Book reviews for Aussie teachers and their students.

Posts tagged ‘Pip Harry’

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


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: “Pieces of Sky” by Trinity Doyle (2015), Allen & Unwin

pieces of skyTrinity Doyle’s sparkling debut novel, Pieces of Sky, tells the story of Lucy, state backstroke champion.  With a career as an athlete well within her grasp she is fully absorbed in the world of swimming.  When her older brother Cam dies, caught in a powerful rip, Lucy is left emotionally in tatters and unable to do what she loves most, swim.  While struggling to come to terms with her grief Lucy must navigate her feelings for Evan, the new boy, along with questions surrounding what really happened to her brother on the fateful night of his drowning.

Trinity Doyle has crafted a moving story that will speak purposefully to students in the upper end of the middle years and senior students.  The story deals sensitively with the key themes of bereavement, depression, love and adolescent relationships.  Written in an engaging style that will no doubt resonate with a YA audience, Doyle’s prose consistently shimmers with dialogue that walks the line with an honest edginess.  Dealing with sensitive issues such as teenage death and suicide, I was left appropriately inspired and uplifted, yet, was never able to completely surrender to the real darkness of the book’s themes.

In many ways Pieces of Sky lends itself well to shared reading, close study and analysis at grade ten level.  However, the complexity and sensitive nature of the themes, along with descriptive depictions of teenage sexual encounters, may make this a little problematic in some school settings.  Pairing well with the likes of Claire Zorn’s The Protected, Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places, Pip Harry’s Head of the River and Clare Strahan’s Cracked; Pieces of Sky might be a wonderful choice for reading circles or for students undertaking independent close study of fiction.

Pieces of Sky is a hope-filled debut novel that will delight and uplift YA readers.  An absolute must-have for every secondary school library.

Tanya Grech Welden

“Head of the River” by Pip Harry, University of Queensland Press (2014)

Pip Harry

Pip Harry’s “Head of the River” tells the story of twins Leni and Cristian Popescu, children of Olympians, they are elite rowers at the prestigious Melbourne College, Harley Grammar.  We follow the twins as they prepare for the famous Head of the River race. Told in a cyclical narrative, we are dropped into to the climax of the story in the first chapter before being left hanging whilst time is turned back 6 months. Harry employs a fast paced style of narration which switches smoothly between the brother and sister characters many times within each chapter.

“Head of the River” focuses upon the world of rowing and as such, is one of the better examples of novels exploring sport that I have read in a while.  The strength of Harry’s story is its exploration of winning and losing, pressure, body image and eating disorders, cheating and the role that drug and substance abuse can play in sport at this level.  To a lesser extent, and in my opinion what makes this book so special, is Harry’s sensitive investigation of broader issues that the majority of teenagers will relate to, including dealing with the loss of a young person, leadership and followership, and the messy stuff that is often teen relationships.

Whilst being well written, edited and absolutely engrossing, Pip Harry’s language does not possess the kind of compelling beauty that makes me really want to teach this as a class text.  That said, I have no doubt that it will be lapped up by students in the senior years of secondary and its gutsy themes make it a perfect choice for independent reading tasks.  This novel does explore first sexual encounters, and although this is done with impressive sensitivity, it does make this novel unsuitable for students in the primary years.

A word of warning.  I did find the cover image a little uninspiring.  Whilst having strong appeal for an audience interested in a story about rowing; I felt it belied the fact that Pip Harry has written a novel about so much more.  Fortunately, the cover is the only thing I didn’t like about this book.  This is a story with broad appeal, dealing with a range of issues that most young people will appreciate. I have not a single iota of interest in sport, or more specifically rowing, yet I loved this story.  I was captivated throughout and never once was bored by Harry’s description of the details of rowing, nor with the blow by blow accounts of the races.  This is a fast paced story that once picked up will be devoured by readers 14 upwards.

Reviewed by Tanya Grech Welden

**UQP provided me with a free review copy for this book.  I have otherwise not been paid for any review or endorsement of this book and my opinions reflect my own unbiased view.**

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