Book reviews for Aussie teachers and their students.

Archive for the ‘Contemporary’ Category

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


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

Book Review: “Everything is Changed” by Nova Weetman (2016), UQP


Every year as an educator I inevitably teach at least once a unit in Human Sexuality to a group of year 8 or 9 students.  As part of this program we explore the gender and the general differences in brain function between the sexes.  It never ceases to amaze students that in males the part of the brain which predicts unfavourable outcomes is less developed in teenage boys than their female counterparts.  Of course, as educators we know this too well, seeing this played out on a daily basis with the boys that we work with.

“Why did you do that?”

The subject, a year 10 boy shrugs his shoulders.

“What were you thinking?” We probe a little further.

“Nothing.” Comes the emphatic response.

Nothing is probably the best description of what was going through the adolescent brain the moment the chair (or fist or rock) was thrown through the window.  Impulsivity is characteristic of many teenage boys and the impact of such an episode is the core focus of Nova Weetman’s latest YA offering Everything is Changed.  The novel tells the story of Jake and Alex, best mates who, in a moment of spontaneity, make a mistake that will change the course of their lives forever.  Told in reverse the novel tracks back through events and documents how their lives, and those around them, literally fall apart.

Everything is Changed is suitable for use with students in the middle years of secondary school.  I imagine that grade 10 will be the sweet spot for this.  With engaging language and a cast of characters that students will easily identify with, this is a story that doesn’t preach.  The story speaks for itself and will no doubt evoke an emotional response in students while also providing rich content for debate and discussion. In light of this I would definitely flag this as a wonderful text for shared class reading.  Similarly, it would work well in smaller reading circles.  Of course, in terms of text construction, the story provides wonderful opportunities to discuss how the reverse telling of the story contributes to our understanding of the key themes and ideas.  Students might also appreciate comparisons with other film and prose texts that also challenge the convention of a linear and chronological narration; Pulp Fiction for example.

Everything is Changed is a compelling read with a grittiness that will strike a chord with adolescent readers.  I imagine that many of these readers will find its accuracy haunting, as they will no doubt draw parallels between Jake and Alex and their own experiences.

Tanya Grech Welden

Book Review: “Becoming Aurora”, by Elizabeth Kasmer, UQP (2016)

Becoming Aurora.jpg

The thing which keeps drawing me back to YA fiction is its innate propensity to gently address the questions of the time through the medium of the ‘quiet story’.  These wonderful stories of ‘real people’ often have the ability to speak to a young audience in profound and lasting ways.  It is a style of writing that many Australian authors seems to excel at with writers such as Cath Crowley and Vikki Wakefield leading the way with on the international stage.  Elizabeth Kasmer’s debut novel Becoming Aurora is yet another example of YA fiction that will quietly serve to challenge and inspire our youth.

Sixteen-year-old Rory (Aurora) has herself in a real pickle.  Caught up with the wrong crowd, and following her involvement in a racially motivated gang attack on the local immigrant community, she finds herself the sole person implicated and charged for the crime.  Refusing to reveal the names of her accomplices, Rory takes the rap for the deed and spends her entire summer undertaking community service at the local aged care home.  It is here that she meets resident and ex-boxer Jack, an encounter that leads her to Essam, a young migrant boxer who will both challenge her prejudices and force her to address the mistakes of her past.

Becoming Aurora provides a brutally honest depiction of an Australia that is inherently racist.  Kasmer leads readers into a discourse surrounding how it is we currently define what it means to be Australian and how our understanding of this identity needs to evolve to encompass what is a growing cultural diversity.  Ultimately, however, this is a story about reconciling one’s past with one’s future, seeking and offering forgiveness and finding peace with oneself in the shadow of grief and loss.

Written with tremendous sensitivity in thoughtful prose, Becoming Aurora will both challenge and delight, finding its audience, with students in the middle to upper end of secondary school.   Becoming Aurora is one of those books which, while not making me proud to be an Australian; makes me feel hopeful about the direction we might go, should we be brave enough to accept the challenge.

Tanya Grech Welden

Book Review: “Words in Deep Blue” by Cath Crowley, Pan MacMillan Australia (2016)

Cath Crowley

This is, pure and simple, ‘a love story’ (yep it says so right on the front cover).  YA Romance authors pay attention, your writing masterclass is now in session.  Rachel is grieving.  After 3 years living by the coast, and in the aftermath of her brother’s drowning, she returns to the city.  It is a homecoming not without significant protests.  After all, she has flunked year 12 and failed to get into university. More importantly it means facing up to her ‘best-friend’ Henry the guy she was in love with, and who rejected her in preference for red-haired Amy the day before she left.  Seemingly, when the worlds of Henry and Rachel collide once more, Henry is in a world of pain.  Amy (the girl who loves her reflection more than she does Henry), has dumped him (yet again).   As Henry pines away for his lost-love, readers will certainly be cheering for Rachel and wondering how this couple will find their way into each other’s arms.  Of course, and in true Crowley fashion, while Words in Deep Blue might be a love story, it is so much more.  This is a celebration of words, literature and the power of both to bind us together through the human experiences of love and loss.

It goes without saying that, told through switching first person narration interspersed with letters, Words in Deep Blue is beautifully written.  The final product is a rich tapestry, a powerful celebration of language and storytelling. While this is not something that I would explicitly use in the classroom, it is certainly something that I will promote and which will be deeply cherished by those wonderful and rare students who proudly refer to themselves as ‘book nerds’.  Such readers will appreciate Crowley’s numerous references to literary works of note.  In saying this, I personally found the multiple references to the likes of John Green a little amusing.  Does Crowley even realise that she is firmly in this league?  If anyone deserves to be in the ‘Letter Room’ it is she.

It is not all serious though.  In fact in many ways this is a joyous book, immensely comedic in places.  I mean, the notion of two guys being stripped down to nothing and gaffer-taped to a city street light should be horrifying.  Instead Crowley has me laughing along with her central protagonist (who also seems to see light of the moment).

Evidence that great things really do come to those who wait can be found within the pages of this book.

Okay, so I read this as a digital galley.  I’d have preferred a paper copy (feel free to send me one Pan Macmillan), since an e-version could never hope to do justice to this superlative piece of literature.  Then again, beggars can’t be choosers, and this is Cath Crowley after all.  It has been a while (has it really been 6 years since Graffiti Moon?) since Crowley blessed us with a story. I’m not complaining, Crowley is quite possibly a perfectionist and she can ferment (or marinate) her manuscripts for as long as she likes if this is the outcome.

Tanya Grech Welden

Book Review: “Another Night in Mullet Town” by Steven Herrick, UQP (2016)

Mullet Town Cover

Most schools have that tricky English class; usually around year 10, often dominated by a group of rather disengaged boys for whom reading shares the same affection as teeth-pulling or bed-making.  Such a class presents a very real challenge, the lament of even the most dedicated educator.   Steven Herrick, with his uncanny ability to speak to the hearts of our disengaged students provides a real option for such classes.  As an added bonus he even delivers it in verse.  “Yes!” I can almost hear you shout, all your prayers have been answered.

Written entirely in verse, Another Night in Mullet Town, is a novel investigating the world of teenagers Jonah and Manx.  Living in the lakeside town of Turon, their lives are simple; hang out a little, fish a lot and expect to grow old living in one of the town’s dilapidated shacks. However, things are set to change.  The Property Developers and Real Estate Agents have moved in, setting upon the process of transforming the town into a haven for Sydneysiders dreaming of an idyllic getaway.  For Manx, son of the local servo owner, these new locals with their flashy houses, cars and cash are the antithesis of everything he despises; a direct challenge to his way of life.

Another Night in Mullet Town addresses a disenfranchised youth, who, bound by the ties of poverty, teeter on the verge of criminal activity.   With themes that explore the tragedy of family dysfunction and breakdown, identity, the highs of first love, along with the desolation of a future devoid of hope; Herrick’s novel will hold great appeal with students in the senior years of secondary school.  Used as a class text, teachers will embrace the opportunities to draw immediate parallels with other novels (SE Hinton’s The Outsiders, Cath Crowley’s Graffiti Moon) or film (The Breakfast Club).  A closer exploration of the novel’s verse structure will certainly yield strong opportunities for text production.

This is a deliciously woven tale told in tantalising language.   A gift for educators, it will speak to the realities of many of Australia’s youth.  Another Night in Mullet Town is a magnificent story for teens, and haters of Real Estate Agents, everywhere.

Book Review: “One Would Think the Deep” by Claire Zorn, University of Queensland Press (2016)


I commenced reading Claire Zorn’s novel One Would Think the Deep from a strange little place I like to call ‘fearful anticipation’.  Zorn’s last book The Protected was a multi-award winning novel.  Having had the opportunity to read an advance copy of this I was not surprised.  I honestly believe that what Zorn penned in this book was nothing short of a masterpiece; in fact it is a story with the kind of longevity that will entertain YA readers for a very long time.  It follows then, that I was both excited and fearful about the opportunity to review her latest offering.

As a piece of retro fiction, Zorn begins her story New Year’s Day 1997.  Perhaps I am just getting old but this really doesn’t seem all that long ago.  Of course, I do remember this rather nostalgically as being that wonderful time before the internet had really taken off and before mobile phones were commonplace (and if you did have one you were either really rich or a drug dealer).   Like Zorn, I remember the time for its music.  It was a period when cd’s were expensive and you waited with bated breath for the latest import from your local indie record store.

Sam Hudson, a skater from inner city Sydney, moves to live by the coast with his Aunt Lorraine and cousins Minty and Shane following the sudden death of his mother. He brings with him an understandable amount of emotional baggage which too often manifests itself as violence.  This is a sensitive story about love, the fragmentation of family and the pain of grief.

As with Zorn’s other novels, the narrative is driven by sensitively composed language and a cast of memorable characters.  In fact, the real strength of this story is in the unforgettable cast of minor characters, especially Aunty Lorraine, who feels like she might be straight out of an episode of Struggle Street, the deeply complex and equally troubled Ruby and his surfie, slash bogan, cousins, Minty and Shane.  There is certainly enough material here for another three or four novels should Zorn wish to explore them.

One Would Think the Deep is a skilfully crafted novel that will resonate with readers from the upper end of the middle years through to senior students.  While it was an engaging read, and while I applaud Zorn again for her mastery as a storyteller, unlike The Protected, it never quite took me to that exceedingly rare place that truly remarkable novels do.

Tanya Grech Welden

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