem to line up…

Natalia reminded me of Maggie in Disruption (I always have to look up the name of the novel, I can never remember it!). Despite everything going against her, and only the rich being able to afford the good things in life, Natalia sticks it out and kicks butt, just like Maggie! I’m going to give this 3 stars, and suggest instead that you go and read Disruption instead for a kick-ass heroine and a more convincing plot.

Review: Catherine Jinks – Shepherd

Catherine Jinks

It’s a hard life in New South Wales as a convict, but Tom Clay has his sheep and his dogs. There’s a big problem though – Dan Carver is going to kill him when he comes back. The arrival of a third shepherd, Rowdy Cavanagh should make Tom more relaxed, but Rowdy doesn’t know when to shut up. A fraught chase ensures across the wild Australian landscape.

What this novel brings home for me is the sheer amount of knowledge that white Australians have lost by effectively wiping out the native peoples. Tom is/was a poacher back in England and thus he understands a lot about animals and plants. In the bush he doesn’t understand anything though and he feels like everything is against him. Rowdy’s big mouth certainly doesn’t help him concentrate!

The cover suggests a murder mystery to me, with the pitchfork spearing the title. But what I got was nothing like that. Instead I felt like I was walking the bush with Tom and fearing for my own life. Unfortunately, I’m just not very excited by colonial Australian history. I studied the literature of the time and wasn’t that keen on it. I don’t really understand why I didn’t care for this novel, but I didn’t. It’s not something I’d necessarily read if I had a choice, which is why it came on vacation with me to force me to read it.

The writing style is smooth and the environment explicitly realised. Technically this novel is fantastic. Yet the ending felt cold to me and I could have put it down at any point. I didn’t connect with Tom enough and the deaths of other characters didn’t interest me. I finished this novel in the space of a couple of hours. 3 stars from me.

Text Publishing  | 2nd July 2019 | AU$29.99 | paperback

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: Sarah Crossan – 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: Elizabeth Gilbert – City of Girls

City of Girls
Elizabeth Gilbert

Vivian Morris is writing a letter to a woman who’s father she spent time with following the war. This letter and novel tells the story of her life and how it all leads up to her sexual and business freedom.

I didn’t feel very strongly about this novel. It all pretty much boiled down to ‘it was all a dream’. Not exactly, but that was the feeling I had – in that everything that had happened before actually didn’t have any impact or was anything that mattered. I knew she would survive everything thrown her way, and that she’d end up being happy regardless of the challenges.

I get that for its time, the protagonist is a daring and unusual heroine who is a paragon of sexual freedom. But the novel isn’t set up for me to actually enjoy her story. Vivian (even the name suggests she enjoys life) doesn’t endear herself to me at all and I never connected with her little asides about how she didn’t know anything at the time, but oh, looking back she was amazed at her naivety.

This is billed as a unique love story set in the New York City theater world during the 1940s. Unique, yes, thrilling and enthralling, no. 3 stars, and maybe a different audience would be more suitable to read this (someone keen on the 1940s and the war times?).

Bloomsbury | 4th June 2019 | AU$32.99 | 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: Kesia Lupo – We are Blood and Thunder

We are Blood and Thunder
Kesia Lupo

Lena is desperate to escape her life as a cryptling serving the Duke’s Forest Ancestors – but instead finds herself needing to escape to survive after she is branded as a mage. Constance is a mage trying to find her way back into the Forest after her flight many years ago. Both of them are somehow connected to the storm that is slowly killing the Duke’s people, but can they realise this in time to save anyone?

You won’t see the twists coming in this novel. I feel like even mentioning that there is a twist might give things away.  In addition, I liked the idea that magic could be aided or changed by adding clockwork elements, and I think more could have been done with this.

I didn’t get a sense of how large the world was. It seemed absurd to me that Duke’s Forest could be a walk away from the King. I didn’t even see the King and it seemed like this important figure was just invisible behind the potential Radicals. So some important things also seemed inconsistent – the change in Constance’s magic. I thought it was purple? And then it turned out to be white.

What I couldn’t believe, and what spoiled the book for me, was the romance aspect. The relationships that develop seem to be fragile and tenuous from the way that the characters spoke, but then their actions said that there were some strong feelings going on.

I could have seen more about the various religious/God sects which I thought were introduced but not properly discussed. Perhaps this will be explored in the not-a-sequel set in the same world. 3 stars for this one due to the disappointing characters, but I expect to see more good things from this author.

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