Thursday, 24 February 2011

Rabbit's Year

Rabbit's Year by Melissa Keil, illustrated by Jedda Robaard (black dog books)
HB RRP $14.99
ISBN 978-1-74203-175-0
Reviewed by Vicki Stanton

Rabbit's Year is an absolutely gorgeous picture book that young children are bound to delight in. The story is simple and written with restraint. Nothing is overplayed in either the text or the illustrations.

Rabbit knows he would be a great friend. He is generous and kind and 'usually happy'. Rabbit is also shy and lonely and consoles himself by playing music. One day, when Rabbit loses himself in his tune, its strength reaches out to the other characters of the Chinese zodiac (who all play music together) and one-by-one they join him.

The first double-spread pulls at the heart strings. In the top left hand corner there are three words: Rabbit was sad. On the opposite page in the bottom right hand corner is the saddest rabbit you will ever see. White space is used to great effectiveness focusing the reader's eye on the absolute core of the story. The illustrations are gentle and comforting and Robaard is skilled in portraying the personality and emotions of each character.

Rabbit's Year has been released to coincide with Chinese New Year and the characteristics of each of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac is expanded upon in a reference at the end of the story. This book would be a charming gift for any young 'rabbit' and one which highlights friendship and self-worth.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Caterpillar and Butterfly

Caterpillar and Butterfly by Ambelin Kwaymullina (Fremantle Press)
HB RRP $16.95
ISBN 9-781-863-683-036
Reviewed by Neridah McMullin

This story is about a caterpillar who is too frightened to do anything. She refuses to go with her friends to go the Waterhole in case she falls in, she can’t go to the Tree because she might fall off, or go to the Rock or even watch the Sunset. Everything is too scary and dangerous! And in a way, this is understandable, as Caterpillar is very small and vulnerable.

So Caterpillar hides herself away in her cocoon. This is a magical way for small children to learn about ‘metamorphosis’: how a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly. Even though Caterpillar feels safe she misses her friends. After a while, Caterpillar feels herself changing and growing and realises she’s not scared anymore. She has found an inner strength to live her life. With her fears dispelled, she spreads her wings and flies away triumphantly as a beautiful Butterfly to enjoy all the wonders of the world. Butterfly’s world changes dramatically with her newborn freedom, as she also discovers she’s not the only butterfly in the world.

The illustrations are bright and thoroughly engaging. They are contemporary in style, but still reflective of Ambelin Kwaymullina’s indigenous heritage. When looked upon closely you can see intricately drawn speech bubbles coming from Caterpillar/ and Butterfly’s mouth, reflecting her dialogue. Butterfly lives happily, travelling far and wide to help other caterpillars by passing on what she has learnt. 

Everything around us may seem large and scary, but when we hide from the danger of the world we also hide from the wonder of it, for only when we conquer our fear of falling can we learn how to fly."

This is an enthralling and inspiring story that sends a beautiful and positive message about how important it is to be brave and to believe that we all have an ‘inner strength’ to draw upon in times of need. The realisation that you’re never alone is also an important lesson to be learnt.

A wonderful picture book for children aged 1 – 8 years.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Violence 101

Violence 101 by Denis Wright (black dog books)
PB RRP$16.99
ISBN 9781742031781
Reviewed by Vicki Stanton

I began reading Violence 101 with a little trepidation. I am glad to have taken the plunge. This is an extraordinary examination of the mind of a highly intelligent but non-empathetic boy, Hamish Graham, who at 14 has been committed to a juvenile detention centre.

The story is interspersed with large tracts of Hamish’s personal journal entries which reveal his most inner thoughts, interests and recollections. Hamish is a loved child from a middle class family. His idols are all military heroes: Alexander the Great, the New Zealand Victoria Cross recipient (twice) Charles Upham and the Maori warrior Te Rauparaha. Particularly unnerving for me was Hamish’s admiration for the theory of eugenics which espouses the need for mental or physical inferiority to be breed out of the population; a kind of survival of the fittest distorted to fit a particular version of human society.  

It was hard for me to see how Hamish could be rehabilitated. When Hamish’s delusions of military greatness result in a life threatening encounter with what would be an epiphany of sorts to most, he rejects such a revelation outright. Still, following this incident, he is to be released from the juvenile detention centre back into the care of his parents. This outcome made me uneasy and I wasn’t as convinced of his potential as the staff of the centre. With utter clarity, Hamish devised brutal experiments which maimed rats for school projects and killed and played taxidermist to the next-door-neighbours’ poodle. There was only one very brief flicker of emotion throughout the whole story. To me Violence 101’s ultimate underlying theme is can empathy be taught? One I am still pondering.

The book is compulsive reading and Wright’s style is economical and effective. This book is not for the squeamish, but nor does it venerate gratuitous violence. Violence 101 is a thought provoking read and one that will not be easily forgotten.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Jake’s Balloon Blast

Jake’s Balloon Blast by Ken Spillman, illustrated by Chris Nixon (Fremantle Press)
PB RRP $10.95
ISBN 9-781-921-696-558
Reviewed by Neridah McMullin

Jake’s Balloon Blast is a fast moving, fun and lively read for junior primary readers. Jake is immediately likeable and his desire for wanting to fly is something we want all our children to believe in. His creativity and endeavour to do so are original and funny, as is his trusty side and kick and good friend Jonah. There are lessons to be learnt here, but Jake’s family are very fair and understanding, and in the end, laugh in the wake of Jake’s crazy courage.

Ken Spillman’s writing is simple, eloquent and very ‘today’ in his choice of ‘junior primary’ language. This chapter book format will suit reluctant readers. The humorous illustrations throughout the book break up the text and add fun and quirkiness.

The illustrations compliment this story perfectly. The talented Chris Nixon has drawn the illustrations in a unique grey lead format that is simple yet absolutely delightful. They are realistic snapshots of each moment in this little chapter book and you can see and feel all of Jake’s emotions: dreaming, planning, disappointment, joy, happiness, guilt, remorse and happiness again! The illustrations will definitely resonate and be identified by junior primary readers. The cover will appeal to the targeted readership with its colourful bunch of balloons.

Jake’s Balloon Blast is the third in a series and they have terrific, comprehensive teaching notes that are readily available on-line.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Crow and The Waterhole

Crow and The Waterhole by Ambelin Kwaymullina (Fremantle Press)
HB RRP $16.95
ISBN 9-781-863-683-036
Reviewed by Neridah McMullin

Crow lived in a tree by a waterhole. She feels inadequate and unhappy with herself and every morning she stares into the water only to see another crow staring back at her. “She looks like a crow who could change the world. I wish I could be like her.”

Crow bravely flies off on an adventure seeking her destiny. She travels far and wide, helping others along the way and eventually, thanks to Kookaburra, she realises the crow staring back at her, is actually her reflection.

From then onward, Crow eagerly shares this knowledge with anyone she meets who is seeking their own destiny. “Your destiny lies within you. All you need to do is learn how to see it.”

This is a warm and enthralling story and although fable-like, it’s refreshing in its delivery and context of positive re-enforcement and the value of self-esteem. It’s an inspiring book and one for everybody’s book shelf.

There is also a little pink frog that follows Crow everywhere. She can be seen on every page of the book and this will delight young readers trying to find her.

The illustrations are bold and beautiful and bright. They are appealing and engaging and unique with a distinctly indigenous feel to them.

The author Ambelin Kwaymullina is from the Baligu and Nyamal peoples of the Pilbara region of Western Australia and this is her first picture book. She is the daughter of the famed author, Sally Morgan.

A wonderful picture book for children aged 1 – 8 years. 

Monday, 14 February 2011

Tiger Terror and Bat Attack

Hazard River series:

Tiger Terror and Bat Attack by JE Fison
(Ford Street Publishing) PB RRP: $12.95
ISBN: 9781921665134 & 9781921665141
Reviewed by Jenny Mounfield

At last the next two adventures in the Hazard River series have been released. In the first two books, Shark Frenzy and Snake Surprise we met Jack, Ben, Lachlan and Mimi who solved the mysteries of finless sharks and abandoned boats.

Tiger Terror is a rollicking read, which I have to say begins with one of the most intriguing opening sentence I’ve ever read: ‘It was probably my mother’s screaming that frightened the cat.’

The kids are at Summercity on the bank of Hazard River. Excited about his forthcoming trip to the circus, Jack’s hopes are dashed when, while hanging out in a Chinese market, he’s hit on the head by a falling cat and winds up in hospital. Before he’s out for the count, however, he sees something suspicious: a man with a tiger’s paw.

Thanks to an informative cereal packet, Jack knows the animals are on the verge of extinction and so therefore the man must be up to no good. Enlisting the help of his intrepid trio of sidekicks, Jack sneaks out of the hospital and goes in search of the paw pincher (not difficult to find given he’s covered in scars) and uncovers a plot to steal circus tigers.

In Bat Attack the kids are getting geared up for the Hazard River New Year’s Eve disco. On their way to the fire station where the disco will be held, Jack and Ben are almost skittled by a speeding ute. Due to the near collision, a backpack has fallen from the vehicle. Naturally the super sleuths look inside. What they find is a map to a derelict gold mine, which proves to be home to a colony of rare ghost bats. When the fearless four discover the ute owner’s plans to blow up the mine and thus destroy the bats’ habitat, they come up with an effective, if not particularly smart way to foil the baddies’ plan—and all before midnight.

The Hazard River series has much going for it: Beautifully bright, detailed covers, non-stop action, short cliff-hanger chapters and wise-cracking characters kids will love. While there are a few interesting facts to be had, this series is geared towards entertainment. Kids, particularly boys aged 7+ with a lust for adventure will have a hard time putting these books down.

Jenny Mounfield is the author of three novels for kids, her most recent title being: The Ice-cream Man (Ford St). She has been reviewing for Buzz Words since ’06. 

Friday, 11 February 2011

Raven’s Mountain

Raven’s Mountain by Wendy Orr (Allen and Unwin)
PB RRP $14.99
ISBN 9781742374659
Reviewed by Nean McKenzie

This children’s novel is from the perspective of Raven, a ten-year old girl who has just moved from her familiar home to the high mountain country of British Columbia. This is an adventure tale packed with physical and emotional challenges in the sometimes harsh but beautiful wilderness. It should appeal to girls especially, who are in the upper primary school levels.

The story begins with Raven, her older teenage sister Lily and their new step-father Scott going for a hike. The trip is obviously intended as a bonding experience but doesn't start well. Lily continually text messages her old friends back home. Raven daydreams about their estranged father coming back from Australia. Everything changes dramatically however when a sudden rock fall throws Raven off the top of the mountain and buries Scott and Lily alive.

Raven now must use every ounce of strength and determination to get down the mountain to get help for Lily and Scott. This includes finding food and water, not getting lost and keeping safe from the family of bears she keeps running into along the way. Through necessity Raven develops an understanding and oneness with the environment that poses such a danger for her.

The text is broken up into short paragraphs which switch from Raven’s memories to the next challenge she faces on her journey, to imaginary conversations with her friends or family. Although sometimes a bit jumpy, this technique helps to cover ground as Raven works through some of the issues she started the story with. The first person point of view brings the reader closer to Raven and the present tense gives a feeling of immediacy as she carries out an incredible feats for someone so young.

As in Nim's Island, Wendy Orr presents her readers with an inspirational character and a thorough description of the natural environment.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

The Iron Witch

The Iron Witch by Karen Mahoney (Random House)
PB RRP $18.95
ISBN 978-1-8647-1827-0
Reviewed by Oliver Phommavanh

The Iron Witch is Mahoney’s debut novel for teenagers, after contributing to anthologies such as The Eternal Kiss and Love Me Deadly. It was only a matter of time before she sunk her teeth into a fully-fledged story. It’s an urban fantasy set in a place that is halfway between the city and dark forests of Faerie.

Donna Underwood is caught between these two worlds. She was born into the world of elves and alchemists, but still fails to see her connection. As a result, she’s a recluse at high school. People call her freak and her only friend Navin is the only bright spark in her life. Then she meets the mysterious Xan, who may hold the key to understanding the war that’s been raging underground.

Donna is a likeable and strong lead, one that doesn’t swoon over guys though it doesn’t leave her immune to romantic feelings. But it’s her rebellious and ‘proud to be a freak’ ways that make for a fast paced story. Donna’s diary entries break up the chapters. The switch from third to first person works to an extent, though it does feel like filler between chapters.

Mahoney handles the magic and fantasy elements in a tactful way, even being quite subtle in some parts. There are some playful scenes between Donna and the two guys in her life. Things heat up when she meets the cunning Iron Witch, who kidnaps Navin and takes him into the forest. Mahoney does her best to explain the Fey, but it’s a little underwhelming. It does set things up for a thrilling sequel. 

The Iron Witch is a good read for contemporary fantasy lovers. It’s recommended for ages 13 and up.  

Monday, 7 February 2011

The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove

The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove by Lauren Kate (Random House)
PB RRP $24.95
ISBN 978-1-7427-5077-4
Reviewed by Oliver Phommavanh

Lauren Kate has been tearing up the best sellers lists for a year with her ‘Fallen’ trilogy. The final book Passion is due sometime this year so here is Kate’s debut novel to keep fans at bay. The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove is no para-romance, it’s a high school story with satirical bite, in the vein of popular shows like Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars.

Natalie Hargrove is poised to be prom queen. She can almost taste the crown. She’s got a hunky and rich boyfriend Mike who comes from a long line of high school royalty. The spanner in the works is J.B, Justin Balmer. He knows how to get under Natalie’s skin. Of course, Natalie wants to stop him but takes things a little too far. She gets caught up in covering her tracks of a crime that would spell the end of her reign.  
Judging by the title, it’s no surprise that Natalie Hargrove will suffer the consequences of being obsessed with fame and status. But the unravelling is so delicious because Kate has set Natalie up well at the start. There’s a perverse fascination with prom traditions, especially among the privileged and Kate outlays them all out. It’s almost as complicated as being actual royalty.

There are parallels to Natalie and Lady Macbeth, which is acknowledged in the story. Readers will appreciate the tongue in cheek humour offered through her ‘frienemies’ as Natalie’s own secrets spill out. The Betrayal of Natalie Hargrove is certainly different from Kate’s Fallen books, but her trademark descriptions and authentic high school dialogue shine through. It’s a sexy and racy read that will amuse until the very end. It’s recommended for ages 15 and up.                 

Saturday, 5 February 2011

The Heroes of the Kokoda Track

The Heroes of the Kokoda Track by Nicolas Brasch (black dog books)
PB RRP $16.99
ISBN 978-1-74203-134-7
Reviewed by Vicki Stanton

The Heroes of the Kokoda Track covers one of most pivotal moments in Australia’s history and one that every Australian should know about. Nicolas Brasch has managed to jam in all the essential information of that four-month long campaign plus the historical background as to the reasons why the world was at war, in Europe as well as the Pacific.  Every aspect of the campaign is covered from why Papua was so important, a brief summary of the fighting, which Australian battalions were involved, the conditions soldiers endured, the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels, the Allied command and the Japanese perspective.

The beauty of this book is that it presents all this information in a way as to not overwhelm younger readers. The design and lay-out is outstanding. Text boxes, current and historical photographs, maps and artwork all contribute to the telling of this important event. A timeline covers the period from World War One to the Japanese surrender on 14 August 1945. To me, the most enlightening aspect was the personal recounts from men at the front. That is where the real story lies.

The vast range of primary sources included equips teachers with a valuable resource that can be utilised from middle primary school and up. Part of black dog books’ Our Stories series, this exceptional offering deserves to be in every public, school and home library in the country.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Get a Grip, Cooper Jones

Get a Grip, Cooper Jones by Sue Whiting (Walker Books)
PB RRP $16.95
ISBN 9781921529788
Reviewed by Vicki Stanton

Thirteen-year old Cooper Jones’ easy going way of life is changing. He’s arguing with his single mum and constantly thinking about a dad he’s never known. Add to that, the troubled but gorgeous Abbie has come to stay next door and Cooper goes through the first pangs of attraction and all the confusion that inevitably involves.

Sue Whiting writes in an engaging manner which draws the reader into the world of Wangaroo Bay. Get a Grip, Cooper Jones is set during a hot, dry summer in a ‘surfie’ town. Not that Cooper likes the beach. He fears it, preferring instead swimming training at the local pool. However, Cooper must confront his fear of the ocean when a bushfire sweeps through and he must swim to get help for Abbie who has been bitten by a brown snake.

Readers will relate easily to Cooper Jones and all his foibles. There is great humour and warmth in this book and it is one that upper primary and lower secondary school kids are bound to enjoy. 

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

It’s a Girl Thing

It’s a Girl Thing by Sue Lawson (black dog books)
PB RRP $7.99
ISBN 978-1-74203-167-5
Reviewed by Vicki Stanton

What a fantastic read for newly independent readers! No wonder black dog books is re-issuing the Diva series. In this, the first book of eight, Sue Lawson has written a fast-paced, fun and entertaining read about Mickey Farrell who dreams of becoming a singing star and when she spots the ad to enter the Dream Diva singing competition she jumps at the chance. Mickey confronts nerves and less than friendly competition from some other prospective divas with humour and good grace.

Told in first person, present tense, the reader sees the world through Mickey’s eyes. Lawson’s economical style is perfect for younger or reluctant readers. It’s a Girl Thing is a cut above many other titles for this audience with its well-written prose and commitment to providing the full picture in a simple manner. With its pink sparkly cover, this great value book will appeal to younger girls and all budding singing stars!