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Steph’s 2016 in books: The Good, the Bad, and the DNF!

Steph’s 2016 in books: The Good, the Bad, and the DNF!

Often this year, it felt as though I was going through a rather bad book slump. There were a lot of books it was just too hard to get into, and so it seemed there were a lot more in titles in the middle “meh” area of the spectrum.

Maybe I’ve been looking in the wrong places… Maybe I am no longer able to enjoy books… Maybe it’s me. 

I’ve had to be more decisive this year in setting aside books that just aren’t working for me, which can sometimes feel like admitting defeat, but that time spent slogging through one book that doesn’t mesh with the reader can equal the same time spent reading three that are engaging and engrossing.

But there were a few books across the space of the year that shook this notion apart. It wasn’t just me, and there were some truly wonderful books published this year. Some from the most unexpected of places.

Sometimes a book you didn’t know you wanted to read will surprise you and become your favourite for the year. Sometimes you just won’t mesh well with a book and will find yourself unable to push on any longer. So, this year a new division of titles, to reflect those that you should read, those you should maybe think twice about reading, and for the first time, those that make you (well, me) so dread the thought of reading them that you might find your house is suddenly incredibly clean (you see, even the awful ones have their positives)!

Some of the below will have links to the full review in the title, but some, especially those that were not finished, do not have full reviews.

STEPH’S TOP 10 OF 2016:

10. Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente (Speculative Fiction)

9. Yellow by Megan Jacobson (Young Adult)

8. How to Look After Your Human by (Picture Books)

7. Ida, Always by Caron Levis and Charles Santoso (Picture Book)

6. The Secret Horses of Briar Hill by Megan Shepherd, illustrated by Levi Penfold (Middle Grade)

5. Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley (Fiction) 

4. Pandora by Victoria Turnbull (Picture Book)

3. Spontaneous by Aaron Starmer (Young Adult)

2. Penguin Bloom by Cameron Bloom and Bradley Trevor Greive (Non-Fiction)

1. The Wolf Road by Beth Lewis (Fiction)

 

THE GOOD:

 

Fiction:

2. Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley

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Lily and the Octopus is told to us by an unreliable narrator who might grate on people. But if you can get past the initial adjustment, you’re in for one gorgeous, heartbreaking rollercoaster.

Ted’s dog Lily is unwell, and we get to relive their memories and discussions and go through the ordeal with them.

This is a book that is sure to be understood best by those who do or have loved an animal with all of their heart, though it’s also bound to hurt these readers the most. Be sure to have tissues on hand, and a furry one to cuddle.

1. The Wolf Road by Beth Lewis

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Told by an illiterate narrator, and set sometime in a future which seems to have fallen back towards frontier times as a result of something our narrator calls the Big Damn Stupid, this can be a very hard tale to classify. In parts it is a story of survival, a story of friendship, a story of being hunted, and a story of the world after apocalypse. 

I wouldn’t classify this as speculative fiction, despite some of those elements, because there is so much here that is raw and human that you can’t help but come away from this feeling as though these characters and events could really happen.

 

Speculative Fiction:

4. Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

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Translated from the original Dutch, this deliciously creepy, deeply unsettling book packs a punch from the very first chapter. 

This is the tale of a town trapped by a centuries old curse and the efforts its modern-day people go to in order to keep the rest of the world finding out. But underneath the creepiness of the supernatural is a tale of small town hysteria. 

3. Eleanor by Jason Gurley

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Eleanor is an incredibly hard book to classify. It explores the various ways in which people deal with uncertainty and loss – alcoholism, denial, blame – and throws a fair helping of “other” into the mix. As such, it is neither a book for readers of speculative fiction or general fiction alone, but instead transcends both.

2. The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North

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Claire North does it again, with another speculative fiction title that explores an unlikely challenge and how if affects the characters subjected to it, somehow making us believe wholeheartedly in these unlikely circumstances.

In this story, Hope Arden is forgettable. A minute after seeing her face, after having a conversation, no one can remember that she existed.
Within these pages we learn of how Hope became gradually forgettable; what she does to keep herself going; and get to witness many of the relationships she holds dear, even though they’re with people who have no choice but to forget her. 

Heartbreaking, engaging, and action-packed, with a running commentary on this generation’s addiction to apps and struggle for “perfection”, North has given us another hit.

1. Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente
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The press release for this book describes it as “a decopunk pulp SF alt-history space opera mystery set in a Hollywood, and solar system, very different from our own” and if you think that sounds complicated, you have no idea.

This book requires your attention, and it requires a lot of work, especially at the start. This is a thinking-person’s speculative fiction.

But if you put the effort in, if you keep going, you’ll be privy to a world that is so skillfully built, intricate, and just so beautifully written that it will stay with you well after you turn the final page. Once you pass the 25-30% mark, everything will start to come together in your mind. The struggle you went through to get here will now help you understand more about the world(s) within these pages and work out what’s going on, without having been hand-fed every little answer.

 

Young Adult/Middle Grade:

12. There May Be a Castle by Piers Torday

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Mouse doesn’t exactly fit in… at school or at home. He’s always been rather short for his age, would prefer to play with his toys than other kids his own age, and he spends most of his time in day dreams. But he’s completely happy being himself, even if “himself” is so out of sync with the rest of the world.On the way to their grandparents’ for Christmas, driving through a blizzard – with presents loaded in the boot; Violet, Mouse and Esme in the back seat; and a Christmas cake balanced on the front passenger seat – their car goes off the road and Mouse is thrown out through the front window.

The story that follows is a journey full of fantasy, family, and determination, told to us in part by Mouse, and by his sister Violet, as they make their very different journeys towards their goals. 

This is not a read that will blow you away immediately and leave you unable to function, but it is a story that covers something we can all relate to, and which will creep up on  you and leave you teary before you know it.

11. Tinder by Sally Gardner, illustrated by David Roberts

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A young soldier, a captive princess, witches, wolves and Death walk hand in hand in Costa Award winner Sally Gardner’s exquisitely written new novel inspired by the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, The Tinderbox, illustrated by David Roberts.

Tinder is one of those slightly eerie, engrossing tales. You know right from the start that no matter how much things are looking up for a protagonist throughout the story, something is coming that will flip it all upside-down, because these stories hold darkness.

This is an atmospherically illustrated fairy tale along the lines of works by Emily Carroll, and inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen story… from the days when fairy tales were more likely to inspire nightmares than to chase them away.

10. Every Heart a Doorway by Mira Grant

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We all know about portal magic. We’ve grown up reading books or watching movies about gateways to other worlds. Alice Liddell, Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry, Terisa Morgan, Ofelia, and the four Pevensie children found doorways into other worlds. Doorways to Wonderland, and Cittàgazze, and Mordant, and Pan’s Labyrinth, and Narnia.

Every Heart a Doorway is a mash-up of murder mystery, coming of age, and fantasy, tied together into a quick read that you will be able to devour in one sitting, and which just might give you quite a few feels, good and bad, looking back on being a teenager who didn’t fit in, wishing you could find a door to elsewhere.

But is it better to have found the door and then lost it, or to never have gone through it at all? Is it better to know what you’re missing and continue to be without, or to never know for sure but spend your whole life dreaming?

9. The Song from Somewhere Else by A.F. Harrold, illustrated by Levi Penfold

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The Song from Somewhere Else is about the varying levels of bullying, and how even those who are being bullied might turn around and bully others in a different way, out of fear of being associated with them. 

It offers great lessons for middle grade readers about inclusion, looking beyond the surface, and discovering the things they have in common, rather than the things that set them apart. But it’s a story that will also resonate with many grownups; taking them back to when they were no doubt going through the same things, but also bringing home a lesson that it can be so easy to forget in the daily life of a so called “grown-up”.

And, as with The Secret Horses of Briar Hill, the illustrations in this story will stay with you long after you finish the book.

8. Burning Midnight by Will McIntosh

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When the spheres had first appeared, it sent shock waves around the world. On TV, experts and pundits had debated where they came from all day. As the years went by, though, and no solid answers to the mystery materialized, everyone started taking the spheres’ existence for granted.

The man who brought us Soft Apocalypse, Hitchers, Love Minus Eighty, and Defenders has turned his hand to the realm of young adult, and I, for one, am extremely grateful.

In a young adult landscape that is chock full of oh-so-much fantasy, Burning Midnight is a breath of fresh air. For so long there has been an overabundance of vampires, angels, demons, changelings, and magic. Recently we’ve seen an expansion on the science-fiction side of the divide, with more in the way of space travel, time travel, super powers, and apocalypses, but there is still so much room to explore in this category without telling the same story over and over again.

7. The Call by Peadar O’Guilin

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In the Iron Age, the people of Ireland chased the fairyfolk away and trapped them in a nightmarish other dimension. 25 years ago the Sidhe successfully cursed Ireland, cutting it off from the rest of the world, and began picking off its children.

The Call is a cross between Hunger Games (with kids fighting and killing to save their own skin, though in this one they’re most often completely alone, and it’s not people they’re killing), Irish folklore (with fairies that were forced out of their homes and into another dimension), and horror (with the horrible nightmarescape – full of “dogs” and “horses” and various other animals that are actually made out of mutilated people – into which these children are Called and then hunted for sport) on an acid trip.

This is a good, fun, though rather gory and confronting read, nicely cobbled together with the kind of world building that trickles in subtly, until suddenly you know a lot more about this cut-off Ireland than you realised.

6. The Many Worlds of Albie Bright by Christopher Edge

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When Albie’s mum dies, it’s natural he should ask where she’s gone. His parents are scientists and they usually have all the answers. Dad mutters something about quantum physics and parallel universes, so Albie gets a box, his mum’s quantum computer, a Geiger counter, and a rotting banana, and sends himself through time and space in search of his mum.

What he finds may or may not be what he’s looking for, but he does learn the answers to some big questions.

Albie’s voice and sense of humour are immediately endearing, and readers are sure to laugh out loud often, all while witnessing the grieving process and learning about physics… things one might not assume would go so very well together.

5. Not if I See You First by Eric Lindstrom

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This book presents readers with a blind main character, but that’s not what the story’s about. Her blindness is just part of who she is, and she’s going through your normal everyday teenage things, and then some, while trying to convince the people who are new in her life that her blindness doesn’t define her. She understands that they’re just  trying to protect her, but being repeatedly told how you can’t do things would get on anyone’s nerves eventually.

Lindstrom writes in a voice that is entertaining, engaging, funny, heartbreaking, and easy to relate to all at once. These characters and their relationships are the sort you won’t want to say goodbye to, but at the same the novel ends at the perfect point to leave the reader satisfied.

4. Gemina by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

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Like Illuminae this is a book you might have a hard time adjusting to, what with its epistolary format, but once you get use to the style, and make your way far enough into the book, you will be unable to put it down, and will likely devour this 659 page monster in the space of one or two sittings. 

Again, we have a situation in deep space, with many lives at stake, and with teenagers the only ones who can save anyone.

Again, we have something from the outside, from the vacuum of space, affecting and threatening our characters. 

Again, we have a race against a literal deadline if our characters are to make it through at all.

But there are new elements here, as well as some of our favourite characters from the first book revisited. 

If you loved Illuminae, you’re bound to enjoy this one, and I for one can’t wait for the final installment.

3. Yellow by Megan Jacobson

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If asked to describe Yellow in three words, I’d have to say tragically, beautifully nostalgic.

There is so much here to love. So much to feel.

This is a story about every teenager who ever had things go wrong in their life, and who ever felt like they were worthless. Kirra continuously thinks of herself a “speck” and wonders how she can really be heard on anything, let alone make a difference in the world, if her “friends” are only going to tease her for it., and I think many readers will have found themselves in similar situations in their teenage years.

2. The Secret Horses of Briar Hill by Megan Shepherd, illustrated by Levi Penfold

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December 1941, World War II is raging. Emmaline has been evacuated away from the bombs to Briar Hill Hospital in Shropshire. When she gets there, she discovers an injured flying horse, in the gardens where the children aren’t supposed to go, along with a note that sets her off on a quest to find brightly coloured items to protect this horse, Foxfire, from the Black Horse that is hunting her.

All the while the war rages on, children get sicker, and we get to learn more about Emmaline’s past.

The images within this book are evocative, gorgeous, and just downright perfect, with occasional double spread images that help to fill out the picture. But the words in themselves will reach right into your heart and pull on those strings.

This is a story about a time when everyone was on high-alert, and the battle on the front lines wasn’t the only one being fought. This is a story of kids who have experienced loss and will continue to do so, whose only personal items were donated by people across the pond in America. In this world, everyone is broken in one way or another.

It’s emotional, and gorgeous, and optimistic, and you should definitely give it a read.

1. Spontaneous by Aaron Starmer

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In Covington, New Jersey, not long after the new school year has started, one of the seniors blows up. Without warning and without explanation.

Enter Mara, the only person who could tell this story without it getting too depressing, while still putting into words so very well how the grief and shock of this sort of situation affects the “survivors”.

There is friendship in this story, and love, and loss, and a whole lot of uncertainty. It’s a whirlwind of a ride, and I feel like I’ve been waiting for something original and different like this all year.

There is so much to this book to love, but I’m not fool enough to think that everyone will adore it. You need a certain kind of humour to appreciate the laughs among the death, but if you do have the right sense of humour you will no doubt find yourself laughing in places where you tell yourself you ought not be laughing, and your thoughts will continue to return to the book long after you’ve turned the final page.

 

Picture Books:

8. A Babble of Words by Adam Oehlers

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From an Army of Aardvarks all the way through to a Zeal of Zebras, this book explores the fun of collective nouns, in a style that will appeal to readers being introduced to collective nouns for the first time, as well as lover and “collectors” of collective nouns.

7. Somewhere Else by Gus Gordon

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This is a story about the possibility of adventure and taking risks to realise what you value most, but it’s also about friendship; about being honest with your friends, and about helping them when they’re struggling with something.

6. Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carol, illustrated by Rebecca Dautremer

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Dautremer’s Alice is dark of hair, more like the original Alice Liddell upon whom the tale is based, rather than the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Alice who features in so many versions of this story. Further to this, while many of the other versions of this story have surreal and bizarre images to tie in with the story which imbues much of the same, Dautremer’s version taps into the darkness of the text. 

5. Small Things by Mel Tregonning

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Small Things is a universal story, told simply and with breathtaking beauty, about dealing with sadness, anxiety, depression, heartache or loss, and finding your way in the world.

It’s about discovering you aren’t alone in the world and that everyone goes through their own issues, in one way or another, and it’s about stepping up to offer help to others who are struggling, even as we ourselves are going through a hard time, because bad things come and go, and what helps us through these times is the people we surround ourselves with.

4. How to Look After Your Human by Maggie Mayhem and Kim Sears, illustrated by Helen Hancocks

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Maggie Mayhem has trained some of the world’s most stubborn humans (including her co-author Kim Sears), and so there is no better canine to explain the complexities of human behaviour and guide you through the ownership journey. How to Look After Your Human includes: tips and techniques on everything from choosing the right human for you, to managing their diet and instilling a mutually beneficial exercise regime; a guide to deciphering human language, including which words you should be paying attention to (very few) and those you should ignore entirely (rather a lot); and, advice on the vexed issues of fancy dress (canine) and personal hygiene (human).

The overall package, complete with placeholder ribbon and an index, is just brilliantly put together, and would make the perfect gift for any dog or their domesticated humans. 

3. Counting Lions by Katie Cotton, illustrated by Stephen Walton

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On each page, and we count through from One lion to Ten zebras, we are given a gorgeous hand-drawn image of the creatures in question, so beautifully realistic that, even if the rest of the content were awful, it would be worth buying for the illustrations alone, but all in all this is a beautiful package and a must-have for animal lovers, especially those you’re wanting to teach about conservation.

2. Ida, Always by Caron Levis and Charles Santoso

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Based the true friendship of two bears in an American zoo, this is both a heartbreaking and uplifting tale. It’s about grief and loss and friendship, and about remembering those we love once they’re gone.

Because of the nature of Ida’s passing, this book would be good for talking with kids about a loved one’s terminal illness, whether that loved one be of the human or animal variety.

1. Pandora by Victoria Turnbull

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It’s a gorgeous hardcover, coated in printed silk, and the illustrations are to die for. 

This is a story about re-purposing and renewal, and as such will offer teaching moments for children, but beyond that it is a beautiful story that has elements that different readers will feel more deeply, depending on their age.

This has honestly got to be one of the most beautiful picture books I have ever seen, and I will be seeking out all other titles by this author/illustrator.

 

Non-Fiction/Miscellaneous:

8. Doctor Who: A History of Humankind – The Doctor’s Official Guide by Justin Richards, illustrated by Dan Green

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The Doctor’s Official Guide to the History of Humankind would make a great addition to the collection of many Doctor Who fans, but for the younger crew especially. 

This is one of the latest in a recent surge of books with an original text presented as a foundation, over the top of which other passages have been “taped” (complete with the sticky-tape image around the edge of the added notes), comments have been added in the margins, and images have been “enhanced” with additional drawings added by The Doctor. 

When reading, one can’t help but hear the latest incarnation’s brogue while reading this book, especially with regard to his snarky or sarcastic comments about just how wrong this Coal Hill history book is, though this does cover adventures all of his incarnations embarked on.

All in all a highly enjoyable read with some laugh-out-loud moments and plenty of fond memories, this can serve as something of a refresher course if it’s been a while since you saw the episodes in question, or open the world of Who up wider for those youngins who might not have the patience to sit through the older episodes.

7. Atlas of Improbable Places by Travis Elborough & Alan Horsfield

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This book gives a brief snapshot into many oddities of the past, and is absolutely a fascinating read. The one issue this reviewer takes with the book is the fact that it is so very brief. Each entry is shorter than 5 pages, with some as short as a mere half a page of text. But the images, maps, and information within are bound to be a hit with any lover of oddities in the real world.

6. The Curious Guide to Things That Aren’t by John D. Fixx and James F. Fixx, illustrated by Abby Carter

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The Curious Guide to Things That Aren’t is a thought-provoking and engaging collection, featuring 26 thoughtful riddles, one for each letter of the alphabet, with clues to solve about intangible items such as air, breath, and jokes. It teaches creative thinking through deductive reasoning, listening skills, and imagination, and the clues on each page progress from challenging, more abstract clues to a simple, final clue that encourages the reader to turn the page to discover the answer. The book covers a broad range of themes, from science, language arts, social studies, math, music, and art. 

This is a great book to get kids started on the path of deductive reasoning, complete with engaging images which add another element to the reasoning exercises. Once the answer is revealed, the word is explored in more depth, with follow-up information as to how else the word might be used, the different things it can mean, and phrases where one might find said word.

5. Aliens, Ghosts and Vanishings by Stella Tarakson, illustrated by Richard Morden

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All in all this is a nicely researched, engaging book, and a brilliant addition to the library of anyone interested in the mysteries that Australia has to offer. The cover and illustrations are definitely marketed towards kids and young teens, but this is a brilliant read for adults, too.

4. Sticky Note Guide to Life by Chaz Hutton

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This is like xkcd for your everyday life, and as such is more accessible for the every day reader, rather than those of us with a passion for science, language, maths, and various other things that xkcd focuses on. Reading this book can be incredibly cathartic.

This is a great book to read in one sitting, but is also a great gift, and a lot of fun to bring out when you have company.

3. Children of the New World by Alexander Weinstein

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Fans of the show Black Mirror are bound to find something to like in Weinstein’s collection of stories. Each of these stories has something to do with technology, whether that be humanity’s reliance on it, the ways in which it warps our interactions with each other, or how we deal with a sudden loss of it.

Some of the stories do cross the line into the bizarre, especially the ones where technology affects the way people have sex, and one in particular where people can add additional genitals to various parts of their bodies in order to continually amp up the sexual experience. But there are also some really touching moments showing how, when the shit really hits the fan, people from the otherside of whatever the relevant divide might be, will still reach out a helping hand to other humans in distress.

A highly enjoyable collection, and definitely worth a read, but if you read them all back to back they will do much the same to your brain as watching episode after episode of Black Mirror back to back. You will emerge with one heck of a book hangover, and it might take you a while to re-acclimate yourself to the “real” world.

2. Doctor Who Dot-to-Doc illustrated by Gary Joynes

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For those of us who are too neurotic to really enjoy the adult colouring books which have enjoyed such a surge over the last 12-18 months, a join the dots option can be just what the Doctor ordered!

1. Penguin Bloom by Cameron Bloom and Bradley Trevor Greive

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Everything about this book is just beautiful. It’s part animal story, part family struggle against awful circumstances, part motivational tale, part love story.

Cameron Bloom’s love for his wife bleeds through in the writing of this book, and the perfect use of pictures ensured that, before long, this reviewer was more than a little teary. But it’s not all doom and gloom, in fact there are plenty of laughs to be had, and the overall feeling of positivity and being able to overcome the worst if you have the right people in your life and the right attitude will ensure that you come out of this book with a smile on your face, feeling genuinely uplifted.

 

THE BAD:

 

8. The Yearbook Committee by Sarah Ayoub

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Touted by many as The Breakfast Club of this generation, the fact that this story focuses on five different stereotypes of high-school students wrangled into a project against their will does attempt to back this notion up. But when it comes to heart, dialogue, story, humour, and overall enjoyment, this book is sadly lacking.

While it aims to be a heartwarming and cautionary tale and attempts to deal with crucial teenage stressors like fat-shaming parents, mental health, Down syndrome, online bullying (as well as the real-world sort), moving cities and leaving all your friends behind, peer pressure, drug use and so on, it honestly felt like the author was trying to cover too many bases

Somehow, in telling so many things at once, and with an awful lot of coincidences if you ask me, the lessons in this story were rendered cheap and preachy.

7. Boy 23 by Jim Carrington

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Boy 23 presented an interesting premise; a boy raised away from people, suddenly thrust out into the world to fend for himself. He has no experience of what is normal, so he doesn’t realise that he heals unnaturally fast, or that the language he speaks isn’t the only language that exists, until he finds himself around people who communicate in sounds he doesn’t understand, and he’s the odd one out.

The writing is very simplistic and not exactly compelling, which is something you can get away with more in middle grade with younger kids not being as critical of the elements. But when you start to get into young adult territory, you need to have properly developed characters, less clunky dialogue, more originality, and more compulsion to read on. And this book didn’t.

In fact, with the lack of information as to the age of the characters, this could be mistaken for a middle grade title from the younger end of the spectrum… Until you find out they’re in their late teens… Until you get to the mentions of rape, and people being shot and stabbed.

All in all this was a very uneven story in terms of pace, age appropriateness, and character development, and it all wrapped up in a big conclusion that wasn’t. Very few questions were answered, and those answers that were given were only half of the story, but this doesn’t feel like it has enough in it to warrant another book.

6. The Reluctant Jillarroo by Kaz Delaney

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A twin-swapping, horse-riding, story full of fun, friendship, and blossoming romance?

If only.

It was telly, the writing was dumbed down, the characters were flat, there was instalove/insta-obsession, and the ending was way too forced and too cheesy for words.

5. Ten Hungry Pigs by Derek Anderson

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This would be a good one for fans of pigs, specifically the three little pigs (as there’s a wolf bit a little later on), or for families looking for interesting counting books, or for kids who like mixing weird foods together. 

At a lower price-point, in paperback rather than hardcover, this would be a more justifiable purchase. In the end, it’s not all BAD, it’s just not particularly great, either.

4. You Can’t Eat A Princess by Gillian Rogerson, illustrated by Sarah McIntrye

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This book doesn’t really have a point or message, advocates for Chocolate everything being a balanced diet, and just doesn’t make sense a lot of the time.

This might be a good one for kids who like pretending to be princesses, and fans of chocolate or aliens, but overall it seemed to be a whole bunch of randomness thrown into a vague story outline. 

The London Evening Standard has been cited as calling this “Reassuringly silly”, and perhaps this is true for some reason. Silly, for sure, but I’m not sure how something can be “reassuringly” silly, and perhaps that just means this book is not for me.

3. The Haunting by Alex Bell

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The writing in this book lets the heart and the creepiness down because there is no difference between the voices of the three point of view characters, we’re often told rather than shown, and the author seems to have gone out of her way to hammer home just how sceptical the seventeen-year-olds are of the haunted inn, and how unobservant, which turns them into eye-roll worthy fools. There were also far too many conveniences and coincidences which seemed to exist in order to make the story easier for the writer, but not so that things would make sense.

All in all this story was a little boring and tiresome, and the creepy bits never developed properly into anything that would leave this reader reluctant to turn the lights off of a night. The voice needed to be brought up by a couple of years, or the gore needed to be rendered more suitable for younger readers, if this was to offer what it promised. Sadly, it’s caught in the middle, and doesn’t really fit in either the middle grade or the young adult camp.

2. The Perfect Pup by Sue Walker, illustrated by Anil Tortop

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This is the story of two kids who go to the “Perfect Pupshop” and leave with a tiny little puppy that will be all the things they want it to be, but he grows bigger than they expected, and isn’t as pretty or clever as they would have liked, so they get rid of him.

In the end, the dog finds the perfect home for him, but the message in this book is not one that this dog lover can get behind.

1. SP4RX by Wren McDonald 3

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The style of illustrations in this graphic novel, and the fact that this is being distributed by a children’s book publisher and is marketed as for 14+ might lead you to believe it’s suitable for younger readers.

IT REALLY ISN’T.

Early in the reading of this title, I came across the word “shit” and was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. Most publishers will allow a couple of swear words in a  title for older teenage readers, but then came “asshole”, “bitch”, and “fuck”. And they weren’t one-offs.

Add to this the inclusion of drinking, smoking, “pleasure emporiums”, leather harnesses, assless chaps, gimp masks, and naked robot strippers complete with their own credit card swipe machines, and the realisation that this should not be accessible to fourteen year olds becomes a little clearer with every page.

 

THE DNF:

 

Pomposity:

I Am No One by Patrick Flanery

9781782397960

From the very first page, Flanery seems to go out of his way to alienate the reader.

Jeremy O’Keefe is a pompous, full of himself windbag, and the fact that he exists feels like the biggest obstacle in this story. He goes on and on and on about nothing, with run-on sentences, random thoughts that deviate from the main story and carry on for several pages, and constant comparisons between Britishisms and Americanisms.

This is one of the most boring, emotionless books I have ever attempted to read, and the only people I could recommend it to are those who like boring monologues or who are having trouble sleeping.

Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins

gold-fame-citrus

As a lover of post-apocalyptic fiction in all its forms, I was eager to get my hands on this futuristic tale of a parched California, with tight borders keeping our main characters from the surrounding, more lush regions. 

From the first page it was evident this wasn’t going to be an easy read, but I persisted. 

The discovery of a child named Ig, and the subsequent battle to find a better future for her, hints towards something worthwhile coming… at some point in the story. 

But after a 16 page description of the dunes, again in language that often needed to be translated from the truly pompous, mid-way through a chapter, I had to throw in the towel.

In an essay, Watkins said: 

I wrote Battleborn for white men, toward them. If you hold the book to a certain light, you’ll see it as an exercise in self-hazing, a product of working-class madness, the female strain. So, natural then that Battleborn was well-received by the white male lit establishment: it was written for them. The whole book’s a pander. Look, I said with my stories: I can write old men, I can write sex, I can write abortion. I can write hard, unflinching, unsentimental. I can write an old man getting a boner!

Here are the lampposts, here is the single-screen movie theater. It’s all an architecture of pandering. It’s for them.

She can write like a man, they said, by which they meant, She can write.

And in reading this book I couldn’t help but feel the same. Watkins is writing for pompous, self-important men, and in doing so produces a pompous, self-important book that defies enjoyment, at least for this reader. 

I may try and revisit this one again sometime, but it has been a year since I put it aside, and reviews I’ve read since then suggest it was the right choice.

Detachment:

Dreaming the Enemy by David Metzenthen

9781760112257

There is a disconnection here between the reader and the characters in Dreaming the Enemy, and the story is told in a cold and passive way with lots of telling and very little, if any, showing. It follows a non-linear path that makes it hard to tell what’s now and what’s then, what’s really happening, and what’s in Johnny’s imagination.

Seeing as this is a story about a character suffering from PTSD in a time before it was a recognised disorder, it’s quite possible that this disconnect was done intentionally, and done well. In leaving the reader unable to connect with Johnny, Metzenthen echoes Johnny’s own struggles to connect with those who had been such an important part of his life before the war.

But this doesn’t make for an easy or enjoyable read, and it doesn’t make the struggle to read it any more rewarding.

The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy

dead-lands-cover

The concept of this book was fascinating; in the future, after a mutated flu virus decimated so much of the planet’s population, downtown St Louis was fortified. 

Decades later, it is humanity’s last outpost on earth, surrounded by a wasteland inhabited by mutated creatures. But the arrival of a rider who brings news of a green paradise, everything is set to change.

Like I said, fascinating concept! And the opening held enough mystery to keep me reading for a while, but by the 100 page mark I had come to realise that I just didn’t care about any of them. There was no attachment to any of the characters, and no motivation to see what happened to them. 

This is one I will likely attempt to come back to, because so many of my friends have enjoyed it, and that concept! But for now I need to set it aside.

Relativity by Antonia Hayes

9780670078585

This was another interesting concept; a cross between scientific genius and the relationships within a shattered family. 

At the outset I was hooked, but as the chapters went by I grew less and less interested, eventually setting the book down just shy of 50% and never finding the will to pick it up again.

This could be one of those “it’s not you, it’s me” situations, and I’ll quite possibly pick it up in the future, but for now it’s being set aside in favour of characters I’m more attached to.

Summer Harvest by Georgina Penney

9780143797081

From the very first page of this book, I disliked Beth Poole.  By the third page I kinda hated her. I persisted for another thirty before giving up part way through a chapter. 

She’s mopey and self-aggrandising, and goes on and on about her opinions as they relate to things like how horrible it is that birthdays exist, and how she would like to eradicate the need to celebrate them from the human psyche. 

She likes things her way, and will bitch and moan about anything that doesn’t go her way, and she gets lost in her thoughts so deeply that her gran has to call out to her FOUR TIMES IN TWO PAGES to get her attention. She’s thirty-one, but she carries on like she’s a hormonal teenager who thinks that she is the most important person of all, and the world is out the get her.

Yeah, I just didn’t like her. Could not gel. 

It has become evident in reading reviews by others that this book follows another, and as such might make more sense if I had read that first. But it’s not about not making sense for this reader… it’s about how insufferable the main character was right from the opening scene.

Steph's 2016 in books: The Good, the Bad, and the DNF!

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