October Short Reviews

Once I completed my studies for university, I definitely jumped into the deep end of the reading pool – reading 10 novels/novellas/short story collections during the last month. My reading list centred almost exclusively on young adult realistic fiction, with the exception of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, the latest in D.D. Marks’s Olesia Anderson spy thrillers, and Tamora Pierce’s collection of short stories.

Many of the novels I read over the past month were fantastic, and really enjoyed reading them. Two in particular stand out for me: When We Were Two by Australian firefighter Robert Newton, and You Against Me by British actress-turned-author Jenny Downham. Though vastly different, these novels stood out for the brilliance of their construction, the approachability of their characters and storylines that kept me interested the who way through. I really cannot recommend these two novels enough.

Featured this month:

  • Double Deals (pt. 1) – D.D. Marks
  • When We Were Two – Robert Newton
  • The Fault in Our Stars – John Green
  • The Casual Vacancy – J.K. Rowling
  • Before I Die – Jenny Downham
  • Tortall and Other Lands – Tamora Pierce
  • Hate List – Jennifer Brown
  • You Against Me – Jenny Downham
  • How to Buy a Love of Reading – Tanya Egan Gibson

  Double Down (Part 1) – D.D. Marks

Rating: 5/5

In this adventure, Olesia Anderson sets down in Russia, tech-guy Sparks at her side. Blackrock has ordered her to retrieve the Portobello, a mysterious device that everyone seems to want to get their hands on. But Olesia has another task in mind, and she has brought Brad along to Russia to help her. Olesia Anderson is my kind of spy: determined, ruthless (with a hint of a soft side), and able to think on the spot. She’s a great character, and Marks has her developing in some interesting ways. Part 1 ends on a massive cliff-hanger that makes me want the next Agent 806 adventure all the more! Look out for all the twists and unexpected developments – and for the awesomeness that is Sparks in real life!


  When We Were Two – Robert Newton

Rating: 5/5

  When We Were Two is a magnificently written book with an engaging storyline and entirely lovable characters. I can happily say that this book is one of the best novels that I have read in the past few years and I would readily recommend it to almost anyone. A warning, though: When We Were Two will break your heart. And then heal it, before breaking it again. The novel starts when brothers Dan and Eddie run away from home, determined to find sanctuary and a new life in Port Macquarie. Nothing has ever been easy for these boys, and life remains that way as they encounter several ups and downs throughout the novel. The novel is rich with unique characters and beautiful description of the world which Dan and Eddie inhabit. Newton’s writing is simplistic yet beautiful – I was entirely engaged within the world of this novel and found myself rooting for Dan and Eddie, hoping that their ending would be happy and everything they dreamed. Newton is a wonderful author, and I look forward to reading more of his work, despite how much this novel brought me to tears. This really was a fantastic novel, and I couldn’t recommend it more. As long as you don’t mind suffering emotional trauma at the hands of a paperback.

  The Fault in Our Stars – John Green

Rating: 4/5

Hazel Grace Lancaster is a sixteen year old girl whose life is anything but ‘normal’. Hazel was diagnosed with cancer at the age of thirteen and while a miracle drug has given Hazel more time than anyone expected, she has never been anything but terminal. So when Hazel meets Augustus Waters at Support Group, her immediate reaction is to push him away: it can only ever end badly. The Fault in Our Stars has an amazing cast of characters, although they tended towards the overly mature and pretentious (particularly Augustus with his love of metaphors). I enjoyed the relationship between Augustus and Hazel, as well as Hazel’s relationships with her parents, particularly her mother. One thing that Green does spectacularly is depicting the complexity of human relationships and all the issues that come with them. This is a story about relationships between people, and relationships between people and cancer. Cancer is such a large part of the novel that it is almost a character in its own right: all of the main adolescent characters have/had cancer, and nearly all of the adults have been affected by it. This is a great novel, though it did leave me wanting something more, something indefinable.

  The Casual Vacancy – J.K. Rowling

Rating: 3.5/5

I didn’t really feel anything about The Casual Vacancy. While I read the whole book through to the end, and whilst I did enjoy some aspects of it, this wasn’t the kind of book that leaves an imprint on your heart, or on your memory. Rowling presents an intricate tale of the lives and relationships of the inhabitants of a small English town, clearly demonstrating how one person’s actions impact on all those around them. The death of Barry Fairbrother at the beginning of the novel is a catalyst that disrupts the lives of the inhabitants of Pagford, a very interesting cast of characters who reveal the darker sides of humanity. Characters so realistically flawed that I struggled to like any of them, struggled to like the book. The Casual Vacancy didn’t fill me with interest: while I was determined to finish it, I was not actively interested in what would happen within the town of Pagford. The Casual Vacancy is not the type of book I would generally enjoy, and while I did enjoy elements of it, I was not in love with it as I have been with other Rowling novels. Rowling is a great author, and this was clearly shown in several passages within the novel, but The Casual Vacancy just did not resonate with me. I look forward to reading Rowling’s next publication.

  Before I Die – Jenny Downham

Rating: 4/5

Tessa Scott is dying. Four years previously Tess was diagnosed with leukaemia, and now she is determined to live her life before she dies. She makes a list of ten things to do, and sets about achieving her aims, regardless of how her actions impact on those around her. Before I Die is a wonderful book that tackles the complexities of living (and dying) with cancer. Tessa is not the wonderful, kind-hearted cancer sufferer we have come to expect, but a surly teenager faced with her own mortality on a daily basis. She fights those who care about her, and pushes away the ones she loves on a regular basis, but all this only serves to make Tessa more real, more understandably human. I really enjoyed this book, and read the whole thing in only a few hours. I think that Downham did a fantastic job of portraying Tessa’s experience, and the deterioration of her health. Downham approaches the sensitive issue with care, and portrays Tessa’s last months in a way that is realistic, and free of needless sentiment. A stunning debut, I think that Downham is definitely an author to watch.
Note: Before I Die has been made into a film starring Dakota Fanning as Tessa Scott. The film will be released under the title Now Is Good.


  Tortall and Other Lands – Tamora Pierce

Rating: 3/5

A good collection of short stories from the author if The Song of the Lionness series. I really liked reading something new from Tamora Pierce, and I loved the snippets of information on older characters. However, I just didn’t love any of the stories. While some were quite good, they were just lacking that extra something that I have loved in her novels. The stories I particularly liked were ‘Elder Brother’, ‘Student of Ostriches’, ‘The Hidden Girl’, and ‘The Dragon’s Tale’. ‘Huntress’ bugged me, probably because I always have issues with author’s throwing fantasy into otherwise realistic situations (ie, New York).  Otherwise, the stories were enjoyable enough that I read the whole thing in just over a day! Still worth a read.

Note: While the title is Tortall and Other Lands, I don’t actually think that any of the stories are set in that country…


  Hate List – Jennifer Brown

Rating: 4/5

Five months ago, Valerie’s boyfriend started shooting students in the school’s Commons area, using a list of the people they hated to select his victims. Hate List sees Valerie returning to school for the first time since the shooting: confronting old friends, old enemies, and the memory of the boyfriend whom she still loves. Hate List is not a comfortable book to read. Valerie is a complex character who is still attempting to come to grips with what has happened, surrounded by people who don’t quite trust her, don’t quite believe that she didn’t have anything to do with the shooting. I particularly liked how Brown wrote Valerie: she is by no means perfect, but rather a flawed teenager who begins to question her own role in the shooting. This was a very interesting novel that deals well with adolescents, specifically with the strategies students employ in order to survive horrible events. The novel isn’t perfect: I was never completely engaged by the story, but I do think it is a fantastic read for young adults, particularly with the emphasis on the impact which bullying has on people.

  You Against Me – Jenny Downham

Rating: 5/5

  You Against Me focuses on the impact which accusations of sexual assault have on the families of the victim and the accused. Mikey’s sister claims that a boy has assaulted her, and Ellie’s brother is charged with the assault. When Mikey and Ellie meet, they begin to question everything. Downham’s novel deals spectacularly with issues of family loyalty and sibling relationships, and she writes the developing relationship between Mikey and Ellie spectacularly: full of confusion and certainty, as well as hopefulness and betrayal. This novel was a page-turner, I didn’t want to put it down, and couldn’t wait to find out what happened. Did Tom assault Karyn, or was she making it up? Would Ellie and Mikey be able to be together, or would everything go wrong? This was brilliantly written novel, and the key issues were dealt with sensitively. Above all, Downham’s novel is a story about the complexity of relationships: between brother and sister, between parents and children, between lovers and friends.  Mikey and Ellie are magnificent characters, and their story is a memorable one that I would happily read again. A highly recommended novel.

  How to Buy a Love of Reading – Tanya Egan Gibson

Rating: 2.5/5

Note: please forgive me rant. I couldn’t write enough! It was really difficult to like How to Buy a Love of Reading. In fact, I found it really hard to read the novel, and seriously contemplated giving up after 11 pages. The good side is that it gets better. But not by much. The novel’s adolescents are the children of millionaires and billionaires, living a life of spoil, alcohol, sex and poor parenting. Carley Wells is overweight and ambivalent about everything except reality TV and her best friend Hunter, who is losing himself in sex, scotch and Vicodin. Neither of them are particularly likeable. Carley’s parents ‘buy’ her a live-in author, someone to write a novel to her specifications and make her ‘love’ reading.

I was intrigued by the premise behind this novel, but it failed to ‘grab’ me. I think much of this was due to the writing style. It was overly descriptive for the purpose of being overly descriptive: in order to make a mockery of those authors who really are overly descriptive. Though I guess the correct term is ‘meta’. The following quote sums up the writing of How to Buy a Love of Reading pretty well: “The book starts off… all meta- and footnote-y. But with each successive section, it sheds a layer of writerly-ness. By the end, in the last section, it’s this honest, real, emotional thing about a writer who learns to be honest, real, and emotional.” Except this novel never really attains that goal. And I do have a grudge against a writer who feels the need to explain why they wrote their novel the way that they did.

I didn’t all-out hate How to Buy a Love of Reading. I read the second half (once it stops being all ‘meta’) in quick time, as I was actually interested in discovering what happens to the characters. But I never really liked it. Getting through this novel was something I was always aware of, and I never became immersed in the world of the characters, never really liked any of the characters.


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Filed under Book Review, Books, Monthly Short Reviews, Reading, YA Books

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