Reviews

What Eden did next by Sheila O'Flanagan

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This novel opens with a letter written by Eden to her dear husband, Andy Farrelly. In a sad and wistful manner, Eden reassures Andy how much she loved him, and now how much she misses him. Eden tells Andy that he has a beautiful daughter, who will never know how good and lovely her father was, in a deeply passionate tone. She had not believed in the notion of soul mates, but having lost Andy, she realises how much he had meant to her.
 
Eden is struggling to cope with Andy’s death, but in the letters she writes to him, she tells him how she is managing and how much she loves their daughter, Lila, describing their life together, deeply sad without Andy as father and spouse. She visits the seaside to watch the sun shining on the ocean, the sunsets gloriously reminiscent of their joy in living during their years together. She tells him how devastated she was to lose him, and fills him in with her life in the present time. She has chosen to work as a care-giver, her training as a physiotherapist supporting this choice, as she works with people who are physically compromised, and loves her work.
 
When Eden bumps into a childhood friend, Rafe, she is captivated by his support of her, and the unlikely coincidence that they have a daughter of a similar age and their girls like each other. Eden is intelligent, and her discovery of Rafe’s PhD in nanotechnology supports her realisation of his work and research as important, as he works in a research laboratory in Dublin. While their emotional, intellectual and physical attraction is immediate, there are issues surrounding this situation, particularly the response of Andy’s family, who are not as supportive as Eden might have hoped. 
 
This vibrant novel is captivating, O’Flanagan plunging us into the world of a very modern and beautiful Ireland, creating a complex world and a narrative where the characters are challenged to meet their situation, and to make appropriate emotional and pragmatic choices. We are drawn into this world as Sheila O’Flanagan presents a world where sudden changes are disconcerting, difficult to deal with, and demanding of our capacity to adapt to a new world. This beautifully written novel would be highly suitable for adolescent and adult readers.

Themes Family relations, Single parent families.

Elizabeth Bondar

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ExtraOrdinary by V.E. Schwab

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Charlotte, a normal teen with a 'goth' fashion sense and a fascination with death, made a miraculous recovery from a near fatal crash on a school bus trip but suffers from 'visual disturbances' explained by head trauma. Now she sees vivid and disturbing reflections of how people will die. But one of the reflections is not a death scene but someone who can see her and knows her name. The scene shifts to a fight scene two years ago where the man in the mirror kills someone and is incarcerated in ‘Eon Facility' as 'Inmate Zero'. This is Eli whose back story involves an experiment he and a friend, Victor, conduct when they were medical students investigating near death experience where the subject is revived at the last minute with adrenaline. He becomes “Extraordinary” like Charlotte but he regards himself as an 'Avenging Angel' and a 'Sword of God', his mission to kill all 'Extraordinaries'. 'We are proof of the divine and an affront to God'. His superpower is an inability to die so he is able to hunt and kill with impunity. Now he is hunting Charlotte.

The graphics are energetic with strong colours, consistent characterisation and a good flow of frames. Different points of view are used effectively including birds eye, above and below sightlines and interesting effects like foreshortening and breaking out. An interesting twist on the superhero story with a brave female protagonist though I am not sure I really like the God references. This graphic version in V.E. Schwab’s Villains series is sure to appeal to readers of her Vicious and Vengeful novels.

Themes Death, Fantasy, Superheroes.

Sue Speck

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Willa and Woof by Jacqueline Harvey

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U

Themes Older people, Birds, Kindness, Honesty.

Jo Marshall

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Look inside a coral reef by Minna Lacey Sam Brewster

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Despite it being in board book format, this is one for anyone with a new interest in coral reefs, their formation, inhabitants and the secrets they hold. The board book format allows it to have a sturdy lift-the-flap feature encouraging readers to explore further and learn more as each phenomenon is explained in a little more depth beneath the flap. Watch here.

And for those who want to know even more, there are the usual Quicklinks  that accompany most of the books from this publisher, including games and activities.

Themes Coral reefs.

Barbara Braxton

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Someone else's child by Kylie Orr

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Ren is thoroughly committed to helping her best friends Anna and Jez in their crowdfunding bid to raise funds to take their terminally ill 8-year-old daughter Lottie to Germany to participate in a new drug trial to target brain cancer. While the local community bands together to donate, it’s not enough money, and the search becomes desperate to find more sources of funds. It’s not surprising that the stress starts to show cracks in Anna and Jez’s marriage, and Ren finds herself running ragged trying to be a support to them both, and to little Lottie, to the extent that it starts to impact her own work life.

Ren feels concern for Lottie in the process. The child craves normal childhood fun and friendships at the same time as battling her illness and fear of death. Ren tries to give her some of the fun and laughter that she needs. She would do anything to help Lottie.

But sometimes, when everyone is focussed on one goal, little things are overlooked. Slowly niggling questions start to arise about some things. Anna usually has all the answers, because she has always been confident and highly organised. But the questions build up in Ren’s mind.

This is a thriller with a difference. It moves quickly, carried mainly by the conversational style, in dialogue between Ren and other people. It starts out as a moving family drama, but veers unexpectedly into more of a detective story. I won’t add any more spoilers, other than to say it is a good read that will hold your attention until the last page.

Themes Cancer, Friendship, Child abuse, Trust.

Helen Eddy

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Dreaming by starlight by Siobhan Curham

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Jazz has had to relocate from the sun and surf of coastal Australia to beachside Brighton in the UK. She is not happy to leave behind her friends and the surfing culture that she loves because of her father’s career move, and now she has to attend a posh new school where everyone treats her like a lemon.  If it wasn’t for her cousin Amber (from the original Moonlight Dreamers) and the advice she gives (with the help of Oscar Wilde) she would be forever resentful, lonely and painfully isolated. Making new friends requires her to be proactive, and some Oscar Wilde wisdom connects her to some new potential friends all with the desire to experience more. Slowly the new Moonlight Dreamers discover new directions and new options in their lives and weave together in ways they never thought possible. Jazz’ impetus has forged a new community that provides benefits beyond her own distress, and gives them all an opportunity to look beyond their own problems.

This is a story of friendship and overcoming major and minor dilemmas by working together and daring to dream. It travels into the lives of the young teens looking at their challenges within their families and their relationships, and giving them a chance to see things differently. One of the girls is battling a major health-scare diagnosis, another has to determine whether her current friends are really healthy for her, another has a heart for animals, and Jazz is experiencing the distress of unwanted disconnection from her friends and favoured environment. The story unfolds fairly quickly with some simple twists along the way. It has heart and moments of joy as the girls discover their new connection and the hope of looking at life differently. As Oscar Wilde says, ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.’

Themes Friendship, Dreams, Loneliness, Illness, Bullying.

Carolyn Hull

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Backyard buddies by Andy Geppert

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An informative text alongside detailed illustrations about the things you might find in your own back yard is sure to please younger readers as they become aware of what lives around them. An index inside the front cover tells able readers what they will find inside:  ladybird, moth, butterfly, snail, spider, bee, termite, blue tongued lizard, green tree frog, garden ant, while the last page shows younger readers how to make a pet rock.

On each double page is an explanation of the animals in question. Half a dozen sentences give a brief outline of the insect and this is mirrored by a page of illustrations that will make readers laugh while a the same time, acquaint them with the main features of the creature.

One double page is about the snail. Half a dozen sentences tell us about this lovely slow moving creature and compares it with humans. We are told he likes the journey not the destination and baby snails would never ask, ‘Are we there yet?’ On the facing page more information is given in the illustrations. A size chart is shown, along with their colour and main food delight, and when the best time to see them is. For younger readers, a host of information told in a humorous way is repeated with illustrations that will inform and delight.

And I can imagine lots of kids and classes delving into their backyards or playgrounds whenever they have the chance.

Themes Insects, Backyard, Common creatures, Humour.

Fran Knight

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Sherlock Bones and the art and science alliance by Renee Treml

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This is the 3rd Sherlock Bones book, following Sherlock Bones and the Natural History Mystery and Sherlock Bones and the Sea-Creature Feature. This book can stand alone if desired, but reading the first two books beforehand provides a bit of background and introduces the characters.  

In this book our museum-dwelling mystery-solving trio are back: tawny frogmouth skeleton Sherlock Bones himself, along with his sidekicks, Grace (a live raccoon) and Watts (a stuffed parrot).  

The new Art and Science Alliance exhibit in the museum is amazing – it showcases weird and fascinating artworks, animals and plants (some real and some fictional). Best of all the exhibit has brought with it a mystery. Stories tell of a ghost in the Hydra painting that comes alive at night. There are definitely hissing and clicking sounds, and then there are the red eyes … 

This story is full of very silly word play that children will love. The graphic novel format keeps the pages turning as readers find the clues and try to solve the mystery alongside our trio. While younger readers will enjoy the story and the fabulous black and white illustrations, older readers will pore over extra details in display signage in the backgrounds – learning some Greek mythology, art facts, and animal information as they go.  

Renee Treml has a background in environmental science which makes her writing and illustrations informative as well as an engaging. At the back of this book is a double page spread showcasing three of the museum displays: micro-beasts; factual vs fictional creatures; and weird, wonderful and real wildlife.

Themes Mystery, Teamwork, Science, Graphic novel.

Kylie Grant

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Pirate Queens by Leigh Lewis Illus. by Sara Gomez Woolley

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In 1995, September 19 each year was proclaimed International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Created as a bit of fun by two friends in the US, in Australia, at least, it has become a major fundraiser for Childhood Cancer Support with schools getting involved in a range of ways to support students and friends. According to the Cancer Council, it is estimated that, on average, about 750 children aged 0-14 are diagnosed with cancer each year in Australia with leukaemia accounting for about 33% of cases, and brain cancers, 25% so it is likely that a school will be supporting a student through this - if not yours, then nearby.

Thus, what might have been a frivolous suggestion more than 25 years ago, can now have a significant impact on those we know and this new book from NatGeo Kids can provide an opportunity to investigate the lives of some of the women who were just as fearsome as the more well-known males such as Blackbeard, Captain Kidd, Captain Hook or even Jack Sparrow. As is often the case with history, the past is viewed through a male lens because men were viewed as the gender capable of writing and reading, they became the scholars, and thus wrote the history books which were mostly written to please kings, generals or male politicians and so only portrayed the male perspective.

Thus, even though there have been female pirates since the dawn of piracy, including Ching Shih (aka Zheng Yi Sao) who tormented the South China Sea with her fleet of 70,000 raiders in the early 19th century, our children have grown up with male-dominated images and stereotypes.

Easy to read with lots of detailed illustrations, the author has trolled the few resources that do still exist and this collection of six stories of powerful female pirates who forged their own path is but a small part of the stories of other women whose stories have been lost or forgotten. Spanning the Caribbean, the Irish and North Seas, the Mediterranean and even the Pacific, this is a fascinating look into the lives of these women that had me more intrigued that I imagined and immediately I could see its place in a serious study of these seafarers who not only captivate young readers in folklore and fiction but who also were real and shaped history so that International Talk Like a Pirate Day could have a legitimate place in the curriculum and thus, its associated fund-raising boosted.

Older students might investigate the qualities of leaders and leadership and whether rule by fear is the most successful way, while perhaps the next pirate a younger child draws might even be female!

Themes Pirates.

Barbara Braxton

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The brink by Holden Sheppard

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Plans go wrong for a group of teenagers set on serious partying for Schoolies week, when they end up isolated on a remote island, only just tolerated by the nearest mainland community. It starts out fun, but tensions build, and then when a dead body is found, it all turns into a teenage nightmare version of ‘Lord of the Flies’.

The story is told by three alternating voices, Leonardo, Kaiya and Mason. And whilst the three of them are on the outside of the popular group and each dealing with personal issues, they turn out to be the most trustworthy individuals amid a bunch of highly volatile personalities.

The brink is about young people on the brink of adulthood, trying to find themselves amid parental expectations and the stresses of old friendship groups, and uncertain about the future. And then, as fear mounts, and hopes of rescue fade, they also find themselves on the brink of anarchy and brutality.

It is then that Leonardo, Kaiya, and Mason, each come to their own understanding of what is important to them. They, more than any of the others, find their inner strength and sense of identity.

Sheppard presents issues of anxiety, teenage sexuality, entrenched bullying, anger, alcohol and drug abuse, as well as issues of self-esteem and personal ethics. It reads like a thriller, and is a thoroughly gripping book.

Teaching notes are available on the publisher’s website.

Themes LGBTQI+, Sexuality, Bullying, Violence, Danger, Anxiety, Identity.

Helen Eddy

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The deadly daylight by Ash Harrier

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12-year-old Alice England does not have the lifestyle of most girls her age. She lives in the same building where her father runs his funeral and undertaking business, and she works to assist him in preparing the deceased for their memorial farewells. Her own life has been shadowed by its own sadness. She is the surviving twin, although with a permanent impairment, from a difficult birth. Her mother abandoned the family early in Alice’s life, but Alice is incredibly close to her caring and staid father. And it seems that the dead also are able to hint their needs to her. This very unusual environment and her unusual personality leads others to give her a wide berth, but Alice is not very distressed by this. She has a formal, proper and almost sombre approach to life, and does not realise that she is unusual. Her complete honesty with her father adds a unique perspective to her pre-teen life. When George Devenish is brought to the funeral home it seems that Alice realises that his death on the sea-side quay is not all it seems. His unusual ‘sunshine’ allergy and anaphylaxis is not everything there is to know about his death. The otherworldly communication in the story is subtle, but leads Alice to begin investigating. She is also introduced to a potential, although unwilling, new ‘friend’ and companion in the inquiry in Violet Devenish (similarly allergic as her Uncle George). The investigation twists and turns, but it is Alice’s doggedness (and occasional tactlessness) despite opposition that leads her into unfamiliar territory and to an understanding of George’s death.

My concern for this book is for the readers who have experienced recent grief. The discussions about embalming and preparations for funerals are perhaps on the edge of macabre and may be a little raw for young readers struggling with their own losses. Alice has a personality that is both naive and mature, perhaps even eccentric and comical, but it is her unruffled and almost blase and nonchalant response to death that is the most unusual. The twists and turns in this mystery and the understanding of an unusual allergy are intriguing and keep readers turning the pages. There is also a connection to an environmental issue and to some teens who live a slightly edgy life on quayside. Although this book would introduce the murder mystery genre to a younger audience, and in some ways it has a similar, but more modern, appeal to the Enola Holmes series, I suspect that the environment of bereavement may need to be read by those aged at least 13+. School Libraries should recognise the need to protect some psychologically vulnerable readers.

Themes Funerals, Murder mystery, Death, Allergies, Friendship, Smuggling, Resilience.

Carolyn Hull

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The book of wondrous possibilities by Deborah Abela

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This charming tale begins with a bang when 11-year-old Lisette bursts into the bookshop Arlo is minding. She manages to hide while a menacing monster of a man called Silas scours the place for her. But once Lisette is safe, she presents a parcel to Arlo. He recognizes that it is from his mother who died a year ago because of a car accident. The parcel contains an extremely old, rare book called a grimoire and mysteriously one of the stories within was written by Arlo’s mother. More mysteriously it seems the story is mirroring events that start to take place in the lives of Arlo and Lisette. Over the past year Arlo has been heartbroken and has chosen to live a very quiet life with his kind uncle, who owns the bookshop. His only companion is a smart brave mouse called Herbert. Silas continues his pursuit of Lisette and when she is kidnapped Arlo needs to control his fearfulness in order to help his new friend. What’s more Lisette believes her grandmother died as a result of being hounded by a property developer, Marcellus, to vacate her bookshop. Marcellus is employing Silas to get hold of the grimoire. This all makes for an exciting page turning story. 

A lot of things happen in this novel but it is delightful and easy to follow. This is due in part to a lot of dialogue and just the right balance of suspense and magic. Abela enticingly teases the reader into believing that Arlo might actually be experiencing what is happening in his story. Arlo and Lisette are both smart with wonderful hearts and his Uncle Avery and friend Gertrude are comically eccentric. It reminded me of the Eerie-on-Sea series or Jaclyn Moriarty’s Kingdoms and Empires series. It would be a great read-aloud book for children from 8 to 12 years old. Abela wrote it as “a love letter to books, book sellers, librarians and reading” and it most certainly is that.

Themes Fear, Bullying, Family, Friendship, Love.

Jo Marshall

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Ella and the useless day by Meg McKinlay and Karen Blair

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Ella and her Dad decide to have a clean up day, after looking at their house, so full of useless things. They search, scramble and sort, poke, pick and pile, hunt, hoist and heave, filling their little car trailer with loads of things that are too old, too big, too small, too holey, or broken and altogether useless. Their next door neighbour takes the old bicycle, to him it is perfect. The lady at the end of the street asks if she can have the holey blankets as they are just what she needs. A jogger notices Dad’s old fashioned suit and jogs happily away with it. At the park two girls spy the leaking fishbowl, it is just what they want, while several other people take things from the trailer until, arriving at the dump Ella and her Dad find they have no useless things left in the trailer to leave behind.

A wonderfully witty tale of recycling and repurposing, children will begin to look around them with more than a cursory eye, seeing the things that are no longer useful to them, but may be useful to someone else.

Meg McKinlay’s sense of the unusual shines through as she uses alliterative words to describe the things they look for, or repeats the word useless at the start contrasting with the word useful in the last pages. Each of the neighbours finds just what they need from the trailer, prompting readers to think what their use might be. How could somebody really want a holed blanket or an 80’s suit or leaking fishbowl. Suggestions will come thick and fast from avid readers, eager to make something useless into something useful.

Blair’s watercolour and pencil illustrations add to the humour of the text, showing the pair as they dive into the useless things found in their home and shed, or fill the trailer, or leave behind stuff other people want to take, arriving empty handed at the dump. I love the front cover with the delicate balancing act by Dad, Ella and the dog, paralleling the fine line between useful and useless. And the last several pages where we see the use to which the useless objects have been put. The detail of the house and shed will titillate the imaginations of the readers, spying things others do not see, seeing out things which they may have at home, tucked away instead of being thrown out or recycled. And the endpapers too show the difference between useless and useful and I love the journey taken by Ella and her Dad, through the house then the neighbourhood and to the dump. A wonderful story promoting recycling and repurposing, but also being creative and encouraging a sense of community as the useless property is shared.

Themes Recycling, Creativity, Community, Rubbish.

Fran Knight

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The best liars in Riverview by Lin Thompson

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Aubrey and Joel are the best of friends. They have always been friends, and while others might think they are odd, they are perfectly happy enjoying their make believe games, even if they might be getting a bit old for them now. When Aubrey returns from their camping trip having gone a separate way from Joel, and he has now disappeared, this makes Aubrey the last person to see him. The whole town is looking for him, but Aubrey might be the only one who can find him. Setting out to look for him with Aubrey’s older sister, Teagan, and Joel and Aubrey’s friend, Mari, they might find themselves along the way.

This middle grade book, set in America, is narrated by Aubrey, starting straight after the camping trip. The story unfolds naturally, moving forward smoothly, with a few flashbacks sprinkled throughout. There are a variety of characters, facing different issues, which are issues that many readers experience. Chapter length varies, with some chapters being much shorter than others. The novel is essentially a contemporary book with mystery and adventure, and heart. While we are living in modern times, children still experience racism and discrimination for being themselves, which this book looks at through the eyes of a preteen child learning about themselves. Good for fans of ‘Melissa’ (previously titled ‘George’) by Alex Gino.

Themes Lies and Truth, Mystery, Understanding, Relationships, Middle Grade, Racism.

Melanie Phillips

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Leilong's too long by Julia Liu and Bel Lynn

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Leilong the brontosaurus is a very good school bus, and the children are all ready and waiting as he goes from building to building to collect them. But being a brontosaurus in a modern city of cars and buses and trucks and people can have its drawbacks and Leilong finds himself banned and confined to the school gymnasium. He is so upset that he cries and cries... and finds himself a new career!!

Young readers first met Leilong when he took them to library storytime and they will be happy that he returns in another adventure. What if Leilong arrived at their school? What uses could he have? Have them write letters to the principal to persuade them that Leilong should stay...

Themes Dinosaurs, Libraries.

Barbara Braxton

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