July 27

Soon by Morris Gleitzman

9780670078875It has been out nearly a month! And I had to wait to get my hands on the latest in the Felix adventures! But ‘once’ I got my hands on the copy, ‘after’ the other librarians had finished. ‘Then’ I sat down to read with a class, and had to finish it off that night. ‘Now’ I have to work out what I can say to explain to you how wonderful this book is, without spoiling.

If you have read any of the books in the Felix series, you will remember that Felix is a young Jewish boy caught up in the Holocaust of World War II. We have followed Felix through his various captures and escapes, and remember his train ride towards disaster. He has lived with partisans and eventually built a new life in Australia. All the time he somehow maintains a positive outlook and faith in humanity.

Soon covers the period of time immediately after the war. When one government had gone, and nothing was in place. Life was tough, for everyone. And with Poland for the Poles roaming the streets killing indiscriminately, life for Felix is more than a little dangerous. Then he is handed a bundle by a girl running for her life. That bundle happens to be a young baby, and suddenly staying quiet and secure becomes just a little more difficult.

Gleitzman has always been able to view complex world issues through the eyes of children, and he can write for kids with a real sensitivity and understanding. Over the past 20+ years I have read books where he looks at issues of disability, refugees, environmental damage, as well as the Holocaust. Many times I have had discussions with adults that firmly believe that kids should be protected from all such unpleasantness. Personally I have always taken the side that argues that kids need to know and understand so that it never happens again.

Thank you once again Morris for the chance for a wonderful read.

July 16

Silver People by Margarita Engle

3260This book came across my desk just before I left on a LONG holiday. But even simply flicking through the pages and noting the author and publisher, clearly this was going to be a very special book. One copy went immediately to the top of the review pile, but the pile did not fit into the travel case. Back now – and in only a couple of hours I discovered that first impressions rang very true.

Time – early 20th century. Historical event – the building of the Panama Canal. Two boys from Caribbean islands get jobs on the digging crew, one with slave ancestors and the other descended from Spanish. Both are promised gold, but paid silver – hence the title. The gold was saved for the Americans who ran the machinery and supervised the work. In spite of strict segregation of the races, these boys become friends and help each other survive, and eventually escape to set up new lives in the New Panama.

This is written as a verse novel, not that any of the poetry rhymes. The technique allows the author great freedom to tell her story from many different points of view. Every alternate ‘chapter’ is actually narrated by the rainforest and the animals found within. New characters enter the story, and leave, simply and naturally.

I have read many verse novels over the years, but this one impressed more than most. Engle used visual as well as rhythmic techniques for her poetry. Sometimes I wanted to pause and just read that poem again, or the poem demanded to be read aloud. Someday I really really want to read one of howler monkey poems to a class. And the Tree Viper poem may only be a few words long, but it is very powerful.

As you can probably tell, I loved it.

February 13

The Disgrace of Kitty Gray by Mary Hooper

9781408827611Sometimes it is nice to know when you pick up a book exactly what you can expect once you look inside. Mary Hooper is one of those authors that writes consistently gritty realistic historical dramas for young readers. They have strong female characters who are thrust into difficult situations that may be based directly on fact, or at least historically accurate settings. The girls may be more ‘modern’ in personality than is quite accurate, but that simply helps modern readers ‘get into’ the story.

Kitty has a very secure job as a milkmaid for the big house. She is learning all the dairying skills that will keep her in employment for her foreseeable future. She is being courted by the local river man, and all seems safe and comfortable in her world. But one day Will disappears. Kitty is stuck looking after his orphaned little sister, but again the family and other servants support her efforts, so aside from missing Will, not much has changed. But when one of the gentleman’s daughters sends her to London on an errand, suddenly life goes wrong, and gets worse. Imagine, a young woman alone in London with a toddler in tow. Who in 1813 is going to believe that she is an innocent milkmaid?

It is exactly this situation that makes this book so good. Schools can teach kids about changing morality and social customs. On the other hand experiencing the consequences of public scandal through the novel makes it real. Be warned, this is not for those who believe that children must have all happiness, sweetness and light.


February 13

The Skull by Christian Darkin

9781408192979Dinosaurs – the passion of every toddler. But sometimes this interest remains until the child is a confident reader. With the wonderful dinosaur skull on the cover, this book is going to catch the eye of all of these ‘grown up’ kids. But this is no silly time travel adventure that mixes humans with dinosaurs. No this is a scientifically accurate piece of historical fiction that shows a real understanding, not only of the Jurassic world, but also the changing nature of man as he grows to understand his world.

The book opens with the death of a dinosaur about 144 million years ago. The skull is discovered in medieval times by a young man learning to read and write. But in these superstitious times, dragons and demons are all too real and the man suffers for his belief in the reality of this long extinct beast. Over time the Marchant family revisits the skull and interprets it’s importance in line with their culture and scientific understanding. Somehow I have managed to make this sound like a dry treatise. Believe me it is more like Dr Who – you never know when the story will continue, or where the adventure will lead.

I really enjoyed this short little book filled with adventures through time. But now that I am reflecting on the reading experience, I wonder if the average 9-13 kid will have enough historical understanding to pick up on the challenges faced by the various Marchants. But then, maybe this book will trigger interest in different historical periods.


February 10

The Four Seasons of Lucy McKenzie by Kirsty Murray

resized_9781743317020_224_297_FitSquareKirsty Murray is a children’s author of great talent. She can manage the gently whimsy of Walking Home with Marie Claire, the epic history of the Children of the Wind series and dystopian horror in Vulture’s Gate all without losing touch with her ‘tween’ readers. I will admit that it has been a few years since I had the excuse to read one of her books, but I am so glad this one arrived.

To quote the publicity material,  ‘Lucy can walk through walls’. Not just any walls, but the four walls of her grandmother’s house each painted with a mural showing a different Australian season. Each wall takes her back in time, to the same farm and the same three children. Lucy becomes firm friends with the kids and looks forward to catching up in each changing season. Together they swim, ride horses and generally enjoy life on a farm about 50 or so years ago. Naturally, life isn’t all fun and games. Lucy also survives fire, flood and bullies. But how do these children relate to her life today? Something seems familiar, but she can’t quite put her finger on it.

Gradually the clues to this mystery are lightly salted through the story. An adult reader may put the clues together earlier, but a younger reader will surely enjoy the reveal, and then will be likely to flip back through the story checking out the important bits. Re-reading is rarely part of kids routine now, so anything that encourages this skill gets my tick of approval.

This is a delightful gentle story that keeps magic alive in children’s imaginations.

January 15

Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell

edb300c77826cc8791e44ebc2c3131caAnother book for younger readers. This time it is a whimsical historical adventure about chasing dreams and finding the truth.

Sophie has always been told that she was orphaned in a shipwreck while she and her musician mother were travelling across the channel to England. But Sophie is convinced that her mother also survived and is currently living in Paris. So she runs away to look for her mother.

In Paris Sophie soon makes friends with other homeless children who escape the authorities by living on rooftops. Together they gradually gather information that may lead to finding out the truth about what happened to Sophie’s mother.

This is an easy comforting read targeted very nicely for the 9-11 age group. A little bit of suspense, a lot of resilient children, and a wonderful setting to fill the imagination. The serious themes are woven into the fabric of the story subtly, making the whole reading and learning experience a lot of fun.

January 15

The Lives of Stella Bain by Anita Shreve

9781408702970How unusual to find a historical novel that is short enough to be read in a couple of sittings.  Normally authors spend so much space explaining the history and setting the scene that the story gets lost, or at least disguised. Definitely not the case in this little treasure from Anita Shreve.

Stella wakes up injured in France just behind the front lines during WWI. Unfortunately she can remember nothing. The name Stella feels right, so she adopts it. Dressed as a volunteer nursing assistant, she takes on the work. Her accent is American, but beyond that there is no clue about home and family.  Overhearing mention of the Admiralty, she is overwhelmed by a feeling that she has to get to London because someone there will recognise her. Granted leave, she heads for London.

A foreigner alone in London during the war, with no money or clear idea of what she is doing, she eventually collapses on a park bench, very ill. Rescued by the wife of a doctor who lives on the square, she accepts their hospitality while she recovers from pneumonia. Dr Bridge, a cranial surgeon, is fascinated by the new study of psychiatry, and offers to help Stella try to regain her memory, and help her get into the Admiralty. From there the story gets really started.

As you can probably tell, this was a tremendous read. Shreve drags her reader through the trenches and eventually back to the field hospital where bloody surgeons are waiting. Within the  pages one can experience the nightmare of ‘shell shock’ and the equally nightmarish treatments. For most authors this would be plenty, but Shreve also examines the growing rights of women in the early 20th century.

Whether you are sweltering in unseasonable heat, or suffering the effects of a polar vortex, this is a great way to spend your days sheltering indoors.

January 9

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Review # 5 – 99 to go

In the last few years everyone and their neighbour have written about the Holocaust. I have reviewed lots of them here. Many of these books are written by children and grandchildren of survivors. While I agree that this story needs to be remembered by future generations, there are other important survival stories as well. And this book will introduce the reader to one of them.

Those of us who grew up during the Cold War will be very familiar with the two words Stalin and Siberia, and all that this meant for the Russian people. I had never stopped to think about the significance for the many other ethnic groups absorbed into the Soviet Union after World War II. This book, written for kids, was a lesson to me.

1941, Lithuania. Lina is the daughter of a man who refuses to give up on the future of his homeland. Then one night the Secret Police arrive, and the whole family is moved. Her father is separated and kept apart with the men, but her mother and brother are herded with her into a cattle car and painfully slowly transported east. Workcamps, hunger, and help from locals, then they are moved, this time north. Winter in the Arctic, a unique form of genocide. But somehow Lina’s spirit remains strong and hopeful.

This is a novel, but like many other refugee stories, it has a strong base in truth. Sepetys used her grandparent’s history as her starting point and expanded it through her personal research, even spending time in one of the old cattle cars and travelling through Russia in the winter to help her tell the story with a ring of truth.

I will admit that this is not the most entertaining, riveting book I have read recently, but it is an important story. Perfect for those who want to read something ‘real’.

December 30

The Painter’s Apprentice by Charlotte Betts

I told you that there were going to be a lot of second in a series reviewed over these few days. Well here is another one!

Last year I reviewed the debut novel from this author, and now doing a quick search, it appears that the novel I was lukewarm about, won some awards. Well, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. But now that people may be looking for some relaxed holiday reading, Betts is sure to provide exactly that. Historical romance fans – this one is recommended.

Set many years after the events of The Apothecary’s Daughter, this novel involves many of the same characters, but really concerns the next generation. Susannah’s daughter, Beth is now an adult and learning about painting from a Dutch artist resident in Merryfields, the rest home established by her mother. But soon she receives her first professional commission, and begins to live and work independently, or as independently as a woman can in the late 1600s.

England at this time was still caught up in the Protestant/Catholic conflict. The Stuart kings were still in power, but everything was becoming too Catholic for popular taste. Beth’s commission places her at the heart of the coming conflict, and she proves that she has her mother’s courage and convictions to make a difference herself.

This book was far more about the history than the romance, even though there was the required love interest. The real question is whether Beth is willing to lose her independence for love? And the reader can decide for themselves whether they think she did the right thing.

September 29

Gods and Warriors by Michelle Paver

Before I begin I will admit that I have never found the time to read Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series. I know they received wonderful reviews, but they seemed to find their own niche market, so they never needed help. This new series is also going to find a different niche market, probably with adventure loving boys.

Set in ancient Greece long before the Golden Age, Hylas is a young goatherd living like a slave in the control of the local chieftain. His only known family is his younger sister, who disappears early in the book. When the warrior tribe, commonly known as the Crows, arrive and start killing all Outsiders, Hylas has to run for his life. With a few lucky encounters, and the help of the Goddess, he escapes to a deserted island. Well, it seems deserted. But here is where the adventures truly begin.

With meticulous attention to historical detail, but willing to add a bit of fantastical magic where needed, Paver has created a Bronze age society that jumps off the page. The tribal law and honour system is clearly presented. These people have to live with continual earthquakes, and their supernatural explanations for the natural events seem totally logical. Paver even gives an insight into dolphin society as a dolphin plays an important role in Hylas survival.

This is not great literature, but it is fun. And there will be many who are going to be looking forward to the continued adventures of Hylas and his friends, because the Oracle has promised that he will overthrow the Crows one day.