Tara Calaby

writer, editor & phd candidate

Tag: contemporary ya (page 1 of 5)

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 American Girl – Meg Cabot

All American Girl book coverI’ve never read any of the Princess Diaries books. My library never has the first one in, and the movie put me off them a bit, because Anne Hathaway bugs me, and I’m exceedingly shallow. So I think All American Girl might be the first full-length Meg Cabot book that I’ve ever read. I picked it up at a library book sale, expecting it to be a light and fluffy read that I could then pass on, but I was pleasantly surprised at just how much I enjoyed it. It’s a clever and fun contemporary romance, which I shan’t be giving away after all!

Sam is an enjoyable heroine, who has a strong personality. My favourite part about the novel was the way that she grows throughout its pages, learning to see the world and the people around her in a more mature way. Although All American Girl is not strictly a coming-of-age story, there is still a great deal of character growth shown here. Sam’s art lessons, and her struggle to paint what she sees, instead of what she believes she knows, form a perfect metaphor for her parallel reassessment of her family, her long-term crush, and the other people in her life.

I can’t stand the phrase “Leader of the Free World” as a synonym for “American president”, because the US president is not my leader, thankyouverymuch. It’s used multiple times in All American Girl, but I get the impression that Cabot uses it ironically, given the way she portrays the president and his actions. If so, it’s another example of the clever writing and characterisation that makes the novel stand out a little from the crowd of contemporary romances.

Speaking of the romance, it’s also nicely done. There’s a love triangle of sorts, but only in the sense that Meg is torn between her long-held “love” for Jack (her older sister’s boyfriend) and the “frisson” between her and David. I particularly enjoyed the way that Jack’s character failings are never specifically detailed, but rather the reader is allowed to form their own conclusions from his behaviour.

All American Girl is, indeed, fluffy teen romance, but it’s a strong example of the genre. Perhaps I should try the Princess Diaries after all!

Review: Ex-mas – Kate Brian

Ex-mas book coverEx-mas is enjoyably fluffy. Like many contemporary romances, it’s rather predictable, but the storyline is pleasant and the writing style is low-key and unobtrusive. I read it on public transport, and it’s the perfect sort of book for that situation. You don’t have to think too much, and it’s likeable enough that the time passes quickly.

I’m a big fan of queen bees, so I got excited when I realised that Lila was one of the two most popular girls in her school. This isn’t a story about popularity, however, but rather one about the choice between being popular and being yourself. In this sense, it has a good message, but I found Lila’s dilemma a little unconvincing, given that she’d spent three years working at gaining and maintaining her place in the social hierarchy of her school. That shows commitment!

I struggled to find the connection between Lila and Beau convincing as well. For starters, their background is that they dated through middle-school and into their freshman year, and this is represented as having been an extremely serious relationship, with them being in love with each other. I really needed them to be aged up a little if I were to believe in their past and their rightness for each other. In contrast, Lila’s three year relationship with Erik is written more like a three month relationship. I know dating is different in America, but it still didn’t ring true to me – especially as Lila’s memories of Beau being controlling are never really addressed.

Then again, it never pays to think too deeply about a lot of novels, and Ex-mas is entertaining enough that I was able to put aside my questions and enjoy the plot. Road trip stories are always fun, and here the purpose for the trip adds an extra element of interest to the story.

Review: My Summer of Love – Helen Cross

My Summer of Love book coverI watched the film of My Summer of Love earlier this year. It was one I’d picked up super cheap at some point in time, completely unaware that it was related to the novel I’d had sitting in my bookshelves for years, waiting to be read. I didn’t like the movie at all, so I had very low expectations for the book it had been based upon. Luckily, I enjoyed it a lot more than I had been expecting.

My Summer of Love is tightly written with a very strong voice. The protagonist is fifteen-year-old Mona, and the novel is presented from her flawed perspective, complete with slang and local dialect. At first, it’s a simple tale of teenage boredom and family drama, centred around Mona’s sister’s second wedding and life at her father’s pub. But then she meets Tamsin (for the second time) and Mona’s penchant for gambling, drinking and petty crime descends into something a lot darker.

While reading My Summer of Love, I was strongly reminded of the absolutely brilliant film, Heavenly Creatures and, upon finishing, I realised that it also has many similarities to The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers. There’s a strong sense of apathy here that belies the obsessive emotion that Mona says she feels for Tamsin. As readers, we are not given the impression of a young girl caught in the flush of first love; rather we see someone broken and breaking further apart, with no apparent care for what she does and who she does. My Summer of Love is not so much a tale of love as it is an account of deep grief and the (unknowing) quest to find something to feel.

The main pairing in the novel is a lesbian pairing, but I am not sure that this matters at all. Mona doesn’t question her attraction to Tamsin, but rather lets it slot easily in amidst her growing awareness of men and her attractiveness to men. I found this refreshing, but not entirely realistic, given the novel’s setting.

I am not entirely sure why they changed the novel so very much when making it into a film. Certainly, there is not a lot in the film that bears any great resemblance to the book, which is a shame. My Summer of Love is dark and clever and very good. On the other hand, I would not read it again, simply because I didn’t like the ending. I’m not sure it was sufficiently supported by Mona’s journey and, in a purely personal sense, it just felt too dark and pointless. The first line of the novel talks about the day that two people died. If it had only been the first person, I think the ending would have been perfect.

Still, the fact that I didn’t enjoy everything about My Summer of Love doesn’t mean that it isn’t a very clever novel, with strong characters and a wonderful feeling of apathy and destruction throughout.

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: A Pocketful of Eyes – Lili Wilkinson

A Pocketful of Eyes book coverI’m amazed that there aren’t more Young Adult mysteries out there. It’s such a well-loved genre when it comes to junior and middle grade fiction, what with the massive popularity of the Enid Blyton mysteries and series such as Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, but then there’s a real hole in the market in the section between those books and their adult counterparts. I was excited, therefore, to discover A Pocketful of Eyes. I knew of Lili Wilkinson from her excellent Pink and was very pleased that she had produced an Australian, Young Adult take on the murder mystery.

Just like the stories that are regularly referenced in the novel, A Pocketful of Eyes is great fun. There’s an ever present sense of its place in the world of the whodunnit, but Wilkinson is also aware at all times of her audience. There’s no stuffy Poirot here. The protagonist, Bee, is just as keen a detective as her literary ancestors, but she’s also very much a teenage girl. Her sleuthing is often derailed by her growing crush on her sidekick, Toby, and she has her geeky mother and her new boyfriend to deal with as well.

I knew I’d love A Pocketful of Eyes from the moment that it started talking about Bee’s childhood obsession with Trixie Belden. I, too, wanted to be Trixie when I grew up, and I received far too much pleasure from the references to her and the book series throughout the novel. I have to wonder whether Wilkinson was also a big childhood fan of junior mysteries, because they are all spoken of with such love.

The mystery itself is nicely paced and cleverly constructed. While I picked up on the murder weapon reasonably early in the piece, due to the various hints given in the pages, I had not predicted the other details of the death at all, which is always good. (To be fair, I am not the type of person who tends to think a lot about whodunnit, preferring to let things unfold at the author’s pace.) As with most books in the genre, the reader has to suspend disbelief a little, but I think that’s part of the fun of mysteries. There’s an escapist element to lay detectives that really appeals to one’s own, personal sense of potential adventure.

I wasn’t sure what to expect of A Pocketful of Eyes, given the aforementioned lack of YA mysteries, but was very pleased to find that I enjoyed it very much. I’d love to see more books about Bee, or at least a few more whodunnits from Lili Wilkinson.

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