Book reviews for Aussie teachers and their students.

Archive for the ‘Contemporary’ Category

Book Review: “Because of You” by Pip Harry, University of Queensland Press (2017)

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Every year at the school I teach at, year 11 students are required to undertake 15 hours of Christian Service as part of their Religion Studies course.  It is easier extracting blood from a stone.  Not quite, but for many students, getting them engaged in an activity determined take them out of their comfort zone is a massive challenge.  Even those who are compliant with the program tend to lean towards selecting activities where there is a certain predictable safety.  Of course, those few students who do embrace the opportunity and take a risk get the most out of the program, something which is evident in their reflection report.  Pip Harry’s latest novel, Because of You explores the challenges and life changing experience that community service programs have the potential to provide.  The story follows the experience of Nola, a generally disengaged and reluctant student who is forced to undertake community service at a temporary homeless shelter.  Through her involvement in a creative writing program she meets Tiny, an eighteen-year-old girl, currently homeless, she has been sleeping rough on the streets of Sydney.

Tiny is a believable character with Harry skilfully revealing her to us, with appropriate breadcrumbing of her back story.  In a manner that mimics the core message of the story (don’t judge people without knowing who they truly are), we are able to understand how she came to be on the streets slowly, so that by the time we know her as a person we are open to her in a non-judgmental way.  Nola, on the other hand is portrayed realistically as a reluctant participant, apathetic about school and everything in general (short of her social life).  Readers can appreciate that Nola, while deeply flawed (and a bit spoilt) undertakes an impressive character arc from a place of ambivalence to compassion (the very same arc I hope all my 11 RE students will follow during their community service experience).

Pip Harry is a skilled writer and while I really enjoyed Head of the River, I strongly feel that this novel, as a story, has so much more to offer. Harry must be commended on tackling some really challenging issues that most Australians conveniently choose to ignore.  In truth, the only thing I didn’t like about this book was the cover.  I recall feeling the same way about another of Pip Harry’s covers (perhaps she has been let down again).  At any rate, I find the cover totally uninspiring as may many potential (and somewhat fickle) adolescent readers.  This is a shame because once I started the story, I literally couldn’t put it down.

While I’d really love to read this novel with my 11 RE class, realistically time will not allow this.  However, I might read excerpts to the class.  I am quite keen to investigate the possibility of introducing this as a text in the year 11 English curriculum, aligning it with the community service unit that is taught in Religion Studies at the same year.

Because of You is a deeply engaging story that while honestly exploring prejudice in contemporary Australian society, remains optimistic and hopeful about the kind of reality that we must continue to strive towards.

Tanya Grech Welden

Book Review: “Wombat Warriors” by Samantha Wheeler, University of Queensland Press (2017)

wombat warriorsSamantha Wheeler’s latest novel for younger readers, Wombat Warriors, follows on from the conservation theme she introduced in her last book Mister Cassowary.  Set in regional South Australia, Mouse is a reserved girl from Brisbane who comes to stay with her Aunt Evie when a family emergency forces her parents to take an unexpected trip overseas.  Life down south is a change for Mouse who must not only contend with the colder climate but with her somewhat eccentric Aunt whose household includes a duck and a wombat!  While she is initially threatened by the idea of sharing her home with a wombat, the pair form a special bond that challenges Mouse to find her voice.

As a proud South Aussie, I was somewhat horrified (and a little confronted) to read about the plight wombats in this part of the country.  I must confess that prior to reading this story I had no idea about the environmental challenges facing our state emblem.  Indeed, particularly for children in this part of the country, this story has a wonderful relevance that will make it a valuable addition to the classroom environment.  With accessible language, children in the lower to middle years of primary school will enjoy reading this story independently.  Similarly, it could be shared with a class group as part of the HASS curriculum.   I did feel that the immaturity of the protagonist may alienate a few slightly older readers who might have otherwise appreciated the conservation theme of the book.

Wombat Warriors will sit neatly alongside Mister Cassowary as an engaging story that will inspire children across to find their voice and work actively for the conservation of threatened species.

Tanya Grech Welden

Book Review: “That Stubborn Seed of Hope: Stories” by Brian Falkner, University of Queensland Press (2017)

stubborn seed of hopeIs it just me or do decent short story anthologies always seem to be in short supply?  At least they have in every school I have ever worked in.  At my current school, the one we presently use is well-thumbed, dog eared and nearly beyond repair.  The fact that it is now out-of-print means that it is impossible to replace, although to be fair we probably need a break from the stories anyway.  Since every English teacher uses short stories we always seem to be on the look-out for something fresh.  We want something that not only our students will relate to, but something with that unique Australian flavour.  I was therefore pretty chuffed to find Brian Falkner’s new book appear in my mailbox.

My first impression of the package was positive.  With a monochromatic cover, littered with graffiti scrawl and pops of vibrant yellow, this is an edgy book that will appeal to the current YA market.  I must confess though, that the front-page quote by James Roy, did lead me to suspect (or hope?) that this collection might move into the realm of speculative or perhaps gothic fiction.  It doesn’t generally do this. Instead, the darkness that Roy refers to is that which evolves from a very contemporary context.  After all, some of the best contemporary YA is dark, a little menacing, with a good dose of gritty.

Overall, I found the stories in the collection highly readable.  The reality that many stories are hinged on the fears of many young people (fear of death, growing old, disease) will be sure to provoke engagement and discussion in the classroom environment.  I especially appreciated the endnotes relating to the origin of each of the stories.  Students, particularly our aspiring writers, always seem to enjoy hearing about what inspires great writers.  In this light Falkner’s message was clear, when writing stories (as our students almost always do after reading an anthology such as this one) it is best to draw inspiration from one’s own experience.

That Stubborn Seed of Hope is a captivating collection of beautifully crafted stories that will entertain and inspire Young Adults aged 14+.

Tanya Grech Welden

Book Review: “The Elephant” by Peter Carnavas, University of Queensland Press (2017)

The ElephantOlive’s Dad is sad.  In fact, she can’t remember a time when he wasn’t this way, carrying a sadness that is so great that Olive can only imagine it as a heavy grey elephant.  With the assistance of her best friend Arthur and her grandfather, Olive is determined to chase away her father’s elephant and bring joy and light into all their lives.

Told in sparse, aching prose, The Elephant while primarily targeted at younger children, will speak to a broad audience on universal themes focusing on grief, loss and the heavy cloud that is depression.   Younger, more capable readers will appreciate the accessible language that is pleasantly interspersed with appealing images.  While the subject matter of this story is inherently dark the overwhelming message is one of hope.  That said, this is a story best used selectively (and cautiously) in the classroom with it best placed as a text for sharing in small intimate groups.

In many ways The Elephant needs to come with a warning. I’m talking of the kind of warning that alerts poor, unsuspecting parents to a need for Kleenex and the strong likelihood that you will fall apart at some point while reading this book to your child.  I don’t say this to be a negative Nancy.  In fact, it serves to highlight the success of what Peter Carnavas has achieved in this deceptively simple and captivating story.  The Elephant is a timeless and memorable tale that will deeply move and delight readers of all ages.

Tanya Grech Welden

Book Review: “Too Many Friends” by Kathryn Apel, University of Queensland Press (2017)

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Quite a few years ago, a close friend of mine recounted what she had learned that day in her university tutorial. As a pre-service Early Childhood educator, they had been learning about the importance of seeing the world through the eyes of children.  “You must remember what it is like to hug trees again,” her lecturer had told her, “smell dirt, taste bark”.  It was an idea that has remained with me since.  The idea that, as teachers we must always be attuned to the way that children perceive things.  In essence, get down to their level and attempt to experience the world through their eyes.   Kathryn Apel’s verse novel Too Many Friends reminded me of this, or, more precisely she allowed me to recall the challenges I experienced navigating the complexity of childhood friendships.

Tahnee has lots of friends.  She is one of these precious souls who, naturally inclusive by nature, appreciates the giftedness of those around her, valuing them for their talents while forgiving them where they fall short.  It is a demeanour that, while ensuring that she has a constant stream of playmates, often leads to heartache and complications in the schoolyard.  You see, when Tahnee reaches out to Lucy, the new (and rather shy and withdrawn) girl, she is drawn into a direct conflict with close friend Roxie, who, feels displaced by what she perceives as rejection.

Written in simple verse Apel draws her readers into the world of the playground.   It is a place where small things matter, where harsh words are often spoken and hearts are broken.  Too Many Friends captures the purity of our first friendships that are, so often, tarnished with bullying.   With strong thematic appeal for readers in the lower to middle years of primary school, the story will be enjoyed by confident readers independently.  Similarly, the story will certainly be embraced by teachers for group sharing, ticking many boxes and encouraging discussion in the area of resilience education and bullying prevention.

Tanya Grech Welden

Book Review: “Love, Ghosts & Nose Hair” and “A Place Like This” by Steven Herrick (2017), University of Queensland Press

Steven Herrick is a dead-set legend.  Seriously; if writing awesome books for adolescents was grounds for canonisation, he’d be a living Saint.

Okay, so that is a bit of a stretch; but Herrick is all about the stuff that We English teachers dream about.  Appealing characters and themes that resonate with teens; check.  Language that oozes with all the delectability of the purest honey; check.  Settings that are uniquely, and refreshingly, Australian; yes please.  Add to this that the man does it in verse (although his prose is particularly splendid also).  Excuse me while I swoon; I may be in urgent need of a Bex and a lie down.

I came to the magic that is Steven Herrick somewhat recently; jumping on board in 2011 with the release of his novel Black Painted Fingernails.  Having now officially surrendered to his spell, I welcomed the chance to read a reissue of a couple of his older books. Love, Ghosts and Nose Hair and its sequel A Place Like This, were originally released in 1996 and 1998 respectively.  Examining the story of Jack and Annabel, both stories, told completely in verse, remain as fresh as if they were only written last week.

As with many of Herrick’s stories, both novels explore the experiences of youth set against the unique backdrop of Australia (be it in suburbia or in the bush).  While primarily ‘coming of age’ tales, both travel the somewhat clumsy, often giddy, joy that is first love.  Herrick’s world is one where the ride through adolescence collides head-on with reality.  His characters are insecure, frequently searching and battle with a world that has often dealt them a hand that is unfair.  For Jack, this reality is one where he must reconcile his own ghosts and the grief associated with losing his mother to cancer.  It is a place where Annabel must define her own future, even though doing so may cause conflict with the future her parents (and Jack) have envisioned for her. Finally, there is Emma; sixteen and pregnant, she must come to terms with her life, that of her unborn child and the unfairness of a single night that changed everything.  You see, while humour is a tool that Herrick employs with great finesse; beneath this is a gritty world that is unfair and filled with characters whose hearts ache with pain certain to resonate with its audience.

Both Love, Ghosts & Nose Hair and A Place Like This, are beautifully crafted using the sparse descriptive language now synonymous with Herrick.  The stories will have broad appeal with older adolescents and will sit well in the English curriculum from year 10 upwards.  As with most of Herrick’s verse novels, these stories are as accessible as they are engaging.  While suitable for use with accelerated English students, they will be deeply appreciated by less reluctant readers in the senior years.

Tanya Grech Welden

Book Review: “Hexenhaus” by Nikki McWatters (2016), UQP

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Well done Nikki McWatters, you just succeeded in bundling everything I love about YA fiction in 331 pages!

As you can probably gather I am quite excited about this title.  A delectable combination of 15th Century European History and Contemporary fiction, I was riveted to the book from the first page.  Told in alternating narration Hexenhaus tells the story of Veronica, from 1628 Bamerg, Franconia (in what is modern Germany), Katherine, from 1696 Scotland and Paisley from present day Bunadoon, Australia.  The three share a commonality, their names inscribed in a single book, the Systir Saga, a volume which binds them together in a witchy sisterhood than transcends generations, hailing back to early pagan society.  With a powerful mix of historical truth and fiction, McWatters weaves the lives of the women together through their shared experiences of persecution and journey of self-discovery.

From the outset, as a text aimed at a YA audience, I think this works magnificently.  Paisley’s narration effectively grounds the story in the here and now and will appeal to many teen readers, drawn to stories that speak to their own experiences.  As a contrast to this, the narrations of Katherine and Veronica add a historical depth to the tale that is intriguing and highly evocative of the period explored.  I challenge anyone to read this story without feeling drawn (at the very least) to read further into the history of the Grand Inquisition.

With obvious parallels to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Arthur Miller’s magnificent play The Crucible, Hexenhaus is perfectly suited for use with senior secondary students.  Used independently, or as a shared text, it is a story that will certainly inspire important discussions about modern society, while complementing a historical exploration of the Grand Inquisition, witchcraft through the ages and life and society in 15th century Europe.

Hexenhaus is much more than a tale about witches and witchcraft.  It is a story which examines the notion of evil masquerading in the guise of good, the evolution of mass paranoia and hysteria, all the while celebrating the indomitable feminine strength and triumph of the human spirit. Hexenhaus succeeds in its mission to unveil historical truths that must never be forgotten all the while speaking to a contemporary YA audience in a voice that they will understand.

Tanya Grech Welden

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