Reviews

Sid & Skipper go mustering by Heather Charlton

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Sid and Skipper go mustering in a story full of life and adventure as the reader is taken on one of the tasks that a cattle station in Australia’s north undertakes. All the background sights, noises and smells of the cattle station are there as the men ready themselves for days away form the homestead. Swags rolled, tucker box filled, choppers filled with fuel, utes checked out. And hanging around are the kelpies, an essential part of any station in the Kimberley. Sid, the old dog, is battered by life’s trials, shortened ears, scars across his face, annoyed by the young pup, Skipper who lives up to his name. Sid doesn’t seem to be able to teach the new dog anything, in fact Skipper seems always to get in his way.

But one day the choppers cannot be used as the weather is closing in, and so the dogs come into their own. But one bull stares Sid down, and he falls into the swollen creek. Almost drowned, he is saved by Skipper who hauls him up onto the bank and then runs off to brave the bull, Vesuvius, until he is able to force him to cross the creek, making the others follow his lead. The muster done, the cattle yarded, the two dogs settle down to perfect their friendship.

This is a lovely story of growing friendship, or looking out for each other, of allowing younger dogs to have their play time, always assured that they will come into their own. The two dogs will delight younger readers, and absorbing the story will see that ties of friendship may not occur straight away, but they will bond. The background of the cattle station is beautifully shown. Readers will take in the equipment needed, the vast emptiness, the fences, kitchen hut, the baob trees, the desert landscape while life on a station for the hands is documented through the text and illustrations. At the end of the story they will have learnt a lot of detail about this iconic way of life in the outback, reflecting Charlton’s own experience  living and working on a Kimberley cattle station. Her intimate knowledge shines through the humour of the story and its illustrations. Teacher's notes are available.

Backroom Press was founded in 2006 by Pat Lowe, Susan Sickert and Joyce Hudson to publish entertaining and educational books from the Kimberley, WA. The three friends published two titles in September 2006. A number of books for younger children were also published and these seem to be the main concern of this small outfit. For more information about this publisher and to purchase the books go to https://backroompress.com.au/

Themes Outback, Kimberley, Western Australia, Cattle stations, Kelpies, Working dogs.

Fran Knight

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Four bad unicorns by Rebecca Patterson

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Frankie and Connie just love playing unicorns.They dream about the animals while they sleep, Connie has her hair tied up by dad in a unicorn rainbow, while Frankie puts on her unicorn socks. She downs her cereal in fourteen seconds and waits while dad feeds Connie. They are going to play unicorns all day long and are very excited. Unicorn Farmers is their favourite game but just as they are about to start, Ada and Colin come in from next door. They want to play too but Ada’s idea of playing unicorns is quite different from the game Connie and Frankie intended to play. Being polite they go along with Ada dominating the game. She takes on the role of queen, using Frankie’s glittery shoes. She orders them all to make a wall, Connie in her wheelchair being made part of it. Ada insists they all dance for her then complains when they are not very good and sends them all to unicorn prison. By now readers will have become sick of Ada and her orders, and they will cheer, when the other three break out of prison and walk out. They make themselves into a unicorn train and go through the front door, Ada remonstrating that the train has no sparkles.

When she realises how serious they are she breaks down. The others relent, and decide to be good unicorns together. When the children returned home for lunch, Connie and Frankie keep on playing unicorns all afternoon and into the night, enjoying every minute.

All the while, everything unicorn is added to this charming story. Bright colour filled illustrations will draw in the readers and they will get a thrill from seeing so many unicorns on the pages and the things associated with them, but also get the message about playing together, about sharing ideas, giving and taking, about friendship.

Themes Unicorns, Friendship, Sharing, Humour, Play.

Fran Knight

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The Leviathan by Rosie Andrews

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“She is awake.”

So begins The Leviathan, an atmospheric and deeply unsettling debut by author Rosie Andrews. Set in one of the most turbulent periods in English history – the Civil War of 1642 to 1651 – The Leviathan tells the story of reluctant soldier Thomas Treadwater, who makes his way home from battle to a family and community in crisis.

Summoned by his sister Esther’s increasingly urgent letters, Thomas arrives at the family’s farm to find his father gravely ill, their livelihood on the brink of ruin and a sister caught up in religious zealotry. To Thomas’ shock, witchcraft is being investigated in his small town and his sister is the one pointing the finger. As Thomas strives to unravel the complex intertwining of events, personalities and relationships, he begins to realise that his preconceived notions of what is real and possible are about to be shattered.

Told from two perspectives at the prime and the end of Thomas’ life, The Leviathan is a horror novel that expertly combines the supernatural with the historical reality. Andrews’ medieval England is dark and chilling and the language and setting used is faultless. At heart a mystery novel with a fantastical twist, The Leviathan is a tense and slow-burning story which ends with a superb twist. 

Themes Historical, Horror, Fantasy, Mystery, Medieval, Witchcraft, Religion, Evil, Family, Identity.

Rose Tabeni

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Storm Pearl by Kerry Anne Jordinson

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A time slip story set in Broome, home of the Japanese pearl divers for many decades, sees Maggie visiting her grandmother. The young girl, accompanied by her dog, Buster, must cross the mangroves to get to the house she knows well. She sees friendly faces along the way and steps out in the mangroves. But a storm is coming. She lights upon some driftwood, wreckage from an old pearling ship and is transported back to the time of her grandfather, a pearl diver lost at sea many years before.

We see her grandmother feeling sad at the memories the storm brings, and the girl, coming to her senses after the storm passes makes her way to her gran. Here she relates the powerful story of meeting her grandfather and seeing him as he dived from the ship to bring up the pearl shells. She gives grandma the shell he gave her, and when they open it, find a pearl inside.

A charming story, bound up in the sights and sounds of the diving days at Broome, but also a modern story of the relationship between a girl and her grandmother, Storm pearl will have wide appeal. It reflects the history of Broome and its Japanese pearl divers, and talks of some of the pitfalls of the trade, resulting in the deaths of so many divers.

For older interested readers a fascinating look at Broome’s cemetery, can be found here

The soft, illustrations accompanying the text give readers a glimpse of life in Broome now and back in time: the low scrubby trees of the mangroves, the boab tree, the slipway at the boat builder’s, the lugger out at sea, a ghostly reminder of the past. And grandfather in all of his diving gear will grab the attention of the readers imagining themselves in such cumbersome gear being lowered into a stormy sea. It will make them shiver. Teacher's notes are available. The book can be purchased from the publisher.

Themes Broome, Pearl divers, Japanese pearl divers, Australia-history, Time slip novel.

Fran Knight

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The Agathas by Kathleen Glasgow & Liz Lawson

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Fans of Karen McManus and Holly Jackson will be thrilled to find another mystery to enjoy. Set in the upmarket seaside town of Castle Cove, secrets seem to abound, not least the disappearance of Alice Ogilvie for five days, just as her hero Agatha Christie had once disappeared. Like Agatha Christie she is not saying where she has been. Then her ex-best friend Brooke Donovan disappears after an argument with Steve who was once Alice’s boyfriend. Alice believes that something has happened to Brooke and when Steve is accused of murdering her, she is not convinced that he is the culprit. Meanwhile Iris, who is her tutor, listens to Alice’s arguments, and reads some of her Agatha Christie mysteries. Together they start trying to unravel the events of the night that Brooke disappeared.

This was a fast-paced mystery that was very hard to put down. It was written from the point of view of the two main characters, Alice and Iris, in alternating chapters, giving the reader an insight into the feelings and motivations of the pair as well as the minor characters in the book. Alice is rich but is virtually ignored by her parents, while Iris is struggling with the Thing, a violent man in her and her mother’s lives. Both keep secrets from each other, which hinder the path of friendship between the two, but their curiosity and determination to find Brooke’s killer keeps the two working together.

A highlight of the story are quotes from Agatha Christie’s books at the beginning of each chapter. These are sure to tempt readers to pick up her books.

I finished this book in a couple of sittings as the twists and turns of the mystery were compelling, with many red herrings slipped in to keep the murderer’s identity a secret. And a hint in the Epilogue that there may be another book featuring The Agathas gives mystery fans something to look forward to.

Themes Murder, Agatha Christie, Friendship, Domestic violence, Disfunctional families.

Pat Pledger

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Professor Astro Cat's frontiers of space by Dr Dominic Walliman and Ben Newman

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First published in 2013, Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space, has been revised and updated for publication in 2022. This attractive and brightly presented edition will appeal to the young space enthusiast. It has gorgeous endpapers showcasing Professor Astro Cat and six friends who will take the reader on a journey through all things space related.

The book begins with a contents page followed by the introduction and the opportunity to read about how Professor Astro Cat will lead the reader to discover the Frontiers of Space. Each chapter is set across a double page spread with quirky and humorous illustrations in a bold and colourful palette. The information is either organised into text boxes or surrounded by plenty of coloured space with clearly labelled diagrams, tables and images.

Chapter one gives an explanation of The Universe, leading to The Birth of a Star, followed by Galaxies, the Sun, the Solar System finally ending with the Future of Space. Other chapters include Early Space Travel which mentions Laika the dog, a rhesus monkey named Albert 2, a chapter on Space fashion which shows the suit worn in 1963 plus the Apollo Moon suit of 1969 and a very enlightening chapter on Space Junk. At the end of the book is a page titled Factoroids which gives some very handy facts plus a glossary and index.

This will be a popular read for primary school aged children as it has facts presented in a fun and engaging way and will be a book to go back to time and time again.

Themes Space, Facts, Questions & Answers.

Kathryn Beilby

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Libby Lawrence is good at pretending by Jodi McAlister

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Having enjoyed Jodi McAlister’s Valentine series I was keen to read her latest contemporary YA romance and found it very difficult to put down. Libby Lawrence is a first year Uni student, loves acting and belongs to the Uni’s theatre group. She has previously worked in the chorus but is thrilled when she is chosen to play the lead role of Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing by the new director Will to whom she is attracted. Libby is good at pretending to hide her feelings even from her best friend Ella, although she desperately needs to talk about some of the situations that she has found herself in. Theatre groups can be difficult to break in to and Libby has felt left out. Gossip abounds about the cast members and the previous director, Nightingale, was notorious for sleeping with his leading ladies.

The narrative flows beautifully and it is very easy to become totally engrossed in the lives of the main characters. The friendship between Libby and Ella faced some tough moments and was a high point of the story while the slow burning romance between Will and Libby was easy to relate to. Roarke (named by his mother after the hero in JD Robb’s In Depth series) was a difficult character to like at the beginning but grew in maturity along with many of the cast members. Underpinning the story were quotes from Much ado about nothing which gave it depth.

The descriptions of how a play is produced and the ways the actors interact with each other and their roles were fascinating and will appeal to people who have not had any experience with a theatre group. Those who love stories about the theatre will be delighted with Libby’s experiences.

This is recommended for older teens as it contains references to drinking, partying and sexual relationships. However, the issues discussed in the book are ones that many teens face and make the story very relatable. Teacher’s notes by the author are available.

Themes Theatre, Romance, Actors, Friendship.

Pat Pledger

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Safe Ruby by Julie Starkey. Illus. by Hannah Starkey-Morris

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Searching for a home and all that a home converts: love, warmth and safety, Ruby’s ad in the local supermarket attracts a number of willing new owners. But Ruby just outlives her welcome with them. Mrs Docker takes her home, but Ruby loves the washing on the line. Then Mrs Lane has a go, but Ruby digs up her vegetable garden. Anastasia tries to offer her a home, but Ruby hides her juggling balls. Stefan offers Ruby a home, but Ruby chases kangaroos on her walks and so is returned. Then Mrs Parish takes her home, but when she chews her slippers, she is again returned. Finally Sarah and her dog, Ket take her home and here she pulls washing off the line, digs up the veggie garden, chases kangaroos, hides Keeta’s ball, chews Sarah’s slippers and wags her tail. When Keeta wags her tail the trio knows they will live together forever.

This heart warming story of finding a home will enthral younger readers as they work out what a home means to them. All the warmth of companionship, of belonging and of safety comes through the story of Ruby searching for a place to be herself.

Delightful illustrations penned by the author’s granddaughter when she was four, cover many pages. Full of colour and movement, younger readers will be tempted to try out this style for themselves, illustrating their own idea of home.

Information about the author, illustrator and Ruby can be found at the end of the book, where we find that the word, SAFE is an acronym for Saving Dogs From Euthanasia, an organisation which tries to save as many dogs as possible. A salutary reminder of the importance of finding Ruby a home. Teacher's notes are available. Safe Ruby is available from the publisher.

Themes Euthanasia, Dogs, Rescue dogs, Humour, Broome.

Fran Knight

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Penelope Snoop Ace detective by Pamela Butchart. Illus. by Christine Roussey

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An adventurous dive into the imaginative world of a 4-year-old child’s life, where the mystery of the disappearance of Sidney the sock snake is needing to be solved.  Sidney is Penelope's special toy that goes with her everywhere - while she brushes her teeth, as she is eating etc. Penelope is the best “finder outer” in the world and, with her side-kick Carlos the dog, she gets her Finder-outer kit and goes through the clues to realize that Sidney must have been stolen.  We are then treated to a delightful romp through the house, the garden, the treehouse, and even to the moon, and back again, only to discover that Mum knows more about Sidney’s disappearance than the frog fountain in the garden. Christine Roussey has used child-like pencil drawings to create bright and busy illustrations with generous splashes of neon pink that make Penelope’s lively personality pop out of the book. 

A quirky fun book that will encourage children to use their imaginations and explore the world around them during play.

Themes Play, Mystery.

Gabrielle Anderson

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Loki: A bad God's guide to being good by Louie Stowell

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Loki: A bad God’s guide to being good is about Loki who has been banished to earth by his father, Odin as punishment after he performs one nasty trick too many in Asgard. Louie Stowell has taken the Norse god of mischief from mythology and written a very funny story to explain the steps Loki must take while on Earth, to clean up his act and avoid eternal life in a torturous pit of angry snakes.

Loki uses the first part of the book to explain what life is like for a Norse god who is trying to make do in a very human household as a weedy 11-year-old boy, what school is like, and how a family works. Although he is monitored closely by an interactive diary that keeps his score, Loki finds it difficult to stop playing pranks, and soon his score is so low he has to find a very grand gesture to redeem himself and avoid eternal unpleasantness. Along the way, he learns about friendship and loyalty, and what it means to trust someone to be a friend.

The book is in diary style, part text and part cartoons that will appeal to Middle primary students, with lots of illustrations, jokes, and speech bubbles. Stowell is releasing a sequel to this book later in 2022 called Loki: A bad god’s guide to taking the blame. The publisher has provided detailed Teacher notes which are helpful when using this book in a classroom situation.

Themes Norse gods, Friendship, Behaviour, Self-regulation.

Gabrielle Anderson

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Girl on fire by Alicia Keys and Andrew Weiner. Illus. by Brittney Williams

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Lolo Wright is a bright, 14 year old living in a Brooklyn public housing neighbourhood with her 16 year older brother James, her grandma and her father who has started a business “The Wright Movers”. At school Lolo gets some name calling for being a good student but nothing like the rejection Michael “Runt” Warner experiences when he wants to join the football team and is told by the coach to come back when he has grown. The rejection leaves him angry and open to the offer of joining the gang of powerful “Skin” who is planning to expand his local protection and drug ring. When Michael bumps into Lolo in the school corridor on his way to confront Skin’s gang, Lolo has a moment of mental connection with him and she experiences his anger and power. Later, when James and Lolo call in to a local shop on their way home they are unaware that it has just been held up. When the police arrive they assume James is the criminal and wrestle him to the ground. Lolo is so angry she explodes with power forcing the officer to release her brother. The supernatural powers shock and scare Lolo and her brother tells her that their absent mother told him baby Lolo had energy flowing through her, "The Holy Current”. Lolo dismisses this as her mother was crazy, however Skin soon becomes aware of Lolo’s powers and wants to sign her up to his gang, using pressure on the family she loves. As Lolo learns to master her power and navigate the threats to her family she also has to deal with the expectations of school and friends. As she grows into her powers she learns to stand up for herself and others while making the right decisions. Her father’s high expectations and firm but kind upbringing see the family reach out to the less fortunate and withhold judgement while offering support.

There is enough violence and action to appeal to comic lovers and move the story on at a fast pace but it is always balanced by more thoughtful interactions. The strong colours and quality production make the most of Brittney Williams’ excellent graphic style with interestingly detailed urban backgrounds and settings with dark, menacing bad guys and consistent, well developed characters. Keys and Weiner offer teenagers a hardworking heroine finding her power in a difficult world, a good role model attractively packaged.

Themes Identity, Family, Superpowers, Gang violence.

Sue Speck

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Bill and the dream angel by Lucinda Riley and Harry Whittacker. Illus. by Jane Ray

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Award-winning author of adult books, Lucinda Riley wrote this picture book with her son Harry Whittaker as part of the Guardian Angels series of picture books before her death in 2021.  The books are based on stories she used to tell her children when they faced challenging situations.  Bill and the Dream angel is the second book in the series, the first being Grace and the Christmas angel and a third called Rosie and the Friendship Angel. This story involves a young boy called Bill and his family, who have moved from a small flat in the city to a large, converted barn on a farm. Bill is frightened by some strange noises he hears during the night and wishes to return to his old home in the city. The Dream angel hears his call for help and puts in motion the events that prove to Bill that the monsters he thought inhabited his new home are just noises that will turn out to be a wonderful, heart-warming discovery. Moving house can be a stressful time for families and this book could help to reassure children and assist them to settle into their new environment.

The illustrations by Jane Ray are beautifully executed, showing in great detail the process the family uses to unpack and arrange things to make Bill feel comfortable in his new surroundings. The inclusion of some wordless double-page spreads encourages discussion and provides details for young readers to come back to time and time again. An angel place marker ribbon is an added feature of this gift edition hardback book.

Themes Moving house, Fear, Owls, Farm life.

Gabrielle Anderson

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My spare heart by Jared Thomas

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Phoebe has a lot of problems. Following her parents’ separation, she is resentful of having to start a new school, living with her father and his yoga-health-freak girlfriend Caitlin. Aware of her mother Bronwyn’s risky drinking, Phoebe has to hide her worries for fear of her father’s explosive anger. Anxiety builds as she is led to lie and cover up for mother. The new school is also a challenge – it is different to anything she is used to, and being the only Aboriginal student there are no obvious supports when she has to deal with racist comments.

Thomas confronts stereotypes in this novel: Phoebe’s father is Aboriginal, a university lecturer, and not much of a drinker, whilst her non-Aboriginal mother is sliding into alcoholism. At the same time the adults all around Phoebe like to have a drink, and even her friends are starting to experiment with alcohol and drugs. It is hard to know where the line is drawn. These are all issues that many teenagers have to navigate.

Thomas’s depiction of Phoebe’s love for her mother, and her resentment and hostility towards her stepmother Caitlin is incredibly realistic, especially the way she spurns Caitlin’s efforts at friendliness, and deliberately seeks to annoy her. But the reality of her mother’s addiction and unreliability sees the tension build until Phoebe has to accept the support of people she has kept at arm’s length.

Thomas deliberately sets out raise awareness that there are support groups available to help young people cope with an alcoholic person in their close circle. It is not about changing the alcoholic, but of finding ways to manage the relationship. He quotes the Al-Anon mantra to ‘accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference’.

The values that come through strongly are of belief in Country and culture, and the benefits of participation in sport and music. Phoebe finds her inner strength and builds ways of coping with the problems that beset her. Those life lessons would hold true for every young reader. 

Teachers’ notes are available on the publisher’s website.

Themes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, Anxiety, Alcoholism, Racism, Friendship, Identity.

Helen Eddy

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Song of the white ibis by Phillip Gwynne & Liz Anelli

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The White Ibis is not just a Bin Chicken or Tip Turkey, or even a Picnic Pirate found over Australia, but an animal of which we would do well to take more notice. With a lightly humorous touch, Gwynne tells the tale of this majestic bird and supported with wonderfully detailed illustrations by Liz Anelli, the whole is a celebration of an often overlooked, underrated and dismissed bird now found everywhere.  

The three lines, calling to mind the negative words by which it is known: Bin Chicken, Tip Turkey and Picnic Pirate, are used on each page, a refrain kids will know and repeat by the second page, joining in the fun of it being read aloud. Their expectations of a story about a scavenging bird are put to rest as we hear of its other attributes. It is related to the Scared Ibis of Ancient Egypt, and to the Egyptian God of Science, Thoth.

Its pedigree makes it a useful bird for farmers, using their long beaks to dig into the soil looking for worms, turning over the sods as they dig, eating the many insects which plague the crops. In the wild, they do not have to resort to the rubbish we leave behind, but feast on crayfish and mussels, using their beaks as a tool to crash open the shells on the rocks. They once lived in wetlands, but like many birds our encroachment upon their environment has seen them adapt to the urban environment we have created.

It is learning to live with us that has caused them to scavenge and feed from our rubbish. And we have left a lot of it about.

Amid the urban environment with its ugly pollution and smog comes a tender moment when the male Ibis offers the female a twig and she accepts it, using it as part of a nest high above the city, ready for their young.

A panorama of the city reveals the Ibis in all corners of the town, eating from bins, stalking people in the park, drinking from old containers. Closer inspection will reveal some people doing the right thing: planting trees, picking up the rubbish, recycling and over the page we get to the main thrust of this book as the Ibis whispers some sage advice. The three words, Renew, Recycle and Replenish are shown because we do not want to end up as Bin Chickens like the Ibis.

This is a salutary reminder that we have created the problem that attacks our overflowing bins, following children for the food in their hands, sitting on picnic tables waiting for the food to be set out. And it is up to us to follow their lead and put things right by Renewing, Recycling and Replenishing.

Themes Ancient Egypt, STEM, Thoth, Humour, Scavenging, Australian animals, Pollution, Environment, Recycling.

Fran Knight

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The greatest thing by Sarah Winifred Searle

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Winifred is a shy year 10 student and the start of this school year is even more difficult without her two best friends who are attending different high schools. Feeling alone and anxious she is approached by Mathilda Martel, who asks her to join their group. Tilly and Win used to be friends but had drifted apart, now she introduces Win to her friends and takes an interest in her wellbeing. The highlight of Win’s day is her independent study period with a favourite teacher who will mentor a personal project, making comics, in return for Win helping out other students in photography class. Her other love is Art class. Unexpectedly Win finds she enjoys helping other students and develops a new friendship with outgoing confident students April and Oscar who break through Win’s armour of anxiety, depression and low self-esteem, while acknowledging their own. The three harness their individual talents, Oscar the writer, Win the illustrator and April publisher to create a series of zines. Although they all are wrapped up in their own problems, the stories are a great success. The darkroom becomes a safe zone where they can discuss some of their issues with supportive friends, but sometimes that is not enough and outside help is needed. Supportive teachers, parents and professionals make an important contribution to their wellbeing.

Art is central to this graphic novel and the quiet colours are central to the emotional tone; night scenes and the rosy glow of the photography darkroom are important in the characters’ journey as they go through the uncertainty of discovering who they might be. Win’s self-effacing posture is consistently portrayed and her round face and big eyes contrast with the slender, beautiful people she admires. This is a colourful, complex, engaging story about troubled teens with a raft of issues but there is an overarching bravery in the characters courageously facing an uncertain future. There is a content note at the beginning warning of triggering aspects and at the end there is a page of mental health resources and a note from the author about this being a fictional account of some issues she had in high school.  There is also a page about her zines and a section of the book describes how a zine is produced. Some guidance might be wise when recommending this book as the challenging content is not immediately apparent.

Themes Friendship, Identity, Depression, Anxiety, Eating disorders, Self harm, Graphic novel.

Sue Speck

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