Book reviews for Aussie teachers and their students.

Posts tagged ‘UQP’

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

hexenhaus

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

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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: “Little Wing” by Katherine Battersby, UQP (2016)

Little Wing cover

Frequently, as readers, we fall into the trap of assuming that picture books are just for younger children.  This is not always the case.  There are quite a few writers and illustrators, like Shaun Tan, who have built stellar careers upon the idea that picture books can be written for, indeed directed towards an older audience.  Of course, then there are these wonderfully creative people who manage to write for children, yet at the same time also address older audiences in ways that are nothing short of profound.  As a secondary teacher, when I come across these stories I always find a way to use them; either in my classroom or with staff.  Katherine Battersby’s latest picture book, Little Wing is one such book.  On the surface it is a charmingly illustrated picture book, aimed at pre-schoolers or junior primary students.  Indeed this is probably the way the most people will choose to use it.  However, when we delve beneath the surface we discover something with themes so universal that it not only speaks to adults but it serves as a tool that has the potential to transform that audience.

“On the smallest island, in the tallest tree, lived the world’s smartest animal.”  So begins Battersby in what is a deceptively simple tale about a bird, Little Wing, who, through his love of books and learning, becomes the smartest animal on the planet.  However, despite the great wealth of knowledge accessible at his fingertips, Little Wing fails to understand how he fits into the larger scheme of things.  Little Wing launches on a journey of self-discovery that takes him to a place beyond the wisdom stored inside books.  It is a place where he must discover on his own, through original and creative thought processes; the answer to who he actually is.

Battersby uses sparse, simple language in her telling of this story, a choice which makes this story accessible to young beginning readers.  However, it is the juxtaposition of the text alongside the delightful illustrations that really breathes life into Little Wing’s story.  Battersby uses a combination of media that includes watercolour, pencil and textiles along with scanned images to create a digital collage with an airy and whimsical feel.  I envisage that teachers will take inspiration from this and embrace the opportunity to explore this method in art lessons.

For teachers, the story of Little Wing reminds us that although the content of what we teach is important, our greatest imperative as educators is how we develop in our students skills that will lead to self-discovery and original thought.  Of course, when reading this story with my 4 year old daughter the message we shared was that learning is an exciting adventure, one that is life long and fun.  What a wonderful message to share with children at the very beginning of their learning journey!

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.

Boomerang Book Winners for the Year 2014

Claire ZornI love books so much that it is nearly impossible for me to choose favourites.  However, I for the purposes of this blog (and because it may be useful for my audience of teachers and students) I am going to try very hard to play favourites.  Early January each year I plan to evaluate the books from the previous year, identifying those that I have found most enjoyable and, more importantly, the ones that are most useful in terms of their educational merit in the classroom.  I am going to call these the “Boomerang Awards”, since these are the titles which I am most likely to go back to time and time again as a teacher.

Overall “Boomerang Book of the Year 2014”

Without a doubt the best book I read in 2014 was an awesome title published by University of Queensland Press.  The Protected, written by Aussie author Claire Zorn is a gorgeous contemporary set in the rural setting of the Blue Mountains.  It tells the story Hannah, who struggles to  survive in the aftermath of her older sister’s death.  There is nothing I didn’t like about this story and if there ever was a book I’d be pleading to have in a class set,  it is this one.  A finely crafted story that is as beautiful as it is poignant, The Protected is suited to students in grade 9-10 for shared reading or, for older middle school students and senior school students through to year 12.

Runner-Up “Boomerang Book of the Year 2014”

Another book that I thoroughly appreciated was Zana Fraillon’s No Stars to Wish On.  Published by Allen & Unwin in 2014.No Stars to Wish On Fraillon’s story is told through the innocent eyes of 6 year old Jack, who is forcibly “removed” from his family and forced into a foster home as a Ward of the State.  In gorgeous prose we follow his mistreatment at the hands of the cruel Sisters and dare to hope that he will finally reunite with his family.  No Stars to Wish Upon is a uniquely Australian story that explores a dark episode in our history.  It is deceptively simple, however, the depths of its themes (and the darkness of the content) place it firmly within the Middle years.  I would have no hesitation in using it at year 9 as a shared text, for senior students in an independent reading program,  or as an extension text for independent reading by advanced readers in the latter part of primary school.

“Boomerang Best Series of the Year 2014”

These Broken StarsWith so many series appearing on book shelves across the nation (and “virtually” across the world), I felt it might be useful to highlight the one I  found most captivating for the year of 2014.  The Starbound Trilogy, written by Aussie author Amie Kaufman and American Meagan Spooner secures the title this year.  These Broken Stars and This Shattered World explore the Science Fiction universe where all is not as it first seems.  Where many series tend to follow the same protagonist for each episode, The Starbound This Shattered WorldTrilogy operates within the same world but with a different setting and different protagonist (the previous key characters seem to come back for cameo roles only).  For this alone I applaud the series, since each book will work as a stand alone book too!!!  I would not use this series as a class text (it is too long), however it is something to  share with your avid readers who are always looking for the next big thing.  This is it, bring on the film production!

That’s it for 2014.  If you like what you read please go back and read my longer reviews via the hyperlinks above.

by Tanya Grech Welden

“The Protected” by Claire Zorn, University of Queensland Press (2014)

Claire Zorn

I have three months left to call Katie my older sister.  Then the gap will close and I will pass her.  I will get older.  But Katie will always be fifteen, eleven months and twenty-one days old.  She will always have a nose piercing and a long curly knot of dark hair.  She will always think The Cure is the greatest band of all time.  She will always have a red band of sunburn on her lower back from our last beach holiday.

Forever. (p.1)

Every now and then you pick up a book and from the very first sentence you tingle.  Claire Zorn’s new book “The Protected” did just that and more.  Zorn reminded me what it was like to be an adolescent.  Through her eyes I was taken back to my own first day of high school.  I felt again the hopeful anticipation, the confusion and the pain of rejection.   When we meet 15 year old Hannah she is living a nightmare in the aftermath of her sister Katie’s tragic death.  Her parents, understandably are drowning in a sea of depression and despair and are consequently absent from her emotionally.  Instead, she is passed from one psychologist to another in an effort to help her to come to terms with the unthinkable.  However, Hannah’s problems run even deeper than first appears.  Hannah, the victim of particularly insidious bullying, was broken long before this.  Alienated at school and living in a mausoleum to her sister, a tiny glimmer of hope appears in the form of the new boy at school Josh, leaving Hannah to decide if she can trust him.

Beautifully crafted, Zorn’s prose shimmers as she takes her reader on a journey to a very dark place.  This text is appropriate for shared study with students in year 9 or 10, although teachers need to proceed with caution as this novel will undoubtedly evoke a strong emotional response from many students.  However, there is a richness of discussion to be had if you are brave enough to take it on.  “The Protected” explores a range of themes including the death of a young person and the impact on families and communities, the complexity of sibling relationships, the volatility of friendships and the devastating and long lasting psychological impact of bullying.

As a secondary teacher for 15 years I have taught a lot of Hannahs. I have been the one there to pick up the pieces and try to fight the war in a battle always waged just outside my earshot and often outside my control.  Unfortunately, I have also taught too many Katies; brilliant and vivacious souls that are taken from this earth too soon only to leave families and the broader community bewildered and asking why?  Some books ache, and yet “The Protected” did more than ache, it ground my heart to dust.  An outstanding work of fiction that deserves to be shared profusely and talked about.

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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