Review: ‘Heat and Light’ by Ellen van Neerven

heat and light

*This review was developed at the Stella Prize/ DWF critics masterclass with Jo Case and Melinda Harvey.

**This review is part of a series of reviews #weneeddiversebooksAU

It is the uniqueness of structure and voice that makes Heat and Light stand out. The stories in this debut collection by Ellen van Neerven are not entirely stand-alone, nor are they entirely connected. The book is divided into three distinct parts. Similar themes echo through each, but ultimately they function quite independently.

Given the number of different characters in the book, it is impressive that each has a distinctly individual voice. In other interviews, van Neerven has mentioned that some of the characters have been in her head for a while. Some of the stories have had earlier publications. S&J, a piece about two girls trying to define themselves beyond their skin colour, sexuality and friendship, was first published in the prestigious McSweeney’s Quarterly, alongside short story heavyweights Tony Birch, Tara June Wing and Melissa Lucashenko.

The time that has been taken to piece together these characters and stories is evident, as Heat and Light doesn’t show any uncertainty – there is no echo of ‘debut novelist’ in its pages. Her characters carry the necessary spark to make them spring to life, and each demands attention from the reader. Each voice is given the opportunity to share stories that are uncomfortable, confronting, tender, familial, searching.

Publishers are hesitant when it comes to publishing short story collections. This tide is now turning. In the same year that Ellen van Neerven won the David Unaipon Award for an Unpublished Indigenous Author (and the subsequent publication of her novel by UQP), Maxine Beneba Clarke won the Victorian Premier’s Award for an Unpublished Manuscript for her debut short story collection, Foreign Soil. Both books went on to be longlisted for the 2015 Stella Prize, where they joined another collection Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey. Perhaps many of the important cultural and social conversations that we are currently having with literature are best had through the short story form. Or perhaps, in our time-poor society, we are turning more to short stories as a way of accessing literature.

It is impossible to drive a single narrative through all three parts of the book and trying to force one would warp the ease of the stories. The parts could easily be read independently, although there are structural and thematic similarities between Heat and Light that unite the two. In terms of cohesion, it is Water that sits further apart, with even the title pointing to its exclusion. It is a wonderful piece to read, a speculation on Australia’s future that draws parallels between the errors of an overzealous new President’s attempts to make amends and the historical treatment of Australia’s Indigenous population. However it feels slightly jarring between the other two collections, differing both in the speculative setting and the length.

If there are links between all three parts of the book they are thematic ones. Themes of love (familiar and romantic), displacement, gender and country are present throughout, explored in ways that beg the following questions.What are our responsibilities to each other as Australians? As humans? As family? As lovers? Are we ever able to mend what has been broken? These questions echo through each of the stories, including the first, where a young Amy Kresinger discovers the truth about who her grandmother is.

I found Pearl lying on the ground a long way from the lake. She had called me there with her whistle. She looked half-dead.

            The jealous part of me could have kept going but I helped her. I felt a bunch of guilt that I hadn’t done anything. And I had been one of those who had talked about her at school, and after I finished school, I had helped in outcasting her. She had come here to the town for a fresh start and she hadn’t got it. I got her up and walked her to the lookout where I know she stayed for a time.

Heat and Light is an extraordinary debut that sets a high benchmark for whatever topic van Neerven sets her sights on next.

Teachers notes will be available soon on the Stella Prize website.

The book can be purchased here.

Personal History – reviewing ‘The Four Seasons of Lucy McKenzie’

resized_9781743317020_224_297_FitSquareAll has been quiet on the blog front for a while. I’ve been making some big decisions (leaving nutrition for full time writing and hopefully a creative writing masters), and thinking a lot about the ways that I can push myself to write, read and review better. Plus I’ve been hard at work on the Stella Prize Schools Program which launches in September.

A number of things that I’ve read of late and some of the things I’ve been involved in, have spurred me to think about owning our personal narrative. I don’t think I do that enough, and for quite a long time now I’ve felt a disconnect between the way I see myself, and moments of my life. I struggle sometimes to feel as though I have the ‘right’ to my own story. I’d like to blog about that more, or perhaps turn it into some kind of article once the thoughts have percolated for a bit longer, but in the meantime, I thought I’d touch on personal history and bring the blog up to date with a lovely little book that I’ve just finished.

It’s The Four Seasons of Lucy McKenzie by Kirsty Murray. It’s a timeslip book, that would fit nicely on a shelf alongside books like Angel Creek by Sally Rippin or When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. In it, Lucy McKenzie is sent to stay with her Great Aunt ‘Big’ over christmas, while her father works. Her mother has flown to Paris to sit with Lucy’s sister Claire, a talented singer who has been put into an induced coma after a serious fall. Lucy is dreading spending christmas alone with her Aunt, a prickly and independent old woman who lives by herself in Avendale, an old house on the river. In Big’s house is a room where a landscape is painted on each of the four walls. Autumn, Summer, Winter, Spring. It is in this room that Lucy first feels the ripples of magic and discovers that she can step through the walls and into Avendale’s past.

This is an emotive book, as Lucy feels keenly her separation from her family as well as the painful sense of being the ‘normal’ one, the youngest in a family full of talent. Next to Big as well, she is awkward and shy. Big is a talented painter, larger than life, frank, honest. She thinks nothing of rinsing the dishes in the outdoor toilet and feels that Lucy should be more assertive. When Lucy steps through the wall she is bolder, braver and happier. She becomes close friends with April, the incorrigible Jimmy, and the steadfast Tom. Her unique knowledge of the future makes her the hero more than once, but each time she leaves, her sudden disappearance and prolonged absence make her more and more of a mystery to the others. For Lucy, leaving makes her anxious. In the present, she is faced with questions. Like what happens to Tom, who is never mentioned by Big, although she must have known him? And why does Jimmy marry Lucy’s own grandmother, even though Lucy can see that April is in love with him? Lucy is determined to save the past, but as she becomes more invested in Avendale’s history, she becomes more invested in its present too, and without even noticing, she starts to find a place where she belongs.

I love books like this. It seems that they are/this is not so obsessed with romantic love. I can hardly talk. My own WIP is about love. My masters proposal focusses on love. I’m obsessed with love, how we fall in and out of it, and the power it holds over us. And yet I remember a time when I wasn’t. I remember climbing hay bales and falling asleep next to the two daughters of our family friends in the lumpy, wooden bed in the draughty spare room in their grandmothers house. I also remember feeling ill-fitting. I remember seeing people, not just sisters although them as well, who fit together with such ease and wondering at why I felt so out of place. The feeling carried through primary school, high school and uni, and in some ways my skin remembers the awkwardness now. But I also remember that it was in books just like this one, with characters like Lucy McKenzie that I finally felt that I had found a place. If not a place for me exactly, at least a place that I could call my own.

This book will be familiar to many. It represents suburban Australia in Lucy, in her longings for home and for the life that she recognises. But it also reflects the outback. The blistering heat of bushfire seasons, the sprawling standalone homesteads and the smell of the river. Lucy is an important character, because she is familiar and her struggles will resonate with the books intended audience.These young readers, many of whom will be starting to face shifting friendships, changing priorities and increased as well as feelings of awkwardness, loneliness and anxiety, will relate strongly to Lucy, and will enjoy watching her journey of self discovery which begins in the past, and sends echoes through to her present. This is a lovely book, yes, but as well as that, is one which through its mirroring of these familiar struggles, has the potential to act as a compass as readers navigate through their own childhoods, giving them confidence to face the challenges that they may be presented with in adolescence.


The Stella Prize

claire-wrightI’ve been lucky enough recently to join The Stella Prize to help them set up their school’s program. I’m so excited to be working with the amazing women who initiated this prize to address the gender bias in Australian literary prizes.

I’ve had quite a few people ask me about the prize since I started working on this project, so I decided that it would be worth putting up a bit of info here. Kerryn Goldsworthy beautifully summed up the prize when she discussed her role as a judge in this year’s award.

The Stella Prize was born in a spirit of protest and resistance. It took shape early in 2011, when a literary event in Melbourne to mark International Women’s Day featured a panel discussion about the under-representation of women in literary pages and magazines, as well as in the shortlists and winners of literary prizes. The women involved in this event decided that it was time to do something. In 2009, five of Australia’s leading women writers—Debra Adelaide, Amanda Lohrey, Joan London, Kate Grenville and Helen Garner—had published excellent novels that were eligible for the Miles Franklin Literary Award, Australia’s most sought- after literary prize and one of its richest. None of them even made the longlist, and the shortlist consisted exclusively of novels by men. And unbeknown to the women on the discussion panel that day, the 2011 Miles Franklin shortlist that would be announced a month or so later would again be an all-male lineup.

The Stella Prize is not the first Australian Literary Prize for women, but it is the only one to have been established by women pushing for change rather than as a result of a bequest. Miles Franklin was the pen-name of Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin—feminist, nationalist and author of the Australian classic My Brilliant Career. Like many of her female contemporaries, she knew that using a male pseudonym would give her writing a better chance of being published and read. Naming the award the Stella Prize was a way of honouring Franklin and of restoring her given name; that “Stella” means “star” was icing on the cake.

The UK’s well-established and prestigious Orange Prize—now the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction— provided a model, and with the help of donors and sponsors and some broad support from the literary community, the prize was first awarded in 2013 to Carrie Tiffany for her novel Mateship with Birds….(read the full article here)

I’m hoping at some stage to post some reviews up here of the books that I’ve read for this project. I’m only sad that I didn’t get to them earlier, despite having heard wonderful things from the beginning. It has been an amazing list of books to be working through – I don’t envy the judges what must have been a hard decision indeed. I’ve linked to the long lists and shortlists from the 2013 and 2014 prizes below. If you’re looking for something to read, I urge you to sink your teeth into a few of these. Covering a huge range of themes and writing styles, spanning both fiction and non-fiction, these books have excellent storytelling in common and are an impressive representation of Australian talent. And if you read any, come back tell me what you think. Or better yet, head over to the Australian Women’s Writing challenge and write a review!

2013 longlist                                                                                                                                  2013 shortlist                                                                                                                                                       2014 longlist                                                                                                                               2014 shortlist 



Review: Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner

maggot moon poster

Standish Treadwell can’t read, can’t write                                                         Standish Treadwell isn’t bright…

And so we are introduced to our loveable, dyslexic narrator, who will guide us, not through a brave new world, but through a horrifying dystopia built on lies and rot, on violence and fear.  Standish Treadwell might have a naive voice, and his strangeness makes him the perfect target for bullies looking to label something ‘stupid’, but in reality he is anything but. Standish can see the bleak world that he lives in, and knows the harsh realities despite hoping against hope that things could change. It’s this hope that ultimately make him a hero, and also breaks our hearts.

Maggot Moon is one hundred short chapters. It’s an easy read time-wise, but not easy on the soul – I read late into the night to finish this, and by the end I was a little bit broken. Sally Gardner has written an excellent background to the book, and in it she includes among her inspirations, the Battle of Britan. This is fitting, because unlike many of it’s dystopian counterparts, the setting of Maggot Moon feels much more historical than futuristic. The rows of brick town houses with their cellar-road, the bleak school that Standish attends, the ramshackle gardens backing onto the mysterious and ever-growing wall, all feel borrowed from the past, and there’s something that feels inherently English about them too (although I’m not sure that that’s not just my interpretation). Gardner calls this ‘what if’ history – what if different choices had been made, our reality might be unrecognisable. She doesn’t offer a specific history though, leaving readers open to choose which dictator will influence their reading of the story. In that aspect, and many others, this book has legs, and won’t date easily.

There are definitely similarities to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Not only the setting – as Maggot Moon could easily be interpreted under the shadow of Nazi Germany – but also in the characters. Standish Treadwell has a similarly innocent tone to John Boyne’s Bruno, but without a lot of the naivety. In addition, at the core of both books is a devastating, hopeful, brother-like friendship that inspires both our young narrators to throw themselves into the heart of darkness in an attempt to save. Unlike Bruno though, who is largely unaware of what he’s throwing himself into, Standish walks into hell with his eyes wide open and fear pounding in his chest.

I would like to say that I loved this book, but I didn’t love it, it made me feel sick. It’s not a book about happiness, or a bittersweet but ultimately hopeful story of bravery and friendship, it’s about maggot lies worming their way into the world and into the minds of many, so many that nations stand blindly by as dictators commit the most horrific crimes against humanity. It’s a book that doesn’t step back from its violence or despair, that though short, is almost relentless in it’s pounding at your heart, leaving you a bit broken at the end. I can see why it has garnered so much attention, winning the 2013 Carnegie and the 2012 Costa, as well as being an honour title for the 2014 Printz Award because the writing, characters and narration are spectacularly done. I can see it in schools at every level – it would make a great comparison to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas for younger readers and then to 1984 for older ones. I can see it one shelves, i-pads and kindles on trams and buses across the world. I didn’t love it. But I’ll never forget it.

maggot moon

2013 a year in review(s)


2013 was a HUGE year. Between having a baby (hard work, surprise!), going back to uni (some more hard work), and making the switch from PC to MAC I’m still a little shell-shocked. And amazed that I managed to get through any books at all. But I did. 66 of em if you’ll believe my Goodreads account (which you should).

There were some good and not so good as you’d expect, and quite a few dystopian and sci-fi series, which I got a bit hooked on towards the end there. Some highlights.

1. The Divergent series, by Veronica Roth. How had I not read these before? They had somehow made it onto my stubborn ‘everyone tells me I should read these and therefore I definitely won’t’ pile. But I caved over christmas and am glad I did. Hunger Games who?

2.  Lexicon by Max Barry. Deservedly dubbed ‘the year’s smartest thriller’ by Time magazine. Lexicon is clever, pacey, suspenseful and a little on the surreal side. I’m not ashamed to say that I love a good action/thriller and this is indeed a good one.

3. Invisibility by David Levithan and Andrea Cramer and while we’re at it, Every Day by David Levithan, and actually while we’re at it, everything by David Levithan. Let’s face it the man is a genius who writes about love like it’s liquid gold, beautiful, fiery and raw.

4. Things I Didn’t Expect When I Was Expecting by Monica Dux. I definitely wasn’t expecting to get as much from this book as I did. As a reader I loved the writing which is pithy and witty. Monica Dux speaks frankly about her own experiences as a woman – pregnant/birthing/mother, as well as the shared experiences of those around her. The humour in this didn’t surprise me (although I’d point out that she thankfully doesn’t rely on heavy handed in-jokes or patronising off handers about men/husbands/friends without babies) but the pathos and depth of research and knowledge in each chapter did. This isn’t just some memoir dashed off in the rush of emotion accompanying motherhood, it’s a thoughtful, funny, provocative and frank book about being a mother, being a woman and finding a place in today’s reality. It was perfectly timed for me, and it’s the one book that I can see myself thrusting at new mothers for years to come.

5. Everything (and I do mean everything) by Deborah Ellis. I was lucky enough to interview Deborah Ellis for Viewpoint in 2013 and prepared by reading her entire backlist, as well as a sampler of her new title. Every word is thoughtful and thought provoking, ‘Children of War’ and ‘Off to War’ especially made me look at war more intimately. Each of her books is incredibly personal and humanising.

6. The First Third by Will Kostakis. I’m the only child of an only child (mum) and while dad has brothers and sisters, they didn’t all live close enough to be ever present in my childhood. I grew up around a lot of adults, who are (for the most part) quieter than kids. The family in this Greek Looking For Alibrandi-esque novel aren’t like that. They’re loud, and chaotic and all up in each other’s business. Their madness and love for each other pours liberally from the pages, with laughter and tears and a gradual understanding of the importance of family.

7. Girl Defective by Simmone Howell. Oh but Simmone Howell does know how to write about those painful teenage years. She creates characters like Sky, who is just almost on the verge of starting to fit into her own skin and pairs them beautifully with those characters, those characters that we all have one of I’m sure, whose exotic vulnerability makes them so desirable as a friend. This is a thriller with a heart that catches a time, a place, a person, and a moment just before they fall through the cracks. I’m so so glad to see this and some other great YA titles make buzzfeed’s list of top Aussie titles from 2013.

8. My Life as an Alphabet by Barry Jonsberg. Candice Phee stole my heart last year. It’s impossible to describe just how much you will love her, and her completely earnest attempts to solve the problems of her family, Earth-pig-fish and Douglas Benson From Another Dimension.

9. Hostage Three by Nick Lake. You wouldn’t think that Somali pirates would make the ideal romantic lead in a YA story, but in this, they do. That’s not to say that Hostage Three is a feel good romance, it’s more a tragic exploration of love and humanity played out in the claustrophobic setting of a yacht that has been taken hostage by pirates.

10. Friday Brown by Vikki Wakefield. When I was asked to judge the Clayton awards for the 2013 CBCA I was thrilled not only at the invitation but also to have the excuse to pick up the Australian gems that I’d missed the year before. Friday Brown was one of those gems and I’m only sorry that I didn’t read it earlier. If Girl Defective is about the moments before people fall through the cracks then Friday Brown is what happens after they do.

11. Winnie-the-Pooh by AA Milne. What a wonderful return to my childhood favourite. I think that this was more for my benefit than the baby’s (who would fall asleep almost before the reading began). I had forgotten how wonderful that Pooh bear is. So strange, and funny to read aloud. And such a wonderful thing, reading aloud. I’m looking forward to reading it again to him in a few years.

12. Shadowboxing by Tony Birch. Was it really only a year ago that I read this? Seems like the stories have been in my brain for a lifetime now. I’m sure I’ve said it before but Tony Birch is nothing short of extraordinary, and is really one of Australia’s outstanding writers.


Resort Life

I can see how people stay at these resorts and never actually catch a glimpse of the country they’re in. They’re a world unto themselves.

As my partner waited at the local hospital to get steroids for his eye I stayed back and explored the surreal land-within-a-country that is the resort. After breakfast from the buffet (it’s huge – cakes, doughnuts, fresh local fruit, roti, noodles, dahl and cereals spill over about five counters and onto tables in the middle of the room. Fresh eggs are being cooked to order and a rainbow of chutneys and pickles are available as garnishings.) I’m the crazy lady with a baby in one arm and a plate containing my breakfast of roti cannai and a glass of juice (which is a combination of all the varieties they have on offer-yes people stared as I filled my glass).

We’re seated by the window by the friendliest man ever, who on day three of our breakfasts has remembered our room number and wins a cheeky girn from the baby. The baby is in an exceptionally good mood this morning and as I try to bend his knees to fit them into the high chair that he’s currently standing in, he cranes his neck to grin at the couple trying to have a private conversation next to us. They’re suitably charmed and I get on with breakfast so they can return to their conversation in peace.

I’m trying to kill time and to distract myself from the worry of my partner’s eye troubles so I load up our travel bath (which for those with babies, is an unnessary and incredibly awkward item to pack if you’re staying in hotels with baths of their very own – duh) with washing and head down to the hotel laundromat. It’s tucked away behind the conference rooms, currently hosting something to do with broiled chicken, which I try not to think about too much. The baby is a champion this morning and after entertaining me for a while with some new facial expressions that he’s trying on for size he falls asleep, and stays that way for the next two hours as I watch the washing spin and wonder whether the bits on my arm and tiny bruises on my feet are in fact symptomatic of Dengue fever. You’d think, if you listened to me, that noone ever visited here without catching something, but rest assured that this is (I hope) all in my head.

It’s nice to have the opportunty to actually explore – the resort has severl pools, a water slide, a bar, two restaurants, a tiny row of shops, loungeroom/library, a an adventure centre for kids, a spice garden and a clinic. Given that everyone here speaks English, you could forget that you’d flown all the way to Penang at all. I’m hoping that everyone has at least one meal at a hawker stand and has the chance to see more of the amazing sights that Penang has on offer.

Baby and I manage to amuse ourself until lunch time, people watching from the balcony and we both (I’m sure) breathe a sigh of relief when my partner returns to our home for the week safe and sound, and with lunch! He’s actually got relatives from Malaysia who have driven down to spend a few days in Penang with us. They’re determined that I should experience everything the country has to offer, and by that I mean ‘fill me with as much food as humanely possible’. They’re incredibly sweet actually, and go out of their way to make sure that everything’s vego/no dairy and have brought us lunch and dinner in when we’ve had to stay in the hotel to looks after eyes and/or babies. Todays spread (and I do mean spread – when I say they’re determined to feed me EVERYTHING I’m not kidding), is some delicious fried cauliflower, similar to the ejje(sp) from my favourite Lebanese restaurant, some curries, and two types of naan. I eat as much as I can handle and just as I’m ready to burst I discover that there’s cake too. It’s kuih – malaysian cakes that are a cross between dense cake and jelly. There’s a blue one, a brown one, a pink one, a green one and a purple one, with a brown sugar paste to scoop up with each mouthful. Two I don’t love, but the others are delicious and I know that the person who provided them will be thrilled that I’m enjoying food that she loves.

finish our resort day with a swim in the pool and room service. If I can just manage to convince myself that every mosquito on the island is not out to get me, I may in fact get an early night before our final full day here tomorrow.

Clayton’s Awards

Earlier this year I was thrilled to be asked to be one of the guest judges for the Victorian Clayton’s Awards, which you can read more about here.

Unfortunately I ended up not being able to attend the actual evening (due to only just having had a baby!), but from all accounts it was a huge success. For those interested, who also didn’t attend the evening, my speech and choices are posted verbatim below. (I’m also sneakily thrilled that 3 of my 6 choices were the same as those on the official shortlist). The winner of these will be announced next week in Book Week and I can’t wait to find out what that is.

download (7).

Clayton’s Awards 2013

What a great year it was for YA in Australia in 2012. Our talented community of authors just keep putting out books of higher and higher standards, and it’s reassuring (particularly in the current uncertain times) to see new authors appearing on the scene and with such a variety of great work. It made choosing the six books that I’d speak about tonight particularly difficult, and really, credit should go to all of those authors (and their editors and publishers) who play such an integral part in creating such a vibrant, thriving book community, that is evident in the burgeoning number of readers.

So, out of the extraordinary books that I’ve visited and re-visited over the past few months, I’ve managed to narrow it down to the following six titles, keeping in mind the criteria for the CBCA awards and looking for work that I believe will be both challenging and intensely appealing to all readers, but particularly those in their secondary years.

The Shiny Guys – Doug MacLeod


The Shiny Guys was extraordinary for many reasons. It was (to me at least) a bit of a departure from Doug’s earlier work – although it still had plenty of his dry, trademark humour, the subject matter was quite dark and surreal, with a lot of personal insight into the world of psychiatric illness and Australian mental health.

For older readers, the issue of mental health is one that is sadly, probably all too familiar. Nearly everyone knows someone (or is themselves) experiencing some kind of mental illness, and it’s a topic trending more and more in YA fiction these days. What made ‘The Shiny Guys’ stand out was the characters, and the surreal nature of the shiny guys themselves. Who are these cockroach-like creatures who visit Colin Lapsley and who won’t leave him alone, even upon his admittance to Ward 44? Are we expected to believe that they are real – in which case the book would be more speculative fiction, or a figment of his illness and/or imagination? This constant tug of war between who we should believe is what is gripping as a reader, and also what constantly draws our attention to the subject at hand – should we write off the thoughts of the mentally ill just because of their illness? Doug MacLeod cleverly plays with truth and illusion in a way that pushes at the boundaries of genre and digs into the key themes of this book in an utterly unique way. His dry wit is a perfect match for this kind of writing, and he knows exactly when to add lightness to the writing or the characters (my favourite example of this is Mango, who is so strange and wonderful, it’s impossible not to immediately love him, and his relationship with Colin).

While lovers of books like ‘Siggy and Amber’ and ‘Life of a Teenage Body Snatcher’ will still find that trademark humour, I would expect that ‘The Shiny Guys’ will appeal to an even broader audience, and certainly to readers wanting more of a challenge.

Night Beach – Kirsty Eager

downloadIf you boiled down Kirsty Eager’s books so far to their simplest essences, she may be overlooked as the ‘type’ of book that we generally see in the prize categories. Books so far include ‘Raw Blue’ with the key themes of sexual assault and surfing,  ‘Saltwater Vampires’ about vampires and, well, surfing, and ‘Night Beach’, the most recent offering, an engrossing dark fantasy about possession and of course surfing.


Having read each of her books though, I wouldn’t hesitate to put any one of them into the category of prize worthy, although Night Beach is most certainly my favourite yet. Kirsty Eager is a fine writer with an incredible imagination – one that sees her writing books which defy genre, despite all having a single common theme. When written well, books about possession have the uncanny ability to make the reader feel as though just by reading it, they too have unleashed something dark and furious, that will continue to haunt their waking (and perhaps sleeping moments) long after they’ve closed the pages. In Night Beach, Abbie is obsessed with three things – art, the ocean and Kane. But he’s just come home from an extended surfing vacation, and something strange is riding along with him. The kind of something strange that you might not notice unless you were looking closely, which Abbie most certainly is.

Horror is a genre that was hugely popular when I was in high school, but dwindled off for a time there. Recently there’s been a resurgence though, and more students are asking for books that will give them a good scare. For older readers though (and for writers in this genre), a good scare isn’t as easy as it sounds.  A lot of horror lovers want something more than gore, they want something that will worm its way into their brain, scaring them when they least expect it, and revisiting them just when they think they’ve escaped. Too often we see horror being confused with crime, or gore, and books and films trying to outdo each other in the ongoing competition for most shocking. But a good horror or thriller (which this most certainly is), doesn’t need shock value to plant a seed of deep unease in the heart of its readers. Good horror, takes a character like Kane, no stranger to darkness and violence already, and turns him into the creature that lurks in the shadows. And a character like Abbie, who like most of the potential audience has a massive crush on the bad boy, becomes the character we identify with, despite wanting to run as far away from her and from Kane as possible.

Night Beach is an intensely clever book from a wonderful writer that deserves any accolades it’s given. I hope that it’s a sign of a resurgence of quality, clever writing in a genre that has been (in my opinion) forgotten for too long.

The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf – Ambelin Kwaymullina

13552764A challenging fantasy is no easy thing to create, because in my mind at least, part of that challenge comes with surprising readers in a genre that is both widely read and written, and it is hard to write well and uniquely within it.

From the get-go ‘Ashala Wolf’ was surprising. Readers are launched straight into Ashala being dragged into a terrifying interrogation where she knows that she will be pushed past her limits, questioned about her powers until she gives up herself and the location of her tribe. Her tribe, the misfits that mainstream society is so afraid of, is relying on her to save them. Seems straightforward? Nope. At every turn this story has an unexpected twist – twists that are clever and necessary, not just thrown in to try to trap the reader. Loyalties are questioned, characters change sides, and our own understanding of Ashala and her situation is thrown to the wind as each new piece of information comes to light.

Even the premise – a band of misfits with abilities that set them apart from the rest of society, despite sounding familiar, is done in a way that cleverly blends cultures with myth and fantasy to create something new and strange. Ambellin Kwaymullina is by no means a new author, but this is her first YA and I’m very glad that it won’t be her last. It’s an outstanding piece of Australian work, of indigenous work (the links in the text are subtle but there), and of fantasy, that has really found a voice to call its own amongst so many others.

City – James Roy

14060128I’m constantly told that it’s a struggle to get young adults reading short stories. As much as I hate to admit it (because I think short stories are a seriously undervalued genre), it’s all too true. Maybe it’s the lack of a cohesive storyline, maybe it’s not getting to know the characters on the same level that you do in a novel – whatever it is, no matter how many times you recommend short stories, the number of readers just doesn’t seem to pick up that much.

‘City’, the sequel to ‘Town’ is the kind of book that I hope will start paving the way to changing that. City is the big brother to Town, a book that uses short stories to explore a town and its inhabitants from a variety of angles. City is a bit colder at first, like the feeling you get when you’ve just moved out of home, finished school and starting that new, unfamiliar stage of life. It’s the finding your feet in a strange place, the foreign signs that start to become familiar, and the people that gradually bind together to make a place. Although it’s short stories, hopefully readers will be pulled in by those clues that link the pieces within the book together, and older readers especially will relate to the all to impending feeling of leaving the comfort of their town (school) and taking those first unfamiliar steps into a world similar to that found in city.

Friday Brown – Vikki Wakefield

download (7)Friday Brown is perhaps my pick out of this already great bunch of books. It reminds me a lot of the suburban Australia seen in the YA of writers like Robin Klein and John Marsden. The characters are slightly dangerous – the teenagers that you definitely want to read about, and think you might even want to know, but in reality would probably be a little bit wary of if you stumbled across them on the street.

Friday is the product of storytelling, fear and her mother’s paranoias. She’s spent her life being dragged from town to town, from home to home as her mother tries to escape the family curse of death by water, and in many ways, herself. When her mother dies, it’s Friday’s turn to flee. She thinks she’s looking for her father, but what she finds is a different family, runaway teens banded together in an abandoned house trying to escape their realities. And in this family, Friday finds Silence, a boy who will change her life (and the readers) in unimaginable ways.

It’s not often that characters present themselves as so real that you would swear that you’d just seen them yesterday, but each of the beautifully crafted characters in this book does just that. For me, Friday Brown ticks all of the boxes – a magically woven story, breathtakingly real characters living in an Australia that will be real and recongnisable to all readers.

The Ink Bridge – Neil Grant

download (8)This is the kind of book that teachers are bound to love – a journey across countries, across cultures, insight into the lives of others and a myriad of other phrases (all true in this case) that tick all the right learning boxes. But what about a read that’s just as rewarding for the readers? One that will perhaps stay with them beyond the confines of an exam and deserve a space on their shelves outside of ‘school book’?

The Ink Bridge is all of the things that a teacher looks for and will love, but it’s more than that too. Neil Grant undertook his own journey through Afghanistan in preparation for writing this book, and it shows in the sincerity of the words, and the effort to capture the truth of another culture, particularly one that is so heavily portrayed in the media and other fiction.

There are certainly challenges in the reading, for readers of any age. Challenges in the subject matter – a boy escaping his country after watching the senseless and brutal deaths of too many family and friends, and another refusing to speak after the death of his mother. Challenges in the writing, which rather than being patronising and overtly simplistic, gives its readers credit for a level of understanding that will match the depth of the story being told. These challenges are worth it though for readers willing to meet them, and the book is one that will hopefully stay with many beyond their school years.