YAhoo! It’s a YA Review!: Living on Hope Street…

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If you like your YA gritty and realistic, you’ve come to the right place because today’s book, Living on Hope Street by Demet Divaroren shines a light on the diversity of modern Australia and the changing face of the typical Aussie neighbourhood.  We received our copy from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

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Living on Hope Street by Demet Divaroren.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 24th May 2017. RRP: $19.99

We all love someone. We all fear something. Sometimes they live right next door – or even closer.

Kane will do everything he can to save his mother and his little brother Sam from the violence of his father, even if it means becoming a monster himself.

Mrs Aslan will protect the boys no matter what – even though her own family is in pieces.

Ada wants a family she can count on, while she faces new questions about herself.

Mr Bailey is afraid of the refugees next door, but his worst fear will take another form.

And Gugulethu is just trying to make a life away from terror.

On this street, everyone comes from different places, but to find peace they will have to discover what unites them.

A deeply moving, unflinching portrait of modern Australian suburban life.

There’s a certain grittiness wrapped in dry humour inherent in many Australian stories and Living on Hope Street is no exception.  The book opens on a shocking scene of family violence, that deftly introduces the protagonists, Kane, Sam and their mother Angie and sets the scene for further conflict later in the story.  Chapter by chapter, the reader is introduced to the other characters who live on Hope Street and the ways in which their stories are interconnected.

There’s Mr Bailey who has lived on Hope Street with his wife Judy since the distant past, and who struggles with the brown faces that seem to populate his space. No matter how hard he tries, he always seems to say the wrong thing to his Indian son-in-law. Mrs Aslan is Kane and Sam’s Turkish widower neighbour, who provides support to Angie, the boys’ mother, even as she mourns her own estrangement from her daughter and granddaughter.  Ada, Mrs Aslan’s granddaughter, comes to play a role in Kane’s life later in the book and we are also introduced to Gugu, a young girl from a family of African refugees, whose presence and friendship provides stability for Sam.  Along with these main players, Kane and Sam’s violent father is an ever-lurking presence, while the Tupu family across the road, a group of friendly Arab young men and Mrs Aslan’s daughter (and Ada’s mother) play bit parts to round out the experience.

The constantly changing narrators and the fact that some of these narrators, like Mrs Aslan and Sam, have idiosyncratic ways of “talking” in their particular chapters, might be off-putting to some, but I found it enhanced my experience of the story because each character contributed a new perspective to each situation.  The chapters aren’t overly long either, which means that you are never more than a few pages away from a fresh voice and a new take on what is going on.  I was impressed with the way the author managed to give each narrator an authentic voice and clear motivations and back story.

Overall, I found this to be one of those books that you can’t help but read one more chapter and one more chapter until you are thoroughly sucked in to the lives of the characters.  With a dramatic ending that hints at a renewal of hope for many residents of Hope Street, this book really has everything you could ever want in a realistic contemporary YA tale.

I can see this one being up for CBCA nominations next year, that’s for sure.  Living on Hope Street is flying the flag for an inclusive, diverse community and shows that this is possible, despite cultural differences.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

YAhoo! It’s a YA Review: Wonderful Feels Like This…

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Now if you’re one of those people who roll their eyes when they hear YA slapped in front of a contemporary novel, you can happily give your eyes a rest today because Wonderful Feels Like This by Swedish author Sara Lovestam could quite easily be classed as adult fiction given the fact that one of the main characters is an octogenarian.  Also, it’s about historical jazz music.  And World War II.

We received a copy of Wonderful Feels Like This from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

A celebration of being a little bit odd, finding your people and the power of music to connect us.

For Steffi, going to school everyday is an exercise in survival. She’s never fit in with any of the groups at school, and she’s viciously teased by the other girls in her class. The only way she escapes is through her music–especially jazz music.

When Steffi hears her favourite jazz song playing through an open window of a retirement home on her walk home from school, she decides to go in and introduce herself. The old man playing her favorite song is Alvar. When Alvar was a teenager in World War II Sweden, he dreamed of being in a real jazz band. Then and now, Alvar’s escape is music–especially jazz music.

Through their unconventional friendship, Steffi comes to realise that she won’t always feel alone. She can go to music school in Stockholm. She can be a real musician. She can be a jitterbug, just like Alvar.

But how can Steffi convince her parents to let her go to Stockholm to audition? And how is it that Steffi’s school, the retirement home, the music and even Steffi’s worst bully are somehow all connected to Alvar? Can it be that the people least like us are the ones we need to help us tell our own stories?

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Wonderful Feels Like This is a delightful blend of historical fiction and contemporary coming of age story.  Steffi, in grade nine at the local school, is bullied relentlessly by her peers and has no friends to speak of.  Alvar, an octogenarian in an old folk’s home located on the route of Steffi’s walk home, is a musician whose body may be frail but whose heart and mind have never lost their passion for jazz.  When Steffi stops to chat to Alvar after hearing 1940s jazz music wafting out his window, it is the beginning of a friendship that will change both their lives and cement the bond that began with a few bars of swing.

What an intriguing read this book is!  Firstly, it’s set in Sweden – a country that I know very little about, barring IKEA and…IKEA. Oh, and ABBA.  Secondly, it’s told from alternating historical perspectives – Steffi and Alvar in the present and Alvar as a young man in 1940s Stockholm, overshadowed by the war.  I loved the information that was woven in about the political situation of Sweden and its neighbours during World War II because (a) I’m a big nerd and (b) I’ve never encountered a WWII story told from this perspective before so it was great to add to my general knowledge here.  Finally, the characters are beautifully authentic and the author hasn’t resorted to YA tropes in Steffi’s sections of the story, as could so easily have been the case given the theme of bullying.  Steffi is given equal footing with Alvar as a rounded, developed person, rather than reduced to a teen girl with certain musical hobbies and a low social standing.

Steffi’s biggest tormentors, Karro and Sanja, are merciless in their harassment, never shying away from an opportunity – be it in person or online – to denigrate Steffi and spit vitriol and humiliation in her general direction. Steffi’s lack of friends her own age lends a certain sadness to the atmosphere of her parts of the story, although it is obvious that she is determined to remain faithful to her passions and dreams for her future, in spite of the unprovoked persecution that is constantly heaped upon her.

Alvar, appearing to the reader simultaneously as a bright light of the rest home and a nervous, uncertain young man making his way in a big city in a time of social upheaval, provides the anchor for Steffi’s unsettled school experiences.  Through Alvar’s narration of his youth, Steffi begins to draw strength and confidence and understands that the path to success rarely runs smooth.

I loved that the author left the bullying element of Steffi’s story fairly unresolved.  This felt particularly authentic to me because in many people’s experience, there is no intervention or specific incident that causes the bullying to stop, rather circumstances, or physical distance mean that access to the victim by the bully is somehow cut off. This seems to be the case at the end of the book and although it’s possible – likely even – that Steffi’s tormentors may have continued their harassment after the end of the story that we see here, there is hope for Steffi and the promise of new and true friends.

In fact, one of my favourite parts of the book comes in the last paragraph of the author’s acknowledgements, where Lovestam writes:

Thank you, children and teenagers, sitting in schools all over the world, thinking about chords, shading, pi, medieval aesthetics, adverbs, metaphysics, Neanderthals, lace-making, chromatics,  and making flambes, instead of letting schoolyard pecking orders get to you.  Your time will come.

That is essentially what this story is about: having one’s time and following one’s passion – the precursor to it, the attainment of it, the living through it and the satisfied reflection on it after a life well-lived.

I’ll be submitting this book for the Popsugar Challenge under category #26: a book by an author from a country you’ve never visited.  Sweden (and Scandinavia generally, you’re on the bucket list).  You can check out my progress toward my reading challenges for 2017 here.

Until next time,

Bruce

YAhoo! It’s a YA Review: Optimists Die First…

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Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen combines craft, social anxiety and art therapy in a light-hearted tale of love overcoming fear.  We received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from GoodreadsGoodreads:

Life ahead: Proceed with caution.

Sixteen-year-old Petula De Wilde is anything but wild. A family tragedy has made her shut herself off from the world. Once a crafting fiend with a happy life, Petula now sees danger in everything, from airplanes to ground beef.

The worst part of her week is her comically lame mandatory art therapy class. She has nothing in common with this small band of teenage misfits, except that they all carry their own burden of guilt.

When Jacob joins their ranks, he seems so normal and confident. Petula wants nothing to do with him, or his prosthetic arm. But when they’re forced to collaborate on a unique school project, she slowly opens up, and he inspires her to face her fears.

Until a hidden truth threatens to derail everything.

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Having read and enjoyed Nielsen’s work before, I had a pretty good idea what I was in for going into this and I wasn’t disappointed.  Much like in Word Nerd, Nielsen combines a quirky hobby with a serious social issue – in this case, young people’s mental health – and manages to successfully blend seriousness and humour.

Petula is still grieving the loss of her younger sister and has developed a major generalised anxiety disorder partly from the guilt she feels about her possible role in her sister’s death. New boy in therapy group, Jacob, seems to take his prosthetic arm in stride and although he is secretive about the reasons he is in therapy group in the first place, is able to bring the group together in a way they haven’t managed before.  As the two become better friends, it will be the issue of guilt – perceived and actual – that may drive the two apart even as it brings them together.

Even though there is a bit of romance in this one, I still quite enjoyed Petula and Jacob’s road to friendship and the connections they make with the others in their therapy group.  There are a few twee bits here and there – particularly the ridiculous activities suggested by the leader of the art therapy group – but overall the book shows the growth of the characters and the group in a realistic (if simplistic) way.

I particularly enjoyed the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Cosmo, a character in one of Nielsen’s other books.  Despite the fact that the ending is pretty predictable from the outset, I liked spending time with these characters and I appreciate the way that Nielsen manages to address difficult issues without ever losing the ability to inject humour into the situation.

I’m also submitting this one for the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 in the category of a book by or about someone with a disability.  You can check out my progress toward this year’s challenges here.

Until next time,

Bruce

YAhoo! It’s a YA Review: Fir…

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It’s time for a little YA and today’s book is a dark, shadowy tale of the power of nature and the puniness of humans.  We received Fir by Sharon Gosling from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

We are the trees. We are the snow.

We are the winter.

We are the peace. We are the rage.

Cut off from civilization by the harsh winter of northern Sweden, the Stromberg family shelter in their old plantation house. There are figures lurking in the ancient pine forests and they’re closing in. With nothing but four walls between the Strombergs and the evil that’s outside, they watch and wait for the snows to melt.

But in the face of signs that there’s an even greater danger waiting to strike, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish reality from illusion. All they’ve got to do is stay sane and survive the winter…

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I had high hopes for this one, given that it featured creepy trees – a collective character that, it must be admitted, surely doesn’t get enough coverage in YA – and a cold, dark setting that I hoped would be a mental escape from the unrelenting heat of Australian summer.  Unfortunately I ended up DNFing at just over halfway, having given the book plenty of time to grab my attention and hold it.

The two biggest problems I had with this one were the slow pace and the stilted dialogue mixed with tedious monologue. I just couldn’t be bothered to stick around and find out what the trees were planning, or indeed, if they were planning anything at all and not just a figment of the narrator’s imagination.  The suspense aspect takes its time in building up, which is perfectly forgivable, provided the characters around which the suspense is building are interesting enough to inspire a sense of protectiveness from the reader.  I found most of the characters to be reasonably unlikable – the teen narrator is angsty and moody, the father is arrogant and stubborn and the mother is overly conciliatory – and so would have happily seen them eaten by trees …or whatever…and for this reason, somewhere along the line the suspense morphed into a sense of impatience and a desire for the trees to get on with eating the characters…or whatever.

The one character who was written to be off-putting, the housemaid Dorothea, actually turned out to be my favourite, simply because at least she had a bit of nouse about her.  By the time I put the book down however, my feelings toward Dorothea had merged with my feelings for the hapless others and I would have been quite happy to have seen her eaten first…or whatever.

The setting was the definite standout of this story and set the appropriate tone of mild foreboding, and in some instances, blessed quiet.  Had the pace of the book been a bit quicker or had I given a hoot about any of the characters, I probably would have finished this, but I just wasn’t enjoying it enough to keep snow-ploughing on.

Until next time,

Bruce