Typical of many Vietnamese refugee families who settled in the America, the Nguyen family worked hard to build a better life. For Jade that means her mother has had to work particularly hard to provide for the three children after their father returned to Vietnam and left them without support. When he proposes to pay for Jade’s college fees if she comes to Vietnam to work on marketing a French colonial B&B he has been restoring, she feels she can’t refuse. Her mother and brother stay with family while Jade and her little sister Lily stay with their father in Da Lat. Nhá Hoa, or Flower House is appropriately named, a grand house surrounded by vegetation and oppressively hot and humid. In spite of all the restoration work it smells of damp, food rots easily and there are insects everywhere. Jade starts to have sleep paralysis while haunted by the oppressive house and the ghost of a beautiful bride who warns her not to eat. Assisting Jade in creating web marketing for the house is Florence, her dad’s business partner’s niece. Jade is immediately attracted to Florence and they become close, working together to figure out the house’s secrets and extricate them from the horrors it has in store. Jade describes herself as a bisexual, stubborn overachiever who suffers from anxiety but she has many issues, uncertain of her sexuality having betrayed her best friend, she is struggling with her identity, Vietnamese but unable to speak the language, a refugee from a colonized, war-torn country she knows little about, responsible for her little sister and wary of her father. Add to this cultural displacement, generational trauma, racism, colonialism, parasitism, ghosts and a haunted house and the story becomes a little dense and overwhelming. Then there are the multiple plots, the house’s story, uncovering past deaths and atrocities, the greedy developer couple, the family dynamics, the haunting and fake haunting and the parasitism. It really needs a series of books to tease out the best of this writing, by the end of the book I felt bogged down.
This could be an important book for young adults struggling with similar identity issues, couching it in a horror story might make it more appealing and lovers of gothic horror will find much to enjoy.
Black Inc, 2023. ISBN: 9781760642730. (Age:Senior secondary, Adult) Highly recommended.
‘It’s ghastly’ was the comment of one of Marr’s acknowledged early readers of his latest book, and she is right, it is ghastly, but sadly it is a truthful account of this country’s history, a history that most Australians either refuse to acknowledge or are ignorant about. David Marr’s book is a thoroughly, meticulously, researched history which he embarked on after discovering his own family’s involvement in the brutal annihilation of Aboriginal people in order to facilitate the theft of land. Tracing the story of the Uhr family, on his mother’s side, he reveals life in early colonial Australia, and the invasion by sheep, led by vigilante squatters who did not hesitate to kill the native inhabitants in their way. It is a story of massacres and poisonings, a determined annihilation of the original inhabitants.
Two of Marr’s ancestors were officers in the Native Police, a military garrison which recruited black troops, led by white officers, to undertake the search and massacre of Aboriginal groups, beginning in New South Wales, then extending to Queensland, the Northern Territory, South Australia, and Western Australia. It was the old Imperial strategy of ‘divide and conquer’. Aboriginal people did not have a sense of themselves as one nation. Recruiters made sure to collect men outside of their traditional country and offered them plentiful food, women, some pay, status, and a sense of adventure. The job of the Native Police was to track and kill. In their reports the term ‘dispersal’ was a known euphemism for murdering any Aboriginal group, even as they slept. This is despite laws made in London guarding the rights of Aborigines to live, hunt and fish on their lands. The Native Police openly operated outside the law, with their services highly sought after in the outreaches of the colonies.
Shockingly, Marr recognises in the language of the colonies, the same arguments presented today in the lead-up to the 2023 referendum, the idea that the Aboriginal peoples are owed nothing, they are undeserving of special treatment. Why should they have special rights?
Exposing the history of Australia’s beginnings is not about imposing a sense of guilt. Marr himself says he does not feel guilt, he did not commit these crimes. It is about acknowledging the harsh history of this country, and feeling some empathy for the people who were so cruelly dispossessed. It is about truth telling and treating the original inhabitants with respect; seeking ‘makarrata’, a form of reconciliation with our past. The Uluru Statement from the Heart was a very generous offer to come together. Unfortunately it has been rejected by the majority of Australian people today.
Killing for country is a detailed account of early Australian history, exhaustive and unflinching in its determination to uncover the truth. For those not quite ready for tackling the book, there is an interesting discussion of its content in an interview with David Marr, in an Uncommon Sense podcast, on Soundcloud.
Themes Australian history, Native Police, Massacres, Genocide, Truth telling.
Impossible Creatures is a book that will stay with the reader long after it has been finished and shared with their friends.
Katherine Rundell is a true storyteller and this book did not disappoint, in fact it blew me away. The story begins in two places, written by the two protagonists, Christopher who is visiting his grandfather in the Scottish highlands and Mal, who lives in a hidden Archipelago, where sphinxes hold secrets and centaurs do murder. When the two meet in Christopher’s world they must embark on a journey that will see them face the future together if they are to overcome a murderer pursuing Mal, the loss of her world and the quest for ultimate power and greed.
Along the way they meet an array of characters who help and hinder them but they realise they are stronger together and fight to save both of their worlds against almost impossible odds. Mal is a brave, dynamic girl who has lost everything, while Christopher is kindhearted and has always been an empath with animals, much to the annoyance of his father.
This story will captivate its reader and they will be left wanting and waiting for the next two books in the trilogy. It is a story that is hard to define in terms of genre and age range but fits with the Narnia series and His Dark Materials in terms of action, adventure and the grim realities of life. Younger readers would benefit from having this read with them so that they can talk about some of the harsher storylines and I would recommend that parents are aware of the story before letting their younger readers start.
This is a book that will appeal to the upper primary, early secondary readers of fantasy and relationship stories. It is a book that will be a favourite read for some and push others out of their comfort zone. I would hesitate to use this as a read aloud or class novel as some readers will need time to process some aspects of the story and this shouldn’t be rushed.
From one of the Australian queens of the verse novel comes this touching story of the special relationship between Maddie and her cat, Narelle. Told from alternating perspectives, first Narelle, then Maddie and then back and forth, the reader is treated to the very different ways the world is viewed by both, but also to how they interact and how precious they are to each other. Narelle is a stereotypical standoffish cat who believes that she is the centre of the universe: 'My people have placed my throne just so, where the morning sunlight can worship and stroke me as I recline on my velvet cushion waiting for my local (and not so loyal) subjects to come and worship.' Narelle explains how her view of the world is different to that of a human; 'And they do not see the midnight dreams that disturb My Maddie, making her toss and turn in bed. But I see it all.' When Maddie introduces herself she admits that her family all think Narelle is a family pet but 'I know- and Narelle knows, too - that she is mine... She might be a cat but she is my best friend too and, suddenly, my only friend.' Her friendship group has fallen apart and now she feels isolated and targeted by their bullying.
Narelle's chapters provide a lovely peaceful interlude to the horrible experience that Maddie is undergoing at school. Her family, distracted by daily routines and the normal business of life are blind to Maddie's inner turmoil. And Maddie is quite sure they are too busy to want to hear about her problems. Maddie's experiences will resonate with so many children and their friendship struggles and their reluctance to talk with their trusted adults about what is happening for them. Only Narelle, with her silence and warm body, can comfort Maddie in her time of need. Eventually, with Narelle's help, Maddie does turn to her mum and her world starts to brighten. But always Narelle is there, a steady warm presence as she navigates the ups and downs of life.
Beautiful black and white illustrations are scattered throughout the short novel, which is perfect for independent or shared reading.
Themes Cats, Family Relationships, Friendship.
Mama’s sleeping scarf by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writing as Nwa Grace-James. Illus. by Joelle Avelino
When Mama reads Chino a story at night, she allows her daughter to play with her sleeping scarf. It is so soft. She loves the feel of the scarf that Mama wears at night to keep her hair soft and nice. Going to work the next day she leaves her scarf with her daughter, letting her play with it until she returns. Papa in the kitchen makes her a smoothie, and a little spilt on Mama’s scarf. Papa dabs at it, making it clean again. She goes out into the garden where Grandpa is walking, getting his exercise for the day. Grandma is reading the paper, and Chino plays peek a boo with her using the scarf. She puts the scarf around CHino’s head just like Mama. When Mama comes home she sees the scarf and reminds Chino that she will need the scarf to sleep. Chino has had a day of imaginative play with her family, using her scarf.
At tea time, Chino is not very happy about the vegetables on her plate, until Grandma points out that the green vegetables are just like the green circles on Mama’s scarf and the red is just like the red vegetables. So eating vegetables is not such a chore.
When it is time for Chino to go to bed, she gives up Mama’s scarf and says goodnight to all her family.
This is a wonderful look at the essence of the family, everyone being part of Chino’s day of imagination, using the simplest of things: Mama’s scarf. The everyday is given centre stage as Chino connects with her family through the day. The colours red and green are give prominence and the tricky stage of rejecting vegetables is told with a neat solution for families to emulate.
The green and red scarf flows over most of the pages, a prominent part of Chino’s world. The wonderful illustrations underscore family life, showing them all doing things together through the day, Mama goes off to work while Papa, Grandma and Grandpa are at home with Chino and her pet rabbit.
Gigantic the blue whale does not live up to his name. He is much smaller than his brother, Titan and his friends Colossus and Hulk. They deride him for his lack of size and tell him to make friends with Myrtle, the turtle. This he does and they hang out together, doing lots of swims and dives, Gigantic doing a marvellous tail spin. Titan’s friends are impressed and say so, so Titan not to be outdone, attempts one as well. His friends call out that he cannot do it in the bay as it is too shallow. But he takes no heed. And he gets stuck.
Gigantic comes to his rescue. He gets all of the small fish to form a line and together they pull Titan out of his predicament.
Now all the fish, large and small are friends, because it matters not how big you are, the thing that matters is the size of your heart.
This is a wonderful positive look at relationships between siblings and friends, particularly peers of different ages. Titan, Colossus and Hulk all deride and tease Gigantic because of his lack of size. Their bullying of Gigantic will be readily recognised by all readers who are able to spot it and call it out. Older readers and adults will be able to guide the students into discussions about why this is bullying and what the results are for the bullied. In this book all ends happily as Gigantic is able to show his heart is much bigger than those round him. He ignores the taunts, able to be friendly with Myrtle despite the comments by the others.
You can watch a reading of the first part of the book by the author here.
And take note of the wonderful illustrations. Readers will love spying the little animals hidden in the seaweed forests, and the bigger ones as well. The shades of blue intrigued me giving different aspects of the sea in the tale. And the endpapers are equally enthralling, including a QR code link to Rob Bidduph’s lessons on drawing the whale, which I am sure every reader will try.
Escape from Mr Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein
Random House, 2015. ISBN: 9780857988232. (Age:10-13) Highly recommended.
This is an outstanding entertaining exploration, adventure and escape from a library, incorporating games playing, puzzle decoding, interpretation of the Dewey system and friendship dilemmas. It is like playing a computer game in your head! I have recommended this to the able readers in Primary school – Year 4+, who have all loved the story. It quotes many great authors and books that children can aspire to read, and some that adults may have read. Once I got going, I couldn’t stop until the conundrum of how to escape the Library came to an end. Highly recommended for readers aged 10-13 and will be much loved by Librarians for the honour it gives to libraries and the wealth of treasure that can be found therein. Once a reader discovers the quirky style and worlds of Chris Grabenstein’s adventures, they will be wanting more.
Themes Public libraries, Books and reading, Games.
A beautiful book about the Australian bush will entice young readers to learn more of their surroundings and why hollows are so important. In rhyming pairs of lines Gullan tells the story of one hollow, a mere scratch in the side of a tree when a branch falls, then increasing in size as smaller animals then larger ones make it their home.
First to arrive are the longhorn beetles, who eat away at the hole, then fly away. Next the skinks make it their home, and when the weather subsides, they all leave.
The hole has now doubled in size and welcomes some yellow bellied bats. Here they can fly out and hunt, safe from cats. They then fly off. The hollow has increased in size, ready for new occupants. A pair of crimson rosellas move in, and make their nest. But when a third comes along, they must seek out something bigger. The now large hollow accommodates a brush tailed possum and her joey. They will leave when the joey is too large for the hollow, but there are many more animals waiting for a place to call home.
The panorama of animals shown in this book will reinforce the idea to younger readers about the importance of a home, in this case a tree hollow, to the animals. It can be a place to feed, a place to rest, somewhere to raise offspring, a place to nest or rest, and a place for shelter from the weather and other animals.
Wonderful illustrations by Suzanne Houghton grace the book, showing our stunning trees, magnificent array of animals and birds, and closeups of the hollow that is central to the lives of so many animals. I loved watching the increasing size of the hole, and the different animals calling it home.
At the end of the book is a page of information about tree hollows and over the page is a double page reprising information about all the animals depicted. An informative glossary rounds of this informative, elegant presentation of something in our environment which we see everyday but have little understanding of. Until now! Teacher notes are available.
Themes Australian flora and fauna, Tree hollows, Home, Animal behaviour.
Why worry Wally? by Rick Foster and Jackie Case
Rick Foster, 2020. ISBN: 9780646810966.
As soon as Wally wakes up in the morning, his mind starts working overtime about all the things that might go wrong that day from eating too much breakfast to monkeys falling from the trees. He is a perpetual worrier, getting so anxious and uptight about what might happen that he is unable to enjoy what does.
Children's anxiety is a growing mental health issue and is in fact, becoming such an issue that it is at last getting the recognition it requires. So much so, that, since its inception in 1991, the phone counselling service Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800) has responded to 8, 500 000 contacts from kids who just need someone to listen. And while there have been a number of picture books written and shared to help children manage their anxiety, this one offers suggestions such as eating healthy food and having fun as well as encouraging positive self-talk as a pathway forward. As well, the author has developed an incursion to complement a school's well-being program aimed at those up to Year 4 that helps children understand that everyone feels worries and concerns at some time and there are strategies they can learn to help them manage them, even when they become overwhelming, particularly being able to start a conversation with a trusted adult.
With its soft-palette graphics and rhyming text, Wally's predicament may well resonate with a number of students but the positive and inspiring message that offers acknowledgement of the issues rather than their dismissal, and encourages them to look for help rather than feeling they have to go it alone, they are also offered hope. While there was a strong focus on kids' well-being after their isolation during the lockdowns of the pandemic, as life returns to normal, we cannot let this concern diminish. So any stories and programs that shine a spotlight on the problem that might help just one kid make a positive difference to their lives or build awareness in the adults around them are an essential part of any mindfulness programs and library collections.
Nerra’s great grandmother Nana Mirrin, has recently gone back into her Dreaming and before she passed she gave to Nerra an old wooden box containing ancient sacred artefacts. Now the custodian of the box as is the third generation custom, Nerra must wait for the box to reveal its special contents when the time is right.
When that time comes Nerra finds she is now responsible for precious items that once belonged to her Ancestors: a headdress/armband, giant shark tooth, polished abalone shell, clapsticks (Daal Kalk), woven dill bag (bilang-bilang) and a dress made of possum fur. Each of these artefacts have a feeling of power radiating from them and it is the Daal Kalk that send Nerra swirling into her first adventure.
Landing by her favourite tree, Wurrun Nhanboo, a manna gum tree, Nerra meets and converses with a koala, Kurrburra who becomes her animal spirit guide. She realises that while she is still on her own Country she feels she has been transported back in time and soon learns from Karr’karook, the Keeper of Clean Sand and Clean Water, that she has travelled through Deep Time to the Dreaming. Due to the continuous fall of rain, it appears something has happened to Bineal and Pirnbial, the Keepers of the Rainbow who have not appeared to ease the rain. Nerra has been chosen by the Ancestors to help find Bineal and Pirnbial and what caused them to disappear.
Karr’karook and Nerra begin their search and find Pirnbial deep in a churning whirpool. Once rescued Pirnbial reveals that she and Bineal were captured by “The Devour'ena” who are trying to steal the Creation Powers of the Dreaming. The three search for Bineal, and a terrible battle ensues. With help from Kurrburra Nerra finds the Daal Kalk and calls on the cleverman, Bobbinary for help. Will Nerra be able to find the strength to help solve the danger the Country and its people are in?
The Broken Rainbow, the first in the Nerra: Deep Time Traveller Series is an entertaining and exciting read. Full of visual imagery, adventure, danger and a wondrous battle scene, it also shares the language and cultural traditions of the Boonwurrung people of coastal Melbourne. The illustrations spread throughout are an extra bonus that add to the engagement of the story. An excellent class novel choice.
Themes First Nations Stories, Dreaming, Boonwurrung people, Country, Traditional Culture, Adventure, Responsibility, Trust, Bravery.
Not-so-little Red Riding Hood by Michael Rosen. Illus. by David Melling
A wonderful remake of the perennial cautionary tale of Little Red Riding Hood and her brush with the Big Bad Wolf, is shown here with a modern twist as Red Riding Hood has grown somewhat and is wanting to stretch her wings by herself. She and Pebbles are invited on a picnic at Grandma’s house and are promised a big surprise.
As they ride through the woods, both Pebbles and Red become a little more apprehensive. She sings a little song and the trees sing to her, offering surety. But Red sees ears jutting out behind a bush, is this the Big Bad wolf? Some noises seems close by, is this the Big Bad Wolf? Then she hears eating, could this be the Big Bad Wolf? At last they reach Grandma’s house but there is no answer to Red’s knocking. Peering through the letterbox she sees something in Grandma’s bed which could be Grandma or it could be a wolf! Suddenly Grandma is behind her hugging her in welcome. And all is well and the surprise is in Grandma’s bed.
His reading shows adults and older readers how to sing the verses by Red and the trees, and he demonstrates some other features including predicting a rhyming word, singing along with the tale, anticipating what happens next and simply laughing at the story.
Wonderful illustrations by David Melling place Red and Pebbles in the landscape as they travel through the dark wood, fearing the presence of the Big Bad Wolf. The looks on their faces are priceless as they get more worried the further they go along to Grandma’s house; Pebbles’ tail is a strong indicator of how the horse feels. A further series of laughs will be had when the readers look at the endpapers.
Themes Red Riding Hood, Wolves, Grandmas, Cautionary tale.
Bad magic: A Skulduggery Pleasant graphic novel by Derek Landy, P. J. Holden and Matt Soffe
The small Irish town of Termoncara has had more than its fair share of tragedy, three kids have been murdered but no one seems to have done anything about it and the town seems to have closed in on itself. Local teen Jamie is terrified of a Joker-like monster that comes to his room and whispers bad things, feeding off his guilt about having a crush on his friend. When magical detectives, Skullduggery Pleasant and Valkyrie Cain start asking questions in the town about the murders and others over the past twenty years the same monster whispers suggestions and fosters bad thoughts in the townspeople, spurring them on to violence against the investigators. The stylish two set about finding the evil monster behind the killings but maybe they have met their match. Told in a full colour comic style graphic novel with plenty of violence, magical powers and a whole cast of monsters this is a fast but gripping read. The sharp dressing, sardonic Skulduggery character is effective but Valkyrie Cain’s depictions are inconsistent and huge breasts and a tiny waist are seemingly needed when she is using her special powers. However, the monsters are so good they make up for any shortfalls and the main joker character is the stuff of nightmares. Lovers of the Skulduggery series which has been gaining momentum since 2007 will love this addition but it stands quite well alone.
Themes Murder, Magic, Horror, Fantasy, Detectives, Dark comedy.
Masters of death by Olivie Blake
Pan Macmillan, 2023. ISBN: 9781035011537. (Age:Young Adult)
Olivie Blake is back with another one of her previously self-published novels, Masters of Death. Following her viral social media success in 2021, this relatively unknown author has been steadily re-releasing revised and edited editions of her work. First published in 2018, Masters of Death is a standalone fantastical mystery with a dash of romance.
Viola Marek is a college dropout turned real estate agent who is having a hard time selling a mansion belonging to a wealthy and prominent local family. Viola has two main problems. Firstly, Viola is a newly turned vampire who is still learning how to survive as a reluctant undead. Secondly, the house she is trying to sell is haunted by the previous owner, an angry and vengeful ghost who refuses to vacate until Viola discovers who murdered him.
In desperation Viola turns to medium Fox D’Mora to help her solve the mystery. However, what Viola doesn’t know and what Fox hasn’t told her, is that Fox’s psychic abilities are non-existent. His success only comes from being the godson of Death (yes, that Death) who he has tricked into supplying him with information no mortal could ever divine.
Unfortunately for the story, this is not the only plot line or grouping of protagonists that readers are expected to care about and keep track of. Blake is known for non-linear storylines and large casts of secondary characters but in the case of Masters of Death, it is just all a bit too complicated. While beautifully written as Blake’s books inevitably are, Masters of Death would have benefitted from further editing, with a more streamlined and succinct plot.
Set within the high-rise community of UK residents living in a triangle of residential towers are two young sisters who have a sleuthing heart. Nik (Nikita) is 11, and her older sister, Norva, is 13, and up until the present story have been involved in relatively minor investigations and mysteries. This current tale lands them deep in a serious investigation when they discover the body of their esteemed local art-centre teacher. Their tendency to follow facts and logic (Nik) and the gut-deep feel (Norva) of the situation has them accusing and eliminating many of the fellow residents of their tower block, diving in and out of trash, and getting in the way of the local police investigation. Even their own father falls into the firing line of their suspicion, and slowly they must unravel clues and put together lies and truths to find out who has committed the murder and upset their community.
This is a quirky child-detective tale. With a sharp, staccato style and the local idiom of inner-city, Afro-anglo, UK life, this will initially require some Aussie kids to scratch their heads as they work out the conversation and story line. If they persist, they will discover two slightly eccentric and disarming sleuths and the local characters they share life with. Norva has a passion for the detective series Death in Paradise and there is a homage and hint of the same slightly humorous flavour to detective work in this book. This is book one in a series and so those young readers who can untangle the language and setting oddities will look forward to more from the sisters, Norva and Nik. I enjoyed the light-hearted and quirky detective tale, but that may be because I also enjoy a good English crime drama!
I am exactly the right person to review this book, because like the central character Juniper, I too was a Christmas baby, and I read this book on the same day as Santa came to town in all his pageantry in Adelaide. This is a book where magical and serendipitous moments happen, and Christmas may even be the winner. Sadly though, the book begins with the sad revelation that Santa is no longer at work and that the hope and joy of Christmas has been missing for some time. There is a lingering, historical hankering for Santa’s return, and it is Juniper’s family that has managed to cling to the manner of generosity that Christmas was known for (in the time of Santa). Working hard to maintain a Santa vigil and to help the homeless in their local park, Juniper and her Park Manager mother, Jennifer, are together maintaining a brave face, even though they have known their own loss – the death of Briar (Juniper’s father). When Jennifer goes missing, Juniper connects with Duchess (a local and ailing homeless woman) and eventually Niko (a somewhat mysterious helper in the background) to find her mother, to solve the mystery of Niko, restore Duchess to health, and bring the community together. Throw in some magical elves, reindeer and magic sacks and spangles of magic, a potential romance, and mix them with some cruel thieves, an unscrupulous official and it is a recipe for Christmas mayhem. However, the magic of Christmas changes mayhem into the mystery of the season, and the return of hope for all.
This is an Eion Colfer spectacular! It is full of whimsey and quirkiness, and yet there is a magical logic underpinning the strange world where Santa has ceased operation. Initially I was worried that it may cause concern for some die-hard Santa devotees (note: I am not one of those), but the gentle and magical tale is charming and imaginative, and the story is endearing. Black and white illustrations are naive and scattered through the pages. This book may still be a step-too-far for those who are too young to have given up the fantasy of Santa’s arrival and his foreknowledge and role on Christmas Eve journey’s around the world, but Colfer does an amazing job of providing an explanation (and even science) of some of these mysteries. The story incorporates family love and care for others as an ethic to be valued, and the ‘bad guys’ do not win in their attempt to seize power. This is not just a book to be read at Christmas time, and readers aged 9-12 will enjoy it.
Note: there is no mention of the Christian basis of Christmas, Santa is the sole ‘Christmas’ character.
Themes Christmas, Santa Claus, Homeless people, Kindness, Magic, Fantasy.