How do I even begin? This book is *chefs kiss* magnificent. I feel like as someone who grew up in a rural Aussie town I really felt what it was like for these characters. I was hesitant going into this read - if you know me, you'll know I'm not one for heavy reads. I don't like reading anything that hits too close to reality. I'm all about the escapism. But like with many aussie contemps I've read over the years, this one didn't disappoint.
First of all, the nostalgia is strong with this one. It had strong Looking for Alibrandi vibes (another cracker Aussie YA contemp) and the music throughout really had me. I mean, Smoke on Water? Of course it's the first thing you ever learn on the guitar. The bits of Aussie humour thrown in here and there off-set the overall tone of the book, never letting it get "too much" despite the subject matter, not to mention the slang that is thrown in gives levity to the situation. Also, I thought the internal monologues of each character were done really well - they were real without being pretentious or overdone. Like an actual teenaged boy was thinking them. Funny that.
So let's start with Charlie. Dude gets outed unceremoniously online and although he wants to act the tough guy and appear to not give a f**k, you can really see in his actions just how much he does care. As teens, they believe they're invincible, and Charlie's strength is welcome rather than the usual teen angst that clogs up YA contemps. I liked how he found some comfort in Matt, felt his disappointment when Matt was unwilling to acknowledge him publically, and generally fist-pumped when he finally got out of that town. It goes from one crappy situation to another with Charlie, but he stoically plows through each. However, this does mean that he plows through without realising that he's not the only one hurting, a fact that is realised all too late.
I adored Zeke and his character development. Although the poor bugger starts off as the quiet introvert, I was so happy when he got out at the end. Despite struggling with his family's expectations and homophobia as well as dealing with Hammer's confusion, he did it all with compassion and empathy, something that is unfortunately lost on the other boys.
Hammer - oh Hammer, you poor poor confused boy. Talk about confusion to the max. What with the toxic masculinity of his home and school life, not to mention the insane expectations of becoming a footy star, no wonder he was keen to find an 'out'. It was sad to see him convince himself to stay closeted and ignore that part of him in the end.
Now the letterbombs - at first I wasn't sure what was going on here, but they're written in such a way that you don't know who is writing them until the very end as the subject matter could refer to any of the boys at any time, but eventually, in the end, you come to find that it was Matt all along. Matt's story is probably the one that broke my heart the most. You only learn about Matt through secondhand information - you never really get any part of the story from his perspective alone - so you feel like he really was a lost boy that never found his way home. His final letter really drives home the 'words have consequences' mantra you learn when you're young but then don't really know the meaning until you're the one skewered by someone else's thoughtlessness.
Last but not least - wow, did the girls remind me of people I went to school with. Bravo, Holden. From the general attitudes to the drink throwing. It was all there.
This book was a fast read for me - I ended up going to work absolutely wrecked 3 days in a row because I didn't want to put it down.
A few honourable mentions with regards to quotes:
- I now know how to swear in Italian. Thanks for that.
- Adrenalust. Totally a thing.
- 'Support isn't just talk. It's f**king action.'
- 'It is a universal truth acknowledged by no-one that if you leave your teenage son at home alone, he'll be wanking by the time your car leaves the driveway.'
Seriously, if you haven't picked up this book yet, do it. Just. Do. It.
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