Tuesday, 28 April 2015

The Anzac Puppy

The Anzac Puppy by Peter Millett, Illustrated by Trish Bowles (Scholastic NZ)
PB RRP $15.99
ISBN 978-1-77543-097-1
Reviewed by Jenny Heslop

'In the middle of the night, in the middle of the winter, in the middle of a war, a puppy was born.'
Lucy names the puppy Freda but sadly the family cannot afford to keep her so a passing young soldier, Sam, adopts her and takes her with him to war. Sam and Freda become fast friends, comforting each other through harsh times on the battle front, with Freda becoming a mascot for all the young men fighting in the trenches.
The Anzac Puppy is a beautifully written book. It is a story about the realities of war, the hardships, the friendships and love. It has wonderful sentence construction with much internal repetition such as 'The long, cold nights at the front soon turned into long, terrifying months'. This is a lovely story to read.
The illustrations are soft and sensitive, depicting the emotions of people along with the bleakness and isolation of war and the warmth of reunion.
Inspired by the true story of Freda, a Great Dane who was mascot to the NZ Rifle Brigade during World War I, the author has done meticulous research. The facts of this ‘real’ Freda are given in an equally readable illustrated double page spread at the back of the book.
Ending on a positive note, the echoing of the story’s beginning creates a satisfying conclusion which will appeal to early primary aged children, especially dog lovers.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Nanna’s Boot Camp

Nanna’s Boot Camp by Vicki Griffin (Morris Publishing) 
PB RRP $15.00
ISBN 9780987543462
Reviewed by Francine Sculli

When one hears boot camp these days, we automatically think of sweat, tears and lycra. But Vicki Griffin’s Nanna’s Boot Camp brings a whole new meaning to bootcamp, a softer and subtler feeling that oozes the warmth only a grandmother could.  And when it comes to grandmothers, we know that there is wisdom they carry that no-one else does, like a secret society passed on through the generations.

All this is what makes Nanna’s Boot Camp a simple and lovely tale that celebrates this very essence. And it brings a whole new meaning to the teens that visit Nanna’s boot camp one holiday. Apprehensive at first, the teens are confronted by the storm brewing in the sky and the large tent set up with boots piled up outside its doors. But the smell of damper wafting through the air and the warmth of Nanna’s voice eases them into the experience.

Nanna guides the teens through an experience they won’t get anywhere else – catching prawns in the creek at dusk, guided by the light of an old kerosene lamp, and cooking by the angry flames of an outdoor fire pit. It  is here, by the fire, that they uncover the story of the boots and the particularly large single boot they are all mystified by, as Nanna passes on the tales of all the mobs that have come before them and lost their in the muddy banks of the creek. This presents a beautiful moment, as the traditions of oral storytelling seep through the pages. The teens meet owner – Uncle Joe – who ventures off for more fishing in the creek, only to re-emerge barefoot and proud to say that his boots will rest there until the dry season comes. The teens leave Nanna’s boot camp endowed with knowledge about the creek, fishing, boots and the seasons.

Nanna’s Boot Camp is written in simple language and is a simple story to follow. There were moments in the story where I wanted to know even more about the traditions of the land, but this is a great entry-level text to expose children to the wonders of living off the land and the traditions that go with it. Nanna is a strong character and her presence is felt, driving the book with an equally strong Indigenous storytelling element that is brought to life with Vicki Griffin’s colourful and dynamic illustrations.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

The Mapmaker Chronicles: Prisoner of the Black Hawk

The Mapmaker Chronicles: Prisoner of the Black Hawk by A.L.Tait (Lothian/Hachette)
PB RRP $14.99
ISBN 9780734415790
Reviewed by Hilary Smillie

Prisoner of the Black Hawk is the second book in The Mapmaker Chronicles series.  Verdanian, Quinn Freeman, is the mapmaker for Zain, captain of the Libertas, one of three ships taking part in a year-long race to map the world. Already the crew of the Libertas which includes Quinn's friend, Ash in the guise of a boy, has survived the first leg of their voyage. They have contended with sea monsters, been threatened by murderous natives and the terrifying Gelynions who are in fierce competition with the Verdanians, and experienced treachery from the captains of the other ships. The fear of the unknown remains. Will they eventually fall off the edge of the world into the open jaws of Genesi, the dragon?

There is much at stake for all three ships. The captain of the ship judged to have the best map will be highly rewarded and honoured by the king of Verdania. The recompense for the winning mapmaker has induced all the mapmakers to strive to win, and it is inevitable that unethical tactics will be employed by the Libertas' rivals in order to succeed. Quinn discovers how underhand these tactics can be when the Northern boy, Kurt, who was rescued from the Gelynions and taken aboard the Libertas, betrays him to Odilon, the richest captain in the race. As a result Quinn is delivered into the hands of the Gelynions and held captive on their ship, the Black Hawk.

A.L. Tait has unleashed a terrifying adventure in which the reader despairs of Quinn. Not only is he suffering at the hands of the Gelynions, but another threat arises from bloodthirsty pirates. However, with great skill, a plausible and thrilling way forward is created by the author, using the talents, courage and determination of Quinn and the loyalty of those aboard the Libertas. The story unfolds in such a gripping way that I found this second book in the series almost impossible to put down and read 95% at one sitting.

This series is a great read by an Australian author and children will be transported to a world of action and human endeavour in a most exciting and satisfying way. It also demonstrates that fact can be woven into fantasy and be anything but mundane. Book Three will be eagerly awaited.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

A Rose for the ANZAC Boys

 A Rose for the ANZAC Boys by Jackie French (HarperCollins, 2010)                              
PB RRP $15.99
ISBN: 9780733331787           

Reviewed by Elaine Harris                                                                                                                                             This month we commemorate the centenary of the fateful landing at ANZAC Cove: a campaign made up of political and military blunders, bureaucratic bungling and months of wasted lives and needless tragedy. No-one doubts the horrors of those unimaginable months with little water and less organization. Yet however odious comparisons may be, historians past and present (including many who were there) insist that although Gallipoli was horrendous, the Western Front was so very much worse. 

Millions of lives lost, millions more ruined, damaged or altered beyond all comprehension.  It is impossible for any of us to know how we would react in those circumstances, only hoping such tragedy would bring out the best in us.
Five years ago, in preparation for a radio interview, I dipped into the award-winning YA novel, A Rose for the ANZAC Boys by Australian Children’s Laureate Jackie French, covering as much as I could in the time allowed, (conducing several interviews each day sometimes leaves little time for a full read) and devoured all the notes at the back of the book.

The author and I both shed tears during the interview and the book has been on my Must Read list since that date. We also corresponded during Jackie’s writing of the book and on one memorable occasion she mentioned almost casually in an email, “I’ve just blown up a hospital tent.” When she submitted the manuscript to the publisher, the initial reaction was, “Don’t let Jackie change a word.”

Last month I did it -- read the entire book in less than 24 hours, sobbing unashamedly throughout. Don’t be fooled, though. This is no sentimentalised, girlie weepy. A teacher colleague of my husband’s read it to her year 5-6 class in 2010 and for the first time held her  reluctant reader boys spellbound.

This book tells it all without jingoism or bitterness against any enemy; without an examining of rights and wrongs - except the smugness of the hierarchy who gave the orders while living the high life behind the lines. (It happened.) We meet soldiers, nurses, ambulance drivers, orderlies, a chaplain, Turks and Germans, and many, many people who just wanted to do their bit, including our three female protagonists: Midge, Anne and Ethel. It takes you to railway station canteens dispensing sandwiches and cocoa, casualty clearing stations, ambulance runs and the fear, mud, Blood and gas of the trenches.

Through the story and without any sense of being taught anything, we also learn something of the class system and attitudes of the day, roles and perceptions of women and the determination of those kicking against the traces, often against all odds.
Yet, like the best books worth remembering, while plumbing the depths of tragedy, the book ends on hope: leaves you not only with a sense of the future but also a view of it decades later from the perspective of the descendants of those involved. It sheds a light on the annual ANZAC Day parades and services and why these ceremonies still hold meaning which ought never to be de-valued, sensationalised or forgotten. 

As for historical accuracy, Jackie French wept her way through many letters and diaries of the day, living as closely as anyone ever can the experiences of those who were there.
This is not a new book but a timeless one worth reading or re-reading this year.    

Friday, 24 April 2015

If You Find This

If You Find This by Matthew Baker (Hot Key Books)
PB RRP $14.95
ISBN 9781471404528

Reviewed by Dianne Bates

As soon as you read in the first page of this first person narrative that the protagonist eleven-year-old Nicholas Funes has an ongoing relationship with a tree that he believes is his brother, you know this is going to be quirky, and Nicholas weird.  The boy also collects prime numbers and square roots and the text is full of references to them. There is also something which irritated this reader: the words ‘forte’ and ‘piano’ are littered throughout the book to indicate mood. I found them distracting and could not see what purpose they served.

As for the story, Nicholas’ real troubles begin when his Grandfather, a family secret, is let out of prison. The old man confides he has a map to an immense fortune; the problem is that it seems as though he’s suffering from dementia so whether or not he has one is problematic. Fighting off bullies is one of Nicholas’ problems and, too, he’s upset that the family is going to have to sell off their home to solve monetary problems.

What follows next is a series of events that see Nicholas, with two unlikely accomplices, trying to engineer a break-out from a retirement home, making an agreement with a local witch and trying to solve the secrets of his family’s past.

Nicholas sure is weird indeed. I found this story challenging, trying to ignore the fortes and pianos and other oddities. But for a reader aged 11 years and up who enjoys books about strange friendships, weirdness, family secrets and dangerous adventures, then this might be a book for him or her.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

My Holocaust Story: Hanna

My Holocaust Story: Hanna by Goldie Alexander (Scholastic)
PB RRP $16.99                                                                                                        
ISBN 9781743629673

Reviewed by Hazel Edwards

Tragic but historic WW11 circumstances are a special challenge for authors and for readers, especially those books with the word Holocaust in the title. But Hanna's story has the feisty spirit of a young girl gymnast who courageously balances war-time deprivations with her Jewish family in the Warsaw ghetto and still helps others.

What gives this story the edge is the compassion and pacing, which does not make it overwhelming for the reader. It is extremely well researched and clearly evokes place and time showing, for example, the starving food smuggler gangs of children via the sewers, the secret schools in the ghetto and the random cruelties and kindnesses.

History has not been sanitised here and yet there is compassion for all caught on both sides, even the starving peasants who betray others. And, too, there's hope. Locals prepare to hide children and refugees. Readers are left with the question of how they might have acted in similar circumstances.

This is a highly significant novel and one I'd recommend for readers aged 12 years and upwards. It is also an excellent book to set for class discussions.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Two Fearsome Fairy Tales from France

Two Fearsome Fairy Tales from France retold by Adele Geras, illustrated by Fiona McDonald (Christmas Press)
HB RRP$19.99
ISBN 9780992283841
Reviewed by Dianne Bates

The fly pages of this new book by Australian publisher Christmas Press are wonderful; in black and white they show a scene which feels almost as though it is going to suck you into the story to come. 

The first story is the English author’s retelling of the well-known tale, ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ Like most re-tellings, the language is sparse, old-fashioned and straight-forward, relating how a merchant father promises his youngest and most beautiful daughter to a beast set on revenge. Belle is aghast when she first sets eyes upon the beast and declines his many offers of marriage. There is, of course, a twist at the end of the tale and when Belle finally agrees to a betrothal, she releases a spell cast by a wicked fairy.

The story of Bluebeard is the second story in this lavishly illustrated book with all its text set in illustrated frames and with full-page coloured pictures and occasional black and white sketches. Like the beast in the first story, Bluebird has a dreadful appearance – and a young woman, in this case his (unnamed) Bride. ‘His beard was of a dark blue as deep as oceans and flowed from his chin to his waist like a tumbling waterfall of hair. But he dazzled her with gifts and soothed her with kind words.’ On the eve of his departure on business, Bluebird gives his bride the keys to the palace saying that one room is not to be unlocked ‘if you value your life.’

Does the young woman use the silver key? Of course! And what she finds is horrifying. This sets in chain a series of consequences and frantic actions. 

This story was, for this reviewer, much less predictable than the first.
This is another handsome production from Christmas Press joining other retold tales such as Two Tales of Twins from Ancient Greece and Rome (Ursula Dubosarsky) and Two Trickster Tales from Russia (Sophie Masson). Its appeal would be for children aged 9+ years.