January 15

In the Wings by Elsbeth Edgar

1370314108387It seems like forever since I have reviewed a book for younger readers. Admittedly they have not been a priority for reading this year, but now suddenly they are back on the list.

Every stage production depends on the unseen workers behind the curtain. Ella suffers badly from stage fright, so her ideal position is stage managing. During the school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, she branches out into set design, so she is closely involved with the cast from the very first rehearsal. When her crazy grandfather arrives to live with the family, the show becomes her favourite excuse to escape. It is a real shame that that arrogant new boy Sam threatens to ruin all her fun. It seems like life just can’t get any worse when Sam discovers that her grandfather was once an actor, and once played Sam’s role professionally. Now she has no chance to escape.

This is a fun read about families and friends, first impressions and coming to the rescue. Ideal for kids interested in acting and theatre, but highly recommended for any YA with a strong creative flair.

January 11

Cold Hands, Warm Heart by Jill Wolfson

Review #10 – 94 to go. So far I am well on track to finish the Mad Reviewer Challenge!

Once upon a time nearly every book written for young adults addressed some social issue – drugs, drinking, eating disorders, mental illness, abuse – you name it and there was a book about it. Reality fiction seemed to be all that publishers were interested in. Then suddenly everything changed – now it is supernatural, fantasy, adventure, and sometimes all in one book. This novel seems to turn the clock back, but in a very good way.

Dani was born with a bad heart. For 15 years she has been in and out of hospital, endured more medical tests than you can imagine. The only thing that could give her a normal life is a new heart. But for her to get a heart, some other family has to lose everything. How on earth do you deal with that?

Amanda is a gymnast. She lives for her physical activity, and then one day a blood clot in her brain ends it all. Fortunately for Dani, Amanda’s family generously allows her healthy organs to be taken for transplant.

Now Dani wants to say thank you! But how?

Wolfson has told an important story without pulling any punches. Reviewers who know more about medical procedures than I do have commented about the detailed and accurate descriptions. This is truly reality fiction, a whole lot more real than any reality TV you may see. Running parallel to all this information is the emotional story, both from Dani and Amanda’s family. I challenge anybody to read that last chapter without a tear.

I am not going to say this was my favourite read last year, but I am certainly glad I did.

January 11

Waiting for it by Chrissie Keighery

Review #9 – 95 to go

Hardie Grant have created for themselves a wonderful little market. Their Zac Power and Go Girl series are fantastic early chapter books for young readers. Now it looks like they are developing a new market with their ‘Girl V the World’ series about 13 year old girls dealing with ‘normal’ life. These are well written basic school and family life books, short and to the point.

Waiting for it is just exactly that. Tween Hazel feels like she really doesn’t belong anywhere. There is nothing special about her life. She is even in the middle of the boys ‘hot list’. Better than being at the bottom, but still nothing special. She is sick of being stuck in the middle, and it is time for things to change. The question is – Is change always an improvement?

This was a quick, one-sitting read. The characters are well developed for this tiny book, and there aren’t too many to keep track of. Without spoiling, I’ll just say that as you would expect, Hazel discovers that it isn’t so bad being in the middle and she is very special – so a positive outcome.

I have only read one from the series, but I suspect that it will fill a niche market very well.

January 11

White Ninja by Tiffiny Hall

Review #8 – 96 to go

It seems like I am reviewing a stack of books for the 10+ age range. It just happens that this is the order they are coming off the table. And besides, it is nice to read something for younger readers for a change. I sorted the stash yesterday, and there are a lot more coming.

Roxy is a 13 year old girl who is living a normal life, boring. But then one day the school bully chooses her as his next victim. Suddenly she is moving lightning quick and looks like some martial arts expert. What on Earth? Then the new boy at school convinces her to join a martial arts training group, and there Roxy learns about the legend of the mystical White Ninja and the magical Tiger Scrolls. Before she knows it she is caught up in the search for the Scrolls and the White Warrior.

OK, so the plot seems a little silly. Remember this is written for kids. Often the same kids who not long ago were watching ninja cartoons and have now graduated to computer games. Silly is good, if for no other reason than who wants to read a heavy stodgy book about the dangers of martial arts. Far better to have a quick adventure with strong characters, and then wait for the next book in the series.

All the way through the book I was thinking that this author certainly knows her martial arts, not only the skills, but the training techniques and fitness level needed. In places it read like that netball book I read a few years ago. But the adventure held my interest much better. Then much to my surprise I saw Ms Hall on telly promoting fitness and looking every inch a taekwondo expert. Somehow I think she had the right background to make this book realistic.

I hope the series continues.

January 9

Goldrush by Steven Lochran

Review #7 – 97 to go

Superheroes with superpowers. Where once they were delegated to the shadowy realm of comic books, now they are featured in blockbuster movies, TV shows, novels and games. But most writers seem happy to stick with the established heroes with familiar back stories. Not Lochran. He has begun a whole series of books for young teens that feature a new group of heroes with new superpowers.

Sam grew up like any normal boy. But one day he discovers, much to his dismay that he is very different. And the discovery isn’t subtle, it is big, impressive, in public and hurts those closest to him. Not a good start. But when he gets recruited for Vanguard Prime his troubles really begin. Yes he gets the chance to battle evil. Yes he gets help managing his powers. But he is also the youngest kid ever recruited and sometimes it is tough being the ‘baby’, especially when surrounded by adults.

This is a small little book that will well suit those kids who much prefer reading comics. The characters and storyline are familiar and with under 200 pages, even reluctant readers should find this a lot of fun.

Lochran has also managed to teach a few good lessons without being preachy. This is a good coming-of-age tale without tons of adolescent angst that young readers are not ready for. Sam also has to learn that making a mistake is OK, as long as you learn from it. Another important lesson presented through plot.

This series promises to be fun. Looking forward to book 2.


January 9

Louis Beside Himself by Anna Fienberg

Review #6 – 98 to go

When I get under pressure for reviews, I sometimes look for a book that is going to be quick and easy to read. Generally I assume that I will be able to read it in an hour or so and then crank out the review. Every now and then one of those books provides a little more meat, and I need to spend some time thinking about what the author is doing.

Louis is a tween who just doesn’t fit in. He loves words and reading, and his Dad loves wrestling, the big, splashy, theatrical stuff on TV. His best mates are into outdoor activities, but they understand him and are cool with his choices. But then while Louis is home alone one night an burglar breaks in. Can Louis remember enough of his Dad’s wrestling training to defend himself? And just who is this burglar anyway. Louis manages the situation using his own special skills, and there the story begins.

This book is a lot of fun, but it also makes an important point. Everyone has their own special place in this world and finding that place will make them happy. And as for Cordelia and Doreen…Well you are going to have to read the book yourself to find out.

This is a gentle humorous novel, not too long so hopefully boys will be willing to read it.

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 29

Seconds Away by Harlan Coben

In the past few weeks I have read a bunch of ‘seconds.’ Not remainders, just second books in a series. So the next few reviews are going to be for these second books. Generally, I am going to suggest that you search out the first and read both while you are about it.

Earlier this year I read Shelter, Coben’s first in a series of adventure stories for young adults. In October this series was continued with book 2: Seconds Away. Taking up the story right from the cliffhanging ending of book 1, this extends the story of Mickey Bolitar, his search for answers about his father and his work for the mysterious Abeona Shelter all while trying to live a ‘normal’ life. While Mickey is preparing for basketball tryouts, his girlfriend(?) is shot, her mother murdered and the Bat Lady is gone, but there still appears to be someone in her house. None of this makes sense, but in some strange way it seems that Mickey might be responsible.

I can’t say much more without spoilers, and they are no fun at all. Let me just say that Coben is certainly not writing for kids as a quick way to supplement the income. These are well crafted tales with not only plot twists, but character twists as well. Myron (Mickey’s guardian/uncle) is the biggest mystery as far as I am concerned. He obviously has secrets that are not being shared.

Book one has been nominated for the Edgar Award. And as far as I am concerned, book 2 is better.


October 27

Phyllis Wong and the Forgotten Secrets of Mr Okyto

McSkimming is known for his long, long titles, and it looks like the Phyllis Wong series may go the way of his well-established Cairo Jim books. He has been writing adventure/mystery novels for kids for as long as I can remember, but it has been years since I actually took the time to read one.

Phyllis is fascinated by magic. She has been learning all the tricks and putting on shows for friends and family since forever. But now strange things are happening to her friends, as if by magic. One bookend is exchanged for another under the owner’s watchful eye. A diamond necklace appears to disappear right in front of the CCTV camera. The police are stumped, but young Phyllis knows that given the chance she can get to the bottom of it. Then her father gives her a best birthday present ever, and before too long she knows what has happened.

McSkimming is onto a winner with this new series. Every kid is fascinated by magic and magicians, and with this premise he can explore hundreds of the classic magic acts of the past. Naturally he reveals just enough secrets to keep his plot moving but not enough to actually build a working model, so I can see kids trying to build their own ‘magic’ briefcases out in the garage. Then when the next book is out it will be something else. Is that a bad thing? Absolutely not.

October 20

Department 19 by Will Hill

Once upon a time every boy wanted to be James Bond. Horowitz and Muchamore among many others have made their name by writing adventure novels about secret government organisations and saving the world. Will Hill is now joining that club, but his SGO has a delicious difference.

Many years ago Jamie watched his father die. Then he was declared a traitor to his government and Jamie had to learn to live with the disgrace. Now his mother has been kidnapped and only Jamie appears to be interested in getting her back. But he needs help, and very specialist help at that. Enter Department 19, the secret government organisation that once employed his father. The question is whether Jamie can actually operate under their rules and still rescue his mum.

This was a real page turner. It may look long, but it was hard to put down. There are so many twists and turns that the question ‘Now What?’ should be the title of every chapter. Caught up in Jamie’s struggles are a couple of characters right out of Hollywood, but then is reality necessary when you are reading. The imagination just picks up these ideas and flies.

This isn’t the greatest book I have read this year, but it was a lot of fun. It is over the top and impossible. But then if even a fraction of the stuff that happens in this book were possible, the world would be a very scary place.

And by the way – book 2 is available.