Just Breathe

Author: Andrew Daddo

Publisher: Penguin

Just Breathe, a beautiful coming of age book. I consider myself a person who isn’t too emotional, even a tad cynical at times, but this book by Andrew Daddo melted my cold heart – I also shed a tear and I can’t remember the last time I shed a tear when reading a book.  I heard Andrew Daddo on the radio and he said when he asked his fifteen-year-old daughter what should he write about next, she suggested, ‘write something to make me cry’. Well, I’m sure Daddo’s daughter did cry.

This is a book about possibilities. Two young people who are on the brink of discovering who they are and what they hope for their future.  Just Breathe is an exhilarating, emotional rollercoaster – the rollercoaster of being a teenager.

What I particularly liked about this book was that the two characters that the book centres around are such great kids. Emily and Hendrix are two kids who are dealing with challenges in their life, but they aren’t letting these challenges rule their life or determine their future. Together they are navigating their own lives and supporting each other to be the best person they can be.

Emily is dealing with a life-threatening tumour but she doesn’t want it to define her, nor does she want it to limit her life. She wants to fall in love, to make mistakes and most importantly, she wants to be a teenager.

Hendrix is living and training as an elite athlete. His father is controlling his life because his father’s dream is to see Hendrix as the next national champion. In the beginning, Hendrix believes that this is what he wants, but as his world expands, he realises that life has so many more possibilities and that he doesn’t want to be tied to his father’s dream.

Emily and Hendrix are two beautiful characters who are intelligent, funny and snarky. Daddo’s writing is superb. Just Breathe will capture your heart from the moment you start reading and it never let’s go.

Special mention must go to Ethan. Hendrix and Ethan strike up an unlikely friendship through their running and Ethan reminds Hendrix of what it is to be a teenage and particularly a teenage boy.  Ethan provides us with many moments of sheer joy and humour. He is also the friend that everyone should have in their life. Ethan is an easy-going character whose actions start at his heart, not his brain. He doesn’t have a malicious bone in his body and he wants the best for everyone, but he isn’t a syrupy character and I applaud Daddo for providing us such a great character.

Just Breathe shows us that teenagers are fundamentally the same no matter the era. Daddo has managed to write a beautiful book that captures that fantastic time of being a teenager. When you can see all the possibilities that life has for you, but you are also frightened and overwhelmed by those possibilities. As you read this book, you will be taken on an emotional ride that will make you feel, laugh and cry. Just Breathe is a book full of heart.

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Boy Swallows Universe

Author: Trent Dalton

Publisher: Harper Collins

I was drawn to this book because it appears to be the Australian ‘Book of the Year’ and I felt that I should read it rather than wanting to read it. It isn’t an easy read and at times the gruesome violence can be quite difficult to read, but I like that it was set in Brisbane during the 80s when Brisbane was just starting to come into its own as a city and as Dalton shows this was both good and bad.

I found the story fascinating mainly because it was inspired by real-life events of journalist Trent Dalton’s youth.

Boy Swallows Universe follows Eli Bell from ages 13 to 18 and is set in Brisbane’s suburbia (a dangerous and violent place indeed). The book opens with Eli living with his mute brother, his mother and step-father – who is the local heroin dealer. And to add to the mix, his babysitter is an infamous criminal.

Dalton doesn’t hold back in his writing and he writes about prison, suburban crime, alcoholism, unemployment, domestic violence and you tend to believe it, knowing that Boy Swallows Universe is 50 per cent truth and 50 per cent embellishment.

Dalton shows both sides of everything. He shows Australian suburbia as both murky and ruthless and beautiful and charming. Human beings can be both dark and light. Everyone lives a life of choices and those choices will determine your path. Life isn’t mapped out for you and your fate isn’t determined – you decide your own future.

Boy Swallows Universe is not a happy book, but somehow Dalton makes this book joyful and hopeful. You never feel like Eli is going to be swallowed by the greed, addiction and violence. There is something about Eli. Even when he should be defeated and is defeated – underneath it all you can always feel that winning spirit about him. Eli is smart and strong-minded and likeable.

What I particularly loved about Eli was his love for his mum, step-father and his dad – the flawed adults in his life. Eli never blames and he never plays the victim. Eli is determined to understand what makes a good man and Eli wants to be a good man. Eli, though, does understand that being a good man is both complicated and straightforward.

Eli Bell is a character that you instantly fall in love with and who you want to succeed. Boy Swallows Universe is a novel full of escapades, humour and love. You will be taken on a ride with Eli and you will find it both exhilarating and frightening. You will laugh and you will cry, but most of all this book will make you feel hopeful.

Boy Swallows Universe is sure to become the next Australian classic.

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Ballad For A Mad Girl

Grace Foley is the girl who lives by her own rules. She’s the prankster in her small group of misfit friends. Grace is the one who always pushes the boundaries. Her friends ground her and they may be the misfits of the town, but they each have a place in their small circle – Grace is the funny one. The trouble is that Grace’s small group is growing up and they are changing and unlike Grace, they want more than what their group can offer them. Grace fears change because change has not been kind to Grace Foley.

Wakefield draws you into Grace’s narrative immediately when in the opening pages of the book Grace sneaks out of home to defend her position as the record holder for the fastest time crossing the 40-metre pipe running 15- metres above a gully at the local quarry. Grace has completed the pipeline run hundreds of times and she is fearless when it comes to this challenge, but this particular night she freezes and is paralysed with fear.

“I stop, steady myself, blink. Stretch my arms and wait for the edges of the world to come back. Fear is in front of me now, and to the side, above and below.”

Not only is Grace paralysed with fear. A strange blue mist has crept in and Grace begins to see, feel and experience the presence of another.

“I trace the word with my finger. It shimmers. A sharp impact near my ribs knocks me sideways and the pipe seems to buckle and twist. My legs lose grip. Close by, someone is sobbing as if their heart could break.”

After that night Grace begins to change, even though she’s desperately trying to hold on to the world, she knows. Grace learns of a mystery that is associated with the gully – a twenty-year-old mystery. A blonde, blue-eyed teenager named Hannah Holt disappeared without a trace and it’s rumoured she’s buried in the gully.

Grace is convinced that Hannah is haunting her. Hannah wants Grace to reveal the truth of what happened that night. That until Grace can do this, she won’t be free of Hannah.

Wakefield writes so beautifully and hauntingly; you feel the creepiness of what is happening to Hannah so vividly.

“A lone crow drifts in lazy circles above. Overhead, the powerlines are humming, and the pitch is maddening. I cup my hands over my ears and lean against the tree. My vision is leached – it’s as if I’m the only person breathing in an abandoned world.”

Wakefield writes her characters so tenderly that you truly ache for them and the dilemmas they find themselves in and Grace is no exception. Wakefield’s characters are real and nuanced.

Vikki Wakefield’s writing is to be appreciated and though this is a book that you want to read quickly because of the riveting mystery. Do yourself a favour and slow down because you may miss those moments that only add to Wakefield’s brilliance. Savour her writing.

Ballad For a Mad Girl is a beautifully creepy book. There is Wakefield’s usual edgy brilliance combined with a thrilling mystery. Ballad For a Mad Girl is Vikki Wakefield at her best – brilliant, edgy and disturbing.

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