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Apr 01 2020

Winterborne Home for Vengeance and Valour by Ally Carter

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Lothian Children's Book, 2020. ISBN: 9780734419163. 256pp.
(Ages 8-12) Highly recommended. April was left by her mother with a note saying she would be back to collect April as soon as she could, and April has been waiting patiently in foster care for 10 years. April's mother also gave her a mysterious key that April always wears around her neck.
While on excursion in a museum April notices the key matches the crest of the infamous Winterborne family. So, when April accidently sets fire to the exhibit it sets in motion a series of events that sees her living in their mansion called Winterborne House with 4 other orphans. She is desperate to know what her key unlocks and starts a quest to search the house from top to bottom. In her search she unearths the secret of the missing (and presumed dead) billionaire, Gabriel Winterborne, who was the sole survivor of a family tragedy which killed his entire family. She finds the billionaire living below the house and now she is determined to get him to help her solve the mystery of her key and reclaim his inheritance before nasty Uncle Evert makes sure he is dead and claims the fortune for himself.
This is the first book in a series, and this is made obvious as we only get sketchy details of each character in this first story. Each orphan in the book has a special talent that April uses to help her solve her mystery and bring about a positive result for the very uncooperative billionaire. The mansion is peopled with the usual trusty butler, a caring Ms Nelson who runs the Winterborne House and has a long association with the family and a shadowy super-hero who may or may not be an urban legend.
Some threads of the story were left hanging in the end. The disappearance of Ms Nelson at the end of the book is puzzling. Also, the key around April's neck was dealt with in the story and we get to know what it opens, but we are left with no idea why April wore it or why her mother had it in the first place.
It was quite a fast-paced story that moved along well most of the time and I am sure it will leave middle primary readers waiting for the next installment. Themes: Orphans and orphanages, Foster care, Missing persons, Revenge, Mysteries, Friendship.
Gabrielle Anderson




Apr 01 2020

Mars by Shauna Edson and Giles Sparrow

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Illus. by Mark Ruffle. Dorling Kindersley, 2020. ISBN: 9780241409589. 80pp.
(Age: 9+) Recommended for Science-interested readers. Mars is always interesting. As our closet planetary neighbour, it is worth knowing a little more. This book covers all the important detail about the planet and human exploration of this part of our Solar System. With a section about what we now know as the result of relatively recent visits to Mars, and also detail about what visiting Mars might be like in the future, this is a comprehensive look at the Red Planet.
Because this is a Dorling Kindersley book, it can be relied on for presenting the information in language for young readers that is easily comprehensible. The illustrations include photographs and modern graphic representations in clear formatting that is visually appealing. STEM and astronomy interested young readers will enjoy this journey beyond our own planet. Themes: Mars; Space travel; Astronomy.
Carolyn Hull




Mar 31 2020

The gravity of us by Phil Stamper

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Bloomsbury, 2020. ISBN: 9781526619945.
Seventeen year old Cal is certain of his path in life, he wants to be a journalist and makes regular online video journals from his Brooklyn home via the 'FlashFame' app. He has gained a substantial following after reporting on elections and has been offered an internship at BuzzFeed News. Home life is often disrupted by his parent's tense relationship and his mother's anxiety so he is shocked when his pilot father announces he has won a place on Orpheus Project, training astronauts for a mission to Mars. The family is required to immediately relocate to Clear Lake Texas and live in a retro styled estate nostalgically modelled on the early Sixties astronaut village. As soon as they arrive they are filmed for the reality show 'Shooting Stars', conceived of to raise awareness about the Orpheus program with the American public to ensure continued funding for the project. Cal retrieves something from the disruption by continuing to post video updates for his half a million followers, interviewing scientists and providing an insight into the background workings of the project rather than seeking out the sensational personal conflicts of the reality show footage. Another plus is that he falls headlong in love with Leon, the son of one of the other astronauts. When a tragedy occurs in the Orpheus project, the 'Shooting Stars' producers try to capitalise on the ensuing grief and suffering, prompting Cal to expose them, highlighting the show's intrusion into their lives.
Working through all the various challenges thrust upon him Cal learns about himself and others, he acknowledges his obsessiveness and need to "fix" things. He learns respect for difference in his relationship with Leon and to try not to depend on others to be happy or sad. He also develops respect for his parents, acknowledging their special skills and abilities. In his personal journey Cal realises his strength in communicating real information honestly to his followers and his continuing success suggests that it is a need felt strongly in today's world.
The first person narration feels authentic as do the social media references. The relationship between the two boys is sensitively portrayed and the brave and intelligent way Cal faces multiple challenges will appeal to senior secondary students. Themes: Mental health, Space, Love, Social media.
Sue Speck




Mar 31 2020

Peter Rabbit 2 movie novelisation

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Penguin, 2020. ISBN: 9780241415290. 152pp.
(Age: 8-12) Peter Rabbit 2 is a novelisation of the film Peter Rabbit 2. The adventure is set in contemporary countryside England and is loosely based on the famous Beatrix Potter characters. The animals cannot talk to humans but all understand them and the story is mainly from their point of view. Peter Rabbit has been sidelined from author/illustrator Bea's life when she marries Thomas McGregor. Thomas clashes with Peter, who he finds mischievous and annoying. Peter is unable to convince Thomas that he is well intentioned. When Peter meets a roguish friend of his late deceased father, he leaves home for a life of naughtiness. Peter involves his friends and family in a crazy operation to steal food from the town's market and unwittingly puts his animal friends in peril. At the same time Bea is being encouraged by her publisher to make her stories about the animals more saleable, with scenarios involving hoodies, surfing and space travel. She is enticed by the wealth and glamour that big sales may bring but Thomas disagrees with her new direction.
The film is packed full of slap stick, non-stop action and some quite adult jokes, as many children's films are. This doesn't always transfer well into the written word and I wonder if children will be engaged in the story if they haven't seen the film. This perfunctory retelling has occasions where the author has forgotten the child audience. Will they understand phrases like "conflate reality"? Readers who are faithful to the original stories may be horrified by the liberties taken with those dear little animals of Beatrix Potter's books. Ironically the film/book's message regarding the need to be faithful to the author's authentic representation of animals and not sell out to commercialism, is what the film is in fact doing. Film merchandise makes a lot of money and this book is one of many products created for the film's release.
Jo Marshall




Mar 30 2020

Amnesty by Aravind Adiga

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Picador, 2020. ISBN: 9781509879045.
(Age: Senior secondary - Adult) Highly recommended. Forever on edge, scared of being caught, Danny is an illegal immigrant living in Sydney. Not a boat person seeking refuge, the usual stereotype Australians associate with the term 'illegal immigrant', Danny is one of the others - coming from Sri Lanka by plane, on a student visa, then realising his course was a "ripoff", he dropped out, and disappeared. So now he is illegal, a man without rights. He lives in the storeroom above a shop, paying Tommo, the exploitative shop owner, half the money he makes cleaning apartments as the Legendary Cleaner, carrying his vacuum cleaner on his back.
We gradually learn there is a reason Danny fled Sri Lanka - it is to do with the lump on his arm and the memory of an interrogating police officer holding a cigarette. The fear of being sent back keeps him always wary, intent on mastering Australianness, golden streaks in his hair, and Aussie slang on his lips. But things start to go horribly wrong when there is a murder in one of the apartments he cleans and he is the only one with any idea of who the murderer could be.
Thus he faces a dilemma: should he contact the police and tell them what he knows about the secret affair between the murdered woman and the 'Doctor'? But then the police will work out that he is illegal, and he will get deported, back to the danger that he never wants to face again.
The events of the book all take place within one day; the clock ticks as Danny and the murderer draw closer together and Danny vacillates between making the call or making a run for it.
With little descriptions of people and places, the white people watching him, the knowing looks that pass between the legal brown person and the illegal one, the nervous twitch that the cleaner finds hard to control, the dreams and memories that come into his mind, and his constant state of tension are all masterfully and vividly created by the author Adiga. It is a tension that carries the reader from one moment to the next, and in the process a whole other world is revealed to us, the underworld of the person with no identity card, no passport, no rights.
The title Amnesty comes from the knowledge Danny has that there was once a politician, Malcolm Fraser, who, on Australia Day 1976, offered amnesty to prohibited immigrants who had overstayed their visa. Maybe there is a chance that he might be offered amnesty in exchange for dobbing in a killer? What do you think?
Helen Eddy




Mar 30 2020

Death in a desert land by Andrew Wilson

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Simon and Schuster, 2019. ISBN: 9781471173486. 385pp.
(Age: secondary/adult) Recommended. 'Death in a Desert land is not authorised by Agatha Christie Ltd' is written under the author's name on the title page, leaving readers in no doubt about what to expect when the pages of this book are opened. And Christie fans will not be disappointed; all the tropes are presented here: a small group of people in a strange but close situation, clues hidden in plain sight, chance remarks holding clues, an exotic location, several people with hidden pasts and so on, crowding into these 385 pages. At times I thought 'oh no not another one', but I read to the end, hooked by the story, its sweep of odd and unlikely characters and the background at a dig at Ur.
Agatha Christie has been sent by her friend, Davison at the Foreign Office to sniff out some of the background of the people at the dig, a rag bag mix of archaeologists, a rich American patron with his wife and daughter, helpers, a priest, a secretary, a photographer and now Agatha. The death of archaeologist, Gertrude Bell two years ago was deemed to be suicide but new evidence has the powers that be involved and Agatha has joined the party. But of course her investigations into the background of some of the odd group see her having a small passion for the photographer only to find that he like the others is hiding a secret. But another murder has occurred, and when Davison joins the dig to investigate, things hot up.
A mixing bowl of everything Christie, the woman is exposed as vulnerable to the charms of the young man after the blow of her husband's desertion and divorce. Hints are given about her early life, the infamous weekend that she disappeared, the state of her married life and her writing career. So for those who love a good whodunnit, crowded with red herrings, throwaway sentences that bristle with meaning, a living desert and a dig as a setting, then this is a wonderfully engrossing read when told to stay indoors.
And like any good crime novel, is one of a series, the first two emblazoned on the back cover, with a taste of number 4, I saw him die, given at the conclusion of Death in a desert land. Themes: Crime, Agatha Christie, Archaeology, Ur, Murder.
Fran Knight




Mar 30 2020

Extraordinary by Penny Harrison

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Illus. by Kate Wilson. New Frontier Publishing, 2020. ISBN: 9781925594911. 32pp.
(Age: 3+) Many books extol the virtue of being extraordinary, of reaching for the stars, of fulfilling your potential, but what if we take stock of this and look for the extraordinary in the everyday, look at the stars for sure, but do not forget what is around us and under our feet. This book reveals that the ordinary is just as extraordinary, the time we share with friends and family, the walks we take in the woods, the time out camping with the family, snuggling into a comfy chair by the fire to read a book. All the things suggested do not blaze and boom, trumpet and bloom, but celebrate the quiet moments of life, the everyday, the ordinary. By stopping and taking account of things around us we can feel the breeze on our cheeks, see the flutter of a bird's wing, see the flowers bloom, watch the moon through the night, watch out for the moment, the magic in the everyday.
The best moments in life are those we share with friends and family. They may be ordinary, simple, unremarkable but they are moments we will remember and share.
Readers will scan the cute and luminous water colour pages by New Zealand illustrator, Katie Wilson, peering at the detail included on each page, checking off the things they do with their families and friends, recognising their simplicity but also the part these moments play in our lives, bringing us together. Teacher's notes are available. Themes: Friendship, Family.
Fran Knight




Mar 27 2020

The golden cage by Anna Castagnoli

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Illus. by Carll Cneut. Book Island, 2020. ISBN: 9781911496144. 56pp.
(Age: 8+) Highly recommended. European fairy tale, The golden cage, is a captivatingly dark story of a selfish princess, spoiled and indulged, illustrated in the most amazing of painterly drawings, full of detail to entrance the eye. Valentina has a sumptuous garden which she fills with cages displaying unique and exotic birds. To fill her cages she sends her long suffering servants across the known world to bring back something absolutely peerless for her cages. A servant failing in his duty has his head chopped off, so it is paramount that they search high and low. Sometimes they are able to fudge the edges, so when she wants a coral beaked bird, they find her one that has a red beak, but in the main when she dreams up another unknown bird they must try and find it for her. But now she wants a talking bird, to put in her golden cage, not a parrot that recites but a bird that will converse with her. One month she cuts the heads off 100 servants when they fail her. She is the blood princess.
She finds she is running out of servants and getting new ones is proving to be costly. She begins to sell her hundreds of pairs of shoes and multi crocodile belts and even some of the rare birds. A servant comes to her suggesting that he will find a talking bird for her but she must be patient and he makes her give him several promises.
The end of this unusual tale of obsession comes quickly as the princess waits, bereft of her possessions, in a garden devoid of the grandeur it once had. The end piece tells the reader that there may be several different endings, impelling the reader to perhaps suggest one for themselves.
This wonderful large format picture book would be a delight to share and discuss with classes, evoking the horror of some nineteenth century tales.
The painterly illustrations are intense, taking up the large pages, full of interest and variety, the eye often drawn to the princess, so obsessed with her idea of perfection, living in a cage of her own making. Many parallels could be drawn by readers about obsession or the accumulation of material  possessions or how power is misused.
Book Island's mission is to make stunning world class picture books available to English-speaking readers.
This internationally-acclaimed example of European literature has won numerous prestigious awards, including the Flemish Culture Prize and White Ravens Award, and was also nominated for the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis. It deserves a place in every library to be read and reread, discussed, pondered and pored over. Themes; Fairy tale, Birds, Obsession, Selfishness.
Fran Knight




Mar 26 2020

The ruin by Dervla McTiernan

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Cormac Reilly book 1. Harper Collins, 2018. ISBN: 9781460754214.
(Age: Adult - Senior secondary) Highly recommended. After reading the review of The scholar (2019) I decided to start with the first book in the series and I was not disappointed. Right from the beginning when a very young Cormac Reilly finds the body of Hilaria Blake in her decaying mansion and takes her children, 15 year old Maude and 5 year old Jack to the hospital, the reader is plunged into a story of suspense and murder. Twenty years later the body of Jack turns up in a river, an apparent suicide but Aisling Conroy, his partner is convinced that he did not die by his own hand. Then Jack's sister Maude shows up determined to prove that there was foul play.
There are many twists and turns and a couple of sub-plots to keep the reader guessing. The politics of the police station are explored as Cormac is given the cold case of Hilaria Blake's drug overdose to investigate, rather than the death of Jack while both seem to be connected. Shunned by the members of the force, he has to plough his way through poorly filed evidence, not knowing whom he can trust.
The plight of children left to suffer abuse at the hands of people who should care for them is another major theme that threads throughout the story. Aisling's conflict between her difficult job as an emergency surgeon and her pregnancy also adds depth to the story.
All the characters were deftly drawn. Cormac is determined, the policewoman assigned to domestic violence and missing children cases conscientious, and Fisher, the young policeman who is Cormac's offsider is an intelligent and enthusiastic side-kick. Aisling's job is high pressured and well described while Maude's decision to leave Jack when he was five tugs at the heart strings.
This series is one that will be welcome by lovers of mysteries - well structured, tense and crowded with great characters. People who enjoyed The lost man by Jane Harper are sure to like the ruin.
Pat Pledger




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