A Different Dog by Paul Jennings
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is not your usual Paul Jennings fare.
Is it well written? Yes
Does it have characters your care about? Yes
Is it a page-turner? Yes
Is it hilarious and tinged with magic realism? Nope
Is that a bad thing? Absolutely not.
The boy (we do not learn his name) does not speak when in the company of other people. On his own, or with animals, he finds his voice. Rendered mute by the heavy burden of guilt about the death of his first dog, Deefer, the boy is a child who is suffering. The boy’s mother is out of work and she and her son live life on the poverty line. It is cold, it is bleak, but she loves her son.
Trying to win a race to climb a mountain for the $1000 prize, the boy witnesses a fatal car crash on the icy road. Inside the dead man’s van is a dog. The boy rescues the dog and names him Chase. When they are alone, the boy can talk freely to Chase. When he is carrying Chase from the wreck of the car, he tells him “You’re heavy, but you’re not a burden.” This is echoed when we read a flashback to when Deefer went missing and the boy’s mother carried him home. She says exactly the same thing. The ones we love can sometimes be hard to carry, but they are no burden.
I don’t want to populate this review with spoilers, but this story is full of important things. Love, sacrifice, guilt, courage, honesty, justice, persistence, resilience, and most important of all – hope.
This would be a lovely book to read aloud to a class of Year 3 or 4 students, but could also be used for older students too.
Zafir by Prue Mason
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Zafir is living in Homs(Syria) with his parents after moving from Dubai. When he sees a body thrown from a car in the street his life changes forever. No-one stops to help and when Zafir assists his father, a doctor, in getting treatment for the injured man, a protester, an unstoppable chain of events begins.
Zafir starts to realise there is a lot he does not understand about Syria. Why does his best friend, Rami, move away with this family? Why does he write email messages to Zafir in code? How come Eleni, his new friend moves away too?
As a revolution begins in Syria, Zafir comes to realise his father, who has been arrested for aiding the injured protester in the hospital, and other members of his family are in terrible danger. His favourite uncle, Ghazi, is taking photos of what is taking place and his friend, Azzam Azzad is writing for a blog to let the world know the suffering of the Syrian people.
This is a compelling tale of revolution and the “little people” whose lives are turned upside down when it is in full flight. Zafir is quite wide-eyed and innocent at the beginning of the book, but by the end he is more worldly than he has ever been before. Even in the face of a seemingly hopeless situation, Zafir never loses hope – a testament to the reslience of children everywhere. He adapts to the situation around him and is a resourceful child. Zafir is also part of a family that straddles Christian and Muslim beliefs – a really interesting device that shows the differences, but also the similaries between the two doctrines, which is a masterstroke by Prue Mason. Because the events are seen through Zafir’s eyes, the complex situation in Syria is confusing and never “black and white”. This is what makes the stories in this series so believable and poignant and it is a credit to series creator and editor, Lyn White, that this authentic feel has been sustained through all six books in the current series
A gripping story from a child’s point of view, set during a turbulent time from the recent history of a fascintating country.
Recommended for ages 12 and up.
Two Weeks With The Queen by Morris Gleitzman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Colin Mudford’s brother, Luke, is dying of cancer. As Colin struggles with this knowledge, his parents decide to send him to relatives in the UK to protect him from the tragedy to come. This suits Colin because he has a plan – a plan to get Queen Elizabeth II to offer him her physician to treat and save his brother.
Things go awry when no reply is forthcoming. Colin decides to take things into his own hands and he sets off to a top London hospital to bring their top doctor back to Australia for Luke. After he is escorted from the premises, Colin spots Ted, a man in his late twenties, crying on the kerb. Colin tells Ted his story and Ted offers to help Colin. The two form a wonderful friendship that helps Colin acknowledge his feelings about Luke and also helps Colin learn the joy of helping others. Ted’s partner, Griff is in the hospital suffering from HIV/Aids and the prognosis is not good. Through Colin, the two men are able to keep seeing each other, even after Ted is bashed by a group of homophobic thugs.
I will not reveal the ending, but tissues will be required. I have read this book 4 times now and I still cry every time.
This was Gleitzman’s first novel and it’s a ripper. Whilst the setting (the 80s) might be a little dated, the themes of acceptance and tolerance still resonate, and in a way that most kids would easily understand.
Spend Two Weeks with the Queen. You won’t be sorry.
Ages 11 and up…
The Wishbird by Gabrielle Wang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Lyrical and compelling like the very best of songs, The Wishbird is a triumph of simple storytelling and immediately engaging characters. So drawn into this story of Boy and Oriole was I, that I ended up finishing it in one day!
Boy is a child of the streets, forced into a life of crime to survive when his parents are taken away for being musical – illegal in the City of Soulless (once known as the City of Solace). Oliver Twist and Boy have much in common – both orphans who are forced to work for a hard and cruel task master and live in squalor.
Oriole has lived in a Banyan tree in the Forest under the care of The Wishbird, Mellow, for as long as she can remember. She, too, is an orphan, but cared for by the gentle and simple birds she has led a very different life to Boy. She has the “Singing Tongue” and when she uses her voice it is magical.
Mellow is dying, and Oriole is sent to the walled city of Soulless to see the King and beg him to reunite with his Wishbird, Mellow in order to save them both.
Oriole and Boy connect and together they start a quest to save the kingdom, the King, Mellow and themselves.
There are villains, and heros in disguise, all supported by the beautiful, lilting language of Gabrielle Wang. I could not put this story down once I had met the characters. Gabrielle’s delighful drawings appear throughout, which was an added bonus – helping me to see the characters as she imagined them.
I would give this 10 stars if I could!
For ages 10 and up. Wonderful.
My Life as an Alphabet by Barry Jonsberg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
What a quirky, funny and likeable girl Candice Phee is. 12 years old and trying so hard to draw all the important people in her life towards happiness, she is a delight from the first page. Candice has a very interesting way of looking at the world. She is very literal, sometimes using that trait to be deliberately obtuse with the adults around her, and reads the dictionary every night. She has no friends at school until the fabulous Douglas Benson from Another Dimension shows up. He understands her “uniqueness” as he is similar (while being completely different) to Candice. From Douglas with his “facsimile” parents, to Rich Uncle Brian, to Candice’s depressed mother and the school bully Jen Marshall, this novel is brimming with memorable characters. Because I want everyone to discover the joy of Candice Phee, I am not even going to HINT at plotline, but this is an immensely satisfying journey over a few months in Candice’s life. You will rejoice at the end and want to read it all over again because it is over.
Good job Candice, and great job Barry Jonsberg. The Gold Inky was well-deserved!
Ages 12 and up.
Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Wow. This book is wonderful. I knew it would be because it’s Shaun Tan and his work is always challenging, inventive, mysterious and deep.
My initial reaction to Rules of Summer has been one of joy and wonder. The colours, the images, the feeling of something dark on the outer edges that pervades every page.
A boy recounts his summer and what he learned. We see him with his brother and it is clear they are close and spend a lot of time together. The first illustration shows them sharing a secret. The light Tan produces in this illustration is amazing – it feels like summer, an Australian summer, with that clear, glaring sunshine that only happens here.
Then we start learning the rules. I won’t post them all, but my favourites are both towards the end of the book and one of them is “never wait for an apology”.
These are not rules just for summer, these are rules (and metaphors) for life and living it.
This book is an emotional, colourful, vibrant experience. This book could and should be read by all children from 8 to 80. Everyone, I suspect, will see something different in Rules of Summer and THAT is the absolute best thing about it.
Get this book in your hands NOW.
Firstly I must thank Steven Lochran for organising a review copy of this book for me – I was very excited to see the next instalment of this series arrive in my PO box.
War Zone is the third in the series that began by introducing us to Sam, aka Goldrush, the newest and youngest member of Vanguard Prime, a league of superheroes. In this story we find Goldrush preparing to be introduced to the world media as as the rookie member of the elite unit. Agent Alpha, the elder statesman of the crew, suddenly takes off in the midst of this preparation, leaving Goldrush and his new bestie, Machina, to wonder what is going on. Of course, in true impetuous fashion, the two young friends take off in pursuit to find out what Alpha is up to.
When they reach him, Alpha is catching up with an old friend, Robert Ross, otherwise known as Dr Ouroboros and some of the Dr’s associates : Brainchild, Lilith and Tsar Bomba. It turns out this group is trying to find a boy named Jeremy who has powers not before seen in the superhero community. The Dr says he is trying to save Jeremy from a life as an experimental subject and manages to convince Alpha, Goldrush and Machina to help him. What he neglects to tell them is that his little group is also being pursued by an elite military group known as Vanguard Ultra.
What ensues is a series of exciting and suspenseful battles across and around the city of Tokyo, Japan. Along the way we meet the Japanese version of VP (Vanguard Prime), Battle Force Zero, commanded by the imposing Mighty Senshi.
I don’t want to give away too much in terms of plot, but Goldrush certainly holds his own against the many adversaries he faces, and we see his powers starting to develop and become even greater that he dreamed they could be. I like the science fiction sensibility of these books – Lochran really creates a world where these guys could exist quite convincingly. He also throws in the odd “in joke” for those of us who are nerds from way back. I particularly loved the reference to unobtanium in this story!
It is clear at the end of War Zone that book four in is in the wind. I hope Steven Lochran is writing fast – I know there will be lots of loyal readers hanging out for the next instalment!
For ages 12 and up.
Pookie Aleera is not my Boyfriend by Steven Herrick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This gentle verse novel from Steven Herrick is fantastic. I loved all the characters, especially Cameron and Mick, and most especially Laura and Mr Korsky. I laughed, I cried and I felt the life in all the students of 6A and those who surround them. Mick is a bit of a rough diamond – a rogue with a heart of gold. Mr Korsky could be the groundskeeper in so many schools – a guy who is proud of the job he does – making the school grounds look nice, but also a bloke who sees the best in all the kids. Laura, the quiet girl on the outskirts of “the gang” could have been me at that age. I identified with her shyness, and longing to be part of something bigger.
There is a lot of longing in this book – Mr Korsky misses his best friend Walter, Pete misses his grandfather, Cameron misses his phone (sorry, in joke)….
The language Herrick employs is superb, and the message that poetry and playing with language is fun is well and truly communicated in Ms Arthur’s class. The poem where the children are asked to describe the words “Night Sky” is wonderful. “It’s where shooting stars write their name” “It’s lightning graffiti!” – all just fantastic language play. The verse where Ms Arthur tells the class they can borrow anything they want from the library EXCEPT poetry- and over half the class walks out with just that. All inspired stuff. I get the feeling Steven Herrick may have used that trick himself!
I really enjoyed this book. Maybe I’ll find a tree to wedge an apple into….
For ages 8 and up.
The Big Dry by Tony Davis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is a tough read. The story of George and his little brother, Beeper, is set against a landscape that is barren, vast, and scary. We meet them just after their father has left their property, and has failed to return. Beeper is the optimist, sure that Dad will eventually come back and bring new supplies with him. George is not so sure. Living in a world where unattended children are rounded up and taken off to “welfare”, George is afraid of everything around him. There are not many adults around at all, it seems, and those we do meet through the story are either powerless and struggling or brutal and harsh. There are searing wind storms that cut through the town periodically and are fierce enough to carry people away. Scary stuff for two kids, even IF Dad was around.
Into the lives of Beeper and George comes Emily. She gradually insinuates herself into the lives of George and Beeper and becomes part of what passes for their family. She is more worldly than the two boys and in a neat reversal of typical roles she becomes their protector and provider. George is wary of her and resents her getting close to Beeper. This sets the two in a tense stand off most of the time. It is only when they are truly threatened as a group that George realises his feelings for her, but by then it seems it is too late.
The novel takes place over just a few days, but because of the oppressive nature of their surroundings, and the danger that is ever-present, it feels a lot longer. I found the characters well crafted, particularly Beeper, who was delightful and vulnerable, and Emily who just wants to find a place in the world for herself again.
By the time to end of the book arrives, you feel worn down by the dry, dusty environment and while there is a note of hope, right on the final page, I felt an ache for George and Beeper as the book closed. I am not sure if there is a sequel in the offing, but there is certainly room to explore this world where rain has not been seen for many years, and the characters that inhabit it. I want to find out what happens to George and Beeper and the rest of the people in the book, so I am keeping my fingers crossed for a second book.
Suitable for 12 and up.
The Hunters by John Flanagan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The third instalment in the Brotherband Chronicles is, I think, the best. Fast-paced, great plot movement and battle scenes (particularly the epic battle between the Heron and Zavac’s pirate ship, Raven near the end) are brilliant. I could really picture the action in my head and at one point it got so exciting I could not turn the pages fast enough!
Hal and his crew, including Thorn and the newest member, Lydia, are in hot pursuit of the Raven and Zavac’s, whose band of pirates stole the Andomal (an important Skandian relic) form their village. Lydia is out for Zavac’s blood because of the death and destruction he brought to her village, Limmat. This story really sees us getting to know the characters and their quirks better. There is suspense, drama, comedy and emotion throughout, and all done with aplomb. Many reviewers seem to thinks this is the last in the series, but I am pretty sure there will be more and the final pages certainly leave room for it. I will be very surprised if it stops at number 3!
In any case, this is a great read and I recommend it for anyone from 8 to 80. Flanagan’s humour and eye for detail is evident in spades and will win over the most reluctant reader. I look forward to many more adventures with the Heron and her crew – and if it is not to be, I will just re-read the three I have!
For ages 10 to 100!