January 30

The Birthmark by Beth Montgomery

The novel is set in the Pacific Islands, a location well known to Beth as she has worked as a teacher there and is married to a Solomon Islander. She not only captures the variety of natural settings on the page, but also the modern Islander society and the tension between the poor local population and the tourism they are dependent upon.

Her main characters are also very well defined. Hector and Lily are struggling to find a future in a world of parental neglect, poverty and boredom. Their family lives are equally as important to the story as the adventure. By making the two characters friends rather than siblings, Beth is able to provide a broader spectrum of daily Islander existence.

Hector and Lily’s adventure is linked to the past by the parallel story of two young lovers during the time of Japanese occupation. Tepu is forced to work for the Japanese to construct an airfield and keep it in repair in spite of the frequent bombings. Like Japanese prisoners everywhere, each day is a struggle to survive. Edouwe manages to stay on the Island in order to care for her grandparents who have been confined to the leper colony for many years.

The adventure begins when Hector and Lily find a Japanese sword, a relic from the war. After Lily hides it away at home, she starts to experience dreams of a angry Japanese soldier. The plot of the novel involves solving the mystery of the sword and resolving the crimes of the past.

Although the cover of the book promotes it as a rollicking adventure story, I feel it has far more in common with Parvana and Secrets in the Fire than Alex Rider.
The structure of the book is also a little disconcerting. Tepu’s story of the war opens each chapter, and then suddenly the story moves to Hector and Lily’s modern tale. Since the two stories don’t link until the very end of the book, I feel that they might be better told as separate chapters. If this series is intended, as many are today, for reluctant readers, my experience has shown that shorter chapters are better.

I also feel Beth as included a lot of unnecessary gimmicks in her story. The birthmark is totally irrelevant, serving only to set Lily apart as different, and therefore she must be psychic. The American girl, Christine, who gets involved with Hector and Lily’s adventure plays no significant part in the plot and her relationship with the Islander children strains the credibility of the novel.

Don’t get me wrong. I will be happy to put this book on the shelf in the library. It will add to the range of fiction I suggest to middle school girls who are looking to read something modern about life in other countries. But I won’t be promoting it as one of the 10 best books I have read this year.

January 30

My Big Birkett by Lisa Shanahan

What a lovely, funny book!! For an author whose experience is in writing for younger children, this YA novel has a freshness about its style that is thoroughly enjoyable.

Briefly, if such a book can be summarized…Gemma is a 14 year old trying to find her own place in the world. At the start of the book her older sister has just become engaged to a boy that she has known for only a few weeks. But Debbie never does anything by half measures. Gemma gets dragged through all the wedding preparations, up to and including being flower girl in a swan costume. At school Gemma has fallen for a boy who doesn’t even know she exists, and to get near to him she decides to audition for the school play. She promptly gets paired off for rehearsal with the school freak. And a birkett? Well that is the Stone family term for a massive temper tantrum. Debbie and her father regularly indulge.

This book is a lot of fun. And those familiar with The Tempest may find literary allusions. What is it about Shakespeare? (See my review of Macbeth and Son.)

January 28

Bye Beautiful by Julia Lawrinson

When does a history begin? As I was categorizing this book I was tempted to tick Historical Fiction because this book is set in the 1960s – history for many of its readers. But fortunately, or unfortunately, I was alive in the 60s. So I can vouch for the accuracy of the social history contained here.

Briefly, the story is of two sisters moving to a small town in WA. Father is the local cop and Mum is a housewife. Both girls are treated as children even though Sandy is 14 and Marianne is 18. But then Marianne discovers that by getting engaged, she is suddenly considered an adult.

But the town heartthrob notices both sisters, and Marianne’s fiance is back in Perth. You can guess the story from there. However, I doubt very much that you will guess the consequences, at least not unless you also grew up in the 60s.

As always you can count on Lawrinson to challenge her readers. In Bye Beautiful she challenges them to consider carefully their personal morality and even the purpose of society’s rules. Although set 40 years ago, this is certainly a story for today’s youth.

January 28

Foundling by D.M. Cornish (Part 1 of the Monster Blood Tattoo)

Not all monsters look like monsters. Some everyday folk are the worst monsters of all …

Doesn’t that line conjure up images.

In this opening book of a trilogy DM Cornish creates a wonderful set of characters, monsters and all. His main character, Rossamund is a boy living in an orphanage. Yes he has a girls name. Character building isn’t it. At the start of the book Rossamund is chosen for an apprenticeship in service to the Emperor. And so begins an adventure including monsters, theives, and even some everyday folk (who may be monsters).

Cornish has created a wonderful fantasy world in the classic style, filled it with adventure and good characters and written a book of over 400 pages that many 10-14 year olds will find hard to put down. So often it is hard to create a world, populate it and set up an adventure without everything getting bogged down and unreadable. But Cornish manages to keep the excitement up and the story captivating.

January 27

Number 8 by Anna Fienberg

Much to my surprise, I enjoyed this book very much. It’s a light read and very difficult to categorize because it touches on many, many themes. It is a book about life at school, an book about finding friends, a book about becoming yourself, an adventure story, and about the importance of family. If I ticked all those categories on the blog, there would be no space left for anything else.

Jackson, the narrator, is a young teenager barely managing the stress of daily life. His fascination for numbers borders on obsessive/compulsive. To his mind the number 8 is perfection and number 7 is trouble. So it is safe to make friends with the girl who lives across the road in number 68, but that car with the license plate reading 777 is danger.  Jackson has problems with a bully at school and his Mum, a professional singer, can’t seem to hold a job, or even stay in one place very long at all.

Year 7 holds all kinds of stresses for Jackson, and the reader is included in all of them. We share his first kiss. We are there when he rescues the primary school boy from bullies. And it is this very immediacy that keeps us reading caught up in Jackson’s story as though it were our own.

January 27

Aliki Says by Irini Savvides

When this book first came in I was dying to read it, but I do have to discipline myself or else I end up with a huge pile of bad or boring books without a gem to relieve the monotony.

So finally it came to the top of my reading list. And it was worth the wait.

As the age of the population changes, how many young adults today are going to be confronted with the increasing fraility of grandparents and great grandparents. In this book two cousins/best friends are each facing unusual challenges from their  ‘olds’ just as they prepare to commence year 12. For Liza it’s the arrival of her grandmother torn from a small Greek village and dropped into Sydney so that Liza and her family can look after her as Alzheimer’s takes control. For Aliki it’s the sudden move out of Sydney away from her friends and her school to the country that her father has decided to make.

As the book gradually weaves its magic, the reader discovers that the two events are linked and the connection has something to do with the death of Aliki’s mother in a car accident many years before. I’ll say no more.

Irini Savvides’ books work on many levels. First the plot is interesting, unusual and engrossing. Secondly her writing style is that of a very comfortable storyteller. The reader is compelled to follow along and even though there are multiple narrators, there is no difficulty in keeping the storyline in clear focus. And for those looking for symbolism and other literary devices, I’ll just suggest that you revise the myth of Arachne before you start this book.

January 27

Walter the Farting Dog Goes on a Cruise

I guess it is only fair that occasionally I list a book that is absolutely awful. And this one qualifies.

Walter the Farting Dog is a series of books about a dog with intestinal problems that gets caught in impossible situations and only high air pressure can get him out. Naturally Walter comes supplied with ample amounts of the air under pressure and rescues himself and his whole family.

This time Walter joins his humans for a vacation cruise. Naturally his presence makes breathing uncomfortable for all the rest of the passengers, so Walter end up on a lifeboat floating behind the cruise ship. Inevitably the power fails on the ship and everyone is dependent on Walter’s fart to navigate back to shore.

Obviously a silly storyline. Really, I could find nothing of value in this book for children. It caters to a natural fascination with toilet humour shared by young children, but why does it take three authors and an illustrator to put together a book whose only purpose is to generate profits for the publisher.

January 16

The Little Hero by Andrew Crofts

Everyone has seen the ads – ‘Buy Now. Genuine Persian Carpets. Only $80, This weekend only.’ The Little Hero fills in the story behind these ads and makes very clear the true cost of those rugs.

Iqbal Mash was a very little boy when his older brother decided that he wanted to get married. There was no money in the family for the bride price, so they asked the local carpet maker for a loan, which 4 year old Iqbal would work to pay off. And so began 6 years of 12-16 hour working days behind locked doors in dark, cramped, and unsafe factories.

Iqbal had the courage to escape, twice. The first time he was returned to work by adults he trusted. But the second time he was found by a group of university students who were working to release children from their bonded labour. Over time Iqbal became an international spokesman for bonded children throughout Pakistan.

And then, at 12 years of age, he was assassinated.

This books is Iqbal’s true story, told to Andrew Crofts by the young man who found Iqbal and gave him a voice. This young man is now in hiding in Europe, powerless to help any more children.

This book contains a very powerful story, and one that needs to be told widely, again and again. Unfortunately the writing style resembles more a newspaper report than an engaging story. Sadly, Iqbal doesn’t reach out and grab your attention. Andrew Crofts should have read books likeChinese Cinderella or Mao’s Last Dancer, clearly chosen his target audience, and then tried to tell the story with a strong first person narrative.

In the afterword Andrew Crofts explains that a film is being made of the story. Good!

January 16

Pagan’s Daughter by Catherine Jinks

As you might have guessed by now, I have lots of favourite authors. Catherine Jinks caught my attention many years ago when she wrote the first of the Pagan series. After that I stayed pretty close to her adult fiction, and left her YA and children’s books to find their own audience.

A year ago I sighted a manuscript copy of the new Pagan novel, and I had to return it to the owner!! But finally I got a chance to read the book. If anything, it is better than I expected.

For those new to the Pagan series, Pagan was a young Arab boy living in Jerusalem during the Crusades, he is befriended by a Templar knight and returns to Europe in his service. Eventually Pagan becomes a priest and even a bishop, and finds a young disciple in Isidore.

Along the way Pagan fell in love and had a brief affair with a French woman. Both of their faiths denied them the option of being together, so they regretfully parted. Pagan did not know that he had left the woman pregnant.

At the start of this book Babylonne has almost a Cinderella lifestyle, that is Cinderella before the prince. Her family continually punish her for being the illegitimate child of a Catholic priest. When she is faced with a repulsive marriage, she runs away from home and literally runs into a priest named Isidore. Although she is Protestant, this priest takes her under his wing, and doesn’t appear to want anything in return. Gradually the reader works out Isidore’s motives, but Babylonne remains suspicious.

I found the book fascinating. It could be my memory, but there seems to be much more action and adventure in this volume of the tale. And Jinks has a wonderful feisty character in Babylonne. However, I am not sure what young readers will make of the religious warfare. True these internal crusades were happening in France in the 13th century, but how much understanding will kids today have of the motivation behind the slaughter that took place. I look forward to finding out.

January 12

Ads R Us by Claire Carmichael

She has done it again! Somehow Claire Carmichael can take current technology trends and project slightly into the future and come up with a great adventure story that doesn’t sound trite, or date too quickly. Most SciFi writers look at the distant future, it is much harder to look just around the corner.

I first encountered this style of writing from her with her Virtual Realities series. Remember when the media was all about how computer games were going to become all encompassing environments. Well in this series of books Carmichael suggests that a virtual reality monster becomes able to enter our reality and creats havoc.

In Ads R Us, Carmichael looks at current communications technologies. She proposes that in a few years phones, computers, TVs and all the other individual technologies will amalgamate into one general personal communicator. And to keep the service affordable to everyone, the communications are mostly continuous adverts. Naturally the advertisors will want maximum exposure, so the personal communicator can never be turned off.

Into this environment, drop a young man who has been raised in a Ludite farming community. Suddenly everyone sees him as a perfect test case to assess the effectiveness of the advertising. And so begins the adventure…

I see this book as a good introduction to SciFi for young readers who have not encountered the genre before. As with Carmichael’s other books, the environment is close enough to our own so that stark realists (and many young readers are) won’t be put off by the strangeness. However, some readers my find that the book takes too long to get to the action. There is a lot of scene setting, be warned.