Good dog, good dog.

A Different DogA 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.

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Simply, marvellous

The MarvelsThe Marvels by Brian Selznick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Brian Selznick won many hearts and minds with his modern children’s classic, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. His unique combination of words and images was a winner, and it was beautifully realised in Scorsese’s film. Hugo. The Marvels is set to become another classic and I sincerely hope someone is looking to film this story for the big screen.
The story begins with images, almost 400 pages of them, and they are magical. Beautifully rendered pencil drawings tell the remarkable history of the Marvel family, from 1766 to 1900. Beginning with Billy Marvel, who survives a shipwreck on the ill-fated Kraken, the tale of a family closely tied to the stage unfolds. Images of angels and fire combine to weave a tale of triumph and tragedy, and a family whose lives truly reflect their surname.
Almost 100 years after the last picture in the story, Joseph Jervis runs away from school and turns up on the doorstep of his uncle, whom he has never met, the enchantingly named Alfred Nightingale. Alfred’s house is a time capsule, held fast in the early twentieth century, and it is clear he wants nothing to do with Joseph or his family. He begrudgingly allows Joseph to stay because his parents can’t be contacted, and Joseph sets out to discover more about his family’s past.
Joseph befriends Frankie, who assists him on his quest to unravel the mystery that is the Marvels, and how they related to his family. As they work their way through clues found in Albert’s house, and at the Royal Theatre where an ethereal painting of an angel adorns the ceiling, the story of the Marvels is pieced together and takes the two friends in a direction neither of them ever expected. The truth, it seems, in stranger than fiction. This is a fantastic story filled with historical detail, visual clues and hints, and engaging supporting characters. I particularly liked Florent, the Frenchman who has known Albert for many years and who makes it his business to watch over Joseph as he gets to know his grumpy, sullen uncle, and Frankie, the feisty, no-holds-barred girl who helps Joseph discover the truth about his family. Selznick has the enviable ability to show a great deal in just one drawing – sometimes more than a whole page of text can show.
Revelations, explanations and emotions collide as the novel moves to its satisfying conclusion. Once the written story is told, Selznick presents another, shorter, picture story to take us to the present day. It is a fitting end to a moving and entertaining narrative.

Heartily recommended for readers aged 8 and up.

Three Wonders of the World

Auggie & Me: Three Wonder StoriesAuggie & Me: Three Wonder Stories by R.J. Palacio
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This collection of three novellas is a must for anyone who read and enjoyed Palacio’s debut novel, Wonder . The story of Auggie Pullman touched millions and in this book, three of the characters whose lives were affected by Auggie in different ways are the protagonists. After being so moved by Wonder, I was sceptical about reacting in the same way to these stories. If anything, these are even more moving because we are able to see deep into these characters’ minds and emotions.
“The Julian Chapter” centres on Auggie’s nemesis, Julian Albans. In his introduction to this book, Palacio explains this was a story he had to write. Many of the letters he received after writing Wonder were about how mean Julian was to Auggie. Readers wrote asking why he had to be that way. Palacio decided he had better tell them. The story that unfolds lifts the lid on Julian’s home life, and his past. His bullying behaviour in the first book is not glossed over, nor is it excused. What the reader does get is a keen insight as to how this kind of behaviour can happen, and how it can so easily get out of control. We meet Julian’s paternal grandmother, a Frenchwoman who loves her grandson, but doesn’t let him get away with anything. It is she who draws the Auggie saga out of Julian and tells him an unforgettable story that will change him, and the reader, forever. Julian is still not a likeable character – he is spoilt, childish and over-indulged by his parents – but by the end of his chapter there is hope he is becoming a more sensitive human being.
“Pluto” is Christopher’s story. Auggie’s long-standing friend who has moved away, has been affected by his relationship with Auggie all his life. The reader is taken back to the first time Christopher really understood how different his friend is. We see him creating a world that is safe and reliable for Auggie – and we see how hard it has been for him sometimes. It is clear there are moments when Christopher struggles with being Auggie’s mate. He sometimes feels resentment when his mother helps out Isabel and Nate (Auggie’s parents) and then his own family moves away, he resents having to keep in touch with Auggie – when all he wants to do is develop his new friendships and play in the after-school rock band. All the way through this story the one thing that shines through again and again is Christopher’s gentle good nature. He is a kind person and coming straight after Julian’s story it really stands out.
The last story, “Shingaling”, is perhaps the most revealing. Charlotte Cory who, along with Julian, and Jack Wall was asked to befriend Auggie when he started middle school, is living through a time of change. As well as meeting Auggie, she is going through something many girls face – friendship group changes. She talks about the “boy war” that started after the winter break in Wonder – where the boys all took sides for or against Auggie after Jack Wall hit Julian. Charlotte’s best friend, Ellie, has moved on to the “popular” group and now Charlotte is trying to find her way to a new friendship group. There is pressure for Charlotte to declare herself on the “right” side of the war and she refuses to do so, which just makes the girls more agitated than they already are. Charlotte, Ellie and some of the other girls audition for a prestigious dance production at school and Charlotte, Summer (Auggie’s close friend) and Ximena (a “popular” girl) are chosen. These girls don’t have much in common on the surface, but as they talk to each other, they discover there is a lot of common ground. Once the girls learn more about one another, they become friends, although none of them really publicise the fact at school – there is still a political balance to worry about. Charlotte’s journey through the friendship minefield is something MANY readers will instantly recognise. What the reader learns by reading this story is that everyone is struggling with something– in fact that is the overarching theme in all of these stories.
The quote Palacio uses at the beginning of “The Julian Chapter” really sums up what his book is trying to say:
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” – Ian Maclaren.
Every middle school student should read this book, heck, every human being should read this book.
Recommended for ages 10 and up.

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You won’t want to wake up….

Nightmares! (Nightmares!, #1)Nightmares! by Jason Segel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nightmares! is a fun little book about a scary subject. Charlie Laird lives in an imposing purple mansion in Cypress Creek with his dad, little brother Jack and his stepmother, Charlotte. When we meet Charlie, he is not sleeping well. He is plagued by nightmares every night about a witch who wants to eat him. Is the house haunted? As the dreams continue, Charlie becomes convinced that his stepmother is also a witch, who is somehow helping the witch from his nightmare. To make matters worse, it looks like the witch has kidnapped Jack so she can cook him up for her dinner!
One night after waking from a particularly terrifying nightmare, Charlie sees the witch running into the forest with Jack thrown over her shoulder. One thing is even stranger, the forest is where the wall of his stepmother’s studio used to be. Without thinking, Charlie races after them and into an amazing adventure where he must rescue Jack, and others, from the Netherworld – the world of nightmares.
Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller have penned a little gem. This story has just the right balance of dark humour, pathos and heart-warming moments to hold the attention of any child. Charlie got on my nerves a bit at the start, but I guess that was the idea – to allow the reader to see just how weird and irrational he was becoming. Charlie’s friends, particularly Paige and Alfie, are fabulous and a wonderful foil to Charlie’s lack of self-awareness. They call him on his over the top behaviour and don’t let him get away with much (as best friends are supposed to).
Because this is a book for children, there are happy endings (for some) and they are reached in a way that teaches the child reader a lesson without beating them over the head with it (always a plus in my book). There is a sequel on the way, so it will be interesting to see how that develops. Not all the ends were tied up, so there is definitely scope for more to happen in the Netherworld.
For ages 8 and up

Time to pay The Piper….

The PiperThe Piper by Danny Weston

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Piper is a gothic horror story in the tradition of The Turn of the Screw, where on the surface everything seems fine, but scratch and a dark, sinister underbelly is revealed. After a creepy prologue, we meet Helen, who is visitng her Grandad Peter in a nursing home for his birthday. When Helen tells him in passing that she has signed up for a school trip to Romney Marsh, her grandfather forbids her to anywhere near the place. He tells her it is dangerous, and starts rambling about Daisy and how they had both seen too much. Helen has never heard him speak of Daisy, so she asks Peter to tell her more, and the real story starts to unfold…
Peter and his little sister Daisy were part of the mass evacuation of London prior to the beginning of WWII, called Operation Pied Piper. When they arrive at the billetting centre, Peter and Daisy are selected by Mrs Beesley, housekeeper at Sheldon Grange, a propery set next to Romney Marsh. It’s a desolate journey in the cart as darkness starts to fall and this helps to create a feeling of unease that holds fast right through the book. Mrs Beesley and the farm hand, Adam, are at great pains to return to the Grange before dark, but neither will really say why. As they draw closer to the Grange, Peter and Daisy hear strange flute-like music but Mrs Beesley and Adam do not acknowledge it and deny it exists. Peter does not like it at all, but Daisy is captivated. On the very first night Peter has a disturbing dream about drowning and music and dancing. He is confused by it, and more than a little scared. Daisy begins talking to the dolls in the room she has been given and the music they heard on the Marsh can be heard by Peter and Daisy every night – growing louder each time. The children meet Sally, the eight year old daughter of the owner of the Grange, Mr Sheldon. Bedridden, but chirpy and well-read, she and Daisy become fast friends. Peter starts to feel more and more uneasy as one of the dolls becomes Daisy’s constant companion and she is drawn more and more to the music of the night.
On a trip into town with Adam, Peter encounters Professor Lowell, who is shocked to hear Peter has a little sister living at the Grange. The Professor tells Peter a terrifying tale about the history of the house and a curse that has hung over the Sheldon family for generations. After Adam tries to ensure he and Peter stay in town overnight, Peter realises his sister is in grave danger and races against time, and the malevolent Mrs Beesley, to save her. The moment when Peter bursts into Sally’s room and realises where the clanking noise he has heard at night is coming from is a gasp-out-loud moment.
I really enjoyed the classic “spookiness” of this story. Peter is a believable protagonist and the other characters are well drawn too. I found myself glued to this once Peter had the full picture – I just had to find out what happened as quickly as possible. Hopefully you will find the same.
Recommended for ages 12 and up – spooky and scary!

Not your average milk run….

Fortunately, the Milk . . .Fortunately, the Milk . . . by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A riotous triumph from beginning to end. Gaiman and Riddell are the perfect synthesis of author and illustrator. I chuckled to myself all the way through this story, proving it has something in it for all ages. Essentially a children’s story, it is also a story for parents that shows the magic in storytelling – that something as mundane as going to the corner shop for milk can become an adventure in itself.
Dad, who looks uncannily like Gaiman (no coincidence, I’m sure), is left to look after the kids while Mum is away at a conference. With no milk in the house for breakfast, Dad sets off to the corner shop to buy some. When he takes a very long time for such a simple task, the children occupy themselves by pulling faces at each other. When Dad finally arrives home, the son accuses him of running “into someone you knew and you lost track of the time.” Dad does admit he did run into a neighbour, but moments after he was whisked up into a huge silver humming and thrumming flying saucer via a glittery beam of light.
So begins a rollicking adventure featuring gloopy aliens, pirates, volcano gods, dinosaurs, intertgalactic police and vampires. Chris Riddell’s illustrations capture the outlandish goings-on with wonderful precision and a sense of fun.
This is a fantastic book and would be great fun to read aloud to your child,or to a group like a classroom.
Highly recommended for ages 8 to 80

John Boyne does it again

Stay Where You Are And Then LeaveStay Where You Are And Then Leave by John Boyne

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was expecting a lot from this book. After all, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas had quite an impact on me and I really wanted to be moved. I had nothing to worry about.

Alfie Summerfield’s fifth birthday, July 28th 1914, is the day England declares war on Germany. Alfie feels the impact of this straight away – most of his friends don’t come to his party because their parents keep them away. Up until this point, Alfie has lead a pleasant and essentially non-eventful life. His Dad, Georgie, is the local milkman. His mum, Margie, is a regular mum who prides herself on her cooking and her neat home. His Grandmother Summerfield lives across the road and is a bit cantankerous. Down the street Alfie’s best friend, Kalena Janacek, and her father run the local shop where Alfie loves looking at the sweets. His Dad’ best friend, Joe Patience, lives a few doors away. A few days after Alfie’s birthday his Dad answers the “call-up” and before Alfie can really comprehend it, Georgie is off to train at Aldershot.
For a couple of years he family receives regular letters from Georgie, but then, inexplicably, they stop. Margie tells Alfie his dad is working on a secret mission for the government and he is not allowed to write, but as time passes Alfie believes this less and less. He thinks his father is dead and no-one is telling him. As money becomes tight, Margie has to hold down 3 jobs and Alfie decides to help out too. Kalena and Mr Janacek have been placed in an internment camp on the Isle of Wight, so Alfie sneaks into their house and “borrows” Mr Janacek’s shoeshine box. He skips school (but only on the days when they are not doing reading or history) and starts shining shoes to earn some money for his family.
There is a lot going on in this book, much of it background to really illustrate the effects of war. Joe Patience is a conscientious objector (a conchie) and is taken away to prison where he is mercilessly beaten until he nearly dies. Margie is a shadow of her former self – constantly tired and terrified of being out on the street – searching for something to make her feel like she has worth. Alfie is smart, yearning to be a grown up and know their secrets, but also enough of a child to be scared by knowing.
A series of chance encounters leads Alfie to the conclusion that his father is not dead. Rather, he is suffering from shell shock in a hospital in Ipswich. Alfie resolves to see his father, which he does via a courageous train journey all by himself. The scenes Boyne describes in the hospital, of the patients whose minds have been broken by war, are confronting, gritty and terrifying when seen through Alfie’s nine-year-old eyes. After seeing his father and hearing him shout one word (home) as he runs for the door, Alfie starts planning his own secret mission. To bring his father back to Damley Road.
This is a beautiful, heartfelt and intricately crafted novel. Boyne is adept at seeing the world though a child’s eyes, and helping us to see it too. In some ways this book is the opposite of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – in that novel, Bruno is blithely clueless about the nature of the place in which he lives. In this book, Alfie is all too aware and is proactive about it. They sort of bookend each other.
In any case, this is another must-read from John Boyne that made me smile, gasp and absolutely bawl. In other words, perfect.
Recommended for ages 10 and up.

Guantanamo Boy – Confronting and uplifting

Guantanamo BoyGuantanamo Boy by Anna Perera
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Khalid is a 15-year-old growing up in Rochdale, Manchester. He goes with his parents to visit relatives in Pakistan. Pakistan is a dangerous place, and Khalid’s father goes missing, with no explanation. Khalid hits the streets of Karachi to find him.

Unable to locate his father, Khalid goes back to the home of his cousin, Tariq, where his family is staying and is confronted by men in black balaclavas. These men abduct him and take him to a secret location. This begins a nightmare for Khalid. His captors do not believe he is only 15. They accuse him of terrorism, of being a member of Al-Quaida, and after many abuses and indignities he ends up at the Guantanamo Bay detention centre. What follows is a gruelling 2-year journey for Khalid, through torture and hopelessness. His family and his lawyer battle for months to secure his release and eventually he is reunited with his family, but with a very different view of the world.

Engrossing, affecting, harrowing and full of hope.

Recommended for ages 12 and up

Broken memory, broken heart

Broken Memory: A Story of RwandaBroken Memory: A Story of Rwanda by Elisabeth Combres
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

April 1994. Rwanda is at war with itself. The Hutus and the Tutsi’s. On April 6th, after the assassination of the Rwandan president, the Rawandan army begins massacring the Tutsi population. Almost one million Tutsi citizens are killed. Emma’s mother is one of them.

Emma is five years old when her mother is brutally murdered by Hutu rebels. When they arrive at her house, Emma’s mother hides her behind the sofa telling her “you must not die, Emma!” These last words stay in Emma’s mind and make her determined to survive, no matter what the odds. After her mother’s death she finds herself swept along in a sea of refugees – ending up at the door of an old woman who takes her in.

Mukecuru becomes Emma’s substitute grandmother and gives her a sense of family. Slowly Emma begins to reach out to others, especially a boy named Ndoli, who has also lost everything and was horribly injured during the massacre. Ndoli befriends and old man and eventually so does Emma. The Old Man is someone who has been sent to Rwanda to help refugee children return home and begin healing the injuries of the past.

After a long time, he takes Emma home, where she sifts through what is left of her burned down house. As she sifts through the rubble, she picks up some of her mother’s possessions and turns them over in her hands. This triggers memories from her past that had been buried for a long time. She begins to remember her mother’s face, which had faded in her mind, and she breaks down amongst the rubble. This is a turning point for Emma. Her life will never be the same.

Recommended for ages 12 and up

I like what THIS Tony Abbott has to say

FiregirlFiregirl by Tony Abbott
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Tom is in Year 7 at Junior High in the US. He shares everything with his best friend, Jeff – except his crush on Courtney. Tom fantasises about rescuing Courtney from all sorts of situations and is always trying to impress her. Into their lives walks Jessica Feeney – a new girl like no other they have met before.

Jessica has survived a terrible fire, which left her with horrific scars. Some kids, including Tom’s friend Jeff, cant’ even look at her without feeling sick and disgusted. Rumours start about Jessica’s involvement in the fire, especially when she reveals her sister died as a result of it. Tom, who lives next door to Jessica, soon discovers that al is not as it first appears. As he gets to know Jessica he learns some scars go even deeper than burns. Tom’s friendship with Jessica makes Jeff jealous and impresses Courtney. During a class president campaign, Tom learns a lot about himself and his classmates – and what is really important. He learns what true strength and courage are all about. Jessica only stays at Tom’s school for 3 weeks, but knowing her changes Tom forever.

Recommended for ages 12 and up.