Gus and The Starlight by Victoria Carless

Have you ever wanted to live in a movie theatre? Or, if you’re old enough to remember, even a drive-in? I am old enough to remember the magic of the drive-in; watching a story unfold on the screen against the backdrop of the stars, snuggled safely inside your car, or sitting out under a blanket, plugging in the speaker and eating junk from the cafe. There were the late-night features with friends, the romantic (and horror – Pet Cemetary!) movies with boyfriends, and the early sessions with my own children, delighted by seeing a movie outdoors. It’s certainly a fabulous setting for a book.

In this nostalgic, ghostly and heart-warming story, about friendship and finding your special place in the world, eleven-year-old Gus lives in a family who are often on the move, for many reasons, including her mum’s psychic abilities. Gus doesn’t try to make friends, because it’s too hard when you’re only in a place for a short time. But when her ghost-channeling mum escapes her boyfriend, Troy, bundling her and her sister, Alice and brother, Artie, into Troy’s car and taking off on a long drive up the east coast, everything changes.

They land in a rural town, surrounded by sugar cane crops, where her mum takes on the revival of the local drive-in; The Starlight. Everyone has a special role to play and Gus begins to discover things about the drive-in, her family and herself, that make her question everything. As they settle into their new lives, Gus tries hard not to be intrigued by the cat-lady teacher at her new school, or the Riley’s Comet project that she and her seaweed-eating science partner are working on together. And she is determined not to fall in love with her job as the projectionist, because, knowing her luck, she and her family could be moving on in a day, or a week, or a month – when the ghosts that haunt her mum catch up with them. Or if the Starlight doesn’t succeed. Then she’ll have to say goodbye. Again.

As Gus is visited by a ghostly figure in the projectionist’s room, learns about ‘old’ movies and how to bring people to the Starlight, and watches her sister and her mum deal with their own issues, she meets a mysterious boy, wonders if she can also see ghosts, and tries to overcome the very pushy and devious Deirdre, the owner of the Starlight, who seems to have hidden agendas that could be dangerous. Can she and her family save the Starlight in time?

This novel is for ages 8+ but as an adult, I enjoyed the pacing, story and characters. I was connected to Gus very quickly and keen to find out what was going to happen next. I liked the combination of nostalgia, science and mystery. The ghosts in the book are not scary and they add a unique dimension to the plot and Gus’s discoveries about herself and the world. There are some moving and emotional aspects that will encourage discussion about family, life and death. Community becomes an important part of Gus’s life by the end of the book, showing that people can find their place, even if they feel on the outside. It also highlights the fact that family is made up of all sorts of people and that being unique is something to be celebrated.

Highly recommended for upper primary and lower secondary readers.


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