Review: The Loneliest Girl in the Universe by Lauren James

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‘I’ve set myself up for heartbreak – but I didn’t even know it was happening. I thought I was just happy to have a friend, someone to talk to after everyone on Earth abandoned me. I didn’t realise that I could feel this lust for someone I’ve never even seen.’

16 year-old Romy Silvers is the only surviving crew member on-board The Infinity, a spaceship on a predicted 44-year mission bound for Earth II. Romy tries to keep busy by reading the ships manual and NASA-designated homework, writing fanfic of Loch & Ness, and exchanging audio mail with her therapist, Molly. Molly sends an audio mail to Romy, telling her that a superior spacecraft, The Eternity, was launched not long after The Infinity disaster to meet up with The Eternity and help complete the mission. Romy learns that it will only take a year for The Infinity to reach The Eternity. While trying to fathom what it will be like to have physical human contact again after over 5 years of solitude, The Eternity makes contact. Their only communication is via email, and the messages take months to transmit, yet Romy finds herself falling in love with the crew member of The Eternity, J. But as The Eternity draws closer, and she receives strange messages from Earth, Romy must question her new-found reliance on J, and what these strange messages from Earth mean.

The Loneliest Girl in the Universe got off to a shaky start, as while the opening entry from Romy is set up as an action-packed and suspenseful insight into life on the spaceship, it had moments of telling the reader what could happen, which lessened the impact of the following action, for example “I’m abruptly filled with complete and utter fear. The guidance system has crashed. I need to take manual control, otherwise we’re going to be hit by an asteroid within the next few minutes.” Without going into detail, in order to keep spoilers to a minimum, the plot was largely predictable, as there were moments where Romy overstated observations.

This is not to say this book wasn’t an enjoyable read. The structure was brilliant, with the chapter headings highlighting the isolation Romy is experiencing by tallying how many days it has been since The Infinity left Earth, and, in other chapters, fuelling the suspense and anticipation by tallying how far away The Eternity is. The attention to detail with the mechanics of space travel is exemplified in the use of communications, as Romy later explains “transmissions to and from Earth are sent by laser, encoded in binary. An antenna on Earth conveys the laser beams to The Infinity, where a light array picks up the signal and converts it back into letters, images or sounds. The uplink from Earth takes a long time, and apparently video files just aren’t feasible to send. It takes hours for the antennas to transmit them, compared with the minutes required for audio or text messages.” Tech highlights just how isolating life is for Romy, and is poignantly shown as she turns on Google Earth and tries to imagine what it would be like to experience the mundane freedoms we take for granted.

Tech-savvy Romy is a captivating multifaceted narrator. Her anxiety is palpable, which at one point manifests through trichotillomania, and she fights to pull herself out of high anxiety or depressive episodes by focusing on the running of the ship or, at one stage, trying to dance it out. Romy has moments of joy, as she marvels at the thought of seeing Earth II as well as the gratification of pushing herself to excel at maths. It’s refreshing to read a female character whose goals in life are not limited to romance, despite the loneliness she feels throughout the book and the feelings she develops for J. It’s an added bonus to follow a female character where the taboos of menstruation and masturbation are addressed.

The Loneliest Girl in the Universe was an enjoyable read, with well-balanced moments of suspense, horror and romance.

With thanks to Walker Books, for providing a copy in an exchange for an honest review.

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Review: ‘The Hate U Give’ by Angie Thomas

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When I was twelve, my parents had two talks with me.

One was the usual birds and bees. Well, I didn’t really get the usual version. My mom, Lisa, is a registered nurse and she told me what went where, and what didn’t need to go here, there or any damn where till I’m grown. Back then, I doubted anything was going anywhere anyway. While all the other girls sprouted breasts between sixth and seventh grade, my chest was as flat as my back.

The other talk was about what to do if a cop stopped me.

The Hate U Give is a confronting read about the intrinsic racism in police brutality, the accompanying media coverage of the victims, and the power of resistance. When she is 10 years old, Starr’s friend Natasha is killed in a drive-by shooting. In order to protect her family, her mother sends Starr and her siblings, Seven and Sekani, to a bourgeoisie school at Williamson, a predominantly white community where tokenism, ignorance and casual racism are an everyday occurrence. Starr creates a Williamson Starr persona, ‘who doesn’t use slang – if a rapper would say it, she doesn’t say it, even if her white friends do. Slang makes them cool. Slang makes her “hood”’, in order to try and protect herself from racism from fellow students. Williamson epitomises white privilege, through the affluence of the housing and the casual racism of fellow student, Hailey. The depiction of Hailey’s wilful ignorance of racist-fuelled brutality, and her off-handed racist remarks guised as jokes accompanied by her supposed friendship shown towards Starr is hard to read, as it only causes Starr to retreat further into herself and struggle to project the Williamson Starr persona at the expense of living her own truth.

When her childhood friend Khalil is shot and killed in front of her by a white cop, Starr is overwhelmed by the pressure of protecting herself and speaking out. Starr is all too aware of the racist media coverage of police shootings, where the victims are presented as thugs while the police are hailed as protectors who are just doing their job. Social media is referenced throughout The Hate U Give, as both a safe space for Starr to attempt to educate her peers about racist-fuelled shootings and to humanise the victims. During her keynote address at the Melbourne Writers Festival, Angie spoke of how she was motivated to write the novel to humanise victims of racism. The depiction of the shootings of Natasha and Khalil are carefully crafted, as rather than focusing on the physical brutality of the act, Angie draws focus to the shock of the loss of life.

The Hate U Give confronts the ugliness of racism, but manages to perfectly balance the violence and anguish surrounding the shootings with the love of family and the close-knit community of Garden Heights. From the admiration Starr has for her strong and affectionate mother and the passionate relationship between her parents, to the familiarity of neighbours and shopkeepers, Angie Thomas has written a beautiful, harrowing and unflinching Young Adult novel which offers hope through the power of truth, resistance and love.  My heart ached, my mind was opened and I was reminded of the privilege I have as a white person, not just through the depiction of the murder of Khalil, but of the day to day precautions Starr and her family are forced to make to minimise the risk of being gunned down by those who are supposed to protect them. A beautifully written novel I will undoubtedly reread again and again.

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Event highlight: Melbourne Writers’ Festival – ‘Angie Thomas: YA and Activism’

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‘Today I am here to beg you to change the world’

It’s hard to believe Angie Thomas’ keynote, the first YA keynote Melbourne Writers’ Festival has ever had, was not a sell-out. Angie’s debut novel, The Hate U Give, has been sitting at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list for 26 consecutive weeks. It has been published in over 20 countries and is currently in its 16th reprint. Angie was mesmerising, as she delivered a passionate speech that was equal parts moving, hilarious and inspiring. She often broke from her speech to joke about what her mother would think; she pondered what would her mother say if she saw her daughter addressing a crowd wearing a Gryffindor jumper (I’m pretty sure everyone in the room not only approved, but wanted to ask where one could be purchased), or how her mother would react if she heard her swear (Angie sought permission from the audience before doing so).  ‘Angie Thomas: YA and Activism’ was chaired by Beverley Wang, a journalist, radio producer and host of the popular ABC podcast It’s Not a Race. Wang introduced Thomas by praising The Hate U Give as ‘a Young Adult book that all adults need to read as well’.

‘Today I am here to beg you to change the world’. Angie commanded attention with her opening statement, and held that attention throughout her address. She clearly conveyed her passion for writing Young Adult fiction, as she expressed her belief that young adults have an awareness, passion, and belief that they can change the world. Angie believes adults do not share that same belief as teens, as ‘once we become adults we realise how big the world is’. Acknowledging many of the adults in the audience were Young Adult fiction writers, Angie noted that ‘as writers, you have the power to do just that’ (change the world).

While Angie said ‘books showed me that there was more to the world’, as a teen she struggled to see herself in published Young Adult fiction. Twilight was considered THE Young Adult book, but she didn’t recognise herself on the page, and joked about how her mother would never let her talk to a man that old. Angie joked about how if her name had been called out during The Hunger Games, her mother would have marched right up to the organisers and stopped it from happening. Angie lamented that ‘usually kids like me were the sassy sidekicks … or the wisdom giver’. Angie loves the Harry Potter series, as she identified strongly with Hermione Granger, and viewed Voldemort as a drug dealer and Hogwarts was her community. Angie was thrilled when Noma Dumezweni was cast as Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Because of the absence of representation in YA, she said ‘I didn’t think my life mattered, or lives like mine mattered’. Angie saw herself in hip-hop, a movement, she noted, that was founded by teens. It was a way for teens to have a voice – about their lives, about what mattered. Angie’s heroes were rappers, as it felt like ‘somebody saw me, and they said it mattered’. ‘Hip-hop scared people because it was so raw’. There is a truth to hip-hop that can be confronting. Angie later went on to say ‘true change comes with discomfort’ and ‘I don’t think there’s anything wrong with fear … it’s what you do with it’.

While The Hate U Give has been interpreted by some as a distinctive Black Lives Matter political novel, Angie wrote The Hate U Give as a short story, well before she was aware of the Black Lives Matter movement. She wrote the story in response to a shooting in her town. Writing was the only way Angie knew how to get her frustration out, and eventually turned the story into a novel because, she said, ‘I need people outside of my neighbourhood to see’. She noted that when young victims are placed on the news, they are always made to seem older than they are. Angie wanted her book to be personal, not political, to humanise and show truth behind the headline. ‘Starr is a child. They were children’, she said, and later added ‘why is it that we make them antagonists in their own deaths?’ When Beverley asked Angie about her reaction to having Trump as President, Angie responded by saying ‘I have more hope now than I did before the election … people are speaking up now.’ She reminded the audience that racism is not new, it is just becoming more visible due to social media. The sense of hope and love Angie conveyed was incredibly moving, as she said ‘I know where the power lies, and it’s with the people’.

Angie implored the audience to ‘examine why you do it. Why do you write for young adults?’ This question was framed around an acknowledgment that ‘Young Adult books catch a lot of flak’, and while she jokingly referenced the Handbook for Mortals saga by saying ‘apparently some people see it (YA) as a way to get movies made’, her frustration that ‘people downplay (YA)’ was clear. Angie argued that teens today are ‘more aware, more conscious of things’, particularly due to social media. So, while she acknowledged that many YA writers write for younger versions of themselves, Angie believes we should ‘take ourselves out of it, and focus on who we’re writing for.’

There’s so much more that was talked about during the keynote, as well as the question time afterwards. I feel like I’ve barely scraped the surface. I was focused on Angie for the duration of the event, so I wasn’t aware whether the session was filmed or not. I hope it was. The only lowlight of the event came from an audience member, who asked, in what I interpreted to be a rather aggressive tone, what is worse, to write from your own experience or to write outside your own experience? The frustration in the audience member’s voice made me cringe. Angie was gracious in her reply, as she politely challenged the crowd to ask themselves why they want to write it, and why they would be the best possible person to tell that story. She urged writers to put in the work (do research, consult with relevant groups), to be prepared for criticism, and to LISTEN to and learn from any criticism.

‘Angie Thomas: YA and Activism’ was inspiring, moving, hilarious and full of heart. I’ve been to many MWF sessions over the years. This event will stay with me for the longest time.

 

I finished reading (and loved) The Hate U Give. My review is still to come. I only have the opportunity to attend one other MWF event this year, which will be #loveozya 

Review: ‘Begin, End Begin’ by Danielle Binks (ed.)

The #loveOzYA hashtag was created to promote and celebrate Australian young adult literature. Danielle Binks wrote about the origins of the movement in Kill Your Darlings . Danielle further discusses the origins and intent of the movement in a foreword to Begin, End, Begin, adding ‘It was not born out of patriotism or a rejection of international voices – far from it. LoveOzYA has been about the inclusion of voices. And it has been a movement, as the name suggests, about love.’

Begin, End, Begin contains contemporary, urban fantasy, and speculative fiction short stories, to name a few. A range of themes are covered, including teen pregnancy, sexuality, bullying, and sibling relationships. I’ve reviewed a few of my favourite stories.

 I’m screaming inside my own private little world, stuck inside my suit.

‘One Small Step … ’ had me holding my breath during intense thrilling scenes, laughing  at deadpan humour, and teary-eyed during poignant moments. Amie Kaufman’s sci-fi explores the weight of parental and societal expectation at conflict with the personal growth and choice through the narration of 17-year old Zaida. The world-building feels effortless, and the action and suspense is beautifully complimented by moments of humour and tenderness. I couldn’t help but speed-read through this piece, before going back and re-reading. A brilliantly crafted short story, which left me with a sense of a world that endured before the first page and would continue on long after the last.

9 p.m.
This it how it goes.
       I am standing in a corner, ‘cause I always seem to find myself standing in corners. Not in the centre of the sweaty, heaving dancers, and not in the back sunroom with the stoners and smokers. Definitely not too close to the front door – that would imply that I’m eager to escape, or eager to be seen.

Gabrielle is a playing the role of a supporting character in her own life, as she lives vicariously through her best friends. But, when she sees Cam kissing a girl who is not his girlfriend, Gabe is forced to examine why their relationship is so important to her, and to find a way to forge ahead with her own life. Book reviews are subjective, right? I know that. I’m hyper aware of the prejudices I bring to my own reading. But, from the very first paragraph of ‘Sundays’ I was hooked in; it felt like Melissa Keil had crept into my brain and was rehashing my teenage years. So, on the one hand, you could say I am automatically biased because I relate to the protagonist’s detachment from her own life, but this wouldn’t be possible if not for the almost tangible sensory atmosphere of the party, the way in which the pace is maintained by structuring the narrative in time segments and the banter and bickering between friends.

‘Lucy’s thoughts are so loud she worries the whole bus can hear them.’

The only story in the anthology written in third-person, ‘The Feeling from Over Here’ follows Lucy as she finds herself sharing an eight-hour bus trip from Wagga to Albury with Cameron Webber. With no phone reception to provide a welcome distraction, Lucy is forced to evaluate her conflicting feelings about Cameron. Tozer has created an emotionally evocative story filled with multifaceted characters. There’s no room for cardboard cut-out characters, as even the bus driver delivers nuance in his limited appearance.

It’s hard enough being an outsider, without having to watch something end that you’ve always wanted to be a part of’.

14 year-old Bowie isn’t prepared to watch her brother King disappear out of her life, so she follows him to the pub where he meets up with his friends. When Bowie is spotted by his friends, King reluctantly lets his younger sister tag along for his last night out. Danielle Binks beautifully captures the love and tension between the two siblings, and the shifting family dynamic, as King is determined to break away from the prejudices and pity he has endured living in a small town community, and Bowie struggles to adhere to the invisible sibling boundaries while grappling with impending change. ‘Last Night at the Mount Solemn Observatory’ had me in tears by the end.

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Danielle Binks will be hosting a #LoveOzYa session at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival on Saturday, 03 September. The session will feature Amie Kaufman, Melissa Keil, Ellie Marney and Alice Pung. I’ll put up a recap of the panel, as well as the YA Keynote featuring Angie Thomas.

Review: ‘One Would Think the Deep’ by Claire Zorn

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Sam fell into a pattern without making a conscious decision. Out of the water he was messed up, he had turned every good thing he had to shit. In the water he was Minty Booner’s cousin and he would take on any wave that rose up against him. Recklessness or measured risk – the hazy space in-between was solace.

In the summer of 1997, 17-year old Sam Hudson catches his mother as she collapses, felled by an aneurysm. Sam hasn’t seen his Auntie Lorraine Booner in 7 years, but she is the only family he has left. Lorraine’s knee-jerk reaction is to ask Sam if his grandmother can take him in, but she agrees to take him in at a push. With nothing but his skateboard and a few random belongings stuffed into garbage bags, Sam trades Sydney for a camp bed in the small windowless spare room at his Aunt’s house on the surf coast. His aunt won’t look him in the eye, and his cousin Shane makes it clear from the outset that Sam isn’t welcome, but Shane’s younger brother Michael ‘Minty’ greets Sam with Labrador-like enthusiasm. Sam is surprised at how easy it was between him and Minty after all this time, but despite his efforts to emulate Minty’s chilled lifestyle, Sam struggles to escape the grief of his mother’s death and his need to uncover the family secret that led to the 7-year estrangement.

Just as she did with The Protected, Claire Zorn perfectly captures the emotional chaos of grief. Sam spends much of One Would Think the Deep trying not to think of his mother, or of the pointlessness of her death. Sam realises he can switch off the anger and sadness he feels while he is out surfing with Minty. But, surfing is not a peaceful and meditative experience for Sam, as time and time again he is dumped and slammed into the ocean floor, salt water burning through his nose and his chest. Sam turns to violence as a desperate means to stop himself from falling into the black hole of grief, and to somehow reassert himself as a strong masculine figure, but each violent encounter brings him one step closer to losing what little family he has left.

Sam struggles with perceived notions of masculinity, which is shown through his struggle to establish a relationship with Gretchen. He is both envious and fearful of emotional vulnerability. The struggle between masculinity and femininity is cleverly explored through 90’s music. Jeff Buckley is referenced throughout the novel. As Claire discussed at The Melbourne Writers Festival, Jeff Buckley’s vulnerable, effeminate persona was at odds with the hyper-masculine grunge era of the 1990’s. The music of Kurt Cobain fills Sam with a powerful yet restless anger, while Jeff Buckley leaves Sam feeling envious, as Buckley presents himself in a raw emotional state without having his masculinity called into question.

Minty’s perpetually cheerful extroverted persona compliments Sam’s reserved introspective nature, but Minty is just as lost as Sam, as he struggles with navigating through family trauma and the pressure of making it as a pro surfer. Minty tries to show strength through grotesque misogynistic behaviour, through objectification of Gretchen and the manner in which he treats his best friend, Ruby. On the one hand, Ruby’s friendship with Minty allows her privilege out in the surf, but Minty keeps her at a distance by sleeping around. Ruby can more than hold her own, both in the water and around Minty and his friends. Ruby has her own struggles to contend with, as she grapples with her indigenous heritage. Claire wrote the character of Ruby in consultation with the Woolyungah Indigenous Centre at the University of Wollongong.

The family revelation was admittedly predictable, but this did not detract from the readability of One Would Think the Deep. The focus of the novel was not so much the events leading up to Sam’s arrival at his aunt’s home, but whether he can reconcile with his past in order to navigate towards a hopeful future. Claire Zorn has once again created a great mix of believable characters. While Ruby may be the only likeable character, it is the fallibility, vulnerability and earnestness of each of the characters that makes them compelling. As with The Protected, Claire does not present a final conclusion for each of the characters, but there is enough presented about the ensemble throughout the novel to indicate how their lives continue on after the final page.

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Review: ‘Shield’ by Rachael Craw

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 I brace and turn. He leans against the pantry. I lean against the counter. Nice and easy. See how relaxed we are, leaning.

Okay, so the quote above doesn’t exactly encapsulate the plot of Shield, but I want to make this review as spoiler-free as possible, and what better way to do it by quoting just one of the few adorably awkward Evie and Jamie moments?

Shield, by Rachael Craw, is the final book in the Spark trilogy (the other titles are Spark and Stray). Evie travels to the claustrophobic Affinity compound. The events of Stray have caused a divide within Affinity, and Evie is not sure who she can trust, and who wants to wipe her out. She is trying to come to terms with the change of her powers, while being forced to re-evaluate her already complicated relationship with her family. Evie runs the risk of being swallowed up by Affinity as she puts her life on the line to try to save the ones she loves.

Evie is a fascinating and fun character to follow. She’s fiercely independent, yet has a strong bond with her aunt Miriam and is protective of her friends. Headstrong, she clashes with many of the characters, which not only shows her determination to forge her own path, but also how much she cares for her friends and family as she clearly places great importance on what they think of her. Evie strives to project herself as cool and calm, particularly around Jamie, but her insecurities spill out through the narration. Craw strikes a balance between poignant, heart-breaking moments and self-deprecating humour.

The relationship between Jamie and Evie is refreshing, as both Jamie and Evie are headstrong and passionate. Evie’s hyper-awareness of her attraction to Jamie is positively giddying.

Jamie steps into the foyer, tall enough to see over the crowd. I experience a brief shutdown: heart, lungs, brain.

While Evie is consistently drawn to Jamie, a desire which is heightened by their genetic mutations, she does not lose herself in the relationship. Evie maintains her sense of self, and doggedly pushes back whenever she feels Jamie is in the wrong. This is not to say she is right every time, but this only adds more depth to her character.

The forbidden love between Jamie and Evie was beautifully, achingly and hilariously written, but there is much more to the series. Rachael has maintained an intense atmosphere throughout the trilogy, and the stakes continue to be raised in Shield. The Affinity compound exudes claustrophobia, through a maze of narrow corridors with low ceilings and small hidden rooms, and the ever-present threat of Reprog and the isolation chamber. The fight scenes are tightly written, with the superhuman elements easy to visualise.

Spark, Stray and Shield are all enthralling reads, owing to a great mix of characters, carefully crafted supernatural elements and a killer plot. While each of the novels deal with heavy-handed issues there is always a sense of hope, which is achieved through the complexity of the characters and the strong relationships they have with one another despite their differences. I thoroughly enjoyed this series, and will undoubtedly revisit the world again.

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With thanks to Walker Books, for providing an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.

 

 

Review: ‘My Sister Rosa’ by Justine Larbalestier

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Rosa is a ticking time bomb.
I don’t think it matters what you call it: psychopathy, sociopathy, antisocial personality disorder, evil or the devil within. What matters is how to prevent the bomb from exploding.

My Sister Rosa is a contemporary psychological thriller by Justine Larbalestier. The YA novel is narrated by 17-year-old Che, who has charged himself with preventing his highly intelligent, Shirley Temple-like 10-year-old sister from hurting anyone. Manipulation and lying became a means for Rosa to explore her sinister tendencies, as she is all too aware of the protection her age and doll-like looks gives her. The parentals, David and Sally, are dismissive of Che’s warnings and accusations in part because they’re preoccupied by their own relationship and hectic business dealings, but also because they believe Rosa is merely a rambunctious 10-year-old girl. When their parents move them overseas yet again, this time to New York City, Che must find a way to contain Rosa in a new environment while also getting some degree of control over his own life.

My Sister Rosa is not solely reliant on the constant presence of a singular psychotic character in order to build and maintain suspense. My Sister Rosa exudes impending and inevitable destruction throughout, which is largely achieved through the way the novel is structured, as well as the overarching theme of control.  The novel is divided into four parts, determined by the list of goals (p25) Che writes every time he is forced to move to a new place:

  1. Keep Rosa under control
  2. I want to spar
  3. I want a girlfriend
  4. I want to go home.

The goals offer some degree of comfort as they are the only consistency Che has. While Rosa has no sense of boundaries and no purpose in her destructive tendencies other than for its own sake, Che relies on boundaries in order to feel some sense of control over his own life and to ensure he is prepared if Rosa brings about a cataclysmic event. While the goals offer comfort, they also leave him frustrated and angry because of his inability to achieve any of them. Che tries to counteract the sense of powerlessness he feels within his family by boxing. Training allows him to lose himself within the momentum and technique, but even that freedom is restricted, as he has promised his parents he won’t progress to sparring.

The first person narrative adds to the tension, as while Che strives to uphold himself as the good son and protector, he is still a fallible human being in desperate search of an identity independent of Rosa. When Che moves outside his own boundaries, or those set by his parents, it not only causes his parents to question is reliability, it also raises the possibility that Che may be an unreliable narrator, which adds another layer of depth and deception.

The only jarring aspect of the novel takes place in Chapter 25. I don’t want to post any spoilers here, so I will only say that the event that happens at the end of Chapter 24 is at odds with what happens at the start of Chapter 26, and at the start of Chapter 27. I’m really keen to discuss this, but don’t want to ruin the book. Please PM me your theories!

My Sister Rosa answers the call for more diversity in YA through the inclusion of people of various ethnicity, religious beliefs, gender identity and sexual orientation. Larbalestier creates these characters without reducing them to a stereotype or trope, arguably because the diversity is not presented as a point of contention. There are sexual references and drug scenes, but there isn’t a hint of gratuity or moral questioning. Rosa’s psychopathic nature is presented in an understated way, as she is depicted as an inquisitive individual who ponders about inflicting pain or death, and any accompanying threat is an indirect afterthought.

My Sister Rosa is an unnerving and thrilling read. With a great mix of characters and an unrelenting sense of impending destruction, the greatest challenge when reading this book was not to devour it all in one sitting. The story stayed with me long after I put the novel down.

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With thanks to Dymocks for the pre-release copy.