Book Review: ‘ When Only One’ by Meg Gatland-Veness

How do you help someone who doesn’t want to be helped?

I need to be explicitly upfront about this novel and its raw topics before I feel dive into this review. This book surrounds the tragic event of a fictional high school shooting in Australia. It provided insight into grief and loss, poverty, domestic abuse, neglect and suicide. These are heavy topics but if you are up to it, do not let that deter you. ‘When Only One’ is one of THE BEST books I’ve read this year and I have absolutely no doubt, in all fibres of my body, that this book will be winning awards in the Australian contemporary young adult category.

Let’s jump into talking about this special novel shall we?

Samson is a teenager, the eldest of five boys and belongs to an average income earning household. His father works a desk job while his mother is unfaltering in her Catholic faith, stability and routine at home with five boys. Sam’s home structure is just that – stable. However his reemerged best friend, Emily, comes from a household that is anything but stable. Her father works when he wants too, drinks too much and is abusive toward her mother. Cynthia, Emily’s mum, suffers from mental illness which becomes quite evident early on in the book. Her mother collects shoes and requires a ‘shoe-toll’ before Emily or Sam can enter the house. She hoards these shoes and gathers them around her for a sense of comfort. The shoe collecting is quite humorous at times with Emily and Sam searching all over town for shoes, to Emily missing her shoes within the floor to ceiling shoe garage, to Sam giving up his good runners for a desperate chance to speak with Emily. Until one afternoon when Emily’s dad snaps – the humour is gone.

Emily’s household is violent, neglectful and poverty-stricken. The local town, school and teenagers know this but nobody believes they can or should do anything to help, as they themselves would rather turn a blind eye and continue on with their safe and comfortable lives. Emily finds her solace and safety in sneaking through Sam’s bedroom window and sleeping on top of his clean bed. Sam lets her, while he takes the bean bag. Emily sometimes stays for meals, plays with Sam’s brothers and gets driven around by Sam’s mum if they both need to go somewhere. However, there is always this divide and ‘frowned-upon’ nature that Sam’s mother holds towards Emily. She will never quite let her be a part of their family, even though it is clearly obvious that she needs help. Emily is also adamant on refusing help, claiming she can handle the cards life has dealt her, but she’s only a teenager. She shouldn’t have to handle these challenges on her own, let alone suffer the consequences of them.

Sam and his close group of guy friends are all training for the Ironman Championship and sporting scholarship. They all want to be fit, athletic and well trained sportsmen, like on the Nutri-grain cereal box. His closest friends consist of; Daniel – a flirtatious Italian; Jeff – quiet and hardworking; Patrick – from a well off family but doesn’t like to admit it; and Milo – who grew up on a dairy farm, his mother committed suicide from postnatal depression, leaving Milo, his under 1 year old sister and their father falling apart. There is a piercing passage on pg. 218 that throws the social divisions of Australian high school and small town communities in your face. It reads;

“At our school, there are three main factions. First, there’s the rich kids from town. They mostly have two working parents and a swimming pool. Then there’s us, mid-grounders. We live in town but the wrong side of the main road. We mostly have stay-at-home mums or single parents. We have clean clothes and brushed hair, but our uniforms are clearly from the faded second-hand box and not shiny and bright from the uniform shop. Jeff, Daniel and I fall into that category. Patrick likes to pretend he does, but he’s secretly a rich kid. Then there’s the third faction: the farm kids and derros who live on the outskirts. The Emilys and Milos of the school. The ones with foetal alcohol syndrome, or mums with no teeth, or brothers in jail, or dads with restraining orders against them. They are the ones who hardly ever last to the end of Year 10.”

Meg’s ability to put social hierarchy in such plain words created real feeling for me. I believe it rang true in its bluntness and clear vision through the teenage eyes of Sam, who is discovering the awareness of adversity and privilege all around him. From this, Sam is learning the unwavering power and influence that adversity and privilege have over a persons life. One teenager in this story who was aware of their privilege was Rei. Rei has recently moved to Sam’s school and it was love at first sight for him. Her Asian background and unidentified faith plagued Sam’s mother at times, but he does truly love Rei. Rei advocates for social justice, wins schooling debates and cries over inequalities. Meg does a great job of still painting Rei as a young teenager, with emotion led decision making, self-confidence issues and the feelings of grief and loss surrounding migrating to a new country.

Ultimately, the adversities, disadvantages and addictions faced by the characters in this story, create the demise for severe loss of mental control and physical actions. The escalation is chilling, sickening and unexplainable, but arguably explainable from the perspective of the one character committing the action. I have to say that the novel does not keep you in this heaviness. It gives the reader a clear feeling of immediate grief and how that looks in the realistic lives of teenagers, yet we also see and feel the ongoing cycle of grief. We learn its moving sensation and how it becomes a part of who you are, then you keep growing, then growing, then growing. To say this novel touched me is an understatement. Even now writing this review, I am flipping open pages and thinking gosh I want to write about this, and this, but I can only give you so much book lovers. I need to leave the rest up to you 💖

💫 Mini Review 💫

‘Today Tonight Tomorrow’ by Rachel Lynn Solomon

Looking for a feel good read? ✅

Looking for an enemies to lovers plot? ✅

Looking for a romance that moves from high school into new young adulthood? ✅

This young adult fiction encompasses all of the good suff, making it light, romantic and a quick read. Rowan Roth is a determined young woman and hard working right up to the very end of high school but her witty drive is pushed along by the likes of Neil McNair. The two have been in hefty competition with each other since the time they met. Their schooling has been a constant battle of who will be in first place and who will come in second. Rowan is set on not placing second best in their last bid for victory … winning valedictorian.

Yet as graduation looms and their end of Senior Year celebrations of a Seattle scavenger hunt kicks off, Rowan and Neil begin to realise that rather than opposing each other, they are smarter, swifter and more aligned working together than they ever realised. Slowly, they learn about one another’s lives outside of the small portion of school they experience with one another. Outside hobbies, passions and home lives come into play, furthering even more of their connection.

I read this over a weeks holiday and it was the perfect accompaniment for a light and happy time. I needed a story to get me out of a book slump as I’d just come off the back of reading my second favourite literary novel of 2022 (review coming soon 🤗) – so I needed something a little lighter. The lovely Josh from @joshhortinela recommended this strongly and I was convinced to pick it up!

Book Review: ‘100 Remarkable Feats of Xander Maze’

Oh Xander Maze, what a special and long-lasting place in my heart you’ve got. ‘100 Remarkable Feats of Xander Maze’ by Clayton Zane Comber has flown up there on my top 3 list of Australian Young Adult novels. I finished this book in four sittings as it’s amount of dialogue, perfectly paced character experiences/developments, as well as its heart-warming plot really pulled me in – and QUICK!

Xander Mazes’ Nanna is his #1 person he trusts in his life. His curated ‘Memory List’ includes numerous happy, warm and safe memories with her. But Nanna is terminally ill and has recently moved into end of life care. Xander recognised this new environment of Nanna’s because it has less beep and whir noises than the regular hospital. Xander notes that he will have to make a new mental map of this hospital layout while Nanna is a patient.

Nanna suggests Xander make a list of ‘100 Remarkable Feats’ and ticks them off in the wish it can help his Nanna feel better, yet Xander interprets this as a way he can help save his Nanna’s life and prevent loosing her forever. This list soon goes viral (thanks to the help of his clever Nanna) and Xander’s world is about to change.

Making a best friend, having a ‘yes’ day, asking out Ally (#1 prettiest girl ever), driving a car for the first time, learn to surf, go to a party, befriend weird neighbour Mr. Abramowitz, make Nanna proud – are just a few of the 100 feats. Xander’s development and journey is hard to draw your reading eyes away from. His innocence in the beginning really helps mould his character and maturity throughout the novel. I kind of felt like a proud Mum reading this book. I’m proud of what Xander achieved with his list and how it allowed him to bloom in this new world he created with the help of new friends and family.

I look forward to the day that I can visit Clayton Zane Comber’s book store/cafe ‘Bouqiniste’ in Kiama, NSW! I also look forward to reading more of his work. Okay now that’s me signing off to read ‘The Gilded Cage’ by Lynette Noni 👋🏼