Children and Teenagers–book reviews by Janet Croft, February-March 2014

Children’s’ new books: February-March 2014.  Reviewer:  Janet Croft

Best books have from 1-5 stars.  The more stars the better!

Picture Books

*How to Make Small Things with Violet Mackerel, by Anna Bransford.  PB from Walker Books.  RRP about $20

For fans of the thoughtful and interesting Violet Mackerel, this book reveals lots of interesting small items to make and at any time of the year.  From making a chest of matchbox drawers, to a tube scarf, to lots of lovely gift tags, small girls of Violet’s age—about 8-10 years old, will enjoy firstly looking at the book, and reading all of Violet’s instructions which are accompanied by drawings and photos, and then choosing which items to make for herself.  I feel that the gift tags are a particularly good idea.

**Fire, by Jackie French and Bruce Whately.  HB from Scholastic.  RRP  $24.99

We have watched on TV, and too many families have watched in real life, the phenomenon of fire, both beautiful, and scary, and often horribly damaging to life and property.  Here Jackie French, who has experienced fire near her home, describes in an evocative long poem, the features of fire. The illustrations by Bruce Whately also reveal intimate knowledge of fire, and you can almost smell the ash in the air as you look at each page.   This is a superb book, and one which should be read aloud with children of 4-10 years, or even older.

Along the Road to Gundagai by Jack O’Hagan and Andrew McLean.  HB from Scholastic.  RRP  $24.99

When most Australians think of this song, they imagine a place in southern NSW, but so did the Australian soldiers when they heard the song when on the battlefields of WW1.the book draws the link between the place and war, in the watercolour illustrations as well as the verse.   I love the watercolour illustrations; they are splendid.  The book is suitable for readers of 4=10 years.

I was only Nineteen, by John Schumann.  Illustrated by Craig Smith.  HB from Allen and Unwin.  RRP  $24.99

This almost seems to be a book for sixty year olds, because they can remember the Vietnam War and the public unhappiness about conscription and participation in the war.  I feel it is a pity that there is not a CD to accompany this book—the illustrations and story are fine, but it needs to be sung, or listened to for greatest effect.  Probably best for upper primary aged children to read as part of their HSIE work.

*RAWR, by Todd Doodler.  HB from Scholastic.  RRP  $14.99

This is a fun story about a dinosaur, for which life is hard.  There is a touchy-feely soft outline toy on the front cover, and the wonderful drawings are most attractive, as the dinosaur, together with lots of children, reveal facial expressions associated with certain emotions.  Delightful for very young children of 2-4 years.

Little Red Riding Hood retold and illustrated by Alison Jay.  PB from Scholastic.  RRP  $14.99

A retelling of the fairy story about how Red riding hood was almost eaten by the wolf. I suppose today the story could be used as an allegory about stranger danger.  Certainly a story to be read by each generation of children.  For 2-5 year olds.

5-Minute Marvel Stories.   In Hardback, from Marvel, and Scholastic Press RRP  $19.99

A series of short stories about the various superheroes of the present—Spiderman, Hulk, the Z-Men, wolverine and others. Each story shows how each hero triumphs over evil in five minutes of action based story.   Short fantasy stories for children, mainly boys I suspect, of 6-10 years.

Non-Fiction titles

***How to build a Human Body, by Tom Jackson.  HB from Scholastic.  RRP  $29.99

This is the most interesting non-fiction book in this batch of reviews.  It is a serious look at the organs of the body, how they are made, their uses and characteristics, with lots and lots of details, both serious and quirky to spark the interest of young readers from about 8-14 years. The language is easy to read, and there is lots of slang, and common words to describe aspects of our bodies. There are also boxes with suggestions for activities which young biologists can try at home, some of which require a microscope.  It’s a gem of a book!

Australian and World Records 2014.  By Jennifer Corr Morse.  PB from Scholastic.  RRP  $14.99

There are a lot of Australian facts about various sports, and entertainment options, mostly TV and films in this book, and a huge amount about teenage idols and their followings on Twitter and facebook.  but also lots of snippets about other facts, such as What is Australia’s longest beach, oldest art works, biggest retail franchises, largest sports stadium—do you get the idea?  Probably will be browsed most by teenagers of 11-14 years.

****Coming of Age.  Growing up Muslim in Australia. Edited by Amra Pajalic and Demet Divaroren.  PB from Allen and Unwin.  RRP  $18.99

Another very interesting book about a collection of young Muslim Australians from a variety of family backgrounds and countries.  Most seem to have been born in Australia.  Whether they accept and observe their Islamic traditions, or don’t,  but how they have adapted to life in Australia where religion plays a much less significant role in daily life than for Muslims, makes for fascinating reading as these young people recall their early life, as well as recount more recent incidents.   I recommend this book highly to all teenagers of 13-16 years, and to adults.

The Star Won’t Go Out, by Esther Earl, with Lori and Wayne Earl.  PB from Penguin.  RRP  $19.99

This is the story, both autobiographical and biographical from Esther and her parents after Esther was diagnosed with thyroid cancer when she was 12.  It tells of the highs and the lows of the four years before Esther died, and may inspire others because o f the cheerfulness and steadfastness with which Esther handles her illness, and  a certain death.  There is a journal, comments from her parents and family friends, photos, and even some poetry.  It can be inspiring, but I also found it immeasurably sad to see such a positive young life cut short.  The book is suitable for mature teenagers and adults.


Junior Fiction

Losing Reuben, by Leonie Norrington and Beth Norling.  PB from Omnibus and Scholastic.  RRP  $12.99

I have read and reviewed other titles in the Mates—Great Australian Yarns previously.  They are suitable for young readers of 6-8 years, and this title tells the story how Reuben almost is lost when the family goes to   fishing at the beach.  With ten kids in the family, it is not really surprising.  The story explains how Reuben remembers what he has been told to do, if he is left behind, or lost at any time and  although scared, he sits under a tree and waits until the family, realises he is missing  and turns the car around  to find him.  A major feature of these stories are the harder-to-read words- which are printed in larger and coloured font for a bit of extra attention.  Good value books.

**The Journey, by Coral Tulloch.  Springback book from Walker Books. RRP  $19.95

This is an interactive book, in which the reader, armed with a pencil, counter, dice, spare paper and a small coin, goes on a journey to find plum jam.  As you travel, you will doubtless try some of the suggested activities along the way, play the games, decode the encrypted messages, read the little bits of history, and follow and complete the fold out map which is at the end of the book.  There are also some recipes.  A delightful book for readers of 9-maybe 13 years?

I have a group of short, simple novels here for really young readers of 6-8 years.  I’m going to mention each one briefly, because they are all short, cheap, easy to read, and with lots of pictures. All of these are in PB  from Scholastic.  Ella and Olivia, Sports Carnival, by Yvette Poshlogan is RRP  $7.99 and is another in the series about the two young sisters and their efforts at the school sports carnival.  Going Bush with Grandpa is $9.99 and is a story mainly for young boys as Peter goes bush to fish and look for gold with his grandpa.  Two more books—The Race, and The Test—  connect with  the EJ series about Emma Jacks, the young girl spy.  These are much-simplified stories for beginning readers about the start of EJ’s career as a spy. Two titles, Skateboard Stars, and Prank alert, are in the Double Trouble series, and $7.99 each.  Again, two books for young boys, about Tommy and his mate Coop, both of who always seem to be in minor trouble of some sort.

Up and Away, by Wendy Harmer, in PB  from Scholastic and  RRP $9.99 continues the saga of Ava Ann Appleton as she travels around Australia in a motor home with her parents and dog, Angus.  Ava is beginning to enjoy the trip, and she is really happy when they meet another family with  Bonnie who is the same age as Ava, and the girls become good friends.  When the two families meet up again after a monstrous storm, the girls are delighted.  For girls of 7-9 years.


Brilliant Bites for Boys.  PB from Puffin.  RRP about $18

This is a compilation of four of the most popular Aussie Bites stories which have appealed to boys, over the past fifteen years or so.  Rattler’s Place, and The Parents are Revolting  are two which I remember my boys enjoying.  I am so pleased to see these stories in print again, and one volume makes a lot of sense.  They are excellent reading for boys of 8-12 years, who are now reading independently.

In a similar vein are two books from Random House. Stories for Boys and Stories for girls are designed for somewhat younger readers of 6-9 years.  They are in PB and $14.95 each.

These books are produced  with large print, lots of drawings and  funny stories with imaginative titles like: I Hate Kids, The Hiccupping Pirate, The Girl with the Longest Hair in the world, and Super Kate and the Magic Cape.  I must admit that I find the titles and content of the boys stories more appealing than those for the girls: these  seem to be quite stereotyped in girlie content. However, these are another  appealing couple of volumes to encourage young people to read.

*Meet Daisy, and Meet Pearlie, are two new titles in the Penguin series called Our Australian Girl.  The books are paperback, and are suited for girls of about 9-12 years.  Daisy is set in the depression in Melbourne, and outlines the hardships of her life after Daisy and her younger sister are sent to the city from the country, to live with their unpleasant aunt, when their father has to leave their home in the country to find work.  Pearlie is set in Darwin in 1941– which is, even then, a multicultural, city.   Because Pearlie’s friend Naoko is Japanese, there is a lot of prejudice to be counteracted.  Will Pearlie be strong enough to stand up for what she knows is morally correct?  Good reading.

Alice Miranda in Japan, by Jacqueline Harvey.  PB from Random House.  RRP  $15.99

For an eight year old girl, Alice Miranda is quite precocious, and when she and her family and friends Millie and Jacinta travel to Japan, there is a lot to take in, enjoy, and a mystery to solve as well.  Interesting food, markets, and of course some of the language to learn.  Most significant however is how Alice Miranda visits the royal palace, becomes involved in the search for a missing person, and also uncovers missing treasure.  Popular with girls of 8-12 years, and a good read.

*****Lizzie Bennet’s Diary, by Marcia Williams.  HB from Walker Books.  RRP  $20

Sometimes when a book arrives in the mail to be reviewed, it is grabbed out of the pile, and read immediately, because it just looks so good.  This is one of those books.  As it says on the cover, this was ‘inspired by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.’  Pride and Prejudice has been rewritten for young readers, as the diary form of Lizzie Bennet’s story, with lots of small illustrations, including cartoon style captions, letters in small envelopes, folded down notes, all with the story and attitudes faithful to the original.  For those interested in the disappearing art of letter writing, there is also a transcript of Darcy’s letter to Lizzie, and lots of examples of accomplished, but easy to read running writing.  I expect that this book will remain one of my all time favourites of a version of an adult book rendered in style suitable for the young.  For readers of 8 years and older, but probably with most appeal to young teenage girls.  Superb!

*Little Chef, Big Curse, by Tilney Cotton. PB from Scholastic, RRP  $16.99

Matty Swink really wants to become a proper chef, and to emulate his late grandmother’s skills—his longing and self belief is so great that Matty is prepared to tolerate the abuse and poor treatment that his so called guardian, Fenella metes out to him.  There is a nasty curse at large in the Kingdom of Yurp, and it is the cause of a huge cook-in, which Matty decides to win.  Win he does, but almost by default, as the curse reappears, and there is massive disruption throughout the kingdom until at last Matty learns the source of the curse, the reason why he received help with his cooking entry, and why Matty alone is able to defeat the curse.  There is some fairly grubby content, with unpleasant images of food, eating, and behaviour, but an imaginative, if highly fanciful story.  Probably with greatest appeal to boys of 9-11 years.

Boys are Dogs, by Leslie Margolis.  PB from Bloomsbury.  RRP  $12.99

This is the first in a series called Annabelle Unleashed.  This story has an American flavour.  When Annabelle returns from summer holiday camp it is to find that she and her mother are to move to a new house, in a new area, to be with mum’s boyfriend and, worst of all, Annabelle is  to attend a co-ed school.  For the first time, Annabelle is faced with boys, and it takes time to learn how to get along with them.  After the family gets a puppy, Annabelle realises that it may be possible to train boys as you train a dog. There are  lots of funny incidents, as Annabelle adjusts to new family life, new school, to a dog, and to boys.  For girls of 9-12 years.


Teenage reading

***Knightley and Son, by Rohan Gavin.  PB from Bloomsbury.  RRP  $14.99

Darkus is an unusual boy—at the very least eccentric.  He wears exotic clothes, somewhat in the style of Sherlock Holmes, is superb at spelling and schoolwork which interests him, and also in solving mysteries.  The biggest mystery of his life is why his father has been in a coma for over four years. His father had been expert in solving crimes with a somewhat supernatural twist to them—mysteries which defeated Scotland Yard.   Each week Darkus sits by his father’s bedside and tells him what case notes of his fathers, he has read, or what other activities he has followed.  Darkus’ mum Tilly has a new boyfriend, but when Alan Knightley awakens suddenly from his coma, he and Darkus need to work together to solve the latest problem crime involving a group called the Combination.  This is a well thought out detective story—fanciful, yes, but an engrossing read for readers of 11-14 years.

The Last Thirteen, by James Phelan.  Books 2 and 3.  In PB from Scholastic, and RRP $14.99 each

I reviewed the first of this series late last year—I feel that the books need to be read in sequence, as each book introduces another of the last thirteen teenagers, each who experiences nightmares which helps them see aspects of the future as they are to come to pass, unless the events are avoided by the intervention of someone with prior knowledge.  The key to the last thirteen is Sam, as he is the one who can identify the other dreamers who will help to defeat the evil Solaris, who wants to rule the world.  For 10-14 year olds.

The Messengers, by Edward Hogan.  PB from Walker Books.  RRP about $15

I found this to be quite a spooky story.  When Frances goes to stay with her aunt for the holidays, she finds that she can see, in a postcard, an event which involves the death of someone, before the death happens.  At the same time she meets a man, much older than herself called Peter, who seems very unhappy.  Frances learns that it is because Peter has the same skill as Frances, to foresee nasty events in the future that he is unhappy.  The cover of the book is dark and the story is sombre.  For mature readers of 14-16 years.

1841, 1931, Do you Dare?  By A Lloyd, and S Mitchell.  PBs from Penguin. RRP  $14.99 each

These are the first two in a series of historical fiction designed specifically for boys of about 9-12 years.   The setting of each is historically correct, and each story is about a boy whose family has a battle, in tough times, to earn enough money. In 1841 Jem has to befriend a bushranger, and deceive his nasty boss in order to save the bushrangers life.  In fact, Jem is able to turn what could have been a very nasty situation into a real plus for himself, his father, and his two friends, Alfie and Tommy.  In 1931, in the Great Depression Tom and Frank, in the middle of suburban Melbourne go against their friends at a time when only boys play cricket, to let a girl join their cricket team.  Both are good stories, and with clear relatively large font, should have appeal to boys who are not used to reading fiction or history.

Racing the Moon, by Michelle Morgan.  PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP  $15.99

Another story which is set in the midst of the Great Depression.  Joe Riley has a good racket going, as he gambles on billycart racing, and raises money by selling eggs from his uncle’s farm to local people.  Joe doesn’t really know how his father makes money but he has the suspicion that it might not be legal.  Joe is bright, and his parents decide to give him a good start by sending him to a catholic boarding school in north Sydney.  Joe has lots of unpleasant experiences, and ends up running away to home a couple of times.  When he is then sent to a reform school in southern NSW, run by some nuns, Joe learns to fend for himself, and thrives on the open-air work.  This is a really good story, with strong touches of authenticity, not least when he has to deal with perverts at the boarding school.

***A Very Singular Guild, by Catherine Jinks. City of Orphans.  PB from Allen and Unwin.  RRP $14.99

This is the third and final instalment of the trilogy about Birdie McAdam, Ned Roach, Jem and of course the bogle  hunter Alfred Bunce.  This story marks the end of an era as London’s water and sewerage systems     start to become mechanised, and the crew realise that the end of the bogle is in sight.  The nemesis of the group from the first instalment, John Gammon is finally beaten, and Birdie, Jem and Ned all realise that they have a better future ahead of them as they obtain more education, and opportunities. The future also looks good for Alfred.  This has been a wonderful series—easy to read, intriguing, and with wholesome attitudes towards children.

Tiger Fish, by David Metzenthen.  PB from Penguin. RRP  $17.99

This is quite a confronting novel, with teenager Ryan as the narrator.  Ryan comes from a tough family, and lives in the tough west of Melbourne.  A chance meeting in a surf shop in the local mall means that Ryan gets to know Ariel, and is smitten with attraction for her.  Ariel comes from a  family in worst straits than his own, and it is only when Ryan begins to find ways to help Ariel, that his life gains purpose, and a sense of direction.  Ariel often has to look after Kaydie, her younger sister, who has been traumatised by events in their past, and as the two girls come to rely on Ryan more and more, the more confident and positive a young man he becomes.  A strong realistic sounding novel, for readers of 13- years and older.

Quincy Jordan, by Jen Storer.  PB from Puffin.  RRP about $14.99

Quincy’s life falls in a heap when her father, a surgeon, leaves home in Sydney for another woman.  Quincy and her mother leave Sydney—Quincy has to leave her single sex private school, and finds, to her horror that she is now to attend a co-ed secondary school at Crystal Bay where they are to stay for an indeterminate length of time with her mother’s sister and family. The charming guy who appears is Harris, and while Quincy initially refuses to have anything to do with him, it ends up that he teaches her to surf, and they become an item.  How a city girl comes to admit that living in the country has a lot going for it!  For girls of 13-15 years.

After Eden, by Helen Douglas.  PB from Bloomsbury.  RRP  $15.99

This book has lots of appeal for teenage girls.  There is heart stopping romance, as Ryan seeks out Eden, and Eden falls hopelessly in love with Ryan; action, because there is a mystery about Ryan—he is a bit of a geek, and seems strangely out of date with modern life, food and habits; time travel—now, that brings the start into play, and the story has a few strange twists to it, as well as a strong message about the need for us to conserve our earth and its resources.  Highly recommended for girls of 13-15 years.

**Butterfly Grave, by Anne Cassidy.  PB from Bloomsbury.  RRP  $15.99

In this,  “The Murder Notebooks Book 3” the story continues the search by Rose, and her half brother Joshua, to find Rose’s mother, and Josh’s father, who have been missing for five years. As the pair head north in England to spend Christmas with Josh’s uncle Stu, they learn that he is in hospital after a fall over a cliff.  Skeggsie, Josh’s mate is with them and the mystery begins as their vehicle is followed as they travel.  Rose and Josh have had several hints that their missing parents are not dead, but involved with some  weird undercover work, and in this volume as they work out who has been following them, and the mystery surrounding Stuart’s fall, Rose and Josh are horrified when Skeggsie is killed, but the death brings them closer to finding their parents, and for the first time, they receive some up to date footage and messages.  It’s a good story, but only if you have read the previous two books.  For teenagers.

Chasing the Valley.  Borderlands, by Skye Melki-Wegner.  PB from Random House.  RRP $17.99

After their success in destroying the kings’ secret airbase, Danika and her companions, Prince Lukas, Clementine, Maisy and the twins, are on the run again, trying to reach the Magnetic Valley, where they will be safe from the evil hunter Sharr, and those who support him.  Danika is misled, and then betrayed by Silver and Radnor, and knocked on the head.  There is quite a deal of gratuitous violence in this story.  It is told in the present tense, which gives added immediacy to the story.  Each of the companions has a special magical ability—Danika’s is with magnetic force, Maisy is able to direct and control fire—and all these skils are needed as the guerrilla battle continues.  When Prince Lukas is captured, the threat to all of them is just so much greater, that the tensions and pressure escalates.  Finally however, they are all reunited, and almost at the entrance to the valley.  We have to wait for the final instalment to this engaging, and fast moving story.  For readers of 13-16 years.

Lockdown, by Alexander Gordon Smith.  PB from Allen and Unwin.  RRP  $13.99

This is a horror story. It is one of the most gruesome and horrifically unpleasant stories for teenagers or adults that I have ever tried to  read.  There was no pleasure in it—there are few books for teenagers that I do not finish, but this is one of them, and I will not read the two sequels to the trilogy.

Fools’ Gold, by Phillipa Gregory.  PB from Simon and Schuster.  RRP  $19.99 ebook $11.99

This is the third instalment of the Order of Darkness books about the young Vatican envoy, Luke Vero, and the two women who are sharing his voyage, and are more or less under his protection.  In this story, the romance between Luca and Isolde, hinted at only in the first two books, begins to blossom, under the heady events of the Carnival in Venice, and their attempts to solve the mystery of the alchemist, and whether he has really been able to turn base metals into gold. Whilst this story is fiction, the author has cleverly used historical knowledge about the alchemists, and the trade in gold nobles, to blend in well with her tale.   This is an excellent story, and I look forward to the fourth volume of this series, due to be released later this year.  For readers of 13-16 years, and interested adults.

Nine Open Arms, by Benny Lindelauf.  PB from Allen and Unwin.  RRP  $16.99

This book has been translated from the Dutch by John Nieuwenhuizen, but there are some expressions and words which just do not translate— in the context of the story this is not important and there is a glossary at the back for those who are interested in the detail.  The story is of a poor family,  motherless, with seven children, a father who has never settled to the one job, and a grandmother who holds the family together, and works really hard. When  the family is forced to move house again, this time  it is right to the edge of the town, and a totally decrepit  large house with the hint of ghosts, and a roof which leaks badly, but with enough space to set up a workshop where the father hopes to learn to make and sell cigars.  There is a mystery of some sort surrounding the position of the house too, and it is quite and involved story, but easy to read, and  quite touching as the family learns to work their way through  all the misadventures which crop up, until finally,  the angst between the grandmother and the dad is resolved, the time for worrying is over, and the future seems secure.  Good reading for 12-15 year olds.











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