young adult

Book Review: Lone Wolf by Robert Muchamore

lone wolf

Lone Wolf by Robert Muchamore

This is the fourth book in the second CHERUB series, but the first one not connected to the Aramov clan. Instead this one, which concentrated on drug dealers, served as a bit of a cleanser after the intensity of the first three. It also served as an introduction to James Adams: Mission Controller.

Although I enjoyed the Aramov storyline, I did find it a little dense at times – I would spend a fair bit of time trying to remember which character was which and who was aligned with who. (Part of this was because I wasn’t rereading the books like I might have in the past.) I’m not sure Muchamore’s at his strongest across multiple books, though. In this story our agents are in position to engage with a highly organised drug ring, and a teenaged girl who used to work with her mother and then her aunt in opposition to the ring.

James as a mission controller works for me – he’s younger (I believe) than other ones we’ve seen, but there’s an element of his behaviour which makes me think of Zara or Ewart from the early books. Some of the reminders about his past as a CHERUB agent were a little over-laboured in the writing – even those who haven’t read the first series would be able to pick that up before the last couple of chapters when we’re reminded of it, yet again.

I still don’t feel like Ryan has been completely fleshed out the way characters were in the first series. Maybe because I haven’t reread them as much, but he often just feels like James v.2 – which is kind of boring since a) we’ve read those books and b) James is right there. Ning is a much more fascinating character, but this was a plot heavy book rather than a character development one, so we didn’t see a huge amount of that.

The plot was downright fun. It’s hard not to compare it to Class A, but this felt like it was amped up to a higher level. It feels like Muchamore is happier to hurt his characters now, and they seem to engage in riskier behaviour. There were points where I wondered whether James would get a dressing down for allowing his agents to get into such dangerous situations – there didn’t seem to be the same evaluation of the risk as in the first series.

This is a series I used to recommend to my students a lot – it was a ‘gateway’ series for a lot of students who weren’t really into reading. The characters feel realistic, they fight, swear, drink and get together. The plots are usually tightly written, but there’s not a huge amount of inference required. The action scenes are particularly good – I’d imagine a lot of readers can ‘see’ them when they’re reading. As this later series gets into the life of an adult James and with the riskier behaviour, I’d say it’s definitely better for teenagers and up, while the early books of the first series are better for the younger readers.


Book Review: Peeling the Onion by Wendy Orr (Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014)

This year I am reading and rereading children and young adult ‘classics’ written by Australian women. Read more here.

peeling the onion

Peeling the Onion by Wendy Orr
(1997, Holiday House)

Own copy

Peeling the Onion is the story of Anna in the aftermath of a horrific car accident. We first meet Anna in the hospital where no one really seems to know how badly injured she is, and we follow her as she – and the people around her – come to terms with her injuries, their effect on her preferred future and the circumstances of the accident itself.

The title of the book refers to a poem Anna writes and rewrites throughout the story, but it could easily refer to the story itself. As the book progresses, you peel off layer after layer, revealing more of Anna’s life, her feelings about the accident and her resulting injuries and her relationships with the people around her.

This is a really lovely book and one which deserves to be better known than it is. Young people may not go through the horrific event Anna goes through (hopefully), but it would be easy to relate to her changing world and her growing acceptance that things are not going to work out the way she once planned them. I would thoroughly recommend this book to teenaged readers – but also to adult readers. I really hope that its availability in digital form (I bought it on Kindle) means that young people will continue to enjoy it into the future.

Book Review: Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta (Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014)

This year I am reading and rereading children and young adult ‘classics’ written by Australian women. Read more here.


Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta
(2003, Viking Childrens Press)

Own copy

This was another reread for me. While I don’t have the same fondness for Saving Francesca as Looking for Alibrandi (there’s always something special about the books you love as a teenager) I always find myself engrossed in Francesca – and staying up to all hours to finish it.

Francesca is starting her second term as one of thirty Year eleven girls at a formally all-boys school. That’s hard enough, but on top of that her formerly energetic and passionate mother can’t get out of bed. Suddenly Francesca is tackling adult tasks in order to protect her mother and dealing with the complete change in her family, all while trying to work out who she is and where her place in the world is supposed to be.

There was an eleven year gap between Alibrandi and Francesca, and you can see the growth of the author in both the quality of the writing and the subtleties of the story. Francesca is a sympathetic narrator and it’s easy to like her. Supporting characters are a real strength of Marchetta’s and you can see that here – from the giggly ‘big-boy’ worship of Francesca’s little brother Luca, to the brisk, but sympathetic supervisor at her mother’s university, to the other students and teachers at her new school.

There are still lots of misconceptions and prejudices around mental illness, and we see a lot of them discussed or put forward here. These misconceptions often makes it harder for Francesca to comprehend her mother’s illness – especially when she doesn’t feel like she’s getting the full story and her father – relentlessly positive – keeps reiterating that everything will be fine – even when it’s clearly not.

Unlike Alibrandi, which now has a lot of outdated references, Francesca is pretty low key with just some references to game shows (which no longer exist) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This means you’re very rarely pulled out of the story, and it’s still very readable and relevant now. It would probably make an excellent substitute for schools and teachers who are tired of teaching Alibrandi. It might be a quieter and less applauded book from Marchetta (who went on to write other incredibly popular books after Francesca was published) but I think it’s one worthy of our recognition.

Book Review: Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get a Life by Maureen McCarthy (Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014)

This year I am reading and rereading children and young adult ‘classics’ written by Australian women. Read more here.

(I couldn't find a good image of the cover I have, so I decided to go with this most recent one instead)

(I couldn’t find a good image of the cover I have, so I decided to go with this most recent one instead)

Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get a Life by Maureen McCarthy
(1995, Penguin)

Own copy

(Note: Totally coincidentally, my wonderful friend Liz also read and reviewed this book at the same time. And then I twisted her arm to join the AWW Challenge 🙂 )

This was another one of my favourite books as a teenager and I’ve read it a number of times since. It’s the story of three different girls from a small country town thrown together into a share house in Melbourne for their first year out of school. Carmel is the shy farm-girl, known around the small town for her amazing voice. Jude is the radical, juggling medical studies with protests while being haunted by the violent death of her father. Katrina is from a privileged and well known family, renowned for her beauty and her snottiness. Told from the three different perspectives we follow them up close and through each other’s eyes as they navigate the world after school.

There’s a lot to tackle in this book, and it’s definitely bigger than a lot of similar books. To me, Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude has always had an almost epic feel – like a fantasy novel without the fantasy. Maybe because of the different journeys we follow over the course of the book – as Carmel becomes more comfortable with who she is; as Jude confronts what her parents went through in Chile; as Kat gets over her head with a ‘fast crowd’ – the reader is pulled along, from one story to another, one place to another.

This time, when I read it, I was struck by how sad Kat was, especially at the beginning of the book. She seemed almost disconnected from herself and from other people, separate from any kind of human emotion. She didn’t want to have anything to do with a school-mate who had lost her father, she broke her mother’s favourite vase because she didn’t feel she was getting her way. She knew how to ‘act’ in social situations – after all, that training would come with being from the eminent family in a small town – but she seemed deeply uncomfortable and unable to deal with human emotion, and humans in general. I think Kat’s story wouldn’t have worked anywhere but at the end of the book, where we’ve been exposed to glimpses of who she is underneath the act – it would have been terribly tiring to read her performances earlier in the book.

Despite the mid-nineties publication of this book, it mostly works as a read for a modern audience, especially (I suspect) a modern audience living outside of Melbourne. (There are a number of settings which have apparently changed significantly in the time, but an outsider reader wouldn’t necessarily know that). The themes themselves are timeless – trying to please parents while forging an identity away from them, learning to live in a bigger world than your school world, finding a voice in a world that often tries to shut people up. The characters, including the supporting characters, are well developed and memorable, and you can often ‘see’ them as you read. And although there are a lot of ‘issues’ explored (especially in Kat’s story) it doesn’t read like an ‘issues’ book.  I’d definitely recommend it to high school students today, and I suspect a lot of them would enjoy it.

Book Review: Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta (Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014)

This year I am reading and rereading children and young adult ‘classics’ written by Australian women. Read more here.


Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta
(1992, Puffin Books)

Own copy

When I was younger, we didn’t have a library in our town. Or the nearest town. In fact, our nearest library was a good half an hour away. Instead we had the mobile library, a bus adapted to carry shelves of books instead of people. It visited our town at 9am, Tuesdays, stopping outside our school. When we first moved to that town, the school let kids out of class to visit the mobile library. But that stopped after a few years and I was dependent on my mother to restock my library books.

That’s how I discovered Looking for Alibrandi.

I have an unusual first name – Melina. So when my mother found a new book written by an author called Melina Marchetta, she thought I’d be interested in reading it. (She had some unusual criteria for choosing my books. It usually worked really well for us) She picked really well – I loved the book, rereading it several times between then (1992 or 1993) and now. However, it’s been a couple of years since I read it last, and I was interested in reading it again for the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge – this time with a more critical eye.

Looking for Alibrandi is a ‘coming of age’ novel, like both The Min Min and Playing Beatie Bow. However, instead of looking at the emotional coming of age of a 14 year old, we’re spending some time in the life of 17 year old Josephine Alibrandi:  “The seventeen that Janis Ian sang about where one learns the truth”. It turns out to be a tumultuous year for Josie, when she falls in love, learns some serious truths about herself and her family, loses a friend and gains a father she never knew she wanted in her life. It’s also her last year of school, her HSC year, just to add to everything else.

This is a really hard book to review objectively. I loved it when I was younger and I still think fondly of it. However, it’s not the best written book in the world – Marchetta’s later books are much better in terms of writing craft. From what I can tell, though, Looking for Alibrandi was a bit of a game changer in Australian YA books – bringing a very different voice into the arena, and paving the way for a lot of the books which came after. It deals with serious issues – racism, identity, family shame, suicide – but there’s still a lightness over it – Josie is a good person, her family will probably be ok in the end, she’ll probably go on and have a good life. We’ve just had a peak into a difficult time for her.

One of the themes which really resonated strongly for me on this reread was that things aren’t necessarily what they look like on the surface. John Barton (who I was thankfully able to disconnect from Matthew Newton on this reread) isn’t the self-assured debater with a guaranteed future – he’s a deeply troubled kid drowning under a sea of expectations. Josie and her friends aren’t the unpopular outcasts she assumes they are, they are all leaders in their different ways. Her family story doesn’t follow the narrative she thinks it does – there’s a lot more twists and turns and human failings and successes underneath.

There’s parts of this story which don’t work as well today. I’m not sure if Josie’s illegitimacy would be such a big feature, such a big scandal amongst other students at her school (students from different backgrounds to Josie) and some of the references are really dated. But the story of Josie and Jacob Coote continues to ring true in a lot of ways, and I’m still happy with the choice Josie made to do what felt right to her in that situation. (However, the scene where Anna and Josie are threatened at MacDonalds gets scarier as I get older)

I could probably ramble about this book for ages, and go even longer if I introduced the movie. Looking for Alibrandi may not be the best book in the world, but I do think it’s an important one in the history of Australian YA writing. I think it’s essential in telling the very real story of a young woman, while telling the equally real stories of the other women in her life – her mother and grandmother, her friends, even her teachers.

Advent Calendar Book Reviews: Day 5 – CHERUB by Robert Muchamore

In the lead up to Christmas, I’ll be sharing short reviews of great books and who they’d be perfect for. Find the master list here

Day Five: CHERUB by Robert Muchamore


Genre – Young Adult Fiction Novels

I can’t believe I’m still recommending these – but there’s a very good reason for that! The books, which now make a lengthy series (plus a follow on, prequel type series)  follow James – an impulsive, somewhat troubled 11 year old who gets into a tonne of trouble after the death of his mother. James is headed for a worrying future, when he wakes up and finds himself in a strange environment, surrounded by kids who can’t talk to him.

Turns out that CHERUB wants him. And what’s CHERUB? Well it’s a spy agency where the spies are all children and teenagers.  And the series follows them through their adventures, their ups and downs and just what teenaged spies do in their rest time.

These books were always huge successes with Year 7s in my classroom. There’s some more adult stuff in the later books, so parents might want to read them before passing them onto their kids.

Highly recommended for teenagers and nearly teenagers. Plus anyone who likes spy books.