Sunday, December 23, 2012

Black Spring - Alison Croggon

Lina’s life was always going to be difficult – through no fault of her own. She was born a woman and she was born a witch …

 The village of Elbasa is situated on the Northern Plateau at the foot of the Black Mountains in a locale known as the Land of Death. Here, wizards, assisted by their mutes – young boys with their tongues cut out – enforce the Lore with fearsome rigor, and kings amass riches from the collection of the Blood Tax. The threat of vendetta hangs over the inhabitants like a pall of obliteration; it may strike at any time and worm its slow, deadly way through a whole village, leaving a trail of tombstones and poverty in its wake. It is into this harshest of landscapes and community that the pretentious poet Hammel wends his way to be rid of ‘the endless jostling for status among the petty literati’ of the southern city and to recover his health after an affair. On the first day he blunders into the domicile of Damek, one of the hapless inhabitants of Elbasa. When he is forced to spend the night there and sees an apparition of Lina – the deceased love of the crazed and broken-hearted Damek, it is Anna, Hammel’s housekeeper and Lina’s childhood milk-sister, who narrates to him the tragic story of their lives.

 Justice is the leitmotif that sits at the heart of Alison Croggon’s new gothic fantasy novel, heavily inspired by Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (closely paralleling it’s plot). Set in a barbarous patriarchal society where women are regarded as little more than possessions, and witches are murdered at birth, the reader is positioned to be continually affronted by the oppression, violation and dismissal of the womenfolk in the story. In a poignant moment of self-reflection, Anna, the narrator, acknowledges her anger about the injustices meted out to Lina because of her sex: ‘Lina’s only crime was to be born a woman, with powers and instincts that were thought proper to belong only to a man … [w]hy should any of us be deemed monstrous for heeding the simple bidding of our hearts?’
Croggon’s adroit slant on psychology is one of the story’s strengths. Lina, confiding to Anna, laments the way the two men in her life have manifested their love for her: ‘…both of them betray me … [they] destroy me …Do you think they just love a phantom, whatever they saw when they looked at me, and forgot to love me? I wonder that, Anna, and it makes me feel so lonely …’

 The characters in Black Spring are predominantly brought to the page by Anna in her journal-like narration to Hammel. The book includes one small section devoted to Lina’s diary. Damek’s character, constructed largely by Anna and Lina, with dialogue scattered sparely throughout the text, comes across in the book as mysterious and ghosted.

 Black Spring is a compelling read, dark, tragic and embedded with ideology that will provoke a response in its target audience. Haunting, arresting and well-crafted; it is easy to see Croggon is a poet.
Walker books 2012

(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 27, Issue 5, November 2012)

Tree - Danny Parker and Matt Ottley


A seed sprouts between the great exposed roots of another much larger tree, and over time, grows into a sapling. Under the expansive canopy of the older tree, the little tree is protected from the elements until one fateful night when ‘the sky battered the earth’. In aftermath and the light of day, ‘Tree was dazzled. And drenched. And shaken to his roots.’ Tree’s protection has disappeared: the storm has decimated the forest and the big tree has fallen victim to the ferocity of the tempest. So from now on tree must stand alone … Until years later a seed sprouts at tree’s side and a tiny sapling begins to grow as the cycle begins again.

Inspired by the death of Parker’s father just before his son was born, Tree is the story of the cycle of life. On one level the story is achingly simple: birth, growth and death. At another level the text and illustrations work together to create a deeper subtext that delves into existence, loss, seasonal change, protection, journey, generation and the many other related themes depicted in rings of word clusters on the back cover of the book. Parker’s use of personification, highlighting the notion of tree as a character in the story, increases the accessibility of the text to the young child.

Matt Ottley’s illustrations bring yet another level of meaning to the story. His use of perspective and focalisation situates the young reader to see the world from the small tree’s vantage point – sometimes in the form of a close up of the small creatures that inhabit the tree and its mountainous exposed roots, or a wide shot looking up from the base into the expansive, protective canopy overhead. Ottley’s use of colour works with the text to foreshadow events and to add depth to the mood and tone of the book as it moves through the storyline. The symbolism of the family who visit the tree at different times in their lives and in different configurations adds poignancy to the story, as does the depiction of the graveyard at the foot of the tree towards the end of the book.

Tree is a gentle book that could work on a number of levels with a young child. The reading experience would certainly be enhanced by discussion with an adult about the story’s subtextual significances.
Little Hare 2012

(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 27, Issue 5, November 2012)

White Ninja - Tiffany Hall


School isn’t the easiest of places for thirteen-year-old Roxy Ran; regarded as a social misfit by her peers, she and her only friend, Cinnamon, are sneered and laughed at and constantly bullied – especially by Heroshi (Hero), national martial arts champion and captain of the school team. It’s not much better at home, where Elecktra, Roxy’s sixteen-year-old sister, bullies her as well. It’s no surprise that Elecktra – so stunningly beautiful that the traffic stops for her if she walks out in front of it – ignores Roxy at school and pretends she’s not related. Roxy has never met her father and doesn’t know anything about him. Her Japanese mum is a martial artist – a great shadow warrior – who can ‘slice the wings off a mosquito with a ninja star’. Art, Mum’s partner is an artist.

It is not until Hero’s bullying tips Roxy over the edge when he tries to drown Cinnamon’s kitten that Roxy’s ninja powers are unleashed and she displays some disconcerting and mysterious fighting abilities. But new boy, Jackson Axe, recognises Roxy’s powers and teaches her about the world of martial arts, and the White Warrior and legendary Tiger Scrolls which they must find before the samurai do. Roxy ends up in the fight of her life – everything hinges on the courage to believe in herself enough to release her inner ninja in order to defeat her mortal enemy.

This is a book I found warmed up as it went along. Once the story enters the magical realms of samurai and ninja and the reader is positioned to see Roxy come into her own as she comes to terms with her role in the search for the Tiger Scrolls and White Warrior, the book comes alive. As a Taekwondo aficionado and aesthete, Hall’s depictions of martial art conflict is more than convincing and helps to move the story along at a cracking pace. The text invites the reader to enter into the struggle as the ‘new Roxy’ tries to believe in herself and her ninja powers while battling with the ‘old Roxy’s’ destabilising and impeding tactics.

White Ninja delves into the themes of identity, bullying, self-image, loyalty and transformation. The first in a series, its ending leaves the reader hankering to know what happens next.
Angus & Robertson 2012

(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 27, Issue 5, November 2012)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Fabulous Finola Fox - Carmel Bird

Did you know that foxes have a fetish for shoes? That urban foxes can actually collect them and hoard them in their dens? When Carmel Bird, author across a wide array of genres, came across this fascinating morsel one day in her reading, it inspired her to craft a children’s story around it. Finola is an urban fox with an eye for a good shoe and a remarkable talent for pilfering them: ‘Silent as a snowflake and quick as a flash of lightning, Finola would snatch up a shoe, or a pair of shoes, pop them into her handbag and disappear into the shadows’. Her collection of shoes is so extensive – row upon row of them – she dreams of one day displaying them in her own gallery. But for now, Finola is on a mission. One of the shoes in her collection – of the green, jewelled and feathered variety, found in an alley one moonlit night – is missing its pair. In her quest to find a partner for this marvellous specimen, Finola finds herself on an adventure visiting all sorts of places and seeing every aspect of the city. She visits cafes and arcades, a fun park, a department store, the Art Gallery and even the Opera House. And along the way she finds some unexpected help.
This is a delightful story that young children will love. Finola is an endearing character whose adventure through the city will have this audience captivated. For children familiar with Sydney, there is much in the book they will recognise, for example Luna Park and the Botanic Gardens which provides a good basis for further exploration. And they will enjoy the repetition of travelling back again through the settings they have discovered with Finola during her quest. The book has an engaging storyline which includes a gratifying element of surprise at the end.
Kerry Argent’s illustrations work well with the text, adding charm and vibrancy, and infusing Finola with personality that is both captivating and cheeky. The illustrations bring humour and warmth to the story, as well as providing readers plenty to discover in the finer detail on subsequent returns.
The Fabulous Finola Fox has much going for it – a great read with plenty to engage the mind of a child and to provide entertainment for them and their adult alike. Recommended.
Penguin/Viking 2012

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Monkey Red Monkey Blue - Nicki Greenberg

It’s night time, but Monkey Blue and Monkey Red don’t want to go to bed. They’d rather stay up. But what to do? That fiendish Chameleon has an idea. A midnight feast! Imagine what happens when two monkeys and a mischievous chameleon rampage through the pantry. Let the mayhem begin.
Nicki Greenberg has produced a rambunctious read for babies and toddlers, full of rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, onomatopoeia and colour. The story is a delightful celebration of unbridled chaos in the kitchen. The text is simple and spare and works well with the bold illustrations – a mix of Greenberg’s trademark impish characters and a collage of photographic images of food. It’s easy to see Greenberg’s proclivity for the comic strip by the way the story unfolds in a seamless combination of text and image.
Youngsters will have fun spotting the chameleon on each page. A thoroughly entertaining read. Recommended.
Allen & Unwin 2010
(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 25, Issue 5, November 2010)

Hit List - Jack Heath

To the average observer, Ashley Arthur is a teenager who maintains a low profile, studies hard and keeps pretty much to herself. Her father thinks she should get out more. Ash convinces him her classmates are boring, only interested in clothes, bands and politics – clique politics – as in who stole whose best friend. Besides, she’s got Benjamin as a friend.
If only her father knew. If he hadn’t been so preoccupied with his own problems, he might have noticed that his daughter’s life was anything but mundane. And as for getting out more –
Ash is not into socialising in a big way because she has too many secrets. What’s the point of having friends if you can’t talk to them? How would she explain all her absences? It was hard enough doing that with her dad.
Ashley and Benjamin are teenage mercenaries. Their brief is to locate stolen artefacts and return them to their owners. For a fee – a large fee. In Hit List, Ash and Benjamin are hired to rescue an imprisoned girl, but things go awry and get out-of-this-world dangerous when it turns out they are not alone in their mission.
Jack Heath has written another edge-of-your-seat page-turner. It’s a ripper of an adventure and hard to put down. Think James Bond and Alex Rider. This is his sixth book and the second in the Ashley Arthur series.
Heath has done his homework and doesn’t shy away from a bit of blood and gore. The miners were strewn all over the floor of the tunnel. Most had exit wounds in their backs. The rest had imploded heads. Ash could smell the blood, rank and coppery.
Heath incorporates a good mix of dry wit and humour into the text. His writing is tight, scenes well developed and the dialogue believable, engaging his YA readers at a number of levels. His plotting, overall, is well thought out, although I was disappointed with the epilogue, which, in contrast to the rest of the book, seemed rushed.
For readers who don’t mind having their imaginations stretched and are up for some high teen adventure, this book will not disappoint. And a bargain at the special price of $9.99. Recommended.
Pan Macmillan 2010
(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 25, Issue 5, November 2010)

The Fixers Books 1 & 2: Castle of the Zombies and Planet of the Cyborgs - Sean Williams

Weird stuff is happening in Oliver Jolson’s new street. Moving house is bad enough, but when the internet keeps crashing, the phone lines are out for a whole day and the plumbing gets blocked – something is not right. They’re all signs. But Ollie doesn’t make the connection until it’s too late. Something extraordinarily freaky happens in the middle of the night – something to do with the mysterious instrument-toting Fixers – and Ollie steps through a blue light into a parallel universe. But can he find his way home again?

In Castle of the Zombies, after doing battle with the loathsome Lord Wight to save his new friend Niff’s village from certain destruction in a place where the walls actually have ears and eyes, Ollie finds another blue door that seems to lead him home. But he’s in for a big surprise.

In an attempt to find his true home, Ollie takes another tumble through the blue light of cyberspace in Planet of the Cyborgs. He finds himself on an adventure of intergalactic proportions as he is called out on a rescue mission, this time to deal with a bunch of space pirates who steal people to convert them into cyborg slaves – half-human and half-machine. And his offsider is a cat who thinks he is human.

In The Fixers, Sean Williams has created a series that kids will love. Inventive, cleverly plotted and tightly written, these books are bound to become favourites. Ollie is an entirely believable character who is just fearless enough to take the reader on a rip-roaring adventure. Williams’ world-building is imaginative and entertaining; primary school children will love Ollie’s psychic typewriter and telepathic TV – as well as the cast of characters in this four-book series. Nial O’Connor’s foxy illustrations are spot-on and work well with the text. Recommended.
Omnibus Books 2010

(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 25, Issue 5, November 2010)

Grace Beside Me - Sue McPherson

It is 2008, the year Kevin Rudd says sorry to the Stolen Generations and all affected by their plight, and a year of significant change for Fuzzy Mac who lives with her Nan and Pop in the small country town of Laurel Dale – Laurie as the locals call it. Fuzzy – christened Ocean Skye by her hippie mother, but nicknamed on account of her fuzzy hair – has always lived with her grandparents. Her father, Sonny Boy, is often away with work and her mother died of an overdose when Fuzzy was a baby. However life with Nan and Pop is anything but a raw deal – it’s rich in family ritual and infused with the importance of culture. Nan, a Koorie, has dreams and premonitions; it’s nothing for her to strike up conversations with the spirits of those who have passed. However living with Nan also has its moments, especially when she expresses an opinion on something. About saying grace for instance: ‘Been bustin’ me belly all day makin’ this all taste good and proper … the tucker will be buggered. The Lord knows we are all grateful, so we don’t need to be tellin’ him over and over every mealtime’. By osmosis Fuzzy is inculcated with the vernacular of her grandparents and sometimes her friends wonder what she’s on about when she talks about bloomers, listening to the wireless or taking a Bex.
Fuzzy’s story includes a wide and colourful cast of characters as we meet the members of her wider family and community: her best mates Tui Mui and Teddy Ryan; Bruiser Buchanan who likes the drink and beats up his wife; Lefty and his nasty dog Dunlop, who Nan describes as ‘mad as a bloody meat axe’; creepy Mr Ridgeway, the town Mayor; Father John, who reminds Fuzzy and Pop of Fred Flintstone; the bad Mullins boys and their beautiful sister Mary; and of course next-door-neighbours Yar, who is ‘a real funny bugger’ – a man with a doctorate who occasionally wears tutus over his clothes and is followed around by a spirit called Bruce – and Yar’s wife Jilly, to name a few. These characters add a veracity and authenticity to Fuzzy’s telling of her story.
Grace Beside Me is Sue McPherson’s debut young adult novel. In 2011 she won the black&write! kuril dhagan Indigenous Writing Fellowship, a partnership between the State Library of Queensland and Magabala books, which recruits, trains and mentors Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers and editors to develop Indigenous-authored manuscripts. The result is warm-hearted, gutsy and humorous.. The voices of Fuzzy Mac and Nan, the main characters, are superb. Written with her own sons in mind and teenagers who are likely to dip into a book and not necessarily read it in its entirety, each chapter is an entity in itself, often loaded with a teaching point or message. Although, initially, I was expecting the book to take the usual course of a novel and follow a stronger overarching plotline – which perhaps I would have preferred – shaped as it is in the style of a teen memoir, with Fuzzy as the narrator, Grace Beside Me with its strong characterisation, will hold broad appeal. It highlights the importance of family, friends, and belonging and the beauty of embracing everyday life in its varying shades. What comes through in McPherson’s writing is the role of story in Fuzzy’s life. ‘Stories link us to our mob, doesn’t matter if you are Koorie, Irish, Kiwi, Welsh or Indian … these stories bring our people close, both young and old. Stories keep our culture strong and our faith alive’.
Grace Beside Me is down-to-earth, funny, poignant and original. Sue McPherson, with her unique approach to storytelling – albeit with the cheeky inclusion of a bit of moralising – has produced a book that will warm the hearts of her young adult readers.
Magabala Books 2012
(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 27, Issue 2, May 2012)

Lily and the Fairy House - Jane Tanner

A book that celebrates the imagination is always a welcome addition to any child’s bookcase and Jane Tanner’s latest contribution deserves pride of place. Any child who loves fairies and is familiar with Isabella’s Secret will be overjoyed to discover its sequel, Lily and the Fairy House. Tanner knows what it is like to dream as a child does, to conjure up a miniature fantasy world, fit it out with all the necessities then step into it and live there for a time. This picture-story book is an irresistible invitation for children to step inside Lily’s imagination and share in her make-believe fairy-world by dreaming along with her.
Lily finds a hollow space in a gum tree in her secret place in the garden and decides this would be the perfect spot for a fairy house. She sets about furnishing it with leaves, petals and gumnuts and arranging the table for a fairy party. But will the fairies come? Every child reading along with the story will be holding their breath with Lily at this point – and will share in her exuberance when ‘a group of tiny people dance in and out of the shadows like shining fireflies’. And more so as the fairies ask Lily if they can play with her. The rest is a joyful wingding as the fairies frolic on Lily’s ribbon-swing and sail in her leaf-boat; they even make Lily a fairy crown out of flowers. However, there is a sudden commotion and the fairies vanish as quickly as they arrive. Lily must find out why.
This is a thoroughly engaging book with exquisitely detailed illustrations that capture the warmth and gentleness of the story. The pictures are drawn in pencil on watercolour paper and coloured with watercolours, soft pastel and coloured pencil. Tanner has used photographs of actual children as her models, posing them in the positions she has Lily and her fairies in the book and by basing the detail of her illustrations on Australian flora and fauna, Tanner has produced tenderly realistic images that lend themselves to gazing at and daydreaming over. As an added bonus, the dust cover opens out to reveal a delightful poster of Australian native flowers and their accompanying fairies.
Lily and the Fairy House is a warm-hearted picture book that is a celebration of wishing, dreaming and imagining rolled into one magical reading experience.
Penguin/Viking 2012
(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 27, Issue 2, May 2012)

The Tunnels of Tarcoola - Jennifer Walsh

From the moment you set eyes on Jennifer Walsh’s new book, it’s a safe bet you’ll be seriously tempted to pick it up. The cover design – in foreboding sepia tones – is a reader-magnet: an old haunted house in the moonlight, set against a back-drop of omen-heavy clouds and the silhouettes of four young people in a shadowy tunnel. After you turn over to the back cover blurb your fate is likely to be sealed. How could you possibly return this book to the shelf and resist being lured by the mention of secret passageways in an abandoned mansion, a hidden box of documents and lurking figures who watch every move the protagonists make? It’s a recipe for adventure; albeit a recipe that has a familiar ring to it.
In true Enid Blyton style, from the opening sequence, Walsh sets out to enthral her readers with a plot that has as many twists and turns as the secret tunnels and passageways under Tarcoola mansion. Kitty, with her brother Martin, and friends Andrea and David, happen upon a tunnel at the base of a cliff one day during a particularly low tide; the entrance is in the middle of a circle of rocks –‘the doughnut’ – which is normally covered by water. Their adventure begins when they decide to explore the tunnel and find it leads to a secret passageway under Tarcoola mansion. As the story unravels, the four unwittingly become submerged in a mystery that thrusts them into a search for a hidden treasure and a race to prevent Tarcoola being razed by property developers to make way for apartment buildings. When some of them are threatened by the developer’s henchmen, and Kitty and Andrea visit an old woman in the local nursing home, the four discover there is enough at stake to warrant risking their lives.
Though Walsh writes to a formula, she does so successfully. Her prose is tight and engaging and her characters believable. Written in the third person from multiple viewpoints, Walsh gradually brings to light the underlying issues each of the four protagonists must deal with in their personal lives; the complexity of the nature of their relationships is revealed as the story unfolds, rounding out her characterisation with warmth and verisimilitude.
The Tunnels of Tarcoola is a well-paced page-turner. Clever use of foreshadowing and withholding of detail add to the allure of this captivating adventure story. Intrigue, suspense and tension are metered out skilfully to make this a most enjoyable and engaging read. Highly recommended.
Allen & Unwin 2012
(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 27, Issue 1, March 2012)

Show Day - Penny Matthews and Andrew McLean

Readers who enjoyed the award-winning A Year on Our Farm will be delighted to hear that Penny Matthews and Andrew McLean have teamed up again to produce another picture story book of similar ilk. It’s a beauty.
Lil wakes up to the excitement of remembering it is Show Day. In the early morning half-light she heads down to the cowshed to prepare Goldie – Princess Marigold – for the Best Heifer section of the regional country show. Lil tells her that she is the most beautiful cow in the whole world. Everyone in the family has been busy preparing for this important day: Dad has made orange marmalade and has been practising his wood-chopping; Mum has been growing an enormous pumpkin and has baked scones, jam and a birthday cake – with help with the icing from Lil; Albert, the rooster, is looking slick and extra grumpy; and Lil’s brother Bart has given his guinea pig a bath for the occasion. Lil is keeping her special entry into the Most Unusual Pet section a secret. Will the day go to plan? Will anyone in the family win a prize?
Show Day has been in the pipeline for several years, and the collaborative result, with its appealing story-line and captivating illustrations is testament to the craftsmanship displayed and the effort and attention to detail invested in this beautiful book. The much-admired Matthews-McLean duo have produced another outstanding picture book bound to delight young readers and their adults with hours of engagement as the story is enjoyed again and again; the richness and artistry of Andrew McLean’s illustrations skilfully sets the reading experience up for fresh discovery on subsequent visits.
The text, inspired, no doubt, as was A Year on our Farm, by Matthews’s early experiences as a farm child near Eden Valley, South Australia, is brought marvellously to life by McLean’s whimsical and endearing watercolour paintings. From Lil’s waking to the family’s early-morning drive – loaded up with Goldie in the trailer and Mum’s pumpkin squeezed into the boot – to a tour of the various show exhibits as the day unfolds along with the story, we are treated to a cornucopia of rich and spirited images that bring Show Day alive; whether or not the reader has been to an agricultural show this story conjures up a delightful sense of presence and imagination. Take for example the full page depiction of the poultry shed. Prompted by the text, with all that clucking and squawking and crowing, the scene becomes three-dimensional and leaps off the page – sound effects and all; both text and illustrations engage all of the senses. As does the scene with jumping castle, side-shows and food stalls: I can smell the fresh popcorn and It’s been raining, and there’s puddles … there’s animal poo everywhere conjures up a wonderful olfactory experience.
Show Day is sure to become a favourite on any bookshelf worth its salt. Highly recommended.
Omnibus Books 2012
(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 27, Issue 1, March 2012)

Pizza Cake - Morris Gleitzman

Sitting down with a new Morris Gleitzman book in your lap is like sitting down to a gourmet meal in a swanky restaurant: you know that what you’re about to imbibe has been lovingly prepared by an expert. Your mouth starts to water just thinking about it. Pizza Cake is a gustative reader’s feast.
But be warned. Don’t read this book in a doctor’s waiting room unless you’re the type to be unperturbed by a roomful of people watching you a) fall off your chair b) roll around on the floor in uncontrollable fits of laughter and c) try to slink into the doctor’s surgery sideways because you’ve wet your pants. Each of the ten stories in this collection of short pieces is a candidate for producing unexpected mirthful explosions in the reader.
Pizza Cake is Gleitzman at his inimitable best. His writing is na├»ve art in sentences. Master of representing the workings of the child’s mind through humour and exaggeration, his books have an instant appeal. Gleitzman’s ability to tap into the universal experience of the young person creates an accessibility that allows his characters to immediately become advocates, friends and co-conspirators with his target audience. And his indefatigable ability to come up with fresh stories is a godsend to Gleitzman’s fanbase – who will be delighted with Pizza Cake.
The stories in this collection are crafted using the trademark ingredients of Gleitzman’s recipe for a great reading experience: prose that is tight and spare; the immediacy of the present tense –from a combination of first and third person point of view; unflinching commitment to plot; and gratifying depth through theme and symbolism. In fact, in the last story in the book – ‘Harriet’s Story’ – Gleitzman weaves in a bit of writing advice to the young storyteller by outlining the elements of a good story as part of his narrative. As with all the stories in Pizza Cake, this piece also typifies Gleitzman’s extraordinary imagination and his ability to keep the reader on the edge of their seat by crafting a tale out of an ordinary, everyday event that any child would relate to: in this case when a girl wakes in the night feeling thirsty.
In other stories in the collection we experience the far-reaching ramifications of mishearing some terminology in the title story, ‘Pizza Cake’; what the world would be like, in ‘Saving Ms Fosdyke’, if teachers were paid more than movie stars; sibling rivalry where twins fight over boobs in ‘Big Mistake’; what happens when there is some uncertainty about a bloodstained neck in ‘Draclia’; how life can be tricky when your parents christen you with the name of a very famous person, in ‘Charles the Second’; problems with farting in ‘Tickled Onions’; how a paper clip can save the day in ‘Stationary is Never Stationary; what happens when your parents complain about everything in ‘Can’t Complain; and when the tables are turned and the kids are more cluey than their dad in ‘Secret Diary of a Dad’.
The themes in Pizza Cake are spot-on when it comes to the interests of a child. In all these stories there is something to uplift and to honour, to validate a child’s own lived experience and sense of self. With ingenuity and sensitivity, and a fair whack of parody, Gleitzman weaves through this story collection the themes of bullying, loss of power, fear of failure, standing up for yourself and the strain of maintaining one-upmanship.
The freshness, originality and humour in Pizza Cake make it a rewarding and thoroughly entertaining read. Highly recommended.
Puffin 2011
(A shorter version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 27, Issue 1, March 2012)

Ten Blue Wrens - Elizabeth Honey

Young children and their adults will love Elizabeth Honey’s latest offering, truly ‘an absolutely Australian counting book’, as its by-line proclaims. With eye-catching illustrations – created by applying acrylic paint to plastic stencils – and read-aloud rollicky text, the book is immediately engaging. The endearing characters, ranging from blue wrens to potoroos to kelpies, are captivating and simple, every page providing something distinct and accessible to capture the child’s focus, and more detail to discover on subsequent visits. Some pages, for example, have hidden characters to find, such as the cats in the terrace houses and the lizards amongst the gum leaves.
Ten Blue Wrens combines the familiar with the inventive, making it both entertaining and educational, with plenty of opportunity for discussion between adult and child. Each page is a colour-burst, with one or two lines of text, in rhyme and meter that easily rolls off the tongue. The book engages all the senses: the splash of water at the beach; the crowd roaring as a goal is scored at an Aussie rules match; three relaxed Indigenous artists absorbed in their dot painting, sitting on the red dirt, three dogs sprawled in various states of repose around them; meat pies with ‘tomato saucey’ smiles; bottles of wattle; potoroos digging in the moonlight; and a starburst of fireworks over Sydney harbour Bridge – to name a few.
This delightfully Australian picture book, fresh, fun-filled and imaginative, will enthral a young child with its simplicity and charm – one to be pulled of the shelf time and again. Highly recommended.
Allen & Unwin 2011
(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 26, Issue 5, November 2011)

The Carousel - Ursula Dubosarsky and Walter Di Qual

If you know Ursula Dubosarsky’s work, your eyes will light up when you hear she has produced a new one. Her track record for representing the interior world of the child is well established, and can be evidenced in the wake of her extensive collection of fiction and nonfiction. Her capacity for delving into the machinations of a child’s imagination is demonstrated exquisitely in The Carousel.
When a small girl rides on a carousel, she becomes so entranced by the experience that the edges of her reality blur into a delicious world of fantasy. Her wooden horse is infused with life as the carousel whirls into motion; the girl’s focus shifts from her father on the sidelines to her relationship with the horse in a magical world that allows them to be ‘free as wind and hurtle through the wild sky’.
The Carousel is a stirring story, enchanting and passionate. It is a celebration of wild abandon, of being transported to a state of being where everything else is forgotten and anything is possible. The book is suffused with a richness of symbolism and imagery. There is poignancy in the anticipation of the ride – the girl, ticket in hand at the gate – and in her disappointment when the carousel begins to slow, but more so, at the end of the ride, in her desperate wish for the wooden horses to be set free. Walter Di Qual is a newcomer to book illustrating. His distinctive depictions of the story in mixed media on Fabriano paper take the text to another level and infuse the characters with depth and vibrancy. His evocative portrayal of the horse and the girl range from tender, to baleful, to feisty.
The Carousel is dream-like, limitless. It is as veiled and ethereal as it is unbridled and jubilant. Written in rhyme and meter in constrained quatrains of iambic tetrameter, an almost restless contrast is established between the free-spiritedness of the story-line and illustrations and the verse.
This delightful read-aloud picture-story book, in which a small girl on her horse dares to hope and dream, invites readers to search for the imagination within themselves. It is engaging and enlivening and will appeal to young readers and their teachers and parents alike. Older children will enjoy the story and its themes of freedom and enchantment at a different level. Highly recommended.
Penguin 2011
(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 26, Issue 5, November 2011)

The Scorpio Races - Maggie Stiefvater

If you are planning to read The Scorpio Races be warned: don’t start if you’ve got anything else planned for the rest of your day because you won’t be able to stop reading until the last page. Maggie Stiefvater’s latest release is riveting. And masterfully crafted to boot.
On the tiny island of Thisby, it is October, the month when the blood-loving water horses – capaill uisce – climb out of the sea, ‘hungry and sea-mad’; when frenzied preparations begin for the first of November, the day of the Scorpio Races. This is no ordinary horse race for the islanders and riders, and if past races are anything to go by, for some riders and their capaill mounts the price of entering will be their lives. But it’s Puck (Kate) Connolly – the first female to ride in the races – and Sean Kendrick who have the most at stake; both have their reasons for racing, and for each one, the need to win outweighs the inherent risks.
Steifvater displays an unflinching ability to set characters solidly on the page; she knows first-hand the minds and hearts of a close-knit community, of the ache to belong, the ache to leave, and of the bitter enmity caused by jealousy. Her characterisation is a close match for her superlative plotting and she is a dab hand at crafting an artful sentence. Her prose is vivid and fresh, witty and rich, with clever foreshadowing and withholding of detail. Her descriptions of place invoke all the senses and it is easy to see Steifvater has done her research when it comes to the portrayal of cliffs, the ocean and the behaviour of horses. Her personification of the island makes it a character in the story, a mysterious living entity that impacts the lives of its inhabitants, and to which each reacts in their own way.
This is a story long in the making for Steifvater, and as she outlines on her blog, one she believes is her best work to date, written in response to advice she was given as a teenager to ‘write the book you've always wanted to read, but can't find on the shelf’. It is a compelling read, with a relentless build up of tension throughout the book. It is about courage, kin, treachery, trust, and love; about wanting something so badly two marginalised young people are willing to put their lives on the line. With a storyline populated with horses, a race and romance, The Scorpio Races is a book older teenage girls will relish. Highly recommended.
Scholastic Books 2011
(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 26, Issue 5, November 2011)

Crow Country - Kate Constable

Sadie has moved to the country with her Mum, Ellie. It’s a great move for Ellie, who has strong family connections to the area – and who’s just reconnected with David, an old boyfriend. It’s a bad move for Sadie, who’d much rather have stayed in Melbourne with her friends. However life takes an unexpected turn for Sadie when she has an unusual encounter with a crow on the dried up lake at Invergarry, after running away from an argument with Ellie. Then her world spins when she meets Lachie Mortlock. Living in Boort suddenly takes on new meaning – especially when Crow gives Sadie a secret to keep and a mystery to solve.
Crow Country is a time-slip novel that has Sadie travelling back through the generations of her family to where she witnesses a shocking event. With the help of Walter, David’s nephew, to do some sleuthing, Sadie’s encounters with the crows and her adventures in another century gradually begin to make sense as the puzzle pieces slot together.
This is a book that reaches into the heart of small town relationships blighted by wrong-doing, prejudice and fear. It is a fantasy story wrapped in Indigenous lore, in which Kate Constable exhibits a deft hand at amalgamating myth with the mystery of ordinary life. Her characters are rounded and the story engaging, full of intrigue, expectancy and crisis. Children reading this story will relate both to Sadie’s excruciating need to feel accepted by her peers and to the sting of being strung along by the older Lachie. The awkwardness of the early teens is juxtaposed cleverly against the natural bond of friendship, which is portrayed so dexterously by Constable in the characters of Sadie and Walter.
Crow Country is a book that sweeps you deliciously off your feet into a world where you feel immediately at home; with Kate Constable you know you are in safe hands. A thoroughly enjoyable read. Highly recommended.
Allen & Unwin 2011
(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 26, Issue 3, July 2011)

The Youngest Cameleer - Goldie Alexander

Ahmed Ackbar, a young fourteen-year-old Afghan, has spent six weeks at sea, and is happy to find his land-legs when he arrives in Adelaide with his Uncle Kamran. The year is 1878 and they have come to Australia to join the William Gosse exploration party as cameleers to help map a route from the Overland Telegraph Line at Alice Springs to Perth. Ahmed speaks a little English, so is able to translate into Pashto for the other Afghans in the party – Jemma Khan, Allanah and his uncle.
Ahmed tells the story of the expedition through his diary entries, where we learn that life as a young cameleer is anything but easy. As well as being bullied by Jemma Khan, whenever Ahmed’s uncle is not watching, Ahmed – or Alfred, as the English refer to him – must contend with homesickness, the harshness of the Australian outback and working hard from dawn to dusk to look after the camels.
Ahmed, however, has something on his mind that keeps him awake at night. Apart from worrying about being attacked by a bunyip or babalu – the bogeyman – Ahmed cannot stop thinking about the death of his father back in Afghanistan. Was his uncle involved in the death?
This is a historical fiction for older children and young adults. The story is engaging, with the likeable Ahmed recounting the story of the Gosse expedition and life as a young cameleer. Information about the life-and-death conditions endured by the early explorers; eighteenth century Adelaide; the history of Afghanistan; facts about camels; Afghani customs and religious observances; and the attitudes to the Indigenous Australians are all woven seamlessly into the story. The book’s themes include bullying, prejudice, hardship, endurance, friendship and hope. Based on the diaries of William Goss, Goldie Alexander cleverly brings his story to life through the eyes of young Ahmed. Her portrayal of the relationship between the Afghans and their camels is particularly touching, as is the inner journey Ahmed takes as he contemplates the mystery of his father’s death, his growing into manhood and the responsibility he feels to look after his family back in Afghanistan.
Goldie Alexander has produced an enjoyable and informative book. Highly recommended.
Five Senses Publications 2011
(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 26, Issue 3, July 2011)

The Koala Bounces Back - Jimmy Thomson and Eric Lobbecke

What sorts of adventures could a koala with a special ability to bounce get up to when all seems peaceful in his small corner of the world? After saving some children from a fire and finding a safe home for all his koala friends, you’d think a quiet life of munching on eucalyptus leaves would be the main thing on the agenda. But when a gang of moggies moves in to the bush, life gets troublesome for Karri and his friends. So when parrot and bilby plead with Karri to tell the cats to clear off, he does. But where can the cats go? They’ve been dumped by their owners and have nowhere to live. Jinksy and Scar don’t take kindly to their eviction orders and it looks like a stand-off – until someone suggests a football match. If the cats win, they stay; if they lose, they go. Are Karri and his bush friends able to pull it off? Will Karri have enough bounce?

This book is a sequel to The Koala Who Bounced, Thomson and Lobbecke’s first joint venture, published in 1993. A second edition of the original book has been published to coincide with the release of The Koala Bounced Back.

Lobbecke’s bold, colourful and expressive illustrations work together well with the text, adding nuances to the story as well as breathing animation and humour into it. There are traces of Lobbecke’s cartooning in the cast of characters, who young children will be drawn to for their vibrancy and warmth. Karri is immediately likeable and the moggies delightfully mean, roguish, and endearing.

The story deals well with the issue of feral animals and their threat to wildlife, introducing young readers to this aspect of conservation. And Thomson comes up with an original solution to the problem of the homeless cats.

The Koala Bounces back is a book children will enjoy and return to often.
Random House 2011
(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 26, Issue 4, September 2011)

The Comet Box - Adrian Stirling

Some books keep you enthralled from the moment you read the opening paragraph. You are transported so deftly into another world, there is a reluctance to leave. The Comet Box is such a book. Adrian Stirling creates the suburban setting of Merton, easily recognisable as any small Australian community, replete with characters that populate our everyday lives, and thrusts us straight into a mystery.
It is 1986. Andrew thinks he knows everything about Merton and its inhabitants until one day his sister runs away from home. It turns his world upside down. Amelia has gone and everyone except Andrew seems to know why. Then, when she is found and brought home against her will, even Amelia – uncommunicative and sequestered – is more intent on injecting misery into the family than revealing the truth to her brother. The world as Andrew knows it begins to unravel and spiral downwards into a vortex of secrets, lies and unhappiness. By degrees, as he stumbles upon the truth, his fourteen-year-old worldview begins to shatter; he makes the distressing discovery that uncovering what someone has gone to great lengths to hide can sometimes have unexpected and unbearably weighty consequences. In Andrew’s crumbling world, the only thing to look forward to, to keep hope alive, is the arrival of Halley’s Comet.
This is a compelling coming-of-age story, unswerving in its treatment of human frailty and fallibility. Stirling is not afraid to subject his young adult readers to the brutality, pain and messiness of relationships. When Andrew discovers what really goes on in his own family and behind the doors of his neighbours, it rocks his equilibrium. Once a secret is revealed, there is no burying it again. He learns that uncovering the truth may not always be the wisest option.
There are no two ways about it: this book is dark. Take, for instance, the characterisation of the troubled Amelia, which verges on horror, and the unmitigated portrayal of a son made to drink beer and watch pornography with his loathsome father. There is domestic violence, there is bullying and there is desperation and sadness.
The Comet Box is full of symbolism with the hot, languid days; the darkness of the underground pipes; Andrew’s friend being called Romeo; the contents of the comet box and all it reveals about the families of Merton; and even the anticipation of Halley’s Comet itself, hurtling through space with its blazing tail.
I found this book to be gripping, well-written and compelling, though somewhat enervating in its sense of deepening desolation. Especially into the second half of the book, I was looking for sunnier moments, but they are few and far between. There are moments of humour, but these, too, are dark.
Recommended if you don’t mind an intense read that doesn’t shy away from negotiating the shabby side of the human condition. If you’re looking for an uplifting read with lots of laughs, try something else.
Penguin 2011
(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 26, Issue 3, July 2011)

Damon - Gary Crew and Aaron Hill

Damon is a teenager on holidays with his parents and has been coerced into visiting the art gallery. But he’s bored. None of the artworks make sense. He hates being a tourist, so he turns up his iPod and goes back to the hotel. But even there, he’s bored. The people he watches through the window are boring, his electronic games and the television are boring. So boring he falls asleep. When he’s asleep, he is visited in his dreams by a tiger – and everything changes.
Aaron Hill’s illustrations are hand-in-glove with the text of this picture-story book for older readers. Cast mostly in greyscale, in keeping with the theme of the book, the illustrations are exquisitely detailed pencil-drawn sketches. Where there are splashes of colour, they are welcomed and symbolic.
Gary Crew uses the first and fourth stanza of William Blakes’ poem ‘The Tyger’ as an epigraph to the book. The storyline of Damon could be seen to follow the theme of the poem: Tyger! Tiger! Burning bright/In the forests of the night/What immortal hand or eye/Could frame thy fearful symmetry? Having seen the artwork in the gallery, Damon is unaware that an almost subliminal force is at work, calling to life the creativity that lies dormant within him. This awakening is represented by the tiger, which is referenced subtly in the earlier pages of the book by the appearance of a striped tail. The tiger finally emerges from one of the artworks before appearing to Damon in his dream. One of the only coloured two-page spreads in the book depicts the tiger growling and releasing brightly painted finches that fly from its mouth.
Just as Blakes’ poem is full of metaphor, so is the story of Damon. Crew and Hill have produced a book that will certainly serve as a discussion-starter in upper primary and junior secondary classrooms. It is a book that will benefit from multiple readings to eke out the meaning. Damon is a book that will appeal to some more than others. The illustration on the last page is one I found surprising and unnerving. I suspect this will be more a book teachers will pull off the shelf to use with their students than one children themselves would choose to borrow or buy.
Lothian Children's Books 2011
(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 26, Issue 3, July 2011)

Warrambi - Aleesah Darlison and Andrew Plant

When tiny Warambi, a little bent-wing bat, makes her entrance into the world, she is no bigger than a bean. Even when she is fully-grown, she will still only measure up to a tiny forty-five centimetres. So when Warambi is a pup, just able to fly, still having hunting lessons from her mum, it is no wonder she is so afraid when the earth shakes and her cave is ripped apart by monster machines. Her colony fly around in panic, and in the confusion, poor Warambi becomes separated from her mother.
This is a delightful picture story book for children of lower primary school age. Based on a true story, the text is gentle and moving but does not shy away from drawing the reader’s attention to the violence involved in destroying the habitat of the little bent-wing bat, or Miniopterus australis. The symbolism of juxtaposing this tiny species of bat with the enormous earth-moving machines is powerful and clever. The language of Warambi is warm and sumptuous, lending itself to being read aloud, with its subtle rhythms and use of alliteration, consonance and assonance: The terrified pups and their mothers squeaked and squealed and whirred and wheeled about.
Andrew Plant’s illustrations, painted in acrylic, are striking and sit well with the text; they highlight the themes of the book – belonging, threat, compassion, conservation of natural habitats and the preservation of native species.
Published in the Year of the Bat, as declared by the United Nations, Warambi – the word for ‘bat’ in the language of the Dharawal people – is a touching story that children will relate to. Engaging and informative – the end papers contain an array of interesting facts about the little bent-wing bat, which helps to make the story all the more poignant – Warambi will help to raise awareness about the plight of many of Australia’s native flora and fauna.
A captivating read. Recommended.
Working Title Press 2011
(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 26, Issue 3, July 2011)

Monday, October 8, 2012

Raven's Mountain - Wendy Orr

Raven is sure that one day her real dad will come back to look for her. But when Raven’s Mum and Scott decide to leave Cottonwood Bluffs and set up home for their new family on the other side of the mountains, Raven is devastated. How will he find her? And how will she manage without Gram and her friends? Scott and Mum’s avalanche of words about camping and hiking and a home of their own just doesn’t cut it.
When Scott takes Raven and her sister Lily on a camping trip to the top of the mountain, there is more to deal with than an avalanche of words. And a close call with a bear is not the worst of it. Raven, exuberant to reach the top of the mountain before her sister, does a celebratory dance. But the mountain’s response is both unexpected and terrifying. Raven is left alone. It is only she who can save Lily and Scott, trapped beneath rocks and in danger of their lives. But to seek help she must find her way back down the mountain.
Wendy Orr knows how to keep her readers’ hearts in their mouths. This is an adventure story that grips and enthrals. It is an account of courage and resourcefulness in the face of danger and adversity, and of the emergence of a young girl’s quiescent strengths. It is a story about change, family and the need to belong.
Written in the present tense, the text pared back to essentials, there is a feeling of immediacy, of being with Raven as she endures the endless ravages of the mountain and fights for her survival.
Apart from some mystical encounters with a family of bears and her feathered namesake, Raven contends with the mountain’s bombardments, its hidden dangers and surprises, by herself. Passages of dialogue, however, as Raven thinks aloud and discusses decisions with her imaginary companions – friends from back home, Amanda and Jess – add vibrancy and depth to the text. Orr also breaks up the story with italicised flashbacks which inform the reader about Raven’s family relationships.
Raven’s Mountain is a heart-stirring story, with a richness of symbolism and imagery, interspersed with levity and wit. A riveting and rewarding read. Highly recommended.
Allen & Unwin 2011
(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 26, Issue 1, March 2011)

Bungawitta - Emily Rodda

It hadn’t rained in Bungawitta for a very long time. So long, little Glory-Alice had only seen rain on TV. And as Bungawitta dried up, the birds and animals and then the people started leaving. Every morning the twelve remaining residents of Bungawitta gather at the general store around Aunty Flo’s television set to watch the weather forecast. But it’s always the same. No matter what measures people take, the rains refuse to come. Even leaving the ute windows down all night and putting the best feather quilt and all the cushions in the house out to air doesn’t bring the rain. But not only does Bungawitta need rain, it needs money – to keep going. I the drought ever breaks they’ll need seed, stock, food – and that’s just for starters. Things are getting desperate.
Until Glory-Alice’s brother, Jay, has an idea. Money is easier to come by than rain. Why not have a festival and bring in tourists? Even though local lads Socko Riley and Greasy Cooper aren’t convinced, the idea of a Bungawitta Earth Sculpture Festival grabs the town by its bootstraps and whips up more enthusiasm than a dust storm. And so the preparations begin. They plan pony rides, a sausage sizzle, print T-shirts, cook fruit cakes, order portable loos and plough the paddock to be used for the earth sculptures. Old Maisie Macduff announces she’ll play the piano. But will city people trek to Bungawitta where the sun always shines to sleep under the stars and play in the dirt?
This is a you-beaut read from Emily Rodda. It’s funny, fair dinkum and showcases true Aussie pluck and tenacity as a couple of children star in a deliciously audacious attempt to save their town from drought. The characters are delightful, imbued with Rodda’s rogue sense of humour and brought to life by her laconic writing and Craig Smith’s superb illustrations.
Her first stand-alone junior novel for years, Bungawitta is sure to become a favourite on the bookshelf of many an eight to ten-year-old. Highly recommended.
Omnibus Books 2011
(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 26, Issue 1, March 2011)

The Secret of the Lonely Isles - Joanne van Os

Life has tossed some overwhelming hurdles at thirteen-year-old Jeremy Isherwood in the last few months. He feels doomed. For starters, not only is he the shortest in his family, he is the shortest in his new class. He is also doomed to a life of playing snakes and ladders with Neenie, his nutty and forgetful old grandmother. Jem’s family has had to move to the daggy old Isherwood house. It’s a far cry from living out on the mango farm, sixty kilometres south of Darwin, where life was happy.
But when the mango market becomes oversupplied and times get tough, Jem’s Dad must work in the mines, away from home for weeks at a time. A bad mining accident, in which he loses a leg and becomes confined to a wheelchair, has thrown the family into crisis. They’ve sold up the farm and moved in with Neenie, where the family dynamic has reached breaking point. Dad is not coping with his exercises and has lost his joie-de-vivre. Jem’s older sister, Maddy, spends most of her time either sneaking off to see her new boyfriend or slamming doors and arguing with her mother. Thank goodness for Jem’s dog and the horses. At least Jem can escape the tension for a while and ride down to the beach with his younger brother Tyler and Tyler’s friend Zac, from next door.
When it seems the family can bear no more, a visitor arrives out of the blue. It is Jem’s great aunt, Ella, who has returned from sailing around the world. When Jem’s Dad must go to Adelaide for two weeks to see his specialist, Ella offers to take Jem, Maddy, Tyler and Zac out on her yacht, Freya. Little do the four know that they are about to embark on an adventure they will never forget, and that in helping Ella solve a curious hundred-year-old mystery, they will fear for their lives.
Joanne van Os is a master of the adventure story. With its adroitly crafted plotting and endearing characters, children will find The Secret of the Lonely Isles hard to put down. It indulges the archetypal childhood dream of searching for buried treasure and negotiating with riddle and risk to find it. Packed with intrigue, incident and peril on the high seas, van Os has produced a meticulously researched story that will engage, educate and stimulate the imagination of all who read it. The story’s verisimilitude and accuracy are, no doubt, in part, a result of van Os’s sailing acumen and her first-hand experience of sailing around the top end of Australia and surrounding islands. Highly recommended.
Random House 2011
(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 26, Issue 1, March 2011)