April 13

Night Vision by Rory Barnes

Kosta is a troublemaker. His mouth gets him into trouble. He is broke, on a good behavior bond, and he keeps having someone else’s dream. What on earth is going on? The Kosta finds himself an easy job, reading to some old guy in a hursing home who is nearly blind. Kosta sees it as a way to get some quick cash and even partially restore a reputation.

But old Jack wants Kosta to read his old diaries… Boring… However the diaries provide a link between the two, and even a clue to the mysterious dreams.

This is a very good book about youth and old age. It’s about how things change, but also how they remain the same.

Students have loved Rory Barnes’ Horsehead series. It will be interesting to see if they enjoy this as much once I give it some promotion.

April 12

Ivy and The Merrybegot by Julie Hearn

I try to write these reviews as quickly as possible after finishing the novel. But sometimes it pays to wait.

A couple days ago I finished Ivy by Julie Hearn and at that stage I was ready to give it a poor review, along the lines of ‘Why did I waste my time?’ The book appeared pointless. The plot going nowhere. In the opening chapters Ivy was a cute 5 year old living in East London. Running away from her first day at school, she encounters a criminal gang whose specialty is enticing upper class children into alleys and robbing them of their clothes. Ivy looks so innocent that she is perfect bait, and thereby she gets her first job, and her first laudanum.

Then the action leaps ‘some years on’. Ivy is a young lady now, back with her family and hopelessly addicted to laudanum. She is spotted by a no-name Pre-Raphaelite painter who immediately wants her for his model. The family extracts her fee, and she is soon employed. Ho-hum. The painter’s mother is jealous of her beauty and attempts to kill Ivy. (Moderate interest).

When I finished the book I began to wonder about the author. Her previous book, The Merrybegot had been shortlisted for the Guardian Award, so the author couldn’t be all bad. A quick trip to the library, and I had a copy of the Merrybegot to read.

merrybegot.jpg

This second book had more plot, more action. And it had the advantage of a setting in the 17th century witch trials that took place in England and the American colonies, always a popular setting. The plot was familiar… ‘good’ girls for their own selfish reasons accuse the local healer, an old woman with a young apprentice, of witchcraft…the regional ‘expert’ arrives and collects the necessary evidence…the old healer dies and the young apprentice escapes…the ‘good’ girls avoid all unpleasant consequences for thier misbehavior. A familiar plot because it really happened again and again in ‘Christian’ Europe.

But Hearn gives the familiar tale a freshness. Everyone, including the minister’s daughters, encounters mythical beings in their daily lives, pixies, fairies, etc. These supernatural beings interact with our world in very real ways playing tricks, answering questions, protecting those who protect them. I can easily say that I really enjoyed this book.

So why was I bored by one book and delighted in the second? The more that I thought about Hearn’s writing the more I began to understand what a wonderful gift she has made available to today’s children. I believe Julie Hearn has the amazing ability to portray young girl’s lives through history in a way that honestly and realistically explains the powerlessness of females in society for most of Western Civilisation. Many other authors give their historical female characters a modern personality and modern social values. This may be an attempt to make the characters more real for the modern reader. But Julie Hearn keeps her characters true to their historical context. Ivy wanted to leave modeling and work with her friend in the first Lost Dog’s Home, but her family forced her to continue because she was their primary breadwinner. This force included kidnapping. Nell, the merrybegot, is blamed for the death of a baby simply because she attended the birth as an unmarried midwife.

I’ll be watching for more books by this author.

April 12

Monica Bloom by Nick Earls

Monica Bloom is the latest offering by Nick Earls to his adoring reading public. Once again he has produced a book that will be enjoyed equally by his adult fans as well as his many readers still at school.

Matt Sherman is in his final year at school, and at the start of the year it seems that everything will simply continue as it always has. His father is state manager of a mining company, his mother spends her time as the supportive wife, providing dinners for visiting bigwigs and Nick just goes to school and stays out of trouble. But then the twins who live next door introduce him to their cousin from Dublin.

The next thing you know Matt’s father is on the news, his mother is looking for work and Matt is in love with the mysterious girl he has only met 5 times. How Nick Earls gets from A to B is simple, charming, and for those of us who are over 25, nostalgic.

When I finished this book and set it aside, my first thought was ‘What a wonderful read’. The language is simple, the characters are engaging and the plot appears simple with many layers of complexity hidden below the surface. I almost wish I had time to read it again.

April 12

The Mystery of the Ruby Glasses by Lindsay Cripps

Shey has been dumped with her artist uncle while her parents go on holidays. His house is full of paintings and Shey is BORED until she discovers an old pair of opera glasses studded with rubies.

Then Shey happens to look at a painting through the glasses and finds herself inside the action of the painting. Imagine her surprise as she is racing a sandstorm in ancient Egypt! And what is Uncle Ruben doing inside these paintings as well? Are there really clues left by his missing wife to enable Ruben to follow her?

This book is almost impossible to place in one simple category or genre. There is a fair bit of adventure, a touch of mystery and even the love story between Ruben and Maria. But mostly it is a gentle fantasy full of magic and wonderful stories based on some very real artwork. Just some of the paintings included in the story are
Children’s Games by Peter Bruegel
The Pyramids Road by Edward Lear

April 12

The Great Chocolate Cake Bake-off by Philippa Werry

Nicholas is boringly normal. He’s not much good at anything, but not too bad at everything. He lives in an unusual family, his mother is dead and his father is a sculptor, and Zac, well he is just a little brother. And then Ruby moves next door. Ruby is the world expert on everything…. especially cooking because she watches all those cooking shows on TV and she know how it should be done.

“Boys can’t cook” says Ruby, and to prove her wrong Nicholas starts. First boiled eggs, and gradually expanding his efforts until eventually he discovers a talent for baking. But is his talent enough to get him into the finals of the Great Chocolate Cake Bake-off? Can even his ‘secret ingredient’ compete against the daughter of the professional caterer.

This books is very light and funny, with strong characters and outlandish situations that somehow become real in the context of the story. Nicholas and his family are certainly not the stereotypical children’s book family, just like Ruby and her mother are unusual. This book is certain to provide good entertainment, although the reader may have to push through some slow passages.

April 11

Gravity by Scott Gardner

Once again Scott Gardner has produced a wonderful, readable book for boys about real life and real relationships. I find it amazing that our reluctant readers enjoy his books so much. After all the books are about people, not action, and most of them are well over the page count that these boys are usually willing to tackle.

This book opens with Adam celebrating a footy win, as most kids in the country do, with too much drink. After the celebrations are over he starts the two hour drive home, and nearly makes it before the ute leaves the road. The copper finds him, breath tests, and Adam is asked to drop his license into the station the next day. Instead Adam runs, heading off to Melbourne to find his mother who left the family a few months before.

Gravity is about running away and coming home. It’s about finding the courage to change what you can’t face. It’s about identifying your true friends. And it is about facing responsibilities. Unusual themes in a book that boys 15+ want to read.

April 11

Under the Persimmon Tree by Suzanne Fisher Staples

This book has been around for a few years now and one of many sitting on the library shelf untouched. However, someone who loved it had recommended it to a reading list and I volunteered to read it. Am I glad that I did.

Since September 11 the media has been having a field day with Muslims and the Islamic faith. On our nightly news programs they are clearly identified as evil, blood thirsty fanatics. This book presents very clearly another point of view.

Najmah is a young Afghan girl living under that Taliban. Her family has taught her to keep her head down and not attract attention, do her chores without question and help wherever she can. She is bothered by her older brother, but what little girl anywhere in the world isn’t. And then one day the Taliban come to her village searching for food. They take everything, including a newborn kid (goat variety) Najmah is hand rearing because its mother rejected it. Her father is selected for military service (along with almost every other adult male in the village). When Nur (the older brother) objects, he gets drafted as well. Suddenly Najmah is forced to become the responsible adult in the family as her mother, a few days from giving birth, slides into depression. But Najmah manages to keep the home functioning and even look after the animals that were grazing in the mountains when the Taliban came. That is until the bombs start dropping. The American planes hunting Bin Laden destroy Najmah’s village killing her mother and baby brother. Suddenly she is truly alone in the world and joins a refugee family heading through the mountains to Pakistan.

In Pakistan Elaine has opened a school for refugee children. Elaine grew up in New York, working as a teacher and attending night classes. Here she met a fascinating young doctor and fell in love. He was from Afghanistan and a Muslim. Elaine studied his faith as part of seeking to know him better, and found that it made more sense to her than the fundamental Christianity her parents had promoted.

I find it amazing this book got published in the States. It is very pro-Islamic and does not support American military action in Afghanistan. Elaine is portrayed as an intelligent woman who knows her own mind, and voluntarily accepted the customs and dress code required to live in a conservative Muslim society. Najmah is very much the victim of war and as such she is portrayed as a very sympathetic character. However, her determination to return to her home in Afghanistan leaves her very few options for her future.

This book is a wonderful read. The story is not bright and cheerful, but rather poignant and positive. I certainly will be promoting it to students. It is too important a publication to allow it to gather dust.

April 11

Listening to Mondrian by Nadia Wheatley

Before I begin, I will own up. Ten years ago The Night Tolkien Died was on my reading list and I never got around to it. I had recently read a turgid, neverending novel by Nadia Wheatley and somehow could not motivate myself to tackle another huge tome. Had I actually read the book, then this review would probably be radically different.

As it is, I read this collection of short stories with great enjoyment. Each story had a clear narrative and engaging characters. The recurring theme for each is freedom. In each story the main character explores who they are and how they fit into their family, their community and their world. Freedom is not isolation.

Some of the stories are simple and straightforward, even to the point of predictable. “Mum’s Date” is a tale of a woman who has been out of the dating scene for many years and her teenage daughter who watches her prepare for a ‘big date’. As an adult, I could see the final outcome, but I doubt many kids would. And as an opposite point of view ‘Land/Scape’ looks at a father and son getting acquainted on a disasterous camping trip. The son has lots of preconcieved ideas about his father based on his profession, but all of these are questioned during the trip.

Probably what I liked most about the collection is the fact that each of the stories made sense. I am not fond of the current literary practice of minimalism in short story writing. Many modern short stories are so packed with symbolism and cut to such a short word limit that the story makes no sense at all on the first reading. Sorry, but I still read for entertainment and I believe many people do.

The one criticism that I do have is that most of this collection is not new. It seems to be that Nadia Wheatley is not writing very much currently (like in the last decade) so her publishers are rehashing old stories, putting them in a new cover with a new title and hoping to sell hundreds or even thousands of copies. It appears that one of the 8 stories in this release is even on its third publication. To my mind, this says rip-off.

April 2

Shadows in the Mirror by Cameron Nunn

Once again Black Dog Books has a winner. I really would like to meet their talent scout because again this is a book by a first time author. One of my personal guides to the quality of a book that I have read is how long the story line sticks with me. Since I read a book a day on average, a plot that sticks is important. And this book has it. Several time in the past few weeks I have reached to recommend it as ‘just the right thing’.

This book appears on the surface to be a true condemnation of private school education, especially boarding schools. However the situations that are found at this school can also be true of many workplaces or other communities that are found in our society.

David has been attending Hamilton College since year 7. He has learned the rules, don’t dob, keep your head down, say nothing to attract the attention of the bullies (teachers or senior students) and work on your rugby because that will give you an edge. Just before he is due to start year 11, his parents decide to move to the country and a new job. David begs to be allowed to board, and his parents relent. His new roommate is Simon, the son of a rugby great. But Simon is no rugby star, in fact he is the ideal victim. When the bullying begins, Simon looks to David for support and friendship, but 5 years of training by the school has taught David that interference is useless.

To say much more would be to spoil the story. And that would be a shame. Just accept my recommendation. This book will make you think about violence in our society, real and implied.

April 2

Zac Power series by H. I. Larry

I picked up this book prepared to hate it. I am really not a fan of the boys spy adventure stories. I have always hated James Bond films and tolerated the Alex Rider books because it is part of my job.

And this book is no different. Another young super cool spy kid is snatched away from his family (who are also spies so they don’t worry) and sent off to some remote location with a couple of gadgets and his wits. Within 24 hours Zac has to complete some mission that has baffled adults in order to save the world. Need I say more?

Get Smart it aint. There is nothing for adults in this childish adventure. However, I expect this book will be extremely popular with many boys. The Alex Rider books are huge for most young readers and many reluctant reader boys will need to be convinced that they will enjoy them before they will even take it off the shelf. However Zac Power is short, illustrated and large type. It can be read in a day easily. In spite of my personal bias, it’s not a bad introduction to the whole spy thriller genre.