Book reviews for Aussie teachers and their students.

Posts tagged ‘Steven Herrick’

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: “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.

“Invisible” by Cecily Anne Paterson, Cecily Anne Paterson (2013)

InvisbleThe publishing industry is in a massive spin right now with the major houses being challenged by the influx of self-published authors contesting their own titles on bookstore shelves.  Of course, a great deal of this has been fuelled by online digital publishing, which has made self-publishing far more accessible.  Inevitably, this revolution has both positive and negative implications for the industry with some books being released clearly being below standard.  This makes sense when one considers that a self-published author must source their own editors and graphic designers before working independently (and tirelessly) to promote the title without the usual connections that the traditional publishing houses have.  However, at the other side of the spectrum, self-publishing, has launched the careers of many emerging authors.  I often think of Hugh Howey and his highly successful “Wool” series, which gained him great acclaim (and greater financial rewards than he may have received had he gone the traditional route).

However, this post is not on the topic of the publishing revolution.  Rather, I wanted to explain my mixed emotions upon receiving a copy of Cecily Anne Paterson’s self-published YA Contemporary Invisible.  First impressions count with me, although, as any English teacher will tell you; they count even more as far as young people are concerned, and it doesn’t matter how many times we tell them not to judge a book by its cover they still do!  Paterson’s novel is beautifully packaged, both digitally and in hard copy, with a savvy cover that will appeal to the most discerning adolescent reader.  In fact, this professional approach extends beyond the cover to a story that is meticulously edited to industry standard.  From this point I want to forget that this is a self-published title because if I didn’t look too closely I would never have known.

Invisible tells the story of middle school student Jazmine Crawford.  Jazmine has perfected the art of disappearing into the crowd, a skill she mastered after the death of her father when she was nine and the constant moving from town to town that followed.  She also lives with a disability, partial hearing loss, which conveniently allows her to withdraw even further.  When Jazmine gets into trouble at school she is forced to participate in the school production of The Secret Garden and she can no longer disappear into the background but must learn to tackle her problems head on as she confronts her own Goliath in the form of the school bully Shalini.  Invisible explores the key themes of bereavement and loss, bullying, living with disability and to a lesser extent the impact of depression.  This is a classic coming of age story about the desire to belong and will appeal to readers in the lower end of the middle years.

With a range of pertinent themes and language that is well crafted, Invisible would be an excellent choice for shared class reading, with the story working well as an introductory text for students new to High School (Grade 7 or 8 depending on the state or school you teach in).  It would pair well with Steven Herrick’s Bleakboy and Hunter Stand Out in the Rain or similar and will work well when used in reading circles or independent study.

Jazmine is a convincing character whose lack of self-certainty is as relatable as her personal growth is refreshing.  In fact, I only had one very small gripe with the story; a group of students were suspended from school for 3 weeks!  The teacher in me felt this to be a little severe even for a serious crime.   A small thing really and I wonder if an interesting debate on this punishment might follow a class reading of this.  Invisible is sensitively written story that will appeal to a broad range of readers in the lower middle years.  A title well worth the extra effort to locate and place it on your school library shelves.

Reviewed by Tanya Grech Welden

** Invisible  is available in digital and hard copy format online via the following retailers.  For bulk orders please contact the author Cecily Anne Paterson or the printer Ingram Spark.**

***The author provided me a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  I have otherwise not been paid for reviewing this book and my opinions reflect my own unbiased opinion.***

“Bleakboy and Hunter Stand Out in the Rain” by Steven Herrick, University of Queensland Press (2014)


Too often it feels as though we are quick to judge and swift to run the emerging generation down.  Young people are misunderstood with claims that they are too self-obsessed, too lacking in vision, self-discipline or whatever.   Steven Herrick’s latest novel “Bleakboy and Hunter Stand Out in the Rain,” challenges these perspectives.  Instead, he chooses to present his audience with a world in which a handful of eleven-year-old kids, Hunter, Jesse and Kate, remind us of how awe-inspiringly brilliant young people can be.  Jesse, the new boy, struggles to fit into his alternative school whilst trying to come to terms with the even bigger issues of World Hunger and Poverty.  When he meets Kate, he realises that he is not alone in his concerns and together they set about ‘Saving the Whales’.  However, in the meantime they must deal with Hunter, the school bully, whose systematic torture of them conceals his own very real pain.

Despite being officially labelled as “Children’s Fiction” this is a story that will be well received by students in later primary years and in the early years of high school.  It is the kind of middle grade fiction that is so well written that teens will forgive the fact that the protagonists are only 11.  It helps that Herrick refuses to dumb things down with inane humour, and likewise develops characters that are in no way babyish.  “Bleakboy” explores a range of themes pertinent for this audience; including the impact and origin of bullying, the global issues facing humanity and the environment, the development of an individual belief system, alongside the impact of family breakdown upon young people.

A detailed investigation of this text would be effectively complemented with an exploration of protest song lyrics (Midnight Oil’s Beds are Burning, Pink’s Mr President, Bob Dylan’s Times They are a Changin).   Students will no doubt appreciate the emerging discussions upon key themes that might culminate in class debates, action research tasks or expository writing.

This is a tale of sparkling optimism.  Herrick, as always, demonstrates masterful control of prose and develops each character skilfully so that they stay with the reader long after the book is finished.

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.***

“Black Painted Fingernails” by Steven Herrick, Allen & Unwin (2013)


How about we toss a coin?

Heads, it’s west and a lift.

Tails, it’s still west, but no lift.’

Road trip stories.  There always seem to be an abundance of these about in film and literature.  It makes sense; the road trip is a powerful metaphor providing excellent staging for a coming of age tale.  Has it all become a little clichéd though?  The last road trip story I read, “An Abundance of Katherines,” by John Green, I hated.  I hated it so much I gave my copy away.  I normally lap up Green’s offerings, but this book felt a little flat to me.  Perhaps it was a bad example of a road trip story, or maybe I just got distracted by all that talk of equations, theorems and algorithms.  At any rate, I didn’t feel that with Herrick’s book.  I won’t go so far to say that this book is a masterpiece.  I will say that it is well written and compelling in a quiet way.  It is an accessible read of about 200 pages, and I managed it effortlessly in a couple of hours.  Herrick does a couple of things really well that left me motivated enough to stay up a little later last night to get it finished.

The premise of the novel is quite straightforward.  James leaves the comfort of his childhood home for a six week teacher-training experience in the country.  He is accosted by Sophie, a bohemian woman with a mysterious past, who presses upon him for a lift.   What unfolds is the predictable tale of their journey and blossoming relationship.   The greatest strength of the story is in the characters, crafted skillfully by Herrick, they are familiar yet still manage to stand out in the reader’s mind.  James is living through the post-teen years, barely managing to keep his parents happy and consistently doubting his ability to do so.  Standing at two metres tall, he is a mother’s boy, over-pampered and clambering for the escape hatch. He is often clumsy and unsure about everything.  At one point I struggled to understand how he even managed to bumble his way through life and two years of study at university.  When he meets Sophie, a stunning 21 year old woman with street smarts and just enough brokenness to make her interesting, James is easily outwitted into giving her a lift.  I had my doubts about this pairing early on in the story.  Surely James is a little too nerdy to capture Sophie’s interest for long enough for anything fruitful to develop between them?  However, Herrick seemed to have the balance between them right, with James’ gentle sincerity, softening Sophie’s heart enough to allow the dialogue to flow between them naturally.

The other great strength of the story is Herrick’s depiction of rural Australia.  This is clearly a man who knows the nuances of country living; the hardships, isolation, narrow mindedness, the freedoms balanced with moments of simple joy.  I could almost smell the roast of the day as it intermingled with the dust and the sweet odor of beer ingrained into the paisley carpet at the local pub.  From gorging on blackberries, skinny dipping in waterholes, to goanna wrangling; this is a proudly Australian story that draws a captivating image of life in the bush.

Although Herrick made it work for him, I did find the style of narration a little irritating.  He employs a switching style  that begins with James’ first person present tense account, before moving into the past tense with a third person narration exploring Sophie’s world.  A few times Merrick also jumps into the third person present tense from the perspective of James’ father and mother.  Confused? I imagine that it may have some readers, (particularly younger ones) feeling a little alienated, and other readers annoyed enough to abandon the book completely.

“Black Painted Fingernails” is appropriate for use with an older Young Adult audience (16+).  The ages of the characters definitely send it to the upper end of this category whilst also edging it into the realm of New Adult and Adult Fiction.  As a whole, the story has broad appeal.  Thematically, it is easy to relate to James’ quest for self discovery as he transitions from adolescence to adulthood.  As a mother of three young children I found the story speaking to me on yet another level.  It served to remind me of the transience of childhood and the certainty that that which is given to us will eventually need to be surrendered.

Reviewed by Tanya Grech Welden

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