Category Archives: Young Adult

The Blood Within The Stone

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

“The Blood Within The Stone” by T. R. Thompson is a fantasy young adult novel, the first in the “Wraith Cycle” series. The story is about two young boys, Wilt and Higgs, who live on the streets of a grim town called Greystone. Will’s ability to seemingly guess what people will do next gets him and Higgs an invitation into the Grey Guild, the prestigious guild of thieves. However, Wilt’s plans to eke a living that way are thrown by the wayside when he and Higgs are taken against their will by a Prefect from a Redmonis, a revered institute of education. When they arrive, the situation is even more grim than the town they left behind. All the students appear to be under some kind of spell and the mysterious Nine Sisters of Redmonis seem to be behind it.

Thompson conjures a bleak world, where the only way to survive is at the expense of someone else. He keeps that tone consistently throughout the book and it definitely felt much darker than most YA I read. I think there were two particular highlights for me in this book: the magic and Higgs. Thompson’s magic system is very sophisticated and throughout the book Wilt discovers and learns to control his affinity with welds: the connections that are formed between all living beings and which allow him to perform an increasing number of extraordinary feats. Magic is a difficult thing to get right in fantasy, and Thompson has clearly put in a lot of thought into his system, the things it can be used for and the dangers it poses to those who can wield its power.

I also absolutely adored the character of Higgs. Higgs is an excellent character and I found myself actually rushing through the parts about Wilt so that I could find out more about Higgs and what he was doing. Higgs’ enthusiasm and expertise was a breath of fresh air in a book that is otherwise very serious.

I guess that’s probably also a downside about this book: I liked a lot of the other characters more than I liked Wilt. Despite his incredible power, Wilt didn’t really seem to have much in the way of either personality or agency. Higgs is in the background, doing all the heavy lifting, while Wilt just seems to be along for the ride. Given the ending (which I won’t spoil) I imagine that future books will be a bit different but for this book, Wilt wasn’t as interesting as I would have liked him to be. I would read a thousand books about Higgs’ crackling personality and sharp wits, but Wilt was kind of more brawn than brains and just wasn’t as engaging.

Another issue I had with this book was a bit less about character and plot, and a bit more to do with an overall approach to conflict resolution. As I said earlier, this is a dark book and it is quite violent with characters frequently asserting their dominance through physical assaults. My problem wasn’t with this per se, but more with Wilt as his character develops over time. Quite a few people underestimate Wilt at the beginning, but as his control over his powers develops, he uses those powers to force people into respecting him. I think this was particularly apparent when he meets soldier Daemi, and learns to use his power to make her respect him. I think it is around Daemi that we really see an uglier side to Will and again, I wonder what the author will do with his character development in later books. On balance though, I would have liked to have seen more problems solved with communication, kindness and intelligence rather than with brute strength – magical or otherwise.

This was nevertheless a compelling story with a unique approach to the genre that hints at a much more epic story to be told in future books. If we get to see more of Higgs, I will definitely be there.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Australian Books, Young Adult

Cassandra

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

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“Cassandra” by Kathryn Gossow is a young adult fantasy novel about a teenager called Cassie who lives on a rural property in Queensland in the 1980s. She often has visions of the future, but they are so fragmented and unpredictable that nobody believes her. Nobody, until she makes friends with her new neighbour Athena. Isolated at school and frustrated with her family, especially her younger brother Alex whose weather predictions have led their family to prosperity, Cassie is thrilled to have a friend like Athena. Even if Athena asks her to keep their friendship a secret. However, Cassie’s visions keep telling her that things are going to go wrong and as she grows more and more disturbed by them, everything eventually does.

This is a compelling story that fuses the familiar story of an outcast teenager with the story of Cassandra, a figure in Greek mythology. While they might seem an unlikely mix, the issues that Cassie deals with like fickle friendships, first crushes, experimentation, mental illness, aging family members and tense relationships with her parents and brother are cast in relief by her inability to properly control her visions of the future. I really liked the way that Cassie’s visions are so neatly woven into the remainder of the story. I also really liked how the book darkened into a real Australian gothic story. I don’t usually like books that are quite so bleak, but I appreciated Gossow’s sense of realism, especially in the scenes where Cassie attends a party with other teenagers.

I think the part of this book that I had the most trouble with was the character of Athena. Without giving away too much of the story, I felt like I would have liked Athena to either be a little more true to her namesake when it came to her friendship with Cassie or to have simply not been named Athena at all. I felt like out of all the hardships and heartbreak that Cassie went through in this story, Athena’s gradual then ultimate betrayal was the only one I couldn’t connect with. Athena was a bit of an enigma. Highly intellectual, Cassie feels a blend of admiration and envy for her, and she is presented for the most part as being perfect. However, I couldn’t quite understand how dispassionately she treats Cassie both as a friend and as an experiment.

This is a very thought-provoking book that explores a range of issues including adolescence, agrarianism and even immigration. After I finished it, I felt almost as haunted as Cassie.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Young Adult

Release

I received an advance reading copy of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog. This is my second book by Patrick Ness, and I was so so thrilled to meet him at the Sydney Writers’ Festival earlier this year. I absolutely adored “The Rest of Us Just Live Here” and I had high hopes for this book as well.

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“Release” by Patrick Ness is a young adult novel that takes place over the span of a single day. Adam is a teenager in a small American town who is just about to start his senior year at school. He has a full day ahead of him: errands, work, a date, helping his minister dad out at church and a get-together-that-is-definitely-not-a-party. Even though his busy life seems fairly normal, Adam has always felt like the prodigal son and even though his friends all know about his sexuality, his family doesn’t. However, on this particular day, after some shock revelations, Adam realises that he can’t keep his feelings bottled up any longer. While Adam is dealing with the world as he knew it ending, the world is genuinely under threat when a lost soul merges with a merciless queen and together they seek revenge.

Wow, this book. I just want to say, before I go into the substance of my review, how lucky teens are today to have a writer like Patrick Ness writing books for them. He is an exquisite writer who captures the nuance of adolescence, intelligence and sexuality and presents the whole messy bundle in a way that anyone can relate to. The story of a gay kid hesitating to come out because he knows his parents won’t react well and worrying that they might love him less is such a common story in real life, but it is so so rare on the page. We need more stories like this and Ness is a genius at portraying that uncertainty and fear that so many kids go through.

I also think that Ness has a real talent for writing about the physicality of being a teenager and having to deal with the new size, shape and function of your body. Importantly, Ness doesn’t talk down to his audience, he talks with them. Ness’ writing has a real sense of purity about it. Adam is such an authentic character. Even when he makes mistakes, or says painfully cringe-worthy things, he remains someone you can completely believe in and someone you can completely connect with.

There’s probably only one thing that I wasn’t quite sure worked in this book which was the fantasy overlay of the spirit of the murdered girl merging with a queen from another world. For the most part, I was pretty skeptical about where that story was going, but then with an incredible flair, Ness tied it all together in a beautiful moment of clarity at the end.

I really cannot recommend this book enough. If you know a teenager who is struggling with their identity or having trouble being accepted, especially if it’s to do with sexuality, this book is perfect.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Book Reviews, Magic Realism, Young Adult

La Belle Sauvage

I’ve been anticipating reading this book ever since I heard that Philip Pullman was going to write a second series of books set in the same world as the “His Dark Materials” series. It’s a large book with a beautiful cover with bronze foil lettering and stylised artwork and the hint of daemons, and I was very keen to make a start on it.

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“La Belle Sauvage” by Philip Pullman is the first book in the “Book of Dust” trilogy which is set alongside the events of “His Dark Materials”. The story is about Malcolm, a bright young boy whose parents own an inn. In addition to school and working for his family’s business, Malcolm helps the nuns at the priory nearby and takes great interest when a baby called Lyra arrives into their care. However, Malcolm isn’t the only one taking an interest and as the unrelenting winter rains continue, Malcolm finds himself drawn further and further into intrigue that is both political and religious.

First and foremost, I enjoyed this book. Malcolm was a great protagonist and I felt like Pullman achieved the perfect balance between depicting his resourcefulness and relative maturity yet paying homage to the fact that he is nevertheless a child in over his head. I actually think I liked Malcolm better than I liked Lyra in some ways. Malcolm and his daemon Asta seemed to be more united and more of a team than Lyra and Pantalaimon who were often at odds with one another. Pullman really invested a lot of time into Malcolm’s character and the things like his migraines, his boat and his family all rounded him out. I also really enjoyed the interplay between Malcolm and the sullen Alice, and I felt like the development of their friendship was a highlight of the book. Since we have returned to Lyra’s world, it was really interesting to see some of the new things that Pullman drew out about the concept of daemons, especially Alice’s daemon Ben and a certain hyena daemon, and I would have liked to have seen a bit more about that (which of course is more about his views on the soul).

This book felt much darker and more adult that the “His Dark Materials” series, with sex and sexuality as more prominent themes. I think if I had children, I’d be concerned about them reading this book too young – even though Malcolm himself is a young character. I enjoyed the tension, intrigue and buildup early in the story, but then the more the book progressed, the less sense it started to make. I felt like where “His Dark Materials” was fantasy with a sort of scientific twist, which helped suspend disbelief, this book seemed to move much further into typical fantasy and I’m not sure it was in keeping with our understanding of Lyra’s world. The second half of the series certainly had more than a touch of “The Odyssey” about it, and I’m wondering whether Pullman might flesh out these other elements later on in the series.

I think if you were a fan of “His Dark Materials”, you won’t be left disappointed reading this book but you almost certainly will be left confused. It sounds like the second book is already in the works, so hopefully it won’t be too long before we can dip our toes back in the world of daemons.

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13 Reasons Why

Content warning: suicide, bullying, sexual violence.

Unusually, I watched the TV adaptation of this book before I read it. It had caused quite a stir for Netflix, who was criticised quite soundly both for the portrayal of suicide and the failure to provide adequate warnings or support information. This in itself has raised a lot of questions about the responsibility streaming services have to their viewers, and more broadly about the regulation of streaming services as a whole. However, I digress. This is a blog about books, and it actually wasn’t until I had started watching the TV series that I realised that it was based on a book. I managed to wangle a copy, and it was the second book I read on my five weeks of American literature. I cracked it out and finished it before I even landed in California. Considering yesterday was R U OK Day, I think this is a really good book to review. Unfortunately, I forgot to take a photograph of it before I eventually gave it away to the San Clemente Friends of the Library bookstore. You’ll just have to make do with the photo I did take instead.

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“13 Reasons Why”, or “Thirteen Reasons Why” as it was originally published, by Jay Asher is a young adult novel about a girl called Hannah who has committed suicide. Shortly afterwards, Clay, who was one of her classmates finds a parcel addressed to him containing 13 cassette tapes. As soon as he begins to listen to them, he realises that the tapes were made by Hannah shortly before she died and that each tape represents a ‘reason’ why she decided to commit suicide. As the book progresses, more is revealed about Hannah, her relationships and the way she was treated by her classmates in school.

Reading this book after watching the TV series was like looking at a sketch after seeing the finished artwork. Asher has the bones of this story down and it has a lot of important messages about mental health, bullying, consent and the responsibility teens have to one another. I think he captured the nuance, fragility and complexity of teenage relationships well and really contrasted the power teens already have to deeply impact each other’s lives against their inability yet to fully deal with the consequences. It’s a sparsely but powerfully written book, with a lot of focus on Hannah’s narration through her tapes and conversations that had happened in the past.

Without wanting to compare it too much to the TV adaptation, I do think all the layers added to the story by the Netflix series really gave it a lot of extra depth. Things that weren’t connected became connected. Clay’s own mental state got much more of a spotlight. The impact of Hannah’s suicide on her classmates became more pronounced. However, not all of the changes were necessarily positive ones. The Netflix series is very flashy, and a lot of the choices felt like they added to the drama or the cinematography rather than the underlying messasge. This includes the method by which Hannah commits suicide. Where in the book it’s mentioned offhand that she used pills, in the TV series the audience is confronted with a far more graphic (and, some argue, harmful) depiction of her cutting her wrists.

I think the strength of the book is that the focus in not on the suicide itself, but on the bullying, sexual harassment and ineptitude around Hannah that led to her deteriorating mental state and the inability of those around her to recognise the signs and offer meaningful help. While it may not be the most lyrical book you’ll read, if you want to read the simpler story that led to acclaimed TV series, it is nevertheless an important book that helped to kickstart a growing awareness of suicide.

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, you can call or chat online to someone at Lifeline on 13 11 14 or at www.lifeline.org.au.

If you want to learn what to say to someone who is struggling with their mental health, how to pick up the signs and where to refer them, I highly, highly recommend ASIST suicide intervention training and mental health first aid training.

 

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The Beat on Ruby’s Street

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publicist.

The Beat on Ruby's Street

“The Beat on Ruby’s Street” by Jenna Zark is a historical young adult novel about Ruby, an eleven year old girl growing up among the Beat Generation in Greenwich Village, New York City in 1958. Living a carefree existence with artist Nell-mom, musician Gary Daddy-o and brother Ray,  everything comes crashing down when “the Man”, in the form of a social worker, comes looking for her. Although she tries to comfort herself with her own words and poetry, when she misses out on seeing Jack Kerouac, Ruby worries that her golden birthday coming up in just a couple of days isn’t going to be so golden.

This is a great little story that is really easy to read. In fact, after being invited to come watch my friend play jazz this afternoon, I thought what better place to spend my afternoon reading a book about the bohemian lifestyle than at a quirky live music venue. Ruby is a strong character with the perfect adolescent mix of overconfidence and uncertainty. Although we see the Beatnik scene through her eyes, this book raises some interesting questions about the children who grew up there and the tension between artistic self-interest and acceptable standards of care. Ruby has far more freedom that many children do today, but she also has a lot of uncertainty about meals, schooling and, sometimes, even the location of her parents. The only thing that I was a little disappointed in was the abrupt ending. However, this book does have a bit of a “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” feel about it and I think is ultimately meant to just be a glimpse into Ruby’s life.

I really enjoyed this book. A lovely and nuanced little snapshot into a vibrant time in history.

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Filed under Book Reviews, eBooks, Historical Fiction, Uncategorized, Young Adult

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

If you spend any time on the internet at all, you might have noticed that 26 June 2017 was the 20 year anniversary of the publication of one of the most famous books of our time. I don’t reread many books these days, but I thought I would make an exception for this one. I also want to talk about some of the beautiful new editions.

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“Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” by J K Rowling is the first in a children’s book series that took the world by storm. The story follows Harry Potter, an orphan boy who discovers he is actually a wizard, as he learns about his identity, the secret wizarding world and the magical boarding school of Hogwarts. Harry navigates schoolwork, friendship and his newfound fame as the Boy Who Lived with his new friends Hermione and Ron. Together, the three uncover a plot that could spell disaster for not only themselves and their school, but all the wizarding world.

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I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve read this story, but it has been a while since the last time. I recently bought the Bloomsbury 20th Anniversary Edition (pictured at the top) which was available both in paperback and hardback in each of the four Hogwarts house colours. I have come to terms with the fact that I am a Hufflepuff so I bought the Hufflepuff hardcover edition with the yellow and black tinted edges. This edition is simply gorgeous and has plenty of great new content about the house, the common room, famous Hufflepuffs and Hogwarts as a whole.

Last year I also bought the illustrated edition (pictured above) so after having a flick through the bonus content in the anniversary edition, I decided that I’d reread the story together with Jim Kay’s beautiful watercolour artworks. They are absolutely stunning, but there weren’t quite as many as I had expected. There are lots of character studies and sweeping scenery (the Hogwarts Express and Hagrid’s Hut really stand out), but I had expected a little bit more magic.

Then, as a reward for completing something really long and boring last year, I bought this great Harry Potter set where the spines all line up together to make a picture of Hogwarts (pictured below). It matches a similar set I have of the Narnia series where the spines make an image of Cair Paravel. Unfortunately, there’s no bonus illustrations or information in this edition but gosh it looks wonderful on my bookshelf.

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Anyway, enough about editions – the story. It’s been 20 years since this book was published, and I really think that J K Rowling has written something timeless. Apart from the fact that she’s still releasing new books and the “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” movie franchise is going gangbusters, there is a whole new generation of kids who are starting to read these books. At the heart of this story is the classic fantasy premise of:

  • orphan boy discovers magical powers
  • orphan boy goes on an adventure to learn how to use them
  • orphan boy recovers magical object
  • orphan boy save the world from evil

You know, the fantasy story that everyone knows and loves. However, by setting her story with one foot in a magical world (heavily inspired by European mythology) and the other in 1990s England (with all its accompanying cultural references), this book has a modern relevance that no ordinary high fantasy novel can achieve.

I first read this book when I was about nine years old after a friend of mine recommended it to me. Even though I was skeptical of a book called “Harry Potter” (my own nickname being Harry), I was absolutely blown away by what I read. I was also completely swept up in the Harry Potter hype which culminated in the release of the seventh and final book in the series in 2007, and which had a small revival last year. Rereading this book as an adult, I have a more critical eye, but I think this is still an ideal book for children. Scattered with equal parts wonder, humour and social commentary, it’s little wonder children devoured, and continue to devour, this book. The rest of the series grows darker and more mature, and this really is a story that grows up with a child as the child reads it.

Reading it now, it’s not perfect but it’s pretty close. Rowling cleverly drops little hints throughout the first book that have relevance not only to the ending of that book, but to the series as a whole. It’s an ideal book for an 11 year old – the same age as Harry himself – to immerse themselves in and picture themselves getting their Hogwarts letter (I’m still waiting for mine), learning that they are special and going to exciting classes to learn spells. Some of the writing is admittedly a bit simplistic – even for a children’s book. However, that simplicity is also what makes some of it incredibly funny, even all these years after I first read it. There are also a couple of inconsistencies which become a bit more apparent as time goes on. One of these is the rule that underage (or expelled) witches and wizards aren’t allowed to do magic at home, a rule that Hermione, Lily Potter and even Hagrid all break at some stage in this book. Harry has to buy a pointed hat for his school uniform, something which I don’t think we ever see him or his peers wear. The number of witches and wizards in Hogwarts (and in the wider wizarding community) is also not really clear. You’re never really sure if there are 140 or 1400 in Hogwarts, or how many live in the UK as a whole.

“Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” is a much shorter story that the rest of the books in the series, and you do at times feel like some of the detail of how magic works is glossed over a bit. For example, if transfiguration is turning one thing into another, how exactly is bringing chess pieces to life transfiguration? Wouldn’t that be charms? I feel like Rowling takes her time with this aspect of the story more in the later books as magic and spells are more relevant to the plot. However they are nevertheless a bit relevant to this plot and I think she could have fleshed her concepts out a bit further.

Ultimately though, I only have to ask myself a few questions to determine how I feel about this book. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Would I read it to my children? Yes. Will I keep on engaging with new content like the “Fantastic Beasts” film franchise and the Pottermore website? Yes. Yes. Unashamedly yes. 20 years on this book is just as popular as ever. It’s now published in nearly 70 languages including Latin and Welsh. It is a literary phenomenon that spoke to a generation and is already speaking to the next.

There will always be Harry Potter books on my bookshelf.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fantasy, Pretty Books, Tinted Edges, Young Adult