The Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) has announced their shortlisted and Notable Books for 2012. I was interested to see quite a diverse range of genres amongst the 22 Notables listed, a number of which we’ve reviewed here on Read Alert. There’s historical fiction to be found (Just a Girl by Jane Caro, and Act of Faith by Kelly Gardiner), alongside classic seafaring fantasy from Andrew McGahan in his first foray into YA literature, The Ship Kings: Coming of the Whirlpool.
And of course, there’s the usual array of high quality contemporary fiction, such as Chrissie Keighery’s extraordinary Whisper, narrated by a newly deaf teenager, and Vicki Wakefield’s stunning All I Ever Wanted which most recently won the Adelaide Festival Award for literature.
Today’s book review features one of the titles on the shortlist, Bill Condon’s A Straight Line to My Heart. Bill Condon will need no introduction to most people reading this – his Confessions of a Liar, Thief and Failed Sex God took out the inaugural Young Adult Fiction Prize in the 2010 Prime Minster’s Award.
In A Straight Line to My Heart , Bill Condon inhabits perfectly the skin of 17-year-old Tiff, a secret romantic who loves books – but prides herself on seeing them with an unsparing eye. She has no time for the ‘romantic drivel’ spouted by Young Cathy when asked about her love for Edgar Linton in Wuthering Heights, for instance. When it comes to boys, though, she’s a softer touch, looking for an updated Heathcliff in her life.
Unsurprisingly, she fails to spot the potential love interest to be found in Davey Peters. Ok, so at first appearance he doesn’t seem the epitome of ‘hotness’. He is ‘tall and slouchy, like a vertical beanbag’ and ‘more hulk than hunk.’ Despite suspecting he might be ‘kind’, she calls him Big Foot, writing him off as a romantic prospect.
But Davey has hidden depths, and part of the charm for the reader is seeing his quintessential ‘rightness’ for Tiff before she does. They meet in the library. He knows about Breakfast at Tiffany’s – not the movie, but the book, which he bought because he likes Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. And he has a car – although it keeps breaking down at crucial moments.
Following the death of her mother when Tiff was born, she has been brought up by Reggie, a family friend who is the nearest thing she has to a grandfather, and his stepson, Bull, a kindly father-substitute who once told her she was beautiful. With her trademark humour, Tiff remembers this as her ‘all-time favourite lie’. But as the book progresses the reader comes to agree with Bull: she is actually a beautiful person.
There’s a sad side to Reggie’s story – his illness is terminal. But the sadness is laced with humour. ‘When I’m gone,’ he says to her, ‘burn me up in the incinerator and bung the ashes in the garbage bin… so I get recycled.’
For a shortish book, there’s plenty going on. Amidst the dramas of home and a ‘not-hot’ new boy, Tiff has to deal with the ramifications of discovering that her ‘exciting’ new job at the local paper has a seedier and more mundane side. The potential murder victim found in the local park turns out to be a drug addict who OD’d, and Tiff’s co-worker, a hard bitten journo aptly named Shark, is unsympathetic in the extreme at her grief over the death. Tiff must learn to ‘toughen up.’
This book is stacked with warmly engaging characters who are at times hilarious, such as Tiff’s neighbour, Mrs Muir, whose warm-heartedness is symbolised by the sunflowers in her front garden. Bull’s girlfriend Zoe is a more significant force for good in Tiff’s life. She wisely knows to ‘take it slow and easy’ with Reggie and Tiff, and provides unexpected emotional support to Tiff when she needs it most – ‘like Dr Phil, except she’s not bald’.
At other times, you bleed for them. Take Kayla, Tiff’s gorgeous best friend, who can attract boys effortlessly: ‘Kayla and boys go together like chocolate and pimples’. Underneath her breezy exterior, Kayla is fighting to keep her mother on track and away from the pokies, while helping to raise her five siblings and making sacrifices to keep the family together.
But first and foremost, the book is all about Tiff, as she negotiates Kayla’s departure with her family and uncovers a softer side to the Shark. And it’s got a gorgeously romantic ending – which I won’t spoil for you.