Wednesday, December 31, 2014

One Rule for Jack - Sally Morgan, Eziekiel Kwaymullina and Craig Smith

Let’s face it – no one wants to hang around doing jobs if they can be out playing with their friends. Jack certainly doesn’t – especially when he’s planned to spend the whole day enjoying some new games with his mate, Thommo. So when Jack stumbles upon a way to trick his parents into thinking he’s done the chores without actually doing them it’s a win-win situation. Or is it? When Jack puts his one rule – ‘When your parents ask you to do a job – do it badly’ – into place, are Jack’s parents on to him or not? When Jack ends up sweeping the leaves off the patio with a dustpan and brush instead of the broom – which has mysteriously snapped in half – and when he ends up with toilet water all over him after suctioning the toilet because something that looks suspiciously like bits of mop sponge are blocking it, you have to wonder.

This is another delightful book from Sally Morgan and Eziekiel Kway Mullina, who have captured the trying-to-get-out-of-a-job scenario perfectly for the young reader. The writing is lively and accessible, the characters likeable and engaging and the whole story is infused with vitality and humour. The authors cleverly position the reader to see what’s coming, when Jack doesn’t, providing plenty of room for an empowering engagement with the text. Craig Smith’s inimitable illustrations are perfect for capturing the spirit of the story; they bring the characters to life superbly.

An entertaining read.
Omnibus Books, 2014
(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 29, Issue 3, July 2014)


Between the Lines - Jodi Picoult and Samantha Van Leer

If you’re looking for a quirky fairy tale with appeal to the younger end of the market, this could be the book for you. Picoult fans will be pleased to hear that she and teenage daughter Samantha Van Leer have teamed up to co-write a tale with a metafictive twist. Fifteen-year-old Delilah has become obsessed with a children’s fairy tale book she discovered in the school library. She finds herself tugged back to the book time and again for subsequent readings – in fact, such is her preoccupation, she’d rather live inside the story of the book than in her real life. Delilah must hide her obsession by sequestering herself away in order to keep face with the one friend she has, and not to further alienate herself from her peers. Delilah is unhappy, a loner and struggling to make sense of her life. So it is not entirely surprising to find she has fallen in love with sixteen-year-old Oliver, protagonist of the fairy tale. Prince Oliver, in the meantime, tired of re-living the fake scripted life imposed on him by the author of the fairy tale whenever a reader opens the book, wants out. Especially now that they have discovered a way to speak to each other, and he has fallen in love with Delilah.

Essentially the reader is taken on a journey of countless attempts to extract Oliver out of the fairy tale and into Delilah’s world, where they can be together. I began to find this tiresome as it became apparent that this was to be the focus of the story arc. The novel is structured with chapters presented in turn from Oliver’s and Delilah’s perspectives, interspersed with the fairy tale itself. The fairy tale characters felt more fleshed out than the real world characters in this intrepid co-authored novel and I found it difficult to like or have empathy for Delilah, who seemed remote and two-dimensional at times. Some of her angsty responses to her mother, her peers and Oliver felt contrived and not readily believable. I would have liked to have seen more of the book devoted to developing Delilah’s backstory in order to set the reader up to care about her and to understand her motivation.

Given these limitations, the book still delivers an enjoyable read and teens will no doubt engage with the well-drawn array of fairy tale characters – often imbued with humour – and the leitmotifs of the book – loneliness, identity, loss, authenticity and strategies to cope with life, to name a few. The reader is able to read this book on several levels and one of the strengths of the writing is in the clever use of symbolism to underscore the broad themes. Does Delilah actually communicate with Oliver in the fairy tale or is the reality of her life so unbearable that it is easier to obfuscate it in the fantasy offered up by the world of the book?

An audacious teen love-story for those who love fairy tales.

Allen & Unwin, 2014

We Were Liars - E. Lockhart

The Sinclairs are ‘beautiful, privileged, damaged liars’. In the summertime they live on a private island off the coast of Massachusetts. It is on this island, driven by greed and subverted by secrets, their perfect fairy tale lives collide and spin out into the gothic drama that real fairy tales are wont to do – with consequences no one could possibly have imagined. Caddy, granddaughter of the island’s patriarch, finds her broken life enmeshed with that of the Liars – her two eldest cousins, Mirren and Johnny, and Gat, who she has always loved. Together the four friends, young and galvanised by ideals, conspire to change their world. Then there is an accident.

This is a love story, a thriller, a book that will leave you reeling long after you close its covers. It is a story about fear, treachery, deceit, neediness, desperation and power in the form of three sisters who attempt to use their children to manipulate their wealthy father – and what happens when the eldest children revolt and declare enough. It is the story of a girl whose life fractures, whose heart splinters into shards of disaffection and disengagement in the face of great tragedy.

Lockhart is a master storyteller. Her prose is penetrating and fresh; it’s clever, spare, and poetic, sometimes given over to the feel of a verse novel. Her use of allegory in the various retellings of the fairy tales works exquisitely. Her characters are real and the outworking of their motivations creates entirely believable and substantial subtext.

You won’t want to put this book down once you begin. Discomforting but utterly compelling. An ending you absolutely were not expecting. Once We Were Liars gets into the hands of its YA audience, it will market itself.

Allen & Unwin, 2014
(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 29, Issue 3, July 2014)


The Boy from Snowy River (Mates Series) - Edwina Howard and Joe Bond

Young George wants to go to Big Spills Water World more than anything, but he lives in Mumblegum – in the middle of nowhere. Gran has an idea. If George wins the Stockman’s Cup, the five hundred dollar prize money could make a trip to the fun park possible. But this is a horse race, George points out to Gran, in the spirit of ‘The Man from Snowy River’ – they won’t let him enter on his motorbike! Gran’s got it all worked out: George can ride Bandicoot – who these days spends his time on the veranda with his best friend, Croak, a crow that can’t fly, but can call out, ‘Haveacuppatea!’. Gran has every confidence in Bandicoot, pure mountain-bred and winner of the Cup five years straight in his younger years. George thinks about the prize money and decides to give it a go. What he doesn’t know is he’s in for the race of his life and that Croak and three naughty goats are going to make things complicated.

The Boy from Snowy River, part of the Mates series of ‘great Australian yarns’, is a delightful book for beginning readers. Its presentation makes it immediately accessible to the target audience with its short chapters, appropriate font size and Joe Bond’s colourful, humorous and animated illustrations. I did find the stratagem of highlighting random words on every page in different fonts and sizes off-putting, but perhaps this would be appealing to a young child. At first I thought this was to draw attention to unfamiliar vocabulary, but this did not seem to be consistently the case. The intertextual references to Banjo Paterson’s ‘The Man from Snowy River’ worked well, adding depth of meaning and interest to the text – which was well-plotted and held the reader’s attention throughout. The characters, especially the waggish Gran and protagonist, George, were likeable and well drawn. If the reader was not already familiar with the text to which this story alludes, the book would serve as an excellent introduction. Entertaining and enjoyable – a great Aussie yarn indeed.
Omnibus Books, 2014
(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 29, Issue 3, July 2014)


Calypso Summer - Jared Thomas

Calypso is into the Caribbean – he’s into Rasta, reggae, Bob Marley, Usain Bolt and the West Indies cricket team. He wears his hair in dreadlocks and no one calls him Kyle, his real name. He’s even convinced his customers at the local health food shop that he’s Jamaican. It’s not surprising Calypso would want to idolise someone like Bob Marley, who, like Calypso, had a black dad and a white mum and grew up poor. (Marley’s dad took off, Calypso’s died.) Calypso reckoned that being a black kid in a white world would be easier if he was cool; being a Rasta provided him with a sense of identity. Run, Calypso’s cousin, on the other hand, hangs out in Calypso’s flat all day smoking ganja (cannabis) – when he’s not out with his mate stealing grog for drug money – as his way of dealing with the challenges of being a blackfella in a predominantly white person’s world.

This is a story about choices, about determination and hope. It is the story of what happens when a young man rediscovers his connection to country, to his mob, and unearths within himself a sense of who he is within his wider family and community. It is also the story of the harsh reality of age-old racial prejudice and the ramifications of its outworking amongst the Indigenous members of modern Australian society. When Calypso’s boss, Gary, at the Henley Beach Health Food and Products Store wants to introduce a new range of native plants for natural remedies, and enlists Calypso’s help to source some from his ‘tribe’, Calypso’s mum suggests he visit his Nukunu family in the Southern Flinders Ranges. The summer starts looking up for Calypso when he meets Clare, a Ngadjuri girl who works at the local hairdressing salon down the street; the two of them join forces to help wager a fair deal between Gary and Calypso’s elders who oversee the land where the plants grow. Festering in the background, however, like a boil about to burst, is the situation with his cousin Run’s covert criminal activities and the possible impact on Calypso’s life.

Calypso Summer is a well-crafted story populated with authentic characters – Calypso is immediately likeable, aptly flawed. The reader is drawn into the lives of each character –Calypso, Clare, Gary, Run, Calypso’s mob – into all the messiness, exuberance, optimism and ordinariness each life affords. The many references to culture add richness and verisimilitude to the text: ‘You see, the Dreaming ain’t just a lot of stories, it’s a way of living, staying connected with country, giving and taking’. Calypso Summer is also a story that dives intrepidly into the swirling waters of drug dependency and petty crime within the Indigenous community. Run’s downward spiral into hopelessness is poignantly contrasted with Calypso’s rediscovery of his roots and the way his connection with country and family help provide him with agency. Punctuated with life lessons, a story that foregrounds the power of acceptance, the potentiality of self-belief and the importance of culture.

Strong language and drug references deem this a book suitable for an older YA audience.

Magabala Books, 2014

(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 29, Issue 3, July 2014)


Australian Federation: One People, One Destiny - Net Brennan

One of the winning aspects of this educational picture book for upper primary school students (and beyond) is its narrative flow: it reads like a story. Net Brennan has crafted her significant research into a body of work that is accessible from the outset: the historical figures that populated the era around Federation become three-dimensional characters that are weaved deftly into a compelling chronicle. The reader is introduced to names that perhaps already sound familiar to them – surnames they recognise from street signs, the names of universities, the suburbs of Canberra, their houses at school. Brennan brings such characters as Parkes, Deakin, Griffith, Barton (Tosspot Toby!), Reid, Kingston – and the women Catherine Spence and Mary Lee – to life as she relates the journey of their various roles in the move to towards Federation. The tension Brennan builds around the ever-present ‘yes or no’ question – will the colonies vote for a constitution that results in a federated Australia? – works well to keep the reader engaged.

The tone of the narrative is easy-going, the congenial voice of the narrator positioning the reader to gain insights into the ordinary lives of the men – and scattering of women – who effected change on the early political landscape of the nation. This, for instance, invites the reader to feel the frustration and disappointment around the many setbacks to the formulation of the Australian Constitution, having been made privy to the journey of those who worked towards its inception and eventual acceptance.

The visual impact of the book is immediately appealing. The text is broken up with a diverse array of illustrations into manageable chunks, a new story element introduced and featured on each double-page spread. The illustrations feature photographs of the time, paintings, political cartoons, diagrams and sketches. The book also features break-out segments that define terminology for the child reader, and includes a short glossary at the back. The background sepia tones and variation in fonts contribute to the accessibility and aesthetic of the work.

A criticism of this text is the cursory glance it gives to the original and subsequent impact of colonisation on the Indigenous population, and the dubious title of the first page opening/chapter: ‘A Name Without a Nation’, which, in this context, lends weight to an unfortunate subtextual reference to the assumption of terra nullius and its violent consequences (which the book does not address).

Apart from said criticism, the book is certainly an interesting, informative and engaging read.

Black Dog Books, 2014

(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 29, Issue 2, May 2014)

Monkey and Me - David Gilman

Beanie is counting the days he’s been alive. Every new one is another step closer to achieving a goal of paramount importance: to become a fully-fledged member of his older brother Mark’s gang. To do that he must reach double figures. He’s close: nine years, eleven months and some days. Fortunately a meeting of the Executive Council has approved his probationary status, but Beanie will do almost anything to accelerate the process – including a life-endangering stunt to save the Sweet Dreams Sweet Factory, home of the gang’s secret headquarters. So when the factory is demolished anyway, Beanie sets a new standard in bravery when they decide to search for a new location and check out Black Gate, a condemned old mansion that everybody knows is haunted. And it’s here, when he’s alone in the house, he meets Monkey.

David Gilman has put together a ripping yarn. It’s a warm and funny, superbly plotted story where the stakes are raised incrementally; the reader has no choice but to read on in order to relieve the ever increasing tension and suspense. It even contains the obligatory chase scene – albeit on a postman’s bicycle with a screeching monkey perched on the handlebars! Monkey and Me, however, is much more than an adventure story that features a young boy’s bravery in an attempt to impress his peers and to save a monkey. It is also the poignant narrative of a family doing it tough in the face of serious illness. The reader is cleverly positioned to come to the gradual realisation that this is a story about another sort of bravery. The significance of Beanie counting his age in daily increments takes on a deeper level of meaning when it is revealed that the reason he is so attached to his beanie is because he is bald. Beanie is suffering from Leukaemia. When this comes to light, pieces of a jigsaw puzzle come together for the reader, who is positioned to know more than the protagonist, Beanie, about the seriousness of his illness and the ramifications of the risks he takes in trying to protect Malcolm, his new charge.
This is a heart-warming story about courage, friendship and hope; it is about resilience in the face of uncertainty. But most of all it is a remarkable story about a boy’s determination to save the life of a monkey, even when it means his own must be put in jeopardy. A thoroughly engaging read.

Puffin, 2014

(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 29, Issue 2, May 2014)

Pigs Might Fly - Brett Avison and Janine Dawson

When it doesn’t stop raining for over a week Bryn’s family find themselves in a bit of a pickle. Their farm is situated right by the river which is rising at an alarming rate. They manage to load the sheep, sows, the goat and the cows into trucks just before the river breaks its banks, but there’s a big problem. Where are the piglets and hen? Ted and young Bryn stay behind to look for them, but by the time Bryn spots the hen asleep on her bed in the shed, it’s too late to make their escape – the road is inundated. Just when Bryn thinks the situation seems hopeless, Ted uncovers his shiny new microlight at the back of the shed. But their wings to freedom are not the only discovery Bryn makes in the shed: six piglets have been hiding there too! What are they to do now? They’re not all going to fit into that tiny plane! Don’t worry, this story has a very happy ending and a brilliantly novel one at that. Bryn, with some help from Oscar the dog come up with a marvellous solution – and a surprise – that will delight any young reader of this charming picture book.

The text, written in rhyming verse, is unpretentious and easy to read aloud (always the definitive test); the storyline is straightforward and free-spirited, with just the right amount of micro-tension and suspense to keep the young reader engaged, invested in discovering the outcome of Bryn’s plight. Janine Dawson’s illustrations, as always, work their magic with the verbal text so that the result is well and truly more than the sum of the parts. Her bold, animative, painterly style amplifies the humour and adds movement and excitement to the overall text. Her characterisation brings a gratifying harmony to the music of the rhyming verse.
A thoroughly enjoyable read and a book children and their adults will want to re-visit time and again.

Five Mile Press, 2014

(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 29, Issue 2, May 2014)

Amazing Babes: a picture book for kids and adults - Eliza Sarlos and Grace Lee

The first glorious aspect of Amazing Babes that tips you off balance in the most agreeable way is the surprise. When my review copy arrived in the mail, I was about to leave for an appointment; I had a quick look at the cover and the first page opening that simply contains the text, ‘AS I GROW …’ spread over two pages. I thought, Okay, it’s a book about babies, and popped it on my ‘to read’ pile. This book is about babes of a different kind, however, as I later discovered – to my delight. The second page opening contains the text, ‘I want the COURAGE of AUNG SAN SUU KYI’ with a striking illustration of her portrait, painterly, bold and arresting – in line with the simplicity and punch of the text. First tick: clever title – waggish and takes the definition of ‘babe’ to a new level. This book, as the title suggests, draws attention to an amazing array of women from around the world, both from contemporary society and history, who have wrought change by their inspiration, creativity, determination and bravery. The text continues, ‘I want the COMPASSION of MUM SHIRL’ followed by, ‘I want to BREAK THE RULES, like ELIZABETH GARRETT ANDERSON’, a different ‘babe’ to each successive page opening. Some of the other characters in this welcome and exciting addition to the world of literature for young people and adults alike are: Tavi Gevison, publisher of the online magazine, Rookie, and who at 15, had 30, 000 readers of her blog; Miles Franklin, feminist and author; Hedy Lamarr, actress and mathematician; Frida Kahlo, artist; and Malala Yousafzai, young Pakistani activist, who in 2012, survived a gunshot wound to the head and continues work for the rights of all children to an education. The list also includes the lesser known West African activist, Hadijatou Mani; barrister and British political figure, Shami Chakrabarti; and Liberian peace activist, Leymah Gbowee, to name a few.

There is much to love about this important work. It receives an enormous tick for the very idea of it. The text is compelling in its spareness and lexicon, with the ‘I want’ on each page invoking such words and phrases as; ‘moxie’; ‘conviction’; ‘commitment’; ‘vision’; ‘curiosity’; ‘fervour’; ‘feel empowered’; and ‘never lose the excitement of possibility’. The reader is positioned by the intersection of the evocative verbal text and Lee’s powerful illustrations – that adeptly capture an unspoken essence about each woman – to see much more than the sum of the parts. The women are presented as vibrant, strong, and essential. Another welcome surprise comes at the end of the book. During my first read-through, I expected to be researching the characters with whom I was unfamiliar. Sarlos, however, is one step ahead, listing a short biography of each ‘babe’ at the back. This portion of the text is aimed more at the adult or advanced younger reader, with a more sophisticated lexical set and writing style.
Amazing Babes is stirring, inspiring and significant. It is a text with the power to be a subversive influence on young and old, female and male alike.

Scribe Books, 2014

(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 29, Issue 1, March 2014)

Truly Tan Spooked - Jen Storer and Claire Robertson

Tan Callahan, sneaky sleuth extraordinaire, is back on the job when some suspiciously unusual occurrences around the town grab her attention. What’s happening to the stone animals – ‘stonies’ – in Peppercorn Valley? Why do they keep disappearing – or moving? Who is the stonie thief and what is their motive? Just as well Tan has her two best friends on the case to assist. Molly is visiting from the city for a whole month, and after Tan assures Gloria there is no book written that says you can’t have two best friends, the three immerse themselves in detective work and World Headquarters becomes a hotbed of investigation.

The third in the Truly Tan series, this book is a delight to read and girls in middle primary school will have trouble putting it down. Tan is a charismatic character, immediately likeable, who has a joie-de-vie that is refreshing and attractive. Her spark and vivacity are endearing. She’s positive, pragmatic and blithely unaware of enough undercurrent goings-on to make her character entirely believable. Jen Storer, on a number of occasions, cleverly positions the reader to know more than Tan and sometimes her counterparts, which works a treat in terms of engagement and empathy. Seasoned with humour, the text is splendidly crafted, and the ‘Dear Diary’, list and word-explanation segments add contrast and variety, working to invite the reader for a closer look into Tan’s world. Claire Robertson’s illustrations add warmth and appeal and are a great match for the text.

Truly Tan Spooked! is a winner – heart-warming, jaunty and a joy to read.

Harper Collins, 2013

(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 29, Issue 1, March 2014)

Dying to Tell Me - Sherryl Clark

There’s been a lot going on in thirteen-year-old Sasha’s life and a move to Manna Creek with Dad and younger brother, Nicky, is supposed to be a good thing, sort out some of the challenges. But will it? Who wants to start off in a new school as a policeman’s kid, when your father is the only cop in town? Anyway, Manna Creek feels like a ghost town to Sasha – in more ways than one. The weather’s freezing, the streets are deserted – where are the kids her age? – and there is something ghostly and sinister about the old prison cell between the back of the police station and the house. Sasha making a new start after ending up in the Children’s Court in Melbourne might sound like a good idea to Dad, but it’s not going to be straight-forward. When King, a trained police dog, joins the family, Sasha discovers they are able to communicate with each other. Is it because of the bump on the head when she falls in the forest on the first day? Or is it linked to Sasha’s other mysterious ‘abilities’? Will she be able to make sense of all the weird goings on both within herself and in Manna Creek? Will she find the strength to put her ‘gift’ to good use and save a life?

Sherryl Clark has come up with a pacey first-class mystery that keeps you turning the page. Her prose is vigorous and fresh, with plenty of foreshadowing and withholding of detail to rack up the tension. Sasha’s characterisation drives the story forward and engages the reader, positioning them to see the world through her eyes, to share in her struggles and work through her conflictions. Clark creates believable subtext that adds authenticity and depth to Sacha as she begins to come to terms with her own strengths and capabilities. The authentic relationships with her brother and father work well to ground the story and round it out in juxtaposition to her supernatural connections and abilities. The scarcity of detail around Sacha’s relationship with her mother detracts from this, but perhaps Clark will develop this in a sequel.

This book’s closure leaves the reader with lots to wonder about and in many ways feels like a set-up for a series. There is much in place for the reader to accompany Sacha as she continues to work through her unique life challenges and makes Manna Creek her home. How will she fare at school – what friendships will she develop? Will there be a move towards reconciliation with her mother? How will her relationship with King develop, and what of Tangine and Mark Wallace? How will she continue to manifest her 'gift'?
A quirky but sensitive coming-of-age story about self-acceptance, courage and overcoming adversity. A gratifying and compelling read.

Sherryl Clark, 2014 (first published Kane Millar US 2011)
Distributed by Dennis Jones and Associates

(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 29, Issue 1, March 2014)