Sunday, July 5, 2015

I am Henry Finch - Alexis Deacon & Viviane Schwarz

It’s always a delight when a book with a difference comes across your desk. I am Henry Finch sits outside the ordinary; it has loads going for it – it’s a book that makes you think. The finches, as you might expect, are all the same: they say the same things, maintain the same routine day in, day out. The only interruption to their happily mundane life is the occasional visit of the Beast. Once the Beast has moved on, however, they carry on as always. Until one day, something amazing happens to Henry Finch: he has a thought. And then another. Henry discovers he can think for himself. He could be great, he thinks. But when Henry applies his new thinking skills to warding off the Beast, it looks as if Henry has made a fatal mistake …

Alexis Deacon and Viviane Schwarz have teamed up again to produce a quirky, clever, humorous, and thoroughly enjoyable picture book for the school-aged child. Although the book with its cover a simple illustration of Henry – a thumb print with a few squiggly lines – looks as if it’s been targeted at the pre-schooler, it hasn’t. Not to say a younger child won’t garner enjoyment from within its pages, mind you. But this is a book that leaves plenty of room for the more discerning reader to make connections and draw conclusions. It is lush with symbolism and positions the reader to assimilate meaning on numerous levels. The older child will be more likely to appreciate the innuendo and be astute to the intersection between visual and verbal text. For instance, finches are all represented by a finger or thumb print. Each one unique. This works superbly to highlight the individual finches’ initial inability to think for themselves and builds a bigger pay-off at the end of the story when they discover they can. Even the endpapers are magnified thumb prints. The change of background colour from white to black during Henry’s dangerous encounter with the Beast is also symbolic: it could represent the physical darkness, but also the darkness associated with negative thinking and the presence of something that could be construed as evil. The subjectivity of the Beast, of course, would provide an interesting topic for discussion between child and adult/parent/teacher.

This delightful book with its child-like illustrations and out-of-the-box story arc is an entertaining, intelligent and thought-provoking read.

Walker Books, 2015

(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 30, Issue 2, July 2015)

All the Bright Places - Jennifer Niven

When a book opens with, ‘Is today a good day to die?’ it certainly grabs your attention. When that same question is one of the driving forces that sustains the story arc for much of the book, it’s satisfying to know the opening line was more than a sneaky lure to start you reading. Theodore Finch and Violet Markey meet on the ledge of their high school’s bell tower, six storeys above the ground. Here begins a tentative association soon to flourish into much more when the two begin working together on a school project that has them ‘wandering’ the state of Indiana, writing up their experiences and impressions. Finch is a troubled youth, nicknamed Theodore Freak by the general school population. With no support from his dysfunctional family and limited guidance from the school counsellor, he is left to his own devices to try to sort himself out. The ominous threat of expulsion continuously hangs over him. Violet’s parents, on the other hand, can’t do enough for her, but the death of her sister in a car crash that Violet survived has had a stultifying effect on the whole family. Amongst the many aspects of her life that now seem lost to Violet is her passion for writing; she is paralysed with sorrow – and guilt about still being alive. As the two form a relationship, Finch encourages Violet out of her bubble of grief – she steps inside a car, she begins to make plans for a blog. Violet in turn tries to encourage and support Finch …

Written in the first person alternately from Finch’s and Violet’s points of view, this is a book that is not afraid to call the shots when it comes to the complexity of human frailty and the messiness of everyday life. Sometimes it isn’t only bad decisions and their inevitable consequences that cause a life to spiral out of control; fate deals an unfair blow more than once in a while. All the Bright Places shines a light on the power of love to transcend hopelessness while refusing to shy away from the gritty reality of the power of despair. A gutsy book about teen suicide that will leave you both reeling and buoyed by the promise of beginning again.

Penguin, 2015

(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 30, Issue 2, July 2015)

1854 Do You Dare? Eureka Boys - P. Matthews

It’s 1854 on the Ballarat goldfields where life is tough. Young Henry’s daily routine rarely changes. Mostly it’s working the gold-washing cradle on his father’s mining claim on the Gravel Pits Lead. It’s a boring and back-breaking grind, pouring water over the shovelfuls of sandy dirt, rocking it up and down before carefully scrutinising every square inch. Henry’s father is ever-hopeful that each new day will be the one they strike gold. Even Henry’s seven-year-old sister, Eliza, is put to work, panning for gold in a shallow tin dish. When their new-born baby brother succumbs to one of the illnesses rampant on the goldfields, then a week later, their mother, Henry can’t imagine how things could get worse. Bullying and corruption is rife amongst the trappers, the police troopers who collect the exorbitant thirty shillings a month for the miners’ licences, and who make life for the miners even harder than it already is. There seems to be little the miners can do about it without even the right to vote. Henry’s father, bound up in grief and the job of keeping his small family alive, pays him scant attention, and when he does, targets Henry with his anger. So it is not surprising that Henry finds himself enjoying the warm embrace of the family of his new Irish friend, Frank. When this extends to becoming involved with ‘Happy Jack’ and the rebel diggers responsible for burning down the Eureka Hotel, Henry is torn. Obey his father, return to the diggings and never see Frank again, or join the uprising against the traps and the rebellion?

Part of the Do You Dare series, Eureka Boys is an excellent inclusion on the history of the Eureka Stockade and Ballarat gold rush. Penny Matthews has crafted an engaging, well-researched, page-turning story the target audience will love. This period of Australian history comes alive as Henry’s story unfolds and invites the reader onto the diggings and into the harshness of life in 1854 Ballarat. Matthews does not skimp on authentic detail but the brutality of the times is mitigated by humour and the warmth of the main protagonists, Henry, Frank and Happy Jack. The prose is lively and captivating positioning the reader for an evocative response to the powerful story arc. Insightful sections at the back of the book offer a resource to the reader about Eureka, the history of the times, other events that occurred in 1854 and glossary of terms. A thoroughly enjoyable and informative read.

Puffin, 2015

(A version of this review - incorrectly attributed to Patricia Halsall -  appears in Magpies Vol 30, Issue 2, May 2015)