Book Review: Front Desk, by Kelly Yang

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_front_deskWhat a fascinating read this is. Mia and her family are immigrants to the US from China, and this is the story of their American dream and how against all odds they actually realised it.

Mia and her parents land what seems to be a dream job, managing a motel. However all is not as it was cracked up to be in the interview and the owner is a really mean-spirited, grasping piece of work. He is quick to impose penalties and wage reductions for perceived errors and unexpected costs, and takes every opportunity to make life really hard for the family. To make things worse, his son is in Mia’s class at school and he too is quick to make Mia’s life miserable.  Her language skills are not wonderful and she struggles with English until she finds a real friend, also the child of immigrants, and they join forces.

Mia decides, as she observes the crazy workload her parents struggle with, to take on front-desk responsibilities herself. She is only 10, but the work ethic of her parents is strongly implanted in her too. She has some problems, of course, but the depth of the story lies in how Kelly Yang brings to life the issues of discrimination, poverty, and language barriers which are known to immigrant families everywhere. She also sheds light on the Cultural Revolution in a way accessible to young readers.

Mia is a clever, thoughtful and resilient girl who – as we see often in immigrant stories – wants things to go well for her parents, and for them not to lose face among their friends and relatives both in the US and back in China. She has a gazillion ideas for improving how the front desk operates, and is able to get some of them in place. She makes friends with the “weeklies” – the people who live semi-permanently at the motel – and their willingness to help her and her family provides a good counterpoint to the owner’s attitudes and behaviour. The parents in turn are generous and welcoming to friends and acquaintances who are in need of temporary support or accommodation. All of this comes at considerable cost and stress to the whole family, as they find ways to do this without having the motel owner in the know!

The story careers along, from crisis to crisis but it works extremely well. The book is based on Kelly Yang’s own experience, and this is why it rings so true. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Front Desk
by Kelly Yang
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781760650469

Book Review: Sticking with pigs, by Mary-Anne Scott

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_sticking_with_pigsWell this book gets off to a high-intensity start. In the first chapter we have a kid with Addison’s disease, an alcoholic uncle, a disenchanted teenager and a vague, cello-playing mother (she does not have a great part in this book).

Add to the mix that the uncle is a pig-hunter who is not hugely favoured by his brother (our hero’s father) because of an earlier incident, and you have quite a lot going on.

Wolf the disenchanted teenager does, to be fair, have a bit of an axe to grind, what with his brother being so ill and his parents taken up with that. So when his uncle offers to take him pig-hunting he decides to go. He even gets fit before the big event.

It starts out okay; Wolf copes and despite himself, seems to get a kick out of pitting himself against nature. But of course, it turns to custard when uncle’s knee gives out – after sticking the pig, otherwise it would be a really sad story!

The parts about Wolf’s resilience are well-done, as he struggles to carry out his uncle’s instructions. There are a LOT of difficulties for him to deal with, possibly too many for my taste, but I am sure other readers will thrill to the challenges overcome!

While I didn’t enjoy the book, I think it will very likely appeal to younger male readers and the design of the book is such that it will be appealing to dyslexic kids – double-line spacing, off-white paper, both good things.

So, personally it’s not my sort of read, but I can see it going quite well with younger male readers.

by Sue Esterman

Sticking With Pigs
by Mary-Anne Scott
Published by OneTree House
ISBN 9780995106406

Book Review: The Promise Horse, by Jackie Merchant

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_promise_horseThis is a great book for young adults and horse lovers.

Harry is redheaded, tall, with what she sees as very large feet. Her family have moved to the country after her older sister tragically dies of cancer, going back to where her parents had both grown up. Harry’s way of coping is to have conversations with her dead sister Sissy. She has had counselling and to keep the peace she tells everyone the voices have gone, but they haven’t. Harry still regularly has conversations with Sissy. They move to be near grandparents, along with the carrot that Harry she can at long last have her promised horse.  She’d been having riding lessons for years at a riding school.

Harry’s mum Jenny is inconsolable with the loss of her daughter, burying herself in her work and her father Mick is often away with work. They forge friendships in the local community and Lizzie a local who works with horses suggests perhaps her borrowed horse Marksman might be suitable for Harry, as she was looking for a new one. The owner Jack is happy for Harry to take over Marksman from Lizzie, but Jenny takes one look at the large horse (over 15 hands high) and gets concerned – having lost one daughter, she is not ready to lose another. Between grandparents and her father, Harry is allowed to keep the horse for the time being, but with strict rules in place.

Friendships are forged through Harry’s involvement with Marksman along with encouragement to join the local pony club. Local girl Josie is about Harry’s age, and have a lot of fun together which makes for a happier life for Harry.

This is a great story which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s a great human-interest story about loss, grieving, and new friendships between people and horses.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

The Promise Horse
by Jackie Merchant
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781760650568

Book Review: We See the Stars, by Kate Van Hooft

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_we_see_the_stars.jpgSimon is an eleven-year-old boy who lives in a world of silence, lists and numbers. He hasn’t spoken for years and at times lives in a fantasy world.

We See The Stars is set in rural Victoria where Simon lives with his Dad and younger brother Davey, and also his Grandma, who spends much of her day at the hospital with Granddad.

School is not easy for Simon as the other kids think he is weird and at times he feels his only friends are Davey and Superman who is always there when he needs him. Simon is often bullied and he has a variety of coping mechanisms when he begins to feel overwhelmed.

‘I tried to go invisible. I tried to turn into air. I stood right where I was, right there on the spot, while it all just kind of played out around me, and I felt heavy in my tummy when the noise came up over the top of me and broke over my head’.

One day Simon shares his Vita-Weats with Cassie, a girl from his class with a physical disability who has also faced ridicule, and a friendship starts to form. Their new teacher Ms Hilcombe also takes a special interest in him, and it is while he is at her house he begins to talk again.

‘I like your class’ I said, but quietly.
‘Oh Simon!’ she said, and her voice came out all in a rush of air. ‘Did you just….?’

This book is listed in the Mystery/Crime category but the author takes the reader on a fantasy journey with Simon as he searches for Ms Hilcombe when she goes missing, while at the same time Simon seems to be the only person in his household who visits his mother in her bedroom.

Kate van Hooft was born and raised in Melbourne and lives there with her husband Paul Carter, also a writer. She is currently working as a disability advisor at Swinburne while finishing a Master of Social Work. She has worked for more than ten years in student wellbeing and disability support in tertiary education and is passionate about youth mental health. We See the Stars is her first novel and will appeal to a wide age range of people especially those working in the disability field.

The novel is a beautifully written, gentle, compelling read and drew me in from the beginning, Simon’s thoughts giving the book a haunting appeal which kept me turning the pages. Mystery and fantasy combine as the story progresses into escapism keeping the reader guessing right to the end and beyond.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

We See the Stars
by Kate Van Hooft
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781760632526

Book Review: I have lost my way, by Gayle Forman

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cv_i_have_lost_my_wayIt shames me to say that this is the first novel by Gayle Forman that I have read. However her reputation preceded her and I was keen to get into this book.

There are three central characters in this book – Freya who has lost her singing mojo, Harun who is planning to run away from home to find the boy he loves, and Nathaniel who has suffered a family tragedy and arrives in New York alone and without really knowing what he is going to do.

The three quite literally collide in Central Park, when Freya in a moment of inattention falls from a bridge on to Nathaniel who is passing below, and whom Harun thinks, for a moment, is his missing man!

The book takes place over the space of one day, during which Forman explores loss in various forms. She does this with real empathy for her characters, whose backgrounds and stories come across very well. Each one has some real issues to confront, and there’s quite a lot of insight into how some parts of the music industry, in particular, can be quite brutal.

The novel also deals sensitively with (in this particular case) gay men coming out to their families – or not – and how despite different ethnicities the issue is still, and only, that of acceptance and love.

Confronting issues of sexuality, depression, suicidal thoughts are all here, but dealt with in a way that I think would encourage readers to think and talk about issues which concern them.

The way these three young people connect, relate and provide support to one another might seem a tad far-fetched to an older, more jaundiced reader, but nonetheless it works. I was gripped from page one, and I recommend it highly to teenage readers. I hope school libraries will pick this one up too.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

I have lost my way  
by Gayle Forman
Published by Simon & Schuster
ISBN 9781471173721

 

Book Review: Ash Arising, by Mandy Hager

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_ash_arisingWow! Before you pick up this book, go and read The Nature of Ash – a brilliant book which I thought was going to be a hard act to follow in keeping up the tension, suspense, thrill and adventure. Turns out I was wrong.

Mandy Hager has done it again. Ash, the reluctant key figure in a New Zealand overrun by dark and manipulative forces, responsible for his younger brother Mikey after their father was killed by those same forces, is now hiding out in Whanganui with his brother, and his friends Ziao and Travis, and his lawyer. Mikey, who has Down’s syndrome, is entirely Ash’s reponsibility and this relationship (so well drawn, and so spot on in its empathy and understanding) just adds an extra layer into the story – but one which provides a wonderful counterbalance to the horror and mayhem going on around.

The government, corrupt as can be, has yet to be overthrown by the handful of good guys who remain, and Ash becomes involved in some seriously frightening stuff. I will not tell you what, it’s just too good to spoil for anyone.

But prepare for nail-biting, uncontrollable page-turning and a determination to read on even though it’s time for bed! Trust me, you won’t be able to sleep until you finish the book.

This book is also a real celebration of brave young people – you know the ones, they think they are bullet proof (because their brains are not fully formed!) – but that’s exactly why they risk everything without second-guessing themselves. Mandy Hager reminds the older and more cynical reader that in fact change can be achieved by the young – and our job, if we still have one, is to assist them in that and refrain from saying old-fart things like ‘it will never work’ and ‘we tried that already’.

Do yourself a favour – go out and buy this book for yourself, and then buy copies for all the teenagers you know, and then lend one to all the old farts you know.  Mandy Hager, you’re amazing.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Ash Arising
by Mandy Hager
Published by Penguin Random House
ISBN 9780143772439

Book Review: Make a Hard Fist, by Tina Shaw

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_make_a_hard_fist‘Which one of you idiots sent this?’, is the opening line of Make a Hard Fist by New Zealand author Tina Shaw, a novel depicting the journey of a teenager named Lizzie Quinn on her personal road to empowerment.

Oh the teenage years. How thrillingly exciting and yet downright awful were those fledgling young adult years? As I read that first line, conjured by the ‘Lizzie Q, I love U’ note grasped in Lizzie’s hand, I could feel it in the pit of my stomach again, that nervy sick feeling – Does someone out there really fancy me, or am I the subject of some nasty joke? – I remember that feeling all too well when a boy I fancied rang me at home. It wasn’t the boy, it was the boy’s friend asking me if I wanted to ‘go round’ with the boy. And what did I do? I didn’t know if it was a joke or not, panicked and hung up the phone. So I could relate to that first line, it was a good start.

But from there it all turns sour and dangerous in this novel. Not everyone gets to have that innocent teenage excitement. Some sadly experience menace and physical aggression. Lizzie Quinn, a high school student who works after school in the local library to save money to buy her Uncle Harry’s sky-blue 1969 Volkswagen Beetle for herself, starts receiving one-line notes with her name on them, hand-delivered to her letterbox, and is then attacked and physically abused in her local park. How she deals with the attack is the core of her journey in this book.

This portrayal of violence is potentially controversial material as YA fiction. Some might say ‘Shouldn’t fiction for youths be sheltered from physical violence?’ To which I would respond, ‘Is it better to protect our youth from, or, prepare our youth for potentially violent situations?’

This novel is about one girl’s reaction to physical abuse, her loss in self-confidence, the ramifications it has on all those around her, and her positive, empowering choice of learning self-defence while making solid friends along the way.

What happens in the end? Well you’ll just have to read it right to the nail-biting end to find out, but I thoroughly recommend this novel, not only for those who have been or known a victim of attack, but all young people to get some first guidance in self-defence, whether needed in life, or, hopefully not. It is great writing that also comes with an informative guide at the back that could really help.

Perhaps Make a Hard Fist will help raise awareness of the potential benefits of self-defence programmes in today’s schools? I certainly hope so.

Reviewed by Penny M Geddis

Make a Hard Fist
by Tina Shaw
Published by OneTree House Ltd
ISBN: 9780473397067