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

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

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

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

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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

Book Review: Small Spaces, by Sarah Epstein

Available in bookshops nationwide

cv_small_spaces.jpgSmall Spaces is a gripping psychological thriller that will take you in a whirlwind of a ride, through an unexpected twists and turns. I found myself almost immediately hooked, and once this book had drawn me in, it refused to let me go – I finished it within a day. Aimed at the Young Adult market, it should also appeal to adults in search of a fast-paced read that will keep them guessing.

Tash Carmody has been traumatised since childhood, and it all began with a trip to the family homestead, where she stayed with her Aunt Ally. In this crumbling house, with its dark corners and mysterious noises, she met a sinister being that she named “Sparrow”. No-one else could see Sparrow, and no-one else would believe he existed, not even when Tash witnessed him kidnap a 6-year old girl, Mallory Fisher, from a local carnival. The girl was eventually found, alive, but has not spoken a word since, and her family moved away soon after.

Now, eleven years later, the Fishers have returned to Tash’s hometown, and, Sparrow too has returned. Mallory may hold the key to the torment buried in Tash’s past, and the dark secret that hangs between them. But, does Sparrow exist after all? Or is Tash more dangerous than she thinks?

Aside from the psychological aspect, there is a lot of typical teen drama happening: strong friendships (I particularly liked Tash’s Kiwi-friend, Sadie), catty High School girl rivalry, a fledgling romance, and some fairly serious family issues. This is a tightly written, gripping novel, and an impressive first offering from Australian author, Sarah Epstein. I can highly recommend it.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Small Spaces
by Sarah Epstein
Published by Walker Books
9781921977381

Book Review: Wedlock, by Denis Wright

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cv_wedlock.jpgWedlock is the third book from Denis Wright, a High School English teacher. Aimed at teenagers, and intended as a quick, gripping read, it deals with some quite heavy stuff – but in a very accessible and easily relatable manner.

Lucy Sorrenson wants to be an average teenage girl. At home, she’s feels like the only responsible adult: with her father acting like a teenage muso, and her grandfather acting somewhat like a petulent child. She wants to be in the school play, go to parties, have fun with friends, maybe meet a nice guy.

What she doesn’t expect, and certainly doesn’t want, is to be kidnapped by a group of religious fantatics and snatched off into the remote countryside.

For Lucy now has a new role to play, the role of the “Maiden”. She has been chosen to save the world, or to be precise, to marry the leader of the cult, Master Isaiah, and bear to him a child – a child that will save the world.

Needless to say, Lucy isn’t particularly enthused by her newfound fate, and will go to any extent to escape, but playing against a cult is a dangerous game, and when you become too comfortable with your captors, are you really still a prisoner?

Wedlock explores the seductive power of fanatasism, and explores the effects of “Stockholm syndrome”. It is intriguing to watch Lucy transform from a fierce, stubborn teenager into a more complacent member of the group. Or is she?

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

Wedlock
by Denis Wright
Published by OneTree House
ISBN 9780473421861

Book Review: Finding, by David Hill

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_findingDavid Hill has a remarkable output of fiction for young readers. This latest novel traces the history of several generations of two New Zealand families, one tangata whenua, the other Scottish immigrants.

There are eight sections to the novel, each written from the perspective of a family member of each generation. I found this a really interesting way to bring the history of this place and these people to life.

Hill builds an interesting, well-balanced and credible picture of life in New Zealand, in a country area, and is particularly effective in drawing the relationships between the families. There are shared stories which are retold and sometimes recreated in each succeeding generation.

The importance of the land on which the families live, and the river which runs through it, comes through strongly; the shared experiences – happy, sad, dangerous, amusing – help in developing a real sense of knowing the families and understanding the need for and importance of trusted friends and neighbours.

The voices in each section are authentic and the stories are full of interest, danger, excitement and a great understanding of how New Zealand has been shaped by our inhabitants.

There are things which I am sure readers will identify with – for example the axe which almost did for Duncan becomes a kind of taonga and helps to save Alan’s life; the reaction of Hahona’s family when they first hear the bagpipes, and how that reaction becomes part of the shared family histories; the interconnections of the families through marriage – all these and much more are woven into a lovely generational story.

I can see this being a great book to use as a teaching resource, but as well I think it will appeal to a wide readership.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Finding 
by David Hill
Published by Penguin Books NZ
ISBN 9780143772392
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