Reviews

Sophia the show pony by Kate Waterhouse. Illus. by Sally Spratt

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Kate Waterhouse from the famous horse racing family, has written a gorgeous rhyming book about a pony who follows her dream. Sophia is a show pony, beautifully adorned in all the finest fashion money can buy. There are hats and bags galore, designer dresses and coats, magnificent jewellery but Sophia secretly yearns for the freedom to race in the hills. She makes a bold decision to follow her dream and asks for guidance from her friends, Grace and Frederick. They gently advise that racing is not for her, and she reluctantly decides to give up on her longed-for dream and make the most of her life as a fashionista. At the premier racing event of the season, the Giddy Up Cup, Sophia is in contention to win the best dressed cup until the wind changes everything. Will Sophia have the chance to follow her dream and run her own race?

The detailed water colour illustrations by Sally Spratt are simply quite stunning. The inclusion of so many cleverly drawn animals and other items on each page will engage younger readers. This lovely book would make the perfect gift for children who love ponies or fashion. A great tie-in read when Australia’s major racing event takes place on the first Tuesday in November.

Themes Ponies, Fashion, Rhyming, Horse Racing, Following your dream, Animals.

Kathryn Beilby

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The house in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune

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Linus Baker is a quiet man, living a solitary existence with his cat Calliope. He is employed as a case worker by the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth (DICOMY), investigating government orphanages that house children with magical abilities. When Extremely Upper Management sends him to the island of Marsyas to undertake a probe on the children’s well-being and the suitability of the manager, Arthur Parnassus, he discovers that the children all have complex magical abilities, and that Arthur is hiding a secret. As he gets to know the children, he begins to appreciate their powers and recognise that love that can be found in this unusual family. The reader is left asking whether Linus will recommend to Extreme Upper Management that the children in this orphanage stay with Arthur where their magical powers will be  nurtured.

Each of the characters is fully realised and very engaging. Linus is very uptight when he first arrives, but the caring atmosphere of the island brings out the best in him. He encourages the children in their dreams and even manages to discard his tie and dress up as an explorer and play a game with them. Arthur is a gentle father figure and the growing relationship between Linus and him is sensitively handled by Klune, a previous winner of the Lambda Literary Award. The children are wonderful. Talia is a gnome who loves gardening. Sal is an extremely shy boy who has been abused in previous placements but who can write wonderful stories; Theodore who is a wyvern, guards his hoard, especially Linus’ buttons; Phee is a forest sprite while Chauncey is an unknown who longs to be a bellhop. Lucy, short for Lucifer, is a six-year-old with dangerous powers and was described by Extremely Upper Management as the Antichrist.

There is sparkling conversation and subtle humour, leaving  the reader feeling good and wanting to know more about each of the people on the island. However serious issues are threaded throughout the novel. Klune examines the fate of children who are considered dangerous and do not fit into what society considers the norm. He demonstrates how easy it is to allow bigotry and stereotypes to dominate a group but that there is always hope especially if just one person will stand up for justice.

The house in the Cerulean Sea won the Alex Award and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award in 2020 and is sure to appeal to readers of fantasy.  

Themes Islands, Orphans, Orphanages, Social workers, Family, Difference LGBTQI people.

Pat Pledger

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Dreams from my father: Adapted for Young Adults by Barack Obama

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Barack Obama wrote his memoir soon after his study years at law school and when he was just married.  He had not entered politics.  Obviously a young man with a great sense of social justice at the time but also very keen to understand his past, he set about telling his story with a view to encouraging his readers to consider the same.  At a time when a new school curriculum is being released for Australian schools, with more focus on international historical perspectives, this is a valuable addition to school and personal libraries.  In his newly written introduction to this ‘young adult’ edition, Obama stresses how important our knowledge of history is to the formation of inquisitive, observant and analytical minds.  The reader follows the life of this President-to-be, as he journeys through words, with his mother from Kansas to Hawaii, with his father and extended family to Kenya, with his stepfather and half sister to Indonesia, all the while examining his heritage to understand himself better.  This edition features a concise family tree and coloured family photos.  Obama writes with humility and generosity; also starkly aware of the injustices of the world around and his desire to do as much as he can to alleviate inequality. This memoir continues to inspire and the young adult reader will enjoy his story: it is easy to read and his thoughtfulness comes through so beautifully.  He would like the young to feel inspired as he was to share their stories and ‘to value the stories of others’. Teaching notes are available form the publisher. 

Themes Autobiography.

Julie Wells

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Vespertine by Margaret Rogerson

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Artemisia is a girl training to be a Gray Sister, one of an order that helps souls to pass on. She is troubled and lonely and must deal with whispers about her past and her scarred hands. When the convent is attacked by soldiers who are possessed by spirits, she is forced to defend it by awakening a revenant that had been imprisoned in a saint’s relic. As she faces danger and dark mysteries, she gradually gets closer to the revenant, while struggling to overcome another ancient and very powerful spirit who brings death to her world.

Artemisia’s actions in battle guided by the revenant Rathanael bring her recognition that she does not want. She begins to have a following of people who call her a saint and believe that she can save them. She also discovers that she has loyal friends in Marguerite, Charles, and Captain Enguerrand, all willing to put their lives at risk to help her in her task of finding out what the priest Leander was trying to do.

Told in the first person by Artemisia, readers will learn about the horrors of her childhood, the kindness of Mother Katherine at the convent and the growing understanding between her and the revenant. She must accept that she is a vespertine, one who can control a high relic if she is to save her world. It is easy to think of her as a Joan of Arc figure, a young woman who could lead armies and who is considered a saint.

Rogerson has been recognised for her novel Sorcery of thorns (Best fiction for young adults 2020) and Vespertine is equally as engrossing. Readers who enjoyed reading about nuns in Robin LaFevers' His fair assassin series, and Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff, will want to pick up Vespertine, while those who liked Naomi Novik’s Scholomance series will enjoy reading about another young heroine.

Themes Nuns, Ghosts, Good and evil, Friendship, Saints.

Pat Pledger

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That thing I did by Allayne Webster

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This is one roller-coaster ride of madcap adventure. Five eccentric characters are thrown together on a road trip to fulfil the last wish of a crazy aged care escapee. Daisy may be old but she is as tough as they come, and Taylor, Chip, Jackson and Chloe find themselves all doing her bidding. Along the way there are a lot of mishaps, corny jokes and laughs galore, but at the same time Webster competently handles more serious issues of suicide, abuse, and difficult relationships.

Taylor is the lead character – the ‘thing that he did’ was a social media post that was possibly insensitive and hurtful. It leads to him losing his closet friend and being ostracised from his friendship group. But in his connection with young would-be pornography director Chip, and the mishaps that follow, he learns to appreciate the individual qualities of a range of supposed misfits, and in the end it is a story about acceptance and true friendship.

This story really is a mixed bag – comedy, adventure, romance, and teenage coming of age, it could appeal to a range of adolescent and more mature readers.

Themes Comedy, Road trip, Friendship, Coming of age.

Helen Eddy

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Instructions for a teenage Armageddon by Rosie Day

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Rosie Day is an actor, director and writer.  She is only in her twenties and as a child actor has appeared in numerous well known British films and TV series.  In lockdown she began writing a one girl play with the same title and it had a good season.  It was suggested that she could run a podcast empowering teenage girls but then this idea turned into a book.

The work is a call to arms, as the title suggests, with Rosie Day introducing the subject, before including letters, comments, observations and advice from a large number of contributors, including doctors, psychologists, actors and activists.  Lively illustrations in graphic comic style add to the appeal of course.  Each of the 5 sections, addressing a range of topics from mental health, friendships, relationships, families, consent and boundaries, is rounded off with 10 Top Tips which relate, for example, to mental health and stress.  Lists of online resources and references are included at end of the book; keeping in mind though, that this is an English publication and the contributors largely unknown to us. The subject is universal however and the book timely, as our attention is so often drawn to student well-being, the impact of social media and the dramatic rise in teenage sexual assault and suicide.  It is a book which recognises the challenges for teenage girls and acknowledges the confusion and difficulties of these years, but it is full of good advice and reassurances; a book all about protecting mental health. 

Best of all, it is appealing, interesting, positive and modern - a far cry from the usual self-help book.  It is a book to inspire, a book for girls to read and realise their potential to bring about change.  The writer says that she would love to write a version for boys with male contributors; her work with a teenage mental health charity could make this work too.

Themes Mental health.

Julie Wells

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The fast 800 keto: Eat well, burn fat, manage your weight long term by Dr Michael Mosley

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The fast 800 keto builds on Mosley’s successful The fast 800 and is an easy to read and follow book explaining up to date science of weight loss. The book starts with an introduction of how we got fat, why we need to eat more protein and then goes into the science of keto which I found useful in understanding how the body reacts to eating the sugar found in many processed foods. It describes the effect of a keto diet when your body goes into ketosis and burns up fat instead of sugar leading to weight loss. Mosly goes into detail about the fast 800 Keto programme. It combines keto with intermittent fasting, which readers will be familiar with if they have read The fast 800 and stresses the advantages of a Mediterranean diet. Emphasis is given to the importance of preparation before beginning the diet by having the right food on hand. Advice is also given about how to maintain a good weight long term.

The recipes given by Dr Clare Bailey are easy to follow and meal planners are set out with 3 meals a day and 2 meals a day when doing intermittent fasting. I enjoyed the Rapid bircher with apple and cinnamon, and Wok-steamed white fish with pak choi. There is a chart to record Before and after measurements of weight, waist and blood pressure, and an extensive bibliography and good index are also included at the back of the book.

The cover states that it is possible to ‘lose up to 6 kg in 21 days’ and following the advice in this Australian and New Zealand edition would give people aiming to lose weight a scientific basis to do so. The fast 800 Keto is sure to prove popular and I will be using many of the recipes included in my regular meal planning.

Themes Keto diet, Intermittent fasting, Weight loss.

Pat Pledger

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The winter duke by Claire Eliza Bartlett

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Ekata is just days away from leaving her home. Days away from freedom and the life she has looked forward to for years. An unimportant and forgotten middle child in a dangerous and vicious family, Ekata just wants to survive long enough to flee south and spend her days surrounded by those who value knowledge and peace. However, someone or something has other plans. Suddenly, and very much against her will, Ekata becomes the Duke of Kylma Above, tasked with ruling the kingdom, preventing an invasion, curtailing treason and discovering a cure for the magical illness which has incapacitated the rest of her family. And then there is Inkar, the girl who should have been her brother’s bride…

The Winter Duke is a satisfactory young adult fantasy offering some unique ideas and plot points. Bartlett has created a distinctive and atmospheric world. While most of the book is spent in the ducal castle, the reader gains a real sense of the cold and harsh environment of Kylma Above. The inclusion of magical elements and creatures and a complex familial and societal structure is also interesting.

Where the novel fails however is in its characters. Main protagonists do not necessarily have to be likeable for readers to be able to enjoy a book. Bartlett has clearly tried to style Ekata as a character relatable to her audience, with flaws and insecurities like those suffered by most teenagers. However, she is almost comically unconfident, reckless, credulous and petulant. As the story progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to root for a character this exasperating. Moreover, secondary protagonists, including Ekata’s love interest and her most dangerous enemy, are more caricature than character. The book’s villain, for example, is brash, vulgar and innately ‘evil’, without much explanation or reasoning to explain why.

Overall, The Winter Duke is a solid young adult fantasy novel, which will no doubt please some readers of the genre, but it is not without its flaws.

Themes Fantasy, Romance, Family, Identity, Magic, Magical Creatures, LGBTQIA+.

Rose Tabeni

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The Sugarcane Kids and the Red-bottomed Boat by Charlie Archbold

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South Australian author Charlie Archbold has written an exciting and entertaining novel perfect for middle grade readers.  This new release, shortlisted for the Text Prize, is set in a small coastal town in far North Queensland surrounded by sugarcane fields and mangroves.

Andy and his best mate Eli are inseparable. They spend their days together, whether at school or home. Their friendship bond is strong and when Eli’s cousin Jacob is arrested for theft, the two boys decide to find out the truth before he is sentenced. They call on fraternal twins Bernie and Fletch to help them and together they develop a plan of action. However, after some clever sleuthing, they realise they will need the help of annoying classmate Harvey, who incidentally has not been a friend to Andy and Eli, and the five go on a dangerous boat journey to solve the mystery of the theft. At the red-bottomed boat half buried deep in the mangroves, they must deal with a monstrous crocodile to discover the truth and then face unpleasant adversaries on their return to the marina.

The fast action-packed pages of this engaging book will hold the reader’s interest until the end. The relationship between each of the very different young characters who come from diverse family backgrounds, consists of humour, gentle rivalry and friendship, as well as deep respect for Eli and his Indonesian family. The vivid descriptive language used to describe the surroundings in which the story is set will allow the reader to be transported to far North Queensland.

The Sugarcane Kids and the Red-Bottomed Boat would make a fabulous class novel. As well as being a great read there is so much to learn and discuss such as the behaviour of crocodiles, environmental issues, life in the tropics, friendships, bullying and importantly how to work collaboratively as a team. A delightful new book, hopefully a series, for those middle-grade readers who look for adventure, danger and overcoming challenging obstacles. Teacher's notes are available.

Themes Friends, North Queensland, Theft, Family, Adventure, Danger, Courage, Teamwork, Mangroves, Boats, Crocodiles, Diversity, Friendship.

Kathryn Beilby

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Elektra by Jennifer Saint

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Stunning! Jennifer Saint really knows how to take the framework of a Greek myth and breathe life into all the characters, their emotions and motivations. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and read it in one sitting, rapidly turning the chapters between the three characters, Clytemnestra, Cassandra and Elektra. The central storyline is the well known tale of the abduction of Helen of Sparta, by Paris, prince of Troy. But in this book, Helen is a rather vague and enigmatic creature and the focus is most definitely on the three women on the edge of the story: Clytemnestra, sister of Helen, and wife of Agamemnon, leader of the army that sailed to retrieve Helen; Cassandra, princess of Troy, doomed seer of the future; and Elektra, the stubborn young daughter of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon.

Saint’s writing provides insight into how a wife can come to detest her husband and seek his death, how a solitary woman can be disparaged and reviled, and how a naive daughter can cling to belief in her father despite clear evidence of his cruelty. Saint brings to life the inner world of her characters, and they become very believable. And in the process, she reveals how each of these women struggles within a world where women are treated as a commodity to be won, bartered, scorned or sacrificed.

There is no man who is completely trustworthy; the world of men and women is so structured as to prevent any sense of equality or power. However, Clytemnestra, Cassandra and Elektra, each are strong and determined women and they fight against men, and against gods, to take their place in the world. It is a fiery tale of anger and passion – riveting reading!

This latest novel is even better than Ariadne – highly recommended.

Themes Greek mythology, Women, Power, Revenge.

Helen Eddy

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Great big softie by Kaye Baillie and Shane McG

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Elliot, a monster with a great big soft heart, is desperate to fit in with the other more mischievous monsters. Those monsters cause mayhem amongst the people in the neighbourhood, so Elliot decides to join them. He trashes a shop, eats all the churros from a fast-food van, causes the swimming pool to be closed for the day and frightens a little girl with a huge growl. Elliot’s monster friends award him Monster of the Week for his dastardly deeds, but Elliot does not feel at all comfortable with what he has done and decides to make amends. He goes to the little girl’s house and returns her missing turtle. It is not enough though, so he bravely apologises to the little girl and the other people he has upset - his most daring deed ever. Elliot realises that belonging to a group needs to feel right and he learns a valuable life lesson about respect.

The engaging illustrations in this book are bright and colourful with diverse characters.

Themes Monsters, Mischief, Belonging, Respect, Saying sorry.

Kathryn Beilby

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Fire truck Santa by Nic McPickle and Nathaniel Eckstrom

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A very apt book published at the end of 2021, depicts Santa visiting children across Australia in his large very red fire truck.

Dedicated to all our wonderful volunteers, especially in this incredible time when fires raged across many parts of Australia, this very welcome addition to the range of books published at Christmas, will enthuse readers with the story  of kindness and helping others.

A nod to the iconic Christmas poem  "Twas the night before Christmas….” This story is of a great Aussie adventure as Santa, in his old and worn out fire truck, is delivering presents to all the children around the town. When something on the truck breaks down, the children are there to work out a solution. But when a final pop is heard the the truck seems to be finally totally broken down the problem seems insurmountable.

Nic McPickle and Nathaniel Eckstrom have combined together to create a funny Christmas story for everyone to enjoy. The story encapsulates the real meaning of Christmas, of hope and kindness of sharing and helping others. A funny, rollicking read aloud, children will ask that it be read again as they predict the rhyming words and enjoy scanning the pages for the detail Eckstrom includes.

Themes Humour, Kindness, Sharing, Volunteers, Christmas.

Fran Knight

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We run tomorrow by Nat Amoore

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The Lockett Street Squad are 11-year-old friends that stick together through thick and thin, bonded by their mutual love of graphic novel series - ‘The Screensavers’. They are so keen about this comic book series that they re-enact storylines and post them on You-tube. This story is told from the perspective of ‘Sticks’ and it is a powerful tale of friendship amid the serious issues of life. When Tommy’s usual life comes crashing down, Sticks, Maki and Jed combine to devise a plan to protect Tommy from being relocated far from Lockett Street. The plan also includes heading to the Gold Coast to audition for roles in the new ‘Screensavers’ movie, kidnapping, and evading police and many other exciting, risky and devious side hustles. This is a story with heart, but it also addresses some quite heart-rending life situations and introduces some wonderful characters and does it with an unexpected twist.

The graphic novel/comic strip launches the book revealing a quirky storyline before the you-tube adventures of the children takes over the narrative. This entry point into the book will immediately appeal to lovers of graphic stories. The hidden reveal in the story involving the character ‘Sticks’ is worthy of secrecy … a clever plot twist that readers need to discover themselves. Although there are serious issues addressed in this story, the Lockett Street Squad are really just a warm and inclusive friendship group who do not let problems get in their way. This was a very enjoyable story – but the intra-family abuse and death of a family member may be confronting for some young readers, so be careful to consider the personal history of children when recommending this.

Themes Graphic novel, Friendship, Sibling abuse, Fugitives, Grief.

Carolyn Hull

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Into the sideways world by Ross Welford

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Ross Welford was born in a small seaside town in the north-east of England. This is his 7th book since his popular debut Time travelling with a hamster was published in 2016. With his previous books Welford has firmly set himself as an entertainer of readers 10+. His stories all include elements of sci-fi/fantasy set against a realistic backdrop based around the town of his birth.

Into the sideways world follows this formula and introduces two 12-year-old outsiders, Willa and Manny. It is the year 2031 and they are investigating sightings of a mysterious animal in their town. One night they suddenly find themselves in an alternate world.

Willa and Manny are stunned – while their own world has survived a pandemic but is close to war, this world is perfect. There’s no pollution, no rundown properties, no family arguments, no diseases and no world conflict.

Willa has a contact in her own world who may be the key to figuring out the link between worlds, if only she can get back. But do she and Manny even want to leave this ideal world? And if they do, will anyone believe what they have seen?

This story is full of adventure and humour while also being thought-provoking and including some difficult relationships and tough choices. There are subtle references to environmental issues, history and global politics. The chapters are short with lots of cliff-hangers – be prepared for desperate pleas to ‘keep going!’ if reading aloud.

There are no teacher resources for this book as Welford is of the opinion that teachers know best. But in an interview with The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education in the UK he said 'Into The Sideways World could, I imagine, provoke some interesting class discussions on how we might begin to 'change the world'.' It also raises the question of whether you would opt for your own loved yet imperfect reality when faced with the choice of a perfect world instead.

Themes Fantasy, Adventure, Relationships, Future, Environment.

Kylie Grant

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Star the elephant by Remy Lai

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Star the Elephant is based on the true story of a small group of Indian elephants that swam across the Johor Strait from Malaysia to a small island off the coast of Singapore after losing their home due to deforestation. In Remy Lai's (Pawcasso) retelling, five-year-old Star and her family have to split up; there simply isn't enough food in any one place to accommodate them all. But when Star and her mum and aunt get back to where they are expecting to find banana trees, they are faced with fallen trees in amongst the sea of palm oil trees. They decide to flee to an island that aunty knows of, but when they get there they are faced with more humans, and because of their experiences to date they are very scared. When Star's mum and aunty are shot with tranquiliser darts Star runs but is eventually peacefully captured and taken to a sanctuary where she is reunited with her family. 

Full-colour illustrations and simple dialogue and narration told within a graphic novel format make this perfect for young readers. However, some of the content, including Star almost drowning, the animals distress as they try to find a safe place and Star being separated from her family is quite confronting. This is one of three already published in the Surviving the Wild series, all of which look at the perils of the natural world and what we can do to protect it. Also included at the end of the story is the true story behind Star's adventure, some elephant facts and ways we can help. This is an important book for anyone to read but will especially be appreciated by children interested in animals and environmental conservation.

Themes Habitat loss, Deforestation, Elephants, Environmental conservation.

Nicole Nelson

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