Review: The Road to Winter by Mark Smith

9781925355123It’s always dangerous, in my mind, coming out of the gate with a first novel in an intended young adult series, and immediately comparing it to one of the pinnacles of Australian YA: John Marsden’s Tomorrow series. But that’s precisely what Text Publishing has done with Mark Smith’s The Road to Winter. And y’know what, though I hate to admit that I saw a slither of truth any marketing shtick, I’ve got to say: the comparison, in this case, is earned. But at the same time, it feels like a novel crafted for that same audience – by which I mean, it’s aimed at the ‘older’ end of the YA spectrum, and based on some of its content, is possibly better suited to an adult audience. Which puts me in a tough spot: as a reader, I loved The Road to Winter, would highly recommend it, and reckon you should reserve a copy at your local independent bookshop. As a bookseller, I’m a tad perplexed as to who’d I’d pitch this to. On the one hand: a visceral book about survival, packed with plenty of action, and a dash of romance – perfect for a YA audience! But when it delves into pregnancy and childbirth, I’m suddenly not so sure…

A couple years back, a deadly virus – and the consequent violence – wiped out most of humanity. Sixteen-year-old Finn lost his parents and his whole community, and since then he’s lived alone with his dog Rowdy in his hometown on the coast. He has survived thanks to his father’s preparations, and an uncanny knack for hunting and fishing. Seriously, Bear Grylls has got nothing on this kid. But starvation and injury aren’t the only threats out there: there are other survivors, some of whom don’t care to trade their wares; a particularly nasty crew called the Wilders, led by the ruthless Ramage. So far, Finn’s stayed out of their way, kept to himself, a lonely, but contented existence.

Until! (Because there’s always an until!)

One day Finn comes across a girl on the beach. Her name is Rose, and she is a Siley – an asylum seeker – who is on the run from Ramage. She was on the run with her sister Kas, but the two got split up during their escape, and now she needs Finn’s help to find her. It’s not that Rose is unwilling to do the job herself: she’s just in no condition to be stalking through bushland. So Finn agrees to help this girl she barely knows – and her sister – and in doing so he paints a target on his back. And Ramage isn’t the kind of guy you want hunting you down.

Finn’s a brilliant protagonist: your typical sixteen-year-old Aussie kid who flits between vehement self-assuredness and typical teenage uncertainness. This is a kid who has survived two winters on his own, is obviously very capable and courageous; on the other, he’s wounded by the remnants of the life he once knew, and the death of his parents. He’s tough on the outside, sure – but there’s a sympathetic undercurrent he’s rarely had need to let slip since the virus decimated humanity.

The Road to Winter is unashamedly the start of a longer epic. It sets up the pieces, provides insight into the world, and will leave readers desperate for the next chapter in the characters’ lives. I loved it, and reckon plenty of others will, too – I’m just not sure how many of those readers are going to be in the YA bracket. Could be I’m out of touch with that audience – I am not an avid reader of the genre, and you might well be reading this thinking, You idiot! YA is supposed to push the boundaries! So I guess I’ll wait to see how that audience responds. Hopefully resoundingly – I want sequels!

But removing the bookseller part of my brain, as a reader, who cares nought for genre or intended audience: The Road to Winter is great. Fast-paced, relentless, poignant. What more could you want?

ISBN: 9781925355123
Format: Paperback (234mm x 153mm x mm)
Pages: 240
Imprint: The Text Publishing Company
Publisher: Text Publishing Co
Publish Date: 27-Jun-2016
Country of Publication: Australia

Review: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

Simon Homo Sapiens AgendaSimon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is one of the finest high school romance novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading. It’s an honest, occasionally awkward, sometimes heart-wrenching, often hilarious, and completely captivating portrayal of the complicated lives of teenagers. That the relationship in question is of the same-sex variety underlines the irrelevance of sexual orientation. Becky Albertalli’s debut reminds us that love is true, and pure, and boundless, and that whether you’re gay, or straight, or undecided – however you choose to describe yourself – we all have, or will, struggle through an identity crisis at some point in our lives, as we seek to define ourselves. That’s what binds us together. That’s what unites us.

Ostensibly, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is about a gay teenager – Simon – who comes out to his parents, friends and classmates after his covert correspondence with a mysterious boy is discovered. Albertalli doesn’t take the obvious route, however, and make her story’s focus Simon’s outing. Of course, it’s a vital element, and it’s infuriating witnessing Simon forced to deal with this cruel exposure; but Simon is comfortable with his sexuality, despite uncertainly about how his friends and family will react. He’s not confused about with his sexual identity, but he’s concerned about what it means beyond himself; how the ripples of this revelation might affect, if at all, those he’s closest to.  The more prominent issue on his mind is that of the mysterious ‘Blue’ – his secret anonymous admirer, the boy he’s been emailing on a daily basis for weeks, and who he’s developed quite the crush on.

Simon’s communiqué’s with ‘Blue’ – the banter, the innuendo, the awkwardness – reminded me of my initial contacts with high school crushes. Is the connection mutual? Does she feel the same way about me as I do her? Am I even sure what I’m feeling? I’m acutely aware I’m a teenager, that very special breed of human who is prone to abnormalities. When you’re in love with someone at that age – or perceived love, as is how it often turns out – they become your obsession; other relationships fall to the wayside as you put all your hopes and dreams into this one person. The beauty of Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is how Albertalli depicts the fallout of Simon’s blossoming relationship among his closest friends; in some instances it binds, in other cases it disrupts.

Simon is a wonderful protagonist. He’s equal parts cute, awkward and hilarious, as we all are in our own ways. But we never forget he’s a kid, and at that phase in his life where the brittle pieces that he’s comprised of are hardening; he’s gradually solidifying into the man he’ll turn out to be, and that process involves missteps and miscalculations. Albertalli’s account of these is so true to life, and so emotionally honest. It’s a hugely impressive feat, and such a delightful read.

Penguin Books Australia

Review: We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach

We All Looked UpAn asteroid – Ardor – is set to pass through our orbit, with a 66.6% chance of colliding with the planet, annihilating all life on Earth. This is Armageddon, folks; the real deal. More than ever, we need a hero, ideally of the Bruce Willis variety, to lead an impossible mission and obliterate the meteor before it strikes. And perhaps that’s precisely what the government has planned. Maybe NASA has a contingency for such an event (although I doubt it); a secret stash of nukes, or an untested experimental device that’ll deflect Ardor. A laser defense system. Something. But that’s not what Tommy Wallach’s novel is about. We All Looked Up doesn’t examine the wider picture. It’s not concerned with mankind’s salvation, or our world leaders’ anti-asteroid machinations. Refreshingly, Wallach turns the spotlight on four Seattle-based High School students, whose hopes and dreams threaten to dissipate with their looming demise, and whose separate paths intersect as that damned sparkling speck in the sky approaches. This is an inherently personal story wrapped up in an end-of-the-world plot, and a truly delightful read.

Teenagers live such complicated and convoluted lives, usually of their own making, simply because they don’t know any better. At that stage of life, choices are made based on instinct rather than experience, and more often than not a cooler head is required to navigate life’s challenges. The four characters in We All Looked Up – Peter, Andy, Eliza and Anita – are all manifestations of the different spectrums of young Americans, but Wallach’s too good to allow them to become caricatures of their ‘type.’ If anything, these kids are conscious of their stereotype, and how close they are to becoming typecast in their roles. The approaching apocalypse grants them the freedom to reach beyond these boundaries: to be who they want to be, rather than follow the path they’ve found themselves on.

Wallach handles the YA requisites with aplomb. There’s romance, of course, and friendships forming and straining in these extreme circumstances; heart-warming and heart-wrenching moments punctuate the chapters as the narrative flicks between the four characters, exposing their innermost thoughts. But inevitably there’s a darker edge to We All Looked Up; this is a story about the end of the world, after all. Wallach provides glimpses into the ways in which society is deteriorating, and the malicious turn impending doom forces upon some of the population. Our core quartet is not immune to the evil permeating mankind’s souls, and the culminating pages are heart-wrenching as the reality of their situation hits home: everyone does not make it to D-Day alive.

We All Looked Up was an unexpected pleasure – and I say ‘unexpected’ only because I was dubious about the possibility of another soulless apocalyptic story. Wallach’s novel is certainly not that. It has plenty of depth, and is infused with a wonderful cast. A brilliant debut.

Simon & Schuster Australia

Review: I Was Here by Gayle Forman

I Was HereSuicide and depression demand exploration in fiction. As both subjects become increasingly less taboo – though we’ve some ways to go, societally, to fully acknowledge depression as an illness; a disease, not a pliable outlook on life – writers have penned both heartening and uplifting stories, detailing courageous battles against this invisible enemy, as well as narratives rooted in the reality, that don’t necessarily have a happy ending; or rather, a Hollywood ending, with loose ends all tied up. As a character in Gayle Forman’s I Was Here says: “[Depression] is not something that visits once and disappears.” There’s no full-stop for survivors, just a never-ending battle.

It’s such a challenging subject to adroitly write about; and clumsy execution eradicates any story’s potential potency. Of course, that was never going to be a problem with I Was Here. Forman was proved herself, time and time again, as a wonderful writer, capable of delivering unflinchingly honest portraits of young people’s lives. In this instance, her latest novel focuses on depression, with the suicide of Megan Garcia, friend of Cody, who had no idea how troubled Meg was, and can’t grasp why her supposed best friend didn’t confide in her, or come to her at her hour of need. Forman frames the novel as a mystery, as Cody boldly investigates the death of her best friend, and learns that Meg was in regular contact with a ‘support’ group; the kind that actively encouraged her to end her life rather than put her in contact with professionals who might’ve been able to help. There’s a touch of romance along the way, plenty of self-discovery for Cody, but at its core, I Was Here is a novel rooted in the darkness of depression, and spotlighting its devastating impacts; not just on the sufferer, but on their closest confidants, as well as the wider community.

Importantly, Forman never preaches about the subject. I Was Here is not a sermon wrapped around pretty prose – character remains paramount, and Cody is very real, a young woman who was struggling without her best friend by her side when Meg left for college, and is now simultaneously burdened by the notion she somehow missed a clue, and inconsolable that perhaps Meg never came to her in the first place; in effect, bringing their relationship into question. And with that comes guilt: how can Cody feel betrayed at a time like this? How can she feel like the victim?

I was Here is Gayle Forman at her absolute best. If I Stay set the bar unbelievably high; her latest lifts her up another rung on the ladder. As always, you’ll laugh and you’ll cry, and you won’t be able to stop turning the pages.

Visit Lifeline

Review: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger GamesYou might’ve heard of THE HUNGER GAMES. And lucky you if you’re able to claim you discovered the trilogy before it reached blockbuster status; before Jennifer Lawrence skyrocketed Katniss Evergreen to an unforeseeable stratosphere of stardom. When I first heard of THE HUNGER GAMES I was firmly entrenched in the world of crime fiction. I refused to budge, content in my black hole, my comfort zone of murder and crime. But that was then, and this is now. I’ve expanded my horizons since then; accepted there’s more to fiction than crime, and that countless plaudits for the trilogy can’t be wrong. So, as I made the thirty-something hour flight from New York to Sydney, I grabbed up a dog-eared copy of Suzanne Collins’ first Hunger Games novel. I started it as we taxied down the runaway at Newark, and didn’t stop reading until mid-flight, whereupon I promptly lamented my failure to bring CATCHING FIRE with me.

Truth be told, I found the opening fifty pages slow and ponderous. World-building is essential, of course, but I wasn’t hooked by the world of The Hunger Games. Collins’ prose is rock-solid, however; nothing stylish or obnoxious, she’s clearly just a wonderfully talented storyteller. So I kept reading, kept turning the pages, firmly in neutral; neither loving, nor abhorring the experience: I was on a plane, and this was by book. Whatever I thought of it, I was going to read it.

But then something happened. I’ve spent a couple days wondering what exactly. Tried to identify that moment of ah-ha! when the pages almost started turning themselves, and I lost myself in the narrative. Whatever it was, 50 pages in, it became a mad-dash to the finish, one of those great reading experiences when the rest of the world totally fades away. When the Games begin and the pace ramps up, THE HUNGER GAMES becomes unputdownable, as Katniss desperately fights for survival against a crew of aggressors. Underlining the violence is her very human story; Katniss is an incredibly capable combatant, of course, especially when armed with her bow, but it’s her struggle to cope with the demands of war that makes the story shine. She’s a teenager forced into an unthinkable situation; even when she pulls of spectacular feats, and makes several last-minute-escapes, the extravagance of her accomplishments mean more because by this time Collins has formed Katniss into a fully-formed protagonist.

THE HUNGER GAMES is a fantastic novel. My expectations raised, I now hope the remaining two novels in the trilogy can live up to the first. There’s no doubt I’ll find out very soon: CATCHING FIRE and MOCKINGJAY are atop my reading pile.

Review: If I Stay by Gayle Forman

If I StayWhen I was a kid, during those quiet, contemplative moments reserved for homework, I would often let my mind wander. I was never very good at maths or science, but I was an A-level procrastinator. On several occasions I wondered what life might be like if:

a) I suddenly ceased to exist
b) I never existed at all

These were never depressive thoughts; I never pondered the futility of life, or questioned the reason for my existence. These were very base-level scenarios I concocted; alternate realities I imagined and bared witness to. In some, I passed away from a long illness and imagined what people might say on my deathbed (morose, I know); in other situations, I died heroically, and my tombstone would be emblazoned with the ‘Superman’ insignia.

Looking back, it’s a fascinating insight into my mentality at the time. I was always a very reserved, introverted person: these scenarios were ways to boost my ego, at least in my own mind; how would a lack of me alter the histories of the people in my life? Or would it at all? Had I made that little of an impression, my non-existence would be like water off a ducks back?

In Gayle Forman’s novel IF I STAY, Mia’s world is shattered in an instant, leaving her in a transitory ethereal state, bearing witness to events around her as her friends and family cope with the devastating loss. As they surround her hospital bed, Mia watches and listens, struggling to decide whether she should leave that world of pain behind. If she wakes, life will never be the same; is that truly a life she wants to return to?

IF I STAY is a short, achingly emotional story; equal parts love story and tragedy. At its heart, it is about family, and its importance in our lives; how we struggle with the burden of their expectations, but cherish those moments when we reach, and better them. How that familial bond is unbreakable; no matter how divisive our personalities are, no matter how much of an outcast we might feel like, we are united. This is a novel that reminds us how important we are to each other, and how we should take every moment we can to emphasise that.
Mia’s choice is a heart-breaking one, and we come to understand, and accept, her decision through multiple flashbacks, expounding on the various relationships in her life. These relationships feel genuine, which makes the journey to Mia’s ultimate decision all the more affecting.

IF I STAY is poignant and touching; a novel that dredged long-suppressed memories from my youth, and reminded me how much we all have to live for, no matter how much we lose, or how painful our individual journeys can be. Forman’s prose isn’t as heavy-handed as that; she doesn’t preach to the reader, and there is every chance I am reading too much into it. But that’s why we read stories, and that’s why fiction plays such a vital role in our lives; every readers experience is different and equally true. I’m just sorry I didn’t read the novel years ago.

Review: Let’s Get Lost by Adi Alsaid

Get LostLET’S GET LOST is a personal, affecting story about a young girl named Leila, whose road trip across the country to see the Northern Lights touches the lives of four teenagers, each of whom is experiencing a personal crisis, which Leila addresses either directly or indirectly, depending on their circumstances.

Adi Alsaid’s debut is magnificently framed; Leila begins the novel as an enigma, as we’re introduced to her through the eyes of Hudson, a small town mechanic who seems destined for supposed ‘greater’ things, despite being contended with his lot in life. He’s immediately infatuated with this girl, who laughs at his jokes, understands his sentiments even when he can’t eloquently enunciate them. But with Leila determined to see the Northern Lights, it seems their meeting is fated to be a fleeting moment in time – because soon she’s on the road again, driving past Bree, who’s standing by the side of the road in the baking sun, thumb pointing at the sky. Bree is a runaway with a wild side; determined to do whatever she wants, whenever she wants, under the guise of ‘seizing the day.’ Of course, living in such a manner has consequences on those around her…

Then Leila is off again, on a collision course – literally – with Elliott, who has just blurted out his love for his best friend at prom, who promptly swatted him into the ‘friend zone.’ Leila’s determined to enable a second chance for the young man, and the two plot contingencies, with simultaneously hilarious and heart-breaking consequences. But before long, Leila’s is off again, this time meeting Sonia, whose soul mate passed away months ago, and is now struggling to come to terms with the feelings she has for another man; is love really that transitory? Or were her feelings never truly that strong?

Leila’s impression on each of these lives is startling, demonstrating the impact the smallest act of friendship or mere cordiality can have on those around us. LET’S GET LOST is essentially a feel-good novel punctuated by moments of anguish; Leila’s story is a heat-breaking one, making her determination to enrich the lives of those around her even more astonishing. The final section of the book finally reveals Leila’s backstory, and ties the overarching threads of the novel together seamlessly; I was left smiling, a warm, fuzzy feeling radiating from my soul, desperate to demonstrate a random act of kindness to the person closest to me, and hopeful someone like Leila might be in my midst.

LET’S GET LOST is a phenomenal debut; a novel I’ll treasure for a long time to come.