March 31

Dear Jack by Tammi Sauer

If you look at this review and the one just following it, you will think that I have spent the last few days in deep depression reading tear-jerkers. No I haven’t, it just somehow feels easier to review books of a similar theme at the same time.

Lacey is an only child, and likes it that way. However, Mum and Dad have decided that now that Lacey is nearly full grown, they would like another baby before they are too old. After months of trying, finally Mum is pregnant. That in itself is enough for many young adult novels.

But Tammi Sauer adds another twist, and one that could be considered quite controversial. As the medical tests to confirm that Lacey’s mother is healthy enough to carry the baby take place, the doctor discovers that Mum has breast cancer. Mum decides to keep the baby and even refuses chemotherapy in an effort to ensure that the baby has the best chance at a healthy birth. This decision is effectively a death sentence.

As time passes Lacey begins to hate this unborn child that is killing her mother. Even her father has moments when he resents his wife’s decision. But Mum remains determined.

The final chapters of this book are heartbreaking. I made the mistake of finishing it in a train, madly dabbing at the tears in my eyes. Tammi Sauer has written a truly moving book that will stay with the reader far longer than it takes to read.

March 31

Allie McGregor’s True Colours by Sue Lawson

Black Dog Books are a relatively new publisher in the Australian children’s market. And yet everything that I have read from their list has been well worth the time reading it. Allie McGregor is no exception.

Allie is a typical adolescent girl. In her eyes, life is a disaster with no rescue in sight. She suddenly has to share a room with her little sister (and the family of mice she keeps as pets). Her father is a breakfast radio announcer who is getting great mileage out of jokes about “The Hormonal One” in the family. Her best friends at school won’t speak to each other, and each of them are insisting that Allie show her loyalty by snubbing the other friend. Her brother is, like brothers everywhere, absolutely revolting. So far this sounds like a typical chick lit novel.

But what sets this book apart is the fact that Allie’s Mum has cancer….

That little detail sets this book apart from many others. Allie herself is a much more complex character. Are her tantrums just an indirect way of screaming at the world at the injustice of her mother’s illness. At times Allie needs to shoulder responsibilities that her friends know nothing about, simply because her mother cannot be ‘normal’ all the time.

This book is very positive with a warm, life affirming ending that is intended to bring tears to your eyes. Tears of joy or pride rather than sadness I hasten to add. This book is well worth the time required in reading it.

March 31

The House by Danielle Steel

I have been promoting chick lit to the girls at school all week, so when the school holidays began and I was selecting my first book to read, I just had to read some chick lit for myself. This Danielle Steel title had been sitting on my bookshelf for months, so it was time to read it and get rid of it.

And I got exactly what I expected. A formula romance novel that can be churned out by the dozens. Girl is nearing middle age, biological clock is running out. She works a 50 hour week and has little time for anything but the weekend companion that has been around for 4 years. Then the girl meets an older man, a father figure, who gives her wise advice. In spite of herself she takes the advice and ends up falling in love, having a child and married (in that order).

And this book has weddings galore. In the single year that passes between the covers, three generations of the family meet Mr Right and say I Do. The grand house referred to in the title ends up as the location for all three weddings.

About three quarters of the way through the book as the first wedding passed, I started looking for the typical twist to the emotions. Was Mr Right going to get cold feet? Perhaps the Ex would return and she would be torn between her two true loves. But no, everything stayed sweet and predictable right to the end.

It is unusual today for a book to remain warm, life affirming and positive from cover to cover. The reader is never challenged to think in this book. But sometimes everyone needs to read some brain mush. And this is definitely a book for the beach.

March 24

Severo’s Intent and Saxton’s Secret by Fiona McIntosh

Fantastica… just the name of the series is great. And the 3 books I have read from series 1 and 2 promise to be a wonderful introduction to adventure fantasy writing for upper primary readers.

In the Shapeshifter series (series 2) Saxten discovers that he is the heir to the throne of Drumminor. As a baby he was hidden in our world to keep him safe from the evil sorcerer trying to take over his father’s kingdom. Now the king has been poisoned and Saxten is drawn back to his homeland to take his place on the throne. Naturally all does not go well and as Saxten is moving through the land returning to his parents, he makes new friends, encounters adventures and difficulties, and learns how to become a good king.

 I like the simple way the story is told. It is a straightforward tale but McIntosh still retains a subtlety of language that is uncommon in ‘easy reads’. Some may find it frustrating that the story progresses little in each book, and then the reader needs to wait until the next installment is published. However, I like the fact that the short books (well under 100 pages) are likely to encourage readers who would refuse to pick up a book of 350 pages which this tale will be when complete.

My one concern is the cover of the book. It is important that a series be recognizable, however the Fantastica books all look the same at first glance. And that even includes the first series by Kim Wilkins. Perhaps a colour change, even subtle like the Deltora Quest books for each series might make each series of books more distinct.

March 23

A Boy, a Bubble and a Whole Lot of Trouble by LM Jesse

Bubble gum. What kid doesn’t love a bubble gum contest? And what if the prize for winning the contest was a new mountain bike? This is the very simple idea for a gently humourous book.

Terry Gatsby is proud of his bubblegum blowing skill. And he figures that with a week’s regular practice he can win this contest easily. However, his father has other ideas, and when the bubblegum ban is proclaimed, Terry is devastated. (And you have to laugh at the restaurant scene that precedes the ban.)

Enter Eleanor and her magic bubblegum. Terry discovers that when he blows a bubble with these gumballs any wish he makes is instantly granted. First lesson, be careful what you wish for. Second lesson, plan your wishes and don’t get carried away. Third lesson, sometimes winning isn’t the most important thing.

Learning is never easy, and this book is filled with funny ‘learning’ experiences for Terry. The humour is much more gentle than the slapstick of Paul Jennings or Andy Griffiths. Terry gets himself into trouble, but then has to successfuly extricate himself. The bubbles also put him into some situations where he needs to make important decisions, so the book isn’t completely silliness.

I have never heard of Lola Jesse as a children’s author, and I can find no reference to her on the web, so I will make the assumption that this is her first novel. But here I believe she has created a gentle read that may never win any prizes or awards, but it will amuse children everywhere.

March 23

Dreamrider by Barry Jonsberg

Every now and then you find a book that will keep you up half the night reading. This is my latest 1am turn the last page discovery. The scary thing is that you really only understand the subtlety in the writing on the second reading. And as yet I haven’t had the time to read it a second time.

Michael Terny is a troubled boy. He has been to seven schools in four years. His mother died when he was young and his father does his best. But Michael is overweight, bullied and incredibly lonely. This book is the story of Michael’s first week at school number 7. Sounds simple and straightforward but it isn’t.

Michael also believes he can lucid dream. He can control events from his dreams and even use them for out-of-body experiences. This almost supernatural ability empowers Michael as he struggles to deal with his daily existence.

Jonsberg is an English teacher in Australia’s far north. In all his writing he has successfully captured the voices of young adults today. Kiffo and Calma have become well known characters to many of today’s upper secondary students. But Dreamrider is different. It is a much stronger text and a more powerful, even frightening setting. The surprise ending is delivered with a punch, and then the reader realises that the hints were there all the way through the story. Certainly I for one was too caught up in the moving plot to stop and recognise the clues.

March 19

Refugee: The Diary of Ali Ismail by Alan Sunderland

Ali is chosen as the one member of his family to escape the Taliban by fleeing Afghanistan into Pakistan. From there a people smuggler is paid to get him to safety. “What is the value of a life? Four Thousand dollars.”

But safety is a relative term. Ali ends up on a fishing boat in the Indian Ocean without a motor. In the distance they see a naval vessel and think that they are saved! But the navy is Australian, and the policy is imprisonment. This book is set in the days when the refugees were welcomed to Australia by Woomera. The bulk of the story is about the long year spent in the desert, the changing mood of the place during the Tampa ‘crisis’ and the sudden tightening of regulations on September 11. The story is interspersed with hope, a day at the beach, even a chance to go to an Australian school. But these events only serve to highlight the bleakness of daily life.

This book is one of many quiet protests by children’s authors about the treatment of children in detention centres. It is told soberly, and realistically without the humour of Boy Overboard or Girl Underground. But it seems sanitised for younger readers, and that trivialises the experience. Sorry, but I think there is better writing available in this growing theme.

March 19

No More Borders for Josef by Diana Chase

It seems like refugees have been an issue in the media forever. And recently there has been an explosion of books for adolescents that seek to help Australian young adults understand the Islamic community. Lebanese, Pakistani, Afghan, Iraqi children appear again and again in literature for young people today. I am certainly not saying this is a bad thing.

Diana Chase is taking us back a few more years to the fighting in the Balkans. Remember Sarajevo? Occasionally a documentary on TV looks at the huge forensic problem of identifying the skeletons. This conflict popularised the term ethnic cleansing.

A few years ago John Heffernan wrote a poignant picture book called My Dog about this same conflict. Everyone was left wondering what happened to the little boy waiting for his mother to arrive.

In No More Borders for Josef, Diana Chase picks up a story where Heffernan left off. After Josef’s parents are killed an one of the surviving adult men in the village gather the women and children and send them off across the mountains to the border and a UN refugee camp. Josef at age 11 is torn between a sense of responsibility for the younger children and grandmothers and a desire to join the resistance. Given the task of scouting for the escaping group, he agrees to stay and help them to the border. This in itself is enough adventure for any book.

But Chase takes the story further. When the refugees arrive at the border they are taken in by the UN and the Red Cross does what it can to assist. Josef has arrived with nothing, no family, no money and only the clothes on his back. He cannot decide whether to stay in the camp or attempt to cross back over the border (now closed) to join the resistance.

Eventually the decision is made for him when the Red Cross locates his mother’s brother, now living in the Swan Valley. And Josef arrives in Australia….

All of the above happens in the first quarter of the book!! It only sets the scene for the story to follow. Hopefully I have said enough to give you an idea. The book only gets better from here.

March 18

Wolf of the Plains by Conn Iggulden

This is going to be a fun review. As soon as I closed the last page, my husband snatched the book and got started. From there it is going to my father-in-law. So I will need to write a review relying on my memory.

Temujin is the second son of his tribe’s leader. He was only eleven when his father was killed in an ambush. Although tribal tradition indicated that Temujin’s older brother should become leader, there is a coup and the young family is cast out of the tribe and left to starve. We know Temujin better as Ghenghis Khan, so obviously he didn’t starve. This book traces his early life, the years of hardship, and his gradual gathering of men to form one of the greatest fighting forces of all time. The book ends with Temujin looking longingly at China.

Iggulden has previously written a series of four books about the life of Julius Caesar. He demonstrated in that series that there was no way he was going to let historical fact get in the way of a good story. As a youth I fancied myself somewhat of a Latin scholar, so this approach disturbed me. Fortunately I know very little of the historical fact behind the life of Ghengis Khan, so I simply went along for the ride.

And what a ride!! This books catches you up and sweeps you along with the adventure. Hours disappear, and there is no place in the story to slow down, stop and reflect. In fact as I was reading this book, sleep became a luxury.