Sunday, 26 October 2014

War Horse

War Horse by Michael Morpurgo (Egmont UK)
ISBN 978-1-4052-7188-2
PB $14.95 RRP
Reviewed by Nean McKenzie

First published in 1982, this special edition of War Horse has been reprinted for the centenary of World War one, with a new introduction by the author. The book was already well known, being the basis of the 2011 Stephen Spielberg movie (nominated for several Oscars and BAFTAs) and a highly acclaimed international stage show. War Horse is a story for children aged 10+ about a horse who goes to war, told from the unique perspective of the horse.  

The story starts off on a farm in Devon where a young horse is bought home to fifteen year old Albert, by his drunken father. There is an immediate bond between Albert and Joey, as he calls the horse, which develops into an unbreakable  friendship. However when war breaks out, Albert's father sells Joey to the army and he is shipped off to the trenches in France. Albert is broken hearted but vows to find his horse again when he is old enough to enlist.

In France, Joey sees battle, injury, death and finds friends on both sides of the trenches. He pulls carts of wounded soldiers and ends up in No Man's Land, where the soldiers stop fighting so he can be rescued. Being a horse, Joey has the ability to understand people no matter whether they are English, French or German, so transcends language barriers. Although in parts a very sad story, eventually Joey is reunited with Albert and the book does have a heart-warming ending.

Through the very effective character of Joey, the concepts and hard truths of war are explored in an adventure type story. The writing has some denser passages and longer words, which may not suit all young readers, but this style fits in with the historical tone. A highlight of this war story is that it is told from such a neutral perspective, which could be an important reason for its continued popularity.  Over a million copies of War Horse have sold since 2007. 

Saturday, 25 October 2014

The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl

The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl by Melissa Keil (Hardie Grant Egmont)
ISBN 978-1-7429-7830-7
PB $18.95 RRP
Reviewed by Nean McKenzie

The comic book cover draws the reader into the world in which the main character, Sarah Albany (known as Alba) is firmly entrenched. Pencil in her hand, her mind wanders between reality and the fiction she draws in her cartoon frames. As the book starts, Alba and her quirky bunch of friends have all just finished secondary school in a town called Eden Valley and face the decision, what next? But the story is not just about this interesting and transient time of young adulthood. It's also about the end of the world, where Eden Valley has been named as the only place to be spared.

Alba lives with her mum in a bakery. Her father is dead and she has grown up with her friend Grady, a boy she is extraordinarily close to, but there is now one big problem between them. Grady is keen to become a lawyer and wants to go to the city to study. Alba doesn't want to make a decision to stay or go, quite happy if time could stand still. Then Ned Zebadiah ('prognosticator, seer and diviner of ancient mysteries') makes a prediction on the internet and it goes viral. Hippies stream into Eden Valley to escape the end of the world and the countdown begins. With the influx of outsiders comes Daniel, a former school mate of Alba's and now soapie star, who looks rather good with his shirt off.  

Written in first person, Alba's voice is strong, distinctive and funny. She gets off the track a bit sometimes, finds it a bit hard to focus on what is going on in front of her, but then cleverly gets back in time to move the story along. The camaraderie between the friends who have grown up together is well described and their reaction to the strangers that flock into their formerly sleepy town. Particularly skillful are the descriptions of Alba's drawing. 'I draw Cinnamon Girl close up and in profile here, her waves of hair billowing behind her and bleeding over the edges of the frames,' and 'I spend some time pencilling her solid legs, one foot in front of the other, resolutely marching through her unfilled frame.' Cinnamon Girl has a mind of her own, and is a good mirror for what Alba is going through in her life.

Melissa Keil's first novel, Life in Outer Space recently was awarded the Ena Noel award and was shortlisted for several other awards including a CBCA book of the year. The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl is Melissa's second young adult book and she has produced another humorous, warm-hearted novel. The story flows well and has characters the reader can be fond of as they struggle with coming of age problems. A bit of a love triangle and a ride on a motor bike and there's a resolution that is both apt and satisfying.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Heap House

Heap House by Edward Carey (Hot Key Books)
PB RRP $16.95
ISBN 978-1-4714-0157-2
Reviewed by Jacque Duffy

Set in an alternate Dickensian London Heap House is a quirky and dark read. Definitely, not everyone’s cup of tea.

I was attracted to this book because it reminded me of Edward Gorey’s characteristic dark pen and ink comics. I struggled at first with the Dickensian language, and managed to muddle up the characters, finding it difficult to get my head around the story. Once I settled though and found my way, I enjoyed it. The creepiness of the story combined with the language made me forget that it's meant to be a middle grade book. In fact I counted a few swear words in there. I do think you'd have to have a real book lover on your hands for the intended audience to get to grips with this story. It is for a patient reader.

Carey has created a strange Gothic world. Heap House and its inhabitants are isolated from the city. The Iremongers find treasure in the rubbish (heap) that keeps growing. The heap acts as an ocean and sweeps people and things out to oblivion when a storm blows in. Clod, the main character, isn’t quite like the rest of his family, he hears objects whisper and recently they’ve not just been saying names. Every Iremonger has a 'birth object': an everyday household object that they must keep with them at all times, or else they will die. Clod has an unusual talent: he can hear birth objects speak names. His own birth object, a universal bath plug, says "James Henry Hayward". Clod is seen as strange for this talent and has therefore grown up to be rather unpopular. One day he meets Lucy Pennant, an orphan who has been brought to Heap House to be a servant. When she arrives, strange things begin to happen and Lucy is blamed for them. She and Clod must find out what is happening in order to clear her name and save her from bloodthirsty Iremongers who hate all outsiders.

If you like Howl’s Moving Castle, Lemony Snicket’s Unfortunate Events and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, then this book could be for you.

Jacque Duffy is the author and illustrator of picture book The Bear Said Please and the series ‘That’s not a …” learn to read books used in all Queensland State Primary Schools and one local history coffee table book.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Jumble Cat

Jumble Cat by Archie Kimpton, illustrator Kate Hindley (Hot Key Books)
PB RRP $12.95
ISBN 978-1-4714-0278-4
Reviewed by Jacque Duffy
Jumble Cat is a wicked romp of a story full of … well, wickedness. I can imagine boys 8 – 12 years rolling around on the floor in fits of laughter whilst reading this book.

Archie Kimpton’s Jumble Cat is fart humour with finesse. His way with words is nothing short of captivating. Not only are his words as poetically jumbled as the Cat but the way he describes certain characters is almost naughty.

The main character Billy Slipper is normal enough in a Cinderella kind of way but oddly enough, his best friend is a ninety something year old woman. Together they befriend a foul mouthed jumbled–up cat and win thousands in prize money only to have it stolen. They embark on an adventure scaling castle walls, stealing and crashing his monstrous mother’s car, so they can rescue the grungy rude cat from a demented taxidermist.

 Archie’s writing is a delight to read, and quite often I put my hand to my mouth in a No, he didn’t just say that kind of way. This excerpt is Billy’s mother Phillipa Slipper:

“Believe it or not, Phillipa Slipper was in a good mood. She was always in a good mood after her course. ‘Do you know what I learnt this evening?’ She twittered excitedly. ‘How to kill butterflies. Do you know the best way to kill a butterfly?’ She didn’t wait for an answer. ‘You could try a fly swatter, but you might leave a terrible mark on the wall. So you can either suck them out of the air with a vacuum cleaner, or if that doesn’t work, try catching them in a jar, put the lid on and watch them suffocate. Simple! And no mess.”

Jumble Cat is Archie Kimpton’s first book and I daresay not his last. The layout of the book is clean and easy to follow. Each black and white illustration is strong and gives a less confident reader a well-deserved rest.

Young readers will enjoy this book and I very much enjoyed this book. I look forward to reading more by this author.

Jacque Duffy is the author and illustrator of The Bear Said Please picture book and the series ‘That’s not a …” learn to read books used in all Queensland State Primary Schools and one local history coffee table book.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Bridie’s Boots

Bridie’s Boots by Phil Cummings, illustrated by Sara Acton (Working Title Press)
HB RRP $24.99
ISBN 9781921504723
Reviewed by Vicki Thornton

For her fifth birthday Bridie is given a pair of gumboots wrapped in rainbow paper. She loved these boots; they were the best boots ever.

When it rained they kept her feet dry as she crossed wild rivers.
When the sun came out she twirled on tiptoes and splashed in puddles.

Bridie wore her boots all that winter, but then the weather warmed and she put them away. For days, weeks, months and almost a year.  And when winter returns her boots won’t fit. She’s grown out of them, but now is the time to send them on an adventure of their own.

To someone, somewhere, on the other side of the world.

This is a charming story of a little girl who dreams of adventures, and when her boots no longer fit, she sends them on an adventure too. To a little girl on the other side of the world, who will love them just as much as she did.

Sara Acton’s soft and delightful illustrations add to this story of passing time and passing things on.  The simple addition of a seed being planted, then watered, flowering then dying back to nothing is a great visual of the passing of time.

Recommended for pre-schoolers,  this would be a good book to read before that ‘yearly toy clean out’.  Keeping the notion that someone else, somewhere in the world, will love your boots – or your toys - just as much as you do.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

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. 


Boy21 by Matthew Quick (Headline/Hachette)
PB RRP $16.99 EBook $9.99
ISBN: 9781 4722 1290 0
Reviewed by Hilary Smillie
Matthew Quick has embarked on a dark and quirky story set in a poor North American town where drugs, filthy streets, and danger abounds.
Finley's life is no bed of roses. His mother died when he was just a kid and he lives with his Dad and Pop, an invalid with no legs who ever-mourns the loss of Finley's grandmother. He attends Bellmont High and the highlights in his life are basketball and his girlfriend Erin who also attends the school. She is a significant member of the girls' basketball team. Her older brother Rod assumes the role of protector and has a fierce reputation among the white and black residents of the town. The reader quickly gets the impression that it is a place you only live in if you have no choice. Both Finley and Erin have dreams of using their basketball prowess to give them tickets out.
The Coach burdens Finley with the job of companion to recently orphaned Russ, a high-profile high school basketball player from L.A. who copes with his trauma by claiming to be a space alien, Boy21. Finley is given information about Russ which he is not allowed to divulge to anyone. Finley speaks very little in any case, due to his own negative experiences, but he is not happy when he realises Russ plays his starting position in the basketball team. Right now Russ does not want to play basketball and Finley has been tasked to encourage him back into the game. If he is successful, he may have to forfeit his place and number in the team as Russ is also number 21. Surely that is too much to sacrifice.

Boy21 is an insight into lives that are oppressed by shadows of the past and which threaten them still. But it also shows how families battle along together and that some sacrifices are worth it. Quick has tackled a number of emotional and external problems to reveal a deep understanding of the way young people are affected by trauma and how friendship can help turn things around. Finley and Russ's story reflects the concept of keeping on in difficult circumstances and may encourage readers who are also finding life impossible. Boy21 demonstrates that things are never static; at some stage there is a breakthrough, often when you least expect it.