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review 2014-07-17 17:39
Alex as Well by Alyssa Brugman
Alex as Well - Alyssa Brugman

Last year I read my first book with an intersex character. It was so incredibly captivating and moving that I desperately went on a search for something similar – and pretty much found the literary world lacking. But one book that I did find whilst looking for Australian YA books six months later was Alex As Well – which had to be mine immediately.

Alex (just Alex), has been raised as a boy, but has two distinct personalities – male Alex and female Alex. This also gives a really unique voice to the story, as Alex converses with both personalities internally – at first I found it a little jarring, but by the end of the second chapter I was completely and totally hooked. There is also the alternate perspective of Alex’s mother, in the form of blog posts, complete with helpful and ignorant comments from readers, again adding to the uniqueness of the storytelling format.

I also particularly liked the family dynamic that Alyssa Brugman has created – Alex’s parents aren’t the flawless, understanding and caring parents that they could easily have been – they are also conflicted, argumentative and distant, alternating between depression and indifference. And it isn’t that they are distinctly unlikeable characters either – it’s all just very human, even if it does make it difficult to sympathise with them. They are flawed and struggling themselves to understand the choices that Alex makes which makes them feel very realistic.

The tipping point of their story is Alex deciding to stop taking hormones and dress as a female – and Alex takes complete charge of her life, changing her school, her clothes and exploring what it means to be a girl after living her whole life as a boy. There are conflicts at school, and home, and in Alex’s own mind that she needs to tackle, and has an unusual ally to back her up.
Perhaps the only thing that disappointed me slightly was the ending, but in retrospect it was actually quite fitting to both the plot and Alex’s personality, although it took me a little by surprise.

Emotional, funny, moving and ultimately inspiring, Alex As Well is an excellent YA book about fitting in, adapting and working out who you really are.

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review 2014-03-24 06:06
This Side of Salvation
This Side of Salvation - Jeri Smith-Ready

Religion in books is a difficult subject, and something I usually try and avoid.  However, in This Side of Salvation it's used as a plot device that works well to drive the plot without shoving a whole bunch of ideals in your face.  Add in a sweet romance and a close brother-sister relationship and a load of grief, and This Side of Salvation ticks a whole lot of boxes.

David and Mara's parents have always been religious, but when their older brother John is killed in tragic circumstances, they begin to become more and more involved in a radical religious movement, which focuses on the Rush - the more 'modern' version of the Rapture.  David's father especially embraces religion as a lifestyle, most notably by speaking in bible quotations all the time.

This Side of Salvation is told in 'then' and 'now' alternating chapters, which works fairly well for the plot - as it begins with the disappearance of David's parents, rather than starting from the beginning and climaxing later in the story, its definitely an attention-holder.

My favourite thing about This Side of Salvation is the relationship between Mara and David - despite the fact that they have different beliefs and respond to the change in their parents differently, they actually become closer, especially once their parents disappear.

Whilst I enjoyed the romance between David and Bailey, at times it felt like it was a little 'thrown in for good measure' - I had much more invested in the sibling relationship, and even David's relationship with his best friend than in the actual romance itself.  However, as characters David and Bailey had good chemistry and complimented each other pretty well.

What really stands out for me in This Side of Salvation is the depth of the grief felt by David's family - it's almost palpable in places and I could understand why his parents chose to cling to their beliefs - because they just didn't know how to deal with the death of their son.

Incredibly readable, with a fabulous sibling dynamic and an intimate study of how grief impacts people in different ways, it was a good read and I'm glad I picked it up.

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review 2014-02-20 21:11
The Deepest Secret
The Deepest Secret - Carla Buckley

Carla Buckley's latest novel, The Deepest Secret, poses not only the question about how well do you know the people around you, but also that the line between right and wrong isn't always clearly defined.  I was exited to read it after I enjoyed Buckley'sThe Things That Keep Us Here in 2012, and interested to find out more about Eve's son's condition.

Xeroderma pigmentosum (or XP) is a genetic disease in which the sufferer's ability to repair damage caused by UV light is deficient - in other words, XP sufferer's cannot step into sunlight or any other type of UV light such as halogen bulbs without suffering burns, and subsequently skin cancers.  Eve and David's son Tyler was diagnosed with XP as a baby, and their whole lives have been adapted to keeping him safe - from nighttime birthday parties through to asking all their neighbours to use non-Halogen globes in their homes and having all the street lights in their cul-de-sac turned off.

Such is Eve's obsession with keeping her son safe, that her husband has taken a job in another state, travelling back and forth every weekend to spend time with his family, and starting to feel very disillusioned with his life.  What makes this relationship stand out from all the standard 'troubled marriage' story lines however, is the obvious fact that he still loves his wife - he has regular flashbacks to what she was like when they first met, the beginnings of their relationship, and how she lived before Tyler's diagnosis.

Eve's best friend Charlotte, who is her complete opposite, also lives in the cul-de-sac, and many of the residents are on friendly terms with each other, attending Tyler's birthday party and obliging Eve's requests, but there are also a few rebels who refuse to go along with her security measures.  Tyler's nightly forays reveal a few of their secrets to him, but there's not actually that many revelations about the neighbours themselves - more their reactions when another child vanishes in the night.

Although I'm not always keen on alternate POVs, they work well for The Deepest Secret - it very much suits the underlying theme of the novel to see events from multiple perspectives.

Eve is admirable in her dedication and sacrifice to her family, but it also means that she doesn't really have her own personality - it has been pretty much absorbed by her determination that Tyler will remain well and have as fulfilling a life as possible.  And although it's easy to feel sympathy towards Tyler due to his condition, his frustration with his life makes him rather unpredictable and unlikable.

But what I did particularly enjoy about The Deepest Secret was the main theme of the storyline - that although people have very definite ideas about what is right and wrong when they are removed from the situation, when they are in the middle of it, it's very difficult to make that distinction.  Buckley's storytelling made it easy for me to see why Eve did things in a certain way, and although I appreciated the realism of the ending, it did feel a little rushed and not completely logical to me.

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review 2014-02-14 06:49
Blood - Tony Birch

When I was in Australia earlier this year, I specifically tried to hunt down a few books by Australian authors and Blood was one of the first that caught my eye.  It's been a long time since I read a contemporary novel set in Australia, and I was intrigued by the synopsis, especially Blood is about the relationship between a brother and sister - something that always grabs my attention.

Jesse and Rachel are brother and sister that are bound together by both genetics and their reliance on each other.  Their mother, Gwen, is really a deadbeat - her boyfriends, her inability to stay settled in one place and to think about what is best for her children makes her a pretty unlikable character - although her own childhood was difficult it didn't really make me feel sympathetic towards her.  She's frustrating, naive and very immature - and whenever the kids feel a little settled and comfortable she uproots them again and again, putting her own needs above theirs.

But the focus of Blood is really that of the sibling relationship - Jesse has cared for Rachel since she was born and although they don't always see eye to eye, he protects her, feeds her and tries to make sure that Rachel doesn't know in great detail about what her mother really gets up to.  It's a complicated but pure relationship - Birch depicts the depth of their relationship without being overly poetic or dramatic, but by showing just how much they care for each other in their day-to-day interactions.

Blood really describes the essence of Australia - a beautifully stark, demanding landscape juxtaposed with the warmth and openness of Australian people really evokes the true feeling of Australia.

The only issue I had was the ending....well, actually the beginning.  The first chapter of Blood is actually the epilogue, and for me it just didn't logically fit with the actual ending at the back of the book - I couldn't reconcile the two scenes in my mind and although I re-read the first chapter I still didn't find it believable.
Despite that one issue, I was completely sucked into this book.  I was so glad I decided to read an Australian author, and Blood is an intense, sad, moving and emotional book about the relationship between a brother and sister.

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review 2014-02-11 11:21
Anything to Have You by Paige Harbison
Anything to Have You - Paige Harbison

Anything to Have You is, quite simply, a Vegemite book. It's going to be one that readers either love or hate - and I can completely see both sides of the argument. If the likability of a character is a huge selling point for you as a reader, then go into this one prepared - most of the characters just aren't very nice people.

Natalie and Brooke are best friends, but complete opposites. Brooke is a party animal - she's an attention-seeking, binge drinking, uninvested-in-her-future bitch - and she's OK with that. Natalie is the bookworm - quiet, unassuming and (slightly annoyingly) hot without knowing it friend, who is finally convinced to go to a party with Brooke - and does something that is pretty unforgivable in a friendship.

All of this happens pretty early on in the book, and I can see why for some people it's a downward spiral - but I love to hate a character, and that's what drove me to keep reading - because I wanted to see if firstly they could actually redeem themselves, and secondly because I was curious about the drive behind the characters.

The only thing that disappointed me about Anything to Have You is that there is a large portion of Natalie's story that focuses on her relationship with Aiden. She does feel some guilt over betraying Brooke, but it didn't really feel heartfelt - more like she was going through the motions.

The book is split roughly in half - the first half told from Natalie's perspective, and the second half from Brooke's, although in getting to Brooke's perspective, it's pretty easy to despise her so much already that redeeming her as a character is almost an insurmountable task. But I think Harbison did a good job in trying to explain Brooke's behaviour and the implications of it, and by the end I felt sympathetic towards her rather than just a burning hatred.

Anything to Have You doesn't glamorise being a teenager, and Harbison did this similarly in New Girl - we may not want to think about teens drinking, having sex and being irresponsible, but I have to applaud Harbison's honestly in the telling of Anything to Have You - because these are realities for some teens.

Although it has some issues, if you can overlook or embrace (if you are bit twisted like moi) very flawed characters, confronting yet realistic scenarios and a couple of girls who really should have more respect for themselves and each other, Anything to Have you is an interesting read, that doesn't bow down to certain ideals that sometimes creep into YA literature.

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