Weird but wonderful

Title:  Grasshopper Junglegrasshopper

Author: Andrew Smith

Interest Level:  Year 10 +

At the outset it must be said that Andrew Smith is a great story teller, with a gift for straightforward, thought provoking prose. Smith created a protagonist, Austin, who is not just confused about his life and sexuality, but finds himself grappling with the oftentimes strange (and meaningless) coincidences that occur in history. What differentiates this book from other YA fiction is the “genre morphing” that occurs. Initially the reader is so caught up in Austin’s “everyday” story, there is no way they could predict the twist in events (and genre)  that lead to Austin and his friend Robby being partly responsible for humanity’s destruction by “Unstoppable Soldiers” (which bare a striking resemblance to 6 feet tall Praying Mantises). That people from his small town, his country and the world may be abandoned to face brutal deaths barely registers on Austin’s radar, except as commentary in his oftentimes myopic family and town history. Austin has his own, more important issues to sort through: is he in love with Shann? is he in love with Robby?…can he experiment and still be straight? Ironically, he and Robby have the knowledge and power to halt the Unstoppable Soldiers, but they must choose to act. Will they?

This book is quite extraordinary, and a must read (with the warning that the themes and language are appropriate for a mature Young Adult audience) (Year 10+). Grasshopper Jungle is certainly worth the challenge, but readers should prepare to suspend disbelief before they venture into the book.  I’m not entirely sure if the conclusion is hopeful or hopeless, or in fact, whether Austin is in any way likeable. What do you think?

Recommended (ipe): *****

Identity and acceptance

keeping you a secretTITLE = KEEPING YOU A SECRET

AUTHOR = JULIE ANNE PETERS

GENRE = IDENTITY, GAY THEMES, FAMILY, RELATIONSHIPS, FRIENDSHIP

INTEREST LEVEL = YEARS 10 +

Holland Jaeger is in her last semester of school and life seems fairly comfortable: she is popular, athletic, head of the student council, has a charming boyfriend (Seth) and two close girl buddies. Yet beneath the surface, Holland is worried: her mother is nagging her about college applications, which is driving her crazy, and she feels just a tad overwhelmed by her subject load. Why has she even taken on art as a subject and is she really happy with Seth??

But things are about to change for Holland: from the time she first spies the new girl whose locker is across the hall from hers. Cece is different. Out and proud, she is not afraid to advertise her sexuality (with bold T-shirts) and she is keen to start a gay & lesbian club at her new school. Unfortunately, the school may not be ready for Cece and her gay pride. More importantly for Holland, why does she suddenly feel so attracted to this girl – she has had girl crushes before but she has never felt like this?

Forced to examine her feelings and consider her own sexual identity, Holland struggles to be accepted by her friends and family. She is shocked by their reactions and her easy life disappears before her eyes. Will she have the strength to follow her feelings and be true to herself?

This is a moving story about identity, relationships and family. It may be set in an American high school and at times seem a little dated but the characters are credible and the storyline is still relevant for Aussie readers.

Recommended (dma) ****

A thoughtful account of gay life

2 boys kissingTITLE = two boys kissing  

AUTHOR = DAVID LEVITHAN

GENRE = RELATIONSHIPS, HOMOSEXUALITY, ROMANCE, LOSS

INTEREST LEVEL = YEARS 10 -12

As the title suggests, this novel is about two boys kissing, quite literally, but at its heart it is really about relationships and love. Craig and Harry are the 2 boys who have pledged to break the Guinness World Record for the longest kiss. Ex-boyfriends, they are making their world record attempt on the front lawn of their high school. Both boys are openly gay but whilst Harry’s parents are supportive, Craig’s parents are unaware their son is gay … until his Mum stumbles upon them in their record breaking attempt!

Against the background of this kiss, we also watch two other teenaged gay couples: Peter and Neil have been together for a year (again, one with his parents’ full knowledge and consent, the other in a more circumspect situation) whilst blue-haired Ryan and pink-haired Avery have only just met. AS these 3 couples navigate the course of their relationships, it becomes apparent that apart from their feelings for each other, their relationships with their parents and families is quite crucial. So the saddest story thread of all, is that of Cooper, the teenager who can barely come out to himself let alone his peers and parents. His world has narrowed to a unsatisfying virtual existence and readers will be following his story with an ever-growing sense of dread.

Whilst this novel is moving and insightful, it may take a few pages for the reader to feel truly at ease. This is because instead of dipping straight into a delightful David Levithan world of teenage characters with smart and perceptive dialogue, the first voice we hear in this novel is one of commentary, much like a Greek chorus: it gradually becomes apparent that this is the voice of gay men past – those many gay men who were lost to the blight of the AIDS epidemic. So the modern day story of the many and varied gay relationships in “two boys kissing” is filtered through this commentary from gay men of the past. And gradually this voice becomes a more natural part of the overall narrative so that it no longer interrupts the modern story but rather adds greater depth and meaning.

It is 10 years since David Levithan wrote the ground-breaking “Boy meets boy” (read a review here) – and this new novel is very much building upon that first delve into the ups and downs of  gay relationships, the highs and lows of love and life. For more info about David and/or this novel, check out his website.

This book has been Longlisted for the 2014 Silver Inky awards.

Highly Highly Recommended (dma) *****

Boy meets boy

TITLE = BOY MEETS BOY  

AUTHOR = DAVID LEVITHAN

GENRE = RELATIONSHIPS, HOMOSEXUALITY, ROMANCE, LOSS

INTEREST LEVEL = YEARS 9 -12

This novel was acknowledged to be a trend-setter when it was first published, as few Young Adult novels at that time had put gay characters fair and square in the centre of the story, and such a wonderful story, at that. Paul has known that he was gay from a very young age and he has the full support of his caring family, friends and school. So life seems unfailingly good. However, through Paul’s friends, we see that not all gay young men find life so easy: Noah has been badly hurt in a past relationship, Kyle is afraid to acknowledge his own gay sexuality whilst Tony feels he must hide his gay self out of respect for his deeply religious (but loving) parents. As Paul attempts to navigate the path of friendship and burgeoning love, there are moments of laughter and moments of real tenderness. This is a beautifully crafted and uplifting story.

Highly Recommended (Deb Marshall)

An exciting mix of supernatural curses and romance

TITLE = INVISIBILTY

AUTHOR = DAVID LEVITHAN & ANDREA CREMER

GENRE = PARANORMAL, ROMANCE, FAMILY, ADVENTURE

INTEREST LEVEL = YEARS 10 -11

 Stephen has been invisible since birth yet he has somehow managed to eke out an existence in one of the busiest cities in the world: New York. Living on his own since his father fled and his mother died, Stephen is used to spending time with himself, invisibly wandering the city, especially Central Park. IT may be a solitary existence but he has made peace with his lot in life. This peace and quiet is massively disrupted when he discovers that his new neighbour, Elizabeth can actually see him! Elizabeth is battling her own demons: for she is angry at the world since a shocking attack on her gay brother, Laurie, has split up her family and forced Elizabeth, Laurie and her Mum to relocate from small town Minnesota to NYC. Both Elizabeth and Stephen are shy and hesitant when it comes to forming relationships, yet they tentatively reach out to each other.

Then suddenly everything changes: for the characters and for the reader. For once we learn the reason for Stephen’s invisibility the whole genre and pace of the novel changes. Suddenly Stephen and Elizabeth are facing life changing and life threatening odds and we enter a world of magic, spells and curses and nail biting action. Andrea Cremer is well versed in paranormal fiction but this is new territory for David Levithan and one of the charms of this novel is that the chapters that he contributes to the story (those from Stephen’s perspective) are filled with typical Levithan thoughtfulness and reflection.

Ultimately, this is not your everyday paranormal romance… it is much much more… and will leave readers with plenty to think about. Fans of David Levithan may be surprised but many will also be excited by this new direction in his writing.

Check out the authors websites here (David Levithan) and Here (Andrea Cremer ).

Highly Recommended *****         

Learning about life can sometimes be funny

Title  = losing it                                                                                                    

Author = Julia Lawrinson

Genre = Growing up, School, Relationships, Friendship, Homosexuality

Interest Level = Years 11, 12                                                                

Four girlfriends set themselves a challenge in the final year of school: to lose their virginity before schoolies week. Each girl takes it in turns to tell the story of her attempt to meet this challenge. Some stories are outrageously funny, some are tender, some are eye opening. And whilst not all the girls meet the challenge they all learn important lessons: about intimacy, about their own sexuality and about respecting themselves and others.

Due to the explicit focus on sexual themes, this book is more appropriate for more mature readers.

Highly Recommended (dma) *****

Family, friends and first love

TITLE = LITTLE SISTER

AUTHOR = AIMEE SAID

GENRE = FAMILY, RELATIONSHIPS, HOMOSEXUALITY, GAY THEMES

INTEREST LEVEL = YEARS 9 – 12

Allison Miller is tired of playing little sister to her “perfect” elder sibling, Larissa. Larissa who can do no wrong. She is a star in the class room and in the swimming team, a champion debater and, of course, school captain. But the perfect role model that everyone else sees is, in Allison’s opinion, anything but perfect on the home front. As Larissa is completing her final year of study and aiming for a vet course, the Miller household panders to her every whim to ensure Larissa’s chances of success are maximised.

But what happens if a story leaks out that could tarnish the perfect Larissa’s image? And what if the leak is, amazingly, true? Will Allison care about Larissa at all? Or is she only upset that the mud might stick to her, too? Who is being self-centred now??

This is an entertaining and clever story. Not only does sibling rivalry come to the fore in a humorous way but there are also deeper threads to this tale: about homophobia, cyberbullying and growing up.  Thanks to the author’s sharp writing and Allison’s sharp wit, there is no danger of the story being issue drive – it is truly engaging throughout as Allison learns to look at herself and her family with more honest eyes.

Highly Recommended (dma) *****

Learning how to survive life’s obstacles

girl saves boy 2TITLE = Girl saves boy 

AUTHOR = Steph Bowe

GENRE = Growing Up, Families, Friendship, Romance, Relationships

INTEREST LEVEL = Years 9 and up

This is an engaging novel by a new, young author and it has already been well received by many teen readers. In the opening chapter a girl (Jewel) quite literally saves a boy (Sacha) by jumping into the local lake to pull him out. We then discover why Sacha and Jewel were both at the lake in the first place and how, in different ways, they have both experienced rather difficult childhoods. What gradually unfolds is a story of how different people cope with tough times: whether that be a death in the family, a serious illness, or relationship problems. On the surface, there seems to be a lot of death and grief in the lives of the main characters -but the author has cleverly introduced some welcome humour which lightens the mood. The “side kick” characters (especially Al), the subplot about garden gnomes and the breezy dialogue all add a light touch. There is a lot to enjoy in this novel which is told in alternate chapters by Jewel and Sacha… the ending even manages to be somewhat upbeat! 

To learn more about “girl saves boy” or its teenage author, why not have a look at her blog.

Highly Recommended (dma) *****

How one family copes with life’s many challenges

stressheadTITLE =STRESSHEAD

AUTHOR =ALLAYNE WEBSTER

GENRE =FAMILIES, GROWING UP, RELATIONSHIPS

INTEREST LEVEL = YEARS 9 AND UP

The cover may suggest this is a lighthearted read about a drama queen but in fact, it is much more. Denise (or Dennie, to her family and best friends) has a bit of a reputation for being a stresshead  and in the opening pages this seems justified, as she seems obsessed with worry over her exam results and why her boyfriend hasn’t called her for 4 days. So obsessed that she misses the early signs that there is something much more worrying on the radar: her Mum’s possible health scare. And once her Mum’s condition is known, the reader will discover that the novel is as much about families and secrets as it is about resilience and dealing with stress. And it seems that everyone in this novel has a secret!

One of the best parts about the novel is the portrait of Dennie’s family who are wonderfully real: they don’t always say the right thing, they don’t always tell each other the truth and they don’t always behave in the right way (in fact, poor Dennie has to witness her parents having a major tantrum in Maccas!!) As in all families, some members get along better than others. Friends are important too in this novel and Mum’s friend, Clara, is a wonderfully comic and ascerbic character – who can get away with her sharp tongue perhaps because she is a friend (and not family).

Although there are some serious issues in this novel (two minor characters are struggling with gay identity issues and Mum’s health issue could be life threatening) there are also many moments of humour and lightness to provide a refreshing balance to some of these concerns. The novel also ends on a positive and upbeat note.

A delightfully engaging story that should be enjoyed by teen girls in particular.

Highly Recommended (dma) *****

A beautiful and thoughtful picture book

and tango makes 3TITLE = And tango makes three

AUTHORS = Justin Richardson & Peter Parnell

ILLUSTRATOR =  Henry Cole

GENRE = FAMILIES

INTEREST LEVEL = ALL AGES

This is a delightful picture book about families: their differences and their similarities. Roy and Silo are two male penguins who live in Central Park Zoo and are best of friends. They swim and sing and walk together just like all the other penguin couples. And when the other couples make nests and hatch eggs, Ron and Silo try and copy them, sadly without success. Eventually, their keeper, Mr Gramzay takes pity on them and gives them a real penguin egg to hatch, and thus Tango comes into being, making their family unit complete. The softly textured, realistic and detailed illustrations in this picture book complement the gentle story line beautifully. And the Author’s note at the end (explaining the factual basis behind this tale) only adds to the warmth of the whole book. A picture book that is sure to be enjoyed by readers of any age.

A deserving winner of numerous awards.

Highly Recommended (dma) *****