Showing posts with label Nean McKenzie. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Nean McKenzie. Show all posts

Wednesday, 19 December 2018


Scapegoat written by Ava Keyes illustrated by Aleksandra Szmidt (Little Steps Publishing) RRP $14.95 (PB) ISBN 9780648267461

Reviewed by Nean McKenzie

This bright and cheerful looking picture book covers a subject not so happy – family bullying. This is Ava Keyes’s debut picture book, partner-published with Little Steps Publishing. In rhyming prose, the story unfolds of Scapegoat, who is blamed by his family for everything that goes wrong. Illustrations by Alexsandra Szmidt add character and humour to balance the more serious topic of the book.

Scapegoat is a young goat who keeps getting into trouble. His brother Marco is fun to play with, but when he is naughty, it’s Scapegoat who gets told off. In fact, even when the parents do something wrong, Scapegoat is blamed for that as well. It is at school that Scapegoat’s friends realise what’s going on at home and the impact this is having on Scapegoat. They talk to the teacher, who then approaches the parents about it.

It is an interesting topic as most books about bullying deal with what happens at school, so this is a kind of different side of things. The book could be used by teachers for kids when they suspect it might be happening at home. The resolution of the story is more about the child believing in themselves than the parents changing their behavior, which could be empowering for someone in this situation. While the rhythm of the rhyme is not always consistent, using animals to represent children lifts the story and makes it more fun.

Scapegoat could be read aloud by adults, who can then explain the concepts to children or read independently by kids who like the illustrations. Scapegoat is a niche book with a definite purpose for kindergarten and lower primary school children.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

His Name was Walter

His Name was Walter by Emily Rodda (Angus and Robertson/Harper Collins) PB RRP $22.99 ISBN 978146071203

Reviewed by Nean McKenzie

This middle grade fiction book is about a group of kids in a haunted house — what could be better? The reader is led from a story into another story, which at first seems like a fairy tale, but as it goes on, seems more and more real. Emily Rodda, writer of more than fifty books, expertly crafts a tale that moves between the past and the future, and fantasy and reality. His Name was Walter is an adventure, a mystery and a coming of age story, all in one.

The story is from the point of view of Colin, who is new at his school and on an excursion. The bus breaks down in bad weather and four students (and their teacher Mrs Fiori) take shelter in an old mansion nearby. There are creepy stories about the house, but there's nowhere else to go. Colin discovers a book called His Name was Walter and Mrs Fiori encourages the children to read it.
The story of Walter describes an orphan boy who grows up in a beehive and his journey to a town far away where he meets a girl called Sparrow. Colin and the quiet Tara, who is aware of unseen things, are completely drawn in. Grace, a pretty, impatient girl, feels scared for unexplained reasons in certain rooms in the house. Cynical Lucas seems oblivious to it all. But as Walter's tale goes on, the spirits in the house seem to be trying to prevent it from being told.

There are moments of genuine scariness in this story. The power goes off. There's a mysterious locked room. But the scariest is the idea of a 'story' being real. The children realise there was a real town, a real mansion, and that is where they are this night. They must draw on the courage and work together to get through the story, right to the end.

This book is structured so well. I was initially confused as to why Walter would be surrounded by animals who act like people, but this is explained. The characters of the school children are believable without stereotypes and all develop in their own way.

My Name is Walter is a fast-paced and entertaining read for upper primary children.

Saturday, 20 October 2018


Zenobia by Morten Dürr and Lars Horneman (UQP) ISBN 9780702260254 HB RRP $19.95

Reviewed by Nean McKenzie

This graphic novel is about a young girl who is a refugee from Syria and her dangerous journey away from the war in her country. Through evocative pictures and minimal, well-chosen words, it is a gentle but tragic story that doesn’t shy away from reality. Created in Denmark, where it won a national illustration award, Zenobia deals with an important international issue. It will no doubt will be read by older children and adults around the world.

Beginning at the end, the reader is not lulled into a sense that this book has a happy conclusion. Rather, the story is about how Amina got there and who she was. There are three stories in one and they are depicted by different colours. Amina’s present at the start is full colour. When she remembers her mother back in Syria in the past, the illustrations are in shades of brown. And the story of Zenobia, a great warrior queen of Syria, is in purple and orange. The colour changes are very effective in indicating time, but also in changing the mood of the story.

The first words are after ten pages of pictures, which strengthens their impact. Then at the end of the story there is no need for words again – this is quite powerful.  The story of Zenobia, told by Amina's mother, helps to make the book a bit less bleak. Zenobia acts as a source of strength and comfort for Amina after the ship wreck, even when everything is going wrong. Also Amina's memories of playing hide and seek and cooking with her mother, are very touching.

For children learning about refugees Zenobia clearly depicts how people like Amina have no choice but to leave. And while it is a very hard topic, it is important for children to understand what is happening in the world. Still, some younger readers may find it upsetting.

This graphic novel is the ideal format to depict war and desperation in such a quiet but emotive manner. Zenobia is an important and haunting read for upper primary school upwards.

Sunday, 29 July 2018

All These Beautiful Strangers

All These Beautiful Strangers by Elizabeth Klehfoth (PenguinRandom House) PB $17.99 ISBN 9780241329498
Reviewed by Nean McKenzie

This young adult novel is set in the prestigious Knollwood Augustus Prep school in the US where Charlie Calloway is beginning her second last year of high school. She receives an invitation to the secret club called the ‘A’s’ − who work behind the scenes for their own ends. Charlie sneaks out of her dorm room with her best friend Drew for the initiation and begins a morally challenging journey. She finds the mystery of her mother’s disappearance is inexplicably linked to the organisation she has just joined.

Charlie is from a wealthy family who are alumni of the school. Her father Alistair is a wealthy business man and Charlie spends her summers sailing at Martha’s vineyard. However beneath all this glamour, there has been tragedy. Charlie’s mother Grace disappeared ten years ago at their house at Langley Lake. At first, Alistair, a rather cold and distant father, was accused of having something to do with Grace’s disappearance, but a body has never been found.

Charlie carries the stigma of her family drama around with her, which partly excuses the selfish way she behaves. The fact that Grace was from the other side of the tracks, gives Charlie some perspective, out of the bubble of Knollwood Prep. Charlie has a couple of romantic interests – one from each of the worlds. There is Dalton, a fellow member of the A’s, the son of Alistair’s ex-girlfriend Margot and Greyson, the son of Grace’s best friend Claire.

The chapters are written initially from Charlie’s point of view, but as the mystery develops, chapters from Alistair and Grace (from ten years before) are included. This works well to flesh out the characters of the parents that Charlie really doesn’t know. The story is essentially about secrets, the consequences of covering them up and being brave enough to admit to mistakes.

Down the page side of the book are the letters I KNOW, which is one of the clues Charlie finds when searching for the truth about her mother. As a cover design, it clearly signals this is a thriller/mystery book.

I found Charlie’s emotional journey compelling . Suitable for secondary school students, Elizabeth Klehfoth’s first novel is a page turner until the mystery is solved. 

Sunday, 6 December 2015

The Ring of Curses

The Ring of Curses by Margaret R Blake (Satalyte Publishing)
PB RRP $25.99
ISBN 978 0 992095 4 5

Reviewed by Nean McKenzie

The Ring of Curses — Merlin's School for Ordinary Children is a fantasy story about a castle that appears out of nowhere, and the children who are invited to go to school there. Unlike Harry Potter, where the children are all witches and wizards, these kids are neither magical nor talented. However, as they embark on their adventure, in a manner reminiscent of an Enid Blyton book, some of the characters turn out to be more special than they first thought.

The kids of the tiny seaside town of Calder Cove are ready for a bit of excitement when they are invited to Merlin's School for Ordinary Children. Daffodil, Ernest, Orion, Tilderly and Bridget and friends go away for ten months to a mysterious place their parents can't visit. Lessons include how to behave at tea parties (for the girls) and how to make a fish trap (for the boys). In History, the children time- travel back to Middle America in Aztec times. Neville, a bully and thief, steals an ancient ring which sets off a chain of consequences.

The strength of this humorous adventure story is that it has likeable characters. The book must be set in contemporary times, because when the children arrive at the school, they relinquish their mobile phones and are not allowed to use computers. However the story is written in an old fashioned style, with turns of phrase from an earlier time. The school staff is behind the scenes and remains mysterious to the end. We never really find out how they know what the kids are thinking or even the reason for the school in the first place. There is an obvious room for a sequel to further explore these questions.

Published by Australian publisher Satalyte Publishing, The Ring of Curses is an enjoyable middle fiction story. It is Margaret R Blake’s debut work.

Monday, 9 March 2015

The Flywheel

The Flywheel by Erin Gough (Hardie Grant Egmont)
ISBN 9781742978178
PB $19.95 RRP
Reviewed by Nean McKenzie

The Flywheel is the second debut novel to be published by Hardie Grant Egmont through their annual Ampersand Project. (The first was Melissa Keil's award winning Life in Outer Space.) The Flywheel is a young adult novel about a girl called Delilah who runs her father's café while he is away overseas. In doing this, Del juggles school, work and relationships and the story is about how difficult and how funny this all becomes.

Delilah (Del for short) is seventeen and in her last year of school when she encourages her depressed father to take a trip, after Del's mother leaves them. Neither of them know the café manager will leave, that the café down the road will try to put them out of business or that Del will be bullied at school because of her sexual preferences. To further complicate things Del's crush on Rosa, the flamenco dancer across the road, seems to be unrequited and Del's best friend Charlie gets himself on the wrong side of the law and hides out at Del's place.

Written in first person, Del's story is told with a lot of self deprecating humour, particularly when it comes to dancing. Under the humour she faces many issues, such as what to do when her best friend asks her to lie for him in a court of law, whether to tell her absent father that his business is going down the drain and how to deal with girls who are not completely comfortable with the fact they like girls. Although she makes a few mistakes along the way, with the help of her friends, Del works it all out by the end. 

Erin Gough has written a fast paced novel with lots of realistic dialogue which should appeal to young adult readers. With a very independent and genuine main character, The Flywheel is an enjoyable addition to the Ampersand Project.      

Thursday, 29 January 2015

The Flywheel

The Flywheel by Erin Gough (Hardie Grant Egmont)
ISBN 9781742978178
PB $19.95 RRP
Reviewed by Nean McKenzie

The Flywheel is the second debut novel to be published by Hardie Grant Egmont through their annual Ampersand Project. (The first was Melissa Keil's award winning Life in Outer Space.) The Flywheel is a young adult novel about a girl called Delilah who runs her father's café while he is away overseas. In doing this, Del juggles school, work and relationships and the story is about how difficult and how funny this all becomes.

Delilah (Del for short) is seventeen and in her last year of school when she encourages her depressed father to take a trip, after Del's mother leaves them. Neither of them know the café manager will leave, that the café down the road will try to put them out of business or that Del will be bullied at school because of her sexual preferences. To further complicate things, Del's crush on Rosa, the flamenco dancer across the road, seems to be unrequited and Del's best friend Charlie gets himself on the wrong side of the law and hides out at Del's place.

Written in first person, Del's story is told with a lot of self deprecating humour, particularly when it comes to dancing. Under the humour, she faces many issues, such as what to do when her best friend asks her to lie for him in a court of law, whether to tell her absent father that his business is going down the drain and how to deal with girls who are not completely comfortable with the fact they like girls. Although she makes a few mistakes along the way, with the help of her friends Del works it all out by the end. 

Erin Gough has written a fast-paced novel with lots of realistic dialogue which should appeal to young adult readers. With a very independent and genuine main character, The Flywheel is an enjoyable addition to the Ampersand Project.       

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Sylvia and Bird

Sylvia and Bird by Catherine Rayner (Little Tiger Press — Hardie Grant Egmont)
ISBN 978-1-84506-857-8
PB $14.95 RRP
Reviewed by Nean McKenzie

This delightful picture book, written and illustrated by Catherine Rayner, is about a friendship between a dragon and a bird. Sylvia, a shimmer-shiny dragon who lives on a high mountain-top, is terribly lonely until she meets an unlikely playmate, a small yellow bird known as 'Bird'. Despite their obvious differences, the two have fun together and keep each another company. But while Bird is able to go off and play with other birds, Sylvia has no one else, as she is the last of her kind on earth. This makes Sylvia quite sad.

For anyone who knows about dragons (and there are a few out there) Syliva is not a hot, fire-breathing variety, but a cool, mountain one with beautiful ice crystals decorating her large body. The diminutive Bird is a complete contrast to her oversized friend. But the crux of the story is that none of this matters. When Sylvia tries to go to the moon to find other dragons, and she realises Bird can't go with her, she decides to stay on earth. There's no way she wants to leave her friend Bird behind. 

As in her book about a tiger, Augustus and his Smile, Catherine Rayner has presented a large scary creature in an non-threatening, affectionate way for small children. Sylvia's face shows a vulnerable, friendly expression and her actions through the story show her gentleness, particularly when she saves Bird from falling, when she flies too high.

 The concept of the story, that difference is no obstacle to true friendship, is certainly admirable and worth conveying to children as early as possible. Sylvia and Bird, which won the 2014 Greenway Medal in the UK,  is a lovely book for adults to read aloud and everyone can enjoy the superbly drawn illustrations. This book is suitable for preschool children and up into early primary. 


Monday, 8 December 2014

Messenger of Fear

Messenger of Fear by Michael Grant (Hardie Grant Egmont)
ISBN 978-1-4052-7622-1
PB RRP $22.95
Reviewed by Nean McKenzie

Following on from his successful Gone series, Michael Grant has now begun quite a different young adult series in Messenger of Fear. It's about a young girl Mara, who needs to understand and make amends for something terrible she has done wrong in her life. The only problem is, she doesn't remember who she is, or what it is she has done. A mystery guy called Messenger shows her other people's lives, where those that have escaped punishment for doing wrong are offered a 'game' they do not want to lose. Through this journey, Mara recovers the truth about herself and must then face the consequences.

This story begins and continues for some time with the main character Mara (and the reader) in a state of confusion. Mara wakes up in a field of dead grass, surrounded by yellow mist. She travels from one place to the other in the blink of an eye, where people can't see her. She doesn't know if she's dead or alive, or something in between. Mara's memories return as she witnesses young people like her making wrong decisions. Finally she understands why she is there with the Messenger, and what she has agreed to do. 

This is not a light read and deals with some dark issues such as suicide and bullying. On the back is the following warning: 'contains scenes of cruelty and some violence'. It is probably the torture scenes that are most difficult to read, although the dream-like aspect of the book takes away some of their reality. At its heart, the story is a about people who are punished for bad deeds by an ancient system of Gods called the Heptachy. This is revealed in the very last pages, along with the fact that Mara is apprenticed to become the next Messenger of Fear.

There's a mystery aspect to this — finding out what exactly is going on keeps the reader guessing. It is definitely a page turner. There are red herrings and a twist. For most of the story Mara is an observer and because of that she is quite a distant character. There are many sad stories but there is a lift at the end when one ends happily. Messenger of Fear is the first in a new series and adequately sets up this rather chilling world of crime and retribution.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

State of Grace

State of Grace by Hilary Badger (Hardie Grant Egmont)
ISBN 9781760120382
PB $19.95 RRP
Reviewed by Nean McKenzie

 By the co-creator of the Zac Power series, State of Grace is a young adult book about a girl called Wren who lives with a group of other teenage creations in a paradise, not unlike the Garden of Eden. Wren spends her time swimming in the idyllic lagoon, hooking up with her friends and worshipping their creator, Dot. Despite this perfect world, Wren begins to have flashbacks to another life in a different world. She tries to fight it, as she wants to get to 'completion night' and be chosen, but when a boy called Dennis arrives from outside, everything changes.

This is a story where things become clearer as the book progresses, but it is obvious from the outset (to the reader, at least) that things are not as they appear. The little world Wren lives in is actually a trial for a drug called Grace, given to a select group of people with depression and other psychological problems. The world created uses religion for happiness and a sense of purpose. Blaze is the only other person apart from Wren who questions the reality of the world they live in, as he also experiences memories of another life.

 The language of this world is very effective: 'sungarb' for clothes, 'tatas' for breasts, 'dotly' for good and never using remotely negative words, just putting a pre in front, such as prenormal (different), prehealthy (sick) and prelight (dark). The revelation of the drug is not until right at the end, so most of the book has a rather creepy undercurrent, especially when Gil, one of the creations, tries to take charge and make new rules. A group called the Circle who is against the Grace trial also surfaces at the end, and there is action as they help Wren (real name Viva) and Blaze (real name Luke) escape to the real world. Viva gradually remembers the pain in her past and is able to live with it.

Like popular novels Divergent and The Giver, this is a young adult story about a utopian world, which turns out to be not as good as it seems. It's also about facing reality and the benefits of doing that. These are interesting concepts to explore and the well written State of Grace should go down very well with the readership.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

All the Wrong Questions — Shouldn't You Be In School?

All the Wrong Questions — Shouldn't You Be In School? Written by Lemony Snicket, Art by Seth (Hardie Grant Egmont)
ISBN 978-107429-7298-5
HB $16.95 RRP
Reviewed by Nean McKenzie

This is the third installment in the All the Wrong Questions series by Lemony Snicket. Sporting a striking fluorescent orange cover, Shouldn't You Be In School? gets straight into the action with the opening sentence: 'There was a town, and there was a librarian and there was a fire.' The distinctive voice of the main protagonist (also Lemony Snicket) carries the reader through a mystery that twists and turns. Although it doesn't quite get solved at the end, in this book there are a couple of answers along the way.

In the town of Stain'd-by-the-Sea, there's a problem with arson, a crime which Lemony Snicket's chaperone, S Theodora Markson, attempts to solve. Starting at the very suspect Department of Education, an equally suspect Sharon Haines, directs them to a house that burns down. The innocent local librarian, Dashiel Querty, (the best name in the series so far) is accused and arrested. When the school goes up in flames as well, all the kids are transferred to the Wade Academy for a so-called 'top shelf education.' Lemony and his gang are found truanting and transferred to the school where they find out what is really going on. The old villain Hangfire is behind the whole thing.

The gang consists of friends from previous books -- Moxie Mallahan (journalist), Jake Hix (chef), Cleo Knight (brilliant scientist), and Pip and Squeak, two kids who between them, drive a taxi. A newcomer is Kellar Haines, son of the misguided Sharon. Lemony Snicket is a character with secrets but so is Ellington Feint, a girl Snicket is equally fascinated with and distrustful of. It is Ellington who gives the friends strong coffee to overcome the laudanum they are drugged with at the school. But then she is an accomplice to the attempted arson of the library, part of Hangfire's dastardly plan.

This return to the town with the Clusterous Forrest and Hungry's Diner is a slightly confusing but thoroughly enjoyable book for middle readers. Illustrations, complete with shadows, add beautifully to the quirky, fast-paced and clever story. The question is, whether the next book will have any answers, but maybe that is the wrong question!

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Where are Santa's Pants?

Where are Santa's Pants? by Richard Merrit (Little Hare)
ISBN 978-1-921541-50-6
PB $9.95 RRP
Reviewed by Nean McKenzie

Where are Santa's Pants? is basically Where's Wally? with a Christmas theme. The introduction explains the predicament: Santa has lost weight (he's been dieting) and now his pants keep falling off. The reader's job is to find Santa's pants on each page —he's got a few pairs in different colours. Also there to find, are the reindeer and a lucky sixpence, if you're extremely observant.

There's a reason this book is recommended for kids five and over — these things are not easy to find! The illustrations are packed with colour and detail so it will keep the children quiet for some time as they search for the various objects. Each page has a theme which has something to do with Christmas, such as the North Pole, the beach, the ice rink and the department store, to name a few. The last page is a vibrant-looking apartment block where different people are celebrating the festive season in their own unique ways.

There's quirky humour such as a giraffe in a taxi, a mermaid watching a Christmas concert and two snow people getting married. There's someone who looks like Wally on one page as well. Kids can have a lot of fun while getting into the Christmas spirit. For those who get stumped, or even those who want to cheat, the answers are on the last few pages. Small versions of the previous pictures are dotted with circles showing the location of the pants and reindeer.

This is a reprint of Where are Santa's Pants? which was originally put out in 2010 and reprinted in 2011. Available now as well is a follow-up book called Where is Santa's Suit?  also illustrated by Richard Merrit.


Augustus and his Smile

Augustus and his Smile by Catherine Rayner (Little Tiger Press — Hardie Grant Egmont)
ISBN 978-1-84506-283-5
PB $14.95 RRP
Reviewed by Nean McKenzie

Augustus and his Smile is an endearing story about a tiger which goes looking for his smile. Writer and illustrator Catherine Rayner captures the essence of the main character from the very first picture on the cover: the friendly face of a tiger (Augustus) with a blue butterfly on his nose. Open the book and paw prints on an orange background lead you, the reader, to the first page.

The story is a simple but important one. Augustus is sad and travels to different places to cheer himself up. He goes under some bushes, to the top of the trees, to the crests of the mountains, the bottom of the oceans and through the desert. All the while, to the observant reader, his smile is growing. It isn't until he is caught in a shower of rain and sees himself in a puddle, that Augustus notices this, too.

At the back of the book are some tiger facts, including information about the endangered Siberian tigers (the kind of tiger Augustus is). Contact details are included for the World Wildlife Fund, for those interested in helping. This is a lovely book to enjoy reading aloud and has a good message about finding happiness in the world around you.

 UK children's author Catherine Rayner has shown a great talent for drawing animals in her previous books, for example Harris Finds his Feet (about a hare) and Sylvia and Bird (about a dragon). With his wistful face and ready smile, her newest character Augustus is impossible not to become attached to. Preschool children will want to read this book over and over, just to see the tiger's happy face. 

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Yobbos Do Yoga

Yobbos Do Yoga by Phillip Gwynne and Andrew Joyner (Little Hare Books)
HB RRP $24.95
ISBN 9781921714832
Reviewed by Nean McKenzie

With a catchy title and lively cover illustrations, Yobbos do Yoga immediately draws the reader in. The narrator of the story is a small, dark-haired girl whose neighbours have moved out (with their noisy cat, Sir Reginald the Third). The girl's dad is at peace to do his favourite yoga poses — the fish, the lightning rod and the salute to the sun. Then, with their cars in the front yard and their dogs in the backyard, yobbos move in next door.   
The newcomers have a party where there is yobbo music, yobbo dancing and yobbos singing yobbo songs. Dad gets so angry he can't do his yoga any more. But when the little girl goes over the fence to get her ball and actually meets Tubby, Ferret and King Wally Kahuna, they call her Princess and give her cordial. Even their dogs let her pat them. She knows if she can just get her father to talk to these nice people, he might begin to get along with them.
This is a humorous story about tolerance and the importance of not judging people by appearances. The very Australian prose, use of repetition and the colourful illustrations work together to allow the readers to come to their own conclusions, way before the dad does. The friendly-looking yobbos have flannelette shirts, ACDC t-shirts and one has a great mullet. The skinny dad with his bald patch and spectacles is a nice contrast.
Suitable for children over the age of three (and quite a good read for adults as well) Yobbos Do Yoga ends on a positive note with everyone joining in for a yoga session.
Phillip Gwynne's picture books include Ruby Learns to Swim and The Queen with the Wobbly BottomAmong the books illustrated by Andrew Joyner are The Terrible Plop and Too Many Elephants in this House. 

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Burning Blue

Burning Blue by Paul Griffin (Text)
PB RRP $19.99 
ISBN 9781922079145
Reviewed by Nean McKenzie

At the centre of this young adult novel are two troubled teenagers, Jay and Nicole who meet at the office of the school counsellor. While the reasons for their troubles could be seen as depressing, the story about them is not, lifted by the element of mystery. Sometimes quite thrilling, with plenty of action, it's a book that deals with difficult issues in a readable way and even ends on a positive note.

Jay is fifteen and lives with his alcoholic dad. He hasn't been to school much since he began suffering from epileptic seizures and is keen to keep to himself. Nicole who is beautiful, rich and smart appeared to have everything going for her until she had acid thrown in her face by an unknown assailant. Jay is gradually drawn in to finding out who Nicole's attacker was. He employs his skills in computer hacking and technology to find out information, risking serious consequences. In the process he becomes more and more involved in Nicole's life.

The short chapters are from alternating points of view: Jay's and Nicole's. Many of Nicole's are in the form of diary entries or transcripts from counselling sessions. Jay's are mostly in first person and he is a clever and likeable character. He is at the same time vulnerable (he is still recovering from his mother's death) and tough (as a wrestler he is able to physically protect himself when needed).

There are suspects galore in this mystery and it is very close to the end where we find out the identity of the attacker. But even then, the mystery is still not quite solved, not until the conclusion.

There is a lot of realistic-sounding dialogue which flows well. The mystery unfolds gradually and the end is satisfying for these characters the reader has come to care about. Burning Blue is suitable for secondary school students, male or female.   

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Liar and Spy

Liar and Spy Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead (Text)
PB RRP $16.99
ISBN 9781921922947
Reviewed by Nean McKenzie

Packed with quirky characters, this book for older children has mystery and suspense alongside more realistic truths about growing up. The story is about Georges (pronounced George) a twelve year old boy who moves into a apartment block in New York. He sees a sign in the basement : SPY CLUB MEETING — TODAY! which leads him to a boy called Safer who drinks lots of coffee and doesn't go to school. Now the adventures begin.

Since his best friend left him for the 'cool table,' school hasn't been much fun for Georges, who sometimes wishes his name didn't look so much like gorgeous. Home hasn't been great either. His dad lost his job and his mum is always at the hospital, working double shifts. Georges and his mum communicate through scrabble tiles, rearranged each night before and after he goes to sleep. 

Georges' worries recede when he joins Safer and his sister Candy in surveillance of the mysterious 'Mr X' who lives in their building. Georges is encouraged to be brave, to do things he wouldn't normally. He doesn't worry about the bullies at school so much, because now he has a new friend. However, as the title suggests, maybe not everyone is telling the truth. This is bound to make things a bit complicated.

Liar and Spy is a book about friendship, courage and the importance of facing up to things. Written in first person, the voice of Georges is very believable as a twelve year old boy. He is not always a reliable narrator (as the reader realises slowly towards the end of the book) and this is a great technique which adds to the mystery element of the story. I would recommend this for older primary school children, boys or girls.

Sunday, 22 July 2012


Shadows (Rephaim) Shadows (Rephaim) by Paula Weston (Text Publishing)
PB RRP $19.99 
ISBN 9781921922503
Reviewed by Nean McKenzie

Gaby Winters describes her hair as ‘… dark and hard to manage. A bit like me.’ But she's not what she appears to be and even she doesn't know why. On the surface she is a physically and emotionally scarred nineteen year old, recently arrived in the idyllic Pandanus Beach following the death of her twin brother Jude. But why does she dream about hell cats, corpses and decapitations? And when tough but sexy Raf turns up in town and seems to know her, can she trust him?

This fast paced story doesn’t leave us wondering long. Supported by her hippy friend Maggie, Gaby discovers a world of fallen angels, outcasts and demons, where ‘shifting’ from one place to another can heal wounds. Gaby, whose memory has been mysteriously wiped, learns that she is over a hundred years older than she looks and can only be killed by having her head chopped off. There is also a possibility Jude may be alive. Then Maggie is kidnapped and the fighting begins.

Shadows is suitable for older readers, over the age of fifteen. The fight scenes are quite graphic, for example: ‘My arm and neck are sticky with blood. I roll over, crawl along the ground, trying not to give myself away. I’m not slinking away: I want Jude’s sword.’ The scenes set in Pandanus Beach, where Gaby hangs out in an organic food cafe, runs in the rainforest and works in a library, are a nice contrast and show a softer side to her character.

This is the first book in a new series called the Rephaim and it leaves plenty of loose ends to follow up in the next instalment. While there is hope Jude is alive, there is still no sign of him. Gaby and Raf are still far from together, despite having shared steamy embraces and a couple of rather well-written kisses. There is some resolution at the end however, not just a 'to be continued'.

This is Paula Weston’s first novel and I highly recommend it. It’s engaging and has an interesting heroine.  We can all look forward to the second book in the Rephaim series when it comes out.  

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Fire in the Sea

Fire in the Sea Fire in the Sea by Myke Bartlett (Text Publishing)
PB RRP $19.99
ISBN 9781921922749
Reviewed by Nean McKenzie

Fire in the Sea was the 2011 winner of the Text Prize for Young Adult and Children's Writing. Set during a hot Perth Summer, it is the story of Sadie Miller, a teenage girl who wants to be anywhere but where she is. The first chapter begins with menacing shadows in the water, then gets straight into the action as a mystery man is attacked. Sadie and her friend Tom go to the hospital and Sadie finds herself the recipient of a dead man's will. Suddenly, it seems, her life has changed.

Sadie inherits a big old house at 1 Ocean Street. Here she meets Jake, 'the most gorgeous boy she had ever seen'. He says he is the reincarnation of the old man at the beach and an envoy from the gods. Sadie doesn't believe a word of it, but eventually she must as she is drawn into his world of Minotaurs, Drowners and Demons. Since her parents were killed in a car accident, she has had problems facing the idea of death. Now she can no longer escape it as she fights for her own life against creatures she never knew existed.

An ancient box goes missing, which contains a demon. If the demon is released the future of the world is at stake. Sadie, Tom and Jake must find the box and give it to the Drowners under the sea before the whole city of Perth is engulfed by water. But when the box is opened it is up to Sadie to make a choice. Will she make the right one?

Sadie is a strong character, skeptical at first, then courageous. Apart from a couple of sections from Tom's point of view, the majority of the book is from Sadie's perspective, which is more effective.  The story is grounded in Aussie suburbia, a nice contrast to the fantastical events that unfold. This action packed tale is suitable for young adults from early secondary school onwards.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Queen of the Night

Queen of the Night by Leanne Hall (Text Publishing)
ISBN 9781921758645
PB RRP $19.95
Reviewed by Nean McKenzie

The sequel to This is Shyness, winner of the Text young adult prize in 2009, quickly re-introduces the reader to the city where the Darkness has taken over one of its suburbs. Things are not going perfectly with either of the main characters Nia (aka Wild Girl) or Jethro (Wolf Boy). Nia is trying to get on with her life in her normal suburb, where she goes to school, works at a clothing emporium and tries to forget that Wolf Boy hasn’t called. Wolf Boy thinks about Nia as he tries to work out what is happening in Shyness. His friend Paul has joined a sect who wear blue clothes and he suspects Dr Gregory has something to do with it. 

The setting, part recognisable, part fantastical draws the reader in with its strangeness. Words like Tarsiers (furry animals) and Kidds (small vandalistic children who run wild in gangs) are explained for those who didn’t read the first book. There’s a build up to the mysterious Queen of the Night character which is not sustained on meeting her. Even Nia says, ‘She’s not what I expected.’ However the nursery she lives beneath is filled with plants which only live in darkness and have special herbal qualities. This part is beautifully described, suitably dream-like and sets the imagination soaring.

Nia is a feisty girl who doesn’t mind getting into trouble so it makes sense that she would go back to Shyness, pulled back by the excitement and by the unresolved sexual tension between her and Wolf Boy. There’s a mystery to be solved, all in the dark, of what is happening in Shyness. To save Paul one of them needs to enter his dream and Wolf Boy must confront Dr Gregory to find out the truth. Nia and Wolf Boy also need to get together. When they do there is just the line, ‘There is nothing more to say.’ While some may find this slightly disappointing and want more details, it may does make the book more accessible for younger readers.

This is a highly imaginative and evocative story with believable teenage characters and issues the book's readers can relate to, despite inhabiting a such very different world. Suitable for mid secondary school age students, particularly girls. 

Friday, 9 September 2011

Mr Badger and the Magic Mirror

Mr Badger and the Magic Mirror by Leigh Hobbs (Allen and Unwin)
PB RRP $13.99
ISBN 9781742374208
Reviewed by Nean McKenzie

Mr Badger and the Magic Mirror is the fourth installment in this delightful series for early primary school readers. It is a pleasure to re-visit the Boubles Grand Hotel and the rather eccentric Smothers-Carruthers family. Quirky illustrations on almost every page add greatly to the text and help to make Mr Badger and his friends come alive.

Hard-working Mr Badger, although he would never complain, needs a holiday. He finds a strange mirror at the hotel and is amazed to be able to step into it, and to find a beach, a castle and a fun-park. Sir Cecil Smother-Carruthers takes Mr Badger on a fantastical tour of 'Boublay land'. They meet a familiar-looking and rather short pirate and Algernon, the stuffed ape from the glass case in the foyer of the hotel. All too soon Mr Badger is bounced back into the reality of the hotel, with Lady Cecilia complaining about the Australians who eat all the scones.

This story is book-ended nicely by a tired Mr Badger, reading a story to his children at the end of the day. Apart from one unusually long sentence, the writing is very suitable for early readers. Children will be encouraged to increase their vocabulary with words such as whirligig, papier-mâché, galleon and cutlass.

Mild-mannered and bespectacled, Mr Badger makes a quiet and unassuming hero. It is impossible not to become quite fond of him by the end of this imaginative tale.