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Category: Genre: YA Contemporary Page 2 of 4

Review: Graffiti Moon – Cath Crowley

graffitimoonLucy feels certain that Shadow is the right boy for her. The trouble is, she has no idea who he is, just that his graffiti art resonates with her in a way that few things manage to do. On the final night of year twelve, she sets out with her friends and Ed, the boy whose nose she broke in year ten, to search Shadow’s haunts in the hope of finding him and possibly more.

The trouble with hype is that I can’t help but be influenced by it when I pick up a book. Anyone who is at least marginally involved with young adult fiction couldn’t help but hear at least a little about Graffiti Moon last year, given that it seemed to win pretty much every award going, along with the adoration of readers worldwide. Knowing that the novel had such an incredible resume meant that I went into reading it expecting something mindblowingly amazing. And the trouble with that kind of expectation is that it’s hard for any book to live up to it.

Graffiti Moon is very well written, combining poetic prose with realistic dialogue in a way that works far more than it rightfully should. It focuses on teens with realistic backgrounds and personalities, although the ratio of sensitive, arty criminals is significantly higher than it probably is among real life teenagers. It shows character growth and provides a hint of romance without succumbing to the soulmates-at-first-sight mentality that is so common today. It’s a very solid book.

I didn’t love it, though. And that’s the problem with hype. Instead of being pleased to have read a good, enjoyable book, I feel disappointed that it didn’t change my world. I want to focus on the fact that the comedy of errors plot grew a little tired towards the end, when I just wanted Lucy to realise, or on the fact that the voices of the two key protagonists didn’t read as distinctly as I would have liked. And I don’t think that’s fair to Cath Crowley, because there are good reasons why Graffiti Moon has been as successful as it has. It’s just that it wasn’t really for me, and that’s okay. A lot of books aren’t.

Review: Beauty Queens – Libba Bray

When a plane full of teenage beauty pageant contestants crashes on a seemingly-deserted island, the survivors are forced to trade their high heels for survival techniques, while they wait for the inevitable rescue plane or ship. Their efforts, however, are complicated by the top secret compound hidden in the island’s volcano and by the fact that a powerful foe doesn’t want them to return home at all.

I expected to love Beauty Queens, especially as there was so much positive buzz surrounding its release. A satire about beauty pageant participants being stranded on a desert island – how could it be anything but wonderful? Unfortunately, I cannot be counted among the book’s many fans. I found it disappointing, boring and often annoying and I shall attempt to explain why.

Satire is a difficult art and, I suspect, a highly subjective one. There is a fine line between cleverness and cliché and, for me, Libba Bray’s novel fell on the wrong side of this line. The trouble with intentionally writing in an over the top style is that it often has the same outcome as the very style one is mocking – poor writing. If a book is badly written for humorous effect, it is still badly written, and that can become very grating in a book as long as this one. I also question the originality of Bray’s satire. Is there anything new in portraying foreign dictators as ineffectual buffoons, blonde beauty queens as intellectual black holes or television corporations as brain washers of the general populace? Or anything clever, for that matter?

One of the things I found most disapointing about Beauty Queens was its characters. The surviving beauties are a collection of stereotypes – from the tomboyish, delinquent lesbian to the gun-toting, pageant-obsessed Texan and right through to the wild girl with strong sexual appetites and the trans woman who just wants to be a beautiful princess. Such a focus on character types leaves the characters themselves very one-dimensional and it is hard to care much about their individual stories. In addition, I didn’t think Beauty Queens was very successful if it were attempting to subvert these stereotypes; if anything, they felt perpetuated.

A lot of people have spoken about the relation between Beauty Queens and feminism, and I agree that it seems to be promoting a Girl Power kind of message. I have my doubts about the validity of the feminist message here, however. The novel doesn’t feel sex-positive so much as sex-imperative (with multiple readers feeling mocked for holding more conservative views than those the book appears to promote) and there is an emphasis on finding men and on appearances that doesn’t feel entirely satirical. The thing that grated on me personally, though, was the way that Bray put across her message – with a sledgehammer. It felt like she didn’t trust her (mostly female) audience to find truths within a subtly didactic plot.

Then again, nothing is subtle here and, in the long run, that was the key thing that ensured I could not enjoy Beauty Queens. It is over the top, always transparent and predictable, and more than a little hackneyed. I think that was entirely Libba Bray’s intention, so I cannot fault her for it, but the execution just didn’t work for me and I was left feeling like I’d wasted too many hours wading through four hundred-odd pages of a joke that tired after forty.

Review: Finding Freia Lockhart – Aimee Said

Finding Freia Lockhart book coverFreia knows she doesn’t really fit in with the ultra-popular Bs, but her best friend Kate is so eager to become a part of their clique that Freia can’t help but be pulled into their circle as well. When her reluctant participation in the school musical helps Freia to make a few new friends – and actually talk to boys – she is forced to think about who she really is and where she belongs.

Aimee Said has such a talent for making her teens seem real – so much so that I cringed a few times while reading Finding Freia Lockhart, because Freia reminded me a little too much of myself at fifteen! The situations here are all very realistic as well. School musicals are notorious for causing drama (and gossip), and struggles with personal identity and changing friendship groups are ones that will ring true for most readers.

Freia is a wonderful protagonist, simply because she is so very real. Her struggles with her parents are particularly well described, as the reader can feel both Freia’s frustration and understand the place her parents behaviour comes from. Freia grows a lot throughout the novel, and this growth is largely due to the changing relationships she experiences with both her parents and her peers. Freia comes across as someone who is just starting to think about her place in the world, and her journey towards independence is a pleasure to follow.

The three Bs are all very fun characters. Said gives them all distinct characters, with Brianna being the most likeable and Bethanee seeming like a Mean Girl to beat all Mean Girls! I would have liked a little more discussion of Belinda’s extreme dieting, in terms of showing just unhealthy it is (in both mental and physical terms), but realise that Finding Freia Lockhart is not meant to be a book about eating disorders. I thought Kate worked very well too, even if I couldn’t like her. Just as the novel is about Freia finding herself, it seemed to show Kate losing herself in her quest to be popular, which makes her a great foil to her best friend, but also reduces her likeability a little.

My personal favourite character was the fantastic Siouxsie. I loved how she’s always there in the background, quietly offering friendship to Freia, even when Freia is completely oblivious to it. She is sweet and interesting – and I pictured her looking like Siouxsie Sioux all the way through the book! A rather more terrifying mental image was provoked by the book’s descriptions of Daniel, who I ended up picturing as Skeletor with emo hair and Mick Jagger lips. He works well as a character, however, and I can picture him being a hit with younger readers, especially once the truth about him becomes clear.

Finding Freia Lockhart is an enjoyable coming-of-age tale that focusses on changing friendships, family dynamics, first romance and, most of all, the process of working out who you really are. A great Australian addition to the contemporary YA genre.

Review: Notes to Self – Avery Sawyer

Notes to Self book coverWhen Robin and her best friend, Emily, fall from a ride at the local fun park, Robin is left with a Traumatic Brain Injury. Worse still, Emily is in a coma and no one knows when – or if – she is likely to wake up. Robin has to piece together the truth about her life, who she is and, most of all, what happened the night that she and Emily fell.

Notes to Self is a moving and yet enjoyable novel about a teenager’s slow recovery from the traumatic incident that completely changed her life. While the content of the book is emotive and sometimes confronting, as Robin deals with the intellectual and social consequences of her injury, it is never cloying nor melodramatic. Robin is not represented as a victim to pity, or the archetypical Brave Invalid, but rather as a very normal teenager who is just trying to learn about who she is. In this way, Notes to Self is as much a coming-of-age story as it is the tale of Robin’s slow recovery.

Robin’s voice is cleverly crafted by Avery Sawyer. Her confusion upon regaining consciousness and the intellectual struggles of the ensuing weeks are very well portrayed. I’m not an expert on acquired brain injuries, so can’t attest to the accuracy of Robin’s experiences, but they certainly felt very real and it seemed like a lot of research had informed Notes to Self‘s plot and characters.

It would be very easy for Emily to remain little more than a name, given the circumstances described in the novel, but Sawyer does an excellent job of fleshing out her character. At first, it is a little hard to understand what Robin sees in a best friend who encourages her to do unsafe things but, through flash backs, the reader is introduced to Emily’s supportive side, and thus becomes a lot more invested in her waking from her coma.

In contrast, Reno is likeable from the moment he enters the text. A little bit nerdy and a whole lot caring and thoughtful, he is one of my favourite types of Potential Love Interest – the best friend, seen in a new light. He is the perfect steadying influence for Robin, while she’s in the process of dealing with everything that has happened, and I can see him being a firm favourite with Sawyer’s readers.

Notes to Self is a strong novel about a topic that is rarely focussed upon in the world of YA fiction – disability, injury and illness – and it explores this topic in a thoughtful and sensitive manner without ever feeling too much like an ‘issues’ piece. Robin is a likeable and sympathetic character whose personal journey will appeal to many, and Sawyer has produced a tight and engaging novel that was a pleasure to read.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: He’s After Me – Chris Higgins

He's After Me book coverWhen Anna meets handsome, doting Jem, it feels like her life is finally going right. Still struggling to cope with her father having left her mother for a much-younger workmate, she is glad to have something positive to focus on. Quickly, Jem becomes the centre of her world. But soon her friendships and schoolwork begins to suffer. Is Jem the perfect boyfriend she thinks he is?

He’s After Me is a quick and easy read, written as it is in an informal style with a lot of short sentences, dialogue and internal monologues. Despite this, it deals with a subject that is far from easy. Anna is involved in an obsessive relationship and Jem is an overly-possessive boyfriend, who isolates her from her friends and former life and instead leads her into a life of lies and crime.

As a commentary upon abusive relationships, the novel works well. Chris Higgins does a good job of capturing the pull of different emotions experienced by Anna and the conflict between her desire to be with Jem and her reluctance to completely leave her old goals behind and enter an adult life she’s not quite ready for. Because the story is told from Anna’s unreliable viewpoint, the reader is shown all of the positive sides of Jem’s personality, while his bad points are quickly glossed over.

Unfortunately, the effect of this is lessened by the inclusion of short, italicised sections of text that sit between one or more of the main chapters and give the perspective of an unnamed male character. I assume these are included in order to add a sense of tension and suspense to the novel, but I personally found that they had the opposite effect. I guessed the twist in the tale very early in the piece and found that the overly-sinister comments felt clichéd and detracted from the real horror portrayed in He’s After Me: the loss of self to a toxic relationship.

Indeed, I think it was the combination of realistic relationship story and melodramatic thriller that just didn’t work for me. I felt like I needed He’s After Me to be one or the other. It wasn’t intense enough to work as a thriller and not measured enough to truly explore the issues involved with obsessive relationships. In addition, I was not able to connect with any of the characters, so the ending didn’t move me at all.

Other readers have definitely enjoyed He’s After Me and there was nothing bad or offensive about it; it just wasn’t for me.

Review: Have You Seen Ally Queen? – Deb Fitzpatrick

With Ally’s mother struggling to cope with the mental after-effects of witnessing a bad car accident, her parents decide to move away from Perth and into a rural beach town. Ally struggles to fit in with her new schoolmates, a situation made only the more difficult by her mother’s worsening health. Will she adapt to her new life, or will it all prove too much?

Deb Fitzpatrick’s second novel, Have You Seen Ally Queen? is a contemporary YA offering with a literary style. The chapters are unusually brief – one is just one page – and the narrative voice is also quite short, with situations often being described through short moments in time and character interactions rather than deep insights into Ally’s head.

In some senses, it felt a little like Fitzpatrick’s taciturn tone undermined the character of her protagonist. The reader is told that Ally is spontaneous and unrestrained and a bit of a loudmouth, but the first person narrative often seems to give the exact opposite impression. It is difficult to know how much this was planned by the author. Should the reader consider it an indication of an unreliable narrator and an example of the ways in which Ally is struggling to discover herself as a maturing teen in a new location? Certainly, it could be read that way, but I personally found it contributed to my lack of identification with the novel’s protagonist.

Ally is realistic and age-appropriate, but she doesn’t give much of herself to the reader – at least not readily. Much in Have You Seen Ally Queen? is implied, rather than stated, which is a technique I love in short fiction but one that is not commonly found in novels for young readers. I’m not sure it works in this context. There is a lack of immediacy in the book, despite it being written in present tense, and this meant that I was not captured by the plot when feeling distant from the protagonist.

It’s a pity that I couldn’t get into the style of Have You Seen Ally Queen?, because the content of the novel is fantastic. It combines coming-of-age themes with a very real exploration of mental illness and the effect it can have on the loved ones of the sufferer. Fitzpatrick does not make Ally’s mother unsympathetic, but also does not shy away from the full range of reactions experienced by Ally herself – some of which are quite critical of her mother’s behaviour.

In terms of the issues it explores, Have You Seen Ally Queen? has a lot to say to young readers, so I hope that it does well, despite my personal lack of connection with its style.

Review: Marrying Ameera – Rosanne Hawke

Marrying Ameera book coverPakistani-Australian Ameera has always done her best to be true to the requirements of her religion and to obey her father’s rules. But, when her friend’s brother catches her eye, she can’t resist forming a friendship with him. Her father is told a warped account of their interaction at a party and sends Ameera to Pakistan to spend time with her extended family and attend the wedding of her cousin. Once she gets there, however, she discovers that the bride-to-be is not her cousin, but rather herself.

Marrying Ameera is a gripping and uncomfortable tale of a girl’s struggle to resist an arranged marriage that will keep her in an unfamiliar country and away from her mother, brother, friends – and the boy she really loves. It’s the type of book that can’t help but fill a reader with impotent rage and it is frustrating in this regard, because of how deeply Hawke makes her audience feel the unfairness of the situation her protagonist is placed in. I greatly respect authors who can make me feel such intense emotions whilst reading their work, even if they can torture me a little at the time!

I don’t know how accurately Rosanne Hawke has captured the experience of a Pakistani girl being forced into a marriage she does not want and I’d be very interested to hear opinions of those who are a lot closer to that world than I (thankfully) will ever be. I can, however, say that I was very impressed with the way that she successfully avoided conflating religion with culture or a large group of people (in this case Pakistanis) with an element within that group. Marrying Ameera is not an anti-religious book or even an anti-Muslim book, and for that I was very grateful.

Ameera herself is a fantastic protagonist and feels very true to her cultural upbringing. She has a strong faith and is devoted to her family, which makes her story all the more powerful. If she were written to be just like her Anglo-Australian friends, the conflict in Marrying Ameera would become so much more one-dimensional. As it is, the novel is as much a story of her struggle to break free of her conditioning as it is a story of her horrible situation.

Given the topic of the novel, I was particularly pleased by the presence of several positive male characters, who supported Hawke’s message that crimes against women are perpetrated by individuals, rather than generalised races, religions or genders. Ameera’s brother, Riaz, is artfully drawn – combining realistic sibling indifference in the beginning with true love and dedication as the story unfolds. Tariq is portrayed as being so kind and understanding that it is not at all surprising that he earns Ameera’s love. And, in Pakistan, young Asher plays a relatively minor role for most of the story, but nonetheless sticks fast in the reader’s mind.

Marrying Ameera is not an easy book to read, but it is definitely a worthwhile one. Hawke is a strong writer, who combines an accessible young adult style with a dark and important story. One to make you think.

Warning: Contains rape.

Review: Breaking Fellini – M.E. Purfield

Breaking Fellini book coverSick of playing in a small-town cover band, Joni manages to convince her mother to allow her to move to New York to spend some time with her estranged father. Once there, she meets Phaedra, who introduces Joni to a new form of music and the original sound she’s been craving. But her father has different plans for his daughter – and might be in some trouble of his own.

I was drawn to Breaking Fellini because it’s a book about music in a sea of books about mythological creatures. But music can contain just as much magic as fantasy and M.E. Purfield has done a great job of writing a novel that fits with the music it describes.

Breaking Fellini is set in the late 1970s and depicts a New York that is struggling with a climate of unemployment and the fear surrounding the Son of Sam shootings. Amidst the poverty, however, the music scene is thriving. Disco and rock are ruling the mainstream, while the No Wave movement is beginning to turn all of the rules of blues-based music on their heads.

It is this New York that Joni moves to, and which greatly influences the feel of the novel. Purfield does not succumb to overly wordy descriptions, but there is, nonetheless, a strong sense of place and time that pervades every aspect of the story.

Breaking Fellini is a book about music, but it is also a coming-of-age story. Joni’s growth as a musician echoes her growth as a girl moving into adulthood and her independence in one aspect of her life is reflected in the other. Her relationship with her father is complex and often awkward. In many senses, she is the adult, and this only becomes more evident as the book progresses.

Indeed, at times I wondered whether Joni felt a little too mature for sixteen. I wasn’t a teenager in the 70s (or even born by the year in which the book is set), so it’s possible that things were different then, but I can’t imagine a sixteen-year-old musician being taken so seriously these days! On a similar note, I think that Breaking Fellini might actually resonate more with an adult audience than the Young Adult market, because the music scene it describes may prove more attractive to those who remember it. Certainly, there is definite crossover appeal here.

One thing I particularly enjoyed was the fact that Purfield has created a lesbian protagonist whose sexuality is secondary to her love of music. There is no romance here and no coming out process. Joni is simply a musician, daughter and friend who happens to be a lesbian as well.

Due to drug content and other adult themes, I would recommend Breaking Fellini to an older teen (and adult) audience. Strongly atmospheric – and yet firmly plot-driven – it is a clever examination of the growth of a musician and a musical movement.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: Over My Head – Marie Lamba

Over My Head book coverSang is determined that the summer before her senior year is going to be special. Unfortunately, her plans take a hit early in the piece when she discovers that, not only is her crush mooning over an older girl, but her trip away has also been replaced by a summer of swimming lessons at the local pool. Things start to look up when Sang meets gorgeous lifeguard Cameron, but there is something deeper behind her parents’ recent money issues and Sang will soon find herself forced to decide where her loyalties truly lie.

Although Over My Head is really a sequel to Marie Lamba’s What I Meant (Random House), it reads perfectly as a stand alone novel – which is good, given that I’ve not read the original! It’s an entertaining contemporary YA offering, which has a generally light tone but nonetheless manages to deal with some very big issues in a particularly sensitive manner.

Sang is the daughter of an Indian-American (Sikh) father and an American (lapsed Catholic) mother, and this heritage informs much of the novel’s plot and the issues that Sang encounters within the book’s pages. Sang herself is represented as being very much American, despite her strong ties to the Indian side of her family, and much of the novel’s action centres around the conflict between Sang’s American sensibilities and her father’s traditional Sikh values. Lamba does an excellent job, however, of ensuring that the father remains a sympathetic character, even when he is most at odds with Sang.

In fact, all of the members of Sang’s family are well-drawn and pleasantly three-dimensional. The embarrassingly nicknamed Doodles felt a little young for her age, but that could well be a result of her over-protective upbringing. Hari is, at turns, caring and frustrating, much like a big brother should be, and their mother felt particularly well-developed to me. The reader is given several poignant glimpses into her own, personal story as someone who has married into a different culture.

Raina, Sang’s cousin, who is visiting from India, is very likeable, although she sometimes feels more like a foil to Sang than her own person. It is her story that felt the most unfinished at the end of the novel and I would have liked to see more of her adjustment to teenage life in America and any conflict that may have existed between the world Sang was drawing her into and the values that had been instilled in her by her parents. Another sequel, perhaps!

Of the three boys who influence Sang’s summer, Cameron is the most thoroughly-developed. I’m still not entirely sure what to think about him, though. As the love-interest of a fairly naïve sixteen-year-old, he makes perfect sense, but there’s something about him that rubbed twice-as-old me up the wrong way from the very beginning. In contrast, I really liked Dalton and wished that we’d had the chance to see a little more of him in Over My Head. While he (understandably) becomes frustrated with Sang at times, he is kind, loyal and dependable and is a great friend to her whenever she needs it – and regardless of whether she deserves it. Team Dalton all the way.

Finally, Sang herself is wonderfully realistic. She’s passionate and impulsive and sometimes thoughtless, but she has a good heart, which is always obvious, and a strong love for her family. She doesn’t always get things right, but the reader is left feeling that she will learn from her mistakes and grow into someone admirable in the end.

Over My Head is a strong contemporary offering, with an interesting, multi-layered plot and a likeable cast of characters. Marie Lamba deals with cultural conflicts with warmth and sympathy, while accurately representing young love, with all its accompanying mistakes and embarrassments. A solid read.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: I Am Not Esther – Fleur Beale

I Am Not Esther book coverI’m a sucker for anything that deals with life in religious cults, whether the account be fictional or real. So, when I found this book in my partner’s bookshelves, I knew it was only a matter of time before I devoured it!

In some ways, I Am Not Esther satisfied my expectations. It is impossible not to sympathise with Kirby, so infuriating is the situation that she’s placed in. The demands that are made of her by her uncle would seem unfair to most readers and the lack of fun and expressions of love in the family’s day-to-day life makes one really feel for Kirby’s young cousins.

Beale’s characters are generally well-drawn, with Kirby, Daniel and little Magdalene being the stand-outs. Daniel’s struggle is handled particularly well, with his earlier actions appropriately foreshadowing the path he ends up choosing to take. While the adults are difficult to like, they are not demonised or sensationalised at all. Instead, they are painted as (very) flawed humans whose decisions are not always to be lauded.

My difficulty with I Am Not Esther was with its conclusion. It seemed too easy, but yet stopped short of a complete happy ending. I would have been happy with a realistic (unhappy) finish, or with a happily-ever-after for all of those concerned, but the in-between of this book left me feeling a little uneasy.

Despite what I considered an unsatisfying ending, I Am Not Esther is an entertaining read that is appropriately pitched at a teenage audience.

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