September 12

Faster than Lightning by Michael Panckridge and Pam Harvey

I have some serious misgivings about this book, and I hope the rest of the series pays a little more attention to detail. It looks like this is going to be a series of 6 adventure books, each focusing on a personal passion for each member of a friendship group in turn.

This book is mostly about Angus, a 12 year old who lives and breathes horses and horse racing. Not surprising since Dad is a trainer. At the races one day Angus notices a horse resembling a photo he has seen. The horse races well, but it looks like the jockey pulls him up before he attracts too much attention. So far a good mystery setting.

And then the book spirals out of control. There is a lot of dodgy science and illegal breaking and entering on the part of our heroes. Personally I think Angus should be given a few months of community service for his criminal behavior. I finished the book wondering who were the bad guys, the new breeders, Angus or the authors.

September 12

Dark Hours by Gudrun Pausewang

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Many years ago I read my first Gudrun Pausewang novel for children. It was stark, realistic and even horrific but riveting. The book was futuristic fiction, not really scifi, but a picture of a possible future in Europe. And that is what I expected from this novel. Was I ever wrong. It is still stark, realistic but this time it brings the reader into intimate contact with one of the most horrific events of WWII, the destruction of Dresden.

Dark Hours is written in the form of a memoir written by a grandmother for her granddaughter. The girl is turning 16 and her grandmother writes out the story of her own 16th birthday. She was the eldest in a family of 4 children, almost 5. The family including her own grandmother was evacuated from their home in modern Poland just before the Russians arrived. They flee to Dresden to stay with the other grandparents. In the confusion of refugees, Mother goes into labour and has to leave the train before it’s destination. Oma then escorts the children on to Dresden, but becomes separated in the crush. Suddenly Gisel is left with 3 younger siblings in a strange city and the air raid siren goes.

As adults we know what happens, but young people today have no idea. I can imagine this book read as an absorbing adventure, and then comes the realisation that the event really happened and the story could be basically true.

The author’s note indicates that Pausewang has written many novels for children and young adults which have won prizes all over the world. Her books often explore themes of peace, the environment and social justice. So why aren’t they translated to English and released in Australia?

September 6

Doppelganger by Michael Parker

First time author Michael Parker has certainly set a high standard with this scifi adventure set in a horrific future.

Andrew is a normal kid, in a normal life. He has a job at the local convenience store, goes to school, shares secrets with friends and everything. But then he gets sucked into an alternative reality where the city has been destroyed and life is in the control of vicious gangs. Soon he discovers that what happens in the alternative world has an impact on his ‘normal’ life and friends. As a result he gets caught up in a desperate struggle to protect ‘his’ world.

As I read this book I thought it was too dark and too complex for most students. However, as I am writing this review I am amazed by the number of kids passing and commenting ‘I read that book, it was really good.’ So I hereby reconsider. There is obviously enough adventure to keep older boys involved and the strangeness of the alternative universe is not too strange.

September 6

The Same Stuff as Stars by Katherine Paterson

What can you say about a Katherine Paterson book? They are always warm, affirming stories about children finding hidden strength. And The Same Stuff as Stars is no different.

Angel and her brother have been abandoned, literally, in a supermarket carpark. Her father is in jail and her mother has just dumped her and walked away. The only place for Angel and her little brother to go is to her grandmother who lives in Vermont on a dying farm. Sound familiar? I thought for a long time I was reading Cynthia Voigt’s The Homecoming.

But Grandmother has a boarder living in a caravan on the property. This mysterious man is fascinated by the stars, and leads Angel into a world of wonder and imagination. However, their friendship must remain secret. For some reason Grandmother is always angry with this boarder.

So many books I read are about teenagers finding maturity and a strength they never knew they had. This book is in many ways the reverse, a young girl who has been forced to grow up far too early discovers the child within.

I found this book a pleasant read, but I guess I prefer to read something that is going to challenge my thinking. This was just too gentle and sweet for my taste.

September 6

Dragon Moon by Carole Wilkinson

And another end to a favourite series… This time the wonderful Dragonkeeper trilogy set in a mythical Imperial China.

The story so far…. Ping was a lonely slave girl working for a cruel master who claimed to be the Imperial Dragonkeeper. Although he had care of several dragons, they were gradually dying. Ping, the true dragonkeeper, helped one dragon escape and traveled with him to the ocean carrying a strange stone all the way. Once bathed in seawater the stone hatched and Ping became ‘mother’ to a baby dragon.

In this book Kai, the young dragon, has reached adolescence and together he and Ping head off to find a safe home for Kai. A coded map is found, and eventually they find a small group of dragons surviving in the mountains. Because of the broken relationship with humans, the dragon tribe refuse to help humanity and as a result China is starving in drought.

I have greatly enjoyed these three books, especially the last. Ping has truly grown up over the series, becoming a confident young woman able to make decisions and face dangers. There is enough adventure to keep the story flowing, and the fantasy element is handled without becoming silly. These books provide entertaining reading for anyone over age 10.

September 6

The Secret Life of Maeve Lee Kwong by Kirsty Murray

When this book first came in last year, I thought it would jump straight to the top of my reading list. Unfortunately others got in the way, and the book was shelved and forgotten. But then came it’s turn…

I really feel I should start this review with a ‘the story so far….’ comment because this book is the fourth in the Children of the Wind series. Each book in the series looks at Irish-Australian immigration, starting with the potato famine. Each immigrant encounters the subject of the previous book as an adult, and thus the books are connected.

But how does a surname like Kwong link to Irish immigration? Maeve was the daughter of a single mother. She knows nothing about her birth father except that he was an Irish backpacker. Her mother’s current partner loves her dearly, but never formally adopted her. So when Maeve’s mother is killed suddenly, Maeve’s legal guardians are her Chinese migrant grandparents. Her comfortable life of school, friends and even her baby brother are taken away and she is forced to speak Chinese at home, move interstate, and forget her previous life. Before she moves away she does find some old letters her mother kept and discovers her father’s name.

It is too long and complicated to explain here, but Maeve does form a relationship with her father. And she learns to negotiate with her grandparents, successfully returning to her Sydney school. This book, like the others in the series, is all about personal growth.

I have loved this series, right from the riveting description of Bridey’s family’s struggles to survive during the famine. There are no pulled punches and the experiences of each of the children are told realistically. My only concern with each book is the fact that sometimes the plot becomes a touch fantastic, like when Maeve gets offered the chance to travel to Ireland and happens to run into someone who know her father on the streets of Dublin.

September 1

Destroying Avalon by Kate McCaffrey

Every now and then in my job I encounter a book that every person dealing with adolescents ought to read. And this is my most recent.

Avalon is 14. She has been raised in a country town in WA, but suddenly her parents find new jobs in the city and Avalon finds herself in a new school. This is scary enough for any 14 year old, but Avalon’s first day is a disaster. Within days she finds herself at the centre of a vicious cyberbullying campaign. She gradually begins to emerge, but then the focus turns to one of Avalon’s few friends, with tragic results.

Cyberbullying is the latest catch cry in education. I never thought much about it, assuming it to be the latest variation on classic schoolyard bullying. However, this book demonstrated to me that cyberbullying is even more invasive and destructive because the victim can never get away. Either the mobile phone, or the internet is always with adolescents today.

Reading this book made me think again about websites like myspace where young adults spend so much time. Do these sites encourage self expression or provide another whole dimension to peer pressure, thereby stifling any individuality.

I love it when a book presents a new idea.

September 1

The Fourth Man by KO Dahl

I love a good crime novel as much as anybody else, and I was fascinated by this dark thriller by Norwegian author KO Dahl. This is the first book from this author translated into English, so it seems a little like we are picking the story up in the middle, with well established regular characters.

Detective Frank Frolich is involved in routine police work when he meets and rescues a woman. A few weeks later, they meet again, and a torrid affair begins. It is already too late for Frank when he discovers this woman is the sister of a notorious thief. But a murder is committed, the woman provides an alibi for her brother, and Frank is drawn into the story. Suspended and suspected Frank sets off to find his love, who has apparently disappeared, and clear his name if he can.

Reading this book was a very strange experience. The names can be measured with a ruler, some 2 or 3 cm long. At times it seemed the reader had walked into a film in the middle with little introduction to even major characters. Some of the plot twists could be seen long before they happened, and some of the action was unnecessary even to the point of silliness. Why on earth would anyone try to burn Frolich in his own sauna? But, if you don’t want to think too hard and you can deal with multisyllabic nomenclature, this is an entertaining read.

September 1

Shark Island by Joan Druett

Remember last month when I raved about the new seafaring mystery/adventure. Well here I go again about book 2 in the series, Shark Island.

This time Wiki Coffin, Captain George Rochester, and the despicable Lieutenant Forsythe (along with his equally ghastly crony, Passed Midshipman Zachary Kingman) are sent to Shark Island to check out a report of pirates. Readers of the first book will know the first three, and Kingman is like the red shirt character in a Star Trek landing party, disposable. Instead of pirates, they find a stranded sealing ship, and everyone pitches in to advise, or help repair the damage. Unusually, the captain of the vessel has brought his wife with him on the sealing voyage. And she and Wiki have ‘history’.

Several murders later, Wiki solves the crime, the sealer is seaworthy and all the survivors get back to the exploration fleet. It sounds trite when I say it here, but the story certainly was not. There are more twists than Agatha Christie and I still haven’t worked out who got the money.

Am I raving again? That is good, I meant to. Now Buzz editor, I want book 3, Run Afoul.