Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden

Book description:
When Ellie and her friends go camping, they have no idea they’re leaving their old lives behind forever. Despite a less-than-tragic food shortage and a secret crush or two, everything goes as planned. But a week later, they return home to find their houses empty and their pets starving. Something has gone wrong—horribly wrong. Before long, they realize the country has been invaded, and the entire town has been captured—including their families and all their friends.

Ellie and the other survivors face an impossible decision: they can flee for the mountains or surrender. Or they can fight.

It’s been several weeks now since I finished Tomorrow, When the War Began. Normally, I write a book’s review as soon as I finish reading it, but I feel like I’m still processing this one to some extent, trying to figure out exactly how I feel about it.

This is due in part to the fact that I have greatly enjoyed the other books by John Marsden that I have read, and so built this series up in my mind as something that was going to be jaw-droppingly amazing. And when it turned out not to be so, even though it’s still quite good in general and genuinely riveting in parts, I was kind of disappointed.

This is the story of seven Australian teenagers (later eight) living in the rural town of Wirrawee who go camping while their parents and most of the people in town are attending a fair. The kids return to find that a mysterious military force has invaded Australia and has imprisoned most of the townspeople at the fairgrounds, including their families. They must decide what, if anything, they’re going to do to help. Ellie Linton has been tasked with chronicling their story.

Large portions of the tale are pretty fascinating. The teens are resourceful and rise to the occasion, especially Ellie’s clown/daredevil childhood friend, Homer, who emerges as the group’s leader, and Fiona, a ladylike rich girl who proves to have unexpected reserves of courage. While Homer is the tactician of the group, Ellie seems to find herself trusted with the most dangerous missions, which require some quick, inventive thinking on her part in difficult situations involving things like exploding lawn mowers, demolition derby bulldozers, and exploding gas tankers.

I even liked the parts of the story where the characters talk about what they’re going to do—are we going to hide out here in our camping spot, or are we going to try to engage the enemy somehow?—and the various supplies they’re going to need from town, whether to keep chickens, etc. Where the story really bogs down, however, is with the introduction of romance.

Ellie has never considered Homer in a romantic way before, but begins to see him in a new light given his metamorphosis. Meanwhile, she’s also intrigued by Lee, the inscrutable Asian musician, and Homer has fallen for Fiona. Ellie dwells a lot on her confusion before ultimately deciding upon Lee, and then telling readers about all the making out they’re doing and how she has learned the things that make him groan, etc. I kept thinking how embarrassing all of this will be for Lee whenever he/anyone reads this official chronicle!

Anyway, it’s not that I am anti-romance or anything, but it’s just that these scenes really slow down the pace of the story. And maybe that is the point. Even if something as dramatic as an invasion has occurred, there will still be a lot of downtime if you’re hiding out in the woods, and a lot of time for more mundane things to be going on.

I guess what it boils down to is that my perception of the book has been hampered by my expectations. I am certainly going to read the rest of the series, and hopefully I will like it better now that I’ve reconciled myself to what it actually is rather than what I thought it was.

Additional reviews of Tomorrow, When the War Began can be found at Triple Take.

Winter by John Marsden

From the back cover:
For twelve years, Winter has been haunted. Her memories will not leave her alone. There are secrets she does not remember—but needs to know.

The time has come for her to go back home.

Every journey starts with a single step. But sometimes if you want to step into the future, you must first step into the past…

After reading Checkers, So Much to Tell You, and Take My Word for It, I realized that John Marsden has a certain… preferred pattern. In each case, something profoundly traumatic has happened to the (Australian) teenaged heroine and the slim book consists of her first-person narrative as she attempts to work past whatever it was, while gradually divulging enough tidbits to enable readers to figure out what happened. In many ways, Winter is very similar, though in this case, the titular heroine begins the book as in the dark as anyone else.

It’s been twelve years since sixteen-year-old Winter De Salis has set foot on the family estate of Warriewood. Both of her parents died when she was four, but she wasn’t told much about them by the relatives with whom she spent the intervening years. Now old enough to leave school and return home, that’s exactly what determined Winter does, and makes short work of dispatching the dishonest caretakers of her property while questioning anyone who might provide some useful information concerning her parents’ deaths. After making friends with a girl around her age, enjoying a bit of romance, and uncovering the family secret, she is eventually able to face her future without obsessing over the past.

Despite the structural similarities to other Marsden books, Winter doesn’t much feel like them. Its setting is more rural, for one thing, so there are sections like the one describing the cathartic process (for Winter) of removing unwanted blackberries from the property, or the depiction of her first attempt to take care of the cattle by herself. Winter is a unique protagonist, and I love how Marsden shows her capacity for being difficult—when you’re underage and you want something strongly, sometimes the only weapon in your arsenal is being stubborn—while simultaneously showing that she really is a good kid. She’s grateful for kindness and not so wounded that she can’t make new friends, and posits at one point that perhaps the early death of her famously strong mother is what has enabled her to become so strong herself. It’s a pretty devastating truth that she learns, but it’s believable that she is able to move on from it and not dwell too long on questions that will never have answers.

My only minor quibble is that the romance feels somewhat superfluous; granted, it plays an important role in demonstrating Winter’s progression from someone fixated on the past to someone anticipating the future, but I would’ve liked the boy (Matt Kennedy) to be a more well-rounded character. I’d almost wish for a sequel—perhaps a story set twenty years later with Winter and Matt as parents to a new protagonist—but I suppose that would require something traumatic to happen to their offspring, and we wouldn’t want that!

Take My Word for It by John Marsden

From the back cover:
Lisa Morris could be the girl next door. She could be your cousin. She could be sitting behind you in class.

She could be you.

But Lisa, cool and beautiful Lisa, remote and private Lisa, has more going on in her life than anyone imagines.

Only her journal knows the truth about her life. Only her journal—and you.

This short little book functions as both companion piece and epilogue to Marsden’s So Much to Tell You, a (slightly better) book written as the journal of Marina, a silent, traumatized girl attending an Australian boarding school called Warrington. Take My Word for It presents the journal of Marina’s classmate, Lisa, who appears tough and cool in the eyes of others but has her own share of problems.

While I did enjoy reading Take My Word for It, I suspect it was never published in the US (I imported my copy from Australia) because it just doesn’t stand on its own very well. Lisa is a realistic character, and I have some sympathy for her struggle to accept the fact that her parents have divorced (which she believes is her fault) and that, as time goes on, the family is proceeding separately down paths that take them further and further away from the childhood home for which Lisa pines.

But the most interesting parts of this novel for me were the times we got insight into the other novel. Why, for example, did Lisa break down and cry at one point, sending Marina into a tizzy of worry and indecision? What does Marina actually look like? And, best, what happens after Marina finally speaks to her father? I guess I had expected the stories to end at the same point, but upon reflection, why would they conveniently do that? So, Marina comes back to school after seeing her dad over a break, and very gradually begins to talk to her dormmates. It’s nice, though I could’ve done without the dangled thread that Marina might leave Warrington, which Marsden never follows up on.

Like Marsden’s other protagonists, Lisa has a secret that she obliquely references while writing. In Marina’s case, we knew something had happened to her, but not what. Specifics were doled out sparingly and it was at least moderately suspenseful. In Lisa’s case, her secret is pretty obvious early on, so further attempts at cryptic hinting are just kind of annoying. On the plus side, she uses loads of interesting Australian slang, so I’ve learned several cool new words, like “dob” and “bludge.”

I sincerely doubt there’s any such thing as a lousy book by John Marsden, but this one, alas, is not my favorite.

So Much to Tell You by John Marsden

From the back cover:
Fourteen-year-old Marina didn’t know why she was sent away to school. Actually, that wasn’t completely true. She knew it had something to do with the progress she hadn’t made in the hospital. After all, she still didn’t talk. And Marina knew her mother didn’t want her at home.

Then Marina started writing in a journal for English class. Bit by bit the trauma of her silence began to unfold as a shocking nightmare that continued to haunt her. But Marina refused to talk about it or to feel anything. Still, before she realized it, Marina began to feel a little—to reach out to some of the girls at school, to her favorite teacher, to her family—if only she could find the words…

I have been in a serious John Marsden mood lately, and this is the first of several of his books that will be coming down the pipeline in the near future. This was his first novel, published in 1987, and it’s set in Australia.

It’s February 6, the start of a new term, and an unnamed fourteen-year-old girl has just been assigned journal-writing as homework by the English teacher at Warrington, the boarding school she’s been sent to to learn to talk again. She promises herself that she won’t write in it, but almost immediately begins saying more than she intended to.

As the girl describes life at school and chronicles her observations of her fellow boarders, we begin to pick up hints about what has happened to her. Her face is terribly scarred, for one thing, and she’s spent time in the psych ward of a hospital without much improvement. As she gradually learns to trust her classmates and makes tentative efforts at communication, the truth of what happened to her becomes more clear.

What I really like about So Much to Tell You is that it isn’t a suspense novel. One’s not (or at least I wasn’t) on the edge of one’s seat, frothing to know exactly what happened to the girl (whom we learn at the very end of the novel is called Marina). Instead, what we’re really witnessing is her beginning to heal. Scarred mentally and physically by the family she happened to be born into, with a workaholic father who snapped when his materialistic wife tried to take everything he’d worked so hard for, she begins to realize that most people are fundamentally good, and are more acquainted with feelings of loneliness and ostracism than she expected.

Gradually, Marina finds herself wanting to reach out to her classmates, toward whom she feels no bitterness. Indeed, she is able to praise them quite freely. This, in turn, helps her to reach out to her father, who more than anyone could understand what she’s been going through. Although we aren’t privy to her full recovery, the novel concludes at a point where Marina is clearly going to be okay. Still, I was sorry it was over. Happily, my copy of the companion novel—the journal of one of Marina’s classmates—arrived yesterday, so I will be devouring that promptly.

Lastly, a word of praise for narrator Kate Hosking. I listened to an unabridged recording, and Hosking’s narration really elevated the book for me. She brings Marina to life—and has a cool Australian accent to boot!—and sells Marsden’s prose, which is occasionally a bit too on-the-nose, beautifully. I would happily listen to her read anything.

Checkers by John Marsden: A-

From the back cover:
Tonight before I started writing this, it was me confronting Jack. It was so real I could smell it.

Suddenly, according to my imagination, I’d be on my feet, screaming, “Why didn’t you leave us alone? Why did you have to drag us in? You’re scum, filth. I hate you. Go away. You deserve everything, everything, you understand? Everything that you get. It’s not my fault. IT’S NOT MY FAULT.”

She has everything going for her: good looks, a nice school, friends, and a silly dog to remind her not to take life too seriously. But suddenly her life spins out of control. Nothing seems to make sense anymore. It takes confinement in a hospital—and a lot of time to think—before she can once again get a handle on life.

If I had read that description (and seen the creepy goth girl staring at me from the cover) without any prior experience with John Marsden, I’d probably have gone, “Ooookay” and put it back on the shelf. Since I have, however, read the excellent Letters from the Inside, I knew that most likely, it would turn out to be good.

The main protagonist is a high-school-age girl from a well-to-do family, and is keeping a sort of journal while she’s in the Adolescent Unit of a psychiatric hospital. We never learn her name. The narration alternates between description of life in the hospital, the staff, and the other six teens in the unit (one of whom reminds me a lot of Luna Lovegood) and her life before, her easily stressed, perfection-seeking mom, workaholic dad, materialistic brother, and the family dog she adored, Checkers. She’s a voluntary patient at this place, and it seems is using it as a bit of a hideway, unable to face something mysterious and terrible that has happened.

It’s a short little book, but isn’t lacking for impact. In fact, I would say it is downright disturbing. The story is still a good one, and it’s definitely unforgettable, but once all the secrets are revealed of why this girl is where she is… Let’s just say that I think I’d probably be there, too, were I in her place.