The Smell of Other People’s Houses – Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock

This book is on the shortlist for the Carnegie this year, and my first one on the list! It’s quite a small one so a good introduction to the shortlist.

The  book is set in Alaska in 1970 and has four main narrators: Ruth, Dora, Alyce and Hank. Ruth lives with her grandmother and her sister. Her father was killed in a plane crash when she was five and her mother has disappeared. Her sister, Lily was a few days old when their mother went AWOL and her grandmother has brought them both up. In 1970, Ruth is 16, as are all the main characters.

Dora lives with her mum who is an alcoholic. Her father is in prison for smashing up a bar when he was drunk. There is some kind of abuse going on here which is alluded to but not talked about openly. It gets so bad that she moves in with her neighbour, who for some reason is called Dumpling. Her family is much is nicer but Dora feels that she won’t be allowed to stay with them.

Alyce’s parents are divorced. She lives in Fairbanks with her mum but goes salmon fishing with her dad every summer for a few months. The trouble is that she wants to be a ballerina and the trials for her to get a scholarship at university are also in the summer. She hasn’t told her dad that that’s her dream so she sacrifices her place and goes with him.

Hank has two brothers. His dad is also a fisherman but has disappeared, presumed dead. His mum has met someone else that they don’t get on with him so they decide to run away. They stow away on the local ferry which will take them to the mainland when disaster strikes.

All four main characters are connected, or will be by the end of the book but Ruth is the more dominant narrator and her story is implied rather then spelt out.

The connections in this book, although clever, felt a bit too coincidental for me. I really enjoyed the storyline though, I learnt something about what it was like to live in Alaska in the 1970s and how hard it must have been. The different local communities are battling against the weather and the government and Alaska was officially made a US state in 1959. Ruth’s father was fighting against this when he was killed. There is some friendship stuff in  there and Ruth’s situation felt a little bit archaic to me  but….

All in all a good book to start off with. The characters fitted together nicely and the end was good. It left me with a warm fuzzy feeling, but that may have been the tea!

The Hawkweed Prophecy – Irena Brignull

The Hawkweed Prophecy by Irena Brignull is the first in a series about two girls who have a strange connection. One lives in a coven in the woods with other witches, and no men. The other lives with her Dad and moves around a lot. It soon becomes clear that they move around so much because the girl, Poppy has problems settling in at school. Things seem to happen around her.

Poppy and Ember have been switched at birth. Poppy is living with her dad and moves a lot. Ember lives with her mother Charlock Hawkweed and the rest of the coven. The coven is led by her aunt Raven. There is a prophecy that one of the Hawkweed daughters will become Queen of the Witches and that means that it will either be Ember or her  cousin Sorrel.  Raven is determined that it will be her daughter, hence the reason that Poppy and Ember were swapped. Ember has little or no magical powers and there is no real possibility that she will ever be queen.

Poppy is on her 11th school and is struggling with the fact that her mum is in a mental hospital. Her mum is there because she has rejected Poppy and claims that she is not her daughter. Poppy is understandably struggling with this and doesn’t get on too well with her dad either; he is getting fed up with all the moving. Strange things happen when Poppy gets annoyed and most of the schools she has been in have asked her to leave.

One day the two girls meet in the woods by chance. They have no idea that they are connected but form an instant bond with each other. Poppy starts to talk about the outside world and Ember longs to be a part of it. Although she is not allowed the talk to ‘chaffs’ (non magical people) about the coven, she finds herself telling Poppy bits and pieces and lends her some of her books about spells. Poppy soon realises that there is more to their connection then either of them thought.

The other main character in the book is Leo, a boy who lives on the streets. Poppy meets and forms a connection with him and he helps her through some stuff with her cats. Leo has had a hard time and is living in fear of his stepdad and stepbrothers. Leo plays an important part in the lives of both the girls and, without giving too much away, will definitely make an appearance in the next book.

The book has some great elements in it; magic, jealousy, love and revenge. The strong female characters are refreshing to read about, and the idea of a load of ladies living in the woods making potions is kind of cool! As Poppy’s magic grows and she becomes more sure of her abilities she becomes a likeable person that we can identify with. Ember is a little too soft for my liking, but I think this might change later.

All in all a good book that you will enjoy and will keep you guessing. There are some violent elements to it but this is in context and the whole waiting to be queen thing will hopefully be fleshed out a bit more in the next  book, along with the East witches who turn in to big cats. Did I mention that there was people changing in to animals as well?

Further reading: The Thirteen Treasures series by Michelle Harrison, Harry Potter (obviously!) The Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard – basically anything with magic in!

Hitler’s Daughter – Jackie French

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Some of you may have read this already but it was recommended to me by some year 8 girls so I thought I would give it a quick read. And quick it is, at 135 pages it’s very short.

The author of this book is Australian but it took me a while to realize that the  book is set in Australia! Anyway, it is. So, the main premise of the book is this; a bunch of kids who live out on farms get the bus to school together every day. One of them, Anna, is good at telling stories. Little Tracey (not to be confused with Big Tracey who lives down the road) was scared on her first day and Anna told her a story, they all realized that she was really good at it and got her to tell more. This one however, is different. The main narrator is a boy called Mark who lives with his parents on a farm. The weather seems to be permanently dreadful and they are all worried about flooding!

Anna tells the story of Heidi. Heidi is Hitler’s secret daughter. She is a secret because she has a strawberry birthmark on her face and a limp and is  not the perfect German daughter that Hitler wants. He still visits her sometimes though and she is looked after by Fraulein Gelber who does everything for her. She has never left the house that she lives in and has everything that she needs, even though there is a war on. She has only seen her father, or Duffi, a handful of times but she knows that he is her father and that he is important to Germany.   Duffi comes to see her one day and gives her a doll but she can sense that things are not going well. Fraulein Gelber and some other ladies that work in the house are starting to get bad news from the front about their family. The cook’s sister, who was disabled, has been taken away, Heidi is confused about Jewish people.

Towards the end of the war she is taken to another house in the country where she meets Frau Lieb. Fraulein Gelber is increasingly distracted by the loss of her family and so Heidi spends a lot of time with the farmer’s wife. This is an interesting bit as it gives you some insight into the way that the German people lived during the war. She doesn’t really have any contact with her father and but she starts to enjoy the simple life, adopting rabbits and getting involved with the farm.

Meanwhile back in the real world, Mark and his friends are anxious to learn more about Heidi. He asks his parents and his teachers various questions about whether children should just follow their parents blindly or whether they are to blame for their parents decisions. He gets increasingly caught up in Heidi’s world and is desperate to find out what happened. Anna seems more reluctant to tell this story, but it is more detailed than the others. Almost like it’s real.

The book is short and to the point and probably for younger readers but it does pose some interesting questions. Are you responsible for the actions of your parents, even when they are the biggest mass murderer in history? Are we what our parents make us or do we have a  choice about what sort of adult we become?

I had an enjoyable hour spent reading this, give it a go if you want to boost your reading lists and feel like something different.

Side Effects May Vary – Julie Murphy

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This book makes me have conflicting emotions. The main character, Alice, has discovered that she has leukemia and only has months to live. Her childhood friend, Harvey, decides to care for her while hiding his feelings, that he is hopelessly in love with her, even though she has been totally ignoring him for the last couple of years. The trouble is that Alice isn’t very nice. In fact, she is a total user who knows that Harvey is in love with her and will do anything she asks.

It all starts with an unfortunate incident where Alice and her boyfriend Luke sneak out of school and go back to Alice’s house. They see something that they weren’t meant to see and Alice swears Luke to secrecy. Unfortunately he is also seeing Alice’s frenemy Celeste and the next day everyone knows. When Alice is diagnosed and realizes that she is not going to make it, she makes a bucket list of revenge. She dumps Luke and gets revenge on both him and Celeste, as well as doing some other stuff like sneaking in to an abandoned camp and smoking pot.

Then, the unthinkable happens. Just as she thinks that she is on her last legs and got all the revenge out of her system, a visit to the doctor’s tells her that she has gone in to remission. She no longer has cancer and is going to live. She finds out the night after Harvey has told her that he loves her. She says it back and then realizes that she is not ready for that kind of commitment and panics.

As she recovers and goes back to school she starts to ignore poor old Harvey and he is in total turmoil. Then she takes up with another boy (can’t remember his name but it doesn’t matter, he isn’t around for long) and Harvey finds out. He tells her enough is enough and goes off with someone else. I won’t spoil the ending but, suffice to say, I still feel conflicted. Alice is not a nice person. Harvey is a nice person but a total doormat. I don’t think that Alice really cares about anyone except herself, and the problem is that because she is dying everyone thinks they should feel sorry for her. There is a really horrible incident towards the end where the people she has been really mean to get their revenge on her, and I just kind of felt that she deserved it! Anyway, you read it and decide what you think.

It’s a good book because it makes you ask yourself whether you would do the same thing in her shoes. If you knew you were dying would you get back at people or would you let the bitterness go and fundraise or something. I like to think I would do good things  but, I’m pretty sure I would give some people some home truths as well! But also, just because you think you should feel sorry for someone, if they are as horrible as Alice is, do you still need to be nice to them?

Dreaming The Bear – Mimi Thebo

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This is a quick, enjoyable read. Darcy is the main narrator but there are some sections in italics, not sure who is narrating these, maybe the bear! Anyway, Darcy lives with her mum and dad and her brother Jem in Yellowstone National Park where her dad is working on a research project. They used to live in a proper town but her dad has  been offered a position working in the park and has moved them all there, Darcy is not very happy with this. Her mum is also working on some research thing and her brother Jem is older than her and goes to the local high school. She is supposed to be going there too but has been really ill with pneumonia and is off sick. She is recovering and must do a certain amount of exercise every day to build up the strength in her lungs. She goes out one day and starts walking through the snow. She is taken ill and has an encounter with a bear who looks after her. The bear also has something wrong with it and she has a kind of out of body experience.

Darcy is also a little bit in love with a boy in her brothers class called Tony Infante. As Darcy struggles with her illness she builds a connection with the bear and she starts to feed her. The bear has an injury in her shoulder and is stuck in a cave up an incline that she can’t get down  from. She is also really annoyed with her dad and her mum has gone away to a conference  and left them to it. Then a storm hits.

Darcy, Jem, Tony and their dad are stuck in their house and all confined to one room. This is a little intimate for Darcy but it means that she can get closer to Tony. After the storm Darcy and her dad go down to town and after a few more  trips they realize that when she is down in town she is much better. Eventually one of the research assistants works out the connection.

This  book is a nice easy read and, although it doesn’t look like much, it is quite enjoyable. It is also on the Carnegie longlist for this year and I can see why. It won’t take you long and that’s quite satisfying!

If I Was Your Girl – Meredith Russo

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If I Was Your Girl is essentially a love story between a boy and a girl. The problem is that the girl used to be a boy. And the boy doesn’t know.

Amanda is leaving her old life behind and goes to live with her dad after an incident at school where she is badly beaten up. Her parents divorced when she was six. Her dad was a typical ex navy tough guy who wanted to teach his son baseball and his son wanted to do baking instead. ‘Andrew’ finally gets the courage to tell his mum that he wants to be a girl and she supports him through the process. He eventually has gender reassignment surgery but cannot seem to mix in at school. The other kids obviously knew him from before and he is mercilessly bullied. Eventually they decide that he should go and stay with his/ her dad who he hasn’t seen since the divorce.

At her new school, Amanda has never been Andrew and has no intention of telling anyone her secret. She is immediately chatted up but the local football team including a guy called Grant who is talking to her on behalf of his friend Parker. Amanda just wants to keep her head down and get on with school but, and this is mentioned many times over the course of the book, she is very attractive and can’t help getting male attention.

She falls in with a group of girls and meets another girl, Bee, in her art class who is bi sexual. She then figures out that Bee has something going with Chloe, who is in her friendship group but neither of them want anyone to know. This is small town America and people who are different are singled out. This reinforces Amanda’s desire to not tell anyone what is going on with her. But, her  friends are really nice and she starts to live the life she has always dreamed of. She goes to parties, meets boys and generally does girlie things.

Amanda and Bee are supposed to take an art class together but the teacher is off sick and they have never covered it. They hang out and smoke dope and generally relax. Eventually Amanda tells Bee her secret and then things start to unravel. In the meantime, Amanda is falling in love with Grant. Grant is a lovely guy who really makes her feel special, but she doesn’t feel that she can tell him the truth, she is worried about his reaction. So she leaves it and lets the relationship continue. Her dad is also concerned about it, considering he was hoping that she would stay out of trouble. The ending is as you would expect but it is no less brutal for that.

Meredith Russo is transgender and has been living as a woman since 2013. I have read quite a lot of books recently about young people and how they are struggling with their sexuality. Some are good. Some are really not! In fact, there is a comment from Alex Gino on the back of the book and I really did not like their book, George (see review).

What I liked about this book was that it was so normal. Girl meets boy, they fall in love and should live happily ever after. You get glimpses of what Andrew’s life was like, the choices he makes, the support group and the number of people who can’t live with the prejudice and commit suicide. But, at the end of the day, Amanda is a someone who has already lived through a lifetime of pain and misunderstanding, and she is only 17. The subject was dealt with in a sensitive but truthful way, there will always be people in the world who hate what they don’t understand, and that’s just down to ignorance. I’m not sure that in this country they would allow a young person to go through all the surgery etc. at such a young age but he obviously felt it was the right thing for him. It’s a great book with a really important message that makes you think about the characters long after you have finished the book, and it gives me hope that the future is a more tolerant and welcoming place.

Beautiful Broken Things – Sara Barnard

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I read this just after reading WAAMOM and that was quite light. This one is not! In fact, it was so intense I read it quickly just to get it over with. If you are feeling in a dark mood try not to read this book, pick something a little more fluffy instead.

Caddy and Rosie are best friends. Best friends who have known each other for 10 years and speak every day. The kind of best friend that you can have when you’re a kid because nothing else gets in the way. They go to different schools, Caddy goes to a posh private school called Esthers while Rosie attends the local comp. They have friends at school but they see each other every weekend and know each other inside out. They are just entering their final year at school and both are working hard. Rosie mentions a new girl who has started at her school, Suzanne, and they quickly become friends. Caddy is a bit bothered by this but once she meets Suzanne they become friends too.

Caddy and Rosie live in Brighton and this is where the book is set. There is a lot of scenes on the beach and cold, pebbly conversations. Suzanne has grown up in Reading and moved to Brighton to live with her aunt, Sarah. Caddy is intensely curious about this and eventually pieces some stuff together to find out why she doesn’t live with her family. It’s quite serious stuff and Suzanne is one seriously damaged person. She seems to be on a bit of a destructive path and Caddy feels that she needs something to happen in her life.  Her three goals for the year are: to lose her virginity, get a boyfriend (not necessarily connected) and have a big life event happen to her.

As their friendship develops things start to make more sense. Suzanne has been through a few terrible things and her aunt has saved her and brought her home with her. Suzanne, although grateful, doesn’t really want to tow  the line though. She is constantly getting in to trouble at school and through Rosie, Caddy discovers that she is seeing a boy called Dylan, and sleeping with him. Caddy is a kind hearted, naïve girl and thinks that she can save Suzanne. Suzanne needs professional help and leads Caddy on a path of destruction. Rosie sees the truth of what’s going on and tries to warn Caddy but, Caddy is hell bent on fixing Suzanne.

The dynamic between the three girls was a bit off to me. Rosie and Caddy were best friends but both seemed content to let the other one spend loads of time with Suzanne. Rosie must have known that things were not good with Suzanne but doesn’t really discuss it with Caddy, who goes off on this path with Suzanne which ultimately leads to disaster.

I met the author of this book the other day and she said that Suzanne is her favourite fictional character. I can see why because she could write some crazy stuff about her but, I was a  teenage girl once and know how intense friendships can be. I was in a friendship group where another girl was introduced and it wasn’t good. I just felt that Rosie and Caddy may not have been as close as they should have been and that  coloured the other characters for me. I liked Rosie  but Caddy was a total wet weekend to me….. In Brighton! Her friendships with her school mates wasn’t really explored either, which made me feel a bit sad for her because she poured all her efforts into her friendship with Rosie and then didn’t feel very comfortable about socializing with Rosie’s other friends. Even though she eventually was the reason that Suzanne  got the help she needed, she didn’t get the support that she needed to have a better life. I wanted her to enjoy life a bit more, but she didn’t seem to.

A good book, really thought provoking and made me remember how intense those friendships and feelings were. I just felt it needed something more. I am looking forward to reading her next book  though, A Quiet Kind of Thunder which has just been published.

We Are All Made of Molecules – Susan Nielsen

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We Are All Made of Molecules  was one of the books available as part of the Booktrust box of books, another great selection this year and I read it as part of my book club with year 8.

Stewart and his dad live together in their house which, until recently, also contained Stewart’s mum. A year before the book is set, she died. Stewart is a highly intelligent 13 year old and attends the Little Genius School for gifted children. He is very clever.

Ashley lives with her mum, her dad lives in a little house in the garden (apparently it’s called a laneway house) because he has  decided that he is gay. Ashley is not the brightest button in the box and is mortified by this. She is, as she describes it, at the top of the social ladder and is always worrying about her position on it. She is desperate to keep the fact that her dad is gay a secret.

Their worlds collide when Stewart’s dad starts dating Ashley’s mum and they decide  to move in together. Stewart and his dad move in with Ashley and her mum and Ashley is super not happy about it. To make things worse (for her) Stewart decides to move from Little Gifted to the same high school as Ashley.

Stewart is not the most popular kid in school, but Ashley is the Queen Bee. She resents everything he says and does and doesn’t really want anyone to know that they know each other. Stewart starts to get bullied by the new boy, Jared, and Ashley fancies him. Stewart overhears a conversation about Ashley and decides to help get them together. This will also help with Jared trying to pull Stewart’s shorts down in PE (it must be a boy thing!). Jared is almost as unpleasant as Ashley so they deserve each other.

I loved the split narrative of this book. Stewart’s voice was warm and funny, Ashley was horrible and really made me dislike her. I could understand that they both had issues but I felt that Stewart was far more willing to compromise. Ashley was a bit of a spoilt brat. She does get her comeuppance in the end but it still left me thinking that she was horrible. Stewart is obviously on the Autistic spectrum and is very literal. But what a lovely boy he is, and the way he manages his life is really great.

This is a fun short read and it will help you appreciate the finer points of families coming together in these situations. It is also a good book club choice as there are a few things to discuss here. Most notably, Ashley and her relationship with her dad and Stewart and his obsession with molecules! You will like Stewart though, he’s one of the good guys.

Highly Illogical Behaviour – John Corey Whaley

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This book revolves around three characters; Solomon, Lisa and Clark. Solomon is a reclusive agoraphobic with severe anxiety disorder and, at seventeen, has not left his house for over three years. Lisa is a girl from his middle school who remembers him having a breakdown in the school fountain on his last day of school. Clark is Lisa’s boyfriend. There are other incidentals; Solomon’s grandma is my favourite character in the book, when you read it you’ll see why.

Lisa wants out of Upland, California. She thinks it’s a dead end place and her future is brighter than that. Her plan is to get into the second best psychology course in the country with a full scholarship. In order to do this she needs to write an essay about her personal experience with mental illness. She decides that her essay will be about Solomon, primarily her saving Solomon and making him ‘normal’ again. The snag is, she’s not going to tell Solomon she’s doing it.

She does tell Clark though, and he agrees to go along with it. She discovers that Solomon is warm and intelligent and fun to be with – and gay. As they become closer she realizes that Solomon has a lot in common with Clark and asks him if Clark can come over too. A strong friendship develops between the three of them and they spend most of their time together. Lisa starts to have doubts about the paper but thinks it all a means to an end so she continues with it. Clark meanwhile, is not happy at all.

Stuff happens that I can’t tell you about but needless to say, the ending is kind of predictable. The book deals with some big issues. Mental health and sexuality are the two big ones but there are other sub themes as well. The relationships with the young people and God are explored too. Lisa’s best friend Janis is religious and goes to a religious summer camp; Clark and Lisa don’t have sex and his mum is also religious so that may be the cause, not that they have discussed it all!  Lisa assumes that her relationship with Clark is a. normal and b. strong enough to withstand anything but really it’s a relationship based on non information and assumptions; the consequences of which will hurt Solomon as well as them. Solomon, on the other hand, almost makes  you want to just stay at home and never leave; his life is definitely pretty easy. With the inclusion of friends though, it starts to make him question why he has made the decision to leave the outside world behind.

Essentially Solomon won’t change and, although Lisa does make some breakthroughs, his problems are bigger than she can solve. She comes to realize that Solomon needs a lot of help to change and, most importantly, he must want to change his life – and he really doesn’t want to!

This is a quick and thought-provoking read which will introduce you some nice characters that will stay with you for a while. Everyone would probably like a break from the madness of life, but where’s the fun in that?!

Further Reading: Noggin by John Corey Whaley

What Light – Jay Asher

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This is a good book to read at Christmas time. Sierra and her family live on a Christmas tree farm in Oregon. Once a year for a month they go to California where they have a tree lot where they sell the trees. This has happened every year since Sierra was born. She has two sets of friends, Liz and Rachel in Oregon who she spends most of the year with, and Heather in California who she only gets to spend a month with. Liz and Rachel are a bit clingy and the first couple of chapters see them prepare gifts for Sierra and tell her how sad they are that she is going. She will miss them too but she also misses Heather and her family and can’t wait  to see them. The tree lot has also  been in her family for two generations and is under threat because they don’t make enough money from it. Sierra doesn’t want this to happen.

You don’t get much background on Sierra, just what’s going on at the time; you do find out that she has had boyfriends before but the only mention of it is that she only does worthy relationships and doesn’t see the point of just dating.

When she arrives in California we meet Andrew, a guy who works on the tree lot and asked her out last year. He is a bit of a nasty piece of work; don’t like Andrew! Sierra’s dad doesn’t let her go out with any of the boys that work on the lot, even though she must be about 17, and makes them do horrible chores if they so much as look at her. Heather also has a new boyfriend called Devon who she is planning on dumping after Christmas, he’s boring apparently.

After a couple of days of setting up, a cute boy with dimples appears and buys a tree. She describes the boy to Heather who immediately tells her that this is Caleb, and he’s bad news. When he appears the next day and they start talking Sierra decides she wants to give him a chance and find out more.  Sierra and Caleb start to see more of each other and she slowly teases out of him what’s  going on. I won’t spoil it for you but it’s a bit random. She also discovers that he is buying Christmas trees out of his own pocket and delivering them to people who can’t afford to buy their own. As  they slowly fall for each other (given that she is only in town for a month it took them ages to kiss!) she needs to decide whether the Caleb she knows now can make up for the rumours she has heard about the old Caleb.

This is a quick read at just under 250 pages and it was nice enough to keep me interested until the end. I didn’t really feel any emotional attachment to any of the characters although, the end did make me a bit teary! If you like a bit of cheesy romance at Christmas  time  then this is the perfect book for you – and a very different feel to 13 Reasons Why which was quite depressing!

PS> the only thing that really blew my mind was that afterwards, when looking for a picture of the cover photo, I discovered that Jay Asher is a man! I really wasn’t expecting that given that the main character in this  book is a girl and it’s written so well. It did explain why Sierra was a little emotionless though, and the description of feelings wasn’t really there. Still, it was well written and enjoyable.