Best Books of 2018 – Maureen Mann

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Initially when asked if I could review three books,published in 2018, I expected to choose from my favoured picture book genre. But once I looked at the list of titles read during the year, I was surprised that these were the ones I came up with. Of course, I could compile a picture book or a younger readers list too, but here are the ones I’ve chosen.

Small spaces by Sarah Epstein

This first novel was a great young adult thriller. Tash, as narrator, remembers seeing her (imaginary?) and threatening friend Sparrow abduct Mallory from the fairground. Of course, no one believes that she had seen anything, neither at the time, nor later in her teenage years when she is trying to cope with all the mental health problems which emerge.  What’s reality and what is her imagination? Who are her friends? Why have Mallory and her family returned to the area where she was abducted? Why will Mallory, as a selective mute, not speak to anyone?

Epstein weaves the answers into a strong ending. There were times where the narrative dragged a bit, especially in the early chapters, but throughout I needed to know what was going on, and whether Tash was mad or just traumatised.

If you haven’t yet discovered this book, don’t wait too long to get hold of a copy. I really look forward to Epstein’s second books, in the hope it matches the strengths of her first.

A Song only I can Hear by Barry Jonsberg

Rob Fitzgerald, shy and prone to panic attacks, who doesn’t talk with anyone apart from his grandfather, parents and best-friend Andrew, wants to impress Destry, the new girl at school, but she takes no notice. Andrew suggests ways to win Destry over, all of them becoming more and more outlandish. The most bizarre idea, for someone unable to catch a ball, is for Rob to become the goalie at the next inter-school game. Through sheer hard work and to everyone’s surprise, Rob achieves this. Then anonymous texts start arriving. Who are they from? And what is their purpose? But Rob follows the challenges, often with humorous results, more and more having to step outside his comfort zone.

Grandad is great fun, his conversation sprinkled liberally with expletives (but cleverly expressed as ‘blankety’), doling out advice, and he is a very important supporter of and for Rob. Rob’s parents are relaxed about Rob’s apparent problems – relaxed rather than unworried. Andrew was good fun.

I didn’t see the ending coming and had to re-visit all that I thought I understood about the book. Some people won’t enjoy or appreciate the final twist, thinking it should have come earlier in the narrative.

I highly recommend this to all readers from middle school to adult.

The Art of Taxidermy by Sharon Kernot

This verse novel was short-listed for the Text prize. It’s a thoughtful and thought-provoking look at grief and loss, and how different people cope with death.

Lottie falls in love with the beauty of dead things in her landscape: a dead gecko, a crow, a beetle. Much to Aunt Hilda’s consternation she keeps them in her bedroom, with the resultant smells and insect infestations. This obsession is a result of her mother dying soon after losing a premature baby and the drowning of her sister Annie, who remains an imaginary companion.

Lottie’s father accepts his daughter’s growing interest and persuades Aunt Hilda that Lottie doesn’t have to become a stereotypical teenage girl. Lottie is introduced to the art of taxidermy and begins to form items others also recognise as beautiful. Jeffrey is a firm friend, also an outsider in the community because of his aboriginality.

The verse is lyrical and spare, creating emotions and describing scenes with no unnecessary words, and pulls the reader from page to page. The sense of place is strong and vivid. There are powerful themes apart from grief and loss: Australian flora and fauna, post-war migration and adaptation, racial tensions and multiculturalism and the ties that bind families together.

The Text website has excellent Teaching Notes.

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