Showing posts with label Allen & Unwin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Allen & Unwin. Show all posts

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

There’s a Baddie Running Through this Book

There’s a Baddie Running Through this Book by Shelley Unwin, illustrated by Vivienne To (Allen & Unwin) HB RRP $$19.99 ISBN9781 760630614

Reviewed by Dianne Bates

With a title like this, the young reader can be sure there’s a lot of fun and action in this picture book. And it doesn’t disappoint. You can find the baddie, hidden among dozens of other animals such as hens, bears, tortoises and more in the fly pages before the story starts (spoiler alert, he’s wearing a mask and has a sack full of goodies over his shoulder). On the first page, the illustrator has cleverly shown the baddie running into a black space of a torn page, leaving behind a trail of lollies. As you turn the pages, the baddie is racing along, leaving a flurry of upset characters, such as the koala baby in a pram. Next, he catches the eye of a police officer.

In short rhyming lines, the author continues the baddie’s adventure. There’s ‘no time to waste/This baddie knows he’s being chased!’ On foot or in vehicles, the baddie continues to evade capture and to steal as he proceeds. To find out the baddie’s fate, one must follow him through the pages of the book until the end.

This book – ideal for reading aloud – is action-packed and fast-paced with lots of energy accompanying the animated and interesting illustrations. Lots of good fun and sure to amuse and entertain readers aged 4 to 8 years.

Friday, 17 August 2018

A Song Only I Can Hear

A Song Only I Can Hear by Barry Jonsberg (Allen and Unwin) PB RRP $16.99 ISBN 9781760630836

Reviewed by Khloe Mills

There is a lot to admire and like about A Song Only I Can Hear. The first thing that appealed to me was the cleverness of Barry Jonsberg’s writing. The story is about 13-year-old Rob Fitzgerald, who for the most part seems similar in tone to Adrian Mole. His witty observations certainly are on par with those of Adrian. Here’s Rob on the first page talking about his father: ‘His head is bald, and he has more chins than standard. I sometimes get the urge to put my fingers up his nostrils, such is the resemblance to a bowling ball, although I have resisted this, for obvious reasons’.

I also liked the short punchy chapters which make this ideal for the target audience of younger children. Reluctant readers of any age will also be a fan. The 275 pages aren’t so daunting to tackle when a reader can just nibble a small and tasty piece and read at their own pace.

Very soon into the book Rob falls in love with the new girl at school, Destry Camberwick. Alas, he has some steep hurdles to overcome if he is ever going to have his love reciprocated. To quote from the back cover blurb: He’s a super-shy kid who is prone to panic attacks that include vomiting, difficulty breathing and genuine terror that can last all day.
With some astute life coaching from his wise-cracking and very funny Pop, Rob embarks on a series of challenges that not only make Destry notice him, but which also help him believe in himself.

There is a major twist that explains a lot of things in the book that were hinted at but were not immediately clear. It would be giving away too much of the plot to say more and it would be a disservice to Jonsberg who has crafted the story so that the twist comes near the end.

My only negative comment is that after a while the humour seemed a little artificial. I felt that I was reading Barry Jonsberg’s lines – an award-winning writer at the top of his game - not the genuine lines of a 13-year boy. However, this is a minor issue that may not be a problem for other readers. Even if it is, I don’t think it will stop anyone from enjoying this book.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

The Castle in the Sea (Quest of the Sunfish 2)

The Castle in the Sea (Quest of the Sunfish 2) by Mardi McConnochie, (Allen and Unwin)  PB RRP $14.99
ISBN 9781760290924

Reviewed by Daniela Andrews

The sailing adventures of Annalie, Will, Essie and Pod continue in the second ‘Quest of the Sunfish’ book, as they desperately search for Spinner. The story picks up about three weeks after the foursome escaped from Little Lang Lang Island, armed with the names of four important scientists. This novel focuses on their quest to find and talk to each scientist in the hope they’ll find Spinner. Their journey is highly dangerous. Aside from the ongoing threat of roaming pirates, they need to remain hidden from the Admiralty and, especially, Beckett (who is still pursuing them relentlessly). Then there’s the weather. The book begins with a ripper of a storm that causes two characters to become lost at sea … and the action never loses pace thereafter.

As per the first book, this is a highly gripping page-turner. The chapters are short, and there’s action aplenty. Mardi McConnochie slips in a few more details about the Collodius Process and why the research must be kept hidden from the government at all costs. She also clearly sets the direction for the closing novel in the trilogy, to be released in September 2017 – the foursome must make their way to the final scientist on the list, who lives on a mysterious island with extremely guarded borders. 

McConnochie occasionally offers the occasional recap as to what happened in ‘Escape to the Moon Islands’, but reading the first book is necessary to appreciate the background of the journey. There is also very little focus on the personalities and background stories of Annalie, Will, Essie and Pod in this one. The characters might not seem particularly interesting, or even likeable, without having read the first novel in the series. (The first novel has, incidentally, been shortlisted for the Readings Children’s Book Prize 2017.) The novel should appeal to 9–12-year-olds who like adventure stories, along with readers who have an appreciation and love for science.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Captain Jimmy Cook Discovers X Marks the Spot

Captain Jimmy Cook Discovers X Marks the Spot written by Kate & Jol Temple and illustrated by Jon Foye (Allen and Unwin) PB RRP $12.99
ISBN 9781760291945

Reviewed by Daniela Andrews

Jimmy Cook is, to put it simply, an explorer. Actually (if you can excuse his modesty), he’s pretty much ‘the greatest explorer that ever lived’. After he discovered the third grade, in the first book in this series, he was rather inspired by the historical feats of  ‘the other Captain Cook’. In this, the second ‘Jimmy Cook’ story, he has found a humungous dinosaur footprint … so now he’s busy digging away to find its bones. And give it a name. (‘Jimmyosaurus’ anyone?)

Much to his teachers’ annoyance, Jimmy seems to have developed quite a team of student diggers at the school … especially since he found that map marking X for treasure. Forget the dinosaur, he is about to discover something better … something real. Can he get to it before that show-off, Alice Toolie, does?

Jimmy records his daily adventures in his journal, noting always the weather that day (eg ‘hailstones the size of rhinoceros beetles’) and drawing a picture to illustrate his inventory (eg the ‘arm of a robot toy’). The inventory and weather observations don’t always have any bearing on the story, but are amusing introductions to each chapter. The journal entries are interspersed with funny black and white penciled illustrations by Jon Foye. Almost every page features an illustration, making the design highly attractive to readers aged 7 – 10. 

The three talented creators behind this book have released four children’s books together including I Got This Hat, the book selected for National Simultaneous Storytime in 2016. Their complementary styles work well together, offering the right blend of humour and action, with a dash of nonchalance. Jimmy’s innocent observations about his world are laugh-out-loud funny. Can’t wait to see what he discovers next!

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Diary of an AFL Legend

Diary of an AFL Legend written by Shamini Flint and illustrated by Sally Heinrich (Allen and Unwin) PB RRP $9.99 ISBN 9781760295141

Reviewed by Daniela Andrews

Nine-year-old maths extraordinaire, Marcus Atkinson, is (shall we say) a good sport. (Not to be confused with the phrase ‘good at sport’.) He has so far bitterly sucked at cricket, track and field, basketball, tennis, soccer, swimming, taekwondo, golf and rugby. Yet there he is, at the opening of the tenth novel in this popular series, buried ‘under an AFL pack’. Oh Marcus. 

Let’s blame his perfect cousin (Spencer) who should really know better by now, right? Marcus progressively messes up the rules of the game in his special, flawlessly uncoordinated way. Despite his father (the self-help book novelist) having a philosophical conversation with him about the pursuit of happiness, he stubbornly refuses to give up. There’s no way he’s going to let Spencer down. When Spencer and his father secretly come up with a way to help Marcus miss an important game, believing they are doing him a favour, Marcus finds a way to turn up anyway … and puts on quite a show.

This latest installment in the (non) sporting series for 7–11-year-olds is chock full of hilarious, face palm moments that we’ve come to love and appreciate from Shamini Flint. The format of the book matches the others. The story is told via diary entries, each highly illustrated with the amusing black and white cartoons of Sally Heinrich. (The majority of the text actually appears in speech bubbles within the illustrations.) The narrative in the diary entries connects to the text in the speech bubbles, so there is perfect flow between the two. For example, Marcus writes ‘I asked Dad …’ and then we see a cartoon of Marcus and his father with the question in the speech bubbles. The diary entries also feature the odd ‘post-it note’ from his sister, supposedly reading and annotating without his permission.

The ending was great – very credible and totally in line with Marcus’ character and, er, his sporting prowess. Shamini Flint has once again provided an entertaining read with a clever way of inadvertently teaching her readers the rules of a sport.

Monday, 12 June 2017


Spellslinger by Sebastien De Castell (Allen and Unwin) PB RRP $19.99
ISBN 9781471406119

Reviewed by Daniela Andrews

Kellen is almost sixteen years old and rapidly approaching his magical trials. Will he become a mage of Jan’Tep, like his powerful father Ke’heops? Or will he instead be declared an unmagical ‘Sha’Tep weakling’, destined only to serve a mage? The pressure is on. His younger sister, Shalla, has already sparked magical bands in multiple disciplines, but Kellen has none.

Desperate to avoid the shame of being declared Sha’Tep, Kellen passes his first trial by tricking his opponent into believing he is performing a spell against him. (‘Magic is a con game.’) Shalla pronounces him a cheat and then casts her own spell against him, hoping he’ll find some magic within to shield it. He doesn’t – and she nearly kills him. Fortunately, a mysterious stranger (Ferius Parfax) saves his life.

Ferius, whom the townspeople suspect to be a Daroman spy, empathises with Kellen and continues to look out for him. When Kellen discovers the shameful truth about the Jan’Tep people, and becomes a victim of their cruelty, he turns to Ferius – and a smart-mouthed squirrel cat, Reichis – to help him escape and find his own destiny instead. But who exactly is Ferius, and why is she so keen to help Kellen?

Spellslinger is the first YA fantasy novel in a new set of six books by Sebastien De Castell, author of the Greatcoats series. He describes the book as being set in the same universe as his Greatcoats series, but on a different continent – one ‘more akin to the American frontier’. The dark, western feel makes it quite a unique, magical story! The novel is fast-paced, told in first-person perspective, and broken up into four parts representing Kellen’s magical trials.

Essentially, it’s the story of a teenager trying to find himself. It’s about how he stands up to those who shame him, and finds his own direction in life. Kellen stops striving to become a Jan’Tep after he learns that ‘there’s no amount of magic in the world that’s worth the price of a man’s conscience’. With the support of Ferius and Reichis, he is ready to assume his place as the ‘Spellslinger’; a role that Ferius predicts ‘might just change the world’. Kellen leaves behind a trail of allies and enemies that will no doubt make the forthcoming books rather action-packed!

Monday, 29 May 2017

Henrietta and the Perfect Night

Henrietta and the Perfect Night by Martine Murray (Allen and Unwin)
HB RRP $16.99   ISBN 9781760290245

Reviewed by Daniela Andrews

Fans of Henrietta the Great Go-Getter will be pleased to discover this hardcover book by Martine Murray, featuring five new Henrietta stories.

Henrietta is just as spirited and adventurous as ever: ‘I’m an explorer of life, and that includes trees, bugs, animals and all mysteries.’ In this collection, she practices how to be patient and be a good big sister (‘The Waiting Game’), how to rescue somebody and make a friend at school (‘The First Day’), how to survive a sleepover with the pesky older brother of her best friend (‘The Sleepover’), how to save the school play when the lead gets stage fright (‘The School Play’) and how to adjust to life with a new baby brother (‘The Arrival’). The stories need to be read in sequence to be properly enjoyed, with the title alluding to the final story’s conclusion.

The book is illustrated in full colour by Martine Murray, award-winning author of How to Make a Bird and Molly and Pim and the Millions of Stars. Each double page features an illustration to break up the text, making this a great novel for readers aged 5 years and older who are starting to read chapter books. The design is likely to appeal to the age group too, with key phrases appearing in an alternate font of different size or colour.

Henrietta is ‘a Big Thinker’ and her thoughts and observations are highly amusing! The stories are told in first-person perspective, allowing the author to offer fantastic examples of friendship, courage and kindness without seeming to preach these values to her readers. (‘You only need one friend in a room full of strangers to feel perfectly happy.’) Henrietta is, at times, bold and sassy, at other times quiet and afraid, but the range of emotions she feels gives scope to her situations and makes her very real and lovable.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

The Things We Promise

The Things We Promise by J.C. Burke (Allen and Unwin)
PB RRP $19.99  ISBN 9781760290405

Reviewed by Daniela Andrews

‘Mum reckoned I was born a pessimist. “Polly Pessimistic” she called me … But it’s true, I can feel it. Sometimes I sense it early. Sometimes it’s not till it’s almost on top of me.’

The school formal is months away but Gemma and her best friend, Andrea, are super excited. Gemma’s talented and semi-famous brother, Billy, has promised he’ll come home from New York to do their hair and make-up. The girls can’t wait … they’re choosing hairstyles, arguing over dress lengths, and counting down the weeks. Gemma is hoping to get the attention of the boy she likes, Ralph.

Enter Polly Pessimistic. Gemma can’t help feeling that something is wrong at home. Her mother won’t admit that she’s stressed out about something … and she flips out when Gemma wants to ring Billy. There’s that niggling comment made by Vanessa, a girl at her school who knows Billy via her modelling work. (What does Vanessa know about Billy’s personal life that she doesn’t?) Then she discovers the death notice for Matt Leong, Billy’s old boyfriend, who died at the age of 25 from ‘a short illness’ … and watches, in disbelief, as her mother crumbles at the news.

In the early 1990s, teenagers wore midriff tops. They watched ‘Video Hits’ and ‘Degrassi High’. They knew who Bob Hawke was. They made phone calls from public phone boxes. And they probably heard the terms ‘AIDS’ and ‘HIV’ a lot. Award-winning writer, J.C. Burke, aptly set her novel in this era to raise awareness of AIDS and the fears, attitudes and ignorance of people during that time. Gemma perfectly summarises the author’s intent when she says, of AIDS: ‘… It’s the way it spreads everywhere. It’s like it’s infected my life. It’s infected me, the way I see people, the way I see the world.’

This stark, powerful novel for young adults is beautifully written and will appeal to a broad range of readers, including adults who grew up in the 80s and 90s. The author, an oncology nurse, writes insightfully about hospital procedures, infection control and home management. The novel will deeply resonate with teenage readers who know what it’s like to preserve a ‘normal’ school life while watching a loved one battle a terminal illness at home.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Old Pig

Old Pig written by Margaret Wild and illustrated by Ron Brooks (Allen and Unwin) HB RRP $24.99  ISBN 9781760293895

Reviewed by Daniela Andrews

It’s hard to believe it has been over 20 years since Old Pig, a heartwarming tale about the circle of life, won the CBCA Picture Book of the Year Award (1995). Thereafter, it went on to receive a number of other awards and nominations around the globe!

Granddaughter and Old Pig have lived together for a very long time, sharing everything – including their daily chores. When Old Pig hints that she might not ‘live forever’, Granddaughter feels afraid. Then Old Pig starts to feel tired and, one day, doesn’t even get out of bed. Granddaughter is very worried. When Old Pig forces herself to get out of the house the next day, saying she has lots to do and ‘must be prepared’, Granddaughter knows she must soon say good bye.

Old Pig sets about returning library books, closing accounts and paying bills. Then she comes back for Granddaughter and, together, they take a walk around the town so Old Pig can ‘feast’, but not on food … ‘on the trees, the flowers, the sky – on everything!’ What follows is a beautiful celebration of the senses and of nature. Old Pig teaches Granddaughter to appreciate the colours, smells, sounds and tastes of the world. In the heartwarming end to the story, Granddaughter holds Pig tightly as she sleeps – just like Old Pig used to hold her at night when she was little.

Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks have brought us much joy with their countless contributions to children’s literature. (They are also the award-winning team behind the book Fox, which won the CBCA Picture Book of the Year Award in 2001.)

Ron Brooks’ expressive illustrations are well suited to the thought-provoking text. His gentle line work – subtle forehead creases, downcast eyes or mouths and posture – perfectly evokes the emotions of the pigs. It is wonderful to see this new hardcover release of the book, marking its 20-year anniversary. It will no doubt touch the hearts of a whole new generation of young readers.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

My Friend Tertius

My Friend Tertius written by Corinne Fenton and illustrated by Owen Swan (Allen and Unwin)  HB RRP $24.99  ISBN 9781760113827

Reviewed by Daniela Andrews

It is Hong Kong, 1941, and Arthur and Tertius are best friends. Arthur spends his days decoding Japanese air force signals for British intelligence. Tertius spends his days springing about the office furniture like the ‘inquisitive trapeze artist’ that he is. Tertius is a gibbon.

When Arthur is ordered to leave Hong Kong, he can’t bear to leave Tertius behind. He sneaks him onto the ship to Singapore, where they ‘live the high life’ … until the Japanese fighter planes arrive. Arthur is ordered to evacuate immediately. He takes Tertius with him, barely making it onto the last ship out. His journey eventually leads him to Australia. He successfully smuggles Tertius into the country, until a police officer discovers him in their Melbourne hotel room. Tertius’ illegal status means his life is in question, but he is sent to the Melbourne Zoo after Arthur begs for an alternative fate. Before long, Arthur is summoned to London. He leaves, heartbroken, but comes back to visit Tertius in 1947 after the war is over. The story ends on a tender note, with Tertius not only remembering Arthur but also wrapping ‘his arms about [him] as if he’d never let go’.

This is a heartwarming, true story, told by award-winning writer, Corinne Fenton, and superbly illustrated by Owen Swan. Though Fenton acknowledges the wartime setting, she states that ‘it’s not a war story’ but ‘a love story between a man and his beloved pet’. The story is told from the first-person perspective of Arthur, and is quite informative. Younger readers might find the war themes quite confronting, with vivid language describing the bombings and their associated terror. (‘There were bombs whistling, exploding, shattering, but worst of all was the screaming. Tertius trembled in my arms.’) The suggested age group for this picture book, therefore, is 5–8 years.

Swan’s pencilled sketches appear in a soft, vintage palette throughout. He varies and limits the colours on each page to great effect, with frightening war scenes often depicted in only two or three tones. The washed-out appearance of the pictures perfectly complements the historical setting.

This talented duo have beautifully told Arthur Cooper’s story of companionship, loyalty, and the importance of holding on to love during times of war.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Diary of a 6th Grade Ninja 5: Terror at the Talent Show

Diary of a 6th Grade Ninja 5: Terror at the Talent Show by Marcus Emerson (Allen and Unwin) PB RRP $12.99
ISBN 9781760295592

Reviewed by Daniela Andrews

It’s another crazy week at Buchanan School in this, the fifth installment in the bestselling Diary of a 6th Grade Ninja series. Chase Cooper’s multi-talented cousin, Zoe, is busy organising a school talent show. She is stressed about her to-do list, and asks Chase for some weekend help to set up the school cafeteria for rehearsals. His response? ‘Yeeeeeah, that’s actually right in the middle of my nap, so I’m gonna have to say no.’

Uh oh. As per previous novels, Chase has once again let Zoe down, breaking an unspoken ninja code to do ‘the honourable thing … to help family’. When a strange kid in a hockey mask ruins the rehearsal by setting a penguin loose in the school and destroying part of the unfinished stage, Zoe thinks Chase is partly to blame. If he had’ve helped, the stage would have been properly attached. It’s up to Chase to make it up to Zoe by using his ninja skills to find the culprit, find that penguin and save the talent show.

In each novel, Emerson cleverly builds on the growing list of Chase’s enemies to make it difficult to identify the culprit. In this novel, Jake (a popular, quarterback football player) is less than impressed with Chase’s decision to change the mascot to a moose. Jake joins Wyatt, Carlisle, Olivia and Sebastian as possible suspects in the talent show disaster.

There are some loose ends in the novel that will no doubt leave fans wanting to read the rest of the series. There’s a mysterious ‘white ninja’ character, a noticeable shift in numbers between Chase and Wyatt’s ninja clans, and a foreboding promotion for Wyatt to ‘Vice President of Buchanan School’.

The novel follows the same style as the others, featuring plenty of realistic banter between the students as well as over-the-top humour. The stories require a slight suspension of disbelief on the reader’s part, which won’t be a problem for the target age group of 7–12. In addition to the missing penguin, there is also a delightful group of ‘library zombies’ in this one – a tongue-in-cheek observation by the author on the
growing (over)use of smartphones! (‘Waaaaaaatch this cuuuuuute videeeeeeoooooo’!)

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Trouble Tomorrow

Trouble Tomorrow by Terry Whitebeach and Sarafino Enadio (Allen and Unwin)
PB RRP $16.99   ISBN 9781760291464

Reviewed by Daniela Andrews

‘Remember, if you want a door to open, education is the key.’

When you’re 15 years old, though, trying to find your next meal, self-improvement takes a significant back-step to self-survival.

Obelujo, whose name means ‘trouble tomorrow’, is a Ma’di boy living in South Sudan, not at all interested in joining the Rebel army. The first time they raid his village, he and his family hide. The second time, they are forced to flee in different directions. Obelujo’s father secures a place for him in a good boarding school before he leaves. ‘It is very important not to break your education,’ he tells Obelujo, who respects ‘his father’s wishes’ as ‘law’, despite his feeling of dread at leaving his family. 

He immerses himself in his studies, while fighting off visions of his family’s fate. When he awakens to the sound of gunshots one night, he joins the crowd of people running for their lives. What follows is Obelujo’s uplifting, courageous story of survival. It includes a risky trek through a wild jungle, a terrifying capture by the Rebels, and a daring escape. It details his life in two refugee camps, where people’s starvation leads to violence at any cost (even murder). As Obelujo’s own hunger grows, he finds himself struggling to remain true to his Ma’di values. He begins to act aggressively and steal food. When Obelujo takes up an opportunity to study Agriculture, his life begins to change. The basic course leads him to a voluntary teaching position, and (later) a paid one. He joins a church choir where he meets and falls in love with Malia. He completes a Peace Education course, and learns that if he wants to change the world he must start with himself.

This confronting, heartwarming story is the true story of co-author, Sarafino Enadio, who migrated to Australia and is currently studying a Masters in Teaching. Terry Whitebeach is a writer and historian who travelled to South Sudan with Sarafino to witness the effects of the civil war. The novel is aimed at 13–18-year-olds and, given its topics of immigration, refugee camps, peacekeeping and the Sudanese Civil War, would make fantastic classroom reading. Sarafino’s enlightening story will definitely linger in your heart, along with a greater respect for the plight of refugees.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

The Grand, Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler

The Grand, Genius Summer of Henry Hoobler by Lisa Shanahan (Allen and Unwin) PB RRP $14.9   ISBN 9781760293017

Reviewed by Daniela Andrews

Henry Hoobler’s mother suggests he make a little room for his worries by acknowledging them. Henry can’t help but wonder, though …‘Couldn’t he be good at making a tiny bit of room for the worry, without giving it the whole house?’

This heartwarming story is about an anxious boy called Henry, aged 8 or 9, whose worries often prevent him from enjoying himself. The upcoming family camping trip at the beach, for instance, terrifies him. Then he makes a friend who shows him what life can be like when you’re open to adventure, and he winds up having a very different summer to the one he expected.

By the end of the summer, Henry will have learnt how to work through some of his niggling anxieties and fears. He’ll realise that oceans don’t always bring tsunamis, that camping trips don’t necessarily include snakebites and that stingrays (barbless ones named Heathcliff, anyway) can be friendly. He’ll learn about self-confidence, especially in the face of older siblings. He’ll learn how to stand up to people who tease him … and forgive them. He will set out on a daring, nightly expedition to rescue a toy pony. He’ll meet a bold, adventurous girl – Cassie – who’ll inadvertently motivate him to find his courage. And he’ll not only learn to ride his bike without training wheels, he will ride it like she does – freely and fearlessly. No wonder it’s a grand, genius summer!

Lisa Shanahan, the award-winning writer of My Big Birkett, has created a touching novel that will appeal to readers aged 7–11 years. Henry’s family members and their camping holiday dynamics are so believable that it might feel as though you’re observing them all from a neighbouring tent! Their alternating feelings of frustration, sadness and support for Henry’s emotions are very realistic. I particularly liked the way Henry’s anxieties crept up on him, rather than being the central focus of every scene. 

The book covers themes of family relationships, friendships and anxieties. By the end of the story, armed with a new friend, a powerful bike and a firm sense of adventure, Henry adopts Cassie’s philosophy in life: ‘the best things always happen on the way to somewhere else.’ 

Monday, 10 April 2017

Marge and the Pirate Baby

Marge and the Pirate Baby by Isla Fisher (Allen and Unwin)
PB RRP $14.99 ISBN 9781848125933

Reviewed by Daniela Andrews

‘Did I tell you that our babysitter is only the size of about seven biscuit packets stacked on top of each other?’

Sweet little Marge, whose rainbow-coloured hair and flamboyant behaviour burst from the pages of Isla Fisher’s debut novel (Marge in Charge), is back for a new trio of babysitting adventures. The stories once again star Jemima Button and her little brother Jakeypants, but this time they include their troublesome baby cousin, Zara. (Marge dubs her the ‘pirate baby’ for her love of shiny things, for the way she takes people’s things without asking and because she drinks from bottles all day!)

Each story is narrated from the first-person perspective of Jemima. The first is about Zara’s antics around the house, the second takes place at the local swimming pool, and the third focuses on a family wedding. The stories feature a list of rules from Jemima and Jake’s parents … followed by a funny interpretation from Marge. For example, ‘No rude words’ becomes ‘No rude words, unless we are in battle at sea, or your parrot poops on your shoulder.’ Marge uses her quirky style to get the kids to do exactly what she wants … like tackle a ‘code brown’ nappy situation, or face their fears at the pool. She even naps on the job while the kids madly put the house back together before their parents come home. The children are happy to do whatever it takes to keep Marge’s antics a secret … or else their parents might never call her back. (‘We both love having Marge look after us, even if it means we have to look after her a bit sometimes, too.’)

The three stories average around 55 pages each and are illustrated with Eglantine Ceulemans’ complementary black and white caricatures. The font style throughout the book is playful and varied, featuring lots of breakout lists of ‘handwritten’ rules, song lyrics or thoughts.  The presentation, combined with the story itself, make the book well suited to the target age group of 7 to 9 year-olds.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017


Frogkisser! by Garth Nix (Allen and Unwin) PB RRP $19.99
ISBN 9781760293512

Reviewed by Daniela Andrews

True love’s kiss can break a spell, right? That’s what the fairytales say. But what if true love’s kiss isn’t available? What if, say, a fickle queen-to-be (whose suitor has been converted to a frog by her evil step-stepfather) is too disgusted at the thought of kissing an amphibian?

Enter Princess Anya … the younger, practical, responsible sister, who really just wants to put an end to her sister’s wailing and get back to her reading. Anya promises to find Prince Denholm and reconvert him. She is helped by the palace librarian, Gotfried, who offers two remedies: a spell for finding the frog, and a ‘Transmogrification Reversal Lip Balm’ that can be applied in the absence of true love. It should be simple, but of course it isn’t. First, the frog she catches and kisses isn’t Denholm. Second, she’s out of lip balm.

Award-winning fantasy author, Garth Nix, slowly builds on Anya’s basic quest to kiss a frog and turns it into a humorous fairytale adventure of epic proportions. As her step-stepfather, Duke Rikard, grows stronger in power and attempts to steal the throne, Anya realises she needs to save her sister. And the kingdom. Other kingdoms, too. Plus restore the ‘All-Encompassing Bill of Rights and Wrongs’. Find allies. Build an army. Source obscure ingredients for more lip balm. Kiss lots of frogs. Oh, and possibly reassess her entire life vision.

Garth Nix has once again created a brave, admirable heroine, with traits reminiscent of Lirael and Sabriel. His writing is fresh and playful, with a hint of the absurd, all the while remaining vivid in description and intensity. I was delightfully taken aback at the amusing moments sprinkled within moments of action.  (For example, an awestruck Anya quietly observes a tree spirit … and her royal canine sidekick, Ardent, explains why dogs like trees. Amidst the Duke’s list of serious crimes is a charge for ‘improper cackling’, and there’s a Shakespearean-like character – ‘Gerald-the-Herald’ – who randomly enters a scene and obnoxiously shouts out headlines.)

Frogkisser! targets readers aged 13–16 years and will be made into an animated musical film by FOX Animation and Blue Sky Studios (creators of Ice Age). It is a stand-a-lone novel, but Nix has cleverly left behind some unexplained mysteries that would allow him to expand the story if he chooses.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Bone Gap

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby (Allen and Unwin) PB RRP $19.99
ISBN 9780571332755

Reviewed by Daniela Andrews

The phrase ‘never judge a book by its cover’ need not apply to this one. I was drawn to this book as soon as I saw the cover, and I wasn’t disappointed. Cornfields, beehives and a dark horse … I couldn’t figure out how it all fit together, but I knew I wanted to find out.

This alluring novel is best described as magical realism – it is a little fairytale-like, at times, and starkly realistic at others. It targets readers aged 14–18, and raises themes of family, love and self-worth.

It is a highly original, unusual tale set in a town called ‘Bone Gap’, where ‘the bones of the world’ are ‘a little looser’ and where people can simply fall away and disappear. Finn O’Sullivan is a handsome teenage boy who the locals are fond of, despite declaring him nutty. They call him ‘Sidetrack’ and ‘Moonface’ because he won’t look people in the eye. Finn lives with his older brother, Sean, whom the town adores. 

When a young, beautiful girl called Roza appears in their barn, she charms the entire town with her beauty and playfulness. Then she is kidnapped and everybody is devastated. Finn was there but he can’t describe the kidnapper. Locals know that Bone Gap is full of magical ‘spaces one could slip into and hide’ … perhaps Roza simply disappeared as mysteriously as she arrived.

Finn is frustrated that nobody believes him – especially Sean, who was in love with her. When a magical horse appears in their barn one night, it leads Finn to Petey Willis, the beekeeper’s daughter, whom the townspeople taunt for her erratic appearance and behaviour. Finn and Petey fall in love, and she uncovers a remarkable truth about him. When Roza’s kidnapper turns up, Finn realises he himself needs to slip away from his world in order to find her.

Laura Ruby treats us to insights from Sean, Petey and Charlie Valentine (the town veteran), but the majority of the novel is told from Finn and Roza’s perspectives. She expertly overlaps the slow, mystical setting of Finn’s world with Roza’s frantic attempts to escape her captor. The effect creates a very gripping novel, making it a well-deserving winner of the 2016 ‘Michael L. Printz Award’.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Diary of a 6th Grade Ninja 4: A Game of Chase

Diary of a 6th Grade Ninja 4: A Game of Chase by Marcus Emerson (Allen and Unwin)
PB RRP $9.99
ISBN 9781760295585

Reviewed by Daniela Andrews

It’s another crazy week for Chase Cooper at Buchanan School, and it all starts off with the chess piece and anonymous note he finds in his locker. Somebody, who goes by the name ‘Jovial Noise’, threatens to expose his ninja identity if he doesn’t play along with their game. Er … what game? Chase is getting tired of the crazy behind-the-scenes activities at his school. (At one stage, he humorously dwells on how many years of therapy he’s going to need after he completes just one year at the school! He also blames James Buchanan, the school’s namesake and one of America’s most controversial presidents, for the madness.)

It seems Jovial Noise is out to sabotage the school science fair … by destroying people’s projects. The game of chess certainly becomes ‘a game of chase’ when Chase has to connect the chess pieces and clues together in order to save people’s science projects. Then Chase himself is framed for Faith’s ruined project and he knows he needs to find the real culprit, fast, before more projects (and friendships) are destroyed. Is it Carlyle? Wyatt? One of the red ninjas? Or that new hall monitor, Sebastian?

This is another fast-paced, entertaining read in the bestselling Diary of a 6th Grade Ninja series by Marcus Emerson. There are lots of laugh-out-loud scenes, including a very funny conversation about ‘meese’ (the supposed plural of ‘moose’)! I particularly love how this series overturns the idea of a fist-fighting ninja and replaces it with a ninja who instead focuses on empathy, bravery and (above all) doing the right thing.

‘If you know me then you’d know I don’t fight no matter what,’ I said.
‘You don’t fight with your fists’ … ‘you’re a very strange ninja.’

This amusing series of books for 7–12 year-olds is definitely out to empower kids who want to deal with bullies … without getting physical. 

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Diary of a 6th Grade Ninja 3: Rise of the Red Ninjas

Diary of a 6th Grade Ninja 3: Rise of the Red Ninjas by Marcus Emerson (Allen and Unwin)  PB RRP $9.99
ISBN 9781760295578

Reviewed by Daniela Andrews

A rival ninja clan – the Red Ninjas – is out to make Chase Cooper’s life impossible in this, the third novel in the Diary of a 6th Grade Ninja series.

It all begins when a fast-moving, red-hooded thief steals Chase’s backpack right off his shoulder. In a panic, Chase goes after him, desperate to get back his ninja suit, science project … and that little love note to Faith. The red-hooded thief disappears in what can only be described as a notorious ninja move. By the end of the day, copies of the love note are plastered all over the school and Chase has earned the nickname ‘lover boy’.

It’s a social disaster as Chase tries to do some damage control to save his friendship with science partner – and secret crush – Faith. But the two of them have become the laughingstock of the school thanks to a new clan of ninjas, the red ninjas, who are out to humiliate Chase. Faith is mad at him, Zoe is mad at him. His best friend Brayden has been framed for theft … and Chase doesn’t have the courage to help him.

It is not necessary to have read the first two books in the series, because Emerson provides a recap at the beginning. However, readers of the first two books will immediately guess that Wyatt is behind all the trouble in this book.

The Diary of a 6th Grade Ninja stories are very entertaining reads for 7–12 year-olds. (This third novel has a highly amusing reference to the original version of The Karate Kid that sadly might be missed by younger readers though!)

Zoe remains the ever-so-cool cousin who takes the moral high ground to keep Chase in check, but there’s a difference in this third book (and it’s not just in the page length). Though Chase wins victory in an absurdly funny roller-skating spectacle of ‘Shoot the Duck’, justice is not served at the end. Rather:

‘… sometimes people get away with what they’ve done.’

Of course it cleverly indicates that this means war, thus setting the climax for the next book in the series.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Diary of a 6th Grade Ninja 2: Pirate Invasion

Diary of a 6th Grade Ninja 2: Pirate Invasion by Marcus Emerson (Allen and Unwin)
PB RRP $9.99
ISBN 9781760295561

Reviewed by Daniela Andrews

“It’s not that anyone is against me … It’s just that nobody is exactly with me.”

So says Chase in this, the second book in the popular Diary of a 6th Grade Ninja series, which begins with ‘Talk Like a Pirate Day’. New kid, Carlyle, has Chase’s guard up. Why does he still talk like a pirate when it’s no longer funny? Chase’s ninjas are bored and restless. Now that Wyatt isn’t leading them, there’s no more stealing, no more action. Chase has them all learning ninja moves … but nobody really knows what they’re training for (including Chase). Carlyle seems to be wooing everybody with his funny pirate talk … including Zoe. It turns out Carlyle is the leader of a secret band of pirates, and is secretly recruiting Chase’s ninjas. He is also seeking to avenge his cousin’s expulsion from the school.

The fast-paced story builds up action in the lead-up to the school ‘Dance Til You Drop’ event. The student who raises the most sponsorship money gets to choose a new school mascot, and Carlyle has convinced his growing legion of pirate fans to hand their sponsorship money to him. Once crowned winner, Carlyle is going to change the school mascot to a buccaneer.

Can pirates really trump ninjas? Does Chase even have the willpower to stop them? Poor Chase. It seems the more he tries to disappear, the more he stands out. After a talk with his dad, Chase decides to revolt against the crowd and stand up for what he thinks is right … in an absurdly funny obstacle course showdown.

This book is laugh-out-loud funny from the very first page, where Chase draws his self-portrait (‘Ladies, please remain calm’). I’m never quite sure where Emerson is going to take the story next, but I can be assured it will be an entertaining journey! The dialogue in this book is hugely appealing to the age group (7–12), with lots of kid slang. (For example, Zoe’s cry of ‘Oh em gee!’)

The novel concludes with Chase learning another lesson in leadership, Zoe demonstrating her family loyalty, and Carlyle planting a rumour that good old Wyatt is set to return.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

The Amateurs

The Amateurs by Sara Shepard (Allen and Unwin) PB RRP $16.99
ISBN 9781471405266

Reviewed by Daniela Andrews

What really happened the day 17-year-old Helena Kelly disappeared? Did somebody take her, or did she choose to leave? Helena’s body was found four years later, not far from her family home, but the police couldn’t solve the murder and eventually closed the case. Aerin, Helena’s younger sister, seems to be the only one fighting for answers. Now aged 16 years old, she feels disengaged with the world (and her parents) but masks her depression by distracting herself with whatever means are available at wild teenage parties. At home, her sister’s death is all she can think about. She finds herself logging on to a website called ‘Case Not Closed’, and posts a desperate plea for help in finding her sister’s murderer. That’s how she meets Seneca, Maddox and Brett, amateur sleuths who want to help (each for their own reasons).

They team up together, each bringing different knowledge and ideas to the case. It isn’t long before the threats and attacks begin. Somebody in town knows they’re investigating, and they’re keen to scare them away. They believe the attacks mean they are getting closer to the truth … but perhaps the truth is even closer than they realise.

This is a gripping, cleverly written murder mystery for readers aged 12–16 years. There are plenty of plot twists and developments that drive the story forward, making this novel difficult to put down. It is the first in a new series of books by bestselling author Sara Shepard, who wrote Pretty Little Liars. The novel ends with quite a major plot twist, so I’m sure readers will be keenly awaiting the sequel (due to be published around the middle of 2017). The main characters are well developed, strong and likeable, each of them interesting for different reasons. It will be great to learn more about them as the series progresses.