Review – My Life as an Alphabet – Barry Jonsberg

my-life-as-an-alphabetThere’s a chapter in this book about the death of a child because of Cot Death. As a new mum, had I known that before I started reading it, I probably wouldn’t have. Which would have been a real shame, because this is an absolutely wonderful book, and the joy I got from reading it by far outweighed that sick/new mum feeling that I get whenever someone mentions SIDS.

Candice Phee is one of the strangest characters I’ve encountered in a while. But she’s strange in a good way (particularly if you’re a reader). She’s got a lot of friends (if you ask her, but not so many if you ask everyone else). She has a fish called Earth-Pig Fish (whose name would have just been Earth-Pig but she didn’t want to be responsible for the resulting identity crisis). She has a friend (who reciprocates the friendship) who is Douglas Benson From Another Dimension (that one’s pretty self explanatory really). She makes people laugh without having any idea how she’s doing it. And this is the story of her life, told through the 26 letters of the alphabet.

My Life as an Alphabet is everything that you want a book to be, and I do mean everything. It’s funny – like, laugh out loud and read-the-funny-bits-to-the-person-next-to-you funny, strange, clever, sad, thoughtful, whimsical, and mature. Friendships are formed. Lives are saved. Letters are written.

This is one of those books in that genre that is squeezing it’s way out between junior fiction and young adult. Think Angel Creek and When You Reach Me. It’s the genre that deals with characters just at the peak of adolescence, but with just enough leftover naivety that they believe that magic can happen. And sometimes by believing it, perhaps it can.

I love this genre, because as an older reader it becomes less of a story about every day events and more of a fable – a reminder of unflinchingly looking to the future and knowing that it would all work out. There’s so much hope in books for this age. Even the sad chapters (such as the one mentioned at the beginning of this review) are taken in the matter-of-factual stride that 10-12-year-olds seem to possess.

I finished My Life as an Alphabet and I wanted to read it all over again. Barry Jonsberg is a gem.

Review – Burning Eddy by Scot Gardner

As a child/teenager growing up in the hills of Adelaide with chickens, veggies, strangling, delicious blackberry plants and paddocks full of cows (with the occasional kangaroo hopping through) I dreamt of the concrete jungle depicted in books like Looking for Alibrandi. When I moved to Melbourne ten years ago, I felt like I was finally home.

Burning Eddy felt like a different kind of home to me as I was reading it, that home of my childhood. Scot Gardner has a way of describing things that are so familiar that I’m catapulted straight back to the moment I first mistook an angry koala for a wild boar, my countless run ins with hairy huntsmen and forgotten tin sheds surrounded by brushland and shrub.

I read this while researching an article I’m writing for VATE – recommending complementary texts to the Australian Curriculum. It’s an excellent text to tie in with the sustainability topic, as it encourages a deep understanding of Australian growth and development, of industry and mining vs the sustainability of our natural habitat, and the natural spread of plant and animal life as well as the symbiotic relationship between the two.

As always, Scot Gardner’s writing is exquisitely stripped back. There’s a raw honesty to his writing that is compelling as a reader. And underlying the quirky characters of Eddy, the sweetness of Dan’s younger brother Toby, the teen angst of his sister Kat, and the pureness of Dan himself, there is the shadow of hurt and cruelty in other characters, and always the unpredictability of the bush.

Burning Eddy isn’t as long as some of SG’s more recent books, but contains a far larger story than the size indicates. Every character has weight, and every name is memorable. Although this isn’t a new book, it’s one I highly recommend readers revisit.

Breaking up all this is the wonderful Dutch woman -Eddy. She’s the kind of unexpected character that those familiar with Scot’s work will love. A breath of colour and surprise, she cuts through the dust and

Review – Other Brother

by Simon French

Simon French has written a stack of books and won as many awards for his writing. so I’m ashamed to say that Other Brother is the first of his titles that I’ve read. From page one I was hooked. I was coming down from a foray into fantasy and so the books I’d picked up prior to this one hadn’t grabbed my attention. I was definitely suffering from a book hangover. But French’s light touch and subject matter had me from page one and I found myself counting minutes until lunch breaks or times when I could stop whatever else I was doing and get back to the story.

In chapter one we’re introduced to Keiran – your fairly standard young boy. He’s not a mean kid, but from the first time he meets his cousin Bon things don’t go well. As Keiran’s mother snaps a photo of the two boys Bon leans close and smiles, saying “we’re brothers, we are”. Keiran tenses, hating this stranger’s intrusion into his life and his family. His animosity towards Bon grows after the boy leaves and Keiran discovers that two of his toys are missing. Bon drops out of Keiran’s life for two years, dragged back to his vagabond life on the road with his mother. And then he comes back. This time for good.

Bon’s reappearance isn’t welcomed by Keiran, who hasn’t let go of his grudge from two years earlier. Bon has grown into a weird kid, with a girlish plait and a ratty rainbow beanie. Bon can’t do anything right – when he starts attending Keiran’s school, Kerian stands by, pretending not to know him as he’s teased and bullied. He hates Bon for not even trying to stand up for himself. Everyone in Keiran’s family sees Bon as the victim, but for Keiran, he’s the fly in his soup. And to make matters worse, Bon has managed to befriend the other new kid Julia, who frowns at Keiran for his attitude towards his family.

It’s hard as an outsider to empathise with Keiran, who comes across as so sulky and unfair that you want to shake some sense into him. I haven’t found myself so invested in a story like this for some time – watching everyone try to explain Bon’s situation to Keiran, and then seeing him turn his back again and again is heartbreaking. If I could have helped Bon myself, I would have. It was this passion that dragged me through the book. I devoured page after page, desperate to know what it would take for Keiran to man up and shift his perspective outside his own self-centred desires.

At it’s heart (and I say that deliberately, as Other Brother has heart in spades), this is a book about family. At the periphery there’s the story of an outsider trying to fit in at school (and the side story of Julia, who’s mysterious background acts as the catalyst for the climax of the book), but the story focuses much more on family dynamics than anything else. French could have chosen to write about Bon as the central character, describing his difficulties fitting in via conflicts with school bullies. While those conflicts are there, it is Keiran’s behaviour that is heartbreaking, much more so than the schoolyard bullies. His attitude towards Bon and the dynamics within their extended family provide the gripping emotional background to the book and forces readers to invest themselves thoroughly in every page.

“Dog Boy” by Eva Hornung

Ramochka is just four years old when his mother and uncle abandon him. After remaining hidden in a cupboard for days, fearful that they will return and scold him, he ventures outside to look for food and company. What he finds is a dog, who leads him safely through the city and into her home. Alongside her own pups, she cleans him, suckles him and makes him a part of her own family.

Like Ramochka, the reader is at first walking in the dark. Although dogs are by no means an unusual companion, the depth that Ramochka is immersed into the lives of this pack of wild dogs is so foreign, and at times uncomfortable to read. Hornung does an incredible job building this relationship from scratch, as we bear intimate witness to Ramochkas gradual transition to dog from human. Continue reading

Australian Women who Write

In response to a comment I received on an earlier post I’ve decided to write a blog post about Australian women who write. It has been an issue that has already stirred a lot of debate this year (see arguments surrounding the newly created Stella Prize and Meanjin’s Tournament of Books), but by request I wanted solely to focus on some books by Australian female authors that either are or have been on my reading list recently and I hope to one by one write a review for each of them to start shifting the imbalance in my own blog. Continue reading

“House of Sticks” by Peggy Frew

In Peggy Frew’s debut novel, House of Sticks she displays a keen understanding of the mistakes and indecisions that make up a life, and explores just how fragile that life can be.

Bonnie is uneasy in her life. Looking around her it seems that everyone wears their roles more comfortably than she does. This feeling is one that will grab readers, it is the kind of connection and shared understanding that most people long for in a book, the sense that somebody, somewhere has felt the way that they do. Continue reading

“Blood” by Tony Birch

“Will you be ready for it, Jesse? When the storm comes? You remember what I’ve told you. Sometimes you can stay out of trouble, and other times you have to step up.”

In a book that is compelling and real, Tony Birch has captured the issues facing Australia right now.

Veering across a dusty, parched landscape “Blood” follows thirteen-year-old Jesse and his sister Rachel as they are tugged from home to home by their unstable mother Gwen. Jesse shies away from the notions of home and family, avoiding disappointment, while Rachel clings to it, desperately trying to find something solid. As the clouds gather, waiting to unleash a flood over the barren landscape, these two characters race towards an uncertain end, praying that something will save them. Continue reading