July 30

One Whole and Perfect Day by Judith Clarke

I really don’t know what to say about this book nominated for the Children’s Book of the Year for 2006. I found it a pleasant read, but nothing particularly special.

Lily may be only 16, but she is the sensible member of her family. By age 7 she was getting her older brother up for school, now Lonnie has left home with no job but sharing a flat. Her mother is a psychologist, but instead of earning a sensible income, she works with elderly people. Worst of all, she has been known to bring some clients home for a few days because their carers ‘need a break’. Her father disappeared when she was a baby, so he doesn’t count. And then her Nan talks to an imaginary friend, at her age! Finally, Pop was angry at the whole world. Didn’t he threaten to take an axe to Lonnie last year?

But Lily dreams of a normal family, a normal life, or even just one whole perfect day, She decides that her Pop’s 80th birthday will be the day and all her common sense and hard work will be directed towards pulling it off, just for Pop. And therein lies the story.

This is definitely chick lit. School friends and enemies abound. There is a lovely side story of Lily’s first love. Even the cover has liberal lashings of pink. And although it is better than many in this genre, somehow I have trouble seeing this as an outstanding example of writing for children.

July 29

The Overlook by Michael Connelly

And yet another murder mystery…. This time written by in internationally recognized American author Michael Connelly. It is one of his continuing series featuring police detective Harry Bosch.

Harry has recently been promoted to a Homicide Special squad that only handles cases involving celebrities or other high profile victims or suspects. If the investigation gets too hot for the local cops, it gets shoved uptown to the Special Squad.

A body is found on the Mulholland overlook, next door to a property that used to be owned by Madonna. Obviously the killer isn’t shy of publicity, and the local cops hand over to Homicide Special immediately and happily. The victim was a medical physicist, and therein likes the problem. Just before he was killed, significant amounts of weapons grade radioactive material was stolen from a hospital. Immediately Homeland Security is notified and tries to take over the case.

The Homeland Security investigation is characterised by knee-jerk reactions and over-reactions that panic innocent civilians and officers of the law alike. Harry, on the other hand, stands back with his typical cynicism, ignores the dangerous materials and knows that if he solves the murder, the ‘terrorist’ will be caught. So while everyone else is breaking down doors and demanding files in the interest of national security, Harry looks at the victim, his wife and tries to find a motive for a murder.

Of course, Harry’s way is successful. Any mention of why will spoil the plot, and that’s not fair.

Did I like the book? Yes, considering. A few months ago I read Connelly’s previous book Echo Park and had a lot of misgivings about the character of Harry, and the whole contrived nature of the cold case. I came away from that book simply not caring to read anything else by this author. However, The Overlook is a pleasant surprise. The plot moves quickly, in fact the whole investigation takes only about 24 hours. The result is credible and I even feel the new permanent character in the series, Harry’s new partner, has a lot of room for growth within the series.

July 22

The Falconer’s Knot by Mary Hoffman

When the Buzz editor handed me this book to read, I thought for a moment, ‘I know that author.’ But convinced I had never read anything of hers before, the book got added to the pile (which by the way is getting a little out of hand.)

The cover is dressed up like a murder mystery for adults. And when I sat down to actually start reading, that is what I thought I had in my hands. But it quickly became apparent that the main characters were two medieval young adults, of marriageble age then, but not considered so now. And the murder mystery rapidly deteriorated into romantic mush. Yes there are 5 murders but they are balanced by at least 3 romances, and somehow the enduring memory of the book is the romance.

The story is extremely unlikely. Supposedly a village in Italy has a convent and a monastery on the same property. A young aristocrat arrives at the monastery seeking sanctuary having been accused of a murder that he did not commit. At the same time a beautiful young woman is dumped by her brother in the convent simply because he cannot afford a dowry to see her married. These two novices, meet and become friends through their work in each establishment’s colour room. The colour room is where the monks and nuns mix colours for artist to use in the huge frescos often found in churches. Add to that a monk who finds his long lost love, and the widow of the first murdered man finding a new love, and you have the essence of this tale.

While surfing the net before writing this I discovered that The Falconer’s Knot is shortlisted for the Guardian Children’s Book prize, an award similar to our own CBC Book of the Year. It is well written, and totally safe for young readers with no rude words or even intimate liaisons, but if this wins the award, it was a bad year for children’s lit in Great Britain.

Don’t get me wrong, the book was not unbearably bad. It was just mildly interesting and I believe that children deserve better.

July 21

Sara Webb Disaster Area by Liz Wilks

Well for once the publishers put the right cover on a book. It is lovely and pink, and all those girls who just love reading short sweet books about families and school will love it. Chick lit in the extreme.

Sara is a young lady with a brother with autism and a sister with Down syndrome. As a young teen she is very conscious of their differences, and yet very determined to live a normal life. She moves through a progression of ‘disasters’ at school and at home on her way through life to a school social and eventually being a bridesmaid at her sister’s wedding.

This book as been promoted by the various disability foundations. Liz Wilks writes with authority because she is the mother of two children with disabilities and one daughter who is ‘special in a normal sort of way.’ In that respect the book is worth holding in a collection and encouraging children to read because it does provide a realistic picture of disabled people.

But is it a good read? Is it really funny? I found the book very, very average. The supposed humour barely raised a smile and the family and school situations seemed very contrived and unreal. Sorry, I laughed more about My Big Birkett and I cared more about almost every other book I have read this year.

July 16

Layla Queen of Hearts by Glenda Millard

Before I begin, I will admit that I am not a fan of Glenda Millard. Other books of hers that I have read in the past are full of good ideas, that unfortunately go nowhere. This time the book is supposedly one of the best written in Australia for kids during 2006. So I gave it a chance. How bad can it be?

Layla is a sweet little girl. She is an only child, but is best friends with a family full of colourful children. We last encountered Layla in the book The Naming of Tishkin Silk, also shortlisted for the CBC book prize. Now she is a little older, and minus her beloved Nana. She thinks that she is managing here grief successfully until Senior Citizen’s day is announced at school. Enter Miss Amilie, an Senior Citizen with Alzheimers.

The book is a very gentle story about a growing friendship across generations. And on that level it is a very good read. However I do have a couple of problems. Firstly, I found Layla annoyingly false. Her favourite clothing is a dress covered in hearts. When is the last time you met a child who loved dressing up? Most kids I know don’t even own a skirt beyond a school uniform. And the loss of the grandparents troubles me. With the longer life expectancy now, most children know their grandparents well into adulthood, and even know their great-grandparents for most of their childhood. So why did Layla lose all of hers? To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, it smacks of carelessness. And then when Miss Amilie gets lost too… suddenly everything is beyond belief.

Sorry folks, but I have not changed my opinion about Glenda Millard with this offering. Maybe next time.

July 9

Conqueror by Stephen Baxter

One of the first books reviewed on this blog was Emperor by Stephen Baxter. In that review I said that I wanted to read and puzzle about the new prophecy before the new book came along. Well, finally I have that prophecy, and the book to go with it.

The prophecy was spoken in Saxon, and this book covers a the Dark Ages in English history. History buffs and those who are regular film-goers will know that after Rome left Britain, many tribes from the north, the south and the east invaded the island regularly. One of the first tribes to invade was the Saxons. Eventually they were seen as the native Britains and other tribal societies invaded.

This books covers 3 major events in English history through the eyes of individuals caught up in the drama. The first of these were a Norse and a German mercenary who traveled with an early Christian bishop to find the last living Roman. They travel through England and the reader gains a wonderful picture of the Saxon villages through their eyes. Eventually they find the Roman and from him recieve the prophecy of Isolde, learnt by rote because neither of the mercenaries could read.

Fast forward through hundreds of years of history. The next event shows a Byzantine bookseller heading for the island of Lindesfarne to sell his books to the monastery there. One of these books is called the Menologium of Isolde, a prophetic poem that has been handed down through a Saxon family until eventually one of the family learned to read and write and recorded it. The poem centres on events that will happen during the year that a comet appears in the sky. Modern readers do not have to think too hard before realising that the comet in question is Halley’s. We all know what happened at Lindesfarne, and I’ll just say that our bookseller was still there at the time. Surprisingly though, the Menologium survived.

Fast forward again to Alfred the Great and the invasion of the Danes. It appears that the Menologium, now given great credibility after Lindesfarne, predicts that Alfred will defeat the Danes and turn them to Christianity. This helps mobilize the English forces in the great battle, again a wonderful scene within the book.

And finally fast forward to 1066. This time the Menologium expert has Harold’s ear, and the expert is convinced that the victorious fighting man in the prophecy is Harold Godwinson. Oops…

These comments cannot do justice to the characterisation of the individuals within this book. Each section must necessarily develop all the important characters quickly, let them tell their tale, and get on with the battle scene, and then leave them all for the next. Very few of these are even blood relatives of those who appeared before, and their whole story must be told in about 80 pages. Surprisingly, they manage.

When I finished the book, I wasn’t at all sure that the series wasn’t wrapped up. But thank goodness, in September this year, I can look forward to the next installment.

July 9

The Star Locket by Natalie Jane Prior

Had I read the cover of this book carefully when I catalogued it last year, it would have lept to the top of my reading list. Several years ago I read Fireworks and Darkness and absolutely loved it. Many times I have passed the book on the shelf wishing there was another book in the series. Well now there is…

The Star Locket is a fantasy adventure set in eastern Europe during the 19th century. In a small duchy, there arrive two 15 year old girls, absolutely identical in every way, including a star shaped pendant necklace. Eventually the two girls encounter each other and together they try to solve the mystery of their origins. Without telling too much of the story, the two girls are actually one child whose spirit and body was divided as an infant. Now magical powers are seeking them and the locket, which is in itself a source of power. If found, one of the two girls will simply disappear, but which one?

I fully enjoyed this adventure story, which is really what it is. There is naturally some family drama, and even a pretty good chase scene, and this book, unlike it’s companion, is firmly set in a historical period and that period influences some of the characters.

Unfortunately the publishers have sold this book short once again. The cover with the picture of the two young girls makes this whole book appear to be for the sweet little darlings in year 5 or 6. But instead it is really a tale of death, adventure, dark powers and even a touch of first love. A stronger cover to attract more mature readers is really what this book needs.

July 2

Single Fin by Aaron Topp

Last year appears to be the year publishers got together to publish informative fiction for teenage boys. I have already reviewed Boyznbikes and this is it’s surfing equivalent. However the relationships theme is more mature so I have pegged it for upper secondary readers.

Jamie Fin is a surfer, through and through. He lives for the surf, school, family, and work simply don’t exist. His best friend just happens to be his surfing mentor and together they enjoy a lifestyle of surf, surf and beer. But all that changes when Mike is killed in a car accident. Suddenly Jamie’s grief overwhelms him and with few other friends for support, his life loses complete focus, including vowing to never surf again.

However, an uncle is working alone on a farm and needs a hand. The hard physical work is exactly what Jamie needs at the time. Gradually Jamie starts to climb out of the depression. Enter character number 3, a young cousin who has been expelled from school and the parents send him to the uncle for some toughening up. The real conflict in the story begins when the young cousin wants to learn to surf. Uncle and cousin go surfing, but for all his promises Jamie just can’t sit on the beach for the day.

Finding some biographical information from the author on the web, I discovered how true to life this story really is. The author is in his 20s, and naturally a keen surfer, although he does manage to hold down a steady job as well. But recently his surfing mentor was killed in a car accident…. Just like Wendy Orr’s Peeling the Onion written as she recovered from a injury was powerful, this book has the same powerful heartfelt resonance of truth.

There is enough surfing lingo and information to please any young male reader. Sometimes I felt I was reading a foreign language, but I have always been good at languages. The situations ring true. There is no obvious tricks just to move the story along.

I did not expect to enjoy this one, but it surprised me.

July 1

My Side of the Story by Will Davis

When the Buzz editor asked me to review this book, he warned me that it contained controversial material. The book is about a 16 year old gay guy searching for love and understanding from his family and friends. I assured the editor that I would not be shocked, this was a growing genre within young adult fiction.

There have been many books on the theme of homosexual love published for young adults over the past 15 years. One of the first that I read was Peter by Kate Walker, published in 1992. And most recently I was asked to review another book on the same theme for the Victorian Premier’s Reading Challenge.

In summary, Jarold is 16, gay and working very hard to keep it secret. The only person who knows is his best friend Al (short for Alice). But then his parents find out and the trouble begins. For some reason they don’t understand why he insists on going out to a gay nightclub and getting drunk regularly instead of sitting at home studying. So Jaz in grounded, and grumbles about it to Al on the bus to school the next day. Al has no sense of subtlety, and by the time they get to school, everyone on the bus knows that Jaz is gay.

From there the story becomes fairly standard about bullying, violence and social banishment. His parents decide that with counselling he will change. A teacher frequenting the same gay bar as Jaz takes him under his wing. Al’s parents refuse to allow her contact with Jaz. And in the middle of it all Jaz meets the man of his dreams.

I thoroughly disliked this book. By page 7 I was over the work like. It surely appears at least once in every sentence. This may have been a feeble attempt to capture a realistic youthful voice, but it quickly became distracting. If you add in the f#!* and the c%&@ words you have a book almost entirely written with 4 letter words. Boring…

And the plot was just too sentimental and trite. The book nearly went into the bin when Jaz’s gay teacher and his therapist find true love together. The cover includes a quote about how funny it is ‘I had to stop reading in public’. Sorry, but I found no humour at all, just a sense of foreboding inevitablility.

Anyone would have to be out of their minds to waste $30 on this rubbish. Most YA novels are about $20 – $22 each, so the price of this one is outrageous for a typical paperback. I have my hardcover Harry Potter 7 ordered for the same price.