All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: Night Swimming by Steph Bowe

Night Swimming
Steph Bowe
Text Publishing
2017, 311p
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

Imagine being the only two seventeen-year-olds in a small town. That’s life for Kirby Arrow—named after the most dissenting judge in Australia’s history—and her best friend Clancy Lee, would-be musical star.

Clancy wants nothing more than to leave town and head for the big smoke, but Kirby is worried: her family has a history of leaving. She hasn’t heard from her father since he left when she was a baby. Shouldn’t she stay to help her mother with the goat’s-milk soap-making business, look after her grandfather who suffers from dementia, be an apprentice carpenter to old Mr Pool? And how could she leave her pet goat, Stanley, her dog Maude, and her cat Marianne?

But two things happen that change everything for Kirby. She finds an article in the newspaper about her father, and Iris arrives in town. Iris is beautiful, wears crazy clothes, plays the mandolin, and seems perfect, really, thinks Kirby. Clancy has his heart set on winning over Iris. Trouble is Kirby is also falling in love with Iris…

This was really cute.

It’s set in a rural town – in fact the town is so rural that main character Kirby is one of just two 17yos that live there. She and her friend Clancy opted not to go to school in a bigger town nearby. Clancy is doing year 12 by distance education but Kirby is working as an apprentice with a local cabinetmaker/carpenter. She’s quite content and hasn’t got any interesting in leaving the small town, much to her mother’s disappointment. The family has dealt with multiple people leaving – Kirby’s grandmother left, her father left, her uncle left. Now there’s just Kirby, her mother and her grandfather living in the family home. Her mother keeps goats and makes goat milk soaps and toiletries as an income. Kirby’s grandfather is slowly succumbing to the grip of demential and requires some care on a day to day basis, something that Kirby is happy to undertake. She’d much rather have him at home and can’t stomach the idea of him potentially going into care. Her quiet existence is shaken up with the arrival of Iris to the small town.

There was one point in this book, when Clancy (who is an incredibly outgoing, exuberant personality) decides to put on a play where I thought the book was going to lose its charm and for me, head into over the top, more cringeworthy humour but Steph Bowe pulled it back and pulled it off and the play actually became also quite a charming feature. The friendship between Clancy and Kirby is longstanding, they’ve been friends since they were small and the arrival of Iris definitely complicates the dynamic because as everyone knows, three can be a crowd. As she’s the only female other than Kirby in town, Clancy decides immediately that Iris is his soulmate and that they’ll be perfect. For Kirby, Iris is also make her feel all of the feelings as well. The LGBT+ representation here is really good and there’s diversity as well. Clancy’s family are the only Chinese family in the small town and Iris is half Indian, half Kiwi. Her parents have opened an Indian restaurant in direct competition with Clancy’s family’s Chinese restaurant which makes up a quite a bit of the humour.

I really enjoyed a lot of the personal relationships in this book, particularly the way Kirby feels about her grandfather. Sometimes she has have some difficulty grasping his medical situation, I think she doesn’t want to believe that he’s growing more vulnerable so it’s almost like she chooses not to believe it. She’s very passionate about him being able to stay at home, rather than go to a soulless nursing home. Kirby’s mother desires that Kirby get out of town, live, see the world, explore beyond the borders of their tiny town. Kirby’s mother is at times, distant and brusque, often concerned with her BAS statements and she seems pretty hands-off in terms of parenting. They don’t talk a lot and anything Kirby approaches her with she is often mostly rebuffed with “you do what you want”, which frustrates Kirby at times, I think she wants to feel like her mother cares what she does and often gets the impression she doesn’t. Kirby wanted to join the family business and feels overlooked and rejected. I also loved the way that Kirby interacted with her boss as well, and the way he always seems surprised when she keeps turning up to work. Her friendship with Clancy is entertaining and I think the discord that they face here is probably the first they’ve ever had to negotiate.

This reads as deceptively light but there’s a lot of careful exploration of some quite difficult topics – abandonment, depression, dementia, life decisions and what the future holds as well as a weather event that threatens everything that all too many Australians (and to be honest, those elsewhere too, it’s not something unique to us by any means) would be all too familiar with. Kirby is an interesting, engaging main character just figuring things out and trying to get what she wants out of life and I found this incredibly enjoyable and well written. I feel that this is my favourite of Steph Bowe’s books. What a loss she is to the Aussie YA world.

Book #34 of 2020

Night Swimming is book #14 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2020

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Review: All This Could End by Steph Bowe

All This Could End
Steph Bowe
Text Publishing
2013, 256p
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

What’s the craziest thing your mum has asked you to do?

Nina doesn’t have a conventional family. Her family robs banks—even she and her twelve-year-old brother Tom are in on the act now. Sophia, Nina’s mother, keeps chasing the thrill: ‘Anyway, their money’s insured!’ she says.

After yet another move and another new school, Nina is fed up and wants things to change. This time she’s made a friend she’s determined to keep: Spencer loves weird words and will talk to her about almost anything. His mother has just left home with a man who looks like a body-builder vampire, and his father and sister have stopped talking.

Spencer and Nina both need each other as their families fall apart, but Nina is on the run and doesn’t know if she will ever see Spencer again. Steph Bowe, author of Girl Saves Boy, once again explores the hearts and minds of teenagers in a novel full of drama, laughter and characters with strange and wonderful ways.

Recently I was very sad to hear of the incredibly untimely death of Australian young adult writer Steph Bowe. She was published at a very young age, still in her teens I believe and was only in her mid-20s when she unfortunately passed away after a short battle with lymphoma. Steph is one of the many authors whose books I have seen ‘around’ frequently – on twitter, on blogs I read, on Goodreads etc but I had only read one of her 3 published books, Girl Saves Boy which I read way back in 2011. I read a little of her journey after her passing – I actually hadn’t even known she was ill until after I saw on twitter that she had passed away. I ended up borrowing both the books of hers I hadn’t yet read from my local library.

This is an unusual story! Not too many protagonists in fiction, especially YA fiction, have a family that rob banks for a living but that’s the reality of Nina’s life. Her mother grew up with a father who robbed banks and after he went to jail, she appears to have ‘taken over’ the family business. Her father is a school teacher who goes along with the bank robbing because he loves Nina’s mother. And when Nina turned a certain age, she was recruited to assist. She hates it – she’s counting down internally until the day she turns 18 and can leave, strike out on her own. She’s tired of moving every few months, tired of new schools and no lasting friendships. Although at her latest school, Nina has made friends….Spencer in particular. And Spencer has his own issues and his family feels like it’s falling apart.

I found a lot of this quite entertaining. Nina’s inner struggles are well documented, she really just wants her family to be somewhat ‘normal’, in that her mother doesn’t commit crimes in every small town they land in. She tries to protect her younger brother from being indoctrinated into the family business but Nina’s mother really does not hear a lot of her pleas. She’s very blinkered, Nina’s mother….focused on one thing and one thing only and doesn’t see how it’s affecting everyone else around her. I think she feels theirs is some sort of musketeer situation, all for one and one for all but the rest of the family are definitely struggling. I do wish a bit more was made to explore Nina’s father’s motives. I’m not sure “because I love her” is a good enough excuse to don a balaclava and rob banks every 6-12 months. Especially when you have two children at vulnerable ages. Well, this lifestyle makes any children vulnerable, because one slip up and their parents are banged up for 20 years. It’s Nina’s story but she really only tries to plead her case once or so to her dad.

I really enjoyed the friendship that forms between Spencer and Nina and loved Spencer as a character. He’s struggling with his home life as well and that’s excellently portrayed. He and Nina become quite close in a short amount of time and then she vanishes without warning…only to show back up again in the most bizarre of situations some months later. Spencer is dealing with the trauma of something his family experienced, which resulted in his mother leaving, his sister stopping talking and his father retreating from the world with an inability to cope. He’s somewhat forced to assume a more mature role, almost parental as he tries to protect his sister, especially when the school wants to investigate. His father is completely disconnected and seemingly either unable to cope or just processing things until he can cope but that means that practicalities and responsibilities fall to Spencer.

One part of me was like….well, how plausible is it that parents make their kids rob banks? But adults commit crimes and rope in children all the time. The banks were well chosen – rural, small town banks where the security was probably not as good as city banks, where there were less people. Nina’s mothers methods and opinions were honestly hard to sympathise with. She came across as a bit delusional more than once and her complete lack of regard for the safety of her children (also the innocent randoms in the bank) didn’t endear me to her either. But I really enjoyed Nina and her brother, as well as Spencer. This was a cute read that felt quite satisfying. I still have Night Swimming, Steph Bowe’s final book to read and I’m looking forward to it.

Book #27 of 2020

All This Could End was the 11th book completed for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020

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Girl Saves Boy – Steph Bowe

Jewel Valentine lost her brother when she was young and her life went downhill after that. Her parents, unable to cope with the loss of their son, fought constantly and her dad lashed out at her one terrible time before walking out on them. Shortly afterwards, Jewel found her mother after an overdose and it was agreed that the best thing for Jewel might be to go and live with her grandparents. Neither of her parents were obviously in any position to care for her. Now Jewel is 18 and has to come back to live with her mother and finish her schooling. Both of her grandparents have passed on. She is out for a walk around her old neighbourhood when she spots someone in trouble in the lake. The lake her brother drowned in.

Sacha Thomas wasn’t in the lake by accident. His life hasn’t been easy either – he was diagnosed at age 8 with leukemia and fought it until remission came along when he was 12. His mother slowly starved to death of anorexia related heart-failure last year and his father has met someone and is interested in a new relationship. What Sacha’s finding it hard to deal with, is that his dad hasn’t found some nice middle aged lady to date. He is seeing Sacha’s 26yo high school male art teacher. And to top things off – the leukemia is back and the diagnosis is very bleak. Terminal in fact – Sacha is being given a year, maybe a bit more with aggressive treatment. And that’s why he’s in the lake.

His plans are foiled when Jewel Valentine pulls him out and saves the life that he didn’t want saved. From that moment on they will be drawn together, two damaged teenagers falling in love despite their fragility and the big secret that Sacha is keeping. Aided by Sacha’s two close friends, Little Al (not his real name, nor is he little) and True Grisham, who also happens to be Jewel’s best friend from the third grade, Sacha and Jewel embark upon a relationship that is uncertain every step of the way.

I read some rave reviews of this novel and I was extremely impressed to find out that the novel was written by a sixteen year old Australian girl. I love seeing someone so young get published and live their dream – I was madly writing stories at sixteen and I can only imagine what it must be like to actually have a publisher accept a book you’ve written. So I was very keen to read it and happy when my library had a copy in stock and held it for me.

I think I enjoyed two things about this novel very much – the first thing that I enjoyed is actually something very sad. And that is how well Steph Bowe captures grief. For someone so young, a teenager writing from the point of view of a teenager, her voice was spot on for me. Jewel’s grief (and her guilt) shone through the pages. I could feel the devastation the loss of her brother wreaked upon her family and my heart broke a little at the parting words from her father before he walked out. No child should ever have to hear that and no parent should ever say it, no matter how grief-stricken. My sympathies and support were fully with Jewel as she battled to re-establish a comfort zone with her  mother after being raised by her grandparents, after having her own parents turn their backs on her. I was impressed that, despite her issues with her parents, Jewel was still quite put together. She was seeing a counselor, but with all she’d experienced, she did come across as very strong.

The second thing I really enjoyed was the flavour of “Aussie” in this novel. I love reading novels set in my own country, especially when they do as much as they can to encompass local culture and identity. There’s nothing more unsatisfying than reading a novel set here and realising as you read it that really, it could be set anywhere. There’s nothing familiar in the storyline, nothing that makes you feel a closeness to the narrative because you know where it’s set. It could be any country in the world (and in reprints around the world, they could change the city/country and no one would notice).

Despite that, the novel did have some flaws – the pace was a bit uneven. At times it moved along quite decently, during others you were waiting drumming your fingers for what you knew was going to come out to finally actually be spoken. It also felt a bit too long but I’m not sure if this was because of the sometimes-sluggish pace or if it’d really could’ve benefited from being trimmed down to say 250  pages. The relationship between Jewel and Sacha in contrast, went at lightning fast pace which was a bit jarring. There was also a subplot involving some garden gnomes that was just a bit baffling and I didn’t feel it was necessary to the story. I was a bit baffled by it

Still an enjoyable YA read that really does touch very nicely on how families can fall apart after a tragedy and explores teenage relationships in an interesting way. A promising debut and I look forward to seeing more novels from Steph Bowe, especially because I think the ending she chose for this novel proves she’s not an author who takes the easy way out.


Book #11 of 2011

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