Thursday, 5 March 2015

The Book of Storms

The Book of Storms by Ruth Hatfield (Hot Key Books)
PB RRP $16.95
ISBN 978-1-4714-0298-2
Reviewed by Jacque Duffy

Danny O’Neill is an 11-year-old boy forced to do many adventurous things when his storm chasing parents disappear.

I really wanted to like this book. I loved the cover, and found the blurb intriguing. But I didn’t love it all. While parts of this book were brilliantly thought out and had me on the edge of my seat, they didn’t happen early enough in the story for me to be hooked. Sadly, there are parts that are very standard middle grade to the extent of being overly simplistic.
There was far too much thinking going on in the first half of the novel and the recurring conversations between Danny and his disbelieving older cousin Tom (a difficult character to like) made the book an overly long read.

Some of the characters are excellently written -- their voices perfect. Mitz the cat, and Shimny the pony, both add to the story as do the voice of the river and the song of the worms, clever really. Then you have the disturbing character of Sammael, a truly unsettling villain. I’ve not seen a villain quite like him in children’s literature since Lord Voldamort, actually I think he is more vicious and abusive than Voldy. He is utterly immoral and clearly missing any human empathy. He is a very strong, overpowering character. I kind of enjoyed reading him but found his nastiness just didn’t sit well with the cutesy talking animals and the over explanation of each ‘happening’.

It is as though the book was written for two completely different audiences and mashed together. Sammael deserves to have his own story, possibly something along the lines of a Criminal Minds episode.

As children often read characters older than themselves I thought eleven was too young for most of the content. This story had all the right ingredients, just in the wrong quantities. The ending is not completely expected and gives room for sequels as indicated by the final half of this novel with its change in pacing.

The book, if read in a classroom situation, could raise discussions of death, immortality, and the soul.

Jacque Duffy is the author and illustrator of the book series ‘That’s not a …’ used in all Queensland state primary schools, a picture book The Bear Said Please and one local history coffee table book. www.jacquesartandbooks.com



Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Made by Raffi

Made by Raffi by Craig Pomranz, illustrated by Margaret Chamberlain (Frances Lincoln Children’s Books)
HB RRP $16.95
ISBN 9781847804334
Reviewed by J Wishart

This cheerful picture book was written by American singer/actor Craig Pomranz, teaming up with British illustrator Margaret Chamberlain. The author’s first book, it was inspired by his godson. Made by Raffi was published in the US and UK in 2014.

The story centres on Raffi, a quiet, thoughtful boy who prefers creative endeavours over boisterous playground games. Although this means Raffi is often teased by the other children, he doesn’t let it stop him. Eventually his perseverance is rewarded by opportunity – to which Raffi responds with flying colours, literally and figuratively.

Chamberlain has depicted Raffi’s days with simple, cartoon-like drawings featuring familiar scenes of school and home. The artwork is mostly lively double-page spreads, with a few close-up moments focused on Raffi and his thoughts.

The narrative pace is steady and the tone optimistic. In addition to the main story text, Raffi sometimes speaks via speech bubbles which lend a fun and friendly feel that may also help to engage younger readers.

Although the book touches on themes of individuality and acceptance, they are given a fairly light treatment. The book’s message seems more about ingenuity and the joy of making things. Raffi will appeal to children as it acknowledges and applauds the (child) creator, and even contains elements of instruction to inspire the reader.

The decorative end-papers are a nice touch, featuring a range of inventive garments and speaking of the endless possibilities for anyone with determination and an open, creative mind.


Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Silver Shoes and All That Jazz

Silver Shoes and All That Jazz by Samantha-Ellen Bound, (Random House)
PB RRP $14.99
ISBN 978-0-85798-282-7

Reviewed by Jaquelyn Muller

The rush of adrenalin and the sparkle of the stage lights are what ten year old Eleanor Irvin lives, breaths and sidekick splits for, in this new dance focussed fiction for young readers.

Being the mother of a ten-year-old girl who has seen their fair share of backstage hysteria and dance school tulle, I found this first chapter book in the Silver Shoes series by Melbourne based author, Samantha-Ellen Bound, very close to our experiences in a competitive dance school (that glitter hairspray takes days to get out by the way).

Told through the eyes of Eleanor or ‘Ellie’, the pressures felt about friendships, auditions, family and appearance at this age are very clearly expressed through Ellie’s sharp, quick and at times skewed observations. The voice of a ten year old has been perfectly captured, including much of the ‘attitude’ which the reader will relate to.

The story centres on the Silver Shoes Dance Studio, and an upcoming dance competition. While Ellie is passionate about her dancing, she feels she has a problem with auditions. Bound clearly remembers much of her early days as a dancer and this comes across strongly. The author illustrates Ellie’s passion for dance, but then conveys the positive emotional impact of doing what you love and pushing yourself to achieve your goals. I also liked that the ending wasn’t completely obvious.

Samantha-Ellen Bound has been an actor, dancer, teacher, choreographer, author, bookseller and scriptwriter. She has published and won prizes for her short stories and scripts (I also think she has the most appropriate last name for a dancer). 

The other three books in the series highlight a different character in Eleanor’s dance school with each taking a role as the narrator and therefore appealing to potentially different readers.

I found myself eager to crack out the legwarmers and pop Flashdance in the DVD player!

Jaquelyn Muller is an author and publisher of children’s picture books. Her rhyming early childhood Elizabeth Rose series is about a little girl who lives in a circus.  Jaquelyn is an author champion for the Let’s Read early childhood literacy program. If she gets bored she organises her spools of ribbon in to colour order. @JaquelynMuller www.jmullerbooks.com

Monday, 2 March 2015

Scribbles in the Dark

Scribbles in the Dark by Northern Beach Writers’ Group (Self-Published) 
PB RRP $15.99
ISBN 978-0-9942006-0-0
Reviewed by Francine Sculli

The Northern Beach Writers’ Group (NBWG) is a fascinating project. Founded in 2009 by Zena Shapter, the group started meeting once a month as a critique group consisting of local writers. Now, in 2014 the NBWG has two award-winning published books under their belts and more in the pipelines, and the heartbeat of the group is driven by a commitment to its local arts community and literary-based philanthropic projects.

This particular book arose from the competition, Write-a-Book-in-a-Day to raise money for the Kids Cancer Project. When the opportunity arose to review this book I was fascinated to discover how six authors, two editors and two illustrators could make the story work. And I quickly discovered how.

Scribbles in the Dark, is a gripping read from start to finish, with all the elements of a good story twisted together in its 78 pages. From the very first moment, we are thrown into the world of Cal, a fourteen-year-old boy whose father has disappeared and is living with his grandparents in a pub in outback Australia. Cal seeks reprieve from the pain of losing his father in carving rocks and keeps one of his rocks particularly close to his heart – a dinosaur shaped one that he found right on the spot where his father disappeared on the mysterious banks of the billabong. His other reprieve is Jake, his foster brother who seemingly appeared on their doorstep from nowhere.

One day, in a bid to escape the suffocating noise of the pub, Cal sneaks out down to the billabong in search of more rocks to carve. Unbeknownst to Cal, the air of the Billabong was changing and it wasn’t until Jake arrived that he realised the rains were coming. The same rains suspected of taking his father from him. Before the two can escape, they are washed far out along the river to a place that neither of them knows. They quickly realise that this is a place far removed from their usual life, another realm. Not long after arriving in this new place somewhere over the rainbow, Jake and Cal are attacked by a young girl named Dawn who is protecting herself. Once Dawn realises the boys are not there to harm her, she starts telling them of the history of the place – the scribbles that come to life at night and take people who step out of the circle, the strange tribes that live in the distances, the man who had looked after her for many years before he was taken by the scribbles and the strange connections of the dinosaur rock.

With all the stories Dawn tells them, and as they try to find a way to get back to the other side, Jake and Cal start to realise that this place holds many connections to their past life – Dawn is a girl who disappeared from the town years ago, the man who looked after her is Cal’s father, the dinosaur rock Cal found on the day his father died is their key out of there and this is the place that Jake appeared out of nowhere from.

Scribbles in the Dark is not only a gripping, fantastical read that you’ll not want to put down but it is rippled with many strong messages pertinent to young people and adults alike – dealing with loss and grief, belonging, family bonds and connectedness. The characters are rich with back stories that are cleverly woven through the story arc and the subplots make this novella even more gripping. For a book that was written in a day, Scribbles in the Dark is an exciting and inspiring read and one with a social conscience too (with fifty percent of all profits going straight back into The Kids Cancer Project.) Read it and enjoy the ride.


Scribbles in the Dark is sold mainly on the Northern Beaches in Dee Why and Mona Vale's Berkelouw, plus Brookvale's Dymocks.  Online the links are http://www.amazon.com.au/A-Dolphin-Naia-Zena-Shapter-ebook/dp/B00PE6KDZM and http://www.amazon.com.au/Scribbles-Dark-Zena-Shapter-ebook/dp/B00PE6KDZW from Amazon although it is also available from Fishpond, Booktopia and all other good online retailers.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

EJ Spy School - Speedy Spy

EJ Spy School - Speedy Spy by Susannah McFarlane, illustrated by Dyani Stagg (Scholastic Australia)
PB RRP $7.99
ISBN 978-1-92193-198-7
Reviewed by Jenny Heslop

Ten year old Emma Jacks is rushing to get to school when her spy School watch alarm rings. Rushing now to get to the secret entrance of the SHINE headquarters, Emma wonders what task A1 will have for her this time.
Emma completes the maze code in record time then is admitted to the SHINE lab, where, as EJ10, spy in training, her mission is revealed. She needs to rescue an animal agent from the animal training unit. For this task, EJ10 will need both speed and clear thinking. 'Speedy but sure,' A1 tells EJ, is one of SHINE's mottos.
And EJ does need speed as there seems to be a Shadow agent following her. Will she complete the task and earn her Spy School Speed Badge?
The spy gadgets in the story allow for plenty of play on words, such as turning phrases like 'get your skates on' and 'you'd better fly' into reality at the press of a button.
Speedy Spy is the seventh book in the EJ Spy School series written for young readers who like adventure, action, animals and spies. Short chapters, large font, simple concepts and illustrations on most pages make this series readable for these beginners, while great gadgets and plenty of action will keep them hooked.


Saturday, 28 February 2015

Ella and Olivia: Beach Holiday

Ella and Olivia: Beach Holiday by Yvette Poshoglian, illustrated by Danielle McDonald (Scholastic Australia)
PB RRP $7.99
ISBN 978-1-74362-054-0
Reviewed by Jenny Heslop

Sisters Ella and Olivia are going to stay at their grandparents’ beach house. Ella is excited; she is seven years old and is looking forward to the holiday. Olivia is not quite as sure. She is five-and-a-half and has only ever stayed away from home for one night before.  But she loves her grandmother and grandfather and she will have Ella and baby brother Max with her. So she bravely waves goodbye to Mum and Dad and Bob, the puppy, and they leave for their adventure in grandparents’ kombi.
Ella and Olivia is a lovely series for 5-7 year olds. Beach Holiday is a delightful story about adventures on the beach. There are good messages for young girls throughout and Olivia's nervousness about being away from home is acknowledged, but not made into a big deal.
The relationship between the sisters and the rest of the family is lovely. When Ella takes her sister’s hand in the ocean, 'Olivia forgets how cold she is and how much she already misses Mum and Dad.'
Ella and Olivia books are gentle stories about everyday life. There’s plenty for young girls to relate to, and the book contains just enough adventure to keep readers involved. The line drawings which illustrate every page make this an attractive book and add to the appeal for beginner readers.


Friday, 27 February 2015

Brumbies in the Mountains

Brumbies in the Mountains by Paula Boer Illus. Rowena Evans (IFWG Publishing)
PB RRP $16.99
ISBN 9781925148596
Reviewed by Hilary Smillie

In the fifth book in the Brumbies series, Paula Boer brings her gripping story of teenagers Ben Naylor and Louise Hardy and their love of horses, their adventures and challenges to its conclusion. Once again the brumbies are in danger - this time from aerial culling by shooting them on the run.

The story opens with Shadow giving birth to a filly sired by Ben's brumby stallion, Brandy, caught two years ago when the friends were determined to save at least some brumbies from being caught and turned into pet food. Ben has dreams for the future, one of them is building his own stud, and with the arrival of the little palomino filly, Peach, the first step has been taken.

On the first day of the Christmas holidays, Ben and Louise set out for a ride and discover first-hand the devastating results of shooting horses from the air. A dead mare lies covered in flies attracted by the blood of a shoulder wound. Nearby is a foal attacked by ticks and thus too weak to stand. With great effort the friends drape the small filly over Louise's mount, Jake, and then Louise rides ahead on Snip to leave a note for Harry the hermit to come to the farm and give them his expert advice. The incident also needs to be reported to the ranger and hopefully will influence a stop to the aerial culling. Ben's worry that his Dad's health will mean selling the farm and living in town has been pushed aside for the moment. Ben's problems often consume him and Louise bears the brunt of his testy nature. But she understands what pressure he is under, and her readiness to overlook his unkind moments when her own future is uncertain invites the empathy of the reader.

Once again the author's love and experience of horses and knowledge of the Australian bush landscape provides an authentic touch to wrap up her absorbing series. Children who may not have read the previous books will have no difficulty in enjoying Brumbies in the Mountains. The characters of Ben and Louise are fully rounded and the reader engages easily with both.

My impression is that the author's ability to maintain tension and interest which has always been effective, has increased in this concluding book. Solutions to both Louise's and Ben's problems are credibly and smoothly executed. Ben's plight weighs on the reader's heart right to the last chapter, and the final outcome will please and satisfy.

Rowena Evan's black and white illustrations are simple but very effective and I was thrilled to learn what a black sallee was from the helpful glossary. I had often wondered on the drive from the coast to Canberra what a street name, Black Sallee, meant. For those interested, it is a type of eucalyptus tree.

The Brumbies series will stay a long time in the memories of its readers and will provide a valuable source of information for young horse lovers to refer to in the future.