Reviews

The sad ghost club by Liz Meddings

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Subtitled Find Your Kindred Spirits this simple, black and white graphic novel's central character is depicted draped in a ghostly sheet. We only see the feet and hands of the Sad Ghost, alone with a cat, an unfinished essay and anxiety. When Sam, or S.G. as he prefers, is invited to a party he agrees to go and is immediately anxious, worrying about it so much that he panics on a trip to the supermarket and ends up in a lovely quiet spot overlooking the town where a frog hops over for company. In the lead up to the party S.G. talks to the cat about his worries and gains confidence in his decision and sets out bravely but once there he seems to be invisible to other partygoers and is about to leave when he spots another Lonely Ghost, Socks, on the other side of the room. He tries to make conversation with Socks but finds it difficult. When Socks runs from the room S.G. follows and when Socks says "nothing feels real and I just feel so stuck inside my head" S.G. says "I know exactly what you mean." Anxiety and depression are hard to talk about and sometimes meeting someone who understands the everyday struggle can be life changing. Sam decides to reach out to find his fellow Sad Ghosts and this book reaches out beyond the pages to https://thesadghostclub.com where there are links to helplines, a blog and merchandise.

The book’s poor quality off white paper lets the simple, monotone graphics down, maybe enhancing the feeling of depression but not inviting the reader to turn the page and sometimes making tiny text hard to read. The many frames where nothing much is happening make it a bit long which might add to the damped down feeling of its depressed characters but risks losing the reader. There is a list of resources at the end of the book but they are all UK based, it would be nice to see some Australian resources or a link to them for books destined for overseas distribution.

Teens struggling with anxiety, loneliness and depression will find this a gentle and hopeful book while others might gain some insight and reach out to the lonely ghosts in their circle of friends.

 

Themes Depression, Lonliness, Anxiety, Friendship.

Sue Speck

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Witches by Roald Dahl. Illus. by Quentin Blake

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With a front cover to link to the newly released movie based on this book, this book will be reread by the latest generation of Roald Dahl devotees. With his wicked wit and quirky style in which children seem to have more intelligence than adults, Dahl has created an impish story where witches trip over themselves in trying to eliminate children from the world.  The young boy who is the central character has a sad start to life and must go to live with his Norwegian Grandmother who tells him stories . . . and particularly stories about witches. An unfortunate encounter with these evil, magic-wielding women leads to hair-growing animal transformations for the boy, but ultimately his goodness and intelligence (and his mouse-like qualities) lead to the downfall of the wicked witches.

Dahl’s style is irrepressible and sometimes naughty, but this book demonstrates that his style is attractive for children who like to see kids overcome difficult circumstances with good grace. Considering the losses that the boy experiences there is no maudlin focus on this loss. The awful witches are quite gross and revolting in manner and appearance and children are more likely to be horrified by this in film than when reading this story. There is a tongue-in-cheek critique of many adults in authority and of greedy self-focused children, but also no respect for the witches.

Carolyn Hull

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Poisoned by Jennifer Donnelly

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As a fan of fairy tale retellings and of Donnelly's Step sister, I grabbed Poisoned and devoured it quickly. This is no Disney version of Snow White, but one that centres around the theme of fear. Here the wicked stepmother is truly wicked with no compassion or gentleness, afraid that her power will be taken away from her. Sophie (Snow White) is taken into the wood by the Huntsman, who does take out her heart, but it replaced with a clockwork one by one of the seven dwarfs. Sophie knows that her heart, that feels too much, may give out and goes on a quest across the kingdom to the castle of the evil King of Crows to try and regain it. She is aided by Will a young woodsman and Arno a grave robber. Her acts of kindness are repaid along the way when a little hound she has rescued, kills the snakes that are attacking her and soldiers and townspeople march to her defence.

The chapters are often very short and quick to read, which is a boon for people who might be daunted by long involved prose. The adventures that Sophie faces along the way will keep the reader glued to the page to see if she can overcome all the obstacles that the wicked Queen throws in her path, not least the poisoned apple that causes her to sleep. Fans of strong girls who are prepared to grow in power and understanding and not just rely on the handsome prince to rescue them will delight in Sophie's gradual understanding of the importance of overcoming fear and treasuring kindness.

A sneak peek of the story by Jennifer Donnelly is available.

Readers who enjoy Poisoned may like to move onto Shannon Hale's Book of a thousand days and Beauty by Robin McKinley.

Themes Fairy tale retelling, Fear, Kindness, Strong female character.

Pat Pledger

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The ever after by Amanda Hocking

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The last of The Omte Origins trilogy, The Ever After is the exciting conclusion of Ulla's search for her heritage. The novel starts out with Ulla realising that she has no memories from the past month, and she learns that she and her friends were held captive by the man claiming to be her father. Determined to find out what happened to them in the lost month, Ulla is willing to do whatever it takes to uncover the truth. What she finds may change everything.

The Ever After is the third and final book in The Omte Origins, and is a contemporary urban fantasy, where Trolls live hidden among humans, as well as having Troll only towns (think Hogsmeade in Harry Potter). While the previous books delved into Troll politics, this book dives into action and adventure. Detailed and more fast paced than the first two in the series, The Ever After will answer questions from the first two books while exploring the Troll world even further. While there were minor fantasy aspects in the first two books, Hocking has nicely rounded out the trilogy with more Troll magic and mythology. Throughout the series, the politics of Troll society have been covered - which includes the racism that half trolls encounter, which could be compared with current society. Hocking uses descriptive imagery throughout the series, with great detail. As with the previous books, there is an extensive glossary for Troll terms used in the book found at the end of the story.

Themes Mystery, Self Discovery, Relationships, Urban Fantasy, Folklore/Myths and Legends.

Melanie Phillips

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The fast 800 easy by Dr Clare Bailey and Justine Pattison

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Subtitled Quick and simple recipes to make your 800-calorie days even easier, this book will be very useful for anyone who is trying to follow The fast 800 by Dr Michael Mosley. But it is not just useful for those on that diet, I tried some of the recipes and found that many could become a staple meal in my household. What is also useful about the recipes is that many of the ingredients could be ones that you have stored in your pantry, have on hand normally or could be easily obtained in the local supermarket.

The Feta, pea and mint crustless quiche was quick and easy to make, and I will keep a pot of mint handy as I intend to make this one again. It was delicious with a simple salad, and ideal for summer. The Easy frittata was easy to make, another egg dish that can be made quickly if you want to diet, or if your fridge is running low on meat!  The Prawn zoodles and spaghetti with chill and lemon  was also very tasty as was the Creamy cashew and pumpkin curry which can be served as a vegetarian dish or have meat added.

Each recipe was accompanied by a colourful illustration and the dishes that I made actually looked like the photos!

An easy-to-understand introduction to the 800 diet was given. There was a contents page, a good index and a 7-day meal plans were included.

I found this to be a very useful recipe book, easy to use and well-illustrated. It is a keeper for me and I can see my grandchildren being able to make some of the recipes.

Themes Recipes, Diet.

Pat Pledger

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The world between blinks by Amie Kaufman and Ryan Graudin

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Prolific Australian young adult author Amie Kaufman is back with a new collaboration. Teaming up with American fantasy writer Ryan Graudin, Kaufman has produced another enjoyable and creative work of fantasy. Following a format that Kaufman knows well, The World Between Blinks alternates between characters and authors. Aimed at a younger audience than many of her other novels, the book follows pre-teen cousins Marisol and Jake in a multidimensional adventure. Marisol and Jake’s grandmother has died and their family has gathered at her house to pack up her belongings. Finding a map that their Nana has left behind, the cousins follow the directions and end up in another world, The World Between Blinks. The story mixes adventure, mystery and history as Marisol and Jake try to find their way home.

Like all of Kaufman’s novels, The World Between Blinks is a fun and easy read, packed full of colourful characters and vivid descriptions. While ostensibly an adventure fantasy story, the plot weaves in historical figures and events in a way that is educational, while also remaining engaging for younger readers. Deeper themes are also explored, as Marisol and Jake learn to deal with their grief and loss. The World Between Blinks is an excellent recommendation for children with an interest in fast-paced fantasy fiction and a good starting point for those interested in trying out the genre. The historical information woven throughout the plot also make this a good choice for budding history enthusiasts. Teacher's notes are available.

Themes Cousins, Family, History, Adventure, Grief, Loss.

Rose Tabeni

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Nala's world by Dean Nicholson

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As a thirty something knock about Scottish bloke, Dean had a comfortable life, living at home with lots of mates and few responsibilities but he felt there was a lack of direction in his life and decided to ‘hit the road to find the road' p19. He set out in September 2018 with a mate, Ricky, and started an Instagram account called @1bike1world to document the trip for family and friends back home. The travelling companions soon decided to go their separate ways and soon after they parted Dean picked up an abandoned kitten in rural Bosnia, smuggled it over the border into Montenegro where he found a vet to treat the malnourished kitten. The kitten provided the companionship and purpose Dean had been looking for and the pictures of the cat went viral online. 'Part of the point of travelling the world was to meet people and learn what made them tick' p68. and this certainly was helped by having a kitten riding the bike with Dean. It also meant he learned a lot about himself and what was important in his life. Through the online fame he was able to fundraise for animal welfare causes and made a difference in many small animal rescue centres along his journey.

The maps, cartoons and photographs of the trip add to the heart-warming story and the use of a co-author Garry Jenkins, ensures the story flows well. Like Anthony Sharwood's journey From Snow to Ash , Dean's trip is curtailed, not by bushfires but by COVID but in both cases they had discovered more about themselves than about the world.

Themes Bikes, Travel, Pets, Adventure.

Sue Speck

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The angel of the crows by Katherine Addison

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Anyone who would enjoy a retelling of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories is sure to enjoy this book which originated as Sherlock wingfic, according to the author’s note at the end of the book. Thus, the reader will find that here Sherlock is an angel named Crow, who is often called upon by the police to help solve crimes. Meanwhile Dr Doyle (Watson), who has arrived in London with an injury caused by an Afghani fallen angel, is introduced to Crow and shares an apartment with him in Baker Street. There are fallen angels, werewolves and vampires scattered throughout the book as Crow and Doyle go about the business of solving crime. Interspersed between the chapters of familiar retellings, the most famous of course, being The Hound of the Baskervilles, are the murders committed by Jack the Ripper as the popular press has named the person who is mutilating prostitutes.

I had not read the Sherlock Holmes books since my youth and for me many of the stories were fresh. I enjoyed the supernatural spin on them as well as the updating of some of the gender stereotypes. Addison's Victorian England abounds with vampire nests and werewolf packs and this background is so well written that the reader easily accepts this world.

The BBC TV series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman has created much interest in the detectives, and readers who enjoy angels and hell hounds as well as mysteries could well find this an enjoyable read.

Themes Mysteries, Angels, Hell hounds, Supernatural, Sherlock Holmes.

Pat Pledger

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Influence by Sara Shepard and Lilia Buckingham

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Teenagers active on social media should read this book. In fact, many of their parents should read this book. Influence is an eye-opening, and at times disturbing, look into the world of teenage “influencers”, people who market both themselves and products online.

Influence follows four social media stars: Delilah who went viral last year and is still innocent enough to be awed by her new fame, child star Jasmine who is tired of pretending to still be someone she has outgrown, obsessive compulsive Fiona who is hiding a dangerous secret and Scarlet, ambitious and laser-focused but with a life that seems to be collapsing around her. The story delves into bullying, toxic relationships, cyber stalking, mental health and self-esteem and body issues, just to name a few. The authors begin the book with an anonymous chapter the day after something has gone very wrong. From there, the story alternates between each of the characters as the reader tries to work out what has happened, and to whom.

In a trend that is becoming more common, an established author has teamed up with an internet personality, in other words, an “influencer”, to write a novel that appeals to the latest batch of young and digitally connected teenagers. Influence is the brainchild of Sara Shepard, author of the wildly successful Pretty Little Liars series which spawned the even more successful television series of the same name and seventeen-year-old Lilia Buckingham, an actor and Instagram star. While it is unclear how much of the novel was written by each author the collaboration is, at the very least, a clever marketing move. In an instance of fiction mimicking life, Buckingham brings with her almost two million followers on Instagram alone. Vlogger megastar Zoe Suggs aka Zoella has shown before what can be done when an influencer turns to publishing – her first novel Girl Online broke multiple selling records in 2014 and was a New York Times Best Seller. It remains to be seen what will happen in this situation but with Shepard’s literary reputation and Buckingham’s Gen-Z following, Influence is likely to be similarly as successful.

Themes Social Media, Influencers, Technology, Bullying, Relationships, Friendship, Scandal.

Rose Tabeni

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Tiger daughter by Rebecca Lim

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Wen and Henry have a plan. They are going to study hard and together sit the entrance exam to an amazing selective school where they’ll be able to follow their dreams and escape the poverty and the fear of their homes. Both families are Chinese migrants, struggling in their new country: Wen’s father has repeatedly failed the exams to practise as a surgeon in Australia, and is reduced to waiting tables in a Chinese restaurant. His rage and bitterness keeps his wife and daughter living in fear, afraid of igniting his temper. Henry’s father labours in a fruit and vegetable market, as his wife sinks into depression in front of the tv. But both Wen and Henry are determined to soar like comets and burn their way out of the trap they are in.

Then something really terrible happens, and it looks like everything is too hard.

The overwhelming tension that runs through this story, the fear of anger and abuse that makes Wen keep her eyes down, the difficulty in treading a line between two cultures, is so powerfully described that I could not put this book down and had to read it all in one sitting. But Wen holds on to what she knows is right and the story becomes one of staying true to oneself, having courage, and persevering. The two children are able to support each other, and even share moments of humour. And there are also caring teachers and community members who step in at the right time.

In the author’s note Lim encourages young readers to stay strong, and step out of the boundaries that others put around them. They are not invisible, they can challenge limitations, and be what they want to be. It is an uplifting story that draws our empathy for the marginalised other, and hopefully build greater understanding and kindness. It is good to see books like this and the Layla books by Yassmin Abdel-Magied providing insight into a diverse Australia. Teacher's notes are available.

Themes Friendship, Courage, Fear, Perseverance, Chinese migrants, Systemic bias.

Helen Eddy

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Gone to the woods by Gary Paulsen

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Gone to the Woods is a unique journey of a life – a tale of survival and resilience. Paulsen has written an autobiography which reads as a compelling narrative of the life of a person who has learned to survive, despite hardship and adversity. Written as a third-person narrative, the reader joins the author looking ‘from the outside’ into his difficult life and we are caused to admire Paulsen, the author of the well-known book series which includes the coming-of-age and survival story, Hatchet. Paulsen’s life was never easy. He was born at the beginning of World War II and his emotionally-detached mother was an alcoholic and his purported father was distant - metaphorically and physically. Even as a young child, ‘the boy’ was forced to be independent, seeking his own food and avoiding danger. The book reveals so many examples of Paulsen’s necessary and hard-fought independence and survival, but also of the occasional unexpected eruptions of love and care expressed by others … but not his immediate family. There is even the nod of affection for the librarian in his hometown who wove her gentle magic upon his life. With a focus on his younger years, and the pathos of the neglect he experiences, there is limited opportunity to explore Paulsen’s adult life and we leave him before he has become an author, but with a profound respect for the rough road he has journeyed to get there.

This is a sad story and yet it is uplifting. The third-person view gives Paulsen an opportunity to separate himself from his own life and to give a fictional quality to his memories. This may allow for some inaccuracies in the remembering, but also gives the story the excitement and drama of fiction. Young readers of Hatchet will perhaps be too young to appreciate the clever approach to an autobiography, and the awful horrors of abuse and neglect revealed are confronting, but this is a book worthy of recommendation to a Young Adult audience.

Themes Autobiography, Poverty, Hardship, Resilience.

Carolyn Hull

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Marie Curie and her daughters by Imogen and Isabel Greenberg

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Marie Curie’s story as a female pioneer in Science and her important discoveries led to her becoming a well-known and much revered figure in history. However the story of her two daughters, Irene and Eve, is less known. The three Curie women were all extraordinary in their own right and travelled the world.  Marie and Irene shared their scientific research, knowledge and discoveries as well as saving lives in both world wars and wining a number of Nobel Peace Prizes. Eve, the youngest daughter, became a well-known writer, journalist and UNICEF employee.

This new non-fiction release, Marie Curie and Her Daughters written by Imogen Greenburg, is a wonderful record of the achievements of the family. It is told in an easy to read and follow manner which will engage younger fans of autobiographies. The graphic-style images by Isabel Greenburg are present throughout the book and encourage the reader to explore the speech bubbles to find out more personal information about the journey of scientific discovery the family embarked on and their daily life as a family. There are hand-written additions to the text which provide another dimension in maintaining the reader’s interest.

This book is both informative and inspiring and would be a welcome addition to any classroom, school or public library.

Themes Science, History, Women, Nobel Peace Prize.

Kathryn Beilby

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The world made a rainbow by Michelle Robinson. Illus. by Emily Hamilton

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The World Made a Rainbow was written in response to the amazing array of rainbows being displayed in windows across the world after millions of families were forced to stay at home during the first stage of the 2020 COVID 19 lockdown.

Let’s paint a big rainbow to put on display
When people pass by it and see it, they’ll say
‘All Rainstorms must end, and this rainstorm will too’
And they’ll feel a bit happier, all thanks to you.

This book is a beautifully written rhyming story which tells the journey of one child who feels cut adrift from all that has been familiar. She misses her friends and her Grandma and has to deal with parents working at home as well as the family being together day in and day out. The lockdown was likened to a rainstorm that would eventually pass and then out would come a rainbow so the young child starts to create a rainbow out of paint and collage. With help from her family she spreads the message of hope that things will get better and the future holds many new adventures. The appealing illustrations are bright and colour and will catch the young reader’s eye.

This is a perfect story to read aloud with Early Years students although older readers will relate to its important message of hope in a difficult time.

Themes Rainbows, COVID-19 Lockdown, Feeling Alone, Families, Friends, Creating, Hope.

Kathryn Beilby

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Light seekers by Femi Kayode

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Dr Philip Taiwo has been asked to delve into the killings that have become known as the Okriki Three”. His studies into racial crimes in the US earned him his Masters and a Doctorate. Now back in his native Nigeria a rich, influential and bereaved father wants answers and perhaps revenge.

When flying to begin his mission he meets his first and by no means last warning that his job will be fraught with difficulties and antagonism. He is met at the airport by Chika, who will be his driver, mentor and sounding board.

The Okriki Three” were three students from the nearby university who were suspected of theft by the locals of Okriki, were set upon beaten and then necklaced”. All of which was recorded on phones by bystanders. Philip Taiwo is at a disadvantage because he has been away in the States and is unaware of many of the developments in Nigeria particularly in rural areas.

The case is now three years old and the police, the university and the populace of Okriki have no desire to reopen old wounds. Philip and Chika are looked on with suspicion. They are foreigners. When their investigation becomes clear that suspicion turns to anger, aggression and puts them in grave danger.

Light Seekers is Femi Kayodes first novel and his settings give the plot a new dimension. The tensions he reveals, political, racial, religious and social give an insight into a country we know very little about. As his narrative unfolds so do the complexities of life for ordinary Nigerians alongside their search for their rightful place in society. This in the end also leads to their propensity to be used by those who can manipulate. Unfortunately this has become so much easier with social media being accessible to all.

Kayode has written a crime thriller which keeps the reader thinking and wanting to know more right to the end. I thoroughly recommend this book.

Themes Nigeria, Crime fiction, Murder.

Fran Knight

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Maxwell's demon by Steven Hall

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Thomas Quinn’s life is not all it could be. His father was a famous man of letters, poet, journalist and war correspondent. Thomas is noted only for being Dr Stanley Quinn’s son. His wife is away on Easter Island on a long term research project and they connect via video link. He watches her sleep along with thousands of others via the web.

Thomas wrote a book six years ago, but nothing significant since. Life is frustrating! When his father’s old assistant Andrew Black, the author of a very famous novel Cupid’s Engine, contacts him, his life begins to spin out of control. Since publishing Cupid’s Engine, Black has been reclusive. He gives no interviews and has vowed never to publish again if his work is published electronically.

Steven Hall has written a novel which is intriguing - the initial story of Thomas Quinn draws the reader into his thoughts and problems. However when Hall delves into the philosophical, theological and scientific world it left me frustrated. The references to entropy, angels, the Second Law of Thermodynamics and Biblical theories were not where I wanted to be led by a narrative that was on the surface a mystery.

The eventual solution found by Quinn after painful self doubt and questioning of his own sanity was as unsatisfactory, to this reader, as the concepts suggested by the author throughout the book. Maxwell’s Demon may be innovative but I would have enjoyed it far more without the innovations.

Mark Knight

Themes Mystery.

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