Pieces of Sky_cvr.inddYA is so hot right now and let me just say that Aussie authors are certainly doing their bit to keep the genre at the top of its game.

When Pieces of Sky landed on my desk the arty brushstroke cover drew me in immediately. Also the endorsement from Vikki Wakefield, whose ‘All I Ever Wanted’ is one of the books that first got me hooked on YA fiction.

Pieces of Sky is written by debut author Trinity Doyle, a former music photographer, graphic designer, and girl band member. From the very first page this story has a distinctly Australian feel to it which I really loved. Too often, in my opinion, YA books lack a strong sense of setting.  For me this is a a critical element in making a story totally transportive. The small coastal town where this story is set is perfectly easy to conjure in your mind. The sunny, sleepy streets, surfboards strapped to car roof racks, shell wind chimes making music with the breeze and the zingy smell of salt water in the air.

Here lives Lucy. Lucy, who eight weeks ago had an ordered teenage life. She was the state backstroke champion, and swimming obsessed. She lived with her parents and her brother, Cam. She had friends, she had goals – she had a life. Then Cam died and her world imploded.

Lucy has stopped swimming. She’s struggling at school, side-stepping everyone at home and  questioning the circumstances around Cam’s death. Was it an accident or was it suicide? As she begins to hunts for answers Lucy discovers much more than she expects. About her brother, about her family, and about herself.

This book delves into some weighty themes (depression, grief, as well as teenage sex) but it does so without a heavy hand. There’s a lightness of touch that avoids any teacherly overtones and shows insight that upper adolescent readers will find accessible. As a central character Lucy is someone you want to invest in. You feel her struggles and understand every misstep.

Lucy’s first real love arrives in the form of new boy in town Evan, whose hard-won maturity is a refreshing take on a teen male character. More than just a ‘boy’ Evan is an important part of Lucy’s exploration of the world outside competitive swimming. So too is the renewal of her friendship with ex-best friend Steffi, the wild free spirit Lucy was pretty sure she no longer had anything in common with.

The depiction of Lucy’s broken family, meantime, is raw and real. The intensity of the sadness they face following Cam’s death breaks your heart. But Lucy’s story ultimately isn’t a bleak one. It’s uplifting and by the final page you know Lucy is going to be OK. You know she can hold her head above water again.

Pieces Of Sky by Trinity Doyle

Allen & Unwin June 2015

ISBN 9781760112486



 

senior-The Winter IslesThere are books that take some time to get into. Others manage to captivate from the very first page. For me The Winter Isles is the latter.

It opens with a boy stranded on a rock. Sea laps at the edges of this remote outcrop and the boy, sunburned and starving after four days of hoping and praying for rescue, swears loudly at a seal who is dipping and gliding about in the ruffled waters below. He is Somerled, the son of a chief, 13 years-old and unable to swim. Should he die on this rock, Somerled thinks to himself, he will leave no legacy behind. No songs. No name to skip down generations.

In twelfth-century Scotland, far removed from the courtly manners of the Lowland, the                             Winter Isles are riven by vicious warfare, plots and battles.

            Into this hard, seafaring life is born a boy called Somerled. The son of an ageing chieftain,            Somerled must prove his own worth as a warrior. He will rise to lead his men into battle and claim the title of Lord of the Isles – but what must he sacrifice to secure the glory of his  name?

Although it feels lazy not to use my own words, I can’t help but think this book’s blurb gets it so perfectly right when it describes The Winter Isles as “an astonishingly vivid recreation of the savage dynastic battles of medieval Scotland; an authentic, emotional, and powerful read.” If I were to add anything, I would say this is historical fiction at its best.

Young Somerled is, of course, rescued from the rock. He returns to his clan knowing that his first task must be to learn how to swim. Gifted with both intelligence and strength Somerled soon overtakes his father as the clan’s leading warrior. It is his depth of feeling, however, that will captivate the reader. A keenness to understand the workings of his heart as much as those of his head, in a time when ‘the way of things’ was simply the dictator of life, makes Somerled so much more than we expect. The great love that he finds with the fascinating Eimhear is beautiful and tragic and complex. This was my favourite part of the book.

Each and every character within this book’s pages has a poignance to them: Ragnhild, the great beauty who has been raised to live inside her appearance and who therefore spends her days suppressing all that rages underneath; Gillecolm, the smiling soft-hearted bastard son who Somerled fails to see; and then there is Somerled’s faithful advisor and confidante, Father Padeen. These are but a few.

The battles raged by Somerled and his men are brutal and highly evocative of the time. The clan’s intricately depicted settlements, the unforgiving landscapes… every aspect of this story is injected with authenticity by the author. Her prose, which has strong poetic leanings, is simply a joy to read.

 



 

Hannah-A Game For All The FamilyWhat ingredients do you need for a great psychological thriller?

Let’s go through some, shall we?

Begin with a core cast of characters whose very ordinariness makes them instantly relatable. Then toss in a situation or mystery that’s going to test these characters to their limits; take them inside their own heads, and in doing so take us, the reader, with them. Now mix through a series of twists and turns (both internal and external) that tap into the universal sense of human fear.

Novelist Sophie Hannah is no stranger to cooking up this kind of clever and compelling read. So it is of no surprise that for her 11th psychological thriller A Game For All The Family she has assembled all the right ingredients.

After escaping London and a career that nearly destroyed her, Justine plans to spend her days doing as little as possible in her beautiful new home in Devon. But soon after the move, her daughter Ellen starts to withdraw when her new best friend, George, is unfairly expelled from school. Justine begs the head teacher to reconsider, only to be told that nobody’s been expelled – there is, and was, no George. Then the anonymous calls start: a stranger, making threats that suggest she and Justine share a traumatic past and a guilty secret – yet Justine doesn’t recognise her voice. When the caller starts to talk about three graves – two big and one small, to fit a child – Justine fears for her family’s safety. The police prove useless so she decides she’ll have to eliminate the danger herself, but first she must work out who she’s supposed to be…

For two thirds of this novel I was riveted. Is Justine mad and everything she sees going on around her not really going on at all? Is the transfixing tale of the oh-so-odd Ingrey family, which is being delivered via installments from Ellen’s high school english essay, actually a spooky reality? And is the head mistress at Ellen’s school, despite the cookie-cutter family photo that sits framed on her office wall, a manipulative and crazy childhater? I turned each page fuelled by a desire to learn more; desperate to put all the intricate puzzle pieces together.

Then, as the picture finally began to appear, I wasn’t sure it was the one I really wanted to see. The direction I had thought – and hoped – the story was going in turned out to be wrong and where it was actually heading, disappointingly, failed to completely satisfy me. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t suddenly lose all interest in the story, but that urgent want and that transfixion with the tale being told did slump a little.

Maybe this is where I should return to my cooking analogy. You know when you find a recipe that looks and sounds awesome? You gather the ingredients together and then you follow the recipe’s steps one by one, your mouth watering in anticipation the whole time. When it is finally ready and when you have carefully plated up this sure-to-be gastronomic triumph you take your first mouthful. Huh? It doesn’t taste how you’d imagined it would. You can’t quite put your finger on what it is, but something’s missing. Well, that’s kinda how I felt with this book.

Ok, I’ll stop with the cooking analogies now and simply suggest that you try this one out yourself.  It may well be just to your taste.



 

wilkinson_Green ValentineThis book made me want to plant strawberries in my garden.

To take a packet of unassuming little black seeds and nurture them with mulch and sunlight and water and LOVE until they become a collection of beautiful bright red, juicy hearts scattered among green leaves ready for me to pick off and eat.

How do you give a YA rom-com novel an environmentally conscious edge and have it come off as funspirational rather than preachy? Enter Lili Wilkinson’s book Green Valentine.

High schooler Astrid Katy Smythe is kind of perfect. She’s pretty, popular and smart. She’s also the most committed teenage eco-warrior Melbourne’s fictional industrial suburb of Valentine has got.

When Astrid, dressed as a lobster and gathering signatures for her petition to save a soon-to-be extinct Australian crayfish, gets chatting to the supermarket trolley boy down at her local shopping centre one afternoon sparks fly.

The two soon give each other super-hero names: Lobster Girl and Shopping Trolley Boy.

But there’s a problem. Of course!

Shopping Trolley Boy is Hiro Silverstri, a kid who kind of embodies everything Astrid is not. He’s generally rude, resentful and a regular at school detention. Astrid quickly realises that she and Hiro both go to the same school, it’s just they just move in very different circles.

Here’s what the blurb says:

Astrid wants to change the world, Hiro wants to survive it. But ultimately both believe that the world needs to be saved from itself. Can they find enough in common to right all the  wrongs between them? A romantic comedy about life and love and trying to make the planet a better place, with a little heartbreak, and a whole lot of hilarity.

I enjoyed getting to know Astrid and Hiro. Travelling the journey of their bumpy teenage romance was engaging and fun, though I do feel Hiro loses a bit of shine as the book progresses. I wanted more from his character. His set-up as something of a thinking-kid’s rebel is great and his distaste for conformity provides the perfect foil for the subtle elitism in which Astrid has become entrenched. As I said, I just found myself wishing he’d stayed as engaging as he was in the beginning. Astrid, meantime, is an appealing central protagonist who proves ‘good girls’ don’t have to be one-dimensional.

Astrid and Hiro’s quest to prove that Valentine can transcend its industrial dullness sees them become guerilla gardeners. They spend their nights planting seedlings among the suburbs streets and ultimately get themselves into strife.

As well as environmental issues the book also touches on teen-relevant material such as family breakdown and navigating end-of-school choices.

The book’s dialogue is snappy and the footnotes from Astrid are a cute, quirky element that I really enjoyed.

Now, if like me you’re a sucker for a lovely book cover, this one is both pretty and eco-friendly. It gets double points for this.

Green Valentine is a great YA read for readers aged 14 and up.

 



smythe_Way Down Dark cover imageBefore you open the cover of Way Down Dark, book 1 in a new YA Trilogy by UK author JP Smythe, I advise strapping yourself in tight and preparing for a bumpy, bloody, breathtaking ride.

This dark dystopian story is set aboard a spaceship called Australia. Australia, we are told, is one of many ships that was hastily built, loaded with people and dispatched into space hundreds of years ago. Earth was dying you see, and the ships were sent out in search of a new home for the human race. Only, they’re still searching. Well, Australia is anyway.

Life on Australia is far from idyllic. The book’s dramatic beginning, which is when we meet our central protagonist 17 year-old Chan, ensures there is absolutely no confusion about that. An assortment of gangs and cults reign over the various sections of the ship and the barbaric Lows, who are willing to slaughter anyone in their path, are leading a push towards absolute control.

The only life that Chan’s ever known is one of violence, of fighting. Of trying to survive.

But there might be a way to escape. In order to find it Chan must head way down into the   darkness – a place of buried secrets, long-forgotten lies, and the abandoned bodies of the dead.

Wow. I was on board Australia with Chan and her story from the very first. The ship, with its hulking size and crude multi-level structure, is so artfully depicted I could see the rough curtain-drawn berths that line every floor and I could smell the hideous stench of the deep dark pit down below.

And Chan’s quest to find meaning within this impossibly bleak existence – to make a difference – pulled me along at breakneck speed all the way to the book’s new dawn conclusion (this is only book 1 of 3 remember).

I have to say Chan is one seriously tough female protagonist. I love the idea that girls who are about her age might read this book and gain something from the character’s fierce independence, her unwavering strength, and her always compassionate heart. And the absence of any real romance thread in the story is a positive. The book is stronger and fresher because of this.

In Way Down Dark, JP Smythe has crafted a Trilogy opening that offers dystopian YA readers something very different to the usual. The book is pretty violent but it also has a strong humanitarian message that gives the story real heart. I found it compelling.

Last year American author Veronica Roth’s hugely successful YA fantasy novel Divergent made a successful leap from the page to cinema screens. Well, Way Down Dark looks to be on its way to becoming a movie too. Deadline.com reports that Studio 8 has just optioned the novel.

 



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