Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘young adult fiction’

The Flywheel by Erin Gough


The Flywheel by Erin Gough came to my attention via the Readings Summer Reading Guide a few years ago. I have a ‘No Junk Mail’ sticker on my letterbox, but go out of my way to make sure I get this catalogue every year, then spend hours happily poring over the book reviews and recommendations.

Ordinarily, I would not have read The Flywheel. For starters, it is Youth Fiction. Secondly, it is teen romance. But Readings recommended the book, so I read it.

The heroine, Delilah, is 17 and lives in Sydney. Her mother ran off with another man last year and her father is off seeing the world, leaving Del home alone, running the family cafe, The Flywheel, with the help of a manager.

Things get complicated when the cafe’s manager gets picked up for a traffic infringement and is deported. Del hires a new manager, but then catches him with his fingers in the till and gives him the sack. Del decides on a whim to leave school and manage the café herself.

Del’s decision to leave school was also made because she was being bullied. Del is openly gay and the mean girls have it in for her.

Del has loads of adventures with her friends, a few false starts to romance and in the meantime almost runs the café into the ground. Things come right in the end though.

I liked that the characters sometimes made bad decisions, but eventually worked out better ways to do things, and I also liked that the characters felt strongly about community issues, such as saving local libraries. Del is a likeable heroine who is resilient and has a strong character. While I wouldn’t go out of my way to read another Youth Fiction book by this author, I would recommend The Flywheel to teenage readers.

The Guy, The Girl, The Artist and His Ex by Gabrielle Williams


The Guy, The Girl, The Artist and His Ex by Gabrielle Williams is a Young Adult novel, published this year but set in Melbourne in 1986, when Pablo Picasso’s Weeping Woman was stolen from the National Gallery of Victoria on St Kilda Road.

There are four main characters in the story; Guy, who is failing Year 12 at school, Rafi, a Columbian girl whose mother has mental-health issues, Luke, an attractive and successful artist who cares more about himself than anyone else, and Penny, Luke’s ex-girlfriend and the mother of their son.

As I read I became more and more interested in the actual story of the painting, which was of Picasso’s mistress, Dora Maar, a poet and an artist. Picasso is said to have interpreted Dora’s sadness at being unable to have children in his Weeping Woman series of paintings. Picasso treated Dora cruelly, setting her up against his other mistresses and even after she suffered a nervous breakdown, he went out of his way to make her unhappy.

The theft of the Weeping Woman actually took place. The painting was purchased the year before the theft for about 1.5 million dollars, which was the highest price paid at the time by the NGV for an artwork. The painting disappeared one night and a note left saying that the painting had been removed for maintenance, signed by the ACT (Australian Cultural Terrorists). As ACT also stands for the Australian Capital Territory, staff at the NGV didn’t immediately realise the painting had been stolen. The thieves sent ransom notes for the return of the Weeping Woman, demanding an increase in funding for the arts. Eventually the Weeping Woman was found in a locker at the Spencer Street Train Station. The thieves have never been found.


Guy, Rafi, Luke and Penny all, either wittingly or unwittingly, play a role in the theft of the painting and in its return. Their lives are all changed by the painting and the theft. Apart from Luke and Penny, who have a child together, they begin the story as separate characters whose lives become entwined as the story develops.

Interestingly, Penny’s party trick, which initially attracted Luke to her was something that Dora Maar did when she first met Picasso, quickly stabbing a knife between each of her fingers.

I didn’t become very attached to any of the characters, although I did have more sympathy for the girls, who had a harder lot in life than the boys in the story. The story is quite clever and I really enjoyed the opportunity to learn about the actual painting and the theft. I also enjoyed that the story was set in Melbourne and the 1980’s references. I suspect teenage girls would particularly enjoy The Guy, The Girl, The Artist and His Ex.




Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews


Miss S, who is 14, recommended I read Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews. She loved the movie and liked the book.

The narrator is Greg Gaines, who is in his senior year at High School. The narration changes between Greg speaking straight to the reader, using dot points, presenting the story as a film script and occasionally, as essays of life instructions.

Greg’s strategy for surviving High School is to keep a low profile, be friends with everyone on the most superficial level possible, and not be pigeon-holed into belonging to any group. The only exception Greg makes to his friendship rule is with Earl, who he makes films with, and even then, Greg and Earl aren’t really friends.

When Greg’s mother insists he spend time with Rachel, the daughter of a family friend, Greg doesn’t want to. Rachel is dying of cancer. Although Greg resists, his mother forces the issue. Earl also spends time with Rachel and to Greg’s dismay, allows her to watch the films they have made.

Greg is a funny and truthful narrator, although he is in denial over how to handle his own emotions. Greg’s concern over his reputation prevents him from truly becoming friends with Rachel, although she accepts him as he is. She also loves the films he and Earl have made. I’ve heard a phrase that writers use about their ‘ideal readers,’ the person they seek to amuse, or frighten or instruct when they write, and I think Rachel was Greg’s ideal audience, both for his films and for his companionship.

Earl, although he comes from a poverty-stricken, drug-addled, dysfunctional family, has twenty times the compassion and humanity that Greg has.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl isn’t a romance. Greg and Rachel don’t fall in love, and there is no happy ending for Rachel. I’m not even sure that Greg grew up emotionally during the telling of the story.

Parts of this are hilarious. Greg’s take on girls, film-making, his family, school and life in general made me laugh out loud throughout the book. The book was educational for me. Miss S didn’t warn me about the swearing or the gross and horrible conversations teenagers have with each other, which might mean that this is how teenagers actually behave. Or maybe not. I can’t remember, I’m too old. The plot was a little light, too, but it was still quite entertaining.

Anyway, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was made into a movie which Miss S loved, so maybe I’ll watch it sometime. I expect Jesse Andrews will continue to write successful books for the Young Adult market too, although I probably won’t read them.




In the Skin of a Monster by Kathryn Barker


In the Skin of a Monster is a Young Adult novel by Australian author, Kathryn Barker.

The plot described on the back cover is a great idea; a girl living in a country town in Australia, whose identical twin sister took a gun to school three years ago and shoots dead a number of kids. Alice, the surviving twin, is a pariah, shunned by her father, her school mates, and virtually her whole community, who, (understandably), visibly shudder when they see her.

If In the Skin of a Monster had continued in this vein, I probably would have preferred it to the actual story, as horrific as that sounds.

However, the back cover and the actual plot didn’t match at all.

What happens is, Alice goes out walking and somehow changes places with her dead twin, who has been living in a place made up of everybody in town’s actual nightmares.

From here on in, the story got really weird. There are monsters and guns, victims endlessly trying to run away and never waking up, blood and guts and, of all things, an angel. Alice and her little band of companions spend the rest of the book trying to kill the nightmare monsters so the people in her community can sleep peacefully at night.

I felt sorry for Alice, who even in other people’s nightmares is perceived to be a monster, even though she is completely innocent.

The writing was good, I just didn’t like the plot. If I was a fifteen or sixteen year old girl, I may have loved In the Skin of a Monster. However, I’m not. I think I’m too old for books about werewolves and angels and that sort of stuff which is popular with teenagers at the moment. I would be happy for Miss S to read this though, as there was only a hint of romance which (unusually) is age-appropriate, and the heroine is an actual heroine, who stands on her own two feet and does battle, for herself and for other people.

Not for me though.




Laurinda by Alice Pung


Australia has some really good writers of Young Adult fiction; John Marsden, Melina Marchetta, Maureen McCarthy and, drum roll please, Alice Pung, who wrote Laurinda.

The heroine of Laurinda, is Lucy Lam, a teenager whose family were refugees from China, via Vietnam. Lucy and her family live in a low socio-economic area, (if anyone else who has read this book is from Melbourne, do you think Lucy’s fictional suburb is modelled on Sunshine?), where Lucy attends the local Catholic school. Lucy’s life changed completely when she won a scholarship to an exclusive girls’ school called Laurinda.

Lucy’s education quickly extended to dealing with privileged school girls, the worst of whom is a social group is known as ‘The Cabinet.’ The trio of girls who make up The Cabinet rule their classmates and horrifyingly, some of their teachers, with some very nasty antics.

Lucy is a great heroine, whose greatest strength is that she is able to see straight to the heart of an issue. Lucy is not indulged in any way at home, instead her parents rely on her assistance to look after her younger brother, to interpret bills and official correspondence and to contribute to the running of their household in a great many other ways. Lucy is portrayed as a respectful and dutiful member of her family and community, although sometimes her values and behaviour become confused when another side of Lucy tries to assert itself.

The contrast between Lucy’s parents, (her mother sews clothing in the garage for below the minimum wage and her father works in a factory) and the parents of other Laurinda girls is extreme. The author gives a lesson about valuing things you work for, in comparison to not appreciating that which you are undeservingly given.

Laurinda is set in the 1990’s, and some of the references to popular culture may seem out-dated eventually, but on the whole, people were the same then as they are now, which is probably not that much different to people at any other time during history.

The lack of understanding of character’s class and race differences is interesting, and is shown when Lucy’s teachers and the parents of her schoolmates fail to appreciate the differences between Lucy’s background and that of other Laurinda students. The reverse is also true, as Lucy’s father thinks a meal of McDonald’s is a wonderful treat for Lucy’s rich schoolmates. Racism is also treated with humour.

In my experience the world is divided up between people who would rather drink rat poison than relive high school and those who remember high school as the high point of their lives. Kurt Vonnegut is quoted in Laurinda saying, “Life is nothing but high school,” but Lucy definitely shows that even if this is all we have to look forward to, she has managed her school experience and prepared for a glorious future by working hard and remaining true to herself.

Laurinda may be aimed at Young Adult readers but I enjoyed the book very much and recommend it as a thought provoking read.

Teen Idol by Meg Cabot


As a diligent aunt, I like to keep up with what my nieces are reading, so took the opportunity to read Teen Idol by Meg Cabot which Miss S has been ploughing through. (Plus, I remember enjoying The Princess Diaries books and movies when my daughter, now grown up, was reading that series at least ten years ago).

Teen Idol was a very enjoyable read, even for a woman in her mid forties. The book is ten years old, but isn’t at all dated. The book is aimed squarely at teenage girls and has a lot of appeal for that age group.

The heroine, Jen Greenley, is a no-nonsense type, who has three big secrets. The first is, she secretly writes the problem page for her school magazine. As ‘Ask Annie,’ she provides advice to her fellow students regarding their romances, parents and relationships with their peers. Jen’s role as a confidante and giver of advice extends to her friends and classmates, who rely on her to smooth over their issues.

Jen’s second secret is that Luke Striker, an incredibly popular heart throb from Hollywood is attending her school to research his next movie role. Luke is in disguise, but Jen is tasked with helping him to stay undercover. Luke didn’t attend school as he was tutored on set as a child, and finds high school to be a place he doesn’t like. He can’t believe there is no coffee, but struggles even more with the bullying that goes on towards susceptible students and teachers.

Not surprisingly, Luke is outed when he takes off his shirt at a car wash, revealing a distinctive tattoo. He is mobbed by groupies and escapes with Jen. Before Luke returns to Hollywood, he pressures Jen to effect social change, by standing up to the bullies and providing more of a hands on approach to helping people rather than just giving them advice.

Jen’s third secret is that she has been in love with Scott Benson since primary school. Scott is the editor of the school magazine and goes out with one of Jen’s friends.

Teen Idol has good values for teens to follow and good advice for girls which are disguised in the story. The book was light and entertaining and I can highly recommend Teen Idol and other books by Meg Cabot to my other high school aged nieces.



The Fault in Our Stars by John Green


WARNING. If you are the type of reader who becomes embarrassed when you realise you have been laughing aloud on the train while you read, then don’t read The Fault in Our Stars by John Green in public, because there is nothing worse than getting to the sad parts, and gulping, sniffing or outright sobbing while your fellow commuters look at you in amusement.

Anyone who isn’t familiar with this young adult novel has probably been living under a rock for the past year.

However, for those who do live under a rock, or who don’t read youth fiction, you are missing out. The Fault in Our Stars is deservedly a best-seller and the movie also very successful. Give this book a go and see if you don’t laugh and cry too.

Hazel Grace is the main character in The Fault in Our Stars. Hazel is living with a terminal cancer when she meets Augustus at a Cancer Kid Support Group meeting. Augustus had a leg amputated from cancer, but is at the meeting to support his friend Isaac, who is about to lose his eyesight following surgery to prevent further spread of his cancer. (I know it all sounds morbid and gruesome so far, but trust me, it is not).

Hazel and Augustus share a sarcastic sense of humour and quickly become friends. Their voices are a lot more grown up and articulate than I expected from 16 and 17 year olds, but in fairness, due to their illnesses, they live in an adult environment. I asked my 12 year old niece, S, who recommended this book to me, if she understood everything in the book, and she said she did, although I suspect a lot of the humour and references went over her head.

Hazel has a favourite book, An Imperial Affliction, which Augustus reads to please her. An Imperial Affliction ends suddenly, leaving unanswered questions, which Hazel is desperate to know the answers to. Augustus tracks down the book’s author and starts an email correspondence with him. Eventually, the author invites Augustus and Hazel to visit him in Amsterdam. Augustus uses his ‘Wish’ from a foundation who grant wishes to sick children to take Hazel to Amsterdam.

Hazel and Augustus travel to Amsterdam, accompanied by Hazel’s mother, to meet with the author. When they arrive they learn the visit was arranged by the author’s assistant, who thought it would be good for him, but the meeting turns out to be a disaster. The author is an alcoholic who does not want to answer Hazel’s questions about his book’s characters. They all become angry with each other, and Hazel and Augustus leave feeling disillusioned.

Up until the visit to Amsterdam, Hazel avoided romance with Augustus, not wanting to leave him hurting when she dies. In Amsterdam though, they become lovers, and Hazel learns that Augustus’s cancer has returned and that it is terminal.

This book is everything a story should be, happy and sad and funny and like all good books, left me feeling inspired by the characters, who were clever and courageous. (Hazel and Augustus were much more than just that, but going on and on about their qualities gets boring).

Perhaps my niece S understood more of The Fault in Our Stars than I thought, as while I was reading her copy I found a note she wrote which said, “page 139. 2nd paragraph. Favourite bit. Start of sentence: We stared at the house for a while.” The paragraph goes on to describe how from the outside, houses look as if nothing is going on, but inside, we live our lives.

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