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

 

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Fi50 Reminder and an Inspirational Early Chapter Book

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It’s that time of the month again – Fiction in 50 kicks off on Monday!  To participate, just create  a piece of fiction or poetry in fewer than 51 words and then add your link to the comments of my post on Monday.  For more information, just click on that snazzy typewriter at the top of this post.  Our prompt for this month is…

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Hope to see you there!


Ballerina Dreams: A Tale of Hope, Hard Work and Finding Your Groove…

 

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Ballerina Dreams by Michaela & Elaine DePrince.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 24th May 2017.  RRP: $14.99

 

The world of early chapter books seems to have expanded greatly since I was a youngling and nowadays there are a plethora of beautifully presented, exquisitely formatted, engaging and accessible stories out there for newly confident readers.  Ballerina Dreams: A True Story by professional ballet dancer Michaela DePrince and her adoptive mother Elaine is one such story.  We received our copy from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

At the age of three, Michaela DePrince found a photo of a ballerina that changed her life. She was living in an orphanage in Sierra Leone at the time, but was soon adopted by a family and brought to America. Michaela never forgot the photo of the dancer she once saw, and decided to make her dream of becoming a ballerina come true. She has been dancing ever since, and after a spell as a principal dancer in New York, now dances for the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam.

Beautifully and gently illustrated by Ella Okstad, Ballerina Dreams is the younger-reader edition of Michaela DePrince’s highly moving memoir, Hope in a Ballet Shoe.

Not being a particular fan of ballet, I was a bit trepidatious going into this book, but I was drawn in by the young, brown-skinned girl on the cover.  I happen to have some familial ties with a fantastic blog called FleshTone, that promotes representation of all skin colours in all areas of everyday life, from underwear to toys and beyond.  FleshTone, driven by its founder, Tayo Ade, has a particular focus on dancewear for darker skinned performers, because bizarrely, despite the fact that there must be thousands upon thousands of non-white people involved in dancing worldwide, production of flesh-coloured dancewear to suit such people is hard to find.  I immediatley wondered, while reading this book, whether Michaela DePrince has trouble finding flesh-coloured dancewear to suit her fleshtone…but I digress.  Back to the book.

Ballerina Dreams is the early reader version of DePrince’s memoir Hope in a Ballet Shoe.  DePrince herself hails from Sierra Leone, where she lived in an orphanage after her parents were killed in the war there.  Adopted by Elaine DePrince, along with her best friend and several others from the orphanage, Michaela moves to the USA with her new family and is able to pursue the dream she has fostered since finding an abadoned magazine with a picture of a dancer on the front: to learn ballet.

The story touches briefly on DePrince’s struggles as a dark-skinned dancer in a world in which such dancers are scarce, before ending on her accomplishments as a professional dancer and her desire to inspire and encourage other young people of colour to pursue their dreams with hard work and patience.

The book is beautifully presented, with large print and colour illustrations throughout, appearing both as full page spreads and wrapped around sections of text.  As such, the story will be accessible for young readers as both a read-alone or a read-aloud with an adult.  It’s wonderful to see that books – and particularly nonfiction books – highlighting individuals from diverse backgrounds are being published for this age group.

I would highly recommend this engaging tale for young fans of dance and those who enjoy true stories told in accessible ways.

I’m submitting this book for the Popsugar Reading Challenge in category #32: a book about an interesting woman.  You can check out my progress toward the challenge here.

Until next time,

Bruce

TBR Friday: Greenglass House

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TBR Friday

I’m struggling to keep the momentum up this last month for the Mount TBR Challenge 2017, but I’m very pleased to announce that I’ve finally knocked over Greenglass House by Kate Milford which has been on my TBR list since I pre-ordered it in 2014.  Never mind that it took two years to arrive, but that’s another story.  Let’s crack on.

greenglass house

Ten Second Synopsis:

Milo and his parents are settling in for Christmas at their historical inn when a collection of strangers arrive unannounced for a prolonged stay. At first it seems the travellers aren’t connected but after Milo and his friend Meddy begin investigating, it appears that all of these disparate people are at Greenglass House for the same reason.

Time on the TBR Shelf:

Technically since mid-2014, physically since October 2016.  See below for details.

Acquired:

I first put this on pre-order at the Book Depository back in mid 2014, when it was originally released.  I put the pre-order on the paperback, which was releasing in the middle of 2015 because I’m cheap and  I figured I could wait that long.  Then the release date got pushed out to September of 2015.  I was tetchy, but accepted this.  THEN the release date got pushed out to September 2016!  It arrived in October 2016.

Reason I haven’t read it yet:

Because it only arrived seven months ago.  Obvs.  Also, it’s quite hefty, so I had to find make time to fit it in.

Best Bits:

  • Greenglass House is a hefty, prolonged mystery.  The mystery is drawn out and is also quite cerebral, since the players in the mystery are confined to one house in bad weather.  The story does has some echoes of the golden age of crime fiction about it, but since no crime has been committed (at least at first), it also has the feel of a fun, imaginative adventure game.  I’ve heard it compared to The Westing Game and there is definitely a similarity in the plotting, but Greenglass House doesn’t have the urgency or high stakes of that book and so is a bit cosier overall.
  • Tabletop roleplay gaming is a big feature of the story, with Milo and Meddy taking on characters as they solve the mystery.  Milo’s blackjack/escaladeur character, Negret, allows Milo to think outside the box and take risks that Milo himself normally wouldn’t, while Meddy’s Sirin, a scholiast, or invisible angel type character has a great significance to the story that didn’t strike me until close to the end of the book.
  • Because there are only two child characters in a house of adults, the book avoids annoying middle grade tropes and gets down to brass tacks as the kids use all their cunning and game-smarts to uncover the adults’ secrets.
  • The adult characters tell stories throughout the book, so we are treated to stories within the greater story and you can be sure each of these stories drops some clues about the adults who tell them and secrets they might be hiding.
  • The story, house and myths about the area feel like they could really be true, which adds a sense of realism to the magical realism.
  • Milo’s parents are ordinary people – hooray!  It’s so rare to have parents in middle grade stories that are (a) present (b) completely normal (as opposed to being gods, magicians, spies or generally not what their children think they are) and (c) involved in their child’s life.  I also liked that Milo is adopted, which plays something of a role in the story, but isn’t the big clincher – just a part of who he is.
  • The book is set at Christmas, but has very little to do with Christmas, and so is a perfect choice for when you want that Christmas time feeling without having to actually read about Christmas.

Less Impressive Bits:

  • Greenglass House is a hefty, prolonged mystery.  That means that the pacing is quite slow and discoveries are rationed out over the course of the book.  While I enjoyed the read and was absorbed throughout, I won’t be picking up the sequel straight away.  I’ll need some time to decompress before I become sucked into the second mystery in the series.
  • There is a twist toward the end of the book that I didn’t see coming and although I came to terms with it reasonably quickly, I felt a little betrayed that the author had taken such a route when the rest of the book seemed so authentic and grounded (barring the smugglers, strangers, thieves, spies and customs officials).  I’ll have to wait and see how it pans out in the second book before I make too many judgments though.

On reflection, was this worth buying?

Yes, because it is highly unlikely that I would have ever borrowed such a hefty book from the library.  To balance that out though, I’m not sorry I had to wait so long before getting to it.

Where to now for this tome?

The permanent shelf…for now.

I’m also submitting Greenglass House for the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 in category #35: a book set in a hotel.  You can check out my progess toward all my 2017 challenges here.

Until next time,

Bruce

Gabbing About Graphic Novels: Mighty Jack…

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Today I’m bringing you another Ben Hatke graphic gem because Ben Hatke is awesome.  I picked up Mighty Jack from the library a week or two ago and I’m pleased to say I enjoyed it even more than the Zita the Spacegirl books.  It’s a big call I know, but bear with me.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Jack might be the only kid in the world who’s dreading summer. But he’s got a good reason: summer is when his single mom takes a second job and leaves him at home to watch his autistic kid sister, Maddy. It’s a lot of responsibility, and it’s boring, too, because Maddy doesn’t talk. Ever. But then, one day at the flea market, Maddy does talk—to tell Jack to trade their mom’s car for a box of mysterious seeds. It’s the best mistake Jack has ever made.

What starts as a normal little garden out back behind the house quickly grows up into a wild, magical jungle with tiny onion babies running amok, huge, pink pumpkins that bite, and, on one moonlit night that changes everything…a dragon.

mighty jack

Target Age Range: 

Middle grade and above

Genre:

Fantasy, fractured fairy tales

Art Style:

Ben Hatke style!

Reading time:

Took me about half an hour total spread over two sittings

Let’s get gabbing:

I’m going to dispense with reiterating how much I love Ben Hatke’s illustrative style and adorable original creatures and just get on with talking about the story.  Although, if you’ll indulge me, this series has a ridiculously cute little onion headed species that Mad Martha is dying to recreate in yarn, but as she doesn’t have the time just now, we’ll have to wait for that particular treat.

This is the good old fashioned kids-stumbling-upon-hidden-magic-right-in-their-own-backyard combined with meeting-a-friend-with-a-bizarrely-cool-skill style of fantasy that anyone who has loved fantasy and magic stories since childhood will definitely appreciate.  Since Jack’s mum has to work two jobs just to make ends meet, Jack is often left to look after his little sister Maddy, who is nonverbal.  When Maddy wanders off at a local market, Jack manages to find her talking to some strange people (who you will certainly recognise if you have read the Zita the Spacegirl series!!) and ends up trading his mum’s car for a box of seed packets when Maddy unexpectedly starts talking.

When the kids plant the seeds in the yard they’re in for a massive shock – because the garden that sprouts is full of sentient plants, adorable onion-headed creatures and some vines that are a bit too grabby for comfort.  When Jack’s swordplay-mastering, home-schooled neighbour Lilly (oh, I’ve only just realised that she has a botanical name…coincidence?) turns up to help out, Jack has to decide whether to trust her and let her into the family’s troubles or take the easy route and keep shutting everyone out.

I love, love, love, love this story.  Apart from the fantasy elements (enormous snails, anyone?) there is a strong subplot about acceptance, trust and the perils of relying on oneself when others are willing to contribute.  Mighty Jack doesn’t have the humorous undertones of the Zita series, relying instead on a sense of adventure and risk to drive a suspenseful, but exhilarating plot.  Once again Hatke has created female characters that are full of depth, with unexpected skills and for this reason, the book will appeal to both boys and girls.  There’s a certain echo of the Spiderwick Chronicles in this story, but Hatke has done it better.  I really can’t wait now to get my paws on the second book in the series – Mighty Jack and the Goblin King – by hook or crook.

 

Overall snapshot:

This is another brilliant addition to Hatke’s growing catalogue of work.  If you haven’t yet introduced his graphic novels or picture books to your younglings, you must really correct that oversight because these are modern classics that deserve to be re-read again and again.

Until next time,

Bruce

TBR Friday: Book Uncle and Me

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TBR Friday

Welcome to my first TBR Friday for 2017!  I have made it a goal to read at least one book from my TBR stack each month, with a goal of completing Pike’s Peak level – 12 books – on Bev’s Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2017 by the end of the year.  Today’s book is not only going to count toward that challenge, but also Bev’s Colour Coded Challenge, the Epistolary Reading Challenge AND the PopSugar Reading Challenge in category five: a book written by a person of colour!  Boom!

Today’s book is Book Uncle and Me by Uma Krishnaswami and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Nine-year-old Yasmin intends to read a book a day for the rest of her life. Book Uncle, who runs a free lending library on the street corner, always has the perfect book for her. But when Book Uncle seems to be in trouble, Yasmin has to take her nose out of her book and do something. With the elections coming up and the grown-ups busy with their own affairs, what difference can Yasmin and her friends possibly make? Will they get help from Karate Samuel, the eccentric superstar who’s standing for Mayor? Yasmin gets to work, ideas begin to fly like feathers, and soon everything starts to spin – out of control.

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Ten Second Synopsis:
Yasmin has a goal to read a book a day for the rest of her life, ably aided by Book Uncle, the man who runs a free little lending library on the corner of Yasmin’s street. When Book Uncle receives a notice from the Council that he must close his book stand, Yasmin must find a way to change Council’s mind and bring books back to her community.

Time on the TBR Shelf:

About six months or so.

Acquired:

Purchased from Booktopia’s bargain section after recently having put it on my TBR list.

Reason I haven’t read it yet:

It’s short, easily readable and therefore easy to ignore.

Best Bits:

  • Even though this is a short book, it’s chock full of underlying social issues and culturally interesting elements just ripe for discussion by young readers
  • Yasmin is delightfully flawed and determined and compassionate and an all around charming heroine.  She speaks without thinking, then feels guilty for it, then tries to rectify her mistakes, then manages to mobilise a whole lot of strangers to her cause simply through her passion for it. If you are looking for realistic female protagonists in early chapter books, then look no further!
  • This book celebrates books and the people who read them.  It celebrates the power of books to change people’s lives in big and small ways, and to bring people together who otherwise have little in common.
  • This book wasn’t written to be a “diverse” book, but if you aren’t an Indian person reading it, it certainly fulfills that criteria.  The story itself is completely transferable to any Western classroom in which civic education is a priority, but there are also lots of parts of the story that will inspire discussion about difference – particularly issues of access to free lending library resources and election processes.

Less Impressive Bits:

  • None.

On reflection, was this worth buying?

Yes.

Where to now for this tome?

I may donate this one to the mini-fleshling’s school library.

If you would like to check out my progress in each of my various challenges you can check them out in the links in the header, under 2017 Challenges

 colour-coded-reading-challenge epistolatory-reading-challenge-2017

Until next time,

Bruce

 

Picture Book Perusal: The Patchwork Bike

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Today’s picture book is an homage to all the creatives out there who can’t see a bit of household flotsam without imagining how it could be better used in the pursuit of fun.  We received The Patchwork Bike by Aussie Afro-Carribean author Maxine Beneba Clarke and street artist Van T Rudd from Hachette Australia for review and here’s the blurb:

What’s the best fun in the whole village? Riding the patchwork bike we made! A joyous picture book for children by award-winning author Maxine Beneba Clarke.

When you live in a village at the edge of the No-Go Desert, you need to make your own fun. That’s when you and your brothers get inventive and build a bike from scratch, using everyday items like an old milk pot (maybe mum is still using it, maybe not) and a used flour sack. You can even make a numberplate from bark, if you want. The end result is a spectacular bike, perfect for going bumpity-bump over sandhills, past your fed-up mum and right through your mud-for-walls home.

Now doesn’t that bike look like every bored kid’s dream machine?!

This is a wonderfully fast-moving picture book that celebrates the rebellious, the inventive and the just plain entertaining spirit of kids who are left to, rather than on their own devices.  There is not a screen in sight here, yet the girl and her brothers seem to have plenty of ways to make their surroundings a fun place to be.  There’s the sandhill for sliding, the tree for climbing and jumping and, of course, the epic bike they have patched together from bits and pieces that have been left unattended.  The bike may not be the prettiest creation ever (although the tree-branch handles certainly have an earthy design charm all their own), but it does the job and deftly delivers the three adventurers from one end of the village to the other in style.

The text features plenty of rhythm perfect for reading aloud, as well as some fantastic examples of onomatopoeia that bring the bike and the riding experience to life.  The illustrations are so unusual; a cardboard-looking background with bits of printed text glinting through thick smears of coloured paint and old bits of sticky tape suitably reflect the patchwork nature of the bike (and perhaps even the village?), while our proud protagonist is so super-cool in her reflective shades that it would be impossible to be unmoved by stirrings of envy on seeing her fly past on her fantastic creation.  The other characters are also beautifully fleshed out in the illustrations, with the “crazy” brothers first seen dancing on what appears to be a police car, while the mum really does look fed-up, although perhaps not necessarily at the antics of her children.

One can’t fail to notice that this story is not set in an urban environment and this will no doubt arouse some curiosity in young readers.  The exact location of the village (in terms of country) is never mentioned and this might open up conversations about how others live and what non-urban living might be like.  This would also be a great pick for early years classes looking for inspiration around creating functional objects out of unexpected materials.  I can picture the classroom creation station or cardboard box and bits tub suddenly becoming hugely popular after a class reading of The Patchwork Bike.

All in all this is a fun and engaging story that will speak to the adventurer in all of us and have younger readers planning, designing and rummaging through your recycling bin before the back cover is closed.

Until next time,

Bruce

Escape! Three Cracking Titles for Younger Readers…

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September school holidays are kicking off tomorrow here in Queensland and with the hotter weather back (after a shocking two labyrinth-lost freedom-swimmer omnia
minute absence), many people might be starting to think about escaping on a relaxing getaway.  To ensure that your reading needs are covered, here are three quite excellent titles involving escape, for middle grade and YA readers.

First up, we have Omnia by Laura Gallego Garcia, translated from the original Spanish by Jordi Castells.  We received a copy of this one from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

All you have to do is imagine—the Omnia superstore has anything you could ever dream of.

Where else but Omnia would a boy go looking to replace a one-of-a-kind stuffed bunny that happens to be his baby sister’s favorite toy? Scrolling through the online retailer’s extensive inventory, Nico finds what looks like a perfect match, but the item is lost somewhere in the vast Omnia warehouse. He doesn’t believe it, so he stows away in a shipment being returned to the warehouse to search for the bunny himself.

Nico quickly gets stranded on the island of Omnia, a fantastical place that does much more than sell everyday items. It is a hub for a business with intergalactic reach, and while stray visitors to Omnia are welcomed warmly, they are not permitted to leave, ever.

The adventure of a lifetime awaits Nico as he searches for the beloved toy and tries to find a way to return home.

omnia

We absolutely adored this unusual middle grade sci-fi adventure story that was a delightful mix of Charlie and the CBruce's Pickhocolate Factory and and the inside of a TARDIS.  In fact, it felt like such an original story that we have labelled it a Top Book of 2016 pick.  Nico is a supremely sympathetic protagonist and an unfailing optimist and his firm commitment to finding a replacement for his sister’s favourite toy (also a family heirloom!) is commendable.  I loved the imaginative features of the Omnia warehouse – I won’t spell these out here because it would spoil the fun for first time readers – and the inclusion of some very unexpected individuals that gave the world an expansive feel, despite the fact that most of the story takes place entirely within the warehouse of the Omnia online store.

Omnia as a whole felt like an energizing story, with twists a-plenty, but twists that I didn’t expect and didn’t necessarily predict.  The story never becomes too sinister, yet Nico clearly has some troubling problems to overcome before he can achieve his goal  It was fantastic to see that instead of taking the easy, well-trodden “evil villain running a secret empire” route, the root causes of Nico’s problems were recognisably more human in origin.  The ending comes along quicker than one might expect, but I appreciated the fact that Gallego doesn’t faff about and draw out the final scenes simply to lengthen the wordcount.  If you are a jaded reader of middle grade fiction who is sick of the same old fantasy and magic tropes being played out time and again, Omnia will be a refreshing change, without compromising on a sense of adventure and new discoveries.

Next up we have a historical fiction for upper middle grade and YA readers by Wai Chim, Freedom Swimmer.  We received a copy from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Ming survived the famine that killed his parents during China’s ‘Great Leap Forward’, and lives a hard but adequate life, working in the fields…When a group of city boys comes to the village as part of a Communist Party re-education program, Ming and his friends aren’t sure what to make of the new arrivals. They’re not used to hard labour and village life. But despite his reservations, Ming befriends a charming city boy called Li. The two couldn’t be more different, but slowly they form a bond over evening swims and shared dreams…But as the bitterness of life under the Party begins to take its toll on both boys, they begin to imagine the impossible: freedom.

freedom-swimmer

Freedom Swimmer (Wai Chim) Published by Allen & Unwin, 24th August, 2016. RRP: $16.99

I will admit to knowing very little about the history (either ancient or modern) of China and this book was a perfect introduction to the historical period of the Cultural Revolution under the rule of Mao Tse-tung and the ways in which the Chinese people responded to massive social change.  Ming is a shy village boy who lived through years of famine which brought about the death of his family.  Alone and in a precarious social position, Ming tries to uphold his part in the work of the village while under the wing of his closest friend, Tiann.  Li is a good looking, educated city boy who arrives in Ming’s village as part of an exercise by the Red Guard to learn about the working life of the “peasants”.  While Li is familiar with and supportive of Mao’s teachings, he is open-minded and friendly, something some of his comrades in the Guard see as a precursor to possible reactionary thinking.

Freedom Swimmer is pitched at just the right level for young readers to get a glimpse of the oppressive nature of life for Ming and the people of China generally, without having to go into the more confronting details of how “reactionaries” were treated.  These details are hinted at, and there are some violent scenes, but rather than focusing on the horror of an oppressive military regime, the author has done a great job at highlighting the personal responses of Ming and Li to changes in their communities and families.  Before reading this book, I had no idea that Freedom Swims were a “thing” and this would be a fantastic novel to use in lower secondary classrooms to introduce the idea of asylum seeking, the ways in which people are forced to leave their home countries, and what might happen to them if they successfully manage the escape or if they don’t.  Given that this is a topical issue in Australia at the moment, historical instances of asylum seeking are a valuable contribution to the discourse on what exactly a refugee is and how different countries respond to those seeking asylum.

Putting the “issues” of the book aside for a moment however, Freedom Swimmer is a tight, engaging historical novel with relatable characters and writing that makes this recent historical period immediately accessible for young readers.

Finally, we have Labyrinth Lost, the first in the Brooklyn Brujas series, by Zoraida Cordova.  We received a copy of this one from the publisher via Netgalley.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Nothing says Happy Birthday like summoning the spirits of your dead relatives.

Alex is a bruja, the most powerful witch in a generation…and she hates magic. At her Deathday celebration, Alex performs a spell to rid herself of her power. But it backfires. Her whole family vanishes into thin air, leaving her alone with Nova, a brujo boy she can’t trust. A boy whose intentions are as dark as the strange marks on his skin.

The only way to get her family back is to travel with Nova to Los Lagos, a land in-between, as dark as Limbo and as strange as Wonderland…

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Being the jaded, cranky old fusspot that I am, it is always exciting to come across a book that features a whole new experience of magic.  Having read more than a few YA books that feature magic in my time, I tend to get that samey feeling quite a bit.  I am pleased however, to note that Labyrinth Lost had me sucked right in to Alejandra’s world of witches and sorcery…for the first part, at least.  Cordova’s magic system here is a mix of Latin American and Afro-Caribbean myth, folklore and ritual and as such, the imagery fairly leapt off the page.  The initial part of the story, in which Alex is trying to figure out how to avoid her Deathday party, is urban fantasy at its best, with the magical, mythical elements expertly blended with the mundane world of school and relatives.

I was more than a little disappointed to see this part of the story end, but end it does when Alex and her reluctant accomplice, Nova, are drawn into the world of Los Lagos, in which magic reigns and the curse of a creature called the Devourer is laying waste to the land.  Now don’t get me wrong: this part of the book was still exciting and creative, but I haven’t read a really original-feeling urban fantasy YA novel for such a long time that I wanted that part to continue indefinitely.  Once the characters had arrived in Los Lagos, it felt like more familiar tropey territory, even though the world itself was quite original and unexpected.

The greatest thing about this book (apart from the kick-ass urban fantasy beginning) is the focus on identity and family relationships throughout.  Alex, despite being set apart as a witch, struggles with the common problem of feeling disconnected from her family; wanting something other than the path that is expected of her.  I’ll be interested to see where this series goes – I hope there’ll be more urban settings in the sequel.

So, be it by water, by magic portal or by pneumatic postal tube, I hope you find a way to escape these holidays!

Until next time,

Bruce