June 28

Lonesome Howl by Stephen Herrick

It seems like only yesterday that I read my first verse novel. And even now I struggle to explain how a series of poems can tell a story. But Herrick, and very few others, can do it. How much work does it take? The thought of telling a story especially a family drama like this one, while carefully crafting each poem is just mind blowing.

Any summary will necessarily sell the book short. The beauty is in the gentle unfolding of the people as you read each poem. But I will try…Jake is a country boy who has been raised with the story of a local wolf ranging the nearby hills. Next door is Lucy, a girl who is struggling to cope with her father’s cruelty. Together the two head for the hills, looking for the wolf or just some time out. They find much more than they expected.

I am a real fan of Herrick, and I have been since Love, Ghosts and Nosehair. This book is less confrontational than his other books for young adults, but still requires the reader to think. The characters live on after the book is finished, and that is amazing considering the poetry format. This book might just be a good introduction for those students ready for more than comedy of Do Wrong Ron and Naked Bunyip Dancing.

June 28

At Risk by Patricia Cornwell

In case you hadn’t guessed, I have a complete bookshelf at home of books that I buy for myself intending to read them someday. However reviewing duties and work related reading seem to get in the way of the stuff I want to read for myself. But recently I promised myself that for every 10 books I read for review or for work, one book will come off that shelf for reading. Otherwise, how can I keep buying more?

The first book off the shelf was one that had been waiting for several months, a surprisingly short Patricia Cornwell. This one is not from her famous Kaye Scarpetta series, and the marketing gurus seem to disagree whether it is a one off or the start of a new series. Certainly the characters can comfortably return, you discovered virtually nothing of their personal story in this short book. There is just a hint of more depth, but in 175 pages, there isn’t time to get to know her new investigators.

Cornwell sticks with her strengths, forensic investigation combined with a willingness to think outside the box allows the two detectives revisiting a cold case to solve it. There are a few red herrings and the old incompetent detective, now mercifully dead, and that is only to be expected.

Too much of the plot and the book will be spoiled. Everyone will have their own opinion of this book, just like all the rest Cornwell has written since Postmortem. I’ll just say that I suspect Patricia had some bills that needed paying, and quickly. Or her publisher was pushing her to complete a project for which there had been a healthy advance paid. That can be the only explanation for the quickest wrapping up of a mystery I have ever read in my life.

June 28

Menace by Gary Crew

Is there anything better than a rollicking good adventure story? Last week I was marketing this book to a group of students who had just finished studying the first book in the Sam Silverthorne series, and I got a very favourable response. I was talking about the predictability of the story and how that can be a positive thing, and the audience seemed to understand. We could talk in half sentences and still communicate effectively.

Now for all of you out there who have not read Quest, the first of the Sam Silverthorne series, you need a quick introduction to Sam. This is a young man living a wealthy lifestyle in Victorian London. His passion is for natural history, biology to the 21st century reader. All kinds of rare and wonderful animals fascinate him, as well as the common and the everyday pigeons. Steve Irwin and Sam Silverthorne would be soulmates.

Sam is also passionate about his father. In the first book, his father has disappeared in the wilds of Indonesia, and Sam sets out to find him. This time, father is set the task of investigating so very rare butterflies that have invaded London’s parks. Very unusual butterflies because they appear to feed on human blood. From the Natural History museum they discover that the offending butterflies are Chinese, so Sam and his father take off for Shanghai.

For this to be a true children’s adventure book, the adult needs to be removed from the story. Crew does this by having Sam’s father poisoned the night they arrive in China. Father is too ill to travel, so Sam is sent up the Yangtze river to find the mysterious butterflies. OK credibility is stretched, possibly a little too far, but if you come along for the ride, you will have fun.

This book is truly fun. There is a little bit of history teaching that takes place. What modern child understands the Opium Wars, and England’s part in encouraging narcotic addiction in China last century. By the end of this book they will understand the damage done to a society. But the teaching is subtle almost invisible between the adventures.

June 27

Obsession by Jonathan Kellerman

I really look forward to my annual Alex Delaware. How any author can maintain a character for 21 books is beyond me. Cornwell had a great idea with Kaye Scarpetta, but the series is now getting tired and just too improbable.

Kellerman does not have that problem, perhaps because he doesn’t try to push new boundaries with every book. He is comfortable with his characters. Alex Delaware is a child psychologist and most of the mystery involves psychoses that first revealed themselves in children. Now that the series has been going for many years, Kellerman has the added possibility of adults returning to see a friend from childhood, seeking his help with a new problem.

This book is one of the latter. Tanya was a child Delaware had treated for obsessive behavior. At the advanced age of 19, she makes contact again. Her mother had recently died leaving Tanya a message about a murder. Tanya was to tell Delaware about the death and seek his help finding out what happened.

Obsession brings back all kinds of favourite people from other books in the series. Naturally Robyn and Milo feature prominently, and Spike has been replaced by Blanche. But this time Rick gets to play a significant role, not just significant other, and Petra actually claims the case. And I love Raul. I hope he comes back regularly.

And as for the murder(s)? In the best of Kellerman (Mr) they are caused by truly mentally ill humanitiy. This book is well titled and the perp is totally believable.

And I loved the twist at the end!! Well done.

June 27

Infernal Devices by Philip Reeve

Sometimes I think I have read too much scifi in my life. I have been a fan of the genre for many many more years than most readers of this blog have been alive. My first introduction to the genre was the classic Asimov and Clarke space adventures and readers of my regular newspaper column know that I have still read everything I can get my hands on within the genre.

This series by Reeve had caught my eye, but with the pressure on my reading time I always made excuses not to pick these thick volumes up. Then a few weeks ago I needed to find some fresh scifi to promote to junior secondary classes. Book 4 in the series had just crossed my desk so I wandered out to the shelves to find and read book one.

And what a refreshingly original idea. Imagine far in the future when it is simply too difficult to get resources to a city quickly enough to meet the needs of the huge populations. What if (the crucial scifi question) someone invented a way to put the city on huge tractor wheels, well actually more like tanks, and move the city to the supplies. That inventor suddenly change the whole culture of humanity, and large cities started moving across the world devouring smaller towns and cities on its way.

Introduce into the story a young apprentice historian and a girl out to revenge her father’s murder and the stage is set for adventure. First the young pair get unceremoniously dumped out of London and left for dead, or as good as. But they survive long enough to meet all kinds of others in the wasteland fighting for freedom and survival against the all powerful cities.

As you can tell, I enjoyed the book. I found the story slow at times, and probably 50 pages could have been edited out without damaging the storyline. But the book has a new idea that is well handled. The adventure remains consistent to the altered reality, something that many scifi books fail to do. The characterisation was OK. I found myself bored with the young historian at times and the girl was too impusive to survive long. But this is a book written for children.

However, I won’t be racing out to finish the series. Like Harry Potter, each book is thicker than the last, and with the editing faults, I simply don’t have the time to spend.

June 22

The Night of the Fifth Moon by Anna Ciddor

I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I started this book. The cover and blurb give very few clues about what is inside. The artwork says ‘children or YA’ and the blurb says ‘Celtic’ with the implication of adventure and magic. However, the book is anything but. If anything I would call it ‘coming of age’ but the main character seems to be aged about 10.

Quickly, 6 children have been apprenticed to a druid. However, only one can be trained. Over a period of 5 new moons one child will be sent home after the welcoming ceremony. The book then becomes a series of stories a>involving each child and exposing their true character. Our ‘hero’ is as fallible as any of the children. Eventually he discovers the druid is selling his support and the young boy stands against the druid, apparently sealing his fate.

As you can guess, this is very unusual. Almost every historical story for children, and I think this one is for the upper primary more than lower secondary, involves lots and lots of adventure. This is much more introspective. The reader is required to understand motives, reject selfish behavior and generally make very mature judgements. It can be quite a ‘morality’ tale without being preachy or judgemental.

I will be very interested in finding this book’s audience and it will take some work. Certainly I don’t see it outselling Harry Potter.

June 3

The Secret Hour by Scott Westerfeld

When I catalogued this series earlier in the year, the blurbs caught my eye. I remember thinking that I would love to read them when I had the time. And then last weekend I got the chance to meet Scott Westerfeld! Naturally, I would have to read one of his books before then so I had some frame of reference when listening to him speak.

The Secret Hour is book one of a trilogy with a very X-files theme. According to the book the whole world pauses every night at midnight for exactly 1 hour. During that hour all the ancient evil spirits are free to wander and interact with the world, but at 12.01 (one hour later) they all disappear back into the restrictions that science and education have built around them.

And if a human child is born exactly at midnight, as they reach adolescence, they too can see this secret hour. They can move around as normal and interact with the world and everything in it, including the darkling spirits. In this book a group of teenagers has been gathered by cosmic influences in a small town in Oklahoma. Each of them has a special ability that will help them against the darklings. As they gather together and learn to work together they develop a true strength to fight against the evil that only they can see.

Westerfeld was inspired to develop these characters after the Columbine shootings. Apparently in the States teenagers who dressed in dark clothes, and avoided the light were seen as homicidal psychopaths after the shootings. Westerfeld has drawn his midnighters in the same gothic style, claiming that bright light can hurt, dark clothes helps them remain anonymous etc. Except his midnighters fight evil, not cause it.

I loved the book. In fact I have cleared space in my reading program to get through the other two in the series over the next couple of months. I’ll keep you posted.

June 3

Double or Die by Charlie Higson

Adventure spy thrillers for lower secondary boys is rapidly becoming a genre all on it’s own. And a good thing too because the boys just can’t get enough. Alex Rider, Cherub are only two of many different series that boys seem to devour.

Higson has added to the genre in a big way. His Young James Bond series is also on the list for the adventure hungry readers. Although his language is a little more sophisticated than Horowitz and his list of gadgets is limited Higson manages to tell a rollicking tale that you just can’t put down.

But James Bond? How can anyone else but Fleming write about such a classic fictional character. Although I have never read the Fleming books, I have seen many of the films and to my mind Higson is very true to the character of Bond. He gets out of trouble by using his wits, improvising with the resources at hand and straight out courage. All the film Bonds have had incredible faith in their one immortality, and the young James Bond who leaps out of the pages of this book has that same faith.

And the best thing? More than one 15 year old who has read Young Bond has come seeking a copy of Fleming’s Bond. When one book makes you want to read another, it has got to be a good thing.

This book is far more sophisticated in plot and style than the other spy thrillers that I have read in the past and to my mind that makes it a welcome addition to the genre.

June 1

Home to Mother by Doris Pilkington Garimara

Before I begin, I will admit that I hate this growing trend to republish good books shortened, sanitised and ‘safe’ for children. The Power of One used to be read by young adults as well as old, but the young reader’s edition just makes some readers think they can read and absorb the whole thing in 300 pages. Or Mao’s Last Dancer is made non-confrontational for year 7 and 8. To my mind kids should wait until they can handle the contents of the original story, violence, sex and social confrontation included and then read the full story rather than reading weaker version of the same plot, and assuming there is nothing more in the original text. It’s like seeing the movie and skipping the book.

Having said that, you know I will not have liked this book. Garimara’s original story Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence is already short and accessible. A movie has been made of the highlights just to make sure everyone understands the achievement. The film is rated PG and I know several primary schools that show it in years 5 or 6. So why on earth did UQP feel they had to publish this very simple, short-cut version of the story?

The book is in large print, liberally illustrated and under 100 pages long. The whole stolen children event is covered in 2 pages with the line ‘I’ve come to take … [the girls] … to school down south’ and the mothers crying as they drive away as the critical events. The rest of the book is about escaping the school and the walk home.

If this was published to help children understand the stolen generation, it misses the mark badly. Going to school is something families face every day. Mothers cry every year as children head off for their first days of school. The power of the original story lies in the darker moments highlighting the brighter memories of home and thereby motivating the long walk.

Sorry, but I believe this book is a waste of resources.

June 1

Mugglenet.com’s What will happen in Harry Potter 7?

First, a quiz. Please identify the following as true or false.
1. I have heard of Ron, Hermione and Harry.
2. RAB was a known Death Eater.
3. I have my copy of the The Deathly Hollows reserved.
4. Hogwarts is a boarding school for young wizards.
5. My diary has been cleared for the weekend of 21 July.
6. Snape is good.
7. Snape is bad.
8. JKR believes Quidditch has been done to death.
9. McGonagall gets a promotion in HBP.
10. Harry is a Horcrux.

1-3 true responses – You are a pop culture observer. Please skip this review, watching the media through the second half of July will tell you everything you want to know about Harry Potter 7.
8-10 True responses – You qualify as a Harry Potter fanatic. I suspect you know all about Mugglenet.com and you are even a contributor. Don’t waste your time with this book and continue preparing your own academic thesis on JKR and TDH.

Everyone else – read on. This book is for me and you and all the rest of the Harry Potter devotees.

Like everyone else in the youth literature world I read The Half Blood Prince on the weekend it was released. I have often wished I had time to actually reread the series before the release of the latest book, but somehow there is never enough spare time. By the end of 6 books in the series there are a lot of characters to sort out and remember where they all fit in. I generally remember the end of HBP, and how clearly the plot of number 7 was set out but after all this time details are kind of sketchy.

Mugglenet.com deserves our thanks in this slim volume (or at least slim in comparison with JKR’s) gives us all the opportunity to refresh our memories, engage in some harmless speculation and debate about the end of the Harry Potter world. The team have analysed all six of the previous books, all of JKR’s interviews, conducted fan surveys and generally done their homework convincingly. That means the rest of us devotees don’t have to.

Some have questioned me about the ‘shelf-life’ of a book that is going to be made redundant in a few weeks. Is it worth buying for libraries, or even for the family when all the questions will be answered in a few short weeks. I say yes. The website will move on, change and even perhaps disappear eventually. But What Will Happen can stay on the shelf as a permanent reminder of the incredible series of books that restored children’s literature a primary position in modern media.

Right or wrong about what happens in TDH – who cares. This book is a lot of fun.