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Sam’s a withdrawn artist with one best and only friend in the world.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

Review: Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan & Deborah Biancotti – Nexus

Nexus
Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan & Deborah Biancotti

The Zeroes have gone from Heroes to terrorists. With their Glorious Leader Nate locked up for shooting Swarm, the remaining four are a bit lost in what to do next. Instead of being hunted by Swarm, the police hunt them. But there are larger forces at work here – and greater powers than theirs.

A quick reminder: The premise that babies born in the year 2000 are humanity’s glitch is interesting and gets more of an explanation in this novel. However, not all babies suffer from the glitch, and not all suffer in the same way. I love the way Crash reacts to meeting more Crashes! However, apparently if these guys are the ‘zeroes’ there are also going to be the ‘ones’. Where do they come from? It’s pretty unclear.

This is my least favourite of the trilogy. Everything except the last couple of chapters is action packed and well written, and just as enjoyable as the first two novels. Where this book falls down is its unbelievable ending. Literally unbelievable – if everyone could project their powers it would be a disaster! Not to mention that what happens with Ethan makes no sense either.

Man, Nate is a horrible person! He just can’t help himself from being a Glorious Leader and screwing other people over! I’m so glad he’ll never be a politician (because he ‘shot’ Swarm). What I can’t understand is why the police hold him for it, when the evidence would point to him never having held the gun. Why not just let it fade from everyone’s minds?

I’m giving this novel 4 stars even though I’ve actually reread it. The ending is just such a disappointment that I can’t give it 5 stars. Fans of this novel will love the Reckoners series by Brandon Sanderson or Whisper.

Allen & Unwin | 25th October 2017 | AU$19.99 | paperback

Review: LC Rosen – Jack of Hearts (and other parts)

Jack of Hearts (and other parts)
LC Rosen

Jack loves partying, drinking and sex. Not in that order. He probably enjoys sex the most. He’s out and not afraid of his sexuality. When his best friend asks him to write a column on sex, he isn’t sure if it’s a great idea. But there’s plenty of rumours about Jack – so why not set the facts straight? But there’s a stalker on the loose, and Jack isn’t sure if it’s creepy or sweet.

I didn’t see that ending coming. I mean, I knew that it would probably be someone out of left field, but really? That person? I’m not sure the author gave me enough warning, but perhaps a second reading would make it obvious for me. The relationships of the other characters were sweet, but they could have perhaps had a bit more backbone, particularly Ben. But I suppose not all of us are the Jack’s of the world.

I found it surprising that there were so many gay people out at his school! It would have been unheard of in my day. This novel translates well from the UK market to the US market to Australia. Young people worldwide are facing things like this every day, even if they aren’t being stalked.

You’d better believe that I pounced on this novel the minute it came in the door. I’d requested it back in December, but it was still on my spreadsheet as maybe coming soon! This has a lovely embossed cover, although the notes Jack receives are on pink paper, not red. Never mind.

This novel could be considered quite uncomfortable or confronting reading for some people. There are very frank discussions of sex, including anal and oral sex. I’ve tagged this under ‘young adult’ fiction simply because I’m not sure how many parents/book buyers would be comfortable buying this for someone else. Jack’s mom is an example of a cool (maybe too cool?) parent – she just reminds him to have safe sex, but there are other parents that might kick out their children for being gay. A sad fact of life.

I’m giving this 5 stars. It was a fantastic novel that I haven’t read anything similar to it. The closest is perhaps a Julie Anne Peters novel such as Keeping You a Secret, but that only has the ‘gay’ elements, not the discussion of sex and safe sex which I think are really important. Not only is sex normal, but it’s allowed to be fun!

Penguin Random House | 19th February 2019 | AU$16.99 | paperback

Review: Ally Carter – Not if I Save You First

Not if I Save You First
Ally Carter

After Maddie’s father saves the first lady from being shot, he takes Maddie with him to make a new home in Alaska. Maddie finds herself torn away from her best friend Logan – the President’s son – and grows angrier with him over time as she sends him hundreds of letters and never gets a response. Six years later, Logan is sent to live with them in Alaska, both as a punishment for his behaviour, and to keep him safe. When he then gets kidnapped by the same people who tried to kill his mother years ago, Maddie must save his life, even if that means getting captured herself.

This book was full of plot holes, poor decisions, and just wasn’t exciting. The main character, Maddie, seemed to be either perfect or immortal. After falling off a 15-meter cliff, she’s able to trek through the Alaskan wilderness, make her way across a dangerous bridge, and run away from a man shooting at her. 15 meters might not seem like a lot, but it’s not uncommon for people to die from a fall that high. She later gets shot in the shoulder, and is still able to cause an explosion, survive the explosion, and throw a knife into a man’s back. Nothing felt like it had any meaning, and by the end the book felt boring and stale, because I knew that Maddie’s ability to shrug off fatal injuries would likely mean that nothing would happen to anyone else. The only progression that occurred throughout the book was the discussion between Maddie and Logan about the letters, and even that was resolved in a few pages.

There were some parts of the book that I enjoyed. I loved Maddie’s personality, with her mix of tough and girly, and her ability to annoy her captors. The letters at the beginning of each chapter were also a nice touch, helping to show more of Maddie’s personality, and how the lack of response made her feel.

This book wasn’t terrible, but it’s definitely not something I’d read again. I constantly found myself jolting out of the book and back into reality from a variety of just… strange occurrences, ranging from weird sentence structure, to poor decisions on the characters part, to people doing things that should’ve been impossible. I’m giving this book 2 stars as it wasn’t an effort to get through, but it also wasn’t very enjoyable.