Book reviews for Aussie teachers and their students.

Posts tagged ‘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)

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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: “Daughter of Nomads: The Tales of Jahani” by Roseanne Hawke (2016), University of Queensland Press

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In all honesty, I couldn’t wait to crack the spine on this one.  When a book arrives on my doorstep with the name Roseanne Hawke attached to it, I just know that I am about to start what is guaranteed to be an amazing journey.  Daughter of Nomads didn’t fail to disappoint.  In fact, it lived up to every whisper of a promise hinted at in the rich teal cover.

Australian readers are no doubt very familiar with Hawke’s work.  I first encountered her writing as a beginning teacher working in Port Augusta when I was ‘told’ to teach her contemporary novel The Keeper to my energetic group of year 8 students.  The students were captivated and so began my first introduction to a writer whose work is as prolific as it is diverse.  More recently I had the opportunity to read and review the immensely absorbing and gut wrenching story of Aster, a Christian Pakistani girl in her book The Truth About Peacock Blue (you can find my review for that title here).  Daughter of Nomads, the first book in the series The Tales of Jahani, is also set in the world of the middle-east.  However, Hawke explores this setting as it might have been in the summer of 1662, and adds a sprinkling of magic for good measure that is certainly reminiscent of the tales of Scheherazade.

Fourteen year-old Jahani lives with her mother in the village of Sherwan. Unfortunately, the violent world of tyrants and war lords is always close, with conflict constantly simmering and threatening to shatter the peace.   One day, while shopping in the bazaar Jahani and her friend are attacked.  With the help of Azhar, Jahani escapes certain death and so begins an adventure to discover the truth about her family and her real identity.

Daughter of Nomads will engage readers from in the middle years of secondary school.  It will especially hold appeal with students that have an interest in religion and history and might be a useful text to explore middle-eastern cultures.  While I personally would not use this as a shared text within my coeducational classroom, the accessibility of the language, make it a good choice for extending students into texts that are more culturally diverse.  That said, the story has the potential to work really well with single sex female classes, providing a unique Asian perspective with historical connections that could easily complement the Year 8 HaSS National Curriculum focusing on the Mediaeval Period.

Daughter of Nomads was a captivating read that I found utterly immersive.  I can’t wait for the release of the second book in the series The Leopard Princess.

Book Review: “Firsts” by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn, St Martin’s Press (2016)

firstsWhat I couldn’t tell him was that I wanted, for some desperate reason, for Jillian’s first time to be what mine never was.  Jillian was everything I wasn’t – pure, innocent, and unaware of how much pain the opposite sex could inflict, physically and emotionally. (p.34)

17 year old Mercedes is a High School Senior with a secret.  She has sex with other girls’ boyfriends; but only those who are virgins.  It is, as she explains, her way of paying it forward, a kind of community service.  After all, she’s teaching them to be kinder, more compassionate and attentive to their girlfriends, thus ensuring that they will have the positive first sexual encounter that she herself was denied.  Her extra-curricular activities are a secret to everyone (except the boys involved that are sworn to secrecy), including her mostly absent mother Kym, who, about as shallow as a toddler’s wading pool, has no idea.  Similarly her best friend (and fundamentalist Christian) Angela, and regular Wednesday fling Zach are also unaware of the goings on in her bedroom.

I’ll admit, with this kind of premise we might easily be dealing with a piece of erotic fiction as opposed to the YA I usually review.  Trust me when I say that this book is about the least erotic thing I have read all year.  In fact, it is achingly sad.  YA has always had a rather precarious relationship when it comes to sex.  Teachers and parents, who tend to be the ones who choose and pay for the books, were traditionally wary of stories with this kind of content.  However, in more recent years, sex scenes have been appearing with much greater frequency.  To be fair, most of these scenes are of the fade to black kind, no doubt a nod to the concerns of parents and teachers, although the increasing prevalence of these has at times left me wondering if these scenes were really necessary.  More recently I have stumbled upon YA books which have taken this to a new level.  These are books which make Judy Blume’s Are You There God It’s Me Margaret look very Enid Blyton.  I’m thinking of the soon to be released novel by Irish author Louise O’Neill Asking For It.  These stories explore issues of sexuality with a grittiness that is confronting yet wholly crucial for a generation who, unlike any other, has been absolutely bombarded with sexualised images from birth.

With sex as the core focus of this story it may sound strange but the truth is, that this is not really a story about sex.  While it certainly does inspire teens to think deeply about why they choose to have sex in the first place, it also asserts (rather disturbingly) that many are doing it before they are ready.  Firsts explores the nature of friendship and love.  It investigates issues of gender specifically those related to double standards and the persistence of slut-shaming in contemporary society.  Mercedes is, as we understand from the outset, profoundly (and possibly irrevocably) damaged, and as readers we continually question the reason for her brokenness.  What could possibly have happened to have stripped away her sense of self-worth?  What is it which is stripping away at the self-worth of young women all over the globe?

While Firsts is a novel which, because of its very nature, will likely be situated in the upper end of YA, I’d challenge schools to also make it available to students in the lower end of the age group.  With the average age of “first time” sexual experiences continuing to drop, I fear that books of this kind are reaching the audiences who need it most too late.  Books such as this need to be accessible and they need to be talked about openly by teachers, parents and young people.

Firsts is a story deserving of my highest praise, written with a scythe in prose that gleams,  Laurie Elizabeth Flynn succeeded in taking me through a plethora of emotions, raising me up, inspiring me with hope and at the same time leaving me dissolved in a puddle of tears.

**Firsts is available for puchase NOW!**

Tanya Grech Welden

Book Review: “The Truth About Peacock Blue” by Rosanne Hawke, Allen & Unwin (2015)

9781743319949I have long been a fan of Rosanne Hawke’s gentle approach to story telling. Her latest release The Truth About Peacock Blue, does not disappoint. In fact, in this novel we see Hawke at her very best, leading readers into vividly drawn worlds in which her characters, despite being small of voice, manage to speak loudly and poignantly to her audience.

The Truth About Peacock Blue tells the story of Aster, a fourteen year old Christian girl who lives with her parents in a small village in Pakistan. Following the death of her brother, her parents decide to invest in her education only surviving child, Aster. The decision to educate a girl is an unusual one for families from rural areas in Pakistan, but is one which is is tentatively embraced by Aster, who had anticipated an early arranged marriage. As the “hope” for her family, and a girl of a minority faith, Aster must navigate her way through a minefield of challenges wrought by the largely Muslim context of her school and country. She prevails with dogged determination, until the worst happens. She is accused of blasphemy.

From the very first page this is a story which quietly aches. Aster may live a deceptively simple existence as a girl in a small village in Pakistan, yet her life is far from simple. Politically and socially, Pakistan is revealed as a beautiful, yet complex nation where life for women and those of religious minorities is rarely trouble free. Even before the issue of blasphemy appears ,this is a tale of great loss. The story begins with the loss of her brother and rape of a close friend and continues to unfold with additional stories that readers will find most harrowing. While the issues explored in this narrative are sensitive and deeply complex, Hawke succeeds in crafting a story with straight forward language that will be highly accessible to her YA audience.

I anticipate that teachers will readily find use for this novel across a range of curriculum areas with students from year 9 upwards. In the English classroom it would be suitable as a shared class text where a close analysis of the themes and broader context of the story could be fleshed out even further within the HaSS curriculum. The story would pair well, holding its own, along the likes of Harper Lee’s, To Kill a Mockingbird. The Asian context and perspectives presented in the story fulfil current ACARA requirements at grade 9. Furthermore, in schools where Religious Studies is taught, the story could be a powerful segue way to a discussion on the topics of religious diversity, tolerance, and the various issues emerging within contemporary societies both at home and abroad.

The Truth About Peacock Blue, is a timely novel highlighting with immense sensitivity the reality of the turbulent times we now live in. Rosanne Hawke engages with these issues honestly, in a manner that will incite open discussion, whilst communicating a hope-filled message that uplifts and will frequently inspires positive engagement in today’s youth.
Tanya Grech Welden

Book Review: “War in My Town” by E. Graziani, Second Story Press (2015)

cover73133-mediumBruna is little more than a child in the 1940’s when her picturesque Italian village of Eglio comes under the control of the Nazis.  Part history book, part biography, War in My Town follows the experiences of Bruna and the residents of Eglio as they suffer war caught in the crossfire between the German and allied forces.

A poignant story told with striking simplicity, War in My Town is an accessible read for children aged 10 upwards.  The story reads episodically with frequent historical digressions to situate the reader with relevant background information to the narrative.  A good balance, and separation, between anecdotes and historical information is maintained throughout the story, although this did to some extent, cause a certain degree of stilting to the narrative.

Written from the perspective of Bruna, Graziani (the daughter of Bruna) writes this account as a Canadian/Italian based on stories told to her by her mother.  As an Australian teacher I was struck by this story, particularly its relevance for many Australian students I teach, many of whom, have Italian heritage with connections to this period of history.  The text itself provides a concise introduction to Fascism, Mussolini and the economic circumstances surrounding the emergence of this political influence whilst maintain the balance between the impact of these influences on ordinary Italians.   Within the classroom, the text might operate as an example of oral history.  This model could easily be adapted for assessment tasks to be used in the Middle Years, or, with additional depth, could form the basis for a detailed Oral History task in the senior years.

Tanya Grech Welden

Book Review: “Cloudwish” by Fiona Wood, Pan MacMillan Australia (2015)

cover69891-mediumVân Uoc is a year 11 first generation Australian girl of Vietnamese parents.  As a scholarship recipient, her presence at Crowthorne Grammar, an exclusive school in Melbourne, comes with pressure.  Pressure to succeed.  Her parents, have high expectations also.  The expectation that she will rise to the top, train as a doctor, and become everything that they are not.  It is a shame then, that Vân Uoc wants to be an artist, a secret that she dreads having to share with them knowing it will destroy them.  Until that time Vân Uoc is the obedient daughter, studious and hard-working, she keeps her head down and gets on with the job at hand.  However, after a chance experience in a writing workshop, a wish falls in her lap and in the moment she casts aside her lack of belief in all things magical, and wishes that the object of her secret desire, Billy Gardiner (jock, part-time comedian and heart throb) will fall in love with her.  It’s a safe bet, she assumes, since he doesn’t even know she exists.  Until, like magic, he starts to pay attention.

I read Wood’s novel Wildlife last year.  I’ll admit that I found it a satisfactory read, albeit annoying.  I’m not generally a fan of the whole poor rich kid scenario.  It doesn’t speak to me.  To be fair it’s probably my working class roots, and my own negative experience as the disadvantaged kid at the snooty school, clouding my judgement.  Anyway, Cloudwish, is a spin off from this book.  It is set in the same school with the same cast of characters.  It is probably just as well then, that I didn’t know this before I read it, because I probably would have given it a miss.  This would have been a huge shame because I loved this book for the very reason why I didn’t like Wildlife.  You see Vân Uoc gives voice to the kid in school who, for economic reasons doesn’t fit in socially.  Vân Uoc became my hero and not just because she got to the heart of what it is really like being the poor kid on school casual days.

There is so much to love about this book.  Wood’s exploration of the migrant, in particular, refugee experience was illuminating.  I appreciated the lengths she went to in breaking open the experience of being an ethnic minority, specifically Asian, in a culture where most norm references are distinctly white.  The only thing I found a little disconcerting was that Wood chose for her protagonist to be Vietnamese.  I understand that Vân Uoc qualifies her experiences by explaining that her parents were “old” when they had her, but I couldn’t help feeling that this story arrived 20-30 years too late.  Surely this experience could have been more accurately recalled from the perspective of a Sudanese or Syrian girl?

This aside, I loved this story.  I loved the way Wood meshed the impossible (the wish) with the real.  It gave this story a quirky, unexpected feel, that kept surprising me to the very end.  Cloudwish is an inspiring and enjoyable read with impressive originality.  I recommend it strongly for students from the upper middle years onwards.

Cloudwish is released 1st September 2015.

Tanya Grech Welden

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