March 17

New Guinea Moon by Kate Constable

resized_9781743315033_224_297_FitSquareIt seems like a long time since I have read a warm fuzzy YA novel. All publishers seem to print now are dark dystopian fantasies, but at least they are a change from all the supernatural romance from a few years before. This book was shoved in my hand last year with the comment ‘you have to read it’. Last weekend I gathered all these together and New Guinea Moon landed on top of the list.

Julie is 16, and like many girls this age, she is permanently fighting with her Mum. In sheer frustration Mum arranges for her to spend her Christmas holiday with her father, who left when she was just 3. Tony (it is impossible to call him Dad) is a pilot flying light planes to the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Over the summer Julie falls in love, not only with the boss’s son, but the whole lifestyle and the magnificent scenery. After tragedy strikes she is forced to leave, promising herself to return as soon as she has some skills to offer this new nation.

Set just before independence in Papua New Guinea, this book takes a serious look at colonialism and the racist attitudes of the expats living in the colony. Some are able to treat the indigenous population with respect and care but most seem afraid of the natives and cover this fear with aggression. Julie manages to get herself into some difficult situations, but she keeps calm and makes a serious effort to understand what is happening, and why.

This is a wonderful entertaining read that leaves the reader with something to think about. Love it!

February 3

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

isbn9781444722659-detailHow much fantasy fits into your standard formula. Good guys – look good and feel better. Baddies – look foul and feel worse. Book 1 introduce the characters, book two move them around and set up the battle lines, book 3 – the final battle and the resolution. Well you can forget all that as soon as you open this little treasure.

First the protagonist is a 17 year art student, trying to live a normal life in Prague. But every now and then she is sent on an errand by her ‘foster parent’ Brimstone. She is sent all over the world to collect, of all things – teeth. All kinds of teeth and tusks, from thieves, murderers, and hunters. Once they are delivered to Brimstone she is free to return to her ‘normal’ world. Elsewhere – Brimstone’s world – is populated by all kinds of creatures that most humans would consider monsters, partially human bodies with animal elements. Imagine a minotaur or a sphinx in real life and able to talk!

Enter Akiva – apparently an angel.  Able to walk among humans by hiding his wings with a magical glamour. Naturally Karou falls in love, but something just doesn’t seem quite right. A sixth sense warns her to keep him secret and separate from Elsewhere. Then there is this vague memory that seems to be from a previous life, still in love with Akiva, but tragedy was the result. Just who was Madrigal?

This is a very readable book, and a very satisfying read all on it’s own. Very unusual for a fantasy. The fantasy world and access to it is limited, mostly this is a book about an art student and her friends, but strange things keep interrupting her ‘normal’ life. But I will warn you, once you hit the final chapters you definitely want book 2 on hand. The climax is amazing.

 

July 17

Nymph by Tonya Alexandra

1384925790952Have you ever been tired of reading about murder, destruction, and depression? Sick of vampires, zombies and the like? I certainly got that way earlier this year and then this book came across my desk. Judging a book by its cover, this was bound to be different.

Greek goddess Merope is in trouble. Zeus has agreed to her marriage, but she doesn’t even like Orion. So as punishment, she is sent to live on Earth for a year to consider her future. Not the ancient Greek Earth, but a modern Australian city. In order to fill her time, she is required to attend an everyday secondary school. Imagine a Greek Goddess in your class!

This is a light and entertaining romance novel, a great change from all the dystopian fiction so prevalent in YA today. But it is a real beach read. Don’t look for literary allusions or symbolism in this simple and straightforward story. Just read it to enjoy the fun of an all powerful god trying to blend in with modern teens.

This is not Percy Jackson, but is still fun in it’s own way.

July 16

The First Third by Will Kostakis

9780143568179‘Life is made up of three parts: In the first third you’re embarrassed by your family; in the second, you make a family; and in the end, you just embarrass the family you’ve made’. What a line, and what a theme.

Billy’s family is falling apart. One brother has headed off interstate to live. Mum is dating, and not all the dates work out. His younger brother won’t speak to anybody. And to top it all off, YiaYia (grandmother) is in hospital. Life is falling apart. But then YiaYia gives him her bucket list…and life falls apart a bit further.

This is a lovely, funny family story. A warm fuzzy alternative to all the dystopian fiction written now for YAs. The reader will laugh at Will’s antics, cringe during his first date, and cry with him during the funeral. But supporting Will, and the reader, is a traditional Greek extended family.

This book has been shortlisted for the CBC under the category Older Readers. I enjoyed the book, but I have some question about whether it is really the best book written last year. Nearly half the book is taken up establishing characters and background. It isn’t until Will gets the bucket list that the story becomes something wonderful. For that reason, I don’t think it is outstanding enough to be Book of the Year.

But then I am often wrong…

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.

May 16

The Traitor Queen by Trudi Canavan

9781841495965I can’t believe I have had this book as long as I have. Nearly a year before I finished it. This is partly because I had to source and read book two in the trilogy before continuing the journey, but still…

Like many fantasy authors Canavan has established in her mind a wonderful complex magical world. This is book seven told from this world, and it very nicely draws together several threads and still leaves room to continue the story again, perhaps picking up the next generation.

In a world full of magic, black magic is seen as the most powerful, and dangerous. Very few magicians can access that power and they are isolated and guarded. In one country, only three are allowed, all others are prohibited training. But in this trilogy, all those rules are tested. First when the son of an authorised magician discovers latent abilities he naturally possess. What can be done to protect him, but to send him off as an ambassador to a distant land. But then he is kidnapped and taken to a hidden city of Traitors. Here it seems everyone practices black magic, and society runs well. Now in book 3, this society of Traitors is determined to destroy a nation whose social order is founded on slavery and the acquisition of power with magic.

As always, book 3 of a fantasy trilogy will make little or no sense without reading books 1 and 2 first. Much of this book would seem to be political diplomacy, court intrigue and small skirmishes that eventually lead to one big decisive battle. Totally appropriate for the story. To me, the final resolution was just ‘right’. Realistic without going too far. Satisfying without closing doors on all future stories.

And now to open the Canavan that arrived last week.

May 16

Concealed in Death by JD Robb

9780749959401Book 38 of a series… How on earth can an author keep a story going? I will admit that I came to this series relatively late, only reading a handful of books in the last few years. But each one has been a fun read, and I look forward to the time when I can take the time to read some of the early books.

For those unfamiliar with the In Death series, the primary investigators are Eve Dallas, police lieutenant, and her wealthy computer whiz husband Roarke. The books are set just slightly in the future, but not enough to be scifi. This time the story depends on good old-fashioned police work. Roarke is renovating an old building once used to house homeless youth. During the grand project launch, he symbolically takes a sledgehammer to a wall, only to discover a skeleton. Eventually 12 skeletons are located, and Eve takes on the challenge of identifying each body and hunting down their killer.

I think what I liked best about this book is the traditional whodunit style. No fancy virtual reality suite, no super evil tech device, just simple gathering evidence and drawing conclusions. First the struggle to identify the victims, then find the links between them, if any. Some of the best scenes in this book are the moments when Eve breaks the news to the next of kin as each child is identified. And ever so gently she needs to ask about known friends.

I don’t think I have read a bad book in this series, but this one seems to stand out as just a little bit better.

May 16

The Valhalla Prophecy by Andy McDermott

9780755380664Ah, a good, old fashioned page turner. Airport novel, beach book, whatever you may call these guilty pleasures that you read when you just want to relax. You can count on McDermott to entertain without challenging your ‘little grey cells.’

In this installment of the continuing series, Eddie and Nina are helping friends chase down Valhalla, the legendary Viking hall of the slain. Runestones have been unearthed that seem to provide clues to the spot, naturally well above the Arctic Circle. As always, the bad guys are after the same thing because the structure is said to protect the most deadly poison ever. A single drop on your skin will kill you. It seems the Russians found the first location in the 60s and sealed it with a nuclear weapon. So the race is on for site number 2, literally.

These long series of similar books can present an author with a problem. How on earth do you keep readers coming back? McDermott handles this problem by creating interesting characters, and adding their backstory ever so slowly. This time it is Eddie with the big secret, so secret he can’t even trust Nina. Will he risk his marriage to protect this woman he knew years before? Read the book to find out. But be warned, we are all going to be hanging on the next book for Nina’s health check.

In large format or wait for the paperback edition due out in August, fans of this series will love this. If not already a fan, I suggest that you lay your hands on some of the earlier books to introduce the characters we all know and love.

March 10

Killer by Jonathan Kellerman

9780755374595In my last few reviews of his books, I have been commenting that Kellerman seemed to have lost his touch. The stories were predictable and the plots were all the same; even the characters were unsympathetic. Killer arrived like a breath of fresh air. Kellerman has returned to his roots, child psychology, to bring us this superb read.

We all know that Alex Delaware doesn’t make his living as a police consultant. He makes his money advising judges and courts about child custody. But we never hear about these stories. One case involves two sisters, the natural mother who is a real flower child from the 60s. Following a band, no visible means of support, but totally committed to caring for her baby. The other sister is a wealthy doctor, every possible advantage for the child, but little evidence that she has every loved anyone or anything. Delaware recommends that the baby stay with her mother, seemingly a no-brainer. But before long, Milo is warning him of a contract out on his life. We all know that Delaware gets himself into some sticky situations, but rarely is he the primary target.

Kellerman has come up with a fresh new plot and filled it with great characters. I know I wasn’t supposed to, but I really liked Efrem. How hard would life be for a tough teenager with juvenile diabetes? Also, Ree is just like many girls I knew in the 60s and 70s, she just had the ability to keep the innocence into adulthood.

I read this book in one sitting, less than 24 hours. I couldn’t put it down, and that is a welcome return to the Kellerman I know and love.

March 10

The Afghanistan Pup by Mark Wilson

the_afghanistan_pup_INTERNALS_2Everybody loves picture story books. We learned as little children that the story is much more than the words, and it is important to read the pictures as well. Mark Wilson is a local author who has created a book for all ages in this touching story of war, destruction, and hope.

A pup is born in a village in Afghanistan, but he is born into a life of hardship. Mum goes off to look for food, and never returns. He finds a young girl to love him, but her schoolhouse is bombed. Imagine – daring to teach girls. Rescued by an Australian soldier, he finds a new home, but then one day the soldier doesn’t return from patrol. So where is the hope? A school is rebuilt and a young girl returns to finish her education. Guess who is waiting for her.

This books is much more than this simple plot. Wilson’s impressionistic illustrations add a great deal to the story. Even his use of colour changes the mood as quickly as you can turn the page.

This is not a book for the very young. In fact, I suspect some primary schools will refuse to offer it shelf space because of the confronting nature of the story. But it is a story that needs to be told, for the sake of the soldiers overseas and for the people surviving in the war zone.