My Lovely Frankie: An Evocative, Timely and Insightful Glimpse into Catholicism of the Past…

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my lovely frankie

My Lovely Frankie by Judith Clarke.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 28th June, 2017.  RRP: $19.99

I sit on the shelf of practicing Catholics.  The he-fleshling has a cousin in the clergy and an uncle who is one of Australia’s most prominent theologians.  The she-fleshling’s father spent time in the seminary training to become a Christian brother.  They are Catholics that, being of the post Vatican II era, fully grasp and vehemently despise – as many non-Catholics do – the hypocrisy and power hungriness that characterises the culture of the Church in general and the clergy in particular.  When the she-fleshling’s father left the seminary to pursue marriage, his parents were sent a note of condolence on his (from the clergy’s point of view) ridiculous and life-wrecking decision.  So I fully appreciated the gentle and accurate rendering of life in a 1950s seminary that Judith Clarke has created in historical YA novel, My Lovely Frankie.  

If you are not Catholic, have no knowledge of how the Catholic clergy works and has worked in the past, or have no insight into how the Church has changed (and more importantly, how it hasn’t) over the past 70+ years however, you may be mildly to majorly baffled by the decisions made by some of the characters in this book.  With that advisory message under our belts, let us continue.

We received our copy of this title from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

A masterful, moving story about a teenage boy caught between faith and love, by one of Australia’s finest YA writers.’Frankie believed in Heaven quite literally, as if it was another lovely world out past the stars. And when he spoke the word “love”, it seemed to spring free and fly into the air like a beautiful balloon you wanted to run after. But I couldn’t tell my parents about Frankie, not properly. I told them I’d made friends with the boy in the room next to mine, and how he’d come from this little town out west. I couldn’t tell them how he was becoming the best thing in my world. I couldn’t tell anyone, I hardly admitted it to myself.’

In the 1950s, ‘entering’ the seminary was for ever, and young boys were gathered into the priesthood before they were old enough to know what they would lose. Tom went to St Finbar’s because he was looking for something more than the ordinary happiness of his home and school.But then he discovered that being able to love another person was the most important thing of all.

For Tom, loving Frankie made him part of the world. Even when Frankie was gone…

Although this is classified as a YA novel, I think it’s safe to say that the setting and historical background underpinning Tom’s reflections will be lost on many current twelve to seventeen year old readers.  I think it was a lucky thing that I have a background knowledge of Catholicism and the structure of the Church both on a personal level and through tertiary studies, because it allowed many parts of the book to resonate with me in a way that might not be possible for young readers of today, be they Catholic or otherwise.  Couple that with the fact that the narrative style of the book is reflective, gentle and lacking in action for the majority of the novel and this may not be seen as a winner for its target age group.

Nevertheless, if you have any interest in historical novels and themes of coming of age against difficult social circumstances, I would encourage you to give My Lovely Frankie a go.

Tom decides, of his own accord, to enter the seminary and train to be a priest.  While this may not have been a strange decision in the 1950s – indeed, for Catholic families with multiple sons, it was almost a given that at least one boy would go into the Church – for Tom, this decision could be classed as a bit unusual because he is an only child and his parents don’t seem to be particularly pious or involved in the Church.  Nevertheless, Tom stands by his decision and while in the sparse, regimented and emotionally distant environment of the seminary, he meets Frankie.  Frankie is a breath of fresh air in the stale corridors, and felt to me almost like a St Francis of Assisi character; the one who is out frolicking amongst the baby animals while the others are restrained by tradition and discipline from admitting to and engaging with the beauty of life.   Tom becomes fascinated with Frankie and when Frankie mysteriously disappears from the seminary later, it affects Tom such that his whole life is coloured by the loss.

The story opens on Tom’s dotage and the reader is privy to the importance that Tom has placed on his relationship with Frankie, fleeting though that relationship was.  From there, the book flicks back to Tom’s youth, and the decisions that led him to enter the seminary – and perhaps more importantly, the decisions that caused him to remain there.  Alongside the tale of friendship and unrequited romance between Tom and Frankie, the book highlights themes of emotional connection and the development of empathy (or lack of it) in an environment as restricted as the seminary.

Clarke has cleverly thrown up many of the issues that are major factors in the train wreck that is the current state of Catholic clergy, including the enforced separation of young boys from their families while training to be priests, an overblown sense of superiority bestowed upon those who would be priests and a complete lack of acknowledgement or understanding about key aspects of being human, such as sexuality and emotional connection.  Through Tom’s eyes, Clarke brings to light the great injustices and suffering that have been the result of such a regime, both for those within the clergy and those who have been impacted forever by the actions of clergy members.

Allow me to share with you one of the most telling lines of the book for me, in which Tom reflects on the constant nighttime crying of the youngest kids at the seminary:

“…it was part of our training, our formation: for us there was no use crying because no one would ever come to comfort us.  Like soldiers, we were being taught to have no pity for ourselves, and even then the edge of it struck me: that if you had no pity on yourself, how could you have it for other people, ever?”

My Lovely Frankie, page 119

Once again, although I found the book absorbing and thought-provoking and bang-on accurate in its setting and atmosphere, I am still struggling to see how this will appeal to a contemporary audience of teenagers.  Perhaps if any of you give it a go, you’ll let me know your thoughts?

Until next time,

Bruce

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Room, with a Dog: Goodnight, Boy…

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goodnight boy

I’ve got some YA/adult fiction crossover for you today that is highly reminiscent of Emma Donoghue’s Room, in that it features a child imprisoned in a suburban home for reasons that aren’t exactly clear at the beginning.  We received a copy of Goodnight, Boy by Nikki Sheehan from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

A tale of two very different worlds, both shattered by the loss of loved ones. Tragic, comic and full of hope, thanks to a dog called Boy.

The kennel has been JC’s home ever since his new adoptive father locked him inside. For hours on end, JC sits and tells his dog Boy how he came to this country: his family; the orphanage and the Haitian earthquake that swept everything away.

When his adoptive mother Melanie rescues him, life starts to feel normal again. Until JC does something bad, something that upset his new father so much that he and Boy are banished to the kennel. But as his new father gets sicker, JC realizes they have to find a way out. And so begins a stunning story of a boy, a dog and their journey to freedom.

I’ve got two separate warring opinions on this book which is making it a little difficult to come to a cohesive overall feeling about it.  Goodnight, Boy is narrated by JC, a teen boy who has been adopted from Haiti by an American couple.  The story is revealed as JC talks to his dog, Boy, with whom JC is imprisoned in a kennel in the backyard of his suburban home.  As the story unfolds, the reader finds out that JC’s adoptive mother, Melanie is missing, gone away or otherwise absent, for reasons that are also unclear, and that JC’s angry adoptive father is responsible for JC and Boy’s captivity.

If you are hoping, as you read, that the reasons behind JC’s imprisonment will be revealed in a timely fashion, you will be sorely disappointed.  The reasons are not revealed until the very end of the story and by that time I was a bit baffled as to why Melanie thought leaving JC alone with her obviously abusive partner, who had expressed no liking for JC, was a good idea in the first place.  

But I digress.

The main things I enjoyed about this book were the easily readable narrative voice and JC’s descriptions about his childhood in Haiti.  The book has a conversational tone and it is easy to fall into the flow of the words and get caught up in the story, despite the constant interruptions in which JC takes issue with Boy’s doggish behaviour.  Similarly, although often sad, JC’s recounting of his childhood I found to be absorbing and fascinating and revealed much about the factors that have moulded his personality.

The thing that I found difficult about the book was that it didn’t have the shock factor of a book like Room, which dealt with a similar situation, and I felt that without this, something was lacking.  From the beginning of the story it was obvious that something seriously bad was going to happen – or possibly was already happening – but this didn’t pan out in the way I expected and I felt that the ending was a bit of an anti-climax.  Not that I’m unhappy that there was a satisfactory ending for JC and Boy – far from it – but I was hoping for a bit more suspense and emotional turmoil than was delivered.

I think I would have preferred it had the book had a second story thread, narrated by Melanie or her husband, to flesh out some of the issues and heighten the suspense.

Overall I found this to be an interesting read with some original qualities, but it didn’t quite stand out as a stellar story for the reasons I’ve mentioned.

I am submitting this one for the Popsugar Reading Challenge in category #31: a book where the main character is a different ethnicity to you.  You can check out my progress toward all my reading challenges here.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

Meandering through Middle Grade: A Different Dog…

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meandering-through-middle-grade

I’m back with another Paul Jennings new release today, courtesy of Allen & Unwin.  A Different Dog felt like a big departure from Jennings’ typical work, despite the fact that the twist in the tale is still present.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

The gripping and surprising story of a boy, a dog and a daring rescue from the bestselling, much-loved author of the Don’t Look Now series and The Unforgettable What’s His Name.

The forest is dense and dark. And the trail full of unexpected perils. The dog can’t move. The boy can’t talk. And you won’t know why. Or where you are going. You will put this story down not wanting the journey to end.

But it’s from Paul Jennings so watch out for the ambush.

One of the best. From one of the best.

a different dog

A Different Dog by Paul Jennings.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 26th April 2017.  RRP: $14.99

When you’ve read almost everything a particular author has written over many years and suddenly they do something with a story you don’t expect, it can be hard to measure it against your previous experiences of their work.  So it was for me with this story.  A Different Dog has a much more subdued and sombre tone that much of Jennings’ previous work and the magical realism that often colours his stories and provides the impetus for his famous twists in the tail of the tale is absent here.  Not that this is necessarily a bad thing – just different from what I would have expected.

The story revolves around a boy who has been a selective mute (or possibly an anxiety-induced mute) since a traumatic incident involving a beloved pet.  He lives with his mother in livable poverty and is disconnected from peers due to his lack of speech.  While on a mission to win a cash prize in a community fun run, the boy witnesses a vehicle accident and attempts to help – but instead ends up trying to find his way out of the hillside terrain accompanied by a highly unusual dog, who was a passenger in the crashed vehicle.  Along the way home, the boy makes a number of life-changing discoveries…but his greatest challenge comes later when his friendship with the dog is tested by fate.

I quite enjoyed the subtleties of this story as a change from the wackier antics that embody Jennings’ usual fare.  Even though it is a reasonably short read, this felt more like a story for older readers who could appreciate the themes of grief, guilt and shame that ring-fence the boy’s image of himself.  There is a pointedness in the story relating to the cruelty of others, whether between humans or from humans directed at animals, and this left me with a bit of a sense of the sinister when I think back to the story.

On the whole, I think I prefer Jennings’ lighter works but A Different Dog is a thought-provoking read that uses a remarkably small word count to effectively raise questions about ethics, choices and making recompense for past mistakes.  This would be a great choice for reluctant young adult readers or those who require high-interest, low reading level tales for struggling older readers.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

Lockwood & Co #4: The Creeping Shadow…

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lockwood-and-co-creeping-shadow

We Shelf-Dwellers love Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co series.

We know it.

You know it.

Let’s just accept it as fact and move on.

If you haven’t had a crack at this series yet and you are a fan of paranormal, ghost hunting books, you are missing out.  Enough said.  We jumped at the chance to review book four in the series – The Creeping Shadow – when it was offered by the publisher via Netgalley (even though we haven’t got to book three yet), and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Lucy has left Lockwood & Co. A freelance operative, she is hiring herself out to other agencies – agencies that might value her ever-improving skills.

But now Lockwood needs her help.

Penelope Fittes, leader of the well-renowned Fittes Agency wants Lockwood & Co. – and only them – to locate and remove the ‘Source’ for the legendary Brixton Cannibal.

It’s a tough assignment. Made worse by the tensions between Lucy and the other agents – even the skull is treating her like a jilted lover!

What will it take to reunite the team? Black marketeers, an informant ghost, a Spirit Cape that transports the wearer, and mysteries involving their closest rivals may just do the trick.

But not all is at it seems. And it’s not long before a shocking revelation rocks Lockwood & Co. to its very core . . .

*There may be spoilers here from book two and beyond.  Read at your own risk*

I think this is the most intriguing book of the series so far (although, admittedly, I haven’t read the third book yet – The Hollow Boy), with Lucy’s relationship with Lockwood & Co being first and foremost in the mind of the reader the whole way through.  Having skipped straight to book four when opportunity arose meant that I haven’t been privy to the events of book three in which Lucy parts ways with Lockwood & Co and strikes out on her own as a freelance operative, ably aided by the skull in a jar.  Even though it’s obvious that book three dealt with some pretty major events, I didn’t feel particularly out of the loop here because essentially, all the reader needs to know is that (a) Lucy left Lockwood & Co and (b) the skull played a part in this leaving.

The early chapters of the book have a distinct air of melancholy about them as Lucy spends most of her time, when not freelancing for various sub-par agencies, alone in her bedsit with the skull, which, I’m sure we can all agree, is a bit depressing really.  It’s obvious that she misses the team, but feels that she must stay away for the greater good of everyone and Lockwood particularly.  Soon enough though, excitement kicks off as Lockwood invites Lucy back for a one-off job that quickly turns into a second job and so on.  The initial two ghost hunts (involving a historical witch and a seriously creepy cannibal serial killer) are particularly atmospheric and frightening.  The unexpected inclusion of Quill Kipps – ex-Fittes agency smug git and Lockwood & Co antagonist from way back – adds a new dimension to the tale as the team swells to five members, all of whom seem to have a bit of a beef (or at least a niggling irritation) with at least one of the other members.

There are some amazing reveals at the end of the story that I didn’t see coming and these will certainly be of great interest in the fifth (and final, apparently – booooo!) installment when it is released.  I won’t spoil any of the action for you, but the final hunt for the team involves a seriously haunted village that seems to be experiencing a sort of plague of ghosts, ever since a well-known research institute moved in down the road.  If you count the skull as the sixth member of the team – which Lucy obviously does – it is apparent that all six members will need every ounce of their wits about them for the next book, due to a “warning” (read: threat) from one of the top folks in the ghost hunting field, as well as a shocking tidbit of information that gets dropped just pages before the end.

The Creeping Shadow is simultaneously more of the same from the Lockwood & Co gang and the potential for fascinating new directions, so I am definitely looking forward to the final book in the series.  Now I just have to go back and read book three before number five is  released.

Until next time,

Bruce

The Bone Witch: A Great Expectations Review…

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GREAT (1)

Given that I adored Rin Chupeco’s first two novels, it was only natural that I would have massive expectations regarding her third.  We received The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco from the publisher via Netgalley for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

When Tea accidentally resurrects her brother from the dead, she learns she is different from the other witches in her family. Her gift for necromancy means that she’s a bone witch, a title that makes her feared and ostracized by her community. But Tea finds solace and guidance with an older, wiser bone witch, who takes Tea and her brother to another land for training.

In her new home, Tea puts all her energy into becoming an asha — one who can wield elemental magic. But dark forces are approaching quickly, and in the face of danger, Tea will have to overcome her obstacles…and make a powerful choice.

Memoirs of a Geisha meets The Name of the Wind in this brilliant new fantasy series by Rin Chupeco!

bone witch.jpg

What I Expected:

*an enchanting blend of magic and creepiness with a complex plot and plenty of action, as in the previous two novels from this author

*a memorable story in which the imagery created by the author sears itself into your brain as you read and leaves a lasting impression

What I Got:

*seemingly endless descriptions of the setting and the “rules” of the world in which the book is set

*a completely different narrative tone from the other books I had read by this author

*an extremely slow-placed story that resulted in my DNFing at 15%

The Bone Witch is such a massive shift in content and voice from Chupeco’s first two horror/supernatural novels that I felt all at sea from the very first chapter.  The story opens with an unnamed narrator searching for the girl who turns out to be the protagonist of the story, as the narrator tries to convince this girl to tell him the story of how she became a Bone Witch….or something like that.  I’m not 100% sure because I didn’t finish the whole book, but essentially, the bulk of the book is the story that is being told by the girl to the narrator of the first chapter…if that makes sense.

The story that is being told features Tea as the protagonist, a young girl who accidentally manages to raise her brother from the dead and in doing so, marks herself out as a Bone Witch.  Bone Witches are reviled by most good folk for….reasons that aren’t exactly clear…but Tea attaches herself to an experienced Bone Witch as an apprentice and together, the two, plus Tea’s undead brother set off to do…Bone Witchy things.

You may think that I don’t really know what’s going on because I gave up on the book so early – and you would probably be right – but there is so much description and “telling” about the setting going on that I found it really hard to keep the important bits of information – such as who the main characters are and what they’re meant to be doing – in my head while reading. Unfortunately, the interminable description of everything from architecture of certain towns to the particulars of Tea’s brothers ex-regiment in the army, is not balanced out by explanations of important aspects of the world, such as what heartglasses are and what purpose they serve.  This might come along later in the book, but heartglasses were mentioned so often in the first 15% of the book that I really needed a fuller explanation of what these were in order to get a grasp on the story.

The last few bits I read before putting the book down did seem to be picking up a bit and I began to enjoy the undead brother character’s interventions, but not to the extent that I felt like I could wade through more dry descriptions of the setting.

If you are a fan of Rin Chupeco’s work, you should probably know going into this that it is a departure from the style that readers will be familiar with from her earlier works.  This may not be a problem for you and I hope you enjoy this book much better than I did…for me though, this was a miss.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

TBR Friday + a Fi50 Reminder…

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Fiction in 50 NEW BUTTON

As difficult as it is to believe, it’s time for Fiction in 50 for September – that’s right, September.  I hope, as well as planning your Fi50s, you’ve also got your end-of-year shopping on the go already because there are just under 14 weeks to go until Christmas.

Scared you there, didn’t I?

I also figured that out using a handy little site called Weeks Until, which has a tool for you to figure out the waiting time until any date you like.  Nifty!

But back to Fiction in 50 business.  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…

signs and wonders button

See you there!


TBR Friday

I feel like I’m doing well on my Mount TBR Challenge so far.  My aim was to knock over 12 books from my TBR shelf that I phsyically owned before the first of this year and to date, including today’s effort, I have managed to complete all the books from my original list!  TBR challenge list

This is excluding The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which I decided not to finish, but including Hester and Harriet, which hadn’t arrived by the time I took this photo.  So hooray for me!  This means I will be able to add in a few extra contenders to make it over the #12 mark by the end of the year.

*crosses claws*

But let’s get on with today’s book, The Riverman by Aaron Starmer.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Alistair Cleary is the kid who everyone trusts. Fiona Loomis isnot the typical girl next door. Alistair hasn’t really thought of her since they were little kids until she shows up at his doorstep with a proposition: she wants him to write her biography. What begins as an odd vanity project gradually turns into a frightening glimpse into the mind of a potentially troubled girl. Fiona says that in her basement, there’s a portal that leads to a magical world where a creature called the Riverman is stealing the souls of children. And Fiona’s soul could be next. If Fiona really believes what she’s saying, Alistair fears she may be crazy. But if it’s true, her life could be at risk. In this novel from Aaron Starmer, it’s up to Alistair to separate fact from fiction, fantasy from reality.

the-riverman

Ten Second Synopsis:

Alistair doesn’t really know Fiona too well; despite the fact that she lives down the street, they stopped hanging out when they were about seven.  When Fiona chooses Alistair to be her biographer and tells him a story that is, frankly, unbelievable, Alistair will have to decide whether to risk believing in the unbelievable, or investigate what might be really going on in Fiona’s life.

Time on the TBR Shelf:

I ordered it from the BD on the 3rd of February, 2015 so it’s been on there since a week or so after that.

Acquired:

Purchased from the BD.

Reason I haven’t read it yet:

Sheer laziness.  Plus, it felt like it might be a hefty read.  So again, laziness.

Best Bits:

  • I found this to be an extraordinarily good example of YA magical realism.  Or fantasy.  Both, really.  The story is complex and deftly woven and you are never sure whether Aquavania exists or whether it’s Fiona’s coping mechanism.
  • Even though the book deals with some grown-up issues, making it more appropriate for upper-end YA readers, Alistair is a perfectly authentic twelve-year-old protagonist, showing that combination of bravado, indifference and bewilderment common to kids of this age.
  • There’s a twist regarding the Riverman that was so unexpected as to be inexplicable – but this was okay because (a) it leads nicely into the second book and (b) it reinforced the atmosphere of confusion relating to the whole “is Aquavania real?” question.
  • The narrative style was absolutely engaging and provided a thorough exploration of the main characters, as well as the motivations of various others in the town.  I was super-impressed by how tight the story was and how expertly it had been put together.

Less Impressive Bits:

  • I can’t really think of any parts of the book I personally didn’t enjoy, but looking at it from another perspective, some readers may find the gaps in between the “fantasy” parts of the story too long.

On reflection, was this worth buying?

Absolutely.  In fact, in no time at all I will procure the second book in the trilogy, The Whisper, and no doubt leave it on my shelf for a year or so, just for old time’s sake.

Where to now for this tome?

Straight to the permanent shelf.

If this has whetted your appetite at all, I will have another Aaron Starmer title for you next week – new release YA tome Spontaneous, which came to us with a free splatter jacket.  There might also be a giveaway to go with this one, but keep it under your hat!

This is another chink off the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted by My Reader’s Block.

Mount TBR 2016

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…

labyrinth-lost

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