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Category: Genre: YA Contemporary Page 1 of 4

Review: The Fault in Our Stars (John Green)

The Fault in Our Stars book cover
John Green, The Fault in Our Stars (Penguin, 2012).

Category: Young Adult Fiction: Contemporary

Setting: 2010s Indianapolis, USA

Key Words: Cancer, Romance, First Love

In Brief: A book that initially is more about life than imminent death, but which succumbs to many of the usual tropes by the end.

The Plot: A terminally ill girl meets a boy in her cancer support group and they fall in love.

The Protagonist: Hazel, a sixteen-year-old girl whose terminal cancer has been paused by a new drug.

The Love Interest: Augustus, seventeen years old and in remission for fourteen months at the start of the novel.

Other Female Characters: The only main one is Hazel’s mother, who is more complex than it initially seems. Hazel has kept one school friend, but their friendship is surface level compared with her friendships with Augustus and Isaac.

Diverse Characters: The three teenage characters are disabled / chronically ill.

The Worst Bit: Three words: Anne, Frank, applause.

(content warnings under the cut)

Review: Does My Head Look Big In This? – Randa Abdel-Fattah

Does My Head Look Big In ThisRegardless of its contents, I think I’d have considered this book worthwhile simply because of how great it is to see a YA book with the covergirl wearing the hijab. I can’t even begin to comprehend just how invalidating it must feel for so many teenagers to head to the YA section of a library or book shop just to be faced by cover after endless cover of white, skinny models with no indication whatsoever of cultural or religious diversity. (And I am not going to go into the whitewashing of characters by publishers or film-makers here, because it’s all just too depressing and anger-making.)

I have to say, though, that my hopes for Does My Head Look Big In This? weren’t entirely met. I think the main issue for me was that it felt extremely fragmented. It was like the author wanted to deal with a hundred different plot points and, instead of choosing a few to concentrate one, decided to put them all in. Because of this, everything felt a little shallow and unfinished. There was so much room for conflict and resolution in many of the plot points raised (for example, the whole Amal/Adam storyline, which gave a wonderful opportunity for Amal to confront temptation and examine the reality of her choices, but instead just kind of flopped), but even the dramatic story surrounding Leila and her family felt rushed and a little forced.

In the end, this meant that I liked this book a lot more for what it represents than what it actually is. I think it’s so very important that teenagers of all races, cultures and religions feel represented in mainstream fiction. As a work of fiction, however, it left me feeling decidedly apathetic.

Review: Pugwall’s Summer – M.D. Clark

Pugwall's Summer book coverI was obsessed with the first Pugwall book in upper primary school. It’s only very recently that I’ve come to terms with the fact that I lost my copy after one of my school friends borrowed it and never gave it back. I managed to keep hold of my copy of this sequel, however, although I hadn’t read it for nigh on two decades by the time I picked it up recently, and decided to give it another try.

As a kid, I never liked Pugwall’s Summer anywhere near as much as the original. As an adult, it’s a little hard to compare the two, given that it’s been so long since I read Pugwall, but I think I can guess why. Pugwall’s Summer doesn’t have quite as much heart as I remember the original having. There’s plenty of action here, and some great interactions between Pugwall and Marmaloid, his annoying little sister, but I didn’t find myself becoming very invested in the characters.

I think part of the reason for this was the fact that I loved the growing friendship and then romance between Pugwall and Jenny in the first book, but Jenny seems like a completely different character here. Something that was a big focus of the original is just discarded in this one, as though it were unimportant, and that didn’t work for me at all.

What did work, however, was the brilliant late-eighties-Australia nostalgia that Pugwall’s Summer promotes. There’s slang in here that I probably haven’t used since primary school, and reading the novel feels like going back in time to that era. It’s set in Geelong, with lots of talk of nearby coastal towns, like Torquay, and there’s even a school excursion to Melbourne. Any Australian child of the eighties will enjoy the reminiscent aspect of the book.

Re-reading Pugwall’s Summer doesn’t make me any less keen to one day get my hands on a new copy of the original. I’m not sure I’ll revisit this one again, however. Instead, I think I shall head over to YouTube to watch clips of the television show based on these books – which was one of my favourites, back when it first aired.

Review: Loving Richard Feynman – Penny Tangey

Loving Richard Feynman book coverI’m not sure I’m sciencey enough for Loving Richard Feynman. You see, it’s a fairly standard contemporary novel for young adults, with mild coming-of-age themes, made different due to the protagonist’s love for science and unique crush on a long-dead physicist. While I loved mathematics in high school and would very much have enjoyed the maths competition that Catherine takes part in, I never had the burning urge to study physics or to become a scientist when I grew up. So, in that sense, the thing that makes this novel different to the many others dealing with similar family and social issues is not a thing that resonates with me at all. Therefore, it felt a little samey to me, I’m afraid.

On the up-side, Loving Richard Feynman is delightfully Australian. There’s never any doubt that it is set in country Victoria – with a brief Melbourne visit thrown in. I do enjoy YA fiction set in Australia, so the setting was one of my favourite aspects of the novel.

Catherine is a realistic protagonist, if not always a completely likeable one. She’s very self-conscious and not always very nice to her friends and the rest of her classmates, but she has a strong voice and her quirks are cleverly portrayed. As someone who wallpapered her room with posters of Guns n’ Roses in my teens, I was particularly amused by the thought of Catherine’s most important decoration being a poster of the man who helped create the atom bomb. I think Tangey did a good job, also, of showing how Catherine hides behind her differences when it comes to dealing with her peers.

While Loving Richard Feynman will not be a book that sticks in my mind forever, it’s a capable piece of writing and a light novel that should please lovers of Australian YA who are looking for a quick contemporary read.

Review: Goodbye Tomorrow – Gloria D. Miklowitz

Goodbye Tomorrow book coverI enjoyed Goodbye Tomorrow when I first read it as a teenager. I knew a lot less about HIV and AIDS back then and I wasn’t so political a reader, so it was interesting to revisit the novel with an adult and modern perspective.

I think that Miklowitz had very good intentions when she wrote Goodbye Tomorrow, bringing the facts and emotions of AIDS to a young adult audience. In the end, however, the book lacks heart, and now feels extremely dated.

One difficulty is the fact that the novel is written from three different first person perspectives – those of Alex, his sister and his girlfriend. These perspectives change often and, while they do allow Miklowitz to show the reactions of different people to Alex’s diagnosis, they leave the reader feeling rather disconnected from the characters.

My greatest issue with Goodbye Tomorrow, however, was the way the novel deals with the connection between HIV/AIDS and homosexuality. There are far too many gay “jokes” here, and there’s no real justification for them. The overall moral of the novel seems to be that good people can get AIDS too – not just gay men and drug users – so it’s wrong to be prejudiced against people who suffer from the illness. There’s even a startling statement towards the end of the book about how it’s likely that fifty per cent of gay teachers (and, presumably, all gay men) are HIV positive.

Goodbye Tomorrow may have been ground-breaking and important in 1987, but unfortunately it hasn’t aged well. The way the novel represents homosexuality and the dated facts it conveys combine to make it a novel that is no longer relevant in 2012.

Review: The Snog Log – Michael Coleman

The Snog Log book coverI’m afraid I just couldn’t like The Snog Log. Sure, it ends in a place where the male protagonist, Robbie, has finally started to realise that it’s not exactly a nice thing to do to turn his female classmates into objects, but there’s just not enough bite to the resolution to make up for the way the female characters are portrayed and treated for the rest of the novel.

I think part of the problem lies in the way that Mel is depicted. She’s not quite a co-protagonist, but her journal entries form part of the narrative, and occasionally there will be a confusing switch to her point of view in the main text. The trouble is that her distrust of boys (and men) seems to be included as a parallel to the behaviour of Robbie and his friends. So she is shown to be just as much at fault, because she fails to see that some boys (ie. Robbie) can be capable of good acts, as well as acting up in class and treating girls like crap.

There’s a big issue with this. Namely, Mel is right to distrust the boys in her class! They are all using her and her peers as pawns in their snogging bet. They pretend to be interested in these girls, then attempt to dump them the moment that they’ve reached the maximum snogging score. Girls are rated according to how easy it will be to snog them, and constantly discussed solely in terms of their physical attributes. How, then, does Mel’s change of heart serve as an appropriate parallel to Robbie’s startling revelation that perhaps girls deserve to be treated with respect?

I’m not saying that there aren’t teenage boys out there who are a lot like Robbie and his mates. There most definitely are. I just feel like the female voice in The Snog Log is unauthentic. I actually think that the novel would be more palatable if there were no female perspective, but rather if we were shown Robbie’s character progression without the juxtaposition with Mel. Let the obnoxious boys be obnoxious boys; just don’t suggest it’s all okay, because look! sometimes girls think the worst of boys! (Never mind the long history of male-female relations that causes those girls to think that way.)

I think Coleman meant well when writing The Snog Log. After all, there is the attempt at a moral in the end. Unfortunately, however, the novel just didn’t work for me.

Review: All I Ever Wanted – Vikki Wakefield

All I Ever Wanted book coverI hate trying to review books that I loved and books that really got to me on an emotional level. All I Ever Wanted falls into both categories, so I’m not going to try to be intellectual about this at all. Instead, here’s a list:

Five things I loved about All I Ever Wanted

1. It has a brilliant fallible first person narrative. When it’s done well, first person fallible is easily my favourite narrative style, and here it’s used to a wonderful effect. As readers, we only see what Mim sees and know the things that she wants to tell us. This means that her growth and discoveries are signposted but not obvious. When her perspective changes, ours does too and, when she misjudges people, so do we. It’s powerful stuff.

2. It focusses on the kinds of Australians who are so often left out of the fictional record. Mim’s family is poor, they’ve been mixed up with drugs and crime and they live on the worst street in town, surrounded by other people in difficult circumstances. At first, we see these characters through Mim’s judgemental eyes, but as the book progresses, we are allowed to see the beauty in so many of them – and the ugliness in someone who Mim formerly found beautiful.

3. It takes the coming-of-age genre and develops it into something new. Usually, coming-of-age books are about growing up and moving on and out. All I Ever Wanted is about coming back home again. It’s about accepting, rather than rejecting, what you’ve known.

4. It’s about love and community. It’s about the love of family, even through differences and difficulties. It’s about friendships new and old and about accepting friends’ failures along with admitting your own. It’s about neighbourhoods and the kind of community that comes from facing adversity together and understanding each other. It’s about finding support in places you didn’t expect it, and discovering it’s been there all along.

5. All I Ever Wanted hurts. It is joyous as well. The writing is elegant and pretty and the heart of it grabs you and doesn’t let go. I cried after reading it from the emotional build-up and I’m emotional again writing this review. It is difficult and complicated and subjective and hopeful, just like life itself.

And one extra thing, which will mean nothing to those who haven’t read the novel.

6. Gargoyle.

Vikki Wakefield deserves all the praise that she’s received for this novel. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Warning: contains an attempted rape scene, and references to domestic violence and animal cruelty

Review: Stay With Me – Paul Griffin

Stay With Me book coverThree Things I Liked About Stay With Me

(1) There is an extremely strong use of voice throughout Stay With Me. Griffin does a great job of differentiating between his two protagonists through the way they tell their stories. The reader is unlikely to become confused about who is speaking, because the two voices are very different.

(2) The character of Vic is fantastic. His unwavering belief in the people around him is extremely important to making this book readable, despite the overwhelming negativity of the situations described in it.

(3) The dogs in Stay With Me are obviously written about by someone who knows and loves dogs. There is a strong and obvious parallel formed between them and Mack, and this is cleverly done, inserting a little hope where it is most needed.

Four Things I Disliked About Stay With Me

(1) I found that the age of the characters detracted from my enjoyment of the story. I didn’t think that either character really felt fifteen in terms of the way they interacted with the world and each other. The stakes in their romance were reduced by their ages; relationships between fifteen year olds rarely last, so it felt like the events of the book only hastened the eventual outcome.

(2) I was a little concerned by just how blasé the book was about underage sex. There was the sense that it is expected and right for fifteen-year-olds to rush into sexual relationships. Obviously this is something that happens, so I’m not questioning the realism, but rather the way it was presented as being inevitable.

(3) Stay With Me is mostly shade without many touches of light. Everyone in this book has bad things happen to them – even the dogs. I think that realism in fiction is fantastic, but I also think that things can reach the point where tragedy and bad life situations are heaped on top of each other to force emotional reactions that the reader wouldn’t otherwise have had.

(4) On a very personal note, I struggled with reading about the many abused dogs referred to in the story. I think that Mack’s relationship with the rescue dogs he trains is the most positive, powerful thing about Stay With Me, but the backgrounds of these dogs and their resilience to human cruelty was the element that made me come very close to stopping reading this novel, due to my own sensitivity to such things.

(Warning: Contains a lot of discussion of animal abuse and an animal death, violence and underaged sex.)

Review: The Life and Times of Gracie Faltrain – Cath Crowley

The Life and Times of Gracie Faltrain book coverAfter feeling a little disappointed by Graffiti Moon, I was pleased to spot The Life and Times of Gracie Faltrain in my local library, because I had enjoyed Cath Crowley’s style while not really appreciating the subject matter of Graffiti Moon as much as I could. Luckily, The Life and Times of Gracie Faltrain is far more my sort of book, combining as it does my favoured realistic YA subjects of friendship, family and a smidge of romance with a sport-based plot.

The Life and Times of Gracie Faltrain is a lot shorter than it looks, due to Crowley’s interesting use of extremely short chapters at times. The novel is told from the first person perspectives of most of the characters mentioned in it, including Gracie’s parents. Usually, this is a fun way of exploring the plot from multiple viewpoints, but it does feel a little jarring when the characters respond to what other characters have written as this only happens a couple of times with the characters mostly remaining unaware of what other people are thinking about a situation.

Crowley’s use of so many perspectives allows her to include my favourite aspect of this novel – Gracie’s parents’ thoughts on her and their relationship with each other and as a family. It’s an insight that is so rarely found in books for younger readers and while there’s a possibility that a section of Crowley’s audience will be uninterested in what it reveals, I actually thought that it was great for a book to talk about the feelings behind family break-ups, rather than just the feelings experienced by children once they occur. We’re still shown Gracie’s intense pain at what’s going on in her family (and her denial of it and how these feelings influence her on-field performance), but the book goes beyond that, making it better. Similarly, conflicting accounts of events through Gracie’s and Annabelle’s eyes show that Gracie isn’t always an infallible narrator when it comes to her behaviour.

Because Gracie is flawed – very much so. The way she plays soccer for the majority of the book will grate for any player or lover of team sports. She’s completely caught up in her own struggles and her own feelings and due to this she sometimes ends up treating the people around her very poorly. At no sense do you feel like she’s not a good person, but at some points she is very frustrating! She grows as the book continues, however, which is just what a protagonist should do.

I very much enjoyed The Life and Times of Gracie Faltrain and was glad I gave Cath Crowley’s work another chance. I’ll definitely look up more of her books.

Review: In Ecstasy – Kate McCaffrey

In Ecstasy book coverThe trouble with books about the Big Issues is that they often descend very quickly into lecturing and moralising, especially when they’re aimed at a youth market. With In Ecstasy, Kate McCaffrey does a great job of avoiding that route and thus ensures that her novel will be enjoyed by the young readers it’s aimed at as well as the adults who judged it winner of the Australian Family Therapists’ Book Award in 2009.

As a book about the dangers of drug use, In Ecstasy pulls few punches and represents the world of addiction in a way that bears many similarities to the personal accounts of those whom I’ve spoken to about their own experiences of heavy drug use as a teenager. Because of its realism, this is a darker book than many people would be comfortable reading. Sexual assault occurs more than once and, while the description is not graphic, the incidences are dealt with in such a manner that they could still prove very triggering to some readers.

The novel is presented from the perspective of two best friends, Sophie and Mia, with alternating first person chapters that employ two different fonts in the edition I read. At first, it’s easier to identify with Mia, because Sophie seems so perfect and self assured, but as the book progresses, the reader learns that Sophie has her troubles and her faults as well. At the same time, Mia becomes increasingly consumed by her drug use, which can’t help but erode some of the sympathy she had formerly gained. As the drugs take over, her behaviour becomes more and more selfish and she herself becomes less and less likeable, which I think is actually one of the strongest aspects of the novel. McCaffrey shows how drugs turn an average teenage girl, whom young readers will easily identify with, into someone who steals and deeply hurts her family and friends. Most of all, however, Mia hurts herself and it is her self-loathing and self-destruction that are especially painful to read about.

In Ecstasy is a strong novel with an obvious message that doesn’t overwhelm the story it tells. Due to the dark nature of much of its content, I would recommend it to older readers.

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