Reviews

The first woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

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Kirabo, longing to find the mother she has never known, turns to the blind village witch, Nsuuta, to listen to her stories of women's 'original state' a time when they were huge, strong, bold, loud, proud, brave, independent’' Kirabo is told that her strange out-of-body experiences are because she still retains some of that original state. She is certainly a unique and determined young person, not easily fobbed off by her elders.

Her life changes when her father finally comes to collect her from her grandparents' place, to take her to live with him. But in his house, Kirabo encounters the 'bitch', her stepmother, a woman who adamantly rejects her.

Kirabo’s quest to find her lost mother sees her caught in repeating generations of struggles between two women, firstly her grandmother and Nsuuta the witch, then her stepmother's rejection of another woman's child, and then Kirabo's own conflicts with her childhood friend Giibwa. Through Nsuuta's stories Kirabo comes to understand that women have been rendered powerless by men, and instead of uniting against that oppression they fight among themselves, like penned hens pecking each other.

This unusual story of a young girl's search for her mother, is entwined with Ugandan folk stories, and set against the threatening background of Idi Amin's murderous rule. But while it reveals women's petty jealousies, it is overwhelmingly a powerful affirmation of the strengths of women to support and care for each other; like water they adapt and flow. If men are of the land, then women are of the sea.

The central question that will keep readers engaged until the end is whether Kirabo is destined to repeat the patterns of the adults around her, or whether she can be strong enough to make her own future. Unlike folk stories, this story has no easy resolution.

Themes Women, Feminism, Storytelling, Lies, Uganda, Patriarchy.

Helen Eddy

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The book of hopes by Katherine Rundell ed.

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During the Covid lockdown in England in 2020, Katherine Rundell, author of The Wolf Wilder, The Good Thieves and many other popular children's books decided to compile and edit a book consisting of fiction and non fiction short stories of hope in order to cheer young people. The book of hopes comprises short stories, poems and pictures that have been contributed by Rundell's selection of favourite authors - all on the theme of hope. As Rundell says, she is a "possibilityist" and these stories present as gifts of hope from each and every contributor. No story is over five hundred words so they can be picked up and read quickly but the messages contained within are full of wisdom, interest, humour and advice that could prepare children for a lifetime of challenges. These stories have never been published before and are fresh from the pen of each contributor. Originally the book was published online to help inspire children during lockdown. A donation from each print copy sold goes to UK charities including the NHS.

The book of hopes contains over 100 works. Well known and lesser known authors and illustrators have presented their works and they have been organised into multiple categories including animals, the stars, hope in unexpected places, kindnesses, cats, dogs, birds, nature, true stories, crime stories, fairytales and many more. Other works by the contributing authors are provided as a reading list at the end of the book. 

When people are upset, sometimes they are only capable of concentrating for a short time. This collection of short texts and illustrations are quick bites that provide a dose of hope in easily digestible format. Beautiful, soft, calming illustrations are scattered throughout and there is much space for contemplation. Each contribution feels like a warming and heartfelt offering from a good, caring and sometimes funny friend. 

The book of hope would make a great gift for a child or family to share together. For teachers and librarians it is recommended as a useful, hopeful and inspirational book to pick up and read to children at any time.

Recommended for children as young as 5 up to 12 years.

Themes Hope.

Wendy Jeffrey

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Erin's diary by Lisa McGee

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If you've watched 'Derry Girls' (available on Netflix), you'll LOVE Erin's Diary. Closely lined with the TV show, Erin's Diary gives readers an insight into the background of the characters, as well as Erin's unique point of view on the happenings around town. Filled with images from the show, posters, to do lists, images from the 90's, as well as a glossary of common Derry words or phrases, this diary is thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining. There are even letters from school, publishers and other members of the group, all helping to explain particular scenes from the show or just to add colour to the diary. 

Even if you haven't watched 'Derry Girls', you'll still enjoy the grandiose of Erin's writing, believing herself to be the next great literary talent, she includes lists on who is to be invited to her future book launches and updates the list throughout the diary. She shares her self-important views on many things including school curriculum and the troubles of Londonderry. If you have watched the show, you may have deduced the meaning of a number of the terms used throughout the series, but the glossary (located at the front of the book) is incredibly useful as well as interesting. Commonly used terms include 'boke', 'cracker', 'not a baldies' and 'catch yourself on' - terms that are now making their way into my vocabulary! 

Occasional swearing is found in the book (not as much as on the show), hence the recommended age is 13+.

Themes Ireland, Derry, Comedy, Humour, TV, Sitcom, Historical Fiction.

Melanie Phillips

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Room for a stranger by Melanie Cheng

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This is an enlightening read, taking us into the very ordinary life of an older woman who lives alone with her delightful pet bird, that comments on everything via his poetic rendition of many old songs. When Meg Hughes takes in a boarder, a young Chinese university student, Andy Cheng, both of them are puzzled, intrigued and ultimately delighted with each other's company.  Seemingly against all the odds they manage to build a comfortable friendship and all appears to be well.

Meg's pet parrot, Atticus, appears as a character in this novel, one that screeches and sings, frequently quoting poetry, sayings and songs of the past that he has heard over the years of living with Meg. Andy is quite stunned, at first, but gradually gets accustomed to the noise of the bird and begins to enjoy its lively performances.  Shockingly, and most unexpectedly, Andy becomes very ill through his contact with the bird.  This brings about conflict between Andy's parents and Meg, and this crisis is pertinent to both of their lives. 

The novel would be recommended for adults and adolescent readers, addressing, as it does, such issues as poverty, loneliness and the difficult mental and physical aspects of ageing. Melanie Cheng addresses the vulnerability of young people, such as one who contracts such an unexpected event as encountering an illness that is life-threatening.  This novel raises many issues and would be highly recommended, and suitable for, older adolescents, and indeed would be a thought-provoking novel for adult readers. Book Club notes are available.

Themes Chinese students - Australia, Friendship, Loss of all family, Adaptation to new life, Understanding of different generational aspects.

Elizabeth Bondar

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Hello and welcome by Gregg Deise

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Two young boys welcome the readers to their gathering. On the first double page we are welcomed in both English and Gamilaraay the language of the Kamilaroi people of the south east corner of Queensland and northern New South Wales.

The first double pages thank the elders of the community for their past struggle, for keeping alive stories, for caring for Mother Earth, for looking into the night sky and sharing the tales found there, for listening.

Everyone is welcome: 'different colours, different people, together in harmony'.

Later Dreise thanks the environment for what it offers its people: Father Sky for the air we breathe, the sun on our faces, Mother Earth for the plants and the animals, even the ants. Then the visitors are thanked: for sharing, celebrating and being respectful of the culture. And finally the reader is thanked for being there, for sharing in the culture being presented at the corroboree, for growing with the presenters, knowing that they too will be filled with pride.

A celebration of Indigenous culture, this lively book invites everyone to the gathering, to share in the culture presented, to learn the language being offered, to share in the stories of the Kamilaroi people.

The vivid illustrations showcasing traditional Aboriginal motifs and styles, are full of colour and detail, with children on every page inviting the reader to share their experiences.

A companion to Gregg Dreise's My Culture and Me, this joyful picture book celebrates Australia's Indigenous heritage and the diversity we enjoy today.

And I love the endpapers, with the Dark Emu filling the night sky from the Southern Cross, across the Milky Way, reflecting not only the story of the Dark Emu one of the creators, headed into the night sky after he died, but also a nod to Bruce Pascoe's recent books, Dark Emu, and Young dark emu which present a new perspective on the way we see Aboriginal life in Australia before Europeans arrived. 

Themes Aboriginal life, Aboriginal language, Indigenous culture, Corroboree, Reconciliation, Dark Emu.

Fran Knight

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A Murder at Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

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Winner of many awards, including the 2019 Mary Higgins Clark Award and 2018 Agatha Award for Best Historical Novel, I was thrilled to read about Perveen Mistry, a young aspiring lawyer who is determined to find out the truth of the murder on Malabar Hill. Sent to execute the will of Mr Omar Farid, she explains to his three widows the meaning of their having signed over their inheritance to a charity. She is worried about the future of these women living in seclusion and the future of their children. Events escalate as she investigates just what is going on and she find herself in grave danger.

The book revolves around two stories and flicks back and forwards from 1916-1917 to 1921. Both stories are equally engrossing. In one section the reader learns of Perveen's marriage and life in a strict Muslim household in Calcutta, while in the other section, the reader follows the murder on the hill in Bombay and Perveen's delving into what is going on. In Calcutta, Perveen finds that the marriage that she thought would be idyllic is not so, some of the strict customs about women and their role in society are very difficult to bear. Meanwhile in Bombay, she is not allowed to present a case to a judge, but because she is a woman is able to talk to the three widows and work out what is going on.

In the acknowledgments at the end of the book the author states that the character of Perveen Mistry is based on the two earliest women lawyers in India, and the historical detail in the story makes it a standout. I learnt much about the social life of women in India, the customs that prevailed in the 1920's, while enjoying a well written engrossing mystery. Readers who liked the Precious Ramotswe books in the No. 1 ladies' detective agency series and those by Ovidia Yu, The Frangipani Tree Mystery and The Paper bark tree mystery, will be happy to find another series with a feisty woman investigator.

Themes Women, India - Social life and customs, Wills, Murder, Lawyers.

Pat Pledger

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Chain of Gold by Cassandra Clare

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Fans of The infernal devices series by Clare have a treat in this new series that stars Tessa and Will's children, James and Lucie Herondale as well as Cordelia Carstairs and a host of other characters. Cordelia is a Shadowhunter who has trained since childhood to battle demons. Her father has been accused of wrongdoing and with her family she travels to London in the hope of meeting influential people and clearing her name. There she meets James and Lucie again, friends from childhood, and begins to learn about the people in London's glittering Shadowhunter society. Then demons attack London, using an unknown poison to afflict the Shadowhunters and London is quarantined. Cordelia, while hiding her love for James, joins in the hunt for a cure as the group that James leads begin to uncover their powers.

At a massive 591 pages (plus a bonus short story featuring Tessa and Will) the story is crammed with many characters and much action. Cordelia is a very appealing heroine, strong and steady, while James is fighting demons of his own as he tries to find out who his grandfather was. Secondary characters like Matthew and Alistair have secrets that beg to be revealed and kept me fascinated to find out their background stories, which may be revealed in subsequent books in the series, and I cannot wait to see Lucie bloom and grow.

Clare’s writing is compulsive; she has the knack of writing characters that the reader wants to get to know and the adventure, romance and danger that they face will ensure that the book is finished and the next one put on a waiting list to be read.

Themes Fantasy, Romance, Demons.

Pat Pledger

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Where is the dragon? by Leo Timmers

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Three knights walk through the night, trying to find and dispatch the dragon their king fears.

Each scene sees them repeat one of the king's fears, and this is illustrated on the facing page. When the page is turned a different scene awaits the reader, showing a contradictory image of the words spoken. So a dragon with thick, double sided spikes becomes a warren of rabbits with their ears sticking up, the first in outline against the dark, scary night sky, the second illuminated by the knight's candle. When the king fears the dragon's long neck and flared nostrils, over the page we see a group of sleeping animals. Each illuminated illustration gives the lie to the fearful words uttered by the king, showing how words that mean one thing, can reveal something quite different in the light.

Readers will see the link between an imagined fear and a real fear: what is thought about by your imagination at night compared to the reality by the light of day. And each fear brings gales of laughter by the reader, along with snorts of derision by the knights, saying 'ha ha ho ho' whenever they see the reality of the situation they have been sent to contain. They confidently say there is no dragon as they return to the castle and their beds.

But of course the last laugh is on the knights as there really is a dragon as we find out on the last page.

Translated from, Waar is de Draal? by New York Times Best Illustrated Book recipient, Timmers, this delightful story will win hearts as the king needs to be placated by his heroic knights. But the last page shows him in an unenviable position after the knights have returned, convinced that the king is having illusions.

Eye catching illustrations will turn the heads of the readers as they take in the story and its stunning backdrop. Timmer’s use of shadows and outlines is superb, the detail arresting and the Medieval touches intriguing.

Themes Knights and castles, Dragons, Quests, Kings, Fears, Night, Knights.

Fran Knight

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Shine by Danny Parker and Ruth de Vos

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The vibrant mixed media illustrations making use of watercolour, pencil, screen printing and digital methods, create a rambunctious vision of the fun and laughter alongside the intermittent trials of family life. With both author and illustrator having experience with families of six children, it is to be expected that kids figure on every page, in all their moods.

We see kids playing house, reading books, listening to stories, playing games with Dad, helping Mum with the washing, playing in the garden with an array of things, having meals together, bathing together and finally sleeping. Each sings with the chaos and often shambolic nature of a household with a larger number of children, the children joining together in their activities, and also taking time for solitary pursuits. Mum and Dad are sometimes seen with the slightest of look of discomfort across their faces as they try to take a break, or sit and enjoy a cup of tea, or sit and read only to be interrupted. The looks on their faces are instantly recognisable.

Each double page has an apt line, ‘in my sparkle, you’re the spark’ for example which gives a metaphor for the place held in the parents’ hearts for the children. Each line sings with family and happiness, of being together, of doing things that families do, of sharing and caring. The illustrations show the family playing, eating, sleeping together. The frenzy of such a household, where dirty dishes and piles of washing are secondary, is beautifully realised in both word and image as the family and its interaction is held to be most important.

Readers will be able to predict the rhyming word, perhaps adding a suggestion or two themselves, and in some classes, some students may be encouraged to write their own lines using these lines as a model. Teaching notes are available.

Themes Verse, Family, Relationships, Humour.

Fran Knight

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The bird in the herd by Kathryn Apel and Renee Treml

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The soft watercolour and coloured pencil illustrations reflect the farm in which a herd of cows quietly much the grass, stirring up plenty of slugs and bugs underfoot. These insects are snapped up by the bird in the herd as it opportunistically follows the cattle waiting for its lunch.

So the scene is set, and children will love repeating the lines, practising the new words and tasting their rhythm as over the page another two lines are added, telling of the dog, then the drover on his horse appears, sitting on his saddle, looking over his herd of cows. All is at it should be.

But in the distance is a cloud of dust and eager readers and listeners will pick out the fly in the ointment. The peaceful setting is about to be disrupted, the calm of listening to the cows chewing their cud, of the bird picking out the morsels from the earth turned up by the hooves, is shattered when a car appears. It flies up swirls of dust, and the coot driving the ute toots and hollers as he passes by. The inevitable happens as the cows scatter, finding shelter in the paddocks beyond, hiding behind bushes and trees.

Readers will love trying out the verses, predicting then remembering the rhyming words, practising the sounds. They will be intrigued by the pleasant day being had by all in the field until an interloper stirs everything up. The bird flies away, and the last double page will make readers pause and search to find the cows hidden in the field.

This charming story will encourage readers to think about the relationship between animals as one surprisingly helps the other, while the actions of one unthinking motorist upsets the apple cart.

Readers will love picking out the features of the farm and all of tis occupants, detailed in the soft edged illustrations, and some may be intrigued with the pun on  the saying, ‘ a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’.

Themes Farms, Cows, Motorists.

Fran Knight

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Blue flower by Sonya Hartnett and Gabriel Evans

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Blue Flower is a gentle and poignant story of one child’s desire to find their place in the world. School is not always automatically the right fit for all students. They may not be the funniest, the loudest, the fastest or the smartest. They may be the quietest, the shyest and that child who struggles to find a friend. Having a caring and understanding parent can make a child’s tumultuous journey so much more bearable. A parent can help a child to understand that feeling and being different is to be embraced and celebrated.

A beautifully illustrated story which will resonate with both adults and children alike.

Themes School, Wellbeing, Differences, Feelings, Family.

Kathryn Beilby

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Early one morning by Mem Fox and Christine Davenier

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With Mem Fox's succinct words forming a gentle refrain across each double page, small children will delight in the adventure of finding something for breakfast on the farm. It is early morning and the child is seen waving goodbye to his mother standing on the verandah. He wanders around the farm, looking for something that has been laid. The haystack will not do, neither does the tractor or the pig, as he strides on, confidently pursuing his quest. He checks out a range of farm implements and animals, followed the whole time by a most attentive rooster, until he finally arrives back at the farm, with a chook house nearby. Here, of course, he finds exactly what he is looking for. And he brings the eggs into his mother and they sit for breakfast, eating their boiled eggs.

This understated story sings with the sights and sounds of a farm and its environs as the lad walks around the place, pointing out the features of his farm. Young children will love seeing the different aspects of farm life, see a family during the morning routine, eating breakfast.

The charming illustrations reflect the minutia of farm life: the boy's overalls, the farm trucks, its many animals, the land it is on, the boy's relationship with the animals he sees. And all bathed in a warm morning glow of sunrise and soft hued clouds.

Children will delight in predicting what object or animals the boy will visit next, and call out that the rooster is behind him, following in his tracks, Small children will know from the word what he is looking for and offer suggestions about where an egg might be found on the farm.

For city kids this book will be a revelation of country life, and encourage their questioning about what happens there.

Themes Family, Farm life, Rural Australia, Eggs, Breakfast, Adventure.

Fran Knight

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He by Murray Bail

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This is a vibrant collection of memories that encompass Murray Bail's life. It is not written in any predictable manner, rather being set out as a mixture of memories within recognizable paragraphs, yet these do not always follow any particular time or theme, most unexpectedly. It is powerful, delightful, intriguing, and deeply personal.

Bail begins with his young, early teenage self in dusty shorts, and he takes us into all aspects of his life that he can remember, or writes of that which he considers to be important in this non-analytical but entirely revelatory piece of glorious recollections of his life. He moves between times, and writes in paragraphs, yet these do not always keep to a topic, rather simply ending as if it were him talking and he might need to take a breath.

We definitely learn about him and feel deeply connected to the young man and indeed we are drawn in to seek, as it were, what makes him as he is today, and we are left with a deep respect for this great thinker and humanist. This is the most self-revelatory, extraordinarily energetic, moving and deeply personal writing that I have ever read. The ‘wow’ factor dominates, supported as it is by his love for, and deeply humanitarian concern for the world, in the wider sense, but also his love of life, his interest and concern for human beings, animals, birds, countries, the landscape, the sea, and the universe. This is a powerful, enlightening, and beautiful reaction to a life lived with acceptance, sometimes joy or sorrow, and sometimes angst, yet he reveals, at all times, a life that has been acknowledged as worthwhile.

This is a stunning book and I would highly recommend it for adolescent and adult readers.

Themes Family, Australia, Middle 20th century, Adolescence, Values, Societal Values.

Elizabeth Bondar

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Backyard bugs by Helen Milroy

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Bright and colourful, the panorama of the backyard is brought to life as the readers’ eyes scan each page, reading the information on one side of the page and searching out the insect described amongst the foliage on the other page. Readers will be excited by the hunt, curious about the information given and informed enough to keep searching in their own backyards

Each rhyming sentence uses a word to describe the insect: an ant marches, a cricket chirps, while the illustrations are executed using techniques recognisably used by Aboriginal artists including patterns, dots and line design, reflecting the environment in which the insect lives. They are just wonderful, evoking the richly detailed designs which have become so familiar.

As an information book for younger readers, a share book for newly able readers, a book to delight and excite, this charming little book has it all, snuggling comfortably in small hands, eager to go outside to see what they can see.

Helen Milroy, a descendant of the Palyku people of the Pilbara region of Western Australia was born and educated in Perth. Australia’s first Indigenous doctor, she has held many posts to do with children, medicine and mental health, and was recently appointed as the AFL’s first indigenous commissioner. Wombat, Mudlark and Other Stories is her first book for children and was shortlisted for several major awards.

Teacher's notes are available.

Themes Aboriginal themes, Aboriginal art, Environment, Insects, Verse.

Fran Knight

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Welcome, child! by Sally Morgan

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A board book which celebrate the inclusion of a new child in the family, set amongst charming illustrations will be hard to resist by reader or listener. Any child would feel most comfortable with this easily held, durable book, while an older sibling or adult will read it to the child, pausing at the welcoming message written across each page, lingering at the illustrations and all they convey.

Each double page reflects an emotional response to the child coming to the family and his environment. He was once only a wish, then the stars lit up when he came, the sun beaming with happiness, the birds singing with delight, the flowers dancing with joy. And all the family's hearts shine with love and welcome.

The simple unadorned prose is expressive, ending each sentence with the word, you, making the point that the story is based around the new child in the family. It may well be the first word a baby learns, when the story is repeated by its family.

The illustrations are bold, bright and cheery, representing things which become obvious to a young child learning about his environment: the sun, stars, flowers and birds, and of course his family.

Sally Morgan, an award winning author and illustrator is a descendant of the Palyku people of the Pilbara region of Western Australia, and wrote this story after the birth of her first grandchild.

Themes Aboriginal themes, Board book, Read aloud, Environment, Childhood.

Fran Knight

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