A few months ago I attended the Penguin Random House Children’s Roadshow, where the publishers detail upcoming releases for children, older readers and young adults. We were lucky enough to receive two proof copies of forthcoming releases for older readers, one of which has since been released, and one which will be released later in the year. Funnily enough, I found that both of these releases seem to have a similar target readership in mind, so they made perfect candidates for this dual book review.
The age range for these two books is definitely what we classify as “middle fiction”, or tween fiction – the readership that are beyond children’s fiction but may not quite be ready to deal with young adult themes. The age group is generally 9-12, and these two books will appeal to both male and female readers. This has been a great trend to emerge from middle fiction new releases recent years, the move away from gender stereotypes in both the marketing and the writing, and, instead, focusing upon great stories, great language and great characters. Neither of these two books disappoint when it comes to these key attributes.
Mr. Romanov’s Garden in the Sky – Robert Newton (March 2017)
The receiving of this book was framed in the manner of hearing Newton speak at the aforementioned event. In a previous life, Newton worked as a firefighter and had, in his time, seen some horrific things. One incident in particular, he mentioned, had haunted him for many years. This incident took place in the commission towers in inner-city Melbourne, where this story takes place. Newton mentioned having to confront a drug-addicted woman living on the upper storeys of the tower, but more harrowing than this was the discovery of the woman’s young daughter, to whom he desperately wanted to give a voice and a story beyond what must have been a horrific life that she was leading. And this is where Mr. Romanov’s Garden in the Sky originated.
The father of two daughters himself, this is Newton’s first foray into the female protagonist – Lexie, whom we encounter just before her thirteenth birthday. Although in her narration she does not seem particularly unhappy, her circumstances are miserable. Her mother is substance addicted and Lexie largely takes care of herself, a feat which could not be easy no matter her age, particularly given the commission tower’s nature and child services a constant threat to both herself and her mother.
The opening of this book is perhaps the most disturbing an incident which occurs throughout the book. An elderly man who also takes residence in the commission tower, known as “The Creeper”, has become known for prowling the corridors at night with his companion, a Jack Russell terrier. Chapter one sees the harmless Jack Russell terrier thrown from the top levels of the tower, helpless and hopeless against the ferocity of the thugs who did so to him. This is without question as graphic as the book gets. It is an interesting ploy by Newton to put such an action in the opening of the book – perhaps he is establishing an audience for this novel, or perhaps he is showing the grimness and bleakness of the human condition when it is under such a trial as the poverty and circumstance that these characters face.
In spite of these bleak circumstances, the book is not all doom and gloom! Obsessed with the vision of Surfers’ Paradise, the place which holds so much hope for Lexie through the absent figure of her father, she becomes set on the idea that if she could only make it there, her life would be free from the misery and torment that has become her daily ritual. And it is this hope, as well as the titular garden, that bring the unlikely duo of Lexi and “The Creeper”, real name Mr. Romanov, an elderly Russian expatriate, together.
Together along with Lexie’s friend Dave, who brings to the story injections of humour (particularly memorable is the mix-up with Mr. Romanov’s cardiac trouble with his angina) as well as his own kind of despair, they embark upon a road trip of a lifetime. They seek the kind of freedom and beauty which Lexie envisions that Surfer’s Paradise will bring her – but this is not to be so easily had given their combined extenuating circumstances.
This book is a beautiful example of the power that light and shade can bring to middle fiction. It certainly does not feel the need to sugar-coat anything that happens in the novel, but it also brings along with it equal amounts of hope and dreams as well as crushing reality.
It certainly was not a perfect read – I found troublesome the gendered role that Lexie took on, particularly toward the end when she dresses differently and changes her hair. The entire novel had moments of soaring success but in equal parts it also let itself down at times with its execution. Taking all of this into account, though, it is an impressive addition to the Australian middle fiction market, and one which I will certainly continue to recommend.
The Fall – Tristan Bancks (May 2017)
Another engaging author I was lucky enough to hear speak in Tristan Bancks has, once again, based this book from the sights he has seen in his life. He told us a story of a news report that he encountered in his time as an amateur journalist which framed the story of The Fall, to be released later in the year. The titular circumstance happens in the opening few chapters of the book, with our main character, soon-to-be thirteen year old Sam, witnesses a man falling from a high level apartment building where he is staying with his previously estranged father. Funnily enough, the opening circumstances of the two books that I have chosen to review here are strangely similar…although Bancks’ novel takes a drastically different turn to where Newton’s goes.
Inspired by his father’s work as a criminal reporter, Sam decides to investigate the circumstances of why the man fell, and who pushed him. The trouble is, when he heard and saw the man fall, he made a crucial mistake and now someone knows that he is in the know. Not to mention, Sam is battling fresh surgery on his ailing leg, the realisation that his absent father may not live up to his expectations, as well as an ever-present sense of fear that someone is coming for him.
We are entirely immersed in Sam’s thought processes and logic in this book. Given that his father has long absences as he goes to work, for the majority of the narration Sam is alone and we are essentially reading his thoughts for chapters at a time. At times, I found that this detracted from what is undoubtedly a great, action-filled plot. It got a touch tiresome living so immersed in Sam’s head when the reader just wanted the action to continue!
The action packed aspects of the novel are definitely the novel’s strong suit. Bancks does not shy away from many ugly aspects of the crime, and, in this manner, it is perfect for young readers who enjoy mysteries and fast-paced storylines. The novel is generally paced very well, and has a good deal of intrigue. It is never far-fetched either – something which occasionally young adult books can have the tendency to be when dealing with aspects of crime and policing. It is a sophisticated read, but it is not a hard read – a feat to be admired by the writing finesse of Bancks.
The Fall also has something for everyone – family drama, whodunit, even a tiny bit of romance (another of my minor qualms with the novel BUT I completely understand why it was inserted). It’s something that I would certainly recommend to its target age demographic.
And yes, I have deliberately been quite evasive in terms of plot disclosure – it’s an integral part of the reading experience of this book and I do not want to spoil it for any potential readers!
These two books really do complement each other well – just a sign of the ever developing and strengthening of the Australian children’s/young adult fiction marketplace. Well done to both authors on bringing quality works to the attention of our young people!