• Books and reading,  Children's & Young Adult Books,  Uncategorized

    Teenage troubles & own voices: ‘Sabiha’s Dilemma’ & ‘Alma’s Loyalty’ by Amra Pajalić 

    Perhaps YA (Young Adult) fiction should come with a trigger warning for any older adult reader. It can prompt memories of steering one’s own teens through that fraught period and offer a glimpse of what young people get up to when the adults are not watching. At its best, YA fiction can also invoke empathy in the reader, since most of us can remember some things about our youthful lives that we might prefer to keep quiet about.

    With Amra Pajalić’s Sabiha’s Dilemma and Alma’s Loyalty, readers get an added bonus. She draws on her Bosnian cultural heritage to write ‘own voices’ stories that will resonate with young people navigating the spaces between culture, religion, tradition, family and friends.

    Sabiah and Alma’s stories are narrated in first person, so we experience events and people through their eyes, while also seeing the interconnections between the characters. They are both teenagers from Bosnian Muslim families, and the novels allow readers to learn more about their cultural and political backgrounds.

    For example, when members of the adult Bosnian community get together, they talk about the war in the Balkans, and their expectations as to how their children should behave. Sabiha is sent to weekend Islamic classes to learn about proper behaviour for a Bosnian Muslim girl. She also learns about Bosnia’s past from her grandfather. Alma’s parents cannot accept her friendship with a gay boy, a fellow student at her new school. And they would certainly not condone her sneaking out to attend parties or be with her secret boyfriend.

    Layered in with these teen troubles is the fact that Sabiha and Alma are half-sisters, and Alma has only just learnt of Sabiha’s existence. The shock news threatens to tear her close family apart. Sabiha’s mother struggles with mental illness and wants desperately to be accepted back into the Bosnian community – with implications for her daughter’s freedom.

    Both girls experience the awfulness of broken friendships and betrayal, which can be devastating at a time of life when friendships and peers are so important.

    And of course, there is the age-old tension between boys and girls, who are trying to work out how to behave as the young men and women they are rapidly becoming.

    The novels explore the ways in which teens find and use ways to avoid, erase, or deal with the challenges of growing up:

    I wanted to be someone else and forget about all the things that were bringing me down, and Alex did that. He made me feel good… He’d become my port in the storm, the one place I didn’t have to worry about secret subtexts or hidden agendas.

    Alma’s Loyalty p186

    If the novels were movies, there would certainly be moments where I’d want to cover my eyes as potential disasters loom. Thankfully, both Sabiha and Alma are characters with grit, determination and agency mixed in with the teenage angst and confusion. The love and support of important people in their lives certainly helps, too.

    These are Books 1 and 2 in the Sassy Saints Series, which together will explore the experiences of six young people in Sabiah and Alma’s world. YA readers will find much to recognise in their stories.

    Sabiha’s Dilemma and Alma’s Loyalty are published by Pishukin Press in 2022.

    My thanks to the author and publisher for review copies.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Homage to the mistress of crime: ‘The Agathas’ by Kathleen Glasgow & Liz Lawson

    Alice and Iris are teenagers who inhabit different worlds, despite both being students at Castle Cove High School. Iris comes from a struggling single mother family and is seemingly invisible to Alice’s crowd, nicknamed the ‘Main Kids’ by Iris’ crowd (the ‘Zoners’, who include punks, nerds, hippies and dance team.) The Mains are the kids from wealthy backgrounds. ‘Glossy and full of health and money, they ooze easy life.’

    When Alice’s erstwhile best friend Brooke disappears, the community is in uproar. Brooke had been dating Alice’s ex-boyfriend and things had become messy. So messy, in fact, that when Steve left Alice for Brooke last summer, Alice had disappeared for five days.

    Brooke’s disappearance is being treated by the local police as ‘copycat’ – until her body is found at the base of cliffs on the edge of town. Steve, the boyfriend, is arrested for her murder.

    Neither Alice nor Iris believe that Steve is guilty. They are thrown together as they begin to put pieces of the mystery together, guided by Alice’s collection of the complete works of Agatha Christie.

    This novel will appeal to young adult readers of mystery and crime fiction. There are amusing commentaries on high school cliques and social stratifications that I’m sure will resonate with readers (of any age) who can recall their own high school experiences. More contemporary references to the impact of social media and local gossip will also be familiar, especially the way social media invites everyone to weigh in with their uninformed views and personal agendas.

    While the story is mostly light-hearted, it has some darker themes: family violence is one; the tendency of adults to patronise youngsters and discount girls’ abilities another.

    Something that hurts, to be honest. I mean, we live with it every day. In class, on the street, everywhere. Teachers not calling on you but calling on boys. Cluck-clucking at our clothes and makeup. The eyes of men when I just want to buy a stupid cup of coffee at Dotty’s Doughnuts. That cop at the police station, Thompson.

    The Agathas p123

    In the end, under all the mystery and drama, the story is one about friendship, especially how, if people can look beyond their assumptions and prejudices, true friendship can develop.

    And the pithy quotes from Mistress of Crime, Agatha Christie, are exactly on point.

    A fun ‘whodunit?’ for young adult readers, with food for thought throughout.

    The Agathas is published by Harper Collins in May 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  Children's & Young Adult Books

    Teenagers’ dreams and parents’ worries: ‘Can’t Say it Went to Plan’ by Gabrielle Tozer

    At the risk of giving away my age, I can safely say that when I finished high school, the end-of-school phenomena known in Australia as ‘schoolies week’ did not exist. My cohorts and I celebrated the completion of our formal school years by outings to the local public pool and a restaurant dinner. Not with youth hostel (or five star) accommodation at a resort, youth oriented all night parties, dances and concerts, and all the other accoutrements that make up many a young Australian’s schoolies week.

    A cross between a let-your-hair-down relief from the pressures of final school studies and exams, and a first step into the adult world without parental supervision, schoolies week is something that many young people dream of (and their parents have nightmares about).

    Can’t Say it Went to Plan is a new young adult (YA) novel which follows the schoolies experience of three very different young people and their friends and family. Zoe, Samira and Dahlia have each planned the perfect schoolies week, but of course they also bring with them their individual concerns and preoccupations: anxiety and grief, parental expectations and sibling rivalry, boyfriend troubles, worries about their next steps in life. With alternating viewpoints, the author captures these perfectly along with the language and internal dialogue of this age group.

    I cringed a lot reading this novel in recognition of the all-consuming self centredness of many youngsters and also, winced at the inevitable mistakes made by each of the three protagonists as they navigate their way through the ups and downs of a week in which plans are turned upside down. Parents may well turn green reading some of what they get up to, but in the end, the mistakes are not too disastrous and each character learns from their experiences.

    Ultimately the novel is about what is really important: friendships and family, courage, perseverance and hope. By the novel’s end, the three girls’ trajectories meet, if only briefly, and they are able to reflect on what they’ve learned from their schoolies weeks.

    Can’t Say it Went to Plan is published in May 2021 by Angus & Robertson, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Classic tale revisited: ‘A Wild Winter Swan’ by Gregory Maguire

    Imagine you have read a fairy tale and later, a character from that story appears at your bedroom window.

    This is the startling premise of A Wild Winter Swan, when sixteen-year-old Laura is confronted by a boy with a swan’s wing instead of one arm, who hurtles into her window on a snowy New York City night in the 1960’s. The story she’d earlier read aloud to her young charges at an after-school group was Hans Christian Andersen’s The Wild Swans.

    The young man in her bedroom is a personification of the twelfth brother from that tale, forever stuck between human and swan form.

    Laura already has a lot going on in her life. Kicking against the constraints of living with her Italian grandparents and the tragedies of her family, she’s been suspended from school for a prank gone wrong. Her internal life is rich: she longs to be a writer but fears she lacks the skill, so instead she narrates scenes and events around her as if she is a character in a story. (As an aside, I used to do the exact same thing as a child.)

    The novel takes place during the two days leading up to Christmas, and the household is frantically busy preparing for a special dinner at which Laura’s grandparents hope to impress a potential investor in their business. Amid the bustle, Laura must hide the swan boy until she can figure out how to release him safely back to the wild out of which he so unexpectedly arrived.

    This coming-of-age story explores family, the migrant experience in America, teenage longing, and the place of stories, within a deceptively simple but multilayered tale.

    An added pleasure is the time setting and the references to popular culture of the sixties, taking the reader back to a time that was turbulent and full of change, reflecting Laura’s thoughts and her teenage life.

    The magic and the everyday sit comfortably together:

    Besides, thought the girl, what miracle didn’t look ridiculous while it was happening? If a miracle looked ordinary it would be like, just, so what?

    A Wild Winter Swan p190

    Readers who like to do a deep dive into character, with a dollop of magical realism, will enjoy A Wild Winter Swan.

    A Wild Winter Swan is published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in October 2020.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading

    Confirming and confounding this reader’s pre-conceived ideas: ‘The Betrothed’ by Kiera Cass

    I’m generally not a romance reader and have only recently begun to re-visit the world of young adult (YA) fiction, so at first I was not sure what to make of this new novel by US author Kiera Cass. She is a New York Times best selling author (the series The Selection have been particularly popular). Judging from their covers, her books could be best described as fantasy/romance in the ‘Princess’ mode, of which I’m not a great fan. So I came to The Betrothed with something of a hesitant mindset, to say the least.

    The Betrothed managed to do two things at once: confirm some of my prejudices and confound them. Here’s how.

    The novel is set in a fictional world loosely based on Europe or Britain of around the eighteenth century. Lady Hollis Brite is a beautiful young woman at Keresken Castle, the court of King Jameson, who is thrilled to be singled out for attention by the handsome young king. Soon the king makes clear his intention to marry Hollis, much to her joy and that of her self seeking parents. She now has to step up and learn about the kingdom and its relations with neighbouring countries, and prepare herself for the demands of her future role.

    What happens next, of course, throws an unexpected obstacle in the way. Hollis finds herself drawn towards another young man, Silas, who with his family have escaped from the cruel and paranoid King Quentin of the nearby kingdom of Isolte. She must choose between the life she had dreamed of and the new possibilities that now present themselves with Silas.

    For my taste there was not enough world-building in this novel. There is a lovely map at the beginning, showing Hollis’ homeland of Coroa and surrounding countries, but few of the map’s features are part of the story. To be fair, the author might be planning to explore more of her created world in later books, as I’m guessing The Betrothed might be the first of a new series by Cass. In this book, though, the clothing, manners and lifestyle feel ‘borrowed’ from historical romance tropes. At the same time, the language used by its characters, particularly Hollis and her friends Delia Grace and Nora, don’t really match the setting, with plenty of Americanisms and teen expressions that regularly threw me out of the story.

    However…I acknowledge that for her army of loyal readers, Cass uses expressions that are familiar and accessible. I also acknowledge that I am not one of her target audience and not familiar with the language typically found in this genre of books.

    Finally, I want to mention the way in which The Betrothed confounded some of my expectations. Towards the end of the book, I realised to my relief that this was not going to be a ‘happy-ever-after-Princess’ story. Far from it. Hollis has to confront the consequences of decisions she has made, and is plunged into a harrowing sequence of events that test her mettle. In this, the author has given her heroine a range of experiences and characteristics beyond her beauty and an initial desire to become queen. I thank Ms Cass for that.

    The Betrothed will no doubt please Kiera Cass’ fans who’ve been waiting for her next novel, and other young adult readers who enjoy a mix of fantasy, romance and a royal theme.

    The Betrothed was published by Harper Collins in May 2020.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.